925

Sometimes you just know.  One of the things I know is that nine-to-five schedules are killers.  Literally.  I grew my permanent teeth as a teacher.  Before that I had been set on being a minister.  Something they have in common is that neither profession relies on a nine-to-five schedule.  The hours are much longer than a forty-hour work week, but they’re flexible.  If you’re not in class, or in church, or a committee meeting, or your office hours, you can dash out to the store if you need to.  You can shut your eyes for a few minutes if you didn’t sleep well the night before.  As long as you get your work done adequately, nobody really bothers you about your time.  My initiation into the nine-to-five, in my mid-forties, was a shock from which I’ve never quite recovered.

A few years into this unnatural territory, my nine-to-five (925 is quicker to type) evolved into the commuting variety.  I didn’t live terribly near New York City, so that meant catching a very early bus.  I’m a morning person, so that’s not really a concern.  The problem is that my brain’s not a 925 brain.  Like one of my professors, I still awake at 1:30 (having gone to bed about five hours before) with an idea that won’t let me go.  When that happens you have to put on heavy layers of clothes against the night’s low thermostat and make your way downstairs to the computer.  By three a.m. your body’s in the fully awake commute mode.  Thing is, you’ve got a 925 day in front of you.  When I was teaching I’d be able to snooze again before even my eight o’clock class (I was never one to object to the early shift) began.

The idea behind the 925 is an atavistic throwback to pre-internet days.  Pre-pandemic days.  Days when you had to be watched to ensure you were working.  When you had to sit in a cubicle where nobody and everybody can see you.  If you’re not staring at your screen or not in a meeting you’re not working.  So this antiquated thinking goes.  Teachers and ministers don’t hold to regular hours.  They identify with their jobs—the very definition of “professional.”  If it’s what you’re born to do you don’t complain.  And if you happen to awake at 1:30 with an idea that just has to be expressed, those who pay you will understand if you yawn a time or two the next day when, ideally, you won’t be stuck staring at a screen.


A Haunting Story

The last book I finished in 2021 didn’t quite make it under the wire for my year-end blog post.  It was the second Stephen Graham Jones novel I read in the year.  I guess I’ve been reading a lot of American Indian books lately.  The Only Good Indians is a horror story and more.  There’s reconciliation.  There’s tradition.  There’s hope.  As part of the privileged “white” class, I’m always a little afraid that writers from oppressed cultures will take it out on me.  It may’ve happened here, but if so it was done in a way that I didn’t feel the sting.  This is a story of friendship, mistakes made, and a monster who has a righteous cause.  There’s a lot going on here.

One of the persistent cultural fears of the unwoke, I suspect, is that there’ll be payback if all things were to become equal.  Perhaps on the scale of karma that’s true, but in reality the people that’ve been oppressed simply want the oppression to stop.  To be recognized and acknowledged as being human.  As if that decision is up to white folk to make.  This novel simply deals with American Indian life as it’s lived.  The characters all pretty much live in poverty but they lack the greed so many white protagonists have.  They’re happy if they have a few hundred dollars, or even a few twenties.  Life is more than playing the capitalist game.  It really all comes down to relationships.  And family.

Stephen Graham Jones writes with a deft hand.  He offers some humor amid scenes of violence and loss.  He speaks plainly and without pretense.  And there are parts of this novel that are genuinely scary.  Since I had no idea how it might end, I wasn’t even sure even while I was on the last page.  

The best monsters are those that teach us to be better human beings.  Quite often they teach us that the truly monstrous ones are those who look and act like people usually look and act.  We take the natural world, assuming it’s ours.  We think our small problems are those of the entire world.  Monsters help to fix our perceptions.  Without them we carry on as if it’s business as usual.  This is a good novel to read in the midst of a pandemic.  There’s hope here that we’ll come out of the crisis better than we went in.  Perhaps scarred and changed for good.  In every sense of the word.


Christmas Classic

While it’s a story I know well, I’d never read the book.  I suppose I tend to think of Christmas when it’s already hard upon me, or perhaps I’m just making excuses.  After all these decades I’ve finally read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The story is so well known there’s no point in laying out the action here.  A filmic version of this has been part of our family tradition for many years now and sometimes it’s difficult not to think the cinematic version has somehow got it right while the book might’ve somehow missed something.  I’m generally disposed to read the book before watching the movie, but I believe I saw this as a young person and we had no Dickens in the house.  Besides, who could miss the endless parodies?

It’s a ghost story, yes, but it’s primarily about redemption.  It’s difficult for me to watch (or read) without getting a bit misty about the eyes.  Our world, especially during the Trump years, seemed a hard and heartless place.  Winter all the time while somehow being Hell also.  It will take many years—perhaps I won’t live to see it—before people unlearn the bad habits they saw being modeled each and every day of those four long, long years.  Every year as I watched the movie I thought, “I wonder if 45 has ever seen this?”  Always the answer came back in a resounding “Humbug.”  A miser who cares only for himself doesn’t change as easily as Scrooge.  So the world had to suffer, and so it will suffer yet a good long time.

The thing about redemption is that it can’t be privatized.  It’s on free offer to anyone who desires it.  While A Christmas Carol may not be Dickens’ best work, it nevertheless bears a message well worth the repetition.  Perhaps there aren’t ghosts enough in the world.  We need to learn to listen.  Were it not for the haunting Scrooge never would have changed.  The sad part is that there are people actually of his ilk.  I hold out hope for redemption to all of them.  I’ve known too many people who seem to care only for themselves.  I need to remind myself that they may not have the reinforcement of this tale every year.  The world could perhaps be better if that were the case.  Dickens clearly had fun as a writer.  Sometimes it seems to get in the way.  But if it makes one’s heart light in December, what can the harm be in that?


True Value

It’s a funny idea, net worth.  (Who says Capitalism isn’t a religion?)  We decide what people are worth by what corporate executives and small-minded economics determine what they will be paid.  We seem to think entitled, essentially worthless, inheritors of ancestral money are of more value than the workers who actually fuel the economy.  Economics is called the “dismal science” for more than one reason.  This system can’t help but to make individuals question their self worth, which, according to Capitalism, is different from net worth.  (Net requires taking the cost of goods into account, and is less than the list worth.)  And you must never tell anyone your net worth.  Why do we still hold to this system that future historians will see as just as archaic and cruel as feudalism?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Nashotah House could hardly have claimed to be competitive with salaries.  Still, to those hired the title “professor” indicated you were a cut above many other professions.  Certainly above most clergy, the future cohort of which you were teaching.  Even so, it took a dozen years in publishing for me to reach the salary level at which I was asked to leave said seminary.  Net worth?  I tend to think of it as idol worship.  Many well-meaning colleagues congratulate me on my LinkedIn work anniversary.  None ask “How are you doing there?”  None wonder “Have you yet caught up with your net income of 2005?”  We’re all too busy bowing at the altar of the Stock Exchange.

People are worth far more than money.  For some, money, and only money (which is a symbol only), is worth having.  Some run for president on that very platform.  Holding up a Bible they’re careful that it doesn’t fall open to the place where it says love of money is the root of evil.  There is no such thing as evil in the religion of Capitalism.  Except Communism.  Interestingly enough, the New Testament advocates for a form of communism, but Acts is easily overlooked on the way to Leviticus.  I tend to stop about half-way between, at that comfortably uncomfortable book of Ecclesiastes.  It’s there that we read that all is vanity.  Money is merely a symbol of what we value.  Looking at what those who’ve devoted their lives to it have done with it, net worth sends me back to the cynical old preacher wondering about the meaning of it all.  It seems an appropriate place for the musings of a mere editor aware that his colleagues are valued much more by this “Christian” society.  I think the “net” in net worth should be cast much further.


Horror Week

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November,” the old rhyme goes.  Earlier this week I advocated for Halloween being the start of the holiday season.  There’s been a lot going on this week and I’m now reflecting on how Halloween also took some of its identity from Guy Fawkes Day (or more properly Guy Fawkes Night), here on November fifth.  Halloween, as we know it, incorporates traditions from Samhain (actually November 1), All Souls Day (November 2), as well as Guy Fawkes (November 5).  All the while the Hispanic world is observing Dia de los Muertos, a multi-day holiday whose origins are somewhat uncertain but which shares similarities with Halloween.  In other words, it’s a veritable week of spookiness to get our November started off right.

Ironically, at least in corporate America, none of these are work-free holidays.  For the Celts Samhain was the most important day of the year.  A day when the dead might wander into our realm or we might stumble into theirs.  For the modern person it’s a day of checking email, making deals, trading and evaluating how well we did at it.  Pretty mundane stuff.  The message of all of these holidays is that there are matters of deeper import going on.  We should perhaps look up from our monitors and see.  Just as that veil between the living and dead thins at this time of year, so does that line between work and personal life, when our laptops are as omnipresent as a haunting deity set to keep our minds on the sin of not working.  

Guy Fawkes is about rebellion.  More specifically, putting down rebellion.  Keeping the status quo.  Halloween and its siblings are all about challenging the way things are usually done.  I often wonder what it would be like if people took it seriously.  The costumes are fun, yes, and the trick-or-treating, but there’s something more serious underneath.  Perhaps symbolically we pretty much ignore All Saints to Guy Fawkes, or Dia de los Muertos as pleasant diversions.  There’s some spiritual heavy lifting going on behind the scenes, however.  It’s not all about fun and games, because fear is always with us.  We know there are problems but it’s more comfortable keeping things as they are.  Guy Fawkes, perhaps for a cause we see as obsolete—restoring a Catholic monarchy—was trying to change things for the better.  What’s more, his motivation was religious.  There are spooky parallels here, even today.  It might be good to take a day off work to ponder the implications.


Eve’s True Desire

Psst—don’t tell anyone!  There is a free copy of my first book available on Academia.edu.  I thought I was kind of radical for doing that, but people who write books want people to read them.  Having a book priced $70 or more, heck, even $30 or more, means only diehards will buy it.  Nightmares with the Bible promptly sank at $100 cover price, released during a pandemic.  I’ve always admired scholars who’ve bucked conventions to make their work available.  Recently I needed to consult a book.  I won’t say what it is because I fear a take-down order will be issued where I found it.  The author, aware the book was hard to access, actually photocopied the entire book and put it on a website.  I stand up and cheer!  Photocopying an entire book is a lot of work, a labor of pure love.

Now, I’m all for authors getting royalties.  It takes a lot of time and energy to write a book.  It can cost years of your life.  You ought to get something back for it.  It seems to me, however, that a different model is required for academic books.  Why are they so expensive?  Not only that, but smaller publishers without the distribution channels often publish worthwhile books, but in small quantities and they go out of print after the initial run is sold.  The academic enterprise (knowledge for knowledge’s sake) has become a captive of capitalism.  There’s no other way to trade in that market.  Books that have willing, even eager, readers are sequestered in libraries only accessible to employees.  Is there anything wrong with that picture?

Academics at less wealthy institutions often find ways around the rules.  I did my research for Weathering the Psalms at a small seminary that had trouble getting unusual items on interlibrary loan.  Bigger schools were distrustful of this tiny enclave called Nashotah House.  Would they ever get their rare property back?  Meanwhile worldwide mail service crisscrossed with offprints sent for free from scholar to scholar.  It was like your birthday, or Christmas, when a long-awaited piece of research landed in your mailbox.  Nobody was in it for the money.  We were beguiled by learning.  Eve looking wistfully up into the tree.  Now it’s all business suits with dollar signs for eyes.  The academic who puts their book up for free on the internet is nothing less than a saint.  Seeking knowledge is never really a sin.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Thy Sting

“It’s hard to imagine a more alarming sign of a society’s well-being than an inability to keep its citizens alive.”  This quote is from the New York Times’ The Morning team yesterday.  Life expectancy in the US has been dropping.  Not coincidentally, the article notes, so has the wealth disparity in the country been rising.  And guess whose lives are shorter.  Isn’t it often the same people who vote for those whose wealth keeps them (the candidate) alive longer, and in luxury?  This story struck me as poignant.  Have we lost our national will to live?  We see politicians who give no mind to what the people want getting themselves elected to further their own means.  People know they’re not being cared for.  That they’re being lied to.  Perhaps it’s working its way into our national mortality rates.

I think quite a bit about mortality.  Death is a natural part of life and we seem to have bought into the capitalistic idea that more is always better.  The debates in ethics classes were always about such issues of quantity versus quality.  Is a good life better, even if it’s shorter?  Improving the lot of others increases, we hope, the number of good lives.  Not everyone wants to be rich.  Part of the problem with our current system is that we’re narrowing it down to one way of existing—the way of earning more money.  Those occupations suffused with meaning are disappearing because they’re not profitable.  Does the will to keep on living grow when money is substituted for meaning?

Books on “the good life” sell well.  Whether it’s stoicism, Buddhism, or feel-good Christianity, people want to read the answers.  In a capitalistic system only so many can be rich.  They accumulate power to themselves and many have nothing beyond this for which to strive.  How many classes are available for finding meaning in life?  As universities continue their march towards the status of business schools, the philosophy and religion departments struggle.  They don’t bring in money, but they do, I suspect, discuss the systems that give meaning to people.  That could instill the will to press on.  The article makes the point that although Covid-19 has led to a good part of the decline, it isn’t the only factor involved.  We’re all so busy that we don’t have time to think about it and yet, finding a reason to continue to improve might give us what we need.  Maybe slowing down a little and pondering things would help.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

Peak Complexity

I remember being a kid.  Things probably weren’t as simple as some adults seem to remember—society, even as a child, is complex.  You soon learned the important lessons: who the bullies were and how to avoid them.  Cars are dangerous, particularly if they’re moving.  God is always watching you.  Then you start school and you begin to learn things you simply didn’t understand before.  You study math and although addition and subtraction seem pretty easy, division and multiplication require some concentration.  By the time you get to high school the math has become so complex that hours of homework are required to figure it out.  I don’t know about you, but nobody explained to me what jobs you needed this for.  I just hoped it wouldn’t be mine.

I’ve managed to get through so far with only the obligatory mathematical complexity of trying to explain certain problems to my daughter when she was in a similar situation.  Fortunately she understood how things worked better than I ever did.  The complexities, however, also come in other species.  I learned that being an adult meant constantly negotiating complexities.  That’s tricky for a guy like me because I tend to understand things by tracing them to their origins.  (There’s a reason history appeals to me.)  Social complexities often don’t allow such tracing—you need to figure out relationships and their implications and how you fit into the picture.  The same is true of jobs.  I’m sure many of you’ve had a job where the requirements change as circumstances alter.  You may have been hired to do one thing, but now you do another.

Then big life events come in with all their own complexity.  The other day I was wondering if there’s such a thing as peak complexity.  If there is, what happens when we reach it?  Do things in life simply become so intricate that society (I’m thinking here simply in human terms) implodes?  Or do we start to make things simpler again? Is there any going back?  I used to tell my students that my own grandmother was born before heavier-than-air flight.  By the time she died we’d been to the moon more than once.  Yes, rural life had its complexities, but since the industrial revolution the pace has been—what’s more than breakneck?  I know computer engineers and they tell me code is so complex that it’s actually a job to sort it out.  Just because you can fly a helicopter doesn’t mean you can put one together.  If we ever do reach peak complexity I have a suspicion that we won’t be able to tell, until in retrospect.  Childhood’s beginning.


Weathering the Sleep

Weather still has a tremendous, if incremental, effect on life.  Patterns where a repeating weather cycle seems stuck in place are a good example.  While not exactly uncommon in summer around here, thunderstorms develop during the hot and humid days.  Our current pattern is that thunderstorms arrive in the middle of the night.  For days in a row.  We had a few days in our current series.  Some of us can’t sleep through thunderstorms, not least because we have to get up and close the windows, pulling fans out, so that the water doesn’t invade.  This means several nights of interrupted sleep and rather unforgiving work schedules the next day.  Companies don’t often take this fact of the weather into consideration.  I’m not the only one yawning all day.

Of course, other things interrupt sleep as well.  Any parent of a newborn has those perpetually baggy eyes that we’ve come to associate with trying to get an infant to sleep through the night.  Work doesn’t smile on that kindly either.  Both of these (and many others) are very real human concerns regarding slumber.  HR, on the other hand, looks at the clock with a frown.  This sort of work ethic is particularly bad in America where work is a kind of sacred obligation (unless you’re a minor, rich, or retired).  You owe that time, no matter how sleepy you are or sloppily you may work because of it.  In my case it’s the weather that’s been causing my drowsy days.  I guess I shouldn’t have given up caffeine a few years back.

Weather, although it’s treated as a “neutral” subject, affects everything.  There are deniers, but climate change is real.  It’s measured across centuries and millennia, however, and our point of view spans only the few decades of our own lifetimes.  We come again and again to the myth that this planet was created for us rather than the more factual realization that we grew organically out of it.  Our civilization is complex and grows more so all the time, requiring less and less time in nature.  Nature isn’t predisposed to be nice to us, or to any species.  It’s a matter of balance.  So it is with the weather.  This massive atmosphere above us seeks to balance itself out but we’re making it hotter than it should be.  Many suppose that God will sort it all out, if, indeed, forcing a crisis won’t compel divine intervention.  I just hope the “man upstairs” has been getting enough sleep.


The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


All You Sea

Speaking of large ships, in honor of World Ocean Day, which was June 8, I had planned to watch Seaspiracy.  A Netflix original documentary, this really is a must-see film.  Not to pass the buck, but I’ve long believed it will be the younger generation that will take the initiative to improve conditions on our planet.   I’ve seen my own insanely selfish and aging generation (with even more aged and selfish senators) continue to exploit this planet like there’s no tomorrow.  If you watch Seaspiracy you may see that it’s closer to true than you might think.  There may be no tomorrow if we don’t change our ways right now.  Borrowing its title from Cowspiracy, another important documentary, Seaspiracy looks at the fishing industry and its devastating effects on our oceans.

There’s a lot of sobering stuff here.  It begins with plastics.  Single use plastics, and even recyclable plastics, are everywhere.  They kill sea animals, they break down into micro-particles and infiltrate everything.  Chances are you have lots of plastic in your body just from living in an environment where it’s everywhere.  Ali and Lucy Tabrizi take you on a very disturbing journey where governments keep secrets about their roles in depleting the oceans and where large corporations kill observers at sea where there’s no chance of the truth being discovered.  They take you to the claims behind “dolphin safe” tuna and other fish.  They take you to where the market price on illegally caught blue fins can bring in three million dollars per fish.  And they’re caught in great numbers.

The oceans, according to current projections, could be empty in 27 years.  If current practices don’t change, there could be basically nothing left by 2048.  Why?  Because humans are hooked on consuming.  Some critics complain the date should be 2072, as if that isn’t just kicking the can down the road.  I became a vegetarian many years ago, after leaning that way many years before that.  It took Cowspiracy to make me go vegan. We eat without thinking about where our food comes from.  Our industrial food practices are literally destroying our planet.  Having given up fish along with other meat, I didn’t think much about fishing.  Seaspiracy shows why fishing is everyone’s concern.  It’s largely unregulated, unenforceable laws apply, and companies try to make consumers feel better in their acceptance that some fish is safe for endangered species.  This documentary shows once again how the price of eating animals, and doing so on an industrial scale, is simply not sustainable.  My generation is perhaps too lazy to change its ways.  Our only hope is that the younger generation takes the state of this mess far more seriously than we do. And perhaps thinks before putting things in their mouths.


Story Power

A story can change everything.  You see, we are story-telling creatures and if you want to sway someone a story is a far better means than a lecture.  I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this because a story, in the form of a movie (it doesn’t matter which one), has been on my mind quite a lot lately.  This got me to thinking about the ways stories we tell ourselves come to define our lives.  It happens on a national as well as an individual level.  We’re engaged by a continuous narrative.  Until some kind of resolution comes we wonder what happens next.  Since my research has lately shifted to popular culture and religion, I’ve had the excuse to watch lots of stories.  Some of them just won’t let you go.

To me there’s no comparison between a well-written movie and one thrown together only for box-office potential.  They do overlap sometimes, but a film where the story is central often has power to stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.  We make sense of life through story.  Our biographies are the stories we tell about ourselves from our own perspectives.  I love to listen to other people’s stories.  I suspect—no, I know there would be a lot less conflict in the world if belligerents would listen to one another’s stories.  The tragedy of politics is those driven to rise to leadership roles often have vacuous stories—the blind ambition to be on top is hardly a tale worth the telling.  We like stories of presidents born in log cabins who had to struggle to get to a position of influence.  They have compelling stories.

Quite often, it seems to me, world leaders today are cut from the somewhat sociopathic model favored by businesses.  No story need be told.  Success is measured by the numbers.  Metrics tell you all you need to know, never mind how your workers feel.  The workers, you see, are telling their stories.  Building their narratives.  It isn’t too difficult to tell story tellers apart from those who climb out of corporate ambition.  The story tellers are much more interesting to listen to.  Even politicians—at least those who’ve not yet lost their souls—can be affected by a story.  It seems strange to me that, given the obvious power of story, we don’t emphasize it more in education.  There’s more to life than getting a job and climbing to the top.  Those on the bottom often have the best stories.


Candid Camera

Early on in the pandemic, various meeting leaders—whether Zoom or Teams—asked participants to put on their cameras.  The point was that, missing seeing other people at the office, the video feed was psychologically reassuring.  I get that.  I began working remotely before the pandemic broke out and I’m still reeling from being ahead of the curve for once in my life.  Does it always feel this giddy?  In any case, we’ve got to the point where many people simply do not put on their cameras, even in small meetings.  Since we are trained for diversity we know that some people simply don’t want us to know how they look on a certain day (or perhaps how cluttered their background is).  And that’s perfectly fine.  It does make me think how artificial work in the office is.

At least you could see this kind.

You put yourself together a certain way to be seen by other people.  In fact, we sometimes even put “dress codes” together for work.  I even had an employer once say dress was “business casual,” only wrinkles were unacceptable.  I don’t iron my clothes, so I guess that particular employer was warning not to let them sit in the clothes basket too long after taking them from the dryer (or clothes line).  In any case, now that we’ve come to realize we may not always look our best, we have an option to leave the camera off.  How many days commuting into the office did we feel this way but were given no choice?  Since leaving academia I’ve never had an office at work.  I was a midlife cubicle denizen.  I never liked the idea. Who looks their best after getting out of bed at 3:00 a.m.?

Being on view isn’t the same as working productively.  The pandemic has also taught us that going into the office is often not necessary at all.  If they supply the tech, which we’d need anyway, we will do our work without Big Brother watching over us all the time.  We’ve become, it seems to me, more humane.  Turning the camera off is a way of perhaps admitting I didn’t sleep well last night.  Or something’s really bothering me and I don’t feel like smiling falsely.  Or any number of other things that might put us in the place of wanting some space.  For once now we have it.  It is my hope that once things start to get “back to normal” that we will have learned some lessons.  We can treat people more like humans want to be treated and still contribute to the bottom line.  It’s amazing how much people will do if they’re treated like human beings rather than cogs in the capitalist machine.


Perhaps You’d Like…

Back in the early days of the internet I recall wondering how it could be used for research.  I was teaching at Nashotah House at the time and knew of no online resources that couldn’t be had in print.  All of that has changed, of course, with the web becoming the collective brain of humanity.  I tend to use it for research for my fictional tales.  Need to remember a detail about some obscure location you once visited in Scotland?  Check—either Ecosia or Google will take you right there.  Memory problem solved.  For some kinds of facts, however, it’s still a struggle.  There’s the infamous paywall, for example.  Your search brings you right to the info, but you have to pay for the privilege of reading it.  Commercial sites require a subscription that, although it has a cancellation policy, you know you’ll end up paying for forever.  University library websites are even more jealous of guarding their secret knowledge.

Fiction research often involves trying to find general information.  What some specific object is called, for example, or whether there was actually a Burger King in the location about which you’re writing, at the time your story is set.  Fiction writing is an exercise of the imagination, but verisimilitude can make all the difference.  Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it can’t be factual.  Here’s where another limitation arises.  If your query can be commodified, it will.  You’ll find yourself wading through pages and pages of vendors trying to sell you stuff, as if knowledge for knowledge’s sake is moribund.  Even WordPress gets into the act.  If your Premium plan fills up, you’re only option is to  “upgrade” to Business or E-Commerce, where you make money on your account.  (This blog remains free.)

I don’t make any money off this blog.  I use it to share the little I’ve figured out by looking deeply at the world—quite often involving observations about religion or books—over half-a-century.  Like many academics I believe knowledge should be free (ah, but they get paid for keeping it within the walls of the university with the occasional free cookie outside.  Or better yet, a paying engagement).  I don’t go to websites to be sold anything.  I maybe want to remember what a Quisp box looked like in 1969 without wanting to special order a box.  For sure, the web is a great place to buy the things you need.  At times, however, all you’re looking for is information.  At that point your price will be the time it takes to scroll through countless pages that assume you’re here to buy, not just to browse.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Our Stories

People’s stories are interesting.  The received wisdom is that if you wish to change a politician’s mind, tell her or him a story.  In fact, it seems that we’re hardwired to enjoy stories.  That’s why it’s so unfortunate that we seldom take the time to listen to other people’s stories.  We’re too busy.  For an organization to which I belong, I recently asked that five minutes of each agenda be set aside so that one member could tell her or his story at each meeting.  That way it’s possible to get to know who it is you’re working with, without the tired “one thing nobody knows about you” trope.  The idea was adopted and it seems a worthwhile use of agenda time.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard someone’s account and found myself anything less than fascinated.

When we reflect back over our lives, we do it in narrative format.  We tell ourselves a story about our life.  And these stories intersect with other people’s stories.  Some of those people may be famous or wealthy or ordinary, but each is unique.  Considering that there are billions of us on this planet, that’s a lot of tales.  There’s not so much a lesson to be learned from this than there is a simple reminder—it is worthwhile to listen to others.  I’ve run into a few people who are household names in my time.  Some of them are routinely criticized in the media, by people who never met them.  Who don’t know them.  Who don’t know their stories.

Much of our time at “work” is really time trying to earn money for a company.  It may involve dealing with other people, but not closely enough to really know their story.  I think of this every time an author and I could engage in a conversation about our experience of the academic life only to have to keep the discussion to “the business at hand.”  The human element, it seems, is unimportant.  I would read other people’s stories all day, if I could.  We crave a narrative, but getting one’s not a paying position.  How have we come to this place where we have time for only disconnected memes and not the stories behind them?  Bookstore owners know a perennial selling genre is the biography.  We’ll pay to know a famous person’s story.  The fact is each of our lives is also a tale worth telling.  We would all benefit from listening to each other’s experiences.  Tell your story, I’m listening.