Being Sapiens

Sometimes you need some distance to appreciate an object.  A telescope may be required if it’s a distant subject, like a rare comet (if the skies aren’t perpetually cloudy).  At other times a microscope is more helpful.  Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind made a pretty big splash a few years back.  Big name people, who presumably don’t have the time to get into the historical weeds—and yes, it’s quite overgrown out here—blurbed the book and it made it onto the New York Times Bestseller list.  It’s not a little book, and like most such works it’s  a synthesis that historians approach with trepidation.  Such projects occasionally make great observations, like the astronomer with her telescope.  But those who look up from their microscopes often say, “well, that’s not exactly right.”

How do you summarize 2.5 million years or so?  You have to be very selective and you have to keep backing up to pick out the things that help this story make sense to you.  Harari (my autocorrect keeps wanting to make him Harris, which sort of fits his overall thesis) divides human history into four parts, generally revolutions: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the unification of humankind, and the scientific revolution.  Along the way he tries to pick out the major developments.  One of them, of course, is religion.  While some of the details are overstated, his big picture here is helpful to read.  Religion has helped us, but it’s also hurt us.  Perhaps the latter more than the former.  For this we need a microscope.

His part on science and the economy was both insightful and disturbing.  I don’t believe, for example, that capitalism is necessary for advancement.  We too quickly claim that socialism doesn’t work without ever really giving it a fair trial.  Instead we let wealthy industrialists come up with new ways to keep us entertained and compliant while they handle all the money—leave it to the big boys.  The future comes to resemble them.  And we’ve seen where that gets us.  Summarizing a big book like this that covers many thousands of years isn’t a straightforward or easy task, just as trying to pick out the highlights of our history can’t be.  Part of the problem is that we’re still in the middle of it.  Things may happen—the Covid-19 pandemic is a notable example—that change the course of the river.  Since this book was published before that happened, who’s to say that things might not turn out quite differently than anticipated?  This is a provocative book, but I need to get back to my microscope.


Reflections of a Hermit

Although I acknowledge that Covid has made even more a hermit of me—I won’t deny it—and I often complain when I have to travel for work, I generally end up glad that I have.  (As long as I avoid Covid.)  Being at the AAR/SBL annual meeting is like being in a living library.  You meet and talk with so many smart, smart people and their ideas and yours begin to blend in an amazing kind of way.  I suspect that it shows that my books have been written by a guy in isolation.  That is, they could be improved by other eyes on them.  That’s what peer review is about, of course, but there’s something exciting about talking to my monster friends and engaging them about their ideas.  Frequently they will ask about mine.  I’ve even had colleagues mention that they’ve read some of my work.

The only real problem with how this unfolds is that I have so many meetings in a day that I sometimes lose track of the many ideas that crowd into my head.  Hastily-scrawled memos in my notebook—I’m too busy paying attention—mean that only fragments remain the next morning.  Each of them a gem.  (Fitting for Denver.)  When conversation comes around to what I’ve been working on, no matter how obscure it is, my monster friends know the root story and even have ideas that help shape my work.  No one scholar can read everything, and those of us who tend towards being hermits have the limited sources of one human imagination.  When imaginations get together, however, these ideas blossom.  I learn so much from these brief days that I think I might’ve been dangerous if I’d remained in the academy.  The man with an exploding head.

I sincerely hope that I give as well as receive at these meetings.  It’s really unfortunate that we don’t support humanities scholars in this nation.  These are some of the bright stars in our national constellation, yet they struggle with underfunding, and pressures such as “metrics,” as if you can quantify the influence on young brains and the potential future of our collective imaginative life.  Although I grouse, as is perhaps to be expected of an aging hermit, I can’t help but be enriched by the fertile minds I encounter, even if behind a Covid mask.  I’m never quite sure how to thank all these idea-conjurers properly.  I wouldn’t have met most of them had my career not taken the strange turns it has.  Now I realize that even hermits may have many friends.


Horror Deprivation

Is there such a thing as horror deprivation?  Life has been so busy that I haven’t been able to carve out the time to watch any horror movies for several weeks now.  That steady diet has given me blog topics and a strange kind of personal comfort in this all-too-scary world.  More than that, it is often a coping mechanism.  I sometimes think more people might read this blog if I “rebranded” it as horror-themed, but perhaps there’s a different way to go about it.  Some writers, with enough shares and likes, have their daily observations become part of the national wisdom.  The rest of us, it seems, are simply background noise.  I’ve also been told blogs are passè and that may be the case.  I have trouble keeping up.  I don’t even have time to watch horror!

As with most things in life, I keep a list of movies I need to see.  Like claws such a list continues to grow unless it’s trimmed once in a while.  A movie is a couple-hour commitment and when even weekends are programmed to the last minute it’s difficult to squeeze them in.  I always welcome the more pleasant weather of spring, but so does the yard.  I’ve always thought, like good haunted house owners, that I would let the yard go.  Here in town there are ordinances, though.  It doesn’t look tidy—right now dandelions exceed the tolerated grass length a mere day after mowing.  Like triffids they pop up and won’t go away.  I could be in, watching a movie.  My credibility’s on the line here!

The pandemic, from which horror movies will arise, led many people to having too much time.  Netflix soared.  For whatever reason, it had the opposite effect on me—is this a special effect?—I had even less time than before.  I had to cancel my Netflix account because I had no time to use it.  Horror is a coping technique.  Real horrors spill from the headlines daily.  Sometimes the antidote is in the poison itself.  The way to be less scared is to watch more horror.  We’re still in the pandemic and Putin decides to start a war.  Republicans confess that Trump tried to take over by force and then backtrack.  Global warming continues apace.  There comes a point when the only therapy is to watch something worse unfold, as long as it’s fiction.  It’s Saturday.  It’s raining.  What can one possibly do?


Earth Haunting

I’m still not sure what I saw.  I’m not even sure how I learned about it (it was likely either Theofantastique or Horror Homeroom), but In the Earth is a very strange film.  I can’t say it’ll be on my shelf of favorites—there’s a little too much Wolf Creek here for that—but I can say it’s something I’ll be thinking about for some time.  Body horror isn’t my favorite, but I do like to remind myself periodically of the dangers of going into the woods.  Released just last year, In the Earth is a pandemic-response film that critics say is funny (I kind of missed that aspect, I’ll admit) about a scientist and a ranger who are journeying into a particularly fecund woodland outside Bristol for research.  Martin, the lead, has an ulterior motive in that the researcher already in the woods is a former girlfriend.

Martin heads out with Alma, the ranger, and they fall into a trap set by Zach, and I suppose the humor comes in Zach’s constant observations that Martin’s wounds have gotten worse and require backwoods surgery.  The couple escape Zach (who’s clearly deranged) after he drugs them and poses them in odd clothes to propitiate the spirit of the woods.  They find their way to Olivia (the researcher/former girlfriend) and her research station only to learn Zach is her ex-husband.  And here things get weirder.  To communicate with the earth, Olivia first used an old ritual book that includes the Malleus Maleficarum and additional material.  This ancient book tells how to decipher the language of the earth through the use of light and sound with the aid of a runic standing stone that’s on no map.

Religion plays a major part in the horror here.  Olivia and Zach both want to sacrifice Martin at the runic stone.  Anyone who can watch this without seeing echoes of Abraham and Isaac probably has fewer religious nightmares than I do.  Martin, they all say, is so innocent and straightforward.  Alma keeps on trying to get Martin out of the woods but either Zach or Olivia, or the forest itself via a toxic cloud of mushroom spores, prevents them.  There are so many flashing strobes and intercut images from the spores and oddly disturbing sounds to make out what really happens at the end of the film, but one thing is clear.  Zach and Olivia have taken a religious text too literally and doing so leads them to sacrifice the innocent.  Almost biblical, no?


Sole Food

Perhaps its the pandemic.  Or at least the knock-on effect of shipping delays and supply-chain interruptions.  I can take it.  Unless, that is, it interrupts my soul food.  You see, my father was from South Carolina.  I grew up eating things like grits and black-eyed peas.  Then I probably went for a good two decades without eating either.  Like most people, however, I experience breakfast malaise.  Cold cereal every single day gets old after five-plus decades.  If we have reasonably healthy leftovers in the fridge I’ll sometimes have those.  Several years ago I started cooking breakfast for myself on weekends.  (My family wasn’t interested in my concoctions.)  When I became vegan I couldn’t keep cooking my usual weekend egg, so I turned back to soul food.

On a typical weekend I’ll have grits and black-eyed peas.  As a vegan, I really like beans.  There are so many varieties of legumes and each has its own charms.  Although we don’t eat all of them, there are over 40,000 different types of beans.  Even of those cultivated for human consumption I’m probably still pretty much a novice.  But lately our local grocery store has been having bean trouble.  Since the pandemic began we’ll occasionally go in and find the canned bean shelf bare.  Last week they had no black-eyed peas.  I fretted about it all week.  Was there a national bean shortage?  Was this the new toilet paper for a new year?  As the weekend drew near I decided I’d walk a mile on a snowy Friday to a local health food store where, I was pretty sure, there would be at least organic beans.

Dried beans are, of course, available.  I don’t trust myself to cook them properly.  It takes hours of soaking and boiling and always ends with some uncertainty.  Something about toxins and digestion just don’t mix.  Early on in the pandemic we didn’t horde, but slowly collected necessities, just in case.  Then in the summer it looked like Covid was over so we ate our supplies.  Bemused, I realized how many cans of black-eyed peas I’d storehoused.  Perhaps I had more foresight than I thought.  Supply chains are still stressed.  Backlogs take a long time to clear.  I have accepted that new appliances, cars, electronics might take quite a bit longer to get.  Specialty food items too.  I accept such things with a certain stoicism.  But my soul food, well, that’s a different matter entirely.  Don’t take my soul away!


What’s New?

Now that 2021’s behind us, what will we make of the year ahead?  New Year has generally been a time of reflection.  I don’t put a lot of stock into it because years are just random markers pointing out when we’ve been around the sun once again.  They’re good for organizing things, but does a year have any particular significance?  Many people talk as if 2020 and 2021 were cursed.  I tend to think of the Black Death and the influenza of a century ago and realize that if you’re reading this, we made it through.  Not personally perhaps, but our ancestors did.  The Covid-19 pandemic wrenched us unwillingly from our comfort zones, but isn’t that part of life?  Were things good before?  Was it kind or humane to have Trump in the White House?  Was (is) the death-grip of capitalism on the western world cause for celebration?

Yes, we had to travel less.  Our ancestors—for some of us that may be as recent as our grandparents—would likely have considered our travel excessive.  Why do we always want to be somewhere that we’re not?  What makes a home a home?  What can we do, moving forward, to make that more appealing?  The past two years have changed a number of things, some decidedly for the worse, but some for the better.  I keep reminding myself that our outlook is terribly short.  The planet has hosted life for billions of years.  Some plants live for millennia.  We see only our lifetimes and use them to decide what’s normal.  I’m never quite sure what normal is.

I do know that it’s considered a new year now, for those who celebrate the new start on January 1.  Other cultures have other dates to mark this time.  We call it 2022 based on likely incorrect information about when Jesus of Nazareth was born.  Our Muslim friends mark the years via Muhammad.  Others find yet other markers important to their cultures.  Is any of this normal?  It is normal to be so terribly polarized as a nation, with supporters of one candidate hating those who support another?  Is it normal to complain because we’re surviving through a pandemic, because our conveniences have changed?  I suppose it’s normal to want things back the way they were.  Some of us are ambivalent about this whole internet thing.  There was value in knowing how to fold a paper map.  There will, however, be value in the time allotted before us.  2022 may be just a number, but as we reflect perhaps we should think of how to improve where we find ourselves.

From NASA’s photo library

Masking Identity

Who am I, really?  Identity has been on my mind quite a bit during this pandemic.  With millions dying I suppose it’s important that “the officials” know who we are.  At the same time I don’t feel comfortable taking my mask off in front of strangers.  It’s kind of like a facial striptease that puts you at risk for some communicable disease.  Because I had to fly for Thanksgiving this year I got to put my Real ID to the test.  I removed my mask for the photo—at the DMV, of all places—so there was risk involved to prove that I am who I’ve always been.  When I went to get a Pennsylvania license three years ago, the system remembered me from when I got my permit and asked if I still lived in the county where that had occurred.  They seem to know a lot about me.

At the airport the TSA guy told me to take off my mask.  He had to confirm that I was the same person my Real ID stated I was.  I wish our government would tell me who I am.  And of course my passport decided to expire also during this pandemic.  I went to a local pharmacy to get my passport photo taken.  (I know you can do this at home, but you need a printer that handles photo paper.)  Then you can send the application in by mail.  How do they know it’s really me in the photo?  I had an uncanny experience many years ago when a visiting team from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) visited Nashotah House for an accreditation visit.  One of the inspectors looked very like me.  I think we both noticed the resemblance immediately.  It was like we were twins.  Later I found his photo on the school website and asked my pre-literate daughter who it was.  She said “Daddy.”

Who is that masked man?

So I’m standing here with my mask off in a store for confirmation that I am who I claim to be.  I wonder if this other guy’s photo were sent in would they know the difference?  In fact I’ve had the experience I suspect many people have had of being mistaken for someone else.  Helping a friend move to Kentucky after college, I had several people in a small town I’d never visited before identify me as Joe’s son.  I looked just like him.  Of course, that was way before the pandemic when our faces were public property.  Now I just wish I could put my mask back on so that I could feel a little less naked.


Flight Path

It’s been some time since I was on a plane.  Or in a hotel.  These things seem strange and foreign to me now.  Covid-19 is now a fixture in life and we, as humans typically do, have adjusted.  Of course I was flying for Thanksgiving on the busiest travel day of the year.  Seeing all those people standing in line at 4:30 a.m. at the airport made my lifestyle seem a little less weird.  I’m used to being up at this time.  They did have to de-ice the plane at Lehigh Valley International Airport.  I’ve never been on a plane that was taking a shower before.  I also didn’t touch anything but my book.  And it seemed that those who “don’t believe in” masking weren’t making a fuss because you can’t win an argument with the FAA. I’m thankful for that.

I’d almost forgotten how to fly.  On the first leg of the journey I was the only one whose “hand-held device” was made of paper.  Connecting out of O’Hare, however, quite a few more books made an appearance.  I sit in front of a device all day at work, so on a rare day off I don’t really want to have to stare at a screen.  Although the total air time was under four hours I brought seven books in my personal item.  I finished one of them (the longest) on the trip.  I still have plenty of choices for the flight home on the weekend.  Thanksgiving, even more than Christmas, is the time for family gatherings.  We’re all vaccinated on this side, so it feels mostly safe.

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful that no turkeys were harmed on my account.  If you knew how “thanksgiving turkeys” are raised it’d put you off your feed, as the saying goes.  I’m also thankful that travel is possible, even if with added restrictions.  Frankly, I’m glad for them.  Anti-vaxxers don’t seem to realize that it’s not just themselves they’d be protecting, but others as well.  Vaccines and masks aren’t just about selfish desires.  Last year we couldn’t even consider traveling.  Covid-19 has changed the way we do things, perhaps permanently.  We can be thankful that we learn to adjust.  I’m no fan of crowds, but there was something a bit exhilarating about being among other goal-oriented individuals all focused on being with loved ones.  It gives me renewed faith in humanity, and that is something for which to be thankful.


Story Time

Why am I so nervous about this?  I’ve done it hundreds of times.  Perhaps it’s because it’s a public place in a pandemic.  Maybe it’s because I’ve never used this particular branch before.  Or the thought of all the people having touched this book ahead of me, leaving God knows what germs on it.  I would’ve never made it through my years of higher education, let alone fatherhood, without having gone to the library.  This is the first time I’ve used this one and I’m not sure what I’m looking for.  My Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge is complete but for one last category—a book checked out of the library.  So here I am, mask on face, standing fretfully outside the public library.  Nervously I note that it’s story hour.  My wife assured me libraries are never crowded.  Taking a deep breath, I go in.

The library is a fine institution.  A marker of civilization.  Perhaps I’m afraid of having to take care of somebody else’s book for three weeks.  Maybe it’s because I’m an embarrassingly slow reader and these books all look so big to me.  I’ve fallen into the habit of buying (generally used) the books I need.  We’ve donated quite a few to the little free library across the way, passing it forward, as they say.  Still, it is good to be in here with all of these books.  Even though pangs of guilt come, knowing that the yard requires attention.  And I’ve gotta get that squirrel out of the garage.  But there’s now a book in my hand.  I can go someplace else.

I can’t image a world without books.  A world like Star Wars where nobody reads and everyone lives in a Campbellian fantasy where good overcomes evil.  Our world is more Republican than that.  It would be a better place if people read more.  Maybe let the grass go just a little bit longer.  It’s not going to be the end of the world.  Reading may give crucial insights.  It may even help you to be a better person.  Stepping out into the autumn air I have a book in my hand.  It’s one I’ve never heard of, but one that I’m excited to read.  The library wasn’t crowded.  The children were in a separate room.  The leaves are changing and the breeze is fresh.  There’s a lot to do, I know.  But it is always worth the time to read a book.


Not That Kind

I am not a (medical) doctor.  Nor do I play one on TV.  It puzzled me, therefore, when I received an email addressing me as “Dear Healthcare provider.”  I like to think that maybe this blog does help a person or two from time to time, but I’m not going to dispense medical devices.  The email was telling me where I could order Covid-19 tests in bulk, and it even contained a sell-sheet with facts and figures.  Now I want to see this pandemic over, just like everybody else, but I’m not sure that having my own supply of Covid tests would do anybody any good at all.  Perhaps this is just a continuation of the larger issue of wondering who exactly the internet thinks I am.

One thing the pandemic has done has been to double us down on our reliance on the internet.  It’s difficult to imagine how we might’ve survived without it.  More jobs—many more—would certainly have been lost if we couldn’t have started to work remotely.  In order for any of this to function, however, we have to have a sense of who we are and what we do.  I’m not a professional blogger, of course.  I’ve discovered from my own extended time on the internet that many people just a few years younger than me make a living as “content providers.”  They launch a successful YouTube channel (or maybe two or more), and blog, podcast, or otherwise just dispense their homegrown wisdom into a job.  Some have college degrees, but many don’t.  The ones I see make a better living doing this than several college grads I know.

You are who the internet makes you in these remote times.  Hasn’t most of our reality become remote?  We rely on content that others, or sometimes we ourselves, make.  We get our news here and we find our directions here.  We order the things we need here and the delivery drivers find our addresses here.  Yes, we can even get our medical service taken care of here.  Fortunately I personally haven’t had to talk to a doctor online, but I know people who have.  Personally I find it more reassuring when someone with special training takes a look at the area of concern, and perhaps can touch it and tell me what to do about it.  I’m glad the internet option exists, however.  I just hope that people don’t start thinking I’m that kind of doctor.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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.


The Heart of Memorial Day

The Memorial Day will be a somber one for the many people who’ve lost someone due to Covid-19.  Even as those who know that science can help to bring a pandemic under control have been vaccinated,  it is too late for millions who didn’t make it.  Memorial Day weekend, for many of us in northern climes, has been unseasonably cold.  Around here it’s been rainy too.  The official kick-off to summer seems to be a memorial to the long winter of 2020 and ’21.  It’s also hopeful, because things are starting to get better.  Having an organized national response helps, even as the Fascist Party is gaining strength.  “Memorial” means looking back.  Remembering the past.  I’m saddened, shocked, and distraught that one political party has refused to look at how insidious fascism is, and how it always starts under the guise of righteousness.  Remember this.

We tend to think of Memorial Day as a play day.  Indeed, the number of boats being towed as I’ve been out driving attests to the plans of many.  We’re ready for life to return to normal, but even that involves memory.  Remembering what was normal.  We have never been a fascist nation.  That’s not a memory but a sick future dream.  Those who attempt insurrection and then block any investigation into it can’t have the good of the nation at heart.  It should be a play day.  It should be frolicking in the sun.  Instead I’m wondering how we’ll ever stop this apparently inevitable evil that has taken over a country formed as a democracy.  Has it stopped raining yet?

Although I wasn’t close to him, my father was a veteran.  He fought for the cause of liberty, at least as it was understood before Trump’s America.  He was, according to his family, never the same after seeing war.  Bureaucrats, fat from the monies they pocket from special interest groups and lobbies, seem to have forgotten.  They’ve forgotten the frighteningly large national cemetery at Arlington.  They’ve forgotten that we fought to stop the very thing they are now promoting in their own country.  I’m sorry, Mr. Lincoln, these dead may have died in vain after all.  I had hopes of warm days and leisurely outdoor activities as the end of May rolled along.  Either that, or at least being able to get out and take care of all the yard work that’s been piling up over the past several weeks.  I wonder, will it stop raining today?


Come Together

When’s the last time a commercial made you cry?  Well, made you cry for joy?   A colleague sent me this commercial for chewing gum that left me nearly blubbering.  Go ahead and give it a watch, I’ll wait.  You see, I’m in the waiting period after my second vaccination (even scheduling that, it turned out, was difficult) and we’re waiting for everyone we know to reach that state where being together with strangers, unmasked, will become safe and normal again.  We’ve all been under enormous pressure for the past 14 months.  The absolutely directionless response of the Trump administration prolonged the agony in this particular country, and some places in the world are still having a difficult time of it, but there is a light.  There is a light.

Even we introverts are social creatures.  Like cats, we suffer in prolonged, enforced isolation.  We’ve been through difficult times.  It’s been the deepest hope of mine that we would come out of this pandemic better than we went into it.  The commercial, although clearly shot with humor, shows a more inclusive, completely accepting society.  As the couples separated for months reunite the only concern is that they have fresh breath.  It’s not what some other couple is doing.  It’s not who makes up that couple.  It’s simply that we are all ready to be back together instead of divided.  It’s about love, not hate.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

The most deadly poison of the Trump years was the normalization and acceptance of hatred.  We are already, and we have been from the beginning, a diverse people.  Like some mythological tower, we were divided because of fear.  There was nothing really to be afraid of down here.  Those at the top of the power structures (many of them sociopaths) want to protect their privilege.  It’s far easier to do that when the rest of the people are at one another’s throats.  Is English God’s own language?   Can people not be taught to pound swords into plowshares?  Perhaps when the time comes we’ll burst from these doors ready to accept those who are different as fully human.  Perhaps we’ll not judge them for who they love or how.  I don’t know why this commercial hit me so hard.  Perhaps it’s the Jim Steinman power ballad, perhaps it’s the quality of the acting, perhaps it’s the welling emotion that’s been suppressed alone in shadowy corners for over a year, but this particular commercial hit a chord.  And I don’t even chew gum, if that’s what it’s advertising.


As Nature Directs

The news about the “stampede” in Israel last week is tragic.  People like to gather in large crowds once in a while.  Religious events are sometimes such occasions (although not so much the case among mainstream religions anymore).  In this case the celebration, largely among the Ultra-Orthodox, was Lag BaOmer, a festival with unknown origins.  It has to do with counting the omer, a measure, in a biblically based instruction regarding grain offerings.  Since it’s based on the lunar Jewish calendar, it doesn’t fall on the same date of the solar year every time.  To be honest, I’d not heard of this celebration before the tragedy that occurred last week.  Having been confined for over a year, many religious groups are anxious to be back together in numbers.  Nothing reinforces belief better than having the size to be taken seriously.

A few years back, if I recall correctly, it was Muslim faithful at Mecca who experienced a tragic uncontrolled panic.  Religious ideas bring people together, but they can’t always control the results.  I’m reminded of what a Protestant clergyman told me many years ago: after a Billy Graham crusade came to town, the regular ministers were ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of emotionally charged members who normally sat still in the pews.  Religion stirs people, but its psychological nature shows when it leads to tragedy.  No particular group is immune since we are all emotional animals.  One slip on the stairs, one panicked individual, and those nearby can be infected.  Already emotional from the event itself, nature takes its course.

Stampedes are an evolved flight response.  Herd animals, when perceiving a threat, begin to run.  Others, not even directly aware of the threat, join in.  Other animals, not aware of their “herd mentality,” seem to handle this more naturally than do people.  Indeed, our religions often instruct us not to think of ourselves as animals at all.  Our religious events are often removed from our familiar surroundings.  I suspect that may be one reason people don’t find “Zoom church” very satisfying.  The emotion of religion is more easily spread in person.  In a place specifically designed as being outside the norm.  You take your hat off in church.  You sit quietly, reverently, in church.  You do not use coarse language in church.  In a pandemic you try to join in while physically in the environment where the rest of everyday life occurs.  When we gather again, we must do it while being aware of our nature.  Being part of nature itself can often be, if well thought out, cause for celebration.  We mourn those who fall victim to it.


One, two, three

The danger of statistics is that they turn an individual into a number.  A few days ago an article in the New York Times addressed the rare blood clots that some women develop after receiving the Johnson and Johnson covid vaccine.  The response of the cited physicians was telling.  Many praised the decision to halt use of the J&J vaccine immediately.  Others, however, point to the numbers.  If a vaccine is halted many more could be exposed to and contract Covid-19.  It is better, they aver, to take the statically smaller risk and use the vaccine.  While I understand the logic here, I do wonder if the side effects occurring primarily in women has anything to do with the reasoning.  Why not save this vaccine for the men instead?

This raises once again the specter of consciousness.  Statistically the odds are small that a woman will develop a clot.  What if you are the woman who does?  This dilemma always bothered me while camping in the woods.  Statistically black bear attacks are rare.  How does that help you if your tent is one that looks like a candy wrapper to a bear of little brain?  You become a statistic instead of a living, breathing, feeling, blogging person.  Statistics.  There’s a reason some of us identify with the humanities, I guess.  I can imagine what it would be like to have your doctor say to you, “Sorry, this is rare, but look at the bright side—you now become a statistic!”

Photo credit: HB, via Wikimedia commons

The fact is we’re all statistics to strangers anyway, the government above all.  We are vote-bearing numbers to be gerrymandered and prevented from voting.  Beyond that we’re merely annoying.  This pandemic has introduced Stalin’s accounting with a vengeance.  542,000 is a big number.  Unless you know one or more of them personally.  Then the statistics seem to melt.  Life is full of risk, of course.  We’ve barricaded ourselves in our homes for over a year now, eating things that are likely more dangerous for us than a rare complication.  The virus, and perhaps some vaccines, are among various killers on the loose.  Nobody can declare with any certainty the correct course of action.  Actually doing something about the virus when it was first a known threat would’ve helped, of course.  We find ourselves on the brink, it seems, of getting Trump’s disease under control.  Would that we all could do so, without having to worry about lying down to be counted.