Back to Normal

The western philosophical tradition is built on the idea that permanence is reality.  From the Greek philosophers on, the idea has been to identify the basic, unchanging building blocks of reality to get at what’s really real.  The eastern philosophical system posits that change is reality.  Permanence is illusion, and that which we think of as unchanging is a deceptive projection of our own minds.  This dichotomy keeps coming back to me when things change and I keep waiting for them to go back to “the old way” or “the usual way.”  Most recently, for example, the shift to or from (I can never remember which) Daylight Saving Time.  This was followed closely by a mandated trip to San Diego, three time zones away, that lasted five days.  While there I met with potential authors later into the evening than I generally stay up on eastern time.  Now that I’m back home I keep waiting for things to go back to the way they were.

My response to all of this is to wonder if maybe I have the wrong philosophical disposition.  Problem is, the entire western world is built on the proposition that permanence is reality.  The things that worry us are, in eastern thinking, part of the constantly changing flux of reality.  While away from the usual constant connectivity of life at home, bills still come electronically.  Websites ask you for passwords that, like eastern thought, are constantly changing.  I play along, even to the point of “buying” property so that it will always be mine.  Right now lots of things are up in the air in the western world—the future of democracy itself is uncertain—and I keep waiting for things to get back to normal.

Part of the problem is that I keep too busy.  It is easier for me to maintain this illusion if I slow down and have time to think it through.  Things change too quickly for that, however.  Using time as a pole star to navigate this constantly heaving sea, I’ve become a little confused about my longitude.  I’m settling back into eastern time at the new hour they tell me that it is, but I feel as though I’ve left lots of things behind.  I’ve had a little time off work over the holiday and there’s a tremendous amount of change awaiting me once I fire the laptop up again.  I want to go back to where I was before I boarded that plane, back before I “gained” an hour.  Back before I had to learn everything you need to know to “buy” a house.  I look to the east and nod.

Daylight Saving Time Zone

One or two of you out there—you know who you are—put yourselves through reading my musings on a daily basis.  I haven’t missed a post in nearly a decade, but travel always complicates things.  Yes, it’s that time of year again—I’m on my way to AAR/SBL.  The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting is the trade show of the guild.  This year we’re meeting in San Diego, California.  The hope of many of us is that it’ll be sunny and warm.  Last year, of course, I missed the conference for the first time, exchanging the Denver Hilton for a night on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport.  This year I’m flying out of a different venue—one where egress is possible in the case of snow.

I always like to post a reminder to the faithful few that normal service on this blog may be interrupted.  One never knows what might happen when away from the regular routine.  And three time zones will surely wreak havoc with circadian rhythms that haven’t yet caught up with the end of Daylight Saving Time.  Or is it the beginning of Daylight Saving Time?  It makes no difference, because it lead to lack of normal sleep, no matter what we call it.  In any case, San Diego may make usual posting unusual.  At the very least it’ll be a few hours off.  I’ve become a creature of habit, posting my thoughts between six and seven on weekdays.  On weekends I’m up just as early, but I give the web a chance to sleep in.

These annual meetings are exhausting when you go on behalf of a publisher.  Unlike the leisurely experience of a paying customer, you don’t get to go back to your room for a nap, or even to sleep in.  Every year colleagues ask me to receptions but I decline because every day is a school day.  And I have appointments from 8:30 until 6:30 daily.  Sometimes even later.  You, my gentle reader, have been given advance notice.  I’ll try to continue my daily chronicle of life inside this particular head as thousands of scholars of religion mill about, wondering about the answers to the big questions.  Right now the big question is whether I’ve packed everything I’ll need.  I’ll gain three hours on the way out, but I have to leave them at the desk when I get back.  Along the way I’ll scatter posts like breadcrumbs to help me find my way home.

The Rules of Waiting

Tom Petty must’ve been a commuter.  On a winter’s morning after switching to Daylight Saving Time, waiting is the indeed the hardest part.  For a bus, that is.  In the dark.  The saving grace is that humans are rule-makers.  Before I even began commuting into New York I’d been instructed in the etiquette.  Those who get there first leave some kind of avatar—a briefcase, an umbrella, a lunch box—in their place in line and then sit in their cars.  Being the paranoid sort, and also thinking myself tough, I’ve always just stood at my place as the chill wind finds its way down my collar and then buffets me almost off of my feet.  With the time-change, however, I decided to do like the commuters do.  I walked out to the line of objects to find one widely separated from the others.  Being a law-abider, I put my lunch down after the errant water bottle.

“Hey,” a stranger called me on my way back to my car.  “Somebody just left that water bottle—you should move your bag up next to the backpack.”  Thanking him, I did so.  Not only was this person I didn’t know watching me in the dark, but he was also keeping the rules.  Indeed, when the bus crested the hill and commuters lined up next to their possessions, the water bottle remained unclaimed.  It was still there fourteen hours later when I got off the returning bus.  Now, I’m not a big fan of anarchy, but this incident demonstrates just how inclined we are toward civil behavior.  There’s no bus stop police force to ensure nobody jumps line.  Even at the Port Authority waiting in the queue at the end of the day the rules are mostly self-governing.  Those who don’t obey are scolded by their peers and generally comply.

There’s a natural sort of ethic among those who catch the bus before 5 a.m.  We’ve all been awake earlier than nature would seem to dictate.  We’re in a dark, isolated location outside town.  We look out for one another, realizing that any one of us might easily lose our place in line should the rules break down.  I was struck by the kindness of this caliginous stranger.  Or perhaps it was just his love of order.  Had my representation been out of place, other commuters might’ve grown confused.  The system might’ve broken down.  The last thing anyone wants is chaos before cock-crow.  I decided to interpret it as kindness, however, as I made my way back to my car to put on Tom Petty to face the hardest part.

Time Saving

As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.  Life is full of them.  We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.  DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.  This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.  Why did people believe this?  Why did they do this?  What started this whole process?  (Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)

We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.  I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.  A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.  The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.  Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.  Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.  It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.  Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.  And human beings are natural actors.

Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.  The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.  Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.  Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.  Actors.  We’re all actors.  Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.  If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.  Anarchy would erupt in the streets.  We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.  Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Symbolic Delays

Weather affects more than the Psalms, of course.  With all the hype of the latest winter storm things were closed or delayed before any accumulation even started.  Now I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of snow days; we dutifully trudge to our desk jobs as if we’re doing something vital when many of us are really just trying to make money for the man.  A snow day’s a little unplanned levity in our lives when staying off the roads seems like a good idea.  It’s one of life’s guilty pleasures.  Of course, the dreaded delayed opening brings its own set of issues.  You can’t sleep in unless it’s announced the night before, and once you’re up your mind heads to work anyway.  Working remotely, alas, means you have no excuse, no matter what the weather.

Snow is a great symbol.  I don’t mean its whiteness and purity—there are plenty of white things that aren’t pure.  No, I mean it’s a great symbol in its ability to control people.  We don’t like rain, although we understand its necessity.  Snow, however, fills us with a childlike wonder.  Anticipation.  Unlike a winter rain, it can be fun to play in.  It covers everything.  The suggestion of a blanket ironically makes us feel warm, even as the temperature dips below freezing.  But for me the most potent symbol is light.  I awake early, even on snow days.  As I make my way downstairs in the dark, it’s immediately evident when snow covers everything because the sky is lighter than it should be this time of day.  Whatever light’s trapped below the clouds reflects off the snow creating a luminosity that’s almost otherworldly in its calm.  It doesn’t last too long for the sun is rising earlier, at least it is until our pointless time change, but for a few hours we’re in the midst of an unnatural light.

Darkness is far too prevalent.  We know that someday even our mighty sun will use up all its fuel.  We crave the light for it’s limited.  Days are noticeably longer now than they were at the start of December.  Those few moments of serenity before the sun comes up, when the snow produces what seems like its own light, are among the most tranquil of life.  Before the plows begin scraping metal against asphalt, hoping for a snow day while wrapped in a fleece throw, face clouding the chilly window before it.  Yes, it’s a powerful symbol.  Even if the internet means work awaits just as usual.  

The Myth of the Extra Hour

The selling point of an extra hour of sleep is, unfortunately, a myth.  I’m not talking about young people who can sleep on demand, but your average, everyday working body who adheres to a schedule set by the man.  Like many Americans I probably don’t get enough sleep.  Long years of habit are hard to break, and besides, I still have to commute into New York City.  Not every day, but every couple of weeks.  Still, my sleep-deprived brain knows that means awaking early on those days and since getting up extra-early is hard, why not maintain the status quo ante?  Habitual early risers don’t really benefit from setting the clocks back.  You see, you’re never given something without it being taken away again elsewhere.

Humans can’t seem to help themselves from messing with nature.  There’s always something to do on the farm, and other creatures don’t keep clocks.  Interestingly, standardized time (instead of the more natural local time) only came into being with the railroad.  Trains were scarce and to make sure those down the line didn’t miss one, time had to be synchronized.  Even earlier, the process of navigating the oceans required knowing what time it was back home—local time could be determined by the sun—to determine one’s longitude.   With railways, however, the nine-to-five could become the accepted norm so that business could be conducted and time could be divided into profitable and domestic.  And everyone knows which one is more lucrative.

No doubt some will wake this morning well rested.  Others will have stayed up later, knowing they’d have an extra hour this morning.  For the rest of us, biology moves us along the same trajectory it’d been keeping ever since March.  Daylight Saving Time could be instituted all year, you know.  When we set the clocks back in March we could just keep them there.  The slow, steady rhythms of time would adjust.  Yes, the gods of Greenwich would be annoyed, but mean time could mean time that is useable.  The modern commuter lives by the clock.  Work depended on that train or bus or camel.  You don’t want to miss it.  And if you think camels are an odd addition to the list, it could be that the present writer isn’t getting enough sleep.  No matter what longitude, or mass transit schedule, nothing beats a good night’s sleep.  And changing clocks doesn’t help.

Last Call

The alarm that wakes you in the middle of the night.  There’s something primal, something visceral about that.  We humans, at least since our ancestors climbed down from the trees, have felt vulnerable at night.  If our sleep is constantly interrupted we don’t think clearly.  We build secure houses. Lock our windows and doors at night.  Say our prayers before we go to sleep.  Last night I discovered that the homeowner has even greater concerns than the humble renter.  While 11:30 may not be the middle of the night for some, for early risers it is.  And there’s nothing to strike terror into the heart of a homeowner like a tornado warning.  Especially here—our realtor laconically told us that they never have tornadoes in eastern Pennsylvania.  The weather warning system disagreed with him last night.

Getting up as early as I do, first light is hours away.  Hours before I might check for damage with the light of old Sol.  My wife had to work, no less, at a venue some distance away and we both had to rise early and wonder what the damage might be.  We knew, of course, that the pointless ritual of changing our clocks would occur tonight, but that does alleviate concerns about whether the roof was still on the house or not.  You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continuity of time.  Thus my thoughts returned to Weathering the Psalms.

Severe weather led to that book.  If I were to rewrite it now it would come out quite differently, of course.  No one would write the same book the same way after a decade and a half.  Still, there may have been some things I got right in it.  The weather is a cause of awe and fear.  The sound of the wind roaring last night was impressively terrifying, even in a technological world.  Especially in a technological world that relies on an unwavering power grid and constant connectivity.  In the midst of a wakeful night, alone with thoughts too haunting for the day, the weather has a power with which we’re foolish to trifle.  Global warming is a myth if it gets in the way of profits.  Then darkness falls and we realize just how very small we are.  In the light of dawn, the damage was not too bad.  A frightened car meeping its mewling alert.  And a strange justification that perhaps my book contained some truth after all.