Defying Labels

I don’t know much about the music industry, but I do know that as in publishing, labels make a difference. Who doesn’t conjure up a certain sound when they see Motown? Companies jealously sign artists to their label, with a close eye on the bottom line. Labels. Branding. Marking our territory. People like to give things labels to make them easier to understand. By now it’s no longer news that David Bowie has died. The tributes are coming thick and fast, and one recurring theme seems to be that nobody really knew how to label him. Bowie was an original, a creator. Like many truly creative people, he was seldom at the top of the charts, but his fan-base grew over decades and those who listened to him knew that he defied labels. Labels are for convenience, and life is, well, not convenient.

There’s been speculation about his final album, Blackstar, released an iconic two days before his death. The song “Lazarus” has flagged the attention of many, but here we are after the third day and he hasn’t come back. I think of my childhood and tween years in the 1970s, seeing Bowie’s album covers in my brother’s room and wondering if he was a man or woman. His transgressions frightened the young conservative that I was, accepting the label given to me by those who thought they knew me. I heard his songs coming through the open door. I couldn’t understand them, but somehow they remained with me until I was mature enough to learn to listen. Some sounds are too subtle to hear, except with experience. Here was a man telling the world “don’t label me.” And yet label we did.

“Lazarus” is a haunting song. I may be no music critic, but here is a piece by a man who knows he’s dying. The video shows him emerging from a tomb-like wardrobe (in itself significant) and simultaneously lying on his deathbed. He’s in Heaven, but in danger. Still, he knows he’s free. Like the biblical Lazarus from the Gospel of John, resurrection is only temporary. Lazarus has come back, but he must die again. As the frantic Bowie scribbles his final words on the final page, he backs up once again into the tomb from which he emerged. David Bowie may not have been a Bible scholar, but his song is prophetic. The three days have now gone past. He may not have come back, but it just may be that he never really left.

HunkyDory

Dead of Winter

WinterPeopleOne of the commonalities of all religions, I used to tell my students, is the concern with death. Not that all religions react to it in nearly the same way, but the fact is no religion ignores it. For people, obviously, our awareness of our own mortality marks us as indelibly as our birth does. Once we become aware of death, we will never be able to forget it. This inevitability fuels many horror stories, whether literary or cinematic. When I saw Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People, I knew that I would read it. Like most book consumers, I had to wait for the paperback edition, and once it was on offer I got a copy and waited for winter. Well, this year I’m still waiting for winter, but I began reading the story once the nights were long enough to qualify. It is an appropriate story for the season and it introduces what might be considered a kind of monster as well. Like most monsters, however, sleepers are not evil. The undead, however, have to find a way, ironically, to live.

The Winter People is a sad story, and tangled in the way that makes for successful novels. The main issue at play, however, is that with which all religions are concerned. Death is perhaps the most noble of literary subjects. Since we all have to face it, it is universal and yet somehow frightening. Fear of the unknown. The dead, unlike in the stories, don’t really come back to tell us what it’s like. Even those who do, in fiction, give us a distorted view. Theirs is a world inverted from our experience of it. It lacks finality. It is a place between. There is a macabre logic to it.

The living have never been comfortable with the dead. Memory reminds of who they were. McMahon is clear, in her vision, that memory is not who they are. We put them underground, but theologically we can’t let them go. Heaven, Nirvana, Purgatory, reincarnation, or even Hell—we feel that we need to give our dead a sense of place in a life after life. McMahon builds a sober mystery into her non-final afterlife. There are some, I’m sure, who will be kept up at night by her imagination. For me, I now have something to ponder. Many are the stories, like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, that warn of resurrection. We can’t keep the departed with us, and winter, when it comes, is a season of harsh reality.

Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

Death, Technically

Those of you who punish yourselves by reading my posts regularly may wonder at how different my last couple of posts have been. “Vacation” in and of itself is sufficient explanation for the out of the ordinary—different time zones, unreliable grammar, a certain dreaminess of topic (this is why we should all take plenty of time off work). In this case, however, there’s more to it. My wife injured herself the night before our early morning flight, and although she’s recovering well, another traveling companion is moribund. My faithful laptop that has traveled the country, indeed, crossed the ocean a hextad of times, died in its sleep on the flight over. I shut it down before climbing aboard the plane, and when I tried to boot up after that, nothing. Not friendly Apple starting tone, no wink from the camera, no sign of life from the screen.
I pulled out my phone as soon as I landed and asked Siri if there was a Genius Bar nearby. I was headed into remote parts, where shotguns are far more common than laptops. I had projects to accomplish in the rainy moments. I had a couple of readers to keep updated. Could the geniuses perform a miracle? Alas, the schedule was unforgiving. I hadn’t made an appointment and even though I’d been pouring money into Apple products while the genius before me was in still in diapers, I was up a proverbial (as well as literal) creek without an Apple. He halfheartedly gave my keyboard some kind of Vulcan finger combination pinch, but the look in his eye was definitely more Klingon.
I remember coming to this remote cabin before cell phones were invented. People were just beginning to whisper about this rumor called the Internet. People still wrote each other letters. And here I am in downtown Spokane, weeping over the dead device in my lap. It had its limits, in any case. I can’t take it into the lake with me. It needs, at its age, never to wander too far from a power outlet. And yet, it holds all my darkest secrets and most enlightened ideas. And my thumbs are too fat for typing on my phone. Looking out over the mist dancing wraith-like across the Saran-Wrap early morning surface of the lake, I see two bald eagles fly by. Surely I wouldn’t have seen them had I been behind the large screen of my departed friend. These are, after all, communications from the very edges of civilization, and technology may not, all things considered, save my soul.

Life Everlasting

ThruTheWormholeThrough the Wormhole is one of those series that keeps me coming back. I’m currently working my way through the second season because it is a show that I take in small doses. The episodes require thought (and often, more importantly, time—something of which I have too little). Watching the installment “Can We Live Forever?” I was astonished by the optimism of the writers and interviewees. Among a cross-section of scientists, at least, there is the belief that we can, and will, dramatically expand human life. To biblical proportions. And that life won’t be a decrepit, declining feebleness. Instead, we can be, to quote one of the scientists, quoting Bob Dylan, “forever young.” Well, maybe not forever, but you get the picture. Of course, God came up quite a bit in this episode. Immortality is the stuff of divinity. The life-force, which much of science denies exists, is strong. No matter how weak or old, we don’t really want to give it up.

Of course, death is the price of life. We live on a finite planet with dwindling resources. If we don’t die, we run out of space for the next generation. Some have postulated that we need to colonize other worlds—just the thing that got Europeans in trouble in the first place—in order to make room. Room for us. The dominant species. No doubt, we are “programmed” to age and die. As far as we know, all animals are. Even plants. That is to say, life as we know it ends in death. If it doesn’t, can it truly be called life? I would be fascinated to live for a long while and see what we can make of this world. Not the greatest fan of technology, still, I’m impressed how far we’ve come in the brief time I’ve spent on this planet. And I do wonder where we’ll end up. In my mind, however, there always is an end. Even to this infinite universe, about the heat-death of which I’ve often read. What gives us the right to live longer than nature dictates?

It is, surely, a matter of degree. These glasses perched on my nose certainly have prolonged my life beyond what nature would dictate. The vitamin pills I swallow, the fabrics that keep me warm while wicking away perspiration, the things physicians can stop in their germy tracks. We already prolong life. Nevertheless, the century mark has always been symbolically our final goal and sign post that it’s time to hand things over. Thus it was in the beginning. The Bible makes clear that, although the antediluvians lived centuries rather than decades, this was never intended as the lot of the majority. No, we were born to die. We live through our children. The thought of eternity is scary. Especially when we think of how humans are. Those who can afford to live the longest are likely those who least deserve to do so. Do we want to live forever with the plutocrats in charge? Perhaps there’s a reason that we all take that final bow. Still, I can never listen to “Forever Young” without getting misty eyed and imagining the possibilities.

Trisagion

Irony is all around. When we hook words up into phrases or titles they often take on unexpected connotations. I often see the sign for Jesus’ Bookstore on a highway not far from here. I didn’t know the Lord sold books. In this economic climate, I hope he’s diversified his portfolio. One of the other ironies of life is that as soon as I started getting mailings from AARP (aarrpp, indeed! Retirement is a myth!) I also started to receive advertisements for funeral homes. While you’re planning for retirement (hah!) why not plan for the next step beyond? It is more certain. A nice, long sleep sounds good right about now. So I didn’t ignore the flier from the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What’s not to like about that?

Mausoleum

That name, though. Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What sense of that troubling little preposition “of” is intended? Has the Holy Spirit been buried here? Or is it the of of ownership? One should probably be concerned with whom will be around the premises if one is to spend the rest of eternity there. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The drawing of the mausoleum indicates that this is an effort at fund raising. We certainly prefer our graves to be whitewashed. That is the biblical way.

“We sincerely regret,” the reverse reads, “if this should reach any home where there is illness or sorrow, as this was certainly not intended.” In a world of ubiquitous illness and sorrow, such must be a risky proposition from the start. Also, one might note, if one is not Catholic. Are those not welcome at the eucharistic altar welcome at the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit? What if one has a down-payment? Isn’t all of life a down-payment on eternity? In this day of facile information sharing, it isn’t unusual to have people you don’t even know wishing you happy birthday online (by the way, it’s not). It seems we’ve now gone to the other extreme to anticipate a happy death-day. That is, if I’m reading that preposition correctly.

Our Pigeons, Ourselves

You don’t have to be in New York City long to begin to see yourself as an expert on pigeons. The ubiquitous avians are ruthlessly castigated as “flying rats” and “filthy birds,” primarily because they like people food and poop everywhere. I have it on the authority of Gomi and Stinchecum that everybody poops. From what I’ve seen walking through the city early on the morning after a holiday, not everyone is discriminate about where—and I’m not talking only about the pigeons. Still, I can’t help thinking that pigeons are unfairly maligned. They are pretty birds, when examined individually. They have iridescent throat feathers and a pleasing, portly gait—almost jaunty. They manage well, despite hardships. Often I see one hobbling about missing a foot or otherwise physically challenged, and yet ebullient in their pullastrine way.

IMG_1287

Yesterday as the NJ Transit behemoth in which I was riding rounded the helix into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I saw two depressed pigeons. Unlike the jolly bobbing and pecking they usually seem to enjoy, this pair was simply standing. On the ground before them was a dead pigeon. Now I don’t know the backstory here, but the two standing around didn’t look like murderers to me. It seemed that they’d come upon a fallen comrade and were, in their own way, offering respects. In the ongoing debate separating ourselves from other animals, I often wonder if we have by-passed many of the basics. I do know that many animals find dead of their own species distressing. This is well documented. Why not pigeons?

Pigeons—related to doves, which, according to some religious traditions have sacred qualities, eh, Mary?—are seldom classed as the brightest of birds. I’ve written about the intelligence of corvids before, but pigeons have uniquely adapted themselves to our polluting ways. I grew up in a small town where pigeons weren’t especially abundant. They gather in large numbers where many people congregate and drop their litter. And, based on my recent experience, contemplate the mysteries of death. Peregrine falcons lurk overhead, doling out death at over 200 miles an hour. All the pigeons want to do, it seems to me, is to get a free lunch in an uncertain world where those whose presence has conjured them despise them. Unlike their sacred cousins, they are, like us, utterly pedestrian. Maybe they too appreciate the simple value of life.