And Found

For a kid who grew up on a steady diet of television, I have to admit being out of practice.  A combination of Gilligan’s Island and Dark Shadows informed much of my young outlook.  Starting all the way back to our days in Edinburgh, my wife and I had stopped watching TV.  We were in our twenties then, and it was a matter of not being able to afford the luxury.  Back in the States, cathode-ray tubes were ubiquitous, but cable was expensive and my employers not generous.  We had a television but only watched very occasionally, and then only what fuzzy programs we could pick up on the aerial.  So it continued.  We’re now at the point of not having had television service for over half of our lives, and we understand from the younger generation that a good internet provider makes cable superfluous anyway.

This prologue is simply a way to introduce the fact that we have finally, after two or three years of watching (we still have little time for it), finished Lost.  Now, I don’t get out much, but I had heard people talking about it when it originally broadcast.  More importantly, I’d read about it in books published by university presses.   I knew going into it—spoiler alert for those even more behind the times than me!—that the castaways were in Purgatory.  That seems to have been the point all along, but when money keeps rolling in because the story is compelling, you don’t want to reveal your hand too quickly.  Last night we watched the final episode where what was suggested back at the beginning was made clear: the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 had died in the crash and were making up for past sins.

The role of Jack’s father (Christian Shephard) as leading the passengers to the light may have been a bit heavy-handed, but the church where they finally meet has the symbols of many world religions, conveying the message that there is more than a single path.  The truly surprising aspect of all this is how popular the series was.  There were religious overtones from the beginning, but since the series wasn’t preachy, viewers apparently didn’t mind.  Yes, as the star character’s surname indicates, people don’t mind being led.  In fact, the names of many of the characters are indicative of some of the paths up that mountain.  I have to wonder if those who vociferate loudly and longly about their religion being the only way might not learn a lesson from television.  Even if the suggestion only comes from someone who grew up watching Gilligan’s Island.

From Solid to Gas

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I couldn’t believe that the woman at the police station actually used that phrase on me. The only time I’d ever heard it uttered before was on Gilligan’s Island. After all, we were talking about a parking ticket. I’d arrived in Boston, after driving through four states, with a massive headache. I was moving into an apartment in Winthrop, and all the cars along the street were lined up with their left tires along the curb. I simply did what everyone else had done and went to bed to sleep off my debilitating pain. In the morning I had a ticket under my windshield wiper. I explained that I’d just moved to town from another state, I was a student, and that all the other cars were parked the same way. Then she said it.

IMG_2625Ignorance, it seems to me, is the only response in the face of laws far more complicated than they need to be. I always thought, for example, that it was against the law for churches to meet in public schools. I’m no lawyer and what with voucher programs and other legislation that has been approved by the Reagan-Bush empire, I’m just not sure any more. So when I drove past the local middle school I was surprised to see banners all over the place proclaiming Liquid Church was meeting there. Liquid Church? They have a slick website (advertised on the banners) and they had guys directing traffic in the local school lot, which was frighteningly full. When had this happened? When had the school which had refused to allow a robotics league, approved the meeting of an evangelical church in the building? I can’t guess about the legality.

One of New Jersey’s fastest growing churches, according to its website, Liquid Church is flashy and trendy. This is God for the twenty-teens. Like businesses these days, it has “core values” as well as beliefs. Those values? Grace wins. Truth is relevant. Church is fun. The beliefs are pretty basic evangelical standards. But what is it doing in my local school? Having attended churches where anything fun smacked of Satan, perhaps I’m just a little bit jealous. Maybe as a guy who tries always to obey the rules, who doesn’t speed, and who actually follows traffic conventions in parking lots, I’m just a little confused. I thought there used to be a wall here. Now there seems to be nothing but rules anyone is free to concoct. I miss Gilligan’s Island.

Ports of Call

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,” so began far too many evenings of my childhood. Well, although as an adult it may seem that the time was ill-spent, Gilligan’s Island was the induction to popular culture that I had to undergo some time. The series has aged well; we bought the DVDs (speaking of aging) as soon as they came out and watched them all, multiple times. But what must it really be like to be on a boat, and for more than a three-hour tour? Here’s where I’m lucky in my extended family. A cousin, who is much younger, has been working as a musician on a cruise ship for a couple of years, and has recently started a blog. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a singer on a vacation vessel, check out David Tarr’s take. He has a more realistic outlook than Ginger did, although seeing Tina Louise in person was still quite a thrill, back when she stopped into the local Borders. Back when there still was Borders.

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It seems to me that we don’t often enough take the time to wonder what other people’s lives are like. We are a myopic species. Apart from the occasional educational tour in school, we don’t have much opportunity to consider what it feels like to be someone else. I grew up in a working class family that lived at the poverty level. I didn’t get along with my step-father, but I have, in the years since he died, thought back on his perspective. He worked long hours, had little education, and was very patriarchal. When he was too old to do his duties as a laborer, he took a job running an elevator in one of the five-story buildings in a nearby town. I once went to visit him on duty. He was sitting in the tiny cube of a metal box, waiting for the very rare customer. I asked if I could bring him something to read, something to do, to pass the hours of tedium. No, he replied, he didn’t want to miss any calls from potential passengers. What must it be like in the head of such a man?

The internet has given us a chance to learn the lives of others. David is living a young man’s dream, with the good and bad. We have lost all hope when such things are no longer possible. Too soon we find ourselves chained to a desk, 9-to-5, working to make money for others. Dreams are strictly forbidden, at least on work time, which is the only time there is. Somewhere on an ocean, there is a ship. It may take a three hour tour, a three week cruise, or a three month voyage. It is more than a ship, regardless. It is the people on board, and their lives, and hopes. I’m not sure of the course charted for me. I suspect it has no cruises to exotic climes. It has, however, writing written all over it, and that is one thing I share with a talent cruise singer in my extended family.

Soldiers of Forfeiture

Somebody, perhaps a robot, reads my blog. I can’t imagine what keeps this feeble enterprise going sometimes, since continued growth of readership has been elusive for several years now. Still, I get requests to post information on my daily soapbox, sometimes for issues of which I’ve never heard. Civil Forfeiture is one of those issues. I’ve only ever been stopped for driving too fast once. I’m not a speeder by nature, and it was an oversight in one of those slowdown zones between a highway and town. I had no idea, however, that civil forfeiture might happen without any conviction or charge. See the infographic below from one of my readers at arrestrecords.com.

Social justice is perhaps the leading motif in my existence. I was attracted to the life of the clergy out of a profound sense that life is unfair. As if it’s not bad enough that nature posts us each at unequal starting places, human society joins in the game by contributing rules that are inherently unfair. Healthcare in the United States, for example, has been unequally distributed. I had figured this out even as a child when my family doctor walked into the examination room with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, asking why I was having trouble breathing. I didn’t know what chronic bronchitis was in those days, but thankfully I grew out of it. In any case, laws for fair treatment of all citizens should underlie any just society. Not just healthcare, but basic, constitutional rights.

Having been reared in a small community where arrest was not rare—most of the time certainly deserved—I was woefully ignorant about what a person was free to do. I still am, I guess. I go to work each day hoping that I don’t infringe on any unknown law that stands to make this land a nest of freedom. Having arrived in Boston with a migraine after driving all my worldly possessions from Pennsylvania back in 1985, I parked in Winthrop, outside my apartment, with the right wheels to the curb, just like every other car on the block. I stumbled inside and fell into my unmade bed. My first morning as a Massachusetts resident, I awoke to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I went to the police station to explain what happened only to have the receptionist say, like a line from Gilligan’s Island, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I can think of no better excuse. Is a law degree necessary for fair treatment? Whom did I harm by parking with the rest of the residents? At least I didn’t face civil forfeiture. If I had, all they would’ve found would’ve been a few boxes of books and enough clothes to get me through the week—all my possession fit inside my VW Beetle in those days. What more does a person really need?

Civil Forfeiture, an infographic from ArrestRecords.com

Apocalypse Then

Krakatoa Sometimes everything blows up in your face. Literally. Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa has been on my reading list for years. Boys seem to have a fascination with volcanoes that they never outgrow, and given the world-wide implications of Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption, it is a tragedy that keeps me ever curious. We live on an angry planet. I know that’s projecting agency on nature, but like thunderstorms, to a human sensibility, volcanoes are raging phenomena. As Winchester points out, many indigenous cultures in the “ring of fire” consider volcanoes either gods or messages from the divine world. Honestly, I didn’t read Krakatoa to find out about religion, but it was there nevertheless. For human beings, it has an unparalleled explanatory power.

Krakatoa caused a stint of global cooling after its nineteenth-century eruption, leading to failed crops throughout much of the world, and perhaps played into larger political issues that would stress a world already attempting to cope with fast changes in technology. The story of the volcano is fascinating enough, but the religious dimension, it seems, played itself out more than just in a Gilligan’s Island sort of way. Despite what analysts say, people take their religious beliefs very seriously. So when I reached the end of the eruption, I wondered how Winchester was going to spin this book out for another fifty pages. It turns out that among the effects of the volcano was a religious rebellion. The East Indies, as they were called, were under Dutch colonial rule. This led to a bit of tension with the native Muslims (Islam has long been a major religion in Indonesia). As Winchester points out, the Islam in the region before the eruption was a syncretistic, almost laissez faire, faith. It blended with Hinduism and local beliefs, and even tolerated the Christian Dutch.

Symbolically, or literally, after the explosion that killed thousands, a religious movement that had been waiting for a sign came to life. A more strict Muslim sect saw the events as a predicted display of divine anger. A short-lived rebellion broke out, cut off by Christian repeating rifles, that led to a more strict version of Islam in the region. Although Winchester doesn’t linger on this too long—he is writing about a natural disaster after all—it does raise many very human responses. In the event of a cataclysm, science is cold comfort. We may rationalize, but human beings also feel. And it is religion that will attempt to answer for that pit in your stomach or that worry in your head. That’s what it does best. Science tells us that we can’t really stop volcanoes—we are too small and the planet too overwhelming. Religion, on the other hand, offers a grip on the very forces behind cataclysm—imagined or not. Although seeing natural disasters as divine punishment is never reasonable it is, in the words of a famous philosopher, human, all too human.

Shipwrecked

Childhood dies in pieces. There is nothing a young boy desires more than a father to show him how to negotiate life. As Mick Jagger eloquently declared, however, many of us know “you can’t always get what you want.” I did not get to know my father growing up, and so I did what any American did in the 1960s—I looked to television for solutions. Children can be terribly naive, but I had a shortlist of ideal candidates in my head. The one who unwittingly set the direction for my life was shipwrecked on a not-so-grim deserted island. Everyone loved Gilligan because he made them laugh, but the Professor, he seemed the ideal father: rational, mostly kind, and generally unflappable. My earliest career ambition, before I decided that janitor was my true calling, was to be a scientist. This was largely because of the Professor. Religion eventually interfered in my plans, but even as I attended seminary, and then graduate school, the Professor never left me. He had been a kind of father figure to me. I’m sure going to miss Russell Johnson.

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I still feel a stab of delight when, watching old Twilight Zone episodes, “the Professor” appears. When I see Johnson in It Came From Outer Space and This Island Earth, it’s a particular island I’m thinking about. An island where, if religion came up, it was treated lightheartedly but even science, for all its clear thinking, never managed to help get the castaways rescued. This island represented my childhood. Innocent, sincere, and strangely funny. Little did I realize at the time that the science Roy Hinkley advocated would become such a fierce enemy to the religious milieu from whose baptismal waters I’d never fully emerge. It sure would’ve helped to have had a father to sort all this out.

Back before Borders (a kind of ersatz father) closed,Tina Louise came to our local to promote her new children’s book. I couldn’t believe I was standing twenty feet from a childhood icon—a movie star, nonetheless. How shocked I was to see her in The Stepford Wives where she talked about sex—that was always in the deep, deep background on the island. Pagan gods exerted real power on Gilligan’s island. As I grew up, religion held me in its powerful grip. With the Professor and the Bible in my head, I went off to become logical, intellectual, cynical. I taught Bible, students called me professor. Then my career was shipwrecked. Is it any wonder that I had that nightmare about being lost at Nashotah House again last night? Sometimes a boy just needs a father to show him the way. Thank you, Professor, for stepping in. You influenced one life in a way that I’m sure you never expected.

California Weeping

Once again, we as a nation are left to mourn. Gun violence against the young seems, according to the posturing of the NRA, to be a legitimate diversion. I remember watching Gilligan’s Island growing up. The episode “The Hunter”—where if Gilligan survives being stalked by big game hunter Jonathan Kincaid, the castaways will be rescued—now seems strangely prescient. The location changes every few months, however. Yesterday it was in Santa Monica, California. College kids studying for finals being shot at by a man with a semi-automatic rifle. And even after Sandy Hook, and Columbine, and Virginia Tech, we still do not have the will, as a nation, to safeguard our young. Such a perversion of evolution the natural world has never seen.

The logic of allowing widespread ownership of firearms doesn’t make me feel any safer. Judging from the number of young victims of various gunmen—most of whom end up dead so no questions may be asked—we are willing to allow our children to be collateral damage in the war to keep personal weapons. As city after city after city is scarred by the anonymous guy who’s got anger issues taking it out on the helpless, we still insist that guns are our friends. I’d rather be friendless.

My fingers grow fatigued scrolling through the increasing list of multiple shootings. It takes one of sterner constitution than this writer even to make it through the Wikipedia page listing school shootings. Those who die give us ample cause for tears. Those who survive will spend lives dealing with horrible memories. Schools are where we place our hopes for the future. The lessons learned there should give our young the knowledge they require for a lifetime in this complex society we’ve created. Unfortunately that society also includes facile access to deadly weapons that kill with ease. Our hearts raced as Gilligan outsmarted Mr. Kincaid, although we knew he would have to survive. The star always does. But television is a poor guide to reality, unless it’s the NRA telling us why the only reasonable response is to increase the number of guns and let civilization do its work.

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