Goliath and Company

First UltraViolet.  Then Google +.  Well, actually neither of these was first—tech initiatives cease to exist all the time.  Giants aren’t immune to extinction, it seems.  I’ve got to be careful with my confessions toward Luddite sympathies since, as it turns out, tech is king.  Emperor, in fact.  But since tech only works as long as society holds together, I still want paper knowledge in my library.  I don’t own a Kindle and despite what visitors say, I don’t want to “save room” by getting rid of books.  I like books.  I wink at them from across the room.  Sidle up to them when in private.  Get to know them intimately.  Books are a way of life.  If the grid breaks down, I’ll have books to read and candles to do it by.  For a while there I even made my own candles, although most of those were used up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Just sayin’

You see, my hairs bristle when I hear tech experts complain that “authors should be taught to write in XML.”  Said techies have apparently never written a book.  Ideas, you see, flow.  When you’re in the zone, there’s no stopping to mark-up your text.  In fact, the best, purest kind comes in scribbles on paper with misspelled words and all.  You can hold it in your hands and remember the Muse who had you at the time.  For me the hours of inspiration are before dawn.  I mostly use a computer now, but I can still find myself typing too slow to keep up with manic inspiration, desperate to record my ideas before paid work starts.  Work is the Medea of creativity—both mother and slayer.  Once I login I check out.  I need to wait for another day to dawn.

We’ve invested heavily in technology.  The internet is largely responsible for the globalization against which the world has recently rebelled.  No matter how many times people like me say we love books somebody will say, “Have you considered a Kindle?”  Why?  I bought a house as a place to keep my books.  These little bricks are bits of my mind.  Pieces of my soul!  What we read makes us who we are.  The last person who said the remark about authors learning XML literally sighed with disgust as he said it.  How could, you could feel him thinking, anyone be so backward as to think this is a problem?  I recall Hurricane Sandy.  Sitting in an apartment lit by candles we’d made ourselves, we read old-fashioned books and were eerily content.

Tis a Season

halloweenI always seem to be running late. Still, I wanted to be reading a book about Halloween on Halloween. If I might be pardoned for bleeding over into All Saints’ Day, I’ll share some thoughts this November on Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Academic treatments of holidays, I fear, often suffer because of dispassion. Academics tend to emulate Spock in their writing, and I think that those who write about Halloween should really “get” Halloween. Oh, one can discourse about its quaint history in this ever so rational world, but one might just miss what the whole thing is about. To be fair, Rogers was writing his book during the trauma of 9/11. He wonders if Halloween may be fading. Nashotah House was suffering under an evangelical administration at that time, and the usual Halloween spirit was muted. Some fifteen years on it seems that Halloween earns yet more money and people admit that it’s hip to be scared.

Rogers gives a brief treatment of the early, but hidden, history of the holiday. The Celts weren’t much into writing about their festivals and invaders didn’t think much of their quotidian life to begin with. Trying to understand Halloween from modern times, piecing the puzzle together back over time, doesn’t really help much either. Treating the day in its British context, then in its American context, Rogers favors a thematic approach. His section on Halloween movies is interesting. Like most modern treatments of the holiday, his book makes comparison with el Dia de los Muertos, and the usual complaints of cultural imperialism. Maybe Halloween is just too much fun to pass up. It also means this post isn’t that outdated.

Nobody owns Halloween. It is taken as a serious holiday by some Wiccans, but liturgical Christians are far more intense about today, All Saints’ Day. It isn’t a national holiday and no national government decides the correct day for trick-or-treating. Perhaps prophetically Chris Christie cancelled Halloween the year of Hurricane Sandy, but did he really? Sitting in the dark for a few days with evenings lit by candles—some of them in Halloween holders—felt pretty spooky to me. Halloween may be a source of intellectual curiosity, but it is a holiday you either get or you don’t. October is its prelude, November is its aftermath. It is, as the Celts used to believe, when cold weather seriously begins to take over and light is a rapidly vanishing commodity. I may be a day late, but Halloween isn’t quite over yet.

Can of Worms

A great variety of food comes in cans. My mind naturally turns to vegetables and beans, but “tinned meat” was a staple of my childhood, including the now derided Spam. When I see octopus and squid in cans I’m glad I’m now a vegetarian. Once—it may have been in Canada—I even saw bread in a can. My wife and I used to can vegetables at home when we had a garden and commuting didn’t eat up every spare second of the day. For the store-bought can, however, a can opener is essential. The idea is to seal the outside world out, to avoid contamination. To get to the goodies inside you need a tool. A can opener. In these days of emergency preparedness, a can opener can be a matter of life and death, or so we’re led to believe. Dry goods can survive without special preservation, but most require cooking and if the power’s out, well, cans can be much easier. I’m writing about cans because our can opener doesn’t work. We don’t have one of the electric machines that takes up counter space and would be useless in an emergency, but the basic hand-held device that’s designed to remove the lid from a can. I hope there are no hurricanes before we can get another.

A little context is in order here; after all, this blog is about profound things. We’ve gone through four can openers in the past six months or so. (Similar statistics apply to rotary cheese graters and garlic presses, but they are less crucial in an emergency.) The underlying issue is ethics: when you buy something durable, you expect it to last. Now you’re probably thinking, “don’t buy cheap merchandise, then.” We tried getting all of these devices from kitchen stores (not outlets!) and for a price that edged us beyond the comfort zone for a basic tool. These were the ones that went defunct the quickest. Our economy is built on the premise that people have to spend. When I was a kid, we had a can opener that remained the same through my childhood and college years. And we were poor. Now that we’re warned of terror on every side, you’d better have access to a store when that emergency comes because your can opener can fail you.

I know how to use a pocket-knife can opener. In fact, over the holidays I had to resort to one since stores weren’t open and our most recent addition to the can opener family had died. I made sure to show my daughter how to use the pocket knife device. When we lived in Wisconsin we learned how to make our own candles too. During Hurricane Sandy, a decade after they were dipped, these candles proved their worth. With no electricity for three days, we did rely on a can opener. Since then we have not found one that lasts. It seems that our economic plan as a nation is at odds with our national emergency preparedness. Even in the event of a war, we’re told, companies won’t produce weaponry unless they can make a profit. In days like these it seems that a pocket knife might be the wisest investment of all.

Why would anyone need two?  Now I get it!

Why would anyone need two? Now I get it!

Pope for the Planet

According to The Guardian, Pope Francis is about to weigh in on the faux question of global warming. Faux because there really is no question—we know it is happening. Some high ranking Catholic politicians, no doubt, will not be amused. Apart from the fact that Francis has proven himself a true saint from the moment he got out of the gate—distancing himself from European pontiffs far more interested in church politics than what really matters—he has brought a sensibility borne of knowing how people really live and what is really important. Global warming is real, and the science behind the assertions is unquestioned. Interested parties (such as big oil) have hired their spin doctors to confuse the voting public, casting doubt on one of the few certainties we have. Politicians, whose funding comes from business interests, of course choose what to believe. How anyone can be so shortsighted, or selfish, as to saw off the very branch on which they stand I can’t comprehend. Past popes were too busy trying to keep ladies out of the exclusive gentlemen’s club to worry about those who feel the brunt of global warming.

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Nav, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, it will catch up with all of us eventually. I’m not much of a swimmer, and I’m worried. Hurricane Sandy (a superstorm only in the sense that it hit the affluent) showed us just how near sea level Manhattan is. One gets the sense that the fastest growing cities being in Texas is no coincidence. As long as it doesn’t impact me personally, what’s the worry? Some entire island nations stand at threat, but perhaps they should’ve considered that before they moved to an island. Here’s the news flash—all land is island. We need each other, and the lowlands are as important as the highlands.

Organized religions of all kinds have been under fire for years. As science began to explain more and more, religions had to explain their own existence. Many turned internal—not in the spiritual sense, but in the aspect of clarifying the precise points of what makes them right (i.e., different from everyone else). In the United States the small town without five or six different steeples was the exception rather than the rule. Meanwhile, the emissions continued. And continue. At least we know we’re right. At last there is a pontiff who is a realist. A priest who understands that church is all about caring for people—those in the lowlands as well as those in the highlands. Of course, politicians know how to turn off the religion when it gets inconvenient. As long as I get mine, all is right with the world.

Horseshoes and Hand-grenades

When possible, I like to follow up on events I mention on this blog. A few weeks back I mentioned the plight of the horseshoe crab and red knot, the bird species that feeds upon the crab eggs. Hurricane Sandy put the world’s largest nesting area for horseshoe crabs, compromised by human development, in serious danger. Ecological scientists, concerned for the fate of these intertwined species, frantically tried to rebuild eroded beaches so that the Christian crabs could sacrifice their children to the ravenous red knots. (Nature’s ebb and flow, it turns out, doesn’t always favor the unborn.) The good news is, that thanks-at least partially-to the efforts of the environmental engineers, crabs turned out en masse this year, and the red knots, on their transglobal migration, had plenty to eat. It is encouraging to hear that once in a while people impact their environment for good.

Perhaps unwittingly, a member of the American Littoral Society (which I am glad to learn does actually exist) was quoted in the New Jersey Star-Ledger as saying, “There was the potential for a catastrophe after Sandy.” I’m taking his words, intentionally, out of context because of their wisdom. Many people had, on the basis of human losses alone, already declared Hurricane Sandy a catastrophe. This simple quote is perhaps the most honest assessment of the universe it which we find ourselves. From the viewpoint of the not-human, Sandy was a catastrophe averted. The crabs, perhaps unconsciously, did what their biology programmed them to do. The birds feasted, and nature resumed its usual course. Humans weren’t in the center of this picture. We were supporting characters behind the scenes. There had been potential for catastrophe. Nature survived. Thrived, even.

Photo credit Carbon NYC, from WikiMedia

Photo credit Carbon NYC, from WikiMedia

I do not in any way demean the material losses that many people suffered, and continue to suffer, because of the hurricane. Unlike us, however, horseshoe crabs have very limited options. They can’t fly to Las Vegas to propagate, legally or not. They can’t fell timber and build cabins in the woods. They can’t put up an igloo and survive Arctic winters. We the people have endless choices about where to settle. Every environment on the planet, except under water, we have explored, exploited, and populated. We are bound by the very statistics that we are told run this universe, to be in harm’s way once in a while. Human loss of life due to Sandy was not massive. We can rebuild. We do rebuild. The loss of horseshoe crab habitat could have spelled the end of two species of fellow inhabitants on this globe. Catastrophe was avoided. At least from the multiple eyes of the humble horseshoe crab.

Oklahoma

The tragedy outside Oklahoma City transcends petty human differences. Tornadoes, no matter how we dress them up, look like the wrath of God incarnate. The fifteen years I spent in the Midwest were filled with literal nightmares of tornadoes and even a few hours spent cowering in the basement. Such phenomena remind us that we are quite small in the face of nature, and the news reports are full of religious sentiment as people want assurance that God hasn’t abandoned them. Nature doesn’t favor humans over anything else that happens to be in the way of whirling 200 mile-per-hour winds. Even one’s belief might get blown away. Yet it doesn’t.

Although a tornado hit New York City last year, my terror of the storm evaporated when we moved back east. In the Midwest, although there were hills, I felt so exposed under the open expanse of the heavens. In the utterly flat part of central Illinois, I recall some truly awe-inspiring storms. The sky was so ubiquitous and overpowering, and you could see clouds towering thousands of feet over your head, throbbing with constant lightning. It was then I began having the idea for my book on weather terminology and the book of Psalms. Humans helpless in the face of nature. This is the raw material of religion. Like children we pray to God to make it go away. Storms do not obey prayers.

TornadoBlack

By their very nature tornadoes are capricious. We like to believe the good are spared and the evil punished, but as schools are destroyed and children killed we have to face the cruelty of nature. What happened in Oklahoma was a random act of nature, as much as hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy were. We can’t help, however, any more than the people of the Bible, supposing that God must somehow be behind the weather. We may influence it, as global warming has repeatedly demonstrated, but seldom for good. And when we look for the divine in the fierce winds, we will end up facing tragedy.

Crab Walking

445 million years may seem like a long time. For the horseshoe crab, however, the eons have been spans of years with little change from a rather simple existence that involves lurking under the water and crawling out this time of year to breed. For many of us, Hurricane Sandy is already a somewhat distant memory of days (weeks for some) of no electricity, sitting in the dark, wondering when life would get back to normal. Some parts of the Jersey shore are still suffering from the after-effects, but many of us have had to “just get on with it,” and forget about the damage caused. For the horseshoe crab, however, it is not so easy. For creatures that have survived virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, Sandy dealt a cruel blow. The largest concentration of hermit crabs in the world breeds in Delaware Bay, just down where New Jersey and Delaware nearly come together. Numbers had been declining in recent years as horseshoe crabs were used for bait by fishers, landing them on the “near threatened” scale of the countdown to extinction. Hurricane Sandy eroded the beaches where the crabs breed, and human detritus, left years earlier to protect expensive homes, now provided unsurpassable barriers for most of the crabs. Biologists are at work trying to rebuild the habitat in time.

Not only the time-honored horseshoe crab, but the American subspecies of the Red Knot, a migrating shorebird, has come under threat. The Red Knot, which stops in New Jersey to snack on horseshoe crab eggs on its way to the northern breeding grounds, has been declining in numbers. No crabs, no birds. While the troubles of two species may not seem like cause for concern, the fact that one of those species has been successful since millions of years before the first dinosaur even appeared should give us pause. Dinosaurs showed up some 200 million years after the horseshoe crab had been solidly established on the beaches of the pre-Triassic world. Nature would not be set to wipe out the crabs after a single hurricane, but human obstacles may do what nature would not—endanger a perfectly adapted species so that “valuable” real estate can be protected.

It is tragic when people lose what they’ve worked to attain. It is, however, shortsighted to think that we are the only important species on the planet. We have evolved in a system that includes all the other organisms on our world—our family tree goes beyond that cousin that always embarrasses us to the very crabs that crawl in the silty, brackish water of the Delaware Bay. We’ve all had an impact on each other. Even if you’ve never seen a horseshoe crab, just by reading this post they have come into your life in some way. When we start constructing our grand dreams for a fine life, it seems that we should take into account those who have been here long, long before us. Their requirements are modest, but their place in the cladistic tree of life is just as important as ours. Extinction is forever.

From Wikipedia, by Asturnut

From Wikipedia, by Asturnut

Implausible Deniability

Sandy gave us a little taste of dampness under the gunnel. You see, people live by the water because it beckons to us. That was actually Rachel Carson’s idea, but nevertheless, we do find ourselves drawn to the sea around us. Historically our great cities grew in the littoral because communication across the big water was, prior to jet travel and trans-oceanic cables, the best way to stay in touch. Have a business meeting in London, but live in New York? No problem. We can get you there in two-to-three weeks. And the ship sets sail. Since that day we’ve become more electronic. Those of us who experienced Sandy near New York City know that one of the biggest problems was that salt water and electrified trains don’t mix. Of course, conservative lobbies have insisted that Congress and the White House keep their eyes firmly shut about the possibility that a more unstoppable flood is coming. We may not need an ark, but we’re going to have to take some steps back.

A story on the Weather Channel shows the “smoking gun” of global warming. Oh wait, that’s just a myth. Industrialists tell us so. But what a devastating myth! The Gulf Stream waters of yore have kept the climate mild in northern latitudes. While in Scotland we spent a wonderful weekend with some friends on the Island of Arran in the Hebrides. Palm trees growing in Scotland? Yes! The warm Gulf Stream means that much of the British Isles remains relatively temperate despite their latitude. The Gulf Stream, due to climate change, is slowing. In less than a century, climatologists now predict, the oceans will rise three feet. Looks like I’ll need to wear my gaiters to work. We’ve known for about half of my life that we’ve been changing our environment. And not for the better. Those who are too wealthy stand to lose a little so we do what we can to protect them, the poor dears. The rest of us had better learn to swim.

We don’t worry when the people of some Indonesian island point out that their entire world may submerge. Put a little ocean water in the subway and, well, that’s an entirely other story. How are the peons to get to work? Let them wear hip-boots. Word from the top one percent is that there is no global warming. If the Gulf Stream is slowing down it’s because it’s lazy. What a moocher! Suppose it will be wanting a health plan next. That’s the problem with the weather—it changes like, uh, the weather. Unlike the minds of some people that are already made up and never change, no matter what the facts. When the one-percenters start speaking, I’m glad I’m wearing my hip-boots after all.

Where can I get me one of those?

Where can I get me one of those?

Southern Comfort

CajunNightOnce upon a time, long before Hurricane Katrina, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature held their annual meeting in New Orleans. It must’ve been an incongruous sight: the Big Easy filled with right proper professional religionists discoursing eruditely. While there, my family purchased the Cajun Night Before Christmas, by Trosclair. A cute knock-off of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Santa Claus” (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), the story unfolds of a fur-bedecked Santa visiting a destitute, but grateful family on the bayou. Each year I try to reach deep in my southern roots to find an accent that accommodates the poem, and read the story the week before the holiday comes. A number of factors have suggested that perhaps this year Christmas might catch many people on a more subdued level. Crushing poverty is a reality, guns are too readily available, and the one percent don’t get close enough to humanity to contract the common cold. Even the effects of Katrina have refused to dissipate completely. Her sister Sandy visited the Big Apple, and things still aren’t quite right.

Big Apples and Big Easies may seem to have little in common, apart from how much money is available to assist in hurricane recovery. They both also participate in Christmas, being havens of Catholicity. Yet after the hurricanes some in New York and New Jersey were without power several days, but parts of Louisiana were simply abandoned. The will to help the disadvantaged seems to have improved since 2005. Considering changes at the top, this isn’t necessarily a surprise. Nevertheless, tragedy throws into sharp relief what we consider human decency. Too bad it takes a disaster to make us more human.

What sticks with me about the Cajun Night Before Christmas, apart from the flying alligators, is the profound hopefulness that the poem conveys. Those with so little take so little to improve their lot. Yet those with too much insist it is their right not to be taxed at all. Those who live in a shack don’t expect much from Santa. They have learned through the disappointment of experience that double standards are endemic in life and while some are unbelievably rich, the poor are happy with just the smiles of children. Ironically, Santa is the great equalizer here. While the children of the wealthy may expect and receive more, the children of the humble are also allowed a portion of hope. As I remember New Orleans, in the palmy days before Katrina, it was a city that knew Mardi Gras was far more humane than Lent, and that even a city marked my radical inequities (let those with eyes to see read) could come to a joyous accord when sins are about to be atoned. And even if he has to commandeer alligators, Santa will visit the poorest children the night before the holy days.

A Big Joke

On the evening table my wife left a token of hope for me to read in this hopeful season. New Jersey “Transit” claimed that the very next day riders of the extensive bus system would be able to track buses precisely on their smart phones. No more wondering “has the bus already come, or is it late (again)?” I laughed when I read this because that very evening in the Port Authority my bus never came. The frazzled and apologetic dispatcher said nobody knew where the driver was. Did anyone think to drag the East River? I wondered. As other buses pulled to the gate, drivers refusing to switch routes, the line grew and grew. The bus scheduled for the next half hour did not show. My daughter was waiting for me to fix dinner. On a good day I’m home by 6:30. This was not a good day. I laughed ironically at the article and went to bed. My morning bus leaves, in theory, before 6:00 a.m. A day later, in the Port Authority. My bus, which can now be tracked with precision, precisely failed to show up. I’m sure you know the dispatcher’s chorus—please join in—”nobody knows where the driver is.”

So what is a diatribe like this doing on a blog about religion? I’m as mad as Hell about this, that’s why! Every month I pay hundreds of dollars for a bus pass. I think the least New Jersey Transit could do is the courtesy of sending a bus. In case anyone from NJ Transit is reading this, a bus is a large vehicle that seats about 50 adults and generally runs the same way every day. It’s called a “route.” People use it to get to and from work. Of course nobody expects the executives of a company that services over 19,000 bus stops to take a bus to work. They probably have to be on time. I take the earliest possible bus from my town to New York City. Most days it is late and consequently so am I. For this I spend over three grand a year.

This is not about Hurricane Sandy. Buses have been back on schedule since Thanksgiving. What it comes down to is the fate of most capitalistic ventures—the working person butters the bread of the Executive Director who earns more than $260,000 a year. Last night I toyed with the idea of getting other disgruntled commuters to link arms and stand across the exit ramp, or to lay down in front of the buses until a bus for my route was sent. I suspect, though, that they realize as well as I do that Tiananmen Square doesn’t take much to morph into Times Square when an individual stands in the way of corporate gain. Tonight I plan to wear my good walking shoes. After all, I paid good money for them too. Unless, of course, anybody out there would like to drive this bus?

Ghost bus

Ghost bus

Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…

Gitche Gumee

Up on the rugged western shore of Lake Superior the lamp atop Split Rock Lighthouse will be illuminated for the only time this year tonight. Immensities and superlatives fail at some sites, and as the cold waves lap eternally at the shore, this is one of them. Split Rock illumines its beacon in commemoration of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the far end of that great lake on this date many years ago. While not as large as the Titanic, the Edmund Fitzgerald outstretched two football fields and carried more than fifty million pounds of cargo, immeasurables we are forced to recalibrate into yardage and tonnage. When the Fitzgerald sank during an unnamed November storm in 1975 only twenty-nine people died, but the tragedy soon became part of American legend. The image of immensities battling for the souls of twenty-nine human lives possesses an eerie, epic quality. When faced with the raw rage of nature, we are helpless indeed.

Shipwrecks may be the ultimate metaphor, for like ships we are consciousness in a protective vessel. Of course some deny that a soul exists, but in November it is difficult to doubt. A century ago the Titanic sank, and we still wonder in fascination. Human life is fragile when confronting the north Atlantic, or Lake Superior, or even the great waves that wash ashore and sweep some away. Great bodies of water, some psychologists say, represent forces larger than ourselves in the human psyche. Some suggest the ocean in dreams represents sex, but others would say it’s God. In the realm of metaphor anything is possible. It is no accident that many Christian sects begin the rite of membership with total immersion in water. When the Fitzgerald was baptized, twenty-nine men died.

Standing on the vast shoreline of a gray Lake Superior has a way of making you feel insignificant. Enormity was easily related to divinity in the primitive mind, but standing next to something truly vast still sends me into a protective crouch as I ponder just how little I really am. In this year of destructive storms, as we’ve taken to naming the winter squalls that whip across the continent with noble names such as Athena and Brutus, we are still at the mercy of something unspeakably large. The weather is the ocean above us, and it bears children named Andrew, Irene, Katrina, and Sandy. Each reminds us that we are constantly at the mercy of something far larger than human comprehension. Every year as the tenth of November rolls around I think of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the overwhelming forces that surround us. There is indeed a metaphor hidden here, for those willing to plunge into the frigid depths to find it.

Vote!

“Remember, remember the fifth of November.” Election day is upon us and my mind goes to V for Vendetta. The movie is about oppressive regimes and, more importantly, people finding a voice. It is a strongly emotional film for me not because of the violence, but because of the symbolism. Yes, V is out for vengeance, but we are all V, having been co-opted into a system that doesn’t seem to have our best interests at heart. At least we can vote. The scene at the very end, where V’s future, alternate universe gunpowder plot succeeds, always leaves me with damp eyes. By virtue of watching many movies, I am not prone to shed tears at what I know to be fiction. But some fiction possesses a verisimilitude that fact lacks. V for Vendetta is one such fictional vision.

I grew up a Fundamentalist Republican before such a combination was de rigueur. I also grew up believing in liberty, an idea that often resonates with those who don’t have much in the way of material goods. At least we have our freedom. By the time I attended a Christian college, I learned the error of my ways. I asked around to find out why America always seemed to get involved with conflicts under GOP administrations. I learned that, in some cases anyway, belief that Armageddon was around the corner motivated such wars. Even some presidents believed, as their religion taught, that the end of the world was nigh and it was their duty to hasten the process. Be careful what you vote for.

As I stood in long lines waiting for a bus out of New York City yesterday, I listened as other passengers wanted to talk. Hurricane Sandy left many people in poor circumstances, feeling the pain that is only alleviated by sharing. They told of devastated neighborhoods where people who hardly knew one another came together, naturally, to help each other. I listened to descriptions of those with power opening their houses and sharing their food with people they didn’t know. It wasn’t because the government forced them to—they did it because it was the right thing to do. When I watch V for Vendetta I don’t cry because I approve of violence; I have been a pacifist since childhood. I cry because the vision of justice prevailing is so beautiful that no other response seems appropriate. With that vision in mind, I am heading out to vote.

Lessons from Sandy

While many are still without power and school is cancelled for an unprecedented sixth day in a row, the eastern Mid-Atlantic states are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. As I noted in my first post-storm blog post, one of the largest disorientations I experienced was being cut off from the internet. An article in Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger gives a name to this phenomenon: “nomophobia,” the fear of being left without access to an internet-connected device (specifically a mobile device, but in a pinch even a desktop will do). An article by Allan Hoffman suggests that two-thirds of the population suffers from nomophobia and that there are actual treatment programs available. A decade ago no such phobia existed and some of us were only just beginning to hear about the World Wide Web. This is a fear born of our own engineering—the virtual world of our making has come to haunt us.

No doubt life is somewhat easier with the internet. One word will suffice to illustrate it: phonebook. When is the last time I looked something up in a phonebook? While pulling open a drawer beneath the accumulated phonebooks on the phone stand, I noticed how thick with dust they were. Even the cordless phone with its answering machine appeared just a little bit medieval to my cyber eyes. If this is evolution, we may be in trouble. Technology was envisioned as the liberator from labor, but we’ve clearly become its slaves. Don’t worry about the food spoiling in the refrigerator, get me back onto Facebook—now! My smartphone has a flashlight, several email apps, and can soothe me with its music. It is my rod and staff.

On a short drive to run an errand this weekend, I went by one of the few stores with power in the area. Their electronic marquee read “cell phones charged here.” The greatest service that could be offered to a cold, hungry population living in the dark.

One of the hallmarks said to have ended the Dark Ages was the printing press. Literature, on paper, could now be spread (mostly in the form of the Bible) from person to person until all of Europe would have access to sacred knowledge. That knowledge (and a great deal of nonsense) is now worshipfully cupped in the palm of my hand. As Hoffman notes, even the librarians were telling patrons not where to find books, but where to locate outlets. Robots fight our wars remotely, and wireless networks link us in a web far more valuable than that of the silk moth. And we have realized that even the creator of an entire universe can be held in a child’s hand.

In the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear

Two Swords

One of the more interesting situations to emerge from Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath was the celebration of Halloween. I know that I’ve already lost some readers right there since Halloween is a disputed holiday. Often Halloween is maligned as “Satanic,” a claim that is absolutely untrue. It may have some paganism in its roots, but then, so do most religious events and ideas. Halloween is a Christianization of various folk customs, frequently Celtic in origin, on a night when the protective wall between the living and the dead was believed to be especially thin. As adults grew more sophisticated and scientifically informed, the holiday lingered as a children’s fun day with dress-up and pranking, both normal childhood ways of playing. This neutered holiday has proved to be commercially viable as well, now supporting September-October Halloween stores at a density of about a dozen per square mile. Its success is rivaled only by Christmas.

In light (or perhaps dark) of the devastation of Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled Halloween. We heard the news on our battery-operated radio, sitting in the dark. While this was one of those rare times when I think Christie was motivated by the concern of both poor and rich, I did ponder the implications of a government canceling a holiday. All Hallows’ Eve is the night before All Saints’ Day. “Hallows” is simply another—less used but more evocative—word for “Saints.” While largely secular in its present guise, Halloween is a religious holiday. My mind went back to the doctrine of Two Swords that I learned about many years ago. Originating in the papal bull Unam Sanctum, very early in the fourteenth century, the doctrine teaches that in spiritual matters the church holds the sword while in temporal matters the state holds its own sword. Who has the right to cancel a holiday?

Of course, Chris Christie has his own ways of issuing bull, but his real concern was that conditions were too dangerous for trick-or-treating. Indeed they were. On a short walk, I saw power cables dangling like electrified cobwebs on just about every block, snaking along the ground. Branches were still falling from trees. Curfews (many still in effect) were widespread. Not a good night for masked strangers to show up at your door. But as in the case of the Grinch leaning out over Whoville after he’d stolen all the trappings, Halloween came, it came just the same. What we saw on Halloween was people helping one another. No tricks (for the most part, although among the first to recover were businesses who recorded new ads to broadcast on the radio before the wind even stopped blowing), just good natured mortals helping one another, protecting others from the grim reaper. To borrow a line from Charles Schultz, “That’s what Halloween’s all about, Charlie Brown.”

Will the real Halloween raise its hand?