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