Frozen Streams

I was walking in Ithaca, with my feet not far from Sagan.  Winter had settled in prematurely, as it often does in upstate.  I was wearing a hoodie and old fleece combo and I suppose I looked a bit tatty.  My wife and daughter had gone to see Harriet, but movies about how badly people have mistreated others, strangely for a guy who watches horror, really depress me.  Ithaca, until recently, supported three independent bookstores, so I figured I could pass the time easily enough.  It was growing dark and breezy, and I visit bookstores only with a list, otherwise it’s too dangerous.  Autumn Leaves, a used vendor, I’ve visited many times.  Their religion section is disappointingly small, but I tend to find offerings in other areas when I blow in.

Buffalo Street Books is the last remaining indie that handles new books, but I stopped by The Bookery, now closing, on my way.  This was saddening.  Ithaca houses both the ivy league Cornell and the highly regarded Ithaca College.  I suspect many of the street sweepers hold doctorates.  Has book culture entirely bent the knee to Amazon?  At the end of the last millennium, Ithaca housed 25 independent bookstores.  Today it’s evident that Buffalo Street (formerly The Bookery II) struggles to keep its hold.  I feel ethically obligated to buy something there, to take one for the team.  I had a short list and the shelves in The Bookery had been nearly bare.  It was just too depressing to stay there.  I found an inside bench and sat to read until the movie was over.

Or so I thought.  I ventured back outside and now it was fully dark, being six p.m., and I wandered back to the familiar Ithaca Commons.  I went into a couple of shops, but they looked at me as if I were homeless.  (I suppose I was, in a sense.)  I haven’t had a haircut in a while, and my beard is scruffy and white.  My hoodie and fleece don’t speak to affluence.  I had unconcealed books—I routinely refuse bags—and I suppose I could come across as a touch eccentric.  (I don’t have enough money to be authentically eccentric.)  I wondered how street people do it.  Outside the east wind was decidedly sharp and windbreaks on the pedestrian zone are few.  I came to the monument to Martin Luther King Junior.  I was walking in Ithaca but I really felt that books could make that dream come true.

Panic at the Bookstore

Usually it works like this.  I go into a used bookstore with a list of titles I’d like to find.  Yes, I know I can look them up on Amazon and pay some price gouger more than the book’s worth, but you sometimes find things forgotten on a shelf out of the reach of technology.  When I went into a used bookstore in the vicinity of Ithaca last month I didn’t have my list with me.  When I visit such a store, especially the first time, I don’t like to walk out empty-handed.  The word “Exorcism” on both the spine and cover of Ken Olson—excuse me, Dr. Ken Olson’s book on the subject, well, how could I not?  Exorcism: Fact or Fiction? is published by Thomas Nelson.  That immediately told me something of what the book would be like.  It wouldn’t be an academic treatment, and it would be somewhat evangelical.  Still, I didn’t have my list with me.

Olson hasn’t had an easy life.  His license to practice psychology was revoked after he performed an exorcism and my sympathies are always with those who have lost jobs.  Rejection is, after all, a form of violence.  The book, however, isn’t so much about exorcism as it is about evangelical views of it.  Written around the time of the satanic panic in the 1990s, the book takes seriously the claims of the alleged victims and also the physical existence of the non-corporeal Satan.  This actually leads to a few logical brick walls.  Referring to the body parts of non-physical beings can be an exercise in metaphor, but evangelicals tend to be literalists otherwise.  This discrepancy begs for discussion but receives none here.

The history of moral panics is interesting.  We live in the midst of them pretty much constantly now.  The internet doesn’t really help.  Moral panics are times when particular concerns spread rapidly (for which the web is ideal) without having any critical questions asked.  They often lead to a mob mentality that can victimize the innocent.  Although that’s clearly not his intent, Olson’s book tends to do this too.  If a victim is female, as is often the case, conservatives blame her for such things as abortions, forgetting, it seems, that a male was involved.  Since abortion scares are another example of a moral panic, it’s not surprising Olson treats them along with other forms of spiritual warfare.  Those who turn to the book looking for The Exorcist will be disappointed.  You might find a copy of that, however, at your local used bookstore.

Trailing Art

One of the many trails that wend their way through Ithaca is the Art Trail.  (The town finds waypoints on the wine and beer trails of the southern tier as well, but we were looking for visual art.)  In early October several artists open their studios—these are personal places—to the tourists passing through.  Those of us on the trail are seeking inspiration in human expression.  I’ve neglected my own art for many years.  While other guys my age are retiring and expressing their boredom, I struggle to find enough time to write, dreaming of the day when I can again take up my pencils and brushes.  Being in so many studios over the weekend jump-started something in me.  Humans are at their most god-like when they create.

Seeing artists in context is revealing.  They don’t worry too much about convention.  I found myself hanging toward the back of our little group.  There was so much of others’ souls on display here.  While some were young, a fair number were older than me.  Perhaps retired from a novocaine job that dulled many days until enough years had passed and the need to let the art out escaped.  If felt like visiting a small farm where the true independent, liberal spirit of this country once resided.  These were farmers with paint brushes rather than shotguns and Trump bumperstickers.  Free thinkers, not Fox thinkers.  Under a sky October blue after two days of rain and gray, this was a mosaic of autumn.  Art is a muse.  I think of my neglected brushes and dried out paints, tucked away in the attic.

Modern art sometimes feels like someone slapped a frame around something random, but in talking with the creator something different emerges.  Something that doesn’t feel like plastic.  Something that defies words.  Like poems sometimes break conventional lines, art refuses to be confined.  Some of these studios used to be living rooms.  Houses converted and dedicated to creativity.  Why is this so difficult to accomplish in my own life?  How has the time come to be consumed with work, even when the commute has been effaced?  I suppose I’ve been using words to express myself—this blog is certainly an example of that.  It is, however, a mere fraction of visual ideas awaiting release.  I don’t know if I could ever open my studio to strangers.  Art trails are labyrinths, and once you’ve entered that maze, it will take some time to reemerge.  And when I do I know I will have been transformed.

Upstate Reading

In terms of cash flow I don’t fall into the wealthy bracket.  My assets are largely in pre-printed paper form, and when I visit the local Little Free Library it’s generally to donate books rather than to take them.  Over Labor Day weekend I was in Ithaca.  One of the more famous features of the town is its weekend Farmers’ Market.  Indeed, the north-south corridor through town is a continuous traffic jam during Market hours.  Not only are there farm stands in the permanent open-sided structure, but there are a few craft booths and several places to buy al fresco fair from local restaurants.  In the summer parking can be hard to find, but the place has a carnival-like atmosphere nevertheless.  It also has a Little Free Library.  I’ve been to the Market many times but I’d never noticed it before.

Upstate New York is beautiful but it tends toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Ithaca is a pixel of blue in a screen of red, and that strangely showed in the Little Free Library.  Many of the books were either Bibles or popular kinds of devotional titles.  Given that Cornell isn’t known for its religion department (Ithaca College has a respectably sized philosophy and religion department, however) these books aren’t the kind you’d expect to find in an institution of higher education.  That’s why I was surprised to see a near mint copy of Bart Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot on the shelves.  The Gospel of Judas hasn’t been big news for a few years now, but this was a book that suggests a different demographic than your average evangelical readership.

Like Ehrman, I once made a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University.  Indeed, it was this commonality that helped me to get to know him a bit.  He’s gone on to a kind of fame rare for biblical scholars.  Indeed, to have a sufficient number of copies of your book printed to end up in a Little Free Library—in other words, you have to have more cachet than your garden variety Ph.D.  In my local community LFL I like to leave books for others to take.  Just last week I stopped by and noticed that the summer had depleted the stock.  Ironically, I had noticed one of Neal Stephenson’s novels in the same circumstances as Ehrman’s.  I’m glad to see intelligent works on offer for the reading public.  And trading books with no money involved suggests to me that there’s a better form of economy than material greed.  All it takes is a Little Free Library and a little good will.

The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.

Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.

Rock Solid

Old interests don’t die so much as they become sublimated.  As a child I picked up a cheap “gem display” in a small cardboard box at a yard sale, probably for a quarter.  A couple of the samples were missing, and those that remained were tiny, but I was fascinated that rocks came in such varieties, especially since the ones I tended to find on my own were all shades of gray.  Science education wasn’t especially great in my small town, and besides, I had a massive interest in not going to Hell, so religious study took precedence over my predilections toward scientific studies.  Still, as a child and later, I read a lot about science and I never doubted that it could teach us about the natural world.  Years later I rediscovered my love of rocks.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I bought a rock hammer.  I began hounding.

One of the first truisms you learn about life is that movers don’t like heavy things.  Seems that if you are in the business of helping people move (for money, no less), you might be stoic about such matters.  But I have yet to move and not have the guys complain about all those boxes of books.  Well, the rock collection is even heavier.  I discreetly marked the boxes “heavy collection,” hoping nobody’d say “What you got in here, rocks?”  Because, well, yes.  I like rocks.  While in Wisconsin the collection grew—we lived in a house at Nashotah, and we had space.  I had a rock tumbler going in the basement.  We attended rock and gem shows.  Then we moved three times in three years.  I became embarrassed of my petrine peccadillo.

On my way out the door yesterday, I spied a fossil I’d picked up in Ithaca.  Immediately my old inclination to rocks returned.  I don’t know why I bought so many books on geology and seriously considered changing professions after my academic position fell apart.  Perhaps in a life so unstable rocks seemed solid, reliable.  Or maybe it was nostalgia for my young days when a cheap white box of neatly labeled specimens provided hours of transfixed wonder.  I still pick up interesting rocks, and even go to places where collecting is permitted.  This whole world under our feet is full of surprises and an interesting stone can send me into a reverie that is, if I’m honest, as spiritual as it is scientific.