Beyond the Facade

Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms.  I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless.  One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition.  She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving.  You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures.  Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you.  I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle.  If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing.  It’s often not what it appears to be.

Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog.  Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed.  Or angry.  Or both.  That’s a side effect of subtlety.  Episcopalians have it down to a science.  At least they used to.  The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop.  One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile.  I might say too much about myself if I did.  What would you do with that knowledge?  In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me.  Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades.  Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect.  Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown.  It’s not very Rockwell.

I admire Rockwell’s outlook.  Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal.  Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds.  Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations.  Equality was what America used to stand for.  And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in.  Like a Rockwell painting.  He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself.  I get that.  It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it.  Best to be subtle.  Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true.  The shades between the extremes are endless.

The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained. 

Urban Evolution

They say ten city blocks are a mile. They also say the internet is fast. Putting these two theorems to the text, I’ve logged several foot-miles in Manhattan to find things that aren’t there. I don’t mind the exercise, but apparently the web can’t keep up with Midtown. I’ve been working in Manhattan for going on seven years now. I very seldom leave the office during the day, eating at my desk and trying to give the man his due. Once in a great while there’s something I’m either compelled to see, or that I must find for various reasons. Almost without fail, such lunchtime expeditions lead to frustration. I recently had to visit a business that shall remain nameless (conflict of interests, you see). According to Google Maps it was a mere ten blocks—a mile—from my office. At a brisk pace I could make it there, transact my business, and return to my cube all well within an hour. As I grew close, I got that sinking feeling I recognize now as internet ghosting. Nothing remotely like my goal was at this location.

I walked in and smiled at the man at the security desk. He was even older than me. “Ah, they used to be here,” he said, “but they left a long time ago. Long time ago.” Apologizing in advance, I asked if he had any idea where they might’ve gone. “I heard they moved across from Bryant Park, on 6th Avenue. But I heard they moved from there, too. You might try it, though.” Since this was roughly in the direction of my office from where I was, I decided to swing by. When I worked for Routledge I went by here every day, and I didn’t recall ever seeing this particular business there. Their security guard was equally as friendly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing like that here.” I had to return to work. When I got back to my office and googled their store locator, the website froze. This was truly unobtainable via the internet.

Some times you’ve just got to let your feet do the walking. Things aren’t always where the internet says they will be. I’ve come to realize that New York City is constantly changing. Buildings now stand where mere holes in the ground used to be when I began working here. Commuting in daily all these years is like time-lapse photography of a plant growing. Buildings emerge behind the green plywood walls, and next thing you know what used to be a synagogue is a new retail opportunity. It may not, however, be the business you’re looking for. Before spending your lunch hour walking a mile to get there, you might try calling first.

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

The Grind

I’m headed back to New York City after a staycation of almost two weeks. Even shifting standard arising time back only an hour from 4:00 a.m. seems cruel and unusual punishment this morning. New York is a very different place to go for work than it is for play. Serious New Yorkers, of which I am not one, tend to avoid the fun places visitors go. Times Square is simply a venue from which the hike to work begins. Most of the buildings are gray and dedicated to the making of money. My thoughts go back to my one transgressive trip in over the holidays to see a show. How different New York was then! Ethereal lights, sublime music, and the magic of story. Today it will be unsmiling crowds surly to make cash flow again. The concrete underfoot today will be much harder.

When I come in with family I feel less cold. New York can be very lonely for such a crowded place. Indeed, it isn’t unusual for me to go for days with no one at the office saying a single word to me. That’s the kind of place Manhattan is. Too many humans to be humane. Unless you’re here to play. Such play is, however, costly. Magic never comes for free. The holiday lights will still be up here and there. Warm memories of the past few days will linger for a little while. Soon the steel and cement will be the only realities once again. Soft skills meet the cold razor of cash with predictable results.

It seems to me that I’m yearning for boyhood once again. Those first tentative years of learning about life are all misleading. Suddenly it dawns on you that good will is reserved for the holidays and the remainder of the year is dedicated to money and things others deem as important. The bus is approaching, but the last time I was in the city was for fun. Today I won’t even glance at the theater district as I dodge cars to get out of Times Square as quickly as possible. There will be the all-too-familiar lines at the Port Authority during rush hour this afternoon. I’ll leave work wondering how a city can possibly be so schizophrenic. Yes, I’ve been profoundly happy in New York City. I’ve also been ground down to the very nub by the exact same place. Such is the nature of a world where money reigns.

Miracle on 34th Street

It smelled like Christmas. I was out of the office for a rare lunchtime errand, and I had just turned the corner from Madison Avenue onto 34th Street. It hit me like childhood—the scent of pine. I couldn’t believe it as I looked ahead. Wreaths lay piled up on the sidewalk. At least a dozen newly harvested trees were leaning on a makeshift frame along the street. Long disused store windows from B. Altman’s were fully decorated with Christmas scenes. Five minutes later, after my errand, I walked through the scene again. Tourists were snapping photos to paste on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. Clearly the people responsible were getting ready for the holidays extremely early even for money-grubbing New York. Of course, it was all a set for a television shooting. Working in Manhattan is like being on a movie set most of the time.

It isn’t at all unusual to walk through the line of trucks and trailers parked along one of New York’s lesser used cross streets on my way to work. I see set artists working to make a store front look as if a fire had recently broken out there. Famous people lurk inside their trailers until handlers can get them out and away from hoi polloi. We’re all actors here. This isn’t an authentic existence. As I walk through today’s Christmas set, I step past the homeless with their grocery carts full of their worldly possessions. They’re the only ones on this street who aren’t actors.

I’ve been working in Manhattan for six years now. The dizzying extremes of wealth and poverty juxtaposed hard up against one another is disorienting. We would rather live in a fantasy world than help those who are suffering in real time. Yes, there are people who dwell in hells of their own making. I’m not naive. I also know that we create hells for those we don’t like. Those who “underperform” or who don’t value mammon as much as a red-blooded American should. We cast out those who have mental problems and politely ignore them as they rage on the street corner. We do, after all, have to get to work. New York is an experiment in which the virtues and vices of humanity are concentrated and magnified. We then project it onto the silver screen for all to see and covet. But just off the set there are hurting people. They won’t appear on the camera, but they’ll be there after the crew is gone. If we wanted to, amid all these trees and wreaths, we could find a way to help them. We could make this world a better, more authentic place. It’s my Christmas wish that we will.

Science Marches On

A few thoughts about the March for Science in Manhattan over the weekend seem to be in order. To get to the rally in time, from our little corner of New Jersey, we found ourselves on an early train. We arrived at 62nd Street and Central Park West to discover the march was beginning just outside of one of Trump’s unimpressive towers. The area for marchers was clearly marked off by barricades, but a woman walking her dogs, a resident of Trump’s tower, wandered in among the crowd. Like most Trump followers, she seemed clueless that there was an obvious way around the obstacles and had to be helped by the police. Seems to be a theme with 45—police are everywhere watching his assets. Meanwhile the hotel doormen from next door were asking for “Resist” paraphernalia and reminiscing about their shock when the boy next door received the nomination. The mood was jovial despite the spitting rain.

The speeches at the rally were mostly given by children ten and younger. The future teaching the past. As might be expected, the signs were clever, and some took considerable thought to figure out. A few, it seems, felt religion was to blame. Well, they’re probably right about that. One gets the sense that science and religion are like cats and dogs, and nobody has to guess which one’s identified with the cats. Still, the majority of the signs pointed out the benefits of science. Even scholars of religion use the scientific method, believe it or not. Like science, religion (as revealed by science) may be good for people. Who brings religion to a science rally?

I’ve always been a fan of science. Throughout school I learned a lot and did well in physics and chemistry, biology not so much (dissection was never my thing). I still read science and incorporate it into my thinking. Balance, however, suggests perhaps religion also be treated as not evil in and of itself. After all, it is evolved behavior. As the march progressed down Broadway, we passed a church that had a prominent banner reading “Prayer really does work,” or something along those lines. I’d seen enough clever signs already that morning to notice this contrarian voice. Then I wondered, why can’t science and religion seem to get along? Both can (but need not) make exclusive truth claims. What’s wrong with admitting that we just don’t know? Belief is involved in either case. No doubt science is important. I’ve always supported its study and always will. Is it, however, too much to believe that maybe religion can also enlighten, if understood for what it is—a human way of coping with an uncertain world? As science marches on, hopefully it will help us comprehend even the unmeasurable.

Becoming the Past

Back home for a flying visit over the final dregs of the summer, I find myself in a hotel in my hometown. It’s an odd place to be. As I’ve often remarked to those who know me, I remember living in three houses in this area and all three have been torn down. Looking over the vacant lot where my elementary school once stood, I have a feeling of being erased. Just up the hill from my hotel is a blank space, like when a molar has been removed, where my junior high school once stood. Even the seedy shops I remember from childhood are gone, an entire block of buildings torn down. Wal-Mart opened up just a couple miles away outside of town, and all small businesses got down on their knees and prayed before dying. Being from somewhere is more than just a matter of going away. It’s also coming back.

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Standing outside in the misty morning sipping my coffee, I watch the river flow. There’s a fog rising over the Allegheny this morning and it makes this place look mysteriously beautiful. I think back to New Jersey, where I was at this time the day before, and how I can’t step outside without seeing other people. I go jogging at 4:30 in the morning sometimes. I’m never alone. On this balcony over the river I see no one. That person down by the river is really just a statue. Maybe I am too. What is left of a person when their hometown disappears? My fascination with ghost towns is catching up with me. Once someone said they thought I disliked small towns from the way I talked. Quite the opposite, the statue whispers. Quite the opposite.

If it weren’t for the people I know, would I ever come back here, I wonder. The warm coffee through the styrofoam cup reminds me of Judas. Even he knew how to kiss. This town, shrinking with age, gave me life. When I stamp the streets of Manhattan on my way to work, I know I’m a different man than I was back in this town. I would’ve found it difficult not to want to help anyone in need, back then. This homeless guy’s been sleeping in the same spot all week while millionaire wannabes look the other way. There’s a mist on the water this morning. The Allegheny flows on to the Ohio, and the Ohio on to the Mississippi. Down into the gulf that’s part of the ocean than encompasses us all.

Philistines in Midtown

It’s an old story. In fact, it’s in the Bible. The enemies of Yahweh perish. Since Israel’s god could not be represented iconically, the story goes, an iconic ark stood in for the divine presence. After a certain unpleasantness with the Philistines, the ark was captured and taken to the temple of Dagon. There, the statue of Dagon fell down in worship before the ark. Philistine priests, embarrassed for their deity, set the statue upright again only to come back the next morning to find their god not only toppled, but decapitated. I’ve always found this story intriguing. I wrote an academic article about it some years ago, which, as far as I can tell, has been ignored by subsequent scholars of Dagon. Of course, the Philistine god eventually went on to fame at the hands of H. P. Lovecraft. Today most scholars are far too parsimonious to care about that, so I’m left to follow my imagination when it comes to the old gods.

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This past week, on my way to work, I spied a mannequin fallen in the Garment District. There used to be hundreds of fabric stores around here. I’m always interested in those that remain. Cloth is so basic to human needs. The mannequin was behind glass, behind a chain fence. She’d clearly fallen in the night. She was decapitated. Of course, Dagon came to mind. I’m sure that others walking by the store had the same thought. Fallen before the invisible almighty, an idol meets its end.

Once upon a time, I’m told, biblical literacy was common. I don’t mourn its passing because I believe society has become sinful, but I do mourn it because the stories are timeless and important. There is something very poignant about the idea of a foreign deity falling, headless, before an even more powerful, invisible foe. That foe these days is the equally omnipresent and omnipotent dollar. After all, I am standing in Midtown Manhattan where the only language that everyone can speak is that of Mammon. Writers of fiction and erudite scholars beyond the reach of mere mortals ponder the great mysteries of ancient gods. The rest of us walk the streets to our assigned places so that we may participate in its endless worship.

Matins

At a certain time of year, around November after the time change, early morning immigrants to Manhattan see the light. As they stumble out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and head to the east, it is as if the sun is rising like a monster from the sea. In Midtown the streets run east-west and the avenues north-south. I trip out onto Eighth Avenue and have to make my way to Madison, and the entire walk is facing into the unrelenting sun. You might think at 7 a.m. this should be no great challenge, but then you would betray the fact that you don’t commute in early. Hundreds of people pour in a human stream out of the Port Authority and head in all directions, many of them east. The streets are crowded and you literally can’t see what’s in front of you. You are, in the words of a young Bruce Springsteen, “blinded by the light.” I’ve watched in fascination as this happens for the past four years now. It isn’t the much touted “Manhattanhenge,” but simply the angle of the sun at this latitude at this time of day. It may be fun for a few minutes, but then you realize how dangerous it might be.

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One of the most basic elements of religion is care for others. Indeed, some religions suggest that you should treat others as more important than yourself. When I was growing up I was taught to think of things from somebody else’s perspective: if you were in that position, would you want someone to do that to you? It’s a message I took to heart and to this day I can’t pass a homeless person without a backstab of guilt for not pulling out my wallet and dropping a dollar or two into their outstretched hands. Having been on the receiving end of a pink slip more than once, I can easily imagine being there. Seeing from another person’s perspective can be dangerous. Not considering that perspective can be even worse.

Those out and about at 7 a.m. are go-getters. Climbers. They get to work early. Some, no doubt, stay late as well. The person walking west has the sun at his or her back. The street in front of them is brilliantly illuminated but not blinding. How many times I’ve nearly collided with them because they don’t realize that those of us going east just can’t see. You have to step into the shadow of a banner or awning or streetlight post just to get a nanosecond of relief and make sure you’re not about to step into a hazard like an open freight door. The photo doesn’t do it justice because if it were truly to show what I see, you’d see nothing at all. Raised as I was I can’t help but think of the beast rising from the sea, and the woman clothed with the sun. And the homeless being awoken by beams far too bright after a night on the streets.

Dakota Territory

A few weeks back I found myself on the upper west side of Manhattan. This is a fashionable district in which to live, but back when the Dakota was built, as pictures from that era demonstrate, this was an undeveloped area. The building stands alone against the sky, not surrounded, as it is today, by neighbors. I’ve noticed this in other parts of Manhattan as well. New buildings can grow in seemingly impossibly slim spaces between other structures. Sometimes I wonder how construction workers can get their hands back there to lay the bricks. The city is so overbuilt that it is difficult to get into the Halloween mood of October. Yes, stores, restaurants, and bars do decorate windows, but the enormity of the surroundings makes them seem miniscule. Although New York is a gothic city, it seems to swallow up holidays. Perhaps because of its greater commercial potential, Christmas is much more evident around town. Halloween, however, is a holiday best appreciated outdoors.

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While in the neighborhood, we stopped by to look at the Dakota. It was under scaffolding the prevented seeing the entirety of the building, but the famous entryway was unobstructed. I know that it was near here that John Lennon was murdered, and I know other famous people used to live here: Judy Garland, for example, and Leonard Bernstein. To me, however, the visual aspect of that entry always suggests Rosemary’s Baby. Even the doormen still wear the uniforms that they wore in the movie, only today they have to shoo away those who try to wander inside the gates to snap a selfie where the other half live. For me it was once again being in the presence of a place I’d felt I’d been before.

Rosemary’s Baby still stands out among the classic horror films as being particularly effective. The Satanism scare of the late sixties and early seventies has moderated, and we know now that witches are not people to be feared. Nevertheless, the eerie pacing of the film, and the sense of threat forever mark this location as one of caution. Seeing Terry Gionoffrio lying in a pool of blood where John Lennon would, in reality be twelve years later, is prophetic in the worse possible way. Still, the tourists stopped to have their pictures snapped at this infamous location. New York can be like a giant movie set at times. I quite often walk through staging areas for films on my way to work. It is a city where fantasy can be difficult to parse from reality from time to time. Even being in the upper west side, for someone like me, is, I know, pure fantasy.

Spirit of Nature

WindInWillowsThe Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, was a book I first read during my doctoral studies. In the UK professors are likely to be able to cite A. A. Milne and the fictional bits of C. S. Lewis as well as the current academic stars. Of course I’m over-generalizing. In my experience, however, I met many wonderfully rounded professors and I tried, during my too-brief stint in academia, to emulate them. My wife recently read The Wind in the Willows to our college-aged daughter and me. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had an accord for all our married life that I will wash dishes if she will read to me, and we have read well over a hundred books this way, from children’s titles to scholarly tomes. From my perspective, listening to a book read adds a layer of meaning to the text. The cadences, the intonations, and the editorial remarks all lend texture to the experience. I had quite forgotten, as it has been years since I’ve read the book myself, about the mysterious theophany in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

In a passage that is almost overwritten for today’s youth, Rat and Mole, in search of Otter’s lost son, encounter Him out on the river. The language is reverent, and languid. The two animals come upon a horned deity who is not named, and fall in worship. The fact that he has pan-pipes makes Pan an obvious candidate, but the description also reminds me on this autumnal equinox of Cernunnos, the horned god. The spirit of nature. I feel myself trapped in a world of cubicles and drywall and money. Who wouldn’t fall at the feet of even a pagan deity offering release from such shackles? We have allowed ourselves to be trapped here. We have bought into the system that enslaves us. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing than simply messing about in boats.” Rat is my preacher; I am his acolyte.

Nature reminds us that we are evolved creatures and that civilization comes at a great cost. I never feel so alive as when I’m walking in the woods. I don’t pretend that I could survive alone, but having a position that requires growing heavier at a desk day-by-day feels out of sync with what I grew these feet to do and these eyes to see. Manhattan is a wonder, to be sure, but it too comes at great cost. Nashotah House was not a problem-free place, by any stretch, but it was in the woods. The trails on and near campus could restore a soul in the way chapel could never nearly approximate. So it seems appropriate to slip The Wind in the Willows onto my bookshelf next to my Bible, and to slip outdoors for one last untrammeled moment of summer before autumn begins.

Bus Fare

The two things most likely to kill you on the streets of Midtown Manhattan are taxi cabs and city buses. Crossing the Fifth Avenue can be a dangerous game of chicken, even if the light’s in your favor. Over the past few weeks I’ve been noticing a lot of religious-themed advertising on the buses of this secular haven. A while back it was Killing Jesus—I suspect this must’ve been around Easter time. The movie based on the bestseller appeared with images of the savior tattooed over aluminum and glass. This week I noticed buses advertising A.D. “The Bible continues,” they claim. Don’t take that as career advice, however. With these thoughts in my head, it seems quite a coincidence that my wife would forward me a Huffington Post story entitled, “Anti-Muslim ‘Killing Jews Is Worship’ Ads Set To Go Up On NYC Buses, Subways.” New York City is a Judeo-Christian sort of town, I guess.

Of course, the text is deeper than that. I’d never heard of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) before. According to Huff, it’s classified as a hate group directed at Muslims, and, in an ironic twist, designated public forums are not permitted to block adds. I’m just a layman, but I hope an educated one. Still, when I see public space as a battlefield for religious triumphalism, I wonder why the paid add space (what is the side of a bus, if not wasted advertising space?) is not restricted by any rules. I do not condone any kind of hate crime, and that should, I believe, include copy that intends to replicate hate. If human history has taught us nothing else, we’d be fools not to see that hate begets hate, and never love. The way out of a hateful situation is never to instill further hatred.

I spend a good deal of every week inside a bus. Sometimes as I try to read by the light of day, which has finally reappeared during my commute, the illumination is blocked by advertisements plastered over the windows of my expensive, public chariot. I sometimes peer out through the dots, unable to read what I’m advertising, and wonder what those on the other side see. Who am I shilling for? Perhaps this is a question the AFDI should put to itself—what if they were the ones on this bus. How will the person on the street look at them? With overflowing love or with reciprocal hate? The bus I ride is not really a choice I make. I like to think, however, that the destination for which we all hope would be for a more loving world.

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The Greens

It would take a lot to make me open a website called “Business Insider.” Despite spending far too much time on the internet, my regular sites are few and my ability to find interesting stories often depends on my wife, daughter, or friends pointing out to me what they’ve found. I knew nothing, for instance, of the dress whose color flummoxed the world for a few days. Someone sent me the link and I pondered how strange the world wide web has become. There was a deeper issue, however, and another friend sent me a story on Business Insider to underscore the point. The piece, by Kevin Loria, is entitled “No one could see the color blue until modern times.” At first I scoffed. Blue is my favorite color, and I’ve always been able to see it. Then I read the piece. (It is a bit frightening in the context of a publication called Business Insider, however.) Beginning with yet-to-be prime minister William Gladstone (when is the last time a world politician knew his or her classics?) scholars began to notice that ancient writers such as Homer did not reference blue. Apart from ancient Egypt, most ancient cultures lacked a word for the hue (and remember when you read it in the Bible you are seeing the words of a frustrated translator). Did they even notice blue? The paucity of ancient records may be to blame. But then, Loria looks at modern experiments.

People who live in particular environment develop the ability to distinguish shades of colors that are difficult for the computer-bound to appreciate. For example, Loria cites an experiment in Namibia where members of the Himba tribe could not distinguish blue from green. They could, however, pick out a very slightly different shade of green with ease. In a world surrounded by greenery, knowing subtle differences is important. And we only pay attention to what is deemed important. Scientists have known for a very long time that we are flooded with sensory information incessantly. With our five basic senses an overwhelming amount of data bombards our brains constantly. Those who survive in this world have to determine what is truly significant.

Stepping back to apply this to societies as a whole, I find myself in a distinctly Tillichian mood. What is of ultimate importance? If our society is focused on lucre, it would seem that we, like the Himba, should be able to detect thousands of shades of green. Instead, we find a world full of color. I’ve been working in Manhattan for over three years now. While interesting, I have to admit that much of the city looks gray to me. Even the green on the rare dollar bills that come my ways seems surprisingly subdued. We notice color because it is important to our survival. Artists who work with color in unexpected ways are often under-appreciated for their talent. Those who splash color flamboyantly are accused of being garish. Amid it all, I turn my eyes toward the sky whenever possible. In my youngest days I learned its color is blue. And there is no other color I would rather perceive.

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Books on Wheels

Some unexpected serendipities transport you to childhood. Somewhere on Interstate 80 I passed a bookmobile. The notion felt strangely old-fashioned in this days of Nooks and Kindles. Indeed, a Kindlemobile would have been no less surprising. The idea, I recall, that someone cared enough about my little school to drive a bus full of books right up to it, made me feel special. I mean, these were books—for me! I don’t recollect ever checking any out since it was the ’60’s and everything communal had a strangely communist cast to it. We couldn’t afford many books. Indeed, growing up, we didn’t have a proper bookshelf anywhere in the house. When I began to buy books, I kept them in a cheap suitcase. The only trips I made, really, were in my mind.

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In Manhattan I occasionally see the Mitzvah Tank. New York is often thought of as one of the most literate cities around. Even here, books can come to your door. With chutzpah. Religions, at least many of them, coalesced around books. Sacred writings are among the omnipresent symbols that you’ve come into religious territory. The act of writing itself is somehow holy, even to the most secular, beyond the most cynical. We share our minds through our fingers and others are invited to see, or at least to glimpse, what might be going on inside this three-pound universe locked in our craniums.

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What would I put in a bookmobile? The other day my family began putting together a list of the influential authors in our lives. We all read quite a bit, and the list grew lengthy rather quickly. What would be in the canon of a Bible for the twenty-first century? What books would we want others to share? Ironically, many would find religious books objectionable on some level or another. The armored personnel carrier of Christian soldiers might well set us on the run. Nevertheless, with enough reading even the extremes can be viewed in perspective. On this highway I’ve found a kindred spirit, and when books are coming your way, it is a mitzvah indeed.