Shut up or Shut down?

So the government’s shut down over a presidential temper tantrum.  Like most people, I suspect, I haven’t really noticed.  Except for two things.  When I drove up to Ithaca over the holidays, some of the highway rest stops were closed.  It seems our government wants to share the misery of not being able to relieve itself.  Secondly, the NOAA weather forecasts are no longer updated as frequently as they should be.  I’m no expert on the weather—I did write a book on meteorotheology, which took quite a bit of research on weather in ancient times, but I know that doesn’t qualify.  Still, I rely on weather forecasts to get daily business done.  In particular, we were expecting a winter storm around here that had been predicted, by NOAA, to arrive around 11 p.m.

Okay, I thought, people will be off the roads by then, and crews will be out to treat the icy conditions by morning.  Seven hours early, around 4 p.m., I noticed a rain, sleet, snow mix falling.  The ice particles looked quite a lot like salt crystals, but I was pretty sure that the government doesn’t have that kind of pull.  In any case, when weather catches me unawares, I turn to NOAA since our government is apparently God’s own chosen one, figuring that the Almighty might know a thing or two about what goes on upstairs.  The current conditions, NOAA said, were “unknown precipitation.”  Apparently the government isn’t even allowed to look out the window during a shut-down.  Maybe it was salt after all.

So, among those of the “God of the gaps” crowd, the weather is perhaps the last refuge of a dying theology.  Their cheery refrain of “science can’t explain” has grown somewhat foreshortened these last few decades, but when unknown precipitation is falling outside all bets are off.  Come to think of it, Weathering the Psalms could’ve been titled Unknown Precipitation, but it’s a little late for that now.  A creature long of habit, I awoke just after 3 a.m.  Hastily dressing against the chill of the nighttime thermostat setting, I wandered to the window, wondering whether there would be a snow day.  It’s dark this time of night, as I well know, but in the streetlights’ glow it seemed as if no weather event had happened at all.  It’s just like our shut-down government to get such basic things wrong.  As long as I’m up, I might as well get to work on my current book on horror.  It’s only fitting.

Aporripsophobia

I’m proposing a new word.  Given that there are lengthy lists of phobias available on the internet, and since fear and I are well acquainted, I was surprised to discover that fear of rejection has no name.  It is simply called “fear of rejection.”  That makes it sound so juvenile that it need not be taken seriously.  Without revealing too much (I don’t know how you might use this information—you could reject me!), this is one of my lifelong fears.  I have theories as to why this may be, but if you want to hear them you have to get to know me first.  In any case, I am proposing the word “aporripsophobia” for fear of rejection.  Before you turn this down, let me assure you that I took four years of Greek in college, and even taught it for a year.  “Aporripsē” is Greek for rejection, and, of course “phobia” is fear.  The standard euphonic vowel before the o in phobia is open for grabs, but since it’s my word, I’m suggesting another o.

Unless it’s a keyboard smash, a web search on Google that brings no results is rare.  Just to be sure, I checked out aporripsophobia and the mighty search engine turned up no results.  One thing I’ve learned about the writing life is that rejection is part and parcel of it.  Almost every writer has a history of rejection slips because, until someone takes a chance on you and makes some money off you, who wants to risk it?  The first few I received nearly solidified my slavery to aporripsophobia.  My advice to other writers, however, should they want it, is keep on trying.  In the past two years I’ve been asked to write two academic articles and a book.  I’ve also been asked to contribute to some online resources.  None of these are big or visible projects, but to someone with aporripsophobia, that’s fine.

Even introverts, you see, need other people.  Many of us suffer from a form of over-stimulation when around too many people.  Some of us are extremely alert to our senses, finding it difficult to ignore strong odors or weak pains.  Lots of people around can be frightening—crowds are loud and there’s so much—too much—going on!  That doesn’t mean, however, that the quiet don’t need others.  In fact, the quiet with aporripsophobia may get into a feedback loop where the need for alone time is translated as snobbery or arrogance when in reality it’s simply a way of handling the stress of being around too many people.  The feeling of rejection then rushes in.  I have probably said too much already, but I wanted to get aporripsophobia out there before someone louder did.  I missed meteorotheology as a coined word, so, like my advice to writers, this is how I keep on trying.  Finding aporripsophobia on Google some day down the road could lead to its opposite, I think.  Its rejection, on the other hand, would be the supreme irony.

Street Clearing

Not driving to work definitely has its advantages. Although studies suggest commuting takes a great toll on hapless riders, the stress of driving in traffic—more often just sitting in traffic—also takes its pound of flesh, and more. A recent snowstorm had me reflecting on this. Once in a while I like to demonstrate that the male of the species is worth keeping around, so after the Bomb Cyclone that closed schools and offices in the trial-state area a couple weeks back, I went out to brush off and start the cars. It’s not that women can’t do this, but it’s more the fact that nobody wants to do it that motivated me. Besides, I have a secretly fond memory of the years of enforced, Dr. Zhivago-esque labor on our Lake Erie snow-belt blessed driveway. My stepfather’s shack sat atop a long, unpaved driveway. Ironically, although he drove the borough snow plow, he insisted that we boys do the shoveling at home. Maybe that’s where I get it. A poor family, our winter coats were substandard and aching fingers and toes, not to mention frozen faces, were pretty typical. I hated every minute of it. Or did I?

Bundled up against the arctic winds that had brushed a noticeable breeze past my face the night before (in the present-day) when I climbed into bed, I stepped out in first light. Immediately the cold found the small gap between my gloves and sleeves and began to work it’s chilling magic. Before the powdery snow was even off the car my fingers were numb and painful, reminding me of an unfortunate frostbite episode as a child. Unconsciously I found myself smiling. I’m no longer forced to do this. Kindness is a far better motivator than hate. At least as a renter I didn’t have to shovel the drive.

Afterwards, inside an apartment that we all habitually decry as too cold, I quickly warmed up. There’s a pleasure in doing something so that someone else doesn’t have to. I miss that, working in New York City. Focused on getting to work, it’s far too easy to step past those for whom even a glance is a blessing. Those who sleep in cardboard boxes on nights like that through which I felt an annoying draft, although secure inside. I see the police “evicting” tenants of paperboard towns even as I glimpse Trump Tower in the distance. The storm they called a Bomb Cyclone. We clear the streets quickly so that we might get back to work and make more money for the one percent. Studies show commuting is killing us. It seems the cold is doing so as well.

Hurricane Warming

Image credit: NOAA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

My heart goes out to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels. The sheer amount of rain dumped by this one storm is literally inconceivable. Trillions of gallons. Coupled with a completely ineffectual president, the disaster is even greater. Like many others, I’ve been watching since the weekend as the numbers and statistics of woe rise. Lives lost. Property washed away. Once more it reminds us just how small we are in the face of the weather. Some of this same awe was in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Ancient Israel did not experience hurricanes—the bodies of water nearby aren’t large enough to generate them. A single thunderstorm, however, is enough to put the fear of God into a person. In ancient times, with an under-developed meteorology, all of this was the provenance of providence. How else could you begin to explain such tragedy?

One of the books that got me started on my meteorotheological quest was Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Thousands died in that storm, and it remains the most deadly natural disaster in US history. Although Hurricane Harvey developed quickly, there was warning. The death toll is remarkably small (at least at the moment) compared to the fury of the storm. The natural tendency of human psychology is to look to supernatural explanations for such devastation. What have I done to deserve this? How could God do this? Are we being punished? Questions such as these come to mind, although we know that hurricanes are entirely normal features of this planet. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, we probably are aware that global warming causes more radical weather.

Even as Trump continues to surround himself with climate change deniers, we see what global warming looks like. The weather is an intricate mechanism. Small things effect it. Large-scale changes throw it into chaos. Those who see climate change as a pain in the pocketbook will do anything they can to deny its reality. More powerful than a freight train or battleship, the weather can’t slam on the brakes and suddenly resume a more milder form. No, we’ve already started the process, no matter how many billionaires disagree. My heart goes out to those who continue to suffer from the hurricane. We need strong leadership and clear thinking at such times as this. We will need more of that in years to come. But we must also keep in mind this isn’t the anger of God. Unfortunately the wrath of human greed can be just as devastating as the wrath of the Almighty.

Inventing Concepts

A neologism is an invented word. Of course, it is impossible to be certain about the origins of many words, and even the many neologisms attributed to William Shakespeare may have been overheard by the bard at the local pub. Still, one of the things I sometimes dream of is inventing a word that will come into wide circulation. I think it must be easier to do in fiction than in non-fiction writing. When I first wrote my book, Weathering the Psalms, I chose what was, at the time, a neologism for the subtitle. “Meteorotheology” was a word I’d never read or heard before and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how to pronounce. Although the world-wide web existed when the book was written, scholarly resources were still few, and tentative. Amazingly, that has changed very rapidly. Now I’d be at a loss to find most basic information if I were isolated from a wifi hotspot. In any case, the web has revealed that others beat me to it when it comes to meteorotheology.

I suppose that some day, when I have free time, I might go back and see if I can trace the web history of the word. It is used commonly now to refer to God taking out wrath on people through the weather. For example, when the Supreme Court decision on the legality of gay marriage was handed down this summer, there were various websites—more popular than mine!—asking a “meteorotheological” question: when was God going to send a hurricane to punish the United States for its sin? These were, as far as I can tell, all tongue-in-cheek, but there can be no question that some people treat meteorotheology that way. It is a sign of divine wrath. My own use of the word had a wider connotation. When I was invited to present at talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan a few weekends ago, I was reminded of my line in the book: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.”

That’s an idea I still stand by, but it is difficult to move beyond. What exactly does the weather say about beliefs in the divine? There’s plenty of room for exploring that. I know that when I walk outside to fetch the paper on a clear fall morning when the moon and stars are still out, I know that I’m experiencing a kind of minor theophany. The brilliant blue of a cloudless October sky can transport me to places unlike any other. What exactly it is, I can’t lay a finger on. That’s why I came up with the word meteorotheology. I many not have been the first person to use it. I may even be using it incorrectly. But the weather, in my experience, has many more moods than just anger. Any autumn day is enough to convince me of that.

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Rutgers Presbyterian

It is indeed an honor to be invited to address a church group on topics that matter. While I didn’t directly address global warming in my book, it was in my mind as I wrote it. Early in my teaching career, I wasn’t sure how to cinch up the gap between the lexicography I was attempting and the real world issue that it should address. The seminar portion of yesterday’s program focused on topics associated with the weather, and I was gratified to hear that many of those present felt that a profound weather event had made an emotional impact upon them. Weather has a way of reminding us that we’re small and that forces beyond our control still exist. I’d forgotten how nice it is to while away a few hours with intelligent people who think about the world we all inhabit. I only wish I could have recorded all the wisdom I heard. We tend to think if someone’s not speaking to us from a major media outlet they’re not worth listening to. I am glad to be reminded that this is not so.

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During our discussion of global warming, the question arose as to what we could call “climate change” to make it appropriately terrifying. Various suggestions were made such as poisoning the sky, suffocating the earth, and old-fashioned, and to-the-point air pollution. We are a species that seems bent on its own destruction. The atmosphere is so incredibly large, but, as our host reminded us, so very thin. Life is supported only in what might be considered, in his words, a thousand-story tower. Beyond that, life runs out. We need to take the limited nature of this small envelope of gas surrounding us seriously.

I’ve come to realize that my fascination with the weather largely derives from looking at the sky. Such an activity is so basically human and so profound, that we simply overlook it most of the time. The sky is superior to us. It was, for most of human history, far out of reach. We have stretched our hands up to the realm of the gods and smeared it with our industrial filth. Many of those present, although not Catholic, applauded the Pope’s insistence that the world must be view holistically and that we must stop polluting our home. Pollution used to be an ugly word, but we have been taught to change our language to add ambiguity. “Climate change” is so neutral, with no one to blame. But it’s not at all accurate when it comes to the real costs. We’ve already impacted the weather for a millennium into the future at least. And I, for one, left our session optimistic that intelligent people cared enough to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon discussing it.