A Walk in the Park

About five years ago my wife and I took a drive along the infamous Shades of Death road in Warren County, New Jersey.  Urban legend has all kinds of creepiness associated with it.  It was a pleasant enough autumn drive for us, and we didn’t see any ominous signs.  History has moved on since the road had been named and, as is typical, the origins had been lost to time.  Something I’ve noticed in moving from east to midwest back to east and a little further west again is that names tend to travel with westward expansion.  I haven’t read enough local history to gain a good sense of this, but we noticed that if New Jersey has a “Devil’s Half Acre,” so does eastern Pennsylvania.  

Yearning to get outdoors for a bit—it’s been rainy here and the pandemic limits options for seeing much of anything—we decided to visit Hickory Run State Park in Carbon County.  Not a bad drive from where we live, we decided to pick out a hiking trail before making the trip.  With over forty miles of trails, your choice of parking depends on which one you want.  We found that there was a Shades of Death trail.  The website tries to dispel the fear factor of the name, noting that early settlers referred to heavy woods and rocky terrain when they named the area.  It is some of the more challenging hiking offered in the park, with passages over small boulder fields and some slippery rocks.  It also turned out to have some wonderful scenery.  We’d arrived early enough to avoid the crowds that’ve made walks in the woods less pleasant in pandemic times.

Indeed, as we finished our hike near noon, families with kids excitedly shouting “Shades of Death” were making their way along the at times narrow path.  I couldn’t help but think how our lives have become so much easier, at least with physical challenges, than those of the original settlers who named these once treacherous places.  We find the names quaint and a little amusing.  Indeed, at the visitor center, the outdoor art emphasizes that particular trail, demonstrating its popularity.  Part of the draw of horror is, of course, reading or watching it from a safe location.  On a sunny morning with modern conveniences never far away, the name gives a little thrill even as it reminds us that a walk in the woods once held a peril difficult to imagine when you can drive right up to the trailhead for a walk in the park.

Night of the Living

The New Yorker view of the world, so the joke goes, sees the five boroughs in great details, then a very thin New Jersey across the Hudson with a vague California somewhere out west.  Having worked in New York City for nearly a decade now, I know that such a view is exaggerated, but has a small glimmer of the truth.  We can only pay attention to so much and things are constantly coming at you in Gotham.  I sometimes forget, now that I’m in Pennsylvania again, just how diverse my home state is.  I’m not from old Pennsylvania stock—neither of my parents were born here and neither of my mother’s parents were born in the same state she was.  Still, when you’re born in a place it’s natural to feel that’s where you belong.  You inherit the outlook.  I inherited Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a bit unusual in being a commonwealth divided in two by a mountain range.  Laid out with an horizontal orientation, it’s about 280 miles across, and once you’re over the Appalachians, you’re into a different subculture.  On our way into Pittsburgh, signs for Evans City reminded me that among its many contributions to American culture, the Steel City also gave us zombies.  Now from a history of religions point of view, zombies came from Caribbean religions that fused indigenous African beliefs with Catholicism.  A religion that arose among people commodified as slaves.  A zombie was a body with no will.  It took George Romero, living in Pittsburgh, to give us the movie zombie with The Night of the Living Dead.  Pittsburgh, among some, is glad to claim the title of zombie capital of the world.  Its zombie walk is a thing of legend.

Ironically, the western end of the state, beyond the mountains, tends to be more conservative than the side closer to the seaboard.  (Pennsylvania is the only of the original thirteen colonies not to have direct Atlantic Ocean water frontage.)  Yet it has adopted the most egalitarian of monsters—the living dead.  Romero tapped into the universal fear of unsettled death to make what were later to appear as “zombies” the unnamed monsters of his most famous film.  Everyone has to die, and no matter our religious outlook (or lack thereof) the question of what comes after is asked on both sides of the Appalachians.  And even by those across the Hudson in New York City.  There may be even something between the two.

Friends with the Devil

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey strike the first-time visitor as eerily odd, even today.  Stunted trees grow from sandy soil, crowded close together and growing hard up to the edge of the road.  You can see the sky above, but dwarf trees of uniform height block your lateral views over any distance.  It feels claustrophobic.  Add to this tales of inhospitable residents and an actual profusion of tree-climbing lizards, and you’ve got the grounds for wondering what else might lurk in the deciduous woods.  Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito aren’t so easily frightened.  Their fascinating book, The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster is a bit of a chimera on its own.  The subtitle gives a pretty good idea of what you’ll find in the book.  For someone who had lived in Jersey for a dozen years, and who loves monsters, it was a must-read.

Not to provide too many spoilers, Regal and Esposito spend some time in colonial New Jersey sketching the little that can be known of the rather prominent Daniel Leeds.  Anyone from Jersey knows that its eponymous state demon is also known as the Leeds Devil.  This particular family had good connections despite being Quakers—a capital crime in some parts of the British Empire.  Daniel, however, had a falling out from the Friends and made his name by publishing an almanac.  This almanac and the proximity of Philadelphia to the Barrens brings Benjamin Franklin into the story.  Franklin competed with the Leeds almanac, and Poor Richard eventually won out in this war of the words.  Demonized by their former Friends and gently satirized by Franklin, the Leeds family was eventually all but forgotten.  Then stories began to emerge of a dragon-like monster in southern Jersey.

To get the details you’ll need to read the book.  Particularly interesting for this blog is the way religion and monsters interplay.  There’s a good bit of history of monsters in the story, including Quakers and early attempts among scientists to understand birth defects.  The very word “monster” is, in its “word cloud,” related to ideas such as revelation and portents.  Early scientists resorted to divine anger when they couldn’t explain what nature had wrought.  And of course folklore is a very potent lubricant.  There are some gaps in the story here, but this is an enchanting exploration of whence monsters might come.  The Jersey Devil has international fame now, and its birth may have begun with insults flashed back and forth among religious believers that eventually were taken literally.  The devil’s in these details.  Or at least in the spooky topography of the Barrens.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Breaking Day

When does the day start?  Years of awaking around 3 a.m. may have distorted my perceptions a bit, I suppose.  Here in the mid-Atlantic states, the sun is never up that early.  Year round I get out of bed when it’s still dark.  I’m not complaining—this is generally a peaceful time, a rarity in New Jersey.  If the bus didn’t come so early I’d get an awful lot done in a day.  But when does the day really begin?  I rise early to write.  Computers have changed my writing style quite a bit.  I used to write everything by hand.  Even as a kid with a second-hand typewriter, I preferred longhand first.  I still do, truth be told.  It’s slow, though, morning’d gone before I got too far.

So I get up and boot up.  I’m not sure that I’m crazy about my computer knowing so much about my personal life, but one thing it simply can’t understand is that I’m an early riser.  Many days my laptop will condescendingly ask me if I mind if it reboots—it’s been updating software when it thinks I’m asleep.  For the computer, day doesn’t begin this early.  Sometimes I worry that my blog doesn’t get readers because the new posts come up around 5 a.m., before I jump in the shower and head for the bus.  If things don’t appear in the feed at the top of the page, well, they’re old news.  I admit to being guilty of that myself; yet knowing when it’s day has consequences.  Maybe I should be posting a bit later?

For some reason my computer likes to send me notices.  Like I’m not already paying attention.  I’m sure there a setting someplace I could change, but I’m busy most of the time and figuring that sort of thing out takes longer than I have time for.  Birthday notices for complete strangers—maybe they’re connected on LinkedIn?—appear, at 9:00 a.m.  I’m at work already by then.  I think this is my devices’ way of letting me know that it’s a nine-to-five world.  As an erstwhile academic I never cottoned onto that.  I started getting out of bed at 4 a.m. when I was teaching so I would have time to write before daily chapel.  I also taught classes that ran from six-to-ten (p.m.) while at Rutgers.  When does the day start?  When does it end?  The decision’s not mine, as my laptop’s only too happy to remind me.

Private Browsing

Montclair, New Jersey, is a diverting place. At least it is for me. I used to teach—strictly as an adjunct of course—at Montclair State University. And like many other diverting towns, Montclair has multiple bookstores. On the occasions my wife has to spend a Saturday working in Montclair I often accompany her. If the weather is decent I can walk to both bookstores and have a leisurely browse. Since anything leisurely is rare these days, I eagerly anticipate such trips. Typically I’ll sit in my wife’s work place counting off the minutes until I can leave to get to the Montclair Book Center just as it opens. Used bookstores are a bit like archaeology—you never know what you’ll find, and some of the treasures may be unique. I often have the store mostly to myself, for private browsing.

This time, however, I had another task to accomplish first, before I could go to the first bookstore. By the time I arrived, it had been open for over an hour and there were, surprisingly, plenty of people there. We’re accustomed to hearing that people no longer care for books. While it’s true they won’t bring in the numbers of, say, those wanting the latest video game, it’s also true that on a pleasant Saturday morning an independent bookstore can be a crowded place. It warmed my heart to see so many readers out. And they weren’t all old like me. Younger people talking about the merits of this or that author, browsing in the sections I frequently haunt. Although I found none of the books on my list, I still had that blessed feeling you have when you discover you’re not really alone.

The other store, Watchung Booksellers, is a couple miles to the north, at least by the walking route I use. A small indie, it typically has what modern-day people might be expected to be interested in. I arrived to find it crowded as well. I’ve been there a number of times in the past and usually there are two or three others browsing. This time it was actually a little difficult to get around the small space. Seeing children there made me especially glad. A crowded bookstore is a sign of hope. As we struggle against the forces of ignorance and hatred that seem to have gripped the privileged classes, Saturdays at bookstores doing brisk business are an indication that the future may correct such ill-informed sentiments. Bookstores are termometers of national health, and seeing them busy made my Saturday. It’s worth getting up early just to spend such a day in Montclair.

Hope for the Future

I’m standing in a haunted place. There was an act of violence here this week. Gun violence. A man died in this restaurant where I sat with my wife and had lunch just a couple of months ago. I’m in Princeton for a rally organized by a teenager. We’re here to tell the government we the people want sensible gun control laws. The website said they were expecting 500. Five thousand turned out instead. Princeton’s not the kind of town where you expect gun violence. Affluent and privileged, it’s the kind of place many of us go to get away from real life for a while—they’ve got the best bookstore around and you can still find DVDs at the Princeton Record Exchange. You don’t expect people to be shot dead here.

America’s perverse affair with firearms goes hand-in-hand with its refusal to ensure adequate treatment for the mentally ill. We give them firearms and wonder what could possibly go wrong. We elect the mentally deficient to highest office in the land and instead of reining him in, the GOP reigns with terror. They have shown time and again that they prefer NRA money to our children. They have sold out. And the word appropriately used to describe such a party good manners prevent me from inscribing on this blog. Republicans, true republicans, need a new party. Instead they refuse to call this aberration in Washington what it truly is. Thousands took to the streets yet again this weekend. This was my fourth rally or march since January of last year, and hey, government—they keep getting bigger.

“Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” So saith the Good Book. It’s a book the Republican Party has forgotten how to read. Especially the “evangelicals” who’ve betrayed their saintly name. While I’m here in Princeton, a few hours away in the sullied capitol of this once reasonable nation, half a million are on the march. And just as women led the way last January we’re being shown the truth that anyone can lead better then old white men. And the fact that the organizers of these protests are high schoolers, I am inclined to leave the last words to the prophet Isaiah, whom, for any Republicans who might be reading, is in the Bible: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

The Power of Literature

Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.

Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.

We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.

No Whine

Sneaking in a grocery run to Wegmans before church one Sunday awhile back, I was in line behind a distinguished looking gentleman. “I’m sorry,” the clerk told him, “we can’t sell alcohol before 11 a.m.” She set aside an expensive looking bottle of Glenlivet as he nodded solemnly. From behind me a woman called out, “Is that true, I can’t buy my wine?” Like Paul Masson, it seems, in New Jersey they will sell no wine before its time. Many, I suspect, have supposed that blue laws would’ve lapsed by now. What most people probably don’t realize is that this is yet another instance of how the Bible continually impacts our lives. Although the weekend has become enshrined as relief from jobs that most of us find tedious, blue laws were biblically based to keep us in line.

The Puritans did all within their power to enforce their views onto larger society. Sunday was not only “the sabbath,” it was a time for no fun—read Laura Ingalls Wilder for getting a sense of what this was like even on the frontier—and church attendance. Nothing potentially more attractive than church was to be on offer on Sunday morning. Here in over-populated, wonderfully diverse, secular New Jersey, those doing their weekly grocery shopping were learning the Bible has a very long reach indeed. Even if many people don’t realize that the Good Book’s behind it, they must abide by Puritan standards. I suspect many have no idea why blue laws remain in force. The Bible doesn’t loosen its grip easily.

As we pushed our cart past the ends of the other check-out lanes I noticed that several of them had bottles purloined at the point of egress. I suspect that most of the would-be buyers weren’t hurrying home to get ready for church. Instead, they were probably annoyed that they’d have to go out again later to continue their purchases. The Supreme Court has upheld blue laws on the basis of giving time off to those of certain professions that work by the hour. Those of us who don’t punch the clock are, according to the logic of such a decision, given exemption from the law of the land (but not to make immoral Sunday morning purchases. Indeed, in some professions attendance at church is part of the job expectation). It is perhaps bewildering for those raised in different religions. The idea of time off, although it probably wasn’t intended for humanitarian reasons, has also become one of the hidden blessings of the Bible. Without the sabbath, our weekends would also be an opportunity for others to make more money by the usufruct of our precious time. Holding off a few hours to buy alcohol seems like a small price to pay, in comparison. The Bible giveth, and the Bible taketh away.

After Dark

So many spooky things happen at night. If you’ve read much on this blog you’ll know I blushingly confess to a horror movie addiction. So much so that I wrote a book about it. Friends occasionally feed this fear by sending me stories of strange, nocturnal happenings that are frequently posted on the internet. All kinds of odd creatures roam the night: dog-men, goat-men, lizard-men (and they mostly seem to be male, for whatever reason). It’s enough to keep you inside once the sun sets. Of course, if you read this blog you know that I’m an extreme morning person. Sleeping in, for me, means getting out of bed at 4 a.m. instead of 3:00. Yes, it’s often dark at that time of day, and horror movies teach us that demons are particularly active around 3 o’clock. But then the sun comes up, and everything’s okay. Until the next twilight.

Now that December’s here, I find myself out in the dark more than usually occurs for a guy who gets up so early. After the time change—for which there exists no logical reason—it’s dark by the time I climb off the bus from my day job in New York City. The other day I was compelled to drive after dark. It was only just after 6 p.m., but that’s getting late for me. I scan the road looking for deer. A thought occurred to me—what if I see something weird cross the road? What would I do? A few moments later I was startled to see a woman and child beside the street. I was prepared to stop since—and this is apparently an unknown fact—it is the law in New Jersey to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. The young boy then made a dash in front of my car. The woman grabbed him and yelled. They weren’t crossing as they struggled at the roadside, so I slowed down but drove on. “That was weird,” my wife said, “that boy was in his bare feet.”

It was 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. This wasn’t one of New Jersey’s famed haunted roads, even. It was a comfortably affluent suburban street. The image stayed in my mind. There’s only so much you can do when driving in traffic. Yes, it was night, but this is New Jersey—there’s always traffic. Did anybody else see what we saw? What was happening here? Why was I so afraid? Fear is the most honest of our emotions. Without it no organism could long survive in this hostile world. After nightfall even governments are at their worst.

Guns and Ghosts

The irony of a nation that has gun laws made by those with body guards is especially cruel in the shadow of Sutherland Springs. Just a month after the worst mass shooting in United States history, another cohort of corpses receives only empty answers from DC. The solution to all the shooting deaths, 45 asserts, is more guns. This from the same White House that can find no credible alternative explanations for global warming, yet continues to break down any emissions barriers it can. The real noxious emissions are coming from the greedy mouths of the chicks in the feathered GOP nest. What is the word for what lies beyond insanity? We need it now.

Like many thinking people I’m very pleased with the results of the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. It seems, temporarily, as if reason has found its voice. The mistake at this point would be to relax and feel as if the job were done. We have raving lunacy at the national level, gun violence out of control, and politicians who just can’t live without NRA blood money. The story of Sarah Winchester’s ghosts may not be true, but it doesn’t have to be. We have a nation full of ghosts. Barely elected candidates claim a mandate to destroy the infrastructure that has allowed them to become rich. The wealthy, you’ll notice, are those who want to take all the marbles and go home. And they live in houses with guards to protect them from all the firearms they’re handing out like candy on Halloween.

Stop and think about this. The White House admits that climate change is human caused. The conclusions are quite dire for those who own property in New York City, let alone entire nations that will be underwater in a few years’ time. The response? Ignore the facts. Boast a bit more about how great we are. Give tax cuts to the wealthy and guns to the poor. Why doesn’t this equation add up? Pardon my jeremiad on what is the first hopeful morning a reasonable person has had in a long time. We have to start taking back local politics and let the national government know that it no longer speaks for the people that somewhat giddily gave it power just a year ago. Otherwise there are bound to be many more ghosts about. And one thing we know for certain, Washington doesn’t believe in ghosts.

Not Devil’s Tower

The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.

The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.

“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.

Surface Tension

Montclair, New Jersey, is distinguished by having two bookstores. On Saturdays when my wife has to work there, I sometimes come along. Apart from the pleasant company, it isn’t every day that one can visit two bookstores. By supporting such shops, I am protesting the ignorance rampant in this nation. One, the Montclair Book Center, specializes in used books. Not always competitively priced, I nevertheless seldom leave empty-handed. It’s a healthy walk from there to Watchung Booksellers, a compact indie up by the train station. For a small store they always have an intriguing selection and I’ve never seen it empty on a Saturday. As I was walking the distance between the two, I noticed that Montclair’s downtown (and I’m not picking on Montclair, which I love) focuses on appearances. This is true of almost all shopping malls as well. Salons, clothing stores, eating places, tattoo parlors, health clubs. Places you go to help hone your image. Where are the stores catering to the mind?

Don’t get me wrong, I also have a body. I like to keep healthy too. I jog when I can, and I’m a vegetarian of nearly twenty years. Yes, there are the necessary places like drug stores and specialty shops where you can get your vacuum cleaner repaired, but few places to go explicitly to encourage mental growth. Hot, I stopped into a coffee shop for a bottle of juice. Patrons were busy at their phones and laptops. I recalled how there was a time when intellectuals hung out and conversed in coffee shops, exchanging ideas over mugs long grown cold. Even those sitting outside on the sociable, colorful chairs were busy texting, Instagramming, or tweeting away their weekends. I closed my book and walked on. I felt a vague but pressing need for intellectual engagement. I headed to the second bookstore.

On the way home one of those industrial-sized lawn-care vendors cut us off on the highway. Lawn-care is big business around here. It’s all about appearances. What has happened to the life of the mind? Allow me my curmudgeonly years—I recall walking downtown as a child and seeing the office supply store with actual paper, smoke-shops with their abundant magazines and wire spinner racks full of questionable paperbacks, and even the Christian bookstore with its tracts and Bibles. I didn’t have the benefit of living in a university town, but people I saw were talking to one another. Exchanging ideas with someone actually present. Self-consciously I look down. I’ve had these cargo pants for many years. This shirt I’m wearing I purchased in Wisconsin in another decade. Even these shoes haven’t been replaced after all these miles. This hat on my head is almost older than my college-graduate child. I can’t be bothered with my appearance right now, though, because there’s another bookstore just ahead.

Fishers of Cars

The car was drunkenly weaving across lanes in substantial traffic along Interstate 80. Erratic driving that, although not breathalyzer confirmed, suggested impaired operating. It’s something you never like to see. We stayed behind the vehicle, knowing that it was safer to keep such a car in view rather than attempting to overtake it when the driver veered into the left lane. Since the same muted colors recur on vehicles these days, we needed a quick way to identify this driver at a glance. The Jesus fish on the rear served the purpose well. This situation struck me as a kind of parable, although it really did happen. One of my brothers is a driver by profession. He often tells me that if someone cuts him off in heavy New Jersey traffic, more often than not the car bears a Jesus fish. WWFD?

The ostensible purpose of the Jesus fish is to witness to the world “here is what a true Christian does.” While the New Testament, if I recall, indicates that the true believer puts others before him or herself, the rule of the road is somewhat less spiritual than that. None of us are saints when we get behind the wheel. We’ve got places to go and the drive isn’t really much fun with thousands of other cars bunging things up constantly. Still, if you take the extra effort to put that Jesus fish on your car, aren’t you signaling that this driver holds her or himself to a higher standard? Or maybe the fish is a talisman, like “Baby on Board,” that will somehow protect from the careless, aggressive driver thinking only of self.

The irony here is not that the driver is making poor, or aggressive decisions behind the wheel—let the one without sin cast the first stone—but rather that s/he implicates Jesus in the act. There’s a ready, steady market in evangelical paraphernalia. The WWJD bracelet keeps the question within sight much of the time—but keep your eyes on the road! One of the main problems with the Ichthys symbol is that it is generally on the rump of your car. Out of sight, out of mind. As you finish that last drink before climbing in behind the wheel, the fact that your personal Lord and Savior is being announced to the world may just slip your sodden mind momentarily. The real question is whether a car is the best place to announce your religious commitments. It was the the man in front of the fish, after all, who said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Except in heavy traffic, of course.