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.

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.

Undiscovered Countries

My friend Marvin always amuses me with what he’s got in his refrigerator. He likes to buy products that he considers appropriate to the season. On a recent visit he pulled out a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale. He said it was prophetic, in the sense that later this month we’d all be faced with someone fitting of such a moniker. I appreciate his sense of humor—I think we’re going to find that laughter, incredulous and otherwise, is going to help get us through to 2020. Once we reach that mythical date when there will be cities under the sea (unless my childhood cartoon watching has steered me wrong yet again) crewing aquagum all the way, we will have to begin undoing the damage that our government is planning even now. Of course, we were supposed to have a moonbase in 1999, and that show wasn’t even animated. Television produces the biggest liars of all, I guess.

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January always makes me think of Janus, the two-faced god. Looking forward and looking back. Even Janus seems to have taken on new meaning this year. That’s the thing about symbols—you can’t pin them down to one thing. One of the benefits to studying religion is that you get to feel comfortable around symbols. There may be no real symbology department at Harvard or anywhere else, but scholars of religion inhabit that territory. We skulk around the dark places that human beliefs may go, even allowing people to believe things that are factually false. Instead of getting too dark, maybe we can think of a joke. Two Corinthians walk into a bar…

The future is the famously undiscovered country. Maybe by the time we get there we will have realized just how silly the very idea of countries are. Seems now that citizens of foreign nations can legally take over the US election process, so why bother with borders at all? Put in another way, who wouldn’t welcome the spy who came in from the cold? It’s January out there and all people need shelter from the chill. I keep telling myself there’s no mess that’s so bad that it can’t be cleaned up. Or maybe I’m just thinking of Bruce Almighty again. My friend Marvin refuses to let reality get him down. When the days are short, it is especially important to be the light. Maybe he’s right.

2016 in Books

As is my custom on this last post of the year I’ll be revisiting the books that made an especial difference to me in 2016. I record most books I finish on Goodreads, and I welcome friends in that venue. I draw on their recollection for what I’ve read and all of the books I mention here have individual posts on this blog. Use the search function. It’s free!

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The first important book was Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street. If you missed this one, it is well worth your time. Economics has become a religion. If you doubt that, look at 11/9 and tell me so. Philip Gulley’s The Quaker Way was also an early read that’s worth revisiting. November has made many of these books more important than they seemed at the time. Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Super Natural will expand the minds of those who allow for unconventional possibilities. And Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals will remind us we’re not alone on this planet. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery was a book I really couldn’t put down, and a nice complement to Bekoff. Marcelo Gleiser touched a chord with The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, a book worthy of anyone who wants to consider how science and humanity might cooperate for everyone’s benefit. While not really a reading-through book, Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs is important and worthy of attention.

In the realm of monsters, Elizabeth Baer’s The Golem Redux was a fantastic introduction to a Jewish legend that I revisited in three more books over the year. Several other monster books followed, but especially memorable were Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, and Maya Barzilai’s Golem—please be patient with me regarding this one. I haven’t written a post on it yet, since an official review has yet to be published. Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences won her an instant fan. I’ll read anything she writes. I didn’t give Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child the attention it deserves. It’s kind of a personal thing. Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick was utterly fascinating, looking at another person Miller would have found intriguing. Also on the topic of writers, Melville’s Bibles by Ilana Pardes spoke deeply to me.

For fiction, highly recommended are Amy Tomson’s The Color of Distance, Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, Pete Hamill’s Snow in August, and Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People. Less profound, but thoroughly enjoyable were Jonathan L. Howard’s Carter and Lovecraft, and Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died a Lot (reading anything by Jasper Fforde is time well spent). My childhood favorite, Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants retains its magic.

According to Goodreads, I finished 106 this year. Along the way I finished the 2016 Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge. Many of the books were excellent, and this shortlist represents those that idiosyncratically stick out in my mind. Please participate in a show of hope for the future: make 2017 a year of reading.

Riding a Cycle

Spare-ribs and sauerkraut. My step-father always insisted on these for the turning of a new year. The old year was to end on something sour while the new was to begin with something sweet. So his reasoning went. It is this Janus-faced aspect of the new year optimism that we anticipate with such high hopes every twelve months, only to come back to another gray December. Time, since antiquity, was considered something cyclical. Today we think of time as linear—a line stretching from there to here, nobody really knowing where it might end. New Year’s Day reminds us of that obscure hope that things might indeed get better.

Since I’ve been cast into the role of someone dependent on business for a living, I’ve become keenly aware that, although the fiscal year doesn’t end for another three months, and the school year doesn’t begin for about six more after that, we open each year on the hope for better profit than the previous one. In a way that I’ve always felt earned economics its sobriquet of the dismal science, constant increase in a world of limited resources is sure to disappoint. What is really sought, it appears, is more for me, which means less for you. Born an idealist, I find the whole concept baffling. If I have too much to use, shouldn’t I share it with those who don’t have enough? Those who read about the behavior of apes would recognize this basic altruism as deeply embedded in the primate genome. Unless, of course, that primate is a human being.

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I wish that a New Year celebration could be more universal than just fiscal success. It is always my hope as a new year begins that by the end of it we will all be in a place we would prefer to be. Those of us who live under the law of greed and personal gain have long felt the frowning aspect of Janus’s face. As the year turns over in the month named for this deity of thresholds, we hope that a smile might beam down upon us, and that a new year might truly be new. Knowing this is an election year, however, has come to cause increasing anxiety. Those who can command public attention are those with the deepest coffers. Those most unworthy to lead. We do, however, love our entertainment. The Force has awakened, and what might we anticipate for 2016? For me, no animal has ribs to spare, but the symbol has become increasingly apt. Let’s hope the Force is good and will awaken peace.

2015

New Year’s Day seemed to me, as a child, an odd choice for a holiday. We’d just had Christmas a week before. Of course, at the time I did not realize that the date of New Year’s was a symbolic one for the Christian calendar, and the celebration seemed no more significant than getting to stay up until midnight. The systematic changing of the years felt just like the regular progression of numbers, and what was there to celebrate about that? Of course, time cures even itself, and I came to see New Year’s as a time of new beginnings. Resolutions never sat well with me, since improvements, I’ve always believed, should be implemented as soon as the problem is noticed. Waiting until the dead of winter hardly seemed like an inspiration to get things done. Unless the resolution was to get more sleep. Still, we can all use new beginnings.

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s, however, has taken on a more somber tone of late. As an adult, I often brood over the past year, and it seems that just when hope may be on the horizon, we find new ways to make the situation worse. Much of it comes down to politicians and the economy, two things that no resolutions ever seem to fix. Although I didn’t see the point of it all as a child, I did look to the future with optimism. It has gotten so bad now that science fiction writers have to make a case for trying to have a positive outlook. Dystopias are popular, I believe, because they are believable. Given the performance of politicians and church leaders (with the obvious and large exception of Pope Francis) we’ve seen little to suggest that our institutions have the will or the means to improve our lot. Even the Pope has made enemies by being a nice guy.

Already we’ve begun to hear that some apocalyptic groups have targeted 2015 as the year the world will end. We’re just getting over 2012. I think what is most disturbing is the sameness of it all. Another year means the continuation of a job that keeps food on the table, at least it is to be hoped. Beyond that, we will have more antics to watch that, were they not so fraught with consequences, might be thought funny. I haven’t lost my capacity to dream. Those who think me a pessimist don’t know me very well. Dreams are, however, futures that we have to take into our own hands. We can’t spend 2015 waiting for politicians and corporations to suddenly change for the better. In what sense is “business as usual” ever new?

New Century

Time is the ultimate commodity. New Year’s Day is one of the ten standard holidays to the business world, a grudging nod in the direction that those who are tasked with making money for others might take a little break. Yesterday as I arrived in Times Square at 7 a.m., with a handful of others on the bus, vendors were already setting up their card tables on street corners with cheap, glitzy baubles to celebrate the drop of a ball as 2013 slowly wound out. Like many others, I marched to a job where little was happening. Emails elicited no response. Entire buildings in parts of Manhattan didn’t bother with anything but emergency lights since who really works on New Year’s Eve? Some of us must. As the long hours slowly passed at my cubicle, my mind wandered back over the past few weeks, months, year, decade, quarter and half centuries. New Year’s Day is one of the oldest religious holidays, if not the original one. But how far have we come?

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Only a century ago the world was poised for the Great War as 1914 dawned. Trenches were dug in minds before they ever appeared in the mud of the Somme. 1918 brought a tenuous peace that would lead toward inevitable renewal of hostilities after a decade was allowed for Gatsby and the jazz age. World War Two ended with the first threats of mutual annihilation, and just five years later the Korean War began. The police action ended in time to offer another opportunity at war in Vietnam around three years later. I grew up aware of the Vietnam War, but in a religion that taught me it was just preparation for the Really Great War yet to come. We gave ourselves fifteen years before starting a war in the volatile Persian Gulf, a conflict with a sibling Second Gulf War with its premature mission accomplished. Technically it’s over, but for how long? Drones fly over our heads even now. Books on World War One line bookshop shelves (in as far as there are any bookstores anymore). Sometimes I hope there are no prophets.

New year was a ritual marking that sacred resetting of time, and eventually it took on a significance all its own. A spiritual reboot, as it were. A time to move on from past troubles. As I walked through Times Square yesterday evening, my only thoughts were for the bus that would take me home, away from the massive celebration. I had a book to read against the long journey and already by five o’clock the crowds had begun to coalesce. So many people. So many hopes and dreams. The ball stood poised over Midtown, ready to fall, and a new kind of symbolism became apparent. We begin the new year with a downward trend. The tangled webs we’ve been weaving for decades have not been reset. Politics and power-brokers will continue to build on what they started long ago. Some of us just want to get home.