All in This Together

The rain falling from the dark sky is barely liquid.  The thermometer reads 33 as we step out into the early evening—this is not the kind of night I’d want to be outside, but this is important.  When we arrive in Bethlehem there are already maybe a couple hundred people lining Rose Garden Park with signs.  We park and join them.   Many of the signs are clever and to the point: “I shouldn’t have to miss Nixon,” and “Vichy Republicans—shame on you!”  This winter of discontent, crumbling democracy, we are here as warm bodies on a cold night to protest what has gone on far too long.  The impeachment vote is scheduled for today and across the country people have come out—supper hastily eaten or yet to be started when they get home—to say enough is enough.

Now Pennsylvania isn’t the bluest of states.  I wasn’t sure of what our reception would be on the busy corner of 8th Avenue and Union.  I was amazed.  Large numbers of cars, and even some commercial trucks, honked their horns in support as they drove by.  Thumbs up out windows in the cold air.  Long blasts on horns.  For sure, many drivers remained silent, but only three that I counted bothered to roll down their windows and shout support for Trump.  They were treated respectfully and cordially by the protesters, many of whom were considerably older than my wife and me.  I listened to snatches of conversations as my fingers and toes grew numb.  Vietnam vets, and even one from the Second World War.  Retirees who should be spending December nights in their warm homes.  We all had something important to do.  We had to stand and be counted.

Because of a childhood incident, I suffered mild frostbite on my fingers and toes.  It is excessively painful for me to be out in the cold to this day.  We could only stay for about an hour and a half.  It was a work night after all.  There were many stalwarts still holding signs and chanting as we headed back to our car.  Around a sign for the park where other, more temporary signs stood, a protester said, “Someday maybe we won’t have to do this anymore.”  A younger man corrected him.  This happened because we failed to be vigilant.  Vichy Republicans are a real thing and although the elections are about eleven months away, we need to get ready.  We need to get everyone out to vote.  If the signs of support we saw last night reflect the feelings of Americans, it’s time for us to become a democracy again.

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Read a Book

A huge shout-out to Andrew Laties for conceiving and organizing the Easton Book Festival!  Easton may not be the largest city in the state, but the Lehigh Valley is Pennsylvania’s fastest growing area.  As we discovered when we moved here almost a year-and-a-half ago, it is a region that supports bookstores.  Even before the Festival we’d explored some six or seven and after moving from central New Jersey—where keeping a small shop or two open was a struggle.  We’ve become spoiled for choice.  Writers may not be the easiest people to herd—many of us are quiet and tend to live in our own heads quite a bit—but the festival has brought some 200 of us together, and we write on all kinds of things.

Although the panel on which I participated had religion as one of its themes, my wife and I noticed that at each session we attended religion was mentioned.  Either it was in an author’s background, or it figured into their writing, or most embarrassingly, it objected to and tried to silence them through censorship.  Although my book’s subtitled The Bible and Fear in Movies, it was evident that I wasn’t the only person who found the Bible’s effect on people scary.  And the theme continued into the evening as I attended the author’s banquet solo.  Many of the people I met had religion in their background or in their present motivations for writing, and not one of them was judgmental toward a guy like myself who’s trying to find his way.

The Easton Book Festival is in its first year.  Although by late afternoon the weather had deteriorated into the rain we can’t seem to shake around here, it was wonderful to see people walking around with festival booklets (there are enough events to warrant one) and not bothering to conceal and carry.  Books, that is.  For a moment, they were cool.  My second session is this afternoon.  As I learned both last weekend at my book signing and at sessions yesterday, a sell-out crowd is unlikely.  This is a free event and even authors who had more fingers than attendees were gracious and glad for the opportunity to explain what they were trying to do with their writing.  And they unstintingly shared what they’d learned with one another.  This was community, centered around books.  It was a small slice of what Heaven could be like, if we’d all just take an interest in each other.  Even if we’re shy and secretly would rather be home writing.

Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.

Book Culturing

The other day I met one of the organizers of the Easton Book Festival.  Coming in October, this festival is something new.  It took the efforts of a couple with vision—the owners of a small, independent bookstore—to get other people on board, but now it’s going to happen.  A weekend dedicated to books.  I found out about the Festival as I was looking up area bookstores that might let me do a presentation on Holy Horror.  For whatever reason, my last book missed its projected autumnal publication date, and fall is when people are really thinking about horror movies.  Approaching its birthday in late December, it never really had a proper launch.  Priced the way it is, I don’t expect a sales boost, but I would like people to know about it.  When you spend years writing a book you’d like it not to be completely obscure.

In any case, when looking up one of the Easton shops—hey, book lovers, the Lehigh Valley has lots of bookstores!—I noticed that the Festival was still seeking participants.  Since it falls just before Halloween, the timing felt perfect.  I signed up.  Now this is one of the many new tricks for this old dog.  I tell authors all the time that self-promotion is key to book sales, even when a press is fairly widely known.  In fact, the store owner himself writes books and has to pay for his own tours to promote them.  Book culture is worth promoting.

On a personal level, it does me good to see that there are others who appreciate books.  They are a form of collective mind.  A communion.  When I’m feeling down, or uninspired, a trip to a bookstore—or even a library—often helps.  Reading books leads to a sense of accomplishment.  Every year I set a goal on Goodreads.  I don’t set the goal to make me read—I’d do that anyway—but to share with others both what I’ve been reading and what I think about it.  The Easton Book Festival will be a way of doing something similar, hopefully with those many others who feel the draw of books.  Writing, for me, is a labor of love.  I don’t know too many people personally, so meeting them through books is one of my own goals.  Just the other day I met an academic who wanted to read Weathering the Psalms.  Such things happen only in that wonderful land built of books.

AKA

“Professor?”  While not technically correct, I was surprised and not unpleased to hear the title yesterday while on the streets of Easton.  One of the greatest compliments a former teacher can receive is word from a former student.  While dressed in Saturday clothes on the way to the country’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s market, I wasn’t sure the voice intended was for me.  I’ve been out of the classroom now since 2011.  Sure enough, one of my students from Rutgers recognized me and called out.  We had an ersatz but wonderful conversation after a completely chance meeting.  Already since graduating he’s had a few different jobs, but he remembered the classes I’d taught and I recalled that he’s the person who started me reading Neil Gaiman.  Teaching is, you see, a two-way street.

I’m doing a guest service at a local church next Sunday.  In preparation I’ve had lots of emails (for me).  One of them was from the music director.  He opened by calling me “Reverend.”  I’ve never been a reverend.  The idea isn’t unappealing but I’ve gone pretty far down the path of independent thinking and any church that would ordain such as me would need to be comfortable with that.  In fact, I heard a sermon recently by an Episcopal priest and was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and, dare I say, liberal it was.  I was never really welcome in that club, I know.  When I was still fairly fresh out of seminary and working on my doctorate the idea of being “Rev. Dr.” was still appealing.  Now I go by my first name.

Labels.  I tend to eschew them.  Like my young colleague I’ve had to learn that work doesn’t necessarily define you.  (I’ve had many employers, however, who not only beg, but insist to differ on that point.  The ideas of owning individuals die hard, apparently.)  On the weekend, though, off the clock, people are calling me “professor” and “reverend.”  I’m generally sitting in a corner with my laptop on those early mornings calling myself a “writer.”  For none of these things do I receive any pay.  (Well, perhaps some for writing, but very little and very infrequently.)  The move to our new location was a chance, I think, to try to remake myself.  A chance to figure out what labels, if any, really fit.  Better throw “telecommuter” and “remote worker” into the mix.  Those are the ones, come Monday morning, that matter most.

The Sound of Musik

“Why is there so much people here?”  The words aren’t mine, but those of a random stranger I heard in Herald Square.  Not only was it grammatically offensive, I always find “much people” in Manhattan, but this was the occasion of the Pope’s visit a few years ago, so more of us were crowded into that area than normal.  It was a feeling that returned last night as my wife and I wandered around Musikfest.  If you’re not from around here, Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the United States, and it takes place in Bethlehem each summer.  Ten days of free, live music and tents hawking wares and all kinds of comestibles, as well as that strangely satisfying feeling of being lost in a crowd.  We ended up there more or less accidentally.

I was an experimental subject.  Those of you who know me will probably not find this odd, and you may well come up with many reasons to find me in the psychology department, some involving locked doors.  This was, however, a voluntary research project that required participants and it had been literally decades since I’d volunteered to be one of the “much people” who was not not part of the university crowd.  It felt good to be on a campus again.  The Lehigh Valley hosts several colleges and universities, and that draw is perhaps related to why Musikfest is held here.  When we got to town my wife realized we might have trouble parking.  Sections of downtown Bethlehem are closed to traffic and there are people everywhere.  I finished my experiment and we became part of the crowd again.

Music and religion, I’ve noted before, hang out in the same crowd.  They both have the ability to be transcendent and people seek out such experiences.  Since we hadn’t planned on attending—accidental musicologists we—we had no groups as targeted hearing while we wandered.  Mostly we marveled at the size of the event.  The city of steel transformed to the city of music.  And the religious feelings music brings.  As I walked from the college back to downtown, a couple strangers accosted me.  “Hi, brother,” they said.  “Heading to Musikfest?”  This, I realized was a congregation.  I was an unknown brother.  Music brings peace.  Dona nobis pacem, sisters and brothers.  Like those crowds a few years back hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, an entire city had kicked off its shoes for a Friday night of potential transcendence.  Why is there so much people here?  Simply listen and you’ll have your answer.