Scary States

You can usually tell, if you look close, when I’m on the trail of a new project.  This blog ranges fairly widely at times, but when lots of posts concentrate in a single area it’s likely something much larger is going on behind the scenes.  I’ve been writing quite a bit about horror lately.  Quite apart from the Republican Party, scary things are on my mind often.  I recently came across an article on KillTheCableBill that made me feel less weird.  It’s a story covering a survey showing the favorite horror movie per state.  Now, I won’t be able to fit all fifty into my usual daily word limit (wouldn’t want to arouse the word count police), so I’ll just add a few words about some of the interesting connections I noticed.  As in my books, if you see something, say something, right?

It’s kind of embarrassing that I haven’t seen the movie most often mentioned: The Devil’s Backbone.  I have to admit falling behind on my Guillermo del Toro movies.  I was surprised at the number of states’ favorites that I hadn’t seen.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately: if you have a full-time job which doesn’t include movie watching, it can be pretty difficult to make the time.  A number of classics don’t show up on the list, while some states have somewhat obvious favorites: Massachusetts’ Jaws, Colorado’s The Shining (it was filmed there), New Mexico’s Alien (think about it), and Maine’s The Lighthouse all fit into state self image in some way.  Horror preferences, in other words, may reflect who we are.  

A number of states, more conservative ones mostly, favor older films.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Pennsylvania’s favorite, I haven’t seen.  Like most aspects of my home state it’s a mix of things.  It comes from the early seventies, just as modern horror was getting started, but not too far into it.  Studies like this end up giving me homework.  When I can find the time I have a lot of viewing to do to catch up with my fellow Americans. I was surprised that The Exorcist isn’t on anybody’s list of favorites, not even Washington, DC’s.  It may be that films that are too real are too scary for many people.  Another finding, as noted in the article, is that the southeast states like horror the least.  I can’t help but wonder if things would be better, politically, if more people there watched horror and pondered the implications.  


It Happened on Epiphany

Photo credit: Martin Falbisoner, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you spell treason?  It does begin with the letters “T-R-.”  The events of yesterday made it difficult to sleep securely in “the land of the free” as thugs took over the capitol building in Washington, and even after that Republicans still contested the electoral votes from Pennsylvania, preferring a treasonous president to a democratically elected Joe Biden.  As all of this was playing out, Georgia gave control of the senate to the Democratic Party.  Like many Americans born in a democracy, I stared at the news aghast yesterday as Republicans, fully in the public eye, tried to dismantle the very system by which they themselves were elected and even went so far as to claim they were patriots for doing so.  They draw the evil courage to do this from their “Christian” faith.

Yesterday was Epiphany, a Christian holiday.  To see Republicans—claiming the name Christian—attempting to overturn democracy on that very day was sickening.  To my mind it will live on like 9/11 as one of the most dangerous days in US history.  When asked to get the crowds that he personally incited to disperse, Trump released a video on Twitter telling his followers that the election was stolen and fraudulent but they should go home.  Pouring gasoline on a fire he himself lit, sending both houses of congress into hiding, his snakes-in-the-grass continued to support the myth that Trump hadn’t been defeated.  When the smoke clears this American thinks it’s time to dust off laws about treason and start applying them again.

Congressional leaders, and the president, swear to uphold the Constitution—hand on the Bible.  In the most closely watched election in history, with no evidence of fraud, when the loser wouldn’t concede his party backed him.  The Republican party has been infected with evil, I fear.  Even after seeing the turmoil that their posturing caused, they tried to discount the votes from my state just to keep a very dangerous man in power.  Our democracy didn’t die yesterday.  It died four years ago.  Claiming the name “Christian” without ever reading the Bible or attending church or caring about their fellow human beings, the Republican party has gone down in infamy on the feast of Epiphany.  The electoral vote count by congress is a mere formality, and I, a native and resident of Pennsylvania, am outraged that anyone claiming the power of a democratically elected office—disputing the very process that gave them any influence at all—questions my right to vote.  Why hasn’t treason been invoked?  Four years under the influence of the Evil One has shown its effects, and it happened on Epiphany.


Bookselling 101

My wife and I have sometimes toyed with the idea of running a mom and pop bookstore.  Our combined lack of business sense (and capital) have always prevented us, but dreams can be comforting and persistent.  I met Andrew Laties at his bookstore Book & Puppet Company in Easton.  His neighbor, a professional colleague, introduced us just as things were gearing up for the first Easton Book Festival, back in pre-Covid 2019.  It was a big event, and Andrew surprised me by remembering my name when we ran into each other at one of the many presentations held that weekend.  It was there that I picked up a copy of his acclaimed Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want to Fight for—From Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities.  Although the subtitle is lengthy, it encapsulates what the book is about.

A true liberal, Laties is also a savvy businessman.  Rebel Bookseller is the one book you want to be sure to have on hand if you ever dream of starting an indie.  Independent bookstores stand for so much of what liberals value—helping local communities, free expression of ideas, education.  Indeed, one of the draws of the Lehigh Valley is its ability to support several independent bookstores.  We lived for years in an affluent (yours truly excepted) community in New Jersey.  It had a small indie that closed after just a few years.  The nearby mall (which draws employees a nearly two-hour commute from New York City, I kid you not) was a better measure of the local mindset.  We had to drive to Bernardsville or Princeton to find indies, or perhaps all the way to New Hope or Montclair.  Communities that support bookstores are great places to live.

The acquisition of knowledge is, according to a most rudimentary understanding of human civilization, our most basic need.  The invention of writing is what set us on the track to true progress.  Anyone who has benefitted from modern medicine, technology, or the rule of law, has writing to thank.  Books represent the surest way to keep knowledge alive.  Rebel Bookseller moves beyond the sobriquet of knowledge into wisdom.  This is a very well-informed book.  Laties knows the realities of how publishing works and the real costs involved with big box corporations deciding what people will read.  For anyone who wants to think independently, a local bookstore is an essential business.  My wife and I will likely never be able to run our own little indie, but we both reaped the rewards of reading, and dreaming, about the possibilities.


Bethlehem’s Grinch

We’ve got a Grinch around Bethlehem, according to Nextdoor.com.  A guy driving around stealing boxes from porches, in broad daylight.  According to home security cams, he wears a mask (which is more than many Republicans do).  The understandable outrage in the comments is at least partially justified.  A Covid-ridden populace is reluctant to go into shops, and shipping is easy.  You pay for a gift for someone you love and a stranger steals it with impunity.  There is anger there.  It’s also troubling to me, however, how people react.

One commenter claimed this guy was stealing from working people instead of getting a job.  Anger often speaks rashly, I know, but I had to exegete this a bit.  Without knowing this masked man, how are we to judge his employment status?  I mean people like Donald Trump have made entire careers of cheating other people for their own personal gain.  Isn’t this the way of capitalism?  And perhaps this man has a job and thieving is simply moonlighting.  Or, more seriously, perhaps he had a job that was taken away when the Republican-controlled White House and Senate refused to do anything about the pandemic and can’t even agree on a deal to help working people out?  Who’s the real Grinch here?  Theft can take many forms, some of them perfectly legal.

This holiday news, of course, makes people paranoid.  With many vendors trying to compete with Amazon’s (generally) first-class delivery system, packages are left on porches past bedtime.  Even without a Grinch about, that makes me nervous.  Just last night an Amazon package listed as “delivered” didn’t show up.  I found myself on the customer service chat pouring out my soul to a stranger halfway across the world.  Knowing my carefully chosen gift might be stolen to be resold by a faceless thief made for an anxious evening.  Amazon assured me it would be replaced if it really wasn’t delivered after all.

So I’d be upset too, if my orders were actually stolen.  Some people have medications or other necessities shipped, regardless of holiday seasons.  Stealing boxes is wrong.  It may not be the only thing wrong, however.  Isn’t a system that forces people to desperation inherently wrong?  A system that makes getting ahead almost impossible for most people so that a very few can control nearly all the wealth is hardly one that doesn’t involve theft.  Those stolen from are rightfully upset.  But who is really doing the stealing in the first place?


Bethlehem

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I guess it’s okay to post about the upcoming.  It’s actually pretty hard to avoid, living so near Bethlehem.  While Easton claims the first Christmas tree in America, Bethlehem was settled on Christmas Eve and named accordingly by the Moravians.  It’s a tourist destination for Christmas aficionados everywhere, and, as my wife quotes about 2020, “we could use a little Christmas.”  So we headed to the Christkindlmarkt over the weekend.  Apart from an abundance of consonants, Christkindlmarkt is a chance for vendors to bring their wares to where tightly shut pandemic wallets are willing to open up a bit.  This year, however, the “markt” was completely outdoors rather than under the usual four large tents with heaters running.

It was an enjoyable morning out, with temperatures near sixty—certainly not something you can count on for late November.  There were fewer vendors here for a variety of reasons.  You get a boost, for example, by getting people gathered together.  Our herd instincts kick in.  Seeing others spending, we decide to take our chances.  Outside the great rusting behemoth of Bethlehem Steel’s famed stacks stands sentinel.  This year, however, socially distanced tents and booths meant having to walk and stay back while others browsed, all while wearing masks so that smiles could not be seen.  Gathering without gathering.  With no interest in leading a charge against the disease on a national level, we’re all left to muddle through.

Several of the vendors had novelties portraying the year 2020 as the disaster that it’s been.  Instead of ending it with wishes for national peace, the incumbent is trying useless lawsuits to prevent the voices of voters from being heard.  Stirring up his followers to protest against frauds that never happened, while having hundreds of lawsuits awaiting outside his own door as his actual deeds have been examined seriously for the first time.  Bethlehem reminds us that peace and hope ought to be in the air at this time of year.  Thinking of others rather than ourselves.  Do we see that being modeled by 45 and his ilk?  Instead I’m standing here outside where there used to be a warm gathering tent.  A place where we each donate our body heat to help keep everyone warm.  Giving, even as the Republican-controlled senate withholds any stimulus package they think is too generous.  Yes, we could use a little Christmas right about now.


Kind Animals

How many people could it be?  That’s the question a pandemic naturally raises.  Last weekend my wife and I ventured to a Vegan Festival in Easton.  Since we vegans are a rare bunch anyway, and since we tend to be socially conscious, there wasn’t likely to be any dangerous behavior.  That, and how many people would actually show up for what is often considered a somewhat wobbly crowd who don’t like to “rise, kill, and eat.”  It felt like a safe place to be with socially distanced kindred spirits.  Everyone was wearing masks and there was no Trump bravado going on.  For a moment it reminded me of the kind of accepting country the United States used to be.

Veganism, you see, isn’t just about not eating and not exploiting animals.  It’s about honoring the wonder of life in all creatures.  I realize some of the issues—believe me, I try to think things through thoroughly.  It’s all about consciousness.  We’re still a considerable distance from being able to define it, and some people, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, believe it might go all the way down and through the plant kingdom as well.  Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science.  We hardly know what it is, and how are we to know where it stops?  If we assume other people are conscious (with a few notable exceptions) based on their words and actions, might we not suppose at least some of the “higher” animals are as well?  Or are you just being a fool when you talk to your dog?

You see how this naturally suggests consciousness may lessen by matters of degree, but then we learn that even some insects know how to count and can understand a concept of zero (beyond most Republicans).  We like to put insects down at the bottom because we’re bigger and therefore more important.  Veganism suggests that we stop and think about these things.  We don’t necessarily take everything for granted.  It is clear that the largest polluter and environmental problem is industrial animal farming.  Rainforests are cleared for grazing land.  Profits from big agra are staggering.  Wandering through the stalls, keeping our distance from others who perhaps think too much, we partook of the counterculture in our own quiet way.  The street festival was small this year, but I do have hopes that it might grow, along with some serious thinking about the consequences of our actions.  


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.


Hurricane Isaias

People have been debating how to pronounce Hurricane “Isaias,” an hispanic name based on Isaiah.  Pennsylvania, which has few distinguishing features, is generally well enough inland not to have too much hurricane damage.  Isaias, however you pronounce it, dumped over five inches of rain in the small town in which we live.  Multiple roof leaks sprang up in our house and a small part of the ceiling in one room came down.  Not exactly wrath of God level treatment, but unwelcome nevertheless.  The real problem was the short amount of time in which the rain fell.  Averaging about an inch per hour, the water simply overwhelmed the devices put in place to keep it outside.  Being of my particular disposition I can’t help but think of the prophet Isaiah.

Not a classical prophet of doom per se, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament.  He is remembered for “predictions” and soaring rhetoric that promises deliverance.  He’s also a prophet known for his woe declarations, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible.  This storm, I suspect, has delivered more of the woe than of the hope.  Streets were flooded as the local creek burst its banks.  Our own street was closed as I called our roofer who, I’m sure, had more than wanted popularity in one day.  Being a homeowner, I quickly discovered, is largely a matter of trying to keep the water out.  Our sump pump was working overtime and still the rain came.

My book Weathering the Psalms was intended to be the first in a series of volumes exploring meteorotheology in several books of the Bible.  The weather, you see, is a popular topic of discussion since in ancient times their meteorology was theology.  After the Psalms my exploration was intended to move toward the prophets.  There are dramatic events where these saintly folk were able to bring down rain, or withhold it.  Israel never experienced hurricanes because they don’t form in the Mediterranean.  Meteorological terms, however, shift over time just as by the time Isaias reached us it was a tropical storm.  The wind buffeted us a bit, but it was mainly a rain event.  I thought at first that I would look at weather terminology in Isaiah and see what I could find there.  I don’t know what my conclusions would have been since I was cut off before I could get that far.  Like those who cast their bread upon the waters, after many days it came back, ironically in the form of Isaias.


Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Apart from being Shakespearen click-bait, the title of this post reflects a present-day fear.  We live on the edge of rural Pennsylvania.  If you’re not familiar with the state, let me assure you, there are tons of woodlands and rural communities.  You can drive for hours in a straight line and seldom leave the forest.  When my wife sent me a warning email—I go to bed early and can’t seem to sleep late—I paid heed.  A bear has been ambling through our town.  My usual morning jog is along a trail at the edge of the woods.  Bears are crepuscular.  I watch horror movies.  Put it all together and a Shakespearean level of anxiety quickly builds.  It wouldn’t be so bad, but the photos show the bear romping through backyards and one of the reasons I jog the way I do is to avoid other people.

I see wildlife on my jogs.  I see deer frequently, along with feral cats, rabbits, and, in season, ducks.  I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, groundhogs, and even snapping turtles and salamanders.  It’s not much of a stretch to think a bear could be lurking there.  So instead I took to jogging the human streets.  The danger out here, of course, is the human-borne kind.  Covid-19 lurks, and even though I jog at 5 a.m. there are other elderly out and about.  I hear a cough and wonder whether my chances might be better with the bear.  The broken sidewalk’s a problem too.  I have tripped before in the half light, but without Superman’s knack for flying.  Or at least landing gracefully.

Thinking back, I wonder what has happened.  As I child I lived in truly rural Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I used to sleep on our open porch in the summers, even though we could occasionally hear bears going through the trashcans around the side of the house.  Our place was hard up on the woods, right at the edge of town.  I didn’t worry about the bears back then, though.  We’ve perhaps become more afraid of nature because we know we’ve not been good to it.  The episode of the X-Files we watched before bed last night had Scully saying that nature’s always out to get us.  Perhaps we’ve drawn too solid a line between ourselves and brother or sister bear.  We’re not above nature; we are nature.  But still, I’d rather not be pursued, or eaten by a bear, no matter how much I like Shakespeare.  So I’ll jog in town for awhile, taking my chances with the dangers of my own kind.

Photo credit: Manitoba Provincial Archives, via Wikimedia Commons


Silent Sundays

Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them.  Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural.  One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings.  The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions.  The church I attend has gone to virtual services.  In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on.  Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.

Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments.  We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians.  They defied government orders and sometimes died for it.  Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place.  I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services.  At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before.  And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.

We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday.  An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection.  Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park.  Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings.  We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor.  It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light.  It’s a wonder and a source of awe.  And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.


Keystone

I don’t carry many keys.  Working at home has that distinct advantage, and combination/electronic locks of various kinds are becoming pretty standard.  I do wonder about the impact this has on the keyring industry, though.  Not a fan of bulky rings of keys and fobs in my pocket I tend to stick to novelty keyrings for entertainment purposes only.  A few years back, before we’d considered moving to Pennsylvania, we picked one up that was shaped like, well, the Keystone State.  Laid out like a tiny, very large scale map, it lists the big cities and some tourist sites.  Since you seldom hear people say, “I’m going to Pennsylvania for vacation” you might well wonder about the latter.  The reason that we bought this novelty was one of the places listed: Oil City.

Currently around the 82nd most populous city in the commonwealth, Oil City isn’t a place most folks would look for.  It is near the birthplace of the oil industry, thus its name, but it doesn’t seem to have the tourist draw to merit a keyring fob.  I grew up very near Oil City, and I attended Oil City High School.  It’s a pleasant enough town, although it has been ravaged by big box stores that left its downtown the haunt of ghost store fronts.  Many of the big boxes then left because the area has been economically depressed for decades.  It’s an example of the kind of victims that capitalism tends to leave behind.  The fob on which this “map” is printed is plastic, likely a byproduct of petroleum.  That industry had its start in this area and when larger oil fields were found elsewhere it simply moved on.

The keyring had been stuffed into a box within a box, well forgotten before we moved to Pennsylvania.  While going through some things the other day, it surfaced once again.  I had a key needing a ring, so it was put to use in its native state.  Often I ponder how oil has played into my life.  Pennzoil still had a headquarters in the area, and refineries dotted the river valleys, but larger fields with bigger payoffs lay to the south.  My gypsy-like family didn’t settle in the region because of oil.  Not part of the petroleum industry, we simply lived in its shadow.  I haven’t visited the area for a few years now, at least not to appreciate the life of a town that helped initiate the modern world, but then was quickly forgotten.  Even keyrings can tell a story.


Officially Broken

Now that democracy is officially broken, it was with some poignancy that I stumbled upon a piece of ancient history.  Everyone has a box that contains their past life.  It used to be a physical box with papers in it, and in mine (which still has actual papers), I stumbled across a letter yellowed with age, dated 1980 from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.  In an ill-fated career as a teenage journalist, I reported in the results of the presidential election from one of the polling places in Oil City, Pennsylvania.  The envelope held a serious letter from a state official letting me know how important my duty was.  As I looked at my teenage scrawl two things became clear: the Democrats had won in what is now a deeply red zone, and even when democracy worked it didn’t work well.  

You see, I had a number to call to report the results.  Since toll-free numbers hadn’t proliferated at that time in history, I was to make a collect call.  And since I lived in Rouseville, some three or four miles away, I couldn’t get the results in immediately.  On my way home, before making the collect call, it was announced that Reagan had won.  The ballot results, still tucked away in my envelope, hadn’t been reported, and obviously they weren’t important.  It was the first election in which I voted and I learned then that the system didn’t take all votes into account.  Now that Trump is firing those who managed to testify at his impeachment Republican senators reply, “Yes, that’s good, that’s right.  It’s as it should be.”  Democracy is dead.

These United Orwellian States displayed their predilections long ago.  I’d read 1984 about that time, before the eponymous year of the title.  I’d been deputized to report on an election whose results were declared before every vote was counted, and I lived in the Eastern Time Zone.  I didn’t vote in elections for several years after that.  When politically conscious friends asked why not, I said “what’s the point?”  You see, the reporting assignment was part of a current issues class in high school.  It was to teach us how government worked.  My teacher’s signature still graces the form inside.  As one political party has embodied massive dereliction of duty, we limp along toward November.  I don’t know if my vote will count or not, but I will be at the polls again.  Anyone who believes in democracy will have to be.  And perhaps, just perhaps, all the pre-planned cheating won’t work this time around.  Eric Arthur Blair, it is said, died a paranoid man.


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.