Qohelet’s Washcloset

Cast your bread upon the water, as Ecclesiastes says, and it will come back to you when you need it.  Since bread is a common slang word for money, and since the toilet paper has arrived that I ordered two months ago, I see the truth in this.  Paper spent for paper to use.  While I’m pretty sure that’s not what old Qohelet exactly had in mind, it is the reality in which we live.  There are experts that tell us the toilet paper shortage isn’t due to panic buying, but over eight weeks into this crisis and the shelves in Target and grocery stores still look like Mrs. Hubbard’s cupboards.  All those people working from home must need more fibre in their diets.  Or is it less?  I can never remember.  What other than bread satisfies?  Clearly toilet paper does.  And the fact that the nearest yeast, according to Siri, is in Tennessee, clearly has nothing to do with panic buying.  Nothing at all.

People will go to any lengths to prove that we’re rational beings.  We don’t like the image of being the panicky herd beasts we are.  When I first realized the crisis was hard on us, it was March 16.  That was my first grocery store trip where beans were as rare as moral Republicans and we still can’t find pasta or flour around here, even with stores stocking daily.  The announcements on the loudspeaker beg buyers to get only what they really need, and leave some for others.  The thing about panic, though, is that it’s anything but rational.  It’s based on emotion washed in the myth of scarcity.  It also shows what an unregulated economy soon devolves into.  I’m sure many people rationalize panic buying as “just until things get back to normal.”  Vanity, vanity, says Ecclesiastes.

Instead of the myth of scarcity we should believe in the myth of normalcy.  That should’ve ended, for any reasoning being, in November of 2016.  It isn’t normal for a prosperous nation to offer up someone who clearly has no governing ability for the most powerful office in the land.  Two months into the largest crisis we’ve seen since the days of FDR and the White House response has been the null set.  Meanwhile, I ordered toilet paper from abroad on March 16.  The ship slowly made its way across the Pacific from China where, I understand, toilet paper is abundant.  I’m just glad that there’s a rational explanation for all of this.

Travel Ban

I’m not at home.  I know in the current crisis that sounds like heresy, but I can honestly say that getting out of the usual routine where COVID-19 is all you hear about feels right.  More and more organizations are instituting work from home policies—many of them mandatory.  I’ve worked from home for going on two years now.  You need to get out a bit.  I know travel isn’t recommended, but I’m really not afraid to die.  Besides, I put a box of latex gloves in the car and when we stopped for a restroom break, wore them until they could be safely removed.  Exposed surfaces in the rest area were being continually wiped down.  Don’t get me wrong—for an introvert like me working at home is fine.  It’s just the idea of feeling like this virus is some zombie apocalypse happening just outside my door that I needed to dispel.

When I told a friend I was no longer going to be commuting on a regular basis he said if it were him he’d only ever buy sweatpants again.  Now that my reality is life with my wife being the only person I regularly see, I’m beginning to realize just how much our clothes purchases are for impressing others.  My haberdashery is akin to that of Henry David Thoreau; I wear clothes until they’re no longer functional.  They can be badly out of date but they still work.  The fashion industry is built on pride.  To put it in the words of my old friend Qohelet, vanity.  We want others to see what we’re wearing.  If we’re still donning last year’s gay apparel we’re not playing the game.  Never mind those of us whose wardrobes could be carbon-dated.  The pandemic can be revealing.

So I’m away from home for what is really the first time in months.  I had to stop in the grocery store for a few things.  Only one person I saw was wearing a mask, but I was wearing prophylactics, so who’s going to cast the first stone?  Many shelves were bare.  The CDC has become our new gospel provider.  I’m limiting my outside exposure.  Driving door to door, greeting no-one along the way (that actually is the gospel, but substitute the walking for the driving part).  I know when this weekend’s over I’ll be back to my cloistered existence as the rest of the world tries to get used to the loneliness of the sweatpants crowd.  If you’re one of them take it from me—the rest of the world is still out there.

Celestial Happenings

Science fiction used to be the mainstay of my reading. Unlike a true fan, I was never exclusively devoted to it—my tastes are far too eclectic to be contained by any genre. Nevertheless, at a used book sale, on a whim, I picked up Frederik Pohl’s The Day the Martians Came. It had a cool looking spaceship on the cover, and I recognized his name from my childhood reading. I prepared myself for an adventure. Instead I found a disillusioned tale of humans and their foibles, many of them religious. Many tales, in fact. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised to find out that this was originally a set of discrete short stories later laced together into a novel. The point, it seems, would be appropriate to Qohelet. Human beings run around doing their pointless things and failing to communicate with one another. That much was true to life.

The Martians, who are more evolved and intelligent than humans, but who appear to be mere docile animals, are discovered near Christmas. Much is made of the fact that humans still celebrate Christmas on Mars. And, if you can cut through all of the snark, there’s also a message that we like to live out our prejudices whenever possible. So the humans, excited about Martians being transported back to earth, try to take advantage of each other any way they can. Some of the most complex of the stories involve religious leaders who dismiss science and assert mystical knowledge of these extraterrestrials. These leaders, of course, are only after the money of the gullible. They’re playing the popularity circuit, or running cults, and the clueless are drawn to them. And so the book isn’t really about Martians at all, but about human folly. Mainly religion.

Science fiction means different things to different people. In a used bookstore I noticed Neil Gaiman under science fiction. As much as I enjoy his work, I’d classify it as general literature instead. Genres are there to help us find related material. The name Frederik Pohl and the word “Martians” in the title suggest science fiction, but the book itself doesn’t really meet the criteria. At least for me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve landed rovers on Mars and are now talking about a human expedition. Mars has become somewhat less exotic. Religion, meanwhile, continues to churn and muddy the waters. Not always as cynical as the leaders seem to be in this book, nevertheless they are part of the discussion since once we get off this planet we’re going to have foreign deities with which to deal. Whether we respond with snark or science fiction is entirely up to us.

Portrait of Poe as a Young Man

An obscure portrait of Edgar Allan Poe has come to light and is scheduled to be auctioned off. Reports indicate that the watercolor painting reveals a young man without the world-weariness of the more familiar images of Poe. He may even be smiling.

Poe has long been one of my personal muses. His writing captivated my imagination as a young man, and his sense of tragedy encased a golden nobility. Although many consider his works to be juvenile, like the slightly later stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Poe grew to a mature sensibility concerning life that rivals that of Job. Intrigued, years ago I wrote a high school term paper about the writer and discovered a spiritual compatriot who couldn’t outstrip the “unmerciful Disaster [that] Followed fast and followed faster.” Now on the side of years beyond the lifespan of my muse, I begin to understand how a happy young man becomes a Qohelet in his time. In his personal difficulties, Poe was able to speak for many of us.

To me this young portrait is cast in the tint of Dorian Gray. The real image of Poe is that of a man given few breaks in life. A man of keen sight and keener insight. There have been thinkers like Poe from ancient times, but they are generally resigned to the depths rather than to be found basking in sublime sunlight. When Ludlul bel Nemeqi or Khun-Anup pour out their souls to an unhearing sky, they create a fellowship for latter day Poes and Melvilles and Lovecrafts. I hope the portrait of a young Poe finds a good home and the message of its subject rings as loudly as the bells.

Poe-ever Young