Web Design

As those who read this blog on the actual site will have noticed, I’ve been playing around a bit with my “look.”  Neither famous nor influential, I’m just a regular guy with a doctorate who wants to make some use of it.  This blog is a way of doing that.  In any case, as I was changing templates and background images, I noticed my rather lengthy blogroll.  Apart from sounding like a particularly tasteless eastern appetizer, blogrolls are pretty much outdated these days.  Back when I started this, there was a community of like-minded bloggers who linked to each others’ pages and helped stir some stats.  In those days doing something like posting on the winner of the Super Bowl could garner you a thousand hits in a day.  The web’s become a bit more crowded since then, I suspect.

So I went to edit my blogroll.  As I did so I found no other blogs linked to mine—no offense taken!—and many that had become defunct.  Many, many.  And there were many blogs that hadn’t been updated in years.  Now, I understand that it is possible to make a living as a blogger these days.  According to my stats, this will be my 3,447th post.  When I consider the time it takes each day to write one of these things, I realize it’s a considerable piece of my life.  Seeing the blogs that have become inactive was like walking through a technological graveyard where many virtual comrades are buried.  For me, the exercise of writing (and I don’t mean the physical typing) is an essential part of each day.  I’d miss it if I stopped.

My redesign focuses on a couple of things: books and pelicans.  Since the books part should be obvious, the pelicans might need explaining.  The background image is one I took while visiting the University of California, Santa Barbara for Routledge.  On my lunch break I went down to the beach and this flock of pelicans flew right over my head.  The iPhone was new in those days, so I pulled it out and snapped a picture.  It won a company photo of the month prize (no monetary value).  There’s quite a bit of symbolism in this image of birds against the California sun.   This blog tends to be metaphorical and those who’ve complained on it over the years don’t really get that.  That’s because things are not what they seem.  There’s something valuable about having to dig for meaning, even if it means looking up.

Duck Overboard!

Moby-DuckI remember the moment precisely.  I was in Santa Barbara, California on a campus visit for Routledge.  I stopped into the university bookstore to see which of our/their books were being used.  From the cover of one of popular books in the general reading shelf stared a friendly yellow duck.  My thoughts went, as they often do, to my daughter back home.  The cover copy explained that this was the true tale of a bunch of “rubber” ducks lost at sea and the captivating story of how they ended up in diverse places.  I bought it for my daughter since rubber duckies had been a kind of childhood theme, and when I saw it on her shelf recently I also grew curious again.  I’ve always been fascinated by the sea, even applying for jobs at the Maine Maritime Academy just to be near the water (and in Maine). 
 
Of course I’m referring to Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.  It wasn’t really as cute and cuddly a book as I thought it might be—that duck on the cover sure looks happy—but it was far more important.  As Hohn explains, he was a teacher captivated by the story of a cargo container holding plastic (not rubber) bath toys falling into the Pacific Ocean on a crossing from Asia.  The ducks (and frogs, turtles, and beavers) spread out as far as Alaska and points south on the west coast of the US, and some perhaps made it back east.  Some were even reported in Maine (but Hohn came to doubt they are the right ones).  So he set off on several ocean voyages to follow the trail of the toys.  He has left us a moving and thoughtful memoir of the journey, and also much more.
 
The oceans are incredibly polluted.  As Hohn points out at several points, entire cargo containers—sometimes several at a time—tumbling into the ocean and being left behind is not uncommon.  Add to that the trash, particularly the plastic, that otherwise makes its way into the ocean, in some places forming islands of garbage so large that they can be spotted by satellites, and I begin to grow truly alarmed.  Hohn learns about plastics and how toxic they might be, as well as how thoughtlessly they are hurled into the oceans.  Not written as an environmental manifesto, Moby-Duck—literate, witty, and very human—nevertheless narrates how a father came to see the world through the eyes of parenthood.  And some of what he finds is truly frightening.  My takeaway?  Little things matter.  Immensely.  That, and we need to clean up our act before it’s too late.  No bath will wash away the stains we’re still in the process of creating.

Saints and Serpents

Santa Barbara feels like paradise.  To a guy who grew up under the gray clouds and sometimes cruel winters of the northeast, the sun-washed placidity of the California coast feels almost surreal.  I’d never witnessed a flight of pelicans before, or visited a university campus that felt more like a spa.  Nothing introduces trouble into paradise like guns.  As we are beginning to try to make sense of yet another mass shooting involving college-aged kids, the somber-faced newscasters talk about how difficult it is to handle mental illness as they fret over seven more coffins that should never have been necessary.  It’s the right of Americans to own guns.  It’s the heritage of many to experience mental illness.  Elliot Rodger only had three guns and over 400 rounds of ammunition in his car.  Where’s Charlton Heston when we need a little comfort now?

 

America’s love affair with firearms is too protracted and entrenched simply to turn back the clock.  Guns are functional devices, but their deterrent force seems effectively only on those who don’t own them.  We’ve opened Pandora’s box and shook the last bit of hope out of it.  College is the stage of growing up where we learn about what life has to offer.  Choosing majors, meeting potential mates, gaining a measure of freedom.  Freedom.  Those who own guns don’t seem to appreciate how unbalanced this makes the rest of us feel.  When I walk behind someone smoking on the city streets, I can’t help but think that I’m doing nothing to foul the smoker’s air.  If only I had a gun.

 

One of the most poignant scenes in the Ellis Island museum is where the potential immigrants are being tested for mental illness.  As a hopeful paradise, we seemed to say, we don’t want to invite any problems ashore.  Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer.  Making guns available to those who suffer depression and rage is madness.  And despite the rhetoric, the only one with gun in hand who ever seems to stop the rampage is the killer himself, by turning his own on the victim and perpetrator.

 

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Standing on a beach in Santa Barbara, you are looking out over five thousand miles of placid, unbroken, blue water.  The sky and the ocean seem to blend together.  A scoop of pelicans flies overhead, becoming lost in the sun.  And there is a serpent wrapped around a tree somewhere nearby.  There always is.

Tortured Gospel

Tornadoes? I don't see any tornadoes.

It is a little difficult to force yourself to think of tornadoes when you’re in sunny California. On my flight into Santa Barbara I could see the tail end of the gray whale migration from a few thousand feet in the air. Outside the tiny municipal airport (with its full-body scanner) I see palm trees swaying in the wind. The air smells like flowers. Life is too easy in California for me ever to live here. I need more angst in my diet. I can’t come to the sunny coast, however, without the Eagle’s “Hotel California” replaying endlessly in my head. It was the running joke at Nashotah House that the real Hotel California was located in the woods just outside Delafield, Wisconsin. The haunting lyrics by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey managed to capture the witch’s brew of mind control, humiliation, and desire that laced that little, gothic seminary in the woods. Yet even sitting in California with its full greenery in March, I see that Pat Robertson is blaming the devastation of the recent tornadoes on lack of prayer.

Blaming the victim is a classic fascist technique, and it is very easy to proclaim one’s own righteousness when not in harm’s way. Herein lies the darkest sin of the self-justified; they think themselves specially blessed and therefore not responsible to help the victims. While flying over the Santa Ynez Mountains, seeing the smoke from California wildfires climbing like the terminal flames of Babylon, I could hear a voice like a choir of fascists singing, “Alleluia And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” Schadenfreude fuels too much of the evangelical worldview. According the Gospel writers, when Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept. WWJD, Rev. Robertson?

Tornadoes look so much like divine judgment that it is almost understandable how a naïve believer might see them as coming from God. We, however, are the gods destroying our own planet with the accompanying degradation of the weather. Neo-cons deny the fact of global warming. It is not a myth or a theory, there is inconvertible proof that it is happening. Still, it is more convenient to blame God. After all, chances of him showing up to deny false charges, as history repeatedly shows, are very slim. Ask any innocent woman tied to a stake in Medieval Europe accused of being a witch. Apparently the divine calendar is too full to worry about the troubles of hundreds of thousands, or even a few millions who are falsely accused. Why not send some terror from the sky? It is hard to think of such things in sunny California. Yet as the “good news” of the televangelists spreads to the ends of the earth, even those forever in the sun will need to stand in judgment before a very capricious deity.