Mastication Meditation

Musing while munching a bowl of Wheaties, a thought came to me.  Not only do we owe the practice of eating breakfast cereal to an evangelical strain of Christianity, but we also encounter the early morning ideas that stay with us through the day.  Cereal boxes start our day.  Advertisers and marketers know that images are important.  If successfully done they stay with us and may influence future purchasing choices.  In the case of Wheaties (which I’ve always liked) the box shows some athlete or other, implying that we’ll be champions too if we partake.  We are what we wheat.  Now, I don’t follow sports.  I can tell a football from a basketball, but watching grown men (usually) chasing one about really has no appeal to me.  I don’t eat Wheaties to become big and strong.  (At my age you don’t want to get bigger.)

As I ponder my fodder, I wonder what it would be like if we put pictures of people reading on our cereal boxes.  Would we experience a massive renaissance of literacy if cool people were shown with a book instead of a ball?  Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for exercise.  I’m a fidgety sort of guy who doesn’t sit still well.  I like to get out and jog or walk.  I don’t mind doing household repairs.  I like to move about.  But reading is one of the great rewards I allow myself.  When work becomes dull, I look forward to an evening of reading (I tend to do my writing in the morning, before the mental exhaustion of the day kicks in.  Wheaties are, after all, a morning food).  It’s kind of like living in pre-television times, I suspect.

Among the publishing industry the fate of book reading is a constant topic of discussion.  Or, not to put too fine a point on it, book buying.  Reading itself is doing fine.  If, for example, you are reading this you are probably doing so on a screen but you’re still reading.  You don’t have to pay for reading, and it passes the time.  No, the crises is getting people to buy books.  People like yours truly buy books even when many are available free online.  I spend at least eight hours a workday in front of a computer screen, and by the end of it, nervous and twitchy, I need a break.  I need a physical book.  And maybe a physical constitutional walk.  If only my breakfast cereal encouraged others to explore the joys of the literary life—but then, I’ve got to get going; my Wheaties are getting soggy.

The Wars of the Worlds

Just as it is appropriate for news sources to carry religious stories without ridicule in weekend editions, October is the month when strange things might be reported with a degree of seriousness. I have often noted in the past that “paranormal” (think X-Files) phenomena are closely related to religion. Since our ruling paradigm is one of belittling the intellects of those willing to consider evidence beyond the accepted, news stories featuring the unexplained do so with a generous helping of scorn. I was amazed, then, when my wife sent me a story on the BBC News Magazine from the World Service Sport section. (Which is near enough to paranormal, as sports fail to interest me in the least bit.) A story by Richard Padula is entitled “The day UFOs stopped play.” Near this date in 1954 in Florence, Italy, a soccer game stopped as UFOs appeared above the stadium. Former World Cup players stared upward instead of at the ball. The event was documented and never explained. I kept waiting for the jowl-waggling punchline. It never came. Here was a news story from a reputable source taking something strange at face value.

Paranormal activities and religious experiences are in the same category when it comes to a materialistic universe. They can’t exist and so the superior mind must laugh them off, stating they are an illusion, hallucination, or hoax. They still happen, nonetheless. Some world governments are beginning to announce to their citizens that they recognize unexplained arial phenomena exist and—truly astounding for government rulers—they have no explanation. Something weird is going on. It was on Halloween Eve in 1938 that Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was invaded, according to an Orson Welles radio play. Since the inexplicable panic that came following that broadcast, extraterrestrial visitors have been laughed off the serious news page into the comic section. News stories have never taken it seriously since.

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A sports writer, casting about for an interesting story, might well focus on an event of such Fortean dimensions. Some highly respected people present at that game were interviewed with utter seriousness and traces of physical evidence were even gathered. A substance whimsically called “angel hair” was found all over the city, and despite the chemical signature, was declared to be the webs of a massive spider invasion (who needs aliens to be scared?) by many scientists who didn’t witness it. Laugh and the world laughs with you. The BBC doesn’t seem to be laughing in this story. Tomorrow is Halloween, when many improbable things seem possible, if only for a short time. Weather balloons, swamp gas, and Venus notwithstanding, sometimes people of normal intellect turn their eyes to the sky and wonder.

World Cup Runneth Over

I’m not a sports fan of any description. I guess the message, “it’s just a game” sank in rather well as a child. Nevertheless, I was curious when some friends invited us over to watch the World Cup finals. New York City has been abuzz over the last few weeks, and if my walk home takes me past a bar in the city, I almost always have to cross the street to get around the crowds standing outside. So, I’ve been a little intrigued. It perhaps helps that some considerable primordial Teutonic blood makes its home in my ancestry. Hey, but it’s only a game. As a sometime jogger, it was interesting watching these guys running themselves ragged for 120 minutes, but what makes the World Cup worthy of a blog on religion is the sheer amount of religious imagery that pervaded the Brazilian broadcast of the event. Several lingering shots on Christ the Redeemer backlit by a halo-like sun preempted footage of the game. When night fell, the shots show Jesus looking down to watch the game.

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The Argentineans, it would seem, should have had the spiritual advantage. With a pope in the Vatican, and a fan or two even dressed up like the Holy Father, the match taking place in some of the most Catholic territory outside of Rome, you might think some blessing would have been ambient. As the game ended Christ the Redeemer was lit up in rainbow colors and the Germans held the trophy high. Perhaps this is just grousing coming from a guy who’s lost as many times as I have, but it seemed that there could have been a bit more bonhomie on the part of those who managed to make their way to the final for what was, throughout, a very tight game. Perhaps they were just exhausted, but a smile for the camera might have gone a long way. They only lost by one.

During the match, as the director chose scenes of Christ the Redeemer, the announcers could be heard saying, “shouldn’t we be watching the game?” A profound, yet utterly human reversal of the usual evangelical trope of keeping one’s eyes on Jesus. But the millions around the world tuned in were not interested in Rio’s most famous landmark; rather, they wanted to see what was happening down on the ground, in real time. Heaven has its place, no doubt, but it should not interfere with matters of worldly importance. For many, some sociologists tell us, sports serves the function of religion. While extremely fit men run themselves to exhaustion, a kind of worship is taking place down on the field. Looking up to the icon on the hill, it is crucial to remember that it is just a game.

Backyard Archaeology

Among safe topics for discussion among strangers and casual acquaintances, the weather tops the list. It affects each and every one of us continually, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The ideal neutral subject. In fact, however, the weather is highly freighted with religious thinking, deeply sublimated. If you listen closely, you will hear it. Well, this year, at least in the northeast of the United States, winter has been the topic. We still have snow on the ground in New Jersey, and it has been here continually since January. The thaw has begun, however, and when I went to fetch the paper I noticed a newly melted item on the lawn—an archaic newspaper. Obviously the paper-deliverer missed the front steps that day, and by the time I stepped outside it had already been buried. Curious, I brought it inside to get a first-hand look at the past. It was the Monday, February 3 paper. The day after the Super Bowl. Apparently nothing much else was happening in the world a month ago. I don’t even know who played in the game.

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Religion and sports have a long pedigree. One of the first books I signed up at Routledge was on religion and sports in American culture. Routledge decided to sack me before the book was published, so I haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet. Nevertheless, it is clear that the meaning once provided by the strong arm of the Lord is now covered by the stronger arm of the athlete. I’ve watched in fascination as reporters question the players after the game, panning for bits of wisdom as if they might actually get us up off the couch and lead us to a few minutes of physical glory. Instead cliches trickle out: “we saw what needed to be done and did it.” “I took it to the next level.” “First of all, I want to thank Jesus.” Each one like a nugget of pure gold. I still don’t even know who was playing.

On my kitchen table, however, sits a soggy newspaper with the answers to that. The news is old news. And damp. We’ve had an entire Olympics since then, and war seems to be breaking out in the Crimea. Wait a minute, what century is this again? It seems that no matter how old the news is, it still isn’t old enough. One of the oldest news flashes received by humankind, if the Mesopotamians are to be believed, is that there is a huge flood coming. I turn on my browser and lo, a flood indeed! Noah will be released later this month. Posters began to appear in Manhattan as soon as the Super Bowl cleared out. Move on to the next big thing. And, unbeknownst to me, a newspaper laid buried beneath the snow, containing all the information I needed to know. I’m still wondering how that flood turned out.

Our Lady of Culture

So I’m in the land where sport and religion become one.  Notre Dame is an intimidating university for a small Protestant like myself.  Like on a first date, I’m never sure what to do with my hands.  Standing below the famous “touchdown Jesus,” more properly, the “Word of Life,” I feel small indeed.  For a long while in US history, Catholicism was treated like some kind of cult.  Those of us reared Protestant were taught to fear “them” and their ritualistic ways.  I’m more afraid that someone might ask me about football stats.  Sports is a religion I’ve never studied.

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Culture is like a colossal Cuisinart.  Lots of stuff goes in, all of it more or less equal, and the blades begin to whirl.  Sports, religion, fast food, alcohol, a dash of education, and we’ve got an American classic.  The only time that sports come to my mind is when they start to take on the flavor of religion.  The level of the devotion of fans is the envy of many a church.  In fact, the word “fan” was borrowed from the lexicon of religious behaviors.  It is not difficult to sense the pride in football here, but then, sports are often a civilized way to assert one’s self-worth in a culture where self-worth feels under threat.  It is hard to recall a time when the Fighting Irish were not mainstream.

“High culture” has put itself on the endangered species list by becoming inaccessible in a culture that doesn’t value education (not to reflect on the academics I’ve seen at Notre Dame, which are pretty impressive).  I cringe, however, when I see polished politicians basking in their lack of introspection on issues that impact the entire human race.  They seem proud to declare themselves untainted by education.  They will support sports, however, and particularly football where violence is padded, but still encouraged.  It is culture for those who enjoy the lowest common denominator.  In the airport I noticed another “touchdown” character who, in some quarters in more recognized than the deity soaring over Notre Dame’s venerable stadium.  I was in the true presence of culture even before I boarded the plane.

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Am I Famous Yet?

Sweat is running down my back and my chest.  The sun beating down on my head feels like a hammer of the gods.  East 42nd Street is clad with a wide, red carpet and drivers are honking in a way that assures you that they are seriously irritated.  I step out into Second Avenue when the little white person appears on the crosswalk sign; it is 93 degrees and I’m due back at work.  A motorcade stops me as three tour buses cascade by, and an NYPD officer waves mere pedestrians back to the baking pavement to wait another rotation of the lights.  Helicopters high overhead fail to stir this heavy, hot air.  Hazily I wonder if the president is in town, or royalty of some kind.  It’s clear that the plebeians are of less importance this afternoon in New York City.  Then I spy a banner-the All-Star Game.  I’m being broasted on this street corner for a bunch of baseball players, not one of whom I can name.  This is such a facile way to learn your place.

Chance often enters my thoughts.  There are those who become rich and famous because they are driven to it, but they happened to be in the right syzygy of circumstances to take advantage of that opportunity.  There are some who would say that attaining greatness is an act of God, and others who claim it is only fate, or luck.  The fact is, the only reason some people are more special than the rest of us is that they were offered an opportunity that opened a gate.  I’m not suggesting that hard work’s not involved, but hard word alone doesn’t suffice.  You need to have a leg up to get to ride in that air-conditioned luxury bus down Second Avenue while your fellow citizens, and not a few seriously sweating fans, step aside for you.

I’m sure it’s just sour grapes. Like most little boys I really enjoyed playing baseball. I never considered it a job, though. We were far too pedestrian in my neighborhood for that kind of thought. My goal was to be a janitor. It was only when I reached beyond this calling appropriate to my state that I ran into difficulties. The marionette dancing at the end of the strings of puppet-masters who had better opportunities than I. Sour grapes and hellish city streets—what wine will ferment from this alchemy? There go the All-Stars. In many parts of the world, as in my head, their names are unknown. Today, however, one of the busiest streets in Midtown Manhattan is stopped just for them. We’re all in the same oven, but some are in air-conditioned coaches while others are melting on the sidewalks. The red carpet is not for the likes of us.

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Soccer Moms and Robot Dads

Long past Halloween, the air is taking on its terminal, winter chill. High school football teams have moved off the fields (although the “pros” will keep at it until the Super Bowl in sunnier climes). What are sports parents with an excess of aggression and competitiveness to do? It is the time of year when some parents start thinking about the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition. It is a good sport for the hibernation season.

My daughter is on the FIRST Robotics teams in her high school. FIRST was invented by Dean Kamen (along with many physical inventions) as a way of stirring up interest in STEM careers. Interest in science and technology careers, inexplicably, is faltering in the US, while many of us who grew up enamored of science but without any natural ability sit by and scratch our heads. Careers in robotics are very hot—especially since machines can do things we mere biological units can’t. We are that squishy, organic chemistry with a mysterious plan that serve as gods to the mechanical beings we create. Woe to humanity when the robots become atheists! But that’s a point for another post. Sports—and FIRST clearly is a sport, as much as racecar driving or horse jockeying—take on a religious devotion among people of leisure that rivals the commitment oppressed peoples have to their more tradition forms of faith. The easiest means of seeing this is in the fans.

“Fan,” of course, is an apocopated form of “fanatic,” a word wielded with derision against those who take religious belief too seriously. In sports it is a venial sin, if not a downright virtue. Consider the continuing news stories still swirling around a non-necessary sports figure at Penn State. Even the name of the school evokes football rather than academic performance. The same thing applies to FIRST. FIRST robotics is a sport for the mind, and it has its share of analogues to the soccer mom, what I might call the robot dads. These are parents who are particularly driven to win. In a sport involving band saws, hydraulic lifts, and multiple motors, parents are actively involved in building robots suitable for competition. And the competition can be intense. It becomes a kind of robot religion. Dean Kamen, the Susan Calvin of FIRST, has tried to instill commandments of sportsmanship and gracious professionalism into the competitions. That is something the kids understand. As I attend the competitions, however, it is the religious parents that I worry about.

My worry includes the kind of gender disparity that characterizes the work place. Why should not the scientists and engineers include more women? The field strives to do so, but our society still discourages the participation of women in the men’s room of heavy equipment and intense mathematics. Isaac Asimov, frequently a writer with distance vision, made a woman the head robopsychologist of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. If Dr. Calvin were to look back from her fictional 21st century to the actual 21st century she would see women still struggling for equal voice in both science and religion.

Let's hear it for the boy