Keeping Pace

I had no idea my life was in danger. I was out for a weekend walk with my wife, when suddenly, there they were. Snails. In case you think I’m over-reacting, take a look at Christopher Jobson’s piece on Colossal titled “Why Knights Fought Snails in the Margins of Medieval Books.” One of the main points is that the snails were symbols. We tend to forget the power of symbols today. Even modern vampires no longer react to crucifixes—what are we supposed to do? For those who are willing to linger a moment instead of rushing on immediately to the next thing, snails give us quite a bit to contemplate. In a world that hates slow-pokes, “consider,” as my friend Ecclesiastes might’ve said, “the snail.”

As highly evolved cousins of the snail, we suppose we were cut out for greater things. We build towers. We make new nations. We watch them both crumble. On the ruins of those walls we find snails. They have very little to do and expend no worries about getting there on time. Nobody emulates them, although some masticate them. They tend to disappear when the sun is hot. They don’t like the limelight. Yet snails contribute to our world in ways we simply don’t take the time to contemplate. Our time has been commodified. We’re told when to sleep and when to wake for our jobs. Then we’re told none of it matters anymore since 45 has decided to change the rules with his latest tweet. And still the snails crawl.

Before I learned to fear them, I remember happy childhood moments finding snails. This was generally not at home since we rented even then, and landlords have a weird compulsion about landscaping. When wandering far enough from home I’d find snails crawling on stalks of damp grasses early in the morning. They fascinated me. If I plucked them off, they’d pull in their eye-stalks and retreat into their shells. So secure. So symbolic. Eventually I learned that I was obligated to move fast. Keep pace. Be measured by my productivity. Pharaoh’s watching, after all, and that quantity of bricks required isn’t getting any smaller. Not many, I would learn, share my appreciation of snails. It takes a great deal of confidence to go slowly. Those who routinely ignore speed limits won’t understand my symbolism here, I know. Still, I can’t help but think we have a great deal to learn from our cousins who remind us that time isn’t everything after all.

Sidekick

I have moved from the territory of Sharon to that of Laura. New York City is a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, and even Midtown Manhattan hosts hundreds of smaller sub-divisions. Although I’ve never intentionally consulted a psychic, I do tend to notice them. Once while on a visit to Galena, Illinois during the summer, we stumbled on a psychic booth where the proprietor was giving free readings. With some trepidation, we let her give our daughter a reading, just for fun. I don’t recall what she said, or even what her name might have been. There’s just enough fear of the unknown left in me to compel me ever want to visit a psychic, even if it is for entertainment purposes only. Clearly, however, there is a market. Where the market makes a hole someone will fill it. So I pondered Laura the psychic.

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The other day I passed her sign. Like most psychic ads I see, Laura’s sign makes use of religious symbols; the cross, bird, crescent and star, all thrown together amid an interfaith openness from which most religions might learn a lesson. Are psychics religious? I suppose that’s a personal question. The phenomenon of psi, if it does exist, and if it does involve spooky influence at a distance, tends to be classed with the supernatural. A few brave universities have from time to time explored the phenomenon, whether or not commercial psychics have it, scientifically. They set up controlled experiments and have even obtained statistically significant results. I’m more inclined to doubt statistics than the outcomes. Statistics are the tools of markets, and markets, well, make me shiver.

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Then I passed another sign. This one, just a block or two from Laura, seemed to suggest that witchcraft might unleash my potential and power. That sounds like a good thing. But then I noticed the FOX logo at the bottom. Another quality program, it seems, has fallen to the spell of witchcraft. It did confirm, however, that it is all about money. One size does not fit all. Religion adapts to fit a free market economy. Totalitarian states either attempt to disband religion completely and/or build up a national mythology that supplements traditional teachings. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that coming. As long as there’s money to be made, who’s complaining?

A Theistic Nation

That’s a dill-pickillial of a peccadillo, if you’ll pardon my Ned Flanderism. I’m referring to the issue of the Supreme Court dealing with public prayer. Again. In a recent Chicago Tribune story, prayer before town board meetings in Greece, New York have led to accusations of violation of citizens’ rights. In a similar, but unrelated, situation, a friend asked me what I thought about religious symbols on public property. He asked the basic question that if atheism relies on no symbols, isn’t the absence of symbolism tacit approval of atheism. These issues are very difficult to resolve for a number of reasons. The first non-partisan elephant in the room is the fact that we do not have an acceptable definition of religion. Universities shy away from hiring specialists in religion and we, as a society, and, more restrictively, as an academy, can’t agree on what religion is. Is atheism a religious belief system? Some would argue that it is, and that it shouldn’t be the default stance—that would favor one religion. From what neuroscience seems to tell us, atheists aren’t born, they’re made. Religion, of some description, is normal human thinking.

A further issue involves both symbols and prayers. A symbol means nothing without interpretation. As I told my friend, unintentional crosses are ubiquitous. You might have to look a bit harder to find unintentional stars of David or yin-yangs, but I’m certain they exist. Without the Christian eye, however, those unintentional crosses are just architectural features or natural spaces between corners. The same applies to prayer. If I decide to speak, it is a matter of interpretation whether my words are prayers, a guy talking to himself, or, increasingly, somebody chatting on their blue tooth phone as they walk past a church. Intention, a specific aspect of interpretation, certainly plays into the sometimes coercive power of a symbol or a prayer. Do those Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn just represent a nice piece of art, or do they bear an intended message? Do intended messages not attempt to persuade others that they are true?

Smart folk like Supreme Court justices have difficulty with this issue every time. I’m not surprised. We don’t know how to quantify religion, even though most of us are pretty sure of it when we see it. Some would argue that many eastern religions are in fact philosophies. Some would claim that atheism is the opposite of religion. Atheism is not so very far from some strains of Buddhism, however. And like it or not, people are all subject to belief. We seem to like forging ahead in the darkness on this issue. State universities hide their religious studies programs like embarrassing warts. What rational person would want to waste time studying such superstition? The Supreme Court of the United States, I might point out, just for one.

Religion or not?

Religion or not?

Hungry Again

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Vampires are on my mind. The funny thing is this often is the case when I’m unemployed. Feeling lost and alone, I settled down to watch the most depressing vampire movie I know, The Hunger. Miriam Blaylock, an unaging vampire, has made her way through history by taking lovers with the promise of eternal life. As she makes her lovers vampires, they survive centuries as young people, but then suddenly age and die within days. Terribly artistic (how could it not be with David Bowie as the male lead?), the film has a very heavy atmosphere and a calculating coldness as Miriam promises her lovers that they will live forever, knowing that once the aging begins, their decaying corpses will continue to live, weak, hungry, and wanting to die. I did say that it was depressing, right? The vampire, besides feeding off the essence of others, is concerned with eternal life. Religious symbols do not affect Blaylock and her ilk—in fact, they wear knives hidden within ankhs to stab their victims. The ankh, the Egyptian sign of eternal life, is the means of death. The only way to live forever is to feed off others.

Like many of those who pay attention to society, I have been fascinated by the enduring power of the vampire. When I was a child watching Dark Shadows on TV after school, I supposed vampires were things kids were interested in—the adults I knew had other things on their minds. As my generation grew, however, the vampire grew along with us. We had Interview with a Vampire, Lost Boys, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, Underworld, the Twilight series, I am Legend, Van Helsing, Priest, the Vampire Diaries, and on and on and on. Why are we so fascinated with a mythological creature? The vampire is profoundly religious and deeply symbolic. Evolution endows us all with a will to survive, the desire, if you will, of eternal life. The vampire is the symbol of that hope with no constraints. We are taught, and some of us even believe, that other people have the same rights as we do. The vampire’s urges, however, overwhelm even personal conviction and we are all potential victims.

Vampirism may be the ultimate symbol of our society. When future historians look back on the late twentieth and then the twenty-first century, won’t they see a world of profoundly deep inequality? Won’t they see multiple millions being sucked dry by the reassuring words that they are “middle class”? In The Hunger, daylight, crosses and mirrors do not dissuade the undead. Miriam needs her lovers, even though it will mean an agonizing unending end for them. Promises are made, and, when broken, the lovers are too weak to fight back. And her wealth increases with every generation. I lost my job at a very profitable company. Those who remain, on top, do not suffer fear of want. I look at Miriam Blaylock and wonder what it must be like to think that way.

Hidden Messages

Symbolic gestures are among the simple pleasures of life. Unobserved, and certainly unappreciated, they comfort only those who perform them most of the time. Nevertheless, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Upon being summarily released after long-term employment at a certain institution of higher education, the day I left campus for the last time, I left a note with a Shakespeare quote tacked to my office door before literally brushing the dust from my feet as I drove through the gates never to return. The quote was from Julius Caesar, a play to which my niece had taken me that summer for a Shakespeare in the Park performance:

Let me have men about me that are fat
Sleek-headed men, such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

I have no doubts that my symbolic gesture was overlooked and the chit summarily discarded as the detritus of a warped (i.e., liberal) mind. The act, however, had been done.

Due to a booking accident, I once found myself flying first class. Those who know me will understand just how vexing this was for me. I fly quite a bit for work, and I am a populist through and through. Airlines set apart special bits of feet-darkened carpet for premium-class passengers to tread upon. They cordon off a special “lane” for the pampered class that is a nothing more than a matter of a jump to the left and a step to the right away from where those of us who wear last year’s (or decade’s) clothes board the same vehicle headed for the same destination and to which we’ll all arrive at the same time. I don’t disparage those who like receiving drinks while on the tarmac and hot towels to freshen up, and actual food on real plates while those of us before the curtain insist that there is no wizard hiding up there after all. I’m just not one of them.

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So I found myself in a leather seat with an entire cow’s worth of skin to myself. I had never been so kindly treated on a plane, with perhaps the exception of flying economy on Virgin Atlantic. I knew from the in-flight magazine that those behind me received only little pretzels and overpriced snack boxes while I was offered warm food and champagne. I pulled out my reading for the flight, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett. I’m sure nobody else noticed. But wasn’t that precisely the point?