Ideal Christmas

This blog is even open on Christmas.  I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that few read it today, but even Carl Sagan knew that launching the Pioneer plaques into the void was the smallest spark of hope.  A quark in a universe so vast that we suppose it infinite.  And even so, it makes room for us.  So, if nobody reads this on Christmas I’ll certainly understand.  If you do, and if you celebrate Christmas, a merry one to you.  Thanks for stopping by.  For some folks, I know, Christmas is a time for gathering together.  A British colleague recently remarked to me, “But Thanksgiving is the big American holiday.”  I think he meant both for family gathering and for time off work—it’s the only regular four-day weekend capitalism deigns to give to those who live between the anvil and hammer of nine and five.  But today’s Christmas, we don’t have to think about that.

For me the ideal Christmas is one hunkered down with my family and when we don’t ever have to get out of our pajamas.  A bohemian holiday when you don’t have to go outside to check the mail.  As cold as it is this year, that’s really a relief.  And it’s also a time for stories.  Most of the Christmas gifts I give require explanation.  Even if they don’t, I like to tell stories about them.  That’s the way writers roll, even us obscure ones.  Holidays are based on stories and are made up of stories.  Those we tell only to our families are the most intimate kind.  You see, the brain doesn’t stop working just because it’s a holiday.  So all the books bear witness.

Although it’s too early to tell (the sun isn’t up yet), we might just eke out a white Christmas around here.  In eastern Pennsylvania we managed to avoid the worst of the massive storm that ruined holiday plans for many.  At the tail end of the rain, and at the knife’s edge of the frigid air, come a dusting of snow.  The temperatures have kept low, so if the sun hasn’t managed to warm the still green grass enough, we may see some white today.  It seems we have Bing Crosby to blame for this particular dream.  Christmas isn’t predictably white around here, and global warming only makes it less so.  But this is a holiday, and we don’t need to think about that.  I know not many will read this post, but if you are one of the few, and if this day is special to you, celebrate it for all it’s worth.


Holding Still

For some people today is the start of the “holiday season.”  Thanksgiving begins what often becomes a rush up until Christmas.  Moods tend to be more festive, if not carefree.  As for me, I always save up vacation days so that I can make my own mini “semester break” late in December.  From the onset of the holiday season I can see far enough to be able to make it through the rest of the year.  For me the season seems to begin at Halloween.  It’s not a federal holiday and I don’t know anyone who gets Halloween off of work, but I take holidays seriously, and Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are all anticipated days.  And in the spirit of the day, I’m thinking of the many things for which I’m thankful.

Family, friends, and health go without saying.  I really don’t need a holiday to remind me to be grateful for these things.  This year I’m thankful to have made it back from Denver unscathed.  Since it was over twelve hours of travel (less than three of those hours spent in flight) to get home, it was a long, weary, mask-wearing day of travel.  Denver Airport is nearly an hour from downtown.  The American Airlines agent was able to get me an earlier flight to Chicago.  My reading was disrupted by sleepiness and the fact that the woman next to me was watching Jordan Peele’s Nope on her laptop.  I’ve been meaning to watch it again, so I hope I wasn’t obvious when I didn’t strictly observe the custody of my eyes.  The most grueling part, however, was the four-hour layover in Chicago’s O’Hare.  

No matter what the owners do, there’s a limit to how comfortable airport waiting can be.  You have to keep a constant eye on your bags.  Very, very few people are wearing masks.  And two days before Thanksgiving is a busy travel day with people trying to avoid the busiest travel day of the year (yesterday).  I’m thankful to have gotten home and not to have been too much the worse for the wear.  And I’m thankful to spend a day not having to wear a mask.  It’s funny how having to wear one for five straight days all day long can become a point of dread.  I like being able to take a drink of water without having to pull down a mask.  Returning to life as usual will take some adjustment—it always does.  So much travel after spending years not doing it is a bit of a shock to the system.  I’m reminded of one of the most colourful place names we encountered in the highlands of Scotland, and it is my theme this Thanksgiving: Rest and Be Thankful.

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Not Shopping

Santa Claus arrived at the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday.  I actually began seeing Christmas paraphernalia in stores before Halloween.  It feels like we could really use Christmas this year.  We all thought 2020 was a difficult year and 2021 hasn’t been much easier.  The capitalist response—so shallow, but it’s all we’re left with—is to shop to make yourself feel better.  Sometimes it’s the simple things: time off work, time with family, time for reading, time itself.  Time heals most things.  People, however, aren’t the most patient of creatures.  Our desires seem so urgent and cash or credit seems to offer a way of achieving them.  Black Friday is entirely from the business perspective.  A day off work to get people out and spending.  Outspending.

Black Friday has traditionally been one of my favorite days for staying home, reading and writing.  Indeed, Thanksgiving is the only annual four-day weekend most of us are given.  I haven’t used this day for shopping.  Crowds are about and so is an insidious virus that we can’t seem to contain.  It feels more comfy and secure to stay in my drafty house and use the time to recover from the capitalism that dominates the rest of my days.  A day to not shop.  A day to think.  The idea of having quiet holidays to ground oneself seems like a progressive idea.  We all find our own ways of centering, even if we don’t call it that.  For some I suppose that’s shopping, but that’s just not me.

This year I’m spending the day with extended family in Iowa.  I flew out on the busiest travel day of the year to ground myself in the heartland.  It’s a day I need not work and I need not shop.  I find my meaning elsewhere this Black Friday.  The term began with a negative connotation, referring to workers in the early fifties calling in sick that day in order to get a four-day weekend.  It was also used in the next decade to describe the traffic congestion as people went out to start their shopping.  It was really only in the eighties that the term took on its current meaning of a day when retailers go into the black by earning profits from the influx of cash the day brings.  Santa had come the previous day and wallets were open and those with the day off work wanted to spend it spending.  I’m here in Iowa, glad to be avoiding the stores and the contagion, and enjoying the quiet of not having to clock in.


Flight Path

It’s been some time since I was on a plane.  Or in a hotel.  These things seem strange and foreign to me now.  Covid-19 is now a fixture in life and we, as humans typically do, have adjusted.  Of course I was flying for Thanksgiving on the busiest travel day of the year.  Seeing all those people standing in line at 4:30 a.m. at the airport made my lifestyle seem a little less weird.  I’m used to being up at this time.  They did have to de-ice the plane at Lehigh Valley International Airport.  I’ve never been on a plane that was taking a shower before.  I also didn’t touch anything but my book.  And it seemed that those who “don’t believe in” masking weren’t making a fuss because you can’t win an argument with the FAA. I’m thankful for that.

I’d almost forgotten how to fly.  On the first leg of the journey I was the only one whose “hand-held device” was made of paper.  Connecting out of O’Hare, however, quite a few more books made an appearance.  I sit in front of a device all day at work, so on a rare day off I don’t really want to have to stare at a screen.  Although the total air time was under four hours I brought seven books in my personal item.  I finished one of them (the longest) on the trip.  I still have plenty of choices for the flight home on the weekend.  Thanksgiving, even more than Christmas, is the time for family gatherings.  We’re all vaccinated on this side, so it feels mostly safe.

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful that no turkeys were harmed on my account.  If you knew how “thanksgiving turkeys” are raised it’d put you off your feed, as the saying goes.  I’m also thankful that travel is possible, even if with added restrictions.  Frankly, I’m glad for them.  Anti-vaxxers don’t seem to realize that it’s not just themselves they’d be protecting, but others as well.  Vaccines and masks aren’t just about selfish desires.  Last year we couldn’t even consider traveling.  Covid-19 has changed the way we do things, perhaps permanently.  We can be thankful that we learn to adjust.  I’m no fan of crowds, but there was something a bit exhilarating about being among other goal-oriented individuals all focused on being with loved ones.  It gives me renewed faith in humanity, and that is something for which to be thankful.


Rest and Be Thankful

Many years on Thanksgiving I find myself distressed.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for all the good things in my life—and they are more than I regularly stop to count—but life has a way of tossing reality bombs into the mix.  This year, though, there is much for which I’m feeling particularly grateful.  Family and friends foremost.  Fairly good health and a day or two off work.  These are all wonderful.  This year gave us a couple more great gifts: the rejection of a leader who always and only thought of himself and convinced millions that he cared for their interests and beliefs.  A “leader” who refused to acknowledge defeat but just this week began a transition that should’ve begun nearly three weeks ago.  Many are inexpressibly thankful for this.

Although on a much smaller scale, I’m thankful for Nightmares.  Nightmares with the Bible, that is.  Although it’s expensive (I’ll thankfully give a discount code to all askers), it is with a publisher that will promote it better than Holy Horror.  It was a very pleasant surprise to receive the book before Thanksgiving, even with its Halloweenish theme.  Anyone who puts years of their life into a project knows the gratitude in seeing it come to fruition.  Nightmares was a labor of love and I hope all who venture to read it will be thankful that they did.  I know I”m grateful for having lots of other book ideas.  That’s one area where there’s a substantial surplus.

Like many people I’m becoming aware of the dark under-narrative to the American Thanksgiving myth.  What we were presented in state-sanctioned school curricula was a story of grateful pilgrims wanting to share abundance with the American Indians.  History shows that their motivations in colonizing were actually subjugation and making slaves of the indigenous people, something we now recognize as a form of evil.  Such lessons are difficult to learn as an adult when the holiday has so many happy, cozy memories associated with it.  We have just been through four years of national chaos in which “othering” became a wedge intended to fracture the fragile unity of this country.  Yes, the guilt is real.  We cannot, or at least should not, deny what history reveals about our motives.  Instead we should widen our tables.  Invite others to join us.  (Virtually this year.)    And be truly thankful for the many good things—some very large, and others very small—which we have.


Leaping Years

Maybe it’s just me, but February seems long this year.  Wait, it’s leap year!  But that doesn’t explain it all.  Today may be a gimme—another day in what has already been a long year—but the calendrical weirdness began with the dates of our moveable feasts last year.  Thanksgiving fell as late as it possibly could—November 28.  Since it is the fourth Thursday of the month, and the latest fourth of any day is the 28th, there can never be less time between Thanksgiving and Christmas than there was in 2019.  For those of us who measure time by the days off work we’re allotted, the holiday season felt rushed.  And since New Year’s Day fell on a Wednesday, HR departments all over were scrambling to figure out how to make it a long weekend.  Wednesday is the Easter Island of holiday dates—too far from land to reach any second day.

By the time we could kick up our heels for a weekend it was already two work days into the new decade and business really began in earnest only on January 6.  Epiphany, according to those who follow circumcision-style New Year.  January ended on a Friday, and had this not been a leap year, so would’ve February.  A month with 28 days, after all, is a proper lunar-based one.  The other months were lengthened to stoke the egos of emperors and others who thought they were lords of time as well as space.  But this year we’ve ended up with an extra day of February.  I want to use it well, and as I look at my list of things to get done on a weekend (generally far longer than my list of things that I accomplish in a work week), I begin to think maybe this should be a holiday (and I don’t mean that sexist Sadie Hawkins tradition).  But it’s already a weekend, so HR’s off the hook.  This time.

We could use a few more holidays.  Every January I look at the sparse allocations of days off for the coming year.  There are normally ten of them, spread unevenly across twelve months.  There are long spells when, if you need a mental break from work you have to cash in precious vacation days.  Leap years make the total number of days even longer.  You get an extra work day but not an extra holiday.  Our lives revolve around our special occasions.  Yes, there’s not really a “holy day” to correspond to the necessary intercalary day to help us keep up with the sun.  Still, it feels like a missed opportunity to me.


Thanks for the Giving


The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food.  I object, on more than one level, to calling it “Turkey Day.”  No, the wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food, but rather the universal aspect of the holiday.  From Fundamentalist to atheist, everyone can be thankful and we all have things for which to be thankful.  The holiday may have begun in a Christian milieu, but you need not believe in a God in the sky to give thanks.  We can thank one another, we can thank the universe, we can thank whatever powers that be, or we can simply be thankful, no matter to whom.  As I write this in the early morning hours, I’m thankful for being home after spending several days on the west coast.  Hearing the November wind howling outside, I’m thankful for this warm cup of coffee.  I’m thankful for the ingathering of family.  There’s so much goodwill today.

Thankfulness leads to a kind of optimism.  Thankful people can perhaps see that we need not hate others to feel good about ourselves.  I think of Thanksgiving as a feeling of love and acceptance.  Perhaps more than any other holiday.  I’ve heard people of many religions and backgrounds wishing others a happy Thanksgiving.  Would that all holidays could be so accepting!  Of course, holidays themselves have their origins in religions.  Were it not for beliefs, one day would be the same as any other.  There are religions that refuse to celebrate holidays, but when critics become too harsh on religious beliefs I’m thankful to remind them that they have religion to thank for both holidays and weekends.  We could all use a break.

Thanksgiving comes at different times in different countries.  In some places no equivalent holiday exists.  There are secular holidays, of course.  The very concept, though, of a “holy day” comes from that great generator of calendars—religion.  As chronologically challenged as I am (I can’t figure out time changes or time zones or even what time it is anywhere non-local) I often think of the marking of time and how a religious impulse started our species doing so.  Sure, it may have been the urge to start planting, or the awareness that the herds of prey were moving on, but in those early days such things were infused with religious significance.  And when calendars became canonical, there were religious impulses present to drive it.  So, in a way, it is good to be thankful even for religions—as problematic as they can be—on this Thanksgiving.  


Post Thanksgiving

Yesterday morning, like many others mesmerized by the commercialization of holidays, I had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television.  I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but I know that growing up poor we used to watch this, and that my wife’s family, from different circumstances, also watched it.  The friends with whom we ate our main meal watched it, and given the advertising revenues, I imagine many other people tune in every year as part of the holiday tradition.  What struck me were the testimonials just before or after the commercial breaks.  Celebrities shared what they liked about the holiday and many of them, unsurprisingly, focused on food.  Many indicated that overeating was pleasurable.  I began to think of what it means to be a nation of foodies.

Not everyone is of a cenobitic sensibility, but focusing on the food seems to be paying more attention to the finger pointing at the moon than to the moon itself.  Commercials for television shows of sweaty, nervous chefs wanting to be recognized as the best cooks in the world struck me as somewhat decadent.  Like many professionals I’ve had occasion to eat in “fine restaurants” from time to time.  Do I remember the food for long afterward?  No.  More often I recall the people I was with.  What we talked about.  The food, chefs may be pained to hear, was incidental.  There were deeper issues afoot.  If the internet’s any indication, I’m in the minority here.  Foodies rule.

Special foods on holidays are, naturally enough, a holiday tradition.  Many have their origins in the changing foodstuffs available as the seasons wend their way through their invariable cycle.  Thanksgiving is like the ancient festivals of ingathering—the celebration of plenty ahead of the lean months of living on what we’ve managed to store for the season when winter reigns.  Some animals cope by hibernating until food becomes available again.  Others scavenge their way through chilly, snow-covered days.  Gluttony, however, isn’t primarily a sin against one’s body; it’s the sin of taking more than one’s fair share.  Unequal distribution of wealth is a national sin that grows worse each year.  On Thanksgiving there are many people who don’t have enough to eat.  Jobs can be lost through no fault of one’s own, and want can haunt late November just as readily as jouissance.  Driving home we passed a shopping mall brimming with cars after darkness had fallen.  The larger holiday of Black Friday had begun.


Spinning Wheels

That warm, secure feeling of being home for the holidays never goes away. Admittedly Thanksgiving takes on a different cast for those of us who are vegetarians becoming vegan, but it’s not about the food, really. It’s never been only just about the food. Thankfulness as a way of life seems to hard to obtain when your own government has turned against all the principles that once made America a wonderful nation in which to have been born, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful. As a commuter, I’m especially thankful for time. Each day’s normally spent riding a bus, working, and riding again. Over the past several days I took a train to Boston for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, and then a long train ride back. Followed by a single-day drive to Ithaca and back. I’m thankful for a little time not to be on the move.

Among the many memories for which I’m grateful is a mountain road that divides Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe in Scotland. Known for its splendid view, it’s one of many places that I have had the privilege of visiting. Although sitting still, here in my chair, I recall yet another busy day of driving with friends. Poor graduate students all, we nevertheless knew the value of good company and taking little for granted. As someone who grew up poor, I had managed to move to Boston, travel to Israel and work on a dig, and now I was living in Edinburgh, working toward a doctorate in one of the world’s great universities. That afternoon, however, I was out viewing what the wider world had to offer. The name of the viewpoint on the A83—from which that world all seemed visible—was “Rest and Be Thankful.”

The name speaks volumes. New Jersey certainly isn’t Scotland. My job is not that for which I trained. I continue to live as if I were a graduate student while friends have purchased houses and furnished them nicely. Today none of that matters. I’m not on a bus, train, or plane. I’m not glued to my seat in an automobile. I’m thankful to have some time to sit and reflect. Catch up, perchance, on a little bit of sleep. Unstructured time is perhaps the rarest commodity in a capitalistic society. Today I have it in relative abundance. No turkeys have lost their lives on my account and I’m able to rest and be thankful. There’s still a long way to go, but for today I’ll enjoy family and stillness. And I am thankful.


Holiday Season

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I stop to think about what holidays really do. “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs have popped up like winter dandelions as Trump signs consider to litter the landscape. Thanksgiving, however, gave me the opportunity to forget about all of this for a while. The culture of signs. Signs telling us we must bow down and worship. The holidays signal a season when it is okay to hibernate and forget that more powerful forces out there may wish you harm. Part of the trouble is that those who are coming sometimes can’t see beyond their own interests. Perhaps what I do for a living conflicts with the job I’m paid to do. Conscience dictates that one or the other must go. But conscience is such an old fashioned idea.

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The holidays start with Thanksgiving, but it is now the Monday after. Those in liturgical traditions of Christianity will note that we are in Advent, a season of anticipation. I do wonder what we’re anticipating. Perhaps it’s because Thanksgiving came and went in a blur of travel weariness this year. The few days when commuting wasn’t an issue were the opportunity to stay still for a while and not look at news feeds and reflect on all we’re thankful for. I started hearing Christmas carols in stores shortly after Halloween. We’re entering the season of money in a country in love with lucre. Take a close look and see what lies in that manger.

Most years the stretch of dark months of November through January are accompanied by a sense of peace. Human beings loving each other and getting along. I guess I’ve been away from the news for a few days. I know there was a Black Friday last week. I also know that money has a strange way of funneling upward, a kind of osmosis of Mammon. On my quiet strolls I wonder what we, as a country, truly value. On the highway stuck in traffic with thousands of others returning home, I try to think that in these metal shells are living, breathing, loving human beings. Many of them only trying to get ahead. We’re all in a rush since there’s so much to do before we allow ourselves another holiday. Wouldn’t life be better with more days for reflection? I’d rather not politicize the holiday. Keeping Christ in Christmas seems to be asking for one not to forget the offering plate. I’m wondering about those sleeping in the street not far from Trump Tower. I’m wondering what ever became of conscience.


Abundance

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A few weeks before Leonard Cohen died I saw a story on how his song “Hallelujah” had been done to death. Covered and recovered, it seemed to be on every cover artist’s playlist. It is a haunting song, however, and the notion of a cold and broken hallelujah feels somehow appropriate this Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong—I am thankful for more things than I can name or would care to share with complete strangers on the internet. In fact, when I literally tried to find a job in Canada in anticipation of a horrible November surprise, one of my immediate regrets was that I’d no longer have American Thanksgiving to celebrate. Thanksgiving, to me, has been images of a cozy indoors with special food while the chill takes over outside. Two days in a row off of work. Sleeping until I’m not tired any more rather than waking according to schedule, no matter how troubling the night might have been. In short, feeling safe and secure in a world growing colder.

Since the first week of November the iciness has been growing more intense. I know it’s the circles I go around in—and perhaps they are small enough to call them semi-circles—but I have seen more sad and depressed and scared faces in the past weeks than I have seen in my previous half-century on this planet. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and even vegetarians look forward to something special by way of fancy nourishment. But it feels like a cold and broken hallelujah to me. Entrepreneurs have already been reminding us that tomorrow is Black Friday. We should get our game-faces on and our credit cards out and head to our favorite retail establishments. Pack up our troubles in the old plastic bag and spend, spend, spend.

Thanksgiving, of course, was an originally generic religious holiday. It’s hard to give thanks without someone to, well, thank. You could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or even one of those who thanks dharma, karma, or chance. Just be glad that we’re here right now and even though the wind is gusting and there’s perhaps a bit of snow in the air, we have an indoors where nobody hostile is looking for means to exploit us any further than we wish to be exploited. That our planet, for the time being, still supports human life. And that by any measure other than the Electoral College we all really want progress and fair treatment for all. I am thankful and mindful of those who had to sacrifice to allow us the privilege of being here today. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful.


Holiday Fervor

AmericaFavHoliTime comes in different varieties. In temperate regions where the changing seasons keep the time of year for us, we tend to have seasonal holidays. Christmas and other December holidays mark the shortest days of the year with the hope that light will soon become more abundant. Spring rituals, near the time of the vernal equinox, encourage the return of fertility to the earth. Autumnal holidays mark the approach of darkness once again as the world twirls endlessly on. Summer, bright and warm, doesn’t really lend itself to so many holidays. These thoughts came back to me as I read Bruce David Forbes’s America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Forbes doesn’t cover all the special days, but focuses on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. These are five holidays marked, in some sense, by spending. They are often, although Forbes doesn’t really spend too much time on it, the focal point of cultural wars where various Christian groups wish to reclaim a certain day for its “rightful heritage.”

One of the real values of books like America’s Favorite Holidays is that it is clear that these claims of “keeping Christ in Christmas” and its kin are samples of collective amnesia. Many “Christmas” traditions predated Christianity. Others developed concurrent with it, but in “pagan” contexts. Christmas trees, for example, didn’t originate in the latitudes of Bethlehem. The same may be said for just about any holiday. Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, of the five explored, are the lone exceptions. These are fairly recent holidays and neither one marks a solstice or equinox. They celebrate aspects of life we value, making them sacred time. Don’t expect to get Valentine’s Day off of work, however. Capitalism never makes room for love.

Christmas, of course, is the holiday most under dispute. All holidays may be commercialized, but for Christmas spending is central. Forbes insightfully shows that Christmas is, and may always have been, both a cultural holiday and a religious holiday. The cultural aspect of the season is the one that most people celebrate. The birth of Jesus—which we are fairly certain was not in December—was a latter add-on. A baptism, if you will, of a pre-existing holiday. The winter solstice holiday is a staple of cultures in climes where the difference in available light and warmth is appreciable. It marks the point of the year when things start getting better. Yes, the real cold of winter has not yet set in, and there will be months of snow and ice. Still, once the solstice is passed, there is more light to help us cope. Celebrating sacred time, whether secular or not, is the natural reaction of people who crave light over darkness.


To Whom? For What?

Thanksgiving remains one of the few relatively uncommercialized holidays. Not tied to a specific religion, but with a general sense that gratitude is important, there’s nothing really to sell. Grocery stores may see a bump in profits, but we need to eat every day, so this is only a matter of degree. The icons of Halloween quickly transform to those of Christmas and even Thanksgiving begins to pale next to Black Friday as companies give employees the only four-day weekend of the entire year. Without money changing hands what can there possibly be to celebrate?

The strident question of to whom one is thankful is graciously subsumed under that of for what. History has demonstrated that the relative abundance that we enjoy in matters of gustatory gifts is indeed not to be taken for granted. Droughts are realities. Dustbowls and depressions occur. In many parts of the world starvation is stark reality. Having enough—even too much—to eat is less a sign of blessing for good behavior than it is an obligation to help others. Want is a specter that no one can debunk. The homeless here in a land of plenty remind us that holidays are truly opportunities to be thankful. Thankful simply for being able to get by. Not for what we buy.

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Holidays have their origins in religion. They may wander far from their foundations, but we have religions to thank for every day there’s a break in the routine of trooping into the office for yet another stint of work. Days when staying home is acceptable and spending is purely optional. The stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving is long. This goal can only be reached by a frame of mind rather than a state of one’s bank account. Having a day when money falls from focus is cause for thankfulness indeed.


Thank You

Comments being rare on this blog, I do read them when they come along. Recently I had a reader comment, in the form of a question (as sometimes happens): “Do Native American Indians do ‘Thanksgiving’?” Although I’m fairly certain this was intended as a rhetorical question, I was raised a literalist and couldn’t help trying to formulate an answer. Although I can make no claims to know Native American culture well (I wish I did) it led me to ponder the concept of Thanksgiving. No doubt the idea had at least informal religious beginnings. Even with the early European settlers, a religious diversity was already appearing. Still, although the Native Americans lost pretty much everything, they were still involved, at least according to the early accounts. The great spirit they thanked was not likely conceived of in the way that the god of the pilgrims was, and yet, thankfulness is a natural human response. Writers, often fully aware that their work deserves publication, frequently thank an editor for accepting it. It’s a deeply rooted biological response.

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For some of us, Thanksgiving is more about having time to recuperate after non-stop work for about ten months. The standard business calendar gives the occasional long weekend, but after New Year’s the only built-in four-day weekend is Thanksgiving. It is that oasis we see in the distance as we crawl through the desert sand. Time to be together with those we love rather than those we’re paid to spend time with. To rest and be thankful.

Among the highlands of Argyll, in western Scotland, is the picturesque Glen Croe. Years ago, driving with friends through the rugged scenery of boulders and heather, the little car struggled with its burden of four passengers. We stopped at a viewpoint known as “Rest and Be Thankful.” The name derives from an inscription left by soldiers building the Drover’s road in 1753, at the highest point in the climb. The Jacobite movement and the Killing Time had instilled considerable religious angst to the Scotland of the previous century and led to the calamity of Culloden less than a decade before the road was laid. These religious differences led to excessive bloodshed throughout a realm supposedly unified by the monarchy. Even though no natives protested displacement, religion led to hatred and mistrust, as it often does. Is not Rest and Be Thankful, however, for everyone, no matter their faith or ethnicity? And in case anyone is wondering, yes, this rhetorical question contains a metaphor to contemplate. Rest and be thankful.


Bleak Friday

Among the high holy days of capitalism, Black Friday stands as a beacon for those in the service of Mammon. It seems that we’ve taken the basic process of fair trade and constructed from it an über-religion based on getting more for less. Certainly in my little world of academic publishing I’ve encountered those who believe marketing a book is far more important than what it actually says. Ironically, my last two publishing jobs were located through LinkedIn. LinkedIn allows you to put your professional life online and those who shop for souls are free to “find” you, read about your accomplishments, and even occasionally contact you with employment options. It may not work for everyone, but it has for me. LinkedIn will also email you with opportunities, and this Black Friday as I opened my email I discovered that the top article they’d selected for me was entitled, “How Neuroscience Is Key to Successful Marketing Strategies.” Welcome to the temple of Mammon.

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Neuroscience has been as fascinating to me as it can be to a layperson. Since we all encounter the world through the gateway of our brains, we stand to learn a lot through its study. Of course, my mind always goes to the deeper questions: what can we learn about religious belief through neuroscience? What can the study of the brain reveal to us about reality? Will this science eventually reveal to us that more than brains are involved in the pure, raw experience of the ultimate? Of course, you can also use this study to figure out how to make a buck. We are so eager to make money that we’ll open stores on the prototypical family holiday itself, before the turkey is even digested. Try to corral the stampedes in a day early, and the great god Mammon smiles. We consume, therefore we are.

If you want to shop, someone has to be on duty. The worker might be enticed from her or his family by the prospect of “time and a half” pay. It might sound tempting, but I ask what the baseline cost really is. We’ve known since at least the days of the Charlie Brown Christmas and the original Grinch that happiness does not accompany owning more stuff. As a society we’ve promoted materialism so heavily that we are left feeling empty without the urge to buy making us feel like we’re accomplishing something important. I still find learning new things more satisfying than buying new things. Ironically, just below the neuroscience article, LinkedIn suggests I read “The End of the Public University?” It seems to me that Black Friday might have more than a single connotation. Of course, I’ll have to check in with Mammon on that; the smart money’s on the most demanding god.