The Eve before Christmas

Even as we sit here on Christmas Eve, the work week finally over, my thoughts go to those who celebrate different holidays.  Or none at all.  Cultural Christians may find it difficult to believe that some sects—thinking themselves strictly biblical—observe no holidays.  Not even birthdays, some of them.  You may be doubting the accuracy of that statement, but my second college roommate was one of them.  He believed any holiday was idolatrous, and celebrating birthdays self aggrandizing.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that he can’t be found online.  Many of us, some without reflecting much on it, have been preparing for tomorrow for many weeks.  The older I get, for me it’s really the time off work I treasure.  It’s so rare, and more precious than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Like many people, I associate Christmas with music.  One of the songs—not really a Christmas carol—that has become seasonal by its inclusion on Pentatonix’s album That’s Christmas to Me, is “White Winter Hymnal.”  The song is a cover of a haunting song by Fleet Foxes, a folk band, who included it on their debut album, the eponymous Fleet Foxes.  If you’re not familiar with it you can find it here, along with the official video.  The claymation short portrays a group of old men outdoors watching time pass.  One of them begins to crank a drive that makes them younger as time reverses.  When he reaches that point (please forgive the sexist language) “when a man becomes a boy once again” (from another winter song), he releases the handle and the men rapidly reach the age they were when the song began.  Time is the greatest gift.

As the decades press on, their weight increases.  Dreams of what, as a young man, I hoped to accomplish slip away facing the grinding reality of capitalism.  The need to have money to spend for Christmas presents.  And food and shelter.  But mostly books.  Writing takes time.  Writing well takes a tremendous amount of time.  Time for reading, reflecting, and even listening to music.  Christmas Eve is all about waiting.  We hope for a quiet, if cold, tomorrow when maybe the phone and email will cease to solicit money and time, if only for a day.  I have to remind myself that not everyone recognizes Christmas.  For some it’s simply the season to make money.  I, weak as I am, cannot imagine life without it.  And so I watch the skies, eagerly straining my eyes for the light.


Dedication

Formulas are convenient, even if they don’t always work.  I’m thinking specifically of areas I know, such as writing.  And I compare this against the advice of those who do it for a living.  How do you know you’ve made it (and it has nothing to do with not being paid for it, although I suspect that’s in the back of everyone’s mind)?  One formula I’ve heard is the hundred-thousand-word rule.  Write a hundred-thousand words then throw them away.  After that you’re a writer.  I passed that particular benchmark decades ago, but it hasn’t really led to any income (so it comes to money again).  Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell’s more stringent hundred-thousand-hour rule.  To be an expert, you need to do the activity (say writing) for a hundred-thousand hours.  

Let’s try to break that down because big numbers can be scary.  Presuming it’s not your job—remember this point—those hours, if you can spend an hour a day on what you really love—translate to twenty-seven years.  You’ve got to add a decade or so for childhood, I suspect, when, in my case, you were simply doing stupid things and being amazed you’d survived them.  There’s a certain amount of maturity required.  So, let’s say you started writing when you were ten.  If you did it an hour a day without fail by the time you’re thirty-seven you should be an expert.  But are you?  What if circumstances dictate that you can’t dedicate a full hour a day?  One of the most influential teachers in my life said that it was a matter of constancy, not duration.  “Write every day,” was his advice, “even if it’s just for fifteen minutes.”  According to the Gladwell formula, that’d take over a century to become an expert.  But it’s more doable.

Life is busy.  Remember work?  It will end up eating up far more than forty hours every week.  And if you’ve decided you’d like to read once in a while—other writers suggest that the key to success in writing is reading—that too will cut into your time.  If you belong to any community organizations, because people like to see other people once in a while, or if you have a family, and if you like to eat and sleep, time soon gets fractured.  What all these formulas have in common is the idea of dedication.  If you want to be an expert, do what you love and do it as much as you can.  Yes, there will be obstacles.  And you might not be able to tell when you’ve arrived.  But at least you’ve enjoyed the time you spent getting there.


Fragmented

The existentialists, remember, used to put scenes in their plays to remind you that you were indeed watching a play.  In keeping with their philosophy, there was no reason to fool yourself.  Meanwhile, movies seldom break the fourth wall, immersing you in a story that, if done right, will keep your eyes firmly on the screen.  With home based media, however, we’ve all become existentialists.  (Of course, some of us had made that move before the internet even began.)  When we watch movies we always have that “pause” button nearby in case an important call, text, or tweet comes through.  We can always rejoin it later.  Life has become so fractured, so busy, that an unbroken two hours is a rarity.  I see the time-stamps on my boss’s emails.

While the existentialist side of me wants to nod approvingly, another part of me says we’ve lost something.  What does it mean to immerse ourselves into a story?  I know that when I put a book down it feels like unraveling threads at the site of a fresh tear in the fabric of consciousness.  Even the short story often has to be finished in pieces.  Poe, who knew much, wrote that short stories should be read in a single sitting.  All of mine have bookmarks tucked into them.  For a fiction-writer-wannabe like me, you need to feed the furnace.  To write short stories, you have to read short stories.  Novels must be spread over several weeks.  Some can take months.  I would like long novels again if time weren’t so short.  Presses are even encouraging authors to write short books.  Readers want things in snippets.

Perhaps all this fragmentation is why I enjoy jigsaw puzzles so much.  Part of the thrill is remembering several places in the picture simultaneously.  Being able to pick up where you left off.  I limit my puzzle work to the period of the holidays when I can take more than one day off work in a row and the lawn doesn’t require attention and those trees that you just can’t seem to get rid of don’t require monitoring.  But puzzles are designed for interruption.  Movies and short stories are intended to engage you for a limited, unbroken period.  The real problem is that we’ve allowed our time to become so fragmented.  A creative life will always leave several things undone by its very nature.  Other forces, mostly economic, will demand more and more time.  The best response, it seems to me, is to be existentialist about it.


Short-Changed

Time often feels short.  When we back it up against the pencil marks on the doorpost we find it seems to shrink with its own passing.  It is nevertheless relentless.  This shows especially with daily tasks, such as the posts on this blog, which leave enormous piles of writing behind.  I used to print every entry I wrote but I had to stop because there were too many.  There are now well over 4,500 of them and yet time keeps going and each day demands its sacrifice.  It’s that way with other daily tasks too.  It’s staggering, for example, to think of just how much food you eat in a lifetime.  It makes sense of why we struggle against that middle-age bulge.  Little bits add up.  I suspect that’s why the news can feel overwhelming at times.  It just keeps piling on.

If I’d chosen to study journalism—I really didn’t know what it was, despite being co-editor of my high school newspaper—I might’ve reached the point of being paid for my writing by now.  Even with my published fiction stories (and two of my nonfiction books) no money has ever changed hands.  I know from editorial board meetings that journalists expect pay for what many of us give away for free.  Writing is funny that way.  The best way to improve is to practice, and so I spend time each day writing blog posts, as well as content for books and articles and fiction stories.  As I said, there’s quite a pile.

Time is relentless.  It’s also in short supply.  The marking of each passing day with writing is a reminder of just how quickly the sand slips through the glass.  Other tasks go neglected for writers, which is, I expect, why we appreciate being paid for our work.  But just imagine if we were paid for reading.  What if every book read brought in say, in today’s economy, $1,000.  Would we be a more literate society then, valuing the work of writing?  For nonfiction editorial boards note the difference between professors, who are paid to do other things (and paid pretty well, considering), and journalists who live by the pen.  I have another job, helping other writers get published.  I suppose that means I have less time to do my own writing.  Time and writing are engaged in a complex dance which, when viewed from a distance, may look beautiful.  And when the dance is done you’ll find another piece of paper to add to the pile, regardless of whether it has monetary value or not.


925

Sometimes you just know.  One of the things I know is that nine-to-five schedules are killers.  Literally.  I grew my permanent teeth as a teacher.  Before that I had been set on being a minister.  Something they have in common is that neither profession relies on a nine-to-five schedule.  The hours are much longer than a forty-hour work week, but they’re flexible.  If you’re not in class, or in church, or a committee meeting, or your office hours, you can dash out to the store if you need to.  You can shut your eyes for a few minutes if you didn’t sleep well the night before.  As long as you get your work done adequately, nobody really bothers you about your time.  My initiation into the nine-to-five, in my mid-forties, was a shock from which I’ve never quite recovered.

A few years into this unnatural territory, my nine-to-five (925 is quicker to type) evolved into the commuting variety.  I didn’t live terribly near New York City, so that meant catching a very early bus.  I’m a morning person, so that’s not really a concern.  The problem is that my brain’s not a 925 brain.  Like one of my professors, I still awake at 1:30 (having gone to bed about five hours before) with an idea that won’t let me go.  When that happens you have to put on heavy layers of clothes against the night’s low thermostat and make your way downstairs to the computer.  By three a.m. your body’s in the fully awake commute mode.  Thing is, you’ve got a 925 day in front of you.  When I was teaching I’d be able to snooze again before even my eight o’clock class (I was never one to object to the early shift) began.

The idea behind the 925 is an atavistic throwback to pre-internet days.  Pre-pandemic days.  Days when you had to be watched to ensure you were working.  When you had to sit in a cubicle where nobody and everybody can see you.  If you’re not staring at your screen or not in a meeting you’re not working.  So this antiquated thinking goes.  Teachers and ministers don’t hold to regular hours.  They identify with their jobs—the very definition of “professional.”  If it’s what you’re born to do you don’t complain.  And if you happen to awake at 1:30 with an idea that just has to be expressed, those who pay you will understand if you yawn a time or two the next day when, ideally, you won’t be stuck staring at a screen.


That Time Again

Where’d it go?  I could swear I left an hour sitting right here on the table, and now it’s gone.  That’s the feeling of waking up the day of Daylight Saving Time.  Sure, it’ll stay light later now, but the mornings, when hope is most necessary, are once again dark.  It’s funny how we play with time.  I’ve known many people who love the end of Daylight Saving Time because of the illusion that they’ve gained another hour of sleep.  In fact, it’s just a deferred payment.  The great time-keeper in the sky won’t be cheated.  So—pardon my yawn—we’re adjusting again.  One of the great mysteries of this is that keeping Daylight Saving Time permanent has strong bi-partisan support in the US government.  It never becomes law, however, because riders are constantly attached to it, making one side or the other back out.  And so we all spend a couple weeks trying to get our circadian rhythms to adjust.  Again.

I’ve often wondered about the timing for this change.  Why Sunday morning?  In this nation that likes to pretend to be Christian, it’s a regular joke that folks in pre-pandemic times would miss church, having forgot to set their clocks ahead.  One incredibly busy Sunday in Edinburgh, my wife and I had missed church altogether.  I’m thinking it must’ve been in the final throes of getting my dissertation finished.  When supper-time rolled around we found we were out of some ingredients and we went to the local grocery to find, of all things, it was closed early.  It was only then that we had to stop and laugh at ourselves.  We’d just spent an entire day out of joint with time and didn’t even know it.  In pre-internet days it was possible for that to happen.

Most of our clocks now set themselves automatically.  I still wear an old-fashioned analogue watch.  I need to set it manually, which keeps me on my toes when Daylight Saving Time approaches.  O yes, and the clocks in the cars are off—they’re not wired in that way, being older models.  And the one on the microwave.  I can always use my phone for the accurately predetermined time on which we all agree to operate.  Even if the morning skies, which were starting to be light at six now stay dark until seven.  In another month we’ll catch up again.  And Daylight Saving Time, instead of being a strange intrusion, like most unwanted guests, will begin to feel like normal.


Winter Waiting

The waiting, as Tom Petty knew, is the hardest part.  Along the slow turning of the wheel of the year it’s now light enough to go jogging before work.  That won’t last, however, because Daylight Saving Time is imminent and will set us back a month in the illumination department.  Also I haven’t been able to jog because the massive snowstorm we had a couple weeks back dumped over two feet of snow on the jogging trail and it hasn’t melted yet.  I miss it.  The jogging, I mean.  I’ve become one of those people who never the leave the house and I see how difficult it is just waiting.  Waiting for the snow to melt.  Waiting for the vaccine.  Waiting for the light.

I’m no psychologist, but I have to wonder if that isn’t one of the greatest stresses faced by the many stir-crazy people who’ve been shut-ins for pretty much a year now.  For us this snowstorm took away the little mobility we had.  Getting out daily for a constitutional put me in touch with nature, at least.  Now nature is under a thick, crusty white blanket, slumbering away.  But the birds have begun to return.  With their avian wisdom they’ve seen the end of winter.  Suddenly this past Wednesday they were here, bringing hope in their wings.  Birds have long been symbols of freedom—we’ve got a couple bald eagles in the neighborhood, reminding me of that.  A far more ancient association was that between the bird and the human soul.  The ability to soar.

We may still be mired in winter, but time is inexorable.  Relentless.  As the globe wobbles recklessly back toward the warmer seasons we need to take responsibility for our part in global warming.  Ironically these freak storms are the result of an overall warming trend.  The weakening of the jet stream that allows cold northern air to drop snow in Texas and storms to cover much of the rest of us all at the same time.  The pandemic has helped clear the air a bit.  At least we’ve rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, and we’ll try to begin undoing the damage to our planet that the last four years introduced.  It will take some time, of course.  By now we should be experts in biding our time.  The snow will melt.  The light will continue to grow.  I will get back out on that jogging path again.  But for now we wait.


Time Slip

Perhaps you’ve noticed it too, or perhaps it’s just something those of us in the strange world between Mac and PC see.  A couple of months ago I noticed something strange: the time clock on my work computer (PC) differed from that on the various Mac devices scattered about the house.  The difference was about a minute, possibly a bit less than that.  PC, symbolically, was running behind Mac time.  Now, I have no idea where either platform gets its data regarding what time it is.  I do know that I never have to set clocks anymore, and that the traditional clocks in the house all have trouble keeping up with electronic time.  Still, it is odd that time signatures that had, for many years been the same are now off by a number of seconds.

Time is a mystery.  We know it’s passing and many of us looked up suddenly a few days ago and said “How did it get to be August?”  A summer without vacations, without the usual markers, has silently and sickly slipped by.  We’re all waiting for something undefined, and time has begun to slip.  The phrase always makes me think of “The Time Warp,” and that may be more appropriate than I realize.  We live by the clock.  My jeremiad—surely not mine alone—is that I never have enough time.  The pandemic and its endless Zoom meetings have taken much of what had been a quiet, if time-stressed, life and made it a very busy time-starved life.  Meanwhile HR measures your loyalty by the hour and minute and many of us therefore overcompensate.  “Time,” Morpheus says, “is always against us.”

So you can see why I’m concerned about that missing minute.  There’s a question as to who owns it, but still, it’s another busy moment to slip into a life with barely enough time as it is.  If I perchance glance at my phone during work hours I notice the discrepancy.  Can we not agree about what time it is?  Businesses, of course, like the more conservative PC image.  Many creative types prefer the freedom and ease of use of Macs, particularly those of us who learned the computer world on one.  And since conservatives drive with a foot on the brakes it does make me wonder if they’re slowing down time or Apple is speeding it up.  The end result is the same—we don’t know what time it is anymore.  A deeply divided society can’t even agree on that, it seems.


Slow to Travel

A family friend recently died.  I was in New York City when I received the news, and I mused how recent a phenomenon this speed of information is.  The news wasn’t necessarily a shock—this friend had been experiencing failing health, he was a close friend of my grandfather—but for some reason Samuel F. B. Morse came to mind.  The story goes that Morse invented the telegraph because of his experience of being away from home when his wife died.  By the time he received the news and was able to get home by the conveyance of the day, she’s already been buried.  He set his inventive mind to improving the speed of communication over a distance.  In these days of receiving texts mere seconds after something momentous happens, it’s difficult to imagine that for the vast majority of human existence, personal news traveled slowly.

Feeling in a reflective mood I recalled how when I was in college I wrote letters home.  Yes, the telephone existed by then—don’t be so cynical!—but long distance bore a cost and college students find ways to save their money for girlfriends or spending a weekend in Pittsburgh.  News traveled more slowly.  Back before Morse, the swiftest option was the letter.  The death of a friend might take days or weeks to reach those close.  Distance in time, as well as space, may not have lessened the shock, but the immediacy of a text wasn’t there.  The death had occurred days or weeks ago.  There was nothing left to do but grieve and get on with life.  Like Samuel Morse—perhaps the only point of comparison between us—I was unable to get away immediately.  New York City isn’t easy to escape quickly.

We move swiftly and slowly at the same time.  I know news moments from the event, but this physical mass I inhabit is sluggish takes some time to get around.  Manhattan’s an island, and although it’s not Styx we’re crossing, the Hudson creates barriers enough.  Now my journey includes crossing the entire state of New Jersey before I can even reach home.  Were I to drive back to my original home, it would add another five hours at least in the car.  Sometimes I wonder if the immediacy of knowing is a blessing or a curse.  The shock is immediate and visceral.  But like an injection, the sharpness is quickly over and the dull ache sets in.  Our family friend had been suffering for some time.  Now he’s at peace.  I like to think he’s with my granddad, and that the two of them together won’t judge me too harshly for moving so slowly.


On Time

Getting to the movie theater is not only costly, but increasingly difficult to schedule. This can be problematic for someone who likes to write about movies, but the realities of the commuting life aren’t very malleable. So it was that I finally had a chance to watch Arrival, on the small screen. It had been recommended, of course, and although it’s not horror it has aliens and a linguist as the hero—my kind of flick. Once it began, I wondered if religion would play any role in the story. Alien contact would certainly rate as one of the more formative religious events of all time. The only reference that was obvious, however, was the suicide cult shown on a news story in the background, immolating themselves as the aliens became known.

Louise Banks, a linguist who has security clearance, has a sad story. Spoiler alert here! If you’re even more tardy than me you might want to fire up Amazon Prime and read on afterward! The movie opens with her watching her daughter grow up, only to watch her succumb to a rare disease as a young woman. Then the aliens arrive and she’s whisked off to Montana to try to communicate with them. It’s only after repeated encounters, learning the written language of another race, that she asks who this little girl she keeps dreaming about is. The child is in her future. The aliens see time as cyclical, not linear, and by learning their language she begins to think like them—knowing the future holds a tragedy for her. The intensity of the experience makes her fall in love with Ian Donnelly, another academic, who will become the father of her child but who will leave when she reveals the future to him.

Just as the aliens prepare to leave, not religion but philosophy takes over. A question posed by none other than Nietzsche goes: if you could live your life over exactly the same as you lived it this time, would you? Nietzsche’s point was that those who say “no” deny life while those who answer in the affirmative, well, affirm it. Ian says what he would change. Louise, however, embraces life with the tragedy she knows will inevitably come. While religion is off in a corner doing something that shows just how nonsensical belief can be, philosophy stands tall and faces the difficult question head-on. Although the movie follows some expected conventions—aliens bring peace but militaries want war—it rests on a profound question to which, I’ll admit, I haven’t got an answer.


Time Killer

The internet, while it’s no longer free, still at least offers many opportunities to connect. No matter what your obscure passion, you’ll find others who share it online. In my own little shadowy corner of the web, I’m keenly aware of the time requested of others. When you stick a piece of writing in front of someone’s face, you’re demanding a real commodity of them—their time. I keep the vast majority of my posts here under 500 words. Google will now tell you how long it’ll take to read my musings, so I won’t even ask 15 minutes of your time. Others, however, don’t always get the message.

The internet has also granted those who write copiously the ability to send long messages to complete strangers. People I don’t know find my name and send me lengthy emails, perhaps supposing an editor simply chooses material at random to publish. I even get requests on LinkedIn that begin with “Seeking representation.” I’m not an agent, and I’ve had a great deal of trouble finding one to represent my own fiction. Those who know me sometimes ask why I don’t write something longer (I do—my third book is on its way), but the fact is I respect your time far too much. My thoughts about religion in modern life ask only a few moments of your time to think, I hope, about matters profound and important. Then click off to another site. Besides, this blog contains well over a million words by now, and that is plenty long.

I try to read every email from an actual human. I also read about 100 books a year, not including those I read all day long at work. My world is made of words. I do not, however, have unlimited time. Sadly, when I walk into a bookstore I often look at how thick a book is. How much of my time is an author demanding? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of books with a weight problem on my shelves, many of them read from cover to cover. Still, they’re asking for my trust. Trust that the time spent won’t have been wasted. The web is a great place to kill time. It’s also a place, occasionally, to pause and reflect. This blog is no super-site with myriad hits every day, but it’s a place that makes little demand of your time. And it is my sincerest hope, dear reader, that time spent here is never simply killed.


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.


Size Does Matter

While not exactly a Luddite, my grasp on technology is tenuous. I grew up in what may be the last generation where computer use was considered optional—I made it through a master’s degree without ever using one, and could have managed my doctorate without. Like many of 1960s vintage, I resisted computers at first, somehow believing that the status quo ante would ante up and resist the technobabble that was already beginning to bubble just beneath the surface. I never really had a clear idea what a byte was, or how a simple 0 or 1 could be used to convey complex information. I heard about “blogs” but had no idea what they were. Next thing I know I found myself writing one. To my way of thinking any kind of log is essentially a “once a day” thing, although I know bloggers who post remorselessly all day long. At the beginning I was confused until a friend gave me some advice: don’t write too much in any one post. Keep entries down to about three to five paragraphs, and between 300 and 500 words. That way, he intimated, people will look at it.

Recently, wondering why amid the millions and millions of pages available on the web, mine gets so few hits, I read something by an “industry analyst.” (That phrase makes me shudder, but this is no place to be squeamish.) Want more hits? he provocatively asked, followed by—here are the tips. One of his first bits of advice was write longer. At least three times longer than I do (1,500 word minimum). I don’t know about you, but I often think of such things in holistic terms. That’s a lot of words to ask someone to read. If you’re going to put that much together, you’d better have something really profound to say. You’re asking for an investment.

Those of you who know me will understand that multiplying words is not an issue. In addition to this blog I write both fiction and non-fiction books and stories (the vast majority of which have never been published). I answer a simple question with a 50-minute lecture. In other words I have other words. I just tend not to think that you necessarily want to read them all at once (or at all). It’s obvious that size does matter. I can’t help being disappointed when I open a post and find I haven’t the time to read it because it’s just too long. Life’s not fair in its allotment of time. As usual, I err on the side of caution. I value your time to take up too much of it here.

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons


Dairy King

In the way that only social pundits can generate stereotypes, people born between 1979 and 1994 are called “the entitlement generation.” Large scale social attitudes, it is alleged, set an almost unbreakable Zeitgeist that defines us neatly so that we can be made easier to handle. Obviously I don’t fit into that generation, but as I watch the super-rich—often old enough to know better—claiming that they shouldn’t pay taxes because they do such good for society simply by existing, I wonder if the pundits might’ve missed the boat. An antonym to entitlement, it seems to me, is social responsibility, gratitude even. That’s why I find a story in Time from back in April so encouraging. Hamdi Ulukaya, the president and CEO of a successful yogurt company (Chobani), decided to give his full-time employees, in a reverse kind of tithing, a 10 percent share of the company. After all, one can only eat so much yogurt.

IMG_2795

This generous action sets out in sharp relief some of the dangers of quotidian capitalism. Many of those who feel that unencumbered free enterprise is the only fair system don’t spend long enough looking around themselves. I’m sure studies must exist that explore what the cubicle mentality does to people. Working in a little cell, open to the view of others to ensure you aren’t slacking, knowing that someone on the floors above is getting rich from your efforts, it’s hard to believe the system’s working. Descend to street level and those who don’t even rate as drones will meet your eyes, if you keep them open. We are in the habit of discarding people as just another resource that can be remaindered and wasted. Let them eat yogurt. Social obligation? What’s that?

No, entitlement didn’t begin in 1979. Perhaps the most obvious idealist in this country the past century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He repeatedly earned the wrath of the entitled wealthy for wanting to set up social safety nets to help the poor. When the United States entered World War Two, he realized, however, that military contracts had to allow for owners to get rich otherwise they wouldn’t contribute to the effort. If you’ve got the money to keep yourself safe, what do mere concepts as liberty and fairness mean to you? Wealth entitles personal survival, obviously. Let the others fend for themselves. There are companies with a conscience, but the fact that they stand out so clearly against the backdrop of business as usual should be telling us something. As you chew this over, you might consider having a Chobani. Go ahead, you’re entitled.


Monumental Time

One of my nieces works on the 10,000-year clock (aka Clock of the Long Now). I’ve written about the project before—the object is to build a clock that will run a myriad of years. For comparison, 10,000 years ago we were only beginning to tamper with this concept we call civilization. Clocks have been my muse this week. Monumental clocks have long fascinated people. The Engle Clock, in the National Watch and Clock Museum, was completed about 1878. In those days, these large clocks (it literally weighs half a ton) toured the country as technological marvels—something that fails to impress, I suppose, in an iWatch age. Nevertheless, this is a clock with all the whistles and bells—literally. Figures come marching out at various fractions of the hour, culminating with a skeletal death chiming the end of each sixty minutes. The figures are both secular and sacred, a mix that the people of the days just after the Civil War no doubt appreciated.

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At the top of the clock, at quarter to the hour, Jesus appears. Doors above him open and the “three Marys,” including, of course, his mother, come out. Meanwhile the twelve disciples process in front of their Lord, each respectfully turning toward him. The devil appears, shifting from window to window, and one disciple does not turn to greet Jesus. This is Peter who instead turns his back, and immediately, to borrow a Gospel trope, the cock above their heads crows. Finally, as the apostolic procession winds down, the Devil appears last in line. It is all quite elaborate. The clock took Stephen Engle two decades to build—time he would never recover. The religious message, I suspect, was taken much more seriously then than it is now. After all, the clock is a museum piece.

Throughout the museum, references to Christianity abound. Not only Galileo, but many Medieval time-watchers saw God literally in the face of time. Clocks were embossed with religious figures. Hours were kept to remind the faithful to pray. The time, as the New Testament insists, was short. Ironically, we still build monumental clocks. Some are based on the 9-billionth of a second vibration period of cesium, while others are made to last ten millennia. We have secularized time. Now its purpose is mainly to tell us when to go to work. When to wake up to go to work. And when we might eventually leave work. I might enjoy building clocks myself. The fact is, however, I don’t have that kind of time.