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.
Travel is a form of education.You won’t get college credit for it (unless some administrative footwork is involved), but it is a means of learning.One of the things you pick up flying coast-to-coast is how exhausting a day on a jet can be.Quite apart from jet lag itself, the weariness of occupying your minuscule allotted space in a pressurized cabin can be intense.And like ocean travel by ship, you have to dock at a distance to use smaller and smaller forms of transportation to reach your destination until at last you walk inside.This was the first year that such a trip ended by returning to a house rather than somebody else’s rental unit.It’s an odd feeling.
Work starts again tomorrow, and since I’ve been pretty much unplugged for an entire week, I know chaos awaits.I also have the task of learning what has happened in this off-kilter world for the last week.And then I have to make an inventory of the books that were ruined in our own personal Noah event just days before our flight.The changing of scenes feels rather like a jump-cut in a movie.Suddenly you find yourself somewhere different, with circumstances that have their own set of parameters.Vacation time, in a sense, is like a dream sequence.None of the episodes from back home can reach your sleep-addled mind.And then you wake up.Bills are due.The lawn wants cutting.The unpacking must continue.
For all that, it feels as if something transcendent happened.Like Elijah being whisked away in his own personal whirlwind, I was on a plane that took me to a different plane of existence.A place where no matter what decisions were made the outcome would be pleasant.Coming home involves what theologians like to call “metanoia,” a sense of transformation—memories that give you strength to carry on the quotidian tasks that make up the vast bulk of our lives.Lakes in the mountains are all fine and good, but society demands its pound of flesh, and the way they get it is through productive employment.Tomorrow it’s back to work, a chance to test just how successful the metanoia might’ve been.This is the reason we traveled on a Saturday, for the sabbath should be a day of rest.No one knows where that whirlwind set Elijah down, but it’s virtually certain that he had plenty to do once he got there.
Those who pay close attention, or who have nothing better to do in July, may have noticed that I missed a day posting on this blog on Saturday.That hasn’t happened for a few years now.I think maybe I ‘m growing up.Or learning to resist.Saturday was a travel day—the first I had to make from Pennsylvania, back to Newark in order to fly to Washington state and drive a few hours to the lake.All in all, it turned out to be a long day in which I didn’t even notice that I was unplugged.I had a book that I read along the way.Although it’s against my religion—(call it Moby)—(but I jest)—I even fell into a cat nap or two on the plane.I didn’t have a window seat and strangers don’t like you staring in their direction for five hours at a time.
Upon awaking, eyes refusing at first to work in tandem, in the chill mountain air, I realized I’d spent the entire day off the internet.We had to pull out at 2:30 a.m. to meet TSA requirements, and you have to pay for the privilege of connecting to the web in airports and on board jets.I’ve become so accustomed to being wired that I feel I have to explain why I wasn’t able to post a few thoughts when circumstances were so adverse to getting tangled in the world-wide web.Yes, it still has a few gaps where one might buzz through without being caught.
It was remarkably freeing to be unplugged.I believe Morpheus may be correct that they want us to believe reality is otherwise.I feel guilty for not checking email manically.What if someone requires something right away?Some sage response to a communique that just can’t wait until I’m back from vacation?Some reason that I must ask to be inserted back into the matrix if just for a few moments, to hit the reply button?We’ve perhaps been exposed to what The Incredibles 2 calls the Screenslaver, the force that draws our gaze from even the beauty of a mountain lake to the device in our hand, whining for attention.We have wifi here, of course, for the fantasy of living raw is sustainable for only a few hours at a time.Reality, as you know if you’re reading this, is electronic.But until I have to reinsert myself at the cost of my soul, I think I’m going to take a dip in the lake.
While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.
Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.
One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.
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.
During my recent travels I had a layover at Sea-Tac Airport. Since I don’t get out much, I always find a walk through the airport a way of measuring what other people find important. At least in a circumscribed way. When you’re traveling you’re limited in your options. Most airlines have addressed passenger ennui by offering devices with electronic entertainment. Instead of an in-flight movie, you’ll have choices of what you want to do, courtesy of the endless magic of in-flight wifi. So the thinking goes. Airports, it would stand to reason, will offer plenty of travel-size diversions. The kinds of things you’re allowed to take onto a plane but which won’t or can’t be used to harm others. A sign at Sea-Tac reads “Books. Food. And yes, beer. Just ahead.” An interesting choice of offerings.
I was strangely heartened by the pride of place given to books. Yes, people still find the book on a plane satisfying. Stories have a way of drawing us in. Making us forget that we’re in a cramped space filled with strangers and recirculated, pressurized air. Books have the ability to take us far away. It’s a magic that movies can’t always achieve. Books leave more to the imagination. I recently rediscovered this on a solo trip across the Atlantic. I used the opportunity to read a novel cover-to-cover. The impact was incredible. For those six hours I was on the ground, following the adventures of young people caught up in the liminal zone of adventure and love. It was a powerful experience.
On my daily commute I tend to read non-fiction. Perhaps it’s the result of earning a doctorate, or perhaps it’s the stigma of enjoyable reading being “fluff.” The great majority of books I read this way teach me a lot. I read about many different subjects, and have recently learned to make commuting time a type of research exercise. But then, a cross-country plane ride is different. While an evening commute from New York City can stretch to three hours or more, that’s fairly rare. Instead, air time is unbroken time. I look forward to it with the prospect of a good novel. Airports are one place where hoi polloi don’t mind hanging out in a bookstore. Yes, the fare will be mostly bestsellers, but anything that gets people to read is a good thing. And, of course, if that doesn’t work for you there’s always beer. Just ahead.
One of the benefits of “getting away from it all” is the blessed respite from news. Given the political situation these day I suppose that’s a rather risky proposition since the government is now based on presidential moods rather than any kind of policy or strategy. I worried as I got onto the plane home whether regulations might have changed when I was in the air and whether I’d be landing in the same country as the one from which I’d taken off. Maybe it was more than just time zones that we were changing. Being a child of the ‘60s I couldn’t help thinking about the Twilight Zone—getting onto a plane and then something happens. Quite a few episodes deal with that theme. Only now it’s real time. Real fear.
I have to wonder about the impact of constant news. Since November I’ve been obsessed with frequent updates—scanning headlines for any sign of hope that what began as a joke might have finally reached its punchline. Instead, the press has fallen into normalizing Trump, writing and reporting as if this is what happens in a democracy. It should be illegal to elect a dictator. It’s one of those logical conundrums, but it is a real one. Democracy shouldn’t be just those people who feel like they should getting out to vote. It should be a legal obligation. We know that if votes were counted straight up Trump could not have won the election. Since politicians like to play games we now live in the Twilight Zone of government. Every day Trump is allowed to remain in office the more credibility in government erodes. The knock-on effect will continue for years.
Since stepping off that plane I’ve been wondering what has changed over the past week. Has some basic fact of life been overturned by a presidential temper tantrum? Is what I’m doing now illegal? Has a horse been made a senator? Anything is possible. When I last paid attention it seemed we were well on our way to becoming the United States of Russia. I’m afraid to look at the headlines. The glow of getting away from it all hasn’t faded yet. It’s a hazy, dreamy reality that makes government seem like a bad dream. What would happen if they privatized air traffic control when I was in the air? The results are just to scary to contemplate. I think I need a vacation.