Reading Education

Perhaps like me you’re afraid of the news.  Not because it’s fake, but because it’s real.  Then every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me and I uncover my eyes.  Sometimes you can’t help but see.  With the utter mess we’re in over here, it’s difficult to keep up with news from other countries we know.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and I’ve worked for British companies.  Needless to say, I wonder what’s going on over there from time to time.  Lately I’ve been getting auto-replies to my emails to British colleagues stating that they’re on strike.  I asked a friend in the UK about this.  It used to be the professorate was treated with some regard in Her Majesty’s domain.  Not being a financially minded person, I haven’t been aware of how deep or devastating our capitalism-induced recessions and depressions are.  Apparently they’ve been bad enough to derail even British higher education.

Compensation for the professorate has been eroded away.  Their pension plans have been depleted.  Knowing the problems we have over here with professors refusing to retire, I was surprised to learn the UK has the opposite problem—professors unable to afford to retire.  Now, lecturing isn’t physical labor, but class preparation (and committee work) take a considerable amount of effort.  I could see not retiring if it meant lecturing only, but with everything else required, not retiring would be, well, exhausting.  As over here the root of the problem is that higher education is the route into which many smart people are steered.  You’d think it’d be a wonderful problem to have too many highly educated people.  It’s not.  With advanced study comes advanced debt.  And limited employment prospects.

There are nations in the world where higher education is deeply valued.  Where educated people are respected.  Ironically, the nations enamored of capitalism aren’t those places.  The only learning that’s required is how to get money from someone else.  Beyond that, the rest is commentary.  British higher education has fallen on hard times since I read for my Edinburgh doctorate.  Schemes have been put in place to ensure faculty are being productive.  Yes, there are some lazy ones.  The majority, however, pull their weight and then some.  And now they’re being told they must do so until the grave.  No retired professor wants to spend her or his old age bagging groceries at Sainsbury’s.  And so they’re going on strike.  If only the world valued knowledge more than money there might be some news worth reading.

Abroad at Home

Now that I’m back in the United States (but still traveling), I’ve been thinking about impermanence.  That is to say, when you plan an international trip you like things to be somewhat familiar.  At least I do.  For example, when arriving in customs and immigration anxiety can run pretty high.  Having once been stopped at the border of Canada, I have bad memories of how even friendly nations can treat one with suspicion.  Upon arriving at Heathrow, however, entering the United Kingdom was simply a matter of scanning my passport and smiling for the camera.  (It was much more difficult getting back into my native US, ironically, in both these cases.)  Believe me, I don’t mind the improvements, but I didn’t know to expect them.  The same was true of the change in currency.  I even learned that all those pound coins in a box at home, so solid compared to American money, we’re no longer good.  Money for nothing, or nothing for money?

Currency is highly symbolic.  Retiring a form of currency, of course, disadvantages those who live abroad.  And I’m not picking on the UK here.  When my wife and I visited what used to be Czechoslovakia (which is now no longer even a country), our Deutschmarks exchanged for fistfuls of colorful crowns.  This was shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and times of uncertainty tend to devalue the symbols we use to represent buying power.  Although we went from Prague to Vienna, we didn’t have to change all our Czech currency to Austrian.  We didn’t exchange it all, knowing that it was very likely that Czech money would change before we ever got back.  Indeed, the country we visited is no longer a political entity and we’ve not had the opportunity to return.  Who can see the future?

Impermanence is part of being human.  Apart from issues such as global warming, which is creating a more and more inhospitable climate for all species, these changes are based mostly on human culture.  The British currency system was only decimalized in 1971.  Some forms of currency were then no longer legal tender.  I used to collect coins, and constantly changing money is a boon for those who stay with it.  If you keep old coinage long enough, its symbolic value increases beyond what it’s face value ever was.  That’s probably not good investment advice, but for me it was a matter, at least in part, of believing in permanence.  If I take a wheat-back penny from 1909 and hand it to a clerk (where pennies are still accepted), it’s legal tender.  It would have, however, bought much more back when it was first minted.  The symbol itself, it seems, has changed.  And that applies even at home.

Selection, Natural or Not

Darwin is extinct, it seems.  At least in the UK.  Perhaps I ought to explain.  I do not travel to England often, and I’m not always good about changing cash before I go.  Usury doesn’t sit well with me, and someone taking a cut just because I have to travel (usury actually doesn’t sting so much when you make a trip by choice) seems unethical.  When I discovered I was required in Oxford, my wife suggested I take some cash.  I went to the attic and rummaged through papers from a trip sometime within the last decade (my passport is still good, so it had to have been in this time frame), and found some ten-pound notes with Darwin on them.  They didn’t smell bad to me, so I said “I’ll just take these.”

I suspect that, like most people, I keep a pocketful of change as a souvenir when I travel to foreign shores.  So I had a few bank notes that hadn’t seemed worth changing back at the time.  Bread cast upon the waters, and all.  I had to make a small purchase in Oxford and the clerk said, oh so politely, “That’s old money, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.”  Interesting.  I had no idea money had a sell-by date.  She said “The bank will change it for you.”  Banks handle all kinds of money.  I walked to the nearest bank and the polite young man (all the bank tellers carry tablets here, like iPads at the Apple Store) told me that banks don’t do that service unless you’re an account holder.  “The good news,” he said, “is that the post office will do it for you, and it’s less than 300 metres from here.”  I was up to a 300 meter walk, so I went.  The British post office isn’t just a place to mail letters, I knew from living here years ago.  The woman at the counter frowned.  “I don’t know why banks send people here,” she said.  “We can’t exchange pounds for pounds.  I can change it into dollars for you.”  Of course, there was a charge to do so, just as there was a charge to change the notes from dollars to pounds in the first place.

Sadly I handed Darwin over and received American faces in turn.  Such is natural selection.  Ironically, just a few days ago I was at a farmer’s market (in the United States).  The man next to me received a silver note in change—he commented that these bills are somewhat more valuable than a standard Washington.  They are still accepted however, as legal tender.  In fact the last time I went to a US bank to turn in change, the bank officer looked at some very eroded coins and said, “As long as I can verify it’s US currency I can accept it.”  I still find occasional old coins in circulation.  Updating currency and then charging for having old money seems like it ought to count as usury.  But then, perhaps my ethics are simply outdated. 

Something Blue

I’ve worked for two British publishers.  This probably has nothing to do with the fact that I lived in the United Kingdom for over three years, but the two situations have this in common: they’re bloody complicated.  I say that for a reason.  I’ve always wondered why “bloody” is considered swearing in Her Majesty’s realm, but not over here.  Profanities tend to be culturally specific, of course, while some forms (scatological and blasphemous, in particular) are generally universals.  I had always assumed “bloody” had something to do with religion, kind of like the more tame “zounds” is an abbreviated form of “God’s wounds.”  In fact, the folk etymology of bloody suggests just that.  Folk etymologies, I learned as a budding philologist many years ago, aren’t the same as scientific etymologies.  In other words, like folklore, they aren’t entirely accurate.

One of the lessons I learned in Britain was that if you wish to cite a lexicon, it should be the Oxford English Dictionary.  It’s The authority.  So I thought I’d bloody well check it out on this.  There, it turns out, the emphatic use of bloody has to do with breeding, not bleeding.  Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were rowdy aristocrats, or “bloods,” that gave the phrase it’s referent.  These privileged wealthy classes, as befitting the stereotype, could afford idle drink.  They did not work, so life was a matter of passing the time with aristocratic pursuits, such as imbibing.  This led to a phrase “blood drunk,” which, disappointingly, didn’t refer to Dracula, but meant drunk like a blood.  It was only a short, tipsy walk to “bloody drunk.”

Antoine-Jean Duclos, from Wikimedia Commons

Disengaging the adjective—like the saucer part of the Enterprise pulling away from its iconic Star Trek hull—you get stand-alone “bloody.”  This swear has nothing to do with sacred blood, but rather blue blood.  Which brings us to the realm of sacre-bleu, in which the word “blue” (bleu) features.  But this has nothing to do with the color blue (such as Marian blue, known from mythology of the virgin) but from the fact that bleu rhymes with dieu, and using the name of a deity (although “god” is actually a title, not a name) is swearing.  In fact, it is technically what is meant by blasphemy.  Working for British-based publishers has been its own kind of education.  It’s easy to get lost in etymological labyrinths.  But is that the bloody time?  I’ve got to get to work.

Star Lords

Things are done differently in the UK. I suppose that’s obvious, but I have always noticed on my trips between our respective countries that some things that go without saying here or there receive the opposite treatment overseas. We are, however, united by a common religious heritage that sometimes goes unrecognized. A recent opinion piece by Giles Fraser in the Guardian discusses the banning of a commercial featuring the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas. The first difference that came to mind is that advertisements for something like the Lord’s Prayer seem unlikely in the United States. We are a biblically-based, biblically illiterate society, and if someone is willing to put up the money, advertisements are a no-brainer. A second difference is, as Fraser points out, there is fear that the Lord’s Prayer might offend people. Surely there are those who will take offense, but Fraser points out that there is nothing offensive in this prayer. It isn’t an attempt to convert. It is reflective, irenic, peaceful.

The point of this opinion piece, apt when Christmas wars are in the air, is that freedom of religion requires a dose of common sense. Yes, many atheists are offended by religious practices, but the question is whether we can ever completely avoid offending one another over belief. Beliefs differ. Not even everyone agrees with “live and let live.” The problem is that some offensive ideas lead to violence. We’ve forgotten how to talk with one another. In this world of uber-security, we find difference terrifying. Religious difference especially. So the angry atheists suggest religion should be driven indoors and rendered mute. Which violates what some religions are all about.

The British ad was to take place before the airing of the new Star Wars movie. One need not be a detective to discern the deep and inherent religious message in the original series of the franchise. Indeed, people were disappointed with the prequels because they had lost that sense of mythic grandeur that Joseph Campbell had been so helpful in instilling in the original trilogy. The films were made with religion in mind. Hidden behind a mask, perhaps, but clearly there. If Yoda had uttered something like the Lord’s Prayer, it would have been accepted as merely part of a movie. And as the reboot trilogy shows without doubt, movies have the power to offend.


Google Me This

Technology frequently flummoxes me. Although I use it daily, it changes more swiftly than I can hope to. Working for a British company, for example, my computer seems to be a loyalist. It supposes that it is in the United Kingdom even as it sits on my desk in New York. I’m told this has something to do with a mystical key called an “IP address.” When I search Amazon, prices come up in pounds. When I google something, I’m told that European laws restrict certain searches. And, interestingly, I discover that Google’s icons of the day have a British theme.

GoogleI’m assured Google is a fun place to work. One of those enlightened companies that believes reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of employees leads to good results. Were that all companies so enlightened. In any case, the famous Google logo is often decorated with a commemoration of the day. This past week, two such icons appeared on my UK searches. The first commemorated Nessie with something like the 81st year of her appearance. The icon puckishly showed Nessie to be a fake, a submarine actually piloted by aliens. Later that same week, on St. George’s Day, a dragon appeared on the icon. I began to wonder about this reptilian connection. If lake monsters are real, many make the claim that they must be plesiosaurs, their dinosaur cousins that most resemble them. St. George, clearly a character cut from the same cloth as Hadad, slays a dragon—an equally mysterious reptile.

We tend to associate dragons with evil, although in world mythology they appear equally as often as harbingers of good. Human interaction with reptiles has always been fraught. Somewhere along our evolutionary track we must’ve shared a common ancestor with them. Even today some responses, such as fight or flight, are referred to as those occurring in the “reptilian brain.” In Genesis 3 the serpent slithers in. According to Revelation, at the other end of the canon, the snake is still there at the end. It was only happenstance that Nessie and George’s unnamed monster appeared in the same week, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a deep connection between them and us. We can’t seem to get away from them, even should we flee across the ocean.

Plainly Ghosts

GhostsSometimes I’ll buy a book and secret it aside to read later as a kind of reward for making it through some heavier material. Research monographs don’t always do the job for which they are required in the commuter’s life—keeping me awake on a long and tiresome bus ride. I look forward to the book that has more appeal, and I don’t want to rush through it right away. I picked up Roger Clarke’s Ghosts, A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for the Truth in Princeton’s wonderful Labyrinth just after Christmas (the traditional time, I learned, for telling ghost stories). Now that spring is more or less firmly in place, and I’ve gotten through some erudite studies that I might use for an academic paper or two, I picked it up to pass the time on my weary ride. As regular readers will know, ghosts have long been a preoccupation of mine, but one on which I’ve always been ambivalent. Clarke doesn’t set out to prove anything here. His book is more experiential than agenda-driven. He begins with the simple observation that people do see ghosts.

Lamenting that he himself has never seen one, Clarke sets out upon a partially autobiographical explanation of where this fascination began. Being from the United Kingdom—often cited as the most haunted country in the world—he goes through some of the more famous accounts with a sharp eye. Crying shenanigans when they’re obviously there, he questions how one can claim that any one country is more haunted than another. More importantly, he notes how seeing ghosts is a marker of class. Historically, the rise of the middle class led to the death of the ghosts. The rich and the poor see ghosts more often. Those in the middle associate such sightings with poor education, while those who are most educated and refined take ghosts for granted. It is only with the rise of reality television, the true opiate of the middle class, that ghost belief has become acceptable in the broad center.

Clarke also frames his work against the religious background that Catholics, with their belief in purgatory, had room for ghosts in their theology. Protestants tended to see anything reported as a ghost as a demon, since the soul either went to heaven or hell after death, meaning that there’s no ghost left to wander around. While doubtlessly skeptics exist, I have always been intrigued that even hard-nosed scientific views of the paranormal world tend to go a bit softer on ghosts than they do on cryptids and aliens. I suspect that’s because ghost reports have been around as long as written records and, presumably, long before. People have always seen ghosts, and in such large numbers that it is difficult to simply call them names and say they’re foolish. Yes, we may be a credulous lot, but we can still find books like Ghosts at a reputable bookstore. And we can tuck them away as guilty pleasures to take the chill off an otherwise very dull ride.

Paper Oxford

PaperTownsIt looks like a brilliant blue morning here in Oxford, yet my body is telling me that it’s the middle of the night. And that’s saying something, since I normally get up around 3:30 anyway. Routine is kind of a religious thing. In fact, it seems to be the root of ritualistic behavior. The passing of time is a matter that affects us all in some way. Jet lag is one of those ways. I’ve got an important meeting to attend in an hour—that’s why I’ve come all this way—and yet my mind will be telling me I should be elsewhere. Perhaps back over the north Atlantic, looking down at icebergs from the air, wondering if climate change is really that far advanced. Are there any polar caps left at all? Didn’t the Titanic hit an iceberg at this time of year, and wasn’t it a great surprise? At least on a ship you don’t get jet lag. There’s nothing like travel to shake you out of the ordinary.

I suppose that’s part of the draw to John Green’s Paper Towns, which I read on the flight over. Although it’s young adult literature, Green has a way of capturing what it was like to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood, and the need to become who we are meant to be. It is a story of leaving home, and of living on the edge. Once a friend said to me that he couldn’t understand someone wanting to leave the place they grew up. I, on the other hand, was only too eager to leave a verbally abusive situation in an industrial town that was slowly dying with no prospects for the young. Needless to say, Paper Towns resonated with me. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in a single sitting. Although I’ve been an adult for decades, I can still remember the feeling of being young, of falling in love, and wondering what this was all about. High above the north Atlantic, I was sure I still hadn’t figured it out.

There’s nothing religious about Paper Towns. The characters in it assume God to exist, as most Americans do. We make a lot of assumptions. My body is assuming it’s only two in the morning. My clock is telling me that it’s seven. Time is relative, but only one of those placeholders will determine if I am late to work in this place I find myself waking up. I remember being young, and although Oxford has its usual charm, I also know what it feels like to have to leave. The clock tells me that I have to go. The novel in my head tells me the same thing. I’m not sure what time it is. For the moment my paper town is Oxford, and it seems very real indeed.

United We Fly


I’m on a flight from New York to London. This wasn’t a trip I particularly wanted to take (what business trip ever is?). I don’t like flying, and changing time zones takes days off my life. Bowing to the inevitable, I dutifully checked in yesterday. However, that didn’t go quite as planned. I’m flying United. I generally take United since they offer many destinations out of Newark, and who wants to cross Manhattan to get to JFK or Laguardia? I’ve actually become rather fond of United’s snack boxes. Since I’m so 1990s, I decided to check in on their website. Two or three pages in, they stopped me and suggested I should use my cell phone. This is much preferred, I’m told. Well, I do have a cell phone, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to access it in the UK. Still, this is the way things are done these days. I had United’s app on my phone from a previous flight, so I happily typed in my confirmation number, to fly the friendly skies. Since this is an international flight, I have to scan in my passport. That’s a bit worrisome, but the app says to do it and who can argue with an app? Click. My passport is being encrypted and verified. I’m free to go. Then the message pops up. I can’t check in.

I’m old enough to know how to use a landline. I called United. The agent was very friendly, just like the skies, but clearly couldn’t comprehend the complexity of my issue. One, I couldn’t check in. Two, my passport had been sent to somebody, but who was it? United? Some foreign government? James Bond? I didn’t mean to make the guy nervous, but this is my passport we’re talking about! He said he would transfer me to tech support. The call was transferred. The cheery female robot asked me if I wanted a $100 Wal-Mart card. I should press one. I don’t support Wal-Mart so I didn’t press one. She cheerfully insisted. I resisted. She came back on and said that I could press any button for a Wal-Mart card. When I didn’t comply, she hung up on me. I called United again.

This time the agent assured me I would have a human response at tech support. I heard the two tones connecting me with a guy who sounded surprised to hear a voice from the outside world. It was like he was speaking from a dank basement somewhere. He had no idea where my passport scan went either. He suggested deleting the app and then downloading it again. Start the process over. Reboot, as it were. I know the reboot drill, but I was worried about my passport scan. Where had it gone? If his solution worked, at least one problem would be solved. I could check in and reserve my place on the flight (ironically, buying a ticket isn’t enough to do that). I confirmed the instructions with my light-deprived docent. I asked, in parting, what I should do about my missing passport scan. His advice was the very image of an ouroboros. “You might try calling customer service,” he said. I don’t like flying.

British Libraries

Quintessentially intellectual, the mental image of the British goes, they are often the sophisticated, educated, literate, worldly individuals. I know I’m stereotyping, but play along a minute. Perhaps Americans and other colonials feel a sublimated respect for the nations that gave us our start, and even today the major academic publishers are British companies. Think about it. So when we ponder the United Kingdom, we conjure images of the pinnacle of urbane, cultured, society. Perhaps this is one reason that I decided to study in Edinburgh. One of my memories of being in that fantastic city is going to a library book sale. I’d never seen inoffensive old ladies throwing such hard elbows before. The hunger for books was palpable. So it is with dismay that I read John Harris’s Guardian piece, “In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground.” (Did I mention that Brits are also loquacious?) The article, however, has a disturbingly American feel to it. We live in the now, not in the past. Libraries (and museums) are the repositories of thousands of years of human wisdom and achievement. Who needs them?

Harris is concerned with the trend of libraries discarding books. After all, publishing is an industry, and if industry is anything it is about producing more. More books are now being published than have ever been since our human ancestors crawled from the primordial soup. Some are purely electronic, but as survey after survey shows, the majority of readers still appreciate a book in the hand. One might say that a book in the hand is worth two in the Kindle. But libraries, desperate for both funding and space, are resorting to throwing out books. They will be replaced with books, and who will miss them? I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury. Do authors’ souls perish when their books are destroyed? Where will we go to find out, if our libraries have weeded their gardens too thoroughly? My biggest obstacle to continuing research as an independent scholar is the lack of a good university library. I agree with Harris, without our past, our now is but a passing fancy. When tomorrow becomes today, will we wake up and realize what we have discarded? Will we have to start from the beginning again?

Over the weekend I went to a local Barnes and Noble. I’ve never been a fan, but now that Borders is gone, B&N is the only show in town. (I visit the independent shops far more frequently, but this is winter and I don’t want to venture far.) I read about a newly released novel, still in hardback, and wanted to see if they had it. Amid the toys, videos, and puzzles, I stumbled upon a rack of books. New releases. The shelf of hardcovers wasn’t very large, so I stepped around back thinking there might be more. How naive I am. The store was nevertheless crowded. Those checking out weren’t buying books. The book bags, almost apologetically, bore quotes about how books change the world. I look down. I’ve got a puzzle in one hand and a game in the other. The world has only so much space. With what we choose to fill it says volumes about who we are. Our only hope is that our now contains those who, at least in the future, will live to read.


Like Virgins

If you are reading this, I have safely arrived in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic. Given the lens through which I view everything, I somehow supposed that Virgin Atlantic was named after one of history’s two most famous Madonnas—the Blessed Virgin Mary, or just plain Madonna. It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Virgin Atlantic, famously under the leadership of Richard Branson, borrowed its name from its older sister company, Virgin Records, also founded by Sir Branson. Virgin Records, I had supposed, was named after the only musical Madonna, but again, not so. The record company, new to an inexperienced Branson, was named by a colleague who noted that they were business neophytes, like virgins. The original logo showed an Eve-like virgin with a snake and everything.

Steve Fitzgerald's pic from WikiCommons

Steve Fitzgerald’s pic from WikiCommons

While in the UK I always call on Nick Wyatt, one of my doctoral advisors and now a good friend. As my mentor in Ugaritic, we always joke that I fly Virgin Atlantic because of the Virgin Anat, Baal’s famous warrior sister and sometimes lover. Anat was, of course, not the first perpetual virgin. The Mesopotamians had the idea that a goddess could be a perpetual virgin and still have kids, and what led up to said motherhood. Virginity is a status marker, still unfairly applied to women. I suspect a good part of it is biology (and if this seems weird, blame it on the jet lag), because the essential male reproductive function occurs whether or not a female is present, and even the most saintly men can not, from time-to-time, barring very extreme measures, avoid it. It is difficult to measure virginity in men, so why the double standard?

In this early morning haze (or is it really afternoon?), I suppose it comes down to not wanting to support somebody else’s child. Looks are at best a lackluster proof of paternity, and in the days before effective birth control, the only way you could be absolutely sure was to make sure your spouse was a virgin. Goddesses could get away with sex and still retain their purity. It was less sanguine for the human woman. Thus the Virgin Mary is accorded a special, but not unique status. But it turns out that none of this really matters because the Virgin I fly is merely a business virgin. And with a bit of experience, provides some of the best care in the air.