The Cult of Relaxation

Relaxation comes with a price.  As with most people who work hard, I find taking more than a day or two off work tricky.  It’s not that I want to go to work, but that I feel the need to keep improving my mind.  I read quite a bit on holidays, and, being of the opinion that movies are the modern mythology, I like to watch what I can.  Last night I saw a film I’m too embarrassed to name, but which was so utterly awful that I can’t get it out of my head.  Call it an experiment in relaxation.  Or call it madness.  Either way, I came to realize just how much impact a movie might have without really containing anything to give back.  This particular film is often listed as a cult classic.

I’ll confess right now that I loved Attack of the Killer Tomatoes the first time I saw it.  (This is not last night’s feature.)  It is a bad movie—so bad that it’s good.  My professional reputation may suffer for it, but I have to admit to having watched it multiple times over the years.  I’d heard that last night’s film was like that.  So bad that it’s good.  And that made me ponder the blurring of these categories.  Without a universal deity to declare the terms, good and bad are matters of consensus.  No quantitative means exists for making, a movie for example, good or bad, beyond the human judgment of viewers.  We tend to listen to critics, who experience more cinema than the rest of us can afford, but I’m sure we all have our secret likes that don’t match the decrees of the experts.

Films that flaunt convention so radically, and which gather disciples, are, as I mentioned, called “cult classics.”  This is the language of religion.  Although religionists have moved away from the use of the word, cult implies irrational intensity of devotion toward that which is clearly, in the eyes of the majority, bad.  Again we come to the question of who defines value.  For most of human history it has simply been majority opinion.  Cults, however, give meaning to those who “get it.”  Cult classics have faithful followers.  In the line of duty some months back I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic.  I later found out that it also frequently makes the list of all-time worst movies, despite starring Linda Blair, James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid, and Richard Burton.  It’s a cult classic.  The unnamed film from last night has no known stars.  Hideous acting.  Ludicrous writing.  I watched it to relax.  Now I wonder if I’ve joined a cult, or if I just need a vacation.

Final Leg

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.

Paradise Lost

Reentry is never easy. I’ve just been on a vacation in the woods of the northwest and yesterday marked, via eight hours of air travel and airport waiting, my trip home. Tomorrow work begins again and I hope for the ability to adjust quickly into some kind of routine. Humans are creatures of ritual. We may call it religious or secular, but we draw comfort from knowing what to expect. Vacation disrupts with its mandate to relax and be among loved ones, and with its low level of demands. It can be time to think clearly instead of being harried and harassed and hurried all the time. Today I have to remember how this is done. How east coast time works. What the bus schedule is and how to enslave myself to it once more. I think of how being in a cabin in the woods felt like a restoration of my soul. In fact, it can feel quite a bit like a religious experience.

Silence, for one thing. In a world of constantly competing noises it’s easily forgotten what a commodity quiet can be. The silence of the woods is restorative. Although it was occasionally abused in my days at Nashotah House, quiet was often enforced as spiritual discipline. Nature, in a way that’s hard to appreciate so near to New York City, can be supremely tranquil during the night. Darkness as deep as the silence reminds us what night was meant to be. No priest needs to direct meditations since the soul is already attuned to the divine in such situations. Awaking to the chatter of a red squirrel rather than the rumble of a bus can remind one of what is truly important. When we value our vacation over our vocation there is a message hidden in plain sight.

Today I glance ahead to an unbroken string of work days and the premature end of summer. The hot days can be uncomfortable and that rush of everyone toward the water can lead to endless crowds and congestion. Still, I empathize with those seeking a break from the routine. We are all souls seeking respite from days programmed by others so that the Trumps of the world can reap the rewards of other’s labors. Bleary-eyed from the time change of three zones’ difference, I’ll go to work tomorrow with twigs in my hair, sand in my shoes, and a kind of private paradise in my head. I’ll soon be cured of that as the secular routine takes hold once again.

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Nature Worship

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Here I am in a natural setting, with nature close at hand. From these windows I can see mountains, a mercury-smooth lake with fish breaking its silvery sheet, and trees aspiring for the sky. I hear a red squirrel chattering from one of those trees, and the call of a lonely osprey looking for its morning meal. It took a day of arduous travel to get here, and I am staring at a computer screen as nature puts on her show for me. I think, “it’ll still be there when I get done.” Then I think about what I think. Will it be there? This world we’re creating in our own image demands more and more of the planet we inhabit. To which we feel entitled. As I stood at the airport staring at the monitor, I couldn’t believe that my flight had been cancelled. What? I arrived at the airport at 5 a.m., flew countless miles, only to have you tell me my flight has been cancelled? Am I not owed better than this?

This attitude, I reflect, may be what brought us to such a place to begin with. This incredibly beautiful world was never ours to own. We’re guests. Invited perhaps, but guests nevertheless. And we all know that guests are supposed to be gracious and to act as if they wish to be invited back. So why am I rudely sitting here, ignoring my host? We are part of nature, but we tend to think of those closely attuned to nature as “uncivilized.” They don’t dress like city dwellers. Their hair is worn differently. They value things money can’t buy. They don’t play the entrepreneur’s game.

I travel to “get away from it all.” That which I’m getting away from is my life every other day of the year. How did we come to call this “civilized”? There’s no denying the creature comforts of a place to call home and a routine that seldom varies. But sitting here, amid nature, I realize the tremendous cost. Even as soon as it began to warm up in New Jersey we tried to carve out the time to explore local parks. To be outdoors among nature before heading back to the office on Monday. The whole point of worship is to break the flow of everyday time. To stop and think of the good that we have been invited to enjoy. I find myself amid this splendor, and I sit at my computer while nature awakens around me.

Leaving Town

After grousing about having too little time, today begins a trip out of town. Changing time zones, forsaking civilization, resting at a mountain lake. And I’m thinking of all that I’ll accomplish without having to go into the office for an entire week. I made similar plans last year. I’d lined up all the projects that had been piling up and figured that being away for a while would be perfect for getting them done. On the flight across the country, however, my laptop died. Gave up the electronic ghost and died. I grieved, and I was in shock. Thoughts of buying a replacement came to mind, but then, I told myself, I justified buying all my past laptops because of teaching. I carried my PowerPoints with me to class. We’d become a two, then three, computer family. I remembered the sign-up sheets they used to use when you needed an hour on the computer in the library. I’ve practically become a single entity with my hardware, how would I survive without?

Last year, survive I did. Concerned family members kindly offered to let me borrow their laptops so that I could post my daily ravings here. I was surrounded by nature’s majesty—mountains, a pristine (or nearly so) lake, huckleberries, fresh air—and my thoughts turned to the Borg. I’d read about transhumans, and now, I could see, I was becoming one. I don’t want the internet plugged into my brain. In fact, sometimes I don’t even want it sitting on my lap.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying to the ether that my usual posting pattern may be disrupted. It was at the lake, however, that this blog was born. I’m sure that those who first suggested it are a touch disappointed at the way it has grown up. Initially it was supposed to be mostly podcasts. My servers for those casts, however, charged for the service of holding my voice bytes. I used to get paid for sending that same voice out over a classroom full of students only to fall on the wrong side of politics and economy. So it is that I await my flight to remote reaches—remote reaches with Wifi, if the elements allow. If you don’t see my usual musings at my usual time, this will likely be the reason. Although, this time around, with a new top for my lap, I hope I’ll remember to get outdoors every now and again.

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Hello, I’m Not In

I recently received two “out of office” replies to my own “out of office” message. Being a fan of futility in all forms, this struck me as a great paradigm for the modern age. Email has made vacation superfluous, of course. I was actually out of town moving my daughter back to college, so email was not high on my list of priorities. When I’ve tried to leave work without putting on a message explaining that I’m not there (I tend to respond to emails quickly for an editor, so I’m told) I’ve been politely informed that it is rude not to let people know you’re away. Or computers. My non-message prompted a non-messages from other vacationers’ email accounts, and when I returned, I had to read them as well as the original email that had received my impersonal reply. Both had sent their replies, despite their out of office messages. This is indeed a brave new world.

It is a world where human interaction is optional, at best. Our industry grinds away making devices and services that people will buy with electronic money sent over a network that no one really controls. And we think nothing of it. Business has blinded us to how meaningless humanity has become. Business runs for business’s sake. Even so, we’re asked to check our email when we’re on vacation, in case something important comes up. I used to think vacation was important. It is the sop we’re thrown for working jobs that lack the visceral appeal of growing our own food and relying upon ourselves. Thoreau on the web.

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Science fiction is the great predictor of where we might go. Most of it is completely fiction, or course, but some manages to catch glimpses of the truth. Skynet, or even the Matrix or Hal, have sent messages to us. Machines that think are devices we don’t understand. We haven’t even defined consciousness to a level that satisfies anyone. We know it because we feel it. Oh, I’m not really an alarmist about all that. I do wonder, however, where we are headed when technology races ahead while the humanities are disparaged. All those who emulate Spock seem to have forgotten that his appeal is that he’s half human. We build our aliens to specification. And they now pass polite greetings when they speed past each other on the cyber-highway with no laws.

The Reign of Rain

I’m on vacation for a week. My job is such that taking vacation is becoming a rare commodity, what with precious few allotted days and move-in, move-out schedules of a collegiate child, and so on. And also company policy about keeping employees in the office between Christmas and New Year. Anyway, now that I’m here I should be kicking back and enjoying the beautiful lake and getting out to do the things inmates of the city seldom do. It has, however, rained every day that I’ve been here. Not all-day rains, of course, but just enough that plans have to be interrupted or changed at the last minute. I end up sitting in the cabin playing Solitaire when I should be out getting some fresh air. So it goes.
Ironically, I am staying in the drought-stricken west. The western United States, I learned when researching for Weathering the Psalms, has been ensconced in a decades’ long drought. In fact, prior to my family trip here it hadn’t rained in quite a while. Our arrival with the clouds was, after all, mere coincidence. Still, it’s hard not to take the weather personally. I know that the weather is larger than any one person’s needs or desires. I also know that water is a commodity even rarer than vacation days, largely because of our misuse of the limited supply that we have. California’s plight has been in the news. We have large cities in water-challenged environments and people treat water like there’s no end to its abundance while the opposite is the case. Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.
There are many things a person can go without, some of which feel absolutely essential at the time. Many vacations, I know, are extravagant. Fancy hotels, high-priced entertainment, exotic locations. Work can feel so crushing that vacation my become the one island of sanity in the midst of a hostile ocean of obligation. For me, vacation is time with family in a stripped-down, natural setting. Of course, we do indulge in some of the comforts of home, but having nothing in view outside the window beyond that which nature dictates is a transcendent experience. From where I sit, I can see nothing of human artifice. I do see clouds, however. I know that more rain is on the way. And I know that it is a gift, complain as we might, of the highest magnitude.