Leg Up

It’s amazing how often J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes up in conversation.  The book struck a nerve.  Reading it wasn’t easy because there were so many shades of my own childhood that I felt uncomfortable at several points.  Not from the same circumstances as Vance (his family seems to have been better off than mine, from the descriptions), I was more a hillwilliam (shoutout to the author of Verbomania for the portmanteau) than a hillbilly.  We weren’t educated people, but my mother’s family wasn’t as poor as the one she married into.  We were socially mobile alright, but in the wrong direction.  Anyone who hasn’t come home from school to find carp swimming in the bathtub simply can’t understand.  The way of the poor is inscrutable, but something Vance gets spot on—it is almost impossible to improve yourself without a leg up.

The chapter where this really hit me was as he was describing how easy his life was after being admitted to Yale Law School.  He made connections and learned to work them.  That part never came in my case.  Like Vance I grew up without a father.  Unlike him, I didn’t have grandparents to come to the rescue.  It’s a long story, but when I left home my life became a search for a father figure only to discover than nobody really wants to help somebody else’s kid.  Although I was accepted into the high profile schools, I had no one to coach me to go there.  Even now people barely recognize Edinburgh for the wonder that it is.  It didn’t connect me the way Yale Law apparently does.  My career has been in freefall a time or two because of this lack.  As Vance explicitly notes, when you grow up poor you don’t have the training or family experience to know what to do.

Many people, I realize, are much worse off than I was growing up.  What Hillbilly Elegy, written by a Republican, shows is that the government simply does not care for the poor.  In what used to be the wealthiest nation on earth there is a tremendous amount of poverty.  Vance has a keen analysis of what the abnormal psychology of want does to people.  I grew up more of a Pennsylvania redneck than a full-blooded hillbilly, but many of the same lessons apply.  While some of us can muster the willpower to escape, we know we are in the minority.  We learn as adults that others don’t share our concern for those who struggle daily to get by.  This is an important elegy, and if only it were read seriously by those able to make policy there might be some glimmer of light in these dark hills.  The right leg up can do wonders.

Koyaanisqatsi

I recently saw Koyaanisqatsi for the first time.  This was initially prompted from an excellent blog post over on Verbomania, suggesting words to describe our current crisis.  I had never heard of the movie before.  In case you’re in that same jolly boat, Koyaanisqatsi is a feature-length film from 1982 with no plot and no spoken lines.  A score by Philip Glass underlies, and sometimes dominates, images of an earth beautiful in desolation (the Badlands, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon) juxtaposed with technology.  The images are fascinating and disturbing.  The title translates to something like “life out of balance” and the images of sausages being mass produced cross-cut with humans being lifted by escalators speaks volumes.  The long, slow footage of 747s on the ground was enough to make me wonder if they really can fly.

Frenetic is perhaps the word that best captures images of life in the early 1980s.  The images of Grand Central during rush hour show just how like ants we are.  On the other hand, some of the scenes of people waiting for trains show a high percentage of them reading—we have perhaps lost ground in the last four decades.  The mechanized, technologized way of life has perhaps made us something less than we could be.  There are people in the movie, but not many of them look happy.   Back when I commuted into New York I can’t think of any reason I would’ve been smiling on my way too or from work.  Crowded streets, often smelling bad.  Harried and harassed even before I reached the revolving door to my building.  I watched the movie that was a slice of my life and wondered if so much of my time commuting couldn’t have been better spent.

Of course, I did read on the bus.  On average I was able to finish about forty books more per year than I do now.  Even home owning participates in koyaanisqatsi.  It’s spring during an epidemic.  Cold, yet rainy, the grass continues to grow and there’s no sunny time off work to mow it.  It’s now May and it feels like we haven’t moved since March.  Watching Koyaanisqatsi during the pandemic was itself a haunting experience.  All those crowds.  So many people bunched so closely together.  I don’t miss the crowds.  The cross-cut images of computer chips and city layouts made me wonder just what it’s all about.  The SARS-CoV-2 reality has plunged me into a philosophical mood.  I’m hoping when the crisis is over we might strive for a better sense of balance.

A Few Days

My fellow blogger over at Verbomania (worth following!) posted a piece on the word Romjul.  In case you haven’t read the post, Romjul is the Norwegian word for the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  It’s kind of a liminal period.  Not really holiday and not really not holiday, in northern climes it’s often cold and dark and you don’t feel like getting out to do much.  In many reasonable parts of the world it’s a given that this should be time off from work.  With all the preparation that goes into Christmas and the standard convention of starting the New Year with a freebie, and the fact that the days of the week for the holidays are movable, it just makes sense.  In these developed States, holidays are left to employers.  Mine granted two days off: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  What are your choices when they fall on Wednesday?

Romjul gave me a good feeling.  I cashed in a vacation day or two to take some time off.  The years when I’ve worked between the holidays I’ve found nobody in their offices or answering email, and that led to long hours of waiting for the work day to end so that I could actually do something productive.  In America we love our work.  At least employers love our work.  I talked to a young man who had to cut his holiday short to be into work on Monday, December 29.  He’d just returned from an international trip, but his employer insisted he be there.  There was no work he could do because his colleague whose input he needed had taken that day off.  Work is like that.

I recalled a snow day when I had to commute daily to New York City.  New Jersey Transit got me as far as Newark but the trains were shut down from there.  I had to take a PATH train that took me close to my Midtown location.  It was running late.  A woman was panicking about not being on time.  A wise, older gentleman said, “Employers just want you to show up.  They’re not looking for a full, productive day of work.  They just want you to come in.”  I believe he was right.  Employers like to make their puppets jump, no matter if there’s anybody there to watch the show.  In a civilized world, as in much of Europe, we would celebrate Romjul.  If not for religious reasons, then for simple humanitarian ones.  In late December we can all use a week off.

Why July?

The weather in July can be exhausting.  I’ve always pretty much associated the Fourth of July with hot, sticky weather and this year’s holiday weekend has lived up to that.  Combine it with the incessant rain in the eastern half of the country and you’ve got a mix that won’t permit you to open your windows, but makes you simmer if you stay inside.  We often handle this by seeking out air conditioned facilities where you don’t have to spend a ton of money in order to find some relief.  It also happens that today is the anniversary of our moving into our new house when, as I recall, the current rainy cycle began.  Restless, stormy nights may be Gothic, but they don’t fit the staid, steady nine-to-five lifestyle very well.

Despite it all, I still value summer.  The sense of carefree days, as my friend over on Verbomania says, give estival days a shimmer like none other.  So much so that it’s difficult to keep track of what day it actually is.  For me this particular date will always remind me of buying a house for the first time and spending a literally sleepless hot night learning the hard lessons of homeownership.  Still, since I mentioned Independence Day, I continue to find myself relieved at the lack of land lordliness when it comes to the list of those who hold something over my head.  If only I could catch up on some sleep over a long weekend it might all seem more real.  July can be like that.

As I saw this weekend approaching from a distance, I made plans at how much I would accomplish.  I would get so much writing done that I’d be well ahead on my next project.  I might figure out what it was most important to say, and maybe finally find the meaning to life.  (Summer makes me feel optimistic, it seems.)  I would post new videos on my YouTube channel.  The weather, however, as the Psalms indicate, can change your plans.  Twilight lengthens to the point of making night and day difficult to distinguish.  Sleep doesn’t refresh the way it usually does and morning—my writing time—is hazy and lazy.  My next book sits untouched on my hard disc while I look over boxes that remain unpacked from a year ago.  Childhood summers set the pattern of dropping all and experiencing the mini-anarchy that lack of structure brings.  Despite all that I’d hoped to accomplish, I find myself welcoming this hot and humid anniversary.  That’s what July is like.

Thunderers

“Storms are the embodiment of Mother Nature’s flair for the dramatic, and the words that we use to write about them are infused with that drama,”—the words aren’t mine, but they express something I often acknowledge.  The quote comes from a Verbomania post about the word “brontide”—a noun for things that sound like distant thunder.  Weather-related words are indeed part of the religious vocabulary as well.  I wasn’t quite daring enough to suggest it in Weathering the Psalms, but it seems that thunder may be behind most basic religious beliefs.  Well, that and bad luck.  Think about it—most cultures have a very powerful storm-deity.  That power is expressed in thunder.  Even in the twenty-first century a sudden clap can made the sophisticated duck and cover.  

We don’t know as much about ancient Mesopotamian culture as we’d like to, but it’s pretty clear that storm deities commanded major of respect.  Eventually in the city-state of Ugarit, in what is now northern Syria, a god named Hadad (aka “thunderer”) became the patron of the city and was known mainly by his title “lord” (Baal).  There may have been more than one lord, but the one in charge of day-to-day affairs was the one who controlled storms.  We’ve entered another rainy season around here (something you tend to notice when the roof leaks), and my thoughts often turn to how very much the weather controls us.  Interestingly, thunder hasn’t been much in the picture.  We’ve lived in our house coming up on a year and I have been awoken by thunder (something that still scares me as much as when I was a kid) only once.  Thunder is the approach of gods.

There’s drama about the weather.  In fact, fiction writers have long known that one of the most effective ways to suggest the mood of a story is the meteorological method.  Weather sets the scene.  The sound of distant thunder has a naturally ominous, almost predatory quality.  The growling, low and loud bursts from the sky sound so like human expressions of rage that it is only natural that they should be interpreted this way.  Since the sky is (or used to be) out of the reach of humans, the sounds from above were from the realm of the divine.  When gods approach the mood is threatening.  We dare not meet them.  That mythology has long informed our perceptions of meteorological phenomenon, acknowledged or not.  Brontide is an underused word that brings the drama of both nature and the divine together.  It could be a psalm word.

Internet of Happiness

Are we really happier for instantaneous news?  Has the internet brought us paroxysms of ecstasy with the quality of information?  Wouldn’t you just rather wait?  I don’t think we should go to extremes, or go backward.  Samuel Morse, it is said, developed the telegraph in part because he was away from home and only found out about his wife’s death after her burial, for which he could not return in time.  More rapid communication was necessary and the telegraph provided the means.  No, I’m not suggesting that happiness lies in being uninformed, but perhaps I lingered long enough among the Episcopalians so as to believe in the via media, the middle way.  Some of the happiest times of my life have been spent without a screen glowing in my face.  There is, however, good stuff here.

One example is blogging.  I wish I had more time to read blogs.  Verbomania, for example, showcases writing that sparkles.  The weekly posts set me up for a good weekend.  There are many more that I could name as well—and for me blogging has become a way of life.  Marketers call it “platform building” but I think of it as fun.  And the practice I get writing this blog daily has made my books much more user-friendly.  A family friend with no college education tried to read Weathering the Psalms, with “tried” being the operative word.  There’s no comparison with Holy Horror.  (Weathering the Psalms was written to be my “tenure book,” and it may well be my last technical monograph.)  I have this avocation of blogging to thank for that.

But instantaneous news—does it make us happier?  Sometimes perhaps, but often the opposite.  It’s a phenomenon I call the internet of unhappiness.  (There’s a whole field of study emerging called “the internet of things,” which, no matter how much I ponder I just can’t comprehend.)  News, after all, tends to focus on negatives, as if there’s too much happiness in our lives.  Just yesterday there were early morning helicopters hovering not far from where I live.  Within seconds I could learn of some kind of domestic dispute about which I’d otherwise have been none the wiser.  The next few hours I spent occasionally reloading the page for updates.  They didn’t make me happy.  Add to that the three-ring sideshow that the American government has become and you’ll soon be wanting just three channels from which to select before turning off the TV and going outside for a walk.  And when the 1970s start to look like happy times, you go to your closet and start digging for the semaphore flags.

They must be in here somewhere…

Poe et Tree

When winter gets a little dreary with its constant chill and perpetually gray skies, I often think of Edgar Allan Poe.  There’s been so much going on lately, however, that I overlooked that today is his birthday until my friend over at Verbomania reminded me of the fact.  I’ve posted on Poe many times, but this morning I had an email concerning my work on Nightmares with the Bible stating that my use of Poe in that book was a nice touch.  Sometimes I need to be hit over the head with things, though, to make them sink in.  It seems impossible that it was 210 years ago that Poe was born.  Our Januaries have become remarkably crueler since those times, what with inaugurations and all.

I have often mused that we’ve lived beyond the era where one person can have the widespread impact (for good, that is) that influences an era.  In the area of my doctorate, for example, like him or not William Foxwell Albright rearranged the field of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies.  Nobody has been able to do it since because, well, Albright already did it.  Poe gave us many things—the struggling writer determined to make a living by his pen, the scary short story, detective fiction, the Raven.  Those of us who dabble in fiction do so in his shadow.  (I know Poe wasn’t the only writer of his era, but it’s his birthday, so let’s celebrate him!)  Other writers like H. P. Lovecraft, now a hot commodity, would draw their inspiration from Poe.  And from Poe and Lovecraft came the early work of Stephen King.

A winter storm advisory is in effect.  Outside it looks bleak and the clouds appear as if they wish to weep.  A nation founded by immigrants (my apologies, first nations) has come to believe that it was here first in a world full of need and suffering.  Building a silly, expensive, and utterly pointless wall is a telltale sign that the heart has ceased to beat.  Two centuries and a decade ago a writer was born.  He had penetrating insight into what makes people behave wickedly toward their fellows.  Just when things seemed to be making progress we find ourselves prematurely buried under masonry and rubble.  How could I have forgotten Poe’s birthday?  Too much has been crowding my January, I’m afraid.  I don’t take the time I should to gaze out at the winter and wonder.