Thoughts While Flying

Uh-oh!  I seem to be airborne.  All that’s in front of me is concrete.  If I don’t do something, my exposed hands will hit first.  Tuck, and try not to hit your head.  Still, on impact the first thing I do is look around to see if anyone saw that.  It’s embarrassing to trip and fall, especially when you’re old enough to be avoiding that sort of thing.  I jog before it’s fully light out, however, and the sidewalks can be uneven.  Just in case anyone’s watching my Superman impression, I immediately climb to my feet and resume my pace.  I’ll be sore tomorrow.  As a jogger since high school you’d think I’d have this worked out by now, but you’re never too old to learn, I guess.

The amazing thing to me is just how much you can think in those fleet seconds that you’re actually in the air, about to hit the ground like a sack of old man.  That’s exactly what happened, though, from the split second I felt my toe catch in an unseen crack and felt my balance give way.  Taking additional steps while trying to straighten back up sometimes works, but my top-heavy head was too far out of sync and my feet were sure to follow.  Your memory of such things goes out of body and you watch yourself comically flying, without the grace of a bird, toward an unforgiving substrate.  Such is the fate of the early morning runner.  I don’t have time to do it during the day.  What if someone emails and I don’t answer?  They’ll think I’m slacking off.  Remote workers!

Despite the occasional spills, I’ve always enjoyed this form of exercise.  In the post-Nashotah House days while still in Wisconsin I’d sometimes do nine miles at a time.  Whenever I’ve moved to a new place I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood by jogging around.  Even if it’s not fully light you can see plenty.  (Although the cracks in the sidewalk aren’t always obvious.)  I tend to think about these things as life lessons.  Parables, if you will.  One of the deep-seated human dreams is that of flying.  Birds make it look so easy, and fun.  A human body feels so heavy when it impacts the ground.  I suspect that’s why we find gymnasts so fascinating to watch.  As for me, I’m just a middle-aged guy in sweats and wearing glasses.  And even as I head home I’m already thinking how remarkable the number of thoughts are in the few seconds while in flight, somewhere over the concrete.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

The Falls of Lucifer

The Devil is everywhere.  At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls.  Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons.  Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east.  But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”?  The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name.  If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission.  Many such satanic names are.

Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear.  Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.”  Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name.  People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it.  There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls.  It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.

Well, at least for a while.  Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel.  The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited.  Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course.  They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour.  They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed.  Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap.  William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions.  Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation.  It was just a mill.  It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall.  The name, however, still speaks volumes.

Emulating Icarus

According to a story by Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has been before. If you’re like me, this might conjure those childhood fascinations of being blasted by impossible heat—maybe in a science fiction story of a colony on Venus, or a crew hurtling out of control in a capsule being pulled inexorably toward the inferno of the heavens—on a hot summer’s day. The Post story makes an inevitable reference to Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The tale has long been a parable for human overreach, but this time it seems that scientists are taking it literally. The technology used to shield the craft from Old Sol is incredibly impenetrable, and it may have applications as we try to figure out how to escape this planet we seem bent on ruining completely.

Earth flies around its personal star in what’s become known as the Goldilocks Zone—that place where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life. But don’t wander outside in the northern hemisphere in February without a coat. The weather down here can be fatal. We live on that teeter-totter of the extremes in which our frail bodies can survive. Temperatures range from -88 degrees at Oymyakon, Siberia (at this point whether Celsius or Fahrenheit hardly matters, but for the record, it’s -126 F) to 136 in the Libyan Desert. In this incredible range of 262 degrees people can be found at all shades between. Stepping out my front door one January in Nashotah, Wisconsin the thermometer read -42. That was without wind chill. It was the kind of cold you could feel immediately through all the layers. Humans can’t survive it without artificial means of heat. And yet we have a star overhead where temperatures reach 27 million degrees in its core. Out beyond Pluto our universe reaches near absolute zero, at -459 and change, on the Fahrenheit scale.

It’s a universe of extremes. That friendly sun in the sky was recognized as a deity from earliest times. Even the Bible retains hints of clandestine solar worship. Icarus, however, lost his fear of extremism. There was nothing too outrageous to try. As long as wings of wax can hold you aloft, why not attempt to reach all those zeroes? Millions sound great until they’re exceeded by billions. At that point even the sun isn’t hot enough for some.

Planet A

Two of the classics of ecology, A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, and The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, were published by Oxford University Press. In its present-day iteration the press has a Green Committee, on which I’ve sat from very nearly the beginning of my time there. As a committee, we’re reading these classics to see what we might learn some half-century-plus after they were published. I’d never read A Sand County Almanac before. It’s a pity, since I lived in southeast Wisconsin, from which the book takes its genesis, for about a dozen years. The writing is poetical prose, but the ideas are solid science—the land on which we’ve evolved knows how to take care of itself. When one species becomes too greedy, all suffer. Leopold ends his book by suggesting a land ethic should be put in place. Now, a human lifespan later, has it?

Hardly. Watching the Trump Administration doing everything it can to commodify any aspect of the environment that might make a buck—or at least a buck for the wealthy—is alarming in the extreme. There is no soul in the land, to this way of thinking. They believe that because they themselves lack a functional soul. A soul cannot exist without ethics. What we do to this planet is one of the largest ethical issues imaginable. No species, rational or not, destroys its own habitat. Except our own. Arrogant to the point of supposing ourselves divine, we think we can take what we want and give nothing back. And everything will be just fine. I wonder that we’ve had this inexpensive, readable guidebook this last seven decades and have continued to ignore its sage advice. Maybe we’re too busy making money to read something that sounds suspiciously like poetry.

One of the observations I had about the Almanac was how attuned to the philosophy of nature it is. Philosophy has many enemies these days, from prominent scientists to Republicans. Nobody seems to value the capacity for deep and thorough thinking through of a problem that is unbeholden to any orthodoxy. The philosopher can ask “what if?” without regret. When it comes to the environment, humans aren’t the only philosophers. We’ve convinced ourselves so completely that we’re more advanced than other species that we suppose they can’t teach us anything. One thing they do, however, without our interference, is create balance in nature. It’s an ethic to which even our species might aspire. If only we would listen to the wisdom of those who pay attention to the world that has given them life.

Hallow’s Eve

img_2982

Halloween is finally here, and I’m on my way to work. Over the weekend I noticed youngsters about in costume, heading to a local business that was holding, apparently, some kind of ghostly do. For me it’s just another day—Halloween isn’t an official holiday in any government’s book. Business as usual. Still, I can’t think of Halloween without recalling Nashotah House. I began, and effectively ended, my academic career at Nashotah. Idyllically located in the woods, it was a seminary that knew how to celebrate Halloween well. We were expected—required, actually—to be in church for a good part of the next two days for All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. But Halloween night we were allowed to be afraid.

Gothic writers often used to focus on places like monasteries and churches for moody frights. Nashotah began its life as a monastery, but soon turned into a seminary. The stone buildings were old—for this country—and gothic in design. We had an on-campus cemetery with a bona fide black monk. Students reported seeing ghosts, and with such a small population of religiously devoted people the imagination grew like toadstools. One morning at around 5 a.m. the door handle to my apartment rattled loudly. I’m sure it was just someone trying to get into a forbidden chapel whose only access was through my rooms. Thunderstorms echoing through the kettle moraines that surrounded the Wisconsin campus could be impressive indeed. On Halloween the maintenance man drove a hayride through harvested corn fields and the cemetery where opportunistic ghouls would pop out to frighten the slow-moving, exposed riders.

Since those days Halloween has instead become just a day of work. No more the grandeur of All Saints’ Day being an actual holiday, holy day, followed closely by All Souls’. This is just another day except for the kids who can come around and get some candy if I’m not too tired to hand it out later. I suspect this is why I spend so much of October reading about monsters and ghosts and scary movies. I no longer have a Halloween to focus my energies. So here it is Halloween. It’s dark outside and I’ll be standing in that dark, waiting for a bus. When I climb off at the end of the day, I’ll be sharing the nighttime streets with children who are perhaps the only ones who celebrate holidays as they should be commemorated. Already a month ago I began noticing the Christmas displays in local stores. It was my first real scare this season.

Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

IMG_2753

The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!

Long Distance Commute

AwkwardSilencesWhat should my next book be? This is the perpetual question of the long-distance commuter for whom electronic devices are mere distractions. If that commuter is socially awkward and believes that only books truly understand them, that is. I’m as eclectic a reader as I am a voracious one. Each book suggests, in some measure, the next one. I always have to keep an eye ahead. Then I read (present tense) a book without peer. I feel lost because what will replace that experience I’ve had for the past few days of looking up and finding myself at my destination? Of actually looking forward to getting on the bus so I can read? I’ve been doing this commute for over 400 books now, and I’m at a loss for what to read next. I blame it on Amazon.

In the publishing world we use Amazon to purchase competitor’s books. Then Jeff Bezos decides to buy the Washington Post, you know, the way people do. Since my email address is on their list I get sent a daily invitation to read the most read stories on said Post. I read a story by Alexandra Petri and I was hooked. Where could I get more? A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is the rare kind of book that makes you laugh out loud on the bus, which, at six in the morning, generates its own kind of awkward silence.  Petri makes you feel like it was actually okay to be that dorky kid who read all the time.  Like there’s a world out there that responds to your longings, somehow.  A world of possibilities.

Now here I am about to climb on the bus without Petri. I’m like a kid staring disconsolately at an empty candy wrapper. “That was so good!” you think. “I wish there was more.” Petri writes as if she’s achieved Bob Dylan’s blessing and has stayed forever young. The time of life when the future seems so full of possibilities. Hers is writing that reminds you of a time when you didn’t spend hours a day nursing hemorrhoids, sitting on a hard bus seat. That reminds you it was possible, unlike your own experience of it, to be cool as an Episcopalian in Wisconsin. That reminds you of the time when you had A Field Guide to Awkward Silences to look forward to reading. No, this book didn’t make that choice of next book any easier at all.

Mind Your Manna

Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.

Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.

IMG_2480 copy

Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.

IMG_2396

Ethics for Rent

Ironically, the Bible is the basis for the western preoccupation with land ownership. What with commandments against stealing and coveting, the Israelites had a sense of being promised a land by God. It was their land and no human motivation—including imperial conquest—could trump the divine will. In the western world, so heavily influenced by the Bible, the concept of private property is itself considered sacred. If enough land to sustain yourself is good, even more land than you need must be better. That’s logic. Land-grabs by the powerful are nothing new. In America (land stolen from the original owners) no better symbol of affluence exists than property ownership. Like many things biblical, this is often a myth. Although I’m a white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, Protestant, I grew up among renters. My family couldn’t afford a house. When my mother remarried, my step-father owned his house and it was in such bad shape that as soon as he moved out to a rental property, it was immediately razed. On my own, I’ve always been a renter because I couldn’t ever afford to be anything else.

After Nashotah House, my wife and I considered buying. Wisconsin, apart from having no jobs, seemed like a nice place to settle. We researched. Your mortgage payments should be no more than 30 percent of your income, we learned. Living in suspended animation since those days, we’ve rented in a variety of places and the 30 percent figure has also turned out to be a myth. Affordable housing, in the United States, is set at that benchmark. A recent news byte in the Christian Century notes that in not one of the fifty united States is it possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment on 30 percent of minimum wage. 49 hours of work a week would be necessary to meet that benchmark in South Dakota, the state with most affordable housing. I know professors of Bible who own summer houses. That’s in addition to their regular houses. Meanwhile, many who would like to own something much more modest can’t afford even that.

The biblical worldview is an idealistic one. Recognizing that greed is inseparable from human will (even among a chosen people) the hope was that the poor would be taken care of by those who had more than their share. As the statistically inclined like to say, the numbers don’t lie. Housing, one of the most basic of all human needs, is exploitatively expensive. Many renters can never break out of the cycle of paying too much in rent so as not to be able to save up enough to make a down-payment on a place of their own. Yet prices go up while raises don’t keep pace with inflation. It’s all about ownership. Laws are in place to protect those who take (“legally”) for themselves. The rest pay into the system at three times a tithe. And even this, the numbers say, isn’t nearly enough.

Rent

Cheesy History

It has been a few years since I’ve taken any courses on ancient history, but I took quite a number of them while preparing for my doctorate. Staring at my Dominos pizza box, I wonder if I must have missed class they day we covered ancient pizza. Actually, Dominos has been emphasizing cheese of late. Perhaps the least healthy ingredient in your typical pie, when you order you can “cheese it up,” and if you want breadsticks on the side, you can add cheese to those too. The box is whimsically decorated to sing the praises of cheese. Don’t get me wrong; I spent nearly a decade and a half in Wisconsin and I do like cheese. But perhaps this is just a little, well, too cheesy?

Dominos

The side panel suggests (to an increasingly gullible population) that “Ancient Egyptians might have been the original cheese experts.” The iconography depicts a man milking a cow, a man churning butter, and a man holding aloft a piece of what seems to be Swiss cheese. Maybe it’s Emmental. There are no women involved in this scene of making holy cheese. The man milking the cow has a distinctly European look. The man churning or stirring the cheese looks to my eye like a native American—are those feathers on his head? A Wisconsin Egyptian? The Egyptian holding the cheese aloft looks to be a priest or perhaps the Pharaoh. His uraeus is clearly visible. Rays emanate from the cheese like the life-giving solar disc of Egyptian myth.

I’m probably a fool for looking for footnotes on a pizza box, but I wonder whence this information comes. The mind of some ill-informed marketer? An opiate, or cheese-induced, dream of historic proportions? Perhaps those of us with training in these areas have not done due diligence in our teaching of the facts. Or perhaps I’m making a mound of cheese out of a mere crumb. It’s all in good fun, but I know that eventually it will make its way into term papers and other fast-food inspired versions of reality. We all know what to expect from the owners of the leaning tower of pizza.

They Might Be

Last week I mentioned that a letter-writing friend had sent me two articles from the 1868 Prescott Journal newspaper. Some time ago I did some research into the history of newspapers since many of the stories from the early days of the medium seem difficult to accept. Perhaps it was a more credulous time, or perhaps newspapers were a form of entertainment as well as information, but the occasional hoax made its way into the pages of even reputable papers. I’m always surprised how many tales involve a kind of biblical literalism, whether stated or not. The second story from the aforementioned Wisconsin newspaper has to do with a giant skeleton unearthed at the Sauk Rapids. At ten-foot-nine, this veritable Goliath was estimated to have weighed some 900 pounds when alive. This prodigy sparked some piety in the writer, who concludes by stating, “We hope ‘642’ [the article doesn’t hint at the referent here] may learn humility from this dispensation of Providence, and that a view of the ‘femur’ and ‘fibula’ of this deceased stranger, may teach him the futility of all attempts at fleshy greatness in these degenerate days.”

Quite apart from the pious closing, the idea that giants once inhabited the earth is indeed biblical. Studies have been undertaken that speculate on why people of antiquity believed in giants, and one of the more plausible explanations has to do with the discovery of megafauna bones. Not having a conceptual world wherein dinosaurs or mammoths might fit, giant leg-bones and ribs, for example, look pretty much like those of people. Only much larger. Whatever the reason, people all over the ancient Mediterranean believed in an era of giants, and that belief made its way into the Bible as well as into Greek mythology. Only, if the Bible says it, it must be true, no? And so, finding giants in the earth is not to be unexpected.

Goliath_Bible

Interestingly enough, this craze of finding giants has not ceased. The internet keeps bogus photos of unearthed giant skeletons alive and the explanations we’re given amount to proof of the flood. After all, the Bible says giants came before the flood, and if Noah wasn’t a giant, well, they had to have been wiped out, right? But then they show up again later in the form of the Anakim or Goliath and his kin. The question of whence the giants 2.0 came is not answered, but if it’s literally true then there should be no surprise if one should turn up in Wisconsin. After all, other oddities have turned up in that same state, some of which still defy explanation in the rational world of the twenty-first century.

Get Me Jesus on the Line

The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.

One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.

Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.

"Don't forget to look for my letter!"

“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”

Grin and Bear It

The dentist’s chair is about the last place I’d like to spend my Saturdays, but given my work schedule there are few alternatives. So there I was yesterday, yellow light glaring in my eyes, drill whirring ebulliently away, and finally gagging embarrassingly into the tiny sink at my right. Those back teeth come in handy for grinding, but they are poorly designed for brushing. I find the dentist’s office a good place for philosophical thought. In that chair where I’d rather not be, feeling sensations I’d rather not feel, I wonder in what sense my body is my own. Lately I’ve been contemplating this quite a bit. Consciousness seems attracted to a single body at a time, but the biological organism I call me doesn’t always have a say in where it is slated to go, or what it is free to do. Each job I have taken has come as an “only offer”—I’m not one of those over whom bidding wars are likely to erupt. That crown that popped off my tooth wasn’t really my doing, nor was the memorable root canal that led to it being there in the first place. Still, here I am.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Religions regularly teach that overcoming physical limitations is one of the perks of paying attention to your soul. I suspect parsing soul, consciousness, mind, and psyche is to slice this entity I call “me” a bit too thin. Whatever all or any of this is, having x-rays shot through it while the assistant hides behind the wall, it is hopefully made of sterner stuff than the teeth nature has given it. One hopes that this can’t be all to expect out of our existence. Life, if only our physical years, is too short to spend much of it in the dentist’s chair.

I’m not sure I like dentists knowing more about this body than me. Is it mine at all? I recall the exasperated call for a tongue blocker in a Wisconsin dentist office and the tooth-meister proclaimed, as if I weren’t in the room, “he has a curious tongue.” I don’t intend for my tongue to be curious, but it always seems to wonder about what finds its way into my mouth. Is it me? Is it mine? The consciousness always seems to come back to this body that does things I can’t control. These thoughts come on a sleepy Saturday morning when I should, by all rights, still be in bed. That is, if I’m indeed the one who wakes up in this body yet again today. And whichever body it may be, if it is mine, I know I brushed its teeth before going to sleep, as I have for as long as I can remember. And yet the drill whirs on.

Monster Mash

American MonstersIn one of those ironies of personal history, I never met Linda Godfrey although we lived not far from one another and shared a great many common interests. I’m not sure she would return the sentiment, but while I lived at Nashotah House many odd things happened. Academics can be pretty deep in denial about what they experience, and although I never saw any man-wolves, as I stood outside one night to photograph a comet I felt terribly exposed and in not a little danger. This was on a rural seminary campus. Nashotah was still wooded then, before evangelical shaving of the landscape, and certainly among the most gothic of seminaries I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile Linda Godfrey was researching, just a few miles down the road, weird animal sightings on Bray Road. I began a correspondence with her after we left Wisconsin and I have read all of her books. Local history has always fascinated me, and although I was an accidental Wisconsonite, I nevertheless enjoyed learning about the strangeness of the state I formerly called home.

Godfrey’s latest book, American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America, throws a wider net. We are all in here with the monsters. Blending, as the subtitle suggests, lore and legends with eyewitness accounts, American Monsters can leave the reader a little disoriented, in a good way. We’ve been taught to discount anything that doesn’t match the everyday—what boss wants a worker with a higher vision?—and pretend that such things don’t exist. Weird creatures don’t donate their bodies to science readily, and we are left wondering if something is really peering at us from these October woods. Inside you’ll find stories of flying, swimming, and running monsters. We are safe nowhere. Either from the scientifically undocumented or from those that are purely imaginary. I stand outside in the dark in a smallish town waiting for a bus. What was that sound behind me?

Monsters are only now beginning to gain academic respectability. When I was in graduate school the topic felt so puerile that no respectable Ph.D. candidate would dare suggest such a dissertation to a button-down committee. Now they are beginning to roll off the presses. As part of the religious imagination, monsters are not so easily dismissed. We can assign them to the dark caverns of fantasy and under-stimulated imagination, but they will burst out in their own time and, like gods, demand our devotion. I have no idea whether these cryptids creep, flap, or swish around in our world. People see them all the same. And believing may be seeing. I’m glad for Godfrey’s success at pointing out that our rational world is full of monsters. Hers is a perfect book for days of effacing light and lengthening shadows, all across the country.