Remarkably Green

Fame is something most of us never experience.  In a world of billions we imagine what it would be like to have others pay attention to us.  Care what we think.  Admire us.  I can’t help but suppose that a large part of our political crisis is based on this concept.  It’s one of the reasons Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is such a timely novel.  I’ve read a couple of Hank’s brother John’s novels, mostly in the Young Adult category, and I’ve been curious about this one for some time.  April May, the protagonist, isn’t seeking fame.  In an almost parable-like way it happens to her and she becomes addicted to it.  Safety and human relationships fall aside as she follows what seems to be the next logical step in order to secure more fans, more followers.  (There may be some spoilers below.)

There’s more than that, however, going on in the story.  Tales of “first contact” with alien intelligence often pose the question of humanity’s readiness for such an encounter.  The Defenders, a group that looks an awful lot like the right wing, are afraid.  They’re afraid of what humans might face once a superior power arrives.  Their response is to attack April, who, for some reason has been chosen as the first contactee.  Her fame isn’t accidental.  I’ve watched enough of Hank Green’s excellent YouTube videos to suspect he’s not exactly looking for a Christian parallel here, but April is a kind of messiah.  The book, in many ways, could be read as a recasting of Christianity’s foundation myth.  This isn’t a book with which most Sunday School teachers would be happy—there are adult situations and adult language.  They don’t cancel out the message of the book, however; I’ve known evangelists to use these techniques as well.  They help capture attention.

With all the books I read I have to admit that many are forgettable.  I sometimes read an old post on this blog, or a review on Goodreads, and find myself having forgotten a novel completely.  Something Hank shares with his novelist brother is the ability to make an impression.  It’s too soon to tell for sure right now, but this has all the marks of a story that’s going to be my mental companion from now on.  There’s wisdom and humor in it.  There’s a touch of Qohelet as well.  Whether intentional or not, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing follows the line of a classical story arc.  And the reason that stories have become classics is that they make us think.  I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.  Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with fame—that would only be a distraction.

Internet Epistemology

Where do we find reliable information?  I’m asking this question on an internet-based medium, which itself is ironic.  While spending time with some younger people, it’s become clear that the web is their source of truth.  You find purveyors of information that you trust, and you accept their YouTube channels as representing correct data.  This can be a disorienting experience for an old doubter like me.  One of the reasons for studying for a Ph.D., apart from the vain hope of finding a career in higher education, is to hone critical thinking skills.  When I went through the process, that involved reading lots and lots of print material, assessing it, and weighing it against alternative views, also in print format.  You learn who really makes sense and you judge which publishers have good information more frequently.  As you navigate, you do so critically, questioning where they get their information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who think the younger generation is wrong (in fact, there are YouTube educational videos about just that).  The situation does, however, leave me wondering about how to fact-check when you don’t know the publisher.  It may be an older person’s problem, but it’s essentially the same dilemma behind self-publishing—the reason you trust a self-published book depends on the author alone.  Is s/he persuasive?  Did s/he document the sources of her/his information?  Are those sources good ones?  The young people I know seem quite adept at filtering out obviously biased information.  Many YouTube personalities footnote their presentations with links to sources (many of them online), and after an hour of watching I’m left questioning what’s really real at all.

You see, many of these internet personalities have sponsors.  Sponsors bring money, and money biases anyone’s angle toward the truth.  In fact, many of these YouTube sources call out the lobbying groups that influence public opinion for political ends.  Only someone completely naive—no matter their generation—would not acknowledge that government runs on money provided by corporations with interests to be protected.  There have been reliable sources, even from the days of print, that prove beyond any reasonable doubt just how corrupt governments tend to be.  But who has time to fact-check the government when the rest of the information we receive is suspect?  Those of us with training in advanced critical thinking aren’t immune from biased information.  It’s just that there’s so much data on the web that my head’s spinning.  I think I need to go read a book.

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.

Theofantastique Interview

Two times.  In my “professional” life I’ve been interviewed only twice (not counting, of course, far too many job interviews).  The first time was as a talking head for Nashotah House.  This was in the days before the internet really caught on, so it was done in DVD format.  If you come over to visit I’ll dig it out and we can have a good laugh.  The second occasion was much more fun.  Although I write about horror a lot, I don’t mention Theofantastique nearly enough.  Back in the days when I started blogging, I discovered this site that featured all kinds of interesting stuff on religion and horror (and actually on all kinds of genre pop culture).  I always enjoyed the insights and got more than a few books for my own research and reading from tips I found there.

When I finally got brave enough to contact John W. Morehead, the curator of the blog, we both quickly realized we had some things in common.  John very kindly offered to post an interview with me on Theofantastique about Holy Horror.  It’s live now and it was really fun to talk to an actual person about my book.  You see, I work alone.  I knew that, leaving the classroom, I was departing my chosen career.  On those high school aptitude tests they told me that I should be an entertainer.  What professor isn’t?  I pity their students if they’re not.  I’ve been posting videos on YouTube for a few weeks now.  It’s immediately obvious how much having a live audience helps.

Unfortunately, Holy Horror isn’t exactly priced to move.  In fact, local bookstores have turned me down for free presentations based on the price alone.  It is, however, a fun book to read.  At least I intended it that way.  When life give you horror, make Bloody Marys, I guess.  By the way, John has been coming out with some interesting books also.  I posted on his The Paranormal and Popular Culture recently.  Theofantastique is often the place where I first learn of new horror films (I don’t get out much) and new books that I should read.  Of these two things there’s never a shortage—horror is a thriving genre—and talking about why you wrote a book helps to clarify things a bit.  Horror may seem a disreputable genre to many, but it has redeeming values.  To hear about them, please watch the interview.

Punch Bug

There’s no other reason for buying a Volkswagen Beetle than making a statement.  We bought ours in 2003, before they got squashed.  Mechanically it has been a good little car, but, despite the fine engineering, the hood latch is made of plastic.  And we all know what plastic does.  Yesterday was sunny and a Saturday so I spent at least four hours trying to get the hood open.  (Unsuccessfully.)  Now, I’m no gear-head, so I watched a video on YouTube that 23,000 views (some 22,000 of which were me) on how to work around this major design flaw.  After three hours in the sun I had my face pressed to the bumper, trying hard not to think of all the bugs that have met eternity there, so I could see up to where the inaccessible latch smugly sits.  No tool in the history of humankind can reach it. After another hour I gave up, although just one weekend before this trick worked.

YouTube is an alternate universe.  There, latches can be made to work.  Men who appear larger than me can wedge their entire hands in that unforgivingly tight space while my knuckles are going to take days to heal.  They use simple tools that trip well-oiled springs and their engine blocks are revealed to them like the commandments on Mount Horeb.  Clearly I am not counted among the blessed in this mechanical paradise.  I do pretty well at this kind of thing if someone shows me how, but with a broken hood-latch you’re working by faith with car parts unseen.  Kind of like wrestling with an angel at night.

I did notice among the YouTube videos an unexpected sense of tradition.  The new Beetle (although ours is well over a decade old) has the engine in the front.  The original Beetle (one of which I drove until the cost of parking in Boston compelled me to sell it) famously had it in the rear, making the front the trunk of the car.  That nomenclature has persisted despite the passage of time and changing the facts.  In my mind the front of the car, where the engine is located (or so I hear) is called “the hood.”  The rear is “the trunk” (more spacious in the new Beetle, as I know from experience).  Although the design and layout have changed, the old language remains.  It seems to me that all of this conforms to a belief in special revelation.  Once uttered it cannot be changed.  Or opened, apparently.  Please excuse me, but after all this typing I’ve got to get some ice for my knuckles.

Croce’s Lament

So how much time is there?  I mean all together.  I suppose there’s no way to know that because we have no idea what came before the Big Bang.  Those who invent technology, however, seem not to have received the memo.  New tech requires more time and most of us don’t have enough seconds as it is.  Perhaps in the height of folly (for if you read me you know I admit to that possibility) I’ve begun uploading material to my YouTube channel  (I hope I got that link right!). These are cut-rate productions; when you’re a single-person operation you can’t fire the help.  I figured if those who don’t like reading prefer watching perhaps I could generate a little interest in Holy Horror visually.  (I like my other books too, but I know they’re not likely to sell.)

The question, as always, is where to find the time for this.  My nights are generally less than eight hours, but work is generally more.  What else is necessary in life, since there are still, averaged out, eight more left?  Writing has its reserved slot daily.  And reading.  Then there are the things you must do: pay taxes, get physical exercise, perhaps prepare a meal or two.  Soon, mow the lawn.  It may be foolishness to enter into yet another form of social media when I can’t keep up with those I already have.  What you have to do to drive interest in books these days!  I think of it as taking one for the tribe.  Readers trying to get the attention of watchers.

There’s an old academic trick I tried a time or two: double-dipping.  It works like this: you write an article, and another one, and another one.  Then you make them into a book.  I did pre-publish one chapter of a book once, but getting permission to republish convinced me that all my work should be original.  That applies to reviews on Goodreads—they’re never the same as my reviews on this blog—as well as to my YouTube videos.  There’ll be some overlap, sure.  But the content is new each time around.  So you can see why I’m wondering about time.  Who has some to spare?  Brother, can you spare some time?  I’ve been shooting footage (which really involves only electrons instead of actual linear imperial measures) for some time now.  I’ve got three pieces posted and more are planned to follow.  If only I can find the time.

October Devotee

Here it is October and I have hardly written about monsters.  Apart from the US government, that is.  I suspect that I could use a little escapism right about now, and most of the boxes are unpacked from the move.  Perhaps it’s time to watch a little horror and feel better about the world.  Monsters, you see, crop up in the most unexpected places.  Yes, in October we expect them to be crouching in dark corners and in dismal swamps as the light begins to fail.  Yet the trees are still mostly green around here and I think I might be in need of some new material.  As with most people my age, I get lost on the internet—someone needs to offer a roadmap to it.  Preferably on paper. 

I admit being stuck in the past.  As any music therapist will tell you, a person’s musical tastes often reflect the sounds of their youth, and some of us believe that rock hit its high point in the 1980s.  My work doesn’t lend itself to background music, so I seldom listen to the radio, and I wouldn’t even know what station to try to hear contemporary offerings.  Fortunately I know some people half my age who find their tunes on the internet, and I was recently introduced to Panic! At the Disco via YouTube.  I’m old enough to remember when music videos first appeared, although I never saw them.  We lived in a small town and, besides, we couldn’t afford cable.  Kids at school, however, talked about MTV and other places—there was no world-wide web then, kids!—that they had seen the latest, coolest video that I could only imagine.  When my contemporary young friends showed me “LA Devotee” by Panic! I was stunned.

If you haven’t seen it, just look up the official video on YouTube.  You’ve got the whole internet at your fingertips!  While the lyrics seem innocent enough—young person wants to make it big and so imitates the Los Angeles lifestyle—the video is horror show.  Literally.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan the opening sequence is a cross between The Village and Signs.  Then it becomes a torture chamber for a young boy (from Stranger Things, no less, a show I binge-watched when it came out on DVD).  And Satanism.  Yes, taking on the LA lifestyle is compared to selling your soul to the Devil.  The stunning visuals kept me clicking the replay button.  Even as I felt my age, I also felt October growing.  And I was glad to see the monsters are still there.  Too bad we can’t banish them from DC, however.

Kids These Days

I couldn’t have been an easy kid to raise. As a teen, while other kids were experimenting with drugs and sex, I started an unexpected habit. I can’t remember why or how it happened. I was the son of a professional drunk and a high school dropout. (Step dad worked in a sewage plant, so that likely wasn’t it either.) Somehow I’d discovered classical music. It wasn’t through records we had at home. If the artist didn’t have Cash or Twitty in their name you were probably tuned into the wrong station, buddy. Since this was before the internet it must’ve been something I heard on television. On Saturdays I’d beg to go to the Oil City Public Library where you could borrow LPs. I’d check out five at a time, and listen to them with headphones on at home. The general opinion in my neighborhood was that this was snob music and other people didn’t want to hear it.

One of the pieces I discovered was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, (officially The Year 1812). This particular recording began with a chorus singing the Russian hymn, in English (hey, I was just learning!). Although I loved the bombastic ending (what boy wouldn’t?) I was haunted by that hymn. I paid no attention to the conductor—I couldn’t tell a Stravinsky from a Stokowski—so I memorized the albums I liked by their cover art. As a teen I had no idea things would ever change and that one day I’d be downloading music instead of carefully, lovingly pulling it out of a colorful sleeve, breathing in the experience.

Russia’s been on a lot of people’s minds lately. I have a great deal of respect for the Russian people. There’s a stolidity and pathos there that is rarely captured in any national music. I longed to hear that recording again. It took the better part of a day searching the internet to find it—I could walk right up to it in the Oil City Public Library four decades ago and put my hand on it. Those days are gone. When I finally located it on YouTube (Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra, in case you’re interested) I couldn’t stop listening. Not only did it take me back to my fractured childhood, it also made me feel a deep connection for a nation that probably looks at my own with great and earned distrust. We all need to learn to look at ourselves from the outside. That hymn! Listen to the words. I could imagine myself being oppressed by people I didn’t know and who had no reason to hate me. Unto our land bring peace. Amen.

Three Thoughts

If it weren’t for friends sending me little nuggets they find on the internet, I might be uninformed about much of the weird and wonderful world unfolding around me. With hours not spent at work being laid out on spartan public transit, I don’t have much time for surfing. So it was that I watched this video of St. Patrick trying to explain the Trinity to a couple of normal Irish blokes. Of course it’s funny, but as I watched it, a thought occurred to me. I used to think what a waste it was for learned minds to sit around arguing the fine points of theology. The Trinity is a prime example—three is one but not really one. Form, substance, essence, accidents or effects? What is it that makes them distinct yet not? It is, of course, a logical impossibility. Yet hearing words like modalism and arianism made me realize that these were highly sophisticated concepts. They were developed in Late Antiquity in a world with quite a different frame than our own. Atheism probably existed then, but it was very rare. What we might call naturalism did not exist. Some kind of deity or force was obvious behind the natural world.

To be sure, some thinkers had already suggested that the earth was round and that laws of mathematical precision governed aspects of nature. The frame of the human mind, at the point when engineers can construct pyramids and ziggurats, had already reached the point of science. What do you do with science when gods can’t be dismissed from the picture? Naturally, you turn your science on the gods. Although many today would argue that if God exists, the deity is a being (or concept) outside the realm of science. Science deals with the material world, not with supernatural possibilities. Dividing a single deity into three persons without making yourself a polytheist is a real mental puzzle. The concept of the Trinity isn’t biblical, although the basic ideas are derived from the Bible. It is a purely theological construction to explain how Jesus could be God and yet die. Well, it’s more complicated than that.

One of the great joys of the angry atheists is to point out the obvious frippery of theological discourse. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would anyone waste their time on such nonsense? Yet, the thinking behind early theology was exquisitely rational and highly developed. One might almost say “scientific.” The people of antiquity were not stupid. Our mental picture of the Middle Ages is often of unwashed louts chasing witches and hiding from dragons. Their society, however, was advanced by the standards of hunter-gatherers. The technology of the day may not have reached down to the level of the everyday worker, but human thought, ever restless, was working its way toward a scientific revolution. And God tagged along. Even Sir Isaac Newton gave a nod in that direction. While theological arguments may have outlived their usefulness in a society such as ours, they did represent, in their day, the best of rational thought. And in their own way, likely contributed to the birth of what we know as science.

The fate of heretics

The fate of heretics

Sporting Chance

IMG_0997

I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?

Seeing I

One of my few Twitter followers (stawiggins) suggested that I watch Dr. Ken Hayworth on YouTube. Specifically, Part 3: If we can build a brain, what is the future of I?, hosted by Galactic Public Archives. It is well worth 9 minutes of your time. Trying to figure out consciousness has been a major preoccupation of mine for some years. I don’t have the tools of neuroscience, but I do have over half a century of coming to know this “I” that constantly seems to wake up in this same body and experience all its woes and occasional joys. Hayworth suggests that the self is a model projected by our brains to help us make decisions and to plan for the future. In a fascinating thought experiment, he notes that if a duplicate self were made, we (or I) should not object to being executed since there is an exact copy now. Hayworth notes, however, that any individual will object because we are “designed” to think this way about ourselves. Designed, I wonder, by whom? I suspect Hayworth means evolution designed us that way, but evolution is non-teleological, and, I suspect, not really reificatory. Evolution is merely a process.

Perhaps the horns here are only those of a semantic dilemma, but I feel not. Hayworth goes on to discuss how instinct works to continue this illusion of self. I’ve never found instinct a very believable concept. We use it when we want to deny consciousness to animals and very young children. Since they can’t have a concept of “I” they have to have “instinct” to preserve themselves. Logically, to me, this seems to be fudging. What is instinct? Is it really any different than admitting at some micro-level, animals have consciousness? To me it seems that consciousness is one of those “turtles all the way down” kinds of propositions. To be alive is to be conscious at some level. Be careful how far down you dig here.

DSCN2021

Hayworth then goes on to what sounds like an almost biblical conclusion. Ethics insists that humans are part of a whole. (A very diseased whole, as the imbalance in society forces us to conclude, but a whole nevertheless.) To kill one is to violate the consciousness of the whole. This concept seems sound, and I would suggest that it might benefit from expansion. Why stop at the human level? We are animals. Animals are conscious. Here we are back at the turtles again. Perhaps we have expended too much energy trying to parse self from soul from mind from consciousness. Perhaps we are all part of a large collective consciousness. If so, we got some very sick units near the top. Any organic being that insists only one percent needs to be kept in perpetual plutocratic indigence while billions of others wonder how long they will survive at this payscale in this economy, or, more realistically, act as slaves to that one percent, is a sick beast indeed. If consciousness is collective, we could all use a massive shrink.

Holy Food

One of the undisputed benefits of working for a publisher of a wide variety of academic books is the opportunity to learn about different topics that might otherwise I might never have considered. For example, given the recent popularity of food studies (and this is probably fodder for its own post) authors have been producing micro-histories of specific comestibles. One that was recently featured in a YouTube short is peanut butter. One of the saddest food allergies, to my way of thinking, is that of the peanut. Peanut butter is such a singular symbol of childhood that it is a shame it is also such a potent poison for many. I grew up thinking that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, but although he certainly was an innovator of peanut cultivation and disseminator of recipes, he was not the inventor. Peanut butter has been around for a long, long time. The modern food product is probably attributed to Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian who milled roasted peanuts into a kind of semi-liquid and received a patent for it.

What makes peanut butter a fit topic for a blog on religion is the work of John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was awarded a patent for a processing technique that led to the peanut butter we recognize today. Kellogg, whose name is more often associated with breakfast cereals, was an early vegetarian. Much of the impetus for his food experimentation goes back to the fact that he was a devout Seventh Day Adventist. The Adventists, biblical literalists, believed in promoting health through eating wholesome foods. Peanuts, a great source of non-animal protein, were seized upon by Kellogg as an alternative to butter, as well as a theologically satisfying food. Not only a food producer, he was also a promoter, and we eat breakfast cereal today largely through his efforts. For many, the day begins with a biblically inspired food.

IMG_1878

On kicks of nostalgia, or when I forget to buy a vegetarian alternative, I still take peanut butter sandwiches to work for lunch. I never considered this a religious activity, although my own vegetarianism likely has religious, as well as humanitarian, roots. In this post-religious age that we inhabit we sometimes forget that many of our most basic behaviors go back to religious beliefs. Sure, the promoter of peanut butter may have stumbled upon it without having fallen under the spell of Ellen G. White’s teachings, but the fact remains that Kellogg’s religion and his commitment to health were deeply intertwined. And the next time I reach for the Skippy or Jif or Peter Pan, I’ll be, in my own way, acknowledging the power of a religion I don’t even believe.

Real Life Zombies

In recent months Binghamton University has been on my mind. Binghamton has a number of videos available on YouTube which I find to be entertaining and even, sometimes, very funny. I like Bing’s style. Even though I catch myself laughing once in a while, I know that Binghamton takes higher education seriously. I watched a recent, 17 minute talk on a vital topic. It is located here, and I would recommend that you watch it too. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. The situation raised here is one that makes me shudder. Few things are as debilitating and vulnerable as an uneducated populace. Both religious and political forces have made great efforts to prevent certain orthodoxies from being challenged by what they term, as an obvious swear-word, “higher education.” The fact is, folks, higher education is nothing more than an attempt to get people—often young people—to learn how to think critically. That last word is a stumbling block sometimes. Any number of people will suppose that critical thinking is the same as criticism. It isn’t. Critical thought is the ability to approach a problem—any problem—rationally. To respond with the best that our minds have taught us to do, rather than with knee-jerk reactions. Yes, emotion and jerking knees have important places in the world, but they only work well if they are accompanied by the ability to think critically.

The video makes it pretty clear that the ability to think is rapidly eroding in our culture. Perhaps not quite zombie apocalypse, but not comfortably far from it. The death of Borders was blamed on its inability to get into the electronics markets by various pundits. I disagree. Borders fell victim to a culture that has lost the joy of challenging reading. We like spoon-feeding (otherwise much of the internet is difficult to explain). In order to exercise our brains, we have to use them to read hard things. Like my high school coach used to say, if you don’t use your muscles they’ll atrophy. Looking at my mid-section, I can see that his words were true. What Coach didn’t warn us about, though, is that the same holds true for the mind. The unchallenged intellect is a dull one. This is a threat far more insidious than any Communism, or liberalism ever was. It is the dummification of America. We are a nation that loves zombies. We are also a nation in danger of becoming them as well. Fight the zombie apocalypse—read a book. And like that baseball bat you use to swing at the undead, the harder it is, the better.

They don't write them like that anymore

They don’t write them like that anymore

Life’s Soundtrack

Calvin once said to Hobbes, “I thought my life would seem more interesting with a musical score and a laugh track.” In many ways, our lives do have soundtracks. From my youngest days dramatic music has moved me and Jim Steinman always seemed to know just which buttons to push and strings to pull to bring it off. Growing up in humble circumstances, however, I missed the whole video craze that accompanied MTV, back when MTV still showed music. Friends would tell me about the great videos I was missing, and I let my imagination run wild. Recently, however, a friend pointed out the video of Bonnie Tyler singing the Steinman hit, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on YouTube. This particular video brings together so much of my adult life that it seems like Steinman spent a few years inside my head. Well, maybe not that much. The song came out just as my first love was breaking up with me, back in college. I attended Grove City College, a campus that, despite its pristine Christian image, can be very gothic at night. The first chords of that song are always like a stake through my heart. Few experiences in life are as dramatic as unrequited love. Just queue up that song and I’m a college junior again.

The video, however, is set in an old-style boy’s boarding school. The setting is not far off from the antiquated campus of Nashotah House seminary, gothic both by day and by night. The imagery of the video employs English trappings of cassocks and surplices and candles along with clandestine romps in the night. Seminaries, in my experience, leave many secrets in their shadows. My heartbreak as an undergraduate cannot compare with some of the drama I witnessed both as a student and a professor in seminary. The pious are often among the most passionate of people, but they must learn to be actors before their congregations. Such inherent conflict is fertile ground for intense drama. The video plays this out with the headmistress (Tyler) fantasizing about her young male charges in a highly ritualized, yet anarchic setting. Too close to the truth.

The sacred and the profane lie close together and may be teased apart only with difficulty. The experience of buying an LP when I was a teenager was an investment for not just the sound, but also the album art, the aroma of the vinyl and ink when the plastic wrap first came off, the feel of the heavy paper sleeve housing the disc. It could transport me to another place. Today the iPod reduces the sounds down to background noise, not a soundtrack. The drama we create for our lives is efficient and convenient, but in the end, plastic. Perhaps it is Calvin’s laugh track. No matter. Even if it is on YouTube, with its electronic sound, that video will take me back decades in time, and will be one of the repeated songs on the soundtrack of my life.