Hardware

HARDWARE

This year we sold our 1998 Jeep Cherokee. We got a new car, a hybrid.

I can’t get used to it. It does things like, you press the gas pedal? And the car starts moving. Whoa! In the Jeep, you’d press the gas pedal and nothing would happen, then you’d lift your foot and slowly but firmly press it down again, sometimes more than once. Like the car was saying “are you sure you want to get into this whole ‘motion’ thing? ‘Cause we’ve got all the time in the world.” And this new car, you can barely tell it’s moving because it doesn’t wheeze and quake and cough, you’re just sitting there with your foot on the pedal and the images in the window are gliding by – I think it’s a flying car. Welcome to the twenty-first century. The new car has all manner of space-ship knobs and buttons that can apparently make it warmer or cooler inside, I haven’t explored those yet, and one that makes the seat hot. Why am I so drowsy all of a sudden? Oh, because this chair is warming my buns. It also has a screen that says how many miles you can go on the fuel you’ve got, whereas the Jeep had a broken dial that would say “empty” meaning “start looking for a gas station sometime next week.”

The 1998 Jeep had a lot of problems toward the end, but the one thing that I never had trouble with was the cassette deck. I could pop in my old copy of Blaze of Glory in January and it would play it front to back to front till June, or whenever I decided to switch it out for another cassette. I never get tired of Blaze of Glory, it’s Jon Bon Jovi’s concept album about a Roman Catholic cowboy in the wild west, saddled with guilt for the hearts he broke and the lives he took. It’s a Rock & Roll masterpiece and a theological treatise.

The new car doesn’t have a cassette deck, obviously, or even a CD player. It considers them obsolete, and it thinks I’m hopelessly dated too. It wants to be friends with my phone. They’re both really smart. Maybe too smart, the car is so smart it can’t do the simplest things. I press a button to start it (no key in the ignition – the car looks at me like an old pervert, “you want to put what in where?”) and the car and the phone want to, whatever, braid each others’ hair and paint each others’ nails like a slumber party, and they want to help the old man pick some music. With the best of intentions – they want to share the full scope of global diversity, updated to the minute with the latest international jazz, pop, rap, rave, plus the spectrum of chamber concertos and Afro-Celt jams, bagpipe-didgeri-duets – everything from Mozart to Megan Thee Stallion. Would I like to spend a half hour looking through every album ever recorded? So I can pick the perfect song for my seven minute drive? Um, thanks, but could we just resume the album I was listening to before? All that stuff sounds great, viva diversity, something for everyone. But instead of hearing every song in the world once, could I listen to Blaze of Glory for the zillionth time? Oh! And if you’re so smart, maybe you can help me out with this – my cassette was slightly warped, which added a cool grungy distortion, can you do that?

No. I see. I see the problem isn’t you, it’s me.

I need to go to the dealership. The car is fine, but I’m an old rust-bucket – can you tune me up? Make me new? Like a hybrid, so I can run partly on batteries? Also I smoke too much. And pass gas sometimes – what can you do about my emissions?

1979

Vine Deloria, a Native American author and activist wrote: “The twentieth century has produced a world of conflicting visions, intense emotions, and unpredictable events, and the opportunities for grasping the substance of life have faded as the pace of activity has increased. Electronic media shuffle us through a myriad of experiences which would have baffled earlier generations and seem to produce in us a strange isolation from the reality of human history. Our heroes fade into mere personality, are consumed and forgotten, and we avidly seek more avenues to express our humanity. Reflection is the most difficult of all our activities because we are no longer able to establish relative priorities from the multitude of sensations that engulf us.”1

I find that quote really frightening. He wrote it in the year I was born, 1979. So when he talks about being overwhelmed by “electronic media” he means the AM/FM radio and a television that had about six channels. He was already concerned about people losing touch, unable to sort through all those signals and think about what’s really important in life. And when he said “we avidly seek more avenues to express our humanity”… Wow. The internet was coming. First into our homes, and then it shrunk down to fit into our pocket. And all day long it buzzes and dings at us. I wear my phone on my belt. Because I’m a Dad. I don’t even notice it when it’s there. But I notice when it’s not there. I feel a little buzz at my hip and reach for it instinctively, like a cowboy in a gunfight. But sometimes my fingers just slap my belt – where’s my phone? And what was that buzzing in my hip? Oh, right, that was my biological alarm clock, reminding me it’s time to wake up to middle-age. Hit ‘snooze,’ get back to work.

Having the whole world in my pocket. Voices shouting, headlines in all caps with exclamation points, dramatic updates about what my uncle in California had for breakfast. Everything louder than everything else. News-flashes. Talking heads. Viral videos of ultra-violence in high definition. Ping-pong pundits who measure truth by loudness. Makes it hard to sort out what’s actually important. It can even make it hard to know what’s real – I heard the Anti-Vaxxers and the Pizza-vampire-hunters have teamed up now. Ten years ago I had a bumper sticker that said “1984 was a warning, not an instruction manual,” but that’s hopelessly out of date. Today I need one that says “Jabberwocky was nonsense, not news.”

We’re drowning in data. Blinded in a blizzard of cold hard factoids. Can’t see the forest for the trees. And I gather misinformation is more contagious than Covid. The human mind wasn’t made for this. Ronald Wright wrote, “We are running twenty-first century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.”2 Our hardware, meaning our physical brain and bodies, haven’t changed since the stone age. Easy example, the human body was built for impact at six miles per hour. I walk, fall down, get up, keep walking. But put the body on wheels – roller-skates, bicycle, automobile, and an impact will break us. The human mind can hold an incredible amount of data – this plant is food, that one’s poison, I predict a mammoth will come lumbering through this canyon sometime today. But subscribe to twenty Twitter feeds and next thing you know, you’re… Actually I don’t know, because I’ve never used Twitter. I hear high-pitched chirping from my kids, the news is always the same: they just want attention, they want it now and loud is how they think they’ll get it. So I’ll confess I’ve never subscribed to a Twitter-feed because it sounds too much like adopting more children.

Clipped to my belt I have a whole world of possibilities, everything except the scent and excitement of the real world.

The Late not-so-Great Twentieth Century

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So runs the famous first line of a book I never read.3 I still take most of my vacations there – when the kids go to bed and I’ve done my work, I spend the last forty minutes of the day in the 1990s. I watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, Northern Exposure and Frasier. They make wisecracks, I get the references. I think it’s because they make jokes about books and classic films, things I’ve read or seen or at least heard of. And they talk to each other. I wouldn’t watch a modern sit-com – how can you have a comedic situation when four people in a room are playing silent scenes on their cell phones with people in other rooms, or cities? Or other sit-coms, the cast of Frasier sitting around the living room with smart-phones, all watching different episodes of Seinfeld.

I watch late twentieth century television and I feel like I fit in. I didn’t fit in at the time (come to think of it I spent a lot of the 1990s hiding out in the 1970s, listening to records with big headphones on). I barely survived the 1990s, it was a decade of suicidal depression. On the other hand, maybe what kept me alive was being able to talk and laugh with people, take a long walk with someone and share deep feelings without being interrupted by buzzing updates. Plus being the fat kid everybody loved to pick on probably would have made me a local youtube sensation, and that would have been my… What, do I say “you-tomb”? How do you make a funny pun about a life-threatening viral website that sounds like a birth canal? I understand people used to call television “the tube” but that’s because it had tubes in it. Sorry, I just can’t come up with a good pun about youtibe, I’m totally youtube-tied.

The twentieth century was a very hard time for me.

I got bullied but at least I didn’t have to live with the shame of getting cyber-bullied. Wow, the birth of the internet was like Christmas for bullies. They must have felt like Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, like switchblade hoodlums who got the hydrogen bomb for their birthday. “Wait a minute. Are you telling me with this device I can harass people twenty four hours a day?” (I used to get bullied at school eight hours a day, it was a nightmare, but at least then the bullies had to recharge their bully batteries, go home and get battered by their parents – they didn’t send me postcards or messenger pigeons at night. Alright, ‘messenger pigeons’ is a bit before my time, but nobody ever got cyber-bullied to death by fax machine). And with the internet, bullies could victimize people with no chance of sudden reprisal. Once a big guy kept shoving me in the lunch-line, I threw a cup of fruit cocktail on his shirt. I don’t think texting an image of fruit cocktail would have been as effective. It’s a smell thing, he smelled like canned peaches for the rest of the day. And the crazy part is, the internet was invented by nerds! And they handed the ultimate weapon to the bullies.

This spring I finally came up with the perfect comeback to something the school bully said to me in the early 1990s. I’d say “I can cut this afro but you will always look inbred.” Isn’t it amazing that we all remember the name of our high-school bully? We had to, right? It was a matter of survival. And they were sad and needed our attention. Twenty five years later I remember his name! I tried to look him up on facebook, but I couldn’t find him. Maybe he was too stupid to use a computer, maybe he shoved the wrong person and got himself shot, or maybe he just doesn’t have any friends.

Upper Management

Last week I was in the classroom, getting my powerpoint set up, thinking through the lesson plan – Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, trying to think of just the right joke to get my students’ attention (what’s the right joke to tell before teaching the Massacre at Wounded Knee? I can’t remember which one I told, but to tell a joke you’ve got to remember the punch-line and then assemble it backwards in your head, remembering the referents that will make the last line funny). Anyway, I had all this data buzzing through my brain and I remembered I didn’t have my tie on yet.

So I pulled it out of my pocket, put it around my neck, and… Nothing. I couldn’t remember how to tie it. I just stood there, looking down at the two ends. My brain reached for the information file, and couldn’t access it. Or maybe the file was so old it had recycled itself. “Don’t worry,” my brain assured me, “I can lecture on the Ghost Dance and write a book about Shakespeare, I can figure this out.” Nope, nothing. Hadn’t I done this hundreds of times before? I’d done it just the day before without even thinking. Ah! Then I remembered, “brain, shut up, back off and let the hands handle it.” And they did, the hands did it perfectly except for one moment when they fumbled because the brain tried to watch them, like employees in headlights, the stern gaze of management. “Brain, back off,” I distracted my mind with a question about the Ghost Shirt, so the hands could finish the job.

Sometimes our bodies have the knowledge and our brains just get in the way. My brain can’t type. I can look at a word processor screen, imagine letters, and letters appear! My fingers know the way, but if my brain looks at the keyboard I get completely lost. My brain doesn’t know how to kiss, or walk a straight line in a hallway, or comfort someone when they’re feeling down. It thinks is knows everything, but just ends up brain-splaining.

Like upper management it loves taking credit. A lot of our intelligence is in our hearts and bellies and swimsuit areas, but the brain takes all the credit (or gives all the blame when our lower intelligence leads us into trouble). Detectives solve cases with their noses and their bellies, then the brain shows up in the last scene to give a clever speech and fill out the paperwork. The brain is the last to know when we fall in love, then it shows up to give a Best Man or Maid of Honor speech about how this was the logical choice, it generates justifications.

When I first met Elizabeth in the summer of 2001, I knew instinctively we were meant to be married. I almost proposed the second time I saw her. But my brain got in the way, and I missed my chance. Four years later, when at last we were both single at the same time, I finally showed up and asked her to marry me. Smartest decision I ever made. Now I let her be the brains of the household. For the next car, Elizabeth wants to go all electric. Like you can plug an extension cord from your basement. I think it’s a great idea, but it makes me uncomfortable. Call me old fashioned but I don’t like the idea of people walking past our driveway, seeing a house and a car doing mommy-daddy things in the open. “Look away, children,” “but Dad it’s natural.” “I… I don’t know what’s natural anymore.”

It can be hard, steering through the media superstorm of the twenty-first century, we can easily get lost in the digital jungle. How can the human hardware adapt to the ever-evolving software of information technology? And can our stone-age brains keep all of these newsflashes in perspective? I don’t know. But maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe the answer isn’t in my brain, I should trust my guts and heart, my blood and bones.

1Deloria, Vine, Introduction to Black Elk Speaks (1979), p. xi

2Wright, Ronald A Short History of Progress (2004) p. 35

3Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between (1953)

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Stewardship, Snodgrasses & Dr. Seuss

Stewardship, Snodgrasses and Dr. Seuss

Someone asked me to do a sermon on “Stewardship,” fund-raising for a Unitarian Universalist Church.

It’s not my style to do a sermon about Stewardship. For one thing I have mixed feelings about… A church is where we bring our vulnerabilities and, frankly, our neediness, and I have some childish feelings about a church itself having needs. I was born in a church (literally) and spent my childhood around churches where my father worked (here I mean “my father” literally, my Dad, and also officially, “Father Snodgrass,” the Episcopal priest – it was kind of confusing, growing up, that everybody got to call my Dad “Father”), and church functions were sometimes a chance to meet girls, being the Son of a Preacher-Man.

And I’ve never done a Stewardship sermon because I have trouble taking the word seriously. It always reminds me of this guy, Stewart Kellogg, who looked up the meaning of his name, what job his ancestors had. It turned out “Stewart” was Old English for “sty-ward,” someone who keeps pigs. And then he looked up Kellogg and it means “kill-hog,” a swine-butcher. Sty-ward Kill-hog, I imagine that was a gloomy day for him. I looked up my last name, “Snod” used to mean “good” or “neat,” so “Snodgrass” means lawn-mower. I’m Okay with that. Oddly enough, though, we don’t have a lawn at my house, because I’m married to a nature fertility goddess who grows all manner of flora, apple and plum trees, grape-vines, and a zillion things I can’t name – this one attracts butterflies, that one attracts bees, it’s like the garden of Eden in front of my house, every single thing you can grow in Buffalo except grass. The one thing I was destined to do, mow a lawn.

It’s been a long time since we were groundskeepers, the Snodgrasses got chased out of Snodland centuries ago (yes, Snodland is a real place, about 30 miles east of London, it’s not some sugar-candy mountain Snodgrasses dream about). The earliest Snodgrass I’ve heard of was Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, who wandered into Wisconsin in the late 1800s and met this young lady, Jenny Nuzum. So he went to talk to her father, whose name (I’m not making this up) was George Washington Nuzum. And George looked at Thomas and said something like, “well, young man, what do you do for a living?” And the young guy paused, then asked “Well sir, what do you do for a living?” He said “I’m a circuit-riding Methodist minister, I get up Sunday mornings and ride a horse through the forests to preach at multiple churches.” …Well, a few years later the young man came back and said “Sir, I’d like to marry your daughter.” “Well, young man, what do you do for a living?” “I just got ordained, and see this horse, I’m a Methodist circuit-preacher too.”

That’s a true story. And he did marry Jenny Nuzum and they had 8 kids. And that’s how I came to be directly descended from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but not the famous ones. And oddly enough, I became something of a circuit-preacher too. I don’t know, maybe they’re both turning in their graves because of the whole “Unitarian” thing – but if your name is Thomas Jefferson I don’t think you can be that mad at Unitarians.

I don’t know if Methodist circuit-riders did stewardship sermons. I think they just climbed down off the horse, leafy and muddy and thorn-scratched and bruised and people just said “Wow. Yeah, I think I’ve got a dollar.”

Reciprocity

Here I’m rambling about my ancestors – we’ve all got ancestors. I was reminded of mine while reading a passage from one of my favorite books, Original Instructions, a collection of essays by Indigenous activists. The editor, Ojibwe writer and activist Melissa Nelson, wrote that Original Instructions are “literal and metaphorical instructions, passed on orally from generation to generation, for how to be a good human being living in reciprocal relation with all of our seen and unseen relatives.” (Original Instructions, p. 3)

A reciprocal relationship with relatives, seen and unseen. Well obviously the first thing I have to do when I share this with my college students is explain what “reciprocal” means – young people don’t seem to know the word anymore and it worries me. They get words like ‘twerk’ and ‘dab’ but they don’t know reciprocity. It means both sides give something, both sides get something.

I like the idea of having a reciprocal relationship with unseen relatives. Our ancestors, for example – even people who died before we were born. We get a lot from them – our good looks, maybe a story or two about them that contain a bit of their philosophy. I inherited this wonderful story about Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, it’s got comedy, romance, persistence. And great stories from my mother’s relatives too, darker comedy, Jewish humor from Holocaust survivors. No money, but good stories. And what can we give back? Well their stories live on, I can pass them to the next generation, and the genes too, which I’ve given to my good-looking children (plus I was able to use my ancestors’ genes and humor to talk this beautiful woman into giving these children her genes as well). And then there are the unseen relatives who have not yet been born, who can receive our genes and stories and keep them alive. They get something from us, we get something from them.

In these Covid days, even coexistent relatives are unseen. And yet we can still stay in touch, offering each other moral support. Except for those “unseen relatives” we’re relieved not to see because they’re wacko Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. I’m fortunate not to be related to them, except to the extent that we’re all theoretically human, but they still make me mad. In the classroom this week I accidentally said that the moon-landing footage was shot in Hollywood, it just slipped out, and then I had to stop the lesson and list all of the conspiracy theories I don’t believe in, because I don’t want to get lumped in with today’s conspiracy wackos. My whole “conspiracy theory” collection is outdated, it barely makes it into the twenty-first century.

When I think of “relatives” seen and unseen, I think of “relatives” in the European sense, people I’m related to. But when I read these words written by a Native American I have to remember that more inclusive sense of “relatives” including animals, plants, rocks and streams. The land. The Native American reciprocal relationship with the land, where it nurtures us and we nurture it. Where our life-force comes from the land and returns to the land – not just in poetic metaphorical ways but real metamorphosis, a constant transfer and transformation of energy at the cellular, even atomic level. Rebecca Adamson of the Cherokee wrote:

“Modern science is just beginning to catch up with ancient wisdom… All particles of matter, property, position, and velocity are influenced by the intention or presence of all other particles. Stated in simpler terms, atoms are aware of other atoms. According to this law of nature, a people rooted in the land over time have exchanged their tears, their breath, their bones, all their elements, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, all of their elements with their habitat many times over.” (Original Instructions, 34)

A reciprocal relationship with the land, a constant exchange of matter and energy. A relationship in which the land in sacred, and human beings contribute to that holiness by living there, breathing, laughing, sweating, even bleeding and being buried. The land is caretaker to the people, the people are caretakers to the land, the relationship is mutually beneficial. I don’t really get to have that – most of my food is not produced from this land, and my sweat gets washed off in the shower mixed with soap and drained off to somewhere. I wouldn’t drink the rainwater in Buffalo, and if I went out to water the tree out front, with my urine, I’d be arrested.

Dr. Seuss

It had been my intention to give a full sermon about Native Americans and this relationship with the land, but honestly I got distracted, sidetracked by a story in the news. The stewards of the Dr. Seuss estate have announced the discontinuation of six of his books (none of the ones you’ve heard of – no, the Cat in the Hat is not being put down, the Fox in Socks is not on the endangered species list). Because these books contain cartoonish caricatures of minority peoples. And then it’s become mixed up in the quote-unqoute “Cancel Culture” controversy, right-wing propaganda about white people being forced to self-censor, I’d like to say it’s a paranoid conspiracy theory, but frankly I’m afraid to. So now gun-nuts and tree-haters and bunker-dwellers are stockpiling copies of Green Eggs and Ham or whatnot, even though that’s nowhere near the list of endangered titles. I expect if this episode ever becomes a film it’ll be called The Cat in the Tinfoil Hat.

Anyway, this is on my mind because Dr. Seuss is the patron saint of Unitarian Universalism, and I assume that every Unitarian preacher is sermonizing on it this month.

Relationships with relatives, seen and unseen. Seeing those words this week, with Dr. Seuss on my mind, I think of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, a book I love to read to my children, that my parents read to me, that maybe their parents read to them – it’s almost like a gathering of all these different generations at reading time. And I wonder if my kids will also read Dr. Seuss to their children, who haven’t even been born yet. These words of wacky-wisdom, echoing through the ages, connecting us across space and time, even across the divide between those who once lived, those who live now and those who may live in the future.

I like the message of Red Fish Blue Fish, “old fish, new fish” – different colors, shapes and sizes, but they’re all fish, it’s a nice inclusive message. And then the book wanders off into these little rhyme-riddles – my favorite pages of Dr. Seuss are the single-page poems, I find them to be like Zen Koans, like little balls of yarn, and you can pull on various strings and get various messages, something for s seven-year-old, something for a forty-one-year-old. My personal favorite is “My hat is old, my teeth are gold, I have a bird I like to hold, my shoe is off, my foot is cold…and now my story is all told.” Malcolm, William and I can all play with that in different ways. I like the loose ends.

When I’m feeling really down at story time, I reach for Hop on Pop (although, much as I cherish free expression and condemn censorship, I’ll admit that none of my children are allowed to call me “Pop,” ever). But anyway I read it to them because it’s got this little poem, “Dad is sad. Very, very sad. He had a bad day. What a day Dad had.” It allows me to express something from inside without frightening my children – it just gently reminds them that parents have hard days too. And when I’m feeling really happy at the end of the day? Sometimes I can get through Oh! The Places You’ll Go without getting tearful and sniffly.

Frankly I do recoil in anger when I hear of Dr. Seuss being judged by standards that he never heard of, and being punished when he can’t apologize. I’m even more angry when I hear that he’s become a martyr for the white right to step on other peoples’ feelings – that’s not the Dr. Seuss I grew up with, and it’s not the Dr. Seuss I share with my children.

It’s too bad Dr. Seuss isn’t still around, I imagine he would have listened and corrected the offending images. Researching for this sermon I came across a Seuss controversy from the 1980s, his book about deforestation and pollution, The Lorax contained a line “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.” Fourteen years after the book was released, some environmental research associates contacted him with updates about efforts to detoxify the lake, and he agreed to take out the line. I don’t know, but I’d like to think he’d be as flexible today.

He’s not around, and apparently they’re not changing the books. That’s kind of sad, to torch a whole garden because of a few thorns. On the other hand, if the hurtful images in these books were causing people to say “Dr. Seuss was a Racist,” then I’d rather have a few obscure books quietly vanish than see the writer’s whole career get thrown away. Because I do really love The Zax and I’d hate for that story to disappear. I hope my children will read it to their children, and remember me.

Conclusion

What does all this have to do with Unitarian Universalist Stewardship?

As a kid, a church building always felt safe to me, and as I got older I was bothered by the idea of a church building and congregation having needs. But as I get older I see there’s a reciprocal relationship. The unseen members who came before us, and who are no longer with us – part of them lives on here in the building and this community. We benefit from their strength, fortitude, commitment, and they benefit from how we carry the torch today. Those who come after us will benefit from our persistence, how we persist through times like this, dark times of trial when we don’t know, we can’t see around the next corner to the light. But we light the chalice and extinguish the chalice and light it again, our flickering yet eternal flame, one Sunday at a time.

Nelson, Melissa K, ed. Original Instructions : Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future (Bear & Company, Rochester 2009)

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What’s Hatching?

The World Record Egg Is Hatching - StayHipp

WHAT’S HATCHING?

j. SNODGRASS

Walking on eggshells.”

I remember walking into a college classroom, first day of a new semester, January 2017, Donald Trump had just been sworn in, and it felt different. Everyone looked bruised, like their inner child, the kindergartener who heard about fair-play and compassion and being polite, like their inner child had just been gut-punched by the schoolyard bully…and the teachers had all applauded. Jokes I’d told that students had laughed at semester after semester suddenly fell flat. My goofy collection of American flag neckties had to go into storage, the red necktie with little bisons on it too. My whole comic persona of being an unqualified but confident idiot who’d comically stumbled into a position of academic authority – nobody was in the mood for that kind of fun. I felt like I had a target painted on my back. Like “straight white males, we all look the same to you,” and that semester I looked… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I looked too much like Donald Trump.

“Walking on eggshells,” that’s the expression for when, no matter what you do, someone’s feelings are going to get hurt. And that’s how it’s felt in the classroom this last four years. It’s difficult to playfully babble when everyone’s feeling victimized. And there was a fine line, like a high-wire, on the one hand, the responsibility as an adult to condemn Trumpism – bullying, lying, racism, sexism. But also the minor fear that some student in the back of the classroom was a Trump supporter who might report me for saying things that made them feel religiously oppressed. I realized too late that I didn’t have to worry about stepping on the feelings of Trump supporters in the classroom. Because they all felt persecuted anyway, all the time, and if no one was treading on their right to believe absurdities they’d just make it up. My personal theory is they’re all haunted by the angry ghosts of their feminist-marching grandmothers, so they always feel like they’re under attack.

I assume we all have our stories about “walking on eggshells” this last four years. There’s that old expression, “if you want to make an omelete you’ve got to break some eggs,” and so many eggs have been broken in this last four years – but where’s the omelete? What got accomplished? Friends have been lost, family members estranged, we monitor our speech in case some acquaintance or coworker might be a Trumper. Trumpster? Trumpist? What’s the right word? “Trumpster” seems right, it’s got that “dumpster” ring to it. But “Trumpist” seems more accurate, since Trump “pist” me off for four years.

Egg in Mythology

I was recently studying egg symbolism in ancient religions. I came across the first chapter of the Kalevala, an epic poem from Finland. It began with a lonely air-maiden floating around depressed, looking down at the world which was just a ball of water. And she falls from the sky, splashes in, gets rocked by the waves, realizes she’s somehow magically pregnant but can’t give birth. So she just floats on the water for centuries. But then she sees something – a bird fluttering aroung, looking for some dry land to nest on. So the sky-woman raises her knee out of the water to make a little island, the bird lands, nestles, and lays some eggs. Then as the eggs get warmer, one of them gets so hot that the sky-woman’s knee jerks and the eggs tumble down, cracking against the waves. But it’s not a loss – the song continues:

“From the cracked egg’s lower fragment,

Now the solid earth was fashioned,

From the cracked egg’s upper fragment,

Rose the lofty arch of heaven,

From the yolk, the upper portion,

Now became the sun’s bright lustre;

From the white, the upper portion,

Rose the moon that shines so brightly…

And she then began Creation,

And she brought the world to order.”

The broken eggs become land and sky, I guess they become Finland. And then the sky-woman’s baby is finally born, it turns out he was waiting for land to farm barley on. So he could start brewing beer. The story really fascinated me – the sky woman was lonely, and she had this creative potential, symbolized by the pregnancy that couldn’t come to birth. But she was too self-involved, too focused on her own feelings of isolation. She had to learn compassion, empathy, she helps this lost refugee, this bird (and never mind a moment that she messes up and the eggs break). Helping someone else unlocks her pent-up creativity, enables the emergence of the human race, and this finally solves her isolation problem. I think there’s a good message in that for us, today, pent-up in our covid coccoons, depressed and demoralized.

The symbol of the egg containing all the world’s creative potential appears in other cultures as well. There are stories from India where creation begins with an egg floating on the primal ocean (in some versions it’s an ocean of milk, another symbol of generative energy and nurturance). In the Upanishads the god Brahma discovers the world egg, cracks it and uses the halves to make land and sky, the fluids become clouds and rivers. It’s pretty fascinating that Finland and India would have these parallels. Then a continued search turned up parallels in the Chinese story of Pangu, the Greek myth of Eurynome, the West-African Dogon myth of Amma, the egg as primal symbol of completeness, creative potential, life-sustaining abundance. And these ancient cultures weren’t tweeting with each other, they all came up with this same idea of the world beginning as an egg.

The Edible Egg

It’s no surprise when ancient stories celebrate the egg as the greatest thing in the world. People spent three million years as scavengers, migratory foragers, roaming northward in warm seasons, southward when it got cold. Wearily trudging, they’d see flocks of birds overhead, soaring with ease. And every species of scavenger knows an unguarded nest is like hitting the Lotto jackpot – protein you don’t have to chase or throw a spear at or fight, or even chew! That’s pretty significant, when we remember that human teeth don’t last a lifetime. We still celebrate the coming of spring by sending the children out into the yard to forage for eggs, on Easter Sunday. These days we really need to jazz it up, bright colorful plastic eggs with tinfoil-wrapped candy inside, because the biological egg doesn’t make children squeal with excitement anymore (it would, if they’d fasted for forty days of Lent, but we don’t do that – our culture is all-Easter-feast-all-the-time).

We take eggs for granted. We’ve got a whole multi-billion-dollar agricultural-industrial complex, as vast and sinister as the military, just so we can feel entitled to milk and eggs. Not just entitled, there’s something like a moral imperative to have them ready to dispense. In my household we generally do our grocery shopping on the weekend, and run out of various things during the week. William wants a bagel, I say “we ran, have some cheese and crackers.” We’re out of bananas and I substitute an apple. We run out of potatoes and I say “I’ll get some more on Saturday.” But we run out of milk or eggs? At that very moment I’m throwing on the coat and scarf, plunging out the door, trudging through rain or sleet or blinding blizzard – “eggs will be back in twelve minutes or send a search-party for my dead body. Oh, and while you’re out, pick up some eggs!”

In these Covid days we’ve even reinstituted the 1950s system where milk and eggs come straight to your front porch. Eggs are so essential we buy them by the dozen. Sometimes Elizabeth orders groceries online and then the order shows up and in one of the bags there’s one single banana. “What’s with the sad banana?” “Oh, I meant to order one pound but I guess I just ordered one.” That never happens with eggs, the store never sends just one, click “one” and it means “twelve,” and are you sure you don’t need twenty-four? Two dozen eggs won’t get us through a week.

Eggs taught me how to cook. The first thing I ever made was scrambled eggs – crack them in the pan, stir, add spices, sniff, adjust, stir, put them on a plate. Then I figured out you could substitute other things, replace eggs with ground beef and diced tomatoes in the pan, stir, add spices, sniff, adjust, stir, put it on spaghetti. Substitute vegetables, soy sauce and marmalade, it’s a stir-fry, substitute refried beans and you’ve got tacos, I still cook everything the way I used to make scrambled eggs.

Malcolm wants an egg – “no problem, you want it scrambled? Fried?” “No, deviled.” … “Are you sure? Because to heat the water, boil it, cool it, cut it, mix the yolk and put it back, that’s a half hour. I can have a fried egg on your plate in three minutes.” “No, deviled.” “Alright…” “And while I’m waiting, pour me some cereal.” “No! No way, forget it – if I’m deviling an egg, you’d better be hungry when it’s done.” Middle-child Malcolm, he likes his food better if it’s invested with the maximum amount of concentrated parental effort and affection. He wants his food to be babied. And ironically we call that “deviled.”

Hatching

Obsessing about eggs this week, I keep thinking of the old nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty. I assume that, like most nusery rhymes, it originated as a satire on some political ruler. Wikipedia says it may have been England’s hunchbacked King Richard the Third, but I find that doubtful – the historical Richard’s bones have been exhumed, and it turns out he was fairly well proportioned, the whole ‘hunchback’ thing seems to have been Shakespeare’s poetic symbolism for his twisted psyche. I’d prefer to think that “Humpty Dumpty” originated as a slander on some inept and idiotic despot whose name has been lost to history, and all that survives of him is this idiotic rhyme that even children don’t find so funny anymore. And I’d like to think someday the ‘bad egg’ who just left the oval office will likewise fade from memory, leaving no trace but an idiotic taunt-song, like…

Trumpty Dumpty promised a wall

Tweeted a lot, got impeached most of all

And all his white women and all his white men

Tried to tear democracy and reality apart

But couldn’t get him up there again.

But maybe it’s soon soon for nursery rhymes. Maybe it’s too soon for puns, that’s why I haven’t even bothered with “egg-sistential threat.” This is a time for brooding. Not necessarily ‘brooding’ in the sense of quiet consternation, but in the original sense of sitting on an egg. What else can we do, during these months of quarantine, but sit on eggs, right? Gestate new ideas, wonder what might hatch in the future. This is a time to do that, personally, and also a time to do that nationally. See what’s hatching in the Oval Office (See? That was a pun, “Oval” is Latin for “Egg”). Lay up some new plans, maybe for this spring, maybe for next spring. Some of those plans might pass their expiration date, some of our ambitions may ‘chicken out,’ but who knows? Some of them might hatch, spread their wings and fly.

Fly toward the sun like the regal, majestic chicken.

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A Turn of the Wheel

A TURN OF THE WHEEL

It was a quiet New Year’s Eve. We went to my brother’s house and spent the last couple hours of 2020 at a table playing a dice game. Each one of us contributed two songs to a list that played at random, and that made the game feel extra dicey – I don’t love everything my children listen to – but soon I realized that all of the songs we chose to close out the year basically stuck to the themes of exhaustion and cautious hope. And when the playlist was done, I felt like we were all winners, because nobody picked the “Conga” song, which… Every time that song comes on it feels like losing a game of Russian roulette.

The playlist ended just before midnight, and we took a break from the dice to watch the Time Square apple fall on TV. It dropped – if anybody here missed it and wondered what happened, it dropped, gravity won. Gravity will still rule the world in 2021, I know it wasn’t on the ballot and I know right now all kinds of things seem possible, but gravity is still with us. And so is the Coronavirus. When the TV showed people trying to dance and kiss afterward, it was a little awkward – masked couples in little corrals, fenced like cattle, whatever, it was a downer. And it’s not like the TV camera had a zillion people to choose from, they just kept stalking the same weary celebrants. I hoped that none of them had to go to the bathroom, I don’t know why, maybe it was the champagne hoping.

Other than that suspense it was a gloomy scene at Times Square. I wondered if Republicans might show up and protest, insisting 2021 was fake news and really it was 2016 again. Or 1816. But they didn’t come – I learned later they were saving up their energy for a barbarian raid on the Capital building. A viking-clown blitzkrieg of stupidity.

Anyway, Times Square was a drag, and I couldn’t wait to turn it off and get back to the dice – I was in the middle of losing a game. But I was really curious – could the end of two thousand twenty magically turn things around for me? Could I rise from the doldrums and win? Emerge victorious into a bright new year? There was no money on the game, we don’t gamble, but at that moment it felt like there could be something big at stake – I wanted the universe to send me a sign that the tables could really turn for me in this coming year. Nope, I got wiped out, I ended 2020 falling behind in a dice game and started 2021 losing the same game. My brother won and I hope it’s a benevolent sign from the fates – he’s getting married this year. And expecting his first child. In no particular order, just a happy coincidence. …Hopefully happy, or else I lost that game for nothing.

It was a quiet New Year’s Eve. But waking up the next morning… Not feeling nearly as crummy as I usually feel after a big loud house-party, that was nice. And it was quiet. The holidays were over. I think I age a year between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day – four kids, a stressed-out wife, tons of relatives, gifts, massive dinners to prepare and clean up after. And then the holidays are over. Except this year most of the gifts in the mail were delayed, they keep coming, yesterday we got a fruitcake in the mail that someone sent after Thanksgiving. I haven’t tried it yet, but I assume it’s just as good. And if it’s gone stiff, then I can work off some Christmas calories by cutting it.

Roulette

Bringing Jackson and Sarah to play games of chance on New Year’s Eve reminded me of my own childhood, visiting my mother’s relatives in Queens. Their tradition was to gather, a small reunion of five Hungarian refugees, and spend the Eve gathered around a miniature roulette set, take a break to watch the Times Square ball drop, and then return to roulette. The Times Square ball is so inevitable – you know just where it’s going, and you’re pretty sure everyone will survive the ten-second countdown. The roulette ball is the opposite – it’s battered around by physics and chaos and chance, where it stops no one knows. It makes a certain poetic sense to me now, these improbable survivors of the Holocaust and the Hungarian Revolution, watching this little ball get bounced and battered around. They were already winners in a sense, out of hundreds of thousands killed by the Nazis and the USSR, these few people had made it out alive, battered and scarred and traumatized, my uncle had nearly died of fever in a concentration camp, my grandfather still had bullets in his body from a botched nazi execution. But they’d successfully made it into the eighties. They’d watch this little roulette ball bounce and settle somewhere, and when they lost they’d mutter in Hungarian. Presumably Hungarian expletives.

Playing roulette with Holocaust survivors, it’s one of my cherished childhood memories. And now I’m curious if they watched the little ball bouncing on the wheel of fate and wondered – will we survive another year? Well, we’ve survived everything else.

The roulette wheel spins like the cycles of time, like the dance of swirling planets, alternating red and black like nights and days or summers and winters, and the ball is like a storm-tossed sailor, or a refugee bouncing through time as light and dark blur by, eventually destined to settle in one of the little slots. Red or black, high or low, odd or even, and to make the game a little more realistic there’s one spot that’s none-of-the-above, the green zero of total random improbability. If not for this one extra space, everything would be logical, symmetrical, balanced, thirty six spots like the three hundred sixty degrees of a full circle. But then the game wouldn’t be like life. Life isn’t just high and low, feast and famine, laughter and tears – sometimes it’s something else entirely, random chaos, outrageous fortune.

The origin of the word “fortune” has nothing to do with piles of money. It comes from an Italian goddess, “Vortumna” meaning “she who turns the year,” in the sense that the cycles of astral and terrestrial time were imagined as a wheel that had to be manually rotated by a big brawny goddess. The Romans adapted the name “Vortumna” to “Fortuna,” which is too bad – I think “Vortumna” sounds better, like “vortex,” a swirling hurricane of possibilities. Fortuna sounds like ordering a sushi roll, “I’ll have the number 4, tuna,” and gambling with your gastrointestinal health. “Do I feel lucky? Or should I just ask them to cook this?” From Vortumna to the Roman Fortuna, the goddess of spinning wheels was eventually demoted to “Lady Luck,” like a gameshow co-hostess, and her wheel became a carnival game.

The colors of Roulette are ancient, sacred colors, representing the trinitarian personae of a goddess, and the three stages of life – virginal white, reproductive red, and deathly black. The struggle between youthful white or red and menacing black also appears in playing cards and board games like chess, checkers and backgammon.

We might think of these as war-games, particularly chess, which looks like armies clashing on a battlefield. But chess can also be seen as a ritual dance, where star performers have their complex moves, the horse has its funny little jig, and the chorus line in front does simple steps. Actually, ancient depictions of these games tend to show a man and a woman playing – they seem to have been an old form of courtship and foreplay. Backgammon and checkers are about penetrating the opponent’s defenses, chess is about capturing their king – not killing the king, you just prove you can do it and the game ends.

Checkers is around four thousand years old. A red and black checkerboard was found in an Egyptian tomb from 1600 BCE. There were six pieces per side, possibly representing the red fertile months and the black barren months. And apparently the pieces were once shaped like goats and lions – symbols of fertility and death, and it’s mentioned in ancient texts as the way dead Egyptians would pass the time in the afterlife, while waiting for millennia to be resurrected as movie-monsters. It’s also a nice way to pass the time with a quarantine buddy. You can learn new things about an old friend by playing a game with them. But for goodness sake – if you’re quarantining with someone and they pull out a monopoly board, say no. That game only teaches things you don’t want to know. It turns out pretending to be a landlord brings out the worst in everyone.

Euchre

White, red and black are also the colors of playing cards. Here, there’s a clearer sense of seasonal ritual combat. There are fifty two cards, like the fifty two weeks of a year, and they’re divided into four suits, like seasons. Hearts clearly signify spring and diamonds are summer. The darker seasons are represented by the black suits – spades are farming implements, so likely stand for autumn, and clubs are winter. Or the suits may stand for love and war – the red suits meaning fertility and wealth, the black suits being weapons.

Card games clearly developed as a winter activity. In early modern England, card-playing was illegal for the working classes, except at Christmastime. And now that I think of it, Santa Claus also wears red, white and black, the colors of a deck. Winter, trapped inside, sitting around a table with a candle, wondering what spring and summer might bring – that seems like a natural time to pull out a deck of cards. I imagine that various games once had superstitions attached, as if one’s fortune could be read in the outcome of a card game. The one that springs immediately to mind is old maid, in which couples pair off until one spinster is left, and nobody wants to be holding the card.

My personal favorite card game is Euchre, which is notoriously difficult to explain, it’s even difficult to spell (E-U-C-H-R-E), and telling someone how to play unfortunately requires you to say the word “Trump” like forty times, so I won’t bother.

The average game is about ten rounds, each one lasting three minutes. And before each round begins the cards get shuffled and dealt, and there’s that moment of looking at those five cards, face down on the table, all identical and indistinguishable from the rest of the deck. But that little stack of cards is like a wrapped gift, or like the folder a spy receives before an undercover mission. Who will I be for the next three minutes? Will I pick up these cards and be the shining hero, will I be the crafty underdog? Maybe my partner’s got the hero hand and I’m the trusty sidekick. Or maybe I’ll be the conniving antagonist, maybe an opponent declares they’re the big-time hero and I’ve got cards that’ll scorch their glorious quest. Sometimes you pick up the hand of cards and find out, “Oh, for this round I’m just the bystander, nothing here will affect the flow of the game at all.” A hand with nothing useful in it is called a ‘farmer hand,’ and that’s who you get to be, some nameless field-laborer who looks up and sees heroes passing by on their adventures.

I don’t really sit there thinking up role-play metaphors during the game, but there’s something really special about watching those cards get dealt and wondering what that face-down hand will be when you pick it up. Sure, it’s random, but it’s hard to not think that those cards contain some kind of karmic significance, like if you said something really trashy that day, maybe you’ll get a handful of trash (and it’s impossible to play this game without saying trashy things). And it’s also hard to not think that a surprise win could be a turning point – it can certainly brighten your evening. Maybe a good handful of cards could be a sign that a losing streak in real life is about to change directions.

Conclusion

Well, it’s a bit superstitious to think a hand of cards or the spin of a roulette wheel could magically determine who you’ll marry, whether you’ll prosper in the coming year, whether spring will triumph over winter. Spoiler alert – spring wins, but winter comes back in the sequel. But we humans are naturally superstitious creatures, we look for patterns and we use little things as clues to theorize about the big things. The only difference between superstition and religion is… Well, there isn’t one.

We, human beings, are small in a big universe, most of which is dark and dangerous, the vast abyss of vacuous and unsympathetic space. We’re small on this planet, surrounded by unsympathetic hungry jungles and expanding deserts and vicious tigers and crushing tsunamis and vacuous Republicans and murderous invisible monsters, particles of the Coronavirus.

Being small in a big, dark, chaotic universe, we look for reassuring signs of intention amid the randomness, little signals to inspire and rekindle the hope that things make sense, everything’s connected, and we have destinies that matter. If nothing else, a good game with a good friend is a good way to kill time until the pandemic lifts, winter turns to spring, and we can do silly things on New Year’s Eve again.





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“Law and Justice” (Live in Niagara Falls)

Maybe this will be the year when I finally get my act together and become one of those fake-news cranks on youtube. …I doubt it. But someone got a video of a speech I gave last week, and I was pretty happy with how it came out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxhJuSTYCt8&t=16s

…And here’s the official transcript:


LAW AND JUSTICE

I grew up with an older sister and two younger brothers. As a kid my sister really loved cooking, and now she’s an Episcopal priest – she used to bake bread and now she magically transforms bread into the edible flesh of Jesus Christ.
My two younger brothers both became lawyers. And that seems pretty natural to me, because really, all younger siblings are attorneys. They have to be, because nothing is fair when you’re the youngest. “He tripped me!” “He took my toy!” “He got a longer turn than I did!” Yes, I now plead guilty to all of those charges. I was a really crummy older brother. And now they make ten times what I do. But they have to come up with really smart things to say, and I get hired to say stupid things.
Someone asked me to do a sermon about justice, and I’m about to say something really stupid about it: I think justice must be inborn, hard-wired into humanity, written in the marrow of our bones. I think this because I now have children of my own, and kids are natural experts on the topic of justice – “He got two scoops and I only got a scoop and a half!” “She got to sit in the front seat last time!” “It’s not fair!” You hear that so many times, I try not to be one of those parents who answer “Yeah, life isn’t fair.” But it’s hard. Expecially hard because I want two scoops too, and as the official scooper I get what’s left after everyone else gets two scoops. Unless we’re talking about a dog mess, then I’m the first in line.
I ask one of my kids to take out the garbage, and it’s “Why me? I did it last time! It’s always me! Ask him! Or her!” “Alright fine, I’ll make them do something too – you sweep the floor and you clear the table. Then it’s fair and we can all be unhappy.”
Everybody’s an expert on justice, but law is a whole different matter.
Marriage has laws, but after fifteen years I still have no idea what they are. It’s like you watch a thousand movies about the Civil War, and then get deployed into the jungle of Vietnam. Whoa! What are the rules? Where are the lines of soldiers? I’m in the jungle in the dark, the other player in this game is flitting shadows and flashes of gunfire from nowhere, the unknowable darkness.
And you can’t just sit down and negotiate the rules, because there’s a language barrier. “I made you this, I cooked you this, I bought you this.” And she’ll say “remember three weeks ago when I asked you if you liked the dress? Your eyelid twitched.” “Yeah, and then I said I liked it.” “But your eyelid twitched.” I don’t consider that to be admissible evidence or courtroom testimony – it’s not on the transcript. “Do you like the dress?” “Yes I like it,” that’s all I see in the official record.

SACRED LAW

Sometimes I wish my household had a written set of rules, but then I remember I’m a historian and a Bible scholar, and written laws are always a terrible mistake. Once you start writing them down, you can’t stop. Laws beget other laws, they multiply – it’s like you close the cover on a lawbook, it’s dark in there, they mingle and when you open the book again a hundred new laws have been born. What’s up with that? I ask my college students – “How many commandments are in the Torah?” “Ten,” they tell me. No, those are just the basics. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) has six hundred and thirteen commandments – “Thou shalt this, thou shalt not that.” Why? Because a written law is a line in the sand, “thou shalt not cross this line.” And then someone figures out (or pays a lawyer to figure out) “Oh, then I’ll just step around it.” “No, wait, here are two more lines in the sand to block that.” “So I’ll step around those.” “No, here are four more, sixteen more, two hundred and fifty six more!” Written laws grow exponentially, because someone can always find a way around it (especially those who can hire the most expensive attorneys). The problem was writing down a law in the first place. Tribal cultures with oral traditions don’t have this problem. When the only law is “Work for your share and don’t be a jerk,” everybody knows when you’re breaking it.
Did God write all those Laws in the Torah? I don’t know. If so, it doesn’t seem to have been God’s most brilliant creative day. The basic format is copied out of Hammurabi’s Code, an ancient Babylonian document (and there’s at least one case of straight plagiarism, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”). Copying from Hammurabi’s Code might have seemed alright at the time, “an eye for an eye” seems fair enough. But a closer look quickly reveals that this was Babylonian law-code was clearly of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. It was designed by those with wealth and power in order to keep their wealth and power, while giving the impression of being impartial (and even divinely inspired).
This is also the basis for American Law. Not the Ten Commandments – I don’t understand why people think we should have the Ten Commandments posted on courthouse property, they won’t help you with American law at all. Our courts only punish three of them (murder, theft and perjury, and we only punish those crimes when they’re combined with the greater crime of not being able to afford an expensive attorney). If our courts enforced the Ten Commandments, that would mean capital punishment for everyone except a few Orthodox Jews. And I mean “capital punishment” in the Old Testament style – they would throw rocks at you until you were dead. Worshiping Jesus would be illegal! It makes no sense for Christians to want the Ten Commandments anywhere near a courthouse – if they wanted something Biblical, it should be the Gospel story of Jesus protecting the adulteress from the death penalty by saying “let the one who is faultness cast the first stone.” (Except that wouldn’t harmonize so well with the Christian agenda of remodeling the American court system as a torture device to punish women for having sex).
American law isn’t Biblical, it’s more like the Code of Hammurabi – it’s there to protect those with power and property from those who don’t. And it was created to give the impression of being impartial.

CASE STUDY

Here’s a classic example: early in his life, George Washington owned a full set of teeth – these had been a gift from God or nature or whatever – teeth grew out of his jaws as if by magic. In his early twenties he started losing his teeth, likely because he wasn’t a good governor of his own mouth, there’s no legend of, whatever, he chopped down the cherry tree and his father punched him in the mouth, let’s just say “natural causes.” And by his mid fifties he’d lost all of his teeth. That presented a real problem in terms of law – nobody knocked his teeth out, there was no “tooth for a tooth.” But he was also a property owner, which included owning human beings (African slaves) who had teeth, which made him the owner of their teeth. So by the laws of the land, George Washington owned teeth that were in other peoples’ heads, and he paid someone to transfer them – pull teeth from the heads of his slaves and make him a set of dentures (it turns out that whole “wooden teeth” thing is a myth, as if he carved dentures from the cherry tree he chopped down). Obviously this is grisly and awful to hear about, but it was legal, because the law made him the rightful owner of those teeth (the slaves did not own the teeth that were growing from their own heads, George Washington did. And PS – when people say “Make America Great Again,” this seems to be the period of “greatness” they’re talking about).
I’m not saying this to gross you out or make George Washington look bad, I’m just using it as a clear illustration of how US law, from the beginning, has never been impartial, never been “of the people, by the people, for the people” – it’s always been rigged so that those with power and property can keep their power and property, and yet it’s got this thin veneer of impartiality. It pays lip service to fairness, but those lips might be hiding stolen teeth.
Yeah, I went with that pun. It’s not that funny, but it was way better than making a pun about “indentured servitude.” Bad puns, I call them “uncle jokes” but uncles call them “Dad jokes” and bachelor uncles have a lot more time and energy to go around naming things than fathers do. I recently came across this question, “When does a bad joke become a Dad joke?” “When the punchline is apparent.”
Anyway, back to our case study. The transfer of these teeth may have been perfectly legal, but even a child could easily see that this was not justice. It was lawful but also awful (that’s not a pun, it just happened to rhyme, but I have a niece and a nephew who might find it really funny). And now we’re going through a major cultural debate about whether George Washington should be considered a hero at all, since he owned human slaves and chewed his food with their teeth. Also the environmentalists want to tear down all his statues because he chopped down that cherry tree (and never mind whether or not it was “owned” by his family – it’s still a lousy thing to do).
Our American system of law is really, really complex – even children can easily see the injustices, but we have to keep telling them “it’s more complicated than that.” Our law system gets more complex every day. But it can be summed up in a single word: Revenge. We wait till someone is greedy or desperate enough to do something awful and then we punish them. That’s our ideal, what our law-code strives to achieve. There are still some kinks in the system – sometimes our law-enforcers get impatient, they can’t wait till someone does something wrong, so they just punish someone for looking like they might do something wrong in the future. I’m not making light of this, it’s a serious problem. How does this keep happening, that sometimes violent people sign up for this job that makes violence legal? I don’t know. Maybe there was a misunderstanding when they joined the “Police force,” chose a career in “law enforcement,” maybe some people misinterpret that to mean it’s a profession where you solve problems by force.
For some of us, the word “justice” is synonymous with “revenge,” like “I’m gonna get justice.” And this can cause dangerous misunderstandings, like when Black Lives Matter protesters demand justice, and people assume this must mean black revenge – an eye for an eye. As far as I know, that’s a misunderstanding of a movement that’s seeking the real justice of a fair chance to live and compete in this land, without being hobbled by oppression and persecution. Gandhi famously said “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE

Sacred law can be scary. Artificial law (the laws drafted by legislative committees) is terrifying. But natural law is the dirtiest of the bunch, the sociopath – it’s the most frightening, because it doesn’t just go after guilty individuals, it’ll punish a whole species. Especially if the crime is “your species is too big.” Like if the lions make too many baby lions, some of them will starve because there are not enough gazelles for them to eat. Or if the gazelles make too many baby gazelles, nature will make more lions to hunt them. And then when the gazelle population settles down, the lion population will stabilize. It won’t punish individual lions, individual gazelles, it’ll just hack away at that species until it’s in balance.
If humans make too many cars and burn too much fuel, nature will hit us with tsunamis and floods – it won’t target individual humans, it’ll just wipe some humans out (it’ll punish Puerto Rico for the sins of the L.A. freeway). If humans make too many humans, nature will make a virus to hunt us. It won’t target individual humans, it’ll just hack away at us as a species. To make this even more frightening, political and economic laws can sometimes get in on it, and funnel the brunt of natural law’s punishments toward the most socio-economically vulnerable humans, as we’re seeing now – natural law is punishing the human species with this virus (and it’s pretty indiscriminate) but economic law is racist and keeps shoving minorities and single mothers into the front lines to bear the worst of nature’s fury. That’s doubly frightening.
No species is too big to fail. And that includes us. In the Torah, in the whole Bible, God’s very first commandment to the human race is “Be fruitful and multiply.” That’s a commandment, a sacred law (that’s why wackos fire guns at Panned Parenthood, they think they’re vigilantes protecting the law of life). I think part of the reason people get so irrational about their sacred law is the hope it might protect us from natural law. Like “Mommy’s gone crazy – Daddy please protect me!” Can God protect us from nature? Rescue this prodigal species, save us, come down and forcefully make it “on Earth as it is in Heaven”? I don’t know. I believe in God, but I believe in a God who’s rational (and I know for some of us the phrase ‘rational God’ might be an oxymoron, but it’s a matter of personal faith). I believe in a God who cooperates with nature, not a God who bullishly dominates it.

CONFESSION

Someone asked me to give a sermon about law and justice. I hope, when they asked, they suspected they’d get something like this – a bunch of my own thoughts, with some idiotic puns mixed in (it’s no secret, I’m the guy who gets hired to say stupid things). Will our legislative committees in their endless meetings and debates ever devise a perfect law-code that brings true justice in the land? I have my doubts. If all the sacred laws in history have failed to bring peace on earth, I doubt that state bureaucrats will ever formulate perfect justice. And neither church nor state has yet managed to overrule natural law. Even Donald Trump can’t veto a hurricane and that man has a lot of wind in him.
But on a much smaller and more humble scale, I do have some faith in humanity. I believe in you. Yes, you, whoever you are. I believe that each of us still has that child inside who knows injustice when they see it, and says “that’s not fair!” And maybe we’ve been conditioned, when we hear that child’s voice, to say “Yeah, life’s not fair,” or “Shh, it’s more complicated than that.” Well right now my inner child is saying “No, justice is not that complicated.” Maybe I should listen.
This is a vast and fascinating topic, law and justice, and it seems fitting that I have to end with a confession: I don’t have all the answers. But if you really need an answer, I know a priest and two lawyers you can ask.

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New Book: Welcome to Tragedy (Sample Chapters)

I’m very excited to announce the release of my new book, Welcome to TRAGEDY: A Beginner’s Guide to Greek Drama.  A single volume to introduction to Greek drama, with introductions to all of the surviving scripts by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, plus three comedies by Aristophanes.  Here below are a couple samples – the Author’s preface, and the chapter about Oedipus Tyrannos (since I figure that’s the most familiar play for most readers).  The book is available at https://www.amazon.com/Welcome-Tragedy-Beginners-Guide-Greek/dp/B088XQGW84/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=welcome+to+tragedy&qid=1592328265&s=books&sr=1-1

Author’s Preface

At an early age I was inoculated against any infectious enjoyment of Greek drama. Likely by some withered, clucking, turkey-necked high school teacher, and then again by some smug, turtle-necked college professor. Whatever love they had for literature was not contagious.

If you want to inoculate young people against Greek drama, start by alienating them with archaic terms like hubris and dithyramb. Make them memorize these vocabulary words for a Tuesday morning quiz, which pretty much guarantees they’ll have forgotten them by Wednesday. Drag them through some of Aristotle’s Poetics, so they can see the process by which creativity and fun can be scientifically drained out of drama. Then make them read Oedipus Tyrannos, so they can see how a dirty joke can become as dry as a church service.

Teaching Aristotle’s formula (which he based on Oedipus) and then teaching Oedipus to confirm Aristotle is a circular argument that makes for an easy-to-grade paper assignment: In two pages, prove that Oedipus fits perfectly into Aristotle’s outline. Unfortunately, it then leaves students with the false impression that, if you’ve read one tragedy you’ve read them all – and why waste time reading more stories cramped into this dull formula?

And if one should attempt to read further, Medea becomes a dreary and even frustrating intellectual exercise of trying to shoehorn a story into a pattern that doesn’t seem to fit. None of the classical Greek dramatists had read Aristotle’s instructions for writing proper tragedy Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had all been dead for decades before the book was written. And it’s a good thing they didn’t read it, because then a study of Greek drama would be totally repetitive and boring. As we’ll see, there was a good deal of liberty on the stage of Dionysus.

I’ve never had an interest in Greek drama, but in the last couple of years, people I respect have looked at me and made inside-jokes about Greek plays on the assumption that I’d pick up the reference. I didn’t, and got tired of explaining that I’d been inoculated at an early age, so decided to take it on as an independent study. This turned out to be more fun than I’d expected, because I’ve been going to the theater more lately, and generally find modern plays to be as rewarding as getting thwacked with a rolled-up newspaper and having my nose rubbed in feces.

I’m tired of watching pathetic little plays where pathetic little people fail in pathetic little ways. The number one rule for Greek tragic heroes and heroines seems to be “If you’re gonna fail – fail big. Take a whole kingdom down with you. Really screw it up on such a grand scale that even the gods will scratch their heads.”

I would have been so happy to find a slim, single-volume guide to Greek drama where all of these plays were introduced concisely in a conversational tone. I wanted to be welcomed as a mildly curious beginner. I didn’t find the book I was looking for, so I read all of the plays and several hundred pages of commentary and wrote this. A lot of the stuff I read was insanely dull, filled with obscure vocabulary words and scholar-code, and I’ve done my best to present my findings in a way that will be easy to read.

Now, next time someone makes an inside joke about Greek Drama, I’ll be able to respond. Unfortunately the response will be obscure and alienating, and I’ll realize too late I’d be better off if I’d just stared blankly. Ironically the more we learn about a topic, the harder it is to communicate about it. My hope is that, as an enthusiastic amateur, I’ve learned just enough in this last six months to write an easy-going introduction for mildly curious beginners.

 

OEDIPUS TYRANNOS

Sophocles, 427 BCE

Title : The name “Oedipus” means “swollen foot,” which is explained in mythology with the story of an ill-omened baby being pierced through the ankles and left out to die, although it more likely derives from an ancient superstition that a king as mediator between the earth-world and sky-world must have one foot that never touches the ground. Or maybe it just meant gout.

Oedipus Tyrannos (in Latin, Oedipus Rex) is generally translated “Oedipus the King,” but the Greek tyrannos is a more specific legal term for someone who rules without having inherited a dynastic royal title. It’s from this word we get the English “Tyrant,” but we use the word judgmentally, about oppressive dictators, whereas the Greek word is neutral, like our word “president.” In calling the play Oedipus Rex, “Oedipus the King” we lose the irony of its title: Oedipus was the firstborn son of the previous king and therefore the rightful inheritor, but not knowing this he became the ruler by saving the city and marrying the queen. Then the realization that he was rightful king all along comes simultaneously with the revelations that destroy him. However, calling the play “Oedipus the Tyrant” today wouldn’t work, since the play establishes that the population of Thebes thought he was doing just fine.

Premise : The city of Thebes will be destroyed unless the killer of its former ruler is punished. Oedipus investigates.

Characters

Oedipus – Ruler of Thebes who must avenge the former ruler’s murder +

Jocasta – Oedipus’ wife, later revealed to be his mother +▼

Creon – Brother of Jocasta +

Tiresias – Soothsayer, reveals a vague outline of the back-story +

Priest of Zeus – Explains the plague

Messengers – Reporters of offstage action

Shepherd – Reveals that Oedipus was the abandoned baby

Antigone and Ismene – Daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta (non-speaking roles) +

Chorus of Theban Elders

(+ appears in multiple plays, see Character Index, ▼ dies in this play)

A Murder Mystery

Oedipus Rex is a murder mystery in which the detective doesn’t know he’s the killer. But unlike other mysteries, this one was written with the assumption that the audience knows the outcome before the play begins. And even in modern times, if you asked high school graduates “who killed Oedipus’ father?” they’d likely know it whether they’d ever read the play or not.

The real story of Oedipus takes place in the past – the Theban royal couple Laius and Jocasta abandoned their infant son to die, fearing a prophecy that he would kill his father. The baby was adopted by the king and queen of Corinth, but then exiled himself to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In a fit of road-rage at an intersection he killed a man (Laius, his biological father), then rescued Thebes from a terrorist Sphinx, married the queen and became ruler. Then Oedipus waited for the Corinthian king and queen to die so he would have successfully escaped the prophecy. But a new apocalyptic terror has come to haunt Thebes, and everyone will die if Laius’ killer is not exposed.

In theatrical study this would all be back-story, but the plot of Oedipus (which takes place on the day Oedipus learns the Corinthian king is finally dead) is driven by exposition, the past is central. Tom Driver wrote: “Formally, then, the present embraces the past. Yet as the play proceeds this formal arrangement is reversed. In a play shot through with irony, the basic irony is this: while the form of the play shows the past enclosed within the present, the action shows that in reality the present is enclosed within the past.”34 The old prophecies are firmly in control, no matter how Oedipus tries to outrun or out-think them.

Oedipus is tragically willful: he once killed a driver at an intersection insisting he had the right-of-way. And at every intersection of the play he drives forward, even when the road-signs and passengers tell him to turn back, he’s on a collision-course with destiny. He does once ask for directions, from a blind man, but he brutally refuses to accept them.

He prides himself on his detective skills – he once rescued Thebes from the Sphinx by defeating its riddle. The play doesn’t tell us the riddle, but apparently assumes we know (Q: What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening? A: Man, who crawls in infancy, walks in adulthood and then needs a cane in old age). It’s odd that Sophocles leaves the riddle out, since like the play it collapses past, present and future into a single day, and also contains ironic connections to Oedipus himself, whose feet were bound together when he was abandoned as a baby (making him unable to crawl) and who will presumably need a stick to feel his way around after blinding himself. But for the dramatic purpose of Oedipus Tyrannos, all we need to know is that he saved the city by solving a riddle once, and come-what-may will save the city by solving a riddle again. The Sphinx (meaning “Throttler” or “Strangler”) which Oedipus defeated in the past was a mythical chimera, a composite monster.35 The solution to the play’s current riddle is yet another sphinx: Oedipus himself, husband of his mother and sibling of his offspring, is also a composite monster.

How Complex Was Oedipus’ Marriage, Really?

Readers may expect eroticism in Oedipus, because the play’s title has become synonymous with Sigmund Freud’s theories on unconscious sexual desire, but if Oedipus has any yearning at all for Jocasta, it’s buried too deep to see it in this play. She does act maternal toward him, in the way that the wife of any obsessively focused man must help him remember the little things, and when she figures out the big secret (just before he does) she tries to protect him from this crushing realization.

The play contains only a single fleeting reference to a Freudian “Oedipus Complex,” when Jocasta tells her husband that life is only ruled by random chance, and nothing can be predicted. She then matter-of-factly says “Do not fear this marriage with your mother. Many men have dreams, and in those dreams they wed their mothers,” and Oedipus blandly answers “You are right,”36 which makes us momentarily wonder about the woman he thought was his mother (whom he immediately says he wishes were dead, so he won’t have to worry about marrying her).

Jocasta is clearly not some withered old crone, she’s likely thirteen or fourteen years older than Oedipus – their ages are not given in the play, but he could be as young as his early thirties and she could be in her mid forties. She’s energetic and sharp, but Aphrodite lurks nowhere in the background of this play. Oedipus speaks of sex only in farming terms, his mother/wife as a piece of land that had been plowed by both his father and himself: “a field that had brought forth two harvests – him and his children.”37 The chorus mixes this metaphor with the docking of a boat: “For you the same wide harbor lay open as son and husband fathering children – how, how could the furrow sown by your father bear you in silence so long?”38 Other than these euphemisms (and the fact that Oedipus and Jocasta have four children), the play gives us no sense of their attraction. At the midpoint, while the chorus sings the half-time song, Oedipus and Jocasta go home together and return five minutes later, but it’s doubtful they snuck off for a quickie.

Did Oedipus have an “Oedipus Complex?” It doesn’t seem so. Oedipus did not seek out the queen Jocasta because he was hot for her. Marrying the former ruler’s widow was part of the rise to political power, like Aegisthus in the Oresteia these royal successions seem to preserve an old memory of queens who ruled for life and had replaceable male consorts.

Once he learns that he’s impregnated his own mother, Oedipus does feel guilty and ashamed, and what had been a healthy marriage instantly turns into something nightmarish and gruesome. When he finds Jocasta has hanged herself, he tears off the brooches that pinned her garments together and plunges the needles into his eyes. His dead mother’s naked body is the last thing he sees before going through the rest of his life blind.

Oedipus and the gods

At the midpoint of the play, while his world is being turned inside-out, the exasperated Oedipus shouts out “Whoever took all this to be the work of a savage god would speak the truth!”39 Where are the gods in Oedipus? Offstage giggling, it seems. The audience sees the play from the gods’ perspective – since the story was already well known, spectators could simultaneously see the past, present and future, while Oedipus blindly bumbled around trying to assemble the past. Destroying his eyes at the end was just a formality.

The surprise twist at the end of Oedipus Tyrannos is that Oedipus wins! He accomplishes precisely what he set out to do: deduces and punishes the former king’s murderer, and saves the city! But there’s no victory party – the gods rob him of any joy in success. He is a true hero, a savior, and yet he’s truly tragic, ground in the gears of a trap he can’t see until it’s too late.

Miscellaneous : Oedipus Tyrannos (bundled with two other tragedies and a satyr play) was the second-place entry in the dramatic competition of its year. Sophocles was beaten by Philocles, nephew of celebrity playwright Aeschylus. What this masterpiece was we don’t know, Philocles’ works have not been preserved, so we can’t judge for ourselves whether he wrote something better than Oedipus. All we really know about Philocles is that his uncle had industry connections.

 

Available now at https://www.amazon.com/Welcome-Tragedy-Beginners-Guide-Greek/dp/B088XQGW84/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=welcome+to+tragedy&qid=1592328265&s=books&sr=1-1

 

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SHOUT – Football as Religion..?

SHOUT – FOOTBALL AS RELIGION

A couple years ago I got up to preach on a Sunday morning and saw the strangest thing – a young couple in the back of the church, their faces painted blue with some shocking streaks of red and white. And after the service they apologetically explained that they were going straight from there to the Bills game, and wouldn’t have time in between to do their face-paint. I understood. But the strangest thing about seeing them back there during my sermon was that they looked like they should be shouting, chanting, cheering, stomping, clapping…but no, they just sat there painted blue, quietly respectful. Maybe they thought a few prayers in a church would assist their team with victory, but they’d made two slight miscalculations – first, they were in a Unitarian church. And second their team is the Buffalo Bills.

They should have prayed to the football gods, torn live squirrels apart with their teeth, made a giant straw bison and set it on fire…and who knows? Maybe they planned to do that while tailgating. And it made me wonder about Christian Churches where, presumably, people weren’t wearing blue facepaint, but spent the prayer-time begging God to crush the New England Patriots or Miami Dolphins or whatever. I wondered about the ministers preaching, seeing all those dull, blank faces, hanging like masks, and wondering… What’s really the mask? Maybe the blue paint is your true face, and this pale pink skin is just something you wear to fool your boss and minister, so Sunday afternoon you can paint on your true face and worship your true god in the arena.

God may snooze through the same old readings and prayers during Sunday morning church services, but the roar of the coliseum on a Sunday afternoon must wake God up. The shouts, the chants, the barbaric cries for blood, people waving signs that say “John 3:16,” which must mean something like “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.” And the crowds go wild. All good Christians (except their team’s totem animal is the bison, so some wear horns). Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Evangelicals, all those guys who can barely stay awake in church, but once the whistle blows and the blood flows and the pigskin flies they’re screaming their heads off, calling on the gods to rain down apocalyptic destruction on the Giants, Bears, Bengals. If we lived in Detroit, fans would be screaming in the arena for the Lions to tear the Saints to pieces. And in New Orleans good Christians pray for the Saints to massacre the Redskins. I don’t watch football, but if they ever released a video of the Redskins beating the Patriots I’d rent it.

Sunday morning zombie Christians turning to werewolves howling in the Sunday afternoon arena?

I don’t see this as a problem with football, it’s a problem with American religion.

There’s something very strange about the word “Religion” – as a religious studies teacher, I witness that “Religion” is synonymous with boredom. Boredom like filling out an insurance application. “Religion” has come to mean afterlife insurance, and the application needs to be filled out and signed again week after week after week. “Sacrifice” has come to mean another Sunday morning sacrificed to boredom, which also means part of Saturday night must be sacrificed. So that God who has accounted all these hours or boredom will pay the premium after death.

In ancient cultures, religion was the only show in town – what we think of as sports, concerts, theater, even strip-clubs, it was all part of religion. That’s how it was in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, the Mayans and all the ancient civilizations I’ve studied. The ancient Babylonians would make their king fight a lion in order to prove that the gods approved of his rule (and if the lion won, it was a sign that the gods were ready for a new king). In ancient Crete, acrobats did flips over the backs of charging bulls, then sacrificed the animals for a giant national barbecue. The ancient Greek Olympic games were a religious festival, and we can still see it in the ritualistic processions and parades and pageantry of it. The ancient Mayans had a ball-game, it was like tackle-basket-volleyball – you could only touch touch the ball with your elbows and knees, try to knock it through a hoop, and the losing team could be sacrificed (or, if the winning team played supernaturally well, they could be sacrificed). Here in Western New York, Lacrosse was invented as a religious ritual. And these ancient sports were not solemn and dull, they were loud and sexy and musical, feats of human ability, screaming crowds, and victory was seen as a collaboration between athletes and gods – as if the gods themselves would enter into the players and the game, to put on a show for believers.

It was some highly idiosyncratic people in ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam who separated that, and for our purpose here we can say the Puritans coming to the new world definitely had no patience for any pageantry or eroticism or uproarious outbursts in Church – for the Puritans a worship service had to be as boring as possible. So the public appetite for entertainment went elsewhere, into sporting arenas, rock concerts, strip clubs and theaters. And what was left for religion? Afterlife insurance. Paid up in weekly installments, an hour or boredom buys you six days of doing what you want without worry about having a heart-attack in the brothel – you’re covered. You can treat people like any kind of garbage as long as you pay your weekly premium.

Is that really religion? I don’t know, it sounds so cold and legalistic, so quid pro quo. But then look at the majority of American Christianity – people are damned, the world is doomed, it’s all a foregone conclusion, so the only question left is: can you make a personal deal with God to bail you out? Not save the whales or bring world-peace, just give a singular believer some pie in the sky? I’d say that’s not really religion.

What is Religion? It’s about connections: connection with a higher power, and connection with community. And religions generally involve rituals on some sacred day of the week, songs and chants, sacred clothing and foods, and a longing for victory (which can be victory over the self, victory over fear and desire, victory over sin or death). And if alien anthropologists flew over Buffalo they’d see us doing all these things – on Sunday afternoon.

Buffalo Bills fandom has all these things. It binds people together in community, longing for a victory that, for a moment, can unite all of Western New York, Republicans and Democrats, races and creeds, across the generations. It’s got a sacred day of the week, songs and chants – what is “Let’s Go Buffalo” but a prayer? Even ministers who sweat through their shirts can’t get congregations praying like that. It’s got rituals, celebrated at home with family or at a bar. Even fans at home can wear the sacred clothes (jerseys, hats, beads, talismans), do the chants and cheers, believing that their superstitious rituals can influence the flight of a ball through the television set. It’s got pilgrimage to the sacred ground of the stadium, hallowed ground baptized in blood, sweat and tears (here in Buffalo, mostly tears). It’s even got sacraments – sacred foods and libations, by which I mean Labatt Blue, pizza and wings. A Native American said, “So much like the White Man to kill the Buffalo and only take the wings.” That’s dark humor. But imagine for a moment the number of chickens who get sacrificed before a Bills game. I read somewhere about a fan who always eats fish before the Bills play the Miami dolphins. Symbolically eating the enemy to rob them of their power, put a curse on them. That’s old religion. I wonder if Hell has a special place for Presbyterians who eat fish to work a voodoo curse on the Miami Dolphins.

CHILD SACRIFICE

No matter how much we hear about teen concussions and brain damage, it’ll never make high school football less popular. Why? What forces on earth could possibly possess parents to risk the health and the lives of their children? Money, obviously, if you play your kid like a lottery ticket to see if they make you a zillionaire. But more than that, religion. The history of religion is littered with bodies of firstborn children sacrificed for hungry gods – the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac is an easy example, and Abraham’s unblinking compliance is a clear sign that what he was told to do was nothing out of the ordinary (Isaac may have been surprised, and in the Bible he never speaks to Abraham again). Greek mythology is filled with legends of fathers killing their sons and eating them. Teen football remains our distinctly American form of child sacrifice. For a shining moment your kid can be a god on the field. And there in the stands, parents go nuts with visions of NFL sugar-plum contracts dancing in their heads – they shout at the kids (the kids can’t hear them), they shout at the referee (the ref’s not listening) they speak in tongues, it’s a primitive thing.

I lived in a football town where teens would dance around a bonfire before the season’s big game, doing strange pagan chants and rituals. The team was called the blue-devils, so there was a good deal of satanic imagery involved (strange, since Allegany’s such a Christian town). There was a homecoming dance, so the town could offer its virgins to the local football demigods. Child sacrifice for the good of the community. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for stranded single-moms and brain-damaged ex-football players, everyone would leave Allegany as soon as they turned eighteen.

AMERICA’S RELIGION

Football is the American religion. Let’s face it, we don’t live in a nation of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our neighbor is Mexico. We don’t live in a nation of “Love the Lord your God with all your might” – we save our might for the Sunday afternoon bread-and-circus gladitorial spectacle. This is America. We crush our enemies. We charge in with our military because our politicians need a victory to distract us from their swindles and scandals. We like war. War news coverage is a sport, just another way of getting couch-potatoes to watch commercials. We like victories. The big difference between American warfare and American football is that in our wars, the other team rarely shows up on the field, so we order our team to charge into the stands and tackle the spectators. American warfare is a spectator-contact sport.

The other difference is, with football, we can watch it live, with other people. And the possibility of sharing what Sigmund Freud called “The Oceanic Feeling” or boundless oneness with the universe. The “Religious Experience.” The ecstatic feeling that can come from jumping and shouting, getting your pulse up to a frenzy (maybe also consuming poisons, like beer and cigarettes), enhanced and amplified in a giant echoing arean under the vast open sky. And then a touchdown, a moment of connection, something so improbable that in this strange game, someone actually coordinates an action, and let’s face it, the difference between catching the ball or having it roll off your fingertips comes down to something so tiny it must be an act of God (a butterfly flapping its wings in India could change the wind enough to spoil that catch). In that moment, all of life and the cosmos feel so connected and the crowd feels for a moment like they can levitate – they turn and hug each other, because after an experience that strong, you need a moment of human connection just to ease the way back to earth. That’s a religious experience. Not just the church-aerobics of stand-sit-kneel-sit-kneel-stand, then line up for a sip and a cracker. I mean a full-bodied religious experience, a single instant of being all-animal, all-human and all-divine, river-deep, mountain-high, one with the earthworms and the stars. I hope everyone in their lifetime will have a religious experience like that. And if churches won’t provide it, people should seek it anyway.

Truth be told? I don’t watch football. But I respect its validity as true religion.

A couple years ago, when I did a sermon and that couple in the back was wearing blue facepaint, I caught a glimpse of their distant ancestors, “the picts,” the blue-painted Natives of England. We don’t know much about their religion but it must have been wild, and probably did involve wild, drunken cheering while victorious warriors threw and kicked the head of some defeated enemy. And after calmly, quietly sitting through a religious service, they were going to go shout their heads off at a pagan gladitorial event. After the service they were apologetic, but I knew it was American religion that owed them an apology, for its absolute refusal to acknowledge the deep, human need for spectacle. The need to see a miracle – that’s what a touchdown pass is, a miracle – and feel that deep chiropractic catharsis and loose that primal scream.

I’m sure if you conducted a survey, even during the rowdiest part of a Bills game – “what is your religion?” You’d find that Bills fans are mostly Christian (Buddhists screaming their heads off about possession of a football would have a lot to answer for… Luckily, Buddhism has no gods, so nobody’s asking). But if you asked those fans, “The Buffalo Bills or the Doctrine of the Trinity – which one makes you want to shout?” Well, I think the answer would be obvious.

 

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Summer

HEY JUNE

When you’re a kid…Summer! No school! Longer days! More energy!

When you’re a parent…Summer… The kids are more energetic, you’ve gotta come up with ways to keep them busy and supervised (a full time job, trying to wear them out, or a part-time job chaffeuring them to all these activities). You can’t keep them in the house, they’ll destroy it. There’s no bedtime, days are longer, and all the kids can think is more more more. More games, more trips, buy me a drone, build me a swimming pool! More more more.

You want more? Get a job. I can’t wait till my kids get summer jobs, that’ll teach them to shut up and love the school year. Actually you can learn more valuable skills with one summer bagging groceries than you can in three years of algebra. There is no algebra in the real world – my teachers used to say – “But someday you might need to cut a pizza into 528.1979 equal pieces!” Yeah, right. I doubt even office parties at NASA do that (and they’d sure better not be doing that equation with tax-payer chalk). But the lesson that you have to pass their idiotic tests and earn that diploma so you won’t still be bagging groceries at forty? Priceless.

Our whole concept of “summer vacation” is artificial, I always heard it came from the early days of public schooling when kids were needed back on the farm for the summer (and then they realized there is no farm-work in summer, agriculture is fall and spring, all farmers do in summer is watch grass turn to hay). And they’d spend the summer saying “gotta get that diploma so I can leave this farm-town!” And so many of them did, and left the family farms and went to the corporate cities. Where they put their kids in school and got stuck all summer long in overcrowded tinderbox tenements! Summer is the smelliest time of the year, especially in cities, nothing to do but swat flies and watch typhus spread. So they took their kids to the Grand Canyon. “Look, kids! It’s the world’s biggest nothing.” It’s an empty hole in the ground. Someday I’m gonna set up a souvenir stand next to the Grand Canyon – “Piece of the Grand Canyon! Five Bucks! Thank you, sir.” “Um, you’re not giving me anything.” “Well right, it’s nothing, that’s what you came to see, and now you can take a handful of nothing home with you.”

My parents never took me to the Grand Canyon, they took us to Wisconsin. They’d pack us into the van and we’d drive for days, from Newark into middle-of-nowhere Northern Wisconsin to a cabin in the woods with no TV, no flush toilet, no telephone. I used to think this was a problem, but now I realize, my Dad was an inner-city Episcopal priest. And to him, no phone! It was the only way he could get away from other peoples’ problems! And for three weeks we’d play card games and go fly-fishing and canoe and swim. We had to swim every day because there was no bath or shower. In Northern Wisconsin we learned the true meaning of family. Also the true meaning of terror – walking barefoot thirty feet by moonlight through the dank, chirping, croaking forest to use an outhouse at night. Given the choice, I would have happily avoided that by diving into the Grand Canyon. Ah, summer memories.

FATHERS DAY

Who here remembers what our big June holiday is?

Nobody. Fathers Day.

Father’s day used to be celebrated on March 19, the Catholic feast day of Saint Joseph. Which is odd, because the Catholics don’t believe Joseph was the father of anybody famous – the Bible says he wasn’t the father of Jesus, but he does seem to have sired Jesus’ six siblings. But Joseph is a perfect symbol for Fathers Day because in all four Gospels he never says one single word, and he’s so easy to forget. To the point that whenever Jesus said “our father,” Joseph was the last person on his mind.

There were various attempts to make Fathers Day a national holiday in America, but it didn’t become official until 1972, and they picked the third Sunday in June, I guess because neckties are cheaper than sweaters. Fathers Day is payback for Protestant fathering, because all that stuff you say to your kids, “stiff upper lip,” “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” and all those other father-isms that basically mean “nobody cares how you feel, get to work” and Fathers Day is when your kids get to give you the same message in return: “nobody cares how you feel. Get to work.” And they communicate this effectively by hounding you to make them breakfast. Twelve Fathers Days in a row, not one of them has anybody brought me my slippers in the morning. I don’t even own slippers, because nobody ever bought me slippers for Fathers Day. The only person who calls on Fathers Day is my father, who makes me feel guilty for not sending a card. He says something like “nobody cares how I feel,” and I say, “yeah, nobody cares how I feel either.” But we’re not real sad about it, we also take a sort of pride in that, because it means we’ve raised our kids with a strong Protestant ethic. And then we switch topics, talk about what we’re working on.

One of my favorite parts of fatherhood is what it teaches me about my father – because I keep getting this Deja-vu – haven’t I played this scene before? Oh right, I did, but I was the other guy, the little one. Now my eldest is twelve and a half, he’s starting to get mopey, mumbly, gloomy, teenager-ey. He’s becoming more sensitive, but his preteen brain tells him what’s happening is I’m getting more insensitive. So I’m folding laundry (for six people, by the way, or seven if you count the pile of outgrown baby clothes) and ask Jackson to take his pile to his room. He says something like “Dad, you’re such a tyrant!” “Hold on there – here I’m folding your mom’s underwear, tears in my eyes from an R.E.M. song – and I’m your image of insensitive manhood? Because I ask you to put your freshly folded clothes in a drawer?” But I have trouble expressing my feelings, so instead I say “Jackson, this is a week of laundry here and there’s only two pairs of your underwear. This is a sign. Change your undies more often.” “Dad, you’re so insensitive!” “Yeah, but my nose still works – you’re the only person here who can’t smell your clothes.”

AMERICAN SUMMER

In modern America we celebrate the beginning of summer with Memorial Day, when we feel bad about our fallen soldiers… Then on the Fourth of July we celebrate our ability to blow stuff up! But in between, the Gay pride parades still remind us of midsummer festivity, and the protests against the parades bring back memories of the Puritan forces who doused the Midsummer bonefires.

This summer, some Dad’s gonna take his kid (drag his kid) to see Niagara Falls for the first time. “Dad, you’re such a tyrant!” “But look – it’s like the Grand Canyon, with a cooling mist! So we won’t smell so bad during our twelve hour drive back to Milwaukee.” This summer, let’s remember the Dads, Moms, Grandparents, aunts, uncles, adoptive parents, teachers, working full-time to keep America’s children too busy to play violent video games or loiter the streets. And if you don’t have children to drag around to tourist attractions..? Take mine! Because I need a vacation.

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Beginning Work on Next Book

It’s been so exciting to return to fiction and script-writing, but I always come back to the best writing advice I ever got – not “write what you know” but “write what you would like to read – and if you don’t know it, learn it!”  And what I like to read is heavy, densely annotated scholarly commentaries.  So after a year of intensive research, I’m finally beginning to put words together for my next commentary book.  A topic I always wished I knew more about.  It looks like this book will take longer and be longer than my others, but it’s so much fun.

 

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j. Snodgrass’s Short Play “Death & Dunkin” on Youtube (Link)

I heard a rumor, and then found out yesterday that a living-room production of one of my short plays was filmed and posted on youtube.

The play is called “Death & Dunkin,” a 9 minute modernization of Macbeth starring Emily Yancey and Andrew Zuccari. I wrote and directed this for an Ascension for the Arts fundraiser in October.  A couple people asked if I’d copied sections of this directly from Shakespeare – that’s an honor, but no, I wrote it myself, and adapted a few famous Macbeth lines to fit into it.

The video starts abruptly with the opening line of the play, “Well one more dumpling left – it’s you or me” (it might look like some of the scene got cut but it didn’t).  Thank you David Poole for recording this!

I’ve recently begun writing plays again after many happy years away from the theater. And now I’m starting work on my new book, tentatively titled “Shaping Fantasies: Folk Belief and Ritual in Shakespeare” TjS

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