Thursday, May 29, 2014

Xavier and the Crab: The Accretion of Myth onto History

My stepfather really came through for my old mum this Mother's Day, getting tickets for our whole little tribe to go see The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Aside from being bawdy and shocking and hilarious, it presents a rather astute example of how history, myth, and cultural exigency coalesce as religious doctrine. It made me think back to a section of History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom (a book we've already looked at a few times before) expounding on the life and posthumous myths of St. Francis Xavier, a sixteenth-century missionary who became canonized as a miracle-worker in the seventeenth century.

This is a fairly long excerpt, but it makes for a fascinating read.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

May Day Monkeymind

The other day I arrived to work an hour earlier than I was scheduled (I could swear they told me to come in at noon) and had sixty minutes to pass through before I could clock in. It just so happens that the shopping plaza hosting the grocery store I work at sits astride the Northwest Branch Anacostia River, and a stretch of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System runs along its banks.

I'm really enjoying my new digs in Maryland. I don't mind my job, I love my roommates, the neighborhood is lovely, and being able to walk five minutes to the Metro and take a twenty-minute ride to the Smithsonian and United States Botanic Garden is pretty fuckin' sweet.

The one thing I've really missed are the woods. My hometown in Jersey has a wonderful public park system; the Quaker center doubled as an arboretum, and it was a ten-minute walk from an impressive forest. Since I've been down here, I haven't found any open spaces I can reliably lose myself in (the unusual savagery of this last winter might have something to do with that), and so the hour I spent getting acquainted with a tributary of the Anacostia River was indescribably refreshing.

The storms of the previous day had swelled the river, and the water was running fierce and heavy. I took a seat on a boulder and listened to the crashing of the rapids.

"Crashing?" Is that the word for it?

"Crashing" implies a discrete impact; I don't think "crashing" aptly characterizes the sound I heard. Would it be "rushing?" I don't know—rushing describes movement, not sound. "Murmuring" and "babbling" don't touch it: both imply vocalization, and one suggests mutedness. "Splashing?" No: a frog hopping from a pond makes a splash; a tot in a kiddie pool splashes around. "Purling?" It comes closer in that it indeed does refer to the sound of running water, but gently running water. "Hissing" just means the sound of a voiceless alveolar sibilant, sustained for some time; and the sound I heard hissed and crashed, but neither word by itself approaches the sound to be signified.

Is there a word in English for the sound of water tumbling into water? The sound is unique, but I can't find a unique word describing it. And I'm sad for that because—aside from the cultural disinterestedness for an ancient natural phenomenon it would seem to indicate—that sound, whatever you'd call it, intoxicates me. I get lost in it.

But never lost enough, and especially not during my hour on the banks of the Northwest Branch Anacostia.

I wanted that sound to be the only sound I heard. I wanted to see nothing but the sun on the leaves and the ochre water and foam to. I wanted my experience of that moment to consist wholly of my immediate perception of it.

But there was just too much noise. Not in the environment, but in myself. I sat there and I was thinking about a bit that Brian Regan performed during one of his appearances on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. "Karma Police" by Radiohead was on loop in my auditory cortex. I was thinking about Mega Man 2 and (god help me) Final Fantasy XI. For a few minutes I was remembering my EDH deck and pondering how it might be tweaked with some cards from the new sets.

Noise. Noise noise noise noise noise noise noise.

Earworms. Brainworms, thoughtworms. A lifetime of speakers, screen, and games has filled my brain with niggling little parasites.

I'm still hearing these things, seeing them, and playing them, even when they're miles away. Even when I've turned them off in the physical world, they're still plugged in inside my brain, and I'm watching them, listening to them, and playing them even when what I want is to be doing is nothing but letting myself be wholly in the place that I am in the moment I am.

During that hour on that afternoon, if it were possible, I would have gone back in time and muted every speaker, switched off every screen, and walked away from every game if it meant I could have sat for just five minutes in the sun of a late spring and heard nothing beyond and nothing within myself but that primordial sound for which my language seems to have no name.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On groceries and goodness

Andrea Del Pesco, Supermarket
Since I began working at a grocery store a few months back, I've found myself to assessing the overall character of people I meet on the job by a single criterion: does this person help me bag his or her groceries?

You're in the checkout lane with a shopping cart filled to capacity with groceries. It's a Sunday afternoon; the store is mobbed, I haven't budged from the cash register in nearly two hours, and there are six people in line behind you. I have to tally up your groceries; you have to pay for them. And one way or another, all of your stuff has to be bagged neatly and swiftly and placed back in your cart.

You can't help me ring up your stuff; I can't help you pay for it. But you can help me bag up your $300 load of groceries. Nobody's forcing you, of course: if you'd prefer not be bothered, I'll just have to do it by myself.

In this situation it absolutely does not matter to me what you might feel or believe about me or anything else. Maybe you're the kind of person who listens to Rush Limbaugh every day. Maybe you believe climate change is a hoax and think that gun-toting public school teachers are a great idea. Maybe you're looking at me and just seeing some sluggard who never got a "real" job. Maybe, for some reason, you plain don't like the way I look, dress, or talk. I don't care. Provided you aren't being nasty to me, as long as you're helping me bag your groceries—putting in a small effort so that things will move along more smoothly for me, for the people behind you in line, and ultimately for yourself—you're okay in my book. We might not ever be friends, but I'm not going to say you're a bad person. You're the type who's willing to do a small, friendly thing to help out a stranger, and that's a fine quality for a human being to possess.

Contrariwise, I don't care who you are—you could be a lecturer and activist who travels the country facilitating workshops on justice and equality; you could be a brilliant artist or writer; you could be the head of an NGO dedicated to mitigating climate change, improving literacy rates, and/or solving the urban "food desert" problem—if, while I'm ringing you up and bagging your tremendous load of groceries all by myself as the six people behind you in line are seething with impatience, you're gabbing away on your phone, texting, or just staring at me from across the counter with your arms at your sides, I don't care who you are or what you do in your life beyond the sliding glass doors. You can't be bothered. You're an asshole.

MORAL. Our definitions of "good people" probably tend towards the self-involved, if not self-serving.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Overdue: Brendan Eich, tolerance, and how hearts are softened

I really did want to put in my two cents about the Brendan Eich debacle as it unfolded last month, but I ultimately preferred not to disrupt the poetry month festivities with a post written in the defense of an alleged homophobe.

At this point it's old news, and all the usual commentators have already commentated. Some of the best remarks came from Andrew Sullivan—someone with whom I often disagree, but who was absolutely, 100% correct in his characterization of the episode as a deep and disturbing affront to the spirit of liberalism. This would have been an amazing opportunity for social liberals to have taken the high road, to have done the right thing, to have practiced what they preached. They could have taken Eich at his word when he professed his dedication to Mozilla's tenets of inclusivity and diversity, and asked to be judged by his performance going forward rather than by a political donation he made as a private citizen six years ago. Instead, the Twitter collective belched out a miasma of acrimonious comparisons to Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, and...well, that was that.

Sure. Eich's removal was the result of the free market performing exactly as it's supposed to, and the market was only acting upon the verdict of the court of public opinion. But in this case the court would have done itself much more of a service by showing clemency where it was called for.

(Since it's probably fresh in your mind: if you'd like to compare Eich with Donald Sterling, I refer you to William Saletan—another blogger who usually leaves a bad taste in my mouth—who astutely addresses such analogies here, and does no less fine a job with the final analysis of the Eich affair here, as long as we're counting.)

Anyway, this is last month's conversation, and it's all been said already. But there's still one thing I'd like to share:

My tenure at the Quaker center overlapped with the nine-month stay of a Korean-Ukranian evangelical family. The father was very upfront about his beliefs: people who don't accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior are lost; damned forever. He felt the same way about gays, too. Even though there was never any overt antagonism between him and the several openly gay members of the community, anyone who had taken a class, attended a workshop, or had a candid conversation with the man knew how he felt about the issue.

After several months of living in the community—which required him to work alongside and engage with all of its members, including the gays—he began to soften his tone. It wasn't a complete turnaround: all he did was pivot from his initial fire and brimstone convictions regarding gays towards a declaration of non-judgment: "we're all sinners; who am I to condemn someone else?" Obviously I don't expect him to become a gay marriage advocate (or even much of a sympathizer) any time in the immediate future, but progress was made. The evangelist changed his mind. It was a start in the right direction, and it absolutely would not have happened if the community had booted him out during the first couple of months for not sharing its own views on the social and religious acceptability of homosexuality.

I'm frequently heartened by this generation's passion for social justice, but I'm more and more concerned by the manifestations I see of a vituperous "hate the haters" mentality. You don't soften hearts, you don't win minds that way. Just as nobody will ever really be led to see the light through hellfire sermons, you don't convert the prejudiced by pillorizing or shunning them. Antagonism only makes enemies. Tolerance, patience, and a willingness to engage win allies. If you'd like to see a practical example, please allow me to point you towards Daryl Davis.

In their mob-minded response to the Eich affair, social progressives made an embarrassing misstep. If the right wants to caricature the left as an army of goose-stepping PC thugs, the left practically struck a pose for them.