Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Tang of Reality

     The tapestries of our lives are so tightly woven that it's surprising to discover the seemingly disparate memories that can come from pulling upon a single thread. Thus, as I consider the beginnings of my difficulties with organized religion, it seems odd to me that some of my troubles began with Tang.
     As a child growing up in the 1960's, I was fascinated by Tang. Tang was a brightly-colored, powered, orange drink that came in a long, glass jar. Tang wasn't just powdered orange juice, it was better. All Mom had to do was spoon a little Tang into a glass, mix in some water, and - voila - there it was: the perfect beverage.
     I knew it was the perfect beverage because the commercials said so on TV; "Holy Smokes!"(as Rocky the Flying Squirrel would say to Bullwinkle when he got really excited), Tang had been created for astronauts to drink in outer space. I was 8 years old the summer Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, and words can not adequately express the excitement and coolness I experienced by being able to guzzle the same drink as the space heroes of Apollo 11.
     At least a quarter of a century has passed since I had my last glass of Tang, but I can still taste it: an orange flavor as it would have been replicated on the Starship Enterprise. "Warning! Warning! Will Robinson!," I could imagine the robot from Lost In Space saying upon analyzing a glass of real orange juice and finding pulp in it (few things were as repulsive to me as a child as orange juice pulp). Tang was everything a kid could want from a drink: sweet enough to make your eyes pop, tart enough to make your lips pucker, and smooth enough to swallow in a gulp.
     I remember holding a jar of Tang, unscrewing the lid, staring into the bright, orange powder, and thinking, "Science is so cool." As an adult, I don't know if Tang had really been developed by NASA scientists (picture this: a group of NASA scientists all wearing long, white lab coats at an important meeting. The chief scientist is holding a clipboard as he stands at the head of a long table. He looks at his clipboard for a moments and says, "Alpha team reports little progress in the development of an 'O' ring that can withstand the intense temperatures of reentry; Beta team is struggling still with the detachment of the second stage boosters, but, hey, good news, Omega team has perfected the process of turning orange juice into powdered sugar granulates.") or if Tang was created by someone who was a genius at marketing products to children (picture another room: this one contains the 1968 annual awards ceremony for advertisers. Standing at the dais is a man dressed in a tuxedo, and he's holding a trophy with something that looks like a small golden cow pie on top of it. "I'd like to thank the Academy," he says, "for winning 'Best Scam on American Youth' for the third year in a row. But I'm not going to rest on my laurels, I'm in the process of developing a plot to sell tennis shoes to teenagers for $100 a pair." A gasp goes through the crowd; "It'll never happen," someone whispers.). The point is, however, I believed Tang had been created for astronauts because that's what I had been told, and that's exactly what children do: they believe whatever they are told.
     Some folks see nothing wrong with exploiting the credulity of children, and furthermore, find it charming or amusing to tell a small child anything. I expect (though I've never read any research to confirm this) that very few people suffer any permanent damage from the discovery that their parents are in reality the ones who hide money under their pillows in exchange for lost baby teeth. Unfortunately, the problem I had in being so gullible as a child was that I tried to believe too much at one time. In church I had been led to believe that Hell lies a couple of miles beneath the surface of the ground, and Heaven floats on top the clouds just above our heads. I had no problem believing this because first, I was a child; and second, the integrity of the people who told me these things was beyond question.
     As a child, there was no question that Heaven floated on top the clouds within the atmosphere of this planet because I had been told so in church, and while I could imagine angels poking holes in the clouds to keep an eye on us down here below, I could not imagine the people in church lying about it. Church, as far as I could surmise as a child, was the very last place a person would want to tell a lie. Furthermore, the idea that Heaven is located in the clouds just a few miles above our heads was supported in dozens of ways. In Sunday school, I was taught the Bible story of how God had grown angry when a group of people had built a tower so tall and so close to Heaven that it trespassed on God's personal space. God not only knocked it down, but He scattered the people who built it across the entire planet and made them speak different languages so they wouldn't try it again. Also, my mother owned an oversized, illustrated Bible, and I can remember the sense of awe and wonder I felt at looking at an incredibly rendered drawing of Jacob lying at the foot of a magnificent staircase with angles ascending and descending from Heaven in the clouds. Moreover, I had no reason to doubt the ministers who assured us that after Jesus had risen from the dead, eyewitnesses had watched him ascending into Heaven. On the day of the Ascension, Christ had floated up into his home in the clouds; he had not merely grinned like Alice's Cheshire cat and disappeared.
     Every bit of religious instruction I had as a child taught me that Heaven was a real place that floated on the top of the clouds. The evidence from Bible stories, the testimony of Sunday school teachers and ministers, the portrayals of oil paintings and other illustrations in everything from religious literature to magazine advertising convinced me of the truth of this. And yet . . . there was Tang, the preferred beverage of astronauts. I had held the amazing jar of orange powder in my hands; I had watched with my own eyes the miraculous transformation of plain water into the world's most perfect beverage. And, with every glass of Tang came the confirmation that people had traveled straight through the clouds on their way to the moon, and they never saw hide nor hair of the denizens who lived there.
     After Moses left Egypt to wander with his people lost in the wilderness for 40 years, God sustained them, I was told, with manna that fell from Heaven. I've never tasted manna; however, twenty-five years after my last glass of that tart orange drink, I can still taste the Tang.
     Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Love People and Avoid Falling Objects

     No one who has ever stubbed a toe against something in the dark while trying to make their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night has ever seriously questioned the existence of their external reality. If there is one thing that reminds us that we are indeed trapped within the soft, tangible sponge of our human flesh, it's a sudden and unexpected jolt of stabbing pain. In the dark whenever a traumatic sting of reality creates a brief flash of throbbing fireworks within our heads, the philosophical question that bursts into our consciousness is not whether the thing we banged into is imaginary or concrete, but rather why does it hate us so much that it would attack us when we least expect it? While there may be times when after waking in the middle of the night, we lie awake in the silent comfort of our beds and contemplate who we are and what we're doing with our lives; when the whiny demands of our bladder force us to leave the safe confines of our sheets to navigate the nocturnal quagmire of our homes, we know exactly who we are: we are the vulnerable victims of inanimate objects that are waiting for just that right opportunity to hurt us.
     Do inanimate objects really hate us and want to hurt us? Of course they do, I don't know a single person who has not at some time in their lives been smacked, whacked, or bashed by a devious, lifeless thingamajig that took precisely the most opportune moment to snap, break, or splinter. Show me someone who doesn't believe that nonliving things hate us, and I'll show you someone who has never had to start a lawnmower. If you want to believe that our physical reality is not filled with sharp objects that are yearning to poke us or heavy objects that are craving the chance to fall upon us, then that is certainly your prerogative, but I would remind you that the word “prerogative” comes from the Latin pre meaning “before” and rogare meaning “to ask” so, in other words, if you go through life expecting not to get hurt by inanimate objects, then you are – in the immortal words of Charles Darwin – “asking for it.” Okay, maybe Charles Darwin never said that, but he would have said it if he weren't so afraid of something falling on his head. Or maybe that was Sir Isaac Newton who eventually learned not to sit under apple trees and who was also a pretty smart fellow even if he did use far too many vowels to spell his first name.
     Although you may be wondering if I have a point to all of this, (and trust me, you're not alone in this as I have spent the last half hour wondering the same thing myself), the crux of it all is if the physical world doesn't care all that much for us – icing up our car windows to make us late for work or spilling hot cups of coffee on our clothes fleeting moments before important meetings with people who then have to wonder if we might make it a habit of going around looking like scruffy refugees – then it is vital that we try our best to love one another, stains and all. If the world is determined to send spiteful clods of goo and gloom into our lives, then we need to recognize just how important it is to look out for each other and love each other regardless of our imperfections. All of us are stuck with the same menacing gravity looking to trip up our feet and the same winter clouds hovering above our heads looking to darken our perspectives. It's not a coincidence that we celebrate Valentine's Day in mid-February; if we didn't have little cardboard hearts to remind us that it's the love we have for each other that brings meaning to our existence, then we might not make it to March.
     I'm not just talking about the Big Romantic Love, either. I've been married for more than a quarter of a century, and I am truly blessed to be able to say I have that Big Romantic Love. No one has it better than I do when it comes to having a supportive, affectionate spouse. The love I feel for (and from) my wife, Ruth, has saved my life more often than all the safety belts in America has saved the lives of automobile passengers in the past fifty years; nonetheless it's the Bigger Love, the love for what happens to all of us, that provides the spark that inspires the internal desire to keep moving forward when the world keeps offering reasons to retreat into solitude and despair.
     While it's easy to argue that love means a lot of different things to lots of different people, the Bridge of Love spans everything from momentary affection to lifelong ardor, what it really comes down to, however, is our ability to communicate that we care for each other. The love I feel for others – my family, my friends, my neighbors, my co-workers, my students, and those kind-hearted strangers who are willing to let me know that we are safe in each other's presence – may not equal the depth and intensity of the love I feel for my wife, but it's the totality of our mutual love that makes life worth living. While it's often tempting to surrender to cynicism and chalk up all expressions of fondness to the marketing forces of florists and confectioners, let's remember that a simple post-it note can be as powerful as a diamond in letting someone know that you care about them.
     A story: Years ago, in the early decades of Christianity, a man was imprisoned for marrying Roman soldiers who were forbidden by the empire from wedding their sweethearts. The commanders of the legion in those days believed that soldiers who left wives behind were less willing to risk their lives in the heat of battle. While in prison awaiting the day of his execution, the man became friendly with one of his guards, a jailer whose name was Asterius. After they grew to know each other well enough, Asterius asked his prisoner if there were any truth to the stories of miraculous healing that were sometimes attributed to conversion to Christianity. Asterius had a daughter who had been born blind, and he was willing to bring his girl to meet with the prisoner if there were any chance that he might be able to help her. Before long the prisoner and the daughter of his jailer became good friends. She brought him food and he gave her the feeling that there was more to life than merely surviving from one day to the next – even though as a man whose execution day had been set, that pretty much summed up what he should have been doing. On the day of his execution, the man gave Asterius a note to give to his daughter that said she should never give up hope and that his love for her would survive well beyond his actual physical death. “She won't be able to see this,” Asterius told the prisoner. “I believe she will,” he said. He had signed the note, “from your Valentine,” and this, of course, was the first Valentine note ever given. She did see the note; her eyesight had been miraculously restored. Although Valentine, the prisoner, had been put to death, his affection for the daughter of the guard who would take him to his doom continued to live on and still continues to live on in the small acts of love we do for each other in his memory.
     Anyone who would say they need a story to be literally and historically true in order to believe in it entirely misses the point of St.Valentine's Day. It's not facts that sustain us in the cold dark days of February; it's love. You can't “prove” love. You can only share love. And, perhaps, hope the next random sharp object to poke you in the chest is the point of Cupid's arrow. This week, in honor of Valentine's Day, I'm even going to try to love the people I don't care for very much. To paraphrase John Lennon, imagine everyone doing that.
     Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beowulf Sets the Bar

This post is lovingly dedicated to Stella Singer and Josie Bloomfield.

     This week Beowulf died. . . again; this time, perhaps, for the last time. The final tests are sitting on my desk waiting to be graded, and since I'm retiring from teaching public high school this spring, this is very likely the last time I'll be there when the great monster killer draws his final breath. More than a few of my seniors felt a quiver of relief as Beowulf expired from an enormous dragon bite to the neck; there's always a group of students who bore quickly and who live in perpetual hope that the next unit will be marginally more interesting than whatever we are studying now. For me, it was a poignant moment, as perhaps it should be in the presence of any death, let alone that of a great king; however, my grief this time was not for the mythic hero as he expired from the scalding, lethal venom that coursed through his veins, but for myself. This time as Beowulf died, I felt sorry for myself. Beowulf may be dead, but I'm just getting too old to take another group of high schoolers back to Geatland.
     Not all of my seniors, of course, are cynical, apathetic, or burned-out, and I remain extremely grateful that there are still some students who allow themselves to get swept up in the ancient adventure of this classic literary journey. Despite the best efforts of political factions who work tirelessly to wring every bit of joy out of teaching and learning, a core group of students – who actually like thinking and who don't mind thinking about difficult material – still persist in the habit of finding life interesting. It was for them, as much as myself, that I grew sentimental over the death of Beowulf. Certainly, next year when I'm gone (and appropriately enough the building I'm teaching in now becomes a parking lot), the school district will find someone to pass out the Beowulf books and cover the material. However, it won't be me, and never again, will I have a chance to share some of the intriguing insights that I have gained from repeatedly reading and explaining the text. So, with your indulgence, here are some of the life lessons I've learned from reading Beowulf. Keep in mind, however, I am not a medieval scholar; I'm a rhetorician. The aspects of the text that excite my attention might cause some serious consternation to some of my friends who really understand the history of the period and know what they are talking about when discussing Beowulf. So, Stella and Josie (who are such terrific medievalists that they do not need to rely upon autocorrect to spell the word “medievalist”), please forgive any of my 21st century anachronistic goofiness that may cause you to think I give a doctorate in English a bad reputation.
     Lesson #1: Every problem has a mother. If I had to choose the greatest life lesson that comes from studying Beowulf, it's that life is always waiting for you to think that you have a specific problem completely licked before it reveals to you that you're not even half finished with it yet. Anyone who has ever tried to keep a worn-out old car street-worthy knows exactly what I'm talking about. In the story of Beowulf, the greatest, strongest, bravest mortal to ever kill a sea monster (while swimming in full chainmail armor) arrives in Denmark to help its king, Hrothgar, deal with a real-life bogeyman who has been showing up at night to cannibalize his soldiers. After building the greatest drinking hall in history, Hrothgar soon learned he had to cut the taps off early each evening because if he didn't, a 10 foot Nordic hillbilly would come in and snack on his men after they had passed out on the floor. At first, our sympathies are with Grendel (the mutant yokel from the sticks), because, hey, who doesn't enjoy a Danish as a midnight treat? However, for the Danes, having to leave the most glorious mead-hall ever built after just a couple of rounds of J├Ągermeister is like owning a 72 inch plasma flatscreen TV and only being able to watch PBS. It's not something to brag about to the neighbors, anyway.
     So, after 12 years of being man-chewed by Grendel, Hrothgar is more than a little pessimistic when Beowulf shows up and claims he can kill the guy. He offers Beowulf a near gameshow list of prizes if he can exterminate Grendel. On the one hand, Hrothgar figures if somehow, miraculously, Beowulf can succeed it would be worth whatever it costs to get back to some serious Viking-style drinking, and on the other hand, if he finds Beowulf's remains half-eaten on the floor the next morning, then it wouldn't be the first time he had to have his people clean up that sort of mess. When Hrothgar goes to check on the results the next day, he is more than a little surprised to see Beowulf standing gleefully naked while waving Grendel's arm around like a boy scout learning semaphore.
     Naturally, that night Hrothgar and Beowulf party like it's 1399. Over dinner, Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with an impressive stack of gifts, and Beowulf replies that he was glad to lend a hand (or in this case, an entire arm from the shoulder down). All of their company pass out in a glorious drunken stupor the way God intended them to (or at least, according to the theology of the anonymous Christian monk who first put the story to paper). When they woke up the next day, however, everyone was deeply disappointed to discover that nothing makes a hangover worse than the suddenly recognition that you still have a monster problem. And that realization – in a story about a guy who can hold his breath for half a day while swimming underwater or who can hit a dragon in the head so hard that it shatters his sword – is a truth that goes beyond time itself: you're never really finished with a problem until you've dealt with its mom.
     Lesson #2: A good reputation is better than a cave full of treasure. Although Beowulf had no idea when he was tearing Grendel's arm off with his bare hands that he would also have to go after Grendel's mother the next day, the idea was not entirely unappealing. After all, Beowulf had not traveled from Geatland (which is now a part of modern Sweden) to merely return with a boatload of expensive rewards, he had gone with the intention of making a name for himself. Killing a second monster would only add to his renown. To Hrothgar, his men, and Beowulf's crew, the second demonic fiend looked to be much more difficult to kill than the first; whereas Grendel would come to them, Grendel's Mother would have to be killed in her own cave, miles under the sea, and thus, she had the home field advantage.
     When it came time to leap into the dark waters, Beowulf did not hesitate to take on the half day swim underwater to go after Grendel's Mother because, after all, what's a little thing like breathing when there's hero work to be done? After fighting off a few other sea monsters on his way to the cave, Beowulf finally located his second adversary standing next to an enormous pile of treasure. He knew he was in the right place when he also noticed Grendel's body on the floor lying next to the trove of riches. The first sword Beowulf used against Grendel's Mother (lent to him by a cowardly thane of Hrothgar who did not have the nerve to go after her himself) turned out to be about as useful as wheels on a rocking chair, and Grendel's Mother nearly killed him before he figured that out. As fate would have it though, Beowulf spotted a giant's sword mixed in with the treasure, and it turned out to be just the thing for killing a big, ugly, angry sea-hag. Despite Hollywood's assertion otherwise, Grendel's Mother was no Angelina Jolie.
     After killing Grendel's mom, Beowulf decides he is not at all interested in any of the treasure that's strewn about cave, and so he decides to cut off Grendel's head and take that as a souvenir instead.
The acid in Grendel's blood dissolves the blade of the giant sword, and thus, Beowulf is left holding a huge, useless handle. By the time Beowulf gets back to the surface, only his men were left waiting to see if he had survived; Hrothgar's men gave up hours before. When Beowulf climbs out of the water carrying Grendel's head and the heavy hilt that no one else can even lift, no one bothers to ask why he left so much treasure behind in order to come back with the creepy head of his enemy and a ruined giant's sword. Beowulf didn't want the treasure because any treasure he would have salvaged would have belonged to his king (who happened to also be his uncle) back in Geatland, and because Beowulf had no interest in wealth. As far as Beowulf was concerned, what matters most in life is what people know about what you've done; having possession of expensive, shiny stuff doesn't even factor into it.
     Lesson #3: It's all good as long as you haven't killed any family. In the third part of the story, Beowulf returns home to Geatland and hands over his bounty to his king and uncle, Hygelac. In turn, Hygelac gives Beowulf some good stuff back, but it's really besides the point because Beowulf knows he'll never have to pay for a drink again for the rest of his life. Later after his uncle dies, Beowulf is offered the throne by his aunt, Queen Hygd, but he declines because he knows it's not really his right to become king (his cousin, Heardred was next in line). Hygd wanted Beowulf to become king because she knew her own son, Heardred, was too young and inexperienced to last very long as king. She was right; before long, Heardred has died on a battlefield, and Beowulf becomes king. Then, nothing happens for 50 years. Presumably, Beowulf's half-century reign as king is uneventful because no one wanted to battle with an army lead by Beowulf.
     This leads then to the final epic fight of the story between Beowulf and a fire-breathing 40 foot lizard. Even though Beowulf had to be well into his 70s by the time a dragon goes on a rampage and starts burning down random Geat villages, Beowulf slaps on his old armor and heads out after the beast. Beowulf takes a dozen of his best men with him, but when it comes time to fight the dragon, all but one of them run away. At this point, we learn that Beowulf has never had a son and his last surviving relative, a thane named Wiglaf, is the only one of Beowulf's crew willing to stand next to him as he fights his final monster. The dragon takes a fatal knife to the belly, but only after it has already delivered a terminal bite to Beowulf's neck.
     As he is dying, Beowulf says to Wiglaf, (and I'm paraphrasing, of course) “Don't worry about my dying. It's all good. God will take me into Heaven because I always kept my word, I never instigated a fight, and I never killed a family member.” This, as much as anything, gives me hope. How awesome would it be if, upon our own deaths, God held us to the same standards Beowulf expected to face in the afterlife? I, for one, would be much relieved to find out that bar we had to cross to reach Heaven was pretty much being honest, not looking to start a fight, and not killing any kinfolk. And now I've said that to my students for the last time, I can only hope they can live up to it. God bless us, one and all.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.