Remember the “good old days” when the world was “normal?”

We’ve all heard the phrase “the good old days” many times. Too many times, probably. But just yesterday, for the first time, I understood it.

First of all, it’s not that they really were “good.” Not necessarily, anyway. They were just the way things were, and everything that’s deviated from them is not the way things ordinarily are.  Could be better, could be worse, just not “normal.” My normal, and I would guess that this might be true of many people my age, happened in the 1950s. I was old enough to begin to understand the world around me, but not old enough to understand that everything was not what it seemed. Age 11 to 17 or so. I’m sure the actual years will vary from one person to another, and younger people will have other times that became their normal.

Anyway, at that time we lived in the suburbs where most average and normal people lived. We went to church on Sundays. My mother always insisted that most people believed in God, and from what I could tell, that seemed likely. We all thought Mormons were odd then, but their Tabernacle Choir sang on the radio every Sunday morning, and was a Christmas staple. The mainstream Protestant churches were the church; they were very American; there was a reason two flags, the American and the Christian, were at the front of most churches. Catholics weren’t all that much different from us, even though my Lutheran minister thought they were an abomination. He apparently hadn’t seen Bing Crosby as the affable priest in television reruns of “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” There was no one more American than Bing Crosby.

Bing Crosby in “The Bells of Saint Mary’s”

The only cheese was American cheese. I guess there was something called Swiss too, but all I knew about that was that it had holes. Children were expected to grow up and do better financially, and in most ways, than their parents. They were expected to marry and bear children, and do something practical to earn a living. Everyone knew that it was necessary to defeat Communism and the evil Russian empire, and that we might die in a nuclear blast – but probably wouldn’t.

I could go on and on about what was normal then. When I got to college (in San Francisco), when I ate cheddar cheese and San Francisco sourdough and drank red wine; when I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” and listened to Miles Davis, when I marched for peace with Communists and discovered they looked like other people; when I began to frame another kind of American world for myself — when the whole world opened up to me and I discovered the beautiful variety and excitement of life — then normal faded. And I was glad.

 
But last night, for the first time, I really grasped that “the good old days” were those several years when I came of age. That, I’ve always unconsciously measured the fascination of the world around me by what I knew then. That was what was normal, and everything else has been wonderfully, and sometimes awfully, abnormal.

High-lining it

On the first day, I was walking the High Line above New York City’s Chelsea district. It was a perfect time to be alive, with soft breezes and a veiled  summer sun, a perfect day for walking this narrow mile-long public park built on an historic elevated freight rail line. At about 14th Street, approaching the Gansevoort Street exit, people were spread out eating lunch, eating from those ubiquitous clam shell containers that the better class of fast food comes in—stuff in wraps or spread across thick slices of homemade French bread. The shovels and cranes working on the new Whitney Museum, the trucks making their deliveries in the meat packing neighborhoods below, all the never-ending traffic of Manhattan roared below like a threatening sea, but lifted up like some flowered island in the sky, the High Line seemed quiet and protected. A garden with rails. Changes your perspective on the city.

That’s when I saw them: two elegant young women on a lunch date, their wine glasses raised in a toast, their striped umbrella turning gently in the breeze, a whole lobster on each of their plates staring up at them.
New York is always filled with surprises.
At the LGBT Community Center my friend Steven Dansky read from the sad broodings of young gay writers trying to find their place in the old Times Square. Hot, horny, desperate, very afraid. And the riot that everyone had forgotten, that began there and ended in the Village where the women at the House of Detention threw down lighted toilet paper to the demonstrators below.
At the Metropolitan Museum, two larger-than-life fashion designers, Elsa Schiparelli and Miucca Prada, who missed each other’s eras in real life, conducted “an impossible conversation” in a bar. Walking through the conversation, we were surrounded by skirts and hats and shoes. She’d worked with Salvador Dali, Schiparellli said, and would have liked to be a sculptor. “I’ve never wanted to be an artist,” said Prada. “I never wanted to be called an artist.” Implying that she was at least that, and a good deal more.

 
Everywhere, young people were running. More nannies than I’ve ever seen anywhere herded their broods of small and adorable white children from one park to another, or sat chatting, watching the youngsters dance in fountains or build sand castles and roads leading nowhere. Dog walkers leaned back, holding onto taut leashes that just managed to hold their lunging beasts. In an east side gallery, Picasso and his lover, Francoise Gilot, shared the walls with work dating from 1943-53. He painted her; she painted mostly their two children, Claude and Paloma, playing in Cubist style. I never knew Cubism could lend itself to pictures of play, but in her hands, it did: they romped, twisted and turned, leapt, fell in a heap….

 

Downtown, thousands of Americans and who-knows-who-else lined up for blocks in the hot, humid day, waiting to see the 9/11 site. With no reservation, I gave up and walked over to Trinity Church and sat in its graveyard by the stone of a 24 year-old woman named Ann who assured the world in the 1700s that she had been impatient for eternal life. I’m not sure I believed her.

 

When the rain finally came on Thursday, breaking into the warm wet air across from the Frick and next to Central Park, the thunder and lightning trumpeted a warning but no one rushed for shelter. No one ran until the deluge and then not with much resolve. This was New York, after all, and so much else was going on.

The exotic “other”

II.

At the Methodist Centenary, Columbus, Ohio, July, 1919

Was it a trick? Clare’s uncle could make coins disappear from closed fists and reappear in Clare’s ears, an act his mother assured him was no act of God nor even of a very clever man: “He just moves his hands the way the book taught him and makes you think you’re seeing something that’s not really there. If it was real magic, he’d be the devil.”

 
And this fellow lying on a bed of nails? To the naked eye, extraordinarily sharp nails.

 
“It’s just a show, darling.”

 
Well, he knew that! But how was this colossally long brown man doing it? Could all Indians do it? Was swarthy skin tougher than white skin? Did the cloth wrapped around the man’s head convey some special protection? Was he in a deep trance and did it make him oblivious to pain, or even to puncture? Clare needed to know because he wanted to do it.

 
While his mother, quickly bored with the sleeping giant, walked over to the Ganges to watch the holy monkeys cavorting on its banks, Clare conducted a closer investigation. It was apparent that the man wasn’t dead—his chest moved at regular intervals—Clare counted them up to fifteen. He even glimpsed the flutter of an eyelash.

 
Very tentatively, not wanting to wake this behemoth creature, he began to circle him. Round and round he went, sometimes on tiptoe, examining the spikes but from a respectable distance, observing that they only dimpled the man’s skin, that there was no blood. He had to know if they were real nails. Each time he circumambulated the platform he drew nearer, until he was so close he had to hold his breath for fear it would fall on the giant and rouse him.

 
Clare had never been so near a naked male chest not his own. He could almost feel the man’s skin on his fingertips—cool, taut, vaguely damp. He traced with his eyes the scant black chest hair down to the muscled stomach, to where the breech cloth began, and tried to imagine the size of what it concealed. It seemed to him that something moved and, startled into self-consciousness, he darted a glance up the long body to the man’s face: was the Hindoo watching him? No. Apparently not. He drew closer to be certain. The man’s face was soft and smooth. His slightly parted lips were full. He was, thought Clare, was beautiful!

 
He reached out and stroked a nail. It was hard and hot . . . .

 
“Claire! You get away from there! What if he’s dangerous?” hissed his mother. Clare jumped and fell back.

 
“Who dares to touch my holy bed?” the creature muttered and opened his eyes to glare at Clare.

 
What had he done? “Sorry sir, I’m so sorry. I just wanted to feel if your nails were real—I didn’t mean to bother you sir, Sahib sir. Really I didn’t.” pleaded Clare. The man’s eyes took the little tow-headed white boy apart. Then just as suddenly they dulled up and there was nothing more behind them.

 
“All of India is looking for the Unseen, for what is Really Real,” intoned the be-turbaned native. “I’ll do anything to find it. I’ve been lying here these thirty and more years,” He paused as people began to gather. “I’ve been lying here these thirty and more years looking for the Really Real,” he recited again.

 
Now there were several people circling the bed the way Clare had done, pointing, debating the materiality of the spikes in hushed tones. Sigrid Torkelson grabbed hold of her son’s hand and pulled him to one side as the great dark man slowly, gingerly, sat up. He looked around and frowned as if he were irritated that his sleep had been disturbed, but saw no recourse. People were here, he might just as well get up—and so, raising himself above the spikes with his powerful arms and pivoting his body, he jumped to the floor. Standing stiffly, expectantly, he waited, and so did everyone, until someone caught on and began to applaud. As people will do, the whole crowd clapped then and the man made a quick bow. He turned on his heel, and strode to a papier maché pipal tree with an urn at its base. He reached his hand into a hollow in the tree’s trunk, and Clare heard a familiar amplified scratch and then the crackle of a phonograph needle on graphite and a flute wavering exotically in the record’s warp. Then the sober giant bent down and pulled what appeared to be a heavy coil of rope from the urn. Cradling it in his arms, he took it to several ladies and gentlemen nearby to let them touch it. Yes, they agreed, it was only a rope, like one you’d see on any Ohio farm. Clare shyly waved at him to get his attention but the big man ignored him and his mother gripped him by the shoulders to stop him from bolder action. She was determined to keep him from making any more social gaffes with this frightening infidel.

 
The giant set the coil in the middle of the floor and squatted beside it. He began stroking it, moving his hands over it, reshaping the space around it. All the time he gazed at it as if it were dangerous and might strike if he glanced away for even a moment. Clare felt his mother’s hands tighten and heard her catch her breath at the same moment as he saw the rope move—almost imperceptibly at first, held in thrall by the snake charmer’s dancing hands, undulating to the music, then writhing on the floor like something alive trying to free itself. He slowly rose, his hands always moving, never stopping, and the creature began rising with him, spiraling, a serpent waking up, climbing the empty air above it, until it passed its master, until it had climbed so high it was almost to the ceiling and, Clare thought, craning his neck, it would break through the roof to the sky above like Jack’s beanstalk.

 
The rope trembled and the crowd oohed and Clare looked down to see the great man shimmying up it like a boy climbing a tree. But this was no boy, this was Clare’s great grim hero rhythmically pulling himself up a monster vine of his own creation, ascending, perhaps, even to heaven. The man reached the top. The recording abruptly ended, and in the amazed silence the only sound was the scratch of the needle on the turning record.
Suddenly, rudely, like someone sneezing in the middle of a silent prayer at church, voices trumpeted from a distance: “Onward Christian Soldiers, going on before….” Clare looked down the great hall past the bazaar, to the other side of a pagan temple, to see a whole choir of people filing in, making their way through water buffalo cutouts and live sacred cows, down a lane of pasteboard huts, professing God and Jesus Christ as they came. Remembering the dark giant, Clare spun around just in time to see the rope tumble down and the man vault to the floor with a handspring. Then the crowd closed in, and because of Clare’s short stature, he lost sight of him.

Where did all the liberal churches go? When? How? How it all began.

For many years of my life, I worked in media for national and international church organizations. I wasn’t quite a believer, but I was convinced that the world was in need of justice and love, and the work I did was calculated to bring that about. We were the left wing of the church, its liberal side, and our opposition was fundamentalist, evangelical, right wing, all that and more. At some point, I moved to Vermont and took my social action to the local level, as they say, working in a history museum. And a few decades later, I looked up and discovered  that something called the tea party had evolved and the only church anyone ever heard about was the right wing. The passionately devout people I had worked with who wanted to “make justice flow down like living waters” were no longer visible. The churches I’d known seemed to have disappeared. What happened; where had they gone?

 
For the next few days, I’m going to be in New York without a computer of my own, and so I thought I’d put a couple of posts up that take us back to the mainstream churches as they were in the United States at the start of the 20th century. Full of evangelical zeal, but also hungry for justice. Fascinated by the pagan “other” at the same time as they wanted to feed, clothe and convert him. Immersed in the new technologies, by photography and motion pictures. Setting out to change the world.

 
They were to be disappointed then, but now—now they seem to have nearly disappeared. I’m not planning to turn this blog into a search for them. That will come at another place and time. But this may be as good a place as any to start.

I.

The Luminists

They said it couldn’t be done but there it was, a huge projector humming and buzzing with the wind from six fans to cool two 125 ampere lanterns. Six perspiring luminists labored over the mammoth mechanism, drawing one 5” x 7” slide through and then the next, projecting picture after picture on the 10,000 square foot eight-story-high screen. Thousands of people watched, horrified by the marriage of an Indian child bride to her elderly bridegroom, and thrilled at the baptism of hundreds of Indian villagers. Godfrey George Godwin was delighted all over again with the biggest lantern slide projector in the world: how wonderful that a magic lantern could paint the screen with facts. No one could distance themselves from this show. How could they fail to recognize the truth in the pictures in front of them?
G. G. Godwin loved photographs. He liked shooting them; he liked looking at them. Here was life captured and held fast—he studied it, was warmed by it, grieved for it and rejoiced with it. Above all, it was life he could take and infuse into the vision he wanted to communicate to the world. G. G. was a faithful and enthusiastic Christian and his vision was of a world saved by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His was not a Jesus he needed to appeal to for his own salvation: he had no doubt at all that he was saved. He had grown up in a Protestant parsonage, and sooner than he was able to read, sooner even than he was able to walk or talk, he had known that he was loved by God. No, G. G.’s Jesus was the embodied love of God who would save all the people photographed and—it went without saying—all the people looking at the photographs.
And so, on June 18, 1919, the first night of The Great Church Exposition in Columbus, Ohio, and every night thereafter for a month, the biggest lantern slide images in the world instructed Christians about the plight of the heathen and the missionary achievements of their church. The magnitude of the images moved the audience to exclamations of wonder. After the show, some of the gentlemen walked over to examine the projector. Thumbs-notched-in-suspenders, hats-tipped-back, they considered its mechanics while the six luminists, who were carefully shutting the machine down part by moving part, patiently answered their questions.
On other nights, a movie projector of similar girth ground out Lowell Thomas’s travelogues of the Holy Land. Many of the images were taken from an aeroplane and some even included war scenes. The audience, most of them churchgoers who were uncertain of the propriety of motion pictures and had seen very few, ducked and bobbed as the planes soared and dove across the screen. Their forebears had forbidden their children to read novels because they weren’t true. Movies made the line between truth and falsehood even more difficult to discern. But it had become clear that they must reconsider the medium since motion pictures, in the right hands, could apparently be used to report the truth. The right kinds of movies could be shown in church basements instead of peep shows and vaudeville houses.
A few people also began to understand that these pictures, with all their tricks of fade-outs, double images and odd and multiple perspectives, could be made to reproduce experiences of the supernatural and the transcendent. It was more difficult to say what that had to do with truth, if anything at all.

Choromondo

It seems that every once in a while in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I discover another amazing musical experience. This one took place at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a lovely jewel of a place on the border with Quebec. Downstairs there’s a library whose stacks are mostly on the Canadian side of the border, but whose reading room with its high windows is on the American; upstairs there’s a theater whose stage is in Canada while most of the audience sits in the United States. It was the perfect setting for a concert by Choromondo, a choir made up of women from both countries, singing songs from over 30 countries. Plaster cupids watched from the ceiling. Border police watched from the outside.

Image

Judy Carpenter, one of their Vermont members, is the mother of Leah, who was the star of a kid-created historical play of many years ago that I helped produce for the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, Vermont. The daughter was a delight and a joy, and still fits that description as far as I can tell. And so does her mother.

Judy and I run into each other now and again, and the question “How are you?” almost always elicits excited comments about Choromondo, which I had never heard of and knew nothing about. But here I was, finally, in the audience,  marveling at twenty-five or more women of every age and physical description, each dressed in her own many-colored costume, each with her own special relationship to the music.

They rehearse once a week from September to June. The songs become part of them, and while they pay close attention to the style and meaning of each one, both the music and the musicians are changed in the singing. They sang in Hebrew, Croatian, Bulgarian, the tongues of Native Americans and Africans, Spanish, Acadian, Sami and many more. Every introduction to a song was given in both French and English. I wondered how it felt to have all those sounds in your mouth, changing the way your tongue felt and the shape of your breath. I’m sure that they thought about the meaning of every word, even when the word was no word but a sound. All the nuances of love songs, battle songs, dirges and lullabies – our worlds expanded.

Choromondo was started by the Canadian musician/composer Allyna Harris in 1999. The choir has sung benefit concerts for farmers in East Timor, flood victims in Mozambique and orphans in India and Bangladesh. The night we attended benefited the Haskell Library. The women sang for world peace in a place where people have dreamed of more neighborhood between Canada and the United States, and sometimes achieved it. 911 changed all that. The barriers have been raised instead.

 

In the Haskell Opera House, Canadians and Americans helplessly made border jokes. But in this small, odd theater embracing two countries, on a lovely June evening, no matter what the border police said or did, Choromondo turned us all into world citizens.

Scarlet runner beans and Fred Webster

 

It had been a strange day. I looked with no success for scarlet runner bean seeds at Agway. They used to grow to 12 feet in the children’s garden at the Old Stone House, where they sported red flowers and enormous pods with multicolored seeds. Somebody whose name was Billy Currington was singing a country song: “Jesus is great, beer is good, people are crazy.” Now that’s a lyric. I’d stopped by the Old Stone House for the first time in months and someone said that Fred Webster (see my post of May 3, 2010) needed a pacemaker, and that, at age 91, he was thinking about selling everything for $200,000. And it was worth a lot more than that.

 
I hadn’t seen Fred for a very long time. Now he was 91 years and thinking about selling everything! The report was scary.

 
The next day I drove to Fred’s farm on a high hill. Clouds were lifting, the world was shining the way it will after spring rains. The Phish stage Fred had saved a few years earlier from the last Phish concert, stood like some fanciful castle on wheels, directly past a scribbled sign a neighbor had put up: “Who shot my turkey?”  Why would anyone shoot the man’s turkey, I wondered, and left with no answers, dismissed the sign’s conundrum. The huge barns, showing a few more years of wear, still standing despite themselves, with a monumental history of farming spilling out the doors, were where they’d always been. The farmhouse looked as it always had, worn, and a little haphazard.

 

I pulled in and went to the door. On the other side of a screen door turned dark with shadows, Fred was sitting at the kitchen table eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup. His wife, Vivian, was napping in the living room, he explained, giving me one of his sweet hugs. I guess he looked older, but not by much, and not as if he needed a pacemaker. His hair was standing straight up as it sometimes does. Hearing that it was me—she’s always liked me, I think, because she likes anyone who likes Fred a lot—Vivian suggested we all sit in the living room, where a clutter of old things was spread across the walls and all over the floor, and where “Murder, She Wrote” played soundlessly on the TV screen. What’s this about a pacemaker, I asked, as I coped with one of the Reese’s cups  Fred handed me. Apparently, there was no rush, and Fred wasn’t sure he’d ever go for something like that. “But I am going to die someday,” he said. “No. I won’t allow it,” Vivian declared. She explained that a couple of years ago, after a whole rash of tests, the doctor had said to Fred, “As far as I can see, you’re good to go for another twenty years.” She was holding the old man to it.

 

 

And, contrary to the alarming report of the day before, the guy who had offered to buy everything for $200,000 and take it all down to Plainfield for another and, I presume, neater agriculture museum, hadn’t shown up the day before. Fred was just as glad because he didn’t want to sell. “Am I wrong?” he asked. “I don’t want to sell anything. It’s not the money. I just can’t do it.”

 
What Fred really wanted to talk about was a typed manuscript from Jack Lazor, an organic farmer well-known in Vermont. It was a hunk of white paper full of detail about his farming methods and to Fred it was all a delight. A year before Fred had been inducted into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame, and he thought Lazor should be next. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the tine weeder that the man described, because he had a tine weeder. He could show him an old one. I’d never in my life given a thought to tines, so he and Vivian slipped on jackets and we went to see Fred’s tine weeder, dodging muddy puddles, tripping across thresholds, wooden wheels, machinery made lame by time, parts spilling out into the aisles. The metal roof rattled; the walls groaned. The tine weeder was missing a leg, but the tines all seemed to be there. Vivian took a picture of it, then another, with Fred smiling and pointing.


Now, he said, he wanted to show us something else. Vivian and I followed him down one aisle and up another to a veritable patchwork of tines. “Do you see what these are?” he asked, grinning. “They have tines,” I said. Vivian agreed. “Tines.” “These are all hay forks,” he said. Vivian set about taking photographs of hay forks. I didn’t quite get the point, but I was pretty sure Jack Lazor would when he saw them.

 

 
We navigated the muddy banks of several ditches that Fred, his son and whoever had dug to divert water from one place to another. A man, his wife and a barking dog had taken over a bit of trailer that had served as a tool shed, and electric wires had been jerry rigged to turn it into a temporary home. I didn’t get the story, but I always come away from Fred’s with more questions than answers. He’s been reading Bacon’s “Vicissitudes,” he said. That’s the kind of writing he really likes to do, not just words about one generation’s tools and then another’s, not just careful descriptions of the evolution of everything from milking stools to tine weeders. He likes wise words about life, especially when they’re funny, and in Fred’s life there are many of those.

 
I left then. I didn’t stay for tea. I never got around to eating the second Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but it was good to know that Fred Webster’s life is as full to overflowing as ever.

A sorrowful commentary

Albert Camus wrote sorrow into his political and social commentary. I decided to give it a try. It’s not hard to do.

 
In the 1980s, I had lunch almost daily with people whose work was all about worrying about the world—its violence and its peace, its injustices, its mercies. One of our number was my close friend, Wes, who by then was an old man, though he rarely mentioned age. It was when he died a year or two late that we discovered he was 79.

 
During one particular lunch, we were comparing our visions of the future. “Seven years,” he said. “I give it seven years before nuclear war erupts.” I tried to argue, but really, what debate points could I have put up? The Cold War was still raging.

 
I forgave Wes most things. He was a lovely friend. But I never quite forgave him his prophesy. It was easy for him, I thought. He was unlikely to live that many more years. But what about the rest of us?

 
Now, I’m faced with my own waning years. The world is in critical condition and, as in the past, what is most threatening is mostly ignored. We the people and our leaders argue about politics and economics and call each other ugly names, at the same time as many of us deny the world is dying and others of us hold our breath and hope that it won’t, that the climate won’t heat up quite so quickly as it seems it is, that the rivers aren’t all that poisonous, that our ravaging of the earth won’t mean the end for this lovely, lovely planet.

Victim of drought. Mongolian gazelle – Gobi Desert. 2001. Photo by Mark Heard. Calgary, Canada. Creative Commons.

I look at the younger people around me and feel sad, and guilty. Wes’ nuclear war didn’t happen. I hope an environmental apocalypse won’t happen. But we’re leaving a deeply wounded world to our children and children’s children. And most of us, not enough of us, aren’t paying all that much attention.

Lonely and narcissistic on facebook

I missed the death of Yvette Vickers, a past Playboy playmate and B-movie star, known for her role in “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.” She would have been 83 last August, but no one knew how old she was when she died. It was apparently a big story in Los Angeles, not because of the way she lived, but because of the way she died.

She had been dead for the better part of a year when a neighbor noticed the accumulating letters in her mailbox, and forced her way in and through the junk that littered the house. When she found the woman, she was mummified, near a heater that was still running and in front of a computer that was glowing in the empty space.

The last e-mails on her computer weren’t to friends or family, but to fans who had seen her as “the 50 foot woman” years before. Her “web of connections had grown broader but shallower, as has happened for many of us….. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are,” writes Stephen Marche in the latest issue of The Atlantic. It’s a fascinating and powerful article, well worth reading. The author focuses on the social media, and especially Facebook, citing studies and stories  that demonstrate that more and more of us are lonely at the same time as we’re more connected than we have ever been. He argues:

Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.

Then, he came to the point I found especially persuasive, possibly because it intersects with my own amazement and confusion over the contemporary end to privacy, and the profound need people seem to have to put themselves on display. Facebook is one more place where we perform, where we are on stage, day after day, almost continuously. 750 million pictures are uploaded over a single weekend.

More than half its users—and one of every 12 people on Earth is a Facebook user—log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check on Facebook minutes after waking up and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation. But not all the time, not every morning before we even pour a cup of coffee.

Yvette Vickers’s computer went on and on without her.

I have a wooden woman flying from my ceiling in my study. She’s got wonderful wings, or are they fins? She also has a fish tail and a lovely face. What sets her apart from others of her genre is that she’s looking in a mirror and combing her hair as she flies. I always thought she represented vanity, but the other day it came to me that she represents much more than that. She’s the creature as narcissist, so busy looking at herself she’s not concerned about where she’s going. Self-presentation is what’s important, not her destination or even how she’s going to get there.

The Question of God and Evil

 

I hadn’t realized it, but April is Holocaust month, a time to remember and think about the unimaginable events that marked our history in the last century.

Ron Rosenbaum, writing in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” (The Naked Truth), wrestles with the meaning of the Holocaust. Wikipedia tells me that in the ’70s and ’80s, he spent years researching Adolph Hitler, finally publishing Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil in 1988. His  life as a Jewish man, and a thinking, feeling human being has been haunted by the Holocaust. It, more than any other single event, has raised the question of evil and God.  The study of the question even has its own field of study, called theodicy. How, it asks, can a God who is worshiped as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving deity,a God who  is able to intervene in history and has time and again, be reconciled with the evil that pervades our world? Why would such a God permit the Holocaust?

 

Rosenbaum takes the attempts to answer this question one by one, and finds them empty, sometimes obscene, and always unconvincing. More, he agrees with the renegade Rabbi Richard Rubenstein who wrote, “Jewish history has written the final chapter in the terrible story of the God of History. And the pathetic hope of coming to grips with Auschwitz through the framework of traditional Judaism will never be realized.”

Or, as Bob Dylan put it, “hitler did not change history. Hitler was history….”

Rosenbaum’s essay in this instance has to do with his passionate opposition to every attempt to explain away this awful God, and the offense one of his listeners took to his words.  My concerns take another direction.

When I finished reading Rosenbaum’s piece, I looked at the comments that followed–dozens of them, pursuing the same convoluted debates the author had already taken apart. Rosenbaum had been talking specifically about the God he knew as a Jew, the creator-God who acts in history, but most of the ranting men and women professed no such faith. And that’s why I wondered why none of them entertained the answer I’d given to the question of evil years ago.

I’d studied philosophy of religion on the undergraduate and graduate levels, so it wasn’t a question I hadn’t thought about. If God or the Divine couldn’t be both good and all-powerful, then it seemed to me it was obvious that the Divine was love and goodness, and not all-powerful. I think the point of the crucified son of God is exactly that: a demonstration of  Divine love rather than power, God as one with humanity, weak, meek, with another kind of strength perhaps, but not that of the thundering Deity of the Old (and New!) Testaments.

Certainly, that answer isn’t original with me, so why, I wonder, why didn’t any of those ranting letter-writers consider that possibility? For those who believe, does God have to be all-powerful? By definition? Is our culture hung up on the idea of power? I could go on, but I’d love to hear what my readers think!

The old and the news

Mike Wallace, June 10, 2007. Photo by Terry Ballard. Creative Commons.

Has anyone noticed lately that there seems to be a growing number of old people on television, especially in the news, and especially on CBS.  I’m reminded of that fact by the death of Mike Wallace at 93. He retired from “Sixty Minutes at 88.” Andy Rooney was well into his nineties when he left the same show. Morley Safer is in his 80s; Bob Simon is 70; Steve Kroft is 66; Charlie Rose is 69.

On the distaff side of things, Lesley Stahl is 70, and Barbara Walters, who appears mostly on ABC,  is 74.

Maybe, just maybe, the American public will get used to looking at old people doing important things on TV, even though many stations seem to have a raft of youngish women news anchors I have trouble telling apart. And I don’t mean to forget the old days and people like Walter Conkrite and Harry Reasoner.

Probably most impressive to me is Elizabeth Palmer (also CBS), who is fifty-something and who has reported from many wars in the last year or so. It’s so wonderful to see a woman reporter who looks different, who has an older woman’s voice, and who is so obviously intelligent.

As our numbers grow, some of the clichés about older people will inevitably disappear. I hope.