Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rota Fortunae

What happens when a paycheck is the ideal? Thinking about the persistent mantra that we hear from the government and popular media, the message equates job attainment with personal satisfaction. It's as if once employed, one's worries are assumed to end. Easy to complain about work until it ends. Having witnessed people I have known for decades undergo "voluntary separations" and "reductions in force," at least five cycles since the recession began, this causes me sleeplessness and worry. With my son and wife, I watched the alternative, worst-case (seemingly) scenario in the Belgian film Deux Jours, Une Nuit: "A woman and her husband have to convince her colleagues to give up bonuses so she keeps her job" as the summation pithily puts it. Reflecting on her predicament, I felt very uneasy.

While I pondered this dramatized (but very low-key, realistic, unsentimental) case study, I imagined my coworkers debating this about me, and I wondered if the scenario was reversed how I'd vote, for or against a Christmas bonus. This was, however, moot as when my son asked how much such a bonus was, I had no idea. I realized, reviewing the jobs I've had since I started working at sixteen, that I have never been given a holiday gift by a delegated representative linked to my paycheck. I confess I do not rush into seasonal festivities mandating cheer, so this may be my karmic payback.

People I work with chortle about going to Costco, about bargains at Wal-Mart, about their shopping sprees. But I see far too much stuff around me, and with more housing bulldozed around me any day now, I feel hemmed in by more people, more noise, more traffic, more pressure. But when I read Michael Mott's biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, I reflected that Merton, despite his yearning to be a hermit, kept up his book buying, and loved his Dylan records and his brandy. Buddhists claim that one can possess items without having them possess the owner. Tyler Durden's rejoinder in Fight Club comes to mind as a riposte: "do you own your things, or do they own you?"

"The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of year is not an objection to the abundance per se, nor should it be. It is a healthy hunger for nonattachment. This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide. But then, ponder the three practices" in "Abundance Without Attachment," Arthur C. Brooks urges. "Move beyond attachment by collecting experiences, avoid excessive usefulness, and get to the center of your wheel."

Brooks encourages travel that sticks in the memory, and activities worth savoring long after they end, rather than goods accumulated. He defines this by way of a classical guideline, even if this direction may waver in my daily life. I teach at an institution promoting efficiency, attainment of skills, career security, and practicality rather than the ambitions of the liberal arts which I represent, if quixotically.

He explains: "Our daily lives often consist of a dogged pursuit of practicality and usefulness at all costs. This is a sure path toward the attachment we need to avoid. Aristotle makes this point in his Nicomachean Ethics; he shows admiration for learned men because 'they knew things that are remarkable, admirable, difficult, and divine, but useless.'” Not sure I could justify my course outcomes and mandated terminal curricular objectives but it's a sober corrective, if wishful thinking, against the manic push for standardization, regulation, and profit. This spreads far beyond my cohort.

Last night I read William James' 1903 essay "The Ph.D. Octopus"; he feared the takeover of American higher education by the same grinding servility to rank, degrees, and status indulged in by a sclerotic German university system. James opined, from his Harvard tenure, how "the institutionizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption." Now, MOOCs are championed, online rather than classroom courses, and credit for work or life experiences, even by the University of California, as four-year degrees no matter what or where must be streamlined. Lowering of standards contends against assurances that the latest is the best to "deliver" the "modality" students want, via the medium that you and I use to connect here.

Aristotle, the wisdom of the East, the temptations of the West even for monks and hermits, the pursuit of the arts not mechanical or tied to slaves or manual labor or the grind but to liberate a free person: this legacy takes in all these influences. We are told every day how we must consume information, products, and services, and how if we try to drop out as a few in Merton's time and ours do, we shirk our economic duty. If you do drop out, like Merton, how much must your community do for you?

The Ethicist (in the same issue as Brooks' article in NY Times) was asked: My 28-year-old son has decided to become a novelist. He recently took a part-time job at a grocery store, working just 15 hours a week to pay his bills, leaving him enough time to write. His low income qualifies him for Medicaid. He could work more if he chose to. Considering this, do taxpayers have a responsibility to provide health coverage for him? Does it matter if this is a short- or long-term strategy? 

Brooks (but after I drafted this, I found NYT letters challenging his affirmation of accumulation galore) puts his liberal education to good use, if not tangible GNP profit beyond his paycheck, as he considers Chaucer's "rota fortunae" (wheel of fortune) and Tibetan "do chag" ("sticky desire") as the contexts to apply to our search for meaning along with materialism. So, despite the fact he's funded as I now learn by a right-wing think-tank for that paycheck, he did generate my own entry, and now I understand some of the unease his encouragement of materialism set off in me. It's fitting, therefore, that I remain troubled rather than comforted by his advice to celebrate affluence, even as I am the beneficiary of it, along with the billions Brooks welcomes to capitalism. He sets up his essay for the conclusion that was my beginning for my blog entry, a wheel again. And so wraps up a year's cycle.
(Illustration: Wheel of Fortune/ Rota Fortunae)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Scannáin i 2014

 Inherent Vice Movie Poster
Faoi deireanach, bím ag breathnaigh scannáin éagsúlaí. Ag imeall Coillte Cuillean, tá chairde áirithe againn a fháil cópeannaí vóta a chaitheamh ar sna cuilleachtaí ann. Mar sin, feic ár teaghlach cúpla chomh maith.

Measaim de "Inherent Vice" agus "Mr. Turner" go minic ar feadh an tsamraidh seo caite. Tá beirt 150 nóiméad, ach ní raibh dhá céann níos fadaí orm, go fírinne. Chonaic mé an priomh ar bhaile agus an dara ar an picturlann ar na Nollag.

Sular, chuaigh mé a feiceáil "Gone Girl" agus "Calvary" ina picturlann. Is maith liom an da. Bhí siad dea-scríobh ann.

Bhreatnaigh mé "A Most Violent Year" agus "Whiplash" fós. Tá siad scéaltaí in Nua-Eabhrac. Shíl mé go raibh réasunta mór araon.

Féach Leon agus mise "Magnolia" ó 1999 anocht. Tá scéalta ina Gleann in aice leis an Cathair na hÁingeal. Mheas mé ní raibh go réidh, mar sin féin. 

Ar ndóigh, téigh i bhfeabhas stiúrthóir. Rinne Paul Thomas Anderson "There Will Be Blood" agus "The Master" seo chugainn. Le déanaí, chríochnaigh sé "Inherent Vice" riamh cúig bliana ag obair.

Films in 2014

Recently, I have watched various films. Around Hollywood, certain friends of ours get copies to vote on in the guilds. Therefore, our family sees a few as well.

I have been thinking about "Inherent Vice" and "Mr. Turner" often during this past week. The pair are 150 minutes, but the two were not long to me, truthfully. I saw the first at home and the second at a theater on Christmas Day.

Before, I went to see "Gone Girl" and "Calvary" in the theater. I liked both. They were well-written.

I watched "A Most Violent Year" and "Whiplash" too. They are stories in New York City. I thought they were both so-so.

Leo and I saw "Magnolia" from 1999 last night. The story is in the Valley near Los Angeles. I felt it was not smooth, nevertheless.

Of course, a director improves. Paul Thomas Anderson made "There Will Be Blood" agus "The Master" next. Recently, he finished "Inherent Vice" after five years of work.

Friday, December 26, 2014

All I Want for Christmas Is Some Free Speech

Lots in the headlines the past week about Sony Pictures' giving in to North Korean hacking, and then the U.S. response (if no comment either way from either regime), and now supposedly Sony's release of "The Interview" anyway, making some wonder if this was all a great publicity stunt for a mediocre movie. My older son watched it and was indifferent, despite his devotion to Seth Rogan and crew, a coterie for another generation, surely. Recently, before the latest spin, Ross Douthat began his essay "North Korea and the Speech Police":
Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

He continues by comparing the self-censorship demanded more and more by the left, who fear any dissenting voices against views that progressives do not agree with (or I might add conservatives!): 
Nor is it all that different from the arguments used in the United States to justify canceling an increasing number of commencement speakers--including Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christine Lagarde — when some hothouse-flower campus activists decided they couldn’t bear to sit and hear them. Or the mentality that forced out the C.E.O. and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, when it was revealed that he had once donated money to a ballot initiative that opposed same-sex marriage. Or the free-floating, shape-shifting outrage that now pervades the Internet, always looking for some offensive or un-P.C. remark to fasten on and furiously attack--whether the perpetrator is a TV personality or some unlucky political staffer, hapless and heretofore obscure.
What caught my eye here was "free-floating, shape-shifting outrage." This sums up well the increasing tone of any comments or opinions transmitted online. If not for this, Salon would be out of business, and likely both Fox News and Jon Stewart's show and whatever else supplants Colbert. Douthat tries to link lots of floating material we are bombarded with in Facebook and news feeds: "The common thread in all these cases, whether the angry parties are Hermit Kingdom satraps or random social-justice warriors on Twitter, is a belief that the most important power is the power to silence, and that the perfect community is one in which nothing uncongenial to your own worldview is ever tweeted, stated, supported or screened." Now, Douthat writes as one of the most conservative critics at the New York Times, but one of the most liberal, Frank Bruni, agrees about dangers ahead.

Bruni warns of what the rush to put it all up as a file, an e-mail, a document, a phone call, a cloud means for us who have no alternative now if we wish to communicate as we are now mandated at work and increasingly, for whatever occupies the rest of our time itself blurring pay and pleasure. 

"If it isn’t a foreign nemesis monitoring and meddling with you, then it’s potentially a merchant examining your buying patterns, an employer trawling for signs of disloyalty or indolence, an acquaintance turned enemy, a random hacker with an amorphous grudge — or of course the federal government." Does this mean you and I start to delete, to hesitate before posting and sharing? Yes. 

"We’re all naked. The methods by which we communicate today--the advances meant to liberate us--are robbing us of control. Smartphones take photos and record audio. Voice mail is violable. Texts wind up in untrustworthy hands (just ask Anthony Weiner). Hard drives and even the cloud have memories that resist erasure. And the Internet can circulate any purloined secret fast and infinitely far." So Bruni argues in "Sony, Security, and the End of Privacy" in the same issue of the NY Times.

"The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths." I wrote recently about Ray Bradbury's prediction that not Big Brother, but Little Sister would erode our individual freedom, and our ability to express ourselves in depth, distracted as we are by media. The loss of privacy, for him, lay more in our choice not to pay attention more than a few minutes to anything, in turn a twist lamented in a clever analogy by Daniel Akst to the "Snackification of Everything". Akst applies a word I never heard of, but apparently a trend that spreads beyond what we may munch at desk, in the car, or at home to replace a real meal (and perhaps real conversation).

He mentions the obvious, but he tries to expand his analysis (if in the snackable limits of an op-ed piece): "We gravitate toward snacks because they're fast, easy and require little commitment. They also taste good. Online, snackable items are easily digested by grazing readers, and just as easily shared — the way we once shared meals. In keeping with our demand for flexibility and immediate gratification, snacks are always available, require little investment and can be consumed without the time and consideration that used to go into more primitive forms of nourishment, such as sit-down dinners or books."
Akst applies this to meals. I reflect on this with a bit of the self-censorship Bruni laments, for this will soon be my reality on the job, when I leave one location to teach at another during rush hour, and whatever food I consume must come either earlier in the day by snacks, or in the car with the same. "It's been said that you are what you eat, and in some sense we Americans are becoming snacks, at least to the businesses that consume our labor. Companies that once had lasting relationships with workers nowadays often prefer outside contractors, or employees who can be rescheduled — or terminated — at the whim of management. Firms, in other words, prefer to snack on labor, a practice that makes it all the more difficult for workers to schedule (or pay for) meals."

This tangles: the withdrawal from free expression for fear of offending a hothouse flower when communal inclusion demands particular suppression of an idea or opinion deemed touchy, the social fear of one's secrets becoming public knowledge, which discourages honest, frank talk, and the reduction of nourishment, by diet or of wisdom, to what can be digested without complaint. At least to, it seems, the corporations, nations, and entities that govern us more and more on and offline.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Robert M. Price's "Killing History": Book Review

This New Testament scholar dismantles the quasi-historical claims asserted in Killing Jesus, by pundit Bill O'Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard. Robert M. Price, with considerable learning and abundant snark, demonstrates O'Reilly and Dugard's credulous acceptance of the myths, legends, and contradictory accounts filling Acts and the four Gospels. Countering with a lively argument based on biblical Higher Criticism, he encourages readers to accept the pair's take on the last days of Jesus as speculation rather than any testimony derived from dubious fact. Their bestseller may edify, but it has no place on the shelf alongside the criticism Price and his academic colleagues assemble against it. Grounded in reason, they defend skepticism.

Price begins by wondering why O'Reilly does not take the same cautious approach to assertions in the Bible as he would to provocative guests whom he interviews. In their 2013 bestseller, following books on the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, O'Reilly and Dugard fall for whoppers. If the veracity of the motives for assassination and the identities of those responsible in Kennedy's death remain contested, and if distance from Lincoln's demise muddies research today, all the more to be cautious when going back two millennia. But the pair accept unsubstantiated sources as true, and they stitch together an imperfect quilt, a narrative seeming to be woven at first glance as smooth and solid, but when examined closely reveals itself to be poorly assembled, with loose ends fraying all around.

Basing his critique on Burton Mack's proofs that much of the Gospels have been back-dated, incorporating early into the first century when Jesus is asserted to have lived many anachronisms from later in that same century, or even later, after the Temple had fallen to the Romans and Jerusalem had fallen, Price reveals much of the Jesus story as inconsistent and unsubstantiated. It is a "scissors-and-paste" fabrication, crammed with illogical testimony and awkward dramatization.

Disputes about rabbinical Judaism, which consolidated and codified itself after the Temple's destruction in the year 70, creep back into the New Testament, as in Acts and the Gospels. For instance, the Gospel of John promotes Jesus speaking as the divine Son of God, while, as Adolf Harnack reminds us as cited by Price, the Gospel message of the Father remains the message taught by the itinerant preacher. Followers "retroject" later disputes with Jews into "eyewitness" accounts.

What happens over and over is that disputes between sarcastic Jesus and the stubborn Jews caricature ongoing contentions from the subsequent period when Jewish Christians debated with gentile converts as to which sect merited favor. Rabbinical authority continually struts into Gospel accounts as unstable, undermined by a prickly Jesus, who lashes out at his apostles, propped up as dunces or dupes for their incomprehension of their leader's bold challenges. Set-pieces, as Price documents, keep trotting out dumb disciples and recalcitrant elders, even if the latter contingent in fact had debated many of the same conundrums that Jesus, in the Gospels, is shown falsely to have originated.

Price keeps up the pressure, dismantling O'Reilly and Dugard's many logical fallacies. He compares the duo's attempt to make coherent sense out of the conflicting motivations cobbled together to serve as Judas' rationales for betrayal to a jigsaw puzzle. The authors try to force its mismatched pieces to fit, even if some must be sawn off and others thrown off of the table. Such metaphors help readers enjoy the blend of scholarship and silliness which certainly help distinguish this take on this old tale.

For instance, a Mad TV skit, Dana Carvey's Church Lady from Saturday Night Live, Monty Python's Life of Brian, the storytelling tricks of H.P. Lovecraft, an R.E.M. song, and a recent polemic from David Mamet feature among the more stolid sources he cites. He even finishes, satirically, the tale left off at the Resurrection by O'Reilly and Dugard, channeling their own awkward style with clumsy asides and attempts at wit. All of this does rush past, and some weighty or learned assertions needed clarification. Price addresses this at the general reader, but as with many academics, now and then he forgets to slow down to explain. Context on the "two-headed dragon" from the I Love Lucy episode Price alludes to was needed, and what Herod's soldiers bent on "frog-gigging babies" must mean may be faulted to the galleys this reviewer was provided. All the same, this delivers a spirited study, from which a reader less informed about biblical scholarship can emerge educated and entertained.

Surprisingly, the account of the time on the Cross passes rapidly, for the emphasis wisely chosen by Price focuses on the contorted reasoning marshaled to invite Caiphas and Pilate as walk-ons and stage villains in the various Gospel versions. These all trot out a very clunky premiere of a Passion Play. Price shows how these distortions of true history shove us to a foregone conclusion of this unbelievable storyline, as a wobbly wheel forces a shopping cart into one direction. For the Gospels, this turns out to be the Resurrection, and acclaim given a Messiah who does not match Jewish ideals.

It creates a memorable story, but not an historical narrative. Price concludes with two appendices, to strengthen some of the counter-arguments raised earlier in the text. These deserve attention, for they cement what earlier chapters may have left slightly shaky. The first appendix sides with very delayed dates for the Gospels, much later than many earlier scholars have suggested. The second appendix clarifies what impacts delay may have had, once Christian texts are compared with classical sources.

Tacitus gives no proof of the historical Jesus, recounting instead only what Christians promulgated in the early second century. Josephus, with his own particular agenda to promote or muddle, may have inspired elements in the gospels attributed to Mark and Matthew. That Jewish survivor turned Roman apologist after his nation's defeat is vague as to who "Jesus called Christ" may be, given that a Greek form of Yeshua as an "anointed" priest may not be that uncommon an identifier for more than one candidate after all. Price reminds readers, in wrapping up his cautionary tale, that classical writers were not "front-line reporting" but rather passing along accounts long after the fact--or the fiction.

Readers are left, then, to face the results of their own post-apocalyptic encounter. When the Gospels and Acts are shown to rest on shaky ground, and when proof-texts trotted out by apologists and advocates in recent times who attempted to reconcile history with the Bible are shown themselves to be flimsy support for messianic claims and divine incarnations, pseudo-history itself, in Price's book, crumbles into its own ruins. What remains, in Killing History: Jesus in the No-Spin Zone, may make readers' heads spin. Freed from pundits or preachers, sober examination uncovers not history, but, fittingly or frustratingly depending on the reader's reaction, some gospel tales that beg to be believed.
(NYJB 9-2-14;  P.S. I later found this excerpt: "5 Reasons to Suspect That Jesus Never Existed".)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Disenchantment as Truth

I've been mulling over the relevance of Dante for secular readers lately, drafting a forthcoming article for PopMatters, and this reflection deepens into the impact of what Max Weber called Entzauberung, "disenchantment of the world." Once religion loses its hold on one's psyche, and one's society, what holds it together? John Messerly at Salon (a very erratic site given over to "I married a Republican," "My endless [female] orgasm," and "outrage over white male privilege" types of clickbait, but one which does excerpt religious content, if in earnest, endless book excerpts from humanists and skeptics) argues in Religion's Smart People Problem: The Shaky Intellectual Foundations of Absolute Faith: "With the wonders of science every day attesting to its truth, why do many prefer superstition and pseudo science? The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, what they find comforting, not what the evidence supports: In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe." Furthermore, he tries to figure out why highly educated people, then, continue to believe.

Messerly sums up two theories for religion's persistence. Cohesion of society, or causation as explained. It stimulates in-group solidarity, and it accounts for just-so stories, which comfort us. For the smarter among us, rationalization means they may seek to support by tenuous claims what they had originally "believed for non-smart reasons." They may also not back up, deep down, what they say they believe. Hope and solace, after all, may rely on faith. Also, and this seems true to me, they may publicly affirm what they privately may doubt, as if religion is better used to comfort the masses. Messerly makes an aside to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, to show the palliative nature of religion. He defines a third function for the educated: religion at an advanced level may not match that of the common folks. Process theology, Teilhard de Chardin (my example) or panentheism aren't common.

In a twist on the subtraction theory explanation, where religion retreats as science progresses, Messerly propounds: "Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced. By contrast, it is almost unheard of to find disbelievers in youth who came to belief as their education progressed. This asymmetry is significant; advancing education is detrimental to religious belief. This suggest[s] another part of the explanation for religious belief—scientific illiteracy." I like this retort: "we should remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there are." If one claims "invisible elephants," then one does not make one's proof convincing by challenging a doubter who cannot disprove the pachyderms.

Passion, goodwill, and conviction, as I labor to teach, do not equal verification for a thesis or truth-claim. I challenged a speaker in my speech course when his assertions that the world was created less than ten thousand years ago, in my opinion, failed to make his intense presentation persuasive. His evidence was faulty, and the few discrepancies he uncovered in carbon dating could not undermine the massive evidence. For, "if you defend such beliefs by claiming that you have a right to your opinion, however unsupported by evidence it might be, you are referring to a political or legal right, not an epistemic one. You may have a legal right to say whatever you want, but you have epistemic justification only if there are good reasons and evidence to support your claim. If someone makes a claim without concern for reasons and evidence, we should conclude that they simply don’t care about what’s true. We shouldn’t conclude that their beliefs are true because they are fervently held."

That also leads to fideism, putting faith up as the sole arbiter of proof, and this, Messerly mentions, makes faith itself arbitrary. Or, the modern spin that might say that student had every right to his views as much as I do mine, and who's to stay which is true? This erodes our shared foundation of truth, when insufficient evidence is peddled as if proving unsubstantiated claims which can harm.

Faith without reason, he concludes, fails to satisfy the more discerning among us. Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk. If religious beliefs are just vulgar superstitions, then we are basing our lives on delusions. And who would want to do that?" He concludes: "Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and  its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will." But my students have often answered this bluntness, as community, ritual, and meaning accompany theological practice. Thomas Merton, according to his biographer Michael Mott, shortly before his sudden death reflected on "existential contemplation" as a condition he approached, and he helped "unbelieving believers." These elements of a belief system persist too. Culturally, religion may strive even now to provide an aesthetic immersion or emotional uplift which the humanist insistence on "is that all there is?" may not, for those educated or not, in darker times.

I reply that most of those whom I teach continue as unswayed as ever by their childhood belief system, but some do reveal they are disturbed by what they learn as other religious systems, and then none as I also try to include tangentially, are introduced as we go through two months together, exposed to varying answers to the great questions of existence and endurance. And, there is always at least one student who has believed and now does not, to spice up the discussions. This makes me speculate that what I have started in motion, as a kind of Primum Mobile, if not Uncaused Cause, may result in further collisions between one's past and one's future, as the present shifts and brings us face-to-face with belief, and what we are to place our faith in. The cost of education tallies as doubt.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Soul Food for Thought


Have you ever thought of "What Books Do for the Human Soul?" Maria Popova at Brain Pickings reports on Alain De Botton and his London-based The School of Life. I reviewed his Religion for Atheists and I recall when the radio finally faded into static on the Quebec-Maine border that Layne and I listened to a radio interview podcast from the NPR show On Being where he talked about setting up a secular church of sorts (for lack of a better noun; mine, not his) where humanists could find ritual, share meaning, and make community. The SoL appears as the fruit of that, and more, as well as the the city's congenial colleagues who have formed five years ago Sunday Assembly. If Layne and I had more time or more planning in London last December, we'd have paid them a visit.

Like a church, SoL can cost. After all, teachers have to be paid. I note three SoL bibliotherapists set up sessions in person or by Skype at £80; this seems fair as I heard (what do I know these days?) the "hour" of therapists charges $200. I'd rather talk about books than myself if I had to go to a session. 

Popova by way of De Botton's endeavor sums up four main benefits for reading, free of charge. I copy them below as I find them a useful summation. You may want to visit their video, and their site.
  2. It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.
  4. Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.
    Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.
  6. We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…
  8. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…
Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

I think I can use these in teaching, and in my own application of literature. Where I work, I am now the only regular full-time faculty member in the liberal arts, so it's getting difficult to claim my turf, or to find any colleagues to talk to about my interests. So, I turn more and more to the virtual realm to stay in touch with those who think and ponder and debate Big Questions for a living, or what's more important still, for leisure or the reflection that the liberal arts are supposed to free us up to pursue.

Photo: nearly every image in a search for "bibliotherapy" is female, and young. Nearly all for "reading" are cartoon owls and babies, or not-babies, but female, and young. So, this instead, a snapshot of the writer as slightly younger (4 years ago) man, and of a not young, not female, reader, undergoing therapy by sustenance and by reading the NYT Book Review in my happy place, near Mount Hermon, in California north of Santa Cruz. More fun than a $200 "hour," at least one that a shrink might provide. How other happiness might cost $200/hour best left to "reflection."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Out of Clay

How loyal should Jews be to themselves, as opposed to others? As Hanukkah begins, this question lingers. After all, this in a revisionist if understandably less popular view celebrates the triumph of Hebrew tradition over assimilation. Refusal to give in to the Greeks and their lax practices and morals, at least as we get the version in Maccabees (not a canonical book of the Tanakh, but Catholics accept it for its hint of purgatorial affirmation, as an aside, in turn ironically reflecting Greek influence on the rabbinical conception of an afterlife with its hopes or fears). So, when Jews commemorate the victory of those who refused trayf on pain of death, and who then inflicted death on those they hunted down who had given in to the pagan ways and their uncircumcised fashion, do they realize the tension inherent in it? Does this undermine its family fun and, now, "co-exist" bumper sticker and postage stamp equivalent that leads us to all to wish "happy holidays" alongside the newest inclusion, equality with Eid al-Fitr? (I have yet to meet anyone who lights Kwanzaa candles, invented in 1966 by a black studies professor, within sight of where I teach.)

Michael S. Roth, reviewing in the New York Times Alan Wolfe's At Home in Exile, sums up that professor's approval of universalism against particularism, the two strains in Jewish identity which have bedeviled it for centuries, and maybe always. "Mr. Wolfe looks at Diasporic Jewry not as an endangered species threatened by aliyah (emigration to Israel) and assimilation, but as a vital and creative force that is also good for Israel. The 'best thing Jews can do to further the survival of the Jewish state,' he writes, 'is to remain outside Israel and keep the tradition of Diasporic universalism as vibrant as possible.' American Jews in particular, he optimistically concludes, 'retain a commitment to social justice in ways that resemble a biblical commandment,' adding, 'Religious or secular, universalism is part of who they are.'" So, Wolfe favors this separation as the way that, somehow, Jews will flourish, apart from the State of Israel and those Zionists who resurrected Maccabee heroes.

On the other hand, as David Remnick's "Israel's One-State Reality" (to me it feels too one-sided as it reasons that Palestinians will be satisfied with restoration of the West Bank; consider their militant dissatisfaction now in Gaza) in a recent New Yorker examines, the discontent in Israel appears to tilt the balance away from Wolfe's expectations of diasporic prosperity balanced with homeland security.

Near the end, Remnick observes a reaction common to those of us who, as in my city, see all around us the presence of Israelis who have moved away from their forebears' Zionist allegiance. They may still call themselves Israeli citizens, but their decision to emigrate proves they have taken a tangible, personal way away from the land of the particular, Eretz Israel, into the diaspora Wolfe welcomes.

"Many Israeli friends have remarked on the élite in the country—doctors, artists, engineers, businesspeople; call it two hundred thousand people—who provide Israel with its economic and cultural vibrancy. That élite is no less patriotic than the rest, but if its members begin to see a narrowing horizon for their children, if they sense their businesses shrinking, if they sense an Israel deeply diminished in the eyes of Europe and the United States, they will head elsewhere, or their children will. Not all at once, and not everyone, but there is no denying that one cost of occupation is isolation." Wolfe's observations certainly can be proven all around us, even if opponents claim pro-Israeli media dominate journalism. Anytime the New York or Los Angeles Times reports on this conflict, "the other side" protests its bias. Sympathy for Israel is weak from my observations of the wider media (if, yes, often outside the U.S. mainstream). On the L.A. Times' back pages, I read how a few left France for Israel instead to make aliyah, so discouraging was France towards any other support than that given Arabs nowadays. Any who stand with Israel, as the slogan goes, get relegated to the ranks of racists, hypocrites, right-wing fanatics, sometimes in caricatured stereotypes. The presence of Godwin's Law rapidly slips into pull quotes, cartoons of a crooked cross replacing the Mogen David, Facebook comments lambasting Israelis as tycoons and jackbooted stormtroopers. The inevitable elision of anti-Jewish attitudes under the guise of anti-Israel anger occurs, even if progressives take pains to deny this. I wonder, if ISIS had not burst into the news this same summer, if the global support for the Palestinian uprising under Hamas would have grown even more strident.

Anger at least online and in headlines came and it went quickly, if far more intensely than the previous reaction to the insurgency in 2010. This year's skew, with a flood of those charged images uploaded during Operation Cast Lead, in my FB feed tallied 99+% for Palestine and -1% for Israel, but that may reflect my own friends and the loyalties of those outside Judaism. Yet I hasten to add that nearly all of my Jewish friends who weighed in on the situation have posted against Israeli policy and U.S. connivance too; I suspect these are the types of collaborators and Hellenized fifth columnists those doughty Maccabees would have revenged themselves upon, I reckon. Nobody I know who is Jewish was happy with the results. Likewise, the BDS campaign in Europe and among the American left, mainstream Protestantism, liberal Catholics, and academia (these categories risk redundancy) gains momentum and becomes as unquestioned as was the global movement boycotting South Africa and Rhodesia for anti-apartheid regimes a few decades ago. Israel=apartheid is now an equivalence so common as to appear without comment in most of the press, in print, and on placards.

Peter Beinart in the New York Times Book Review also covered Wolfe's book and that by Joseph Berger on the Hasidim, The Pious Ones. Beinart challenges Wolfe's enthusiasm for universalism. "In 1970, 17 percent of American Jews married gentiles. Today, among non-­Orthodox Jews, it’s 71 percent." If Wolfe's love of Jews loving the Other continues to manifest itself such, not many Jews will survive to be embraced. According to a recent Pew Report, as Beinart cites, now among non-Orthodox, "43 percent of the children of intermarried parents identify as Jews. And even among those who do, only 17 percent marry Jews ­themselves." Universalism beckons, logically, to make Jews part of the wider community, but at the cost, inevitably, of their own assimilation to the norm.

Meanwhile, we will continue the haimish rituals that remind us of particularism among the universe. Candles lit, a song recalled "I have a little dreidel/ I made it out of clay" as my wife fries up oil for sufganiyot and latkes (the red squiggle under the latter as well as the former term shows not all particulars become universal in Netspeak), and our son, alone this year, will join us as he has all his life, even if his amount of presents diminished as he matures. Sons, parents, families: made of clay, the same that ha-adamah, the red-earth, vivified into Adam in an even older story. Our other son will be in Israel as soon as he gets out of college on his winter break. He signed onto Birthright as a recipient of the largess largely due to a particular billionaire who has made his stash in dubious casino deals, and who donates heavily to GOP causes tying him to evangelicals eager for Armageddon (triggered by the conversion of the Jews, or their saving remnant who survive another holocaust). An ethical debate: what I equate to a century and more of benefiting from Carnegie's libraries and Ford's foundation, Huntington's library and Stanford's university: how much does the 99% take from the 1%? Those who exploit weakness in particular, but who partially reform, if in the name of a higher cause meant for the universal good? I am sure son #2 will return next month with his own perspective on the issues I raise this damp (for once, so it's a miracle!) Hanukkah night.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Former owner was a lit professor"

I found this title phrase annotated in a search for a book title that had understandably gotten botched, as I received in the mail today an edition published a year earlier (same publisher, but 1946 rather than '47!), one of many of the Divine Comedy. I've been researching various translations and naturally, the proliferation two-thirds of a century ago led to confusion then and now. The seller erred, I am sure, unintentionally, but now I am going back to try to find the right translation, one of so many. The reason for their abundance, now more than ever, may puzzle those who in a secularizing era still find fascination with Dante. My take on this examines why this draw to the other world in his poem also keeps lagging in the thick darkness of fiery and icy hell, rather than climbing back into the diurnal light of Mount Purgatory and then the eternal radiance, for most readers. But that will emerge, at least in my consideration, a few months from now. I am letting the piece sit, and sifting a few more versions and treatments, but the bulk of it is on the shelf, like wine or cheese, and I hope from aging it mellows, grows richer, and tastier.

Speaking of shelf, full already with books, including many attempts to render Dante's epic into modern terms, why add more? I already have to exile titles to the garage, and that years ago approaches the capacity my study and related bookshelves already have reached. I purchase, however, only a few books a year now. I get some to review, but even then, I reckon e-books will slowly diminish the physical stack, as they have in my music reviews, which I have to compile now with more research before the fact, often with MP3 song files and not even a P.R. blurb to help me. Takes the fun out of an advance promo CD, too, once music is soon streamed anyway by means of Spotify or the like, whereas at least books keep their appeal in physical form. But that plays into the problem here: don't I want fewer rather than more bulky bound books?

Why do I still gather some books, for keeps? Some merit purchase as references. Many are not in the public library system for checkout, being often academic or reference texts. I live far from any research library and lack access to scholarly resources. I lack, however, the bibliomaniac's impulse. While looking at my Irish on one side, medieval on the other, demarcations in my crowded room cheer me, or overwhelm me by their stolid acquisition, they are tools for me rather than fetishes. 

So, I ponder that epitaph in that abandoned copy of Dante. Mine too will someday be consigned to a posterity where I figure few if any will care for them. I wonder their fate, and I fear as I wrote in my previous entry that Ray Bradbury's prediction of "Little Sister"'s distractions rather than Big Brother's surveillance may mean the truer reduction of culture and learning to big-screen total immersion. For all her drippy chiding, Rebecca Solnit in this month's Harper's reminded me that we went from a fear of big screens in 1984, Orwell or Mac versions 1.0 to a love of small screens, distractions for all. As I try to find her piece (subscribers only, another indication of how not all information wants to be free, nor should it as I don't get paid for any reviews I type, and I don't begrudge the Bradbury or Solnit who makes a living as a writer) "Poison Apples," holiday traffic slows to 1984 modem speeds, aha.

Theoretically, despite the pauses timing me out as I entered that search term, as Andrew O'Hagan (born but seven years after me) counters "In Defense of Technology," we can remember the 70s, and for me much of the 60s, like lonely Eleanor Rigby. Whereas our connections now rest a click away:

"Communication was usually a stab in the dark: You might find someone to talk to about your favorite book, but more likely you wouldn’t, unless you moved to New York or took to wearing a sandwich board." Like him, I have no idea where my copy of The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" is in vinyl, but I have the digital version of it available in seconds. On the other hand, quite a few of my CDs never made it to digital, just as some LPs never made it to shiny disc, and in turn, unless every book makes as Mark E. Smith longed "the biggest library yet," not even Google and their damned spotty book previews will stop some of us holdouts from scrounging online for what neither libraries nor digital content providers can provide, or will bother to provide, a reliable copy in page, on hand.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Big Brother, Little Sister

Lately, some European artists protest as if only those who were born into or who affirm a particular identity can claim entitlement to act as, speak for, or depict that identity's experience. The somewhat forced diction of my first sentence indicates the similarly awkward expression of this reductive claim. Sharing on FB an article I found from the imploding New Republic (another story that fits in neatly), Exhibit B: Really Useful Knowledge and Europe's Art Censorship, my friend mentioned Ray Bradbury's novel as part of the warning about closing off alternatives, refusing controversy, and socially dumbing down our sensitivities.

Lots to discuss; a few excerpts to spark reflection. Ross Douthat, the resident conservative columnist at the New York Times (not imploding, but as a Sunday-only home subscriber, I note it's going to cost $9 weekly for that and digital access; my dad exploded, my wife recalls, when he saw we paid $3.50 for the treasured old-school paper--it sure was thick not that long ago--less than two decades ago.), discussed the impact of "vertically integrated media" as in the takeover of The New Republic by a Silicon Valley VC:
So when we talk about what’s being lost in the transition from old to new, print to digital, it’s this larger, humanistic realm that needs attention. It isn’t just policy writing that’s thriving online; it’s anything that’s immediate, analytical, data-driven — from election coverage to pop culture obsessiveness to rigorous analysis of baseball’s trade market.

Like most readers, I devour this material. Like most journalists, I write some of it. I’m grateful that the outlets that produce it all exist.

But among publications old and new and reinvented, it’s also hard not to notice that John Oliver videos — or, more broadly, the array of food and sports and gadget sites that surround Klein’s enterprise at Vox Media — aren’t just paying for the policy analysis. They’re actively displacing other kinds of cultural coverage and interaction, in which the glibness of the everyday is challenged by ideas and forms older than a start-up, more subtle than a TV recap, more rigorous than a comedian’s monologue.
That last snippet caught my attention. A few days after it did, Obama regaled The Colbert Report crowd, surely his demographic as any show on Comedy Central by default, with his ten-minute entertainment, pumping Obamacare while keeping his voters clapping. This made my wife and probably millions of fellow Dems happy, but shades of Nixon on Laugh-In saying "sock it to me," this left me disturbed. This capitulation, which others such as my son and his friends at dinner just applauded as a wonderful demonstration of how Our President handles the media and the message, to what the hipper and I guess alas younger folks "want" unsettles me even as it appears inevitable.

In turn, Tiffany Jones in concluding her article on "Exhibit B" cautions against what happens when "we" as in the same cohort Obama and Colbert and (at least most of) Silicon Valley appeals to make demands as to what "they" want to see as art, and what they want art to stand for, past or present:
The premise of art is that one can think up and convincingly construct for others, across time and place, a different life, another experience which becomes real to the reader or viewer because it has been written, painted, performednot because the audience has been there, seen it, or done it themselves. Just think of all your favorite productions, books, or paintings and how they differ from your personal experience but seduce you into believing in them.

At their core, these calls for censorship dictate that only certain groups or people can create art because only they have the experience. Underlying these protests, then, is the idea that we, the audience, are not capably of empathy, and that the purpose of art is not is not to create and convince people of other worlds but to reflect the reality as the self-selecting chosen ones see it. It is an exclusive and divisive outlook, and it is one that ultimately negates the basis of art.
Fahrenheit 451 as read by Tim Robbins, as reviewed by Dave Itzkoff, revealed a subtlety I admit I was surprised to find in that author. I met him when I was in college and he spoke; he seemed very eager to promote literacy and love of the written word at our literary festival, but he also seemed to like himself a lot. Still, he signed my paperback of The Martian Chronicles (it was out on t.v. as a miniseries in the days we watched such on networks en masse, before DVR, DVD or even VCR).

Itzkoff wonders if Robbins is "phoning in" his reading of the book, and whether such a delivery of what remains a paean to the printed word should rather be preserved as Bradbury intended it. He goes on to consider the power of the moral, as the printed word did not capitulate to censorship (as perhaps art is in "Exhibit B" under pressure of P.C. dogma and a growing refusal to challenge certain religious oppositions to explicit or daring content, as well as the burgeoning industry bent on coddling us all against anything deemed disturbing, graphic, unsettling, or merely confronting our congeries of what we bundled up and thrust about as "identity" against presumably all who are less enlightened than us). Itzkoff concludes his review of Robbins' audiobook with a rousing recall to take up books, again:
But Bradbury knew, 60 years ago, that more seductive, less effective forms of information conveyance were coming to tempt even the most diligent and dedicated acolytes of the printed word, and that it was not a distant stretch from dismissing books as quaint and obsolete to banning them outright. As Captain Beatty explains to Montag, recounting how audiences’ attentions drifted from books to television, cartoons, “super-super sports” and “three-dimensional sex magazines”: “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.”

To the end of his life, Bradbury seemed surprised that he had to keep explaining that the novel was not about the dangers of government censorship or authoritarian rule; as he told his biographer Sam Weller, “ ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.” By this he seemed to mean all the small discouragements and impediments that take us away from our intellectual pursuits, whether peer pressure, encroaching technology or apathy. Fortunately, a few thousand years ago, we gave ourselves a sustainable and still reliable mechanism to provide shelter from these distractions, as well as the option to use it or not. It is a choice as simple, and as significant, as the decision to light up a mind or to extinguish it.
As for me, I close this brief scan of how the media play into our pleasures by considering the BBC series Black Mirror, as Layne and I binge-watched in three sittings its six parables to date about the pressure technology poses to break our cherished identity and control over our privacy and intimacy in the name of ethics; about a pair of contestants for an American Idol type of contest eerily extrapolated in a manner only half-explained, the better for it to grip you; about how memories can be recorded for instant recall; about the way that a loved one's words and voice, and then presence, might be resurrected and recreated; about how a pursuit for justice might well mingle with a fun day's excursion; and about how nihilistic, entertaining alternative candidate, as a cartoon, might be manipulated by shadowy powers that be. None end happily, but that is no spoiler, only true to life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tine agus báisteach

Bím ag báisteach inniu. Níl nuacht go hiondúil ann, go fírinne. Ach, ní raibh beagnach aon bháisteach ó mhí Fheabra i gCalifoirnea Thuas anseo.

Ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite, chuir muid stoirm beag. Bhí sé an priomh-boglach ó an geimreadh seo caite. Mar sin féin, bhí aimsir níos mó i ndiadh, mar ní raibh sneachta go leor ina sléibhte, ó cheart. 

Féach mé go raibh an ghrian ag dul amach ó na scamaill os cionn. Tá mé ag lorg amach an fhuinneog cé mé ag scríobh seo anois. Téann clúim bán ag dul. 

Bhí an tine mór Dé Luain seo caite ann, fós. Chaith dóitéan ina lár i gCathair na hÁingeal. Tógann árásan teach is gránna ann ag imeall an gcrosbóthar ina bóithre móra. 

Bhí ionad ag luisniú go gairid. Níl fhíos ag aon duine an chúis go fóill. Ach, is fuath an chuid is mó de duinn ar an áit chomh dún Iodáilis saor, gan amhras. 

Fire and rain.

It's raining today. This is not news normally, truthfully. But, there's been nearly no rain since the month of February in Southern California here.

During the past week, we got a little storm. It was the first moisture since the last winter. Nevertheless, the weather was warmer following, so there's not much snow in the mountains, certainly.

I see that the sun is coming out from the clouds above. I am looking out of the window as I write this now. White puffs going by.

There was a great fire the past Monday, too. A blaze flared in the center of Los Angeles. There is being built a very ugly apartment block at the crossroads next to freeways.

The site flamed suddenly. Nobody knows the cause yet. But, there's a great share of hatred for the place like a cheap Italian fortress, without a doubt. Grianghraf/Photo: L.A. Times

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tucumcari Tonite

Our drive across the Sooner State took forever. Oklahoma, once the few hills of a fading Ozarks are passed, sure is flat and boring. Tolls amassed, big-box dullness, dry brown. A shift in mores, not seen in men's rooms by me since Las Vegas NM and its smeared local ads over the stalls. At the appropriately named Phillips 66 (which when I was a kid was in California but now seems to have retreated to its home state) on the Cherokee Turnpike in weather, it was just over freezing. So cold there was ice on the brush to scrape off the gook from the windows. The bathroom in the vast store blaring C+W and featuring rows of work gloves: dirty. In Weatherford, the same chain's bathroom was dirtier, in a boomtown (name of a café, tellingly) which we tried after filling up to escape and could not, caught at day's end in an endless traffic jam, interstate construction, detours, and a car crash tying up an intersection without, being a boomtown, any red light. We should have stopped at Pilot truck stops; they were uniformly immaculate, with cherry-scented hard soap foam for grease and oil that others frequenting the men's room surely needed to scrub away. At least sunsets westward were pink, as this photo across from our own hotel shows along that long 66 way home.

On the way west, battered billboards scatter, reminding travellers this was once Route 66. Big Texas Steakhouse near Adrian (halfway between Chicago and L.A., therefore the equivalent of California's Harris Ranch between L.A. and S.F.) promised a free steak of 72 oz. I suppose there is a catch. It reminded me of one of the few episodes of The Simpsons I have seen, when a patron eats such a slab and then keels over dead. Then, nagging roadside signs, some blown apart by the wind, for Cherokee Trading Post urged us to stop for trinkets. I think there were two such posts, as billboards repeated, refusing to end. Whatever once-marquee acts from C+W or R+R beckoned for the Choctaw Casino had been left behind as their peers had playing in Deadwood casinos, but ahead, once you find yourself in New Mexico wondering if respite from the horizon is near, Clines Corner will pummel your eyes with yellow signs on each side of the highway, even after you pass, cajoling you back to it.

Between Amarillo and Western New Mexico, the only place still around to sleep if not eat must be Shamrock. We resisted the dubious lure of the other roadside attractions, and the spray-painted detritus in a muddy cow pasture that was Cadillac Ranch looked unlikely to appeal to anyone but Japanese post-teens such as we saw in McDonalds in Amarillo, on a day just above freezing after a storm that brought polar chills. Brittan was a tilting water tower and a giant concrete cross. Many off-ramps once thriving now were empty, at least of any reason to pull off. After nightfall, we found Big Vern's Roadhouse. A big game was on, the locals sat, a girl in gym shorts in the 34-degree weather at dusk. I liked the frosted goblet-full of Pecan Ale. While my proclivities kept me away from seared cattle, I watched in peripheral vision a white-mustached man in black cowboy hat lingering over his. It must have tasted delicious, for he never moved from his chair. He had been there when we arrived and when we left. Fish in such an establishment is like a burger at a taqueria, but I try to stay faithful. (Even if at Crystal Bridges, my soup had ham traces; my soup here had beef bits. Sometimes there is, as we found over all the livestock-producing states, no alternative on a menu.)

The lights of the $1.2 million spent with a government grant to restore the Art Deco postwar glory of Shamrock's U-Drop-Inn across the street from Big Vern's showed what the ride west was once like in such small towns. Shamrock hosts a March 17th parade, and the Lone Star State's tallest water tower.

We could see it from the Best Western motel window. Not much to note, except it too was under repairs. My breakfast there had Raisin Bran, as well as a place to drop yogurt "Lid's for Life's." (sic)

Next stop, after a pit stop at the stateline tourist info center where the voluble staff member had to ask each person making a pit stop their zip code for her records, was a Route 66 mecca for enthusiasts. It has a six-mile stretch of the old road, a rarity, but it was the saddest place we'd seen for 5000 miles. An old man drowsed outside an adobe house in the sun; we saw other oldsters totter along a sidewalk. The Rock Island depot has part of the city's name falling off of it, Main Street is abandoned, and the Route 66 part valiantly tries at night with neon to keep the few who venture off the interstate comforted by nostalgia. We stayed at one such lodging, Hotel Safari, a camel perched sign-high to memorialize the expedition of such beasts through there as a frontier Army Corps. But the logo font was replaced with stark generic lettering, diminishing the small print's exotic effect. Layne splurged for the double room named after early rockabilly star Wanda Jackson. Her signed CDs and that of an Elvis impersonator of perhaps Southeast Asian or Filipino origin (and his autographed two-tone shoes) were in cases. But we could not get the room, uncarpeted if nicely designed in faux-Fifties style and accessories, to warm up much. Outside was just above freezing at night. We ate at a modest roadhouse a few blocks away, where the locals did, and turned in soon after, weary from travelling.

Tucumcari Historical Museum commemorates, in the manner more of Holly Springs than of the Ozarks, another local endeavor to amass whatever the past preserved from neglect or obscurity. Herman Moncus grew up there, in what from photos proved a thriving small town within my lifetime, and his Elk Drug Store had a display of artifacts from his collection, which sure grew big. A 1903 schoolhouse now holds it, 100,000 items. (That museum in Holly Springs MS we had seen a few days earlier claimed only 40,000, but its dustier rival had lots of fossils and rocks, which took up far less room than dresses and hatboxes from the heyday of haberdashery and gracious Southern living.)

Layne and I looked at a large doctor's ledger from the 1940s, in elegant fountain pen longhand without any errors or blots. It listed if patients had been treated or if a few had "expired." One had, from "chest and head wounds." Dead or alive they all had affirmed a religion, too, and among the Christians all of some sort, we finally found a Jewish surname, albeit passing through from or to Los Angeles. Goldenberg's store was early featured in Tucumcari, and as in many frontier towns such as Deadwood, commerce appeared in its history so patiently documented here to have supported other Jewish families. I wondered if Herman too was M.O.T., although no clues existed as to his affiliation.

Failing to enter the city's much-advertised Route 66 Museum, I found it closed without explanation or hours posted at the convention center on the western edge. No sign on the door, even though it was supposed to be open. I was not sure if it had even debuted last June as planned, or if it had lasted out the hot high season. But I had overheard the woman at the state tourist stop tell visitors it and another at Santa Rosa were places to see on the way to Albuquerque. Maybe she and I relied on the same ads. Murals strive to enliven the sun-bleached walls of the city, whose slogan "Tucumcari Tonite" enticed riders on Santa Fe Trailways, which I imagine has gone the way of Greyhound depots in such places.

If you stop for gas at Newkirk, be advised it's a house, a garage, and a station, by the rail tracks, the Rock Island Line whose demise helped weaken Tucumcari as its livelihood. The men's bathroom had no toilet paper, and its condom machine was padlocked. Layne reported the woman's bathroom had toilet paper, and that was padlocked. It was very windy. We took one of the few surviving bits of the frontage road, which we drove slowly, and Layne wondered about her mother making a journey from back East to Los Angeles in 1930. My family must have at one time at least passed this way too. I lived in Claremont just off Route 66, and we live now near enough to 66 now to walk to it in five minutes. Traces of it remain on historical markers, but nearly all has been obliterated by interstates.

As to Cuervo, nothing remains but sand and ruins, a desert(ed) Ozymandias. There are still off-ramps but as with Montoya, this segment leaves nothing for the traveler but buttes and dirt. Somehow, the elevation sustains even if it feels one goes downhill more than uphill. Santa Rosa has three giant billboards, one for the Blue Lake formation fabled in its center, and we found there a few dramatic hills, but no trace of its competing Route 66 Museum. The town had evidence of businesses, but Saturday there might as well have been a Puritan Sunday. We saw nobody. A white metal garage had a placard for "Angry Wife Brewery", but it was deserted. No museum sign. Google Maps took us to the closed City Hall; at least Guadalupe County Courthouse stands dignified in sandstone splendor.

So, into Albuquerque we roamed. The wind was too much for Sandia Peak Tramway, so we had to turn back at the gate after passing miles, overlooking the valleys, of beige or muddy subdivisions. I despised these, as they proliferated maddeningly. In sleek form-fitting black gear, helmeted trim bicyclists sped along paths, past identical houses, if clustered in New Mexican-style compounds. The city slops as if up a vast stony bowl. We were perched where a side slants up east, under steep mountains. Reminding me of Palm Springs tram, a similarly baked if less storied setting. We saw there the next day Hank's house. Rachel kindly returned to show us Breaking Bad filming locations.

The night before, we ate at a crowded brewpub in the Nob Hill section across from the UNM campus. BYB brands are made onsite and we loved their Cherry Stout, the berry, apple, and pear ciders, a spry Monk's Ale (made by real Benedictines who thrive without any angry wives in Georgia O'Keefe Ghost Ranch terrain but no longer give brewery tours; their Dubbel and Triple were ok, but nothing special), and smooth BYB porter. We got there as the crowd surged. For a while, people peeked in as we ate, but as I finished, I looked up again. Everyone had been seated. The veggie burger and fries were tasty, but what I really liked despite the crowd were arguably the best beers of my whole trip.

Our last motel, named after the peak, showed it from an upstairs balcony, if barely. Snow tipped it the first dawn after a cold snap swept in. The weather was again at or just above freezing early on. It was also on the remnant of Route 66, Central Avenue, bisecting the city, and still preserving some of the neon, from motor courts and along Nob Hill, restored to retro glory (if selling out to lots of "edgy" retail and brewski hipster chains, which should be an oxymoron even in a college neighborhood). Overall, the North Valley, perhaps due to its proximity to Intel, looked to be bursting; this pattern I'd seen in Salt Lake City's basin, Boise, the Dakota cities, and the Front Range. But, the South Valley looked more humble, although vulnerable for the brewpubs, lofts, and hirsute denizens to descend on their bikes, which you saw all around upscale streets. We had by the way fine beer at Marble, even if we tallied easily twice or near-thrice the age of nearly everyone else in its crowded brewery room.

The Indian owner of the motel hovered about Layne; the morning news as I ate my yogurt and Raisin Bran had now had shifted from Kim to Bill Cosby's "no comment" to rape allegations.The room was modest but nicely furnished, with tin frames in Spanish style and attractive colors. Across the street, we lucked out, for El Charrito was a typical giant portion example of local cuisine. For the first time I ate chile rellenos, and the plate was filling to say the least on a night near freezing. The next day, we headed off to return our black Prius with 5200 miles on her or him. The Sunport is a nice airport to wander, small enough to get a few laps in and still be aware of your flight. Even if the Breaking Bad magnets I saw on arrival had by my departure all sold out (the clerk said this happens all the time), I found a suitably old-style NM one in postcard design, and now, it sits on my magnet wall of honor at work. Next to it in my cubicle, Fort Mandan, Tucumcari, Badlands, Big Ole, and the Ozark cabin remind me of the places I have seen and the adventures Layne and I had, for nearly the past month.

Photo credit: You can see the Hotel Safari silhouetted to the left of Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari

Monday, December 8, 2014

South Central Rain

We drove on through darkness, very dark, along an interstate into Kentucky. Two symbols of the New South, side by side, illuminated by headlights as Layne tried to keep straight on a road full of the usual construction, amidst impatient (people don't drive nicely down here) trucks and cars all around us. An abandoned barn and farm. A sign for Allison's Adult Superstore, open from 6 a.m. to midnight. I wondered, drowsily if briefly, who stopped there so early, and who had to work there, and what they sold.

Figuring Louisville brought us that much more west than would have Cincinnati, we opted for it. We got a dim sense of Louisville when we went a few blocks to find a short strip of neon. Walking down streets full of construction sites, we passed two city plaques noting the slave markets which had met around Market Street. Most of the sturdy buildings, true to urban fashions we'd seen, remained dilapidated, but gentrification encroached.

A few hipper restaurants, near the convention center, beckoned, and Layne chose Doc Crowe's. Jammed with lots of kids from the university, that sports powerhouse with pro-sized stadiums. I supposed a big game had happened, as we saw Stanford shirts here and there. A giant, restored distillery, it had dozens of bourbon types and loads of oysters. We contented ourselves with fried food. I had a Founder's stout, same brand as I enjoyed in Grand Rapids. Nothing overwhelming, but a popular place. The table next to us had a slew of conventioneers, well-fed and well-earning types, all white men chuckling except for one suited Japanese fellow who appeared to be sampling Southern fare for the first time. I thought of the Babbitt radio dramatization we'd been enjoying, as if updated.

We could not find a cheap room downtown, settling for a not-bargain Econo Lodge. It was central. At least it had (despite the warning in the lobby) free parking. But it was dismal. Even the breakfast was skimpier than in other such motels. All I could scrounge up was oatmeal in a packet and Raisin Bran. Around us, the workers waited for their 9 a.m. shift, and construction was happening as we tried to check out, the elevator full of laundry carts and the corridors full of hammering and hewing. We got out of there nearly as fast as we had Ann's Motel in Wall SD; these two were the low points so far.

Backtracking a bit, as the presence of Bardstown Road in Louisville led me to believe the next destination was just outside that small town and adjacent, we drove instead a lovely hour or so back into the Bluegrass State's heartland. I wanted to see, as we were not far anyhow, the Abbey of Gethsemani. When I was in junior high, the two books I read that left a lifetime impression on me were Tolkien's trilogy and Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. I credit my medievalist path in college and grad school to these influences. Merton made famous the monastery he entered at 27 and lived, more or less, at until his death nearly 27 years ago to the day, if far from the Kentucky knobs, the wooded hills on the two-thousand acres the order of Trappists have farmed since 1848.

Leaving another interstate, we entered lovely terrain. Fall still glowed. A sign for Boston ahead meant only a settlement overlooking fields and railroad tracks. The sun shone. Little country roads kept diverting us, and a large set of factories in the middle of grass proved to be Jim Beam's distillery #5. I have no idea how blue bluegrass is, but the meadows and tidy farms and small houses we kept viewing kept us attentive. The route took us into New Haven, whose sign welcomed us to the "gateway" to the Abbey. A large Catholic church attested in that village to the presence around there.

We got sidetracked on Google in a field, near the Merton Retreat Center, but a few hundred yards in the other direction, a sign pointing us at a crossroads fork to "Trappist" on Monks Road said it all. The road curves into the verdant knolls, and Layne understandably asked if the prominent if still indefinite figure on the statue crowning a hill was of Merton. I think it's St. Joseph. Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which I am re-reading now, states early on for Merton the worst sin was idolatry. I admire his sticking it out at a place where, once the honeymoon wore off for a very recent convert, tested him. He broke silence to praise it, as Mott avers. Many of his seventy books are sold in the gift shop. The ancillary Merton line of souvenirs and tributes echo his predicament. An extrovert and wit who chose a cloister, he wanted to be left alone, he rankled at the community he praised, he courted a worldwide audience despite the Order's aim of anonymity. I found out recently from our dear friend Bob, son of a Free Methodist minister who spoke at our wedding, that the reverend had met Merton way back when he lived in Kentucky. I confess I am delighted to be two degrees of separation (as I am from Pope John Paul #2 and President #44) away.

Merton strove to live apart on the property, yet he, knowing his unreadiness, first asked to be made Novice Master. He chafed against the discipline imposed on him by an abbot, but he realized his vow of stability had to keep him there. He found his calling, but a complicated one and not a sinecure. After his autobiography with no promotion soared to the bestseller list in 1949, he brought necessary income to the struggling monastery, as well as so many applicants they had to live in a circus tent. Postwar trauma had already been attracting postulants and novices looking for renewal. Merton's book made him the most famous monk of modern times, even as he longed early on to be a hermit.

He got his wish, finally, but we had probably no permission to venture so far into the enclosure, and we had to content ourselves with examining the informative display outside the gift shop. A video showed us more, and I heard many East Coast and what regional and blue-collar accents as some monks in voiceover (one looked very Jewish and may have been once) explained their venerable routine. One reasoned bluntly, contrary to the naysayers like my dad who scoffed at a bunch of unproductive men getting room and board for nothing but praying all day, that such a demanding life (up in the middle of the night, hard work, scant food, and a regimen devoted to "ora et labora" first), that the monastic vocation required one to serve others, or else, what was this life good for, anyhow?

On a humdrum errand for the monastery, Merton found himself transformed. "In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers." A plaque marks this 1958 epiphany, which moved Merton towards pursuing social justice. (Walnut St has been renamed for Muhammad Ali!)

Merton hated the "Cheese Factory" and its grubbing for greenbacks, but of course, if not for the royalties from his books, popular from the 1950s ever since, would the Abbey have survived? Its boom came and went. As the placards tell, vocations have dropped now. The 40 or so monks number about the same as when Merton entered a few days after Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941. Most heads are grey and or bald, and as with other foundations I've read about, the future of Catholic monasticism appears to wane. Although as a letter posted from a retreat-goer with a Jewish surname suggests, many find the chance to share Benedictine hospitality appealing. Intriguingly, rather early in the postwar era, Merton popularized Zen presciently. Catholic institutions have been sold to other faiths more and more. Many monks rationalize that this decline speaks to a pattern only God knows.

Peter Owen Jones' BBC series Around the World in 80 Faiths featured a visit to the monastery of Subiaco in Italy, where St. Benedict prayed in a cave. A few tottering residents remain in that storied setting, amid medieval frescoes. New Age retreats buy out Jesuit seminaries. Burning Man creates its own annual ritual. Outside these walls, yoga may beckon more than Sunday obligations. Meanwhile, cheese is sold and fruitcake assembled, both by hand, and you can order both (we liked the garlic and chives cheese and the bourbon fudge) online at Gethsemani Farms. Layne also bought a Nicaraguan vase; the shop sells products made by Cistercian communities and far-flung fair-trade cooperatives.

I wonder, if Merton had use of the Net, what his vocation would be like? Could he have kept his solitude, so longed for? Layne contrasted the despair of prisoners in Canon City and Jackson compared with the contentment of the monks in cells nearly as spartan. We entered the guests' glassed-off portion to look down on the stark white chapel. We spent a few minutes standing there. Time stopped. I thought about Merton and all who had prayed below. It was absolutely silent.

I wish we had more time to walk around, even if the day was very blustery. But we had to make it back around south and head east as planned. We found ourselves, at Google's prompt, on a pretty road. Suddenly we passed a sign of Lincoln's first school, then another for his boyhood home at Knob Creek (closed for construction). The center of the modest town of Hodgenville has its own memorial at a roundabout, in a fittingly humble setting. You can watch more about Lincoln's birthplace here.

We edged back to the interstate, leaving Kentucky soon behind but wanting to go back to see more. We stopped at a K-Mart in Franklin, the same as any, but as it did not have sunglasses for Layne, we went to a mall across the street, as anywhere. Yet the people at Sunglass Hut helped, directing her to the kiosk selling a pair at a fifth of the price they did. On a sunny day, after avoiding most of Nashville, we headed west across some of the Volunteer State. We passed the site for Shiloh but already, the day lengthened. So, we stayed at an Air B'n'B find, a restored collection of Southern rural buildings and a two-story cotton gin, the rebirth of the roadside settlement where Alamo and Bells and two big highways merge. Dr. John Freeman has spent his retirement in this labor of love. We stayed in a moonshiner's cabin, diligently moved and rebuilt. We lit a fire and smelled the smoke.

I walked the 30-odd acres and learned about the different structures. You can too at this site for Green Frog. The sunset over the pines was brilliantly hued, and I tried to take pictures on my phone which inevitably fail to do it justice. That night, I tried to shut out the rumbling traffic and imagine life once. Next morning, we walked about the place more, and visited the gin as it was being worked on by an older man who told us of how he and his smaller sister tried to pick hundreds of pounds of cotton (one big bag filled can tote 200 lbs.) in an hour. That gin was amazingly designed, ingeniously so. What I figured vaguely was a contraption the size of a crate was an intricate, immense construction.

The tribute to a vanished way of life, with hardships perhaps outnumbered or balanced by such memories, stands as a reminder of what we today never know. Talking to the man who made his retirement a time spent caring for the cotton gin, he connected me with hardship, but also with a rooted sense of belonging on a farm, committed to a task. My Angeleno commute, my keyboard tasks, my mindset tired of "outrage" this and to-do task that, such trivia: one advantage of a monastery or rural surroundings is that they force you (or can or did) to listen. The highways never stopped whirring, but I tried there to hear the sense of life and how to live it (I had to fit in R.E.M. somehow), if not in a way I could ever do. As the Badlands showed, you have to go a very long time to hear the wind on the prairie, or look out over a clear vista to thirty miles away. As Layne did some work back in the cabin, I lingered to take photos, some on my stomach in the long grass, as I strove to find perspectives before the clouds let loose, and taking in the feel of the place. A woman leaving the front lot urged me to come back when the cafe was open, as the sandwiches were worth the visit.

The weather threatened rain, and by the time we headed south again, it hit. Layne and I reckoned we could dip into the Magnolia State, and she found a worthwhile byway taking us past to me oddly placed subdivisions, each on "wooded lots" if often cleared of such, an acre per lonely house, unlovely and awkward, which speckled the space we passed as red dirt took over and pines and scrubland receded. We were on the Cotton Trail in Tennessee, and all around, it dusted white as if snow had fallen. We took a weird off-ramp that failed to get us on the interstate but did take us on a mile that dazzled with beauty. Half cotton fields, half leaves golden or scarlet falling in the drizzle. 

Entering Holly Springs, you pass from the interstate (and another is coming, I-269, a north-south one bringing more subdivisions, Wal-Mart Superstores, maybe fracking) and endless construction maddening at the state border and thereabouts, worsened by rain and closed-off exits and ramps into a calmer South. Rust College, one of the first black institutions founded in Reconstruction, stands. Across, the brick and stone ruins of a state industrial academy loom. In the center, as if Santa Fe's adobe had been converted into humbler lumber structures two centuries later, a square of stores and a wooden awning and boardwalk remind one of what it might have been like, when the war came to the middle of the town, part of the strategies that drew in Shiloh and Corinth, into hatred and bloodshed.

A few blocks away, at a converted girls' school, the crammed three stories of 40,000 artifacts collected from the families who have lived there long make the Marshall County Historical Museum a must-see. Our guide, as we were surrounded by uniforms from wars then and since, and swords and buttons, bullets and badges, spoils and plaques, noted how the South had the unfair disadvantage of rifles taking a lot longer to load, half a minute, compared to the rapidly firing rounds of Union men, who hunched down in trenches while the rebels charged, much more exposed. I thought of how this must have been horrifying; at Corinth, the battle raged at the depot's rail tracks at point-blank range.

A more peaceful setting surrounded Holly Springs, even if one sensed decay. We scrutinized a taxidermy panorama, a must-see for its less accomplished examples.The museum documented the Coca-Cola bottler, the maker of novelty candy, the factories once supporting the town, but I had no sense that they continued today--despite the region's demands for sugary sweets. Segregation was apparent in the photos of long gone senior classes of the local high schools. Not until 1970 were two black students at the white school; the other one, named after Rust, was all black. The square seemed about half and half, from the people we saw scurrying about. Stars and Stripes still flew on small sticks, as Veterans' Day had been celebrated at the memorial stone with the names of the dead from wars since the Civil one. We left the town as rain fell, and soon got sucked into the rush hour snarl of the southeast section of Memphis, which looked forlorn. At night, not much to report, and we forced ourselves on until we could go no further, at another if better Econo Lodge in Brinkley, Arkansas. Signs indicated both a Lewis + Clark site not far south, and a Trail of Tears one for the natives forced out of their southern homelands by settlement in the wake of millions of Lewises and Clarkses, plantations and slaves, cotton pickers and red-dirt farmers, candy makers and now all pop guzzlers.

Layne's eagerness to try the Southern icon Waffle House, whose yellow logo I liked, faded soon after ordering from the limited (especially for non-meat eaters) menu. Our waitress was nice, however, named after one of the three cardinal virtues, and we tipped her well. The other patrons were loutish: one wore a red Chadron NE polka band t-shirt (despite the freezing temperature, as a polar storm plagued the region), and he and his young pals jeered at a family coming in. Our polka boy cued up on the jukebox some teen-pop songstress and CCR's "Down on the Corner." These preceded "There's a Special Lady at the Waffle House," which earned by its annoying presence whatever tip we left the staff who had to hear this ode to their employer. Corporate, sepia-toned enlarged photos of WH's postwar pair of owners and subsequently dutifully smiling contemporary staff surrounded the diner. A whiteboard encouraged patrons to add their own snapshots taken there to a display; few had. My portion was tiny, as if a kid's meal. The waitress had to invent a grilled cheese option, the hashbrowns lacked the onions I paid 40 cents for, and I was still hungry when I finished a few scant minutes later.

The clientele next room to us was also loutish, hanging out next to our car in the cold, and we left soon after we awoke. News was still lingering about the election, but Ebola had receded; Kim's derriere was unmentioned. We faced chilly weather as we crossed Arkansas, but the day brightened. We admired the Ozarks and their red, brown, and golden colors mingled in hues I lack adjectives for. Even from the comparative sameness of the interstate, the vistas rewarded. I can only imagine what back roads and panoramic outlooks reveal. We headed up to the northwest corner to visit the Wal-Mart funded museum of American art in the corporation's hometown of Bentonville. The entire region, from Fayetteville on, had all the sameness of, say, Irvine or any post-1970s suburban sprawl. Lingering fields lay fallow, for they were planted with real estate signs, one for a development called "The Farms." Whatever small-town ambiance as in Holly Springs the towns once had was gone, but at least the dogwoods and creek over which the museum is built do cling to a dignity of their own.

Crystal Bridges had fine colonial and 19-c. paintings, too. Karl Bodmer's Mandan bleak death scene, an eerie circle of human skulls overlooking a solemn vista, captivated me (if neither Layne nor anybody else at least on the Net, as I cannot find an image of it). I missed my meddlesome cat Gary, as I contemplated Thomas Eakin's "Portrait of Professor Benjamin Rand," the scientist stroking his black cat as it kept his place in an open book on his desk. The next century had an impressive if not astonishing selection. I liked a painter, co-founder of Synchromism, whom I had first seen in Chicago. I'd never heard of him but he lived in Santa Monica a century ago, Stanton Macdonald-Wright. His paintings hint at Buddhism and he mingles Cubism with a bold overlay of bright shapes.

Downstairs, a "State of the Art" installation featured a hundred supposedly cutting-edge artists. My attention failed to be halted by 98 of them, but Dan Witz' mural "Vision of Disorder: Frieze Triptych" in hyper-realistic detail of a moshpit caught my attention, and many other viewers. Layne was also not wowed, regarding the Crystal Bridge holdings as lacking substance. I concurred as I sat nearest the mural, but stuck in front of a display of half a dozen floor fans stacked up the wall, each blowing so to keep levitated a giant sombrero. Louis CK has an episode (can't find it all on YouTube as I tried when teaching an art course last summer) where he is stuck in a post-modern art gallery. I can relate.

All the same, an end room featuring Jawshing Arthur Liou's "Kora" moved me. He undertook a pilgrimage to the holy site of Mount Kailash in Tibet after his young daughter's death. Thirteen minutes, it gave me time for action as contemplation and Layne a seat to catch up on e-mails on her phone. The invitation to integrate duty and reflection, in ways inevitably dissimilar in substance if not entirely in form to monks who mingle "ora et labora," prayer and work, at Gethsemani, includes us. As our journey went on, thanks to Kindle, I began Robin Kirkpatrick's recent translation, musing (as Merton had), if and how one might find meaning in the Commedia, in another century full of doubt.

We headed to a Country Inn in the identical faceless suburb of Rogers. Compared to Brinkley and Louisville, it was palatial. Checking in we were frustrated by a computer being down, but the room was comfortable, and even if we had to settle for takeout pizza and beer (a local, Core Octoberfest Lager; licensing laws prevented the kind of takeout pairings we are used to), we were so tired and it was so cold outside we were content. The next morning, all eyes in the breakfast room turned to the weather segment. It was 28 in Fayetteville, but the polar storm luckily had drifted off. I had yogurt, fruit, granola, and oatmeal, for once not having to eat the Raisin Bran from its twirling dispenser.

A pause at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History taught us a lot about the region. "Aux Ark" comes from a French tendency to chop off the first syllable of a tribe's name, so "of the Arkansas" warped into the name we all know. The museum was not piled high or haphazard, yet this detracted from its impact for us after Holly Springs. But clean and orderly, it appealed doubtless to those less enchanted by clutter. A group of schoolchildren visited in a room as a woman in pioneer dress let them try out a toy gun to shoot bears. We were the only other visitors, as usual. The sufferings of ordinary people, black and white, both poor, were made deftly evident in a short video and display about the Civil War. Armies and bushwackers (I think of ISIS headlines) forced many to join them or be killed, and many families in this remote area found their farms burned and their possessions looted. The war swept across this contested territory along the Missouri border, and no celebration of the terror it unleashed was found on display. We watched a 1940 video about a fryer chicken contest, attracting tens of thousands to what was once a land of berry farms, egg ranches, and poultry production, albeit I bet pre-Tyson, whose big rigs we often found in front of us, and who accounted indirectly for the  museum's captions, and many of the local signs and businesses in Rogers, as translated into Spanish.

The video chortled that "the only journey of the chickens was to the frying pan," more or less. We watched as eggs hatched, chicks were sexed and sorted, and as fried chicken dinners resulted. A WPA mural of Springdale celebrated this agricultural heyday, but as with the region where we live in Southern California, only vintage postcards and histories preserve the vanished farmland or orchard.

Outside, a few cabins and structures were moved onto the lot. One was an outhouse, moon for women, star for men. Another was a cabin, each wall with its own door, but we could not enter, as it was all boarded up. A third was the original house from a century ago and more. The guide who showed us around pointed to the library, full of hardbacks from the 1940s, and observed "that was when people read books." A radio and comfy chairs stood for pre-WiFi, pre-TV, and pre-Wal-Mart. That company is ubiquitous, as you'd expect. Institutes for Workplace Management pop up next to chain motels, and whatever lure this corner of the Razorback State held, it must lurk in football now.

Siloam Springs was the last town before Oklahoma. It reminded me of Hot Springs SD, if more girt by the usual logos. According to the State Tourism website, "Food choices range from chain restaurants to sandwich shops to coffee shops to home cooked meals." A municipal page, with only one image of the city center's faded turn-of-century resort heritage, warns: "Tornados, straight-line winds, train derailments, natural disasters and civil unrest are all possible in Siloam Springs."

Photo: chapel + cemetery of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani's gallery via its website