Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Monster Mash

American MonstersIn one of those ironies of personal history, I never met Linda Godfrey although we lived not far from one another and shared a great many common interests. I’m not sure she would return the sentiment, but while I lived at Nashotah House many odd things happened. Academics can be pretty deep in denial about what they experience, and although I never saw any man-wolves, as I stood outside one night to photograph a comet I felt terribly exposed and in not a little danger. This was on a rural seminary campus. Nashotah was still wooded then, before evangelical shaving of the landscape, and certainly among the most gothic of seminaries I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile Linda Godfrey was researching, just a few miles down the road, weird animal sightings on Bray Road. I began a correspondence with her after we left Wisconsin and I have read all of her books. Local history has always fascinated me, and although I was an accidental Wisconsonite, I nevertheless enjoyed learning about the strangeness of the state I formerly called home.

Godfrey’s latest book, American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America, throws a wider net. We are all in here with the monsters. Blending, as the subtitle suggests, lore and legends with eyewitness accounts, American Monsters can leave the reader a little disoriented, in a good way. We’ve been taught to discount anything that doesn’t match the everyday—what boss wants a worker with a higher vision?—and pretend that such things don’t exist. Weird creatures don’t donate their bodies to science readily, and we are left wondering if something is really peering at us from these October woods. Inside you’ll find stories of flying, swimming, and running monsters. We are safe nowhere. Either from the scientifically undocumented or from those that are purely imaginary. I stand outside in the dark in a smallish town waiting for a bus. What was that sound behind me?

Monsters are only now beginning to gain academic respectability. When I was in graduate school the topic felt so puerile that no respectable Ph.D. candidate would dare suggest such a dissertation to a button-down committee. Now they are beginning to roll off the presses. As part of the religious imagination, monsters are not so easily dismissed. We can assign them to the dark caverns of fantasy and under-stimulated imagination, but they will burst out in their own time and, like gods, demand our devotion. I have no idea whether these cryptids creep, flap, or swish around in our world. People see them all the same. And believing may be seeing. I’m glad for Godfrey’s success at pointing out that our rational world is full of monsters. Hers is a perfect book for days of effacing light and lengthening shadows, all across the country.

Hotel Nowhere

HotelCalifornia1977. I was in junior high school and I wore my hair long. I hadn’t yet donned the cross that I carried through my high school years with a constant fear of Hell on my back, but I did listen to the radio. The haunting song “Hotel California,” by the Eagles, scared me. There was something lurking there—something undefined and yet compelling. Cults were in the news, and after the People’s Temple suicide a year later, we were all pretty well convinced that the song was based on fact of some sort. Religious analysts concluded that the song referred to everything from the Antichrist (“they just can’t kill the beast”) to a New Religious Movement that had taken over a western mission (“we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”). Members of the Eagles, when asked, said their intentions were to expose the darkness of the music industry as idealistic hippies came of age and realized, yes, it’s just business. Still, I shivered.

Nashotah House used to be on the frontier. Although it is only 30 miles from Milwaukee, it could still feel terribly isolated less than two decades after the Eagles had flown. Indeed, there were sotto voce suggestions that “Hotel California” should be the official seminary hymn. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The nights could be very dark in the Wisconsin woods, and for those attuned to some of the more honest aspects of a religion based on exclusion this didn’t seem too far to stretch. “Hotel California” came forcefully back to mind reading about Oneiric Hotel in Wired. (Mentioning Wired makes me look smart.) The Oneiric Hotel is a lucid-dreaming device by artist Julijonas Urbonas, the kind of thing Wired finds newsworthy. The story mentions that Urbonas’s previous project—called Euthanasia Coaster—was designed to kill its passengers.

Now my mind checks into Bates Motel. I know Psycho is set in Arizona, but the desert southwest is terra incognita to an easterner, and besides, it’s just a metaphor. It looks like California to me. I saw Psycho as a college student, and was rather afraid to watch it while at Nashotah House. Indeed, the night I moved to campus I found a dog-eared script from a play about a murderous maid at the seminary left on my coffee table. “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.” Psycho, it is asserted, was based on the macabre case of sociopathic killer Ed Gein who had roamed these self-same woods of Wisconsin, and who had died less than a decade earlier just down the road in Madison. There was, I knew, a psychiatric hospital just across the small lake that the campus bordered. We don’t call them cults anymore, but we all know what we’re talking about. There are indeed places that you can never check out, even if you leave.

Irrational Reform State

Since 1954, after the cut-off date for new religions (see yesterday’s post), American children have been making a pledge to an inanimate object with the words, “under God.” Despite the fact that all parents know that children take liberties, the reality is that conformity is deeply embedded in young people. Totalitarian states everywhere have recognized that indoctrinated children are difficult to deprogram. In the chilly heart of the great panic known as the Cold War, the pledge of allegiance was emended to declare America a nation under God. And the American Humanist Association is backing a New Jersey family in suing to have a castrated pledge on offer. I always felt swearing fealty to a flag was a decidedly pagan activity anyway. Did not Jesus say, “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”? Good Christians aren’t supposed to swear. In a land where the IRS controls what counts as a religion, we might consider substituting “under capitalism.” Isn’t that what we really mean anyway?

Nobody has control over where s/he is born. I’m not sure that many people would want to have the burden of making that decision. Still, we have to learn to adjust. Religion is a matter of where you’re born. We may grow to believe, but what we believe depends on what our guardians teach us. In my case, being born into a Fundamentalist family in Pennsylvania led me to nearly a decade-and-a-half teaching stint in an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. Who knew? My religion also taught me that swearing—i.e., “pledging” allegiance—was vaguely suspect. I was never discouraged from the pledge of allegiance, however. After all, it said “under God.”

When my daughter was very young, we were in a store in Wisconsin (where she did not choose to be born) when a couple of guys, being guys, let a few choice adjectives slip. One of them looked over, saw us there (my daughter too young to comprehend what was said), and said, “Oh, sorry! I didn’t see her there.” I found his chivalry admirable, but misplaced. We hear what we hear. So I’ve always found it odd when people want to sue if their children are forced to hear the words, “under God.” How does that threaten an atheist’s home teaching any more than swearing to a piece of cloth undermines a Fundamentalist’s? And aren’t we all taught that globalization is the way of the future? Under those multitude of young hands beat the hearts of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Atheists, and any number of other faiths. We’re told the Cold War is over. Maybe the government should consider turning down the thermostat.

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Pair of Docs

I’m not planning any trips anytime soon, but if I were I’d give Pair of Docs Travel a look. The founders of Pair of Docs are friends of mine who’ve also landed in that black hole of academia: hired, established, dismissed, forgotten. In my days at Nashotah House, eager to escape, I talked to Nelia Beth and Joel about an adjunct teaching stint at Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin. They arranged for a couple of classes for me, and even wished me luck as they knew they were being forced out. Not for performance or lack of competence, but because of politics. Shortly after their moorings were thwarted, I too was cast off without an anchor. I’ve been adrift ever since. Last week, however, I had a letter from my old colleagues letting me know that they’ve gone into the travel agent business. Give them a chance—I’m sure you’ll be pleased.

An unspoken moral dimension is at work in higher education. Actually, the dimension is immoral. Those who embark on the track of higher education are culled from their teenage years by their teachers and professors. Having taught quite a long time myself, I know that a promising student stands out like a glowing rock in the sand. You know that this person is sharp enough to go far. You encourage, you advise, you try to open doors. The doctorate is awarded and before the silly academic hood touches those untried shoulders, you’ve just created another beggar to line the streets. A tin cup might be a better emblem of higher education than a diploma. At least it’s more useful.

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Universities keep cranking out Ph.D.s because they need the money graduate students bring to the programs. The graduate students, for the last two decades at least, have been the sacrificial victims. I have to wonder about the future of a society that takes those deemed most able by their many teachers and demoralizes them to the point of endless depression and penury. In some cultures teachers are treated like the high-achievers that they actually are. The future rests with them, not entrepreneurs. Not that you would be able to tell the difference from our sluggish economy. Seems to me that maybe we don’t have enough slaves to row this galley. And if you’re wanting to book a place on a ship or plane, maybe it would be considered a form of social justice to give Pair of Docs a try. If I could afford to travel, I know I would.

Jesus, My Foot

A story going around the internet features pictures of Paula Osuna’s bruised second toe. According to the YouTube story, Osuna fell down the stairs then had her boyfriend rub some sacred dirt from the shrine of El Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico over the injury. As part of the healing process, an icon of Jesus appeared on her injured toe. Now, New Mexico has a reputation for hiding some potent sites of paranormal import (at least 51 of them), but I had never heard of Chimayó before. It is apparently one of the most visited shrines in the country. Like Holy Hill, a local shrine I used to visit once in a while back in Wisconsin, the site itself is supposed to lead to healing. Healing sites sometimes hold their own irony.

When we lived in Wisconsin, my family used to be avid geocachers. We still go out once in a while to find the little boxes hidden in the woods, but in Wisconsin there were plenty of day trips to be had with minimal traffic (unlike our current setting). One day we drove to Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, a discalced Carmelite community built atop a glacial moraine that gives spectacular views of the southeastern corner of the state. Inside there were many abandoned crutches, as I knew from previous visits, but this time we were present to find a small ammo box filled with trinkets, hidden in the wooded grounds. As our GPS narrowed us in on the coordinates, I made the typical error of watching my device rather than my feet. I slipped on a pile of rocks and my left hand slid onto a broken beer bottle, slicing open my little finger. Fortunately our geocaching bag held a small first aid kit, but no amount of gauze and holding my hand over my head could stop the bleeding. After we’d logged our find, we drove to a local emergency room where I received about ten stitches. Although the injury took place on the grounds of a healing shrine, no Jesus appeared on my shredded pinkie. Nor did miraculous healing come because of the location.

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Pareidolia is a most fascinating evolutionary development. One of the first things imprinted on a newborn person is the image of a human face. In remarkably short time the infant can register the intent of various expressions on a human face and will soon learn to mirror them. That desire to find a friendly face never leaves us. We see faces everywhere. There are entire websites dedicated to pareidolia. We like to think there is a watchful parent ensuring that we won’t stumble and fall. Life, however, is full of accidents and injuries. Some of them are even the results of visiting healing shrines. Belief is what makes the difference. Ironically, even when Osuna’s bruise lost the shape of Jesus, she still believed in the healing power of the dirt. Her story has been covered on television and is easily found on the web. It is a fame born of faith. Miracles are always there for the taking.

Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.

What’s a Sukkot?

It’s not every day you see a lulav and etrog, even in Manhattan. You can tell life’s too busy when you miss that it’s sukkot. Not that I’m Jewish, but I have been invited to sukkot a time or two by a friend, and it was always a fun, relaxed occasion. A festive little booth in the back yard, sweet wine and cookies. Running the rat race in New York City it is sometimes easy to forget. On my hurried footrace to some place or another, I noticed a group of Orthodox Jews standing along East 42nd Street with lulav and etrogs in hand. So distracted was I that I only vaguely wondered, “why are they holding those at this time of year?” Several blocks later, entering the Port Authority Bus Terminal I saw a man just standing as the crowds parted around him like the Red Sea. In his hands lulav and etrog. Finally it dawned on me: sukkot. It is fall, the time of year when I used to be able to enjoy the bounty of nature and the good-natured holidays. A time before when.

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The Hebrew Bible prescribes a set of three pilgrimage holidays: sukkot, shavuot (pentecost to the Greek, or Christian), and passover. Of the three, all associated with the exodus from Egypt in some traditional way, sukkot is the most lighthearted. The command to live in booths is said to be a reminder of the dwelling in tents during the wilderness wandering. Anthropologically speaking, it probably goes back to an ancient tradition of living in huts during the harvest when you don’t always have time to go home and tuck yourself comfortably in every night. Combines hadn’t been invented, and harvesters had to work long hours to ensure that the crop was gathered in. Eventually it became a celebratory occasion. Nice of Moses to allow a bit of festivity here.

Back while at a certain seminary in Wisconsin, a local Jewish friend used to invite my Hebrew Bible class to sukkot. Numbers were small, and invariably wary—were they going to be proselytized by the other? No, but they were invited to shake the lulav and etrog, sip a little wine, and chat about Leonard Cohen. A bit of a cultural exchange in the midst of prolonged indoctrination. I often wonder if my friend continued the tradition after I was asked to leave. The Christian school never made any reciprocal invitations, of course. Ecumenism is often a one-way street. So I stopped a moment at smiled at the stranger in the bus station, solemnly holding lulav and etrog aloft. Life is a bit too busy when we can’t even take a moment to consider all the things we take for granted every day.