Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Five More Thoughts - Personal Days Edition

Five sunny days in the Pacific Northwest, I'd say that sounds like enough for a list. I was out for a funeral, and, naturally enough, got introspective about some things. In some thoughts, family is referred to generally, I hope they don't mind. (I didn't ask.)

1. Some of these thoughts sound better awake at 4AM
We humans sure do love to surround ourselves with the murmur of our own creations. Cozied in our own spheres, we hardly notice the usual buzzes and hums, but spending the a week on unfamiliar couches in unfamiliar cities can highlight the whispers of other places, the normally unobserved conversations of the ubiquitous machines. Cities have bad reputations as harsh and clangorous places, but urban machinery just sings a more cacophonous version of the same tune, and is as soothing in its way.

Coming home--the hum of my air conditioner, the intermittent buzz of air pumped through the ducts, the distant highway--is to be surrounded by my own sounds, and as deeply as I loathe the glare of the streetlight outside of my bedroom window, its faint sizzle is a lullaby, a sussurrus underlying the occasional whoosh of the distant highway or the faraway buzz of a jet overhead. If and when civilization ever tanks, the popular image is people coming out rubbing their eyes at the light, but I think it's the quiet that will drive us over the brink.

(I'm a fan of natural white noise too, though.)

2. Mile high anthropology
I like those jets better when they're distant. Up close, inside, they're a nasty warren of people at their worst: smelly, cramped, forced by proximity into social or antisocial behavior.

Air travel is a nation unto itself, at least if the endless references to Sky this and Air that are any indicator. You walk into the airport with its funny vehicles (I get no end of chuckles at the stair trucks and little luggage trains), odd dress codes, and cosmopolitan insularity. It's like stepping into an odd foreign country, and maybe that's the best case I can make for anyone ever wanting to clamber into a cramped booth and boink one of the locals.

It takes a special kind of person to savor air travel. You need to thrive on being away, you need to be personable but not close, need to have a remarkable ability to tolerate idiocy and discomfort. Flight attendants exude that close casualness, and almost to an individual, no matter their actual age or shape (or gender), seem to evince a world-weary sexiness. Which isn't to say gender roles in the airline culture don't bother me, they do, falling too easily into neat prejudices about sophisticated free spirits (i.e., they are all hot, youngish women and gay men). The predictability of the cabin crew bothers me less than the conformity of the higher status flight crew, every one of which seems to be trying to pull off an aging Chuck Yeager look,* as solid and square-jawed as the attendants are free-spirited. Yesterday, my fist female jet pilot flew me home, and the possibilities are obviously slim, but way less remote than they ought to be. Anyway, good for her. I always love to see stereotypes thwarted.

3. Keifus Rants
But I got there, saw the relatives. Like all families, mine is nuts. We drive each other crazy, and yet we can't keep away from each other. We're all successful in similar ways (trained professional types, artsy streaks more or less expressed), and we seem to all be haunted by similar demons. The point of origin is arbitrary, but it's most tempting to give my grandfather the biggest visible footprint. Like his face, you can trace facets his personality down the line. Absolutely none of us will admit to them.

My grandfather was a world-class ranter, and prodigious drinker in his later years, and we've all got that in us. Politically, we range from tight-ass conservative (older generation) to bleeding-heart liberal (younger ones), with the more balanced members occupying some thoughtful ground of our own declaration. We do go on when we get together. I'd have considered myself of the quieter, non-blathering persuasion, but after excessive plying with three days alcohol and drama, the Chief's genes got their grip on me too, and I raved with the best of them. I let into my Dad (no descendent he, and a rock of sanity by comparison) when he tried to cast me as a political liberal. It's not normally something that works me up, but after hearing so much Republican apologia I felt I should step up for those thoughts I believed, and anyway, I fucking hate being typecast.

Nature and nurture all wrapped up in one boozy loud sack. I feel like an ass.

4. Standing On Ceremony
This gathering had a purpose, and over the days, it closed in. I'm not a fan of ceremony for some reasons--declaring any One True Way always presents perils of division and conflict--but in other ways, they certainly serve a social good. If you parse ceremony down finely enough you'll get to the community traditions, and even the family traditions that bookmark our various milestones in life. It's hard in times of intense emotions to have to ad lib, and a ceremony's script helps to guide the participants past whatever perceived thresholds. On the other hand, the best traditions (including deciding which thresholds to define) have a tendency to develop organically and for a small group.

There's not much getting around death as a milestone, but we'd kind of settled on a memorial "family reunion" as a tribute, following a tradition that had been growing anyway, and one that was beloved by the deceased. There would be (and was) food, some fond or solemn words or tokens from whoever wanted to contribute them, and the usual booze-fueled arguments and friendly conspiracies. Good times needless to say, but also times that dare to tread on the greater American approval sphere. A pastor was invited because someone thought a "real" ceremony was called for. My family, that side of it, stakes out a band of agnosticism ranging from "reluctant" to "total," with a couple of true believers sprinkled in at the distant cousin level, so it's kind of a funny impetus, and this guy had his work cut out for him. To his credit, he did a good job of directing the crowd energy toward a handful of well-spoken remembrances, staking out the timing and punctuation better than a murmuring crowd would have. But it's in the power of the speaker to call the end of speaking, which he pushed off to fit in a sermon, shoving the ceremony out of the natural niche it had found with little help. Maybe it was okay for everyone else, necessary even, but I was uncomfortable that the person who spoke longest for the departed had never met him.

5. Is there an agnostic hell? Who can say?
Predictably enough, old John the Gospeler was trotted out, and the story of Thomas highlighted in particular for us marks wising up enough to look closely at those fish scales. Maybe it wasn't a bad approach, and who knows, maybe he even winged one or two of us. I'm no biblical scholar (Homer voice: obviously!), but I've got to like Thomas. Here's the guy in the story who, when confronted with Jesus resurrected, called for extraordinary proof for the extraordinary claim.

Jesus provided evidence of wounds and that was enough for Tom, who, for all his dalliance with evidence-based thinking, was still given to disciplehood. Jesus did some miracles (the wine thing in particular went far to make up for his tendency to rant at parties), but he did a lot of straight-up proclaiming too, notably in John. Famously, he intoned, "I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and go out, and shall find pasture" (John 10:9), and "I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). It's not got that 23rd psalm poetic sense, but it does have a good ring of deep prophecy. Given the unenviable task of offering a sermon to a bunch of godless heathens, the pastor leaned hard on that last quote. Unknowing what's on the other side of the door, he said, we have to trust Jesus, since he's the one who's claiming to understand what we don't.

I don't think there is any message that is so hard to sell to skeptics nor so easy to sell to those who fear death (those are not exclusive groups), and people have been trying to pitch an afterlife of divine communion or retribution for millennia before and after Jesus spoke. Their evidence was the same. In a way, Jesus's metaphorical proclamations are a better sell than doctored evidence--miracles tend to look small after a little perspective--but that doesn't get me past my allergy to "just trust me." At its best, "just trust me" is a short-term loan, getting a speaker past three tenuous seconds as the results come in. It's not a good marketing tool for long-term prospects (or shouldn't be). Whether it's health or government policy or plans for eternity, "just trust me" usually is a blinking neon signpost telling you you shouldn't. I don't think there are three consecutive words in the language less inspiring of trust, although "y'all watch this" comes close.

As I've yakked about before, I'll keep my faith in doubt. At least there's plenty of evidence of my ignorance.


* Actually, more as I'd imagine a young flyboy aging, less how he actually aged


hipparchia said...

is there an agnostic hell? i sure as hell hope not.

i'm hoping that if i'm wrong about all this [being of a mostly agnostic persuasion myself] that at least the buddhists are the ones who've got it right. maybe i'll come back as my dog next time around. or one of the cats. or all of the cats. yow. that could be some serious karma to work out.

three of the last four family members that have died have all died [and i've attended the funersals] easter week.

Keifus said...

Your cats seem to have it pretty well: porch nookie and all the tripe they want. I kind of agree on buddhism's appeal, but then I still don't know it very well, and I've got some faith in its inadequacies.

You have to hate those coincidences of timing. Does it bring negative associations with the holiday? (And I bet those sermons all wrote themselves.)

hipparchia said...

heh, they probably did [write themselves]. i didn't listen very closely. ok, ok, i didn't listen at all.

funny thing [maybe not funny] about the association with the holiday. it did cast a pall over that time of the time of the year for me, people dying just at the beginning of spring, but the co-incidence [as opposed to coincidence] with the biblical meaning of easter [resurrection, life everlasting, blahblahblah] was actually kind of comforting.

silly religions. [buddhism isn't really any less weird than the western ones from what i can tell]

Keifus said...

Coincidence. I can't believe I didn't use the word without a wink...

Yeah, I think the best thing they do (other than inculcate the occasional "good" message) is to provide a comforting and familiar drone to fall back on in the intensely emotional times.