Catching Up

September 30, 2007

I haven’t posted in a spell, though I have thought about posting a few times. But, alas, blogging isn’t like sinning or gift giving, and so the thought doesn’t count. Here are three proto-posts that never got off the ground and will likely stall here in short form:

  1. The community college where I work has a mass email list that goes out to all staff and faculty. One office that uses this list more frequently than I would like is the department of student records. Every week or two they send out a message with no body, only a subject line and an attached file. The attachment is always entitled the same way:  “deceasedstudent.doc.” When you download the file, it opens to be the name of a newly dead student. The phrase afterwards is always: “Adjust your records accordingly.”
  2. We went out for brunch last Friday at a local apple-picking farm and cafe. The waitress learned that we recently moved here from out of state and decided to give us some touristy tips for the fall. She said we should drive up the Great River Road, which hugs the Mississippi. Apparently the fall foliage and sights of the river are lovely along this road. Then she said something that was like a square peg in a round hole, at least for me: “You would never think that the Mississippi would be beautiful.”
  3. Did you know that Robert Redford’s film The Legend of Bagger Vance is based on the Bhagavad Gita? The main character is a golf phenom named Rannulph Junuh (R. Junuh aka Arjuna) who was ruined by World War I. He returned from the European battlefields to Savannah, Georgia, a shell of his former self, took up the bottle, and seemed to have forgotten his “one true swing.” A mysterious caddy, Bagger Vance (aka Bhagavan aka Krishna) comes to his aid and restores his dharma as the born-to-golf man he is. Hare hare, Nicklaus Nicklaus, hare hare. Tiger, Tiger, hare hare.


September 19, 2007

The immensely influential humanist Edward Said wrote:

There is nothing mysterious or neutral about authority.  It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.  Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analyzed (Orientalism, p. 19-20, 1978).

Something to consider.  I’m currently teaching Sunday School class on the religions of the world; we have begun our study with Hinduism, a “religion” completely constructed by authority.  It is hard and not natural for us, but we are trying to analyze this.  Maybe by the end of the year we *might* be ready to do the same for our own dear Christianity.

Smallpox vaccinations

September 14, 2007

A couple of days ago, I had to go to the doctor for a routine check-up. The nurse and I determined that I had not had a tetanus shot since 1991, so she rolled up her sleeves, I lowered my pants, and I got it right in the behind. It’s good for ten years, which is to say, I am basically immune from lockjaw for a decade. The little things she injected me with are starting off their ten-year plan of defense against rusty nails and other mishaps.

While I was in the waiting room before the vaccination, I had been studying for my comps. I’m reading a book of essays by various anthropologists and ethnographers about the Huichol people of northwestern Mexico. Unlike many of their indigenous neighbors, the Huichol are famous for maintaining their cultural lifeways in the face of colonialism and the steamrolling external forces of assimilation. They are also famous for the peyote they eat as part of their ritual life. The so-called “Huichol trinity” is peyote, corn, and the deer.

Smallpox, known as etsá in Huichol, was a terrible assassin throughout the Americas in the years after the arrival of the Spaniard colonizers. One of the reasons for the Huichols’ amazing cultural resilience is that they were less affected than some by smallpox because their native medicine discovered vaccination. Allow me to quote at length an essay by Armando Casillas Romo, MD, who did a study of the various diseases and remedies known to the Huichol:

…the dreaded smallpox. The people of San Andrés Cohamiata say that no one in this area has had this disease for a long time, as long as fifty years.

The extraordinary thing is that to ward off this scourge in the absence of medical help from the outside, Huichol shamans developed their own technique of immunization. We were told that the mara’akáte (pl. of mara’akáme) would use the thorns of the plant known as huizache, a thorny shrub found over much of Mexico, to pierce the skin eruptions of people already suffering from smallpox and extract the liquid from them. With the permission of the parents, they would then inoculate the arms of healthy children with this liquid. The cure also involved the same “confessions” rite as that prescribed for rubella.

Several Huichols told us that etsá disappeared from their community thanks to a famous mara’akáme named Carrillo, who died several decades ago. It is said that to “cover up”–that is, calm–the disease he made a pilgrimage to Haixáripá, a sacred place on the slopes of Popocatépetl, the great snow-covered dormant volcano near Mexico City, where Huichol mythology says smallpox made its first appearance. His efforts were successful and small pox never again bothered the people of San Andrés.

All this has left me a little interested in the history of tetanus in our own world. I got a shot without clear understanding of what tetanus even is, why the shot lasts only ten years, and who discovered the inoculation. I also am clear that I have confidence in the shot without any confession or pilgrimage narrative as supplemental community participation in my wellness. So, my vaccination was effective but also socially impoverished.

Since moving to the greater St. Louis area, we have been doing our best to feel at home, starting with the unique foods and drink that the region has to offer.

Number one on my list of good St. Louis food is an appetizer called “toasted ravioli.” You take a beef ravioli, bread it, fry it, sprinkle parmesan cheese on it, dip it in marinara sauce, and eat. I like ravioli anyway, but this is really good.

Next on my list is a cheap cut of meat called the “pork steak.” It’s like a big, yummy pork chop, but always prepared on the barbecue with lots of sweet, tomato-based, barbecue sauce. There’s a place about a mile from our house called “Big Mama’s BBQ” where the pork steak is so big, you absolutely must take at least half of it home for lunch the next day. I’ve made it very successfully at home on a low fire grill with lots of basting. I normally grill very hot on a fast grill and only baste at the end, if at all. But low heat and lots of sauce is the way to go with pork steak.

Finally, a Belleville, Illinois, original. We live in Belleville, the birthplace of a special beverage called “Stag” beer. It’s an American lager, light and full of rice, but also a little sweeter and fuller than those other American brews. With virtually no finish, it is a great beer for drinking when you are hot and thirsty. No longer brewed in its hometown, Stag is now owned by Pabst up in Wisconsin.

Not a bad way to get acquainted with a new place!

One or Many

September 4, 2007

In the Intro. to Philosophy class I’m teaching, we’ve been covering the pre-Socratics.  Starting with Thales and moving on up to Democritus, these ancient people were fascinated by the fabric of being.  Many of them were quite clear that all things were made of some specific substance or other:  for Thales all things could be reduced to water, for Anaximenes it was air, Pythagoras saw numbers in everything, and for Heraclitus, perhaps fire was the base of all.

Others doubted this oneness.  Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus thought the universe to be far more fractured in essence, and more process-oriented.

Last Thursday I polled the class to find out how many of them were modern-day monists and how many accepted the other side of the debate, that being is in no sense unified in one reductive substance.  30% monists, 70% pluralists.  The pluralists cited mythic “science” as the reason for their notion that our being is made of discrete and differentiated motes.  The few monists foresaw Aristotle (he’s next week) and named the necessity of some sort of unifying first cause that was also the stuff of existence.

How about you?  Do you think the universe is made up of one thing or many?  Why?

IRFD: Saints edition

September 2, 2007


Today is International Rock-Flipping Day! I’m looking forward to seeing all the great photos people take of things and creatures found under rocks. I also know that there are a lot of smart folks out there who know considerable and wonderful things about bugs and other under-rock denizens. I thought I’d try to tailor my participation in IRFD to my own particular area of interest: Catholic saints and the protections they offer.

In a few days, September 7, will be the feast day of Saint Gratus of Aosta. Gratus is said to have been born in Greece but later relocated to Aosta in the Italian Alps. Around the middle of the 5th century he became the bishop of that region and died of natural causes later that century, not necessarily the best way to go if you’re planning on sainthood. As with many saints, a popular devotion to him developed much after his death; in Gratus’s case, his cult really got rolling in the 12th and 13th centuries. This included using his relics as powerful talismans against certain natural events including storms, floods, droughts–and of particular interest for IRFD–a plague of insects.

Not all of us are as intrepid about the monsters-in-miniature that we might find under our rocks. But take heart! Saint Gratus of Aosta is the patron saint against the fear of insects!

The rocks we flipped are arranged in circular pattern in the garden behind our house. The rocks themselves are angular and thick with fossils and crystals and are certainly not naturally-occurring in this precise spot. They were put here by the devout previous owners of our home, Catholics given to statuary. In fact, in the center of this center of stones was a large cement pedestal upon which stood the BVM, her hand raised in benediction on the hostas, roses, and other ground-cover that grew here. When they moved out, they took Mary with them and pushed the pedestal off to one side thus leaving a circle of stones with a palpable absence of holiness and presence in the center.


Protestants, we planted a hill of jack-o-lantern pumpkins in the circle, and now in September, large vines and leaves are beginning to brown around the big, orange pumpkins. I imagine that the etched face of St. Gratus is one of all the souls hovering right below the surface skin of the pumpkins, waiting to be revealed on Halloween. Gratus, according to legend, went to the Holy Land after receiving a vision that he should do so. When there, he discovered the head of John the Baptist in Herod’s decaying palace. He carried the head to Rome to present it to the Holy Father, but the head had apparently not improved with age. It fell to pieces, and Gratus was left holding the jawbone. My desire is that Gratus wield the prophet’s jaw, the jaw which ground many locusts in sweet honey, and bless our encounter. May the fear of insects be made holy among us and under our rocks, may the Gratus-o-lanterns of our garden look upon us with benevolence and subtle warning, and may all of you be blessed again and again.

Gratus was with us as we flipped our rocks. We found only veiny roots, dirt and a couple of roly-poly relics, rolled tightly in their own chitin reliquaries.



Happy International Rock-Flipping Day to all!

Update: Dave Bonta, convener of this event, has compiled a list of participants with their blogposts. Check ’em out!