Every Saturday I look forward to working out: not because the joys of the BowFlex are thrilling, but because I love the dull repetition of cable TV Law & Order reruns that are on from 5am till midday.
Every Saturday I also look forward to going to church on Sunday and being part of services that are as unchanged as are each of the hundreds of Law & Order episodes I grind away to (sometimes while I write) (this piece, for example) (these golden offerings are rendered during the in-prison murder arranged by a guard episode) (he gets off).
But more, the Law & Order I watch is the original, vintage: just humans doing bad, and good – no affected overlays of personalities and premises of the zillions of the series’ spin-offs. I know each ending upon watching the beginning, always framed by crime scene and verdict: it is a rigid 52 minute dramatic straightjacket of common characters and infinite evolutions within the straight jacket.
The church services I love the most, in an autonomic devotion at the first words spoken, are from the 16th century: the Original Series of Episcopal services: Rite 1. They have the same beginning, middle and end. I know them like my 35 year old tweed jacket, inside and out, and the love grows each time I put it on.
The gut connect to repeated sounds and stories are not just the comfort tools of parents for the crying child, they are the engrained associations of sights and sounds to the things we do. I do not particularly like baseball – but I love listening to Yankees games on the radio: specifically the artisanally homer announcers- who repeat calls of homers and outs and innings and beginnings and endings of games with ritualistic consistency that soothes my savage brow into sleep – or mowing the lawn with a small amount of patience.
Similarly, I am incapable of planting annuals in the 20-plus garden attempts at my home: the idea of spending any time without investment seems silly. So perennials are the way for 30 years. (Except for pachysandra – too easy – it’s giving up, like wearing sweat pants.)
If I was under 40 I would stream and download the weekend cable TV episodes off some web provider and watch them every day, pre-sorted to eliminate the undesirables. But that would be insanely boring: having watched each episode scores of time, watching them 3.5 times as often would take a lite obsession into compulsive binging. Besides waiting to see which episode follows another is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: I know they are chocolates there but each one is a (very small) surprise.
If I wanted to be thrilled and surprised by the presentation of the Prayer Book I would simply go to a different church every Sunday, swapping denominations, settings, music and words every week.
But I am deeply delighted to be married for 37 years and counting: a lifetime of momentary thrills in a change for change sake ethic is for rush junkies: therefore No Annuals.
Am I boring? Probably. Am I the future of the Episcopal Church? Absolutely not: but should all the perennials, the original Law and Order of the Prayer book be part of the Episcopal Church? It will not live through this arid secularity without roots. The future of any devotion that sustains connects with breadth as well as spark: first dates can be electric, but lifelong happy marriages share more than electricity.
We are becoming a binary place: Red/Blue: dueling Inauguration attendance reporting wars, inverse interpretations of same facts – not unusual for America, especially in the InterWebNet Age. We have “our” teams rather than enjoy the sport. Church is becoming lamer by the minute in the northeast as inverse interpretations of meaning become our cultural priorities: soccer practice, brunch, and planting annuals offer deeply compelling distractions.
I think very few of us watch the 5am episodes of the artisanal original Law & Order series. Probably fewer every ratings period. That programming is not the future of cable TV. But Shakespeare is not the future of theater. Emily Dickinson is not the future of poetry, Bach is not the future of music.
But music, poetry and theater are lessened when what they are is edited to that loved in any given moment.
There is joy in looking at my week and knowing, knowing, what happens on Sunday – a thing I have had in my life for over 60 years. Rite 1 services, especially Morning Prayer, are time capsules, just like those perennials, and those old Law & Order episodes. Beyond what they are in the moment they embody the entire history from origin to the moment you experience them, once again, – it adds a lustre no marketing or newness can simulate.
I could be sleeping (if I could sleep) instead of working out every early AM. On weekends I could watch MSNBC like every weekday morning that I crank away on the recumbent bike: but living only in the moment loses something: something that is unavoidable. What made us.
Law & Order episodes have been at the periphery of my life for 25 years, Morning Prayer is a recurring beat in the baseline of 61 years dancing to what life is at any given week. I cannot avoid their reality in who I am, so I embrace them.
I did not choose to believe in God. Part of me thinks everything would be easier if I could just plant annuals. But God was planted in me, He is perennial, I cannot avoid Him, no matter what the distraction. I guess the means of planting are pretty Mid-Century; suburban low church episcopalian ritual, but it’s now woven into my genome.
As Joni Mitchell warbled “You don’t miss what you’ve got till it’s gone.” The canary in the cave is Morning Prayer, Rite 1 just beyond, and further away the Episcopal Church as I knew it may succumb to the vapors of indifference, irrelevance, and the easy rejection of its assumed lameness in the effort to compete with brunch.
“Nothing focuses attention like the hangman’s noose.” And some in the Episcopal church think Rite 1 and especially Morning Prayer are toxic poison pills forcing people out of pews and into their gardens. But rejection is just the easiest form of change.
The binary of exclusive win-lose dooms each side to temporary victories that are only good for the victor in the death match. If nothing of “the other” is acceptable, any validity in the “the other” is summarily dismissed. Hillary must be locked up. Trump must be impeached – now. In the death match between legacy and relevance for all things cultural I think there is greater relevancy when legacy is celebrated amid the flow of moment. Either/or picks a side and rejects another, stuff dies: but in a both/and mindset much is sustained.
Beauty is undeniable in all forms because we do not choose to be moved by beauty: it simply moves us. Annuals are beautiful: I love them: in other people’s gardens. I am going to hear Keith Jarret play music at Carnegie Hall in 2 weeks that has never been heard until he touches the keys that night. Assuming that 16th century language and 17th century music is toxic may be true for more people than ever, but no one can honestly say there is no beauty there…
….Oh, wait, it’s the episode with the adopted kid in the family that owns the leather coat shop that murders his grandfather…gotta go.
Humans need meaning.
It’s not enough to eat, sleep, procreate and lay in the sun.
For some reason we need connection. There has always been the ecstatic override of sex, but that sustains few (despite the Internet). Celebrity obsession, video gaming, binge watching are not connection, they, like almost all things Internet, are distraction.
But it used to be easier. We had more answers because we had less understanding of what we did not know. When ignorance was as overwhelming as the Internet is now humans needed that extra edge beyond existence to understanding. Of course religion was the cheat sheet to what meant what but not knowing also drove science. Connecting to a Great Truth seems as necessary as the eat/sleep/sex baseline.
Connection can simply be transferred to identity: a great family can be something to live up to. No matter the country, being a patriot can offer an entire set of values and beliefs. When patriotism becomes partisan, politics animates identity to the point where Red and Blue are obsessional. But this particular season has a radicalized connection that has spiraled into recrimination and hate beyond most.
The radicalization is not just about Leader Trump or Obamacare or immigration: the level of loathing for one another becomes a connection between loathers. That connection finds a fertile ground as science began to explode the universal fact solvent of God’s will. Cancer was a lot of malevolent maladies, not judgment. The moon was not a pizza pie.
But even the extreme progress of science has not answered enough questions to create surety and connection. Our knowledge of everything is less settled than when the Bible outlined a 6 Day Creation Program. Things like “Dark Energy” seem like a fudge and Global Warming became Climate Change and God was not found in the Higgs Boson particle.
Absent easy answer religion or science, humans need tribes more than ever.
Specifically in this last election The Scarlet “T” makes enemies of friends who attempt to “normalize” what is believed to be evil by those who find connection in opposition to him.
Clearly, politics becomes religious when the word “evil” is ascribed to candidates. I think Hitler was evil (duh), Pol Pot is up there, and Stalin deserves a nod, despite killing the other evil in Berlin.
But this is where we are: a YouGov poll during the election had these results: “Asked which, if either, of the two candidates they would describe as “evil,” 42% of registered voters said Clinton, while 35% said Donald Trump.”
Looking at humans as evil dehumanizes them. But for all his orange freakishness, Donald Trump is a human. But when Faith ebbs in something more important than any human, the humans that we focus upon take on extreme importance.
Absent Faith, Fear rules: The 1% who wreck everyone else’s lives are in control unless we stop it. “Miserables” “cling to their guns and religion”. “Elites” are wrecking the America we want to be “great again.” Territory is marked: ideologically and aesthetically. The map is not demographic, it becomes faith-based. We become tribes.
Tribes need colors.
But rather than symbolic, these colors are deeply meaningful to their believers – pro and con of any given tribe
The need to connect beyond yourself easily becomes hatred and demonization when we are unsure of the future, when there is insufficient faith to trust in anything but ourselves. We need to believe in something more that eating, sleeping, sex and laying in the sun – and if the facts are incomplete and religion is irrelevant, there is much to fear. When we are threatened we tend to find others who we can bond with, we get tribal.
That tribing is often easily defined by superficial aspects – skinheads, Goths in Black, but often in the simple application of color: Irish Catholic Green/Protestant Orange, the Red Cross of the Crusades, “The Reds”, “Code Pink”, “Black Ops”, “Red White & Blue” and, of course, Blue and Red of The Map.
I say this as a crypto-Puritan, who essentially worships work (while God never stops telling me it’s trivial). I commingle mission and earning a living with an architecture practice and a writing sidebar that is awash in beliefs. I know on one level its folly to find validation in the next commission or 3,000 hit web piece, but I do anyway. Like some who thought Trump winning validated their perspective.
The instinct to rely on the here and now to offer comfort to who we are is immune to faith – in me at least. I was giddy when, in 1980, writer Tom Wolf derogatorily declared the obsessional focus of my architectural education: The Modern Movement/International Style as “The Whites”.
But these distillations are inherently unsustaining: I love Modernist architecture (tho I loath the arrogance it spawns and imposes). But it was fun name-calling.
Trump is from the shallowest part of American culture, but I do not believe he is evil. The easy intensity of our desire to control is what made humans the dominant species, but it also causes our collective hopelessness if our lives are led only in fear.
It feels good to be part of something bigger than ourselves: but its just a distraction unless we believe in something beyond the here and now. Cosmetics do not offer meaning beyond the Kardashians. The rush of empowering connection in wearing our colors gives humans at football games and marches on Washington a temporary strength of commonality. Public declaration is what makes us a magically connected tribe: until the game ends, the march is over, and when, and it will happen, I promise, Trump leaves office.
But in the time until he leaves, if belief in Trump or hatred for Trump is at the center of our lives, we lose part of ourselves. In the near term I believe in the Constitution. Beyond that I have faith beyond this moment…
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Before & After
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Time is measured. Time is memory. Time can evaporate.
So it was last night.
After being told that I need not present at an Architectural Review Board hearing for a small renovation of a fallen church into a 2 family in habitation of its husk, I was summoned anyway. I was not happy.
It was in northern Westchester, 90 minutes away. We were doing almost nothing to the exterior – why was I needed? And the meeting began at 8pm.
Of course, I went.
The place for the meeting was an old home converted to town use, I vaguely knew where it was, but still had to find it – traversing up and down a dark street, until I found a tiny street number to contradict my phone’s map app that said I was 700ft away from it.
I, as usual, was early and sat in the car. For a while. The house/office was dark. Then 10 minutes before the meeting a car drives up. I enter. There were only 3 chairs: 2 members were on vacation. Meaning we needed unanimous consent: not really an issue.
The other members toddled in. All started at 7:59. No one but the board and this project in the room. We were it on the agenda.
My cursory presentation was nicely met. But, after a pause, the far left member said: “This architect did the group home at the parish hall.” (The picture at the top of this piece)
30 years evaporated.
I had been in that room before. 30 years ago.
The member noted “that was a great improvement – you did a good job.” The other 2 members of this board of volunteers – also coming in from the far reaches of a multiple hamlet “town” nodded their heads.
Then the member who noted my presence 30 years ago said “a book you wrote had something like this in it” (referring to the project at hand.)
Another time evaporation.
Before me sat a distinguished gray man, perhaps 70. But at his words he became a classic 1987 handsome business man. Sitting, then, as now, far left. He noted at the 30-year-ago meeting “I liked your book”
He was referring then to:
I was transported to seeing a brown haired suit-wearing executive, and I was a 31 year old, with no children, contemplating my own office, unsure of much, but happy to have the job I was presenting (as I was this night).
30 years ago I had to find this same house, stand in this same room, talk to this same man about my work, and my writing, but this time it was this writing:
In those intervening years, I had gained about 80 pounds, lost them, wrote 7 more books, designed about 500 built things, added onto the house on the cover of the book, then added a barn, had 2 boys with my wife – and those boys who went all the way thru school, college, grad school, and now jobs as men.
Thousands of events, millions of moments – hundreds of events of moment: all left the room in an instant.
My rememberer and I were reliving an instant that was not déjà vu as it was in real time, corporially present, but we had short-circuited the march with memory.
We had broken the cascade of decades to crack open a sedimentary layer long buried under experiences, images, people and memories. We time travelled.
Architects hope their buildings defeat time – and death. Writers long to have their work reach beyond limits of distance and time (and death). Given that we know everything on the internet will be cohosting the Apocalypse with the cockroaches, and everything built and written is somewhere on the web, immortality (of a sort) is now a given.
But as humans we want significance beyond our lives: we want to have impact. We want more than observance of the flow – we want to swim in it, or maybe redirect it. But that is not a right – or even earned, or a privilege. It happens when things we do not control impact things we do.
That happened last night.
Not much, but something. Something.
I am 61 years old. The last time I took a meaningful test was when I took, and passed, the last 2 (of 5) days of licensing exams to become an architect in 1982, 35 years ago. But 20 years of testing from grammar school through licensing exams infected me with a disease so deep it’s unseen, unfelt and without consequence. Unless I am asleep.
By any objective estimate, I have lived a blessed life. I may have worked hard, but I have been given every advantage by circumstances I did not control, and any talents I might have were simply honed, not created by me.
I have a faithful life partner of 36 years and we love each other. I have 2 diligent, honorable, accomplished and drug-free children – who have survived to adulthood with no diseases or calamities – just as my wife and I did and have.
I am a white male with a semi-graduate degree from a semi-Ivy League school – any problems I might have are poster children for “check your privilege”/First World annoyances in a life of unending mercies and Grace that I did not and do not merit, achieve or earn.
I earned none of this. I have been given everything. I am blessed by God – I know that like I know my bald spot grows with each evidence-producing shower. I am fat, though less so. I deeply enjoy the gourmandy things too much: food, brown alcohol, animal fats. I can be the loud-mouthed, ego-projecting profane guy you just want to shut up. I know all these things.
But there are some things I simply do not understand, and maybe never will. I do have a very specific form of brain damage. I am afflicted, most nights, with “night terrors”. Nightmares are the only dreams I have (or remember). They are universally about my incapacities: a bad thing happens because I screwed up.
But the worst of these afflicts almost everyone I know: The Academic Terror Dream. You pass by a friend, now or 45 years ago and they casually say: “Are you ready for the test?” Or you see a sheet on a bulletin board and it gives the notice of an exam. You have not been to the class in months, or ever. This brain damage clearly happened before the InterNetWebs as my terror never begins with an email or tweet or Facebook post.
I actually knew people who experienced this exact scenario in college. I failed 2 courses while overloading to get out a semester early. These things happened, I witnessed or lived them, no one died, nothing went off the rails into oblivion. I was actually, mostly, a good student, and tested very well, unless asleep – and yet there is no terror greater in my life than these dreams.
In The Academic Terror Dream drama once I am made aware of the impending exam, I specifically eschew studying, I procrastinate, I try to do anything that avoids dealing with this deadline. I have even told myself, in mid-nightmare, that I am dreaming: it does not matter. I prevaricate, I dawdle, I lose control, completely.
I am terrified. I am usually in motion, making my way, clueless to the test. I can be naked. I can be 18. I can be inside, outside, in space – but I am terrified because I am alone, have failed to address something threatening me over a long period of time, failed with no reason or excuse: I failed. I failed. I failed:
But I always wake up before I sit down and fail the test
When these dreams happen, as they did but 1 hour ago, I awake with a soaked pillow and deeply shaken, and I cannot shake the terror. It abides, often for hours.
Why? There is a clue. Have you noticed how much “I” is used in this recap?
When you think you create everything, as my brain did and does with these night terrors, it voids the Grace that blesses me every day. There is no faith in anything if that faith is in our ability to control.
Newsflash: we control nothing. If we could control anything we could control our grief when love dies (emotion or corporially manifest). If we could we would control unreasonable realities like getting cancer or having a child you cannot understand.
We control the tiny things: right now I am doing the 61 year old version of working out to forestall an earlier death. I will go to work today, and 6 or 7 days a week for 10-14 hours for 51 weeks a year as I have for 40 years and push to create things that increase beauty and leverage money to live on. But those vanish when things no one controls control you.
The Academic Terror Dream is completely terrifying because it screams that you are actually out of control, 24/7/365, and that lack of control is The Worst Thing Ever. Until you wake up.
Unlike the graces I have been given, this visitation of the dark side is faithless, it is the distilled embodiment of an essential residue of ego that trusts in what I can do – versus gratitude and belief in the unmerited Grace my life is a testament to.
Unlike the “I get it” I utter when the unreasonably good thing happens, when this dream, inevitably, with no trigger, takes over my brain I am without solice, perspective, or the Grace that passes all understanding.
Because it’s all about me.
Duo is joined by guests to give context to the chaos of the holidays: LISTEN!!!
We stress because we are judged, judge others, confront greed in ourselves and in those we love, those we work for, those we are related to: we fall short, we are elated, we are disappointed, we fear, we fail: ITS THE HOLIDAYS. Its the time our childhoods never forget, its the stress parents never overcome, its all the memories made generations ago coming home to roost: ITS THE HOLIDAYS. How do our homes, how did our homes deal with this insane time of year: decorations, insane levels of cooking, eating, showing off, creating chaos and dealing with the crunch of cold that can split pipes and kill heating plants: ITS THE HOLIDAYS
Richard Mammana joined in studio for the full hour. He knows a great deal about the last few hundred years of cultural traditions in many unique and personal ways. Richard currently serves as ecumenical communications associate for the Episcopal Church, he graduated from the Yale Divinity School in 2012, founded Project Canterbury, his writing has been published widely and is the father of 2 young girls. He is the cousin of Clement Clarke Moore, author of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas.
We started out survivalists: With harvest in, Colonists hunkered down and hoped there would be enough: To tell us these stark realities we were joined on the phone by Henry Griggs who is the Municipal Historian for the Town of Madison and a Trustee of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, Henry is a direct descendant of Thomas Griggs, an early (c.1635) settler of Roxbury Massachusetts and a lapsed Congregationalist.
To wrap up our sweep of year-end stress and worship is Domestic Goddess Eva Geertz, a writer and bookseller who lives in her hometown of New Haven, CT, where she’s earned a local reputation for being contrary – who joined us by phone. She did, in fact, start to make her own yogurt this year, after thinking about doing so for 20 years. It’s good and easy. She still has not made ketchup or Smith Island Cake, though. She writes about life as she knows it, now and then, at thisoldhausfrau.com and a self-proclaimed “East Rock Matron”.