The Annals of America

annals of america

In this era of Wikipedia, it’s hard to imagine a time when we relied on bulky multi-volume printed encyclopedias to get our information. When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me a set of World Book encyclopedias, and that set got me all the way through high school. Then when I was out of school, I fell prey to a shifty hardselling salesman who conned me into buying an overpriced set of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Except it didn’t happen that way at all. There simply came a time when I missed my World Book, and wanted to update my library, so I called the salesman, not the other way around. He came to my apartment and sold me a handsome set of the 1985 15th edition Encyclopædia Britannica. The covers were padded and beautiful. It felt nice just to hold them, and reading them was even better. Yes, they were expensive, but I didn’t consider them overpriced. Over the years, I more than got my money’s worth out of those books.

Additionally, the encyclopedias came with a perk: a 20-volume set of collected period documents called The Annals of America. This awesome set of hardcover history books covered American history from Christopher Columbus through Gerald Ford. It was prepared in time for the 1976 American Bicentennial. I never made it through the entire set, but I read several of the volumes cover to cover, and bounced around plenty in the remainder. It was a valuable resource and again I more than got my money’s worth.

My last attempt to get through all 20 volumes in chronological order (I’m anal that way) came just after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was feeling patriotic, and thought there was never a better time to read about American history in depth. I started over at the very beginning. I wasn’t working at the time except for a part-time position, so I had lots of time to read, doing much of it while laying out by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The historic location only added to my feeling of intense patriotism. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a halt to all air travel. There were armed guards at government buildings. There was an odd feeling in the air. And there I was, getting my suntan and reading these hefty books.

Sadly and stupidly, I somehow got sidetracked and abandoned my project of reading The Annals of America straight through. Even more stupidly, my wife and I moved away from Cambridge, a town we loved, a couple years later. Then money grew tight and I had to sell several possessions which I now wish I had back. Included in that number was my beloved set of Encyclopædia Britannica and also The Annals of America. I hope whoever has them now is getting a lot out of them. I hope they are being read and loved, not gathering dust on a forgotten shelf.

 

Critiquing Myself

It’s very easy to criticize, to point the finger, to be the armchair quarterback. When I read an essay or article, there’s a little part of my brain that always wants to be an editor, finding fault with the author’s phrasing or choice of words, spotting typos, and suggesting improvements. Today I thought I’d do a bit of that with my own writing. One of my recent blog posts had a simple message: Don’t blindly follow whatever religion you are hand by your parents, society, or anybody else. I fleshed that out with 300+ words, and in the end, I wasn’t very happy with it. So let’s put on our editor hats!

These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.”

The first problem is that in an essay in which clarity of meaning is a theme, I don’t do a good job of distinguishing what I mean by “faith” and “religion.” Then I somewhat inappropriately drag Paul Tillich into it. To compound my error, I make a crack about Kim Kardashian that sounds clever but makes no sense.

Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? … What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

Too many rhetorical questions!

I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty.

I probably should have left politics out of the discussion. That’s just opening a can of worms that needn’t  be opened in this context.

We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed.

The repetition might work in a speech, but it flops in print.

Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

At the conclusion of my post, I wanted to add, “Make sure the ground of your being isn’t shifting sand.” I thought that line tied in neatly with the Tillich quote at the top. Wisely, I opted against doing so; it was a cute line, but only confused what I was trying to say. As Stephen King says in his excellent book, On Writing, “You must kill your babies.” If a sentence doesn’t fit, throw it out, even if it’s your favorite.

 

 

The Persistence of Peanuts

I am a big fan of the comic strip Peanuts. I had dozens of the little paperback collections when I was a kid. There was a rather dense book of theology that I found in my grandpa’s store called The Parables of Peanuts (by Robert L. Short), and it featured many reprints of the cartoons. I could have just looked at the cartoons and skipped the text, but I have never been able to cheat my way through a book. I am a cover-to-cover reader, including the acknowledgements and all the other dull beginning and end bits. (Okay, I do sometimes make exceptions when it comes to academic works with massive numbers of citations.) When my grandparents gifted me a copy of The Parables of Peanuts, I insisted on reading the text that went along with the cartoons, even though I was far too young to understand it. There I was in grade school, reading about Kierkegaard, Barth, and others, not really absorbing what I was reading, but enjoying it nevertheless.

Maybe that was the start of my love of theology. Linus was my favorite Peanuts character by a wide margin, and he was unquestionably the theologian of the gang. Who can forget Linus reciting the Christmas story from Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas? I always thought of myself as a bit of a Linus. The philosopher. The good student. The nerd. The eccentric who carried a security blanket and believed in the Great Pumpkin.

In recent years, I checked out and read every volume of The Complete Peanuts (by Fantagraphics Books) from the library. (I’d love to own the whole set except [a] It would cost a lot of money and [b] I have no place to put all 26 volumes.) From Snoopy I learned about the Red Baron. From Linus I first heard the words “sincere” and “hypocritical.” Because of Schroeder I know December 16th is Beethoven’s birthday. I know the meaning of “pantophobia” and what a “fussbudget” is because of Lucy. I feel Charlie Brown’s pain, and agree with him that the laughter of children can be the cruelest sound on earth.

A year or two ago, I reread my old copy of The Parables of Peanuts. Kierkegaard still confuses me. Maybe I’ll never know as much about theology or philosophy as Linus.  But Linus, like all the Peanuts characters, had his own problems. He never saw the Great Pumpkin, and could never give up his security blanket. Miss Othmar was always beyond his reach. Lucy never won Schroeder’s love.  Snoopy never caught the Red Baron. And Charlie brown never kicked the football before Lucy yanked it away from him. But they all kept trying. I like to think they are still trying.

The Pressure’s On…Or Off

One of the hardest things for me when it comes to writing is just getting myself to sit down and do it. No. Wrong. It’s not “one of the hardest things”; it is far and away the hardest thing. But here’s the funny part (funny strange or funny ha-ha?): I love sitting down to write in my journal. In that situation there is no pressure; it’s just me writing for myself and my own enjoyment. As soon as I put an audience into the equation, it becomes a chore. I feel the pressure of performing.

There is an additional demotivating aspect to writing these blog posts. Ironically, it is the fear that no one will read them. Wait…WHAT?? I just said I enjoy writing in my journal because that writing is for me and no one else, but it’s demotivating to write blog posts because I fear no one will read them? Yes.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Journals are supposed to be private. (As an aside: What’s the difference between a journal and a diary?) If no one reads my journal, then all is as expected. But a blog is for public consumption. If no one reads my blog posts, it feels like I have failed. The journal has met expectations; the blog has not.

YouTube boasts that over 400 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. There are over 600 million blogs on the web. According to Forbes, “There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerating…” (Bernard Marr, May 21, 2018). It’s unreasonable for me to expect anyone to find and read my little blog posts, and yet a few people do. And some people are able to make a good living by vlogging and/or blogging.

So maybe that’s the problem—the ol’ comparing myself to other people mistake (and it’s almost always a mistake). I would love to reach a wider audience with my blog, but that won’t happen unless I write and post consistently, constantly improving my writing and posting skills. It’s okay to have a desire to be heard, and it’s okay to be aware of what others online are saying. It might also be healthy to bring some of the joy of journalling to the table, though.

Vlogging and Blogging

I’ve been doing VEDA (Video Every Day in April) this year. I was going to do it last year, but didn’t get around to it. I almost didn’t do it again this year, and in fact got a late start, so I changed my personal challenge from VEDA to 30VI30D: “30 Videos In 30 Days.” I know very little about VEDA’s origins (and frankly, I haven’t spent too much time researching it) other than a wee bit of info here. A Reddit from 5 years ago implies that even back then, VEDA might already have been passé. C’est la vie. I’m doing it anyway.

I’m mainly using it as a chance to practice recording myself talking into a camera, the camera in my case being an Android. Pretty low-tech, I admit, but it’s still an interesting learning experience. One thing I’m learning is that I say “um” and “uh” and “yeah” too much. I think my speech habits have declined in recent years and I’m not happy about it. I can do better. Seeing myself in in the short video clips I’ve been making is a humbling experience. In my head, I look fabulous and speak smoothly and mellifluously. Every word is a pearl of wisdom. In reality, I look old and overweight, I puff when I record myself while walking, I tend to babble (although not as incoherently as our so-called president); and then there are all those “ums” and “uhs” and “yeahs.”

Similarly, these blog posts are largely a chance for me to practice churning out small pieces of writing on a semi-regular basis. Reading back over them is another humbling experience, but every writer gives the same advice to would-be writers: “Write!” so I’m writing. I’m also practicing my typing, which is another skill where I feel I fall short. I prefer to write with a pencil and paper, but then there’s the problem of transferring what’s on paper to the computer. I suppose I could simply scan my notebook pages, but my handwriting, while perfectly legible to me, might be difficult for other people to decipher.

So there you have it—a brief note on why I vlog and blog. If anyone wants some helpful hints from a highly successful vlogger, check out these videos from Hank Green:

Standing Ovations and Undeserved Praise

I made my stage debut in The King and I as one of the Siamese children. (Yes, I am white, as were most of the other kids in our production. Yes, they literally dipped us head to toe in stage makeup to make faux Asians out of us. Yes, this would be unacceptable today. That’s a topic for another day.) I was in 6th grade. When we did the curtain call on opening night, the audience gave us a standing ovation. That was in the mid-1970s, when such an ovation still meant something. Now a standing ovation is practically obligatory at every show, regardless of the quality of the performance. The gesture has become meaningless as anything other than a polite matter of course.

But that first standing ovation felt awesome! All these years later, it still stands out as a great moment in my life. Aside from being the first time I experienced the thrill of the stage, it was meaningful because it was deserved. My role was a tiny one, but I knew that even though this was just a high school production, it was a very good one. I have been involved with shows since then that also received standing ovations, but ones which were in no way deserved. They felt phony.

When I was a kid, my parents praised me to the skies, even when I didn’t deserve it. I was a pretty good young musician, but not the best in school, and certainly not the best on a statewide or even citywide level. If I lost a battle for first chair in the band, or didn’t get top score on a solo, my parents acted as if I had been cheated. I wasn’t cheated; I simply wasn’t as good as the competition, and I knew it. To be told otherwise felt like a lie, even if it was well-intentioned. The praise my parents offered was meant as support, but again, it felt phony.

There is a big difference between “You ARE the best!” and “You can BECOME the best.” The latter is helpful; the former is not. When a student (in music, sports, or anything else) hears “You are the best,” the message is “You needn’t bother trying harder; the world has to come around to you.” This is unfair to the student and also casts a negative shadow over the world for not recognizing talent. It would have been much healthier for me to hear a lot more of “You can become the best” while growing up. There the message is, “You are not the best yet, as you are well aware, but the potential is there if you work at it.”

Being told I was the best when objectively and obviously I was not led to a distrust of compliments. It also implied that I was already as good as I could ever hope to be, and since I knew others were better, it led to a feeling of hopeless inferiority. I don’t mean to bash my parents, and I also don’t claim that this is always the case. I just wish I had figured all this out a lot sooner.

Religion: Who Cares?

3 religious books - YouTube thumbnail

In my last blog post, I talked about how little thought people actually put into their religion, even as those same people claim religion is the most important thing in their lives. A recent article in The Christian Century confirms this problem in a longitudinal study of emerging adults and their beliefs. (Seven Spiritual Beliefs of Young Adults) What emerges from the study is that those studied have the sense that they can trust their own instincts about religion, morality, and spirituality without giving the matter any real thought.

I can’t help but see this same trust in personal instinct in the way Mr. Trump approaches…well, everything. He believes his own gut feelings have more validity than the word of experts in any given field. We see this clearly in his daily COVID-19 briefings. The current tendency to dismiss expert advice is not limited to Trump. Is this prioritizing of one’s own inner sense over evidence and expert testimony a symptom of our culture’s longtime conviction of American exceptionalism? Or is it a recent phenomenon?

With regard to emerging adults and their relation to religion, the fact that they trust their own instinct to form a personal belief system may be a sign of the fading importance of religion. As the article states, “[A]ttaining religious knowledge is no different from learning other things: it takes an explicit effort.” If people are unwilling to put in that effort, the result is an uninformed belief system. In a country that consistently gives privileged status to religion, we either need to take the time to formulate intelligent decisions about religion, or acknowledge that religion isn’t that important after all and take away its position of privilege.