(And by retrospective, I mean it happened a while ago.)
I like maps. I had spent hours visually analyzing the selection of westward route choices — freeway? state highway? around the cities or through? risk? reward?
I left Maine in the morning. I climbed the Poconos/Adirondacks/Appalachians (and feel free to let me know which mountains I was actually crossing). I skirted the Great Lakes. Quick change, pizza, bed, and toaster waffles. I rolled over the grassy midwest, detoured north to close the door on a nagging old relationship and rescue my art, waffle iron, and Nintendo 64 from the gaping abyss of a six-month-old break up.
I (full disclosure) nibbled an Adderall and as the sun set, like a cowboy a thousand miles too far east, drove west. Rolling hills flattened out into infinite planes. Perhaps I’ll build a mathematical matrix to represent the great plains of South Dakota along I-90. The buffalo herd is at (103, 37), don’t kill too many or you won’t be able to carry them back to your wagon.
As fortuitously incidental, and thanks to a suggestion from what essentially turned out to be a flavor of the week, the Badlands rose around me as the sun rose from behind me.
Camera and tripod in hand, amphetamines in blood, and awe in heart and mind, I slowed my pace to absorb this strange, stolen glory.
I did not go out the way I came—avoiding cities, creativity and efficiency in route—in the North and out the South. Into the heart of Pine Ridge, the largest and most fundamentally heartbreaking and devastating open air human prison in my personal memory. The eighth largest reservation in the country, but I experienced it as eternal. Hidden by miles of barren lands and political gambits from the public eye and consciousness, I was in a world where the buffalo roamed free but the people were fenced in. Inversion, pen.
Entering Pine Ridge, I saw the land browner, surrounded by fences, geospatial politics delineating land appropriation and supremacy. Leaving Pine Ridge, I saw the grass grow taller and geologic formations more impressive. Public use land, preservation over reservation, imposed government over indigenous freedom. In and out, in and out, the boundaries increasingly clearer, then fences increasingly higher, or perhaps this was just my imagination, or my anger growing.
I move through a small town, which perhaps once thought it could attract tourists, but instead showcases only dilapidated pick-up trucks and run-down buildings.
The dirt road, as it has been dirt since leaving National Park boundaries, left my small town behind in a cloud of dry red dust and I, like every else, forgot and neglected her, leaving her to waste away as per socioeconomic hierarchies required.
My radio blared the Oglala Sioux tribal station, the only station I could get. As I moved between fences—free like a buffalo, penned in like the Sioux—what I can only describe as chanting and, unimaginatively, traditional music (honest or cliche?) accompanied me on my objectively stunning yet subjectively depressing drive.
I came to established farmland, to bigger, ostensibly wealthier small towns, to state highways, eventually to Wyoming, to gas stations offering “cowboy coffee” with a handwritten sign next to the hazelnut and French roast, eventually to cities and interstates and, short hours later, within view of my snow-capped Rockies. I followed the spine of the Continental Divide until I crossed into my little hamlet, South Dakota far behind me, as it so goes.
The first hilariously this-isn’t-me piece of junk mail arrived addressed to me, from a local-ish bank (who, incidentally, is represented for their PR by a former colleague — whoops). “Cheap” bank account? Credit card? What goodies did they have in store? Well, aside from an insert advertising a “free” $100 to open a financially-not-feasible checking account with them sometime in the next eight weeks, it included a letter beginning “Dear Audrey” and which continued “Congratulations on your upcoming wedding!” and went on to describe how many couples-to-be neglect to think about the combining of finances during the wedding planning and this bank was here to save the day! Hooray! Well, No Name Bank, not only am I very much not getting married, but if I were, the first thing I would do would be to think about finances and their combination, or not.
The next instance of Know Your Audience came with the second piece of junk mail I decided to open.
This plea for monetary support was addressed to my father, but reading the envelope which announced its intention to secure financial SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL on behalf of some foundation named after some old presumably Jewish guy, I just had to open it. I knew he wouldn’t care, but sorry anyway, U.S. Government. OopsFelony.
I can’t really describe the letter, except to say there were some embarrassing grammatical errors, so here’s what happened in visual re-enactments (I apologize for the wonky quality of these scans):
The third junk mail I opened was Obama campaign mail (what a lovely infographic they included on job growth) — free sticker! — and the fourth junk mail was actually not junk mail at all, but a notification telling my mom it was time to get her car serviced. So, mom, add it to the to-do list.
I realize, entirely, that the source of my impending complaint is my own fault:
Facing an empty afternoon, it seemed my best option was to do both of the daily crossword puzzles staring at me with x-ray vision from the back sections of their respective newspapers. One of the puzzles was the Monday New York Times puzzle; easy, certainly, but a respected and usually well-written puzzle. The other was the syndicated puzzle, tucked alongside the never-funny black and white single-pane comic, and a litany of other inanity.
I never like those no-name crossword puzzles. I find them of internally variable difficulty with inaccurate and/or unclever clue-answer pairs. I try to avoid them, opting for the erudite, sophisticated, snooty and elitist New York Times variation, but boredom inevitably got the better of me.
I regretted my choice immediately, but I am not one to quit a crossword in the middle. Yet so many of the clues were just not right for their answers: natural aptitude and instinct? Weather conditions and climate? Crazy and daft? They’re not wrong, per se, I just think they could have been better.
None of these bothered me as much as the four-word answer to the clue “pornography”: “smut.” Smut has such a negative connotation, and pornography is simply a thing that exists that some people have opinions about; it seemed a little harsh for the puzzle to be levying such harsh judgment on such a nominally innocent noun, when there are so many greater sins in the world.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines pornograph as: “an obscene writing or pictorial illustration.” (The OED in turn defines obscene as “Offensive to the senses, or to taste or refinement; disgusting, repulsive, filthy, foul, abominable, loathsome” and as “Offensive to modesty or decency; expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas; impure, indecent, lewd.” Yes, I have a bone to pick with the evolution of the English language: why is lust loathsome?)
Pornography is more specific, at least according to the OED: “Description of the life, manners, etc., of prostitutes and their patrons; hence, the expression or suggestion of obscene or unchaste subjects in literature or art.”
Pornography is, essentially, the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness, in particular (apparently) the sex industry. It seems to me that whether or not one finds that offensive to one’s taste and refinement is completely up to them.
Smut, on the other hand, when used as a noun is “a black mark or stain; a smudge,” or schmutz if Yiddish one-word definitions are to be employed. It is also a plant fungus, but that is not relevant. When used as a verb, the third definition of smut is “to make obscene” — not an overwhelmingly common usage. And reference to obscenity is not found until the fifth definition of the noun form of the word, as “indecent or obscene language,” which is hardly applicable to pornography as a whole, though there is surely an argument that the vocabulary of pornography is smut. (Perhaps an accurate crossword clue should have read “Pornographic words”.)
So is, as the questionable crossword puzzle would have us believe, pornography equivalent to smut? Is the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness a black smudge, end of story? Perhaps for some, but obviously there are millions of people who would not think “pornography” and, in a game of free association, next think “smut.”
This is the inherent weirdness of crossword puzzles: the answer always reads as a definition for the clue, and so much can be implied about society and culture by paying attention to these nuances. By using “pornography” as the clue for the answer “smut,” we see that someone is telling us to define pornography as smut. They could easily have used an innocuous phrase like “something distasteful,” or the definition, “sooty matter,” to clue the wanted answer “smut.” Instead, though, it became a judgment call, labeling the expression of lust as something to be wiped away with zealous vigor.
Tom Robbins apparently has the knack to succinctly and colorfully describe everything I find distasteful about controlling, patriarchal organized religions. Today’s quote:
“For those who would pray but not dance, fast but not feast, baptize but not splash, flog but not fuck, for those who would buy spirit but sell soul, crown Father but deceive Mother, those men found Herod’s Temple a threatening place at vernal equinox and under a harvest moon.”
(Skinny Legs and All, h/t Leah)
Punishment without celebration, male without female, obedience without thought. This phenomenon is a sad truth not unique to a specific time or place, painfully relevant both to ancient history and modern politics. Though the story here is lighthearted, the message is, undoubtedly, not.
I realized recently that, despite having inter-married parents, I knew pretty much nothing about Protestantism. Don’t tell my mom: she’ll be sad she didn’t teach us more about her own religious upbringing. My ignorance is also ironic considering almost the entirety of the US is Protestant. (Of course, there’s an argument to be made that because America is a Protestant country, our culture is innately Protestant itself and my understanding of Protestantism is vast because by being American I am pretty much a Protestant anyway.)
Up until a couple of years ago, I thought all versions of Protestantism were pretty much created equal. Southern Baptists were into fire-and-brimstone, mega-churches liked to proselytize, and the Unitarians loved everyone, but other than that, I thought all non-Catholic churches had one steeple (open the doors and see all the people), their attendees were repressed (like Bree on Desperate Housewives), and they scorned idolatry and decoration. I had visions of preachers who wore black and were stern and preached from a podium overhung by a gruesome wood carving of Christ bleeding on the cross, the agony on his dying face reflected in the faces of the congregation for their self-imposed constant suffering in the name of faith because somehow, someone has them convinced that God wants you to be miserable and forsake all earthly delights because that is how to get into heaven, and heaven obviously exists and the devil is everywhere. Protestantism was a religion of fear, misery, repression, and self-denial. My vision of Protestantism was obviously drawn by The Scarlet Letter and the Salem Witch Trials.
Inasmuch as I understood modern versions of Protestantism existed, I sort of thought for the most part they were bland, boring, dry versions of Catholicism. Not that Catholicism is so thrilling, but at least they have incense and candles and decorations. Catholic priests had collars and wore robes, and there were lots of candles and gold and stained glass adorning every cathedral I had ever seen. Catholics had beautiful architecture and saints. Catholics got to do things like take communion and get confirmed and go to confession. As far as I knew, Protestants didn’t do these things. Protestants went to their plain-looking churches and just prayed really really hard. Of course, Jews aren’t much into idolatry or decoration either, but in my mind Protestant churches were full of uncomfortable wooden pews, blank walls, gruesome renditions of Jesus, and threats of hellfire. Protestants didn’t have any of the pretty things Catholicism or Orthodoxy did; I thought of them as the ascetics of Christianity.
In a nutshell, I thought if Catholicism was gaudy and ostentatious, then Protestantism was depressing and ascetic. Every church I had seen confirmed this suspicion. Cathedrals are tourist destinations, exotic and beautiful and full of lovely, devotional artifacts. I never really went to Protestant churches. I pass by them all the time, but they don’t look as fascinating as the Catholic churches. There aren’t domes or apses or gargoyles. I went to church once when I was little, my cousins were in a Christmas pageant or something, but I don’t remember it being interesting; it probably looked like synagogue, so I thought it was boring and ugly. Once, in Jerusalem, I went into a German Presbyterian (I think) church in the old city. I mean, if you’re going to do church tourism, Jerusalem is a great place to do it. Though there was a lot of white, it was still full of right angles and austerity and German efficiency and plain-ness.
All of these notions about Christianity in general and Protestantism and Catholicism in particular are thanks to a lifetime of having mostly Jewish, lots of Catholic, but very few Protestant friends. Once I was older and had Protestant friends, I silently pitied them for their god-fearing, fun-less lives without actually asking them what Protestantism was about. Also, they weren’t really very religious, so it never came up. (Sorry, mom, I guess I could have asked you, too.) We learned the history in school, about the Reformation and Luther and Calvin, and about Henry VIII and his creation of the Anglican church, but honestly, that’s sort of where I thought significant deviation in Protestantism stopped, and I still thought they were the same except in name. Also Anglicanism doesn’t really count. So I continued along my path believing Protestantism to be uniform, stark, solemn, and intimidating.
But stereotypes are made to be broken. I’ve recently learned not all Protestants are WASPs and Protestantism is not a modern version of Puritanism. I’ve also learned not all Protestants believe the same thing. Realizing there might be a whole mysterious world out there which I knew nothing about, when presented with the opportunity and realizing I had never actually been to a real church service in my adult life (I went to an afternoon mass in high school once), I jumped.
Let me fill your head with a few more stereotypes: this is the upper Midwest. It is known for passive aggression and repressive niceness. Also, everyone is northern European, tall and blond, and Lutheran. Knowing this, I naturally expected Lutheran church to be filled with a bunch of depressed, repressed, yet painfully nice Germanic Barbie dolls. And free mayonnaise. I thought it would be serious, uncomfortable (because discomfort is the way to God and all that), and bleak.
Well, it wasn’t. First, I have never seen anything so big. I mean, Notre Dame is huge, but it doesn’t have a parking lot, and certainly not a parking lot like this. They must have hired urban planners to build it. I didn’t even know this many people went to church. Heck, I didn’t even know this many people lived in the northeast suburbs of St. Paul. And this isn’t even a mega-church like they have in other places which I am literally scared out of my mind to ever go to. (Watch Jesus Camp and Saved! and you’ll see why.)
We walked inside, and shook hands and said good morning to the ushers at the front door. (What is this, meditation class or church? What’s with the lovey-dovey thy neighbor thing?) The first thing that struck me inside was the people walking around in white gilded robes. They were like members of a Vatican gospel choir. Does. Not. Compute. I thought they were Protestant! I thought they hated ornamentation! I thought they were all supposed to be dressed in dark clothes and be dour and sour and morbidly meditative on God and prayer, all the time, and especially at church! Isn’t church a place you go to be remorseful and feel threatened by God’s wrath?
As we entered the sanctuary, an organist was playing Bach. It was lovely. The room was huge; not just in square footage but the ceiling was unfathomably high and the room was filled with light. There were decorations and ornamentation and light colors and all sorts of things. At the beginning of the service, the congregation sang a hymn about saints, a pastor invoked the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it struck me that Protestantism really was a) not all the same and b) not entirely about self-deprivation. I had always thought that the fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism was belief versus non-belief in the Trinity. This is obviously wrong and I am very confused: Lutheranism, right, was invented by Martin Luther, who started the Reformation. Obviously Lutheranism is Protestant. So why do they have all these Catholic things, like saints and decorations and belief in the Trinity?*
Anyway, the (Vatican gospel) choir sang a religious-ified version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and I couldn’t help but sing along with the non-religious words. I sang quietly, though. Don’t worry. Watching the choir was hilarious: half of the women were gossiping, the men looked bored, and a skinny young man was fervently singing while next to him a heavy-set older man half-squishing the skinny one out of his chair was nodding off to sleep. Someone should make a sitcom about church choirs. The pastors (and there were at least four in attendance) read some things from the Bible—a psalm, some gospel—and then the congregation recited the Apostles’ Creed. This creed outlines some definition of the faith and the practice, as if that was supposed to help me understand what was going on.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead.* On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Holy Spirit? Catholic Church? Saints? What?
Then we sang Amazing Grace, which I actually know and like, so I sang along, and that was fun, although I had to look at the words for three out of the four verses (who knew there were four verses to Amazing Grace?). Participatory religion is always interesting, even when it’s not yours. The sermon was short (thankfully), the pastor told a nice story, but I felt the “Jesus loves you” message was a little heavy-handed. Well, we all know Jesus doesn’t love me and this doesn’t particularly bother me, but still I don’t particularly care to be preached to about the universality of his love and all that.
Sunday was first communion for the little kids, who were all very adorable, but I was still very confused about why Protestants take communion. When I was growing up and my Catholic friends were going to CCD and I was going to Hebrew School, I remember them talking about their first communions and their white dresses and how this was a big deal in Catholicism. So I was surprised to find that not only do these protestant Lutherans take communion, but they don’t wear white dresses. I mean, if you’re going to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, you should at least wear white, don’t you think?
An additional weird thing about communion at this church, and I think this is because it’s a big church with lots of money, but during communion they had a handbell ensemble playing hymns. HANDBELLS. They were very good, but I felt like I was watching a Jesus-loving Blue Man Group dressed in black. It seemed sort of excessive. But that must just be my Puritanical Jewish upbringing talking. They also had white grape juice and gluten-free communion wafers for people who preferred. Anyway, communion took forever because there were hundreds of people who lined up to be hand-fed little pieces of bread and minuscule cups of wine and be told Jesus died for their sins. I just watched.
After communion, the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer, which I only know from Boondock Saints, feeding some stereotype that only Catholics say this and it is usually associated with killing bad guys. Then there were some more prayers and hymns and then we left, and I’ve decided I now needed to go to a church of every kind because I obviously know nothing about Christianity whatsoever.
What was most interesting to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about, was the amount of income this church must have. They have six pastors on staff, a huge, beautiful, modern facility, can afford choir robes with gold stitching and an orchestra of bells, a freshly paved parking lot, an organ, and enough bread to give communion to an army. I wonder if other communities support their religious institutions in this way, and why synagogues, at least the ones I go to, seem to be struggling to make ends meet. In that sense, the success of this church’s fundraising and the willingness of the community to give was kind of shocking. There is nothing wrong, of course, with giving to the community, and churches, including this one, often do good work. It’s just not something I’d seen before, and the amount of money people are evidently willing to give in order to be told how to live and about sinners and saints and heaven and hell seemed kind of scary.
In particular, when they passed the collection plate exactly at the end of the sermon, I was reminded of what churches must have been like historically, particularly during the Roman-Catholic-Church-as-a-government phase of European history: by preaching, you are soliciting money to enable the effective spread of your word and keep your church in a position of power. It was, and seems still to be to some extent, political fundraising. The concurrence of revenue-generating with sermons seems subversive of their moral, religious, or spiritual relevance. The pastor or priest or whoever, some religious figure, speaks, and if you like what is said, you pay up. It is, at its most fundamental, a sales pitch, only they’re selling the power and relevance of church to people who, probably, are already buying into it.
Other than making me question religious fundraising, church inspired me to go to synagogue for the first time since high holidays last year. (This still means I have to find one to go to.) Also, despite feeling like an outcast because I’m a brunette, I’m going to go to a different Lutheran church this weekend. I just can’t get enough: once you pop, the fun don’t stop.
*I have since read on Wikipedia that Lutheranism retained many of the practices of Catholicism, and further splits (like with Calvin) engendered the depressed repressed Protestantism with which we WASPs are so familiar.
Realizing I should further educate myself as to the logistics of applying to law school (since we all know this was pretty last-minute), further research on the LSAC website has led to the revelation that, in addition to the bull**** CAS and application fees, LSAC charges $16 for each school they send your custom-assembled credentials to.
It costs more money to have these hooligans assemble my credentials than, had I done it myself, my time would have been worth. From a purely my-wallet standpoint, the value of my time saved is less than what they value their service at. That is to say, if my time is worth $20/hour, and I’m going to be shelling out $200 to these fools, it would have to be for a job that would take me more than ten hours to complete to make it worth me paying them to do it. Somehow, I don’t think it would take me ten hours to electronically submit a collection of PDFs to, say, six different schools.
I’m sure my economics and logic are both faulty here, and we can throw in that I am (irrelevantly) terrible at statistics, but I don’t like this. I stand by my position that this is a cartel and a scam and they are preying on the weak and easily-coerced. Or perhaps everyone’s time is just worth more than mine and I should develop higher self-worth.