On Hell

The subject of Hell is an unusual one for this writer. One main reason the writer usually never publishes such musings on topics like this is because of the practical and potentially negative implications the opinions expressed here about such topics could/probably will have on said writer’s profession. With that caveat, here is Hell.

It strikes this writer as odd that one needs to, at times, make the following statements in the 21st century: Hell is not a place, and it does not exist inside the earth. Yet, because of the shower of ignorance that passes for Christianity today in the United States, such a statement is sometimes needed. No, Virginia, there is no lake burning with fire beyond the tectonic plates of earth, despite the vehement protestations and admonitions of such fire-and-brimstone preachers like Jonathan Edwards (See below).

“Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”-Mark Twain

How can this writer state this for a fact? Because science. While one has the freedom, certainly, to believe differently, that does not change the fact that science can demonstrate that no fiery, sulfuric, brimstoney Hell exists “down there” where your immortal soul will burn in perpetuity. And, no, a red devil with a forked tail and pitchfork does not await you. 

That remains a mystery for some, by the way, or at least an imponderable for which they see no solution. If the “soul” is a spiritual entity (for lack of a better word), then how would it be possible for such an entity to experience the undeniably physical pain of burning? Of course, the opposite must be true; how can Heaven be made of streets of gold with pearly gates and be 140,000 miles long/wide/tall? Both descriptions deny or ignore the definition of “spirit” as that which is not physical.

“You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”-Davy Crockett

We owe a major debt to the Exile of the three remaining tribes of Israel into Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E. for much of what most believers today think about Hell. Before the Exile, Israel/Judah rarely spoke of life after death–or death after death, for that matter. Before the Exile, the Israelites had a place-Sheol-where the dead “went,” but the Hebrew Scriptures mention this only here and there. King David is said to have recognized it when he spoke of the infant son that he and his wife, Bathsheba, lost. David remarked something like, “I can go to him, but he cannot come to me.” (II Samuel 12) Sheol housed both good and bad people. It was were their “shades” rested.

Another metaphor for the afterlife in Hebrew Scriptures was Gehenna. That is the name of valley near Jerusalem where some of Judah’s kings sacrificed their own children to other “gods” using fire to do so. In some rabbinic literature, this valley became synonymous with the place where evil people go when they die where they, too, will be consumed by fire.

“The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”-Bertrand Russell

As stated above, the influence of Zoroastrianism finally fixed the Jewish belief about Hell as the Hebrew Scriptures began to be collated and collected and written during and after the Exile. It seems one of the core tenants of that religion is the idea of a good god and an evil god who fought for men’s souls. In death, the good god would take good souls while the evil god would take evil ones. While the word Hell does not seem to actually be in the Sacred Scriptures of Zoroastrianism, the concept is explicit throughout them. 

The evil god, also called the Adversary or Accuser (a noun used several times in the Hebrew Bible for the Evil One, by the way, and almost always as the Satan), will preside over those evil souls in the “House of Falsehoods” because they all are, at heart, liars. This dovetails nicely with Christian Scripture theology that calls the Evil One “The Father of Lies.” While the narrative in the Bible book of Genesis calls the tempter “the Serpent” in the Garden of Eden, it takes the Apostle John, writing in his apocalyptic letter to 7 Christian communities in modern-day Turkey, to make the connection between the Serpent in the Garden and Satan.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider… abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”-Jonathan Edwards

But we digress. The Jews in the inter-testamental period from about 500 B.C.E. to the first century A.D. composed books and compiled rabbinical texts (some of which many Christians call the books of the Apocrypha) that flesh out the concept of Hell as being a lake that burns with fire where evil people will spend an eternity in torment. Thus, by the time of Jesus, a well-formed theology of Hell and Satan had developed, as did the concepts of Angels and Heaven. Add to these notions the Greek (Thanks, Alexander the Great) ideas of a subterranean Hades and other such stories, and one begins to put together a picture of how the concept of Hell developed. Then, in the early 1300s, Dante’s Inferno captured the minds of a Christian Europe and continued our fascination with the underworld.

Adam and Even never mention Hell. Nor do Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob and all his sons, Saul, David, Solomon, or most of the kings of both Israel and Judah. And neither do the prophets, really. Thus, pre-Exile, Hebrew theology had little idea of Hell, if any at all, and certainly not like we know it today.

Ask a theologian where Hell is. Note well his or her answer.

Carry on.

The picture above is from The Condemned in Hell, fresco by Luca Signorelli, 1500–02; in the Chapel of San Brizio in the cathedral at Orvieto, Italy.


On Biphasic Sleep

Sleep. It’s a third of all human lifespans, and, yet, we know relatively little about it compared to, say, our workaday lives. Besides, the practice itself evolves as our societies change. We try to “make up sleep” on weekends (something that scientists say we can’t do) and complain that we need more sleep than we’re getting. However, this lack of sleep may be our own doing in the modern world.

About half-past twelve o’clock, when Mr. Winkle had been revelling some twenty minutes in the full luxury of his first sleep, he was suddenly awakened by a loud knocking at his chamber-door. Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, 1836

Most of the western world attempts to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night these days. Many people would argue that they could “get by” on 6 hours and still function well. Those numbers (6,7, and 8) are fairly recent targets in human history for sleep duration. Understand that our pre-Industrial Revolution forebears slept in a vastly different manner.

Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more. As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning, indicating a sound body and a mind free from care; but his master, being unable to sleep himself awakened him, saying, “I am amazed, Sancho, at the torpor of thy soul; it seems as if thou wert made of marble or brass, insensible of emotion or sentiment!” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), Don Quixote de la Mancha

Before the invention of electric lights, or even before the creation of a factory/mechanized society in the late 1700s/early 1800s in many parts of the western world, people slept in a 4-2-4 pattern. That is, many slept for four hours or so (from 7 or 8 until 11 or 12), then, they rose for an hour or two where they would write letters, journals, visit friends, prayed, or even simply sit and read or perform housework, etc. After this interlude (1 or 2 in the morning), they would then sleep another four hours–give or take–until sun up, thus sleeping in two phases. This made sense in a northern climate where the residents saw an absent sun for up to 14 hours per day. One will find references to “second sleep” in several books, letters, diaries, and even court cases of the pre-industrial age.

“He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.” Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1840

The factory/industrial work day seems to have stopped this practice.  These changes included street and house lights that could burn all night at low cost and–interestingly–the increase in coffee consumption as a late-evening social ritual. Also, as leisure time became available to the middle class, the evening became a time for people to go out. Sleep times suffered as a result. Arriving home around 10:00 pm, the average person attempted to achieve the same amount of sleep (8 hours) in less time.

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright…
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), “The Indian Serenade’

Along with the attempts to get a solid block of 8 hours of sleep came the 3-meal day (not common before) and the concept of eating meat more than on holidays or special occasions. These things became de rigueur for the urban middle class by the middle 1800s. Given that some scientists have demonstrated that we need neither 3 meals nor meat daily and that breaking up our sleep into segments is actually better for us, one could argue that the Industrial Age changed society for the worse rather than for the better.

In recent years, Wehr, et al, conducted experiments that showed, when subjected to 14 hours of darkness, subjects settled into a rhythm of four hours of sleep followed by two hours of wakefulness and then followed by four more hours of sleep. The subjects in the test awoke from the second sleep more refreshed, more productive, and happier throughout the day than did those who tried to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

It was only in the morning, after awaking and happily falling off into a second sleep, that he enjoyed the peace and repose of both body and soul, which usually characterized his rest. When he again opened his eyes after this delightful morning’s nap, a joyous ray, cast by the rising sun through the bed curtains, danced on the counterpane like a streak of gold, and gave a marvellous brilliancy to its variegated embroideries. Alexandre Dumas, The Watchmaker, 1859

Consider, then, that humans in the northern hemisphere slept in two phases for millennia until the past two hundred years. Paris first lit its streets in the mid-17th century, then Amsterdam, and London followed two decades later. Having lights on the streets invited people to sleep less. And, so, they did.

We do.

Carry on.

On D Sharpson’s Jazz in Germany

D Sharpson is Dublin, Ireland’s answer to Belle and Sebastian, if Belle and Sebastian were basically a solo act, a DJ, substantially cheekier, completely into house/techno/disco, and exponentially less twee. Second thoughts, Mr. Sharpson is nothing like Belle and Sebastian at all. 

His new EP, Jazz in Germany, explores rhythms and samples in a quirky, fresh, and funky manner that ends up being about 30 minutes of dance revelry that speaks from a modern, Irish club sensibility. He knows his tools well and uses them with a craftsman’s ear. Sharpson then adds a hint of cleverness to his tracks that can’t be ignored yet doesn’t come across as being pretentious.
Sharpson’s musical pedigree includes work with the groups 5th Element and Tooka as well as composing music for the odd short documentary film here and there.
This review will look at songs from his new EP (It was released last month on Fluttertone and is purchasable here for the phenomenally low price of less than €5.) as well as some other music that Mr. Sharpson has produced lately that seems to flow from the same inspirational moment.
“Baby Don’t Hold Back” yips and reverbs in an almost annoyingly catchy/synthy rhythm as the artist intones his “baby” to “hold meeeee.” In between the monotone, repeated lines, Sharpson creates an incredibly dance-friendly bit of music. This track seems to be the one that will receive the most attention from the EP. (7:17)
“Fat Spider-Man” may seem a little derivative of “Baby Don’t Hold Back” at first, but the track quickly recovers and then it settles into its own cool vibe, invoking scenes of New York City/urban night life. (6:41)
It fits Sharpson’s MO to take something as seemingly pedestrian as Korean language lessons and turn them into danceable, funky music in “Inchon.” But more than that, the Korean phrases that the artist uses here actually create a wistful, almost sad love poem. The phrases, “I miss you,“ “I’m sorry,” “You’re beautiful,“ and, “I love you,“ translated from Korean form the feelings in this track. The distance between the couple in this inter-hemispheric love story seems even more complicated because Sharpson chooses the formal forms of some of the phrases, thus creating even greater distance between the two people. Not on the EP. (2:14)
Sharpson then engages in some social commentary as he seems to great pleasure in poking gentle fun at the inanity of reality TV in “Kinda Classy.” He seems to be telling us that the reality show universe—both “stars“ and fans—should not take themselves too seriously. After all, “reality” TV distorts reality in a way that few genres do. Not on the EP.  (2:34)
Sharpson and his chums show their musician chops on “Mr Dubby Cork Boy.” An echo of steel drums introduces this funky gem before the vocals take over. This is the EP’s closest pure disco track, with almost every ‘70s dance music phraseology showcased. The retro vibe works well here when it could’ve been easily and chees-ily employed. 6:16)
“Why Don’t You Come on Out” has the feet tapping from the get go. The incessant, monotonous request of the song’s title drones on in the head long after the music stops. This track, while fun, seems to not match the creative punch of the others. And that’s ok. (4:40)
The title track, “Jazz in Germany” feels like the EP’s most challenging. This comes from an almost violent dissonance in the background of the beat that reminds this listener of a mashup of not only Germany’s wide range of musical styles since World War II (Rock, Industrial, Techno, House, etc), but also of German history in general over the past century. It is blue-collar, heavy, and shocking – – in short, it’s the type of jazz you would expect to have been produced by that country but put to use here in a techno beat. (6:23)
On a personal level, Dónal Sharpson comes from a tightknit family with way too many brothers who all seem to have grown up in a supportive household filled with love and laughter.
And religion. Sharpson studied religion and teaches the subject when he’s not producing music. That’s not hard to believe because he has this cherubic bubbliness about him. He sports a shock of short dark hair and a beard to match, but I suspect that the beard is less a fashion statement and more likely that, perhaps, shaving bores him, and, thus, he simply doesn’t care. It’s not hard to picture him as the whiskey priest in a small parish somewhere in the Irish countryside.
What the beard and ennui can’t hide is the mischievous creativity of an impish school boy whose parents probably got way too many calls from frustrated teachers who simply didn’t know what to do with the intelligent, over-bored kid they found in their charge every day. Lucky for us, the old mischievousness has found its way into his music, and that mentality that probably frustrated his teachers back in the day brings his music sheer joy now.
And that joy’s infectious.
Carry on.


On Postcards

Any deltiologist worth his or her salt will tell you that postcards are the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees, and the eel’s ankle. And postcards have been around almost as long as the modern postal service; in fact, the earliest American printed postcards (or post cards, pick ’em) hearken back (Can one hearken forward? Shakespeare seems to think so.) to the 1840’s and 1850’s–soon after the first stamped letters appeared. Many early postcards bore advertisements or political messaging.

Today, most folks associate postcards with travel and the sending or receiving of the message, “Wish you were here!” and then rarely meaning same. Postcards depicting tourist attractions and other travel-related ephemera appearing on one side became popular with the ready availability of cheap travel in the early 1900’s due to the pervasiveness of railroads and followed by the rise of the family automobile and the network of state and national highways in the western world. Grandpa and Granny could see that the kids sure had a grand ol’ time at Coney Island or the World’s Fair when a hastily scribbled postcard arrived via Rural Free Delivery. Thus, the card itself became a travel souvenir.

On the other hand, in India, postcards began as simply a cheaper way for the masses to transmit greetings amongst themselves. Even today, the rates for sending a postcard via the fine folks at the United States Postal Service run a few pennies less than it costs to mail a letter. The USPS sells pre-stamped postcards by the bundle–a good deal for a quick note to a chum or chumette whilst stuck in traffic or at lunch or waiting for that bus/train/plane.

The typical postcard measures 5 inches by 3 1/2 inches, although some novelty cards vary from this basic model. Copper (metal) postcards, wooden postcards, and even coconut postcards can be found in various places globally. Novelty cards, “saucy” cards (slightly off-color jokes on one side) or even “racy” cards (originating in–where else?–France) are often found, still. The range and types are vast, and collectors often fight over the choicest samples.

The gentleperson would do well to send a handful of these a month to good friends. As stated in the post on note cards, remember to not over-fill the writing side of the card. If the writer uses more than thirty or so words on a postcard, then the writer should have considered sending a note card or even a full-blown letter. “Hey, there! The dog is in a “chewing the furniture” phase–let’s go shopping for some new stuff this next week!” or some such is about all a postcard should carry. Any more than than (or any meatier) requires more than a postcard.

The TL:DR of this post can be summarized thusly: Think of postcards as the Twitter(tm) of the postal world.


On Travel

What does travel to do you? It changes your insides, yeah. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers — all three of ’em. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not my insular, small town any longer: it’s the Nile, man, the Nile — and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.

Even the tyro film buff will know this writer stole and adapted the above from Ray Milland’s character, Don Birnam, in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. As a reminder for the uninitiated, the character spoke the lines above about alcohol because he was a hopeless dipsomaniac. He could as easily have been speaking of travel.

Like alcoholism, travel is an addiction. Like alcohol, travel alters reality–usually when one needs it the most. It resets the horizon, it cleans the pipes, it takes us out of ourselves. Travel changes us, or, at least, the experiences one encounters whilst traveling should.

The McDonald’s of travel, or the Wal-Mart of journeys, if you prefer, is, of course, modern-day cruising. Truly, these floating mega-resort liners have a place in the quest for The Great Distraction that many mistake for travel and seek today. True, this writer has even rather enjoyed several “voyages” on them, albeit a few short weekend jaunts and one grand trans-Atlantic crossing. However, these floating, sometimes neon-clad bars/casinos/hotels often fail to show us something fresh, something challenging, something different than the world with which we surround ourselves during most of the year. The beds, the food, the shopping, the simple sterility, the puerile entertainment, and the overly-efficient mass-production of it all speaks to a world and even a culture we already know well (even if the odd shore excursion is taken).

Some package holidays would also fall into this fast-food/mega-store category of travel, especially the “all-inclusive” trips that whisk you to some foreign shore where you never leave the compound and get blistered because, “I never burn at home, so I didn’t think I needed sunscreen,” all the while verbally bludgeoning the pool barkeep to, “Hit me again,” as he enables you to actually become Don Birnam. Offering little that is new to us, we can’t be surprised when we get home to find that there has been little that has changed in us. Then, we start to count the days until our next uninspired and uninspiring “vacation” because this past one left us so empty and, in fact, made us almost more emotionally and spiritually dead than when we left–which was why we took the damn vacay in the first place.

No, travel involves experiencing something there that we can’t get here, something a gentleperson cannot find at the local Walton’s Market or the nearby McMeat. Perhaps that something is the experience itself, but not in the usual sense, perhaps. A quick look at a thesaurus shows that many synonyms of the word experience explain what this writer means when discussing the benefits of travel, and they explain it far better than his words are doing now: Background, context, involvement, participation, reality, understanding, exposure, seasoning, forbearance, and even savior-faire and sophistication, if those types of things appeal to you. This is what experiential travel shows a gentleperson. And they are all things this writer finds he needs in his life.

That’s what true travel should do for one.

Carry on.

On Etymology

Sticks and stones can indeed break bones, but words can also hurt, heal, invigorate and inspire.

Fr. Lovasik said, “Kind words are a creative force, a power that concurs in the building up of all that is good, and energy that showers blessings upon the world.” The good Father was on to something there, it seems. Choosing the right word in a situation can sometimes make the difference between heal and hell. That is why word origins have always been a pet interest to this gentleman.

Poe knew this, too. He wrote, “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” Their reality is manifest in their meaning, their origin, their birth. We are creatures of our society, prisoners of our language. We use words passed from our culture and heritage and often borrowed from others. Yet, in knowing which word to use correctly, our world can become almost limitless. “The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” Wittgenstein observed.

A recent example of this came in the form of an American football game on the telly. The announcers waxed rhapsodic about a certain college team being a juggernaut. The word stuck a chord in my gray matter, and I leapt to my etymology dictionary to see where the word originated.

This writer seriously doubts that the announcers, versed as they were in the sport in which they reveled, knew that they referenced a, “huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” when they called the team in crimson-lined jerseys a juggernaut. Yet, in the way in which sometimes happens to blind squirrels when they happen upon a nut, these jocular jocks lighted upon the perfect metaphor. The elephant-mascotted team they so described stood atop their particular level of American football as the Lord Krishna of that particular sport.

A workable etymology dictionary exists online, but if one fancies a tangible copy of such, Mr. Bezos purveys these in his virtual shop daily: The Etymoligicon and The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Of course, a readable copy of the OED would suffice as well.

This writer shall leave you with these two gentlemen–gentlemen who know much more about the power of words than he. First, Confucius: “Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.” Lastly, Socrates: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.

Carry on.

On Keeping Field Notes

Unless a gentleperson works as either something not unlike an ornithologist or as a reporter for, say, Field & Stream, the phrase “field notes” references quick note-taking when away from tablet/computer/home. Thus, when on public transportation, taking a trip to the local supermarche’, or, especially, travelling, the use of a good field notebook is often required.

The brainstorm, the random thought, the tableau that insists on being sketched, the overheard story, the book idea that strikes like lightning–all of these find a cozy home in the field notebook. This writer recommends finding a notebook that fits your coat or shirt pocket and making it part of your daily carry.

Your humble narrator uses the Elan brand of 5.5″x3.5″ graphed field book (see photo above).  The company produces dotted-paged and lined books, also. These fine folks from Moultonborough, New Hampshire, produce a book that fits into his travel wallet easily (about the size of a passport, actually), and they sell through exclusive purveyors nationwide and on the site of Master Bezos. For under a sawbuck in the coin of the realm, an ink slinger can get five such notebooks for use in the field.

Graph paper works best for this writer. It allows for the shakiest of hand, i.e. self, to draw straight lines if one is making a sketch or attempting to plan a route. The graph paper boxes also keep writing from the vagaries of size that can often occur when jotting hasty notes, thus insuring ease of reading later in the study or office, hours after the moment has passed, and this writer no longer has to become a character from a spy film and think, “In what code was this written?” In short, the graph paper makes this writer’s notes neater.

The set of five notebooks shown here comes in khaki (2), black, orange, and yellow. Two staples make the binding; this writer prefers staples in a field notebook since those pages may need to be removed. Stapling makes this easier. In addition, the paper in these notebooks hold the ink from the Preppy Platinum pen with the medium nib.

Carry on.