As late fall slides to winter, across the country Christians are winding up another year of living the religious life. Late fall, and across the country members of the American Academy of Religion are winding up another year of studying the religious life. The distinction between living it and studying it may seem artificial; most Christians study scripture, as well as theology and devotional works. But the study based in faith is not like the study of religion per se. In the halls of academe, religion is just one more sociological phenomenon, to be appraised from a safe distance (after all, He may not be a tame lion). Not that all the members of the Academy are religious abstainers; there are mainliners, goddess-worshippers, Buddhists, and the odd evangelical or two. But the AAR meets in the ivory tower, not the church.
[Books & Culture, November 1995] When I was down to the Big City not long ago, my youthful friend Rod took me to his favorite bookstore-cafe. We sat on high stools at a small, sticky square of yellow wood, buffeted by alternative rock flowing from the excellent sound system. I chose, at Rod's suggestion, a designer beer that the menu described as ”fruity and complex.“ Nearby, patrons lingered at blond-wood book racks, perusing the handsome volumes with impressive nonchalance. Diversity spread her amiable wings: elbowpatch-and-beret types mingled easily with Birkenstocker-backpackers en tout noir. So when Rod came up to Baltimore I took him to my favorite book source, across the street from the Friend General Store and Love Nest Package Liquors. The bulky one-story building fills nearly a city block; it is painted rosy beige with deeper-brown trim, and topped with romantic crenellations. The orange metal sign bolted to the wall reads ”Baltimore Department of Finance, Bureau of Purchases, Warehouse #9." But those familiar with its charms eschew the formal title; we call it the Baltimore Book Dump.
[World, October 1, 1994] ”What is culture?“ asks Tom Weller in his funny 1987 book, Culture Made Stupid. ”Not the same thing as culture, which a dish full of germs has...No, cvltvre is something nobler, loftier, finer, thicker with pompous adjectives." If there were a Federal Bureau of Cvltvre, it would be the Smithsonian Institution, which sprawls between the Capital Building and the Washington Monument, paralyzing tourists with its bulk. Although there are fourteen museums in the Institution, its holdings are so vast that only 2% can be shown at once. Museums range from the wildly popular Air and Space (which draws 9 million visitors a year) to lesser-knowns like the Portrait and the Building (yes, a museum about buildings, currently showing a barn).
[Books & Culture, March-April, 1996] In the middle of my life’s journey I came to myself alone in a dark plastic poncho at the Haircuttery. It was a few days after my 43rd birthday, and I had not received a Cinderella watch packaged in a tiny clear-plastic glass slipper. For awhile there I received one every birthday, because I kept losing them. That was some years ago. At that time I intended to be a grownup lady one day, and wear a crown and a long fancy dress. Everything about me would get bigger, except my feet; these would get smaller and smaller until they were the same size as Cinderella’s, and I could wear her tiny shoes. I think I kept losing the watches in secret hope of collecting two shoes and making a pair. However, I kept losing the shoes too, so my plans were dashed. In the middle of my life’s journey I see in the big black-framed mirror a grownup lady getting an E-Z Kare haircut, wearing E-Z Kare clothes, which conceal an E-Z Kare figure. I had forgotten my plan to be Cinderella about now, and at this point it’s probably too much trouble.
[World, November 18, 1995] As Morality in Media launched their eighth annual “White Ribbon Against Pornography” campaign, the New Yorker magazine helpfully provided a 22-page look inside the world of porn film production. Author Susan Faludi gave readers a sympathetic glimpse at the tough lot of a male porn star. No, really. In this business, the woman is the object of desire and the male is furniture, and pay follows accordingly. What's more, male actors regularly find themselves the unwilling cause of production delays, and reap as a result the irritation and scorn of their peers. Habitual apprehension creates more problems, and this career-destroying pressure eventually destroys every career. Has-beens shuffle into backstage work, or, if they're lucky, marry a female star who can support them.
[World, October 23, 1993] I arrived a little early to pick up my 11-year-old son at church camp. It was dinnertime in the long wooden hall, 263 kids noisily banging the cups and wolfing down cherry cobbler. Suddenly a table of boys burst into incoherent song--the words a blur, but the tone tauntingly playful. It was greeted with a mixture of applause and boos. “That's Cabin 44,” Stephen grinned. “Every night they have a battle with Cabin 5. They make up rhymes about each other.” When a few minutes had lapsed another song struck up, this one all in girls' voices. “That's Cabin 5,” Stephen told me. When they finished, I joined the yays (Go, team!) while Stephen went “Boo!” “I had to go 'boo,'” he explained to me, sincerely. “I knew they were making fun of men. I knew it was a sexist joke.”
[NPR, “All Things Considered,” July 8, 1996] When my daughter came home from college she announced she wants to paint something else on her car. It's already covered with daisies. Now she wants to add cartoon depictions of the Beatles, Yellow-Submarine style, on the doors. The tape rack inside is filled with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors. “Everybody I like is dead,” she says. Her brother David is a couple of years younger. His golden hair flows over his shoulders, and he's attempting by sheer force of willpower to generate a moustache and goatee. Wire-rim glasses complete the look. The other day I found him bent over his guitar, picking out the chords to Bob Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone.”
[NPR, “All Things Considered,” October 9, 1996] When my daughter got a job delivering pizzas, I was a little concerned. Is the neighborhood safe? Do they deliver after dark? I imagined her standing in a shadowy hallway all alone, vulnerable to any sort of mayhem, and armed only with a pizza.
[Smithsonian, February 1997] Now that all three of my children are teenagers I've reached the age where, as they keep reminding me, I'm well on my way to being a geezer. Most signs of impending geezerhood involve diminishment: loss of hearing, memory, and I think there was another one. But one I didn't expect was the tricks the eye can play while reading. With increasing frequency I'm running across astounding things in headlines, billboards, and captions--only to find, on closer inspection, that it didn't say that at all.
[Books & Culture, September-October 1997] I was an easy mark. As a comfy-dressed middle-aged lady in tennis shoes, ambling through the mall a little after noon, I clearly was not a lawyer in clickety heels on a tight lunchhour, not a harried mom with a chocolate-smeared toddler. As I rounded the bend by the fountain I walked right into a swarm of Clipboard Ladies, and was snared. “Would you have a moment to answer a few questions?” asked one, zooming up to me with a perma-prest smile.