Bookshelves

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I’m now in that state of summer leisure mixed with the responsibility of providing entertainment for the kids that causes a man to forget what day it is of the week. And so a week’s fun is no longer restricted to its last two days. But I have done nothing grandiose lately: mainly pottered about and enjoyed being reunited with my lady wife after her recent visit to the in-laws.

Anyway, Friday and Saturday were largely taken up by housework of the interior decoration kind. My dad likes to suggest grandiose changes to our house and incite my wife into supporting his ideas, but as he also invariably offers to perform the work in question I can’t complain. I felt that one short wall of our large living room needed re-painting and the construction of a large wall-hung book case. While I was busy with this wall, my dad and my wife painted all the other three walls and the ceiling. Now we have 24 glorious metres of shelves and nicer-coloured walls.

When it comes to bookshelves, I am a passive plaything of women. My first bookshelf I found next to the laundry room when I was in student housing — thanks, Lady Fortune. My second one I bought to match my first wife’s shelves. No 3 I bought to match No 2. And now I have just gotten shelves as per a design by my dad’s wife, who used to head the Swedish interior decorators’ association. What is my own true wish in bookshelves? I shall most likely never know. But it felt good to start getting our books out of the cardboard boxes and onto the new shelves last night.

Leaving my dad to apply the last coat of paint this morning, we headed out to my mom’s place in the archipelago. (Near Djurhamn, the harbour site where I’ve done fieldwork.) Sunshine, wind, rounded grey cliffs, pine trees. I live beside the main Medieval shipping lane from the Continent to Stockholm. This is beside the Early Modern route. No ghost ships though.

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No Meaning to Life

Why are we here? Why do we live? What is the meaning of life? These questions are poorly phrased as neither “why” nor “meaning” has a distinct definition.

To begin with “why”, it can refer either to the cause of something happening or the purpose for which something was done by an agent. Causality vs. teleology, to use big words. And in the present context, the question “why” can be dismissed for both senses of the word. Teleology: humans/animals/plants/protists are not given life for any particular purpose and there is no agency involved. Causality: the answer to the question “Why am I here?” is “Because your parents had sex”.

What about “meaning” then? It can mean “message”, or “purpose”, or “justification”. We’ve already dismissed the notion that there is any external purpose to human life. As for justification, nothing alive needs justification since life is a spontaneously occurring thing. What is the justification of a pebble? As to the message of life or of a life, that’s up to each individual. Nobody made you alive in order to send any messages to you or to the world.

So to my mind, and I know I’m far from the first to come to this conclusion, the question of the meaning of life is meaningless. What is the meaning of life? What is the kliboque of zatanareho? Urdle boing foosu yukyuk? Who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong?

To many people, particularly those of a religious bent (like so), the idea that there is no meaning to life is horrifying. They may associate it with suicidal, antisocial, homicidal tendencies. Not so. Even though there is no external meaning offered to us, we are all free to choose the purpose, message, justification of our lives. I live to have fun with those I love, taking care not to do so at the expense of others’ pain or fear.

Life just is. I just am. Now, you may ask “How should I live?”. That’s a much more cogent question, and one about which I have strong opinions. But I’m not going to preach about that.

Being Mean to Girls

I suddenly remember a few times when I was mean to girls when I was fourteen. I feel really bad thinking about it now. Being mean and bullying was particularly ugly for one such as myself who had just barely reached the end of his years as an object of bullying. But I see a pattern there that wasn’t visible to me at the time. It doesn’t excuse my behaviour in the least, but it sort of explains it.

H was thin as a rake and had a highly strung personality. She didn’t seem to expect to be liked, and I believe few did like her much. Yet she wasn’t the sort to fade into the background: she was quite raucous. Me and another boy wrote a parody of the Ten Commandments and taped it to the door of the veranda where our Bible study class convened. One of our commandments was “Thou shalt not covet the ample bosom of H”. The joke here, such as it was, was that us boys had about as ample bosoms as H had at this stage. Somebody told me she cried when she saw the note.

A was a rubenesque working-class girl who had received all that had been withheld from H and more. She wore a “BOY TOY” track suit, went pendulously topless on the beach and had a phlegmatic demeanour. She tried to be friendly to me, bless her heart, but I just sneered disdainfully at this Venus from the wrong side of the tracks. Luckily, A would take none of it: she asked angrily, “Why are you always so mean to me? Huh?”. I mumbled an apology and then we avoided each other.

T also had an early onset of curves. Her personality was phlegmatic to the point of sleepiness, very quiet. One summer day she was sitting opposite to me and a friend on the commuter train wearing a mini skirt and no panty hose, her freckled thighs much in evidence. I quipped sardonically, “How very generous of you, T, to offer the world a glimpse of your fine assets!”. T looked down and said nothing. I pretty much immediately felt bad about the whole thing, but I never apologised.

See a theme? This adolescent boy, barely into sexual maturity, is being nasty to girls about their budding womanhood. Not just to any girls, but to ones with little social graces, and girls who, he feels, are deviating from his tribe’s norms of female behaviour — norms of modesty. I was mean out of sexual insecurity to girls I believed unlikely to fight back. Part of it was of course actually an expression of desire.

About a year later I hooked up with the woman who would become my first wife, and that took care of that, thank goodness.

Unaccustomed to Free Time

Being a married man and a father of small children, I am very rarely alone in the workday evenings or weekends. Indeed, in the past five or or six years, my capacity for sustained self-entertainment (yeah, yeah, OK; “nudge, nudge”) has atrophied to the point where I no longer know what to do when faced with a free Sunday. Yet this was the situation I found myself in last night. Wife off on business trip. Son at mom’s place. Daughter likely to spend day at friend’s place. Now what?

After some thought, I reached the conclusion that I would very much like to spend the afternoon with friends at a museum and a café. That is the sort of enjoyable pastime that small children turn into a stressful chore. So I was happy, having found out what I would like to do.

As it turned out, I started planning this too late. My daughter’s friend was only available until three o’clock. My own friends have kids too or were otherwise occupied. So here’s what I did with my lazy Sunday:

  1. Went to town reading Pratchett on the train.
  2. Had vaguely Asian chicken & shrimp wok.
  3. Attempted to get replacement for non-functional remote control at shop in town, was directed to suburban mall.
  4. Went to mall reading Pratchett.
  5. Got remote control replaced. Checked price on wifi card for old laptop.
  6. Rode bus home reading Pratchett.
  7. Bought groceries.
  8. Was invited to new neighbours for tea and a bun and a chat.

Dear Reader, if you found yourself with a free Sunday, would it surprise you? And what would you do to entertain yourself?

Our Strange Entrances

i-0abed99bd3189f3660d675fec2db78da-houseplan.jpgThe houses in our new neighbourhood are clones of one basic design: an L-shaped single-story structure with a fenced yard inside the angle of the L. The main entrance (1) is on one of the L’s outer long walls. The grubby-boots entrance (2) is on the gable adjoining the wall with entrance 1. Finally, there’s an entrance from the yard (3) which in many cases is fitted to be unlocked only from the inside: it’s how the architect intended us to reach the yard from inside the house.

Our particular specimen of this design only has entrance 3, combining the functions of all three entrances from the original design. The house is sited in such a way that an entrance at 1 would have been inconvenient. Nor does there appear ever to have been an entrance A from that side of the house into the passage along that gable to the yard. We used to have an entrance 2, but the previous owner had it bricked up and instead installed a really glitzy bathroom in that corner of the building. So our house has kind of a strange layout: you have to enter the yard by the garden gate (B), and you have to enter the house right next to our dinner table (3). Then you have to cross the dining room to reach the coat hanger and the nearest toilet.

But I like to think that this freakish layout actually fits well at least with my own personality. When you enter my house for the first time, you will feel warmly welcomed into the heart of the place, and you will at the same time be a bit disorientated by its strangeness.

Holy Crap, Was That The Noughties!?

I have made peace with the passing of the 70s. I no longer feel that the 80s is the default present decade during which everything still happens. But let me tell you, Dear Reader, in my mind the 90s still lie mostly in the future. Windows 98 is a very new operating system. Nobody born in the 90s is able yet to walk or eat or use the potty unaided. I was really shocked when I realised that people born in the 80s were playing hockey and participating in porn.

And now there’s only one year left of the Noughties. To me it’s been a decade of fatherhood, of my second marriage, of PhD-hood, of site directorhood, of geocaching, and lately of blogging. And it’s gone by fast.

What of the Teens? I’m gonna be a father of teens. A son of septuagenarians. A home owner. Hopefully a university teacher. And the top of my head will finally go bald. I wonder what the music of the Teens will be like? The movies, the science fiction? I’m looking forward to it all.

Sunday Confession of a Lapsed Priest

Dear Reader Michael Merren of the Religion, Philosophy and Other Oddities blog is a married man and a father of three. He also used to be a Catholic priest. Learning this, I asked Michael to write a guest entry on his personal history. And now I know whom to turn to with any theological question that might pop up.


i-a48c5a47e8fe587ab70f9cb7439bf58c-graduation3.JPGI don’t know where else to start than from the beginning. I was raised Roman Catholic and always felt drawn to do something to give back to humankind, to be great and benefit my fellow man in some way. Some might call that a “vocation” or a “calling” I suppose. As a Catholic boy the most obvious and highly encouraged manner of “ministry” is to enter the priesthood, especially in this day and age of priests’ shortage. It would be in my twenties that after reading Camus and Sartre and others that I realized even atheists want to “do good”, but when I was growing up I bought the demonizing portrayal of intellectuals and scientists promoted by some in my faith.

I mottled my way through school, always a little bored. I am from a small town and though my mother had a graduate degree and has done post graduate work since, I never really found anything to light that fire in me. Eventually, about my sophomore year of high school I started doing theatre; I found some enjoyment in it. I consequently met my wife while rehearsing for Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore that summer some 20 years ago. She turned me on to literature and art, her father was an English teacher. I began to read with fervor.

My undergraduate education was a bit of a floundering blunder as well. I had to take a semester off and work and regain my footing. I moved into a house with a couple of philosophy majors and that set me on the journey which eventually lead to monastic life and seminary, priesthood and back again to secular life, marriage and children.

I suppose you can say I’ve gone through stages in my development, but my path was not a typical one. Rather than being inspired by the life of some great saint, my inspiration for entering the Catholic monastic life actually came, in large part, from Siddharta by Hermann Hesse. I read the Pali Tipitaka and Bhagavad Gita as readily and willingly as I did the Bible. I found the writings of Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to be no more spiritual than those of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

I was moved by the humanism of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, to study personalism / phenomenology and pursue theological studies, but being the extremist that I am I had to “go to the sources”. I decided after my undergraduate studies to enter seminary in Krakow, Poland and study under the professors of the Pontifical College founded by Wojtyla in his former See of Krakow. I entered a religious community that could make that happen for me, learned Polish and began those studies.

In my seminary studies in the monastery I had a great deal of time for study and reading and I eventually read myself out of Catholicism. By the time I had finished my seminary studies I already had a deep desire to leave and enter the Orthodox Church, which I felt embodied the Historical Christian Church and a more eastern mindset than Catholicism.

It didn’t help that all this time I had contact with my wife who was desperately trying to get me to leave the monastery to marry her. I had left her behind as a good Catholic boy is told he must do to “serve” and “minister”. I couldn’t bring myself to leave though. I went ahead with ordinations despite my growing doubts that I was cut out for a life of celibacy and the Scholastic / Thomistic framework of Western Christian theology. My distaste for Catholicism grew more as a young priest. I was serving as many as fifteen masses a week, in ten different locales, teaching in a school, leading numerous youth and prayer groups and all with a growing distaste for some of the very basic tenets of the faith. I felt prostituted, as if the monastery I belonged to had pimped me out to the local and neighboring dioceses. I left after just thirteen months as an active priest.

My wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church where we were married shortly afterwards. We spent seven years in the Orthodox Church and baptized our children there. I even repeated seminary studies. I won’t get into the gory details, but I was a square peg trying to fit into a very small round hole. My theology was obviously at odds with that of some of the more narrow-minded clergy and hierarchy, though I think you’d be hard pressed to find a great theological mind in the Orthodox Church who didn’t have a very eclectic background and tastes, e.g. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware or Rev. Deacon Andrei Kureav. Ultimately though it was the ethnic xenophobia that many Orthodox have towards “converts” that led to my recent decision to join the Episcopal Church.

I have long had a desire to reconcile science / reason with theology / faith. With varying degrees of success I have managed to do so and keep my faith though sometimes I’ve come to the brink of losing it.

Recently, my studies have been in reconciling the sound theory of Evolution with the Biblical accounts of creation, which as far as the symbolism involved in the Scriptures hasn’t really been much trouble at all. It seems to me that anyone who takes a six-day-creation viewpoint simply doesn’t understand mythology and hasn’t done enough non-biblical reading to grasp the heart of the story.

My most recent concerns present more of a challenge as I begin to look at the idea of Original Sin, which is key to the entire concept of a Christian soteriology or “Theory of Salvation”. If man was not created in the beginning as one pair, man and woman, Adam and Eve, then who sinned that humankind needs salvation? If we believe that man evolved over tens of thousands of years, maybe more, from a lower and less advanced animal, how on earth can we believe that one of those first sentient beings was culpable enough for his own actions to be responsible for “damning” all his progeny? If I manage to pull through this one with my faith I’ll let you know.

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Adjustable Wrench Dilemma

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On my way to work in the mornings, I pass the hibernation grounds of the Saltsjöbaden Boat Club. Boat owners are currently busy getting their craft out of the water and onto scaffolding on dry land, as the Baltic winter ice is not friendly to boats.

The other day I found an adjustable spanner on the bike track right by the boats. It was sitting beside a newly landed boat, one of many whose cover scaffolding was in place but whose tarp wasn’t on yet. This threw me into a brief ethical dilemma. What should I do with the wrench?

I already own an adjustable wrench. Another one would be somewhat useful to me. But the person who lost the wrench would certainly be unhappy about losing theirs. Now, there were no identifying marks on the wrench, and I didn’t know whose it was. Simply keeping it would, I felt, be justifiable. So would leaving it on the ground. But finally I tossed it into the nearest boat. Regardless of whether I thereby returned the wrench to its owner or gave it as a surprise gift to somebody else, I made that person happy. And the name of the boat was Hilda Trast, “Hilda Thrush”, which I felt deserved a reward.

Satisfied with my decision I continued on my way.

Slave to Love

A much-publicised trial in Falun, Sweden is giving me a funny feeling. The man on the stand has confessed to the murder of a woman and a small girl, and is also charged with the violent rape of both and of a second woman. The case makes me feel queasy in more ways than one.

Anybody half sane will of course feel incomprehending revulsion when faced with the fact of men with the drive to beat, rape and murder. But there’s something more to it for me. And I think I know what it is. This insane sadistic sex murderer was just following his strongest urges. And so have I done for all my adult life.

I’ll make no bones about it: since my lower teens, I have had a strong irrational urge to have hot, tender, consensual sex with women, preferably several times a week. This has been an important factor in the style of both of my marriages, and the ladies in question will be able to testify that I am indeed quite possessed by that urge. [Comments indicate that I should clarify that what I am confessing to here is randiness, not promiscuity.] In the interval between my marriages, I did little but pursue the fulfilment of my inclinations, and they led me to perform remarkably silly stunts for someone who calls himself a rationalist.

As luck has it, my urges are socially acceptable. Indeed, a number of people even seem to have found them charming. But the thing is, I didn’t choose my orientation. I just did whatever felt right. And so, when I read about the crimes of this unfeeling, twisted child-killer, I feel sick to the stomach. Because the main reason that I’m not committing rape and murder is that I have no inclination to do so. I don’t know if I would have been able to abstain if I had been built the same way as him.