Friday, April 27, 2012

Pete. The Bookstore Guy.

Honey get your boppin' shoes 
Before the jukebox blows a fuse.
Well everbody's hoppin',
Everybody's boppin',
Boppin' at the High School Hop.

This week, I met an old high school classmate; I hadn’t seen him since we graduated almost seven years ago. The guys in my class (it was an all-boys school for a long time, and my class was the last all-boys class) were a rowdy, strange, and not particularly mature group of dudes. It was a surprise, then, to meet my classmate: self-aware, sober, in the middle of helping someone he cared about, no longer his high school self. The pleasant thing was, it was as if this is who had always been all along, and it just took a few more years, some exposure to life outside of high school, to let it show. I wonder if that's how I seemed to him.


Meeting this classmate reminded me of an incident, late in my high school career, when my classmates demonstrated their character to the fullest—at least, their character at the time.

Our school was (and, to my understanding, still is) a shabby, somewhat desperate place, continually struggling to get the funds to pay for teachers, staff, and upkeep. It’s a private school, so they charge tuition, of course, but the school’s search for money doesn’t stop there. There’s activity fees, and annual fundraisers like raffles and a walkathon. But, most frustratingly, there’s the bookstore.

My high school did not provide you with anything you needed for class for free. If you wanted, say, a textbook, you bought it at the bookstore. And yes, that textbook lost 80% of its value immediately upon purchase; you could sell it back to the bookstore, but it was hardly worth it. The worst injustice teachers didn’t even give you scantron forms to take your multiple choice tests on; you had to buy them at the bookstore, or risk failing the test. Naturally, this situation created some resentment within the student body.

To make matters worse, when you visited the school bookstore, you had to deal with the man who ran the bookstore. This man was late middle age, kind of heavy-looking. He had a combover and big, coke bottle glasses. And he was a bitter, angry person who did not like you, or, apparently, anyone. Who can say why he was bitter and angry and did not like you? Perhaps it was because everyone he met was angry at having to come to the bookstore. Perhaps he was angry because he was middle aged and had a combover, and that's just no fun. But the main point is, this guy was a jerk.

Now, the hallways at my high school were divided by class—you had the freshman hallway, the sophomore hallway, and so forth. One day in the senior hallway between class, someone started to mouth off about the bookstore guy. It was unfair that we had to buy our own scantrons, sure, but it was extra frustrating that this guy was such a jerk to us. Who was he, anyway? No one knew his name. So we collectively decided to call him, “Pete.” I never found out if there was a reason for this choice; thereafter, the bookstore guy was Pete, and that was that. Not long after, someone wrote a short song in celebration of Pete. The lyrics went like this:

Pete, the bookstore guy,
Pete, the bookstore guy,
Pete, the bookstore guy,
Pete, the bookstore guy.

We were a creative bunch in the senior hallway.

As the year went on, the sound of Pete, the bookstore guy ringing through the senior hallway became more and more common. We would chant it between classes to each other, glorying in the weirdness of this bitter man whose identity was unknown and, in our way, releasing energy but also building and expressing our frustration about the bookstore and our experience at the school. Sometimes someone would rap over the background chorus of Pete, the bookstore guy, expounding on Pete’s made-up life and existence, or just editorializing on life at the school in general. It became the senior class theme song, even surpassing our already very creative “Oh-five-WHAT? Oh-five-WHAT?” chant, referring to our graduation year, 2005.

Time passed, and the end of the year loomed large. The seniors were on their way out, finishing classes with final exams and getting ready for graduation. We were restless.

One day, the song finally made its way out of the senior hallway. A senior, passing by the bookstore downstairs, casually chanted it to himself (pete the bookstore guy); a moment later, someone else picked it up and chanted it along with him (Pete, the bookstore guy); gradually, more and more seniors gathered and chanted and whooped and laughed and soon there was a howling, jumping, agitated mass of high school seniors outside the bookstore, all yelling at the top of their lungs PETE, THE BOOKSTORE GUY; PETE, THE BOOKSTORE GUY; PETE, THE BOOKSTORE GUY; PETE, THE BOOKSTORE GUY.

The bookstore guy was furious: his name was not Pete. Onlookers were amused: someone was finally doing something, however trivial, about the injustice that was the bookstore and its operator. And suddenly, a teacher appeared around the corner, and all the seniors dispersed, not wishing to endanger their graduation with a suspension.

That was the last time any of us sang the song, and it was the last time any of us needed to. We had made our point.

Friday, April 20, 2012

I've Only Been Pulled Over Once. This Is What Happened.

They know my name because I told it to them,
But they don't know where and they don't know when
It's coming or when.
Is it coming?
Keep the car running.

"Keep the Car Running," The Arcade Fire

Not long after I started college, my parents and sisters moved away to South America. This was a mixed blessing: on the one hand, I was forced to become more independent than I might have become otherwise, in a variety of ways. On the other hand: no free laundry.

At all events, when I was in my last year of college, my parents moved back to this country. They moved into a town home in a northern suburb of Chicago called, in true suburban cut-down-trees-and-name-streets-after-them fashion, Rolling Meadows. So far as I've ever seen, it doesn't really have meadows, rolling or otherwise. It does have the thing that makes many suburbs truly aggravating: bad urban design. The streets are pretty much all either (a) little windy curvy confusing block-long things that blend into each other and end in culs-de-sac* or (b) multi-lane highways. And Heaven help you if you want to walk anywhere on a sidewalk: there are none.

After they came back, I visited my family in their new place as much as possible. It was great finally spending time together again after three years on different continents. They would pick me up somewhere in the city, and I would ride in the car to their house; I don't own a car myself, so they always drove.

Not long after their return, my family left town for a week and asked me to house-sit for them while they were away. I agreed, and they lent me the car so I could drive to Rolling Meadows after class and check in on the house. The first night after they left, I stayed out late at a party for a friend, and I didn't get going until well after midnight.

I rolled into Rolling Meadows, dead tired. I had never driven this car before, and, it suddenly dawned on me, I had never had to drive myself to my parents' house before. I didn't have directions or anything, just vague memories in a sleep-addled brain of having seen that sign, that restaurant, this stoplight. I drove in circles, slowly, trying to get my bearings and figure this out without giving up and going to sleep in the car or, worse, calling someone. Keep in mind that, mostly, this meant driving on the four-or-more-lane highways that cross through the Chicago suburbs, only occasionally stopping at stoplights. When you're tired and lost, this is not fun.

After some 30 minutes or so of this, I finally tracked down the street that would lead to the street that would lead to the street that my parents lived on. Just before I turned, blue lights flashed in my rear-view mirror: I was being pulled over, just a couple blocks from my destinationalmost within sight of it. 

A female police officer got out of her squad car and made her way to my window. As she did so, I did my best not to panic and to keep my hands on the wheel so I didn't get shot because I looked like I was going for a gun like I'd been told in sophomore year Driver's Ed class. Where are the papers for this thing? They always ask for license and registration on TVwhat's registration, is that insurance or something else? This is awful.

After the cop checked my driver's license for my (I think?) non-existent criminal record (is that what they do with it? I only have "The Blues Brothers" and "The Net," that nineties "the Internet is terrifying" movie with Sandra Bullock to go on, since those are the two movies with scenes where you actually see cops check licenses that I have seen) she came back and told me I had been traveling at under 20 mph on a 45 mph road, and looked at me with an expression demanding explanation for this most unusual of activities. I explained that I was a little lost and was looking for my parents' home, which had been true until right before I was pulled over. I also said that I was very tired, which had been true until I woke up with terror because I had been pulled over. She pointed out the street that I needed to turn on, which would have actually been very helpful at any time in the last 30 minutes but which was now useless. I thanked her, waited for her to leave, and made my turn. A few moments later, I was, finally, home.

*Yes, that's the plural of cul-de-sac. No, it doesn't make me happy to put it into writing.

Photo source:

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lent is Done

And if you're trying to sing an old song, 
you're getting all the words wrong,
Well, you're just a-following along too closely in the book.

"Epistemology," M. Ward

A few weeks ago, at the start of Lent, I wrote some thoughts on what it is and what it can be. I also wondered openly what meaning I would take from Lent this year, and someone suggested that I write about it after the season was finished.

I come from a church background with little to no emphasis on the season of Lent, or on most seasons of the Christian calendar. Thus, I have little instruction in how I should find meaning in the season. (It occurs to me that this might make me feel more free to find my own meaning in something, but in my experience, a lack of restrictions on what one can do is not the same thing as freedom.)

I gave up eating any animal products during Lent this year. I hoped to practice this self-denial as an avenue to reflection and contemplation, and to use fasting from certain foods as a way of making myself pure for the season of Easter, a time of renewal. I think that, most of the time, I failed in the former goal. I rarely stopped to think why I was not eating something, what was this abstention supposed to be pointing me towards. But there were occasions, perhaps once a week, maybe twice, when I would pause and reflect: in eating simply, I prepare myself for Jesus' death and resurrection; in denying myself, I remind myself of Jesus' sacrifice for me and for the world. These thoughts, though simple, are of deep importance to me.

I tend to be disappointed in myself at the ends of these kinds of things; I often feel that I have failed to really follow through with or take seriously such religious activity, especially activity spread over such a long period as forty days. I worry especially that I have not achieved the insight that I was supposed to. As I get older, though, I'm beginning to see things differently: the purpose of sustained religious activity, particularly for adults, is not necessarily to teach something new, but rather to remind us of the important lessons we would otherwise forget. (I talked more in depth about this perspective last week.) So, for once, I am content with my Lenten experience. I hope to continue to be so in the years to come.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

Lord, why castest thou off my soul?
            why hidest thou thy face from me?
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up: 
           while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.
Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; 
           thy terrors have cut me off.
They came round about me daily like water; 
           they compassed me about together.
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, 
           and mine acquaintance into darkness.

       —Psalm 88:14-18, KJV 

It's Good Friday, the day on which the Church remembers the crucifixion and death of Jesus.  Last night at church, we had a service which ended with a ritual I've always found to be particularly moving. While the above psalm is sung by a single voice, rising over the drone of low notes hummed by the choir, members of the congregation strip the sanctuary of all its ornamentation and implements. The communion cup and dish are covered and taken away; the altar and podium lose their colored cloth. At the end, there is only a crucifix in front of the congregation, covered by a black shroud.

The lights are turned off. The congregation sings a final, quiet song, unaccompanied by any instrument, and all leave in silence.


What are rituals for? I grew up thinking that to make something into a ritual meant, fundamentally, to take away its meaning. I thought that the only way to really mean something—a prayer, for example—that it needed to be spontaneous and made up on the spot, or at least created by the person who says it. How can you really mean something someone else created and handed to you and said "Here, say this and mean it"?

I recognize now that this was pretty short-sighted. I didn't think, for example, that songs written by other people were worthless if I sang them, or that marriages were invalid unless the person performing the ceremony made up the words as she went along. I just thought, really, that church rituals, doing and saying things about/for/to God "by rote" (as I would have put it) was wrong, and that was that. 

I've since changed my opinion about these things, but I haven't spent much time thinking about why. In a book I read recently called Religion for Atheists*, the author takes rituals, in particular religious rituals, to be a way of reinforcing what we already know, or what we already ought to know but would otherwise forget. They are a way of getting around our tendency to forget things very, very easily. He points out that at universities we are expected to absorb information heard once, often from someone not particularly interested in getting us to really know or understand what she is saying.  Religions, though, teach us the important lessons continually, through ritual reading of texts, saying of prayers, and the like. They are a way of making sure that we don't forget the most important lessons. 

The trouble with relying on ritual alone to teach us things is that we often end up not acting on what we know is good, e.g.: I know that it is good to love my neighbor, but I often fail to. This state is called akrasia, Greek for something like "acting against one's better judgement." We need something to startle us into paying attention to what we have heard and said a hundred times in church or elsewhere, something to break us out of our akrasia. One such thing, the author suggests, is beauty


I chose the King James translation in the psalm at the beginning of this entry, because I think it is beautiful. In fact, if you believe Robert Alter, the King James version is the last Bible translation both to set out with "beauty" as an end goal and to succeed. Bible translations tend to aim for accuracy and especially clarity and readability, but they tend to sacrifice style, rhythm, and other elements that make a written work truly enjoyable to read. 

Having read about the KJV and its goodness, I recently set about reading it myself. In my imagination, it's an intimidating book, full of old language and hard-to-parse phrases. But when you really sit down with it, and get yourself in the proper frame of mind, Robert Alter's argument comes true: it's a beautiful translation. And if Religion for Atheists is right, it may be the best way to startle myself into living rightly. I'm going to stick with it, I think.


Postscript: two things I think the ritual at the beginning of this post should remind us of. 
  • Remember and respect that we are mortal. We all die, and that is no light thing.
  • Sometimes we feel alone and abandoned. We should reflect on that feeling and remember it when encountering others: they may feel it without our knowing.

*Why am I reading a book with a title like Religion for Atheists, you ask? I thought, in the day and age of the New Atheism, when atheists have embarked on a project of making religion out to be a downright monstrous thing, that it would be nice to read a book where an atheist talked about why religion was valuable and good. And I was right. It was very nice. Also, a character in one of my favorite books, Gilead, talks about the beauty of water baptism by quoting an atheist, Feuerbach, and I always thought that was neat and wanted to do it, and now I can, but without quoting Feuerbach, who is German and (in the German way) very hard to read.