Postcard from Ectoville

Spooked out

In June we made our first trip to the United States with our baby daughter. After a trying week at the beach, we settled into a rented cottage immersed in the lush green of Hanover County, Virginia. Cows grazed next door. A family of chickens wandered over the grass to visit us each morning. In the evening, an industrious spider materialized on the porch, spinning its web anew, only to vanish by dawn.

By the standards of small town Virginia, we immediately became local celebrities. (My sister compared us to Jennifer Aniston, who is reportedly dating a man whose mother lives nearby.) A buzz built up around us: “The Italians are here!” We brought them real Parmigiano cheese (compare with “parmesan”), olive oil from Umbria (compare with “Goya”) and taralli laced with fennel (incomparable). We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

The pinnacle was Ashland’s July 4th parade. My brother-in-law was named honorary parade marshal, giving him and his family had the right to ride in a horse-drawn carriage with the mayor — an exciting prospect for my 10-year-old niece.

The whole town — except the misanthropes, if there are any — gathers yearly along Main St. to watch inventively named “brigades” march from one end of the township to the other. We saw the Lawn Chair Brigade composed of people doing a kind of Full Monty routine with, well, lawn chairs. There was also a Latin brigade, whose members mouthed the Roman greeting “Salve” and sported white togas. A man pedaled an old-time penny-farthing and an eccentric doctor marched on stilts. Then there was the patriotic dog contest…

The next day, my sister gave me a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Look,” she said, “you’re in the paper!” And there I was, looking on as the antique Big Wheel rolled along, part of the annual crowd. It’ll make a nice clipping for the family archive.

But it was a meeting at the barbecue the night before that most struck me. Over a plate of South Carolina peach cobbler, in an enormous, white antebellum home, I met a woman who introduced herself to me as a “ghost-buster.” I soon learned that she had cleansed the place where we were now standing of ectoplasm. It was a perfect setting for the conversation that followed.

I kindly probed as to just what is was that she did. Given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, she told me, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said.

As I patiently listened to tales of angels and spirits I began wondering if there was anything she didn’t believe in. I proposed unicorns. Maybe they were making the strange puttering noises that came from the attic. She dismissed the thought. Given her credulity, I wondered how she could shut out unicorns.

It was a weird conversation, hung with dusty spider webs, creaky staircases and relics of haunted house lore. She even spoke of a mysterious “third” dimension (spooky!). But when she knocked on a wooden bookcase we’d both been leaning on and announced, “This isn’t real,” I decided that further inquiry was pointless. Where do you go from there?

To save any embarrassment, I came clean. I told her I was skeptical, that I didn’t believe in angels, demons or the paranormal in general. I told her there was not a shred of evidence for any of the things she’d described. As she’d been frank with me, I’d return the favor. We parted amiably, returning to our respective beer coolers.

I love visiting Ashland. It’s like some long lost town in an America that probably never existed except on celluloid and the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. An overwhelming feeling of innocence, of childhood, creeps up on me.

Now that I have a daughter I’m coming to better appreciate innocence. Think about it: here is a human being with almost no sense of danger. She trusts people. She’ll put anything into her mouth. We, her parents, must keep watch over her lest she tumble down a flight of stairs or swallow a tack. I’ll be happy when Melissa is a jaded cynic, though; innocence is dangerous. It isn’t meant to last.

This observation illustrates the way I look at Ashland. Every time I visit, I wonder if it will still be the same. When will it morph into just another Richmond suburb? When will it shed that special cocoon of simplicity that so fascinates me, and which Ashlanders work to protect?

The moment we move into town, no doubt.

Published in The American

Of sacred cows and sacred unicorns

Meet Paisley, my pet unicorn

Ophelia Benson wrote a post yesterday about sacred cows. In it she asks readers what their cows are, and the responses are fairly typical of what one would expect from skeptical rationalists: democracy, the “golden rule*”, equality, etc…of course no reader of B&W holds actual cows to be sacred, or Jesuses or golden calfs (or is it “calves”?). That’s what you get when you ask a question like that to a gaggle of atheists.

My understanding of the term “sacred cow” is something beyond question, a thing we know is probably undeserving of intellectual protection yet which is protected, shielded from inquiry. It’s not necessarily something which we have fairly good reasons for holding dear, such as basic human rights or hygiene. Those make sense under even the most severe scrutiny (unless you are a sociopath or a pope.)

“David” – perhaps the one who sparked Ophelia’s post – posted a comment along these same lines:

I have a friend for instance who is a skeptic in almost all things but she wants so bad to believe in life after death so that she can think her mother is still somewhere that [sic] she believes in ghosts. She wont discuss it with anyone she does not go ghost hunting or anything but she simply will not consider any evidence against it.

Which is kind of funny because I’ve been thinking about ghosts lately; so I mentioned on Facebook that I have a sacred unicorn.

Here’s a little background:

Last week I had the opportunity to meet a ghostbuster at a 4th of July barbecue in Virginia. After a while of patiently listening to her tales of ectoplasm on walls, angels, spirits and other dimensions (she spoke of an imperceptible “third” dimension…spooky!) I mentioned that maybe what she thought were ghosts were really invisible unicorns. She let slip a telling smile, as if to say, “Nonsense!” I thought, “Gotcha!” Why are unicorns, invisible or not, any less plausible than what she believed were the real causes of unexplained noises in an old wooden house?

This woman was not a skeptic in any sense. In fact, she told me straight out that, when given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said. Then why chuckle at unicorns?

So that’s how my sacred unicorn came into this world. She grazes imperceptibly with all those cows in a field of golden wheat somewhere beyong the horizon. If you see her, do me a favor: shoot.

* The “golden rule” is appropriately ridiculed in the comments section of the original post.

Pius XII and his crystal ball

If I told you that Pius XII spent the war years peeking into a crystal ball or shuffling tarot cards in order to divine the future, you might say something like, “What a nutcase!” And you’d be right, I suspect. So what’s the difference when John Cornwell tells us – citing beatification testimony of Pius’ own nephew – that:

…the Pope was in the habit during the war of conducting a form of exorcism to cast out the devil that he assumed inhabited the soul of Hitler – which he did in the dead of night in his private chapel in the papal apartments.

That’s not nuts? Ooga-booga, the Pope communing with the spirits in a private seance (true, one wonders how his nephew knew this) in his most private of Holy Holies? The valiant Pius wrestling with angels for the soul of the world, while Satan stalks the heart of Europe in the form of the Third Reich. Apparently, a papal encyclical would have been wasted on mortal eyes; ditto a radio broadcast in condemnation of Hitler. Pius XII produced nothing of the kind for the duration of the war.

But he wrestled with the Children of Darkness in his private chapel at midnight. How spiritually elevated of him.

Prophecy Derailed

Ron Rosenbaum has an interesting reflection on the 2012 cult, which I’ve never heard of before (but then again, I don’t really follow these things). It’s typical pseudo-prophetic mishaguss. And many people lap it up.

Here’s Rosenbaum:

“Why am I so fascinated with unmitigated full bloom looniness? Shouldn’t we just laugh it off? Unfortunately nonsense like this has led to millions of dead from religious wars over just such clashing idiocies. I think it reminds us that this kind of baseless belief is at the heart of all religions and that man has suffered immeasurably since the beginning of civilization from it and that, it’s looking more likely that it will cause the death of enlightment civilization, just a brief candle in the vast darkness of ignorance.”

I, too, am fascinated by unmitigated, full bloom looniness. Recall The Secret? We all should be so fascinated, because we live in a world full of apocalyptic death cults and nuclear weapons. Also, we should be slightly worried for the future of our planet and our civilization.

Today’s nutjobs might be tomorrows deathmobs. The point is worth making.