Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bedtime for Regina

When I get home from the lab, I set my things down, put out the baby gate, and let Regina out of her cage. On the ground floor of my house are a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen, in a row; Regina’s cage is in the living room. At first, when it was time for Regina to play outside her cage, she would mostly stay in the living room and sometimes go into the dining room, but never the kitchen. I live in a Baltimore row house that was built in the 1890’s, before indoor plumbing was common, so the kitchen was an addition. It sits two steps down from the rest of the ground floor, and Regina, being a rabbit, does not, generally, find steps worth risking.

One time, I was cooking, and thought that it might be interesting to see how Regina liked the kitchen. She immediately hid under a cabinet, tucked behind some molding such that I couldn’t see her. I ate supper, and she was still hiding under the cabinet. I didn’t know what I could try to get her out, and I didn’t think she was in danger if I left her under the cabinet, so I went out for the evening to see some friends. When I got home, she was still under the cabinet, but when she saw me turn the light on, she hopped out and let me pick her up and take her to her cage.

After that, she understood how those kitchen stairs worked and knew that the best hiding place around is under the kitchen cabinets, so I have to put up a baby gate to keep her out of the kitchen.

It was annoying for me to set up the baby gate the first time because the house is so old that there are no parallel lines in it. So, I tried to set up the baby gate in the doorway, the proper way, with the little rubber stoppers pushing out on the doorway, but the doorway flares out at the bottom, so the baby gate wasn’t stable. I settled on just leaning the baby gate in front of the doorway to the kitchen.

One time, Regina got around the baby gate and into the kitchen, and I was scared and chased after her and she hid under the cabinets. I was scared because I had a rat trap in the kitchen; at the time, I had a rat infestation. I quickly put the rat trap away, because I didn’t want it to harm Regina, and I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for her to come out from under the cabinets. This time, I sat in the dining room, reading, and she got bored and came out in fifteen minutes. Ever since then, I have propped a chair in front of the baby gate, to keep Regina from slipping behind it.

Regina and I used to have a different bedtime routine than we do now. She likes to hide under furniture, especially the futon in the living room. I put some phone books under the futon, and she likes chewing on them and tearing the pages out. Also, I have a fireplace that doesn’t work; it’s set up for a wood-burning stove, but I don’t have a wood-burning stove, so instead I have a cinderblock that props up a flue for a wood-burning stove. Regina likes to hide in the fireplace, with her head behind the cinder block but her tail sticking out.

Regina, being a rabbit, is a prey animal; this dominates her behavior. To survive and procreate as a rabbit, one must forage and groom and burrow and make friends with other rabbits, but all of that is easily destroyed in a moment by a predator; I think that Regina’s strongest emotion isn’t greed or love, it’s fear.

It is difficult to take care of a rabbit because rabbits can run much faster than I can. So, when it was time for me to put Regina to bed, I would shake the back of the futon, and she would run out from behind it, randomly picking her next hiding spot, maybe under the cage or under the coffee table or under the china cabinet in the dining room. I would follow her around and nudge her out of each spot until, checkmate, she would hide in the fireplace and I would have her cornered and could pick her up and put her in her cage. Then I would have to hold her very tightly as I would lower her into her cage; if I didn’t, she might jump right out of my arms, being excited to get back into her safe place. One time, she got her paw stuck in the bars of her cage, and it was difficult for me to lift her paw out of the bars because rabbits tend to kick when they’re scared, so she was starting to flail a little bit and I wanted to make sure she didn’t break a bone.

Canines, like wolves and foxes and dogs, are the main predators of rabbits. When a canine catches a rabbit, the canine doesn’t kill the rabbit on the spot, it picks the rabbit up and takes it somewhere secure to break its neck by shaking it. Regina is not a fully socialized animal; she isn’t wild, but she also isn’t docile. My sister has a rabbit, Shadow, that was reared by a breeder who would make sure that all of the baby rabbits were handled a little bit every day, and so my sister’s rabbit is very docile, she seeks out human touch. Regina, though, is not accustomed to being held, and her instincts make being carried scary for her. When I’m sitting on the futon, she will sometimes hop up and let me pet her a little bit, but then she’ll hop away; that she gets close to me at all makes me think that she understands that I’m safe for her. Even so, at the age she is, I don’t think she will ever feel safe being carried by a human.

Regina and I visited my family for Christmas last year, we stayed for a few days. My sister has a big rabbit pen, and we put both of our rabbits in it and tried to introduce them. Regina and Shadow hopped up to each other, sniffed each other, nose to nose, and then, suddenly, Shadow ripped a tuft of fur off of Regina, who, startled, ran to hide behind me. We separated them quickly. Evidently, this is not how to introduce rabbits.

While visiting my family, Regina stayed in a borrowed cage that sat on the ground; this was different for her, because her cage at home is like a little cart, with the base about a foot and a half off the floor. The last night of our visit, my sister and I tried to gradually introduce our rabbits to each other, and it was helpful for Regina to be in a cage that she could hop out of and into as she wished. She was nervous, in a strange place, and she had been harmed by Shadow. We put the two cages close together, maybe a foot apart. We left Shadow’s cage closed but opened the door to Regina’s; after a couple of minutes, when she felt safe, she hopped out and put her paws up on Shadow’s cage. They sniffed at each other. Regina then went back into her cage, and we shut the door. Then, Shadow took a turn coming out of her cage on her own, with Regina staying in her cage, and they sniffed some more. This was safe for them because if one was scared of the other, she could step back, and the wall of the cage would protect her. Next Christmas, if we spend more time letting the rabbits get acquainted, maybe they will be able to play together.

After we got home from being away for Christmas, I thought of how scary it is for Regina to be picked up and taken to her cage when she is done playing. Even though bedtime was scary for her, I thought that it was worth it for her to get good exercise and to have more space to explore in. I wanted to see if there was a way for her to play outside her cage without having to be picked up. On a snow day in January when I was home, I stacked some boxes and phone books to make stairs leading up to the door of her cage. She didn’t try standing on them at first, so I picked her up and set her halfway down the stairs, and she figured out how to get down from there. After I helped her practice some more, she would enter and leave her cage at will. Not long after that, I got her a little stool from Ikea that has two steps, and that works fine as stairs to let her get up and down from the cage.

It’s often the case that I have to go to bed before she would go back to her cage on her own, so I have to coax her. I might nudge her out from under the china cabinet, or lift the back of the futon, but now, instead of me trying to corner her in the fireplace, our routine looks like her taking a couple of steps and me following her very slowly so as not to startle her; if I startle her, she looks for the best hiding place she can and we have to start all over. If I’m careful enough, we walk in circles around the coffee table a couple of times, and then she looks at the stairs and decides that it is a good time for her to climb them and enter her cage. I close the cage door behind her and tell her that she did a good job.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Silly and contrived bits of folk theology

One Friday evening, at a fundamentalist, non-denominational Bible college, a student was returning to his dorm after supper. No one was at the front desk of the building. When he got to his hall, he saw several folded up piles of clothes. A few of the doors to the dorm rooms were open. A folded pile of clothes was sitting in a desk chair, with glasses propped neatly on top of an open book. There was silence, except for the sound of an electric shaver running; it was lying on the floor in front of the vanity, next to a folded towel.

He was studying to be a youth pastor. As he prayed, out loud, asking God why he hadn’t been taken, too, Was he unworthy? Was it too late to repent?, tears started falling from his cheeks. Then his fellow residents came out of hiding and started to laugh at him. Trying not to look embarrassed, he forced a couple of chuckles.

“You don't believe in the Rapture?!” Joanna asked me, as if I wasn’t a true Christian.

“No." I said. "Wait, you believe in the Rapture?”

I had mostly been raised going to Presbyterian churches, but at this point in my life, my family was going to a hip non-denominational seeker-sensitive contemporary church with a more eclectic set of conservative Christian beliefs. The question of whether I believed in the Rapture was suddenly more complicated than I had thought. I thought I didn’t believe in it, that only wacky fundamentalists did, but I didn’t think that Joanna was a wacky fundamentalist.

Joanna: “But I thought that all Christians believe in the Rapture. So you don’t think Jesus is coming back?”

Me: “I think Jesus is coming back, I just don’t believe in the Rapture. I’m not even sure what that is. I don’t think the word, ‘Rapture’ is in the Bible.”

We were fourteen, and I think that we were trying to have the same sort of argument that our parents would have at Bible study. One time, when Mom and Dad got home from Bible study, Mom told me that Joanna’s mom, who was leading the study, started by reading a passage from Mark and, after the reading, said, “And that’s why I’m a premillennial dispensationalist.” The discussion was, evidently, stressed, which was odd because my parents and Joanna’s parents and the other grown-ups at Bible study were friends. I don’t remember much else that was said in the conversation with Joanna. I recall that I thought that she thought that I didn’t properly believe the Bible. I had previously thought she was normal, and now I was afraid that my friend was one of those End Times people.

The distinctions between our understandings were so pedantic that I didn’t properly understand that argument until I was at least twenty. There is general agreement among Christians that Jesus is coming back someday, that the earth will be transformed, and that Christians who had died will be resurrected. The quaint beliefs that pop culture associates with Christian beliefs about the end of the world, things like people vanishing, leaving behind neatly folded piles of clothes, glasses, and their dental fillings; planes crashing out of the sky if the pilot and copilot are both Christians; computers used for processing credit cards being a sign of the apocalypse; these are bound up in the premillennial dispensationalist tradition that is American, new, and obscure.

The Rapture wasn’t called The Rapture in a way that had much traction until the mid-1800’s. The term is mostly used by premillennial dispensationalists; this group is the part of conservative Christianity that is the most likely to predict when the world will end or try to identify an Antichrist. This particular apocalyptic tradition was popularized primarily through three works: Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin’s Left Behind series. The Scofield Reference Bible was an annotated King James Bible with cross-references for convenient proof-texting.

I can’t find a clear reference from scripture about people leaving behind folded clothes when they get taken by Jesus, but this sensational image is a good example of how the general understanding of the Rapture, by the people who believe in it, is folk theology.

These doctrines are explained with a lot of charts. The movement gets its name from the idea that God’s grace is given out in seven “dispensations”, that there was one set of rules for being saved in the Garden of Eden, then another before the flood, then another after the flood but before Abraham, and so on. There are charts comparing text from an Old Testament prophecy, a bit from Revelation, and a list of nations, including Israel and the United States and Iraq (the new Babylon) and a resuscitated Roman empire (the European Union?). The ideas in the End Times movement are speculative, but presented as if they’re clear and plain and well-thought-out. This method is different from most Biblical literalists’ approach.

I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterians, being, by nature, reserved people, they normally have more reserved views of the End Times: an attitude that no one will know when Jesus is coming back until he does, and when he gets here, he’ll tell us what to do. People from the Presbyterian tradition are likely to scoff at the elaborate, overconfident storytelling around the Rapture.

One afternoon, when I was maybe ten, I was lying on my bed, reading, when I heard a fanfare. I thought, “Maybe Jesus is coming back today!” Then I heard, “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!” It turned out that one of my brothers was watching a video. Even though my family didn’t believe in a lot of the specifics that the premillennial dispensationalists do, and even though I knew that I couldn’t know when Jesus would come back, I still hoped that he would, soon.

“You don't believe in the Prayer of Jabez?” my cousin asked me, a little shocked.

“I believe that he prayed that prayer, and it worked out fine for him,” I said, “but the Bible doesn’t set up Jabez’s prayer as a proper example of prayer. The Lord’s prayer, or the Psalms, those are better models for prayer.” I suppose I was sixteen or so. The Prayer of Jabez was the latest evangelical fad. Bruce Wilkinson wrote a book about Jabez, an obscure Old Testament figure stuck in the middle of a list of “begets”; here is everything the Bible says about Jabez:

Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.

(1 Chronicles 4:9-10)

Somehow, Wilkinson stretched those two verses out into a book; his publisher then made more books based on that book, devotionals, journals, and so on, albums of worship music based on The Prayer of Jabez, mousepads, keychains, scented candles. Someone’s borders got enlarged.

I think that the phenomena of Rapture fandom and the popularity of The Prayer of Jabez are parallel: they are somewhat consistent with the Bible, but not clearly supported by it. They aren’t developed gradually from existing theological traditions, they feel like an idea that some guy had one time. They are convenient, neatly packaged beliefs. With the Rapture, you get the secret code from the Bible that explains the end of the world. With The Prayer of Jabez, you get a secret password that gives you access to God’s magical powers.

There is a stream in the woods behind the house I grew up in, and there’s a little island in that stream. It’s barely an island, it’s a bump of dirt in the middle of Bynum Run. One time, when I was maybe eight, the older kids told me stories about how there used to be a house on that island and that now the island is haunted and I was scared. When Dad got home from work, I asked him if he believed in ghosts. “Yes,” he said, “One. The Holy Ghost.” He smiled, and I felt less afraid. My parents are skeptical people. Whenever magicians would perform on TV, Dad would try to figure out how the tricks worked. My parents don’t believe in horoscopes or homeopathy or Reiki energy or space aliens. My parents raised me to be skeptical, and so we rejected the folk theology around the Rapture, and we didn’t pray the prayer of Jabez, and we managed to avoid other Christian fads.

I have a complicated relationship with my previous Christian self. I feel a little disappointed in myself that it took me so long to come to non-belief in God. As a bit of consolation, I’m inclined to think that, even though I was a Christian, I was a shrewd Christian. The things that I thought then, while not correct, were more carefully put together than the Rapture and Prayer of Jabez movements.

I don't believe the story at the start of this essay, about the Bible college dorm Rapture hoax. I don’t quite remember where I heard it, and I can’t find a source to for it. For a while, I thought it was true, though. Part of why I believed the story is that it confirmed what I thought, not about the Rapture, but about the people who were preoccupied with it.

And now, as I’m thinking about Christian folk religion, I think I’m a little dishonest with myself to think that I managed to only get the good, high-quality Christian doctrines. There were silly and contrived bits of folk theology that I believed for selfish reasons, but it’s difficult for me to identify, now, what they were, because I don’t want to think of myself as gullible. For example, I was a young-earth creationist, and that sort of belief seems more well-thought-out to me than the Rapture and the Prayer of Jabez, but maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s just as thin. Maybe what makes young-earth creationism different from the Rapture and the Prayer of Jabez is that it was a thing that I believed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


As I was falling asleep last night, I felt quiet, not public library quiet, but after-a-big-thunderstorm quiet. My mind felt quiet, I wasn’t having many thoughts, I didn’t feel compelled to.

One time, when I was going through a break-up, I tried to fast for a day, to clear my mind; I made it until 2 PM and then went to KFC and got a barbecue chicken sandwich and macaroni, and then I went back to fasting. The next day, I was so upset, I couldn’t eat at all, even though I wasn’t fasting. One friend describes breaking up like this: when you discover that a favorite piece of clothing is getting a little worn and maybe isn’t good to wear out and about, you put it in your bottom dresser drawer; after a break-up, it’s like you get to wear those favorite old clothes again.

Everyone has annoying habits, things like cracking knuckles or using words like “irregardless” and “inflammable”, or always being a little late, or, when going out to eat, making detailed requests of the waiter. So, even when a break-up is about something important, acts of betrayal or disappointment or irresponsibility, months after a break-up, it’s the passing of these minor, petty grievances that gives relief; realizing that you are, for sure, not going to spend the rest of your life with someone who eats their Oreos by splitting them in two and then scraping the frosting off with their teeth.

I used to do research for the Army. I thought that the war in Iraq was unjustified and, although what I was doing wasn’t going directly to Iraq, just working for the Department of Defense concerned me.

About half of the work itself was material testing. In The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, the main characters work for the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois, because IRS work is repetitive and dull but requires attention to detail. That was what testing materials was like: a pointed boredom. One time, I did the same test two hundred times in one week. I wasn’t well-suited for the job. I would sneeze and lose samples, tiny ones, down into the screw holes on an optical table. One time, I got dizzy from epoxy fumes while trying to mount some instruments on samples.

The other half of my job was making software tools to collect and analyze data. This was more interesting than just doing the tests, but even when I was making tools, although the way that the tools worked was a little interesting to me, what they did wasn’t. Only a couple of people would even use these tools.

There were all sorts of more minor things about that job that I hated. I hated the commute, which was an hour and a half during rush hour. I hated the security policies; to get to my desk, I had to pass checkpoints and show my badge and swipe my badge. I had to wear a badge and it turns out that I don’t like wearing badges; they’re awkward and dangly. I had to take the badge to the Front Desk once a month, and I wasn’t good at remembering this; when I forgot, which was about four times, there weren’t any actual consequences except the worker at the front desk glaring at me.

I tried to quit that job once, but my next gig wasn’t lined up properly, so I was stuck with the job for another four months. I think that made my dislike of the job worse. When I finally was able to quit, I started grad school, which scared me, but I kept remembering that old job and thinking about how glad I was to have something else to do.

Most people, after a break-up, plan on dating someone else, eventually, and most people quit one job planning on starting another, at least eventually. As I was quitting Christianity, though, I wasn’t considering Krishna or Thor. I didn’t exactly find a new thing. I meditate a little, I go to weekly meetings of the Secular Student Alliance, I read, but all of those things, put together, aren’t like a replacement for Christianity. At first, quitting was difficult, like the feeling very hungry or too upset to eat; I lost a lot of sleep, I would have night panics. I would wander around outside late at night.

I used to pray, not as much as I thought I should, but enough that I felt like God was always with me. When I would go for a walk or sit in silence or drive in my car, I felt like I wasn’t alone. In the morning, my alarm clock would wake me up, I would roll out of bed, walk across my room to turn off the clock, then stand there in my pajamas and pray, just to deal with getting up.

Mornings became more difficult after I started to doubt. Why was I waking up—to what end? Why do the things that I do matter? How do I know if I’m doing well enough? How do I go about not feeling bad? Sometimes, I overslept, often until noon. I kept cans of Red Thunder by my bed, to jolt myself awake with caffeine, as soon as I would wake up.

And one day between then and now I woke up, not praying, not missing prayer, feeling a little cranky because I always feel a little cranky when I wake up. Then I used the bathroom, and then went downstairs and ground some coffee beans and foamed some milk for cappuccino, and I did the same thing the next day, and the next day, and eventually, I stopped noticing that I was alone and it seemed normal, and now it feels good.

I would say that I thought about this as I fell asleep last night, but I didn’t, because I wasn’t thinking so much as being quiet.