Sorry for the tongue-twisting alliteration in my title, but it was inspired long ago by a seminary professor. On the opening day of class in a fascinating course in Biblical archeology in 1978, Professor Van Hunter delivered this seamless account of one of his archeological expeditions: “On a dig near Cairo in 1960, I discovered one day what I was sure to be the Petrified Pituitary of the Imperial Potentate of Mesopotamia!”
“Wow!” I thought. The Petrified Pituitary of the Imperial Potentate of Mesopotamia! I decided then and there that archeology was to be my chosen field. Dig it? But being a bit oblivious to social cues back then, I ignored the chuckles all around me and took copious notes, writing furiously as Professor Van Hunter described carefully excavating his treasure from its earthly tomb. I turned a page in my notes as he continued:
“So I carefully wrapped the Petrified Pituitary of the Imperial Potentate of Mesopotamia to be shipped for further study. But you can just imagine my disappointment weeks later to receive a cable informing me that what I had unearthed was not the Petrified Pituitary of the Imperial Potentate of Mesopotamia, but merely a common solidified Secretion of an Ancient Grecian who Crept into the Crypt and Crapped.”
Okay, I finally got it! But I wrote all the way up to the word “crypt” before I realized Professor Van Hunter was telling us his one and only archeology joke. Because I wrote it, however, I also remembered it, and I’ve waited all these years for a chance to repeat it, and maybe even write some clever alliteration of my own with a preference for permutations of the letter “P.” I thought I got this out of my system in a post last year entitled, “A Prisoner, a Professor, a Prelate” Two Priests, and a Poet” that I think is worthy of another look when you have nothing else to do some day.
Meanwhile, remember Pornchai’s discovery in “The Books of Long Winter’s Night“? I thought of his exclamation about “post-apocalyptic poop” when I saw those costly, full page ads in USA Today and other newspapers in May announcing that Judgement Day was to occur on May 21, 2011. It was to begin with a global earthquake, followed by the Rapture, then large scale destruction. Armageddon was at hand! Pastor Harold Camping paid a fortune to remind us that “God declares your responsibility to warn all people under your authority.”
Whatever that even means, it prompted Harold Camping to want to inform everyone in America that The End Time would occur on May 21st. I imagine that the USA Today publisher was thrilled. Not only did the full page ad run several times, but it urged readers to “buy multiple copies of this paper and send an original to your leaders, relatives, and friends . . . ”
I first saw the ad when Skooter came walking into my cell in mid-May brandishing a copy of USA Today that he plopped down in front of me. TSW readers might remember Skooter from my post, “In the Year Of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner” last year. Skooter has accomplished something that will hopefully soon be the subject of my post on TSW next week. In a few days, at the age of 25, Skooter will have earned his high school diploma. It’s a monumental achievement in an environment such as this, and seeing Skooter’s determination over the last year has been an inspiration for me and for many.
“This is just my luck!” Skooter said that day. I looked up from typing to see Harold Camping’s full page ad announcing Judgement Day on May 21st, and then looked incredulously at Skooter. “It’s just my luck!” he repeated. “I do all this work and the world’s gonna end just before I graduate!”
“It’s not true,” I said. “It MUST be true! Why would they put it in the newspaper if it wasn’t true?” Skooter shot back. Now there’s a loaded question, but I decided not to go down that road. Like most prisoners, and far too many others, Skooter tends to believe that truth is carefully vetted before it ends up in news print. He obviously hasn’t been reading The New York Times.
As Skooter and I read the USA Today ad, I saw that in a previous book of Harold Camping, the world was to end in 1994. The May 21, 2011 revision came about as a result of Mr. Camping’s statement that he had misread the signs in 1994 and misunderstood the significance of certain Bible passages. In his revision of the date, Mr. Camping and his followers apparently forgot Saint Paul’s admonition to the people of Thessalonica (1 Thes. 5:2), and to us: “you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” But “which night?” is simply not ours to know, the hubris of Harold Camping notwithstanding.
I strongly advised Skooter not to put off his mountain of homework until after May 21st. When that day came and went without so much as a tremble on Earth, Mr. Camping went silent for a bit, apparently disappointed. A few days later, he announced that May 21st was actually the “spiritual” Judgement Day and the real end of the world will take place this coming October. I was glad to have the chance to talk with Skooter about our reprieve, about why he should continue working toward high school graduation, and, most importantly, about the fact that not everything he reads in a newspaper is necessarily true.
ALL HELL BREAKING LOOSE!
Dire apocalyptic predictions sometimes play out strangely in prison. I think it’s largely because prisoners have so little control over their day to day existence that they simply feel at the mercy of events and circumstances, and tend to expect the worst whenever it’s predicted or rumored. Prison is a punishment comprised of a haphazard mix of dedicated criminals and unrepentant predators housed in a one-size-fits-all environment with the mentally ill, the spiritually broken, the socially deprived, the abandoned. Some in the mix are innocent of their crimes, but there’s also a large and growing population of young men like Skooter whose circumstances left them adrift in the margins of society, who made mistakes, but now long for freedom and a second chance at being a contributing part of the human race. Skooter, for one, has worked hard to earn that chance.
When predictions of all hell breaking loose in the world reach prisoners, their sense of powerlessness can spin out of control. Remember Y2K? As 1999 gave way to 2000, there were dire predictions of the breakdown of society. It seemed that no one had given any prior thought to the fact that computers all over the world functioned with a bios operating system that dedicated only two characters to its display of the year (Y2K = year in two characters). No one really knew what would happen when those two characters became “00” at midnight on December 31, 1999.
Thus, the Y2K scare was born. There were predictions of Technological Armageddon. Because we are so dependent upon our own technology, the breakdown of all society could follow if computers everywhere suddenly ceased to function. Global power grids would go down, and a domino effect would lead quickly to global anarchy. Everything connected to computers would cease to function.
We all awoke on New Year’s Day 2000 with barely a hint of computer malfunction. Everything ran just as it did the day before. We were spared the much-hyped global disaster of Y2K.
But not everyone was spared. Like many prisoners, a man in the next cell block already had some issues with paranoia. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, he became convinced somehow that Y2K would destroy all computer records – including prison records – and chaos would ensue. Someone fed his paranoia with a tale that if all society and laws break down, and anarchy takes their place, the government has a plan to execute all the prisoners with poison gas. Many prisoners are convinced that every governor has just such a plan hidden in his desk drawer.
So the prisoner spent the night with a needle and thread sewing his lips and eyelids shut to keep the expected poison gas from penetrating. No one could figure out how he managed to stitch that second eyelid closed, but he did. The next day, he was taken off to a long overdue stay in the prison psychiatric unit while the rest of the prison, and the rest of the world, quietly moved on from Y2K to the next paranoid preoccupation with doom. By mid-January, 2000, it was difficult to find anyone who would even admit to taking Y2K seriously.
Tales about mankind’s ambition turning against him go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. In Greek mythology, the “Prometheus Myth” told the tale. Zeus feared that if man had control over fire, he would become too powerful so he hid fire from man. Prometheus, one of the mythological Titans, tricked Zeus and returned fire to Earth. Zeus was furious, and condemned Prometheus to eternal suffering.
The most famous modern version of the Prometheus myth was the work of a teenage British girl. In 1814, 17-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft eloped with Percy Shelley who was to become a famous British poet. At age 19, Mary Shelley wrote the Gothic novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the story, Baron Frankenstein was a scientist who created a man-like monster using lightning to spark life into his creation – which rather quickly turns on him. Contrary to popular notions, Frankenstein was the name of the creator, not the monster. Anyway, Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster in the first film version, “Frankenstein” (1931), terrified me when I was seven, but that’s a whole other blog post.
REAL SCARY NEWS
There is never a shortage of news stories feeding into the powerlessness of prison paranoia. The latest one has teeth, however, and it has prisoners and their families very much concerned. Some in the New Hampshire legislature and senate have proposed shipping up to half of the prisoners in this prison to privately owned “warehouse” prisons 1,000 miles away in distant states if doing so is deemed to be cheaper. Election year politics and budget constraints always seem to conspire against prisons and prisoners, targeting them with draconian threats of near medieval treatment.
The irony is that there has been a vocal concern for cutting budgets and programs for the mentally ill while targeting prisons, but there is no institution or facility with a higher concentration of mentally ill citizens than prison.
Now, on top of a whole lot of other stressors, many prisoners are having sleepless nights over the prospect of being shipped like cattle 1,000 miles away from their families and support systems. Unlike all the other end-of-the-world predictions, this particular threat is real.
It’s difficult for me not to resent such talk. If you read my post, “The High Cost of Innocence,” part three of my series, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused,” then you know I would have left this prison fifteen years ago had I been able to partake of the state’s negotiated lie and pretend I am guilty. Because of my inability to say that one word, what would have been a one to three year sentence became a life sentence. The State of New Hampshire plans to keep me in prison until the age of l08 for a crime alleged to have occurred 30 years ago that never took place at all.
So it isn’t easy to listen to politicians complain about the cost of prisons. Every four years, all eyes are on this first-in-the-nation Presidential Primary state that is also first-in-the-nation in prison population growth. Between 198O and 2005, the New Hampshire state population grew only 34% while its prison population grew almost 600% with no commensurate increase in crime. Locking people up forever is an expensive folly, and sometimes an unnecessary one. If you’re of a mind to register your own opposition to such a draconian measure as “outsourcing” prisoners across the country away from their families like human cattle, the New Hampshire politicians largely promoting the measure can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Meanwhile, Skooter is preparing for his hard-earned high school graduation, and I’m looking forward to writing about it. A year ago, Skooter could barely read. Now he reads everything he can get his hands on. Arming Skooter with knowledge and the will to learn has transformed him. More on that in an upcoming post.
But first, I have to deal with another news story. Skooter just showed up with one of Matt Ridley’s columns from The Wall Street Journal (Ideas, February 19-20,2011). The column is about the fact that Earth’s magnetic poles shift on average of every hundred thousand years or so, and we’re 78O,OOO years overdue for it to happen again. No one knows how this would effect human technology, and Skooter wants to know if this is something we should all be worried about. Here we go again!