London’s summer looks like it will be pretty dreary, with a forecast of 40 days of cloud and drizzle. Melbourne, on the other hand, is going to be unseasonably cold over the same period, while the storm in Boston is likely to last six weeks.
Or so the more superstitious among us will think. This is because July 15 is St Swithin’s day, and has enjoyed significance for weather forecasters for many centuries. The day marks that of the saint’s “translation” in 971 from an outdoor grave to a shrine inside Winchester’s Old Minster. As the Scots rhyme went:
Saint Swithin’s day, gif ye do rain,
For forty days it will remain;
Saint Swithin’s day, an ye be fair,
For forty days ʼtwill rain na mair.
Swithin wasn’t the first saint whose feast day foretold the weather and, in many ways, this ninth-century bishop made for a conventional example of sanctity. But there were other medieval saints who had much more “interesting” powers, raising questions around how far people were willing to suspend their disbelief. Did the devout really venerate a man who cursed people with farts, a lady with a large beard – and even holy dogs?
Saints’ cults – historical or current – are fascinating indicators of wider social concerns. Significant cults almost always stem from a genuinely popular interest rather than an imposition from a religious hierarchy. Devotees seem to be attracted to saints that in some way speak to their needs (such as health problems, weather, the fertility of people, animals and the land) or those who are identified as powerful protectors, intervening in human affairs in very physical ways.
These characters may look deeply challenging to the modern “rational” mind but in times and places which lack the safety net of an organised welfare state, saints and the ideas associated with them play a crucial role in discussion of how to live a worthy life rounded off by a “good death”.
Our first example of an “unusual saint” comes from not long after the time of St Swithin, when the story of an obscure martyr called Gangulf was recorded. This warrior from Burgundy was out one day and decided to buy a natural water source. When he got home, he plunged his staff into the ground and the spring – miraculously displaced – brought forth a white-coloured water. Suspecting that his wife had been sleeping with a priest, Gangulf made her hold her hand in the spring, which burned her skin, indicating guilt.
Casting fart curses.
The priest soon did away with the pesky Gangulf, but he got his revenge from heaven when his murderer expired while emptying his bowels on the lavatory. As for the wife, every word she uttered on a Friday was for ever more accompanied by a “filthy sound” from her rear. The king himself dispatched a special commission to find out if the miracle farting was real.
While many medieval people took this saint seriously – and sometimes the wife’s flatulence was censored – those who wished to find him amusing obviously could. Gangulf’s passion for hunting – “prowling the haunts of wild beasts”, as the text puts it – is a double entendre in the original Latin for hanging around in brothels. And as for the staff he rams into the ground, which spews forth a whitish liquid, one can only feel sorry for the monks at the back trying to keep a straight face. Laughter was alive and well, even in the so-called Dark Ages.
St Wilgefortis is another example of an unlikely saint. The cult of this bearded virginal woman was widespread in late medieval Europe, under a range of names including Liberata and, in England, Uncumber. These formulations relate to her apparent ability to free wives of unwanted husbands – divorce was by no means impossible in the Middle Ages, but it was difficult (and probably expensive) for women in particular to end unhappy marriages.
St. Wilgefortis. Author provided
This saint would “unencumber” you in return for an offering of a peck of oats at an altar or light dedicated to her. The fact that she was a bearded woman who suffered martyrdom by crucifixion seems only to have added to her appeal. She is one of a group of virgin martyrs who are variations on a theme – a Christian princess refuses to marry a heathen prince; she is punished by death for her temerity and acclaimed as a saint. And then there’s the added twist that God sent her a beard in response to her prayers to be made so hideous that the heathen suitor would lose interest.
It is, however, likely that the legend of Wilgefortis is based on a simple misinterpretation of an image of a fully-clothed Christ on the cross. So maybe don’t go praying to her just yet.
It is not even necessary to be human to be seen as a saint. In around 1250, a Dominican inquisitor named Stephen of Bourbon made an intriguing discovery while travelling through eastern France. Hearing of a martyr called St Guinefort who had the power to heal children, he was astonished to discover that this was not some obscure man of local memory, but a dog – a greyhound, in fact.
According to legend, the dog was killed after its owner mistakenly thought it had attacked his baby boy, when it had actually saved the infant from a wolf. Its burial place became the focal point for a ritual whereby mothers would hang their sick babies’ clothes on bushes before throwing the babies nine times between a pair of tree trunks to be caught and returned by an old woman. They then left their babies on a bed of straw with lighted candles close by. Stephen’s report notes that several babies were accidentally burned to death. Horrified, he had the dog disinterred and destroyed, and the wood cut down.
Illustration of a greyhound, 1658.
But tradition can be amazingly tenacious. In 1826, an enquiry into local superstitions found mothers going to the same wood to invoke healing from St Guinefort, and a closer look in 1879 found both the cult and the oral legend intact, before it seems to have finally disappeared around the time of World War I. So locals had succeeded in maintaining an unofficial dog cult there for more than six centuries.
Saints can take us to the outer limits of the human imagination, and also respond to very ordinary needs and concerns. Their stories become mangled, and even entirely fabricated (so don’t let the Swithin legend put you off that trip to the beach without checking with the Met office) but they do shed a consistent sideways light on our communal preoccupations.
A common experience: you are walking down the street and someone is walking in the opposite direction toward you. You see him but he does not see you. He is texting or looking at his cellphone. He is distracted, trying to do two things at the same time, walking and communicating.
There is also the telltale recognition of a car driver on a phone; she’s driving either too slowly or too fast for the surrounding conditions, only partly connected to what is going on around her. Connected to someone else in another place, she is not present in the here and now.
These types of occurrences are now common enough that we can label our time as the age of distraction.
A dangerous condition
The age of distraction is dangerous. A recent report by the National Safety Council showed that walking while texting increases the risk of accidents. More than 11,000 people were injured last year while walking and talking on their phones.
Even more dangerous is the distracted car driver. Distracted drivers have more fluctuating speed, change lanes fewer times than is necessary and in general make driving for everyone less safe and less efficient.
Texting while driving resulted in 16,000 additional road fatalities from 2001 to 2007. More than 21% of vehicle accidents are now attributable to drivers talking on cellphones and another 5% were text messaging.
Multitasking relatively complex functions, such as operating handheld devices to communicate while walking or driving, is not so much an efficient use of our time as a suboptimal use of our skills.
We are more efficient users of information when we concentrate on one task at a time. When we try to do more than one thing, we suffer from inattention blindness, which is failing to recognize other things, such as people walking toward us or other road users.
Multitaskers do worse on standard tests of pattern recognition and memory recall. In a now classic study, researchers at Stanford University found that multitaskers were less efficient because they were more susceptible to using irrelevant information and drawing on inappropriate memories.
Multitasking may not be all that good for you either. A 2010 survey of over 2,000 8- to 12-year-old girls in the US and Canada found that media multitasking was associated with negative social indicators, while face-to-face contact was associated with more positive social indicators such as social success, feelings of normalcy and hours of sleep (vital for young people).
Although the causal mechanism has yet to be fully understood – that is, what causes what – the conclusion is that media multitasking is not a source of happiness.
There are a number of reasons behind this growing distraction.
One often-cited reason is the pressure of time. There is less time to accomplish all that we need to do. Multitasking then is the result of the pressure to do more things in the same limited time. But numerous studies point to the discretionary use of time among the more affluent, and especially more affluent men. The crunch of time varies by gender and class. And, paradoxically, it is less of an objective constraint for those who often articulate it most.
Although the time crunch is a reality, especially for many women and lower-income groups, the age of distraction is not simply a result of a time crunch. It may also reflect another form of being. We need to reconsider what it means to be human, not as continuous thought-bearing and task-completing beings but as distraction-seeking creatures that want to escape the bonds of the here-and-nowness with the constant allure of someone and somewhere else.
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff asserts that our sense of time has been warped into a frenzied present tense of what he calls “digiphrenia,” the social media-created effect of being in multiple places and more than one self all at once.
There is also something sadder at work. The constant messaging, emailing and cellphoning, especially in public places, may be less about communicating with the people on the other end as about signaling to those around that you are so busy or so important, so connected, that you exist in more than just the here and now, clearly a diminished state of just being.
There’s greater status in being highly connected and constantly communicating. This may explain why many people speak so loudly on their cellphones in public places.
The age of distraction is so recent we have yet to fully grasp it. Sometimes art is a good mediator of the very new.
A video art installation by Siebren Verstag is entitled Neither There nor There. It consists of two screens. On one side a man sits looking at his phone; slowly his form loosens as pixels move to the adjacent screen and back again. The man’s form moves from screen to screen, in two places at one time but not fully in either.
One study that looked at the effect of banning cellphones in schools found that student achievement improved when cellphone were banned, with the greatest improvements accruing to lower-achieving students, who gained the equivalent of an additional hour of learning a week.
On many college campuses, faculty now have a closed-laptop policy after finding students would use their open laptops to skim their emails, surf the web and distract their neighbors. This was confirmed by studies that showed that students with open laptops learned less and could recall less than students with their laptops closed.
We are witnessing a cultural shift occurring with the banning of devices, cellphone usage being curtailed in certain public places and policies banning texting while driving. This is reactive. We also need a new proactive civic etiquette so that the distracted walker, driver and talker have to navigate new codes of public behaviors.
Many coffee stores in Australia, for example, do not not allow people to order at the counter when they are on the cellphone, more golf clubs are banning the use of cellphones while on the course and it is illegal in 38 states in the US for novice drivers to use a cellphone while driving.
There is also the personal decision available to us all, one foreshadowed by writer and social critic Siegfried Kracauer, who lived from 1889 to 1966. In a newspaper article on the impact of modernity, first published in 1924, he complained of the constant stimulation, the advertising and the mass media that all conspired to create a “permanent receptivity” that prefigures our own predicament in a world of constant texting, messaging and cellphones.
One response, argued Kracauer, is to surrender yourself to the sofa and do nothing, in order to achieve a “kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.”
One radical response is to unplug and disconnect, live in the moment and concentrate on doing one important thing at a time. Try it for an hour, then for a day. You can even call your friends to tell them about your success – just not while walking or driving, or working on your computer screen or speaking loudly in a public place.
Actress Jane Lynch, best known for her parts in the Christopher Guest ensemble pieces and as the tough Glee Club leader Sue Sylvester of TV’s hit series “Glee,” was only too happy to join Rights Equal Rights, the group formerly known as Californians Against Hate, in their boycotting campaign against the direct marketing cosmetics company Amway. “Jane couldn’t grab up the pen fast enough to sign,” said Fred Karger, presidential candidate and founder of Rights Equal Rights, who was interviewed by PopCultureFan last week. In October, it was revealed that Doug DeVos, Amway’s president and CEO made a substantial $500,000 donation to the National Organization for Marriage towards funding political candidates who fight against marriage equality. As of now, only two donors of NOM remain known, the other being Chick-Fil-A. NOM, a non-profit political organization headed by Maggie Gallagher, is currently under investigation for questionable campaign contribution practices in Maine, Minnesota, and Maryland, dating back to 2009. Hopefully, the movement will grow more public awareness. Meanwhile, native Californian Bryan Cranston, of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, between shooting the series’ final season, made a public service announcement video with wife Robin Dearden and their daughter Taylor, expressing support of gay marriage, a video for the Human Rights Campaign.
Fred Who? A reasonable question as well as his own campaign slogan when he ran in this year’s presidential primary. In fact, he was among the first candidates to file for the 2012 election, putting in his papers just a few days before President Obama. A campaign consultant and political watchdog as well as a lifelong champion for gay rights, he ran on a socially and fiscally moderate platform that supports gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. There’s one more thing about him that might surprise you. He’s a Republican.
He’s also the first openly gay presidential candidate affiliated with a major political party. The election might be over but Karger’s as politically active as ever – this time locked in a fierce battle against the National Organization for Marriage of California. NOM, an organization condoning the slippery slope rhetoric: “if gay marriage is legal, legalizing sexual intercourse with dogs may be on the way,” refuses to publicly disclose the identities of its largest contributors, a practice defended by its director John Eastman. As of May, NOM has been under investigation by California’s Fair Political Practices Organization for allegedly failing to report over $345,000 in campaign contributions and funding attack ads on political candidates who support marriage equality. In not disclosing his contributors or their businesses, Eastman acts not without good reason – Karger’s called for boycotts of Chick-Fil-A and Amway when their stances on gay marriage were made public, sometimes staging protests outside their windows.
I had the chance to speak with Mr. Karger while he was on the East Coast for the wedding of two good friends in Washington. Just hours before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, he stayed at New York’s Warwick Hotel on 54th Street. With the impending storm, he remained undaunted, proudly staying in a building that stood over Manhattan since 1926. Amid the growing gusts of wind and the surprising quiet of an emptying city, Karger discussed his presidential bid which ended on June 29 as well as his take on the GOP and politics in general.
He was born January 31, 1950 in Glencoe, Illinois, to Jean and Robert Karger. “My childhood was like Leave it to Beaver and I was the Beaver. I had an older brother. My father was a businessman. My mom stayed home. It was a normal, happy childhood. Around high school I began to sense I was different. When I was 21, I saw a psychiatrist, who thankfully, said there was nothing wrong with me and didn’t try to “fix me.” He helped me to realize that I was gay.” Initially, his reaction was to hide it from his family, and he moved to California with friends. “My parents always asked if I was seeing someone, but I never came out to my family until I was in my forties. I always felt like I would ruin the holidays. I didn’t want to do that.”
In the early 1980s, with the onset of the AIDS epidemic, things began to change. “It was an absolutely despicable time. I was always going to funerals of people my age. I always had at least one friend who was dying. And so many of them were being hit with this double-whammy. It was having to, for the first time in their lives, not only come out to their families as gay, but also that they were HIV-positive. Thankfully, I never had to deal with the second half myself.” The passing of his friend Bill from AIDS in 1991 ultimately made him decide to come out. “Bill had a wonderful family who came from Boston to see him. Really wonderful parents who looked out for all of his friends. When I saw that, I wished I could have the same relationship with my family. I told them, and by that point, they were okay with it. Ultimately I’m glad mom and dad got to meet my friends and accept me for who I am.”
with actress Jane Lynch who has supported Californians Against Hate
During his time in California, he dabbled in acting and gave himself two to three years to make it big, landing a role in a commercial for Edge shaving cream directed by the late John Hughes and a brief part in Airport 1975. He continued to pursue his passion for politics, an interest he had since the age of 14, when he traveled by train to help then-presidential candidate Nelson A. Rockefeller with his campaign against the eventual Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964. When asked why he became a Republican, “It always made more sense to me. I guess I inherited it from my parents. My father was a businessman, a moderate Republican who believed in limited government that at the same time is there for those who need help. I believe that.”
When asked about his political role models, Karger points to Teddy Roosevelt who brought the party in a new direction at the turn of the twentieth century with the first laws aimed at protecting civil rights and womens’ rights and anti-monopoly laws. Like many other candidates in the Republican primary, he also cites Ronald Reagan as an inspiration, whose presidential campaign he worked for. He first came to admire Reagan in 1978 while campaigning actively against the Briggs Initiative, a law that if passed, would ban homosexuals from working in California’s public schools. “To get Reagan (who was the former governor of California at the time) to stay neutral would have been considered a victory for us. Instead, he did a very brave thing. He wrote a letter to the Herald-Tribune openly and publicly opposing the Briggs Initiative while preparing for a presidential campaign, a measure that could have risked support for his own campaign.”
While he was displeased with the way the Reagan Administration dealt with the AIDS crisis he admits, “It was quite a different era. One of the biggest battles we had back then was with The New York Times, one of the country’s most progressive newspapers and getting them to print the word ‘AIDS,’ which was an indication of how much of the country felt. I think that his friend Rock Hudson’s death also caused him to break his silence on the issue.” Nonetheless, Karger felt Reagan was a good president who accomplished a great deal. “He was a bit more conservative than I am, but he had an openness about him and was willing to cross the aisle. He did raise taxes, and sometimes I wonder if he’d be able to run for president in 2012, or if he’d be considered too centrist. But he had such charm and a sense of humor that won people over, so yes, I think he would win.”
Although Karger came out to his family in 1991, he kept his sexuality a secret publicly until 2006 when he crusaded to save the oldest gay bar in Laguna Beach. Two years later, he started Californians Against Hate in protest of California’s Proposition 8. He was surprised by how warmly he was received by the GOP when he first filed for election, greeted enthusiastically by Co-Chair Sharon Day and Chief of Staff Jeff Letterson at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. “Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus shook my hand. They were all glad to have me on board. I think a lot of it was because I do campaigning at colleges. Sharon Day liked how I was able to bring young people into the party, and generally I have what you could call a progressive social stance. The RNC’s been very generous and welcoming to me. Where I’ve run into trouble, where I’ve met with homophobia has been with the third-party groups that I feel are harming the party and the country: CPAC, Faith & Freedom, and the like. I’ve been excluded from debates. They said it was because I’m for gay marriage, but they’ve had heterosexual candidates debate who support gay marriage. I had to file a discrimination complaint with the Human Rights Office in Washington, D.C. back in June.”
Although he is said to have described himself as the Anti-Romney, he never used the words, although he is critical of the LDS Church and Romney’s obligation to follow its word over the bounds of family and country. Although he believes Obama’s record on LGBT rights has improved, he feels the president has not done enough. “We need to find younger people, build a stronger moderate base and keep the Republican party from just turning into a party of rich old white men – that won’t bode well. The two parties need each other in order to function. Such a big part of politics is about making compromises, and I believe it is possible to bring change from within the system. In California, the party’s showing is already down five percentage points which has never happened. That suggests people aren’t joining. If we start moving too far to the right, holding a purist attitude, doing the bidding of Atwater, the party’s going to be losing a generation.”