And So It Goes

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From the personal study of Kurt Vonnegut—his Smith Corona etc. On display in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library/Museum in Indianapolis. More photos below.

So I spent the past two months wondering, “What if I do have leukemia, or non-Hodgkins lymphoma—or bone cancer?” Tests, tests, tests. These finals were threatening to be the final, if you know what I mean.

And yet, thoroughly phlebotomized, I was finally given the All Clear. I was fine—no cancer. Just some odd, persistent lab numbers that reset themselves in a kind of metabolic reboot.

Strangely, I wasn’t worried worried. Whatever the deal was, was OK by me. I was more concerned about my wife, who has lost a lot of family over the past year (both parents and an older brother). I needed to know she would be OK, so finances were on my mind. But dying…eh.

And not because I was confident my ticket for that bullet train to heaven was still valid. Frankly, if given a choice, I’d lay my head on a hospital pillow for one last time and descend into a corking long sleep.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that eternal life was about as appealing to me as yet another episode of Are You Being Served? Who wants to live forever? I realize you can’t speak of tedium when you’re no longer in time’s thrall, but good gravy and a bag of rocks that’s tedious. I’m sorry, but I can only believe that eternal life will prove as disappointing as mortal life, as disappointing as Season Two of The Wire. And that’s pretty damn disappointing.

Even the idea of being reunited with loved ones is kind of weird. Say I met up with my parents, whom I miss very much. Would they be my parents anymore? And by that I don’t mean would our familial relationships be irreparably altered in the New Jerusalem or the Unprecedented Baltimore or wherever it is we’re transported. I mean, what would perfected editions of my parents be? Certainly not my parents. More like the Director’s Cut. My parents had flaws, blind spots, quirks, like everybody else. Two “glorified” people would be strangers to me. If I were to meet up with them again, I’d want them just as they were, not ablaze with blessedness, ready for their close-up of the beatific vision.

And what about me? Vaporize my neuroses and I have no personality at all. “Heaven” was beginning to look a lot like a convention of casino greeters and restaurant mâitre d’s, all perpetual smiles and best behaviors. I’m from New York. What some people judge to be rude or wacky, I consider texture.

I guess apologists would say we can’t evaluate our perception of “Paradise” by means of our current stunted, fallen faculties. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard…” Thomas Aquinas argued that the saved will be able to see the damned in hell so they can enjoy the beatitude and grace of God more abundantly. Now that’s something you don’t get to see every day. Unless you live in Baltimore.

In other words, the more I drilled down into what I believed about the “afterlife” when I had reason to believe I was much closer to the “after” than to the life, the more I became convinced it was all so much applesauce. It was as if a second language I had been speaking for thirty years had suddenly become a cacophony of nonsense vocables. It didn’t parse. It didn’t convey meaning. It was just gibberish.

But the prospect of a great eternal nothingness—now that was something I could lean into.

Contemplating one’s mortality typically has the opposite effect on people. But I’ve never been typical people.

Sleep. Sleep is nice.

I started this blog on Election Day, 2008, when I was working at Time magazine. I departed First Things as managing editor to take the job at Time as a mere copy editor for several reasons: a significant bump in pay (believe it or not); four-day workweeks most weeks (there was compulsory overtime once a month); the prospect of promotion to copy chief; and an opportunity to blog for Time.com—which never materialized. Why that was, I’m not altogether certain, as the person who would have been responsible for opening that door simply stopped communicating with me—no explanation.

Strange Herring became a compensation strategy, an alternate outlet.

I shut the blog down after little less than a year, when I took the gig as online editor/copy chief for Commentary. I wanted to focus my energies there, as there was a lot going on. Also, I was given space on the Contentions blog to write this, that, and the other thing—as well as time on weekends to do a mini–SH.

When I left Commentary, I revived the blog in earnest—sometimes posting up to twelve times a day. There were hiatuses, to be sure, but I would inevitably cough up a post or two just to clear my lungs.

Traffic has never amounted to much, although I enjoyed notable spikes, such as when RealClearReligion saw fit to link to, I believe, three posts in seven years. And of course whenever Mollie Hemingway—without whom most of you would probably never have heard of me—used her ever-growing social-media presence to promote my bluster.

This is a tortuous—i.e., Sacramonian—way of saying that the time has come to put Strange Herring to a corking long sleep.

First of all, blogging has become very 2002. There are only a handful of bloggers left who can either (a) make a living at it, or (b) make what they write about matter to a large number of readers (whether they’re paid for blogging or not). The rest are really syndicated columnists and professional reviewers (whether of entertainment or gadgets). I am “none of the above.”

The movie reviews garnered, again, a small albeit appreciative audience. The couple that gained considerable attention were published over at IRO (see my take on Left Behind and especially Atlas Shrugged). Yet never once have I been asked to review a new film by a magazine or website. Not sure why, other than there’s such a thing as being too strange. Or anosognosic. Or old.

But the posts that really did best were usually of the Christianity vs. the world sort, or the Lutheranism vs. the 10,000 other varieties of Christianity kind, and, alas, I do not want to write about religion anymore. I cannot write about religion anymore, at least not in the way I once did. And so there goes a large contingent of my already small squad of readers.

It’s definitely time to go do something else. What that is, I have no idea.

Play to your strength, I always say, to myself, in my head, and so I shall. I just have to find out what that is. Maybe I’ll become a professional jai alai speller. I toy with the idea of getting my real estate license, just something to do on the weekends, to make some extra bread. The market is really hopping here in Delaware. But that would mean talking to strangers about what they want, and already I don’t care. So potential for success in that field is slim. Maybe I’ll go back to school and get a degree (or is it a certificate? license? permission slip?) in chiropractic, having been in need of one since forever.2 (A chiropractor, not a permission slip.) But that would entail actually touching strangers, the prospect of which is only slightly less creepy than doing the limbo with Aileen Wornos. (That’s not a euphemism or anything. I mean literally the limbo. Where you dip under the stick thingee like you’re trying to sneak into the circus. Or don’t they do that anymore? At parties I mean, not the circus. The last time I went to a party that was not professionally mandated, I was excoriated for not holding a record album “by the edges” and bogarting the Fresca.)

I know a lot about nutrition, too, but a degree in food science probably requires classes in chemistry, and that would cut into the time I spend curating my collection of Britcoms. I mean, what do you call a show like The Two Ronnies? It’s not a sitcom proper, and not a variety show. Sketch comedy, I guess. But should that be a subcategory of sitcom or a thing unto itself—and if the latter, do you put Not the Nine O’Clock News on there too? With Monty Python? It almost seems like the Pythoners should be a category all their own. And if that’s the case, do you add Rutland Weekend Television because of Eric Idle? But The Rutles, which was a spinoff, is sheer mockumentary. Oh hell…

This is not going to be easy. Discovering a new hobby that won’t interfere with pondering frivolous and wholly invented conundra is practically a full-time job in itself.

Hey…

Before I sign off, I want to thank everyone who checked in here regularly, and who followed me over from Luther at the Movies and First Things. It meant, and means, more than you know.

This blog will self-destruct by year’s end.

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From Vonnegut’s personal library. He also had a ton of Reader’s Digest editions.

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Some first editions.

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The Billy Sunday exhibit. From Slaughterhouse Five, of course.


1 Did I ever tell you my Kurt Vonnegut story? (I know I’ve told you my David Letterman story, and of course my Sylvester Stallone story, my other pathetic brushes with greatness.) If I have, please forgive this reindulgence, but my visit to Vonnegut’s Memorial Library in Indianapolis over the Thanksgiving weekend brought it to mind. I was a big Vonnegut fan in college, despite the fact that most of my instructors, adjuncts, and full professors had, if not quite disdain for, a somewhat cynical view of his talents. Well, one night, I want to say in 1989—although it could have been 1990, so don’t hold me to this in court or anything—I had a dream. I was in a bookstore perusing a shelf, a low shelf, of Vonnegut’s books, and there was only one title left, the only title at the time that I had not read: Bluebeard. And I grabbed a copy. OK. End of dream. The very next day I’m walking on Lexington Avenue toward the Citicorp Center, and who do I see sitting on the low, shelf-like protuberance that wrapped around the west side of the building but Kurt Vonnegut, baggy clothes and shaggy hair and smoking and reading—the full Vonnegut. (He lived in Turtle Bay, which was not far.) In those days the Citicorp Center had a Doubleday bookstore in the atrium. I rushed down the steps and ran inside. I looked at the bottom shelf of “FICTION” (bottom because “Vonnegut” begins with a “V”), and what do I see? One last copy of, you guessed it, Bluebeard. I paid for it and ran back upstairs. Thank goodness he was still there, lounging, not a care in the world. I asked him if he would sign it. “Sure,” he said. I offered him a ballpoint. He said: “Nah, I’ve got a better one,” and pulled out a felt-tip. “What’s your name?” “Anthony.” “Whaddaya do?” “Well, I’m trying to be a writer.” Vonnegut finished signing, inimitable doodle and all, handed me back the book, and with a big smile said, “Good luck!”

Over the years I’ve meditated on what that whole episode meant, the premonition and all. What are the odds? And then it dawned on me. Of course! It meant that all of history, all of human evolution, from the Big Bang to this very moment, was engineered for one purpose and one purpose only—so that Kurt Vonnegut would sell one more copy of Bluebeard.

See what I did there? Sirens of Titan? Get it? Oh you guys are no fun anymore…

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Turns out it was 1989—an unusually warm January day.

2 At last count I have a lateral curvature of the thoracic spine; stenosis; arthritis that starts at the cervical and ends at the sacral curve, with attendant spurs; and a herniated disc at L3. And yet I am able to go about my daily business with amazing agility. I even continue to lift weights, though I rarely know what to do with them once they’ve been lifted (which explains why I am so often late for work). Call it the power of positive thinking. Or of clinical-grade morphine.*

* That was a joke, in case anyone from the DEA or Homeland Security is reading this. In fact, I suffer from an almost stoical, even ascetic, drug-avoidance propensity, which is probably why my cortisol levels are eligible for Guinness World Record status, and why after thirty years of weightlifting, no one has ever accused me of using steroids. Or of lifting weights. I can just about bench my bodyweight, assuming I’m weighed on Pluto

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23 Responses to And So It Goes

  1. Bill says:

    And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

    Like

  2. Shelia says:

    I am so sad that you’re retiring this blog. I have enjoyed reading it. But I’m also relieved that you’re not the one taking the long sleep.

    This would be an appropriate time to thank you again for your comments years ago on a script I wrote that featured Bonhoeffer. Since then I did a huge amount of work on it. It recently placed in the finals in two competitions (so at least the judges of the competitions like it), it was optioned once (the financing deal later fell through), and it will soon be published as a novel as well. Which is to say I took to heart what you said.

    Not long ago I reread the version I sent you, and it’s truly awful (as early versions of everything usually are, if you learn anything as you go). So I think your comments, while enlightening and helpful, were very kind. 🙂

    Bless you in your new activities!

    Shelia

    Like

  3. Lars Walker says:

    God bless you. I’ll miss this place.

    Like

  4. Cory Andrews says:

    This is very sad news, indeed. This blog is one of the few bastions of sanity that I could reliably turn to not only for brilliant insights but also for frivolous, laugh-out-loud fun. Thank you for letting us get to know you these past years, and I hope that our paths cross in person sooner rather than later. Godspeed, Mr. Sacramone.

    Like

  5. Marc Johnson says:

    Sigh. ‘All things must pass,’ right? May it go well for you. I loved this line of yours, ” Vaporize my neuroses and I have no personality at all. Ha ha!

    Like

  6. Another Kerner says:

    Auf Wiedersehen… Until I see you again…. Auf Wiedersehen and Thank you, Brother.

    Like

  7. I can’t say that I’ve been a terribly consistent reader, but I have checked in all the way back from Luther at the Movies.

    Sad to see you go.

    As a pastor and a Christian, even sadder to see your spiritual struggles. I’m not exactly sure what to make of what you’ve written; I’m not sure you’re even sure what to make of it. But, I pray for your solace in Christ.

    Peace be with you.

    Like

  8. Almost Iowa says:

    “This blog will self-destruct by year’s end.”

    Sorry to see you go. Sorrier still that I didn’t start reading sooner.

    Like

  9. kerner says:

    Adios Compadre. Then this is my last pilgrimage on my annual google search of the words “strange herring”, and posting the hits unrelated to you. I’ve learned about:

    Fish, naturally

    http://crosscut.com/2013/03/mysterious-decline-Puget-Sound-herring/

    http://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/extremely-strange-giant-herring-found-20100511-uvd9.html

    And birds:

    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/124/biblio/bib053

    And books, old and new:

    http://www.worldcat.org/title/most-strange-and-wonderfull-herring/oclc/216880336

    http://www.amazon.com/Life-Strange-Feeling-Roscoe-Herring/dp/0805969640

    and oddest of all, the British peerage:

    http://www.thepeerage.com/p33034.htm#i330333

    But I will miss your unique insights more than anything.

    Anthony, did it ever occur to you that the rest of us are the neurotics, and YOU are the sane one?

    It has occurred to me, many times. Again, Adios (go with God).

    Like

  10. Gene Veith says:

    I still think one of your great talents–one of many–is to be a blogger. You are a master of this odd form. I understand and can relate to the need to take a break, even a long break, but I hope you come back to it someday. (Maybe you could bring back Luther at the Movies. That way it wouldn’t be you, but a fictional persona, however historical.) At any rate, I’m glad you aren’t going to die soon. And I hope your love of nothingness won’t lead you to atheism or Buddhism or Unitarianism. Lutheranism is wider than most of us realize, and it embraces so as to include just about all of the bad feelings we can experience, as well as the good feelings.

    Like

  11. Barry Arrington says:

    I will miss you. The applesauce comment made me sadder than you can know. I will pray for you.

    Like

  12. kernerlaw says:

    I thought I had commented before, but I don’t see it. So, I’ll repeat this much:

    Anthony, has it occurred to you that you are the one who is thinking straight, and it is the rest of us with the neuroses?

    It has to me, many times.

    Like

  13. Rich Balvanz says:

    Sorry to see the end of SH. Just wondering, where did you get the idea that there are no jobs for humorist in heaven?

    Like

  14. I have read a lot of what you’ve written, and I hope you write more, somewhere, in the future.

    Thanks.

    Like

  15. Gene Veith says:

    Also, I can understand how the prospect of death can lead to a spiritual crisis. I don’t fully grasp how a possible miraculous healing can bring on a spiritual crisis. I can understand Kurt Vonnegut’s belief that life is meaningless, but I can’t understand how that position can have any credibility after having a dream vision of Kurt Vonnegut followed by the cosmic conjunction of immediately meeting him.

    Like

  16. maidrya says:

    So, this is one of those signs, then? That the end is nearish? Darn. I’ve known you since First Things and have tagged around the Internet after you, sometimes losing the scent for a while, but eventually catching up again. I wish the blog didn’t have to die, even if you don’t update it. I probably haven’t read all the archives. Are you still at Intercollegiate Review? I add my appreciation and best wishes to everyone else’s and hopes that you re-emerge in some new form, but still this side of Paradise, where even us Papists can always use a hard-headed, argumentative Lutheran.

    Like

  17. Brent says:

    Sorry to see you go. You were one of the few sites that sated two great interests of mine with consistency: movies and religion. Even if you can’t write about it any more, just wanted to say that your analyses of Lutheranism in vs.of the world were great, and I enjoyed reading them. Always gave me something new to consider. And your film reviews have been informative and funny as hell – I actually learned a great deal of and about foreign films from you (I’m not quite a movie snob, but I’m learning more every day about the types of films that, say, a company like the Criterion Collection puts out). Oftentimes I found myself wondering about your many asides… You quote and reference and allude to so much (religious, historical, cinematic, literary, or otherwise) that I quite frequently have to re-read your blogs, and try to pick up on some phrases or jokes that might have gone beyond me. And your wit has always been appreciated – your sense of humor is to be admired in a field of film critics who take themselves way too seriously but have nothing all that serious to say. Credit and context where they are due: I actually came onto your blog via Gene Veith’s, back when he linked to your Dark Knight Stinketh review. And I’ve been a fan since. And if you were wondering who that single speck of traffic was, circa late 2012 and early 2013, I checked your blog every day between your Skyfall post and the one where you apologize (unnecessarily) and sum up the Oscars (for that year… whichever one it was). Have to say that one of my favorite posts of yours was the one about your father – it probably took a lot out of you to write that (I’m guessing), and I wanted to say that, of your many posts, I think on that one often. Take this for what it’s worth from a nobody on the Internet – I rarely post anything anywhere, and learning of your desire to leave this blog has impelled me to write this comment. I pray that God will grant you some level of peace in this vale of tears. (LCMS Lutheran here, by the way – feel the need to say that, just so you know Who it is I am praying to when I make that claim… not vomiting feelgood glories to some two-bit knockoff cobbled together from a sensation and a stick). Anyways, thanks for everything here. Hope you can one day find some satisfaction from work that matches your skills.

    Like

  18. Oh my friend, what a strange mix of joy (he doesn’t have cancer!), sorrow (he won’t be blogging any more) and confusion/concern (whither his faith?) this post has caused me. I’ve been a rather soggy fan-boy since Luther At The Movies and, though not a Lutheran myself, loved your contemplation of the world in light of Christ with a peculiar Lutheran bent. I’ve never met you other than through this electronic façade and yet I’ll miss you.

    For what its worth, I blog with no intention of creating a stir or an audience. I just do it because. It isn’t regular or necessarily good but I like writing. Just think about throwing your scraps once in a while. Jackanapes.

    I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that a comment on a blog post can make you change your mind about blogging or about eternity so I won’t try. Instead, I’ll make these promises:

    1) I will continue to stalk you on the Internet (but never in real life for that’d be creepy) realizing the hunt may be futile.

    2) I’ll pray for you. Christian faith is rational but it isn’t purely intellectual. It isn’t a set of propositions and logical arguments that once navigated yields eternal life. It is, above all else, a gift of God and yet it can run very thin at times. So I’ll pray that the cancer doesn’t come back but that the faith does.

    Like

  19. krasnodor says:

    There’s not much for me to add that hasn’t already been said more eloquently by others here. I have followed your blogging for a long time and have profited from reading your posts every moment. You write with humanity, warmth (you thought you were being sneaky), a keen insight into the real, and humor. Most of all, you have been willing to peer down the dark alleys that branch off of our well-worn theological paths; alleys we often won’t even admit exist. We need someone who will point out the elephant sitting on the chaise lounge. We need more who can see that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our “theologies”.
    Das ist Wahr.
    And if Luther could tell his son that heaven was all about delicious fruits, and ponies, and pipes, and drums, and little crossbows, I’m sure he would tell you that it’s all about a nice long nap. For “I lie down and sleep;/I wake again, because the Lord sustains me./I will not fear though tens of thousands/assail me on every side” (Ps. 3).
    Anyway, I, too, say, Auf Wiedersehen.

    Like

  20. Ruthie says:

    Glad you do not have cancer.
    I am not a theologian and haven’t been a Christian ALL that long but I think heaven will be much better than even the best day down here. I will want to be there forever. I don’t know how it will work but I look forward to it.
    I am very very sorry to see your blog go. Your wit and talented writing are unmatched. You have a unique ability to see through so much crap out there. Please tell me you’ll keep your past blog up so I can keep reading the past rich posts?

    Like

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