Conference on Current Pagan Studies 4: Albrecht Auditorium

Jeffrey Albaugh drawing a winning raffle ticket for something from Equinox Publishing.

Part 1: The Southwest Chief

Part 2: Holing up in Claremont

Part 3: Harper Hall

I titled this post because my friend Jeffrey Albaugh, one of the conference organizers, more than once admitted that he just loved saying “Albrecht Auditorium.” It’s a German given name and surname and also connects to “Alberich,” the dwarf who guards a treasure in Wagner’s operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.

On the opening day, Saturday, January 25th, I admit that among the various talks on dealing with bad changes — extinctions, elections, end times— the one talk that really stuck with me was Murtagh anDoile’s “With a Whimper, not a Bang: The ‘Death’ of Pagan and Magical Traditions.” It put me in mind of a talk that I had with my friend Evan John Jones (English witch, member of Robert Cochrane’s coven in the mid-1960s), who said that on his death, all his Craft-related papers were supposed to be burnt.

From my vantage point, a very long way away, I do not know what happened. As a writer, John left behind at least some records that deserve to be archived. Maybe not everything, but some things.

This is not the Pagan studies conference (photo: Claremont Graduate University).

At any rate, the Albrecht Auditorium is an up-to-date lecture hall at Claremont Graduate University, with lots of elbow room, AC and USB chargers at every seat, and other good stuff. So when I finally had to stand up and fill an hour on the history of Pagan studies and some things that I would like to see more covered in the future, it was a pleasure to be in that room.

It was a good conference where you could hear thoughtful Pagans discuss our response to some of the Big Issues — and like all conferences, the best parts were in the restaurants and bars afterwards! But about about 6:30 on Sunday evening I had to pry myself from the big table at Packing House Wines (in the same complex as Augie’s Coffee, where my Claremont visit began) and accept a ride from a conference-goer who was headed east through San Bernardino anyway.

The train rolled in on time. I had booked a roomette (sleeper) because I knew I would be tired. I dropped my bags, went to the dining car for supper (included), and when I came back the attendant had my bed made up, into which I fell.

Around 2 a.m. an announcement from the conductor woke me (and everyone else).  A man in my car was having an acute asthma attack. “Does anyone have an EpiPen?)”

I thought for a moment — I did not have my first-aid kit with me, so I could not even offer pseudopehedrine. And does a Wilderness First Aid card let you give drugs? I think so, if they are over-the-counter things like that. But I had none. Twenty minutes later we were stopped in Kingman, Arizona, and as another passenger told me at breakfast, the ambulance was waiting and took him away.

And thus on across New Mexico and southern Colorado, where I retrieved the Jeep at the railway station and drove home at night through an increasing snowstorm, past the signs that warn that roads are not plowed after 5 p.m.

Conference on Current Pagan Studies 3: Harper Hall

A cup of the free hotel coffee, and Black Philip and I are ready to conference deliciously.

Part 1: The Southwest Chief

Part 2: Holing up in Claremont

It was a 20-minute walk from the hotel to Claremont Graduate University, where the Conference on Current Pagan Studies rents space during CGU’s winter break. CGU is one of the seven “Claremont Colleges” — five undergrad, two graduate schools — that together form a “collegiate university.” Six of them share a campus with a combined library and other facilities. Pomona College, the oldest, dates from 1887; the others were founded in the 1920s, which must have been when Claremont shifted from “citrus town” to residential suburb of Los Angeles.

Walking to CGU, I did not see anything that resembled a “student ghetto,” which made me wonder if there is such a thing as off-campus housing, or if those students must all commute.

No, definitely not the “student ghetto.”


Was I on the right street? I looked at some license plates. Yes, this must be the right building.

When Fritz Muntean started The Pomegranate in 1997, its subtitle was “A New Journal of Neopagan Thought.” That approach fits this conference too, and in fact, a new online journal is in the works that will take up that strand of Pagan publishing, I was told. More on that when I learn more.

The conference draws a mixture of older and younger Pagan academics, at least one outside PhD student researching Paganism in academia, some writers, some original West Coast Pagan figures from the 1960s–70s, and other members of the (chiefly) West Coast Pagan community.

The difference between this and the American Academy of Religion Pagan studies sessions that I am used to is that there is less of a sense of working on issues in the larger world(s) of religious studies and more a sense of telling our own stories, working on our own issues (like what happens to archives when groups shut down?), examining our origin stories, and talking about what is changing.

The first day’s venue: CGU’s Harper Hall, a fine example of 1930s Romano-Californian architecture.

Conference attendees begin to gather in the CGU Board of Trustees room, a comfortable space with open doors onto a courtyard — but pretty soon there were chairs jammed everywhere.

Part 4: Albrecht Auditorium

Conference on Current Pagan Studies 2: Holing Up in Claremont

Sunrise scene, Claremont station.

Part 1: The Southwest Chief

After killing time at Augie’s Coffee, I faced a mile walk through bosky Claremont to the hotel, but because of the roller bag, I gave in and summoned a Lyft driver. No need to put extra wear on the little plastic wheels. That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

Expecting to be told that my room would not be ready until 2 p.m., I was happy to learn that I could have it right there at 8:30 a.m. I could sleep! Only I could not. Exercise is good, so I did walk about a mile to a copy-print shot to get fliers made up promoting The Pomegranate and Jefferson Calico’s excellent new book on Heathenry, Being Viking.

I spotted a Trader Joe’s grocery near the hotel, and picked up a sandwich and a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.1)Charles Shaw wine, the grocery chain’s house brand, is priced at $1.99 for 750 ml, the same as a small bottle of water at the hotel. Now which is a better deal? Half a bottle gone, I finally slept.

Later, I spent the evening re-reading parts of George Hanson’s The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001). This is not an easy book. Hanson was a paid university parapsychology researcher, one of a “club” of about fifty such people in the United States. As he points out, the budget of one paranormal-themed Hollywood movie is bigger than the budgets of all the programs such as his.

The book is not an easy read. It goes into lots of area: sociological theory, history of paranormal researched, history and personalities of the professional skeptics (think CSICOP), the prevalence of cheating by psychics, etc. Hanson wonders why, when at least half of the population accepts some level of “psi” phenomena, it is so completely off the table for academic researchers. Likewise, scholars of religion are all about texts, not “woo.” They would rather discuss gender theory than people’s experience with divine power. (Hint: part of the problem is monotheism and the idea of a transcendent god who is outside of the cosmos.)

There are exceptions, my favorite being Jeffrey Kripal at Rice University. I want to blog about some of his newer work . . one of these days.

And so to bed, because the next two days would be wall-to-wall sociability.

Part 3: Harper Hall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Charles Shaw wine, the grocery chain’s house brand, is priced at $1.99 for 750 ml, the same as a small bottle of water at the hotel. Now which is a better deal?

Conference on Current Pagan Studies 1: The Southwest Chief

Off-season, the train was only half full, which meant that there were armchairs and tables for the taking in the lounge car. I bought a beer at the snack bar downstairs and watched northern New Mexico go past.

I was honored this year to be asked to give a keynote address at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.1)The other keynoter was the feminist writer and poet Judy Grahn. Yes, the website badly needs an upgrade. For journeys under 500 miles — and sometimes more — I would rather drive. If the trip is longer, I look first to see if Amtrak will get me there. If all else fails, I end up jammed into a metal cylinder with a bunch of strangers, which is about as much fun as being stuck in an elevator.

Southern Colorado to southern California is a combination of the first two — drive a bit, and then catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, get off in San Bernardino, and catch a Metrolink commuter train west to Claremont, where the conference was to be held at Claremont Graduate University.

Santo Domingo Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I booked a coach seat on the way out, which would be easier on the organizers’ travel budget ($112), and used Amtrak reward points to get a roomette (sleeper) on the way back.2)The best way to accrue reward points is to use Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Mastercard.

Understand that a coach seat on the train is huger than first-class on an airplane. Muchly huger. You have a foot rest and a leg rest. You can recline your seat without bashing the passenger behind you. Smart passengers bring a small blanket and a pillow and make themselves quite comfortable.

Refueling in Albuquerque. Basically, one locomotive pulls the train while the other powers all the onboard electrical systems — refrigeration, HVAC, toilets, lights, etc.

Me, I had a warm jacket, but I forgot the inflatable neck pillow, So it goes. I made myself comfortable, stretched across two seats—the car was only half-full. After a burger at the station snack bar in Albquerque, followed by a little whiskey from my flask, I opened an episode of the Strange Familiars podcast on my phone and rode west into the night.

I usually can sleep anywhere, but not this time. I don’t blame all the podcast discussion of fairy orbs, Bigfoot, “hell gates,” ghosts, etc., but rather the fact that I would have to get off at 5:30 a.m. I knew that either the coach attendant or the conductor would make sure that I made my stop.3)I had ridden this way multiple times before, but always getting off at Fullerton or else Los Angeles Union Station, in the daylight. They are usually good about that. But the monkey mind would not settle down. So when the conductor came down the dimly lit aisle, I was already sitting there with my jacket zipped and my carry-on bag at hand, watching the highway next to us.

You know you are in southern California when the freeway traffic — in the dark, at 5:30 a.m. — is already stop-and-go. The train whistles on past, into the San Bernardino station, a Mission-style edifice four times bigger than it needs to be. (Did the town ever need that station?) Across the tracks is a huge intermodal operation, acres of bright lights and freight containers being stacked onto rail cars.

For a kind of California-gothic touch — think of an abandoned amusement park — the “information booth” on the platform is staffed by this static mannequin, like the old coin-operated “Madame Esmeralda Tells Your Fortune” arcade machines. If you drop in a quarter, will he tell you when the next train is coming? Nope.

On the platform,  a robot voice reminds you that “We care.” It’s about a suicide hotline.

Meanwhile, the pre-dawn students and commuters line the platform, staring at their coffee cups or into the middle distance, until the brightly-lit double-decker Metrolink train rattles in and, after forty minutes, deposits me at Claremont station on its way west to Los Angeles.

The chessboard is at the far left end of the counter.

I’ve done my research: about four blocks away is a coffeehouse that advertises it opens at 6 a.m., and it is now 6:30. I walk into Augie’s Coffee, which sets a high bar for industrial-spartan design, with walls of hexagonal tiles like a 1920s bathroom. The baristas interrupt their chess game (Awww!) to get me a cappuccino and chocolate croissant. Outside, the palm trees are turning from black-and-white and color. I am here.

Next stop: Claremont, California

Notes   [ + ]

1. The other keynoter was the feminist writer and poet Judy Grahn. Yes, the website badly needs an upgrade.
2. The best way to accrue reward points is to use Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Mastercard.
3. I had ridden this way multiple times before, but always getting off at Fullerton or else Los Angeles Union Station, in the daylight.

Religious Scholars Incognito

The AAR’s 2019 annual meeting graphic.

When you are a scholar of religion, sometimes you forget how seriously people take religion.

Riding across New Mexico this week on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, M. and I went to the dining car for supper. All the tables seat four, and to save space and facilitate service, if there are fewer than four of people, the steward will seat others at your table (or you at theirs) to fill them up. To some people, this is social event; others just greet you politely and then ignore you.

We had just one companion, however, an older man who introduced himself as “Fred.” I don’t know how it came up, but he said that he wrote books on various topics, including theology. (Uh-oh.) Also, he said, he had produced a new version of the Bible in 21st-century English. (What a concept! No one has thought of that before!) It became clear that his theology is very conservative.

He asked what I did. I said I had worked as a newspaper journalist and magazine editor, which is perfectly true. I did not say that I was on my way to the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, because if nothing else, many people will think you are Bible Answer Man or something.

Like the time I was riding a shuttle bus between my Chicago hotel and the McCormick Place convention center and the bus driver shut the door, looked over his shoulder, and said, “I bet you gentlemen know when Jesus is coming back.”

I let the Protestants on board handle that one.

My encounter with Fred, though, was mild compared to what another friend encountered on her trip to San Diego this year:

[I spent the flight] listening to some techbro explain to the Dean [of a certain seminary] how he and his friend started their own church based on self-actualization through electronic dance music.

He ended the plane ride by making the Dean make a Facebook video for his gurufeed (his words) about what he was grateful for and the great synchronicity they had.

I thought about trying to send the Dean a rescue party, but the Southwest flight attendants wouldn’t allow it.

If you are shy or just feeling anti-social, sometimes it is better not to say that you are a religion scholar.

Where Were the Witches Hanged in Salem? (Part 1)

Gallows Hill municipal water tank, Salem, Massachusetts

No one was hanged on Gallows Hill, but it makes a good high spot for a municipal water tank. The park is called Gallows Hill Park, of course.

I left our Salem apartment last Thursday to walk to the site, but what people used to think was the site is not the site. In fact, the true location, which was of course known at the time and remembered through at least the mid-18th century, when the last persons who witnessed the executions of 1692 would have been passing away, was then forgotten.

Somehow, Gallows Hill, because of its prominence, became fixed in people’s minds and was promoted throughout the 19th century as the site. The city acquired it and some nearby land in 1936.

My walk took me past Salem High School, home of the fighting (a) Sharks, (b) Pirates, (c) Sailors, or (d) Aw, c’mon, you can figure it out.1)Get your “Fear the Witches” cap here: http://spssalemhs.learningnetworks.com/Pages/SPS_HSAthletics/index

Go Witches, take State!

I waked through typical New England streetscapes of (mostly) white-painted frame houses mixed with some commercial areas. The “No Tour Buses” sign was a clue that I was near someplace important — but was I?

Turning onto Proctor Street from Highland Avenue. One of the victims was a farmer named John Proctor, but his family kept on going and later owned land in the area. And are those artificial flowers a memorial or just someone’s decorative touch on Proctor Street?

I walked right past Gallows Hill Park (do the tour buses go there?) because it was not the place and continued on Proctor Street.

Read Part 2 Here

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Get your “Fear the Witches” cap here: http://spssalemhs.learningnetworks.com/Pages/SPS_HSAthletics/index

The Trip to Salem: Southern Colorado — Chicago

The eastbound Southwest Chief, which originates in Los Angeles, rolls into La Junta, Colorado, at sunset.

A near-miss in Chicago: the sleeping car attendant had lined up everyone’s bags on the platform, which is a dimly lit.

I found my carry-on bag, rolled it into Union Station, down the corridors to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, and lifted it onto a shelf in the storeroom.

“Why does your bag have a Red Cap tag?” M. asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I didn’t ask for that.”

It was not my bag.

I was just explaining the mix-up to the lounge superintendent when she spotted a man checking in at the door with . . . a silver carry-on bag.

He had kindly brought it for me from the train. He thought it was his.

All praise to Hermes for the quick save.

Last Chance for Chiles


Saturday the 14th — the last chance to eat some chile colorado before heading east for New England cooking. (Tres Margaritas, Pueblo.).

But . . . today’s Amtrak breakfast menu featured a quesadilla of sorts, making that the first time that I had been served green chiles on the train.