Umbrella Men and Palm Branches

In December, 1967, John Updike was writing “Talk of the Town” for the New Yorker, and he spent most of that “Talk of the Town” column talking about the “Umbrella Man.”  He said that his learning about the existence of the Umbrella Man made him speculate that in historical research, there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality.  If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on.  It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen, and then there’s other level where everything is really weird.

My father sends me an awful lot of good stuff for blog ponderings.  Far too long ago, he sent me a link to a New York Times video about the Umbrella Man.  It’s a short film by Errol Morris, an interview with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, quoted above.  He’s an academic-become-gumshoe, and while not all people agree with his methods or his madness, he raises curious questions, and I like people who raise curious questions.

The video is all of 6:36 minutes long.  Worth a coffee break.

Mr. Thompson became intrigued with the story of the lone man holding a lone open umbrella on the day that Kennedy was shot.  The mystery man stood precisely at the place from which the fatal shots rang out.

The whole matter was a mystery that one didn’t know existed until you caught a frame or two of that fateful day and noticed in them one black umbrella held by a man in a long black trench coat, precisely at the place from which the fatal shots rang out.

I’m not going to spoil the short tale for you.

But I am going to share a few of my gleanings from it.

It is extraordinarily easy to observe something, or to be taught something, and assume that it is true.  Evidence points to it, common sense points to it, and sometimes there’s even a thrill connected with believing it.

And so you act on your belief.

Sometimes, however, there’s a quirky element to history that one can never assume to know, and because of the buried unknowns, it turns out that you couldn’t be more wrong.

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Studying history is a great way to ramp up one’s humility quotient.  Just when you think that you know something, you find out that you may sort of know it, but that you don’t, really.

I just got done working with a group interested in studying something about Noah. (My initial post about this gathering and the geek-high fun I have had with it is found here).  Last Friday, I brought in my biblical ringer, Dad, to teach them about the historical context in which the story was shaped, and written, and edited.

(He was so good that I’m expecting that I lost my gig with them to him.)

It’s easy to get grumpy about elements about the Noah tale (for instance, my husband raised the good question about whether Noah had a moral responsibility to trump God’s command and gather as many life forms as possible on that there ark of his).

Sometimes, however, be it about Noah or any other story, even those of us who consider ourselves liberal and progressive thinkers become literalists, looking only at the obvious facts, and not considering whether there is more to the story, an alternate rendering, a different truth.  A person can get mad at what it says, rather than asking, “Why does it say that?” “What else could be going on?”  ”Maybe the writer just had a bad day and like a Dante precursor just decided exactly what he’d do with the whole shebang, just wash ‘em down the drain?”

To some degree, we’ll never know.

Some things, though, can be said, a number of things that so rarely are said, and so after talking about Assyrians and Babylonians and Northern Kingdoms and Southern Kingdoms and Priests and Yahwists and Compilers and Editors and Dashed Hopes and Raised Hopes, Dad helped us begin to rediscover Noah.

The point is, of course, in short, how do we know what we know?

And what don’t we know that could change everything?

And yet if we know that we will never know, why do we begin?

And yet, in the absence of knowledge, how do we act?

Plain truth is that we are active, if we are not dead.

Passivity is only a different form of action, a different response to information: in this case, information that we don’t know it all and never will.

The Umbrella Man suggests that we will never know it all, and that acting on our ignorance (either because we are ignorant of our ignorance, or we are fully aware of it and recognize that we will never fully overcome it) will lead us down the wrong path, sometimes.

But what’re you gonna do?

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We are creeping up on Easter.

It could be that a dead guy is alive again.  There are some good reasons to believe it (my favorite is that in the four gospels, all concur that women, whose testimony wasn’t even admissible in any legal trial, were the first witnesses.  Crazy way to make a persuasive case for a dead guy rising, in the first century.  Even today, come to think of it…).

There are some good reasons not to believe it (my favorite here is that dead people tend to stay dead).

Maybe ancient dudes were sitting around a camp fire making up eschatological whoppers.

Maybe deep in the history of time there is a powerful force of creation and of well-being, a jolt of life that can never been seen but can be glimpsed, intuited, and yet has a mystery that is so grand that even the word “mystery” fails.

But you have to act.

You might be wrong.

But you have to act.

As for me, I picked up my palm branch today, and stood under it.

I might be wrong.

But waiving a palm branch in honor of a guy who fed the hungry, healed the sick, taught (and was taught by) women, challenged authorities, forgave, and threw his life toward the conviction that death does not have the last word, but life, and life shared, does, is so quirky that it might just be weird enough to, in an inexplicable quantum physics sort of way, make me say that there might just be something to it.

The palm branch is now my symbol that I do not know it all, but I stand underneath it anyway.

Even though it’s not nearly as practical or stylish as an umbrella.

3 Responses to “Umbrella Men and Palm Branches”


  1. Kirsten Mebust says:

    History isn’t the only place that the deeper we go, the less we know, and the less we know, the more we know. Epistemology isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. I like the way the sheer awkwardness of the thing helps it ring a little truer for you.

  2. Troy says:

    I love your writing

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