Saturday, October 24, 2009

The cut of Constantine's sword

I have journeyed this morning into a man’s mind. I have read his questions and come up with my own.

James Carroll has introduced me, in the 70 pages that I have read so far of what may be his magnum opus, Constantine's Sword, to brilliant men and women spanning 2,000 years, from Rabbi Herschel to Teresa of Avila – minds I vow to know better.

From his pen, almost casually, drop references to some of the world's greatest art -- the sign of a man who has internalized them, a man to whom these masterpieces have personal meaning.

Michelangelo's Pieta.

I started reading this book several years ago but put it aside when it became clear to me that I needed to familiarize myself first with the context of Constantine's age.

Now I am ready.

In this book, Carroll probes the very heart and history of his faith, its passion and pain.

Bernini's Passion of Saint Teresa.

Rome we know or think we know, with its Ides and its Colosseum. The Middle Ages we know or think we know, with its chivalrous knights and horrible plagues – but what of the centuries between? What of the time when Constantinople displaced Rome, however briefly, as the center of Western civilization? When Christianity exploded from an obscure, persecuted sect into a world power?

As Europeans, descendants of Europeans – or even as people from elsewhere who have for better or for worse had interaction with Europeans, whether you are a Filipino or an Inuit or the grandson of a Hottentot, that mysterious era after the “ancient” world ended but before the modern, yes, even before the Medieval period began, forever altered the pattern of your life.

What if there had been no Constantine – the first Emperor to embrace Christianity? Indeed, what if the Christian Church had never received imperial sanction?

Was Constantine a product of the Church in his way of thinking, or did his way of thinking re-direct the Church? Carroll hints, but I have not yet reached the page, that he will talk about that man’s thinking in regards to the sacrifice of a son by a father – will this concern his poor son Crispus, whose untimely death biographer Frank Slaughter blames on Constantine’s “hell-cat” wife Fausta, though suggesting that others would blame the old emperor instead.

Carroll explores the roots of anti-Jewish hatred in Christianity, finding them in the very New Testament writings but without the power to be lethal until Constantine arrived on the scene – he who called the Jews an “odious people and who moved the very date of the Easter celebration to escape the taint of Passover.

A tangent for someone else to explore: If there had been no Constantine, no Imperial entanglement with the Church, what of the endemic eastern Christian squabbles that to this day have left a patchwork of bitterly divided sects in that region (long before Protestantism supposedly cracked the monolithic wall of Christianity)?

When the weight of the empire shifted the balance, now to Arianism, now away, when churchmen found themselves summoned from all corners of the Roman world by Imperial edict, to argue out their differences, do you suppose that little fires flared up into infernos, do you suppose that positions hardened? Do you think that far from solving the problems, Imperial involvement only ensured that they would grow worse, like school children dragging their big brothers into a fight?

What of Mohammed, whose Islam is judged by some to have been a reaction in part to such squabbles, even a Christian heresy at heart? Without a Constantine, would the Quran be what it is and would the wholesale defections to Islam in the Middle East, the very birthplace of Christianity, have taken place?

Arianism, for example, can be seen as a precursor to Islam, according respect to Christ but not granting him the same status or substance as the Father. So, too, does Islam revere Christ, as a prophet, but not as a God – and even speaks of him laughing on the cross at those who mistakenly believed they were crucifying him -- a familiar concept to Christian Gnostics.

These are fascinating questions to me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Apple fanatics

I probably looked like an idiot up there in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a converted barn last weekend, carefully loading handfuls of apples into separate bags and tucking labels into each bag.

But for once I wanted to get home and not just simply have a jumbled mix of the fruits to root through. And unfortunately, I am not an apple expert. Can't tell most of the heirloom varieties apart by sight.

It's fun to be a foodie. Some folks are generalists, like me, jacks of all trades and masters of none. Others, often mocked, are exquisite specialists, who can sip a drop of wine and tell you what vineyard it came from and what hints of leather, oak and grass it yields up to their palate.

My favorite apple this week has been the Staymans -- crisp, juicy and tart. I am discovering that I much prefer that type of flavor to the mealiness of some other varieties.

In fact, I was puzzled to find a review online for the Grimes heirloom variety, my lunchtime selection for today, which called Grimes a spicy, rich, crisp and sweet delicacy. I feel quite inclined to disagree. It tasted like a ho-hum, so-called Red Delicious disguised with a yellow skin.

It is said that Thomas Jefferson was never without an apple. His favorite, the Esopus Spitzenberg, is almost impossible to find these days, and I was disappointed that the orchard we visited last weekend, just a few miles from Monticello, didn't carry it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What chance for a child?

So they have found the body of the little Girl in Florida, Somer Thompson, who disappeared recently.

And I wonder: What chance for survival does a child have in a society where ...

"...Beseler ... said police have questioned more than 70 registered sex offenders in the area, and that process was continuing. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show 161 offenders live in a 5-mile radius of Somer's home."

I am sure that people who get their thrills out of exploiting and hurting children have always existed. I know from reading the literature of Imperial Rome that this horror infested their society, too.

So what to do? Kill them all -- the extreme conservative position? Lock them up forever? Work even harder to solve the social ills that breed this sort of person -- the liberal position?

One thing is certain. This cannot go on. We are doomed, flat out doomed to destruction if we don't do something. There is no doubt about it. No society can hope to survive in which its children can't walk a mile home from school without being snatched and killed. No society can survive in which parents must live in constant fear, never able to allow their children out of their sight. No society can survive in which people convicted of hurting children number not in the dozens, not in the hundreds, but in the thousands and perhaps even millions.

As children, not only my uncle, but my Mother, too, thought nothing just a few decades ago, of taking long hikes alone, of unsupervised camping trips, of exploring their world to the fullest.

As a child, so did I.

Today's child will never know such joy. Today's child is no better off than some Ice Age youngster, who had enemy tribesmen, slave raiders and wild beasts ever lurking beyond the edge of the village. Today's child is perhaps even worse off, because their enemies live within his or her own village.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Got the shot

I put my money where my mouth is, so to speak today.

I am annoyed by all the fear-mongers who keep telling everybody the swine flu vaccine hasn't been tested enough. The flu, any flu, is a far greater threat, to more people, than this vaccine could ever hope to be. Tens of thousands of people die every year from the flu -- do you want to be the carrier, even if you survive, who gives a fatal case of it to someone you love?

Get the shot, people. Let us please not have 1918 all over again. I'm a needle phobe and I did it. It is worth it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One man's conception of Constantine -- Frank Slaughter

I wonder what the buzz was in the literary world in 1967, when the late Frank Slaughter, a Florida physician and author, published the first in what was to be his series on notables in Christian history.

Of course, I was not yet born. I have come to the party a few decades late. My secondhand copy of his book on Constantine the Great has been well worn since it rolled off the press -- who knows how many hands it has been through -- its pages are yellowed and its cheap paperback binding is failing.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this book, this week. Mr. Slaughter wrote more than 60books in his lifetime. This is the first that I have read. He digs deeply into his subject -- and you have to admire a writer who would dare to take on the excruciatingly complex politics and society of 4th Century Rome, as the Eternal City had its crown wrenched away by Byzantium in the east and the old gods lost out to Christianity.

But I fear that I will have no one to talk with about the book. It's 42 years old, the author has passed away and he never seems to have become a household name.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Time is a river, sea-bound as all rivers are
A deep, dark current that fain would drown
Our bright birthright, Wordsworth’s star.

Helpless – we are dust caught in its course
We ponder where once we were
But can’t go back: the die is cast, the script rehearsed.

Can only remember, can only feel
And the pain of the memory
Is sometimes the only proof that it was ever
Truly real.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Feels So Good!

It is indeed possible to turn a weakness into a strength.

Fighting with all my might against the default of my ADHD, I am slowly winning the battle to become organized. It has taken a lifetime. It will never be a job I can declare complete.

Only someone who has been where I have been, could fully understand the sweet satisfaction of being able to open a cabinet, open a file and in less than two minutes, produce upon request an obscure but critical piece of information needed by our budget department for the annual audit.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Get to the point!

"Where are you located?" the Lady asked me on the phone this morning.

I proceeded to give Her detailed directions to our School Administrative office, right down to the 7-11 on the corner beside us.

She listened matter-of-factly.

Then proceeded to tell me She was located in Wilson County and was receiving our automated calls to parents.

"So, you have no connection to our system and wish to have your number removed," I said.

Chuckling on the other end of the line.


Lady, five minutes of my time and yours could have been saved if you had just made your request clear from the beginning!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beefcakes and weasels

I read an article long ago which suggested that there are only two kinds of people in the world, a classification that becomes evident in high school: people who prize brawn and people who prize brain. (Note, prizing of something does not automatically indicate possession of it.)

The article went on to explain how long after the jocks have left their football field and the brainy/creative/artistic types have given up their soul patches and sired children, we still identify with those who fit whatever group we fell into in high school.

Gross generalizations are dangerous.

Sure, I myself prized brain over brawn in high school. Sure, I don't tend even today to enjoy the company of chest-thumping, butt-smacking NFL fanatics -- but neither do I go to froo-froo art gallery openings or Star Trek conventions. Couldn't tell you the difference between Kant and Kerouack to save my life.

And I just read this week in Parade Magazine a wonderful article about beefcake Matt Damon and his international humanitarian efforts and came away thinking, man, if I was a beer drinker, I'd love to sit down and have one with that guy. Heck, I'd go sit in the bleachers at some ball game with him just to be close to his awesomeness.

Here's another blog-post about the article:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ig-Nobel Peace Prize: the death of a great idea

Today it finally hit me:

Whilst the Nobel Prizes in medicine and other fields, are honorable and generally deserved, the Nobel Peace Prize itself, being actually administered by an entirely different body of judges -- a handful of secret folk from one little country in Europe on Planet Earth -- no longer means anything.

It now bears all the grandeur for thinking folk of an award from, PETA, the NRA, the Moral Majority or a committee of delinquent kids in your local middle school. It is purely and completely in the hands of determined leftists, a sham, a mockery of the grand idea that it once was. As such, without some attempt to broaden the judging pool, it no longer deserves respect.

I began to understand this when Jimmy Carter won the last time and it was made quite clear that he received the award as a poke in the eye of the-then president of the U.S.

I don't like Jimmy Carter. I hate his politics, his disaster of a presidency and his recent generalizations. BUT, even so, I can recognize that he is a hard-working man who has labored for decades in the cause of peace. I could understand the case for Carter getting the Award.

But Obama?

Has Obama ever confronted a dictator? No, he shakes their hands.

Has he ever promoted democracy? No,he is doing his best to ensure that it dies in Honduras.

Where was he three years ago? In a gulag? Under house arrest in Burma? Confronting the People's Liberation Army in China? Hardly.

Maybe Obama will eventually do wonderful things in the world. But even some of his strongest supporters concede that this designation was a little too early given.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wise Words

"The urge to save humanity is always a false front for the urge to rule it." -American writer H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Friday, October 2, 2009


Bang. Bang.

I heard the sound from my study room late last night. Maybe firecrackers. Or just some fool firing off his gun in a backyard.

But then the sounds were followed immediately by the yelp of a dog in pain.

Shots again.

I left my book on the floor, jammed on a shirt and ran outside. Slipped around the side of my house in the dark, heart pounding, trying to figure out what had just happened, without being spotted.

Saw nothing. Nothing but an old white car near the intersection in front of my house that may have had nothing to do with the situation.

Heard nothing. Nothing but a slight rustling from the darkness a house or two over by the treeline. Might have been someone walking, might have been a possum creeping along.

For the first time in my life, I called 911. Told them I thought I had heard a dog being shot.

Don't know if it was one of our trashy neighbors or some outsider, like the child-of-hell demon-spawn scumbag who once threw a dog out of his car in the street in front of our house -- a dog whom we took in and loved, sweet little thing, til the day he died.

So 911 asked me if I had seen anyone or any vehicles in the neighborhood. I told them what I remembered.

To their credit, two police cars were in the neighborhood within a few minutes. I don't know if they discovered anything. They drove up and down and then drove away.

By dawn's early light, our neighborhood appears quiet and seemingly deserted. People have hauled their recycling to the curb.

But something happened here last night. Something terrible was done.


Note to the world: If you are going to drop the 10 bucks or whatever it costs these days for a vanity plate on your car, maybe you should pick a combination of letters that actually means something.

Unless of course you get the giggles just from riding around making people wonder what the &^&% your secret acronym means.

Or maybe I'm just really stupid and everybody else in the world but me can solve this riddle.

Maybe it's a line from some movie I missed.

Maybe it's Yiddish.

Maybe it's Martian.

Well, happy YD SPRZL to you too, buddy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mean People Suck

Mean People Suck.

That used to be a bumper sticker you'd see around.

So true.

I detest the Simon-Cowellization of our culture. Suddenly, everybody thinks they are entitled to be a critic and to rip up other people at every possible occasion.

Go on Youtube sometime and observe the downright vicious comments people post on videos of anybody attempting to do anything creative. Most disturbing is when the putrid vitriol is directed against children.

The sort of boorish nastiness that used to be the provenance of comedy club hecklers, has now infected our entire society.

I tried to watch America's Got Talent one night. I couldn't stand it -- not because some of the performers were awful (and some indeed were!) but because of the way they were hooted and hollered and virtually chased from the stage.

Back in the day when society had a little more class, back before we handed over the job of evaluating talent to the mindless mob, things were done differently. The judges don't tell a Miss America contestant that Her butt is too bony and Her singing voice sounds like an angry alleycat trapped in a garbage can. They give Her a performance number, no more, no less.

There is a time and a place for criticism -- constructive criticism that helps a performer improve. Such criticism includes basic steps, the advice of true experts, such as "you need to sing more from your chest, not your nose." Such advice does not include Kindergarten-level insults or the suggestion that the would-be performer go away somewhere and kill themselves for the good of society.

I fear that people today do not grasp this concept.