Several lifetimes ago I lived in Portland.
It calls itself a city but is really just a village that huddles
around its downtown along the Willamette River. Its culture
looks south to San Francisco and north to Seattle. It presents
the usual tribal underclass of the pierced, the tattooed, the
sexually degraded, and a steady supply of vacant-eyed homeless.
The cool and hip tribes are there as well, all REI clad and
On one fine and early Spring day I took my
usual seat at a breakfast joint that boasted huge windows on two
sides. One could sit and smoke and wade into a ham and cheese
omelet while looking out onto Broadway, the main street that
sliced through downtown. From such a perch one could see the
lifeblood of the city walk on by as it rushed here and there for
work or for play or while en route to some act of moral
I saw him again. I never got his name but I
knew him. He lived so it seemed in his wheelchair. Every morning
he sat in his chair at that corner. He was stricken with
multiple sclerosis or cystic fibrosis or other such curse. He
was always clean and reasonably dressed in the uniform of
Portland, jeans and tennis shoes. He wore a long sleeved shirt
with a sort of bib attached to it. Wheelchair man drooled a bit,
and that bib caught most of it. His too-thin legs and hands were
turned at impossible angles, while his body arched away from the
back of the chair. He looked for all the world like some crazy
form of the letter 'L' with a bizarre set of limbs attached.
Wheelchair man could not really speak
outside of a few rote sentences. But he could laugh. I know this
because I joked with him. Or rather, he laughed at my jokes. I
would stand with him at times on that corner and just look upon
the passing scene of Portland. When an unusually disturbed piece
of humanity shambled by I would look at wheelchair man and both
of us would grin. He was always in on the joke, though his sense
of humor was imprisoned in a shattered wreck of a body.
He liked to smoke. One day I was standing
next to him and I pulled out a Marlboro. As I lit up his eyes
looked at me with an odd longing. I got the hint and put the
cigarette in his mouth and held it there. He took a long draw,
keeping the smoke in his lungs awhile and savoring the nicotine
as it rushed through his blood. As best he could he arched his
neck so that he could blow rings of tobacco smoke. He almost
Wheelchair man was in the retail business.
He sold pencils at one dollar each. Stuck to an arm of his chair
was a coffee can full of shiny new #2 pencils. Pinned to his
shirt across from the bib was a carefully written note:
'PENCILS. ONE DOLLAR.' I never saw anyone buy a pencil from him
but I knew that some did. The coffee can usually was empty by
On that day as I had my coffee and Marlboro
while gazing at the street life of Portland I saw banners and
tables being unloaded from a bunch of new vans. On the sides of
these vehicles were magnetic signs that said: Run For Humanity!
Broadway and been closed off to cars and tables were being set
up in the street. Run For Humanity! banners were stretched
across Broadway and a bunch of athletic types were scurrying
about. It seemed that there was to be a 5-mile run 'for
humanity' and it was being organized as I smoked and watched.
Then they began to appear, slowly at first
but then in hordes: the runners of Portland. They always
appeared at such events, all North Face clad and Nike shoed.
Some lined up by the tables and forked over the $40 entry fee
while others threw themselves on the ground and went into a
painful series of stretches. The hard-core runners were
whip-thin Calvinist-types who looked as if they survived on tofu
There must have been 1000 runners gathered
about. Each got a number stuck to his chest. They lined up in
several groups---first were the tofu eaters, then came the
triathlon dreamers, then the mere joggers, then the occasional
outdoor types, and last came the wide bottomed and spandex clad.
All were there to give their all for humanity. Then they were
off. The tofu eaters were soon out of sight. The other groups
disappeared in their own time and at their own pace. The last of
them---the wide bottomed---made a great show of it, all huffing
and puffing for a good cause. Soon even they were lost out of
sight down Broadway.
Curious onlookers stood at each side of the
street. The media were there with cameras and microphones.
Wheelchair man was there too. A true capitalist, his chair now
sported two huge coffee cans full of pencils. For there was
action on Broadway on that crisp and clear day. He might make a
few extra bucks.
I sat in the restaurant with my coffee and
Marlboros. A newspaper had been left at the next table. I picked
it up and read idly. Some 25 minutes later there was a great
clamor in the street. The tofu eaters had finished the race
first and the crowd was clapping. The runners were still all leg
and arm movements as they pranced like Lipizzaner Stallions. The
media swarmed about them. They all marveled at this display of
fleetness of foot.
I could just make out wheelchair man
through all the people. He may as well have been invisible. All
the attention was on the runners as they finished. Each got an
ovation as he hobbled in due course across the finish line. They
were pleased at themselves for sure: They had got their
exercise, they had got to hang out with their tribe and they had
done their part for humanity. It was a day well spent.
Groups of runners came into the restaurant
and filled it. Orders were made, coffee and tea were served, and
soon hot plates of eggs and pancakes were being carried from
kitchen to tables. The talk was of the run of course. I felt a
bit odd smoking while these weekend athletes sat a few feet
away. I tried to shrug it off but couldn't. I waited until these
runners for humanity had all left before I reached for my pack
of smokes. I paid up and wandered outside.
Wheelchair man saw me and so I crossed
Broadway over to his corner. Most of the detritus of the run was
gone now. The vans had been packed up and the banners were all
gone---except for one stray that slowly blew down the street. It
had been a good day for humanity, as the organizers of the run
had cleared maybe $40,000 all told. I saw that wheelchair man's
coffee cans were still stuffed with pencils. None had been sold
on that fine spring day.
We shared a cigarette without really
looking at each other. When it was almost all ash I said goodbye
and headed off down the street. A few blocks on I saw the stray
banner. It had been flimsily made and so had torn in two. Each
piece had a mind of its own. It had ripped between Run For and
Humanity! One---the part that had Run For---had become snagged
on a fence. The other blew with the wind in the direction I
walked, following me almost to my doorstep. I stopped at my
apartment building and turned to the door. The broken banner
lingered for a bit before being carried off by the breeze on its
journey to nowhere.
Upon a Time
When I was a young man I was frivolous with much. With money,
with words, with companions, with women, with my life, with
time. Especially with time.
At 54 I am no longer frivolous. Money is regularly earned,
regularly spent and regularly placed in a retirement account.
Women and drink, those great devourers of young men’s
money---and some older men’s money---are no longer issues.
Perhaps it is because I have become a better man, or perhaps it
is because I can no longer afford them. Maybe I never could.
I talked too much and too loudly when young. Now I hoard
words, treating them as things precious and few. I have learned
that silence, being a scarce commodity, has more value than
words which are available everywhere freely and in quantities
infinite. At last I understand why there are monks who live
their lives in silence. In the quiet they hear all that needs to
Of boon companions I had many in my youth. We drank
together, lusted together, laughed together. We broke every law
of God and man we could. In the end we betrayed each other in
great messes of lies, violence, adulteries and alcohol. Of all
those from my days as a young man I see none today. I have no
idea where most are. I do not want to know. The reason is a
simple one: They know a part of my past that is shameful. To
meet them today would be to be reminded. I do not want to be
reminded. I want to forget.
I once loved things and used people. Women were as cars. I
would take one for a spin to see if I enjoyed the drive. If
not---I seldom did---I would take out another. Even the keepers
were only kept for a while before being discarded. I heard few
complaints for women treated me as I treated them. The usual
things were said. The usual things were done. The usual things
were felt. All of it added up to precisely nothing.
I talked and I acted as if I were invulnerable. In a less
delicate age the things I did would have got me shot to death.
I survived, but barely. There was that messy landing when
skydiving. And that careless fall while rock climbing. I
traveled though nations convulsed by civil war and revolution. I
had close encounters with men and beasts south of the Rio
Grande. I laughed through all of it, playing to the hilt the
perfect invincible fool. At such memories I no longer laugh, I
When young I never---but never---thought of time. It was
infinite and I bothered about it as much as I bothered about the
wind. There was never a sense that it was running out like sand
in an hourglass. I lived---I thought I lived---free from its
constraints. I did as my flesh directed.
But biology is a hard master that cannot be long denied. When
my 20s were a memory and my 30s were half gone I had my first
intimations of age. There appeared something new, an odd
slowness in body. Strange new pains made their presence known.
Recovery from a night’s celebration of Bacchus took longer.
There was more, an exhaustion of mind and spirit. It showed
itself in the mirror. Eyes once bright now were bleary. A mouth
once quick to laugh now took a cynical turn. All the abuses of
money, words, companions, women and life were coming to a head.
I felt as if I lived in a cage.
Something had to be done. Something was done.
I sat at a small café in the late Spring of 1989. Unusually
for Portland the sky was clear. On the ground beside me was a
backpack. It contained all I thought I would need. Inside were
tent, clothes and Thucydides. An acquaintance walked by and
asked where I was going. My reply stunned her. “To Central
America,” I said. With that I grabbed the pack, headed to the
bus station and bought a ticket south.
We hear that you cannot run away from your problems. That is
a lie. Sometimes the problems of a man are place and persons.
Get away from them and he is free to become what Cicero called
‘a new man.’ I could not heed Horace Greely and go West---I was
already West---but I could head beyond the reach of my old life.
I could leave the old man behind and create a new one.
Since then there have been many ‘new men,’ each a bit better,
a bit wiser, a bit more scarred, than the last. Some things once
thought absolutely essential had to be discarded along the way.
Odd, I do not miss them. A great weight has been lifted from me.
When I relate this tale to young men they laugh, a sound I
know well. It is no great matter to me, as each man must cut his
own way in this world. Some will die or become embittered along
the way, but that is in the nature of things.
I am very much alive and know nothing of bitterness. There is
a certain joy in getting older, a joy that is beyond the
understanding of young men. I would never wish to return to my
life of 20 years ago. All my thoughts of time look forward.
One day there will be at my door the Grim Reaper. I have seen
him several times in my life but always from afar. Each time he
got closer and closer. I do not fear the meeting. After he
greets me all that I knew on this earth will melt away. It will
become as shadows and dust. And it will happen in an instant.
Time itself will be gone, its tyranny over my life broken
forever. For Eternity knows nothing of time.
I will come face to face with the Creator of time. All that
was my life will be known to Him. I will have nothing to offer
but rags. On that day there will be surprises.
I hope that I like them.
Chalk Up Another One
Today I turn 54. A man should have wisdom by this age.
Perhaps I do. I can say for certain that half of a man’s life is
spent making a mess of things. The other half is spent in
cleaning them up.
Another thing I can say for certain. I envy no man---neither
his wealth nor his progeny nor his accomplishments. Perhaps at
54 a man should be comfortable in his own skin. I am most
definitely comfortable in mine.
Was it 30 years ago that I read of some guy who had made a
list of things he wanted to do in his life, and then he went on
to do them all? I liked the idea and copied it. I finished mine
years ago and made another---and finished that one. Now I have
another. And no, I will not tell you what is on it.
Ok, just this once. There is this ice-crusted ridge in the
Argentine Andes outside of the town of Bariloche. It rises over
a small frozen lake and continues for some distance across the
mountains, ending in a canyon one day away. Twice I have stood
at its base. Twice I have succumbed to fear and made no attempt
to climb it. It is as the Spartans believed, that flesh is the
factory of fear.
I must climb this ridge before I die.
The philosopher Isocrates lived to be almost 100. He had
students even as a very old man. One day they were having some
fun with him. ”Say old man,” they said, “do you not miss the
comforts of women?” Isocrates smiled as he replied, “No. A great
weight has been lifted from me.”
Young men like speed---fast cars, faster women, powerful
motorcycles and the like. A man in a hurry is a man who cannot
Older men prefer subtlety. We have learned that there is no
need to race through life, at the end of which lies the tomb. I
am in no hurry to arrive there. But death is patient and wins in
But only for a while.
At the end there is only a summation. There will be an
accuser. He will have much to accuse me of. And I am guilty. But
then Someone else will be there as well. He will ask if I fed,
clothed and comforted His children.
And I will have an answer. I pray it will be good enough.
I just hope He does not ask about that ridge.
I began writing four years ago on a web site I had designed.
Millions of words were cyber-scribbled. They remain there,
locked forever in time and cyber-space.
Writing is a discipline like any other. To become competent
at it one must practice it. One must also read at every
opportunity. It is like guitar. Practice, yes, but also listen
to other guitarists.
There is both technique and artistry to writing. Anyone can
become a reasonable technician at putting pen to paper. It is
when one desires to go beyond mere competence and enter the
realm of artistry that the real difficulty arises. Not all are
so gifted. Anyone can become competent on the guitar but only a
few can play like Segovia.
There is a reason for this. God spreads His gifts carefully.
None get all of them. We see this all the time. One man becomes
the best trumpet player in the world but cannot seem to handle
his finances. Another man is given the gift of poetry but ends
his life in a whiskey bottle.
One might be surprised to know that the most gifted and
accomplished man ever created was Julius Caesar. We know him as
one of the three most brilliant captains in history---the other
two being Alexander and Hannibal. But Caesar was also a superb
orator, an accomplished writer, a historian of merit, a
far-seeing statesman and a supremely gifted politician. He was a
lover of renown and one of the great movers and shakers in all
of history. He defended the Jews and forgave all his enemies.
But even he fell upon the Ides of March.
One must be careful to worship the Giver and not the gift. It
is entirely easy for us to believe that whatever gifts we have
are due to our own endeavors. Along this path lie arrogance,
pride and destruction. This is also something we see again and
again. If you have ever wondered why men so talented end up in
the gutter you need wonder no more.
The lives of men like Hemmingway and Shelly and Bobby Fisher
and Hendrix are instructive. Superb masters at their crafts, yet
all came to bad ends. One must be careful when admiring genius.
Genius can be remarkably fecund but seldom passes on anything
of value to its offspring. We do not know why. Perhaps genius
expends its entire energy on its gifts, leaving nothing in its
seed. History is full of great men whose children were
worthless. Edward I, Octavian, Tamerlane, Socrates,
Alexander---even Caesar---left behind none who could measure up
to their fathers.
The singular instance in history that I know of where the
genius son outshone his genius father is Philip II of Macedon
and his son Alexander.
The practice of regular writing has taught me things. Such
as: Never write when angry; always respond to every commenter;
don’t worry about writing daily; never be boring. This is my
greatest fear, to bore a reader. It is also my greatest fear in
my vocation of teaching. If I look out upon a classroom filled
with adolescents and see boredom, I know that I have failed. It
happens rarely but it does happen.
It is as every priest has told me, that I am too hard on
myself. I seek perfection in my writing but always fall short. I
seek perfection in my teaching but always fall short. I seek
perfection in my living but always fall short. I try to obey the
words of the Carpenter---“Be ye perfect even as my Father is
perfect.”---but always fall short.
And so I rely upon the Carpenter Himself. Where I
cannot---where I will not---He can and He will. I like to
think---I want to think, fool that I am---that my writing can
somehow bring glory to Him.
I write not for Fortune or Fame, but because God is
I hope I do not embarrass Him too much.
The Free and the Slave
Sometime during the past year in one million Civics classes
in one million public schools the following lesson was taught:
America is a democracy. In a democracy the people vote.
Voting is a great responsibility. It is what keeps America
Part of that is true. Part of that is false. Part of that is
absurd. Part of that is dangerous.
This nation is a Republic not a democracy. Democracies are of
two basic types, limited and pure. Pure democracies---where
every citizen votes on everything---have been extremely rare,
and when one appears its life tends to be exciting and short.
These function best---if not for long---in a small area with a
small population such as a township or city council.
Limited democracies restrict the franchise to a narrow and
somewhat patrician class. Such governments tend to be
imperialist slave empires, like Athens, early Rome, the Venetian
Republic and the United States of America until 1865. Not really
that bad a deal if you are a member of the ruling class. If you
are not, well then, tough break.
Limited democracies can produce shining monuments to
civilization like the Parthenon and the Constitution. But such
monuments rest upon thousands of slave pens.
In both pure and limited democracies most of the people can
simply vote to enslave the others. Been there. Done that. Got
the Civil War.
Republics exist when a people vote into office
representatives who then vote for the people in a national
assembly. Such governments can only arise where there is a
wide-spread belief in Natural Law or there is a heritage of
Republics have issues as well. They depend upon a free and
informed people. And a free and informed people can most
assuredly vote itself willy-nilly into servitude. And once a man
freely walks into the slave pen, he can never leave again. For
those very powers that he might enlist to free himself he has
freely turned over to the state.
Of course he still might be able to vote, but what of it?
Should a slave be elated because he can vote for his taskmaster?
You see, voting is almost irrelevant in the maintenance of a
free people. Look at every nation on the earth. Almost all have
a system of voting. And almost all are grubby little tyrannies
or corrupt little despotisms. If voting made a people free there
is little evidence of it.
So what if the American citizen performs what his teachers
had told him was his civic duty? So what if he was rewarded with
an “I VOTED!” sticker that he can display upon his lapel? So
what if he then returns home satisfied that he had accomplished
all that was required of him as an informed American?
The reality is that he had done next to nothing for his
nation or for his fellow Americans---or even for himself.
So then, what does keep America free? Glad you asked. But be
forewarned, you might not like the answer. My apologies, but I
am not responsible for your likes or dislikes---or for your
feelings of outrage or offence. So cowboy up and read on.
Freedom rests upon violence. And please, let us call freedom
what it really is, a commodity. Like all commodities it has a
price. That price is paid in the currency of blood. No other
payment is acceptable. That blood will be yours or your
neighbors or---if we are lucky---it will be the blood of
A free people gives the state the authority to use violence
overseas---we call the thing we give that authority the
military---while holding that authority for itself
domestically---we call this authority the right to bear
firearms. If either authority is absent the people will be
enslaved by foreigners or local tyrants.
And it does not matter if some of the people are too dainty
to pay for freedom. Economists call such folks ‘free riders.’
They use a public good---and freedom is such---but do not pay
for its use. Think of bicyclists who pay nothing for the
maintenance of roads but enjoy their use. Think of children who
pay nothing for the maintenance of a free society but enjoy its
If enough people cough up the price, then the Republic stays
free. If too many people refuse to pay, then the Republic
disappears. If not enough American males join the military or
not enough Americans exercise their right to bear arms, our
Republic will vanish into despotism.
But now an irony intrudes: Even if a people have become too
delicate to willingly turn over their own blood for freedom,
their blood will still be required of them---unwillingly.
To put the matter as plainly as I can: The political
structure of our world depends upon force. That force is used to
defend freedom or to impose slavery. In any contest for
power---we call such contests ‘exercising foreign
policy’---blood will be shed by both free people and by slaves.
The same thing is true at home. We remain free inside our
borders only because we are willing to pay the cost in blood. Or
we can choose servitude and unwillingly pay the cost in blood.
But blood it will be.
You see what I am getting at, yes? We choose servitude when
we willingly turn over to the state the right to defend our
lives. A free man provides for his home and family---and takes
responsibility to defend them both. He would no more farm out
this responsibility than he would ask another man to impregnate
his wife. A slave has no control over his own life and no right
to self-defense. He must rely absolutely upon the whims of the
state---his taskmaster---for his life and limb. If the state
chooses to ignore the lives of its slaves, well then tough
Those dead at Virginia Tech did not have to attend there.
They knew that when they entered its hallowed halls they could
not be armed. They knew that while they were on its property
they had to depend upon the tender mercies of Virginia Tech
officials for their very lives. They willingly went into the
slave pen, hoping beyond hope that their blood would never be
required of them.
What a terrible irony that the freest man on that campus on
that day of slaughter was the killer.
The Lucky and the Dead
headlines give the story away.
A hike into horror and an act of courage
I have read countless articles that began as this one did. I
knew what was coming. The usual plot goes like this:
Some nice folks are wandering in the wilderness. The day
is pleasant with chirping birds, sunny skies and green
grass. Suddenly from nowhere emerges an animal with
murderous intent. Its jaws and claws rip and rend. Blood
spurts, the nice folks scream and there is general terror
all around. One man emerges a hero and manages to more or
less save the day but not before suffering horrible
The animal is in this case a Grizzly. He is rather small,
weighing in at 400 pounds or just a shade more than Rosie
O’Donnell. The prose describing the horror is suitably purple.
Johan looked up. Jenna was running toward him. She had
yelled something, he wasn't sure what. Then he saw it. The
open mouth, the tongue, the teeth, the flattened ears. Jenna
ran right past him, and it struck him — a flash of fur, two
jumps, 400 pounds of lightning.
It was a grizzly, and it had him by his left thigh. His
mind started racing — to Jenna, to the trip, to fighting, to
escaping. The bear jerked him back and forth like a rag
doll, but he remembered no pain, just disbelief. It bit into
him again and again, its jaw like a sharp vise stopping at
nothing until teeth hit bone. Then came the claws, rising
like shiny knife blades, long and stark.
You may read the article for more such. And the guy was
indeed a hero of sorts though he was remarkably unprepared and
astoundingly lucky. He did have that silly stuff that
environmentalists claim will stop a bear attack. His daughter
tried to get at it during the attack.
She had reached down to pick up the bear spray. The small
red canister had fallen out of the side pocket of his day
pack, and there it was, on the ground. But she couldn't
remove the safety clip, and the bear was coming at her
again. She screamed.
I bet she did, and rather loudly too.
Johan and his daughter Jenna were avid hikers, but like most
of their kind were given over to the philosophy that the best
protection from bears is to make noise, carry pepper spray---its
'safety clip' well in place---and so on. We have heard such
advice before. In fact, Johan Otter, according to every dictate
of the environmental movement, was doing everything right.
It did him no good. And he was warned the night before of
what he might encounter.
Johan was eager to experience the wildness of the park,
and the first night he did. A black bear, just outside the
I would say that Johan Otter got a full measure of
'experiencing the wildness of the park.’
The one thing he did not carry---and probably would not,
considering his preppy California pedigree--- was the one thing
that would save his life and the lives of others every time. A
The value of a gun does not depend upon the weather or the
mood of a wild animal. The value of the gun depends upon the
laws of physics. A certain weight of lead traveling at a certain
velocity impacts and penetrates the tissue of a bear and
continues through its body rending bone and organs. The more
pieces of lead sent into the bear, the more damage is done until
the laws of biology intrude and the animal expires.
Trouble was that in National Parks firearms are prohibited.
One walks in bear country armed with only a hope and a
Did I write that firearms are prohibited? Why, yes I
did---except to the rangers at the park. In fact the rangers who
saved Otter and his daughter were carrying shotguns.
In other words the citizens were to be unarmed while the
government employees had the right to self-defense. Sound
It should. Some weeks ago at Virginia Tech a monster intruded
into a group of unarmed citizens. You know the rest. Of course
the government employees were well-armed indeed. Thus they
survived. Those unarmed did not.
There are many morals here---and all of them obvious ones.
American Thinker Post
Stefania Lapenna is a free-lance writer living and working
in Sardinia. She wrote a piece for the
American Thinker titled
The Ancient Persian Empire. I had some issues with the
article and so wrote an essay detailing these. The American
Thinker was kind enough to
publish the essay. I am placing it here as well.
Here is the essay. I made an error in the original, writing
that Cambyses was the grandfather of Xerxes. He was
not. Cambyses was the son of Cyrus the Great and the uncle of
Here is the correct family tree.
Stefania Lapenna wrote in her recent article The Ancient
Persian Empire that we in the West suffer from “ignorance,
as well as the lack of a deep knowledge of Iran's history,
society and culture.” She also eloquently defends what she feels
are the unheralded achievements of ancient Iranian civilization.
Some of her points are well-taken. Some are exaggerated. Some
are simply mistaken.
Ms. Lapenna first takes issue with the movie 300,
calling it “highly flawed factually” and saying that “the
Iranian community voiced dismay at what they see as an insult to
Iran's pre-Islamic past.” She is right but her point is
irrelevant. Such criticisms could be made about every film ever
made that concerns some aspect of history. 300 makes no
pretense at being a documentary. Neither does it claim
historical accuracy. Its purpose is to entertain and thus
generate income. In this the film succeeded beyond the dreams of
its makers. And in fact 300 did receive praise from
none other than historian
Victor Davis Hanson.
Ms. Lapenna herself makes some wild claims about ancient
Persia. She says that one of king Xerxes’ wives, Esther, was
“the Queen of Israel.” There never has been any ‘queen of
Israel.’ Esther was a Jewess who had been forced into Xerxes’
harem but won his heart. Esther used her position to save her
people from destruction. To put the matter plainly Esther used
her sexual favors to lead Xerxes around by his nose. Such a
weakness is understandable but hardly flattering to the Persian
According to Lapenna Xerxes (484-465) was known for his
tolerant behavior. Such a claim would have been surprising to
those both foreign and Persian who knew him. In fact Xerxes was
a typical Persian monarch---tyrannical, arrogant and vain, and
highly intolerant to those who would criticize him. We hear of
this tolerant fellow sawing in two the son of the richest man in
his kingdom because the father had requested that Xerxes not
send all of his sons off to the war with Greece. Xerxes attitude
toward those who failed him or resisted him were in the style of
all Iranian monarchs. We read of destroyed cities, slaughtered
and enslaved populations, castrations, beheadings and all manner
of political and sexual intrigue not only in the reign of Xerxes
but in that of every Persian king before and after.
Lapenna’s next claim is astounding: “Unlike all the other
empires, the Persian distinguished itself by never owning
slaves.” In reality all of the inhabitants of the domains of the
Persian king were his slaves to do with as he pleased. We have
mentioned the harem, but we need to also mention that thousands
of young male captives---those unlucky enough to be
attractive---were castrated by having their testicles crushed
between two rocks and then made to serve the king and guard his
women. Persian soldiers many times had whips used against them
by their officers to encourage them to fight.
There was nothing like the Athenian assembly or Roman Senate
in Persia. All Persian kings practiced a grotesque cruelty when
it served them. It was said that one would know when he was
coming upon one of the Persian capital cities by the thousands
of mutilated men wandering the road---men without ears or noses
or lips or eyes, all of which had been removed at the whim of
the ‘tolerant’ kings of Persia. In one outburst of fanaticism
Xerxes’ own father Darius crucified 3000 of the most prominent
men of Babylon. Not for nothing did the Persian rulers call
themselves the ‘king of kings.’
Lapenna writes as a buttress to her claim of Persian
tolerance that it “was Cyrus the Great, not the Greek Alexander,
who liberated the Jews from slavery in Babylon.” Alexander was
Macedonian not Greek. Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 BC, almost
200 years before Alexander was born.
She writes that “Women enjoyed equal opportunities and
prominent roles and were granted the right to vote, hold custody
of their children and contribute to the decision process. In
addition, the empire used to respect the religious, social and
political freedoms of the populations they conquered.” Nobody
voted in Persia. Nobody really votes in Persia today. Women in
the ancient Persian Empire could be kidnapped at the whim of the
king and forced to spend the rest of their lives in the harem
waiting for one night in the king’s bed. As far as respecting
the “religious, social and political freedoms of the populations
they conquered” let us recall the religious outrages perpetrated
upon the Egyptians by the Persian king Cambyses, and that Xerxes
himself burned Athens to the ground---twice.
She asks us not to forget the contributions of ancient Persia
but is a little too enthusiastic about these contributions, most
of which pre-date Persia---things such as the brick, the
ziggurat and the windmill. She mentions the Cyrus Cylinder Seal
which she claims to be “the first Universal Declaration of Human
Rights in history.” In reality it is nothing but a listing
before the people of Babylon of Cyrus’ own accomplishments. It
is filled with the usual braggadocio common among kings from all
places and all eras. No universal claim of any rights was noted
by Cyrus or any other Persian king.
Stefania Lapenna has her heart in the right place. She wants
liberation for the peoples of Iran from their ghastly
oppressors. So do we all. Such a liberation can only occur when
the regime of the mullahs experiences exactly what the regime of
the Persian king Darius III experienced at the hands of
Alexander the Great.
I hate sports. Period. Don’t talk to me about them. Don’t ask
my opinion about this team or that team. Don’t ask if I saw some
game the night before. No, I did not.
My loathing of sports began when I was a youth, a mere lad.
My brother was a born athlete, a natural at whatever sport he
tried. Baseball, basketball, hockey---he was great. And oh! how
all those middle school and high school girls loved him for
Our mother wanted him to play and so devoted a great deal of
the limited family income---we were three, having booted out a
worthless step-father---to my brother’s needs for the best sport
equipment. Jerseys, basketballs, hockey skates and sticks,
baseball gloves and bats---he got it all.
Mom felt pity for her older child---that would be your
writer---and so her love demanded that I too had such gear. But
it got worse---terrifyingly so for me---in that she demanded
that I make good on her investment and play every damn sport my
I was terrible at all of them. I could not throw. I could not
bat. I could not run. And to see me attempt to dribble a
basketball was to erupt in laughter at the sight of such
The other boys could of course recognize a supreme lack of
talent when they saw it. So they banned me from actually
playing---at least most of the time. They wanted to win, and to
place me in the game would in each and every case be
counter-productive. Their disdain for my athletic abilities
extended to school recess. Whenever a team for this sport or
that sport was chosen, I would always be the last man standing.
Then began the humiliating ritual of each team arguing about who
would be forced to take me on.
A compromise of sorts was worked out: I was placed on the
girls’ team. Alas! I was too young and immature to take
advantage of the supreme opportunity this presented. Of course,
this was to the betterment of all those cute girls---my memory
does not lie!---and to my own as well. But still.
Once I left home for the niceties of the United States Air
Force I no longer had to concern myself with things of the
sporting life. I was free. Good God almighty, free at last!
After all that Fate took me here and there, and in 1993 I
found myself in Argentina where I was to live for ten years.
Think what you want about that country, but one thing is
certain: Its national religion is an organized sport---soccer,
to be precise. Argentines are mad about soccer, nuts about it,
absolutely insane about it. The mere anticipation of any game
local or international would send your average Argentine into
fits of a bizarre paroxysm, like a Viking berserker preparing
The things that went on in those soccer stadiums of Buenos
Aires would cause any civilized man to shiver. For the game is a
tribal affair. A man chooses his soccer team almost at birth,
and from then on his loyalty to it is as unending as is his
hatred for the other team. Before a game Argentines apply battle
paint and gather their weaponry---rotten fruit, stones,
anything. The ensuing match is a wonder to behold.
Latin American soccer is a mass affair, like Latin American
politics. By joining the surging crowds the Latin can disappear
and become something greater than himself. Losing or winning
leads to an emotional outburst, as if life itself were at stake.
Latin Americans, so hopeless at war, use soccer as a
substitute. Indeed, their soccer games resemble a crude form of
tribal warfare. Everyone can participate, even boring Uruguay
where they say, “We Uruguayans have no history, so we have
As for me, one Latin American soccer game was enough for a
The Writing is the Thing
The passion to write haunts me. It is a rare that I get to
concentrate on that and only that. The world---the real world,
the teaching world, the one that sends me a paycheck---always
sticks its snout into my affair with writing. Clearly, the
teaching god is a jealous god.
Writing and teaching play off against one another. Teaching
enables me to write; I am a better teacher because I write.
Forcing ideas onto cyber-paper concentrates the mind
wonderfully, leading it to unknown places. It is so often that I
begin an essay on one subject and when the thing is done an
entirely new subject has taken it over. I have no idea how this
Inspiration for a subject comes from places both odd and
common. A random page from a book; a passing comment from a
colleague; a glanced headline from some local paper. This bumper
sticker on a truck in Oklahoma City could cause many an essay:
Give War A Chance!
One would think that the latest wars and scandals would
provide excellent fodder for the imagination. And they do. But
it is usually the case that when I finally get around to
commenting on some event that one million bloggers have already
done so. In a flash it has become cliché. What more could I add?
I would not dare to stick my pen into places unfamiliar. What
do I know of, say, the political situation of Ghana? Or of the
inner workings of the supreme court? Nothing at all. To pretend
an expertise I do not have would be foolish. And I understand
that condition very well.
So I stick to what I know. That list is not a long one, alas.
Certainly bits and pieces of History are on it, as is the
extremely arcane subject of ‘solo backpacking in Latin America.’
I claim a knowledge of Christian theology, but Christ knows
better. I enjoy writing about Sin---I am an expert in it, don’t
you know?---and every person enjoys reading about it. Most have
the decency not write about it.
The most fertile ground I have found is finding connections
between Past and Present. At last all those History classes I
took and all those History books I read---and continue to
read---are paying off. But perhaps the phrase ‘paying off’
should not be taken literally. A writer’s pay is in the joy of
seeing his thoughts put to cyber-paper.
And that is enough, thank you very much.
And if you will excuse me just now, I have papers to correct.
And miles to go before I sleep.
Death of a City
So America has lost a great city to the ravages of nature.
Funny, I thought that it was man who threatened nature, not the
other way around. Is not this the standard environmentalist
The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew
and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was
Ur, Sodom, Gomorrah, Babylon, Samaria, Nineveh, Pompeii,
Machu Picchu, Tikal, Persepolis, Ephesus, Knossos…now New
Orleans has joined that ghostly chorus of dead cities. Some say
that the city will be rebuilt. President Bush himself has stated
this. Fat chance. Four years on and we have not even replaced
the twin towers in New York. New Orleans has lost the
communities that gave it its unique atmosphere. New Orleans was
always about people, and now all are dead or fled. They will not
come back. What is there to come back to? The city itself will
likely be abandoned for months as most of it is still under what
is perhaps the most contaminated water on earth. Did the Romans
rebuild Pompeii? Anyway, why rebuild just to go through this
nightmare all again when the next hurricane season arrives?
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home,
Oh well, oh well, oh well.
Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
Now, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
Thinkin' about me baby and my happy home.
Going, going to Chicago... Going to Chicago... Sorry but I
can't take you...
Going down... going down now... going down...
---Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks
Mississippi has suffered much more than the city of New
Orleans. An area the size of England has been wiped out. You do
not hear of it because disaster preparation and emergency
management there have been efficient and competent. There has
been almost no looting. Oh, the governor of Mississippi is a
Republican. Both the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New
Orleans are Democrats. Have we ever seen in our lifetime such
dreadfully pitiful political incompetence? But the people of
Louisiana voted for those creatures. Is not democracy a lovely
thing to behold?
The media are all agog with stories about looting, marauding
gangs, murders and rapes. But these things were present in New
Orleans long before Katrina. Truth be told the crime rate in the
Big Easy was always much higher than the rest on the US. Murder
rates themselves were 10 times as high. Even the tony French
Quarter was rife with robbery, murder and mayhem. What would
have been unacceptable in any other American town had become the
ordinary in New Orleans.
Last year, researchers had police fire 700 blank rounds in a
city neighborhood one afternoon. No one called to report the
The cops themselves were part of the problem, often not even
responding to calls for help. And it must be said, that an odor
of degradation, decadence and grotesque immorality has always
pervaded the city. Some folks enjoy such things, of course, or
at least have the ability to ignore them.
Anne Rice certainly does both. Fresh from penning her series
of vampire-porn novels she writes a lamentation of the New
Orleans she knew and loved.
The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly;
people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved;
there was joy...I know that New Orleans will win its fight
in the end. I was born in the city and lived there for many
years. It shaped who and what I am. Never have I experienced
a place where people knew more about love, about family,
about loyalty and about getting along than the people of New
Orleans. It is perhaps their very gentleness that gives them
Ms. Rice seems to have lived in a different city than that
described by crime statistics. At any rate her words could
describe about any place on earth. She needs to get out more.
New Orleans was always defined by tourism: the French
Quarter, Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, jazz, food. But no great
city can rely upon such a fickle economic base. The fact is that
New Orleans had been dying for decades and was rotten to the
core. It was one of the few Southern cities to actually have
lost inhabitants over the years as people fled its crime and
poverty. Its public education system was a shambles, one of the
worst in the nation. Corruption was on par with your average
Third World kleptocracy. Thus the destitution and filth that one
noticed everywhere. The only going concern outside of tourism
was the port, but even there much of the trade had passed on.
However, over the past 50 years, industries have sought to
shift their operations to more favorable climes. Houston became
the nation’s oil capital and grew far more rapidly. Indeed,
Houston is now sheltering refugees from New Orleans. Atlanta
became the South’s commercial capital and Charlotte its
financial capital. Even Louisiana’s natural advantages faded as
shipping firms—finding corruption rampant—sought to move their
goods through other ports wherever possible. Populist policies
have consequences: A politicized economy becomes too often a
corrupt one. Louisianians sometimes joke: “We’re a state that
does not tolerate corruption; we insist on it!” Amusing, but
Finally, we can note that the governments of Louisiana and
New Orleans failed their constituencies at all levels. Those who
relied upon their leaders ended up in the fetid Hell of the
Superdome. But what could one expect from a people who for
generations had looked to government for their sustenance? They
were wards of the State and did as they were told---and suffered
New Orleans has provided a corrosive lesson about government.
At all levels, government is overbearing and nagging, paying for
people's prescription drugs and telling us whether we can smoke
in restaurants or not. But when it comes to its most elemental
task of maintaining order and protecting property, it might not
be up to the task when it is needed most.
The Big Easy spent decades cheating the death that prowled
the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. As long as the levees held
folks could dine and sing and dance their danse macabre
seemingly oblivious to the watery doom that patiently waited
just feet from their homes. But once the wind blew and the
machines failed and the leaders fled, their end came upon them
swift and sure---a rush of water, a cleansing release, an end to
the roll of good times.
I love coffee, I love tea
I love the Java Jive and it loves me.
Coffee and tea and the jivin' and me,
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!
---Milton Drake and Ben Oakland (1940)
I remember my first beer. I remember my first
cigarette. I remember the first time I punched another kid in the
snout. But for the life of me I cannot remember my first cup of
Odd, yes? For today I love the stuff. I
cannot---I will not---imagine a morning without it. Even while
undergoing extreme circumstances---say, while walking the Darien
Gap---I will not do without my cup of Joe.
So what is the big deal with coffee? Why the
love? The answer is the obvious one: Because it tastes good. Why
else would one drink it? It has become such a part of my mornings
that on my last day on this earth I will go to my Maker with
caffeine coursing through my veins.
Sometime around the 9th century coffee entered
the Arab world via Ethiopia. From there it made its way to Europe by
the 1500s or so. The first Westerner to describe it
said it was
Coffee came to North America only belatedly.
The drink of the British was tea. After the Boston Tea Party in the
colonies it became unpatriotic for patriots to be seen drinking tea.
So the young Americans substituted coffee. To this day I find it odd
when I see some American drinking tea. I do not entirely trust such
Today coffee beans---seeds, really---are the
most internationally traded commodity after crude oil---a fact that
must make Mormons shudder.
I began my affair with coffee while in college.
This was the beginning of the
Starbucks era. Starbucks insisted on making its coffee using the
drip method, and not just any drip machine, but very expensive ones:
espresso machines from Italy; huge, black metal monstrosities with
tubes going in and out---from Germany, of course.
I was born at the tail end of the percolator
era of coffee making. Eisenhower was president, grade schools still
practiced 'duck and cover,' polio was still around and all TVs were
small and colorless. The percolator in the kitchen was noisy and
caused the entire house to reek of coffee. But by the time I began
to drink coffee percolators seemed to be obsolete. The Starbucks
mentality preached that coffee must never boil or be poured over
already wet grounds. Since those were the two essentials of
percolated coffee it seemed that the machines would disappear. I
certainly thought so.
But I had never tried percolated coffee. It
dawned on me that the Starbucks approach to coffee might be
wrong-headed, as wrong-headed as the political views of their
pierced, tattooed and blue-Mohawk haired employees.
I looked around a bit and found this beauty
I tried it. Marvelous, simply marvelous. The
coffee is of course not filtered through paper---which always traps
some of the coffee flavor. And the coffee was hot, as in scalding.
Once the machine got going my entire apartment smelled like a coffee
shop. The flavor was much stronger and thicker than any drip machine
could produce. For the first time in my life I felt I was drinking a
cup of coffee as God desired it to be drunk.
So I am done with drip machines forever. They
seem so effeminate compared to percolators. And the coffee they
produce is light and watery compared to percolated coffee. A man
with strong opinions should prefer his coffee just as strong. (And
his whiskey straight---but that is another essay.)
And forget the 'rule' that says coffee should
never be poured over its own grounds. Doing so adds to its flavor in
the same way that cooking a steak in its own sauce adds to its
A mill does not burn the coffee as do the
metal blades of a grinder.
So coffee preparation in the Austin household
of one has become somewhat exotic and formal. And it takes time---at
least 10 minutes. And if you do not keep an eye on the percolator
you might come to grief. And clean up is messy. And the mill is
noisy. (A tough break for my poor neighbors upstairs, as I mill my
beans at 2:30 AM.)