Diary and Commentary

Page 25


MAY 15




Yesterday I went to see Troy, the latest sword-and-sandal epic from Hollywood. It seems that our Babylon is trying to cash in on the recent popularity of these films, a rebirth begun by Gladiator. (In a similar vein, expect to see a whole lot of big budget Biblical epics as Hollywood types try to squeeze money out of the Passion craze.)


Almost from its beginning Hollywood saw the potential of bringing the ancient world back to life on the big screen. The challenges then and now were how to re-create civilizations long-dead and make them believable to movie goers. The limiting factors were technology and costs. After all, the only way to film a Roman epic was to re-build Rome, and this could not be done in a day. One of Hollywood's first attempts at this was a silent version of Ben-Hur (1927) with Ramon Novarro in the title role. Some 80 years later, the film remains an astounding piece of work that some believe surpasses even the 1959 remake in grandeur and technical excellence. 


The ensuing 40 years saw dozens of epics as movie directors plumbed the pages of the ancient historians and the Bible. The late 1950s brought Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus and Ben-Hur,  all of which still delight. But audiences began to tire, and by the time of Cleopatra (1963)---a film noted for glorious excess, massive cost overruns and tabloid scandals---the money making potential in such films was gone. Audiences had moved on. (A similar fate befell the Western.)


Fast forward to 2000 and Gladiator. Director Ridley Scott took a huge gamble with this film, which became a box-office smash. Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery---and the quickest way to make the big bucks---Hollywood poured over long-forgotten scripts and story ideas. Troy is one of the results. It is stunning. It is beautiful. It is violent---like the Trojan War itself---and it is absolutely gorgeous.


It is loosely based on Homer's Iliad. The discrepancies might irritate a classical scholar, but then he probably does not make movies. Let's call it 'artistic license.' Keep in mind the place of the Iliad in the ancient Greek world. It served up a moral code, a guide to life for every proper Greek. What the Greek admired was far from our Christian ideal: cleverness, ruthlessness, martial skill, deception, loyalty to one's armed retainers and the ability to inflict violence and brutality and death when required. For this was the Mycenaean world, a place very much unlike own. Every man carried the law in his own sword hand, for it existed nowhere else. Men were naturally violent for theirs was a violent world. Kings were little more than tribal chieftains whose nobles commanded the loyalty of hundreds of their own men at arms. War and piracy were the economic foundations of Homer's world. The Trojan War (c. 1200 BC?) was in reality a trade war for control of the Eastern Mediterranean. Perhaps it did last for ten years as the Greeks believed. 


Homer's tale served as a basis for much of classical Greek literature. Sophocles and Aeschylus and all the rest found Homer a veritable gold mine of ideas. Every Greek boy knew by heart the stories of Troy and Achilles and Odysseus and Helen. Homer's influence has carried on to this day and his epics are still read even in US public schools. The directors of Troy counted on this to make their movie understood to us moderns. While the Iliad only concerns itself with a few weeks of the war, Troy begins at the stealing away of Helen by Paris and the subsequent war in its entirety. Ten years are thus cascaded into a few weeks which of course increases the dramatic impact of the movie. Left out were Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to the god of the winds, an event in itself that has served as the plot for a number of films, the best being Iphigenia (1977). Unlike the Iliad the movie ignores the gods who appear on every page of Homer and instead focuses entirely upon the human characters: upon Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Hector, Paris and all the rest. There is no deus ex machina in this movie, and the men and women here are clearly in control---as much as they can be according to their talents and weaknesses---of their own fates.


Computer generated images do for Troy what they did for Gladiator: they recreate a long-vanished civilization that warms the hearts of all fans of the ancient world. But these are not the center of the movie, the humans are. As in Gladiator the special effects serve as backdrop to the drama of war and violence, they are not the stars. (This is so unlike the childish Star Wars saga, where the actors exist only as stage props.) Troy leads us across the divide between fantasy and reality. One becomes lost in a world 3200 years dead.


As in Homer, Troy presents the battle between Hector and Achilles as the center of the tale. Never have I seen such a contest. The choreography stuns and amazes, even though we already know the outcome. This fight alone is worth the price of the movie many times over.


As I said, the film---like the world it brings back to life---is violent. It is about men who are rewarded for their prowess as killers. We moderns pretend we no longer need such men, but we fool ourselves. Every civilization needs them, though certainly not in the numbers demanded in the Mycenaean world---not now anyway. For that at least we can be glad.




MAY 18


Real Backpacking


I have solo backpacked the most difficult parts of Latin America. My pack has weighed upwards of 70 pounds. I thought I was one tough dude. Well, here is one tough dude---the real thing:



This is the standard equipment of the US Army's 173d Airborne Brigade. The soldier weighs 160 pounds, his gear another 160. Other soldiers' gear is even heavier.


The classical Greeks went into combat with gear weighing 100 pounds. They could not make war very far from their city-state---the Greeks had what political scientists call 'a limited strategic reach'---as they could not carry enough food and equipment. The Romans, however,  would practice with gear that weighed twice that of what they would use on campaign. A typical Roman legionnaire's  campaign kit weighed about the same as that of the soldier pictured above.  Their basic training was called "bloodless battles" and their wars "bloody exercises". Every evening the Romans would build a fort complete with moat and stockade. Their strategic reach embraced the world.


Imagine what it takes to get a man able to make war while carrying the equipment in the photo. This is yet another reason why America wins its wars.




One Month in America

I must say that my own country is one weird place. I feel as a stranger in a strange land---not that it is unpleasant but that it is, well, different. Those 14 years I spent in South and Central America are all having their effect. 'Culture Shock' seems a bit too dramatic to describe all of this. I wonder if there is a 'Robinson Crusoe Effect' or perhaps a 'Rip van Winkle Effect.' Anyway, the USA takes some getting used to. But then, so does fine wine, good music, a beautiful woman...you get the picture, yes?

Short recap of events since I returned from my 'Year of Living Dangerously': three weeks in Portland, bought a Jeep, drove it to Tulsa, staying with brother Ted and his wife Linda, looking for work. More than one month on I can hardly believe that I was backpacking by myself for almost a year in Latin America. I look at my photos and writing on my site, and it seems as if I am reading the musings of some lucky, rather bizarre stranger. Was Mike Austin really in Choquequirao? in Peten? in the Cotahuasi Canyon? No!  Impossible! Yet there I am staring back at myself from my own web site, reading my own writing. Damn, I am one lucky (and unemployed) fellow.

I have not written on my site in some time as all is taken up with job stuff: resumes, references, cover letters, envelope stuffing, transcript requesting---and on and on. I am looking for a teaching position at all sorts of schools in all sorts of states. I have never gone through this process before. So much is heavily bureaucratic and a great waste of time. Every state has its own standards for teacher certification. Sometimes they accept other states' certification (called 'reciprocity') and sometimes not. No reasons are given for non-acceptance. If you have certification in state 'X' and wish to work in state 'Z' and there is no reciprocity, tough luck pal. You have to attend a series of education classes in state 'Z' in order to become eligible for certification---without which you cannot work. Luckily I have Michigan certification, which is one of the best and most accepted. There are seven states that neither offer nor receive reciprocity, which means that you are only eligible to work in the state where you were certified.

All of this is so much nonsense. If the certification process guaranteed outstanding teachers it might---just might---be worth it. But does it? Who has not heard horror stories about public education? Boring and poorly educated teachers---the lot of them certified by one state or another---going through the motions of instructing their captive audience. And the result? Poor scores across the spectrum: in Math, in English, in History, in Writing, and on and on. It seems that certification does not and cannot guarantee good teaching. Well, duh! All that time, all those classes, all that effort, all those mountains of paper---mostly all wasted. Well then, what does make an effective teacher?

Well, I am glad that you asked! Your answer will be forthcoming...tomorrow. Maybe.

And what of that Jeep? Why the H*** did I buy one of those things? Your answer will be forthcoming...tomorrow. Maybe.


Oh, I almost forgot. Like a stopped watch, even the Europeans are right sometimes.

Thanks, Ron!


I have been in Tulsa about three weeks, and most of the time it has rained or threatened to rain. Rather like Portland---one reason I chose to live elsewhere. My aversion to rain probably stems from my many years of solo backpacking. Believe it, when you are on some isolated Andean ridge (is there any other kind?) and you see a storm coming you know that you had better get to a campsite pronto. Here in Oklahoma the rain is usually accompanied by terrific thunder and lightning. To spice things up and keep Oklahomans stepping lively tornados often drop from the clouds,  wreaking havoc and death. There is nothing to do but flee, head underground or hope that the monster passes you by. When you are near one of these things it sounds as if you are under a bridge while a train roars by overhead. The circular winds from these horrors reach 300 mph, the path can be one mile wide, the result is spectacularly devastating.

Oklahoma has around 65 tornados every year, the country as a whole around 600. Okies are used to them, I am not. It is now tornado season in these parts.  In the early afternoon on sultry days when the sky becomes dark, when lightning flashes and tornado sirens blare, people look to the sky, towards Heaven.

Looking for a job is my job right now. I have little time or energy for much else. It has been only a few weeks, but already I hunger for the 'freedom of the hills,' of walking with pack into some forest primeval, there to wander about until the fever is cooled, the hunger sated. I have spent 18 years doing more or less exactly that---and the last year was just doing exactly that---and such desires do not die, job or no job. The sooner I find work the sooner I can load up the Jeep and head out. Of course, if I remain unemployed over the next few months then I will not lament but will head for the hills. All of this is of course in God's hands, the only place it is safe. Besides, as I have many times written, He made those hills. He made them not for Himself, for He needs nothing. He made them for us. Far be it for me to refuse any such gift.


 Troy Redux

I read a lot---about one book every week. Sometimes the books are what we call 'light reading'---Dr. Laura, for example. But usually the reading is pretty heavy: History, Theology, Politics and their like. Such books are written most often by pointy-headed intellectual types, and they are smart fellows the lot of them. But they also can be just jack-ass stupid. Holding down a job at Harvard, publishing one unreadable book a year, speaking several dead languages and possessing myriad PhDs are no guarantees of smarts. Witness the number of clever fellows who predicted this-and-that for Iraq or Afghanistan or the War on Terror---the Sidney Blumenthals, the Noam Chomskys, the Howard Zinns and so on: all wrong, all goofy, all embarrassingly misguided and uninformed. As far as the Iraq war goes, I get better information from my ex-students who are with the US military there than from the pages of the New York Times---far better, in fact.

I read one of these pointy-headed types recently here. The column was titled "Troy's Literary Offences"---a take-off on Mark Twain's hilarious essay on James Fennimore Cooper. It was written by Bruce Thornton, a professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno, author of a plethora of books on the Ancient world, and on and on. You see, he did not like the movie Troy. Fair enough, though I loved the film---see above. But his reasons for not liking Troy are silly ones. His distaste shows the pomposity of our puffed-up professoriate in all its illogical glory. The good professor writes

As a movie, Troy is okay. The fighting is fun, and the scenes with the ships arriving and those showing us the city of Troy are convincingly real. But as an interpretation of Homer's Iliad, the movie is an abomination. Everything significant and interesting about Homer and his characters has been eliminated, leaving behind a predictable melodrama.

Now hold on, doc. You admit that Troy is OK---as a movie. (Hmm...a good thing, considering that it is a movie.) But then you slam it for not being a piece of literary criticism---and so you descend into silliness. The movie says right at the beginning that it is 'based on Homer's Iliad.' It makes no claim to being Homer's work put to film or to following Homer with exactitude. The good doctor continues with advice on filmmaking:

The first mistake the film-makers made was to ignore what the Roman poet Horace told us was one of Homer's great insights: to start the story in medias res, in the "middle of things," rather than going back to the beginning. In this way Homer concentrates all his dramatic force on the key characters and the most important event of the war, the death of Hector and the events leading up to it. Troy, on the other hand, dissipates the drama by going back in time to the beginning of Paris and Helen's affair, and forward to the sack of Troy, losing that dramatic concentration and power.

Memo to Bruce Thornton: Look professor, the film is what is called a historical epic---like Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, Cleopatra and so on. These things educate in their own way for sure, but their primary purpose is to entertain so as to generate a big box office take. That's it. They were not made to satisfy the over-educated vanity of a bunch of book-bound PhDs. Your criticisms are off-base. Get your snout out of the library once in a while to check out what the masses enjoy seeing when they go to a movie. What do you think pal, that maybe one who sees Troy just might one day be inspired to take one of your classes? or to read Homer? or that the movie can actually lead one to a greater knowledge of the Ancient world? Lighten up buddy, and stop being such a pretentious, pompous a**.

Brad Pitt as Achilles




God Speaks

 I will move to Oklahoma City in August to begin the best job in the world. But first, next week will see me and my Jeep on the road to Oregon. There are many trails there that have not yet seen my footprint.


More later---of course!




On the Road, Off the Road


There are choices to make when a man decides to drive his Jeep across the fruited plain of the US of A, such as: How does he get from A to B? There are myriad roads, highways, freeways, routes and interstates going thither and yon, crisscrossing the nation like a huge circulatory system. Most people simply get on an interstate highway and cruise away.


I just arrived in Portland, having driven from Tulsa---more than 2000 miles all told. I avoided the interstates---too comfortable, too sterile, too isolated from the rural heartland of the nation. I took my time, avoided cities, listened to AM radio and generally marveled at the size and strength of this great nation.


The roads I chose connect all those funny little places you see on the map with names like Elmore, Plainview, Muleshoe, Butte Junction, and so on. By and large agriculture and cattle are the economic basis of these places, and by and large they are conservative and Christian. The radio stations are full of things like: "Come to the Water of Life Bible Church's celebration of July 4th! There will be flag displays and great food and fellowship! Pastor Billy Tanley will speak on how  Biblical principles are important to our Independence Day!" The advertisements are mostly for fertilizer, animal feed and strange-looking (to me) farm machinery. Trucks outnumber cars, churches outnumber taverns and overalls outnumber business suits. I should note that most of the US military---our soldiers, sailors and Marines---come from such rural regions. This is Bush country for sure.


Being a Jeep owner allows me great latitude while driving through these parts. I can take farm routes where passenger cars fear to tread. I did exactly that in northern Nevada a few days ago. Route 140 goes some 100 miles as it meanders into Oregon. It is mostly dirt and gravel, there are no gas stations and only a few ranches---perfect territory for the Jeep. I realized that I drive as I backpack: off the usual path, in solitude, trusting in God and my equipment to get me through. They---He---got me through.


I will be around Portland and its environs two weeks or so, enough time to get out in the woods near Mt. Hood for some easy backpacking. Then it will be back to Oklahoma by way of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Iowa. 


I want to have a place to live and all the necessities bought for my new life in Oklahoma City by early August. Then begins the next chapter of my life. Stay tuned.





Yesterday was my 51st birthday. Odd to know one has been alive for half a century. I can plan for some 30 more years before Eternity. What to do with all those years? Easy answer: The will of God. And just what might that be? Well, He told us: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the widow and orphan. Pretend that every stranger you meet is Christ, and treat him accordingly. Most everything else is just vanity, a condition at which I am expert.


All of these thoughts will be contemplated over the next few days as I go into the forest alone. I believe that I would go mad without being able to journey through God's handiwork. He made the natural world and everything in it not for Himself (He needs nothing) but for us, for me. The forest, the mountain, the jungle---these are all God's museum, His perfect artwork.



The Makers and Keepers of Civilization


And who might these guys be? It really is not complicated.


It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.

It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves under the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, 

who allows the protester to burn the flag.

--- Father Denis O'Brian, U.S. Marine Corps

This should be obvious. Before the Temple came Joshua. Kipling knew this as well:

Well it's 'Soldier this!' and 'Soldier that!'

And 'Throw him out, the brute!'

But it's 'Savior of our Country!'

When the guns begin to shoot.

And so did George Orwell:

We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night

to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

And since I brought him up...

Orwell Speaks!

To those who were aghast at Bush's 'with us or against us' speech:

Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, 'he that is not with me is against me.

To John Kerry and his policy to end the war:

The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.

To the Democrat Party:

Liberal: a power worshipper without power.

To those who complain after hearing Bush speak to the UN:

Speaking the Truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.

To me:

At age 50, every man has the face he deserves.

No Comment Required




Austin Update


It was no fun to be unable to write on the web page for more than a month.  I did not have the right software, alas! So what has transpired in the last month? Well...


Driving anywhere in my Jeep Wrangler is just way cool. The drive back to Oklahoma from Oregon was such. I went via Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska---and nobody ever goes to Nebraska. The six days I spent backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon were fun, but in no way comparable to what I had done in South and Central America. All was tame, easy, a bit boring. I yearn for a 'wild weird clime most sublime, out of space, out of time.' Perhaps nothing in the USA can feed this hunger for such a place. Yeah, I know that it is too early---far too early in fact---to say stuff like that. The thing is, I am a stranger in my own land.  Sure I feel 'American' but I do not yet fit in America. I need---and I have---time.


All my household goods arrived from Argentina. I am again surrounded by my toys. At first the sensation was delightful, then a bit disturbing, as if something was missing. Something was missing---Argentina. How odd. Anyway, I have about half of the boxes unpacked, only my 1000 records and a few hundred books remain to be shelved---as soon as I get shelves. My hi-end audio system is set up---it survived the move intact---and oh my God, does it sound Heavenly! But---alas!---when I play music from the last ten years of my life melancholia intrudes.


But school starts tomorrow, and I will be able to use God's gift once again in the classroom. There will be no room then for thoughts and memories now old and faraway. 





One month now into a new job, a new city, a new home, a new state---in fact, a new life. So how is all of this holding up? How am I holding up?


Since all this was planned by God, all is of course going better than if I had planned it myself---far better, I must say. My job at Independence Charter Middle School is the best work I have had. All that was good at Lincoln School---the students and the sense of mission I had---I have found at ICMS. All that was dreadfully wrong about Lincoln---some of the antics there could have been included in Petronius' Satyricon---is absent here.


Working at ICMS has meant a two-thirds cut in pay. But I am commanded to place my treasure where worm and moth cannot go. Besides, I have enough for my life.  I remember a Russian short story (Chekhov?) called How Much Land Does a Man Need? about a peasant who was allowed to keep all the land he could circumference in a day. Greed led him to attempt more than he could walk, and he died in the attempt. A hole in the ground was 'all the land that the man needed.' That is about all I need too. Probably more than I need, but God is good.



Beauty Pageants and Sexy Goats


Two nations recently held separate beauty pageants. One nation was the USA, the other was Saudi Arabia. Here is a photo of one contestant, Miss America Deidre Downs.



Miss Downs hails from Alabama, a Bush state of course, proving once again that Republican women are more fetching than their Democrat rivals. (The last five Miss Americas have all been from Bush states.)


Now, in the Saudi Arabian pageant, the, umm, 'contestants' lined up on the catwalk to put themselves on display


Abdul Aziz Al-Khalaf, one of the five judges for the...competition, explained that the winners are chosen on the basis of a combination of factors and overall appearance, not simply by their color. Particular points taken into consideration are the head, nose, mouth, ears, breast and eyes. The most important factor is the size of the head and the whiteness of the eye.


They are speaking here of...goats. You read correctly. The beauty pageant in Saudi Arabia was a competition for the best and prettiest goat.


Goat fanciers turned out in force to admire and bid for beautiful goats showing off on the catwalk at a weekend festival and auction of Al-Shami goats in Riyadh.


No one could make this stuff up.






Hard to believe that more than two months have passed without much work on my web site.  While backpacking for one year throughout Central and South America I never passed up an opportunity to write. Likewise while touring the US of A in my Jeep before I began to work. Chalk it up to...what? Laziness? Unlikely. Opportunity? No, I had enough time. Well, that leaves desire. I have always believed that my inspiration to write comes from the Holy Spirit, that when He moves me to write I write. He has been a bit quiet lately, a silence that can be described as 'writer's block.' I simply was not moved to write. And now? Things are beginning to stir, juices to flow, desire to increase. The hunger and passion I had to put thoughts to paper (OK, to the web) is returning.


Perhaps this block had something to do with my new job and responsibilities. Simply stated, I work more and earn less than I did in Argentina. I have four classes of 8th grade Social Studies, two of advanced guitar, one of Character Education, one of Academic Bowl and one study session, and I am the web master of the school. I am thinking of adding yet another after school class, something called 'Drill.' It will entail one hour of running, Physical Training and basic marching. Already many students have asked when this class will begin.


My work here in Oklahoma City has become my passion, something for which I was born. My life in Argentina was immensely rewarding and fulfilling, yet it ended after ten years. It was time. It prepared me for the here and the now. I remember it with great love and fondness, but I have no desire to return to that time, to that life. I have a new life, one (at last) in my own nation, God's very own country. He is as much at work in America as He is in me. Deus lo volt.



Road Trip Redux


My Jeep and I headed out into lands unknown after accepting a position in early July at Independence Charter Middle School. I have written about it above. Now here are some pix.


A Tale of Two Jeeps

I am somewhere in one of the Dakotas. My Jeep is the one on the right.

The crazy contraption on the left cost $20,000 or so.



A very cool Jeep in the Colorado Rockies.



Beginning 6 days on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I am somewhere in Oregon, heading North.



Lost Lake



Mount Hood



A small glacial lake below Mount Hood



Typical scenery on the PCT


To look at these photos is to be reminded how tame backpacking in the US seems. Seems tame? No, it is  tame. There is no getting around this. After spending 18 years off and on---mainly on---wandering thither and hither in Latin America, the so-called 'wilds' of the US remind me of a theme park. Perhaps I need to get out more. But you be the judge. Here is a typical part of any walk in the Peruvian Andes.



See what I mean? (You can read all the details of this walk here.) I hunger for the 'wild weird climes, out of space, out of time' of South America. I simply must get down there for one month---no, two months---or so. How? Where? When? All these questions will be answered in due course.


As I think and plan, an old friend comes to mind, Aconcagua. It is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia.



I had planned on climbing Aconcagua three years ago, but my mother became ill. Now she rests with Christ, yet the mountain remains. It beckons, it entices, it tempts. I am listening.


PAGE 24                    PAGE 26


Home    Professional Pages    Personal Pages    Sabbatical Itinerary

    Essays    Backpacking Entries   Diary and Commentary

Search     E-Mail