The Art of Writing

(Always under construction)

Wheelchair Man

Once Upon a Time

Chalk Up Another One


The Free and the Slave

The Lucky and the Dead

American Thinker Post

I Hate Sports

The Writing is the Thing

The Death of a City

Java Jive


Wheelchair Man

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 Birkenstock booted.

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 turpitude.

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 succeeded.

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 early afternoon.

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 and tea.

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. 


Once 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 be heard.

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 shudder.

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.”

I understand.

Young men like speed---fast cars, faster women, powerful motorcycles and the like. A man in a hurry is a man who cannot hear.

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 the end.

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.

Damn it.

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 watching.

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 free.

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 common law.

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 foreigners.

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 use.

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 break.

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

The 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 injuries.

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 lodge.

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 gun.

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 prayer---and luck.

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 familiar?

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 Xerxes. 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 king.

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

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 that!

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 brother did.

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 incompetence.

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 for battle.

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 soccer.”


As for me, one Latin American soccer game was enough for a lifetime.


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 happens.

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? Well, nothing.

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.


The 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 mantra?

The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.

---Matthew 7:27

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 gunfire.

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 their endurance.

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 tragically true.

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 accordingly.

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.


Java Jive

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 coffee.

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.

I love java sweet and hot
Whoops! Mr. Moto, I'm a coffee pot.
Shoot me the pot, and I'll pour me a shot,
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

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

a beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach. Its consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is pass around and from which each one drinks a cupful. 

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 a fellow.

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 from Farberware.

 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.)

Oh, slip me a slug from that wonderful mug,
And I'll cut a rug till I'm snug in the jug.
A slice of onion and a raw one, draw one.
Waiter waiter percolator!

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 flavor.

And yes, I grind my own beans using a mill by Ariete:

 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.)

But the taste is the thing.