Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bearding the Empire

When regarding ancient history it is common for Westerners to admire the Greeks but identify with the Romans. For all their cultural achievements (or perhaps because of them), the classic Hellenes strike us as truly ancient. Not so Rome, which by contrast is eerily familiar. Despite the passage of two millennia, Rome at the time of Augustus somehow seems hardly more alien than the 19th century of our own country. To be sure, there are elements of Roman life that are strange or that shock us, including gladiatorial games and casual brutality, but then again aspects of 19th century American life shock us too.

Despite the vast amount of Greek and Latin literature that has been lost – most simply having rotted away uncopied in the Middle Ages – quite a lot survives: history, epic poetry, fiction, epigrams, drama, rhetoric, and more. The plays of Plautus and Terence read like modern sitcoms (in fact, their plots have been stolen repeatedly for modern sitcoms), Suetonius is as gossipy as TMZ, and Cicero is as bombastic as any US Senator. Anyone interested in Roman history is well advised to visit the basic original sources: Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and others. (All these authors once were standard fare in secondary school, but no longer.) However, for the modern reader, who more often than not has only a passing acquaintance with Classical civilization, a standard history textbook is a useful accompaniment if only to keep the original sources in proper context. There are plenty of texts from which to choose, and new ones are published regularly. Some are little more than simple chronologies while others are thematic, the most ambitious of the latter still being Edward Gibbon’s 18th century six-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Much more concise, but still tending to the thematic, is a new (2015) treatment by Mary Beard, classics professor at Cambridge: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

Why do we need another one? As Beard explains in her prologue: “It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not. But we come to Roman history with different priorities – from gender identity to food supply – that make the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.” Mary Beard’s book is a solid and readable addition to the literature, and one with 21st century priorities. I would not recommend the book to those whose only exposure to the classics are the movies Gladiator and Spartacus. Beard writes for a reader who has at least some prior sense of the general outline of the history of Rome, and when she mentions an author such as Plautus, Juvenal, or Pliny the Elder she assumes the reader has some idea who the person is. For readers with at least this much background, however, she offers an interesting perspective in engaging prose.

Beard’s arrangement of the material is not strictly chronological. She starts in medias res with the conspiracy of Catiline (63 BC), relating it to the modern style of politics, and then backtracks to Rome’s earliest years. Her theme is that there was nothing inevitable about the rise of the city and the Empire. Much of Rome’s success was a throw of the dice that easily could have come up snake eyes. To the extent the Romans made their own luck, however, it was by being adaptable to changing circumstances. The odd Roman mixture of ruthlessness and inclusiveness (slaughter your enemies but give the survivors citizenship) was particularly effective. For all the complexity of the late Roman Republic’s unwritten constitution, the Romans weren’t much interested in political theory other than a nod to libertas – sometimes little more than a nod. They distrusted a concentration of power but weren’t committed to democracy or aristocracy or to some particular mix; they altered their government to suit the needs of Empire. If in the end a concentration of power happened anyway, that too is relatable in the 21st century.

The Romans still matter. They are old family who largely inform who we still are. Thanksgiving weekend is an especially apt time to encounter old family. It’s also a time for a very Roman bout of over-eating though I trust most tables are a little less extravagant than Trimalchio’s

The crude nouveau riche braggart Trimalchio hosts dinner in Satyricon, Fellini’s adaptation of Petronius’ 1st century novel

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Thanksgiving is nearly upon us and the “holiday season,” nowadays reckoned as stretching from Halloween through New Year’s Day, is here. Tis the season to be jolly. So why are so many publications currently offering advice on “Holiday Depression?” It seems that this is an all too common problem. Nor is it a new one.

It once was popular folklore that suicides and murders peak between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This, as it happens, is untrue: the rates for both actually drop. In recent years we have been treated to numerous seasonal news articles cheerily debunking the old myth. However few of those articles mention that suicides spike 40% (source: in the days immediately after Christmas, which are still part of the season. Nor do they usually mention that, while murder may be less frequent, the risk of dying from all causes, including cardiac arrest and accidents, is in fact higher in the holiday season than during the rest of the year. Less severe crimes than homicide rise alarmingly: fraud, identity theft, burglary, and scams of all kinds among them. Being a crime victim can depress anyone. Yet, this is not high on the list of reasons the season is hard on some people.

What is? Unresolved family issues loom large, and they have a way of re-emerging at family gatherings. There are worries about overspending and stresses from overscheduling. There is the recognition that our lives are not as idyllic as a Norman Rockwell painting. The end of the year also brings to mind thoughts of aging, mortality, and missed opportunities. Furthermore, some psychologists argue (no joke) that many adults have a lingering unacknowledged sense of loss from the bad news about Santa Claus. Of course, many of us (all of us who are old enough) have experienced real losses: loved ones who are absent from the table. My mother, for example, though never in a general way depressed by the season, after my sister died in 1995 found it impossible to listen to Elvis’ Blue Christmas, which turns up frequently on the radio this time of year. She always changed stations or turned the radio off.

None of that seems to offer much reason to smile, but in truth there is no more cause to be down than at any other time of the year. As in other aspects of life, so long as we are aware of the potholes ahead we are less likely to step into them. There are pleasant aspects to the season too. Remaining friends and family are likely to be present, for one thing, and presumably we like some of them. If that’s not enough, keep in mind it will all be over January 2, a day to which we can look forward. That’s the day we break our New Year’s Resolutions, and that always is fun.

Blue Christmas – Elvis Presley

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Utopia around the Bend

In previous blogs I’ve offered several possible reasons for the popularity of apocalyptic fiction, but one reason might be just a wish to escape from an unsatisfying existence, even if the total obliteration of civilization is a little hard on one’s neighbors. Of course, escape can be had less destructively by going elsewhere. In Interstellar elsewhere is another solar system in another galaxy. In Tomorrowland it’s another dimension: one which holds a lesson about self-fulfilling prophecies. Sometimes, though, the destination can be more mundane, and this is the case in the teen drama Paper Towns; like so many recent movies, it is based on a YA novel. In Self/less, however, the destination is more extraordinary. I watched both movies this week.

Paper Towns (2015)
The title refers to a copyright device used by commercial mapmakers. General information cannot be copyrighted, so to protect their work publishers commonly invent nonexistent towns. In other words, they give some spot in the middle of nowhere a name, and print the name on their maps. Fiction can be copyrighted, so if this fictional name pops up on a competitor’s map an action for copyright violation can be filed.

Plot: In Orlando, Florida, Quentin at age 9 notices the unconventional girl Margo the day she and her family move into a house across the street. Margo is restless, pensive, and adventurous. Quentin has a crush on her and so he sometimes joins her on her strange adventures, which often involve breaking and entering. She drifts away from him, however, and by high school she has a circle of popular friends that doesn’t include Quentin. Yet one thing doesn’t change: dissatisfied as ever with life as it is, she seems always to be searching for something. One night near the end of senior year she knocks on Quentin’s window, something she hasn’t done for years, and induces him to join her on a night of prankish revenge; the targets are her circle of “friends” who, she believes, betrayed her trust. The next day she doesn’t appear in school and Quentin learns that she has left home. This is something she has done before at various times, so her parents are more exasperated than worried. Besides, at age 18, she is free to go where she wants. As always was her habit, she left obscure clues to her whereabouts. Convinced he is in love with Margo, Quentin follows the clues and concludes she has gone to a paper town in upstate New York. Quentin and four other classmates drive north to find Margo.

The bulk of the movie is the road trip with Quentin and friends. The film is reminiscent in an odd way of the classic 80s Brat Pack movie The Breakfast Club in that it is mostly teen characters verbally expressing their teen angst and desires. Does Margo find what she seeks at the end of the road? Do any of the characters? Is Quentin really in love, and if so is it requited? Is location the real issue? The answers are spoilers, so the viewer, if interested, can watch the movie to find out.

Not all teen movies transcend their target demographic, and this is not one that does. I suspect teens, by and large, will like it, but adults might find themselves looking at their watches. I did.

Self/less (2015)
One way to escape (if you can figure out the technical details) is to leave your own body behind. I suspect Tarsem Singh’s Self/less was inspired primarily by the 1966 scifi drama Seconds starring Rock Hudson, though strictly speaking it isn’t a remake, the ’66 flick is better, and the transfer of consciousness is a plot device used in many books and movies. [I employed it in a couple of my own short stories including Graduation Day] Self/less has a dismal rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is not really as bad as all that, but time and again it missed opportunities to be better.

Damien (Ben Kingsley) is an aging one-percenter with mere months to live. He learns of a secret process called “shedding” developed by an eccentric scientist, and pays a quarter of billion dollars for a new body (Ryan Reynolds) and a new identity. The transfer of his identity into the new body is a success and Damien, now going by the name Edward, still has plenty of resources to live the life of rich playboy, which for a while is what he does. He has been told the new body was genetically engineered and grown in a lab, but when Edward fails to take his medication he gets flashbacks and realizes the body belonged (or perhaps, properly, belongs) to someone else. He clandestinely learns more about his host, and then deliberately seeks out the wife and daughter of the corpus’ previous occupant. This endangers the secrecy of the body-swap organization, which responds violently, leading to car chases and flying bullets.

Part of the problem with the script/acting/direction is that the Damien we meet at the beginning of the movie showed no inclination for the sort of selfless heroics that he demonstrates as Edward. It is hard to regard him in any way as the same person. On the contrary, the original Damien strikes us as someone who would take his medication for suppressing flashbacks and not worry too much about the source of his new body. The movie hints at several philosophical questions about mortality, wealth, and morality, but doesn’t ever do more than hint. The scriptwriters and actors perhaps would have been better either to explore those questions or to take a more lighthearted approach as in, for example, Face Off. As it stands, Self/less is somewhat somber for an adventure film, and for all its potential, is no more than OK.

Damien extended his life by relocating to another body, and arguably that is reason enough to do it. As was the case with the traveling teens of Paper Towns, however, the new location is not necessarily a recipe for happiness. If you can’t be happy in your own skin, you’re not likely to be happy in someone else’s.

Frank Sinatra - Under My Skin

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Roller Recap

Regular visitors to this blog will not be surprised to read I was trackside last night in Morristown for the women’s roller derby bout between the local Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) and the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Roller Radicals.

It was an exciting match in which the score seesawed between the teams until the final 10 minutes. In the first half, whenever one team would build a lead it quickly would vanish in a single power jam. Apocelyse, Lil MO Peep, and CaliforniKate had particularly successful power jams for the JDB while Veronika Gettsburger and Liberty Violence did the same for the Radicals. Both old-school blocking and some of the newer formation defenses were on display by both teams. 15 minutes into the bout the score stood at 67-60 in favor of JDB; at halftime it was 116-129 in favor of the Radicals. In the second half the Radicals opened a 50 point lead. This owed much to Gettsburger who had several multi-pass jams despite being taken down hard in one by Beast Witherspoon. The JDB chipped away at that lead as the clock ran down, and with 3 minutes remaining the score was 190-210. Despite redoubled efforts by both teams, the Radicals held on and took the win with a final score of 201-227.

MVPs were #22  Apocelyse (jammer) and #13 Smiley Cyrus (blocker) for JDB, and #81 Veronika Gettsburger (jammer) and #1200 Liberty Violence (blocker) for the Roller Radicals.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Solarian Solution

At all times the peculiarities of the younger generation are cause for concern to everybody else, so currently it’s the Millennials who just can’t catch a break. Their work habits, debt levels, and living arrangements are scrutinized and disparaged in the press, on film, and in fiction. Millennials appall some commentators with their supposed hook-up culture while worrying others for not canoodling enough. Just this morning I encountered an article by Millennial author Caroline Beaton at Psychology Today titled “Why Millennials Are Failing to Shack Up: One reason Millennials are marrying later and having sex less.” It joins similarly themed articles in Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post, and even Forbes. The articles often have over-the-top titles such as “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” in Vanity Fair.

Maybe it’s not really an apocalypse. Besides, broad strokes painted of an entire generation are bound to misrepresent large parts of it. Nonetheless, it is apparently true that, statistically as a group, they date less, have less sex, and start having it later than did Xers or Boomers at their age. The “one reason” offered by Beaton (not altogether implausibly) is an excess of apparent choice offered by online dating profiles; they prompt anyone looking through them always to think they can do better. Other articles, at least in regard to hetero dating, note the lack of datable young men: two out of three college students are female, and not all of those remaining one-in-three are “datable” due to other factors, such as that most males are effectively broke. (The top-earning 20% of men are doing better than ever, but the rest have seen steady declines in real income.) Other articles refer to a particularly sullen state of the gender war while still others claim to see an odd sort of neo-Victorianism.

I know nothing of any of this, but it is hard to miss one huge difference from when I was 20: communications technology. That in turn brings to mind a particularly prescient scifi novel by Isaac Asimov published in 1957 titled The Naked Sun. The setting is the planet Solaria. On Solaria individuals live isolated on enormous private estates, but everyone has spectacular communications. Solarians socialize with each other via holographic telepresence, a sort of Skype on steroids. Solarians are utterly immodest while communicating in this VR way. Yet, not only do they prefer keeping physical distance from each other, the very thought of in-the-flesh face-to-face contact with a human being is repulsive to them. Procreation is handled scientifically and antiseptically while robots raise the offspring elsewhere – actually that last part sounds like a good idea. As for carnal desires, robots are available for those too.

We already are halfway to being Solarian in our communications. Have I not seen Millennials in the same room text each other, preferring this to talking? All we need now are better love-bots than the underwhelming models currently on the market; then we can forget about dating altogether. Yes, it would be a form of autoeroticism, but, to steal a line from Woody Allen, that is “sex with someone I love.” Many of us don’t really like other people very much in person, it seems, so, with such a ready market, we might get there soon, and Millennials are well positioned to arrive first.