Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Traitor Week #2: Judas Iscariot—"Do quickly what you're going to do"


     I could have started Traitor Week with Judas, the ur-traitor in Western culture. 
     But everybody knows Judas, or thinks they do, so I decided to go chronologically and begin with Catiline, nearly a century earlier. 
     Plus Catiline has the benefit of being undeniably real, while Judas is obscured in  the mist of the Biblical—while few suspect Jesus was spun from whole cloth, after that the factual nature of the disciples is hazy at best. But Judas was no doubt an important literary figure, whose famed treachery, whether it occurred or not, echoes to this day. 
  
     In the 34th and final canto of "The Inferno," after a gut-turning, heart-rendering trip through all nine circles of Hell, replete with sorrow and torture, Dante gets to the very bottom, the sump of the pit, and his guide Virgil turns to him and says, in essence "Okay, now here you have to brace yourself." ("Ecco il loco ove convien che di fortezza t'armi" literally, "Here is the place where you need to be a fortress.") 
    Which of course makes Dante go cold and  feel faint, though that isn't anything new for him.  The duo turn the corner and see Satan, a giant, buried to his chest in ice. Three faces on one head, a toothy mouth in each face, and in each mouth a sinner in agony, being chewed to bits. 
    "That guy," Virgil says to Dante, "Who suffers the most is Judas Iscariot."
    Of course it is. Sins like greed and fornication are minor misdemeanors compared to betrayal, and Judas is the very definition. To be a Judas means betrayal. What's interesting to me is though almost every soul they meet in Hell is closely quizzed by Dante, allowing the damned to recount the crimes that earned them eternal damnation.
      There is no such questioning of Judas. He never speaks. The reader knows. Judas betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans, he led them to the Garden of Gesthemone. That's pretty much his entire role in the Bible. He does little else.
    The tougher question is why, and here even the Gospels disagree. Greed—those 30 pieces of silver. The aforementioned Satan injecting himself into his heart. That's the reading of John—Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him; the Gang of 12 immediately demand to know who, Jesus says, the person he is going to hand this bread to will betray him, gives it to Judas, saying "Do quickly what you're going to do." 
    Which sort of undercuts the obloquy that Judas has been held in for 2,000 years or, as Joan Acocella put it in the New Yorker: "If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?"
     Apparently yes. Remember that "Judas" is just the Greek rendering of "Judah," which is "Joe" for Jewish people. Judas has to betray Jesus to justify his co-religionists' persecution, though I don't see why the Pharasees aren't enough.     
    Once the Bible finishes with Judas, however, popular culture gets in its licks, although its interpretation of Judas cuts across the spectrum.
    At one end, in Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," Pilate is treated so sympathetically, he becomes the good guy—the most richly-drawn character in the book, certainly more appealing than Jesus. Yet Bulgakov doesn't even allow Judas to kill himself; Pilate orders him assassinated, a grab at redemption.
    At the other extreme is  the hit musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," which could have more accurately been called "Judas Superstar," since it's really the story of his disillusionment with Jesus, his temptation, betrayal and remorse.
     The remorse, I would suggest, is the essential part of the story. Remember, the Bible was crafted, in essence, as a guide to behavior, and Judas is the model for all who sin, who betray not Jesus, the man, but his teachings. You might get the silver now, but you'll be sorry later. That's the Christian template for sin.
    That's their policy in the personal realm. In the political realm, when dealing with the sins of the powerful, we see another dynamic altogether. Christians line up to shrug sin off, when convenient, "Sure, Donald Trump sins. So do I. We are all flawed, all in need of grace." They wave away error. When they want to. 
     When they don't, it's damnation, both now and later. 
     Judas' motives come into play because motive is always a mitigating factor—are you doing what you think is right, or abandoning your principles for personal gain? The question of whether Trump genuflects before the Russians because he admires strongmen like Putin, because Putin has incriminating evidence against him, because of business interests, is something historians will argue over forever. My guess is that Putin saw something that 40 percent of the country couldn't: that Trump is a dumpster fire who will drive the country to the brink of ruin. So Putin backed Trump, as a way to strike at the country, and Trump fell in love with Putin because he is a broken man who adores anybody who likes him. The welfare of the country never crossed his mind. Which makes Trump worse than Judas. At least Judas thought about Jesus when betraying him. For Trump, the United States of America never crossed his mind, locked on Trump, Trump, Trump, me, me, me, all the time. Who doubts that it is so? 




Monday, July 16, 2018

Traitor Week, #1: Cataline "Our very lives and liberty are at stake"

Cicero denounces Cataline, by Cesare Maccari 

     Americans have a hard time wrapping their heads around treason. Maybe because our history is so relatively free of traitors Protected by our oceans, enjoying our supposed freedom and relative security, we just don't expect our citizens to be in the thrall of foreign powers. 
     Then again, considering that the Southern half of the country renounced the Union and broke away to form a new nation in 1861, all to preserve slavery, maybe we have treason aplenty, but just don't recognize it as such. Nixon, remember, scuttled the Vietnam peace talks to help himself get elected in 1968. Tens of thousands of American soldiers subsequently died. The truth came out, but barely left a mark on him.
     Even now, with a president so obviously enamored with the Russians, if not in their actual employ, nearly half our country displays a willful blindness even toward the possibility. They don't want to know.
     They should. History, including American history, is rife with traitors, and as their stories, each its own way, could be applicable to the current moment, and since readers might be unfamiliar with most, I thought them worth revisiting during the mid-summer lull, while I am on vacation from the paper and Donald Trump is holding his Treason Summit with his master, Vladimir Putin.

     Much of our Roman history comes to us through Shakespeare. We know Julius Caesar, and his murder, "Et tu, Brute?" Plus a few writers—Marcus Aurelius, Virgil—whose works remain popular. We are aware of the worst emperors—Nero, Caligula. We know the empire fell to various Goths and Vandals.
     And that's about it.
    Catiline isn't on the radar, or wasn't, until Donald Trump was elected and started his virulent opposition to key elements of our republic—the free press (when it disagrees with him); the courts (when they make rulings he doesn't like). His efforts to burn down our government evoked another patrician who wanted to burn down his motherland.

     Catiline.
     In March, 2017, Nation reporter M.A. Niazi dubbed Trump, "The American Catiline," though his article bogs down more on the historical differences—Lucius Sergius Catiline lost two elections in 65 and 64 BC and his plot to seize power in 63 BC failed. He was killed in battle, which displays more courage than Trump could ever muster.

    Besides, Trump won.
    To me, the similarity is more a matter of tone, particularly after I took the time to read Sallust's "The War With Catiline" translated by J.C. Rolfe (Harvard University Press: 2013).

     The parallels pop out.
     "Catiline could be held up as a prime specimen of a decadent nobleman who sought political advancement by espousing the cause of the drowntrodden simply to maintain and further selfishly his own dignitas," Rolfe wrote in his introduction, using an untranslatable Latin word akin to "prestige."

    That sounds familiar. Or consider Sallust's description of Catiline's motives:
     "His insatiable mind always craved the excessive, the incredible, the impossible. After the tyranny of Lucius Sulla, Catiline had been assaulted by the greatest passion for seizing control of the government, and he did not consider it at all important by what means he achieved his objective, provided he gained sovereignty for himself."
    Sound familiar? 
    Sallust saw Catiline as a reaction, not to adversity, but success.
     "Those who had easily endured toil, dangers, uncertain and difficult undertaking, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. Hence a craving first for money, then for power, increased; these were, as it were, the root of all evils. For avarice subverted trustworthiness, integrity and other virtuous practices; in place of these it taught insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything."
     Trump wasn't conjured up by desperate poor Americans, but by desperate rich ones.
      Just as the right cavils against the media, even while Fox dominates TV news, so Catiline in his speeches made it seem like his rebellion was an uprising of those on the fringes, and not powerful insiders trying to grab even more.
     "All the rest of us, energetic, good—nobles as well as nobodies—have been a common herd, without influence, without prestige, subservient to those to whom, if the state were healthy, we would be an object of dread," Catiline told his supporters. "Accordingly, all influence, power, office, and wealth are in their hands...How much longer still will you put up with this, o bravest men?"
    Like Trump, he made tearing down the state seem easy.
     "We need only to begin," he exclaimed, "existing conditions will take care of the rest.
    Ring a bell? Sound familiar? The Roman mob also bought it. Ancient Rome was also a powerful republic stabbing itself in the heart.
     "At that period the dominion of the Roman people, it seems to me, was by far the most pitiable," Sallust writes. "Although the whole world, from the rising to the setting of the sun, had been subdued by arms and was obedient to Rome, although at home there was peace and wealth, which mortals deem the foremost blessings, nevertheless there were citizens who from sheer perversity set out to destroy themselves and the state."
     The Republic of Rome, like the United States of America, had no enemy who could damage it the way a committed traitor could. 
     The left tortures itself with polls, amazed that Trump's supporters cling with him. So did Catiline's followers
     "Neither was anyone out of such a great throng induced by a reward to betray the conspiracy, nor did a single individual desert Catiline's camp, a disease of such great intensity and just like a plague, had infected the minds of a great many of our countrymen."
     In a sense, we have it worse. Catiline was opposed by the greatest Roman statesmen of all time, Cicero and Cato. The Democrats are a ragtag, disillusioned band, placing our hope in Joe Biden.
   Cato saw the problems as an embrace of enemies and a paralyzing cynicism:
    "Citizens of the highest rank have conspired to set fire to their native land; they summon to war the Gauls, a nation most bitterly hostile to the very name of Rome....
   "We extol wealth, we pursue idleness. No distinction is made between good men and bad, and ambitious appropriates all the prizes for merit. And no wonder! When each of you takes counsel, separately for his own personal interests, when you are slaves to pleasure in your homes and to money or influence here, the natural result is an attack upon the defenseless republic."
     He tried to put the situation in the materialistic terms that even senators could understand.
     "I call upon you, who have always valued your houses, villas, statues, and paintings more highly than the nation; if you want to retain the possessions to which you cling, of whatsoever kind they are, if you want to provide freedom from disturbance for indulging your pleasures, wake up at least, and lay hold of the reins of government. At issue is not revenues or the wrongs of our allies, but our very lives and liberty are at stake."
    Cato's appeals at least inspired action. Today, the Trump crisis isn't even perceived by his supporters, at least not publicly. There is no one to stir them to resistance. At least not yet. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

How much is that doggie food in the window?


 

   

     The deal the Costcos of the world make with their customers is pretty straightforward: you buy in bulk, we give you a discount.
     So instead of selling a box of cereal for $4, it sells three boxes for $9. You save a buck a box, 25 percent. More or less. Costco makes less on each box but sells more. Everybody wins. Sure, you have to store more stuff. But heck, we've been building these McMansions for years now. We've got the room.
     That said, you still have to do the math.
     I brought Kitty by Petsmart a couple weeks back to be groomed so she'll be beautiful — or, in dogtalk, gwoomed so she'll be bootiful.
     While there, I thought I would pick up more of the Nutro soft food she eats every day for breakfast, but not dinner.
     It costs $1.59 for one package—sometimes they have have sales, and charge as little as $1, when I celebrate the occasion by buying 40, 60 packages. It isn't as if the stuff goes bad. But no sales lately. It makes more sense to buy a four-pack for $5.59. Then you're spending $1.40 a package, a 15 percent savings.

    That's usually the choice. Singles or the four pack.
    But this time, something new, the "12 Variety Pack," for $17.49. My hand automatically moved toward it. Ooo, savings!
    Then I froze.

    Wait a minute...
    My rough math skills multiplied $5.59 for a four pack by three, and I got about $16.50 for 12 packs—really $16.77— or 75 cents less than the price of $17.49. It was cheaper to buy three 4-packs than one 12-pack.

     That's strange.
     I thought it might be a labelling problem, but the Petsmart clerk told me no, they don't price products. They just put them on the shelves. 
    Moving online, I stumbled onto Chewy.com. There I could get a Variety Pack case of 36 for $44.49, or $1.23 per package.  Even less if I sign up for automatic shipping. I never need think about this again. I assume I could have a new crate shipped out every 36 days. 
    Why am I not leaping to this offer? Maybe it isn't enough savings. Kitty likes going to Petsmart; I take her on a tour of the place before delivering her to the careful ministrations of Igor in the grooming department. If I help drive Petsmart out of business by going for rock bargain by accepting the Devil's Deal of Chewy.com, I won't have a fun place to take her, and I'll have to find another groomer. Plus I'll drive by the empty shell and feel culpable, in some tiny way, for rending the social and commercial fabric of American life. That's a lot to risk to knock a few pennies off the price of dog food. No, there's economical, and then there self-destructive. Let's not to confuse the two. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Change is hard

 

     My younger boy is moving to Virginia, and in my capacity as a full-service dad, Friday I helped him close up the apartment that, last September, I had helped him move into.
      Not that difficult. Drag some furniture to the van.  Not much. A desk. A chair. A lamp. A coffee table. The new bed will be delivered there. 
     Carefully fit it all in, add boxes and laundry baskets and assorted piles of blankets and coats. The starter set for possessions to come. What someday trucks and squads of burly moving men will do—gather up his possessions to drag them from Point A to Point B—took us two an hour. 
     When I tried to convey this to him, he scoffed. He's never going to own a bunch of stuff. No need to add the contemptuous, "Like you." It was implied. Prudent investments instead.
     "Smart," I said.
    Afterward, upstairs, while he touched up a scuff on a wall, I grabbed a broom and swept. Something spiritual about sweeping, fine dust across a dark floor.
    "You know," I thought to say, but didn't. "I once spent five days cleaning the basement. When I went into rehab. The basement was dirty and it just seemed the thing to do. Almost like being in a monastery, sweeping that black dust across the grey concrete floor."
     But I didn't say that. Shutting up is an art form.
     What I did say was this. I had noticed some coins scattered across his floor. A few quarters, some dimes and nickels. 
     I swept them toward the dust pan.
     "You've got some change on the floor," I said aloud. "Do you want it?" 
    "No," he said. "I don't like change."
    "Nobody does," I replied. A joke. I glanced over for reaction. None. 
     So here was my dilemma. Does dad hoover up the money? At first it felt like a petty, peasant thing to do. Scrabble the coins out of the filth. It was his money, not mine (of course, all his money is my money at this point; might as well get a little back). 
     Still, his dwelling, he's the guy in charge. Do I pluck up the quarters?
     If, in a few years, when he's at a big law firm, pulling down the elephant dollars, how will he look upon this memory, his old father, in his laughable baggy cargo shorts, carefully lifting coins out of the dirt and scraps of the dust pan? With contempt, right? Rich people feel enough contempt as it is for those negligent enough to spend their lives doing what they love but never getting rich at it. Careless of them. Add to that the dubious light that falls upon almost anything your parents do. The losers back in Loserville, losing.
     Is that the message I want to leave to him, as he embarks on this new phase of his life? Leaving and most likely never coming back, except to visit. Dad scrounging change out of the trash? 
    I lift the dustpan to tip it into the garbage. And paused.
    I'm a frugal guy, Alinea notwithstanding. If he weren't there, I'd certainly sky up the coins. A buck's a buck. I did insist he start work at 16. Maybe letting money slip by out of pride is also a message worth delivering. Every quarter counts. If he's going to feel contempt, might as well be for this. 
     He seemed focused on dabbing paint on the wall. Decision time.
     I knotted the big black trash bag and dragged it downstairs and out to the loading dock. 
    "That's it," I said, coming back into the apartment. "Ready?"
     He walked to the door.
    "Don't you want to do some sort of ritual?" I traced a cross of benediction over the room with two fingers, held high. "Your first apartment?"
     He walked wordlessly out onto the street, I followed, letting the door slam behind me. In my pants pocket, the coins jingled. 
     $1.50, not bad for a few seconds' work.
     That evening, in line to order dinner at Once Upon a Grill, I held the stack of coins up between my thumb and forefinger and showed them off to him.
     "Your change," I said, dropping the money into the white plastic tip bucket. "They'll appreciate it."
     He smiled. 
    
    

Friday, July 13, 2018

Despite what Republicans say, they're fine with CERTAIN babies dying ...

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     When Republicans natter on about being pro-life and wanting to save babies, they're really referring to undeveloped fetuses. The dewy smokescreen of theoretical babies is designed to hide, to themselves if no one else, what they are actually doing: trying to impose their 16th century sexual mores on the unwilling, using American law to force religious dogma upon women who vigorously reject it.
     Regarding actual babies in the living world, however, they don't mind if our government contributes to the death of babies, particularly babies who are darker skinned and in nations other than our own.
     At first, the United States balking at joining an international effort to encourage breast-feeding seems like just more Trump administration water-carrying for the short-term interests of large corporations, long-term implications be damned.
     The ghastly situation was outlined Monday in a front page story in the New York Times: World Health Assembly officials were stunned when the U.S. tried to water down a resolution encouraging breast-feeding.
     But look more closely, and you realize this is not an abstract, economic issue. Just as cigarette companies, faced with shrinking American markets, turn to the less-informed abroad, so infant formula companies push their products in poor countries, where it is often mixed with polluted water.
     Tens of thousands of real babies die every year because of infant formula marketing now being boosted by the United States.
     The story was so damning that our president hurried to dispatch his usual deceptive tweet.

The failing NY Times Fake News story today about breast feeding must be called out. The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.
     Nobody suggests women be denied formula. And needless to say, Trump has the rest backward. Few, not many, women are so malnourished they're unable to breastfeed.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

I love wordplay as much as the next guy. However...

 

    And people think "every goddamn day" is edgy...
    Wednesday I was leaving the Department of Motor Vehicles—after a more than two hour wait for a simple driver's license renewal; get on the stick, Jesse White. 
     There it was, in the parking lot. I raced over, pulling out my iPhone.
    But clicking a few pictures was not enough.
    I had to know. 
    "Why are you asking?" said the voice that answered the number a few hours later. 
     I explained.
     "It happened in a bar," owner Ross Reed began. "Forty years ago."
    "Seandell's," he continued, a bar in Lincolnshire, at Milwaukee Avenue and 22, now long gone. "As red neck as red neck gets."
     He was in the tree business, understand. Sold a lot of firewood. Firewood goes in fireplaces. Creating smoke, that billows up chimneys and, eventually, over time, dirties them. 
     "So many people were asking who I knew in the cleaning business," said Reed. The tree business cools down the in fall, just when the chimney-cleaning business heats up. 
     "One night I was out with the boys in 1980, and I said, 'I kinda like sitting in a nice warm living room instead of being up a tree in a blizzard,'" Reed said.
    He started the business with a landscaper friend, Kevin Winkler. A business needs a name. Names were discussed. A certain sooty pun was unspooled. 
    "They said 'No way' and I said, 'watch me' and it's been Ash Wipe ever since."
     Officialdom didn't blink. 
    "Oh hell, I'm incorporated with the state, my own trademark," he said. "If the government can accept it...."
    So can the chimney-owning residents of the tony North Shore? So does the name attract customers? Or drive them away?
    "A little of both." 
    But between the two, business booms.
    "It's crazy," said Reed, 59. "Here it is, middle of July, I'm absolutely slammed. I don't advertise."
    With that truck you don't have to.
   Ever find any interesting stuff clogging up chimneys?
    "Lots of times you find animals," Reed said. "The coolest thing I found is a letter to Santa Claus written by a girl named Sarah. The family in the house had been there 25 years and didn't have a Sarah. They knew the people they bought the house from: no Sarah. I could tell from the dolls and toys she asked for, the letter was from 1910, 1915, discolored from time. It had gotten stuck up behind the damper. The lady from the house wanted it; I would have framed it, hung it up. I hope she kept it. That's one of the cooler things. I've been waiting to find the box of diamonds that grandpa hid up a chimney, but it hasn't happened yet."
    We talked for a long time. Sadly, some of the more interesting things he made me promise not to repeat here, and I'm a man of my word. These rich people and their fireplaces...
     While on the subject. How do you clean a chimney?
    "Brushes," Reed said. "You send 'em up. "You do it from the bottom up, because if you do it from the top up you got no control. You push the brush up, with a vacuum running, to catch it before it gets out of hand. In some of those mansions in Lake Forest: white carpet, white furniture, white dog, white wife... you get one speck of it in there and you're in trouble."
     No doubt. I did not envy the man his clientele. 
     A cleaning costs $150 to $200, "depending on how far I have to drive." A mansion can have five fireplaces. Or more. He's cleaned the fireplaces of homes about to be torn down. He's cleaned the chimneys for artificial fireplaces.
     "You really don't got to clean 'em with gas logs," he said. "I tell 'em that. They say, 'Well, I'll feel better if you do it.' My honesty only goes so far. 'You got seven fireplaces. You want me to pretend like I cleaned 'em? Okay...'"
    Then, out of the blue.
    "I don't wear my top hat anymore. It's in a drawer, but I don't wear them."
    But you did?
    I started in '79. I have hats as old as I am. The real McCoy. I bought it because that's what chimney sweeps wear. If you see someone up there in blue jeans ..." 
     He paused, to let the thought sink in. "But if they're up there in a top hat, you know immediately what they're doing."
      He said that chimney cleaning began in Germany 800 or 900 years ago, and the top hat tradition began with undertakers throwing away their top hats and tails and chimney sweeps taking them. 
     We talked a long time, and I hung up with reluctance, wishing I had a fireplace.


  




     



Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What's something that women in prison just can't get enough of? Books

 

     Among the hardships of prison — bars, noise, other prisoners — there is the trouble with books.
     Prison libraries tend to be small, their books old, dated and falling apart from use. And in a penal version of the old joke about the food at a Catskills resort being lousy and in such small portions, use of these small, out-of-date, battered prison libraries tends to be heavily restricted.
     “Sometimes a woman or man might have access for half an hour every two months,” said Vicki White, a volunteer at Chicago Books to Women in Prison, a group that does just what its name implies.
     White contacted me because she saw that “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” the literary recovery book I wrote with Sara Bader, had come out in paperback — the only person in the wide world who noticed, as far as I can tell. Would I consider, she wondered, donating 20 copies for female inmates, who often struggle with addiction.     
Vicki White
 
    “Right,” I thought. “Like that’s going to happen.”
     Still, I was curious about the group. The paperback publication is significant to them because they can’t send hardback books.
     “Many prisons require paperback only — security issues,” White said.
     When CBWP was founded in 2002 it originally shipped books to prisons in bulk, where the boxes would sit in mailrooms, unopened. So the founders assembled a library — about 8,000 volumes now — and began filling specific requests from prisoners.


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