12 December 2017

The Fake President and the Loser

s it turned out I wasted part of the day writing a piece about Alabama’s next senator—a fellow who believes that the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution (abolishing slavery) was a mistake, that a Muslim cannot hold office in America because of the constitutional requirement of being sworn in on a Bible, that Joseph Story’s bizarre exegesis of the first amendment (based on Story’s misreading or misrepresentation of the congressional debates) is valid, and apparently that it is perfectly acceptable for a man in his thirties to make sexual advances to a fourteen-year-old—and what it means for the state and the nation. Unfortunately—or rather fortunately—none of this is true. Apparently Alabama’s next senator is a guy named Doug Jones about whom all I know is that he successfully prosecuted two of those scumbag terrorists who murdered four girls about my age in Birmingham in 1963 as a protest in favor of racial discrimination.
But I feel confident that we haven’t heard the last of the other guy. I imagine the Fake President will find some place for him in the government—Supreme Court, maybe? Ambassador to Saudi Arabia? Some place where he can do real damage to his country, anyway.

06 December 2017

A Punch in the Jaw from Jolly Old St. Nick (2009)

[Originally posted 6 December 2009]
Tara: There’s a Santa Claus?
Anya: Mm-hmm. Been around since, like, the 1500s. But he wasn’t always called Santa. But with, you know, Christmas night, flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, all true.
Dawn: All true?
Anya: Well, he doesn’t traditionally bring presents so much as, you know, disembowel children. But otherwise…
Tara: The reindeer part was nice.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “The Body”

oday is St. Nicholas Day, the official start of the holiday marathon that constitutes Yuletide. This is the day little children in Teutonic countries who put out a shoe filled with hay the night before wake up to find the hay replaced by candy. The hay is for St. Nicholas’ horse, and the candy is a reward for decent behavior from the kids. Sometimes stockings are put out instead of shoes, and the St. often comes into the house through the chimney. St. Nicholas, by the way, has a variously-named helper who not only carries the bag of rewards, but also helpfully carries a rod for corporal punishment of bad kids. In Switzerland, Austria, and some parts of Germany he’s an unkempt horned demon named Krampus, or Klaubauf; in other parts of Germany he’s a uncouth knight called Ruprecht; and in the Netherlands he’s a nasty-looking guy known as Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), not to be confused with the old whaler whose death Sherlock Holmes once investigated.
Like so many of the older saints and martyrs, the historic Nicholas of Myra is a slippery fellow. He scuttles about in the shadows, leaving little for a researcher to work with. What small record about him we do have to go on is legend, and only the existence of those legends gives us any reason to believe that the guy was important in his own time, and apparently much loved. Historically all we can say is that a cult of St. Nicholas was already prominent in the sixth century. Behind the cult presumably lies a real human being, but we know nothing whatsoever about him.
Reference works usually say something like this:
Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος , Agios [“saint”] Nikolaos [“victory of the people”]) (280 - 6 December 343) is the common name for Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey).  Although born to great wealth, he was generous to the poor. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving and many stories are told of his benevolence. At the council of Nicea he championed orthodoxy against the Arian heresy. He died 6 December 343.
The trouble is, none of this is actually history. It is, rather, an attempt to find historic kernels hidden in the mass of legends that surround the figure. Extracting history from legend is an exacting task, one that requires a great deal of time, patience, and above all, some basis (other than personal preference) for evaluating the material.
Ideally there would exist a historical record, however meager, about the figure in question—as there is, for example, about Billy the Kid or William Shakespeare. The matter of history then gives us something with which to judge the matter of legend; we have in that case a basis for making a decision. The exact balance struck may depend on the views held by the particular historian about the soundness of tradition or the like, but at least there is some ground to stand on in making a decision. But for Saint Nicholas there is nothing of the sort, no historical record of any kind.
Another possibility would be to examine the context in which he is supposed to have lived; to take a look at what is known about Myra (let us say) or the office of the bishop in the early fourth century (let us say) and use that information to judge the plausibility of the stories that have come down to us. The weakness with this approach, however, is obvious. It already assumes a certain body of facts—say that a man named Nicholas in fact existed in the early fourth century, that he was a bishop and that he lived in Myra. You could apply the same sort of standards in evaluating the stories about Sherlock Holmes, for example, and in the end you’d be no closer to determining any facts about the historic Sherlock Holmes, because there was no such person.
Given the absence of anything but the legend to work with, the starting point has to be the legend itself. A story that has been attached to various figures, for example, is far less likely to be genuine than one that is told only about the character we’re looking at. A story that appears late in the transmission of the legend, and whose growth can be traced over time, is almost certainly not accurate, especially in its latest stage of development. I would also note that stories that purport to tell the origin of some particular custom or landmark should be examined extremely closely; human beings enjoy telling such stories and attaching them to famous figures without too much regard for the facts on the ground.
Two stories about the legendary Saint Nicholas have always stuck in my mind. The first I encountered many years ago, though I don’t specifically remember where. Essentially the bishop gets wind of a guy in town who is impoverished; he is so poor that he can’t afford dowries for his three daughters. The father is therefore contemplating turning his house into a brothel and prostituting his kids in order to make ends meet. (The version I remember from my childhood was a bit vague on this particular point, actually.) The bishop, however, decides to circumvent this by providing dowries for the daughters. He does so by tossing a bag of gold through the man’s window in the dead of night. (Again, the version I remember from childhood had him dropping the bag down the chimney.) The man is delighted with this and does indeed succeed in marrying off his eldest daughter, thanks to Bishop Nicholas. Pleased that the father didn’t for example make off with the money himself, the bishop tosses a second sack of gold through the window for the second daughter, and then later on a third sack for the third. On that occasion, however, he is caught by the father, who expresses his gratitude for what the bishop has done for him and his children. And they all live, we may assume, happily ever after.
Now Jona Lendering suggests that this story is likely to be true because it contains no supernatural elements, and that the motive for Nicholas’ actions—his concern over the fate of the girls—is unique in ancient literature.
Care for women was not a top priority in the Roman empire, and the anecdote, in this form, can not have its roots in a pagan environment. On the other hand, in early Christianity, women played an important role (e.g, as deaconesses). Only when the new faith had become a mass religion, the attitudes of the majority of the Mediterranean population started to infiltrate Christianity. The position of women became worse.
The story fits the early fourth century, cannot be derived from pagan roots, and does not require “a miraculous suspension of the laws of physics”. He therefore concludes it “to be inevitable that it [is] simply true.” Against this I would note that while truth is one possibility, even accepting his arguments it is not the only one. The best we can say is that the story is likely to have originated at the same time the bishop is supposed to have lived. Charles W. Jones (St. Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, p. 57) is a bit less certain:
May we presume that a devotee of N, most probably a preacher, knew a fine story and believed that to add it to N’s life would honor both story and hero, as Washington was wedded to the equally inexplicable cherry tree?
I’m not going to mix into this particular discussion except to say that (as Lendering points out) there is in fact an ancient antecedent to this story, and it is found in the life of the first century Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. The philosopher ran into a guy who had four daughters and an inadequate sum of money with which to provide dowries; further, once he had given their dowries he would be wiped out. Apollonius persuaded him to invest the money in an estate outside town instead. At first the man complained “because, whereas he might have kept the 20,000 drachmas that he had in hand, he now reflected that the estate which he purchased for the sum might suffer from frost and hailstorms and from other influences ruinous to the crops.” However, when instead “he got a very large yield from the olive-trees, when everywhere else the crops had failed, he began to hymn the praises of the sage, and his house was crowded with suitors for the hand of his daughters urging their suits upon him.” Again, all live happily ever after, we may suppose.
Now there are notable differences between the stories; Nicholas hands out money, where Apollonius only hands out advice. Nicholas may come off as the more generous here, but Apollonius comes up with the better long-term solution; he makes it possible for the man to support himself by steering him in a useful direction, where Nicholas provides only a quick fix for his present difficulties. Did either incident happen? Anything is possible, but we’re clearly in the realm of folklore here, not history.
The other story that sticks in my mind about the bishop of Myra is one that came up while I was sitting in on the Nag Hammadi seminar in Claremont. One time during the Christmas season, before the event started, one of the grad-students (I actually don’t remember who, now) entertained us with a rundown of the life of Saint Nicholas as recorded in legend. According to him the bishop was present at the Council of Nicea, and got into a disputation with the arch-heretic Arius himself. The disputation became heated and Arius seemed to have the upper hand. Orthodoxy itself was trembling on the brink of disaster, when Nicholas came up with the perfect refutation. He slugged Arius, breaking his jaw, thus keeping him from continuing his heretical arguments, and so Christianity was saved from error, and all lived happily ever after (we may assume).
Okay, there actually is such a story about Nicholas, though the versions I’ve seen are not quite so dramatic as the one I remember from that particular occasion. It wasn’t Arius himself; it was an anonymous Arian, and the bishop silenced him by slugging him in the face; nothing is said about breaking his jaw. Jona Lendering notes:
According to this legend, Nicholas was so angry at an advocate of Arianism that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent. Not everyone appreciated this blow for Arianism, and the presidency of the Council decided that Nicholas was no longer allowed to wear the ornaments of a bishop. Therefore, Nicholas is shown without mitre on Greek icons. In fact, this anecdote is embarrassing, and this is a reason why it is unlikely to have been invented.
Okay, it is true that an embarrassing anecdote is less likely to have been invented than a praiseworthy one, at least by a historical figure’s admirers, but the extant accounts don’t seem to have looked at it that way. Jesus and Mary are supposed to have approved his action. And here the history of the tradition is overriding; when it turns up in an earlier account we read:
…all the Orthodox were gathered at Nicea to establish a true Constitution of the Faith and to drive away the blasphemous doctrine of Arius, with a view to peaceful conciliation of the whole Church.  It was effected by the determination that the Son was equal in honor with the Father and that both Persons were conjoint. The admirable Nicholas helped to bring this about as a member of the sacred synod, and he strenuously resisted the casuistry of Arius, reducing to naught his every tenet. [Symeon Metaphrastes as quoted in Charles W. Jones, p. 63]
Only later does Nicholas punch an Arian, and only after that do accounts mention the negative reaction from other bishops. Plausible it may be, but truth and plausibility are by no means the same thing. In this case the lateness of the story, combined with the fact that we can trace its development, suggests that the information is bogus. It’s also worth noting (perhaps) that Nicholas is not listed as a participant in the council of Nicea in most lists, though as they were compiled after the fact and are not necessarily complete, that may not count for much.
None of this really matters all that much. There’s no real evidence to suggest that the historical Saint Nicholas was anything more than a convenient name to graft onto a legend; the legend might well be much the same if Nicholas of Myra never existed. And in truth, though I’ve expressed it as a hypothetical, it may well be the fact that Nicholas never existed. A cult and a legend do not necessarily add up to a historical figure, and wishful thinking is not the same as historical research. For one thing, the former is much easier than the latter.

04 December 2017

The Seeker (2014)

[Originally posted 4 December 2014]
n old saying has it that there is a seeker born every minute. Such a seeker was Clement of Alexandria, a philosopher who flourished at the end of the second century of the Common Era (he died before 10215 HE). According to his own account he studied under one philosopher after another—first, several Greek philosophers, and then an Egyptian, an Assyrian, and a Palestinian Jew. In Alexandria he met Pantænus, and found his ultimate teacher.
Unfortunately nothing solid is known about Pantænus, other than that he is the first “orthodox” teacher of any repute in Alexandria. There were Christians there before him—Basilides for example. But Basilides was unenthusiastic about martyrdom (among many oddities), and taught that Jesus did not really die on the cross, but stood by laughing while the Jews crucified the wrong man.
Pantænus (we may assume) took hold of things in Alexandria and straightened them out. But what little we actually know about him doesn’t really tell us that. We do know that his most famous pupil was Clement. Clement, though, had ideas that were a bit at odds with the direction Christianity was going—or at least the direction it would eventually go. He believed that matter was eternal, for example, and could neither be created nor destroyed. He thought that Greek philosophy was an early stage in divine revelation, rather than an invention of the devil.
He in turn became head of the Alexandrian Christian school, and his most famous pupil was Origen, whose work on the text of the Greek Old Testament would do so much to muddy the waters in recovering the Septuagint.
As far as I know nobody ever questioned Pantænus’ credentials, but both Clement and his pupil Origen have fallen under suspicion from time to time. (I personally was warned in college about Origen’s heterodoxy.) Today is the feast day of Clement of Alexandria, or at least it was until Pope Clement VIII (no relation) had him purged from the calendar. It seems he had some doubts about the philosopher’s soundness.

03 December 2017

Xmas Serial 3—How to Get a Plan (1969)

[Written 3 December 1969 as the third installment of a Christmas serial.]
[In our boring chronicle of imaginary events, so far nothing much has happened. Basically the problem is this: if Santa cannot get presents to Vietnam cheaply, he will have to call off Christmas there.]
he hastily-called assembly included all the most important elves in Santa’s factories. There was Eins, the head elf; Seiben and Zwölf from the art department; Neun from mechanics; Aucht, the accountant; Vier from the books department; Zehn and Driezehn from clothing; two or three other elves as well as Fünf; and of course Santa himself presided over the meeting.
First, Santa explained the problem to the group (too bad for you if you don’t remember what it was) and then waited for the flood of suggestions.
There was a dead silence. Driezehn unobtrusively left the room, Aucht looked vaguely embarrassed, Seiben appeared lost in thought (although he may have really been falling asleep), and Vier was covertly reading a book. After a few minutes Driezehn returned, looking somewhat relieved about something, but no one ever found out what.
Finally Santa spoke. “Any suggestions?” he said.
Fünf stirred uneasily and said, “Well, I’ve been thinking it over quite a bit, and it seems to me that, since none of us are actually experts in this field, or any field of human affairs, maybe  you should call in some experts.”
Santa said, “What kind of experts?”
“Military experts, of course,” responded Zwölf, speaking suddenly.  He added as an afterthought, “This being a matter of war.”
“An excellent idea,” said Santa. Then, standing up, he said, “Fünf, Eins, and Zwölf—ou three bring me back a military expert apiece. The rest of ou are on half pay until we get the factories running again. All work will be suspended until this situation is resolved.” With that, he left the room.
Eins, Fünf, and Zwölf quietly left so as to prepare for their various trips, but the other elves remained, glaring at each other or staring fixedly into space, as the mood took them.
At last Vier arose and spoke. “How long,” he said, “How long must we endure the scorn and contempt of a petty tyrant? How long shall we be mistreated and underpaid by a Fascist slave driver? How long must this go on before we arise and throw off the chains in revolt—?”\
At this Seiben leaped to his feet. “What the hell do you propose to do about it?” he demanded.
“Yeah,” chimed in Aucht. “You’re always talking—what about a course of action?”
Vier paused impressively. “We’ll go on strike,” he said.
“How?” demanded Seiben. “Right now we’re being paid for doing nothing. Or almost nothing.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll think of a way,” said Vier. He then turned and stalked out of the room.

02 December 2017

The Religionization of Christmas (2009)

[Originally posted 2 December 2009]
I’m one of those types of atheists who loves Christmas. I celebrate it with my family and I love singing the songs, regardless if they’re about Jesus or Frosty the Snowman. I grew up singing Christmas carols in concerts for public schools, and it didn’t traumatize me. My family was secular and I didn’t feel left out; I just saw singing about Jesus’s divinity the same as singing about Santa (aka, silly and fictional). I’m still an atheist now—the Noel didn’t convert me.—Jennifer McCreight
nd so we approach the most magical time of the year—Christmas. The season of sharing, of remembering the less fortunate, of peace on earth and good will toward all mankind, no matter how bigoted or nasty. The time of lights and presents, of Santa and mistletoe, of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, of hacking down a living tree and dragging it inside to die slowly for our entertainment. It’s truly an amazing time, as we all celebrate acting in ways that would absolutely screw us up in the real world. Handouts to all and sundry, generosity even to the undeserving, suspending our quarrels and holding a spirit of benevolence—it’s either a celebration of our ideals, or a monument to hypocrisy, depending on how you want to look at it. As Tom Lehrer once observed about National Brotherhood Week, be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.
Personally I love the Yuletide. I haven’t always loved it; there have been many years, particularly when I was in a deep depression, when Christmas has felt like a millstone around my neck, something to be endured rather than enjoyed as I sank into the abyss. But that’s okay. I’ve always observed it, I think, much as I’ve always recognized other seasonal landmarks—birthdays, holidays, and private anniversaries.
One thing I despise, however, is the increasing religionization of Christmas. What was originally a joyous time, where the usual values were turned upside down so as to provide a little light in the season of darkness, has increasingly become a moment for screechy preachers to pimp for their faith and for teachers with an axe to grind to use the power of government to proselytize. Some may see these faith-whores as merely misguided; I see them as avatars of destruction, enemies of civilization, and, well, just not very nice people. I don’t expect much to come of their “War on Christmas”; they’ve been at it at least from Cromwell’s time and still haven’t managed to stamp it out. If these guys had their way Christmas would become a suicidally dreary time of mandatory church-attendance and hymn-singing, with the praise of the Infant Jesus as the principle theme. Well, they’ve succeeded in getting Jesus into the Yuletide festivities, and I (for one) think that’s enough. Let it stop here.

30 November 2017

A Message from the Dead to the Living

KKhristmas is not Christmas. ’Tis not the season to be crawly, and the lowlifes and scumsuckers that loom large in this year’s features would be wise to reconsider their ways, and perhaps to crawl back into the dankness of their rocky tombs until the Season of Light has passed them by. Prophecy is always chancy, but my chips are placed squarely on the avatars of justice, and I suppose we’ll see who gets the last laugh.
Until then anybody who has the colossal gall to wish me a Merry Kkkhristmas will receive a hearty Fuck Off and Die in return, and will deserve it, too. Survival trumps four aces and an unknown piece to be named later any day, and that’s where my focus is going to be this grim festive season. Mend your ways. Selah.

23 September 2017

Untitled Novel: The Doorkeeper

[Passage from an untitled novel, written 23/24 September 1992]
The doorkeeper came in, obviously awed by the great magician. “You sent for me, my Lord?”
“Yes,” said Simon. “I have learned that a certain man has come to this city today. This man has come to undo the good work we have done here, and to turn people away from the True Path. Do you understand?”
The doorkeeper stared vacantly ahead, his eyes fixed on nothing in particular, his mouth gaping.
“Do you understand?” repeated Simon sharply.
“I’m sorry, Lord,” the doorkeeper said slowly. “My wits are no longer what they once were, and they wander about like woolly sheep in a blizzard.”
“You’ll have to pardon him,” said Marcellus, “He’s old, and he’s never seen a magician before.”
“I am not a magician,” said Simon wearily. “That’s a vulgar term used by people who do not understand the source of my power. I do nothing—I can do nothing—nothing at all, do you understand me?—without the power of God. A magician attempts to bend the forces of the cosmos to his own will; a man of God submits his will to the forces of the cosmos.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Marcellus, “I know all that. But you will have to admit, that it is not every day that a man comes into the presence of a great magician.”
Giving up the point, Simon returned to his main difficulty. “There is a man who has come to the city to undo our work here. His name is also Simon, but he is called Rock, and by that name you will know him.”
“Is he your evil twin, Lord?” asked the doorkeeper.
“Yeah, sure, that’s close enough,” said Simon. Good and evil were meaningless abstractions, but what was the point of rubbing the poor old man’s nose in it? “This man will soon show up here, to break apart our discussions and to confuse our counsels. There is no point in debating with him; I’ve tried, and his mind is like a sheet of iron—impenetrable to the slightest new idea or concept. When God allowed us free will, the only real freedom he gave us was the right to be wrong—” He broke off, realizing that he was wandering again.
“So what about this man, Lord?” asked the doorkeeper.
“What about him? When he comes here—and he will come here, you may be sure of that—when he comes, at whatever hour of the day or night, tell him that I am not in.”
“But what if you are in, Lord?”
“Tell him that I’m not in,” said Simon impatiently.
“I am to lie then, Lord?”
“But what if you’re not in, Lord? Am I to lie then too?”
“No,” said Simon, “In that case, you tell the truth.”
“So if you are in, I lie and say that you’re not in, but if you’re not in, I tell the truth. What if I don’t know whether you’re in or not? Do I lie then, Lord, and say I do know?”
“Whatever you like,” said Simon. “It’s very simple. In any case, and under all circumstances, you tell Rock Simon when he comes that I am not in. Not in. Do you understand?”
“Not in the least, Lord,” replied the doorkeeper cheerfully, “But that will not keep me from carrying out your orders to the last detail. I do not understand orders, Lord; I merely obey them.”
“You may go,” said Marcellus to the doorkeeper.
“Will he do as he’s told?” asked Simon.
“Oh, of course he will,” said Marcellus. “He may talk like a blithering idiot, but he’s really as sharp as we are. Now, what was it you were saying about the relationship between accidents here on earth and the power of God?”
So the rest of the day passed pleasantly enough in such discussions and in the blessings of the power of God. The next day, however, was a different story.
They were at breakfast when there came a cry from outside the house: “The dog’s loose!” This was a scarcely necessary observation, for the dog himself came bounding in to the dining hall with great enthusiasm.
“What is the meaning of this?” said Marcellus angrily, jumping to his feet and addressing the dog as if he expected an answer.
Unsurprisingly, the dog ignored his question. Surprisingly, however, he addressed Simon. “Simon,” he said, in a clear ringing voice, “Rock the servant of Christ is standing at the door, and says to you, ‘Come out in public; for on your account I have come to Rome, you most wicked deceiver of simple souls!’”
For a moment Simon was speechless. The single overwhelming thought that went through his mind was the mental equivalent of a series of exclamation points. The man was clever, no doubt of that. Who would have thought of his using a dog to get by the doorkeeper? Or had the doorkeeper somehow given the show away? The old man had not seemed to be that bright, despite what Marcellus had said. The moment of surprise lost Simon his advantage, no doubt as Rock had intended. Marcellus had left the table and gone off to see what was going on at the gate to his house.
“Go tell Rock that I’m not in—not to him, anyway,” said Simon to the dog.
“Wicked and shameless person,” said the dog, “enemy of everybody alive who believes in Jesus Christ; you see before you a mute animal given human speech to prove that you are a con-man and a liar. Did it take you all night to come up with this lame excuse? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, doing your feeble best to contend with Rock, the servant and messenger of Christ? Don’t get me wrong, none of this is for your benefit; this is for the benefit of those that you are sending to destruction. You are therefore cursed as an enemy and corruptor of the way to the truth of Christ, who shall prove you iniquities which you have done with undying fire, and you shall be in outer darkness.” And with these words the dog ran off, followed by the people, who after all, had never seen a talking dog before. This was a marvel greater even than Simon the magician, and so Simon was left by himself.
“It’s a cheap trick,” he said to himself. But it worked.

14 September 2017

Quotation of the Day

rump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.—Jack Goldsmith
[Source: “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?Atlantic, October 2017]

03 September 2017

Quotation of the Day

eanwhile, the public servants who are in a position to do something about this—not least the Republican leaders of Congress—sit on their hands. Many of them know that their president is morally bankrupt, congenitally dishonest, brazenly corrupt, and when it comes to the highest duties of his office way in over his head. Yet, whether out of party loyalty, fear, or short-term ideological interest, they do nothing. The annals of history are crammed with tales of political and civic leaders who watch their nations sink slowly or plunge swiftly into decay or destruction, yet avoid action—not so much sleepwalking into disaster but walking wakefully, with eyes wide open. We may be witnessing something like that in real time now.—Fred Kaplan
[in “The Secretary’s Rebuke,” 28 August 2017]

20 August 2017

Theology with the Kids [1985]

[written 20 August 1985]
eaven is an imaginary place in the sky where dead souls go, says my nephew Brandon [age 5]. The souls go fluttering up like butterflies, and God catches them and puts them in His oven for Him and his family to eat. And what can you tell me about God, Brandon, I ask. I know everything about God, says Brandon. You can ask me anything. Fair enough, say I. Who is he? God isn’t a man, says Brandon incredulously. A woman, then? I ask. God isn’t a man or a woman, says Brandon impatiently. God is the floor of a black hole where all the dead people go. The floor of a black hole? I repeat. A long long time ago, when we were all Catholics, says Brandon, then we all used to go to heaven. But now, he adds, now we don’t go anywhere.
Which is real? my nephew Sage [almost 7] propounds. Jesus or God? Well, uh, I don’t know I reply, I guess they’re both real in different ways. You mean like in another dimension? asks Sage. Well, I mean like Jesus is a real person in history, I say, and he was really executed by the Romans for rebellion against the state— I don’t believe, says my niece Rachel [age 11], that a man could really walk on water. How do you know the priests didn’t just make him up? Well, say I, we don’t really know that anything ever happened in history, but the evidence is— What about God? interrupts Sage. Well, God belongs in a different order of reality, I say. You mean, says Sage, that God doesn’t exist. I mean, I say, that God is a symbol we use for the things that are good and true and beautiful. I mean that God is how we express the purpose of the universe. I mean that God is as real as we make it. Oh, I’m sure, says Rachel, like I’m sure God is real if somebody believes in him. Something’s either real, says Sage, or else it’s imaginary. There’s only one kind of reality. But, Sage adds in consolation, there are three kinds of infinity.

12 August 2017


he terrorist attack in Charlottesville, North Carolina, is the kind of event that tests a president’s resolve, intelligence, and guts. He needs to be able to keep a clear mind—carefully not jumping to conclusions in advance of the evidence—a firm hand on the wheel (so to speak), and the resolve to take whatever measures are necessary to restore peace and deal with the terrorists.
I will be straightforward here—I do not believe that Donald Trump has any of the three qualities I mentioned. His actions show the resolve of a bored teenager; his tweets betray the intelligence of a high-school dropout, and his performance so far has shown all the guts of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. He appears to be a man in way over his head—and I personally think that that is exactly what he is.
But looks can be deceiving. Maybe he will abruptly rise to the occasion like—well, I honestly can’t think of an example right now, but at least in fiction unlikely heroes rise to the occasion when challenged unexpectedly. Maybe he will find the resolve to throw the resources of the federal government behind local efforts to identify and apprehend the terrorist. Maybe he will find the intelligence to successfully direct the nation (and his presidency) through this self-inflicted crisis. Maybe he will find the guts to stand up to the white supremacists that seem to have him cowering in terror.
But I personally believe he is the vain, dumb, gutless jackass he appears to be, and he will continue to drivel mindlessly about how all sides are responsible for the car driven by one driver into a crowd in a classic act of terrorism.

Untitled Novel: The Forum [1996]

[passage from an untitled novel, written 12 August 1996]
he Forum didn’t come cheap, Simon said to himself, marvel­ing at Rock’s coup. How had he managed it? The Romans were flocking to see the great magic show, no doubt of it, and the money poured in. It wouldn’t be the first time, he thought; you couldn’t go broke underestimating popular taste. Without think­ing twice Simon disappeared and, invisible to all but unseen spirits, strolled through the gates unobserved and no poorer than he had been before.
The audience was boisterous and unruly; clearly they came expecting a good time. Had word of mouth brought this response? And how many dogs had Rock killed to get the result? How many talking fish had he suborned for the purpose? This was child’s play; a misuse of the powers beyond for trivial and disgusting ends. Simon wafted through the crowd like a gentle summer breeze and soon found himself in front.
Rock stood in the center of the arena, coolly facing the audience. He had no nerves. Simon knew that, but again he won­dered at the stolidity of the man. Rock didn’t enter into it; the man was a boulder, a granite cliff, solid and hard and unmov­able. There was strength in that, sure, but there was also enor­mous weakness. When a cliff crumbled, the ruin was great. Bet­ter to be smoke in the wind than an avalanche—the pain was less.
“Show us your god, Rock,” called out somebody behind Simon. “What makes him so great?”
Simon laughed—he could recognize a shill when he heard one. And as if on cue somebody else shouted again.
“Simon gave us hard proofs—let’s see yours!” The crowd roared its approval.
Rock raised his hands and the crowd fell silent. The man was impressive—Simon had to grant him that. “Romans!” he shout­ed. “You be the judges. I am come to say that I believe in the true and living God and I bring you evidence—hard evidence—solid and irrefutable evidence—that he and he alone is the ruler of the universe. I ask you only to put your eyes and ears in the service of your mind, to see and hear the evidence I am about to put before you. I have seen it—I have heard it—I have felt it—and there are many among you who themselves have witnessed the workings of God in this world for themselves!
“Now you’ve seen the magic tricks of Simon the imposter. These are nothing. Where is he now? Where is he hiding? This is the man I drove out of Judaea for his cruel and heartless tricks played on Eubola, an honest and upright widow. So what does he do then? He looks for new victims, new sheep to slaugh­ter, new jewels to steal. But he is powerless, a whimpering coward who flees the power of God like a rabbit running from an all-consuming brush-fire. He does not dare face me—no, he hides in the darkness and confusion of his lies and deceit, full of fear and delusion. Or why else is he not here to face me. If I am the liar, why does he not show me up? Where is Simon?”
Simon knew an opportunity when he heard it. Stepping invis­ibly into the arena he invoked a stroke of lightning, called for a thunder-clap, and appeared in a whirlwind of colored smoke. There was a collective gasp from the audience, a moment of stunned silence, and then a burst of applause that threatened to bring down the Forum. Simon smiled and gave a slight bow towards Rock. “You wanted to know where I am, Rock?” he asked politely. “I’m here, fool and charlatan, to show you the power of God once and for all.”
Rock looked at Simon expressionlessly. “All flash and noise, Simon,” he observed.  “And nothing but a foul stench left behind. How appropriate.”
Something was wrong. Rock was giving nothing away, but suddenly Simon had the feeling of having walked into a well-planned trap. He felt the quicksand sucking away at his feet, but showed nothing to his enemy. “So tell me, Rock, how comes it that I am not afraid to cross swords with you, if I have not the power of God behind me?”
“First tell me this, Simon the sorcerer,” said Rock, “when you groveled at my feet in Samaria, when you begged me for the secret of the Holy Spirit

02 August 2017

Untitled Novel: Reality Shift [1996]

[passage from an untitled novel, written 2 August 1996]
Heat—suffocation—a sense of overwhelming oppression came over him.  He was sweating like a pig.
“Would you like some roast badger-balls?”  Marcellus’s voice seemed to echo, as if he were speaking through a hollow tube of infinite length.  “My cook makes them from the ambrosia of the Leptunian snake-gods.”
The words made no sense.  Nausea fought thirst for the pos­session of Simon’s soul.  He rose hastily to his feet, groping blindly for the corridor to his private chamber.  “I—it’s—there’s an important—something—” he gabbled.  His vision was beginning to shut down, and before him danced the shimmering heat-waves of a reality-shift.  Time.  There was no time.  A blinding flash of pure insight struck him and he fell to his knees.  Oh God, he thought, let there be time enough—
Something hard struck him, and there was nothing.
Not darkness.  Not light.  Nothing.  The stuff eternity was made of.  Yards of it surrounded Simon like a woolly cocoon, pressing him, cutting off his breath.  Where was he?
“I am come, Simon of Gitta.”
The voice came from all sides, like wind in the trees.  There was something familiar about it.
“Have you?” Simon said.  “What is that to me?”
There was an unnatural silence, as if sound itself had been cut off—the silence of caves, the complete silence of death.  Then the voice came again.  “You don’t know who I am, do you?”  Amusement tinged the question.
“I know,” said Simon.  “I know.  Did you think, Simon Rock, that you would be able to sneak into Rome like a thief in the night?  Did you think you were unobserved?  No, Rock, let me tell you that I have watched your progress every day.  I know the tricks you played on that poor captain of the vessel you came in.  I know how you stopped the wind to plague him, and started it again when it served your purposes.”
“It was the will of God,” said the voice.
“Was it?” returned Simon.  “You have delusions of grandeur.”
“It was.”  The voice sounded a little sullen now.
“It is strange, isn’t it,” asked Simon sarcastically, “just how often God’s will and yours somehow coincide.  Isn’t that a bit thick, Rock?  How long can you keep on using that threadbare excuse for following the whims of the flesh and feeding the needs of the corpse you live in?  God’s will, Rock?  Or yours.”
“They are the same.”  This time the voice was definitely defensive, on the run.
“Ha!” said Simon.  “You admit it.”
“I admit nothing,” snapped the voice.  “If what I want is what God wants, it isn’t because I am making myself equal to Him.”
“Then what is it?” demanded Simon.  “What else can you call it?”
“Humility, Simon the Magician, the ability to stop my thoughts and let God’s fill my mind.  The ability to silence my will and let God’s will move me.  The ability to shut out the distractions of the senses and receive God’s truth.  That’s what I possess, Simon of Gitta, Simon the false prophet, Simon the liar and stealer of men’s souls,” said the voice.  “And that’s what you could do with a little of.”
Simon laughed harshly.  “The ability to blind yourself and grope helplessly in the dark.  The ability to deafen yourself to everything but your own thoughts.  The ability to cut yourself off from the Truth—that God gave you your wits to use them, that God gave you your eyes and your ears and your mind for you to put them to use, not for you to pretend a stupidity you do not and cannot possess.  Save that stuff for your sheep-like followers.”
“Enough, Simon,” said the voice.  “It is God who has given us this shared vision, and it would be criminal of us both to waste it in pointless bickering.”
“Yes, Rock,” said Simon.  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for the past twenty years.”
“Listen, Simon,” said the voice.  “I will be coming to Rome tomorrow, as you know.  Will you not repent and believe in the Lord?  Will you not do His work on earth?  I warn you, Simon the magician, you are treading close to the abyss.  You and I, or rather you and the Lord, are close to the final moment of truth, and I do not envy you this confrontation.”
“Still confusing yourself with God?” Simon asked derisively.  “Well, Rock, I will not repay the compliment.  I will not ask you to reform, since I know there is no hope of it.  You are too deafened by your own words to know the truth, too blinded by your own light to see it.  But I do warn you, Rock, to stay out of Rome.  You betrayed your Master once.  If you come here—and I say this from the most absolute and certain of foreknowledge, my beloved namesake and enemy—if you come here, Rock, then you will be in the utmost danger of betraying him again.  So take care, my enemy—stay away from Rome, as you value your very soul.  Stay away.”  And with a supreme effort of will Simon pushed back the nothingness and began to struggle to his feet.
But emptiness and blankness refused to retreat, and the voice put in one final shot.  “I thank you for your warning, Simon the magician—for what it’s worth.  But I know myself too well to imagine that I will ever betray my Savior again, and so Rome has no terrors for me.  Farewell—and look out, my one-time friend.  For I know—and I say this from the most absolute and certain of foreknowledge—that you are near the end, and if I have to go down to end your infernal wickedness, then, Simon—it is a sacrifice I am very willing to make.”  And with that the fog cleared and Simon pulled himself to his feet—and found himself facing Marcellus and the other guests, staring at him from the door to his chamber.
“What was it?” asked Marcellus.  “Some kind of fit?”
Simon took one or two deep breaths to clear the Nothing out of his spirit.  “No,” he said.  “It was not a fit.”
“It was a vision,” said one of the guests.  “I’ve seen what happens when a spirit seizes a man before.”
“Yes, you looked dead,” said another.
“Yes, well, in a way I was dead,” said Simon, “dead to this world and alive to another.  Listen, my good Marcellus, could I have a word with your doorkeeper?”
“With my doorkeeper?  Whatever for?”
“I can’t explain,” said Simon, “But I know there is a man coming tomorrow—coming here tomorrow.  And I cannot meet with him.”
Marcellus laughed.  “You—a magician, afraid?”
“I’m not a magician,” said Simon, “and I’m not afraid.  Not the way you mean.  But I know—I know—that this man will bring an end to all our works if he and I are allowed to meet again.  And this cannot be allowed to happen.  So look, man, for God’s sake, let me talk with your doorkeeper!”
Marcellus motioned to a servant, and in a moment the door­keeper came in, obviously awed by the great magi­cian.  “You sent for me, my Lord?”

23 July 2017

Colossal Gall Department [2008]

[Originally posted 23 July 2008]
ou’ve got to admire the sheer chutzpah of it. Chris Mill, the attorney for two of the Camrose cat killers—those were the little psychopaths who tortured a cat to death in a microwave oven and left messages boasting about it for the owners to return to—actually asked for the court to expedite his clients’ sentencing so they could achieve “closure” before returning to school this fall. Words absolutely fail me. This guy is complaining, on behalf of his clients, about the need for them to undergo a psychiatric examination—because they want to get this whole thing over with.
I’m sure they do. Most of us, when caught in a crime, just want the prosecution to go the fuck away. There’s nothing new or amazing about that. Why that should be grounds a judge could act upon is totally beyond me. What the judge ought to be primarily concerned about is the issue of protecting the community from these creeps. The last thing on her mind should be whether the kids get to start school this year with a “clean slate”.
At least Chris Mill’s job is being the spokesmen for this pair of psychopaths. I don’t know what Camrose resident Linda Hugo’s excuse is. “It’s a terrible thing that they did,” she admits, claiming “but it’s now water under the bridge.” Nice of her to be so forgiving of a “terrible” crime committed against somebody else. She weeps for the poor persecuted torturers. “…the mental torment that they’ve gone through is enough” she feels. Wise up, lady. The next time these young Torquemadas decide to go on the prowl, you may well be their victim. When you embrace a scorpion, expect to get stung.
Copyright © 2005-2023