Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Master Chief says good-night

My father - the "Master Chief" for those of you longtime readers - is in his late eighties and has been slowly fading into the sort of twilight lands that we often wander into late in our lives. Forgetful, querulous, diffused...all the early signs of a mind that is dwindling towards that last goodnight.
But he was, as he has always been, physically sound. So it was a bit of a shock to get a phone call from my sister - who of the two of us is the geographically close one - last week informing me that my father was in the local hospital have suffered some sort of brain trauma, and the medical tests had revealed that the insult was bleeding inside his head, a sort of stroke, if you will.

He had lost much of his coherence and almost all of his intellectual function. Over the past weekend into Monday he appeared weak but physically healthier than mentally; the medical opinion was that whatever had happened inside his head had suddenly moved him into the "late stage" of Alzheimer's Syndrome. Monday he was moved into the Alzheimer/hospice care wing of the place where he and my mother now live out the ends of their lives. I and my sister were preparing for a part of our lives that now included the body but not the mind or soul of the man who was our father.

But Nature or my father, who was ever a masterful man, intended otherwise. My sister called again last evening to tell me that my father had fallen yet further into the wilderlands of brain death. He was lingering now like a cat in a doorway, motionless, at the very furthest borderlands of death. My sister called this morning to inform me that our father is still sleeping if you consider the consciousless twilight at the edge of life "sleep".

But the blades of the scissors are very near his thread. The hospice nurse told her "Hours. Days. But not weeks."

So I'm taking the wretched day-long cross country flight this afternoon not knowing whether I will arrive before he departs.

But in a very real sense he has already gone on ahead of me. The shell that breathes in the bed in the anonymous room in the industrial warehouse for the old is not my father, not the man who raised me or stood beside me through my childhood and young adulthood and manhood, who helped me become who I am and what I am.

That man is already gone. What remains for me is to honor the bargain that we all make, parent and child, father and son, mother and daughter, from the moment we begin our lives together; that we as parents will bring our children into the world and we as children will see our parents out of it.

Catullus said it better than I ever can, and so I will depart and leave him speak for me:

"Traveling through many lands and over many seas I have come, brother, for these wretched funeral rites, to give you the last dues of the dead and to speak, though in vain, to your silent ashes."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Jukebox: Stillin' the Water Edition

The Don Shirley Trio performing Waterboy, 1961:

This tune is supposed have made the Top 40 the year it was released, but I have no idea "which" chart this song is supposed to have been on. It's not the pop chart, or listed as one of the best selling singles of 1961 in any category. Whatever.

The really fascinating part of this tune - to me, anyway - is that the melody from this piece is very clearly the same tune that was released in the early Seventies as the "folk gospel" tune Put Your Hand in the Handand credited to someone named Gene McLellan...but so far as I know Shirley never got credit for the writing. Was this an adaptation of an older song, a spiritual, or an earlier gospel tune? Is that why it wasn't considered an original song?

I have no idea. But the abrupt string bass part that bookends the piece just emphasizes Shirley's gorgeous piano work. Just a little something for a rainy Friday.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 670, Verse 1

The genesis of this post is another one, a general discussion of a variety of topics over at Nancy Nall's place. One of the topics that came up was the uniform regulations of the Roman troops posted to Jerusalem circa 30-something A.D. Nancy - having watched some sort of television Bible series called A.D. The Bible Continues - observed that:
"...I never come away from these things unimpressed with the Roman soldiers. The ones in “A.D.,” etc. had breast plates with nipple rings on them. Yes, little rings dangling from the nipple part of the armor. I guess it’s so you can tie a rabbit’s foot there, or your keys. I know Rome was wealthy, but is it possible every Roman soldier had identical fighting gear? The production of all those leather minis and brush helmets must have been a logistical nightmare. I just figured out why the centurions wore those brush helmets. So their men could pick them out on the field of battle, right? Plan for retirement, should it ever come: Read up on that stuff."
...which given my magpie mind, my recent peculiar interest in religious incunabula, and my penchant for military history, got me thinking about the whole place of the "Roman soldiers" in the Bible stories, films, and television.

For one thing, I never really thought about it, but we just kinda assume "Oh, sure, Roman soldiers" in the Passion play. We know they'll be there, and, sure enough, there they are all in their little "Roman soldier" kit - red jumpers, hoop armor, beavertail helmet, shield-and-spear.

But their purpose isn't really to be soldiers, right? They're there to be plot devices, to be the Bad Guy's henchmen, to get our hero to his appointment with destiny.

For all that I've soldiered and been interested in soldering all my life I never really thought much about them; they're just...always there in the Bible stories, types rather than individuals, not really that much different from the freaking sheep in the freaking manger scene.

But this discussion made me actually stop and think. I was one of those spear-carrying "Roman soldier" extras and as such I can tell you; there was nothing generic to me about who I was and what I did, and those guys were soldiers just like me.

If you're the one with the sword you're not just a "Roman soldier". You're Private So-and-so of the First Contubernia, Second Centuria, Cohors I Something-or-other. Your unit, your assignment, your experience and background have a hell of a lot to do with how you look, how you act, and how you effect everyone and everything around you.

So I got to wondering; first, who would have been posted to Jerusalem that particular Passover, and, second, what would they have looked like? How would they have turned out to handle the crowds and take care of all that imperial business as it involved some troublemaking street preacher?

Here's how the makers of this Bible series (called A.D. The Bible Continues, by the way) think that they should have looked.

You'll note that its your basic Level 1 Hollywood-Roman; senior officers in the fancy breastplate (called a lorica musculata, by the way, and I don't see any nipple rings but maybe that's just me...) and the grunts in the bog-standard helmet, shield, spears, and the this-is-so-Roman hoop armor
(By the way, that sort of armor is typically called a lorica segmentata these days, but its worth noting that the term never appears in Latin documents of the period - if anything, that particular type of armor was probably just called a "lorica", although I'd pay money to know what the Roman GI's slang term for it was; the Latin equivalent of "full battle-rattle"..)
Think of every Bible epic you've ever seen from Ben Hur all the way to whatever the fuck the Veggie Tales lunacy did for Easter and that's what the "Roman soldiers" look like, right?

Okay. So. One thing we can discount right off; none of these guys would have had those movie-Roman cylindrical-rectangular shields like the guy on the left is carrying and the guys in the TV scene above are equipped with.

The rectangular scutum was a purely legionary piece of equipment, and so far as we know there were no legionary troops in the province of Judea that year. I poked around a bit and what I came up with from various Internet sources was that - given that Judea was pretty minor province and not one on or near a threatening frontier enemy like Sarmatia, Dacia, or the German tribes – the closest actual legions were in Syria. As far as I can tell the Roman infantry troops in Judea in the time of the events of this television series were not legionaries but auxilia.

The auxilia were not, as you might think, light troops or irregulars. They were armed and organized as the legions, and their primary distinction was that they were typically recruited from non-citizen volunteers; the legionary troops had to be Roman-Romans, citizens. By the 1st Century AD the auxiliaries were typically recruited either from Italians (who would have been Roman citizens by then, too, though) or non-citizen non-Latins from Roman provinces. Few would have been actual barbari, the wild men from outside the Empire

That's them above. Notice how much the guys look like legionaries? Only the round shield (clipeus) gives them away. Anyway, it appears that the Judea garrison was the equivalent of a brigade - three cohors, the equivalent of a modern infantry battalion - two in Jerusalem and the third in Caesarea, the Roman capital.

Among the units I read are known to have been posted to Judea are Cohors I Sebastenorum (supposedly recruited from Samaria, the hilly region of modern northeastern Israel - "good Samaritans", remember?), Cohors Prima Italica Civium Romanorum, Cohors Secunda Italica Civium Romanorum and Cohors Prima Augusta. The first two would have been originally non-Romans but Roman allies or vassals - what were called socii or "allies" - recruited from the Italian peninsula. After the Social Wars some of these units were given Roman citizenship, hence the coveted "civium Romanorum" designation. An ala (battalion) of cavalry was also reported to have been stationed in Judea, Ala I Sebastenorum that was also said to have been recruited in Samaria.

So...basically these guys weren’t ash-and-trash, but they also weren’t legion infantry. So they would have probably gotten older, non-spec equipment that the guys from Legio X Fretensis handed down to them, or procured their own from local contractors.

Because the 1st Century Roman Army was similar to the modern U.S. Army in that its equipment was produced by civilian contractors; not until the 3rd Century AD did actual government manufactories appear to supply the forces. The legion would have had a number of local armorers making their kit, and apparently repairing what they had – archaeological finds have included armor that showed signs of alterations or repairs made some time after the original construction – who were probably given some sort of pattern or guidance that showed what the “issue” arms and armor were supposed to look like. So there was SOME uniformity. But the armor finds typically show small differences related to the local guy making it. And armor in particular was expensive and hard to make, so it tended to be kept around and re-issued even after newer models were introduced.

In particular, you'll note that in the picture from the TV show that the Roman EMs are ALL shown wearing that hoop armor - which is another Hollywoodism. Archaeology and most historians I've read suggest that eastern Roman soldiers probably wore some version of scale or lamellar armor (lorica squamata) or the chainmail (lorica hamata) that the auxiliaries are wearing in the picture just above. Everybody in the The Bible Continues-version of the Roman Army is uniformed exactly alike, and alike in the hoop-armor way.

But how likely was that? Combining the local-manufacture issue with the Eastern-style-scale-armor likelihood and the armor-is-spendy-so-older-models-tend-to-hang-around-the-supply-room thing my guess is that in a typical Roman auxiliary squad in Jerusalem circa 30AD you’d probably have found a couple of guys with mail, another maybe one or two with the hoop-armor, and a bunch more with scale armor.

Similar? Yes? Identical, like modern troops? No.

But making your TV Romans look like that is hard on the prop person and not the Hollywood image of "Roman soldier", so instead we get the Hollywood version on the electronic teevee.
So we already know that the TV Romans are dressed as legionaries and not as the auxiliaries they should be, and they all look waayyyy more uniform than an actual Roman auxiliary outfit would have. What else might have looked different from the Hollywood version?

I should add that to make matters more difficult for us to figure this out our actual understanding of Roman dress and equipment is far from complete. A big part of the problem is that we have such little actual physical evidence of daily life in the Roman Army.

Statuary depictions were usually carved by sculptors who had only the local troopers to go by, if that (my understanding is that most military historians are of the opinion that many of the depictions on Trajan’s Column, for example, were done by Roman artisans who hadn’t seen many of the soldiers they depicted and guessed or inferred the uniforms and equipment from the ones that HAD, such as the guard units stationed in the capital that would have looked very little like frontline troopers).

The written documentation is often incomplete and sometimes contradictory. Because of the perishability of metal archaeological finds are typically sparse – the Kalkriese excavations I wrote about in the Teutoburg engagement back in 2008 have produced some tremendous revelations about legionary kit in the 1st Century AD simply because of the concentration and association of legionary metal artifacts.

So with what little physical evidence we have I'm left with trying to infer what might have been the “inherent military probability” of a detachment commander tasked with sending a couple of companies (centuria) on personal security detail with the local military governor. What would I have done, in his caligae?

Well, my guess is that, given the relative quiet of Jerusalem at the moment I’d have had the boys kitted out in their “Number 2″ or “Class B” uniform; not the fanciest parade outfits – that would have been too likely to get mussed tussling with unruly crowds or, worse, sold in the marketplace by Private Marcus whose thirst for wine, carelessness with issue equipment, and tendency to manage to exchange the latter for the former was notorious – but with their best field gear and sidearms only. I'd want them to look good, but not so fancy that if riot control was required that they'd be hampered by expensive and delicate parade geegaws that, if lost or damaged, would have to be replaced or repaired or worse - come out of my unit's fucking budget. The Hades with that for a game of soldiers.

The pila spear would be more of a nuisance than a benefit in an urban operation-other-than-war environment, so they’d likely get left in the barracks. Aid-to-the-civil-power-order, then: helmet without the fancy parade plumes (but officers with their sidewise helmet-brush, though, to look the smarter), lorica, clipeus and gladius-only would be my bet. So these guys fumbling with shield and spear? Not really.
I'll bet that at least one of the centuria would have been tasked as a reaction force in full combat kit – shield and pilum and all – somewhere close by in case real trouble started. Since what we know from the scriptural sources suggests that didn’t happen, however, my guess is that any sort of depiction of the Romans in the bible stories that shows them with shield-and-spear is pure Hollywood.

Does this really matter a lick? Of course not; the people who made this Bible-epic aren't telling history, they're telling a Bible story. Expecting them to fuss about accuracy is like expecting logic from an animated cartoon; pleasant when encountered but not really required.
Or, as a certain famous Bible-guy is supposed to have said: "Truth? Dude, like, WTF is that..?"

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Only Post I Will Ever Write About the 2016 Election

Because...ugh. The thought of the next year and a half makes me want to drink a case of Natty Light and binge-watch reruns of Charmed.

It's going to be epically awful watching and listening to the "news" media try to pretend that there's an actual choice between a bunch of right-centerist corporatist candidates...and a monkeyhouse full of shit-flinging Gilded Age neoimperial theocratic nutbars.

Look. I absolutely hate the fucking idea of voting for Hillary Clinton and the wholly-owned-subsidiary wing of the Democratic Party.

But what's the alternative?

Seriously. Not the "look what an upstanding liberal Ralph Nader is!" alternative, but a real alternative to letting the Imperial legion of lunatic Tenthers, guns-and-God-bothering Womb Raiders get their mitts on the levers of power.

Will Clinton pretend that we're not heating up the planet with our exhaust fumes? Look for imaginary booga-booga terrorists under the bed (well, she might in Libya, but, still...)? Hand over the national checkbook to Goldman Sachs? Gut unions, attempt to destroy Medicaid and Social Security, fellate Bible-bangers, toss minorities of all flavors under the white, male, Christopath bus?


Would I love to see another FDR in the White House, another Congress like the one that rammed through the New Deal on Capitol Hill?

Sure. But that ain't gonna happen.

So there's really only one hope; pull that Democratic lever and work inside the Party to push it leftwards. And there's nothing other than that to say.

Because outside the walls there is only fire, and madness in the dark.

Thursday, April 09, 2015


One hundred and fifty years ago today the longest sustained episode of treason against the United States came to an end.
I'm gonna go all out here; I think it's high time to actually win that battle.
As an aside, my mother taught elementary school in Virginia in the nineteen fifties. It was just her luck that she - a native Floridian but a national traveler in a time when very few people moved from their birthplace and someone who really thought of herself as a Yankee from New York State - had to teach the War of the Rebellion to her sixth grade class. Her memory is that it was eight weeks of Southern leaders, Southern heroes, and Southern victories with a couple of days at the end where the unpleasant defeat and occupation were breezed through. She says she completely understood her students who were shocked to find out that their state had lost.
Now I'm not going to go all Brian Beutner on you and suggest that this day be designated a national holiday. That seems a trifle past-the-sell-by-date and unlikely to succeed given the current GOP tongue-bathing of the ideals of the old Confederacy and the Articles of Confederation theory of governance.


I'm all in with him about the idea of renaming the goddamn military posts named after people who fought and killed American soldiers.

And there's a pantsload of 'em. Bobby Lee? Braxton Bragg? John Bell Hood? George Pickett? George Gordon? All those treasonous sonsofbitches have an Army post named after them.

The argument you'd probably hear is that "They were fighting for what they believed in!" to which I'd say; "The fuck. So were fucking Erich von fucking Manstein and Isoroku fucking Yamamoto and you aren't suggesting we name an Army post or a Navy base after them, are you?"
After which you'd probably hear "But they were great leaders!" To which I'd say "A. P. Fucking Hill."
Historical Note: A.P. Hill, one of Bobby Lee's sorriest corps commanders, was an overpromoted cockup who couldn't figure out how to work battlefield tactics if he had been handed a goddamn large-print field manual and a copy of his enemy's situation maps. He did well arriving to help prevent disaster at Antietam but screwed the pooch at Fredricksburg and at the first day at Gettysburg, again at Bristoe Station and again in the Wilderness. Later in the war he was usually too sick to command but still managed to step on his poncho from time to time. He also got the clap at West Point, which I'm not sure to credit him with as some sort of bizarre achievement or add to his long string of fuckups. He was such an ardent traitor that he committed the Civil War version of "suicide-by-cop" on the first day of April, 1865, riding into the Union lines so as to ensure a picket blew him away and thus ensuring that he couldn't screw up anything in the remaining nine days of war. Anyway, if anyone tells you that the Southern forts are named for "great leaders"...there he is.
So let's clean the slavery traitors out of the Army's house; let's rename Fort Bragg after the Rock of Chickamauga and Fort Gordon after Bill Sherman (since the one in Panama is now called Coco Quako or something...).
And why the hell don't we have an Army post named after George Marshall?

Anyway, Happy Victory over Treason In Defense of Slavery Day!

Killer Queens

Although when I tend to think of myself as a soldier I think of myself as a redleg for much of my time in the service I was in some form of infantry outfit or another, whether as a line medic, evac driver, or as an infantryman of some sort (and yes, earthpigs, mortars do SO count...)
So it was with interest I read Gerry Long's article in this month's Journal of Military Operations about "organizing infantry." Long provides a concise history of the U.S. Army's fiddling with the infantry squad between 1946 and today and then comes up with three recommendations of his own. They are:
1. "The squad/section weaponry should be based around one LMG and one grenade launcher.
2. (E)liminate the fire-team structure. Organise the squad (or in the British case, section) around a squad leader (section commander) & 2ic. The 2ic could still command an ad-hoc fire-team if the tactical situation required.
3. (S)implify the light infantryman’s tactical employment. The squad (or section) would either fire or manoeuvre, not both. Battle drill along with fire-teams should be seen for what they were designed for: a vehicle to train the squad, not a basis for offensive doctrine. This would simplify the low level commander’s tactical duties and training."
Now I'll be the first to admit that I don't have strong feelings about this one way or the other. The issue seems to be, in Long's words, that "...although a fire-team squad might be useful when at full strength, in combat it would remain to brittle. The four man fire-team could not stand casualties and remain effective. After a few losses, the squad would either reorganise into fewer fire-teams or else stop using its fire-team organisational structure. Either way this to-fro with squad organisation in combat would needlessly complicate an already confusing situation, adding to the friction of war."Hmmm.

I think one factor in this question that Long doesn't take into account is the one that (in my opinion) has been a big, if unexamined, problem that currently afflicts and will continue to afflict my Army; the impact of rebellion-suppression guerrilla wars, both on unit organization and skills.

The 1946 conference that Long cites in his article as having come up with the gold standard for infantry small-unit organizations had just come away from the "high-intensity" fighting of WW2. The U.S. Army has not since then faced a peer foe equivalent to the German military of the Forties or even the Japanese Army of the 1942-43 period except for the CPVA in Korea (where the post-WW2 reorganization seems to have worked effectively) and, in isolated engagements, the NVA between about 1965-1972.

Since then the U.S. Army's opponents have been exclusively either local guerrillas or the sort of half-assed Third World "armies" typified by the Saddam-era Iraqi military. Much of the fighting the U.S. infantry has done has been against lightly-armed, poorly-organized, and badly-led rebels like the Sunni muj in Iraq and the Talib irregulars in Afghanistan. Frankly, there is very little that sort of enemy can do that will expose a flawed organization...assuming that the organization is flawed. One of the lessons from WW1 was that imperial policing of the sort that the British Army had trained on for most of the 99 years prior to 1914 was not a good way to train a modern army for a mechanized First World War. I suspect that if - Moloch forfend! - the U.S. Army gets into a similar sort of war that we will find that fighting a bunch of raggedy-assed Third World mooks will have done us very little good.

But...let's be real. Mechanized warfare is a bloody business for infantrymen. Something like, what, 90% of the combat casualties from WW2 were infantry. For a low birthrate, danger-averse society like the 21st Century United States to get involved in a WW2-level of infantry fighting would take...well, it'd take another Korea, and I don't see where that could happen (except maybe...Korea...)

So perhaps there's nothing to be concerned about, this question of fire teams and squads and what they can and can't do...

Or perhaps there should be.

But I am hopeful we will never have to find out.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Liebster Award - Graphic Firing Table Edition

So those winsome fashionistas (and connoisseurs of fine food, travel, and Korean culture, pop and otherwise) at The Hidden Thimble have tagged me for something called a "Liebster" Award. This thing is (as Talyssa and Siree describe it) an "...award is given to bloggers by bloggers like a chain to encourage and support the discovery of other upcoming blogs out there."
Anyway, there are some rules for this. According to the Thimblers, I need to; 1) thank the person who nominated me, 2) answer the questions from my nominator, 3) nominate bloggers who have less than 500 followers. (Basing this on Bloglovin, if not then Instagram “microblog”) 4) Create 11 new questions, 5) notify my nominees through social media.

So, okay - first, thanks, Siree and Talyssa!

Then...questions? Sure. I can do questions.

1. What’s the story behind your blog name?

well...the slogan up at the header of the blog reads "...firing unobserved rounds at anything moving." I was an artillery fire direction chief when I was in the Army, and I still write a lot about military issues. A "graphic firing table" is a sort of slide rule the gunners use to adjust fire. In one of my first posts I described it as: "...a simple but useful tool that helps you to commit broadcast mayhem. Kinda like a blog." So, there.

2. What does a normal day in your life look like?

Wake up before daybreak. Make coffee, feed cats. Drive to work. Drive to job site. Explain to contractor the this isn't fucking Burger King and he doesn't get to do it his way, he has to do it the way he's supposed to (which is my job - I'm the dirt nanny). Drive back to shop, write up field report. Do lab test, set up drilling exploration for tomorrow. Drive home. Cook dinner. Read to kid(s). Cuddle with wife. Blog. Sleep. Repeat.

3. Tea or coffee?

Coffee, cream. Something dark and earthy; Sumatran is good.

4. Why did you start your blog?

I love the sound of my own voice and I'm an opinionated sonofabitch. It was that or stand on a box in the park ranting at strangers. This way is less degrading.

5. What’s the best advice you have ever gotten?

In blogging, or in life? In life, probably "You're not nearly as important as you think you are." and "Why are you afraid of doing/saying/trying that? What's the worst that could happen?" In blogging, probably "If you write what interests you you will interest others."
6. What is your favorite post that you’ve written? (Please provide link!)

I think maybe the one about the great Ice Age floods in the Pacific Northwest called "When Da Levee Bruk".

"...dissolve into hopeless panic before the wall of water sweeps you all away into chaos and the darkness of the vanished years. Or perhaps you can only stand there, transfixed, staring at the long white line across the black horizon, as the first cold puff of wind racing out before the waters shivers your cheek like a lover’s last caress."

Sometime I can flat-ass write.

7. What is the most exciting thing about blogging for you?

The nature of it as epistolary friendship; meeting and talking to people - like the Thimblers, and you readers - from very different places and with very different mindsets. That's why I like comments; it takes this whole thing a step further, from me talking to us having a conversation. Letting my inner curmudgeon out for a walk.

8. What’s your favourite social media platform?

The only SMing I do is Facebook, and that only because I have a number of geographically distant friends that migrated over from blogging.

9. Do you think of yourself as an introvert or an extrovert?

Very much an extrovert.

10. What or who is your current obsession?

For some reason I've been fascinated with religion, at least, the variety on display in these various "Religious Freedom" laws being passed in the redder parts of the United States.

Soccer, of course.

So. Blogs...who else should you go read?

Well...Goblinbooks, of course.

An old and peculiar favorite of mine: D.D. Tinzeroes

The Snarky Penguin; Badtux

Labrys, The Experiential Pagan

And Lisa Jakub's blog...tho I have no idea whether it's a "micro" blog or not, she's a fine writer and she swears like a trooper.
Now I need to go put ice on my rotator cuff - I think I sprained something patting myself on the back.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Bible belting

Though I'm not personally religious I have always been fascinated by religion.

As Mark Twain said, its kind of like dandruff; a lot of people seem to have it and spend an inordinate amount of time and money fooling with it.

My Salvation Army grandfather gave me a King James Version Bible back when I was just a little proto-atheist and I've always treasured it just for the connection to him and the poetry. Whether or not you buy the religion the KGV does have some pretty terrific poetry.

I think part of being irreligious but intrigued by religion is that I was raised in a conventionally religious household but also raised United Presbyterian.

In case you're not familiar with this suburban sort of American Protestantism I should note that it's perhaps the whitest of Wonder Bread religions in this country. Even the Episcopalians (who are probably "whiter" in the pasty-faced Aryan sense) have their smells and bells and their faux-Catholic imagery. The Presbies?

Let's put it this way; when I was a kid I'd actually watch the service and take in what happened and what seemed important and what didn't. Finally one Sunday morning I asked my mother "So...what's so important about the money?"

Because to eight-year-old me the most exciting, most fun, most interesting part of the morning was when people got up and started passing these big brass dishes around. They were heavy, shiny brass with a broad brim and red velvet on the bottom of the cup-shape in the middle. Everybody put money in them while we all sang a song and then the passers took them up front and set them on a table and we all sang another song. It seemed like the highlight of the whole occasion, so I kind of figured that the object was to worship the money. This "God" stuff seemed pretty opaque but the money had its own cool dishes and songs and everything.

My mother was pretty irked at how I missed the point to churchgoing as she saw it. But that is a pretty good summation of how religion never really "took" to me.

So when speaking of the whole "buying the religion", the other morning my Bride (my rose of Sharon, my lily of the valley, my sister, my spouse...) asked me "Are you an atheist, or an agnostic?" and for the life of me I couldn't come up with a good answer. Given my background that probably shouldn't be a real shock, but, still.

"I haven't really thought about it enough to say." was my reply, and I realized that I really hadn't. In a backhanded way I suspect that I'm open to the idea of a god or gods - if no other way simply because I don't know enough about Life, the Universe, and everything to rule out a god or gods - but in my everyday life I really have no use for one or more of them. If there is a god, or are gods, it and they seem to me to be pretty careless of human lives. Both "careless" in the sense of casually throwing them away or bending and breaking them and "care less" in the don't-give-a-shit sense. If there are then they owe me huge for the death of my oldest child. But I don't see anything that makes me suspect that there is anyone there. Our lives appear to be just what we, and others, make of them.

I can see how comforting it'd be to think that there was this incredibly powerful mystical Being that cared about me and had my back. I just don't see any evidence that's true, and don't see the sense in spending a great deal of time fretting about that. I have all sorts of intellectual and moral wellsprings to learn from and to guide me. I don't feel the lack of or the need for a deity for that, so I guess the best way to describe wouldn't be "atheist" or "agnostic" but "indifferent".
So that's my religious condition taken care of.

Anyway, I got to thinking about all this when I came across Jim Wright's post over at Stonekettle Station about the recent brou-ha-ha over "religious freedom" and hatin' on Teh Gays that cited a bunch of the usual directives from Leviticus. You know what I'm talking about, right? Don't eat owl, leave seed in the field for the poor, don't bonk a guy like you would a girl, that sort of thing.

As you'd expect, down in the comments section several discussions ensued about the Levitican prohibitions and how they apply, or don't, to Christians. And that was sort of fascinating to me, historian and self-identifying scholar that I think I am. Because they all circle back to a single source; the text of one of the Gospels, Matthew, chapter 5, verses 17-19:
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."
That made me run down a bunch of commentary on this piece of Matt, which seems to be one of the more contentious issues in Christian exegesis.

The bottom line seems to be the question of "when the Christ said "fulfilled" what did he mean by that?" The passage in Matthew seems to suggest that the old Levitican strictures - indeed, all the laws and directives laid down prior to the 1st Century C.E. - might "pass" once "all is fulfilled". And it seems that many Christian theologians think that with the Christ the law was fulfilled; that with the events that are reported as occurring 2,015 years ago the old laws "pass". These scholars cite passages like Paul's Epistle to the Romans, chapter 10, verse 4: "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth."

What the hell does that mean?
Certainly it doesn't mean what it says: "...the end of the law..." Western Christians, American Christians, live hedged about with laws like every other American. Local laws, state laws, federal laws. Certainly being the spiritual heirs to a god's sacrifice doesn't let you beat a speeding ticket.

But does it mean that modern Christians are exempt from the stuff laid down in the Old Testament?

(As an aside, let's hope so. There's some pretty appalling shit in there. Take, for example, Exodus, chapter 21. That's the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" bit that a lot of us think of when we think of "Old Testament-y" crime and punishment. But that's actually pretty mild compared to the slavery. Selling your daughter into slavery? Jake with the Lord. You just can't sell her to smelly foreigners. Or if you and your wife are slaves after six years you get your "Get out of slavery free" card. But...if you married during those six years? Your wife and kiddies belong to your former master. Seriously.)

All this is good fun, but the question before the floor remains; are modern Christians bound by the Levitican strictures against homosexuality and homosexuals? Or does Christ "fulfill" those strictures and replace them with his own words, none of which discusses the question of who gets to go into the Fun Zone and how and whether that's bad?

Lemme cut to the crux of the biscuit: it doesn't really matter. You either don't get to hate on the queers...or hatin' on the homos is the least of your worries.

If old laws still apply, and if you want to hate the homos you also can't eat fat (Leviticus 3:17) or pet a dog (Leviticus 5:2) or wear cotton-poly fabrics. You basically can't live a modern life. I suppose if the idea of a couple of husky bears kissing reeeeeally drives you wild you could do that, but I'd put the actual number of Americans that could in the low single digits.

Go read that Leviticus stuff. I'm serious - it's completely fucking whack.

Or they don't, and you pretty much have to go with what J-dawg said:
"And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."
Don't see "...except for the homos" after the "thyself". Seems to pretty much settle that.

So Christopath-Americans? You can all go home now. You're wrong.

Sue, kiss Sally. Joe, kiss Matt. Everybody happy now?

The hell with all this legal parsing. Let's have some poetry.

"Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.

Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.

Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.

Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.

Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.

Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards.

Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.

How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!

Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.

A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.

Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,

Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:

A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon."

(Song of Solomon 4:3-15)

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

April Foolin'

The best "April Fool's" joke I ever heard wasn't on April 1. It was back in the day at my first geotech outfit, on a typical morning in a typical staff meeting when one of the guys - a very "engineer" sort of person in that he was always very quiet and serious - started telling us about his recent hiking weekend.

Turns out that he had been alone on a backcountry trail in the Blue Mountains when he came across a cougar. Did everything you're supposed to - shouted, made himself big, waved his arms - but the cat didn't back off and, instead, kept trailing him, getting nearer and nearer.

We're all appalled by this, as he tells us that he got increasingly worried and finally started trying to outpace the cat that just keeps on after him, getting closer and closer.

At last he bolts, tears off up the hill with the big cat right behind. He realizes he can't outrun the animal so he dives into a deadfall pile but before he can crawl under the cat seizes his boot in it's mouth.

Everyone there is dead silent, transfixed, as he goes on in his quiet voice; "So I'm holding on to the tree and the cat is pulling my leg...pulling my leg..." and he doesn't change expression or tone as he concludes "...just like I'm pulling yours right now."
Like I said; great April Fool's prank. Just not in April and not on All Fools Day.