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Archive for February, 2011

(The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme)

Someone once told me that the trick to winning in basketball is that you have to have more points when the buzzer goes off. That didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but since then I’ve thought about it many, many times. Now I understand that what it means is that sometimes when two things are competing and one wins out, it isn’t necessarily because it’s better than the other one, it just happened to be ahead when the time ran out.

I teach Roman history to my 6th grade class. It’s an interesting topic to teach to young people, because America, the country I live in, is so comfortable in it’s acceptance of Christianity as the dominant religion. Wikipedia tells me that 76% of Americans identify as Christian (mostly Protestant or Catholic). Interestingly, 40% of Americans claim to go to church once a week and a majority of Americans rate religion (specific brand unspecified) plays a “very important” role in their lives (based on a 2008 survey of 55,000 people, link here).

However, waaaay back in 60 AD, the Christians weren’t enjoying such monumental success. When I’m teaching Roman history we talk a lot about religion and how the early Romans were pagan and worshipped the gods of Mount Olympus. Whenever I utter the word pagan for the first time, there is always this little ripple that rides around the room, for that word has such a strongly negative connotation. (Perhaps it’s because the Christians did such a bang up job obliterating paganism once the buzzer rang.) Often children don’t even know why a word is so charged, they just know that it is, and it’s palpable in the room.

Back when the Romans worshipped Aries and Apollo and Demeter and Athena, the Christians were struggling. At one point, they were hated by most Roman citizens for various reasons. I read an excellent article online by a man named C.J. Lyes (find it here). Lyes says that there isn’t any “real” evidence that the Christians were slaughtered by Roman leaders, such as the infamous Christian hating Nero, but that they were certainly despised. (I have my doubts that any minority group of people who are despised by a powerful and militarily trained majority could find themselves safe within that culture. There are certainly many, many historical stories that corroborate violence. But, being not an expert, I’ll not force it…much)

(A Christian Dirce, by Henryk Siemiradzki)

One reason for Roman hatred of Christians was that Christian monotheistic views threatened the polytheistic beliefs of the day. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking of this as a political threat, when, for the everyday lower classes in Rome, it was a threat to their very well-being, for if the pantheon of gods was angered, to them it spelled certain death. Christians were blamed for drought. They were blamed for floods. They were blamed for locusts, etc., etc. They fit the bill for both black sheep and scape goats, those unfortunate Bovidae…

Another possible reason for Roman animosity toward Christians, according to Lyons, is that the Christian practice of Eucharist was translated by some into cannibalism. This, mixed with the fact that the persecuted Christians held secret, hidden meetings deep underground in the catacombs of Rome, led some to wild allegations of “incest and child murder and group sex.”

(Roman catacomb–photo from http://www.traditioninaction.org)

Lastly (in this blog post anyway, Lyes has more to say), the teaching of Christianity appealed strongly to women of the day and led many to renounce their religion and join Christianity. Roman social order was built on the foundation of patriarchal rule. Giving women something to believe in, something to think about, something to be a powerful part of, was very threatening to Roman culture.

So. I just thought all of this was pretty interesting, considering the incredible evolution of Christianity through the ages. It all has such a familiar, horrible ring to it, doesn’t it?

It makes me wonder when the next playoff begins.

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(Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois-Picasso, 1911)

Raise your hand if you like cubism, please! I used to not like it. The first time I saw some cubism, I was just bored. But then again, I was 15 and I felt bored with everything. You could have shown me a mathematical equation for a process that eliminated the need for petroleum products, cured cancer and directed the way to all the lost favorite socks in the world (with the only by-product of bars of warm dark chocolate), and I would have shrugged and gave you a friendlyish half-smile, all the while dying slowly inside of soul crushing boredom.

The next time I saw a cubist painting, it made me feel icky, like I was looking at a picture of the inside of an ant colony, eggs and all. Ew. At that time I was in college looking at slides in an art appreciation class. (Truthfully, at that time the only art that I really appreciated was my own.) It was so very busy and not really OF anything. Just, thingies and stuff, all over the place. Ew.

Then somebody told me that Picasso had admitted to somebody else that he had sold his soul to the devil. That seemed interesting to me, but not enough to really look at his artwork. I might have thought about looking at his artwork a time or two, but wasn’t really motivated enough to get up and do it. Probably because of the ant colony thing.

It wasn’t until recently that I actually started to understand what the heck the big idea was about cubism. I was reading a book called Surfing Through Hyperspace: Understanding Universes in Six Easy Lessons by Clifford Pickover when I began to understand. A quote from within said volume:

Einstein’s theory of general relativity describes space and time as a unified 4-D continuum called ‘spacetime.’ Consider yourself as having three spatial dimensions-height, width, and breadth. You also have the dimension of duration-how long you last. Modern physics views time as an extra dimension; thus, we live in a universe having (at least) three spatial dimensions and one additional dimension of time. Stop and consider some mystical implications of spacetime. Can something exist outside of spacetime? For example, Thomas Aquinas believed God to be outside of spacetime and thus capable of seeing all of the universe’s objects, past and future, in one blinding instant. An observer existing outside of time, in a region called ‘hypertime,’ can see the past and future all at once (pgs. 18-19).

This is a neat idea, but the inspiring cubism part didn’t come until 32 pages later…

When you look at a 2-D painting on a wall, you step back in the third dimension and can see the boundary of the painting (usually rectangularly shaped) as well as every point in the painting. This means that you can see the entire painting from one viewpoint. If you wish to see a 3-D artwork from one viewpoint, you need to step back in the fourth dimension. Assuming your eyes could grasp such a thing, you would theoretically see every point on the 3-D artwork, and in the 3-D artwork, without moving your viewpoint. This type of “omniscient” seeing and X-ray vision was known to Cubist painters such as Duchamp and Picasso. For this reason, Cubists sometimes showed multiple views of an object in the same painting. Present day sculptors such as Arthur Silverman, often place six copies of the same 3-D object, on separate bases, in six orientations. People viewing the six disjoint sculptures often do not realize that they are all the same object. Mathematics professor Nat Friedman (State University of New York at Albany) refers to this theoretical seeing in hyperspace as “hyperseeing” and points out in his writings that in hyperspace one can hypersee a 3-D object completely from one viewpoint.

Wow. Now that is far out. Maybe he sold his soul to the devil in order to do it, but Picasso figured out a way to paint so that the viewer can see multiple sides (points of view) all at the same time and from the same place. That is cool. Not icky or boring in the least! I wonder what Einstein would say about all this…wait! What’s that you say? Einstein came up with the theory of relativity in the same decade as Picasso started painting as if he lived on a beam of light?

(Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler-Picasso 1910)

Guess I’ll have to make an Einstein/Picasso posting soon…

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I had a dream once, a couple years ago. In the dream I was standing in line at the grocery store and a tall, droopy man with a newsboy cap and a trench coat with an unlit Capri cigarette dangling from his lips was standing in front of me. He proceeded to let several people go ahead of him, even though they had just as many items as we did. In the dream I was furious that he would do that without asking me first. I was so furious that my rage woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Maybe only smokers or ex-smokers would get how funny the cigarette part is. This from Wikipedia:

Capri is a brand of cigarette manufactured by R.J. Reynolds. Introduced in 1987, it is the first widely-available cigarette having an extremely slim shape, at 17 mm in circumference and 100 mm in length, specifically marketed towards women as a way to increase or enhance their sexual appeal. By comparison, standard cigarettes are 25 mm in circumference, and slim cigarettes are 21 mm in circumference. Capri is available in regular and menthol light varieties, as well as regular and menthol ultra-light varieties. Capri is also available in a 120 mm length, which the packaging describes as “luxury length.”

And this oh-so-sexually-appealing vision from the website…ahem…wait for it now…morningcigarette.com, taken in 1993:

Who is that lady with the brown tights and the super slim cigarette? you might find yourself softly murmuring as you read this blog. And did people really wear those hats in 1993? I doesn’t feel like that long ago, really.

Anyway. Back to reality and to the real pertinent question at hand: Why was Andy Capp gumming a super slim and letting people cut in front of me in my dream? And why did I remember the feeling of deep anger two years later, so strongly that I had to go and find where I wrote it all down so that I could post it here?

Here’s a secret…When I was 16 I found a pack of Capri cigarettes on the floor in the mall. It was under one of those circle rack things that they hang clothes on. I have no idea how I happened to be sniffin’ around on the floor under a clothes rack at the mall…maybe I was looking for money? Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I took them home and smoked them and became addicted to nicotine, developing a habit it would take me more than 15 years (on and off) to shake.

I was embarrassed to smoke the Capris, those skinny things, in front of anyone, so I did it in “the old playhouse” at my parents. So much for sex appeal…sneaking off to the glorified shed full of ancient looms and undiscovered Pollock paintings and broken kiddie pools and god-knows-whatever-else was in that little be-shingled troll dwelling to crouch under the broken and tarped window, puffing on a 17 mm, trying desperately to look like James Dean. I’m sure I didn’t.

So the Capri cigarette, possibly a symbol of emasculation (for lack of better term). The droopy fellow (I forgot to mention he had chapped lips too) letting people into the line who didn’t earn the right to be there, like I had, perhaps a symbol of powerlessness. And my fury at him…that probably represented my fury at the unfairness of whatever was eating me at the time. And what did that fury bring me in the end? A sleepless night. A funny story to tell at work. A psychological indication of my fear of being taken advantage of, taken for a fool, left without recourse…

I’ve been thinking about Egypt. And power. I’ve been thinking about microcosms. I’ve been thinking about forgiveness and fury and angry dictators who have ruled my life, made me powerless. I know how good it feels to be in love and how crappy it feels to be angry. But we can’t always choose to be be happy, because people do things that aren’t fair. I think we can, however, trust that good will eventually prevail because it is just the teeeeniest bit stronger than hate…although at times they appear to be neck and neck.

Gandhi said this:

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always. (from here)

Martin Luther King Jr. said this:

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. (from here)

I believe inherently what these men said. We all watch the news wondering “what will happen? what can I do?” I realized that ask myself these same questions every day, only in a different, smaller format from various positions in the conflict. I have 25 students at school. In what ways to I treat them as my servants? In what ways do I teach them freedom? I have a boss who tells me things to do in my classroom. Do I do what he says? Where do I choose to exert or give away my own power in my own controlled life situations? What I can do is to seek out my own inner dictator and remind her of some things. What I can do is find the places where my voice is weak and do my very best to gently turn up the volume.

Sometimes Andy Capp will be there with his chapped lips and his effeminate cigarette making me crazy. And sometimes…well, sometimes he won’t.

Go Egypt, go…

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