Sparta Falls and Rises at Thermopylae

Spartan Warrior at Thermopylae

Ever since I first read Lawrence Durrell’s Justine many years ago, I have been in love with the poems of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), a Greek poet resident in Alexandria, Egypt. Here is one of his most famous early poems:

Thermopylae

Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.

And who is Ephialtes? According to the History of Herodotus, he is a Greek who betrayed his homeland to the Persians by showing them a trail by which they could surprise Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. He expected to be rewarded by his new masters, but that fell apart when they lost the Battle of Salamis.

Life on the Rancho

Los Encinos State Historical Park Today

People think of Southern California as being bran new. In actuality, the history goes far back—even earlier than the days when the land was occupied by the Gabrielino and Chumash Indians. I was born in Cleveland, which was founded in 1796 by Moses Cleaveland of Connecticut. Los Angeles is a full fifteen years older, having been founded in 1781 as a Spanish pueblo. So many of our place names come from the Spanish and Mexican land grants. One such community is Encino (“Oak” in Spanish), which was part of the 4,251 acre Rancho El Encino.

On Sunday, Martine and I drove to the Los Encinos State Historical Park in (where else?) Encino to visit the reconstructed ranch buildings. I say reconstructed because adobe did not do particularly well in the earthquakes of 1880 and 1994.

We have visited several of these adobe ranch houses from the 19th century and earlier. There was the Centinela Ranch House in Westchester and the Dominguez Rancho in Rancho Dominguez. And there are perhaps as many as a dozen more which I eventually hope to see, just as I would like some day to visit all the California missions built by Father Junipero Serra, recently sanctified by the Vatican.

Bedroom in the Ranch House

The Los Encinos State Historical Park does a nice job of bringing together furniture of the period as well as informative displays explaining what life was like on the rancho 150 years ago and more. They even have several stone outbuildings dedicated to food storage and blacksmithing.

Los Angeles has not always been careful of preserving its historical sites. There used to be an old abandoned adobe at the corner of Colorado and 26th Street in Santa Monica, near where I had first real job at System Development Corporation. It was a kind of spooky place, but it is no far. Now it’s a high-rise office building dedicated to entertainment media. No effort was made to move the adobe where it could be restored.

 

This Is Indeed Poway

Why the Synagogue Shooting Happened There

The mayor of Poway, California, Steve Vaus by name, went on the air to say that the synagogue shooting on the last day of Passover was not representative of Poway. “This is not Poway,” he said. I beg to differ from him.

My own personal experience of Poway was a negative one. When I worked for Urban Decision Systems in the 1990s, we had to let our secretary go: She was getting too old. Her family had her move to Poway, and I went to visit her there. My impression of the town north of San Diego was that it was a sterile racially homogeneous suburban upper class slum. I hated the place and could hardly wait to leave. And that was over twenty years ago!

Now this type of place is a natural for a racist, bigoted shooter. It is easy to develop a hatred for Jews or Muslims or immigrants or African-Americans—if everyone around you is lily white and drinks the same Kool Aid as you do. They’re all in the same bubble.

I’ve read an interesting article in The New Yorker about what the Chinese are doing to keep dissidents from embarrassing the government at inopportune times:

While Presidemt Xi Jinping played host to African dignitaries in the Great Hall of the People, the police played host to [dissident Zha Jianguo] at various scenic spots in the province of Hubei, about a thousand kilometers away. A number of other Beijing activists and civil-rights lawyers … were treated to similar trips….

This practice is known as bei lüyou, “to be touristed.”

I begin to think the Chinese have the right idea. White racists should “be touristed” for several weeks at a time, perhaps to South Africa or Honduras or Afghanistan or even Israel. The idea is that no white person should be so ensconced in his bubble that he does not understand how people who are different need not be conceived of as being threatening.

On my vacations, I have visited a number of what our Presidente would call “shithole countries.” I have come to admire the Latin-American peoples to the south of us. They have been excellent hosts during my travels and more knowledgeable about us than we typically are of them.

 

To BZ or Not To BZ

Beach Scene at Caye Caulker, Belize

Normally, I am not really a beach person. As my planned vacation to Yucatán takes place, I am thinking of also including Caye Caulker in Belize as a little side trip, a sort of vacation from my vacation so to speak. Why on earth would I be interested in knocking around on a Caribbean island? Especially when there’s nothing of any archeological import to be found there. I don’t particularly like to swim, snorkel, or dive: Hell, I don’t even like wearing shorts.

The answer goes back to my last trip. Throughout Eastern Guatemala, there was one condiment that was de rigeur on every restaurant table. It was a bottle of Marie Sharp’s Hot Habanero Pepper Sauce. Now I have always been partial to habañero (aka Scotch Bonnet) chiles, ever since my 1975 trip to Yucatán. Until I encountered those Marie Sharp’s sauces, with their motto “Proud Products of Belize,” I was contented with the El Yucateco Salsas de Chile Habañero, which came on hot and fierce, and maybe a little raw. What fascinated me about the Marie Sharp’s product was that it had the heat, but also the sweetness of carrots. How did she do it?

The Product in Question

Mind you, I still like El Yucateco, but Marie has won me over.

Now, how does that translate me wanting to spend a few days on an island off the coast of Belize? When I went to Guatemala, I was intrigued by the cultural mix at the port of Livingston: Maya, Garifuna, etc. I thought it would be fun after tromping through miles of Maya ruins in the jungle to sit under a palapa with a cool drink (perhaps a Belikin beer) and a good book. And available to me would be the best of Maya and Caribbean cooking. That sounds like a culinarily and culturally interesting diversion.

Marie Sharp’s manufacturing complex is actually by Stann’s Creek near Dangriga in Southern Belize, but that’s a tad too jungly for me.

From Chetumal in Mexico, I could take a quick boat ride to Caye (that’s pronounced KEY in Belize) Caulker and pass through customs at Ambergris Caye. So I might very well BZ happy there.

 

“The Land of Counterpane”

I Remember This Illustration from My Childhood

The first poem I remember was “The Land of Counterpane” from Robert Louis Stevenson’ A Child’s Garden of Verses. I was in grade school and sick with some childhood disease. While Mom and Dad were off at work, and I was being cared for by my great-grandmother Lidia Toth, I was allowed to lie in their bed. Mom had gotten be a library book with this poem in it—and with the above illustration. I don’t know which impressed me more, the words of the poem or the illustration. In any case, the memory has stuck with me through the years. Here’s the words of the poem:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Now, many years later, I am rediscovering RLS, especially his last years in the South Pacific. I wonder if, somehow, my memory over the great gulf of years, has anything to do with my wanting to go back to Stevenson and reacquaint myself with his work. In any case, that’s what I’m doing … and I am enjoying every moment of it.

 

The Revenger’s Tragedy

Illustration from Thomas Kyd’s Play The Spanish Tragedy (1587)

I have just re-read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in honor of the Bard’s 455th birthday. Although it has been several decades since my last approach to the play, I was surprised how familiar the language was. Apparently, over the years such expressions as “the dead vast and middle of the night” and “I am but mad north-north-west—when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” have become part of my speech and writing.

This time, however, a new thought struck: The play is not just about Hamlet’s dilatoriness in revenging the death of his father by his uncle (who thereupon married his mother, the queen). It is also about the difficulty of straightforward revenge. And that despite the fact that revenge plays were a popular genre. Even Shakespeare, early in his career, came out with Titus Andronicus (ca 1590), in which there is rape, murder, cannibalism, and oodles of blood. Then, in 1606 came Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.

In Hamlet, however, Shakespeare shows that the road to revenge can be rocky. The last scene in Act V begins with the Prince telling his friend Horatio:

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay
Worse than the mutinies in the bilboes. Rashly,
And prais’d be rashness for it,—let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall; and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

The Graveyard Scene from Grigory Kozintsev’s Russian Film of Hamlet (1964)

This realization on Hamlet’s part after his many hesitations earlier on shows that he has learned a lesson from all his agonizing:

HORATIO.
If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

HAMLET.
Not a whit, we defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

I wonder how many discoveries await me on re-reading Shakespeare’s plays. I think perhaps it’s worth the effort to make the effort.

 

His 455th Birthday

Portrait of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Today is the 455th anniversary of the birth of dramatist William Shakespeare. To honor his birthday, I picked up my old Penguin edition of Hamlet and started to re-read it for the nth time. It has been a couple of decades since my last reading. I was shocked to the extent that the Bard’s language had become so familiar to me that I almost regarded it as my own. From Act I alone, I had adopted into my own language such expressions as:

Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes. (I,i,56-58)

A little more than kin, and less than kind! (I,ii,65)

’A was a ma, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again. (I,ii,187-188)

In the dead waste and middle of the night. II,ii,198)

I do not set my life at a pin’s fee (I,iv,65)

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I,iv,90)

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (I,v,166-167)

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite
That ever was I born to set it right! (I,v,188-189)

If these short quotes are familiar to you, it is because they have become a part of our language. Shakespeare actually changed the way we think about things. Within the next day or so, I want to write about how Hamlet changed forever the straightforward revenge tragedy that was such a part of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramaturgy.