Friday, August 08, 2003

How I Scared Myself Silly
Having nothing to say about the current various political circuses (and besides, so many of you say it so much better), I'm going to tell you about my most recent trip.

The trip itself was a marvelous success...there's something about sitting under a massive canopy of first growth trees at the edge of a magnificent waterfall...not to mention standing on the bow of a ship watching humpback whales cavort almost within touching distance...


Getting there and getting back was not so much fun. Not only was it long (three flights in one day with only an hour's layover between each EACH WAY), but the whole security thing was downright scary.

The whole trend now is for self-ticketing. I ordered and paid for my tickets on the web and even issued my own ticket. When I arrived at the airport, I walked up to another machine and entered the confirmation code. It asked me if I was checking in any luggage; upon receiving an affirmative answer, it spit out a luggage tag, which was then retrieved by one of only two humans monitoring fourteen or fifteen machines from behind the counter. The human asked me for my suitcase, slapped the tag on it, and then requested me to take it to another part of the airport.

Having dutifully done that, I answered a few questions of the usual variety (are you carrying explosives? did you accept a package? AS IF!), then my suitcase was whisked behind a screen where a big x-ray machine sat. I went off to the security checkpoint, where my camera bag was x-rayed (they were nice enough to hand inspect my film, even in Miami, where the guards can be really surly jerks at times), and I was let through.

While standing in line I was observing the whole security operation. There is no check at all until you are inside the terminal. Once there, it seems mostly geared towards keeping people and luggage together as long as possible. I can't make head or tails of the reasons why some people are singled out for special attention at the security checks--but they undergo their frisking no more than a few paces from the rest of the travelers.

The thing that kept running through my head was: have this people ever heard of suicide bombers? To my inexperienced eyes, the security measures seem to be geared towards catching people who want to live to fight another day; say, the I.R.A., rather than fundamentalist crazies. Ordinary criminals, not religious fanatics.

For the first time EVER I had a drink on the plane. Both ways.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

How I Know Gay Marriage is a Non-Issue, Constitutionally Speaking
Today at breakfast I asked my (hyperconservative Cuban) father what would he do if our (hyperliberal, openly gay) cousin decided to marry his current lover.

I'd ask him whether he wanted a present or for us to host the family dinner.

That's all, folks.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Why I Never Was a Historian
Once upon a time I wanted to be a historian. I thought that to speak the truth about the past was just about the greatest profession every invented. Unfortunately I went to college at the height of the "psychological studies" era. Everyone was trying to second guess what some famous dead person was really saying in his diary and reading between the lines and imagining conversations. On the other side were the Marxists, whose interpretation of history was, well...Marxist. And finally there were the bean counters, who, if they had the imagination of Ladurie, could create beautiful story out of bony fact, but mostly bored everyone silly with their crosslateral studies of the census.

It was with great relief that I retired from that field, but I have been left with a great hunger for good history. I read quite a bit, and find the best of PBS programming fascinating (my favorite? No, not The Civil War, although that comes close. Does anyone remember In Search of Troy? Or Connections?).

But tonight I was reminded of why I really did not fit into that world. I was watching a PBS program on the Great Fire. No, not Chicago, not even London. Rome, AD 64. The one that got the Christians in trouble and later got Nero in trouble. The Quo Vadis one.

Well, not surprisingly, they explored a number of theories. One, Nero Did It. Two, it was An Accident. and Three, the Christians Did It.

Theory number one is based on the works of Tacitus. The Annals tell us that gangs of men were seen preventing the fire brigade from fighting the fire, and even throwing torches into houses, all the while yelling "we're under orders".

Tacitus's is the commonly held view. Nero wanted to build himself a new palace, but the houses of the Senators and other wealthy Romans were in his way. So he went on vacation and left instructions to some underlings to clear some land for his Golden Dome.

The case against this theory seems to be that by setting off the fire Nero would also be burning the poor folks, whose support he was courting against the wealthy and "he would not be crazy enough to do that". Lordamercy! NERO WASN'T CRAZY ENOUGH? In comparison to whom, Caligula??? Another historian tells us that Nero wouldn't have done that because it would burn his existing palace. EXCUSE ME? Wasn't the point in the first place that he wanted a new place, nothing big, just a few hundred bedrooms complete with gold-leafed dome, lake and park? And did he notice that Nero's first was called Domus Transitoria? (Yes, I know that is silly, but hey, I'm playing their game)

And what of Tacitus? As far as I can remember Tacitus is considered one of the better guys of Imperial Rome. This biographer seems to agree. Well, according to our historians we are to consider him accurate except in this attribution of the fire: after all, he hated Nero and would not be above a little political smearing. Thus are reputations destroyed: with an assumption.

The second theory makes a lot of sense. Using some models and with the help of an actual fire investigator, they proved that the fire could have started spontaneously. Rome was a squalid city, and its palaces were ringed by wood-frame slums. One single lamp knocked over could have set it off in no time. They did not prove that it was, but certainly explained how it could have logically occurred.

The third theory, advanced by Professor Gerrd Baudy of the University of Kontanz is that those gangs described by Tacitus were Christians, possessed by millenialist fever and anger at the subjugation of Judea by Rome. Well, I'm not naive enough to believe that Christians were saints, in spite of the Church, but... Prophesying destruction death by fire and setting the place on fire are not the same thing by a long shot. Prof. Baudy points to pamphlets saying "Rome must burn" but in fifteen years of study he does not seem to have found a single one saying "meet me tonight at the butcher's and bring your torch" or even "we must take the torches into our own hands and realize the prophecy". At least he did not show it.

Baudy also points to the fact that the fire was on the anniversary of a similar fire 400 years earlier, and that there was an ancient Egyptian prophecy that foretold that "a great city would burn on the day Sirius rose", and that was July 19th, the day the fire started.

If I were playing the game, I would comment that I am also bothered by the cries reported by Tacitus. I can see a maddened Christian shouting "in the name of Christ" or "the end is near" or even "arise and destroy the beast". But "we're under orders?" That makes absolutely no sense. The leaders of the Christian community had to have known that they had as much chance to overthrow Rome as a gnat had to overthrow an elephant. Sending people off to burn the place under the assumption that the rest of the world would rise up against the Roman armies IN THE FIELD because Rome had burned down would be a surefire way to decimate their membership--at a time when they were actively involved in recruiting. To paraphrase the professor's comment about Nero: surely they were not that crazy.

I also find it difficult to believe that a persecuted people, who survived by clinging to their faith, whose sole reason was their belief in the One True God, would turn to pagan prophecies--especially the Egyptians, with their animal-headed gods and fornicating divine siblings. And finally, I have no idea of the composition of the Christian community in Rome at the time, but I would guess that folks from Judea would not necessarily be in the majority.

If the show favors any theory, it is the accidental fire one. My final judgment is that we are still as much in the dark as ever about the Great Fire of AD64. But if we use Occam's Razor (a tool almost none of the featured gentlemen seem to use) Nero had the most reason for it and the human tools with which to do it. Yes, there could have been some crazies out there; as the fire investigator points out, often arsonists are attracted to an accidental fire and start fire of their own. But...where is the dog that did not bark in the nightime?

It wasn't a bad show, especially when the fire investigators were doing their work, and when speaking to archaeologists currently working on digs right under the pavement of modern-day Rome. The description of the fire and the explanation of the psychological as well as the physical disaster really brought home the desolation survivors must have felt when they saw the Temple of Vesta and the eight-hundred-year old Temple of Jupiter burnt to the ground. But it left me unsatisfied, and wishing for better evidence than was presented.

You know what this means? I'm going to have to read up on this.