Thursday, December 31, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #1 Stalingrad 1942-3 CE

World War II was the largest conflict the world has ever known. It's long-term significance has diminished slightly in recent years, as the Soviet Union ceased to exist and a reunited, resurgent Germany once again plays the tune that all of Europe dances to. But nonetheless it had a huge effect on the world we are currently living in, and as such the most pivotal battle in that war was going to have a spot on this list. I thought briefly about making it Midway, the naval Armageddon in the Pacific between the navies of the USA and Japan, but I decided that the USA would have defeated Japan in the long run no matter what the result of Midway was, and so it cannot be said to have changed the course of history, only the course of the war.
The most important battle in World War II, then, was Stalingrad. The Germans had come perilously close to knocking the Soviets out in 1941, and the following year did not start out any better for the side on the defense. It was only when the German Fifth Army got drawn into Stalingrad and stalled there, fighting block by block for months, that the tide of the war could plausibly be said to reverse, even though it was going to be another two-plus years before the war ended. It did not help that Hitler's delusions proved more dangerous than Stalin's; his refusal to allow the commander to retreat (and the commander's decision to obey those orders) when it was clear that the battle was lost changed the war. For one, the Germans lost an army they did not have the manpower to replace. Two, the Soviets realized that the Germans could be stopped and beaten, and the Germans realized that they were not destined for world domination; the change in mindsets fueled the remaining course of the war. Three, Hitler, despite public protestations, knew that the reversal was fatal--and the Holocaust kicked into high gear as a result. Four, the best chance of Communism falling ended at Stalingrad, and the Cold War became more or less inevitable, with all the lasting results that brought (and Eastern Europe, to be sure, still has not recovered from either this war or the Communist years, changes in forms of government notwithstanding). And five, the fact that, almost by coincidence, the war's turning point came in a city named for Stalin (twenty years prior) gave a sort of legitimacy to Stalin in the eyes and minds of the Soviet population. He had killed millions of them and had erected the most terrroristic state the world has ever known--but the Great Patriotic War turned in his city, and for millions of Soviets, that was proof that the propaganda portrait of Stalin as the Great Leader was more or less accurate--and somehow half-legitimized the Great Terror in Soviet minds. Today's Putin would not be possible without somewhat fond memories of Stalin lingering in the Russian psyche, and Stalingrad is a big reason why that memory is there.
Stalingrad wasn't the first city to be reduced to rubble fighting for square feet at a time; it happened in Madrid in the Spanish Civil War just a few years earlier, But this battle for turf, and the resistance and counter punch delivered by the Soviets, earned a place in history, redefining "stand to the last man." The Soviets, incredibly, prevailed, and the switch from defense to offense in the battle's wake proved permanent. For that, Stalingrad is on this list.

Legalized Extortion

My daughter is about to get a car, courtesy of other family members and the fact that Christmas and her birthday are so close together. And with the paperwork requirements that go along with that, I have suddenly become aware, again, of an actual law that New York enacted sometime in the last few years (I'd dearly love to blame our current occupant of the governor's office, but this law may well precede his tenure) that is nothing more than legal thievery. I usually don't give much credence to the yahoo element's frenzied cries of government malfeasance, but in this case, they have a point.
When one purchases a used car in the state of New York, one is required to pay sales tax. Fair enough. What isn't fair is that the tax that one has to pay is based on what the assigned value to a particular make and model is in the Blue Book, an car industry publication that is supposed to be a guide as to how much a car, in theory, a car dealer can reasonably expect to sell a car for. In theory, this is almost justifiable. In fact, it is a weapon held at the throat at consumers.
For starters, the Blue Book value is hardly impartial or fair to consumers. It is designed to maximize the revenue of car dealers. It does not take into account the history of the vehicle, cutting people you know a break on the price, or the circumstances of a particular area--it is simply a number that somebody that has no accountability and no connection to anyone involved in the transaction came up with. And I am positive as positive can be that in this culture, which is dedicated to extracting every last drop of juice that can be squeezed out of the poor saps that have to spend money in this economic model, that the numbers in the Blue Book are jacked up as high as they can go and still have some tenuous connection to reality.
And then there is the hubris of the State of New York, which arbitrarily decided with this law that the main motivation of people selling cars was defrauding the state of their rightful revenue, and so they were going to take a (large) chunk of the transaction regardless of the actual circumstances. I cannot believe that this law has either held up to legal challenges or hasn't been challenged, because this is about as arbitrary as one can get about revenue. It doesn't matter if the frame is rusted, windows need to be replaced, if a car leaks oil like a drippy faucet, if the brake lines are corroding--nope, some suit in an office somewhere decided that this is what the car is worth, and by God, that's what you're going to pay "tax" on.
This is the kind of shit that has happened throughout history--when the king's publicans earned the undying hatred of the great unwashed by essentially robbing people of far more than their fair share of revenue in the name of "taxes." And like ancient times, this measure hits ordinary and poor people a lot harder than anyone else. When Andy Cuomo or any of the greedy shits that seem to be getting indicted on a weekly basis in Albany need another car, they're not going to be perusing Craigslist and driving around to the area's used car lots--they're going to get a new one, and more likely than not, some lackey is going to handle the details for them anyway. God forbid that wealthy people shell out more than a quarter of their income in tax--this "liberal" state seems to operate on the proposition that everyone is looking to get over and cheat the state out of its rightful revenue.
Which is a dubious proposition at best--I'm sure that there is much chicanery that goes on among certain elements, but I also believe, from experience, that most people will do something approximating the honest way. And it's especially galling in this state, where the leaders in both houses of the legislature in the last year were forced out of office on massive corruption charges, where the senator from our district was forced to resign because of corruption, and where there have been something like two dozen lawmakers in the last four years indicted and convicted of corruption. It is hard--impossible, really--to justify the notion that the state needs this enhanced revenue stream for the greater good, not when a couple hundred lawmakers and their minions aren't even particularly secretive about grabbing from the till with both hands in a perpetual motion machine.
It's stuff like this that builds up and leads to revolutions. But unfortunately, it's not going to start in the next week, so my family is going to have to find several hundred dollars to pay, on top of the cost of the car, sales tax, at a no doubt inflated rate, because I have never seen a used car purchased from a dealer where some haggling did not take place. I am sure that the final purchase price is lower than whatever it is in the Book of Revelation Blue Book. Which means, essentially, that the state is going to help themselves to money they should not be legally entitled to.
Guess this is what they mean what they talk about "unshackling" New York.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES: #2 Kostiuchnowka, 1916 CE

If there was one battle in World War I that most people believe altered the course of history, it was the Battle of the Marne, when the initial German advance at the beginning of hostilities was halted in the vicinity of Paris. While the Marne was a significant battle, what most people overlook is that if the Germans had won at the Marne, the war would not have ended. The French government had already evacuated to Bordeaux, and while the nature of the war and possibly the end result would have been different, it is also just as likely that the war would still have ended in a German defeat. Germany simply could not win a two-front war, and all strategic planners in Europe, including those of the French, knew it. It was actually somewhat amazing that the Germans did as well as they did for four years, and did manage to knock the Russians out of the war three years into it.
But the battle with the most lasting effect of the entire First World War was not any that involved Germany. Germany ended up fighting more or less alone and did a remarkable job--but at the war's beginning, it was firmly allied to a state that had been a major player in Europe for over eight centuries--Austria, known after 1867 as Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary was not in the same league militarily as Germany--but it was not a second-rate power, either; its armed forces numbered into the several millions, and it had a front of a thousand miles to cover. It bore the brunt of fighting the ponderous but huge Russian army, and as such was expected to hold together the Eastern Front so that Germany could devote most of its efforts in the Western theater.
The Russians were incompetently led, for the most part, and so were the Austrians, so the first two years of the war saw a contest where the Russians gained ground, but the Austrians were still a cohesive army.. But the Russians did have one general that was quite brilliant, and in the summer of 1916, he got a chance to prove it. His name was Alexei Brusilov, and he is the only general of the First World War to have a campaign named after him. Simply put, the Brusilov offensive finished Austria-Hungary--not only as a military force, but essentially, after nearly a millennium, as an independent state. The shell of the country stayed in the war for two more years, but for two major reasons: 1) The Russians, during the offensive, outran their supply lines, and stopped their own momentum, and 2) Germany was forced to not only ship massive materiel and manpower to stabilize the front, but in the aftermath took over both the Austrian army and forced the government in Vienna to bow to its every demand from the summer of 1916 forward. The form of Austria remained, but its independence was gone.
And the most fundamental result of World War II, it is clear a century later, is that there is no heavyweight, major state in central Europe--well, other than Germany, which is more properly a Western nation. The other three empires that collapsed during the war all were resurrected in some form that at least approximated their former integrity--Germany, Russia, and Turkey. Not so Austria; it was reduced to a small state after the war, was swallowed by Hitler's Germany, and remains a very minor background state, in terms of strategic importance, to this day. And in some ways, Europe is still struggling to regain its equilibrium after the demise of Austria. The myriad of little countries that now permeate the map from Germany and Italy eastward to Russia were almost all part of Austria or its nemesis power the Ottoman Empire for centuries--and the conflicts and instability of the region that the fractiousness has brought to the world cannot be underestimated, and indeed is still causing issues as I write. Without Austria as a major player here, the world continues to be shaped by conflicts that it simply did not have to deal with before World War I.
Kostiuchnowka--I have deliberately avoided mentioning the specific battle because of how hard it is to spell--was the battle in what is now Poland where the army broke. In keeping with the polyglot nature of Austria-Hungary, it was Polish units that bore the brunt of the fighting, and who kept the rout from being even worse than it was--but the utter inability of Austrian central command to stanch the bleeding led to catastrophe. As I mentioned, it took German intervention to stabilize the front, and Germany, although unbelievably successful considering how thinly it was stretched as a result, could not win a fight where it was essentially the only army in in the field against several large powers. And the result of the war shaped, indelibly, the modern world.

Book Review: BROKEN PROMISE

As one of my exes used to tell me, "Linwood Barclay is the bomb." And Barclay's latest thriller, Broken Promise, does not disappoint. The protagonist of a previous Barclay book (Never Look Away) is back home, after a series of disturbing developments, and the wounds of his previous experiences hang over him like a cloud, as some truly weird things begin to happen around his cousin and cousin's family. As usual in a Barclay novel, there are some reasonably in-depth explorations of a topical issue--in this case, the economic decline of the Northeast--coupled with a convoluted but logically consistent plot. However, a flaw that Barclay has displayed before crops up again here--he has trouble resolving his plot lines sometimes, and the ending here is a bit of a letdown, in that suddenly one of the villains suddenly becomes someone with an insatiable bloodlust, leaving to a somewhat unrealistic body count. Unlike previous Barclay books, too, there is clearly a sequel coming here, as one of the subplots is not resolved at all in this book. Still, this is first-rate suspense fiction, and as much as I am beginning to have issues with Barclay's tendencies recently, I will always grab his novels as soon as they are available, because his stories are that riveting. And I especially like the ones set in the fictional Promise Falls, which is a very thinly disguised version of Glens Falls and upstate New York; it is almost as if he is writing books about my own area. There is a lot of identification with the setting, and much of the motivations and circumstances are ones that this reader can keenly understand.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES; #3 Sedan 1870 CE

As this list descends into our own times, it becomes harder to discern what was historically important from "it was a big deal at the time." This will be illustrated more clearly in tomorrow's post, but this battle, Sedan, is on this list for two reasons, even though the war it was a part of was a relatively minor conflict compared to many that have come afterward. And both developments had a huge impact on the world in succeeding generations, down to the present day.
Seen from this distance, the outcome of the war between a newly enlarged Prussia and France seems predestined. But at the time, it was a complete shock. The world had bought into the propaganda machine of Louis Napoleon, emperor of France, who titled himself Napoleon III upon seizing unfettered power in 1851.He was a poor imitation of his namesake uncle, and in 1870, after a recent debacle in Mexico and a stalemate in newly united Italy over the Papal States, the position of France as the preeminent power in Europe, although taken for granted, was in fact precarious. And the Prussia (not quite yet Germany) of Bismarck had rather quickly grown to giant status, and Bismarck intentionally goaded the French into a war over a contrived diplomatic insult. Sedan was the decisive, though not final, battle in the conflict, in which the Prussians took Napoleon prisoner and routed the French army to the point where it was inoperable. The Prussians occupied Paris, imposed a peace treaty that took Alsace and Lorraine from France and created the German Empire, rather provocatively in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The lasting impact was twofold. One was that, after 1500 years Sedan finally put paid to the French monarchy. Although the Revolution and the period before Louis Napoleon had seen republican government, there was always a substantial monarchist element in France. Although it would be a few decades before it entirely subsided, the monarchists never again came close to claiming power in the country again. France, even after the ascension of Germany, was the bellweather state of Europe, and a France that was firmly republican served as a beacon and an example for nascent democrats  in other European states in a way that Great Britain, with its peculiarly English institutions, never could  Although much of Europe even today consists of constitutional monarchies, the actual political system of those nations models that of republican France, with coalition politics rather than a straight two-party system like the British (and American) model.
The second impact was the permanent creation, almost eleven hundred years after Charlemagne, of a state that encompassed most of the geographical region of "Germany." And again, the effect has had manifest effects on our world. The two world wars would not have been possible without a German state as a player, but even now, Germany is first among equals in Europe politically, and a Europe without Germany at its center seems unthinkable, even ludicrous, to modern people. Bismarck's creation was not necessarily destined to outlive Bismarck before Sedan, and if somehow Prussia had lost this war, it is entirely possible that all the formerly independent duchies and mini-states that had allied with Prussia rather uneasily would have backed out of the union. Instead, the four South German states that joined the war on Prussia's side agreed to join the new Empire, and the German Empire of 1871 is only slightly bigger than the Germany of today, despite Germany's having lost two titanic world conflicts. The victory at Sedan cemented the bonds of the German nation into a political unit, and the world truly has not been the same since.

Book Review: EMPIRE OF SELF

I've written about my liking for Gore Vidal on several occasions in this space. Three years after his death, a part of Vidal's rather large circle of acquaintances, writer Jay Parini, has authored an extensive biography, more or less in chronological order, The title, Empire of Self, captures Vidal perfectly. There were and are few people on earth that could compare with Vidal's narcissism, and yet the central conflict of Vidal was his raw insecurity, his obsessive need to have others pay attention to him. To that end, over his sixty year career, Vidal hammered home not only his views in his work, but took advantage of every possible way to get media exposure as well. His attention-seeking would have been comical if he had not been brilliant at best and interesting even when not.
Vidal's career output is extensively detailed, and I was rather surprised to learn that I read all the books he ever put out. Parini writes dispassionately, like the critic he is, about each and every one of the books, and I admit that I grew to respect his opinions by the end of this book, forcing me to revisit my own shelves and reassess some of Vidal's later work. Parini's own view is that Vidal's main talent, his shining star, was his mastery of the essay, the five-to-page treatment of a particular subject, and it's certainly hard to argue with; even when writing about a subject that interested Vidal and not the reader, the pieces he wrote kept the attention. Vidal, for all his shrill repetitiveness on the subject, also turned out, over the last forty years, to be almost dead-on correct in his assessment of corrupt and deformed American politics have become. I don't agree with all of Parini's opinions; I still think Creation was a masterpiece, and I found Duluth unreadable, to name the two biggest divergences. But the depth of knowledge about Vidal's work is impressive.
There is also a concurrent portrait of Vidal the man. And it is a fair and balanced, to use a phrase that would have sent Vidal into paroxysms of rage, picture. Vidal was insecure, drolly rude, and massively self-centered, leading to serious alcoholism at the end of his life--but also did care deeply about some of his friends, and had a large and steady circle around him for the length of his long life. The fullness of the sex life of Vidal--his more or less open homosexuality and his refusal to acknowledge himself as simply gay but instead passing himself off as "bisexual" for sixty years--is also illuminated, in rather painstaking detail, and some of his other obsessions, such as property and mansions, were news to me.
All in all, this is a fascinating book about a fascinating man that is a representative of an era that has passed--an author that could sell books and also comment cogently on the society he lives in in a "larger" sense. Book publishing today is devoid of writers that are going to be read a century from now, and Vidal is possibly the last "serious" writer that this country has produced. He wasn't always appreciated as such when in his heyday, but his importance in our literary tradition only grows as the years pass.

Monday, December 28, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES: #4 Atlanta 1864

Most Americans are reasonably familiar with the Civil War (not The War Between The States, which implies that it was something other than the treasonous rebellion that it was), and most, if pressed, can name a few of the battles that have passed into the national consciousness--Gettysburg, Bull Run, maybe even Vicksburg and Richmond. Few if any, though, will think of the one battle that finally assured the eventual Union victory, the one that spawned the famous "March to the Sea" that has wounded Southern pride and punctured Southern egos for a century and a half now--Atlanta.
Why Atlanta? Because in the summer of 1864, even after Vicksburg and Gettysburg the year before, victory was not a sure thing for the Union. There was a Presidential election coming up in a few months, and the war, grinding on and on and on, was not popular, especially since the Virginia campaign of Grant was in stalemate. There was an opposition candidate already publicly committed to peace, and there were many in the South that believed that one more victory, or just holding on until the election turned out Lincoln, would bring about a cease-fire and acknowledgment of independence. That would have been the smart move.
But the South was run by someone with more pride than brains--Jefferson Davis--and at precisely the wrong moment, he relieved the cautious but effective general in charge of defending Sherman's Georgia thrust, Joseph Johnston, of command and gave it to General John Hood. Hood was, charitably, an idiot, who generaled like he had an army four times the size of Sherman's and proceeded, in a series of ill-considered and frankly stupid attacks to disintegrate his own forces. Atlanta, not yet the capital of Georgia but the most important railroad hub in the South, was suddenly in Union hands after Hood's catastrophe.
And more importantly, Hood threw away his army in September, two months before the election. As Sherman descended to the Atlantic like an avenging angel, Lincoln's election prospects went from doubtful to certain, and in November he won reelection handily, which ensured that the war would continue to the end. Which came only four months into 1865.
This is actually one of history's most fascinating "What if?" scenarios. If Davis had left Johnston in command, it is likely that he would have had to eventually abandon Atlanta--but he certainly would have done so with his army intact (indeed, put back in charge after Atlanta by Davis, Johnston pulled together the routed remnants and had the South's last army, one that did not surrender until a few weeks after Lee gave up and Lincoln himself was dead), and he might have delayed Sherman until after the election. And if Lincoln had lost, a Union headed by George McClellan probably would have stopped fighting and made terms with the South. Obviously, North America with a Confederate States occupying the lower regions of the now-USA would have changed the course of history in nearly indescribable fashion. Since the United States of America, for better or worse, has been the most influential nation on earth for a century or so, the battle that ended its fratricidal conflict--in favor of the good guys-- has to rank as one of the more important battles of all time.

Winter Arriving

We are now a week into the winter of 2015-16. It's beginning to seem a lot like the winter of four years ago--the one where I had both feet operated on and was able to go outside without interruption, even with two open shoes and bandages that absolutely could not get wet, because it was warm and snowless until well into March. I can also recall 2007, when the first and only real snowfall came on Valentine's Day.
This year's defining image is going to be the Brussels sprouts. Most years, I plant Brussels sprouts as part of my garden, and like most of what I plant, I usually buy two trays--twelve seedlings. There are still seven in the ground. Seven!. Because they have been there since April, this is the first year that the sprouts have looked like those that I buy in the store--most of them at least ping-pong ball sized, and the largest ones almost as big as a cat's head. They've been in the ground so long, in fact, that the leaves are yellowing and falling off, making the eventual harvesting that much easier. I don't know what happens if you actually leave them in the ground. They are considered annuals, but they are hardy--cold does not kill them, almost alone among food plants--and unlike broccoli and cabbage and cauliflower, which are their closest relatives botanically speaking, I've never seen a Brussels sprouts plant flower. It would be interesting to see what one looks like in bloom, and if I can get one to survive until spring, I may find out.
On the other hand, they may be dead tomorrow morning. We are finally getting an advisory--sleet and freezing rain, rather than significant amounts of snow, but still, a winter weather advisory. It was very strange and disconcerting to spend the Christmas weekend driving through rainstorms around here. I'm not really complaining; I don't like shoveling snow any more than most people, and I have yet to dig my heavy winter coat out of the front closet yet this year, much less wear gloves. But the dreaded I word--ice--is in the forecast, and it may be a bit messy tomorrow.
The most direct effect is going to be with my daughter's track meet, which is for 5 PM tomorrow--in Cortland. The area from Whitney Point to Cortland is one of central New York's snow belts, and what may be no more than a minor nuisance in Binghamton can be a major problem 25 miles north to drive through. All her indoor meets are at colleges some distance away--Cortland, Ithaca, Cornell. But I am very glad that she is doing another sport; not only is it better for her physically, but the way the softball program is going (apparently we are merging with Seton Catholic Central, and Lord Farquaad is stretching the rules of eligibility to the point where they are misshapen to get one of his travel team kids that actually is from another school district a spot on the Binghamton team), I really don't think it's going to be a happy two years wearing the red, white, and blue. She seems to be doing well in the field events, and she is enjoying herself immensely, which is supposed to be the point of it all anyway.
And as for myself--the funk has lifted. It was the holiday, it appears; I've felt like myself more and more with every passing hour. Today is Monday, and I have a whole new slew of jobs to apply for, chores to do, things to take care of--but the black cloud I was laboring under for weeks has definitely lifted. I even enjoyed two meetings on the weekend. The world may be full of negativity, the ground littered with trolls and those with withered spirits--but that doesn't have to be, and isn't going to be, me. More will be revealed, is being revealed, on a daily basis. But like my sprouts, I'm still standing, and it sure could be worse.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #5 Valmy 1792 CE

As far as the actual battles go, Valmy was likely the least impressive on this list. The  Prussian forces that were arrayed against the French army in 1792 at Valmy frankly didn't try too hard to win the battle; after their initial advance was repulsed, they retreated. There were less than 600 causalities on both sides; it more rightly should be considered a skirmish.
Except that, like Trenton in the American Revolution a mere 16 years before, it was the nature of the force that won that was noteworthy. The French Revolution had taken a radical turn in recent months, and the Prussians, along with all the other monarchist powers in Europe, were determined to stamp out what they viewed as an insurrection against all order and logic in the crib. It was one thing for a coalition of fractious colonies across an ocean to defeat an European power; it was another to allow a very dangerous revolution to take root on their own doorstep. The French army that repulsed the Prussians at Valmy was an irregular force of conscripts and volunteers, not a professional army.
And because of this, it provided a huge psychological boost to the French. Secure in the knowledge that they could stand up to professional soldiers, the Revolution not only took heart, but soon was on the offensive, and before a decade had passed, the French were unquestionably the strongest power in Europe, albeit with the Revolution betrayed by Napoleon by that time.
But despite the eventual slide into empire and despotism of Bonaparte, the French Revolution was the true beginning of the modern world. The American Revolution was essentially an outlier; while few in America were rich, few were desperately poor, either, and almost alone among pre-twentieth century societies, it was overwhelmingly literate, and most of the colonies had some sort of representative self-government. This was not true in France, or anywhere else except Great Britain, to a degree, and the Revolution, for better or worse, marked the point where the vast majority of people in any European country were ignored at the rulers' peril. It was a long time before another revolution would take hold, but the French Revolution absolutely was more important than the American as far as worldwide repercussions, and as an example to be emulated.
And Valmy, essentially, assured its survival. If the Prussians had won and moved on to Paris, the Revolutionary government likely would have crumbled, and the Bourbon regime would have been restored--as indeed it was nearly a quarter-century later, in an indescribably different world--by an outside power. The difference was that rather than a localized, suppressed uprising of three years duration, the Revolution was institutionalized by then. The genie was not ever to go back into the bottle completely, and although the "victory" of broad-based representative government took another 150 years before it was completed, it started at Valmy.

A Happy Day

Yesterday, something happened, or rather didn't happen, for the first time in a few weeks. I don't recall getting angry or upset even once all day long. My temper used to be a huge problem for me, but in recent years I've largely gotten it under control. In the last few weeks, I haven't been blowing up like I used to, with five-minute rants and throwing objects and even punching walls or that sort of thing. But my patience had been definitely eroding, and I found myself feeling frustrated, powerless, used, taken advantage of, etc, much more often than I would like. And it carried over to a lack of patience in some other areas, too.
But as always, there are opportunities for growth and self-reflection, too, even while we are falling short of our ideals. I did nothing that permanently altered my life, no lasting damage. I did not act out in any way, other than the occasional foul rant behind the wheel as yet another person who apparently got their drivers license from a Cracker Jack box (or during the Truman administration) committed some faux pas behind the wheel. There were the occasional sharp exchanges with my daughter, but nothing that couldn't be rectified quickly. The biggest problem with it, in fact, was the effect it had on my own psyche, my own soul. I don't like feeling frustrated, or upset, or angry.
One of my best friends told me many years ago, while I was struggling with the early part of the 12 Step process, that I needed to rein in my expectations on myself--more specifically, on how much personality change I could reasonably expect to see. "You're never going to be a mellow, hippy-dippy, happy-go-lucky type of person," he said. "And you don't have to be. All you have to do is channel the passion and the determination in a more positive direction." And I've really come to fervently believe that, as part of my own process. If one believes, as I do, that God has the major part in how all of us are created, then He knows how I am and what kind of personality I have--and I have come to believe that I am the way that I am for a reason. The challenge for me is to use the passion, the drive, the fire within me for His purposes, not mine. If everyone was mellow and quiescent, not a whole lot would get done in the world. If everyone was like me, there would be constant conflict. The proper way for me to approach my larger purpose in life is not to radically alter or fundamentally change His work; it is to use the traits I have been given in a positive fashion.
The most obvious example, and easiest for me to understand (less easy to apply, but I have made progress in this area, a lot of it), was understanding that my intelligence and ability to use the English language well was given to me for a reason. That reason was not to denigrate and marginalize others, to cause problems and dissension, and/or to use that gift to bamboozle or otherwise take advantage of other people. It is a gift to be able to see my way through problems rather quickly, to be able to see more clearly what consequences are likely to ensue from a given course of action. It is a gift to be able to express myself clearly, to be able to speak with other people and be helpful and kind and generous with time and effort, to be useful to them in ways others may not be. It is a gift (one I don't use often enough) to be able to enjoy writing and speaking, to be able to be eloquent enough that other people actually want to hear and read my opinions and listen to my experiences. For too long, I used my abilities as a club to beat others down, to make myself feel better about myself by trying to highlight the failings of others.
And I know that in the last two to three years, I have turned that around. Believe me, I still get frustrated, still get angry, still get uptight. There are times when it is hard work to remember why I have been given the abilities that I have. It is sometimes hard to maintain focus when I am not getting what I want, or what I feel like I should be getting. And with the stresses of what has been happening recently, that frustration has occasionally boiled over. I have felt, for fleeting moments, inadequate or unworthy or wronged. And when those feelings well up like molten rock through a lava tube--well, there haven't been any Krakatoan explosions, but there have been some pyroclastic flows heading down the mountain slopes fairly regularly.
But yesterday there weren't any. I think the fact that it was the day after Christmas was not entirely coincidental. Christmas for many of us is a huge stress point, a strain, and this year especially, with finances tight and personal life in upheaval, was difficult for me to feel cheery and serene. I didn't completely lose myself, but I'm not going to lie--I was glad to see it pass into history. And the proof is that the bit of a cloud I've been operating under blew away.
I feel like myself again. And maybe with that stress alleviated, I can move forward in more areas of my life.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #6 Yorktown 1781 CE

Every American knows, or should know, why the battle of Yorktown is on this list. But in case anyone does not, and for my readers that are not American (or British), Yorktown was the battle that the American rebels won that convinced the British colonial overlords that the thirteen American colonies should be granted their independence. And the importance of that grant has been of immeasurable historical importance.
The battle itself was not a tactical masterpiece, and would not have been as decisive as it was if the French fleet had not had the York peninsula blockaded, cutting off the Britsh army from any hope of resupply. The British had failed in their New England and New York campaigns earlier in the Revolution, but had found considerable success moving northwards from Georgia, and if they had been able to regain control of Virginia, the largest and most populous colony, there was actually a good chance that the northern colonies would be brought back to heel, eventually, as well. But the loss of General Cornwallis' entire army--they were let go on parole, and people took such notions seriously at that time and place--secured the cessation of hostilities, and even though the peace treaty confirming independence took two years to negotiate, independence was an acknowledged fact after Yorktown.
235 years later, it is impossible to discern what a radical, huge development this was. Examples of successful colonial rebellions in the entire history of the world were very thin on the ground in 1781, and since the Americans, if anything, had it better than almost any other colonials ever had, much of the world paid very close attention to what was happening in North America. And the fact is that much of the rest of the Western Hemisphere was independent within a generation, and all the leaders of those rebellions were quite open about their debt to the English colonies for showing the way out of oppression. What is ironic is that, absent Napoleon, the British may well have taken control of the eastern seaboard again after the War of 1812--which was a "draw" for the Americans only because the British, after fifty years of near-constant warfare, could not bring themselves to make the full effort to reconquer the land. The United States of America, of course, became the most important country on earth for much of the twentieth century, and obviously that would not have happened if not for Yorktown.
But there is another aspect to Yorktown that hardly ever gets mentioned. Both the Revolution and the War of 1812 were not binary struggles--there were dozens of combatants, because most of the American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River were involved in the wars. And the fact that the British lost the American Revolution and did not press the advantage in the War of 1812 spelled the eventual end of hundreds of years of Indian control of what is now the United States and Canada. The British weren't perfect in their control of their North American possessions--but they were a lot better disposed toward the natives than the colonists were. And in both conflicts, many Indian tribes lost their land and their populations because they chose to back the British. If Yorktown had not taken place, the map of what is now the USA might very well resemble the maps of Europe and Africa, with dozens of independent smaller nations over a huge landmass.
And lastly, Yorktown obviously saved the nascent American nation--but it also saved the bacon and historical reputation of two Virginians that were in more or less disgrace at the end of 1780: George Washington had one major victory (Trenton, which I almost put on this list) and a host of defeats in six years as commander in chief. If he had been forced to retreat northward from Virginia, it is highly doubtful he would have remained in command. And Thomas Jefferson had, simply, made an absolute hash out of being governor of Virginia, He was sent to France to help negotiate the peace treaty because there were more than a few people that thought he should be executed for cowardice and/or treason, because he essentially abandoned ship when the Britsh army came into Virginia.
Yorktown led directly to the existence of the United States of America, and for that reason is one of the most influential battles that ever took place. We may not be as important as we think we are, and we're not as powerful as we once were--but the USA is still the world's most important nation, and the dominant military force of the globe. A world without it in existence is next to impossible to contemplate.

Post-Holiday Thoughts

All day yesterday, it felt less like a holiday than like a Sunday. I don't know why, really, but I do know I was not the only one that felt that way. And this morning, with much of the world re-opening for business at 6 or 8 o'clock, feels like Monday to me, even though it is only a Saturday.
I remember when the day after Christmas used to be a bigger deal than Black Friday. And I have no doubt that many stores will be a zoo today, as people exchange gifts that weren't right or that they didn't like or whatever. For the first time, I am going to brave the crowds myself; I will be down at Walmart in less than an hour. I'm not exchanging a gift; I'm going to be returning a printer cartridge I bought recently that I discovered that I did not need, and I am going today because I discovered last night that my DVD player no longer works. I figure as bad as it might be at 6 AM or close to it, it will be a lot worse at 10 AM or the middle of the day, and I'm not looking for anything spectacular--I'm guessing I can get a simple player for $40-50, and I'm not quite so destitute that I can't afford that, especially since Sabrina is contributing some to the cause.
Sabrina has track practice this morning at 10, which works out well because I can take in the 10 AM meeting. I've been slacking off on meetings, as I mentioned earlier in the week, but one of the things I realized in the last few days is that as funky as I feel some days is a reason to double down on the things that are helpful in my life, like meetings. My situation hasn't changed dramatically in the last few days, but I am trying like hell to turn around my attitude, and as others keep reminding me, there are many people that have it worse than I do, many that I didn't know about. The guy that lives upstairs hasn't been around much in recent weeks, and he told me last week during one brief foray here that his mother is sick in Syracuse. But yesterday, driving away from the house, I noticed something taped to the door; I stopped and looked at it, and it was a final shutoff notice from NYSEG for his apartment. I may be struggling, but so far, I'm not delinquent on anything. It was a rather jarring reminder that I don't really have it so bad.
The world went on its way yesterday, too, for better or worse--and for some, it was definitely worse. The worst thing that happened to us yesterday was that we couldn't watch Sabrina's new movie last night; it will have to wait until this afternoon or tonight or even tomorrow, because my sister is coming to town with her kids today and we will be there for some length of time. As problems go, that's pretty minor. And there's still job searches to be done, and forms to be filed, and processes to be gone through, and dopey people around us (I couldn't believe how worked up some of the trolls got on the TV station website about deer hunting season yesterday. I really don't care about hunting and hunters one way or the other, but someone was frothing at the mouth because there wasn't a bumper crop of dead ruminants, and claimed that all protections and restrictions should be lifted because, goddammit, we need to kill more of them because if we don't, coyotes will eat our cats. You can't make it up).
And one good sign. We got home yesterday right around dark--and I did not see one Christmas tree on the curb. It's a minor thing, but that has always bugged the crap out of me, that people can't even wait until the Day After Christmas to throw out their tree. And I'm sure there are a few out there. But I didn't see them.
Off to brave Wally World.

Friday, December 25, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST INFLUENTIAL BATTLES: #7 Poltava 1709 CE

Before I get into the details of why Poltava was so important, the more observant of you might have noticed that there is a rather significant gap--nearly 450 years--between Ain Jalut and this battle. The only longer gap on this list is between Teutoburg Forest and Navahand, and that was because I chose not to include two battles, Adrianople and Orleans, that make a lot of these kinds of lists because they didn't fundamentally alter the political landscape in a permanent way--the Eastern Roman Empire survived for another 1100 years after Adrianople, and Orleans merely turned back the most famous "barbarian," Attila the Hun, without delaying the eventual fate of the Western half of the empire by even one generation. The four and a half centuries between Ain Jalut and Poltava were marked by nearly incessant conflict all around the globe. I almost included the fall of Constantinople in 1453 on the list, but the Byzantine Empire had long since ceased to be viable, and Manzikert was much more important than the eventual date of the fall. Tamerlane broke the back of a couple of Mongol states, but internecine conflict had already weakened the khanates long before he came along. And Europe was wracked by literally dozens of wars for dozens of causes and reasons during the time frame--but while some of those wars and battles had important results, none led to fundamental, lasting change in the European political or, even though so much of the conflict was religious-based, social culture. It really was a waste on a colossal scale of men, resources, and wealth. The one battle I came closest to including in this list was actually a New World conflict, that of Tenochtitlan between the Aztecs and the forces of Cortes in 1521; without this victory, the takeover of the Americas by European powers might have taken a much longer time. However, given the sweeping nature of the epidemics of smallpox and other diseases that the Europeans brought with them to the New World, that conquest would have eventually taken place.
Poltava was different. Poltava is a city in what is now Ukraine and was, in 1709, part of a large but weak Poland. But Poland was not a combatant in the battle; it was the climax of the Great Northern War, which pitted the nation that had been the dominant political and military force in northern and non-Catholic Europe for over a century, Sweden (yes, Sweden) against the rising power of a huge Russian state. Russia had been recovering from the Mongol depredations for two centuries, and had been gathering territory at a steady rate for a century and a half. But under Peter the Great, Russia turned westward and southward, looking for access to maritime trade and for more wealth. Sweden controlled the Baltic and the wealthy northern German towns that used to form the Hanseatic League, and so conflict with Russia was nearly inevitable after Peter started building St. Petersburg as Russian's new capital on the Gulf of Finland.
Sweden at the time was ruled by Charles XII, an excellent general who won a string of spectacular victories in the war's first years. But Charles was the first on a list that would eventually include Napoleon and Hitler, in that the vast open spaces of Russia and the inclement weather, combined with his own hubris, caused him to overreach his supplies and lose the initiative, and the Russians thoroughly routed him and his army at Poltava in 1709. It was a blow that forever, or at least for three centuries and counting, changed not only the regional balance of power, but affected that of Europe and the world as a whole, as well.
It consolidated Russia's position as a European power, and ensured that the Ottoman Empire would come under increasing pressure in the decades and centuries to come. It meant that Eastern Europe was no longer the province of only Prussia and Austria to meddle in, and within a century the long-established Polish kingdom would cease to exist entirely. And it led to a grudging truce between Catholic and Protestant Europe, as an Orthodox power suddenly made both aware, painfully late, that the religious affiliations of populations weren't as important as national integrity. It also ensured that the Orthodox populations of the Balkans would not subsumed, when the Ottoman power receded, into Catholicism; indeed, today, there are almost as many Orthodox churches as there are nations in Eastern Europe. That probably wouldn't have occurred if Austria and Prussia and even Sweden, which is Protestant as well, had been able to govern parts or all of the region.
And most of all, Poltava made Peter legitimate to the aristocracy of his own country. His myriad, far-reaching changes in just about every aspect of Russian society had met with significant resistance, and if Russia had lost Poltava and been defeated by Charles, all his work and reforms and changes would likely have been reversed, a forgotten footnote on the order of Akenhaton in ancient Egypt. Instead, it gave him an iron grip on his own society, and dragged a somewhat unwilling Russia out of its insularity and onto the world stage as a leading player. It has never really left it since, and has never slid into the background for long, either.

Christmas 2016

I remember the first Christmas we lived in this house--eight years ago, doesn't seem possible. And knowing that the possibility of my daughter still being asleep at 5:40AM were remote at best. And bringing everything out of the little used storage room in the basement because that was the only part of the house my then-8YO, who still believed in Santa but also knew that there was stuff from Dad hidden in the house, didn't find some excuse to go into over the previous month.
Christmas is a different animal now. Not better, not worse, just different. I got up at 5:15 because of a ding from a Facebook notification on my smart phone. My daughter will likely rouse herself in about 90 minutes because we are supposed to go over my mother's for breakfast (that never seems to be different on holidays). She bought more presents for people than I did this year, and I just lugged out the stuff I got her and put it under the tree--unwrapped (we ran out of paper here a few days ago, and I thought to myself that there was no crying need to buy something I can get for 75% off in a week and not have to worry about for the next three years afterward. It's not like there's a whole lot under the tree anyway; catcher's gear, an equipment bag, a CD, batting gloves, and a movie. And honestly, with her, being unemployed for the last two months didn't make a whole lot of difference; there was enough socked away to get her what she really wanted without distress). She will be happy when she sees it, but she knows it's coming, too.
As I said, it's different. And although the little element of magic is no longer present, the spirit of Christmas still is. Sabrina is the center of my life, even more than Rachel and Jessica (who will be at my mother's), and the love I feel for her is indescribable and all-encompassing. But I have a lot of people that I feel a lot of love for, and in some way, I've managed to convey that to them in the last few weeks, changed economic circumstances notwithstanding. I have taken "Peace on earth, and goodwill toward men" much more seriously in the past few years, and it does make my life more bright and more fulfilling. The last year has been a struggle--financially, vocationally, romantically. And yet I have not lost myself or materially changed who I am, and all of those areas can and will change, are possibly already. And another phrase, from our fellowship's literature, has been front and center the last few days--"Where there has been wrong, the program teaches us the spirit of forgiveness." I spent two hours yesterday in a place I never thought I'd set foot in again, and spend a long time on the phone last night with someone that a month ago I was sure I never wanted to talk to again. And I feel better and lighter in the spirit for having done so, and for helping ease the burdens, at least temporarily, of a very troubled soul. And that was just one example of something that I've been doing, and have had done to me, for weeks and months now.
Because regardless of job status, health of bank statement, in a relationship or with whom--the ultimate message of Christmas is that we, even if we don't think so or like to remember, are all in this together. Even if you believe in an afterlife, we still have obligations to each other to make this world as good a place as we can make it--and we can't live it or do it by ourselves. And as up-and-down as I have been, I've gotten through and am getting through a rougher-than-usual patch because of all of you, and I know I am helping others walk through their journeys too. I commented on Facebook yesterday that as much as my self-absorption wants me to focus on the mirror, there are a lot of people going through much worse than I am. I have friends that have had family members die in the last week. One of my friends' dog died yesterday. I have several friends with chronic physical maladies that sap their strength and confine their range of motion. There are those I know and care about who are paying for mistakes in jails and institutions.There are those I care about that are unable to escape the hell of active addiction. There are some dealing with broken hearts. There are others with private struggles. And that doesn't even take into account national and global concerns, those at war or affected by war or who are dealing with natural catastrophe or any of a dozen other problems and concerns.
And yet the day arrives, and the message remains the same. Peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It will not bring the dead back to life, or heal the infirm, or bring the incarcerated home early, or kick the addiction for anyone, or make hearts whole again, or end the conflicts around the world. But on an individual basis, it can make our lives more manageable, our spirits more buoyant--and ourselves happier. I can't lie; I have been less than jolly for most of the season. But I have never lost complete sight of the big picture, and I have still done my part to spread the goodwill and the greetings of the season, even when I was feeling less than spectacular about the way my life is going.
I am happy to have done so. And on this morning, enjoying a nice cup of coffee and spreading a positive message on a day that celebrates the birth of one of the most positive and influential people that has ever walked this planet, I am not only doing my part, but I am feeling content about doing so. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES # 8 Ain Jalut 1260 CE

This is probably the most obscure battle on this list--and for that reason deserves to be included all the more. That I am writing about it on Christmas Eve, in the middle of the most prolonged period of religious bigotry in my memory (with most of it aimed at Muslims), and disdain and victim-blaming for the downtrodden at high volume as well, makes it an even more appropriate choice. And for a third dose of affinity, this is the one battle on this list that actually took place in the Holy Land itself. Ain Jalut was the Arab name for Jezreel, a town mentioned often in the Old Testament and only a few miles from Nazareth, where Jesus himself called home.
Up until this battle, there was an army on the march that had conquered almost all of Eurasia and showed no signs of being stopped. The Mongols were something unimaginable to the modern mind. Coming out of nowhere, demanding surrender, capable of barbarism that even the most sadistic despots in history had not resorted to if defied, they seemed like a scourge sent by a very vengeful deity. Not just villages and armies, but entire empires vanished in a blink of an eye when the Mongols passed through, and they were made even more alien by the fact that they weren't all that interested in plundering or worldly goods, either. By 1260, there were precious few armed forces capable of resistance to the Mongols in the world, and none of the vanquished had come close to defeating them. Which made the result of Ain Jalut even more shocking.
Mamluk is an Arabic word meaning "slave." For over a century, the caliphs based in Cairo, Egypt, had been taking (mostly) Christian children in childhood and training them to be the best soldiers in the world--while continuing to treat them like slaves. Only ten years before Ain Jalut, the slave army had turned on its alleged masters and taken control of the sultanate of Egypt; a second group of Mamluks took control of what is now Palestine. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, and continued west, demanding submission from the Damascus-based sultan, who killed the Mongol envoys instead. The Mamluks caught a break when the Great Khan, based in Mongolia, died, and a detachment of the army left the area. But no one anticipated that an army of slave-born fighters could stop a force that steamrolled every army it had ever faced.
It did not defeat this one. The Mamluks, reinforced by their compatriots in Egypt, and by a newly invented firearm called "hand cannons" (one of the first gun-type devices) instead surrounded the Mongols in the valley of Jezreel. And the Mongols took a beating breaking out of it, and then unwisely returned to battle after reforming their ranks--and got annihilated. Only a few survivors made their back to Baghdad, and the world waited with bated breath for the response.
But it never came. The death of the Great Khan had unleashed several internecine rivalries, and the Mamluks never had to fight the Mongols again. While the Mongols did not go away completely for centuries, their expansion in this part of the world was checked, and the Mamluk sultanate was accepted by other Islamic powers as legitimate, something that was not going to happen without the invasion of the Mongols.
If the Mongols had not been stopped, it is possible that the Islamic hegemony over much of the Middle East would have dissipated or been greatly weakened. And the Mongols were not kind overlords of any area they governed, with the possible exception of China. There are many that interpreted Russian history, as it has unfolded, as an abused child reenacting its own abuse as a grownup; the way the Mongols ruled Russia for centuries makes this a viable hypothesis. And Iran, India, and Central Asia did not fare much better. That an Islamic culture was able to survive and thrive has had a great effect on the world we live in. And the Mamluks survived into the day of Napoleon, maintaining a distinctly Egyptian identity even as nominal suzerainty was ceded to the Ottoman Turks when they irrupted out of the east a century later. And if the Trumps, Cruz', and other religious bigots running for President of the United States today have an issue with Islam--well, Islam is a hippie, psychedelic culture compared to that the Mongols brought in their wake. The world, it is safe to say, benefited from their defeat in the Jezreel Valley 750 years ago.

Feeling Like I'm Looking Through The Department Store Window

After further consideration, I have decided that what was up here before was a little too much of a downer. So bottom line, it's Christmas Eve, and I"m going to act like it.  Much to do today, and miles to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #9 Manzikert 1071 CE

The one existing political entity that weathered (although in a diminished state) the Arabic storm at the dawn of Islam was what we call now the Byzantine Empire. However, they did not view themselves as "Byzantine;" they called themselves and regarded themselves as what had already been in existence for well over a thousand years at the time of Mohammad--Roman. And although after the year 700 or so the "empire" was largely confined to Anatolia and some of the Balkans--that's still a pretty substantial realm, and on occasion there were expansions into some of their former territories in the Black Sea littoral and the the upper Middle East. And as the caliphates began to creak with age, there was many in Constantinople that believed that Rome was eternal, and that the natural order of the world, which had been in temporary abeyance during the Muslim advent, would swing back into being.
In the eleventh century, the Abbasid caliphate became aware of a rising warrior tribe in what is now Central Asia, and began to employ them as mercenaries against some of their problem subjects in Persia. But the Seljuk Turks were not destined to be vassals of any other empire, and soon conquered the Caucasus and what is now northern Iraq and Syria. And it was through these forays that the Byzantines, in the middle of a period where their leadership was badly lacking, turned their attention to the new threat from the east.
And got their butts kicked, to the point where the Byzantine emperor Romanos Diogenes was captured. The Turks released him after a week, but the peace terms gave the Anatolian heartland--today's Turkey--to the invaders. And this was the true significance of Manzikert; there would not be a significant Christian territorial presence on the Asian continent again, until the rise of Russia six centuries later, and there has not been, to this date, one in the Middle East or close environs. And although the Byzantine Empire survived for another four hundred years, it would be on the defensive, fighting off decay and predators from all directions, for the length of its remaining history. In fact, it probably would not have survived the Mongols had the Mongols attempted to go after it. The Seljuks established the first Turkish state centered on Anatolia; they were not as fortunate as the Romans and were crushed by the Mongols, and the Turks that eventually took Constantinople were Ottoman, not Seljuk.
But it is impossible to really underestimate what a crushing defeat of "Rome" meant to those living in that world. Byzantine armies (and before them, Roman) had lost battles before, but never in 1100 years had an emperor been captured, and never had the heartland of the empire been lost before. And the conquest of Constantinople, which even in the first decades after Mohammad had seemed like an unattainable goal, suddenly became possible--and the aim of several invading armies in the centuries to come (the first that succeeded was a Christian army--the Fourth Crusade). And the psychological tether that was "Rome" was shaken badly, and in some aspects the world has not recovered its equilibrium. Rome had existed for eighteen hundred years at the time of Manzikert, and had been top dog in the world, at least at this end of it, for thirteen hundred of those years. It was literally unfathomable to even the most ambitious generals and rulers of that time that "Rome" could cease to exist before Manzikert, but after, it not only became imaginable, but in a short period, became just a matter of time.
And the road to the modern world could not truly be built until the ties to the world of antiquity could be completely cut. As long as there was an viable, major entity calling itself the Roman Empire--and there was a direct link to the classical civilization of Rome embodied in it--was in existence, that old, old world could still be considered alive. And after Manzikert, that day became inevitable.

Book Review: THE SPIRAL NOTEBOOK

The Spiral Notebook is journalists' Stephen and Joyce Singular's attempt to chronicle a trial that took over three years to happen--that of James Holmes, the Aurora theater shooter. But while they wrote of the endless delays and legal maneuvering that took place, the book turned into a rather dark and definitely jolting look into why so many mass shootings take place in this country. To people of my generation, it is a bit of a mystery, even with permissive gun laws and such--but the real answer, at least among the younger set (who tend to commit most of these acts of massacre) is that the question we used to hear when I was a kid about whether violence in games and media affected development has been answered--a resounding "yes." There are quotes and interviews with young people throughout the book, and the level of violence in movies, TV, and especially video games, combined with a country that has been at war for a generation and shows no signs of ever being at peace, has essentially not only desensitized our youth to violence, but as come to be seen as a normal and even heroic response. And the second big factor seems to be what us soft liberals have been warning about for years--there is no real hope, in today's world, of finding meaning and purpose and comfort for today's youth when they become adults. Economic affluence is becoming out of reach, and the political system is not responsive to hardly anyone's needs, so the dark fantasies that fuel portrayals of fictional characters like the Joker in the Batman movies are what some young people gravitate to. Blend in additional ingredients such as the damaging effects of psych meds from an early age and the cultural message that ignoring painful stimuli is the only acceptable coping response, and we have an entire generation of people that are increasingly unstable that believe they have an excuse and even a right to indiscriminately kill others, especially since they've been playing games that ratchet up huge body counts since they were tots and essentially do not see flesh-and-blood people as real anymore.
This is a profoundly disturbing book, and especially for those of us with children. With so many massacres in the news recently, this is as topical a subject as ever, and unfortunately, this is going to be a major issue for years and decades to come. Especially with so many people in positions of responsibility either afraid to change the status quo or that are  benefiting from it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #10: Tours 732 CE

Tours and Nahavand are another pair of bookend battles. The latter announced the arrival of the Arab armies infused with the vigor of a new faith upon the world stage. Tours, however, insured that Western Europe, still in a state of flux after the collapse of Roman civilization a few centuries before, did not become a part of the already-huge caliphate that stretched from Spain to Burma. It also served notice to the already fractious collections of petty kingdoms and small states occupying Western and Central Europe that the Franks, relative latecomers among those tribes that had scavenged the carcass of the western half of the Roman Empire, were going to be, if not a hegemon in the region, at least first among equals--something France has been, with rare and short-lived exceptions, in Europe more or less ever since.
The history of the Arab conquests, for a hundred years after the death of Mohammed, had no setbacks, no defeats. The realm of the caliph had stretched unchecked throughout the entire African Mediterranean littoral, crossed over to Europe, and had taken control of Iberia as well, establishing a presence in Spain that would last seven centuries (to gain an appreciation of how long that is, it has only been five and a quarter centuries since they were driven out in 1492, the same year Columbus set sail). There was no real reason to suppose that their march would stop there, either. The kingdom of the Franks had been strong in the days of Clovis, but two centuries had passed, with multiple divisions of landholdings among children, to the point where the Merovingian dynasty kings had been reduced to puppets, essentially, of their warlords. Charles Martel was the most prominent when the Muslims arrived, and the defense of the realm fell to him and the forces he could muster. Tours is in northern France, and the Muslims had actually conquered and sacked Aquitaine prior to heading north. The battle turned, according to some chroniclers, when a rumor spread through the Muslim forces that the haul of treasure they had gotten from Aquitaine was under threat; in any event, the force was defeated thoroughly and chased back across the Pyrennes into Spain. Charles Martel used the victory as a way to establish control of the southern part of France, too.
If Charles Martel sounds vaguely familiar to some of you, it is because he was the father of Charlemagne. Charles, shortly after Tours, deposed the last Merovingian and took the Frankish throne for himself. If "Merovingian" sounds familar to some of you, it is because it is the royal dynasty, according to several alternative history authors, that was descended from the children of Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene (the basis for The Davinci Code and similar thrillers a decade ago). And Charlemagne established an empire that encompassed most of modern France, Germany, and Austria, and the conglomeration, known as the Holy Roman Empire, survived in one form or another, in name, until it was formally abolished by Napoleon, a mere thousand and six years after Charlemagne was crowned. It is safe to say that none of this would have happened without the results of Tours, and European--world history, too, for that matter--would have been unimaginably different if France had not grown to maturity. Christianity, too, at least the Roman Catholic part of it, may well have been extirpated if the Muslim advance had not been arrested; the Frankish kingdom was the last significant and unified obstacle that the Arab armies were going to face until they got to Poland. It is safe to assume that most of France and at least part of Germany and Austria would have become Muslim in the wake of an Arab victory at Tours, and the historical ramifications of that would have also changed history drastically.
One oddity about the battle is that is called "Tours" at all; it took place a lot closer to Poiters than Tours. But since Poiters was never reached by the Arabs, Tours was given the name of the battle, which turned out well for historians when a significant battle of the Hundred Years War was fought at Poiters six hundred years later. But under whatever name, it is number ten on this list chronologically--but probably should be considered one of the three or four most important battles that ever occured, because the entire world would have been vastly different had the outcome been something other than it was.

Post-Traumatic Shopping Disorder

Yesterday, I completed my truncated Christmas shopping by going to Target. In the afternoon. Four days before Christmas. I am hoping that the trauma heals quickly. Seriously, I normally either shop in places like Barnes and Noble or do my Christmas shopping early in the day; I can't remember going in full midday rush in several years. Nor am I likely to do so for several years more.
For starters, Target is about four miles away from my house, across the river. And the backed-up traffic for the exit lane to get on the parkway that leads to the shopping plazas that house Target and, further up the road, Walmart extended all the way back to the bridge. Fortunately, we've been having weather normally associated with October here for months--about fifty degrees during the day, no precipitation, and the forecast high for Christmas Eve is supposed to be near 70--and so my bridge willies didn't come into play. But my impatience behind the wheel did, as the line moved slower than it should have because it seemed like every third driver was sending out texts. About being stuck in traffic, no doubt...
Once on the parkway, traffic moved reasonably well once past the intersection by Binghamton University, and I got lucky when I was able to turn into the Target Plaza light on a yellow--well, pink--light. I knew I was going to have to park a long ways away, and I did--but not without having to deal with that most annoying of human subspecies, the fool that will spend ten minutes driving around a parking lot looking for a spot fifteen yards closer to the store who is so focused on the line of cars that he/she is truly a menace to pedestrians. Fortunately, most of these people were born when Hoover or FDR was President, and so they are only moving around three miles an hour--but still, walking across a parking lot should not be an agility test worthy of the Olympic trials.
Approaching the store entrance, every cliche about the American shopping experience was on full view. There was the couple with a shopping cart filled to overflowing with boxes of things--there were a pots/pans set and queen size comforter bag clearly visible, so I will refrain from making snarky comments about electronic geegaws (not that one is likely to purchase those at Target, with a Best Buy across the street). There was the harried woman with a befuddled looking toddler seated the shopping cart, and two older kids (why weren't they in school? Who knows) spazzing out at her feet, looking for all the world like terriers nipping at her heels. There was the older man moving at a snail's pace, and an older couple accomplishing a physical impossibility by moving in four directions at once, at a strategic chokepoint that inconvenienced the maximum number of people possible. There was the distracted professional-looking woman on a cell phone wobbling on heels just a litttttle too high for comfortable walking. There were the Asian college students trying to enter through the exit doors, which at Target seriously gums up the entire dynamic. And once inside the store, there were the gawkers at Target's dollar bin, which caused those of us with baskets to pirouette around them and those with carts to have to pause until the gawkers were satisfied that no, they did not need scratch pads with Elsa from Frozen on them or an eight-color pen that look like some nightmare tool of a proctologist.
I was headed for the electronics section of the store, which in our Target is in the back of the place, so I got to see all of American crass consumerism on display. Lots of dazed-looking people were looking like they were trying to walk off a holiday dinner. In the electronics section, I surprisingly found two of the four things my daughter had put on the recently-revised list of things she might like--Target is notorious for never having in stock the items that various artists in the music industry put out that are available at Target only. My too-good-to-be-true feeling was validated, however, by the fact that all three people working behind the counter in electronics--Large, Larger, and Largest--all clearly had been working since 7 AM and long since ceased to even pretend that they gave a shit upon providing even a facsimile of cheerful customer service. All three studiously avoided eye contact, even though none were obviously waiting on other customers, and my patience for the charade ended when Larger finally looked up at me--and deliberately and slowly walked out from behind the counter to tend to some urgently needed restocking of an Xbox game. I decided that I would purchase my items at the front of the store.
The journey back to the fronts was entertaining. I witnessed two vignettes of senior citizen grandmotherly types reading the descriptions of board games off the back of the box to what appeared to be their adult children at the helm of carts, both looking shell-shocked and clearly wishing to be anywhere else and in any other company. I saw another couple of men in the women's clothing section, obviously not having any idea of what might be appropriate--or perhaps trying to decide whether their marriage would survive their purchasing an accurate-sized item. Approaching the front registers, there was another cluster of young college-age types, apparently home for the holiday, all merrily texting away without, surprisingly, causing much traffic problems. I did notice, when I joined the express line, that two young women standing no more than four feet apart were apparently texting each other; one started laughing uproariously and made eye contact with the other, who grinned sheepishly.
The lines were thick with people, but moved surprisingly quickly--until I got to the register. I paid in cash, an action not only increasingly rare, but viewed by some cashiers as an action equivalent to wearing a taqiyah and loudly proclaiming "Alluah Akbar! Long live ISIS" while brandishing a weapon. I soon found out why my particular cashier treated the transaction like she was trying to clean up after a dog with diarrhea; her cash drawer only opened after four bangs with a closed fist and a muttered but audible curse. The trip out of the store was somewhat adventurous, too, as a toddler had escaped the proximity of his mother and was gleefully making a break for freedom as she shrieked "Stop!" from the vicinity of the registers. A Target employee corralled the boy just as he was making it to open air, earning some profuse thanks from the mother as I exited the building. The way home was considerably worse than the drive in; I ended up taking a shortcut through the Staples lot to get on Old Vestal Road so that I didn't have to spend what appeared to be at taking least twenty minutes waiting to get on the ramp to the bridge by the BU campus.
I am glad that I only have to do this once a year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #11 Nahavand, 642 CE

Nahavand is the most obscure battle on this list. Its historical significance cannot be overlooked, though, and much of what is in today's headlines owes its current provenance to the outcome of this battle.
After the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great perished at the hand of Alexander the Great, two successor empires arose, in time, that were based in modern Iran. The Parthians were locked into rivalry with Rome for four hundred years, two hundred on each side of year zero, and the Sassanids succeeded the Parthians in 224 CE and ruled for another four hundred. The empire was flourishing on its four hundredth anniversary, but two decades later, it had ceased to exist. How did this happen?
Those of you that are sharp might have noticed that there is another significant year zero shortly before the date of Nahavand--the beginning of the Muslim calendar. And the Arabs that were erupting out of Arabia, fresh with the zeal of the religion they believed was revealed to Mohammad, claimed Sassania as its first prominent victim.
The Sassanian emperor of the time did not take the initial reports of Arab armies on the march seriously, and when some initial skirmishes in the border areas went against the home team, he resolved to crush the threat once and for all. He raised a large imperial army, and met the Arabs near Nahavand, a still-existing city in western Iran a few hours east of the Iraqi border. Accounts of what actually happened in the battle itself vary--Arab sources attribute victory to valor, Persian sources to treachery--but the outcome was crystal clear; the emperor not only lost the battle, but his realm. Pockets of resistance persisted for another three decades or so, but the Sassanid Empire ceased to exist, and suddenly the newly nascent Muslims had a large country full of resources and manpower under their control. Persia/Iran, as we well know, became and has remained Muslim ever since, and is by far still the most important place on earth that practices this religion.
And having a home base that was not on the margins of civilization, as Arabia was until the last century, and having a large population now able to be recruited into their armies was a boost to the new Islamic caliphate. The conquests that followed for the next ninety years, from Spain to India, would not have been possible without Persia as a base. The Sunni/Shia split did not come until many years later, but that development, too, has had a major impact on world history, and obviously would not have come about if Persia were not Muslim to begin with. Nahavand also marked the end of Zoroastrianism as a major world religion; it has survived with meager numbers of adherents to the present day, but it has not ever mattered to any great degree since the Sassanids lost power.
But the most important result of Nahavand was that it established Islam and the Arabs carrying it to the world as a lasting and tidal force in the classical world. There have been many religions that had the promise of sweeping the world, but almost all petered out when meeting the armed forces of established religions and the states that sponsored them. Islam and the Arabs prevailed, and the world changed because of it.

Book Review: DOMESTICATED

Domesticated is science writer Richard Francis' study of how all the common animals that man has tamed for his own uses came to be tamed, and the way that evolution is working in the animal's genetics and the changes that have been wrought from their wild ancestors. The one thing that struck me when reading the book is the sheer number of domesticated animals--well over a dozen are now more or less totally dependent on humans for their survival, and even animals like racccoons and most forms of rodents have become adapted to a world dominated by humans. I also found the catloguing of differences between the wild and tamed versions of various animals fascinating-- dogs can pick up cues from humans that wolves never will, for example, like looking at where you point. I also did not know that the biggest tame population in the world is not dogs or animals used for pets, but rather goats.
There were some dense chapters in the book dealing with the actual science of gene-coding that I found unreadable. But in general, this was a very interesting and fascinating book.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #12: Teutoburg Forest, 9 CE

Like Eurymedon River and Issus, Aquae Sextae and Teutoburg Forest are bookends of a sort. Teutoburg Forest was the battle that defined the limits of the Roman Empire's northern expansion; the descendants of the Germans annihilated a century prior in the north of Italy in turn massacred three Roman legions deep in the Black Forest of Germany, ensuring that the Rhine River remained the border between Rome and the area where the German tribes lived. More importantly, in a cultural sense, it allowed, not immediately but in the future, an alternative to Latin civilization within Europe itself, and indirectly gave rise to all the influence that Germany and Germans have had upon our modern world.
The actual mechanics of the battle weren't all that strategic; the Romans, deceived by a German chieftain that was an ostensible ally, were ambushed and cut to pieces by a coalition of formerly fractious tribes. The Romans were guilty of overconfidence, to be certain, but the victory was as much a product of guile and deceit as it was by feat of arms. The coalition that won the battle did not lead to any long-term federation in what is now Germany; indeed, the mastermind of the ambush, Arminius, lost his life as a result of intrigue only a few years later, and the Germanic tribes never did unite and form a unified political state. But the significance of the victory was that newly imperial Rome--the battle took place in the later stages of the life of Augustus, the first Emperor--decided after this battle that the Rhine was the most defensible frontier, and although there were occasional forays by legions into Germania, the border held for centuries.
But when the decline of Rome, at least the western half, began to become manifest, the result of this check on expansion meant that there were forces that could take advantage of the weakness. If the Romans had subdued the tribes in Augustus' time, the border of the empire might have been in modern Poland or even as far as east as modern Russia. And the effects were both major and minor. For one thing, it is doubtful I would be writing this post in English; English is a Germanic language, which presupposes that there were German language speakers to carry the proto-tongue to England centuries later. The legal systems of countries that did not have a Roman imperial presence are also very different than those derived from the Empire. The loose independence of the tribal structure of Germania is more like our modern culture than the highly centralized Roman model of government. And there are many fascinating cultural differences, too--things like beer rather than wine being the alcoholic beverage of choice among English and German speakers, for instance.
At the time, Teutoburg Forest did not seem like the turning point that it ended up being. Roman armies had been vanquished before, but the Romans always came back to finish the job. But on this occasion, they did not. For that reason, this battle deserves a place on the most influential of all time.

When An Ego Shrinks

As time has passed, I'm finding myself experiencing a development that I never thought I would experience. There was a guy that used to attend meetings when I was new in recovery that had several years clean, was involved in some of the service committees, seemed to get along with everyone--and never actually shared in meetings. He moved out of the area when I had something like six years clean, and I never once heard him talk in a meeting--even when he was pitched to in a pitch topic meeting, he just passed it along to someone else. He was a source of both amusement and marvel to me--I couldn't believe that someone either had his life so together that he had nothing to say, or that he was so terrified of speaking publicly that he wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful.
I've evolved and grown considerably since then, and I find myself, increasingly, sitting through most meetings as a somewhat interested bystander, with no desire to share. I'm afraid that my mindset isn't quite spiritual all of the time, or at least as spiritual as I would like it to be. I have plenty going on in my life, and there are people that I like and need to discuss matters with--although to be truthful, that number is shrinking as time passes--but I've also learned over the years to be careful about what one says in a meeting, because sometimes the information gets disseminated in a way that is not intended or useful. I've accepted that; I did my share of "dissemination" myself over the years. I've matured and gotten a better understanding of what God's will for me, and for us in the fellowship, might possibly be, a greater proportion of the time, and I've realized that my deepest and most abiding love of my life for many years was with the sound of my own voice. I've learned that my voice was a fickle and often toxic lover.
But there are also many times that I am sitting in a meeting irritated. The side conversations and the people coming in late have become an epidemic--and it isn't the newcomers that are doing it. This has been a pet peeve of mine for fifteen years. I hate when people share, often for longer than the suggested sharing time--and then go outside for twenty minutes; it gives the impression that the rest of us have nothing of value for the person that talks, that only what they have to say has any merit. I know I am powerless over others, and people have been doing this sort of thing since the day I started to coming meetings a long time ago. And sometimes I go into a meeting and scan the room, and instantly feel annoyed simply because of who is present; in a fellowship with well over a hundred members, some people just rub you the wrong way. It's inevitable.
What's different is that I realize that it is my stuff, and that it's not productive or healthy to open my mouth and introduce a note of discord into an environment where at least some of the people there are trying to find recovery. If I don't have something positive to say most days, I don't talk. And I don't reach for things to talk about, or stretch a point like Gumby to be able to talk about crap in my own life. I have no shortage of things going on in my life, but much of it is stuff I don't want to talk about in front of everybody in the fellowship--not because it's sordid or because I'm afraid of the feedback, but simply because putting it all out there is an expression of my own self-centeredness. I've been here for seventeen years, and I know the areas I've made huge progress in and have something useful to share--and I also know where I need a lot of work and/or the areas I haven't progressed a whole lot, and I don't need to take seven minutes of a meeting to inform everybody that in some areas of my ife, I make poor decisions. They already know it. And there is also the undeniable truth that some people hear what I say and see what I do through the lenses and filters of their own views and prejudices. That's human nature, and I can't say I'm free from it myself. It's annoying, to be sure, but it's not something that deflects me from why I go to meetings.
And you know what? That's all right. I don't get hung up on worrying about whether every single person in the room is "all right" with me now. I don't even really feel the need to shape the flow of information. Actions do speak louder than words. Especially when the words aren't flowing every time people see me. I can tell you that because Jerome never spoke in meetings, when he did talk one-on-one or in a small group after the meeting, we all paid attention. And I am finding out the wisdom in that. Less sometimes is more.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

FIFTEEN MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES #13: Aquae Sextae 102 BCE

The single greatest threat to the Roman political entity between its founding and the eventual collapse of the Western half in 476 CE was not Hannibal, but the Germanic migrations of the late second century BCE. Rome lost seven battles to the German tribes without winning any in twenty years from 122 forward, and the army Gaius Marius led to victory against them at Aquae Sextae, in what is now northern Italy near Austria,  in 102 BCE was the last army Rome had. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this; there were was no more reserves of manpower of adult fighting age in the entire Italian peninsula to draw from. When Marius became consul for the first time, in 107 BCE, the Roman political and military scene was thus: 1) the German tribes were wandering through central and western Europe, having not taken advantage of their resounding triumphs over Carbo and Silanus in the previous decade to enter Italy; 2) the war in North Africa against Jugurtha's Numidia (today's Tunisia and Algeria) was a stalemate, being commanded on the Roman side by Quintus  Caecelius Metellus, whose legate Marius had been for the previous three years, and 3) due to the defeats listed above, the economic carnage of the abuse of the landholding system in Italy that the brothers Gracchi had sacrificed themselves a quarter-century earlier trying to change, and the manpower demands of maintaining an empire, there were precious few men left in Italy, Roman and non-Roman, who could meet the minimum property required, by centuries-old practice, to serve in a Roman army--and they were, in time of need, conscripted to serve, the theory being that those who held property would be more apt to defend it to the utmost of their ability (old, stupid notions about the relative patriotism of the wealthy opposed to the poor have a very long history). Marius was elected junior consul, one of the two Roman chief magistrates,   for 107 BCE, and engineered a plebiscite--a recall of sorts-- to take Metellus' command of the African war for himself. This was unprecedented; no one had ever successfully challenged the Roman Senate's right to conduct and manage foreign wars in the previous four centuries. Even Scipio Africanus'  ascension to command by plebiscite in the war against Hannibal while still a decade off the minimum age required for the post came about because the Senate couldn't find a general willing to take the job that met the established requirements. Metellus retaliated (fully within the letter of the law, if not necessarily in the interests of the Roman state) by taking the army, which had been recruited in his consulship in 110 and therefore was regarded as his to make dispositions with, back to Italy with him and giving command of it to the senior consul, a Cassius (grandfather of the assassin of Caesar immortalized in the Shakespeare play), to use in the campaign Cassius was planning to wage against the Germans in Gaul (modern France). Marius, with no source of traditional manpower readily available to him, had legislation passed in the popular assembly, in the teeth of huge Senatorial opposition,  that allowed him to create a professional army, poor men with no property who volunteered for service and would be paid for serving in the legions.
Again, it is impossible to exaggerate the enmity this created for Marius in the Senate and among the oligarchy controlling it; here was this non-native Roman (Marius was from a town a few miles outside Rome that had only been granted Roman citizenship a few decades before) tampering with the very institutions that had allowed Rome to become the leading force in the world! If you wonder at the consternation and apoplexy that certain circles in this country currently feel about an African-American occupying the Presidency-- double or triple it, and you will have some idea of the tumult caused and hatred fomented against Marius in the Roman Senate of that time and place. Formerly, the conscript armies were not paid and even had to outfit themselves; now, the law Marius has passed mandated the state treasury was pay the legions and for their equipment. This was so radical a departure and change that it cannot be overemphasized; the full effect of the changes would only be noticed in the decades to come, but was the most important factor that brought about the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire...
But that was in the future. Concerning the background for Aquae Sextae,  Marius recruited his army and took it to Africa. Cassius promptly got his head handed to him and lost Metellus' army in Gaul, nearly to the last man. The following year, Quintus Servilius Caepio, a haughty patrician aristocrat, was consul, and he recruited another army, the absolute last remaining property-holders eligible to serve in Italy, and took it to Gaul. The consul of the following year, Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, recruited an enormous professional army out of the landless and urban poor, such as Marius had done a few years before, and took that army to Gaul, as well. Caepio refused to acknowledge Mallius' army as even Roman, much less cooperate with him, and as a result, both armies were annihilated at Arausio in 105, just as Marius finally finished off Jugurtha after a campaign that took three years. This is how Marius came to be in command of the last army Rome possessed. 
It is vital to understand that this army was the last pool of manpower Rome, at the time, had; there was no backup plan, no reservoir of men who could have been recruited to fill losses--every able-bodied male in Italy between the ages of 16 and 35 was either in Marius' army or dead. Think about the historical ramifications if Marius' army had lost when it finally faced the Germans--no Roman Empire? Unimaginable. The entire edifice of not only Western, but Islamic civilization, too, as we know it as well, is thoroughly grounded, steeped in, and affected by Roman traditions and legacies. If the Romans had been defeated at Aquae Sextae, history would have taken a hugely, unimaginably different course. 
The battle itself was almost anti-climatic. Despite a huge numerical advantage, the German tribes were disorganized, filled with contempt for the Romans after the debacles of the previous years, and not prone to any tactical skills. Marius is one of the best generals that has ever lived, and this battle was perhaps his masterpiece. He arranged the lines of battle so that the sun would be in the face of the Germans; he refused battle for several days to stoke their impatience; when two small raiding parties met and his men got the best of it, he dragged the German dead to a spot where the German massed forces could see them and had his troops degrade and abuse the bodies, a taboo in German warrior culture that was sure to enrage the foot soldiers. And it did; they rushed headlong into battle, only to be ambushed by a reserve force Marius had hidden, and within an hour the Germans were piling up into mountains of dead and wounded between the two Roman forces. 
Roman historians were generally not kind to Marius, due to the fact that he lost the later civil war to Sulla and then closed his life by massacring several thousand people, enemies of his and not, when he temporarily regained control of the city in 86 BCE. But all grudgingly gave him his due for this battle, and the finishing of the remainder of the Germans at Vercellae the following year. Marius so thoroughly destroyed the German tribes, in fact, that it would be hundreds of years before any threatened Italy again. And it has only recently come to light that the extirpation of the tribes that normally occupied what is now Denmark, northern Germany, Poland, and Bylorussia allowed other tribes from the east more familiar to us, like the Goths, Lombards, and Vandals, a chance to gain a foothold in Europe. 
European history without the Roman Empire is virtually unimaginable. And there would have been no Roman Empire if Marius had not won the battle of Aquae Sextae. Which is why it is on this list. 

Sausage Bread Saturday

One hates to stereotype, but one that has some merit is that those of us of Italian heritage tend to think of our holidays in terms of food. I have a friend that makes batches of different cookies every year for Christmas, for her family, her own household, and for a select few of her circle. And I do the same with sausage bread. It's crumbled sausage and mozzarella chesse, seasoned liberally with garlic powder, baked inside pizza dough in the shape of a loaf of bread, and it is, simply, a culinary delight like few others in this world. Gordon Ramsey himself would be transported to the eighth level of nirvana when it is fresh out of the oven. Is it healthy for you? Hell no. But once (or sometimes twice; I make it around Easter some years, too, although since Sabrina has been deeply involved with softball, that's fallen off) a year is not going to kill me or any of the people that have eaten it over the years.
I've actually acquired a small but devoted clientele that have experienced this delicious concoction in the past and now have come to regard it as part of their own holiday. I will be making four of them this morning, and probably another couple or four tomorrow morning (a couple of people that I've made them for in the past unfortunately have drifted away from the circles we used to move together in, and I'm not sure if they will surface in the next few days). They are relatively cheap to make--about $3.50 per bread--so even in distressed economic circumstances, I am willing to crank them out without compromising my checkbook ledger. And I've gotten proficient enough that I can make two of them every half-hour. My own tweak to what was handed down as a recipe to me was substituting pizza dough for frozen bread dough. There is a small sacrifice in quality--the bread dough is thicker and therefore holds its shape while kneading somewhat better. But given that it takes bread dough three days to thaw out and the pizza dough is ready to go, it's a sacrifice I'm more than willing to make.
And with Sabrina out of the house all day--she is doing indoor track this year, and she has her first meet of the year in Cortland--I will have no problems getting them done. It snowed last night--not a light, but at least for today and tomorrow it will look like December instead of September around here, which frankly helps motivate me. I've had a horrible time this month getting into the spirit of the season, and I still have not completed Christmas shopping, even though I have enough money set aside for the purpose to adequately cover who's left. Sabrina wants to finish her shopping tomorrow afternoon, and I think I will finish mine then, too.
And I will start thinking long and hard about where I am going to go in the new year. I had a second job interview yesterday, and I am reasaonably sure I am going to be offered a position. The starting pay is peanuts, frankly, but it's with an outfit where there are likely chances to move up, and it will solve the health insurance issue. I've made some other decisions in my personal life that promise a sense of direction and purpose, if not necessarily bliss and ecstasy, and that will keep that part of my life manageable until at least the later spring. And hopefully it will rekindle a desire to be a part of the fellowship again; I am struggling with attendance and with wanting to maintain commitments at present, and I am not sure how much of it is a result of the other circumstances of my life.
But first things first. There are breads to be made.