Monday, November 12, 2018

Amo, Amas, Amat?


When I was a lad, the Jesuits in charge of my high school education thought it good that I take four years of Latin. So I took four years of Latin. I cannot say that I enjoyed it, nor that I was a great Latin scholar. (I scored 100 on my very first Latin test; I recall that because it never happened again on any subsequent Latin test.) But since I ended up becoming a writer, and a historian with a strong interest in Ancient History—although that is not my main field; I am not a Classical scholar—I am grateful to the Society of Jesus for giving me a good foundation in Latin. Some knowledge of Latin is indeed, as the reverend fathers told me, a very good thing for those who write, and love, English.

 In recent years, as a teacher, I had contact with the Latin teachers at my school. I sometimes examined the books they used, and my! was I struck with the differences between these new texts and what I and my schoolmates were subjected to.

 Today, Latin, when it is offered at all, is almost always an elective, so it is thought necessary to try to make the subject interesting. We now have texts and course materials designed to entice the nascent Latinist with stories about Marcus (and, of course, Marcia—one could not these days leave out the ladies) going to school, walking in the garden, playing games, interacting with other young Romans, and generally behaving like human beings. Classes play games using Latin and have Latin names for students (as is normally done in other foreign-language courses). In short, there is an attempt to make the Romans appear to be rather like us.

 It was otherwise in a Jesuit high school in the 1960s. The first year was grammar, the second was Caesar, the third was Cicero, the fourth Virgil. (If there were others, I have forgotten them.) Marching through Gaul with Caesar’s legions got pretty tedious after a while, even for someone —e.g. me—interested in military history.

 The English-to-Latin translations we were made to do were a mixture of Roman military history and Catholic theology. We translated sentences like “The centurion is leading the cohort into the forest,” “The soldiers are fighting the Gauls,” “Mary, our mother, loves us, “Caesar is sending the grain supply to the besieged city,” “We pray for the salvation of souls.”

 I remember that several pages of one text were devoted to a playlet in which a military tribune is interrogating a captive Gaul. When the Gaul is reluctant to spill the beans, he is tortured. That is how we learned the Latin exclamation “Eheu!”, which means “Alas!” or “Woe!”—the poor Gaul screams “eheu” as he is being tortured. When the agonized Gaul finally tells the Romans what they want to know, he is released--but unfortunately he mutters words to the effect that the Gauls will yet prevail. The Romans hear him, and the tribune orders “Statim ad mortem!” (Kill him immediately)—which is immediately done. (I am not making this up; obviously the little drama made an impression, as I recall it over half a century later.)

 Many of our vocabulary words are probably not included in modern introductory Latin, such as occidere (to kill), supplicium (capital punishment), tormentum (torture), gladius (sword), scutum (shield), and especially frumentarium (grain supply). How many times did we read of the frumentarium being brought to the troops, being transported through the forest, being intercepted by the Gauls!

 The poor Gauls paid a heavy price in my high school Latin. Translate: The Romans are killing the Gauls. The Gauls are being killed by the Romans. The Gauls have been killed by the Romans. The Gauls shall have been killed by the Romans. Will the Romans kill the Gauls? I think we killed more Gauls than did Caesar (although that would be difficult, as he slaughtered many tens of thousands).

 I imagine that the reaction to this essay, at least among those not versed in history, will be that modern Latin instruction, with Marcus and Marcia cavorting on dad’s latifundium, is far superior to that which was forced on those of my generation. But… but… well… Roman history is something I taught, and have studied, for many years. And, you know, I have to say that what I was given in high school was a more accurate rendition of the Romans than any prettified contemporary stuff.  The Romans did not build an empire by being nice, and their customs were not ours. Maybe the new Latin programs should feature Marcus killing some hostages or Marcia being told at age thirteen that she is going to marry a man in his thirties.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Can You Do The Math?


Everyone needs a few good items of clothing, so, although the bulk of my haberdashery comes from Walmart, I occasionally purchase more respectable habiliments from Charles Tyrwhitt, a fine English supplier with offices in the U.S. Consequently I am on their e-mail list and periodically receive advertisements.

Last week their ad announced “three shirts for $99.95”. (These are very good shirts, so this would be a bargain if I needed shirts.) And the advertisement also displayed, below the price, a large circular insertion that said, “That’s only $33.32 per shirt”. Yes, it really said that.

My mind yet boggles. It would surely be reasonable for Charles Tyrwhitt to posit that their clients have at least completed grade school. Nonetheless, the company feels it advisable to tell prospective customers that ninety-nine divided by three is thirty-three.

We hear about the ‘dumbing-down’ of life. How bad is it? Have we reached the point where companies selling fairly high-end products think we are all idiots? Could they not assume that even mathematically-untalented people--such as me--can handle elementary arithmetic?

O tempora! O mores! (What times! What customs!) as Cicero said (although he was referring to the conspiracy of Catiline rather than advertisements for togas). Indeed, one could continue quoting from the First Catilinian: Quo usque tandem abutere patientia nostra? (How long will you continue to abuse our patience?). Companies will perhaps sell more products if they do not insult the intelligence of their patrons.

Friday, May 11, 2018

SALAD DAYS

As I strolled along the grocery store aisle, intent on selecting a new salad dressing, I marvelled at the benefits of the free market. In the fierce competition of the marketplace, dozens upon dozens of contestants for my pocketbook presented themselves, each hoping to find a home in my cupboard. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” said Chairman Mao; but that seems quite tame compared with how many salad dressings contend under capitalism. How many there are!  In fact, there may be a few too many… how to choose…

Suddenly my scrutinizing eye beheld a bottle whose label proclaimed  “Calorie Free, Sugar Free, Fat Free, Carbohydrate Free, Gluten Free, Cholesterol Free. 100% Guaranteed”.

I wondered if it was a bottle of air. But no, inside was indeed a glutinous mass of Honey Dijon Dressing. And around its long neck was a card, which I read further: “Save 10,000 calories a month.” “Lose 34 pounds a year!”

Hmmm… I hesitated. Although I am about five pounds above my desired weight, losing 34 pounds would reduce me to a wraith, an ethereal effigy whom my friends would not recognize.

Perhaps, I thought, I can use it for only eight weeks, thus losing those five pounds? Or… or maybe this marvelous elixir will enable me to eat lots of chocolate, snack crackers, and ice cream, thus compensating for the reduction brought about by the dressing? What a notion: a garnish that enables one to eat more while not gaining weight!

How could I resist? This is the best nostrum since the one sold by Dr. Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore!  The bottle of Walden Farms salad dressing must go home with me.

Only later, as my initial euphoria faded somewhat, did I slowly come to see that there might be a flaw in my reasoning.

 Oh, well. Back to Newman’s Own. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

RISE AND FALL


Several years ago the school at which I used to teach, having received a generous donation from a kindly alumnus, built a gigantic field house in the form of an inflatable dome. It was a truly noteworthy structure, especially in a small town, where, adjacent to our two hockey arenas, its alabaster bulk brooded over the surrounding fields like a Zeppelin about to rise into the ether.

The dedication of this imposing erection was of course attended by suitable festivities, including assemblies and speeches; but I felt the ceremonies lacked something—to wit, an ode. Certainly in times past it would have been unthinkable for so mammoth an accomplishment to occur without suitable words from the local Poet Laureate.

But my school lacked a poet laureate (although I suppose it might someday add one to the staff, provided, of course, that he could also do something useful, like coach a sport) so I decided to supply the need.   

_________________________________________________

                                   THE DOME

                                 (A Poem)

            Oh muse! To Troy I need not roam 
            A noble epic theme to find: 
            I need not wander far from home     
            For inspiration; no, my mind           
            Of thoughts is full--in fact, inflated--
            And my spirits are elated
            And my ravished eyes dilated       
            As I contemplate THE DOME.        

            Vast expanse of supple plastic--
            Strong and sleek and so elastic--  
            To our eyes a sight fantastic           
            Towering o’er the new-dug loam.   
            In its splendor so stupendous         
            In its grandeur so tremendous        
            Kind indeed the gods to send us   
            Such a marvel. Hail, O DOME!

            To limn its glories sure requires
            David’s and Apollo’s lyres,
            Tolstoy’s pen and heavenly choirs
            And a very weighty tome.
            Rapt with wonder we behold thee
            As the air-pumps do unfold thee
            And thy wonders yet untold be
            Laid before us, mighty DOME.

            Through all lands thy fame is ringing;
            Guns are booming, choirs singing,
            Cars are speeding, planes are winging,
            Ships are tossing on the foam:
            Kings and scholars, folk discerning,
            All to Minnesota turning,
            All consumed with febrile yearning
            In their haste to view THE DOME.

            Athens now will be forgotten,
            London seem quite misbegotten,
            And who gives a hoot for Rome?
            Taj Mahal and Notre Dame, too.
            Chartres? Invalides? Versailles? Pooh!

            Our school proudly boasts THE DOME.

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But, alas, the works of man are transitory. All comes to an end. The Dome came to an end on April 15, 2018. It seemed appropriate that I add additional verses to my original confection:


Elegy for the Disaster of April 15, 2018

Muses! Hear me in my sorrow!
Cloaks of mourning I must borrow...
Here today and gone tomorrow:
Thus it was with the great DOME.

So it came, that fatal one day!
We will not forget that Sunday--
Not a Saturday or Monday--
When cruel nature crushed the DOME.

For in April bloomed no flowers,
Sang no robins, fell no showers,
It just snowed for hours and hours
And the snow destroyed the DOME.

Tiny flakes accumulating
In abundance, not abating,
Piling ever higher, waiting
For the flattening of the DOME.

Nature’s wrath was not yet sated
So the storm had not abated...
It was suddenly deflated
And in ruins lay the DOME.

And so came the news appalling:
With a crash, like empires falling.
The great structure meanly mauling,
Little snowflakes felled the DOME.

No, we’ll not forget that Sunday
In mid-April--’twas no fun day.
Ah! Sic transit gloria mundi.
R.I.P., once-mighty DOME!
-----------------------------------------------

                                -- Brian A. Libby, 4/16/18

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Second Thoughts May Be Best


When at the store today I almost asked if they had considered moving Tide Pods to the snack foods section; but then I thought they might not have a sense of humor.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Tis the Season to be Reading"

A Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and general Felicitous Holidays to all, and a reminder that books make wonderful presents--especially these books.



 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Yet Another Video!


Here is a short video on Hodgepodge, my collection of humorous and satirical essays. If you like it (the video), why not buy it (the book)?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHgsTL-wWzA  

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