Sunday Jan. 1, 2017

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Chinese Restaurant

After an argument, my family always dined at the Chinese
restaurant. Something about the Orient washed the bitterness
away. Like a riverbank where you rest for awhile. The owner
bowed as we entered. The face of one who had seen too much.
A revolution. The torture of loved ones. Horrors he would never
reveal. His wife ushered us to our table. Her steps smaller than
ours. The younger daughter brought us tea. The older one took
our orders in perfect English. Each year her beauty was more
delicate than before. Sometimes we were the only customers
and they smiled from afar as we ate duck and shrimp with our
chopsticks. After dinner we sat in the comfort of their silence.
My brother told a joke. My mother folded a napkin into the shape
of a bird. My sister broke open our cookies and read our fortunes
aloud. As we left, my father always shook the old man’s hand.

“Chinese Restaurant” by David Shumate from The Floating Bridge. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is New Year’s Day.

Today would be the 98th birthday of novelist J.D. Salinger (books by this author), born in New York City (1919). He first began writing stories as a child “under the covers [at night], with the aid of a flashlight.” Salinger’s canonical novel The Catcher in the Rye is the story of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield following his expulsion from a New York City college preparatory school. Holden’s character was fleshed out during, and heavily influenced by, Salinger’s time as a counterintelligence agent in World War II, where Salinger was tasked with identifying Nazi collaborators embedded with the French. Salinger wrote as he fought. His division was the first to enter Germany, and Salinger was one of those to witness the liberation of concentration camps in Dachau — an experience that unsettled him deeply for the rest of his life.

It’s the birthday of Paul Revere, born in Boston (1735). Revere is well-known for his role as a Patriot in the American Revolutionary War, alerting local militias to the approaching British before the battles of Lexington and Concord. A silversmith by trade, Revere was also one of the most skilled producers of copper engravings of his era. He acted sometimes as town dentist, wiring dentures made of walrus ivory into the mouths of his patients. At home, he was the father of 16 children. But alas, Revere’s most famous line is one he never said — “The British are coming!” The operation was meant to be a discreet one, so Revere and his fellow riders likely kept quiet during their trip.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about Revere in the poem that begins, “Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere / On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; / Hardly a man is now alive / Who remembers that famous day and year.”

It’s the birthday of cartoonist B. Kliban (books by this author), born in Connecticut (1935). He once drew a cartoon in which a man is walking along the street with a walking stick and a cravat and shades, accompanied by two beautiful women, while a policeman kicks people out of the way, shouting, “Out of the way, you swine. A cartoonist is coming!”

It’s the birthday of English novelist E.M. Forster (books by this author), born in London (1879). He grew up the son of an affluent family in an old house the English countryside. After he inherited some money that made it unnecessary to earn a living, Forster began traveling around Europe and writing novels about the English social classes. In just five years he published four novels, including Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), A Room with a View (1908) and Howard’s End (1910). Then he wrote nothing for 14 years while he worked for the Red Cross in Egypt during World War I and then traveled to India. When he got back from India, Forster published A Passage to India (1924), which many consider his masterpiece, about a young British woman named Adela Quested, traveling in India, who falsely accuses an Indian man of attempted rape and then later retracts her accusation.

A Passage to India was Forster’s most successful novel to date. He was at the height of his career. And so it was a surprise to everyone that, though he lived for almost 50 more years, he never published another novel.

The last known gladiatorial contest was held in Rome on this date in the year 404. The Roman Empire had been built by centuries of invasion, enslavement, and bloodshed, but the city of Rome itself had been insulated from the real violence of war since the rise of the first emperor Augustus in the year 31 BCE. But they wanted to celebrate their warrior culture, so they adapted the funeral tradition and expanded it even more. They gradually replaced the religious significance of the sacrifice with pure, lurid spectacle. The Colosseum was built for just such a purpose, and seated 50,000 spectators; its opening in AD 80 was celebrated with 100 days of games. Thousands of men fought on one day; on another, 9,000 animals were slaughtered.

The Roman senator and philosopher Seneca described a day of gladiatorial combat: “All the previous fighting had been merciful by comparison. Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder. The combatants have no protective covering; their entire bodies are exposed to the blows. No blow falls in vain. This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests, and even to those that are put on by popular request. And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armor? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death.”

Seneca continues: “In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At midday they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner has a man killed, than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end, every fighter dies. And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.”

Few gladiators enjoyed long lives. They were often prisoners of war, or condemned criminals, or slaves. Later, some people — even some women — volunteered to become gladiators. It was usually the social outcasts that volunteered, people with nothing to lose. But the most successful gladiators became celebrities, and enjoyed the favors of society ladies. Imperial gladiator schools were formed to train combatants, and graduates of the schools often found work as bodyguards to politicians. Some specialized in hunting wild animals like lions, rhinos, elephants, and hippopotamuses, which were imported to Rome specifically for the games.

As Christianity took root, the gladiatorial bouts slipped in popularity. The emperor Constantine I halfheartedly tried to abolish the practice in 325, but without success. The emperor Honorius closed down the gladiator schools in 399 but allowed the games to continue until 404, when a Turkish monk named Telemachus tried to stop two gladiators from killing each other. He called for an end to the gladiatorial spectacles, and the crowd stoned him to death. Still, his martyrdom was just the catalyst that Honorius needed to put an end to the gladiators once and for all. Six years later, Alaric and the Visigoths would sack the city, and the Roman Empire would fall.

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