Wednesday Lakewood Open Comments

Just in case you people just can’t get enough of Joel & Victoria Osteen, we have good news. They are in discussions to produce a new reality TV show.

“It turns (mission trips) into an entertainment model, where you feel good watching it, people feel good doing it and Joel Osteen gets exposure,” said Richard Flory, an expert in American Christianity at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC. “In an era where media exposure is the Holy Grail, this is to be expected.”


Monday Flaming Foreign Failure Monday Open Comments

It seems our Nobel Peace Prize winner has a steaming load of scatological stuff on his plate. It seems that Pakistan is enraged over a NATO attack. Iran is threatening to go all four-year-old tantrum as an excuse to wipe out Israel. The Euro is about to tank, along with related national economies. Is our sitting president sitting on his hands? He played golf again while the Middle East and the European financial structure started running serious fevers.

Whatever his strengths may be, a sense of propriety or an understanding of appearances certainly isn’t one of them.

Post Prandial Weekend Open Comments

Well, while the turkey may be around for a while longer, I’m sure the pies and cakes have disappeared by now. The family has gone home, some to disappear into screaming mobs of shoppers, and others to watch football, and yet others who are waiting for the crowds to die down.

Personally, I did some yard work yesterday morning, before the weather changes this weekend. I gathered a whole cart full of thistles. I went to visit my sister to deliver her sampler platter of Thanksgiving dinner, since she and her husband could not attend due to his illness. While there, we took our usual tour of the garden and chickens, and I asked the chickens could have eaten the thistles I had pulled up. That led me to an internet search which revealed, that yes indeedy, thistles ARE edible! I found a good site on foraging here, which I found interesting.

The shopping will happen later. Possibly online. But I have to figure out when to pull out the Christmas decorations. Traditionally, Lovely Daughter and Handsome Son take over the decorating, but Handsome is working a lot, and Lovely has her own home to care for this year.

PS: I thought I had this scheduled to be up in the wee hours of this morning. Sorry for the delay.

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter's Square.

On our trip we visited magnificent churches representing diverse architectures and decorations. No such thing like you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, especially not if you’ve had a year of college art history. Well worth the feet sore from walking all day and now through another and sometime sore neck from looking skyward at magnificence.

The two that were for me the most compelling in Rome were of course St. Peter’s and the second being the Pantheon. Now this might seem a strange pairing. Spouse and I and his brother and wife took a cab to the Vatican in the mid-afternoon following a day of walking through many more streets than we’d planned on when we set out about 8:30. The map the hotel supplied was easy to follow, and the streets aren’t that long….

Entrance to the nave.

St. Peter’s Square does not seem as large in life as it does in pictures–it’s certainly large enough, but photography seems to expand it further. Impressive, no kidding, and the minute you step into its confines the world takes on a slightly different aspect–hard to fully believe you are really there. The colonnades on either side are like welcoming outstretched arms. People literally from all over the world and of all creeds wait patiently in long lines to enter the cathedral, properly dressed according to signs at the beginning of the lines showing acceptable clothing and items permissible to carry with you. Near the stairs to the entrance there are metal detectors and x-ray machines to pass your person and your purse or pocket contents, but it is not a bottleneck as you might expect. The Vatican security are probably as adept at judging people as are Israeli security, and the Swiss Guard elsewhere in the complex are surely much more than mere decoration.

Once admitted past security, it’s up the steps so many millions of feet have trod to the entry door and into a stunningly magnificent building for which no pictures can fully prepare you. Awesome barely describes the feast before your eyes, and you have entered a slightly other world that can’t be absorbed fast enough to keep from being overwhelmed. We thought that taking one of the tours would not likely have helped that much, so I bought a book in the Vatican Library on the way out.

Center: Altar of the Chair of Peter; left: canopy over the Papal Altar.

First sight was the main altar and the towering canopy above it, the intricate artwork above and around that, and the appreciation for the genius of the men who designed, built, and decorated it over the centuries, beginning in 324 during the reign of the Emperor Constantine and at his wish. It was built over the grave of St. Peter. Barbarian invasions destroyed or damaged intervening basilicas, and what we see today is the result of Pope Julius II’s desire to complete the plan begun by Pope Nicholas V, and in 1506 Julius laid the cornerstone.

We left Pope Julius II laying the foundation stone to the new St. Peter’s in 1506, the design in the capable hands of Donato Bramante, and the work beginning with the demolition of previous walls to make room for his master work. It was to be a long journey to completion, as Julius II died in 1513 and Bramante in 1514. St. Peter’s was finally completed and consecrated by Pope Urban VIII in 1626, and his master of works then was Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Bernini’s artistry included the magnificent Altar of the Chair in the apse behind the central canopied altar. An ancient wooden chair inlaid with ivory with fragments of acacia wood visible had been long revered as the Chair of Peter, and Pope Alexander VII bid him build a suitable monument to enshrine it. A throne of gilded bronze encases it, richly ornamented in Baroque style, surrounded by elegant Baroque statuary and suspended above its altar as if floating on clouds. It is a stunning work completed in 1666. Now for some people, the Baroque style is just too busy and distracting and detailed. IMHO, this one works and awes.

The dome.

After Bramante’s death, Michaelangelo took on directing the work at age 72 and did so until his death in 1564. His artistry for St. Peter’s included the magnificent, haunting, sorrowful yet not despairing La Pieta and the incomparable Sistine Chapel paintings. We did not get a close look at La Pieta as the church was jammed with visitors, being a Saturday, and Rome was locked in a warmer than expected weather week with highs in the mid 80s and plenty of humidity, and St. Peter’s does not have ac. It was becoming quite uncomfortable inside, so we left and got cooler air out on the square. There was no time to get in line to get into the Sistine Chapel before it closed for the day, regrettably. Another time….

The Square contains two monumental fountains 14 meters high, symbolic of Christ the source of the Living Water of Eternal Life. These are on either side of a pink granite Egyptian obelisk 25.31 meters high on a base 8.25 meters wide, built by Pharaoh Mencares in 1835 BC in honor of the sun. It was brought to Rome from Heliopolis, Egypt on order of lunatic Emperor Caligula and placed in the circus he had built. It witnessed many martyrdoms of Christians. In 1586 it was moved to St. Peter’s Square and was dedicated to the Holy Cross. It is huge and difficult to imagine how it was moved with less than modern machinery.

The Swiss Guard.

Reference: St. Peter’s, Guide to the Square and the Basilica by Nicolo Suffi, translated by Kate Marcelin-Rice. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998, 119 pp.

The Pantheon in Rome

A simple exterior belies the elegance within

Meanwhile, back at the Pantheon (118-125 AD) there is still great wonder amongst architects and engineers as to how the Romans built that dome without reinforcing the concrete and what keeps it from falling. The exterior is almost Spartan in its simplicity, basically a bare concrete drum with the gently curving dome above, unadorned with marble. But once at the deep porch that notion flies away fast. The staircase leading to it regrettably has long since been submerged by successive street levels over the centuries; only at the sides is the original ground level seen. The supporting columns bear stately Corinthian capitals, and marble enhances its interior as you walk to the entrance. The architect saved the good stuff for inside.

Now a Catholic church; the altar is in the background.

The art historian H. W. Janson rightly describes: “The impact of the interior, awe-inspiring and harmonious at the same time, is impossible to convey in photographs. The dome is not shallow, but is a true hemisphere; and the circular opening in its center admits an ample–and wonderfully even–flow of light. The ‘eye’ is 143 feet above the floor, and that is also the diameter of the interior, so that the dome and drum, being of equal height, are in exact balance.” Awe-inspiring squared was our reaction.

Recessed coffers of the dome.

The tremendous thrust and weight of the dome required a base 20 feet thick diminishing to 6 feet thick. “Another surprise are the niches, which show that the weight of the dome does not rest uniformly on the drum but is concentrated on eight ‘pillars.’ The niches … are enclosed in back, but since they are screened by columns they give the effect of openings that lead to adjoining rooms and thus prevent us from feeling imprisoned inside the Pantheon.” The marble paneled walls and mosaic floors are essentially the same as in Roman times as are the dome’s recessed coffers, though the original gilt covering is gone. It is regarded as the best preserved and most impressive surviving Roman structure.

The alcoves and magnificent marble floor.

The Pantheon was a temple to all the gods, but the it is arguable just who that might have included. All the Roman gods? All the gods worshiped within the Empire? Maybe even all the gods there are, even if not yet discovered? By the time it was built, Christianity was well known. It has been a Catholic church for centuries, and its original character exists in harmony with the tasteful addition of Catholic statuary, paintings, and altar. It and St. Peter’s were our two must-see churches in Rome.

The entrance under the front porch.

History of Art by H.W, Janson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 134-135.

Wednesday Thanksgiving Recipes Open Comments

What is/are your favorite Thanksgiving dish(es)? Do you tend toward the “classics” like the marshmallow yams of sorrow?

Fruit cocktail Jello?

The green bean casserole of shame?

(I’ve never seen it look this nice…)

Cranberry sauce, complete with can ridges?

Or do you tend to try new, maybe exotic fare? What are some things you’ve tried that have worked out well, maybe even become a tradition? What has not lived up to expectations? What has become the memory of “Remember that banana, wild rice, and clam stuffing you made?” that won’t die?

I make a sweet potato, apple, and butternut squash dish that displaced the dreaded marshmallow yams of sorrow at our dinner. You simply peel the squash and slice it into 1/2″ slices. Slice the sweet potatoes into 1/2″ slices and parboil them for about 10 minutes. Peel, core & slice granny smith apples and slice into 1/2″ slices.

Arrange the slices into rows in a buttered baking dish, alternating the squash, potatoes, & apples. Dot the top with butter, drizzle a few tablespoons of maple syrup over the top (a couple tablespoons of bourbon can also be added. Sprinkle some cinnamon & nutmeg on the top (maybe pecans, too). Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20-25 minutes until it’s bubbly around the edges.

Tuesday Turkeypocalypse Now Open Comments

Thanksgiving is almost here. How many of you people are gonna be doing the cooking/hosting family & friends and how many will be among the hosted? How many will be eating in a home and how many plan to dine out?

How many of you have had some sort of Thanksgiving dinner disaster happen at a dinner you hosted, were attending, or were otherwise involved in?

A couple of years ago, we were hosting dinner. Turkey was cooking just fine, sides were ready to go, and the alarm on the electronic thermometer goes of saying the turkey was done. We pull it out and set it on the counter to rest while the sides cook/reheat.

We started carving it. At first, nothing seemed awry, but about halfway into carving, the breast meat began to look a bit on the rare side. Seems the thermometer malfunctioned and the temperature reading was off by about 75 degrees. The thighs were practically raw.

We took the most done pieces and nuked them for a couple of minutes and wrapped the raw parts in foil & threw them back in the oven. It turned out ok.

I mean it’s not like anyone died or anything…


The Monastery of Monte Casino upper right

We arrived in the national park of Pompeii in late morning, and it was jammed with tour buses and tourists. The city itself is on a hill, so there were quite a few steps to climb from the parking lot and cafe level. Mount Vesuvius looms in the not all that far distance, its now uneven summit seemingly having two separate peaks. That’s after it blew its top off in 79 AD.

The Romans had no clue that it was a volcano, for it had not erupted within the recorded history available to them.

Pompeii amphitheater

Next, walking through the ruins and visiting Vesuvius itself.

Pompeii wine seller's shop

Back to Pompeii and Vesuvius. From the parking area/refreshment establishments level we walked with our local guide and the tour bus guides, listening to his excellent explanations of what was seen. We passed the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Bay of Naples on which Pompeii is built, its geologic layers exposed, most having issued forth from Vesuvius over the eons. Those who settled on it had no idea of the connection to a volcano, for there was no recorded history of it being anything other than a lovely mountain with incredibly fertile soil on it and surrounding it for miles. A fresco rescued from one of the buried houses and preserved in a museum depicts it before the fatal eruption–a magnificent Matterhorn-type single peak covered in greenery.

Ascending the stairs having several flights and landings brought us to the top and gave a panoramic view of the Bay of Naples and surrounding Campania’s landscape. Naples and Campania had a long tradition of Greek colonial settlement before Rome gained its prominence. The area was rich in agriculture, particularly grapes and olive trees, staples of Mediterranean trade in olive oil and wine. The ports were excellent places to do business, and cities on the bay prospered. Pompeii is believed to have a population of about 20,000 in AD 79.

A large earthquake in AD 62 significantly damaged Pompeii, and reconstruction was still going on in 79. No connection was made between the quake and the subsequent eruption even as the city sat atop the evidence. Vesuvius had been asleep for millenia. Long sleep seems to be its wont, as its next awakening was 1944–and that was nothing much compared to 79. Some 3 million inhabitants of Naples and surrounding Campania today are at risk when it wakes again. Scary.

Pompeii cobblestone street; wagon wheel ruts lower right

Walking through the streets of Pompeii one must really look carefully before stepping, as the large cobblestones don’t have level surfaces nor are the bases they sit in level. The curbs on either side are higher than a contemporary curb, and the streets act as drainiage channels as well. At intervals there are stepping stones across the streets, spaced so that a cart or chariot’s wheels can pass between them without being stuck. Wheel ruts are deep in the stones in places. The streets are wide enough for vehicles to pass through one at a time with room on each side for loads, but that’s all. There are sidewalks of sorts in most places–or at least that’s what has survived.

Next, finding Pompeii after the disaster.

Second left, Pompeii 2-story brothel with "menu" posted at the door--in Latin

Pompeii and Herculaneum lay buried and essentially lost for centuries until in 1738 workmen digging foundations for King Charles of Bourbon’s summer palace encountered more than the scattered fragments of antiquity that had popped up randomly in the interim. The king was intrigued, and the search was on. Investigating through underground passages, his searchers discovered the theater of Herculaneum. The treasures found grew with each cartload. By 1755 the significant differences in contemporary ground levels and discovery levels in the area was perplexing, and the question remained what was that place known in local folklore as “the city” on the small escarpment? Outlying remains nearby had been unearthed, and finally Pompeii was revealed as that place when an inscription was found.

Pompeii then became the place to visit among everybody who was anybody with an interest in the classical world. The everybody part seems to be pretty much the same these days given the numerous tour buses parked below and tour guides shepherding their flocks throughout its streets and buildings. Unfortunately the weather was in the mid 80s and sunny, and hot in the sun even if wearing a hat on the day we were there. The guides suggested taking bottled water on the walking tour, and that was sound advice.

Remains of the temple of Apollo

Lots of walking up a slight grade to the different streets, down stairs, back up the stairs, on the flat, up another low hill, down to the amphitheater with its perfect acoustics. Through more narrow streets between what had been businesses–a laundry, a provisioner’s shop, a wine dealer’s storage area, down to some taverns/cafes scattered among them, with a brothel or four in the mix. One brothel had its “menu” carved on the wall by the front door, complete with prices. Graffiti is everywhere in town, now reduced to what was carved in the walls by passers by. But it was painted on decorated painted walls in the days em>before. Bragging gladiators, prostitutes and madams advertising, merchants advertising, kids being snarky, street addresses, political campaigning, ramblings of drunks, pretty much anything and everything.

Seemed as if the social level of such establishments’ patrons might dictate which neighborhoods they bordered, though by no means did the uppercrust folk stick to their own territory. The local tour guide told of a bizarre–to us–arrangement between the jug (amphora) maker, the taverns, and the laundry. When impelled by the call of nature, the men imbibing wine in the taverns would contribute to an amphora conveniently placed outside the door. Next morning slaves would take the jugs to the laundry and take empty ones back to the taverns. The laundry used two methods to clean clothes and linens–boiling them in water or soaking them in urine and then washing them. Do not try this at home.

The city was much more than a resort retreat for some wealthy from elsewhere; it was a commerce center that made citizens wealthy and encouraged the arts in private and public buildings and temples. Regrettably, the early excavations exposed priceless paintings, frescoes, and mosaics to the elements, and those that were not removed to sheltered environs soon began deteriorating, cracking, fading, slowly falling apart. Modern excavations into untouched areas awed archaeologists with bright colors, home furnishings, daily living items found just as they were on that terrible day. These have been carefully removed and preserved in private collections and museums.

Artifact storage building; front--plaster cast of a victim

All of the city within the walls has been identified and marked; a goodly portion excavated, mapped, and named; three areas are yet to be excavated. A large storage building at one side of the forum holds items retrieved and cataloged but yet to be examined closely. They are contained in multi-tiered shelves in row upon row, closed in on three sides by walls and open on the fourth but sheltered by a large overhang and closed in by locked chainlink fencing. They surely represent thousands of PhD theses in archaeology and history yet to be written. Few of the plaster casts of bodies of the victims remain on site, as they are too fragile and are soon moved to safer environs for examination. Much of the statuary remains in the public places such as the forum, most of it identified.

It was exhausting and kind of mysterious in that the place seems quietly alive if you pay attention. Definitely an experience not to be missed, jet lag day 2 or not. And behind the city walls a few miles distant looms Vesuvius, now seemingly with two peaks and a depression between them, and we know roughly where the top went. We likely are standing on some of it.

So it was off to lunch at a restaurant part way up the road on the side of the mountain. Pizza for everyone and wine. Pizza was not invented in Chicago–it was invented in Italy, and the folks in Naples will match theirs against anybody’s anywhere.

View from the volcanic escarpment on which Pompeii is built; below is the pathway from the parking lot.

Reference: Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence, Pompeii, the Living City. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. p. 3.