The very bottle …

… that Michael Hurst lost in an Election Day bet to me. Or at least, it’s a photo of the bottle he sent me, letting me know he was ready to pay up. Anyway, both container and contents are long gone. I remember going over to his house to collect my winnings from him. He didn’t mind losing, and I think he was glad to have a reason for me to come over. We opened the bottle and poured ourselves a glass from it. “You can mix yours with tears over a Democrat being elected,” I told him, but truthfully, we mostly laughed and laughed.


Posted in Sewanee, Time | Leave a comment

Reredos in St. Andrew’s Sewanee

Below are some pictures from the chapel at St. Andrew’s Sewanee School, particularly the reredos behind the altar. The whole thing, very Italianate in its appearance, intrigues me, and I’d like to make a study of it at some point in the future. For now, let just note how amusing the image of the Virgin lifting the Christchild’s diaper is, a homely reminder of his fully human nature!




Postscript, Feb. 6, 2018. AHA! As you will see in the comments below, my good friend Celeste points out that the St. Andrews’ reredos is a copy of one by Carlo Crivelli in 1476 for the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno, known as the Demidoff Altarpiece, now in National Gallery, London (from whose site the pictures below are taken).



The reredos is singled out as notable in theWPA’s Federal Writers’ Project book, Tennessee: A Guide to the State (Viking: New York 1939) pp. 482-83.

It’s not an EXACT copy, as can be seen from the additional “storey” in the St. Andrew’s Chapel, and the color of the Virgin’s garments. But still, my sense of its Italianate appearance seems borne out.

So, now the questions is WHY is this in the St. Andrew’s Chapel? Aside from its very evident beauty, of course, and its very “high church” appeal, was there a particular connection to this piece for the Holy Cross brothers who founded the school?


Posted in Bible, Education, Family, Italy, Saints, Sewanee, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Shithole, shithouse, Nelson eyes, and red herrings

Today’s Washington Post follows up on the controverst arising from President Trump’s use last week of the phrase “shithole countries” to describe Haiti and African nations in the discussion of immigration reform. Senator Richard Durbin affirmed the president had said those words, even repeatedly; Senators Cotton and Price claimed not to have heard it. Now, it turns out, that there is a little more to the claim than what Cotton and Price originally reported. As the Post reports:

It turns out that the statement Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) issued that sounded as though it was crafted by a dozen lawyers was written that way for a reason: Cotton and Perdue, according to three White House sources, believe Trump said “shithouse” rather than “shithole.”

This is a wonderful example of lying by telling the truth: “We did not hear him say ‘shithole'” is stated as if to mean “He did not say ‘shithole'” when in fact it means “We heard him say ‘shithouse’ rather than ‘shithole.'”

The political reasons for the senators to speak in this calculated way are outlined in the rest of the article and need not detain us here: it’s just the ordinary grubby business of shading the truth for gain.

What interests me is the manner in which they deny the truth by affirming another truth, a process that I believe is called “turning a blind or a Nelson eye” to something. According to Wikipedia:

The phrase to turn a blind eye is attributed to an incident in the life of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson was blinded in one eye early in his Royal Navy career. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 the cautious Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, in overall command of the British forces, sent a signal to Nelson’s forces ordering them to discontinue the action. Naval orders were transmitted via a system of signal flags at that time. When this order was brought to the more aggressive Nelson’s attention, he lifted his telescope up to his blind eye, saying, “I really do not see the signal,” and most of his forces continued to press home the attack

Lord Nelson did not lie when he said he didn’t see the signal, but this did not mean that the signal was not given, nor that he had failed to be informed of it. Rather, he affirmed as true a fact that was close enough to the situation he was asked about to appear to be pertinent to it; in fact, it was not pertinent to the situation and rather a red herring.



Posted in England, Pontius Pilate, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How bloodthirsty democracies can be: a message from Michael Portillo

So, my former student Kayce Mobley (now a Ph.D, and tenure-track professor!) and I gave this paper last year comparing the situation of the Mytilene Rebellion described in Thucydides to the East Rising in Dublin from 1916. It was wonderful to work with her, and the paper has now been submitted (entirely through her hard work) to a journal. As I was thinking about the Irish situation, I watched an excellent TV show on the topic, a joint BBC/RTE production called “The Enemy Files.” The host was Michael Portillo, a former Conservative Party bigwig and Defence Minister who is now a journalist. On a whim, as Kayce and I were writing the paper up, I dropped Portillo an e-mail–or at least, I thought I had. I didn’t hear back from him, and then, in looking through my e-mail account, realized I had never hit Send on the message. So, the day before Christmas, I figured What the hell? and sent the message off. Much to my surprise, Portillo responded in less than 24 hours! I’m not sure there’s anything here that he didn’t say in the TV episode, or in editorials concerning the Easter Rising, but still, it’s not every day you get a former Defence Minister’s take on a topic you’re hoping to publish on!


Dear Christopher

Thank you for your interesting email.
What strikes me most about the comparison is that the British government did not debate the pros and cons of proportionality, still less did the British people! British policy towards Ireland was characterised by neglect, and occasionally by the demands of the Unionists.
In 1916 it is perhaps excusable than an exhausted HH Asquith thought that the war with Germany deserved his attention more than a bunch of hotheads in Dublin. And briefly his view of the rebels would have been widely shared by the mass of the Irish people.
He never considered what was the appropriate punishment for Ireland or its rebels. General Maxwell made the decisions, and the execution of sixteen made all the difference to Irish history.
Contrast 16 with 1,000 Mytileneans! Consider that on the western front 16 might be dying every second or minute. But those sixteen martyrs made all the difference.
There’s much evidence that Pearse sought martyrdom. For example the Irish Declaration of Independence paid tribute (somewhat gratuitously) to the rebels’ gallant allies, the Germans, who were at that moment slaughtering British youth, including of course Irish youth. The tribute was a provocation. But alas the British government never stopped to consider whether it might be sensible to deny him the martyrdom that he craved.
I am struck within your story of Mytilene by how bloodthirsty democracies can be. When I was Defence Secretary I often heard it said that democracies would never vote for war, but I believe that Athens often did.
Happy Christmas.
[It’s true, by the way, what he writes above the language in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, “supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe.” That is designedly provocative.]
Posted in Classics, England, Ireland, Military, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


photo1.sunsphereAn evening or two ago, I stopped into Mooney’s, the great little local market just on the border between Sewanee and Monteagle, to pick up some garlic powder. I had paid for it, when it occurred to me that I should grab one of those delicious chocolate bars they sell as well–grabbing one, I laid it on the counter though the garlic powder had already been rung up.

Oops. A minor inconvenience. “Oh, sorry,” I said. “I should have …” and I paused there. “You know, there are so many things I could say after those three words.”

“Now you’re just head copping yourself,” said Joan, the owner, and we both cracked up laughing. “Hey, what do you expect? It’s a hippie place.” So I left with the garlic powder, the chocolate bar, and a new expression.

To head cop is not a phrase I’d ever heard before, though its meaning is instantly understandable as something like “to subject one’s conscience to an external source of perceived authority” (my stab at a definition). In his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud had called the super-ego as “the vehicle of tradition and of all the time-resisting judgements of value which have propagated themselves in this manner from generation to generation” (1933, 105). The expression head copping, however, is not simply descriptive as Freud is here, but dismissive. In the same way cop is a pejorative term for police, so head-cop is a pejorative way to refer to the super-ego– both point to a figure with power tending toward abuse.

As it turns out, the phrase head cop was coined by Stephen Gaskin,”an often tie-dye-clad hippie philosopher, a proud ‘freethinker’ and iconic founder of The Farm,” as he was described in his 2014 obituary in the Tennesseean. I know Joan spent quite a few years living on The Farm, the utopian collective founded in 1971 in Summertown, Tennessee, and so she probably heard the term from Gaskin himself at some point. I haven’t looked up the phrase in Gaskin’s own work, but in a chapter called “The Formation of Hippie Spirituality” (from Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances), he is quoted on the topic.Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 7.46.39 AM

As a synonym for mind control, Gaskin is clearly using the term here in a more serious way than Joan had been. And it can be a serious matter to let allegiance to an authority devolve into mindless obedience. But it seems the phrase head cop can also be employed in a more light-hearted way to dismiss the bossy “shoulda-woulda-coulda” voices of the super ego. You don’t just have to have garlic powder; go ahead and have a candy bar.




Posted in Language & Etymology, Sewanee, Tennessee, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The Graveyard on Devil Step Island

My friend Adam and I had been planning to take his boat out on to Tims Ford Lake, and this Sunday seemed like the last possible day to do it until springtime. It was an unseasonably warm November day. Why not, we thought, and out we went for some “messing about in boats,” as Rat puts it to Mole in The Wind in the Willows.

This was no idle trip, though–far from it. Adam wanted to scout out some island campsites. Myself, I was interested to see another island feature–the Shasteen Cemetery on Devil Step Island.

Tims Ford is a man-made lake, and not an especially old one. The TVA began flooding it in the 1960s, and by 1971 is as you see it, about 34 miles long and as much as 175 feet deep. The town of Awalt–or Mashbread, as some locals had called it–was abandoned and flooded, along with many other properties. Not everybody was happy about losing their homes, of course. An older friend of mine once told me, “Chris, you haven’t lived till you have stood at public auction to buy back property from the government that was in your family for generations.” As a girl, she had played on the hilltop which is now a headland on the lake, a point she was lucky enough to buy and build a home on.

The TVA made a point of relocating old cemeteries that the flood would cover. The Shasteen cemetery, however, was on top of a high hill, and so was left in place. So while some of the people buried there were carried up by carriage, now you have to get there by canoe.

Why is Devil Step–the island, and the hill which it used to be–named for the Devil? I haven’t found the reason for the place-name, but there are various possibilities. The hill might have been difficult to climb, giving early settlers a devil of a time to get up. Perhaps there was a folktale of the Devil’s occupying the place: some sulfurous caves are named for the Devil, given the smell. Or maybe the nearby Boiling Fork creek, now submerged, suggested demonic activity. A political reason may also be in the background: some Native American sacred places were associated with Satanic worship and witchcraft by European settlers and thus connected with the Devil.

In any event, nothing demonic is suggested by Devil Step Island today. It’s a peaceful place with a pleasant little campsite that is, perhaps, a little too close to the graveyard. Below are some pictures from our outing, my favorite of which is the detail up above from the gravestone of Mary E. McCoy, wife of R.S. Shasteen, who died in 1910. It features a pretty dove in flight over the word HOPE. Doves are usually associated with Peace, of course, but perhaps this is the one released by Noah, who “could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth” (Genesis 8:8), thus anticipating the flooding of area by the TVA? No place to perch, that is, but Devil Step.

Posted in Bible, Birds, Cemeteries & Funerals, Emblems, Nautical, Race, Tennessee, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Post in which social media doesn’t suck

So, I’m in Milwaukee for the Film & History conference where I gave a talk on Nina Paley’s film, Sita Sings the Blues and her ongoing Seder-Masochism project. Vince Tomasso, one of the other attendees, has been tweeting the conference, and there was a nice response from Paley herself! Woot!

As a classicist, it is so rare to hear back from an artist you’re writing about …

Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 7.28.09 AM.png

Postscript. So I ended up sending Nina Paley my paper, which she seems to have read right away.  The last part of what I had written reads,

If her work seems blasphemous, though, I will tell that of the many, many people whom I have forced to watch clips like “This Land is Mine” or “Tabernaculous!,” most have ended up at some point putting their hands to their mouth to say, “Oh my God!”

Her response, edited:

“Oh my god!” I love it. It is amazing and flattering and encouraging to see my work written about like that. Thanks! {there follow a few corrections, and additions} Thank you again, my cockles are warmed for the week.–Nina

So how cool is that!? I’m not sure that I will do much more with this paper, at least not until all of Seder-Masochism is out and until I’ve made substantial progress on my Pilate book. But it is nice to know that I’m not dead wrong in my initial read of these two fine cartoons.

Posted in Bible, Cartoons, Mythology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment