Spring is coming! Um ... hooray?
There's something rather pleasant about being snowbound. Outside the dining room window is a wall of snow that continues up to the height of the roof. However, because the house is partly built into a hillside, the lounge window overlooks the valley. The view from there looks like a stereotyped postcard - imagine snow-covered log cabins and a backdrop of pine forest and mountains sweeping off to the horizon.
In summer, a part of this view is my problem. I have to keep the lawn clear of weeds, moss and bear poop. The flowers on the balcony need watering and freeing from insect pests, and there's the siren call of forest trails and swimmable lakes to distract me from my computer.
In winter the balcony contains nothing but a rather dramatic row of icicles which grow with no maintenance. Getting to the tool-shed in the garden would involve moving dozens of cubic meters of snow and there'd be nothing to cultivate once I got there. So I can leave the great outdoors to itself, and the garden to its winter slumber. Once a month we go down the mountain and return with the mail - mostly books - and a jeep-load of groceries. Otherwise my connection to the outside world is via my cable connection to the internet.
This means that I can sit by the wood-stove catching up on my reading (a couple of fellow authors have sent me material for preview and comment, and I've research to do on first century Italy). Once a week I have an audio-visual chat with students in a chat-room which Cambridge has set up, and there's periodic visits to the hockey rink to cheer the local team's effort to avoid hitting the bottom of the league table (again). It's all rather relaxed and convivial, especially as the town is full of jolly individuals toting skis and snowboards.
However, I can't help noticing that its getting lighter in the mornings. There's a whiff of spring in the air. Soon the bears and I will have to emerge blinking from our winter cave to see what the summer has to offer.
Animula, Vagula Blandula ...
Lately I've been doing a lot of soul-searching. This has nothing to do with a mid-life crisis, since in my case any such problem is usually resolved at the end of the day through sitting by a log fire with a glass of port and Epictetus or the pre-Socratics for company.
No, as is often the case in my life, Cicero is to blame. I'm teaching a course on Greek and Roman Mythology for Cambridge this month, and got seriously interested in classical metaphysics. Since I'm also trying to improve my Latin by reading texts in the original it seemed a good idea to combine the two with Cicero's 'Tusculan Disputations'.
Wrestling with recondite grammar and abstruse ideas in one book-sized package certainly makes the end-of-day glass of port welcome and necessary. I'd have flung the book firmly and far were it not that some of the ideas in it are so darn interesting. Hence the soul-searching, which is what Cicero and I are up to right now.
First of all, there's the word 'anima'. It's Latin for a 'motivating spirit' according to one dictionary. It's the thing that defines 'animals'. But is this 'motivating spirit' a 'mind' or a 'soul'? In the translation I use (hey, this is Cicero - I have to cheat occasionally) the translator uses one or the other as he thinks appropriate. But was the mind also the soul to the Romans? The emperor Hadrian refers to his 'little soul' as an 'animula', and Cicero uses 'anima' to say 'we are all of one mind', so perhaps it was.
Then Cicero quotes another philosopher who suggests that each component of a musical instrument combines to give that instrument a unique harmony which is both part of and separate from the instrument. Just so the body and thoughts work together to create the soul.
I'll finish these musings with a fun observation by Cicero at his cattiest. 'You know who all the philosophers are who despise fame, because they prominently display their names in the books in which they tell you so.'
AD 2013 CE - or something ...
As we go into AD 2013, I've been reflecting on the date more than usual. In part this is because of a book I recently reviewed - Stern's 'Calendars in Antiquity'. This reminds us that the modern calendar - like all calendars - is something of a bodge job. The months do not reflect the cycles of the moon from which the word 'month' derives, and the days of the week have only a random relationship with the days of the month.
These days we can't even decide what to call the date. Traditionalists such as myself opt for AD (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ), despite the fact that historical research shows that Christ was most probably born an unhelpful four years Before Christ. The alternatives are CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era). This has the advantage of taking religion out of the issue, but leaves us asking exactly what was 'common' about the last two thousand years that wasn't before that? So we have to choose between a name that makes sense, though incorrect and religion-based, and one that makes no sense whatsoever.
Another problem with the modern calendar is that you need one to know the date. An ancient Greek could tell pretty near by simply glancing at the night sky and noting the position of the constellations and phase of the moon. Also, fixed calendars can be restrictive. In ancient Rome, priests could adjust the calendar to the circumstances. A late spring? No problem. Insert an extra month after April; then May and the flowers arrive in harmony. In this day and age, having watched students and lecturers alike hasten to prepare for the October term, I'm sure the occasional intercalation of an extra month after September would be very welcome.
Of festivities and floorboards
The launch of the holiday season has caught me off-guard (which is why this blog entry is somewhat later than usual). You see, my wife entered December with the stern intent of our doing something about the living-room floor which admittedly did sag and bulge in alarmingly odd ways. This was explained once we got the carpet off and discovered that immediate remedial action was required.
But I'm in the middle of writing a course for Cambridge, and the process of describing the anthropomorphizing role of myth gave me an idea about viewing the aspects of gods in a new light. This led to my roughing out an academic paper, while my beloved made pointed comments about exposed floor joists. Then, just as I was returning to my role as an ad hoc carpenter, I received the academic reader's comments on a book that's been months in the works. I reviewed these comments to a background of increasingly plaintive remarks from the living room about the importance of having floorboards.
In the end it took over ten days, but largely due to the fact that I can accomplish a lot if threatened by a circular saw wielded with credible menace, the living room now has a beautiful wooden floor. It is polished, level and smooth - while my proposed academic paper remains rough, my response to the book comments is unbalanced, and my course notes are still unpolished. I believe this is what is known as a work/life balance.
Now there's the promise of festive parties in the offing, but what I really want for Christmas is time to check the footnotes in Stern's book on ancient calendars to see if deviant calculations of Easter were really as non-heretical as he suggests. After all, this pertains to the early Christian church, and so must be in the true spirit of Christmas?
A matter of perspective
It's very hard to avoid thinking of people in antiquity as modern folk with some odd customs. But to think as a Roman, you have to appreciate how different their circumstances were. This was brought home to me again this week by life in the mountains.
When we arrived here I remarked to my wife that the builders had not thought through the design of the kitchen door. It was very secure - metal plated in fact - except that it had a large double-glazed window taking up almost the entire upper half. It would be child's play for a burglar to break the glass, then reach in and unlock the door, since it has one of those latch arrangements instead of a mortice key.
I was wrong and the builders were right. Burglars are not a problem in these parts. In fact some people don't even know where their door keys are, because they don't use them. But without that window, I'd have stepped outside yesterday without seeing that a few hundred kilos of potentially lethal wildlife was snuffling around a few feet from the doorway. To be precise, a large - very large - brown bear.
As bear and I considered each other from a distance of about four feet, that metal plating and large window combination suddenly made perfect sense. You need to see the danger through the window, and have a secure door to protect you from it.
When I first saw that door I had been using city thinking in the backwoods, and so I got it wrong. Now how many false assumptions have I made because I was thinking like a modern Englishman instead of as an ancient Roman?