February 13, 2014 — I would rather watch a great Russian ballet than the Winter Olympics, now being performed in Sochi, though ancient be that competition’s history. I’m not a sports fan, except for baseball, and I’d rather play that than watch it. I would like to go to Sochi, though. I’ve long wanted to visit Russia, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea region. I’ve traveled to that region and the Russian countryside, seen through the windows of Russian and Turkish literature and movies. I’ve traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg on the wings of music and ballet. My daughter and I studied ballet together for many years. Our teaching lineage descends directly from the Mariinsky/Kirov schools through the high art of Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes and Balanchine to us. Two of our teachers danced in the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine; another has served as a master teacher for the American Ballet Theatre. I love dancing ballet; it feels like flying.
I’d love to fly to Sochi. So would many others. I see that in fact many people have raised personal funds on the Internet for a ticket to Sochi. Their gaining a ticket demonstrates the focus of our current culture’s mindset: it is easier to raise funds for a ticket to Sochi than it is to raise funds for advocating the humanities. After all, who needs to develop more than a third grade level of reading comprehension when society places such low value on literature and history and you can earn an eight-figure income as a muscle-bound sports jock. Who needs to learn to think?
Here today in Delaware we’ve got weather conditions similar to those in Sochi – heavy, wet, slushy snow. We’re under a nor’easter, with strong winds, that gathered moisture out of the Gulf of Mexico before traveling up the Appalachians, the Piedmont Plateau and the Eastern Seaboard, bringing ice and coastal flooding.
The cupola of my blog is drafty and damp, so I’m sitting at my round table burning a lamp with scented oil. I’m running low on nutmeg and other items, so I’m preparing a grocery list.
I smell a nutmeggy aroma.
“I can’t find the snow shovel.”
Low-talking Moriarty, the Phantom of My Blog, comes up behind me.
“Oh, well, you’re in luck,” I tell him. “I’ve gotten another one. I put it right there in that closet.”
I think I hear him groan under his breath. “We’re almost finished building the folly,” he says. “But we’ve had to stop due to the inclement weather the past six weeks. I hired immigrant workers. They’re very good; no empty-calorie chattering, no loud radios; they just work hard.”
“You’re avoiding,” I tell him. I get up and go to the closet.
He sits down and sprawls in one of the captain’s chairs at the round table. “They’re Russian,” he says.
I hand him the shovel.
Twenty minutes later he comes back in. Dickens is with him.
“Hey-y-y, Dickens,” I say to Moriarty’s black, fluffy dog. He’s all serpentine wiggly when he sees me.
“Bfff,” he says.
I pet his head and scratch him behind the ears. Moriarty brings a big towel and dries Dickens’s coat. Nothing like the smell of a wet dog.
“I heated up some borscht while you were out,” I tell Moriarty. I set it on the table with sour cream and a baguette. Moriarty sits and rips a chunk off the end of the baguette and dips it into the borscht. I get a bag of dog treats out of the cupboard. I hand one to Dickens and sit at the table. We eat.
“So you haven’t been watching the Olympics?” says Moriarty.
“No. But I did watch a documentary on Sochi. That long history of the Black Sea region and down through the Bosphorus and the seas and straits to the Mediterranean fascinates me. Byzantine culture intrigues me. I find Byzantine art enthralling. I must have lived in Byzantium in a past life. Maybe this is why Istanbul compels me. I’d love to visit there.”
“I am reading a book on the history of Italy and the Black Sea to Mediterranean region,” Moriarty says. “Everybody paraded through Italy and ruled the various kingdoms there, from the Piedmont in the north down to the foot of the boot – Greeks, Turks, Etruscans, Romans, Goths, Lombards, Byzantines, Saracens, Franks, Normans, Germans, Spanish Bourbons, Austrians, Napoleon Bonaparte (until his dash of bad luck after the Russians first tried to burn him out and then froze him out, and then his subsequent European demise, abdication and exile to Elba), the French, Austrians again, until the formation of the Kingdom of Italy with the crowning of Victor Emmanuel II, under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1871. Abraham Lincoln, impressed with General Garibaldi and his Redshirts’ victories towards unification, in 1862 asked Garibaldi, who had spent time in South America and the United States, to command the Union Army forces in the American Civil War. Garibaldi declined on the condition that Lincoln was not ready to declare that the war’s objective be the abolition of slavery. Later, Italy defeated the Ottoman Empire and in 1911, gained Libya as a colony for 40 years. Italy didn’t abolish its monarchy and become a republic until 1946.
“Next time we’re here I’ll make us some Etruscan peasant soup,” he says.
“Anyway,” Moriarty continues, laying his napkin aside, “Over the millennia, a host of invaders also caused cracks in the Byzantine Empire.” He pulls a piece of paper out of his pants pocket, unfolds it and I can see it has dates and notes on it. “In 572,” he goes on, “the Lombards, a small group originating in Scandinavia, invaded and took over Northern Italy from the Byzantines. In the tenth century, Prince Igor of Kiev attacked Constantinople and the Byzantines destroyed the Russian fleet. The Byzantines lost Southern Italy in 1055 when the Normans invaded. Ultimately, the Byzantine Empire, cracked as successive invaders bit off pieces of it, as if it were an anise supercookie, weakened and crumbled to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. What a mess.”
“You splotched borscht on your shirt,” I point out.
He reaches for a napkin to mop it up and knocks a chunk of baguette onto the floor. Dickens lunges for it, snaps it up and swallows it whole. I doubt he remembers he ate it.
“And,” Moriarty continues, engrossed in the video documentary running in his mind, “one thread throughout the long history of humanity is that great leaders were toppled by being undermined from within their own group; you know – Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, even Giuseppe Garibaldi. Be careful whom you trust.”
“Undermined by individuals with small self worth,” I say. “They have to be in control. They dump their baggage on you and all their unwashed laundry falls out, fouling your intentions and purpose. They make you out to be who they are. It stinks. Rather then seek enlightenment, they close their minds, preferring to wallow in their ignorance. They get caught in the murky box of themselves. For them, it’s simply less labor to shoot someone. For me, it’s easy to see through them and the stories they concoct. Seeing them strut across the realms of life in their arrogance, I pity them. I know how scared they are.”
“They have no mercy for themselves,” says Moriarty, scooping up the last liquid in his bowl.
We pick up our bowls and carry them to the kitchen. I toss Dickens one more treat.
As we wash our utensils and put them away, I recall scenes from my childhood: “My father’s birthday was the other day,” I tell Moriarty. “He would have been 100 were he still living. On Sundays he would drive us – my mother, brother and me – through the countryside. Sometimes, when I was very young, I would fall asleep. When I awoke, my father would tell me:
“‘You missed the purple cow.’”