Beautiful Fantasy: Spartan Justice for All


Where do I begin? Did I love the movie “300”? Yes. Was it based in reality? Somewhat. Here and there. Just put a little Wite-out on the ugly parts and blow up the good parts by 1,000.

Well, it’s kinda like how, over time, certain people and/or events become…let’s say…changed from what actually happened or who they actually were, and all of this becomes viewed, in time, through a distorted lens that’s only telling part of the story. Yeah, yeah, history is written by the victors. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Examples? No problem. Two that stand out in my mind are the Rhodes Scholarship and Margaret Sanger. When one thinks of a Rhodes Scholar and the associated scholarship, one generally conjures up benign brainiacs, geeks and nerds of Mensa or Jeopardy! qualifications, whose brains are bigger, synapses fire faster, or maybe are simply gifted in the retention of trivia and facts.

The scholarship, however, is named after British mining magnate and South African politician Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of the De Beers diamond firm, a corporation which enjoyed a global  monopoly for many generations of exploiting/raping natural South African resources while treating its workers as much, much, much less than human. As the creator of the 1913 Natives Land Act, Rhodes’ brainchild would limit the areas of the country that black Africans were allowed (less than 10%) and this, along with altering voting laws, helped pave the road for apartheid.


In the meantime, Planned Parenthood is still going strong today. I don’t think the average person even knows about Margaret Sanger when they think of Planned Parenthood. I know I didn’t. But when you hear about the “founder” of Planned Parenthood, you’re probably inclined to think, “Oh, what a forward-thinking lady. What a maverick!” since she was engaging in the struggle for women’s rights back in the ‘20s.


A couple of years ago, Ms. Sanger was named one of Time magazine’s “20 Most Influential Americans of All Time.” But considering what the founder of Planned Parenthood contributed to the eugenics movement, it gives one pause, does it not?  Eugenics?! you say.

Yes. Eugenics!

In 1939 Sanger wrote in a letter to Clarence Gable: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”Woman, Morality, and Birth Control. New York: New York Publishing Company, 1922. Page 12.

It was nice of her to lend a caveat to her ultimate goal which was, most likely, not to exterminate blacks, but to definitely keep them from having more than an acceptable amount of babies, whatever that number may have been, as was evidenced in a video recently unearthed from 1947 of the intrepid defender of all womankind—ahem—I mean defender of most of—some of—the appropriate women—of Ms. Sanger demanding no more babies for 10 years in developing countries.


So back to “300.”  Back to Sparta.

No one more than I loves the expression on Gerard Butler’s face as he’s proclaiming, “This is Sparta!”

But what’s the low-down on Sparta behind the cinematic majesty?

Well, it’s common knowledge these days that the Spartans were slave-owners, dominating who were probably the original inhabitants of Laconia (the area surrounding the Spartan capital). Although this population, called helots, greatly outnumbered the Spartans, an iron heel was kept firmly ground on their collective neck to keep them down.

Spartans, during their early training, did not have to go out into the snow and kill giant wolves as much as they were required to perform the equivalent of today’s gang drive-by in order to gain warrior status within the ranks. So instead of the lyrical representation of the half-naked boy facing down a wild animal, a more realistic scene in “300” would have been a testosterone-crazed 13-year-old shadowing an unarmed helot on his or her way to market in a rite known as the Crypteia, jumping said clueless person, and probably slitting their throat on the spot.


Portrayed as a freedom-loving culture in the movie and in popular media today, what they actually only valued was their own freedom. Certainly not that of the helots.

And let’s take a look at Ephialtes, who betrays the Greeks by disclosing the location of a secret goat path to the Persians. Ephialtes is changed from a local Malian of sound body into a Spartan outcast, outrageously disfigured and later outrageously vengeful toward Leonidas and the warriors. Aside from the fact that Ephialtes was the leader of radical democrats in Athens and whose reforms prepared the way for the final development of Athenian democracy, his character is demoted to monster-like proportions in both body and mind, along with the general representation of the Persians as twisted creatures, malformed and debauched, offering up an endless supply of gigantic stampeding beasts and horrific ogres to do their fighting for them.


Oh, well. It made for good drama in the movie.

At the end, in history, the Spartans knew they were gonna die. And they stayed. Graciously, they volunteered their own slaves. I can just see the Spartan warrior going, “Yes, and Thesius will remain behind also,” while Thesius does a double-take and drops the cape he was trying to mend in the dull light of a bloody sunset.

In the end, Spartan bravery isn’t in question. It looks like they had that in spades. But the circumstances that allow such a society to live and thrive, on one level at least, contaminate everything else that happens afterwards, don’t they?

Like the questionable “honor” of being dubbed a Rhodes Scholar.

Like the much, much less than egalitarian principles of an overly esteemed Margaret Sanger.

Like the founding of the United States with a constitution stating that “all men are created equal” except…it was really only men. And really only a certain type of man. And look where we are today due to that ignoble beginning…

It’s nicer to stick with fantasy sometimes. So for now I’ll sink back into the glory of “300” with its chiseled stomachs and call for honor, swirling with empathy and altruism for all the innocents and worthy of the world. Truly a beautiful idea. Really a wonderful, captivating fantasy.






Hidden Gem: “Positively No Dancing” by James Mason


“Positively No Dancing”, a slim volume of stories by James Mason (no relation to the actor) lures us unceremoniously through the back doors and dark bars and understated prosaic beauty of everyday New York.

Those of you who are familiar with such writers as Denis Johnson, Charles Bukowski, and Jayne Anne Phillips are probably no strangers to a style of writing attributed to them called “Dirty Realism.”

Per Wikipedia: Dirty realism is a term coined by Bill Buford of Granta magazine to define a North American literary movement. Writers in this sub-category of realism are said to depict the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life in spare, unadorned language.

Sometimes considered a variety of literary minimalism, dirty realism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description.

The first story, simply titled “John Flowers” starts out: “I was sitting across from my teaching gig on 13th street, waiting for my friend Stacey.”

To state that that paragraph was built with an economy of words would be an amusing understatement. And yet the reader is immediately pulled in. Yeah, John Flowers is just sitting there, waiting for his friend, but why?

One discovers he has an usual job working in an adult rehab center for the mentally disabled, a job he enjoys and feels he’s good at. A job where a woman gets on the center’s bus every morning and tells him that she saw him in her cereal, something he describes as a refreshing way to start the day.

Bars figure into most of the stories here, along with some pill popping and definitely some intended/unintended soul-searching. As the author states in the story “Dead Little Boy”…

The guys in the bar looked like the old guys in every bar, peering into their glasses, trying to locate their lives.

The sad, Sisyphean self-scrutiny continues with observations like these: Ireland most of them (bars) are round so people are all kind of looking at each other and conversations start more naturally. As opposed to American bars where you sit shoulder to shoulder and spend the night staring at the reflection of the person you came to get away from in the first place.


Originally from Ohio, Mason lived in New York for over 25 years, well qualifying him to become a spokesman for the city and his Brooklyn neighborhood (Red Hook specifically), topics ranging from the gentrification of mom and pop bars to taxi driver banter.

An interview in “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York” highlights Mason’s colorful response to gentrification:

Well, you know what? Fuck you. The slaughterhouses were here before you were. The factories were here before you, and they employ hundreds of neighborhood people … Why the fuck did you buy a condo next to a chicken slaughterhouse in the first place? When I moved to Williamsburg in ’87, I didn’t look around and try to see how I could change it. I was in Rome. I tried to figure out how the Romans do.

Layered within the darkness of emotional paralysis and self-destructive behaviors, an unselfconscious humor nevertheless lightens much of the ambiance, like how we are when we first meet, as demonstrated in the third-person story entitled: “Pretty.”

This is the part you’re not crazy about, the small talk.

“You have pretty hair,” you say.

“Thanks,” she says.

“What do you call that color?”



In another story, “Ashes,” the protagonist’s tendency toward short-lived, somewhat doomed relationships starts out like anybody else’s with a girl he’d met showing up in a bar again:

She had on a deep blue eyeliner and some kind of white feather boa. She looked like she was playing dress-up.

Here we go, I thought.

We can relate to this character, because we’ve been there before. Maybe not with a girl or a white boa, but in a blossoming situation in which, although new, we recognize familiar colors and patterns. The indicators of what’s to come.



A while later, waist or chest or neck-deep in the relationship, the fun is gone and the fighting has begun, the catalyst John arriving late from the bar again:

I…took a bottle of bourbon…Touching it made things louder…I reached for her. The sound was hard, like something heavy dropping.

An L.A. Times article by David Ulin summarizes the collection this way:

John goes to a funeral; he talks to a little girl and her sister on the Brooklyn Promenade about the proximity of the World Trade Center to Heaven.

“Maybe angels shed feathers from their wings,” the girl suggests, “… [a]nd then the birds come and fly up and take the feathers and makes nests with it.” That’s a perfect metaphor for Mason’s book, which gathers the detritus of city life and spins it into something spare and beautiful.


I would agree. In fact, the spare and beautiful part actually reminds me of the end of the short story “Brokeback Mountain”:

There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.

In the conclusion of Mason’s “Nicotine Angel” John Flowers, remembering the small bit of compassion a nurse had shown him while he’d been detoxing in a hospital, returns there in search of something that remains, obviously, elusive in his life:

I stopped and lit a cigarette…I could just sneak back in and lie down. She’d have a bed waiting for me. I figured I’d smoke this one, then one final one, seeing as there wouldn’t be any more for a while.

That’s kind of how I feel about this collection and this author, considering nothing more, at least in book form, has been forthcoming from him. It’s almost like he dropped off the edge of the world.

I feel like I need to savor this little book, roll it around on the tongue, make it last, seeing as there hasn’t been, and probably won’t be, any more for a while.

Positively No Dancing, available here:





Book Review: ‘Day for Night’ by Stacey E. Bryan

I normally don’t post reviews, but I kinda had to reblog this one, not only for its content, but especially for the hilarious drawing, which no one has done before: a provocative representation of the main protagonist of Day for Night and…a mystery being who’s only trying to help!

Thanks, Henry!

Comics Grinder

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Damien Hirst, the bad boy of art famous for displaying sharks in art galleries, once asked his 6-year-old son which he would prefer in his bed, a girl or a zombie. The boy instantly replied, “Zombie!” That is a crude and random example, I know. But perhaps it makes a bigger point about our collective fascination with the macabre, the unknown…and sometimes that is made most clear from a child’s point of view. That brings me to “Day For Night,” a new novel by Stacey E. Bryan. It has zombies of a sort. And it even has a shark! Like my example, there’s a fine-tuned crude and random vibe to this book.

This is very much a Los Angeles tale. Bryan indicates any pause as a “beat,” reminding us we’re in Tinseltown, full of daily theatrics and scripts coming out of everyone’s ears. We also get…

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