Think of the most lauded person you can who isn’t actively a deity. Someone who is pretty unanimously thought of as a moral person and who left a major mark on our world and on Western civilization–but as a ruler, not a philosopher or a religious leader.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone like that with a better reputation after 1900 years than Trajan, the lucky 13th emperor of Rome.

He was renowned as a builder and a leader, who made more civic improvements to Rome and the empire as a whole than anyone before or since. Trajan was also a military leader who expanded the empire to its greatest extent in history, from the Persian Gulf to Britain. The list goes on; the Senate usually gave emperors titles to comemorate their rule, and for Trajan they simply awarded him Optimus, best. Every subsequent emperor was wished to be felicior Augusto, melior Traiano–as lucky as Augustus and as good as Trajan.

It’s a strange thing, then, that there are almost no surviving sources from his reign: all the relevent books are lost, and all that remains is people writing years or centuries later. Stranger still is the fact that Trajan was also an arch conservative when push came to shove; asked about Christians, he mercifully said that they should be given every opportunity and benefit of the doubt to reclaim paganism. If they still demurred, well, to the lions with them. That little detail bothered medieval and Renaissance theologians so much that they came up with outlandish ways for the centuries-dead emperor to be resurrected, forgiven, and baptized.

But the most interesting detail to me is this: Trajan was never related to any of the emperors that came before him. He was of comparatively humble stock, working his way up from the bottom. His predecessor basically had his arm twisted to adopt Trajan as his heir to retain the support of the army, after all.

It kind of makes one wonder–what sort of man was the “best emperor,” really? The sort of man you’d have a beer with? A standard politician with an unusually astute mind for appearing humble? Or a Pope Francis-like figure who really was humble and able, but whose talents happened to lie in war and the apex of political power rather than religion?

We’ll never know. But Trajan is a fascinating guy all the same.

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I’m a ranter by nature. That’s my thing, my raison d’etre. I don’t often rant about politics, mostly because I am far outranted there. Anything I can say has been said a hundred times better and a hundred times louder.

But today, reading the news idly and watching horrifying news trickle in from the various elections, I had a thought. And it’s one that I haven’t heard articulated before, so forgive me from departing from my usual spiel for a moment. I promise I’ll be back to ranting about pop culture and movies soon enough.

Andrew A. Sailer is a registered Republican, which often surprises people as I travel in circles where saying one is a registered Nazi would generate less scorn. The reason for this is coming of age in the Clinton era, when there seemed to be no accountability for any number of moral and ethical failings so long as the stock market stayed high. I stay thusly registered because of a strong streak of contrarianism–telling me that all the cool kids are doing something is a great way to get me to never try. I also have a strong fiscally conservative streak.

But that’s neither here nor there. My point is that because of this iconoclasm, I often get told exactly what people think about the Republican candidate de jour. And it’s usually that the candidate is a dangerous radical who will start a world war the second their finger is on The Button. I’ve heard it said that everyone from Reagan to McCain was a trigger-happy fundamentalist, even such milquetoasts as Mitt Romney. It’s become such a staid refrain that among my relatively few friends on the right, being vehemently attacked has become something of a badge of honor: if you’re being shouted at by people you disagree with, you must be doing something right.

But something’s happened now. My pals on the left have cried wolf once too often. So now that there is a candidate who really is their worst fears given life and physical form, they’ve got nothing. He’s as trigger-happy as they said Reagan was, as intolerant as they said Bush was, as bullheaded as they said McCain was. But since it’s all been heard before, and hollowly, it falls on deaf ears. It seems like the old refrain of “if they’re attacking them, they must be onto something.”

When you cry wolf one too many times, no one heeds you when the real wolf is at your political door. And then, ladies and gentleman, we are all devoured.

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They call it the third place.

Neither work nor home, a third place comes without the marionette strings and strong negative associations that come along with a workplace. It’s free of the endless distraction, chores, and laundry that swirl about the home. A third place is a sanctum apart, a place of peace and productivity.

For many, their third place is a library. Ample seating, books leeching the musty odor of delectable knowledge, and–most importantly–free internet access. But for a librarian like me, libraries ARE work, which means that relaxation and creativity and free internet access without dirty laundry must happen elsewhere.

What better place than a coffee shop? Life-giving, elixir-of-the-morning coffee (iced, of course, even in the dead of wintry mix February) plus wireless that usually works when you don’t have anything important to do plus a generous supply of tables and comfy chairs. Plus, for a hermit like me, the constant comings and goings of people jonesing for java can lend an air of sociability to a solor witing session.

Starting in 2010 or so, my third place was High Point Coffee just off West Jackson Ave. It wasn’t ideally placed, being in a strip mall perpendicular from the main college causeway and not easily visble unless you knew it was there. For the first few years I lived in town, in fact, I had no idea it existed. But for National Novel Writing Month 2010, I was invited to a write-in there by a fellow scribe.

They never showed up, but I kept coming. It wasn’t even for the coffee at first; I fell in love with the armchairs that let you sink in deep and nest, the titanic ottoman that could hold an entire disseration or novel revision, the crackling gas fireplace. With a double-bank of windows there was always plenty of sunlight, and an airy open layout allowed for maximum customization of tables, chairs, and snaking cords seeking the four precious outlets.

In time, once I realized that the caramel frappuccino I’d been drinking was a little too cold and a little too sweet, I fell in love with High Point’s iced mocha and iced vanilla (without whipped cream, of course, since I’m watching my figure). The large size of each was enough to fuel an entire session of third place noveling or blogging, augmented on occasion by a delectable $1 jumbo chocolate chunk cookie (but not the raisin cookies, since those imposters are disappointment made real and set loose upon a sinful world). It was to the point where, when I approached, the baristas sometimes had my favorite already started.

I only threw them a curveball by asking for the pumpkin spice a few times.

It’s kind of funny, and maybe a little embarrassing, how much someone can get wrapped up in their third place. Half of the pop songs on my iPod were yanked from the very air of High Point by SoundHound fur purchase. The baristas often became my friends as they came and went; I think half of the stylish people in my local circle worked there at one time or another. I took out-of-town visitors there, took dates there, even glued foam heads to their wooden coffee stirrers in one memorable art session. When I became a National Novel Writing Month honcho in my own right, our most informal and celebratory meetings were always advertised on Facebook with a coffee bean motif.

A Starbucks opened up just down the road on the site of a bulldozed Burger King the other year, and another indie coffee shop–much narrower and less well-lit, with uncomfortable wooden hipster furniture–not long before that. Both places fronted the main drag, meaning they were more easily visible. And though there were certainly busy times, especially near exams or after football games, the great draw of High Point as a third place was that you could always find a place to sit and spread out.

I had long feared that my third place would close, and gave them plenty of business to try and forestall such a horror. Every NaNoWriMo write-in had a table tent admonishing attendees to buy all the java they could. And yet, when they announced with less than two weeks’ notice that they’d be closed forever by Valentine’s Day, it hit like a sledgehammer. I’d built so much of my routine as a writer and as an (attempted) leader of writers to that one place. All but a few of my friends were out of a job. Generous tips in the last few weeks and a souvenir keep cup were all I could manage.

If that sounds a little silly, getting all busted up over a java joint closing, consider this: of my 2200 blog entries, perhaps 20% were written there in the grip of a chair deeper than a philosophy course. Every novel I tried to write from 2010-2015 was attempted there as much as it was at home; I owe three finished drafts and four unfinished ones to my third place. When I had mind-numbing chores to do at work and an open schedule, I’d sometimes retire there to work in peace and rate undergraduates or read faculty applications.

Worse, no other place is as close or as bright or as comfortable; ever since the library where I work installed a Starbucks above my office they’ve lost whatever luster they might once have had (their coffee is awful too). The other indie shops in town are either too far away or too uncomfortable. There’s one other High Point location, the last survivor, but it’s downtown where the parking is meager and the drunks run thick. It’s always packed to the gills and overrun with weirdos, like that creepy dude who takes surreptitious pictures of ladies’ lower limbs.

I’ll live. I’ll find another third place. But you never forget your first, whether it’s your first third place or your first indie java joint. Farewell, HPC West; we’ll always have the writing.

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In the summer of 2003, I was staying on the island of Capri with a group of students from the United States. Capri was an island every bit as gorgeous as I had been told, but my fellow students preferred to lounge around the pool at our villa drinking overpriced beer, which honestly you can do anywhere.

What I really wanted to do was to visit the Villa Tiberio, the hilltop home of the second Roman emperor, Tiberius, to which he had largely withdrawn for the last years of his rule. It had been, for all intents and purposes, the capital of the Empire, and it was there that Tiberius—Caesar during the Crucifixion—had died and his insane successor Caligula had seized his signet.

I wasn’t able to convince anyone to go with me to the Villa. The misty rain and my vague directions didn’t help, but the previous day had been sunny and everyone had opted for more lounging around the pool, more sipping beer, rather than what might have been their only chance to see some of the most important ruins in the world.

So I set off by myself, in the rain, with only a guidebook, my camera, and a rain poncho. The bus ride from our villa in Anacapri to the main settlement wasn’t for the faint of heart in the best weather, verging as it did on sheer seaside cliff above azure waters, and the slick roads made me edge toward the inner side of the tiny Italian bus ever more sharply. Deposited quayside in the village of Capri, I hiked the remainder of the way—perhaps a mile—in the rain.

In time, despite my efforts to get lost, the ruins emerged from the mist. They were red brick, capped with mortar of much later manufacture to keep their decay at a minimum, almost disappointing in how much the buildings of two thousand years ago resembled the buildings of today. Some archways still stood, and I sheltered in them from the rain with a slight tingle on my spine. Those same archways had been trod by Tiberius and Caligula, the former a tortured man who had nevertheless ensured his empire would last for 1500 years, the latter the sort of insane despot who would ensure it lasted no longer.

As I climbed the hill on which the villa was situated, I eventually made it above the rain clouds that had concentrated in the lowlands. Capri is vaguely saddle-shaped, and I emerged at the peak opposite the one where my group was staying, on a small hill. Like most small hills in Italy, and most Roman sites, it was topped by a small church, locked tight.

At that church, I met a fellow hiker—the only living human I saw all afternoon. I never did get his name, but he was an American, like me. He had worked as a software engineer back in the States, only to be let go after the worldwide economic downturn that followed the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11. They’d given him six months’ pay as severance, and he had decided to use it to see the world. he couldn’t be sure what the future would bring, but he wanted to be sure he had the experiences he could in the meantime.

I often think about our chat there, surrounded by two thousand years of history. I’ve had many opportunities to go abroad since, and I have tried to seize upon each of them regardless of the cost in time and treasure. Because as I look at my life as it has been since then—stultifying, sedentary, single—it is always instructive to remember the gentleman who set out in circumstances so unsettled I could barely conceive of them to experience what he could.

I’m not so foolish that I can claim that the encounter changed my life. I’m still cautious, conservative, a creature of habit, a confirmed homebody, single as Lonesome George. But there’s lesson and metaphor in the encounter nonetheless, I think. I disdained my fellow travelers for remaining poolside with their beers when there was a world to explore, yet the traveler I met showed me that more often than not I am seated by my own pool with my own beer, rejecting the fantastic in favor of the familiar.

And so the assorted travels since then—Vietnam, France, Qatar, and (if all goes well) Russia—have been my weak and sporadic attempts at going against my nature and living like the gentleman I met: like I had six months’ pay in my pocket and nothing to lose. If I leave this world unexpectedly, with my goals unmet, I will at least have had those few and paltry experiences, and the few soggy words I have thrown together.

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These days it seems like every other movie, book, or TV show is some kind of a sequel, in one of the most annoying side-effects of the rampant creative bankruptcy in entertainment circles. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most annoying sequel trends that have infested popular culture like so many mutant cockroaches:

Subtitles
Originally, sequels would either get a number (Death Wish 3), a Roman numeral (Rocky II), or a completely different title (Magnum Force, the sequel to Dirty Harry). It was an elegant system that relied on simple numerals or appealing characters to link films in the popular imagination. So, needless to say, it couldn’t last.

First sequels started tacking on subtitles (often after numerals) to give them a sense of gravitas (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Rambo: First Blood Part II). And sometimes not so much gravitas (Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). Pretty soon we were reduced to sequels with just subtitles, with Star Trek VII: Generations becoming just Star Trek: Generations. Eventually even the colon was too much bother, as Star Trek Into Darkness demonstrates.

Prequels
Why spend time and money hiring back now-famous actors and actresses made expensive by a popular original when you can recast the roles younger and start anew? People were doing it long before George Lucas made “prequel” a four-letter word starting in 1999. Why, 1979 alone brought Zulu Dawn and Butch and Sundance: The Early Days. Now they’re legion, with prequels being the cheap answer to wringing a few dollars out of something like Carlito’s Way.

But since we already know how things are going to end, there’s never going to be a strong investment. More often than not it becomes a forced series of oblique references to the original that fails the single most important criterion for a prequel: that it be intelligible without the original film. I don’t think one has ever been made, just like good prequels are few and far between. Can anyone think of one offhand? I sure can’t.

Sequels with the same title as the original
The sixth Rocky is…Rocky Balboa. The fourth Rambo is…Rambo. The fourth The Fast and the Furious is…Fast and Furious. Even if the title isn’t exactly the same, it’s damn confusing, and it’s part of a trend that’s making it difficult to talk coherently about a franchise.

You see it a lot in video games too. There’s a Tomb Raider (1996) and a Tomb Raider (2013), a Medal of Honor (1999) and a Medal of Honor (2010). God help you trying to keep those straight. And why? A bankrupt attempt to revive a little of the original brand magic, tarnished by terrible encores, which more than often ends up joining them, like Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) isn’t fit to bear the monicker of Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

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The concept of Fat Tuesday is inexorably tied to that of Lent, specifically the Lenten fast. It’s a tradition of eating very well before a long fast that begins the next day, which later on expanded into having a lot of colorful fun (the “carnival season”) before a period of Lenten solemnity culminating in Easter.

It’s a contrast between the plenty of a large meal and a lengthy fast and a wild party before a time of asceticism and devotion, and it’s in that contrast that the power of the holiday is gained or lost. What does it mean to pig out if that’s what you do every day, before and after? What does it mean to throw a wild party if that’s the extent of your usual weekend plans?

Fact is, we live in a society of excess, of plenty, where gluttony and partying are expected if not celebrated (and the “we” I refer to isn’t just the USA but the entire developed world). That’s one of the reasons that Mardi Gras, traditionally a very Catholic and very Latinate holiday, has made massive inroads into other groups: it’s become little more than a flimsy excuse to get smashed. Or, in the case of people for whom getting smashed is a weekly occurrence, getting really smashed.

You see that same impulse in the adoption of many holidays that, important as they may have been in other cultures, were obscure to the Western population at large. Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day…all observances with long and proud traditions that have been reduced to the status of Budweiser Holidays. In every case the underlying event–the lunar new year, the Battle of Puebla, the Catholic faith–has been rendered obscure by the haze of excess.

And, much as I’m loathe to admit it, I’m a participant in that milieu. I have never had the spiritual strength to give up anything for Lent, or to fast even in the midst of plenty. Even if I were Catholic and part of the tradition, the necessary duality between feast and famine, joy and solemnity, wouldn’t be there.

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Let us now consider the nature of truth. Relativists claim that truth is highly subjective; each man may have his own truth which is completely separate (and even in opposition to) the truths of others. Essentially, they argue that anything a human being sees, feels, or believes, has an element of this personalized, relativistic “truth” to it.

However, we must concede that there are thing that human beings cannot see, hear, experience, or grasp. A human may never see infrared or ultraviolet light, for example, or touch an atom. And there are things that we cannot grasp, if only because of the sheer limitations of biology. Just as a cockroach will never be able to grasp the concept of a pneumatic drill, there are–must be–things beyond the pale of human experience. We may even be aware of them–just as a cockroach would notice and avoid the noisy, spinning pneumatic drill–but their governing mechanics are beyond our grasp.

Thus, there must be things that cannot be assigned a relativistic truth, because they cannot be experienced or grasped by a human being. We can therefore divide all things into two groups: those which may attain a measure of relativistic “truth” through human experience, and those that cannot. The former group is as true as relativism allows anything to be, and the latter is as false. To wit: if a thing cannot be experienced, and cannot be grasped, it is outside the pale of human experience and may as well not exist.

We can therefore say, even allowing for the most liberal relativism, that some things are true and others are false. That we cannot name the falsehoods is irrelevant–were they things man could name, they would be things within his pale, and therefore “true.”

Working inward from this, let us now consider the category of “true” things established above. Suppose something can be experienced and understood to be true by a human being, yet it never is. Suppose, out there in the cosmos somewhere, that there is a sensation waiting to be had by the human race. There is a creature in the deepest ocean that will never be seen by human eyes or touched by human hands. We can conceptualize its existence in the abstract, perhaps, but it is not “true,” since it has never been subjected to the lens of human interpretation.

We can therefore see two cases of falsehood: those things which cannot be experienced and understood, and those things that can but never will be. Add to this a third: if an object that humans interact with–and is thus considered to be “real”–can be perceived in different ways by different people, each of those interpretations would be equally correct, according to relativism.

Take for example the cinder block in my wall, which many people have experienced over the years. It is cream-colored now, but may have been other colors in the past…and of course, each person would see it differently, since some may have been colorblind, and there is no guarantee that two people seeing “cream” are experiencing the same color. The “true” color, if such an objective fact could exist and be known, might be purple with hot pink stripes.

If a person saw it like that, if they saw the purple block, that impression has gained the status of “truth.” Yet suppose no one ever sees the cinder block as purple. Suppose that, from the moment it is cast until the moment it is crushed into dust–its “existence” as experienced by people–no one sees it as purple. No one sees the block to be their conception of the color purple, or the “true” color as you prefer. It can then be said that someone claiming that the block is indeed purple is telling a lie. No matter what color they believe purple to be, if the block does not appear that way to them or anyone else, ever, then the block can for all intents and purposes be called “not-purple.”

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