You Really Ought to Read it First: The Story of Esther

A lot of people claim the biblical story of Esther is their favorites. And, really, who can blame them? The tale of Esther has everything you could ever want: intrigue, revenge, misogyny, sex, violence. Oh yeah, there’s some courage, a little love and a smattering of devotion in there, too. You may be scratching your head and wondering “What are you talking about?” I’m so glad you asked. Let’s unpack this not-so-vaguely disturbing story.

Set during the Babylonian Exile, the story begins when a drunken King Ahasuerus orders his queen, Vashti, to dance naked in front of his guests. When she refuses (oh Vashti, you feminist, you), the king is not happy. One of his counselors says this affront must be punished because if the word got out that Vashti had refused an order from the king, all the other women would get uppity and there would be “no end of put-downs and arguments.” (From Ester 1, Common English Bible) In other words, women might start thinking for themselves, and God knows, we can’t have that. So, the king sent out a decree stating that Vashti would never come before him again (whether this was accomplished through banishment or execution is unclear) and her place would be given to someone “better”. And, doing so in such a public manner would send a message to the women throughout the kingdom to know their place and stay in it.

Of course, that meant there was an opening in Ahasuerus’ harem and he began looking for a replacement. That’s where Esther and her uncle, Mordecai, come into the picture. Every time I hear the name “Mordecai”, I can’t help but think of a character in an extremely surreal cartoon called “Regular Show”. That Mordecai, a blue jay who works as a groundskeeper at a park with his best friend Rigby (a racoon), is a slacker whose attempts to goof off invariably lead to crazy, weird misadventures. But, he stands head and shoulders over the Mordecai of the Bible. I mean, seriously, we’re talking about a guy who forced a young girl he had adopted after her parents died into prostitution. Yeah, you heard me: prostitution. I mean, what else would you call it? He pushed a 14-year-old girl into the king’s harem and something tells me it wasn’t to play Monopoly.

Why would Mordecai do this? It doesn’t really say, but later events show he may have done so for political advantage (we’ll get to that in a minute). What a sterling fellow. Whatever Mordecai’s reason might have been, it worked. After Esther spent that first night with Ahasuerus, she became his favorite. It makes perfect sense. What dirty old man worth his salt wouldn’t favor a pretty, unspoiled teen age girl?

As the story continues, Mordecai angers the king’s chief advisor, Haman. Why? He didn’t bow to him because, as a Jew, he only bowed to God. Haman, being a text villain straight out of Central Casting, decides to get back at Mordecai for his disrespect by convincing the king to authorize the extermination of all the Jews in the kingdom. When Morty finds out, he decides to use his strategically placed asset in the king’s household (i.e. Esther) to stop the plot, telling her to appeal to the king and save her people. This that political advantage I mentioned earlier. Mordecai was playing the long game.

Esther, however, balked because she hadn’t been called before the king and wouldn’t be any time soon. To appear without being called meant death. Mordecai, ever the doting father, throws a guilt trip on her, saying “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.” Seriously? “Perhaps you became queen for such a time as this”??? Hell, a situation is probably what he had in mind when he gave her to the king in the first place. I hear people talk about how courageous Mordecai was, but I think he was one manipulative mutha.

But, his guilt trip works, and Esther gives him one condition for going to the king: for all the Jews in Susa (the city where this story takes place) to fast for three days in order to help her be brave enough to carry out this crazy-ass plan. Really, Esther? You’re going to risk your life and all you want is for Morty and his people to fast? I believe I’d have asked for a little more.

But, if you stick with this stomach-turning story long enough, there is a payoff. Eventually, Haman’s schemes come to light and he is impaled on the very pole he had planned to use for Mordecai’s execution (Google “impalement” at your own risk) and Esther begs the king to rescind his genocidal decree. Unfortunately, Ahasuerus doesn’t have the stones and passes the buck, allowing Mordecai to issue a decree that allowed the Jews to defend themselves. And, it works: Mordecai and Esther’s people are prepared for the attack and successfully defend themselves. Yay!

Of course, that isn’t where the story ends, because the Jews take this opportunity to exact revenge on everyone who had ever wronged them; even sweet little Esther gets in on this orgy of violence, asking the king to impale Haman’s sons. When the dust settles, 75,000 of their enemies lay dead. The Bible says this occurred on the 13th day of Adar and, on the 14th day, they rested and had a day of feasting and rejoicing. And, that boys and girls, is the origin of the Feast of Purim.

So, what’s the point of me dumping on a story that many people find inspiring? Well, for one thing, I’m tired of stories from the Bible being white-washed because the truth is unpalatable. That and I’m a bit of jerk. Sorry, not sorry.

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Blame it on the Books

I am a writer. My life revolves around arranging words in a way that people find pleasing and, hopefully, are willing to give me money to read. This is a strange way to live and I can’t say that it’s something I enjoy. Rather, it is that it is a thing I can’t not do. Writing can be frustrating and humiliating and irritating. Conversely, it can also be exhilarating and satisfying and fulfilling. Not often, just enough that I don’t walk away from it entirely. After hearing that, you may be wondering why anyone with a brain would subject themselves to such a maddening vocation. I blame it on the books.

It is not a stretch to say that books have been the one constant in my life. They were there when I was growing up; even before I learned to read, my parents took time to read to me every day. Books were there in junior high, when I began to realize I was different, i.e. a socially awkward nerd who didn’t fit in. Books were there when I joined the Air Force and was a long, long way from home, providing a bond with the past as I set out on my path to the future. Books were there when I was a firefighter, helping to pass hours of boredom that were punctuated with minutes of wild excitement. Books were even there as my marriage fell apart, offering solace in that time of injury and distress. And, books are here now as I broaden my mind and expand my horizons.

But, books are more than instruments of personal entertainment, comfort, or even education and enlightenment. Books have changed the world. The Bible is one such book. Whether you are a believer or not, you cannot argue the Bible’s impact on the world. That is not to say it’s effect has not always been positive. The Crusades, the religious wars that tore at Europe during the Middle Ages and beyond, even the “Troubles” in Ireland of the last century, all grew out of things gleaned from the Bible. The same can be said of the Koran. For all the damage they may have done, these books have also inspired acts of great compassion: building houses for low-income families, feeding the hungry, and even acting as human shields to protect people of another faith while they prayed.

Sweeping effects like the ones I just mentioned are impressive, but inspiring great events generally aren’t the way books work their magic. They make their mark in a different way. There is an adage that goes, “Prayer doesn’t change things, it changes us and we change things.” And, so it is with books. There are numerous books that changed me: “Dune”, “Brother to a Dragonfly”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and, yes, even the Bible.

A lot of people remember where they first heard their favorite song, or the moment when they met the love of their life. I remember the first book that changed me. In fact, I remember the moment I first became aware that book even existed. I was in the third grade at Sumner Elementary school and my class had made our bi-weekly trip to the library. As was often the case, we took all seats at the tables in preparation for a short reading by the librarian. Normally, I hated these sessions because I didn’t care for what they read and felt they infringed on time better spent looking for books on military equipment, cowboys, trains, and the all other subjects that 9-year-old boys found fascinating in the 1960’s. But, this time? This time turned out to be different. The librarian walked over, sat down, opened a smallish book with a blue cover and began to read, “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.

If I’m being honest, I don’t really remember what she read; she may have started at the beginning (which would make sense) or it may have been a passage she felt would reach out and grab a group of third graders. What I do remember is being so immersed, so swept away by the story that I had to read it. Someone beat me to it that day, but I finally did get my hands on the book and I devoured it. As I have many times, since.

So, how did this little book change the world? It didn’t. It changed me and multitudes like me by awakening us to the fact that, though the world can be a bleak, dreary, even ugly place, there is still beauty and there are still things worth fighting for. And, it has inspired us to carry on that fight by creating and sharing the beauty that we see in the world. How do I do that? I am a writer. My life revolves around arranging words in a way that people find pleasing and, hopefully, are willing to give me money to read. I blame it the books.

Go Home GQ, You’re Drunk

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a literature major and if I’ve learned anything in my study of belles-lettres, it’s that fiction hasn’t fared very well in this postmodern world. I don’t mean quality-wise; there’s plenty of fiction out there that holds its own with Hemingway, Hurston, or Fitzgerald. For example, Margaret Atwood tackles Christian theonomy in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses gave us an unflinching look at Islam. Not to be outdone, Neil Gaiman showed us what we really worship in his novel, American Gods. No, beloved, when it comes to fiction, the quality is as good as it ever was. It’s fiction’s reputation that’s taken a hit.

It seems to me that most people view nonfiction as “serious” reading, while fiction is strictly for fun. I have more than one friend who shares the nonfiction works they’re reading as deep and important, while is reserved for “beach reads”. I’ve long thought this was a trend and GQ magazine recently provided more evidence of that when they published an article titled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read”.

Now, if you’re thinking that GQ isn’t exactly a bastion of literary criticism, you’re right. It’s basically the male version of Cosmopolitan and deals mostly with fashion, style, and culture for men. As a rule, I pay more attention to Oprah’s Book Club than I do GQ when it comes to literature. But, this article caught my attention because, well, it’s a list of books that we’re told don’t have to read and anytime I see someone discouraging reading in any form, I get a little miffed.

Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid things that get my blood up, like political discussions, internet arguments, and, well, stupid lists about not reading certain books. But, against my better judgement, I looked it up. It was worse than I thought. Not only did these yayhoos include the Bible (it is the most influential book in history. That’s true whether you like it or not), they also included books like, Catcher in the Rye, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Lord of the Rings. Really? In a world where crap like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray exists, why would you steer people away from good writing?

I noticed two things while perusing this list: First, it was very heavy on old, white guys. As in, the books deemed unworthy of reading were written by white men. And, when I “heavy”, I mean “every book”. And, lest you think I’m one of those “Don’t-like-minority” types, I firmly believe we don’t hear from those minority voices nearly as much as we should. But, reading those authors shouldn’t mean tossing out the classics.

Second, one of the chief complaints about the works on the “Don’t bother” list was that they weren’t entertaining enough. I get that being entertaining is important because people tend not to read books that aren’t entertaining. I mean, when’s the last time you anything by Henry James? But, being entertaining isn’t the only thing. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is very entertaining, but it doesn’t break new ground, transform literature or do any of the other things the books on this list have done.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the list is that it was compiled by authors. And, all too often, those authors didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of these works. This is evidence of another disturbing trend I’ve noticed: most Americans read fiction the way an evangelical fundamentalist reads the Bible: literally and without searching for any deeper meaning. That is not a good thing.

Why is that a bad thing, you ask? Well, my friends, we live in a world that is chock full of things that are extremely hard to talk about. That is partly because, as much as we claim to prize plain-spokenness, differing ideas uttered in a plain-spoken way tends to make us angry. Especially when it’s applied to something we’re sensitive about. And, that’s where fiction comes in. Because fiction is an excellent way to talk about the things that we can’t tackle head on. Really, fiction is the new mythology, allowing us to explore and express who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. If we avail ourselves of this amazing device, we might even get there without destroying ourselves in the process. I’m not holding my breath, though.

Are We Really Having This Conversation Again?

Are We Really Having This Conversation Again?

By now, you’ve heard about the van attack in Toronto where Alek Minassian allegedly drove onto the sidewalk and mowed down pedestrians, killing ten and injuring fourteen. You may have also heard of a possible motive: his lack of success with women. If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re right. In May of 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded fourteen others for the very same reason. Minassian even referenced Rodger in a Facebook post, saying “”The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

It appears that Minassian, like Rodger, was radicalized by a particularly dark and ugly corner of the internet called the Pick-up Artist (PUA) community. I’m not going to get into this group very deeply, because I care about you, dear reader, and don’t want to expose you to this sleazefest. But, just to give an inkling of what these emotionally stunted turds are like, think about The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz before he got married. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

Sadly, this community doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our culture has a long and sordid history that has taught men to believe they are somehow entitled to women’s bodies. Some of the worst offenders are religious leaders who promote the view of women as domestic servants and breeding stock. Together with certain elected leaders who feed at their trough and pander for the votes of their parishioners, these people laid the foundation and continue to give cover for the PUA community to play their repugnant games.

Pick-up artists, vile slugs that they are, don’t view sex as an intimate act that connects two people on a deeper level. Hell, they don’t even view women as people. Women are objects to be used and that use is their pleasure. When I called them “emotionally stunted turds” a few minutes ago, I may have been too kind.

I can’t believe we’re having this conversation again, but I guess we are. So, let me break it down in a way that even these butthurt children can get their tiny little brains around:

  • No one is entitled to sex. Sex isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. And, it’s one that is earned. If you have lie, manipulate, or use force to get laid, you haven’t earned it.
  • Yes, women are sometimes attracted to people who aren’t good for them. So is everyone else, doofus. Doing things that aren’t good for us is a big part of being human. It may be our defining characteristic.
  • Sure, rejection sucks. But, that doesn’t give you the right to be a misogynistic crybaby on a mission to punish women because they were mean to you. Grow up and understand that there is a huge difference between someone not being attracted to you and being mean.
  • Instead of whining that girls won’t sleep with you, take a look at yourself and see why they might way. It might have something to do with the fact that you consider them conquests to be made instead of people to connect with.
  • Stop calling yourselves “men” because men don’t behave this way. A real man values a woman as a human being, not just an object to satisfy his lust.

In closing, I want to say that I don’t condone corporal punishment. But you little boys are pushing my buttons and I can’t help thinking that a trip to the woodshed is order to straighten you out.

Sports are Dumb

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Even though I’m a man, I don’t like sports. And, because of that, I don’t get the male obsession with sports. Make no mistake, friends, men are obsessed with sports. Next time you’re out having lunch, eavesdrop on the conversation of a group of guys and I guarantee what you’ll hear is an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their favorite teams, a recap of whatever game they watched in the last 24 hours, who’s going to the play-offs, and more. The list is endless. And, exhausting. Maybe even endlessly exhausting.

As I said in opening, I’m not a sports fan. What I am is a book fan. In fact, I like books so much I’m a literature major. That means that while I may not be able to tell you the difference between a hit-and-run, a nickel defense, and a backdoor cut, I can tell you about the subtext in The Great Gatsby, discuss the theme of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and almost understand T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. Unfortunately, none of those things come up in male conversation on any kind of regular basis, and, by “any kind of regular basis”, I mean “at all”. Worse, no woman has ever been overcome with desire while I wax eloquent about these subjects and said, “Take me now, you erudite stallion!” Though now that I think about it, that may have as much to do with the fact that I use phrases like “wax eloquent” to describe my love of literature.

There are a lot of reasons for my disdain of athletic competition, not least of which is my total athletic ineptitude. As a kid, I hated recess because we almost always wound up playing some stupid game like football or baseball and, as I just said, I suck at those things. Whenever someone would say, “Hey, wanna play football?”, my response was “No, Kevin, I don’t want to play football. How about we play ‘Sit over here and try to read without moving our lips’? I’ll whip all you mouth breathers at that.” Okay, so I didn’t actually say that. Kevin was a lot bigger and it wouldn’t have gone well for me.

I’m not sure why, but we have decided that sports are the number one indicator of manliness. Not just playing sports, either. Watching seems to be as important as actually dressing out for a game. Interestingly, this activity has a lot of similarities with a teenage girl going to her first formal dance. You’ve got to have the right dress (favorite team’s jersey), the proper accessories (a football, a foam finger, etc.), your makeup done correctly (face painted in team colors), and even your hair (your favorite players name shaven in somewhere). It’s even visible in the way men act while watching a game. All those angry shouts, jubilant high-fives, and incessant yapping about the intricacies of the game are just the guy version squealing in delight when you see your friends’ outfits. In other words, it’s annoying as hell.

And, can one of you sperds (aka sports nerds) explain the appeal of fantasy sports to me? I mean, it’s all stats and math and other stuff that got people like me (aka regular nerds) shoved into lockers and now, suddenly, it’s cool? Are you frickin’ kidding me!? Y’all realize that, when you strip away the manly man drivel of athletics, we’re really talking about Dungeons and Dragons with sports, right?

The fans are bad enough, but sports announcers? Those guys really get on my nerves. Come on people, no one gets that excited over a game. I guess I could see it if things were close, but that never seems to make a difference because these goobers. They get just as excited watching Clemson run up the score on some poor, defenseless liberal arts college as they do a triple overtime play-off game between Auburn and Alabama. Y’all need to get a life real bad.

 

You’ve no doubt picked on the fact that it isn’t sports that irritates me as much as it is the people. And, oh how the irritate me. I firmly believe that it was some sports wienie’s blathering that prompted H. L. Mencken to write, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” I’m sharpening my knife right now.

Those Damn Millennials

Not a day goes by when I don’t see something about “those damn millennials” in my social media feeds. All too often, it’s some Baby Boomer bitching about how young people are too attached to their cell phones and want everything handed to them on a plate because they got a participation trophy when they were 7 years old and are lazy, little brats who won’t work and still live with their mommies and are destroying the country with their insistence on political correctness and… well, you get the picture.

I’ve seen some interesting responses to these complaints, but this one from my friend, Jacki, is especially good:

“How do young people today manage to simultaneously be demon possessed heathens with no moral compass or work ethic *and* be overly emotional, sensitive snowflakes that are too PC and work constantly for little pay?

How do immigrants both steal our jobs and manage to be lazy, living off of taxpayers?

The same people espousing these ideas can’t seem to hold seemingly opposing but equally valid viewpoints in their heads, but somehow manage to hold completely opposing viewpoints that can’t both be true all the time without notice.”

Now, before I go any further, I should probably tell you that I’m a Boomer. Actually, I’m what’s called a “cusper” since I was born at tail of end of the Baby Boom (1961). Because of that, I identify more with Gen X than my designated generation. I should also tell you that I use this fact to my advantage and do everything in my power to hide any connection with the Baby Boom generation.

 

Why do I hide the fact that I’m a Boomer? Obviously, it’s not vanity. I mean, hell, I told you my age just a few lines ago. No, I hide my generational affiliation out of a sense of self-preservation. Let’s face it, Boomers are annoying gits. We’re more responsible than any other generation for the unhinged Oompa Loompa who is doing his best to destroy the country. We taught our kids to value their self-esteem above everything else and then, when they act on that teaching, we laugh and call them “snowflakes”. And, we’re the ones who gave kids the participation trophies we love to bitch about, saying “My god, you guys want a medal just for showing up!” Basically, letting that Boomer cat out of the generational bag at the wrong time is liable to get you cut.

 

I would love to say we became our parents in spite of all our efforts not to do so. And, while that would be the Boomer thing to do (avoiding responsibility for our contemptible actions by placing the blame somewhere else is what Boomers do best), it wouldn’t be truthful because our parents didn’t do this junk. Don’t get me wrong, they screwed up plenty. I mean, they’re ones responsible for the Boomers. But, they never blamed us for all their mistakes the way we blame millennials. Mostly, they wondered what the hell was wrong with us indulging in all that sex, drugs and rock and roll and lived up to the name “Silent generation”.

 

So, how did we become such utter wankers? Damned if I know. What I do know is that we Boomers aren’t getting any younger and it’s probably not a great idea to tick off the people who are going to be taking care of us in our old age. If we keep this up, we’ll be lucky if the lazy, little brats don’t look up from their cell phones, stop whining about political correctness, and come out of the basement to show us new places to store those participation trophies we keep yammering on about. Can you say, “Ouch”, boys and girls?