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I owe this episode of Obscure Saint Blogging to Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a podcast I’ve been listening to on my runs lately and enjoying the crap out of. As a half-assed classicist, my understanding of Roman history goes something like: lots of detail, names and dates up through about 69 CE; something about Trajan and Hadrian; organized Christian persecutions; Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, Diocletian splits the empire into four; Constantine loves Jesus and moves the capital to Constantinople; lots of stuff; Rome gets sacked in 410CE and then it happens about every ten years until the last Western emperor just gives up in 476CE; more stuff, Constantinople falls in 1453CE. Nuanced, yes? Suffice it to say, there are some gaps in my knowledge.

Irene of Athens, born in 752CE, was the only woman emperor the Byzantine Empire had. She was chosen for the future emperor Leo IV, possibly in a bride show as apparently she was a total hottie, and had a son, Constantine VI.

Irene’s story is partly the story of the iconoclastic movement, which is a big hairy, complicated deal but this is a blog so I’ll keep it simple. Christianity has a really weird relationship with pictures of people they consider holy, coming mostly out of Judaism like it did, and of course the second commandment says no making pictures of God. Now, Christians generally pick and choose which parts of the Old Testament they feel like following–no other gods? Got it. No bacon cheeseburgers? Yeah, about that…

Additionally, the neighboring Arabs had just gotten religion in the form of Islam, which has similar views to Judaism about when you make pictures of God (never), and they started knocking on the door in the mid-seventh century, taking Egypt and the Levant from the Byzantines, and probably having an influence on the Christian theological discussions of the day.

As a result of these two things, the Byzantines got into a big fight over whether it was okay to make and venerate icons, which, to be fair, are always pictures of Jesus or a saint, and one asks for the saint’s intercession with God on one’s behalf, not directly to the saint. This useful Orthodox Information page likens icon veneration to how Americans treat our flag (with important differences, but if praying to an American flag ever cures anyone of leprosy, I would really like to know about it). Shades of gray. Those against the icons were the iconoclasts; those in favor were the iconodules.

Leo IV’s father, Constantine V, was a fervent iconoclast who was reported to have crapped in the baptismal font at the Hagia Sophia during his coronation. Since history’s written by the winners, and the iconoclasts didn’t win (spoiler!) I am guessing that didn’t really happen, but it’s a good story. He convened a council of bishops to declare icon veneration heretical, then forced monks and nuns to marry since monasteries were notorious locations of icon veneration. Bishops got lynched in the streets, and by the time he died he was against all relics and prayers to saints. Two hundred years after he died, he was dug up again and thrown into the sea, just to make he didn’t forget he wasn’t welcome.

Leo IV, who became emperor when Constantine V died in 775 CE, didn’t care so much about who people did with icons at first. According to legend, the iconoclast Leo found two icons in Irene’s possession, and afterwards cut off all sexual relations with her, which really must have been a huge loss because he sounds like a fun dude. Possibly in reaction to this, he slowly got more intense about the iconoclasm, but then died before long, leaving his four-year-old son Constantine VI (Byzantium suffered from a severe shortage of first names) nominal emperor.

When you’re four and the emperor, mama really rules the empire, and that’s just what Irene did. She reinstated icon veneration, much to the delight of most people, and then fucked the empire seven ways from Sunday. The Arabs attacked. The Franks attacked. Everyone hated her for one reason or another, including her kid who was nearly an adult. He tried to overthrow her twice, nearly succeeded the second time and she had him thrown in jail. Then, in an act shocking even to the Byzantine empire, she had him blinded so brutally that he died from his wounds several days later.

After this slight whoopsie, she went ahead and declared herself Emperor (not Empress), and everyone freaked the hell out. No one really liked her to begin with, and since there was no man on the throne the Pope in the west decided the Byzantine empire didn’t have a ruler and just crowned one himself, so Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor. Yeah, I didn’t know an empire that ruled for a thousand years was based on sexism, either. Shockingly this deepened the rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, although it was rumored that Irene accepted a marriage offer from Charlemagne in order to fix all her problems. Before that could happen, though, one final big conspiracy unseated her and she was exiled to the island of Lesbos and someone else put on the throne. She died a year later, after ruling as sole Emperor for five years.

Much to my dismay, the podcast was wrong and Irene’s not actually a saint in the Orthodox church, but lots of Western sources think she was. She did reinstate icon veneration, which the Eastern Orthodox church is really into. On the other hand, she was a terrible emperor and had her only child blinded in a particularly gruesome manner. You win some, you lose some. Since she doesn’t actually have a saint day, you can ask a picture for a favor and then do something truly awful any time you damn well please.

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It’s quite simple. Quite.

So you may have noticed that the economy is, to borrow a phrase, fucked the fuck up. To people not closely involved in finance, the events of the past week are confusing. You’re probably asking yourself, what exactly is going on? And should I convert my savings to weaponry inspired by George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire? (They’re only going to go up in value!)

Well, luckily, while waiting in line at the taco truck, I happened to run into nine or ten op-ed columnists and that MBA guy who keeps cornering you at parties. They were generous enough to take the time to explain the whole thing to me. Turns out they’re really smart, and people should ask their opinion more often! I wrote down everything they said. So here, now, and you won’t find this anywhere else, is the complete explanation of our current financial misadventure, as told to me by people who understand this kind of thing:

Alright, Henry, you’re standing in line, waiting to buy a burrito. But what if, instead of buying a burrito with four dollars, you just told the guy in the taco truck that you would pay him four dollars later? Sound like a good idea? Well guess what. You just ruined the economy. And gave four dollars to China, and by the way, I care about human rights now.

This is what happens when you borrow money you can’t pay back. This is what happens when you take out a mortgage with low payments which can quickly rise. My mortgage, by the way – It’s fixed rate. Actually, it’s not really even a mortgage, I have this, uh, it’s kind of an arrangement. Anywho.

It’s a house of cards, built on nothing. There’s no money holding it up, just promises to pay money later. What’s so frustrating is that it’s so. Blindingly. Obvious. My dog could have predicted this would happen. I remember, the first time I heard of a subprime mortgage, I said, this path only leads to one place. And that, I said, is a government loan to a major insurance company in exchange for a controlling stake in the company. Yes, insurance company. Well, no. Not out loud. But it’s just so plainly obvious, I didn’t think it was necessary.

I mean, you’d have to be real idiot not to see this coming. A real out-of-touch, hoity-toity fancy-lad. Anyway, I hope some of that got through to you.

So you there you go. I certainly feel a lot better knowing that so many people are totally on top of things.

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Like the rest of the world, I was sad to hear that George Carlin had died. I have a copy of Brain Droppings which was read so heavily it barely survived. Pages are falling out left and right. My dad rented one of his HBO specials when I was thirteen or so, and it felt like a rite of passage. Countless writers better than me explaining why he was important, or why he was so damn funny. I’ll settle for sharing a personal story.

I was in high school. My friends asked if I wanted to go to the Brentwood Country Mart for lunch. Sure! I got in the car. I had a class at 1. We’ll be back by then, right? Nope. Disappointed, I got out of the car and ate lunch alone.

A few hours later, after I got out of my 1 o’clock class, I saw my friends again. Here’s my best attempt at a transcript (six or seven years after the fact) of what my friend Ben told me.

We’re sitting at a table in the food court, and I see George Carlin come in. He’s going to a table on the other side, so he’s heading our way. I whisper “That’s George Carlin!”, and as he goes by he says “Quit whispering, it’s not working.”

For the record, my friend Ben is very loud, even when whispering. He also did his best impression of George Carlin’s angry voice when George Carlin spoke. Back to the story.

So we finish eating, and we’re just hanging out there. Eventually, we see George Carlin get up from his table, and start walking out, so he’s walking past us again. This time, because we all know that he knows that we recognized him, we just kind of smile at him as he goes by. He leans over, and says “Why don’t you kids quit gossiping about celebrities, and DO YOUR FUCKING HOMEWORK!”

So there you go. The day I ate lunch alone, when I could have gotten cursed at by George Carlin. All because I didn’t want to be late for class.

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So Firefox has a google search toolbar which shows up by default. This toolbar has a “suggest” feature, which tries to complete your query by suggesting common search phrases. This also allows you to see what some of the most common google searches are.

Type “How” and the toolbar suggests “How to tie a tie.” Something ordinary, yet complicated enough to occasionally require instruction. Fair enough.

Type “Why” and the toolbar suggests “Why did I get married?” Whoa, that’s a little bleak. Probably most people performing this search are looking for the Tyler Perry movie, and aren’t asking google to solve their unsolvable problems.

Type “Is ” (with a space after it) and, near the end of the list, google suggests: “is barack obama muslim?” I guess that’s a pretty popular search. Still. Huh. Luckily, someone has started a website to answer this question. Is Barack Obama a muslim? That site seems to have a definitive enough answer.

Of course, I think the best response to that question, rather than an actual answer, is a simple “Who cares? And also, what the hell?”

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I didn’t want to have advertising on this site – unless, of course, it’s for a product I can truly and fully endorse. Luckly, I have no reservations about advertising Marshall Dillo here, up for auction at eBay. With a “Buy Now” set at $149.99, it would be a bargain at twice the price.

In case the auction ends or otherwise goes away, here’s the picture:

Marshall Dillo

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Fafblog is back!

Hooray! FIVE STARS

http://fafblog.blogspot.com/

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Blog?!?

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