Saturday, March 18, 2017

Will You Take a Dollar?

Recently, I spent the weekend helping someone with an estate sale.  There are companies that will do this for you, but when you learn the prices they charge, unless the estate happens to include a few Picassos or your fabulous collection of Fabergé eggs, you will probably find that after the sale, you end up owing the auctioneers.   The only alternatives are a timely—and insured—home fire or you, yourself, sitting in a garage for a weekend while strangers hand you pocket change.

Besides the emotional toll of collecting, cataloging, and disposing of a loved one’s entire material and cultural history, estate sales are pure living hell.  This is because you have to deal with the scum of the earth—otherwise known as The Public.  (The word would be far more appropriate, and accurately descriptive, if they left out the ‘L’.)

People descended on that garage sale like sharks to chum.  Like attorneys to a wreck on the highway.  Like politicians to a playground.  (If you don’t understand that last one, do a Google News search on ‘Oklahoma politician’ and ‘teenage boy’.  Sure, they were just hanging out—doesn’t everyone hang out with minors in a motel room with illegal drugs?)

Geography had a lot to do with the reason this estate sale was unique.  Though winter was only two weeks ago, this is the Southwest and summer has been in full bloom for the last week and a half.  If we had the sale to do over, we would have worded the signs:  “Estate Sale!  7:00 am until 100 degrees!” 

Second, we could almost see Mexico from the house.  (The neighbors down the street can see Mexico from theirs—Sarah Palin would be so pleased!).  This means that most of the items we sold were loaded into vans and pickups and taken across the border, where within a week, they will be sold in giant flea markets to American tourists, who will bring them back across the border to their homes.  Within a few years, this cycle will be repeated, again and again.  Technically, this falls into the category of recycling.

Several pickup trucks were severely overloaded with Tupperware, mismatched pots and pans, and lawn furniture.  As each hazard to public safety pulled away from the house, I was reminded of that old Texas Truism”  “No truck is fully loaded until you run out of rope.”

This kind of sale is very popular, so people started showing up well before the sale was supposed to start—in one case, a whole day early.  You might as well start the sale at dawn, because that is when people start knocking on your door.  (And some of the earliest shoppers were the ones who bought the most items—in many cases, the most useless items.  We sold items that I wouldn’t have accepted for free:  lids without pots, obsolete electronics, rusty tools, and lawn tools that looked like they had been used to dig the Erie Canal.   I sold half a can of Turtle Wax to a man who was driving a leftover from a Demolition Derby.

We sold old electric appliances to people who didn’t even want to plug them in to see if they still worked!  Stranger yet, more than once, people came back an hour or two later, and bought more.

Some of the people, I suspect, didn’t even really want the things they bought, they just came to haggle over the price.  People who wouldn’t buy four jelly glasses for a dollar would gladly purchase ten for two dollars.  And more often than not, that $50 bill someone paid with was pulled off a roll as fat as the Sunday paper. 

The strangest parts of the day, however, were the questions people asked.

“This 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle in a torn box, which you are selling for a quarter, are all the pieces there?” 

          “I’m not sure, but feel free to count them if you like.”  She bought it.

“Will you have another sale next week?”

          “How often do you think one household can have an estate sale?”

“Will this $3.00 bug zapper kill mosquitoes?”

          “Yes, sir,” I said, thinking it would kill an elephant if swung it hard enough. 

“Will you take two dollars for this? asked the man who was holding an item clearly marked for one dollar.

          “Why, yes, I will.  And for you, I’ll sell you three of them for five dollars.”

“Can you hold this for me until I ask my wife if it is okay to buy this?”

          “Why, certainly, I’ll hold that dollar TV tray in reserve, just for you.”

“Is this used?”

          “Probably, this is an estate sale.   But, if you want to be sure, you’ll have to ask the original owner.”

“Is this the estate sale?”

          “Nope.  This is an outdoor department store.”

No, I won’t sell the table holding all the items that are for sale.   No, we don’t have any chain saws.  Yes, everything is for sale.  And so forth and so on.  We ran out of stuff to sell before we ran out of buyers.  If the neighbors had been on vacation, we might have extended the sale.

Halfway through the day, I remember thinking, “I’m not going to do this to my kids, I’ll organize my crap before I die.”  Then I remember all the times they woke me up in the middle of the night just to tell me they had been visited by the dark angel of projectile vomiting.  I remember the school meetings where a teacher had asked me why I was raising junior terrorists.  I remember….

My new plan is to dent all the mixing bowls, chip the Pyrex, and start hiding cash in the spines of selected books.  Anything that comes in a set of four or more, needs to lose at least one of the pieces.  The Doc has promised to do her part by buying more shoes.  My sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, should not be denied the pleasure having of their own estate sale. 

Note to my sons:  A few of the estimated 10,000 books in this house—that you refused to read—are fairly rare first editions.  Can you tell which ones?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Of Course I Do!

You may have missed the news stories, but Congress has balanced the budget, eliminated the foreign trade gap, and solved the problems with health care.  Peace is finally at hand in the Middle East, North Korea, and Chicago. 

While I, too, missed those news stories, all of the above must have occurred, since our government once again has time to discuss the vital problem of 'who uses which bathroom'.  As soon as this life-threatening crisis is solved, I have no doubt they can get around to finally settling the issue of which way toilet paper should unroll. 

Is it just me, or does it seem strange that most of the controversy about transgendered people's using public restrooms comes from states where a significant portion of the plumbing is still outside, and thus, is already "unisex"?  Perhaps we need a new rule:  If you are still worried about keeping four, six, and eight-legged critters out of your bathroom, don’t sweat the two-legged users.

My mother worked extremely hard to teach me manners, and at least half of them stuck, so I will, if I remember to do so, accommodate your request to be treated as the gender of your choice.  This just seems like good manners (and, after all, it’s really none of my business).

Unfortunately, manners will not solve all the possible problems.  I don’t know—or care—how the Olympics will keep men from competing as women.  I have no idea how the Small Business Administration will keep men from applying for preferential loans designed for female entrepreneurs.  All of this is not my monkey and not my circus.  I’ll just sit in the bleachers and eat peanuts while others solve this problem (or attempt to solve it).  I’ll be easy to find:  I’ll be the one laughing his ass off.

As a small gesture of cooperation, I know of an expert who might be able to solve this problem:  We should ask Lyle.

When I was a grad student in Anthropology, I met Lyle.  He looked exactly as you would expect an anthropologist to look:  tanned, tall, skinny as a flagpole, and dressed (every day of the year!) in shorts, t-shirt, and well-worn boondocker boots.  (And Lyle, while technically brilliant, was as crazy as a bucket of frogs). 

Lyle believed in reincarnation, and had vivid memories of all of his past lives.  While Lyle is not the only person I have ever met to have claimed this, he is the only one who never claimed to have been a king, or someone prominent in one of his previous incarnations.  While I’m still not a believer, on one hot afternoon, as we were carefully sifting through hot sand in a field school at an archaeological site, it was kind of fascinating to listen to Lyle's telling about freezing to death while marching out of Moscow with Napoleon. 

Lyle had a "small" problem with many of his professors.  For a group of anthropologists who taught that all cultures and religious beliefs should be equally respected, they had a lot of difficulties actually working with someone a little different.  (Actually, over time I learned that the more an academic or a department claimed to be tolerant of others, the more obviously they weren’t.  It is easy to find whole departments in which everyone comes from the same region of the US, is the same race, has similar political beliefs, and where no one is a veteran, and none has any work experience outside of academia.  Some of that is natural—and some of it is unconsciously deliberate.  These are nice people, but at the same time, universities are the most sexist, racist, and status-conscious place I have ever worked.)

To his credit, the department head of Anthropology gathered the faculty together, chewed everyone out for their reluctance to work with Lyle, and then forced them to draw lots.  The winner got Lyle as a grad assistant.  Of course, the department head made damn sure his own name wasn’t in the hat before he drew the "winning" name.

I took a seminar class where Lyle was one of the students.  An anthropology seminar is a class in which, at the prompting of a professor, students passionately argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Every class, we would sit around a huge table, using a different book of the week and discussing the author’s definition of culture. 

Note.  I can save you a couple of years of reading and a small fortune in tuition money by telling you that anything is a definition of culture.  There are hundreds and hundreds of definitions, none of which will give you any insight as to what culture really is.  The final exam in that class was an essay—write your own definition of culture using a new metaphor.  That particular day, an obnoxious Ray Stevens song was repeating endlessly in my brain, so I filled a Blue Book explaining how a highway convoy was the perfect metaphor for culture.  If you think I got an A, that’s a big ten-four, good buddy.

One week, somehow the class got on the subject of ghetto sub-culture and the discussion got a little heated as a young African-American student angrily defended her position.

“You have no idea,” she proclaimed, “what it is like to be a Black woman raising children in Harlem!”

“Of course, I do!” thundered Lyle.  “And I did it during the Great Depression!”

I have never seen a discussion shut down so quickly!  Students—who would have argued over even the day of the week—just sat there with their mouths open.  Remember, all cultures and beliefs are equivalently valid…

Obviously, we need to get Lyle’s opinion about bathrooms.  If we need input from multiple points of view, the man is a whole committee.

It wouldn’t be fair to stop here, however:  I need to tell you what eventually happened to Lyle.  After graduation, he was immediately hired by a well-known university in the South.  Unbeknownst to Enema U, Lyle had spent years hiking the New Mexico and Arizona desert and he had thousands of photographs and meticulous notes of the petroglyphs (rock engravings) and petrographs (rock paintings)of the Southwest.  As far as I know, he still has the largest collection of photographs  of this Native American art work.  Since he was not treated very well by the faculty of Enema U, he never told them about his collection.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Far From the First Time

“The president has declared war on the press.”

The above is a fairly accurate summation of the last month’s major news story, and every paper in the country has reported on it.  Pundits have denounced the president, endlessly repeating that a strong and vigorous fourth estate is necessary to the well-being of a democracy.  Which is true. 

The papers go on to say that this is unprecedented in the country’s history—which is false.

Obviously, democracies need a free and unrestrained press, which is guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.  However, also guaranteed is the right of the president to criticize the press.  Those in the media frequently forget that while they have a right to speak or print, but do not have any right to be uncritically respected.

There has never been a golden age of accord between the press and the American presidency.  Every president—without exception—has believed the press to be unfair, partisan, and in need of correction (if not outright restraint).

George Washington was an ardent fan of newspapers, subscribing to over thirty different papers.  Between his announcing his candidacy and his inauguration, he had cancelled his subscriptions with all of them.  As president, his administration was soundly criticized by the press.  When his Secretary of State, John Jay, negotiated a peace treaty with England, the Jay Treaty was denounced by newspapers in terms that are too harsh even for today’s media.  One paper wrote, “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!”

Jay later remarked you could travel by horseback across the nation, your route illuminated by the fires of his body burning in effigy.  Washington, however, ignored the press & rewarded Jay by naming him to the Supreme Court.

It was only after Washington left office that he changed his mind and began reading the papers again.  On even the last day of his life, he read a newspaper.

John Adams, Washington’s successor, was so thoroughly convinced that American newspapers were controlled by the French Press, that he pushed the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, that made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, allowed the president to deport “dangerous immigrants, and prohibited the press from making statements against the federal government.  Editors who were critical of President Adams were fined and sentenced to jail terms—the severest  was 18 months and $480 for calling President Adams (among other epithets) a "tyrant".

Jefferson successfully ran for the presidency—in part—on doing away with these oppressive acts.  The Acts were allowed to expire or were abolished, with the exception of the Alien Enemies Act which is still part of the Federal Statutes.  (This was the law that allowed FDR to imprison Japanese, Italian, and German immigrants during World War II.)

While Jefferson supported free speech for the press, he nonetheless hated the way the “polluted vehicles of falsehood and error" reported on his presidency.  "Newspapers present for the most part only a caricature of disaffected minds.”

Even President James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, hated the newspapers.  He endured them, eventually saying, "To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

Andrew Jackson despised the press, believing that the articles accusing his wife of bigamy (technically correct) contributed to her death shortly after his election (but before his inauguration).  As General Jackson had already killed a journalist in a duel, insulting the president was a dangerous undertaking.  There are a lot of stories about how tough Jackson was, the extraordinary number of pairs of dueling pistols he kept ready, the would-be assassin whose gun failed to fire—twice (the assassin-wannabe was then beaten into submission by the President)….But my favorite Jackson story is about his parrot, Poll, who was supposed to have a place of honor at Jackson’s funeral.  Unfortunately, the bird had to be removed because it wouldn’t stop cursing. 

While every president has disliked the press, it has been during war that presidential ire has risen to its highest points.  During the Mexican-American War, President Polk mused about trying various newspaper editors for treason.  But no president actively pursued and punished the press like Abraham Lincoln.

Nothing that Lincoln could do made American newspapers happy.  Even when Lincoln was successful, the Northern press still attacked the president.  After delivering the Gettysburg Address in 1863, the Chicago Times wrote: ”We did not conceive it possible that even Mr Lincoln would produce a paper so slipshod, so loose-joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. He has outdone himself.”

Another newspaper cataloged Lincoln’s character traits:  “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land-Pirate.”

Lincoln closed newspapers in both the North and the South, jailed or banished editors, and prohibited the publication of some forms of protests.  When the Supreme Court overruled Lincoln’s suspension of the Bill of Rights, he just ignored the court in large part.  This is surprising since—though it is not widely known—Lincoln owned a small newspaper, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, when he was elected.  While he sold the paper shortly after being elected to the presidency, he was an avid paper reader while in the White House, and newspaper clippings were found in his wallet the night he was assassinated. 

Grover Cleveland actively hated the press, and wouldn’t even allow reporters space within the White House to work.  His secretary, who was nominally in charge of working with the journalists, forced them to wait outside in all sorts of weather.  When the journalists begged the president to hire a secretary who would be kind to them, he answered that he preferred one who was kind to the president. 

After Cleveland, things did not improve much under President McKinley.  While he allowed the press a small office within what was then called the Executive Mansion, he still complained that newspapermen were “the inventors of news.” 

All of this changed dramatically with President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the real inventor of "presidential spin.  Teddy loved to use the press, and invented many of the presidential press traditions still in place today.  He improved the offices the press used, he was the first president to have a press secretary, and he was the first to meet regularly with the press.  On most days, he informally met off the record with reporters while he shaved.  And Teddy was the first to take full advantage of photographers during these meetings.  He kept close track of where the photographers were, and when they were about to take his picture.  It is almost impossible to find a "candid" photo of this president who made a point of having his presidency recorded on film.

Teddy Roosevelt was also the first president to stage press events to shape public opinion to fit his political needs.  When he wanted congressional approval of naval submarines, he took the press with him to document his descent to the bottom of Long Island Sound.  Roosevelt, via his use of the press, created the modern presidency.  Up until this point, the peace-time president was the chief administrator of the nation, but policy and most legislation were created by Congress.  Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, used the power of the press to change that, the president, the sole branch of government that could speak with one voice, became the shaper of national policy.

As the media changed, so did the relationship between the president and the press.  In 1920, there were only two radio stations in the country, within two years, there were over five hundred.  For the first time, print journalism was not the only form of news media, and while the public quickly adopted to the new form of media, the presidency was a little slower.  Invest a few minutes with Google, and you can still hear the tinny voice of Herbert Hoover, yelling loudly into a microphone that he obviously doesn’t really believe works.

Hoover was nearly the complete opposite of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who understood not only the medium, but how the people listened to it.  His relaxed and conversational tone connected with the American people, much to the horror of print journalists.  In time, FDR, too, complained about the unfairness of the press and about biased reporting.  While regular press conferences were still being held, FDR insisted that the questions be submitted in advance and that the president could not be quoted directly without permission.

President Eisenhower was the first to use film to record his press conferences and he was obviously dubious about the value of adding movie cameras to a formal press conference.  At the first, on January 19, 1955, Ike said, "Well, I see we are trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn't prove to be a disturbing influence.”

From there, it was only a small step to January 1961, when President Kennedy held the first of sixty-five live, televised press conferences (and the questions did not have to be submitted in advance in writing.  The press not only resisted this change, but hated it.  The Dallas Morning News attacked Kennedy for controlling the media because “it does not want the public to know about the errors it might make. Further, it wants to give the people propaganda about its own merits through the news it ‘manages.’” This", the paper wrote, “can become a part of the path to dictatorship. … The people cannot rule unless they have the facts upon which to base their judgments.”

Nixon controlled the press conferences…by having almost none at all!  In six years, he held fewer press meetings than Ford did in two years.  Where FDR had held roughly seven press conferences a month, from Nixon through Reagan, the average dropped to one—or fewer—a month.  Even "Silent Calvin" Coolidge used to average about six a month. 

Bush (41), Clinton, and Bush (43) averaged a little over two a month, and each complained bitterly about unfair reporting in the press.  Or, as Bill Clinton called them, the “purveyors of hatred and division”.

President Trump has a horrible relationship with the press...And we should be grateful, as evidently, this is an indication that all is well.  It is when the press likes a president, and cooperates with him that we ought to be worried.

From the sound of things these days, I’d say we are safe for at least the next four years.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Brazos Ghost Story

Mike was sitting at the breakfast table working on his second cup of coffee when his wife walked in.

“You're up early this morning," she said as she poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot.

The old rancher smiled at his wife.  Barbara was his second (and younger) wife—the one his jealous friends had called his "trophy wife".

"It's all your fault," he said.  "You were having a nightmare and I found a new way to calm you down without waking you up.  All I have to do is wrap my arms around you and put my hand on your breast."

"Uh-huh," answered his wife, a look of clear skepticism visible on her face.  "So why are you awake?"

"I wrapped my arms around you and put my hand on your breast.  What was your nightmare about anyway?"

Barbara sat down at the table with her cup of coffee and began stirring in the sugar.  "The church group women were telling me this long ghost story about someone named Ted Mays.  Seems half the people in town saw him driving around town after he had died and been buried.  They said he got up out of his grave and then drove all over town.  Several of the women swore they saw him in the broad daylight and he waved at them.  I don't believe in ghost stories, but this one must have got to me."

"Ted Mays?  The cattle buyer?” snorted the old rancher.  "Hell, they didn't bury that scoundrel.  He was so crooked that when he died, they just screwed him straight into the ground.  And I know for a fact that he stayed there.  Hell, he was too damn lazy to move an extra ten feet while he was alive, much less after he kicked the bucket.  He ain't no ghost."

"Several of the women said they had seen him riding in town.  You know Debbie:  she hasn't got the brains to make up something, bless her heart."

"I'll tell you what.  You cook me some biscuits and gravy for breakfast, and I'll tell you what happened." 

Then Mike told the story...and he knew it well since he had been part of it.  Ted had been a part-time cattle buyer, but his only real interest in life was duck hunting.  The cattle-buying job was just a way of paying the bills until duck hunting season opened.   He took his annual leave each year just as the season opened and for two weeks could be found in his duck blind on the Brazos River, about a mile upriver from the town bridge.  The road to the blind was poor, requiring a 4-wheel drive vehicle to make the trip, but from the rough plywood blind Ted had had built was located right on the waterfowl's flyway, hunters had a great view both up and down the river.

Mike and Kent had both been with Ted that morning.  Having arrived well before dawn, the three men took position in the duck blind and waited for the sun to come up.  As soon as there was a solid glow to the East, Kent had turned to Ted and tried to make a little conversation while they waited for enough light to see the incoming birds.

"How much longer do you think ‘fore it's legal to hunt, Ted?" asked Kent. 

When there was no answer, Mike had nudged Kent.  "Hey, the great hunter is asleep."

Kent looked over at the corner of the blind, where Ted was wedged in the corner of the blind, his massive frame resting on an old wooden bench.  "Yeah, he's asleep.  His eyes are closed."

"Wake him up.  It's too damn cold for anyone to be comfortable.  If I’m freezing, he needs to suffer with me.”

Kent nudged the cattle buyer unsuccessfully a few times, then bent over and carefully examined Ted's face in the dim light of dawn.  "He ain't sleeping.  He's dead,” Kent announced.

Sure enough, Ted had gone out just like he would have wanted, he’d had a heart attack while duck hunting.  He was wedged upright into a corner of the duck blind, with his right elbow resting on the window sill, his arm straight out from his body, with his hand dangling out in the cold morning air.

Mike dug out the cell phone his wife insisted he carry and called the sheriff.  Since there was no way for an ambulance to make its way down to the river, the sheriff told the two ranchers to stay with the body until the county coroner could make his way to the duck blind in a jeep.

Unfortunately, it was well after lunch before the coroner could find someone to run him down the river.  By the time he had finally arrived, half of Santo had called Mike, asking if it was true, had Ted actually died while duck hunting?  Eventually, the phone’s battery had died, giving the two old ranchers a little peace as they waited for the coroner.  They wouldn’t have minded all the phone calls so much if they hadn’t interfered with their duck hunting.

The two old ranchers had held a brief discussion on the propriety of hunting while Ted reposed in the corner of the blind, but had finally decided it was what Ted would have wanted.  Out of respect for the departed, they had only borrowed Ted’s HE Grade Super Fox shotgun a couple of times each.  Using his double barrel was their way of showing tribute.  Least, that’s what they had told each other.

Eventually, the coroner finally arrived and officially announced what the two men had already figured out:   Ted was, indeed, dead.

Mike was just finishing the story as Barbara put the plate of biscuits smothered in gravy in front of him.  “And that’s how the ghost story got started,” Mike said as he reached for the bottle of Tabasco Sauce.

“What?  You haven’t explained anything.  How does a dead man wave at people?” protested Barbara.

“Well,” Mike said.  “By the time the coroner got there, Ted was stiff as a board.  He wouldn’t fit in the jeep, and it just didn’t seem right to let him roll around in the back of the pickup.”

“You mean…”

“Yep, we put him in the passenger seat of the truck.  Had to roll down the window to fit him in.  Wasn’t our fault we had to drive him through the middle of Santo to get to the funeral parlor.  He must have waved at half the people in town before we got there.”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Let's Dig Into That

There is a fundamental flaw with archaeology—you can find all the pieces of junk you want, but without written records, there is no way to bury cognitive thought.  Put more simply:  Without writing, there is no way to tell what the people were thinking. 

You can dig up all the shards (glass) and sherds (pottery) you want, but it won't tell you what the user was thinking, believing, or hoping while he accidentally broke the trash you painstakingly dig out of the ground. 

So archaeologists guess based on careful analysis of the material they dig up.  These are educated guesses, but they are still just guesses.  And inevitably some of the guesses are wrong.  What intrigues me are the many, many guesses that turn out to just be flat wrong.

The famous archaeologist and historian Eric Cline has written that if two thousand years from now, archaeologists were to try to understand daily life in the 21st century without the benefit of our written records, they would undoubtedly believe that Starbucks was a religious shrine.  Look at the evidence:  They are centrally located, sometimes duplicated on multiple adjacent street corners, and every one of them features prominent art work of a priestess with flowing hair and rainbows emanating from her head.  

Personally, I think Cline is onto something.  The people I know who frequent Starbucks do so religiously.  Somebody ought to tell those people that Starbucks is experimenting with a new beverage that is fat free, low calorie, and non-gluten:  It's called coffee.

Any mention of incorrect interpretation of archaeology sites has to include one of my favorite books, David Macaulay's "Motel of the Mysteries".  A beautifully illustrated work of comic fiction, Macaulay chronicles a dig in the year 4450 trying to discover what life was like in North America two and half centuries earlier.  Luckily, they have recently discovered the intact ruins of a religious shrine from the period.  (This is roughly the chronological equivalent of our discovering ruins from the founding of Ancient Rome or from the Battle of Thermopylae.)

As they dig into the ruins, they discover the remains of a priest and priestess on a ceremonial platform, facing a religious shrine, with one of them still holding the holy communicator.  Actually, of course, these future archaeologists have located a motel, with the remains of a couple lying on a bed, where they had been watching television, with the TV remote still in hand.

Note.  Never call an archaeologist a “digger”.  They prefer to be called “Archaeo-Americans.”

The book is a work of genius.  Macaulay has carefully depicted scenes from the motel that intentionally mimic Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of King Tut.  And who knows?  Maybe Carter got it all wrong, too. 

Certainly historians and archaeologists make mistakes.  There are the Runamo rocks in Sweden.  If you look carefully, there is a long line of runic figures in the rock, a form of writing on which scholars worked for hundreds of years to decipher the hidden message.  Learned men from all over Europe offered long explanations that confirmed the runes described the life of this king or that saint, or possibly an epic poem about the Danish king, Harold Wartooth.  For centuries, the debate raged over whether the runes should be read left to right or right to left…and I have no doubt that today there would be an army of would-be scholars writing their doctoral dissertations on the mystery had not some damn geologist proved that the "writings" were actually naturally formed cracks in the rocks. 

There is also a wonderful story about the lost brass plate of Sir Francis Drake.  When the explorer sailed along the coast of present day Northern California in 1579, he went ashore and left an inscribed brass tablet to commemorate the occasion, claiming the lands for his queen.  Historians and archaeologists have spent considerable time looking for the brass plate ever since.  One historian, Eugene Bolton of Berkeley, was obsessed with finding it, driving his university colleagues a little mad. 

Bolton belonged to a history club with a drinking problem, the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus.  Supposedly, they were self-professed experts on the qualities of various barroom floors.  When someone discovered Drake’s long lost plate in 1936, Bolton’s friends tried in vain to prevent Bolton from spending his life’s savings—all $2,500—on the artifact. 

Bolton felt vindicated when the plate was authenticated by the California Historical Society and the artifact was variously on display at both the Bancroft Library and the Smithsonian.  Photographs of the plate appeared in textbooks and an exact copy of the plate was presented to Queen Elizabeth II.  Bolton died happy, if somewhat poorer.

Forty years after the plate was purchased, it was scientifically reexamined.  A subsequent investigation proved that the plate was a clever forgery done by Bolton’s colleagues, the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus.  Presumably, the good professor’s "friends" had spent his thousands of dollars on alcohol.  It still belongs to the Bancroft Library, but hasn’t been on display for over a decade.

Besides the occasional mistakes and a hoax or two, sometimes archaeology presents real mysteries.  Such was the case when Leonard Wooley excavated the palace of Nabonidus, the last great king of the Babylonian Empire.  The palace was 2500 years old, but luckily, there were a few mentions of the king in historical documents.  There is a scrap of the Dead Sea Scrolls that mentions him, and the Book of Daniel probably mentions him:

"He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird" (Daniel 4:33).

Ignoring that this is a perfect description of the average academic, today we think that Nabonidus was probably more of an eccentric than the raving lunatic that the Bible describes.  We know he paid scant attention to his official duties, neglected his religious roles, and ignored the needs of his people.  Instead, he spent all his time traveling through the desert examining the ruins of even earlier civilizations. It is possible that Nabonidus was related to Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian King…but we don’t know for sure.  Nor are we sure exactly how he became king—just that the previous king was Labashi-Marduk, a youth who seemed to die suddenly…. Probably just a coincidence.

We do know from other accounts that the kingdom of Nabonidus was conquered by King Cyrus the Great of Persia.  Cyrus was crafty and ambitious, so he allowed Nabonidus to live in relative comfort in his former kingdom, as long as the newly acquired territory continued to pay taxes and join its army to that of Cyrus.  It was, in fact, the conquering of Babylon that created the Persian Empire.

As Wooley excavated the palace, he almost immediately uncovered a problem.  It is one of the cardinal laws of archaeology that stratigraphy indicates age.  Older items are found deeper in a site than newer artifacts.  But in the palace of Nabonidus, this simply wasn’t true.  4500 year-old artifacts from Ur were lying next to 3000 year-old artifacts from Egypt.  And both pieces were inside the remains of a palace that was 2500 years old.

How could this be so?  Imagine that it is 1925 and you are excavating with Leonard Wooley.  What is your explanation?

It took a while, but Wooley finally figured it out.  He was excavating what Nabonidus must have considered his own personal museum.  Nabonidus was as mystified by the ancient ruins present in Babylonia as we are by his civilization.  Those frequent trips he took were to gather artifacts for his collection.  Eventually, Wooley discovered that each piece in the museum was labeled—small clay tablets identified the item in three languages.   

Wooley had excavated the first museum.  Today, many textbooks identify Nabonidus (who was evidently "crazy like a fox") as the “Father of Archaeology”.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Barbecue on the Brazos

The old Rancher stared at the coals in the grill.  Half of the briquettes were still as black as tar, while the other half had turned completely gray, having obviously burned too much to still be useful.  The best he could do was stir them around a little and hope the rest caught fire.  It was too late to wish for evenly burning coals.

"Kent!  Bring me another Tecate, would you?"  Kent, who was over by the back door with the wives, smiled as he grabbed two cans of beer from the cooler and the salt shaker from the table, then walked over to the grill.  Handing one to Mike, he popped the top on his beer and sprinkled the edge with salt before giving the shaker to his friend. 

"I hate cooking with these briquettes, but we don’t get as much mesquite as we used to," Mike said.

"No.  The damn salt cedar is choking the mesquite trees out all along the river."

"Yep.  Forty years ago, when I was working down in Mexico, I helped make charcoal one time.  We dug a big pit in the ground, stacked it full of mesquite wood, and set fire to it.  When the fire was going hot as hell, we covered the top of the pit with corrugated roofing iron, then covered that with about two feet of sand.  The fire was still hot, but was smothered by the lack of oxygen.  When we dug out the pit the next day, we had over 100 pounds of good mesquite charcoal."

"You try that today and I suspect some government agency would arrest you for something or other," Kent said.

"True enough.  'Course, the drought's been so bad lately, this is about as big a fire as I dare start.  It's been so hot and dry….yesterday, I saw a tree chasing my dog."

"You think that's bad?  My neighbor has started a sideline selling barbecue to tourists out of a stand on the highway.  He just hoses his stock down with steak sauce and sends them out to stand in the sun.  Twenty minutes later, the brisket is piping hot and ready to eat.  He's got restaurants all over Fort Worth crying foul about the unfair competition."

"Humph," Mike snorted.  "The first liar ain't got a chance around here."

"I'm looking forward to that steak.  Ruthie's got me on a low cholesterol diet.  I've eaten so much chicken lately, I'm afraid of growing feathers."

"You and me both!  Have you noticed lately that chicken and tomatoes taste like cardboard?  Corn is tasteless, and it seems like nothing has the flavor it used to.  About the only thing that still has flavor is beef, and now I don't get to eat as much as I used to."

"True enough," Kent agreed.  "But to be honest, most of what we used to eat wasn't very good for us.  Most of what we ate was more or less an oily salt lick covered with butter."

Mike carefully turned the steaks over and answered his friend,  "You're right," he said.  "But, I don't know if you've noticed that it's a little too late for us to die young.  Sooner or later we have just got to reach an age where it doesn't matter any more what we eat.  I just hope we reach that age while there's still something worth eating."

Kent took a hit on his beer and asked, “Why were you down in Mexico, anyway?”

“When I was younger and dumber, for a while I thought I might want to be a cattle buyer, so I got a job as a stock handler with a buyer out of Amarillo and went with him to Zacatecas.  I learned a lot on that trip!"

“Such as?”

“Besides how to make charcoal, I learned I really didn’t want to be a cattle buyer.  And I had a great lesson on Mexican food,” Mike said as he tried to evenly distribute the burning coals under the black coals that had yet to catch fire.”

“We were staying in this little hotel next to the old bull ring.  There’s a new and bigger bull ring now, and the old one has been turned into an expensive hotel.  These days, people pay big bucks to spend the night in a former cattle stall.”

“Well, we went to the bull fight and later that night, we ate at this little hole in the wall restaurant next to the bull ring.  While we were sipping our tequila, my boss noticed a sizzling, scrumptious-looking platter being served at the next table. Not only did it look good, the aroma was wonderful, so he asked the waiter, ‘What is that you just served that guy over there?’ " 

“Now the waiter told my boss that this was a special dish, barbecued bull testicles, fresh from the bullring.  Now that cattle buyer just had to have some, but there was only one serving a day, because there was only one bullfight per day.  But, the waiter said that if my boss wanted to come back the next day, he promised to reserve the order for him.”

“My boss agreed,” continued Mike.  “So the next day, after we got finished inspecting the local cattle for sale, we headed back to the restaurant and they brought him a steaming platter, piled high with steaming onions and peppers surrounding a pair of ‘cojones barbacoa’.”

“My boss, loved them, and pretty well demolished that platter.  But as he finished, he waved the waiter over and asked why his dish had seemed smaller than the dish he had seen the day before.”

“The waiter shrugged his shoulders,” Mike said, “and replied, ‘Si, Señor, sometimes the bull wins’.” 

Humph,” Kent snorted.  “The second liar does just fine.”

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Just a Little Blood

A publisher recently sent me a free book, hoping that I would adopt it in my future classes.  The idea was that I would force this book down the throats of hundreds of students, each of whom would be forced to purchase the overpriced book. 

It's a good scheme, and it works more often than not, but this time there were a couple of flaws.  First, I've retired, and won't be forcing students to buy any books (but publishers, feel free to keep sending me free books).  Second, the book was pure shit (And old rehashed shit, at that).

There are hundreds of bad books extolling the simplistic theory about Native Americans who lived in perfect harmony with nature (as if they'd been simple children in a Garden of Eden until corrupted by the evil influences of the European invaders).  As a theory, this has died out everywhere except on television and in social media.

The only problem is that, even though every historian in the country knows better, books pushing the same old nonsense continue to be written, published, and sold.  There are a host of similar widely held, but preposterous similar subjects:  People in Central America couldn’t have come up with the concept of building pyramids, so there must have been some contact with Egypt that taught them how to build such complicated structures.  In the seventies, there was a prolific author—who damn sure doesn’t need any more publicity from me—who got rich peddling a series of books promoting foolishness about how ancient aliens were responsible for all the new world civilizations.  Such ideas are nonsense at best (and more likely, racist). 

Perhaps we should sit quietly in a corner for a few minutes, in deep introspection and try to figure out why we find these absurd theories so attractive and comforting? 

Did Native Americans live in harmony with nature?  (You know, kind of like Iron Eyes Cody in the classic Keep America Beautiful public service announcement where, after watching people littering along the highway, has a single tear form in his stoic Native American face?  Well, probably not exactly like him, since he was actually Italian and just looked Native American.)  The idea of Indians living in harmony with nature just never seems to die.

Native Americans exploited their environment to the limits of their technological abilities.  It wasn’t Europeans who hunted woolly mammoths to extinction.  And if you need more proof, look at ‘Head-Smashed-In-Site’ in Alberta, Canada.  The Native Americans put up stone markers along a trail for over five miles so they would remember the trail they used to stampede herds of buffalo off a cliff.  Far more animals were killed than were butchered—and the site was used for seven thousand years.  Survival was tough, and Native Americans would have hunted with flame throwers if they could have—and so would you after you skipped about three meals.

Perhaps the best example of an educated scholar refusing to quite literally read the handwriting on the wall is Giles Healey discovering the Bonampak Murals.  Healey was an anthropologist from Yale, who spent years living and working in Central and South America.  Early in his career, he spent two years collecting curare from South American jungles so that the deadly poison could be studied and used in medicine.  During World War II, Healey and his wife moved to Mexico and began searching for new Mayan sites.

It is amazing how much we have learned about the Mayans in the last few decades.  Sites have been located, their written language has been decoded, and thousands of archaeological sites have been located.  When Healey first began his work, however, the established belief was that the Maya were peaceful astronomers, poets, and time keepers living in a Utopian world.

The truth, of course, is that the Maya were ruthless, violent people who sacrificed their victims in the most horrific ways imaginable.  There is not enough room here for a history lecture, but suffice it to say that the Maya were obsessed with blood.  If they could not use blood from victims captured in battle, the Maya used their own blood.  Even their royalty were not exempt:  Mayan kings pierced their genitals and passed ropes of woven thorns through the punctures to produce blood as an offering to the gods.

Note.  This always makes me think of the same two thoughts.  (Well, three, if you count “Ouch!”)  First, this kind of religious belief makes it easy to understand why the Maya converted to Christianity so readily.  A god who died on the cross made perfect sense to them.  Second, if our modern day political leaders were required to do a little genital bloodletting, it might thin out the herd of power-hungry plutocrats a little.

Healey was producing a film about the peaceful Maya when he was led to a previously unknown site, the Bonampak temple.  Inside the temple, the walls contained the magnificent murals that completely rewrote our understanding of the Maya.  The murals covered the walls of three rooms of the temple, and clearly showed the history of a battle, as well as the torture of captured enemies.

Yes, they do show torture...And the Titanic was a rather large boat.  Neither sentence does the subject justice.  The murals are absolutely horrific:  A quick example would be the drawings showing the Maya ripping out fingernails, leaving blood spurting from the fingers of the captives.  As wall art, only the Assyrians painted anything close to this kind of horror. 

But when Giles Healey saw the paintings, he searched the murals, looking for the bucket of red paint that the Maya had dipped their fingers into.  He never found the bucket, and since the facts did not support his conclusions….he ignored them.  When he produced his movie, Maya Through the Ages, he did not include a single reference to Bonampak, instead showing the Maya as mystics who lived in total harmony with nature, who  spent their time studying the heavens and perfecting their calendar.

Healey cleaned the accumulated dirt of centuries off the murals, photographed them and published his work, but he could not accept the truth that the murals plainly stated.  (Nor was he alone, as the book I just finished reading proves).

No matter how often we repeat the truth, there will always be a market for the books and movies that tell the more comfortable lies.  More often than not, written history tells us what we need to (and want to) hear.  In doing so, it often tells us more about who we are now, than what happened then.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pulque-It's Not Just for Breakfast

A long time ago, I wrote about tequila, its various forms, and my favorite place to drink it.  I always meant to come back and discuss pulque, but never got around to it.  For some reason, the recent elections have had me thinking a lot about drinking.

Pulque, like tequila, is made in Mexico from the maguey cactus, but whereas tequila is distilled, pulque is allowed to ferment naturally from the juice extracted from the agave plant.  It would be a gross oversimplification to say that tequila is distilled pulque, but--What the hell!--this is a blog, not a textbook.  (Though a few of these postings have actually been reprinted into textbooks by people who must have been unaware of my liquid-assisted research methods.)

While good tequila is made from only the Blue Agave plant, most varieties of the maguey, or agave, plant can be used to make pulque.  While it takes a dozen years for the plant to mature, a single plant can produce hundreds of gallons of pulque.

Pulque has always been associated with the lower classes--with campesinos, peasants, and the working poor.  The beverage was, until recent times, only made in small batches and was not available commercially outside of small local bars called pulquerías.  For a very long time, pulquerías were places which tourists (and even local women) avoided. 

Tourists were warned NEVER to go near these bars, so I went into my first one when I was sixteen.  It was a tiny little place outside of Nuevo Laredo that didn't even open until after midnight.  I went after that place like a Baptist to a honky-tonk, convinced that any place I wasn't supposed to go was exactly where I needed to be.

Actually, I was treated kindly and with far more courtesy and respect than I deserved.  This has pretty much been my experience in Mexico for about half a century.  Even when my own government was predicting that any tourist who dared to cross the Rio Grande would immediately be carried off by flying monkeys, I have always felt safer in Mexico than I did while walking in the downtown areas of most large American cities. 

Years ago, while attending school in Zacatecas, I was doing extracurricular research at the, ah...uh, ...library, when it closed at 3:00 AM.  It was just starting to rain, and my chances of locating a taxi were somewhere between slim and none.  As I walked home, I passed an all-night convenience store and the owner, seeing me, ran out and insisted that I borrow his umbrella.  We had never met previously, and he refused a proffered deposit, just asking that I return it the next day.  This is typical of the kindness I have routinely experienced in Mexico.

Finding the little pulquería in Nuevo Laredo was the most difficult part of the entire experience.  I finally found a cab driver who took me to the tiny little bar on the edge of town.  I eagerly ordered the drink I had heard so much about.  The bartender--traditionally called a jicareno--took what looked like a large green jelly glass and filled it with a pale white foamy liquid from a large earthen jug, covered in cheese cloth.

Pulque does not improve with close inspection.  While I have not personally seen anything moving in the cloudy liquid, it seems that I am the only Texan visiting a pulquería who hasn't.  Pulque is never exported to the states, in part because the beverage is not pasteurized and will quickly spoil.  (I have always wondered how they know when pulque goes bad?  Does it start to smell good?)

What does pulque taste like?  I haven't heard too many people agree on much.  Rarely does anyone say it tastes good.  You hear the word 'citrus' used a lot, but it definitely does not taste like fruit.  In my opinion (distinctly uneducated opinion), it tastes like a mixture of Tang--the old instant breakfast drink--with a dash of light machine oil.  It's tart, with just a hint of slime.

Pulque predates the Spanish by centuries, possibly millennia.  The early conquistadors discovered that the local population already had several forms of alcohol long before Columbus, and in the first centuries of conquest, they freely drank of the native brew.  It didn't take long for the Spanish to regulate pulque production and tax and tax and tax it.  It seems to be the overriding passion of all governments to tax anything enjoyable.  If Washington could figure out a way to regulate the sunrise, we'd all live in darkness until we had paid in advance.

According to one interpretation of the Aztec codices, pulque played a large part in the Spanish conquest.  The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl became drunk on pulque, and slept with his twin sister.  When he sobered up, he left Mexico, sailing to the east, vowing to return in the year One Reed.  In that year--what Europeans called 1519--Hernan Cortes arrived with his army.  Some believe that Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler, mistook Cortes for Quetzalcoatl.   

By the 1850's, several German brewers had set up business in Mexico and were turning out some of the same beer that is available today.  It was these breweries that helped bring an end to the era of pulque.  Not only was beer seen as superior, but healthier to drink.  And by the 1930's, at the insistence of the breweries, the Mexican government began to push the small pulquerías out of business.  In 1936, Mexico announced that no new pulqueías would be licensed. 

The breweries were largely responsible for the dangerous reputation that pulque has today.  Among the lies spread by the distilleries was that animal or human feces were added to the cactus sap to start the fermentation process.  I am almost positive that this crap is bullshit.  Yeah, I'm pretty sure.

The few small bars that still manufactured the original brew got new regulations, and were forced to change their way of business.  Fifty years ago, women were not allowed to enter where the beverage was sold, but today the small bars must have bathroom facilities for both sexes.  Slowly, most of the old pulquerías have gone out of business, so there aren't that many of them left.

Pulque, however, is slowly becoming more popular.  A couple of companies are now using aluminum cans to sell a homogenized--and highly flavored--version of the ancient beverage.  The harsh taste is gone, and so is some of the fun of drinking it.  (If it tastes good, how can you still be sure it is bad for you?). Sold under several names, the new version of pulque is marketed as a "heritage drink".  (I doubt a similar sales strategy would work in the United States:  I don't think Madeira wine will sell better just because it's advertised as a favorite of our forefathers.)

If you want to try this new pulque-ish drink, I can recommend the Lincoln Bar in Ciudad Juarez.  They'll sell you a nice meal, several cans of neo-pulque cola, and you'll have an enjoyable evening.  But, if someone offers you a glass of the original pulque, you should not drink it.

No, you should never drink pulque.  Bring it to me, instead.  I'll dispose of it for you.