Life, surreal and ironic. 

Many friends from my youth,17-20 years old, will recall a fierce, callow, wannabe Cold Warrior, ready to arm the Contras to the teeth and drop bombs on Managua and fuck that Commie Ortega while yer at it! Godless Red shitheels!  

Today I sit in my house with my best friend down here, José Lopez Cortez, who literally fought the Contras while I fulminated in air conditioned college classrooms. 

After fighting American-armed traitors in the Caribbean slope jungles, he was subsequently educated in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Baku. Like me his first wife was a Russian. Strange mirror our lives, his and I. We’re the same age. 

Surreal and ironic, life is. 

¿Como no?

The Nicaraguans do a lot differently. (There goeth a man?)

One little thing I like is how they say, “why not?”

I grew up with the Mexican/Tex-Mex “por que no?”

But down here it’s an easy, almost gleeful, “¿como no?”

Note the rising intonation complete with a copious splash of Nicaragua’s notorious sarcasm.

(They’re also notoriously laconic, an economy with words inversely proportional to the wealth they’ve had stolen, multiple times.)

Sarcasm being a necessity, really, because only Mexico (without the wealth of Mexico to sustain repeated fuckings) has been fucked over more regularly by the Norteños. Then again, add in the Spaniards and Mexico has been hate fucked on so regular a basis it’s a wonder the people aren’t catatonic.

Add Flor de Caña rum and you too can be a native!

¿Como no?

Field School Update #3

Monday begins the fourth and final week of the Belize archeology field school. It has been three weeks of backbreaking manual labor. Hard work, much harder than I expected. On Monday my digging technically ended. I am now in the lab analyzing the hoard of ceramics we excavated.

As I know nothing of Mayan ceramics it’s been a crash course in black, red or orange slips, polychrome, rim diameters and paste and firing. I can now distinguish between Mt. Maloney Late Classic I, II, and Terminal. Add to that a lot of Belize Red Ash Ware, a boatload of Cayo Unslipped (huge elegantly curved jars) the occasional Alexander’s Unslipped, Meditation Black, Dolphin Head Red, Garbutt Creek and a few others and I’m actually learning.

On the last active day of digging our efforts were interrupted by a troupe of Howler Monkey’s who came in to inspect what we were doing. Eight monkeys just swinging from the trees right above our excavated units, tossing poop into them and peeing where ever they wanted to. One almost pissed on my dig partner. He’s a douchecanoe and would have deserved it. (I don’t make it a habit to slag on people and being that he is not here to defend himself I will leave my comments at that.)

Random thoughts: having spent the better part of three weeks digging around the innards of a Mayan pyramid I am not terribly impressed with their architectural prowess. (And aliens were most certainly never involved.) It’s very rudimentary and ad hoc architecture. We excavated part of the south side medial terrace. We were looking for and found what they call ‘construction pins,’ which serve as a kind of support pier to keep the downward thrust of the pyramid from imploding. There are two critical aspects to architecture: form and function. As to function: they do what they are supposed to do and have held up well, but as the form of architecture goes they’re ugly and asymmetrical.

Another weird thing about Mayan pyramids, or “city groups” in general: they are accretive and never symmetrical. Few were built in just one building spree like contemporaneous works, take the Samanid mausoleum for example. Elegant, symmetrical and nothing ad hoc about it.

One thing I am aware of every time I dig here in Belize is that the Mayan’s had no metal weapons, nor did they have beasts of burden like the horse. This had a lot to do with the construction techniques they employed. There are no large dressed stones like the pyramids in Egypt. Every stone in this pyramid could have been carried by one man. And the labor that went into their construction?

The heat is abominable. I am going to sleep in a refrigerator when I return home. The humidity is terrible too.

It’s been an interesting experience, alas, what little curiosity I had in the Maya has been fully satisfied. I’m a desert guy. Jungles are too hot, have too many bugs and are way too loud. There is never any silence in the jungle. Nothing like the silence you find in the desert for sure.

You can find the photos and videos of the Howler Monkey invasion here.

Enjoy!

Belize Update Plus a Few New Photos


The digging continues, more so with a trowel than shovels now. Although when we work on the steps of the East slope we do some shoveling. Most of my work is on the South Slope of El Castillo, the main pyramid of the Xunantunich complex.

The heat is unrelenting, although at about 1130 every day a nice breeze whips around the pyramid and cools us. But the nights are brutal. My room is like a blast furnace. Top bunk sucks. Heat rises. No A/C and the fans are less than useful.

Alas, I am learning a great deal.

More soon. Enjoy some new photos! Only a few but we did discover some interesting pottery this week.

New Photos from Belize and Stuff

Here are the photos.  

It is hot.

The days are long. They start at 530. They end at 400.

It is 95*. I shovel and basically move about a couple dozen wheelbarrows full of dirt off the pyramid every day.

It is exhausting. That is all. 

Bus Stations

They stink, as in smell bad, the world over. Not horrible, but a combined human funk. So it goes . . .

Mega Thank You!

At The Border of Nicaragua and HondurasYou know who you are.

I just wanted to express my gratitude for the tips via PayPal.

You show me a great honor and for that, I am truly grateful!

And now, I am going to get back to scribbling up the adventure so far and bring us to the present.

Best case scenario, tomorrow we will watch the sun set over Tikal.

Plato and the Vagina, A Narrative

Arguably I’ve spent too much time lately reading theory; however, since I am returning to graduate school in January, it’s good for me to know what all the cool-kids are thinking and more importantly, how they are speaking. Hence the brush-up on theory.
Georgia O'Keeffe
Today while reading a short tome on post-modernism (yes, another one) I came across this sentence. The context was feminist art. Christopher Butler writes about Judy Chicago’s installation art piece The Dinner Party, which is a triangular dinner table with 39 place settings, each set with a plate and a butterfly, lobster, flowers and others that for all intents and purposes are vaginas. Butler says, “isn’t there a disturbing ‘essentialism’ involved in allowing vulvic imagery to stand for women?”

This sentence actually requires an enormous amount of historical unpacking, straight back to Plato and his “forms.” The author, in essence, is saying, why should the vagina stand in as the form, or formal representation of women?

My reply is simple.
Trajan's Column
You see the photo over to the left? You know what it is? It’s called Trajan’s Column and it kinda looks like a big dick. But maybe I’m being to ‘essentialist’ and you should use the search term “phallic architecture” and see what pops up!

My point here is this: I’m all for feminism in any form or essence.

I’m all for anything that draws attention to the plight of women around the world (and now increasingly here at home in America) denied basic freedoms “essentially” because of their biology.

A woman that cannot make her own reproductive choices is in no way free.

Eight and Ten

Ephesus: InscriptionOne personal goal this year has been to read more of what scholars and academics would call, “primary sources;” what laymen call “books that make up books.” Some can be fascinating for their own sake, like Herodotus (my all time favorite) or Thucydides (my bête noire). Portions of Lucian are worth reading today for sheer irony and humor and then there is the whole sprawling magnificence of the ancient Greek playwrights. Later writers sound fascinating but prove a touch on the disappointing side, like Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.” I’m still reading this and have hopes for it. The book is full of hard to find but thought provoking stories; I mean, where and when did the Greco-Roman gods really emerge? It’s a question not likely to stimulate many, unless they’ve read their Hesiod. Other primary sources this year have included “The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite,” which is a brief (mercifully so) history of the war between Byzantium and Persia from the perspective of an Edessene at the beginning of the 6th century. And most recently I’ve been quite taken by “Cyriac of Ancona, Later Travels.”

The volume in question is part of the i Tatti Renaissance Library published by Harvard University and covers his letters and diaries from 1443-49. As a 15th century Italian Cyriac was no doubt engaged in commerce. And he spent most of his life sailing around the tatterdemalion scraps of the Byzantine empire, setting up trade posts for the Genoese in the Black, Marmara and Aegean seas. It was with a certain relish and anticipation that I picked up his book. Some of it was good—like when he met the future Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in Adrianople during an audience with his father Sultan Murad II. If only Cyriac had taken a moment to look more closely at little Çelebi, as Mehmet was then called, one wonders what he looked like at ten? Was he brooding and intense like he seems in the later histories, or gentle and serene as depicted in the miniature by Nakkaş Sinan Bey?Harbor Road: Ephesus

There are other missed opportunities, like when Cyriac goes hunting with Constantine Dragases—the last Constantine, he who died on the Theodosian Walls like a proper Roman and last Emperor. What was he like, there in the wilds of the Peloponnese? Did he foresee his doom even then? The end of his empire and the end of his line? If only Cyriac’s letters told us more about these men than his trade arrangements. Alas, the recording of history is nothing if not grief over missed opportunities like these.

Cyriac is mostly remembered today, if he is remembered at all, because he urged the preservation of the antique remains that littered and illumined his world. Rare is he who sees the treasure that has always stared him in the face. At one point Cyriac sounds like a cantankerous citizen at a city hall meeting fulminating against the lack of preservation and decay all around him. “One needs a more expansive genre in which to cry out against, despise, condemn and thoroughly curse such great negligence, slothfulness and lack of human culture on the part of our contemporaries,” he writes near the beginning of his letters. We owe a lot, as a culture, to Cyriac’s imprecations. That we value the past as we do, and have preserved much of it, we learned during the Renaissance, and it remains Cyriac’s forgotten legacy.Priene

In July of 1444 Cyriac made his way from Constantinople to Perinthus (the modern Marmara Ereğlisi). Two thirds of the way there he stopped in Selymbria, now Silivri, to document the many inscriptions lying around. What must this have looked like? Cracked marble plinths, perhaps an architrave and columns lying higgledy-piggledy, used as a quarry for the more industrious of subjects and ignored by all the rest. The blue luciferase waters of the Marmara behind them. Here Cyriac found treasure.

Some inscriptions date back to the reign of Trajan—or at least this is my semi-educated guess, my Latin being rusty and my Greek practically oxidized out of existence. What struck me was the span of human existence  there—as I had seen when I visited the region in 2008-2009—and how much their desire to leave something behind is still so very alive. It’s one of those qualities that binds us as humans, even if we don’t realize it.

PrieneAnd yet, sometimes when I am back here in the suburban post-modernity of the New World, thinking about or reading history I feel I live in a facsimile of reality and it’s only when I am back over there, when I can touch a two thousand year old marble inscription that I know the past is real, not green lights tumbling down a black screen.

Such was my state of mind a few weeks ago when I sat down in my favorite chair and began reading the inscriptions Cyriac noted in his diary between the 25th of July and 12th of August 1444. Some were interesting and in Latin: 

Good fortune. Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus,son of the divine Trajan, victor over the Parthians, grandson of the divine Nerva, consul for the third time. 

Others anodyne (and in Greek) in their attempt to honor a citizen ad aeternam:

Good fortune. The Council and the People honored Poplios Ailios Harpokration, also called Proklos who built the shrine of Tyche; the Alexandrians who do business in Perinthos set up a statue in his honor. 

But then I read this:

As I was leaving my eighteenth year and just beginning the study of rhetoric, a grievous illness overcame me in well-wooded Lesbos, and I had not yet reached the pleasant land of Ephesus. My brother, by a great deal of work, gave this sadness to be borne to my parents on a swift ship. I dwell in the holy houses of heroes, not in Acheron—for such is the end of life for the wise.

Seven lines carved on a marble plinth gut punched me. They shouted and smiled down at me while I lay on the floor collecting the questions after a knock-out blow.

When was it written? Where was it found? Where is it now?
Inscription On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Who composed the lines? What did he die of? Did it take him quickly? Or was it a wasting disease? And just how did a dying eighteen year-old find the composure to write with such simple and powerful elegance?

Slaver the Greek word that begins the inscription around on your tongue for a moment and listen to its alien beauty: ohkto-kai-deka-toy.

Eight and ten. Eighteen.
Ornament, Ephesus
If the rest of Cyriac is dull, uninteresting and lifeless like the two former inscriptions, so be it, I thought in that moment, this inscription makes the entire book worth reading. It’s why I love the study of history and why I have disciplined myself to read primary sources this year instead of wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. The sources are like mines of gold or silver, but the veins of metal are rare and hard to find. And to mix metaphors a little, sometimes the poetry of the past, as in these seven lines of Greek, cuts me down to size.

I’m forty two years-old now. What’s forty two minus eighteen? It’s twenty four. I’ve had twenty four more years of living than this eloquent young man who, but for a loving brother, would have vanished, would have been wiped clean by the forgetful waters of River Lethe, and instead found himself in Elysium.

What have I done with my extra twenty four years? I’m human and wasted much of the time whining and groaning about lost opportunities (I really don’t have any to be honest, because I took most of them, wisely or unwisely) and pissing and moaning about stupid mistakes (we all have those, me included, but most aren’t that stupid, although there have been a lot).
Ornament On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Let us add more to the scales. He was eighteen years-old and died. And here am I with a (thus far) well-lead life: fifty five countries visited, one great love and two ex-wives, a career in finance (long), a career in software sales (short), a career as a writer (even shorter), and a stint as a stay-at-home step-father (the shortest). I’ve had more huge chunks of plain old-fashioned obscene good luck than 99.9 percent of humanity and I have the gall to complain?

And then I read what this young man—no, this boy—composed while dying and I know any story I tell will never have the impact of his seven lines of poetry.

The Heat

Austin via South CongressThis week it’s been solidly above 100* every day. It’s the first week of September. The worst week in central Texas if you ask me. The anticipation for the inevitable cold front has been building since the first week of August. The front normally arrives second or third week of September, but until it does it’s like a fever-pitch of expectations, hair trigger tempers and outright frustration.

For me there are always a few barely discernible hints that the heat will soon break. First, the humidity evaporates under a dry wind.

Check.

Second, in the mornings, no matter the temperature–this morning was 77*, for example–there is a slight breeze, cooler because it lacks the humidity of high summer, even if the afternoon heat is withering as today it most certainly will be.

Check.

Lastly, the Earth wobbles on its axis. That’s what creates the seasons. And with that wobble comes a change in the color and clarity of the light.

Not yet.

So, I wait. Today it will be 106*. That’s hot for any month, but for early September it’s almost unbearable.