Books Read ~ 2014

My Pre-Thesis PresentationI’ll be doing this list just as I have all the others from years past ( 2013, 2012, 2011). You get the name of the book, the author, the genre and the date completed. If the book was worthy of a note–positive or negative–I give it one. Otherwise, consider it an average book. If there is an *next to the book that means you’d be wise to get yourself a copy and read it.

My goal, as it is every year, is to read 52 books a year, that is on average one a week. One thing to note: this year I read almost 25% more than I did last year and last year I read 75, which astonished me. This year? Ninety and heading towards ninety one as I write this.

Anyway, let’s get to it:

1. Du Fu: A Life in Poetry trans. David Young: poetry, completed January 7, 2014

The single greatest Chinese poet ever. This is an excellent volume with which to get acquainted.

2. Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright: non-fiction, completed January 12, 2014

This was a solid book in the context of my reading: I had just returned from Guatemala and Tikal in particular. Well written and interesting. But, since I returned to the Mayan region in the summer and excavated by hand a portion of a pyramid I no longer have any interest in the Mayans, at all.

3. The Purpose of the Past by Gordon Wood: history, completed January 20, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

4. The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown: history, completed January 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

5. The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins: history, completed January 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*6. The Columbian Exchange by Alfred Crosby: history, completed January 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This book really needs no introduction. Any man or woman who considers him or herself to be well-educated should have read this book at least once. Linguistics!

7. Becoming Mex-Am by George Sanchez: history, completed January 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

8. Christians and Pagans by Ramsay MacMullen: history, completed January 31, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

9. The Broken Spears by Miguel Leon-Portilla: history, completed February 1, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

10. Brown in the Windy City by Lilia Fernandez: history, completed February 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

11. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels: history, completed February 7, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

12. Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso: memoir, completed February 9, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*13. Cannery Women and Lives by Vicki Ruiz: history, completed February 9, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This book by historian Vicki Ruiz is splendid. It’s a capsule of a time when collective-action was possible and immanent in America, even for minorities like Chicanas. Of all the Chicano history I read this year–and I read close to 20 books–this book was the standout.

14. The Albigensian Crusade by Joseph Strayer: history, completed February 9, 2014 Readings

Assigned for a graduate history course.

16. Saints and Their Miracles by R. Van Dam: history, completed February 15, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

17. History in Six Glasses by Tom Standage: history, completed February 16, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

18. From the Jaws of Victory by Matt Garcia: history, completed February 18, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*19. Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot: history, completed February 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. However, this was THE book of the year. It is the gold standard of what post-modern theory and methodology can do to the telling and uncovering of history. This is a must read.

20. The Zoot-Suit Riots by Mauricio Mazon: history, completed February 25, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

21. Muhamed & Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne: history, completed February 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

22. Muhamed & Charl Reconsidered by Hodges&Whitehouse: history, March 1, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

23. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon by Mauricio Pagan: history, March 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

24. City of Kings by Rosario Castellanos: fiction, March 16, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

25. Youth, Identity, Power by Carlos Munoz: history, March 17, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

26. Forces of Habit by David T. Courtwright: history, March 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

27. Raza Si! Guerra No! by Lorena Oropeza: history, March 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

28. Early Growth Euro Econ by Georges Duby: history, March 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Readings

29. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor: travel, March 31, 2014

The final installment of PLM’s great trilogy of his youthful excursion walking from the Hook-of-Holland to Istanbul. The first half was lovely, full of his excellent story-telling prose. The last half was clearly patched together by the editors in the aftermath of his death so as to get something published and finish the story.

30. The First European Revolution by R.I. Moore: history, April 4, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

31. Human Trafficking by Louise Shelley: anthropology, April 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

32. Medieval Women by Eileen Power: history, April 11, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

33. History Short Intro by John H. Arnold: history, April 14, 2014

Wanted to see how well the Oxford Very Short Introductions hold up across the board by starting with what I know: history. This one was okay.

34. Marginal Society Paris by B. Geremek: history, April 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

35. A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: essays, April 22, 2014

Another posthumous book, this one in all parts more coherent and well done than Patrick Leigh Fermor’s, but still lacking in that final draft kind of way. Reading it reminded me that we lost a future Nobel Prize winner when Sebald died. A Little Light Reading

36. Medieval Rural Economy by G. Duby: history, April 25, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

37. My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan: memoir, April 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

38. A Primer for World History by A. Burton: history, April 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

39. The Horse in Human History by P. Kelekna: history, May 3, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.  A decent history of the role horses played in human history, not without flaws, however.

40. Nomads and the Outside World by AM Khazanov: anthropology, May 4 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis. The gold standard of anthropology on nomads.

41. Early Seljuq History by A.C.S. Peacock: history, May 9, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

*42. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes: fiction, May 23, 2014

This was a very fun and interesting spin and take on Noah’s Ark. I highly recommend it.

43. Devil Colony by James Rollins: fiction, May 27, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish. Life of a Student

44. The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell: fiction, June 1, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish.

45. A History of the Seljuks by Ibrahim Kafesoglu: history, June 13, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

46. Turkestan Down To Mongol Invasion by Vasily Barthold: history, June 19, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

47. Earthly Measures by Edward Hirsch: poetry, June 20, 2014

*48. Ambivalent Conquests by Inga Clendinnen: history, June 21, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. This book is the book to help the reader gain a better appreciation of the Inquisition in New Spain.

*49. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: fiction, June 30, 2014

Zweig: what is there to say? Get the book, read it. You can thank me later.

50. Napoleon’s Defeat by Philippe-Paul de Segur: history, July 13, 2014

A personal memoir from one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp. Quite fascinating inside portrait of Napoleon and how the myth got made. Simulacra

51. The Fire Gospel by Michael Faber: fiction, July 28, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish.

52. Modern Inquisitions by Irene Silverblatt: history, August 10, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

53. Go Betweens by Alida Metcalf: history, August 16, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

54. Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge: memoir, August 17, 2014

This was an excellent, if difficult book. One of the many books circling around Marxism I read this year. Serge is an important character in the early 20th century attempt to create Communism from nothing.

55. Fear by Gabriel Chevallier: fiction, August 24, 2014

France’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front.

56. Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart: poetry, August 28, 2014

57. The Professor and the Siren by G.T. Lampedusa: fiction, August 31, 2014

An interesting and edifying novella.

58. Recreating Africa by James H. Sweet: history, September 8, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

59. The Faces of Honor by Johnson and Lipsett-Rivera:  history, September 13, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

60. On Being Blue by William H. Gass: belles-lettres, September 16, 2014

In essence a long essay on the color and definition and uses of the word blue.

61. Women Who Live Evil Lives by Martha Few: history, September 19, 2014 

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

62. The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt: fiction, September 20, 2014

Another post-modern novel. Well done. Not overlong. Compelling story of New York in the 90s.

63. The Mexican Frontier by David J. Weber: history, September 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

64. The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche: philosophy, September 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Reading

65. Foucault for Beginners by Lydia Fillingham: philosophy, September 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

66. Line in the Sand by Rachel St. John: history, September 29, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

67. Imperial Subjects by Fisher and O’Hara, eds: history, September 29, 2014. 

Assigned for a graduate history course.

68. The Great Seljuks  by Aziz Basan: history, September 29, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

*69. America by Jean Baudrillard: philosophy, October 1, 2014

My first full Baudrillard text. Fascinating view of America by one of France’s premier post-modern theorists, especially in the context of my drive to Joshua Tree National Park this summer.

70. The White Scourge by Neil Foley: history, October 13, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

71. Origin Family, Property, State by Friedrich Engels: philosophy, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

72. Troublesome Border by Oscar J. Martinez: history, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

73. Three Essays on Sexuality by Sigmund Freud: psychology, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

74. Marx for Beginners by Rius: philosophy, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*75. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson: poetry, October 26, 2014

A great poem.

76. Civilization and Discontents by Sigmund Freud: philosophy, November 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

77. From Out of the Shadows by Vicki Ruiz: history, November 3, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Color

78. Marx, A Short Intro by Peter Singer: philosophy, November 13, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

79. Before Homosexuality in Arabia by Khaled el-Rouayheb: history, November 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

80. Quixote’s Soldiers by David Montejano: history, November 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

81. Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste by Philip Mirowski: history, November 24, 2014

Blockbuster book that I will not recommend for the following reason: you must have a.) a background in theory and philosophy and b.) a background in finance and economics to get anything from this book. It’s a tough read but ultimately helped me connect the dots between the neoliberal agenda and why there was no reform after the Financial Crisis in 2008.

82. Warriors of the Cloisters by Christopher I. Beckwith: history, December 3, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

83. Places Left Unfinished by John Phillip Santos: memoir, December 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

84. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault: history, December 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This was a disturbing book. In it one can see Foucault emerging as a neoliberal. Although he is not quite there yet in this text, he is getting close. The depiction of how power is distributed is also disturbing. The way he relates it, power is of its own self, indwelling, immanent. Human agency means nothing to it. Now, what is says about sexuality is fascinating: basically this: sexuality as the sum of being is principally a Western thing. Other cultures, like Islam and China and Japan don’t see sexuality as the defining aspect of humans, but simply as pleasure. Only the West obsesses about it, which is one reason the West and Islam don’t understand each other. We see Islam as repressed. They see us as debauched. Both views, from the viewpoint of the observer are valid. Study

85. Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon: fiction, December 7, 2014

My first Simenon mystery. Well done.

*86. Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn: history, December 11, 2014
Future source for Master’s thesis. This book should be read by anyone who considers him or herself educated. It’s a part of the modern canon.

87. How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs by De Lacy O’Leary: history, December 13, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

88. The Landbreakers by John Ehle: fiction, December 21, 2014

This book captures the language of Appalachia better than any other I’ve read. It’s like reading Justified, but takes place in 1780s.

89. Red Doc by Ann Carson: poetry, December 26, 2014 Found Poetry

Sequel to Autobiography of RedNot as good as the first.

90. The Archeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault: philosophy, December 29, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Dense, difficult but important book in the emergence of Foucault as a proto-neoliberal.

91. Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: theory, December 29, 2014

92. Abolition of Political Parties by Simone Weil: theory, December 31, 2014

This is a book written in 1943 about the Free France exiles in the UK. It has relevance today for contemporary American politics. Political parties should be banned.

Any lessons from this year? No, not really. I read a lot of theory–and I am not ashamed to admit I read several “Beginner’s Guides to So-and-So” first before reading the full text of their works, Marx and Foucault being prime among them. I’m glad I did. It always helps give me a framework for understanding what’s being said.  If you are going to wrestle with the original text of philosophers and know how dense philosophical prose can be, I highly recommend this approach. Most of the theory I read was for one course, A History of Human Sexuality. This course confronted me with multiple ideas and constructs I’d never dealt with before. I can see why modern Anglo-American Conservatives despise the Post-Moderns: they have given historians and philosophers and anthropologists, etc . . . a way of looking at the world that de-essentialized core values, namely Enlightenment Values, and has shown what those core values were built on. For example, people have always wondered about the mindset of a man who could own slaves, have a slave girl as his concubine and write a document as magnificent as our Declaration of Independence, one of the great Enlightenment era texts. Using the tools of Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard and Jameson one can put Thomas Jefferson in his proper context and come to see how he could essentialize rights for white men, but not include all men (and women, for that matter). It wasn’t hypocrisy for him, it’s just the way Enlightenment thinking was structured. Conservatives don’t want to look at this, and yet they use the methods of the Post-Moderns to tear everything liberals and the Left have done. Once they wreck everything, the neoliberals come in and patch things up the way they want them. To understand how that happens you must read Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste by Philip Mirowski. Good Reading

I also read a fuckton of history. I didn’t read nearly enough fiction, but I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon, what with me being in grad school and all.

I did read five books of poetry. That’s something new I’ve been doing: reading a book of poetry all the way through. What I do is leave the book by my bedside and read a handful of poems every night. I must confess: Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog was pretty lame. My poetry professor, Edward Hirsch’s Earthly Measures, was quite lovely. And Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red was a real standout, although the sequel, Red Doc, was flat out weird and disjointed.

Any large themes? Yes, two. First, this was the year of re-investigating Marx and Marxist thought. I had done this in my undergad, as I almost did a Soviet/Russian studies degree. However, I was young and callow then. Furthermore, this year there are several books that I am reading that remain half done regarding Marxism, including Jameson, Marcuse and others. Second, this year was dominated by Chicano studies. Had you asked me a year ago if this is what I wanted to spend half my first year reading I would have said, “nope.” But I am the better for it theoretically, methodologically and personally. I have a much more realistic grounding of how America has totally dominated Mexico since 1846 and how one of the effects of that dominance is the persistent displacement of people North. This is the big secret no one in the US or Mexico talks about: the dominance, not undocumented labor, which is just a symptom.

That being said, the other half of my year was dominated by Central Asia, which included a return journey and a twenty page paper that now serves as the foundation for my Master’s thesis. The thing I’ve loved the most about this year has been my seminar classes, the rough and tumble of debate, the intellectual ferment, engaging with smart people on an almost daily basis. It’s been fantastic and reminds me that I made the right decision returning to school, no matter my age.

Bookshelf Porn

Deserts Aren’t Supposed to Be Green

Crazy Rain, Fort Davis, TexasI’ve never seen Trans-Pecos Texas so green. I’m 43 years old and admittedly I’ve been coming out to the Big Bend area since my late twenties so that’s not a very good statistical sample.

Be that as it may: I’m glad that the West of Texas isn’t in hardcore drought like it has been in years passed. I’m also glad to see just about every creek and river on my route for Fort Davis in good health. All except the Pedernales. That river is just dead. Good job Austin!

Here is a link to the Drought Monitor.It’s current for Texas. Look at the area worst hit in Central Texas. That’s pretty much most of San Antonio’s watershed. Except we get most of our water from an underground aquifer and so we won’t see the effect of this drought for a year and we won’t see the recharge, when it comes, for a year.

I hadn’t realized how bad a year Texas was having until I looked at the details. 59% of the state is currently in moderate to exceptional drought status. Three months ago it was 72% and a year ago it was 89%. That’s bad. It isn’t California bad, but we had California’s bad drought in 2010-2011. Relief is expected over the next few months as well as Texas’ traditional September rains arrive. California, I am very sorry to say, is fucked. Another reason Texas can soon expect more Californians to come live here. 

In retrospect, I suppose my comments about healthy creeks and rivers don’t mean diddly-squat. Still, I’ve never seen the area around Fort Davis so green. I can only imagine what Big Bend National Park looks like? It must be amazing, Ocotillo in bloom all over the place? Prickly-pears of all different colors blossoming in the desert? I wish I’d had time to drive down there but it’ll have to wait until later in the year, if I get back out west at all. I might have some research work overseas during the winter break so we’ll see.

I took a detour about three hours out of San Antonio and headed south across Terrell County through the Pecos River canyonlands. I drove across Independence Creek, filled with insanely glorious water. Water so clear it made me want to drink it. Water so clear it made me want to take my sandals off and get my feet wet, walk up and down the creek for a while like I used to when I was a kid.

Of course, it made sense, looking at the water, why landowners are so protective of entry and exit into the Devil’s River (which is on the other side of the Pecos River canyonslands): open that river up to tourism and it’ll be wrecked in two years, even to the most responsible tourists. Industrial tourism has a way of doing that–and no, I am not one to talk. Some places are better off with a conservation easement but no public access. Some places are just better off left alone.

Some places should remain wild.

Then I drove down into Sanderson Canyon, stopped in Sanderson itself for gas and water and chips and then drove on, eager to drive up out of the canyon onto the Marathon Uplift, as they call it geologically. I fiddled around in the road-cuts along the way, messing around in the rocks like a boy. Then, a few miles outside of Sanderson Canyon it all changes. I call it the most gorgeous view in all of Texas, purple mountains and golden grass filled with pronghorns and cattle and the occasional elk.

Except this time it was green.

Beautiful, yet green.

Compare the view atop the Davis Mountains looking south and east just three days ago, and the view on December 29, 2013.

Same place, damned different colors.

Deserts aren’t supposed to be green.

It rained an awful lot, which feels bizarre in Fort Davis. Clouds obscured the skies at the McDonald Observatory so no Star Party, which was why I came out here in the first place. I did get four solid days of daydreaming before the rigors of scholarship begin. Four days to let my brain do nothing but follow the monkey mind wherever it led. Four days of food, fresh air, wild critters and the occasional bird or two.

If you are so inclined you can check out all the photos here:

Green or not: get yourself out to the Big Bend area and the Davis Mountains. It’s the best country Texas has to offer, and country is something we still have a whole hell of a lot of.

Better Than Ezra

MuralI’m reading another book on post-modernism.

I know, I know, why am I torturing myself like this?

Well, I think it’s critically important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of our age, even if most of us (me included) walk around accepting them and seeing them and acting in accordance to them without really understanding them.

Plus, post-modernism has an element of fundamental weirdness to it: just ask any philosopher or literary or art critic what it is and you’ll get different definitions. Even worse, in order to understand just what post-modernism is, you have to understand what modernism was, which poses its own challenges. One of those challenges being the complicated place Ezra Pound holds in the pantheon of modernism.

When Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” most writers and critics nowadays, in the present, meaning circa 2014, interpret it as a battle cry to turn the old order over, and start new. In a sense, most people see Pound’s call as a cry for destruction, like Shiva the Destroyer, and then Brahma the creator to rebuild the temple of civilization with literature and art and architecture. A perpetual revolution of the arts.

But this is not what Pound meant. Not remotely. Pound, when he said, “make it new,” meant to take the old verities, truths, stories, fables, myths, buildings and paintings and make them new—not destroy them but mold the stories into a modern context.

For example, take the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. She does this extremely well in “The Penelopiad,” the Odyssey told from a woman’s point of view, but not just any woman. She tells it from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife.
Found Poetry
Or read Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which tell the tale from many new angles, characters silenced in the original.

There is also the fine poet Patricia Smith who retells the story of Medusa.

Yes, all these are literary examples, but how about pop-culture? Easy enough: “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” the Coen brothers Depression Era take on the Odyssey. These are the true inheritors of Pound’s great battle cry, ‘make it new.’

In his great olive branch of a poem Pound came to Whitman as a contrite grown child:

It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

Even Louis Menand agrees, as he writes in the New Yorker: “The “It” in “Make It New” is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past.”

I personally like it when old stories are told anew, but I’m weird that way.

What’s even more bizarre is that not only am I beginning to understand and intuit post-modernism, I actually kind of like it. That’s certainly not something I thought I would ever say or write.

6 Agosto, Diario de Camino


Queretaro was not a place I’d ever thought I’d visit and yet here I am—and that is a story I will get to in a bit. Yesterday, the 5th of August, was one of those days where everything came together—the magnificent drive from Orizaba (Mexico’s big brewing town) up into the Sierra Madre Oriental, the chain of mountains that runs roughly parallel to the Gulf Coast. I’d boarded the bus the afternoon before at 430 in Chetumal, on the Caribbean Coast of Mexico, at the southern end of the Yucutan.

I’d slept most of the night and woke up just outside Orizaba. At this point, my plan was still get to Mexico City and catch the first bus to Nuevo Laredo, walk across the bridge and catch the first Greyhound home. But for the long drive up Sierra Madre Oriental full of blue skies and lush green mountains I would have. The Gulf Coast is terribly hot and humid but once I began the climb it breaks. After a month of inland Belize heat I had no interest lingering. The mountains here are semi-tropical with deciduous trees dominating until half way up and then the conifers show up. The valleys are impossible—filled with switchback after switchback, large 18-wheelers resembling insects thousands of feet below. I’m pretty sure the towering snow clad behemoth I saw was Malinche, named after the Cortes’ famous interpreter and later wife. As I crest the mountains I’ve arrived on a broad upland plateau that’s almost semi-arid, deceptive-like, but not. To me it resembled the Motagua Valley in Guatemala. But then I saw fields of golden flowers, agaves, century plants and maize everywhere.

I speed past restaurants called “Benedicion” and “Esperanza” and “Dolores Milagro,” the Catholicism runs deep here. And then I speed past towns with names like Huixcolotla, Acatzingo and Tlaxcala and the Nauhua runs deep here too, especially with Tlaxcala, the red city, city of treachery, the great unconquered nemesis of the Aztecs and Cortes’ best allies. Had they not allied with Cortes there would have been no Conquest.

And then my mind wandered, lost in random thought. But the fields persisted: perfect rows of maize bordered by prickly pears or agave, sitting between crystal clear streams running down to the Rio Panuco and cypress lined dirt roads that wooden shacks made of tin roofs and some cinder block lead to. Shepherds punctuate a landscape of lumbering volcanoes obscured by clouds, ready to erupt at any moment.

The high plateau ended as it must. I begin climbing downslope to the Great Valley of Mexico, having taken Cortes’ route. I turned a switchback and then the entire valley came into view. Bernal Diaz’s words, one of Cortes’ soldiers, were never more apt, “And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and the other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.”

What a world was lost by the Conquest.

More soon . . . in the meantime, photos can be found here.

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!

True Detective

Y’all know I try to stick to the books, right? Of course, every now and then I get hooked on a television show. I have my personal favorites like Californication, Justified, Grimm (guilty pleasure) and The Wire, which I seem to watch over again at least every two years. On the flight home from Istanbul, about an hour and half before landing in Houston I tuned into HBO’s first episode of True Detective. I only got half of the first episode because we were beginning our initial descent, but I was hooked.

Yesterday afternoon at about 530 pm I completed the first season.

I needed close to 24 hours to process what I witnessed. I will not give anything away. You must watch this show. Period.

yellow_king.jpeg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

Although I won’t say anything about the plot, the character development of the show most reminds me of Dostoevskii’s greatest novel, “Crime and Punishment” in its ferocious darkness. Obsessively shining a light where none ever need be shone.

Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) was simply relentless. The point wasn’t the plot, because in the the end we all know Raskolnikov killed the old lady. The point was Raskolnikov’s soul and its consummate exploration. This is what True Detective did. And with eight episodes it had the rare luxury to explore the souls of two male leads.

I have no doubt that the first season or series of True Detective will go down as the best television series ever made. It’s better than House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Justified, Game of Thrones, Rome, The Wire, The Sopranos, Californication, Homeland, and Dexter plus anything else you care to throw at the TV Guide, combined. The acting is impossible to describe and it’s impossible to say in the end who does a better job: Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey. The psychic distance alone each actor has grown is testament in itself. Consider, Woody Harrelson began acting as the doofus barback in Cheers. Matthew McConaughey was the pretty boy for about twenty rom-coms in the 1990s-into the early aughts.

If they gave an Oscar for TV they would have to share it. Affecting and moving acting by both men.

And Michelle Monaghan is the emotional anchor of the entire series and for both men: talk about unsung acting jobs. Wow. Her’s was not a star’s role, but she made it one: complete and centered, the equal of both men.

The show is that good and that dark and that awful and that powerful and that mesmerizing and that uncontrollably shudder inducing. And more.

In fact, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not watch it.

Decadent Anticipation

I realize as I sit here typing this is going to sound trivial and carping, like trite complaining. In all reality it probably is. But here goes.

Bahia Navidad

I travel a lot.

I traveled a lot before I got married and traveled some while I was married but travel was always a huge matter of conflict and it was just easier to not travel and not fight about it than it was to travel and fight about it afterwards. Maybe someday I will figure out why I married a woman who wanted to marry a nomad but wouldn’t let me travel? How did I let that happen? What’s that say about me?

But I digress.

Then I got divorced and moved back to San Antonio and promptly went to Central America for two weeks with my Father. Then I went to Joshua Tree for a week with a friend. I just returned from three and a half magnificent weeks in Central Asia with my Father. We’re talking about Antarctica over the holidays to see penguins. Yes, I am trying to catch up for a handful of missed years.

So, like I said, that’s a lot of travel.

But here’s the catch: I haven’t traveled alone since July 2009 when I went to the Mexican state of Jalisco, wherein I stayed at a little beach village called San Patricio/Melaque on the Bahia Navidad to be precise. And nearby, between drunken nights and memories of blowing conch shell horns on the beach and ceviche to die for I took up surfing in the Boca de Iguanas in the mornings. It was a divine three weeks, as I recall. Only late in the trip a friend showed up and the entire tenor of the trip changed. I only traveled with him a few days and then went home.

This leads to my complaint, if you want to call it that, I see it more as a recommendation or an endorsement: nothing beats traveling alone.

Absolutely nothing.Pelicans

It is rare and decadent. There is no one to please. No one to worry about. No one to keep me from doing what I want to do when I want to do it. No one to compromise with about this food or that, this place or that, nothing or anything. My only job is to live in the moment and like a dandelion seed go where the wind blows me. (I stole the dandelion line from someone by the way.)

And for the first time in five years I am going to travel alone.

I’m actually more excited that in three weeks I am going to get on a bus at the San Antonio bus station and ride to Mexico City and see a friend than I was about going to Central Asia.

After Mexico City I will make my way to Belize where I will participate in an archeological dig at Buena Vista and Xunantunich for twenty five days: no air conditioning, cold showers every morning and washing clothes by hand in the Mopan River old school-like. Up at five asleep at eight. Devouring every last drop of knowledge I possible can from my professors on the Maya and the practice of archeology.

After that I will meander–slowly–back to San Antonio by bus, but not before spending at least three days on the Pacific Coast surfing.
Colonias Returning Home From Work

No computer.

No smart phone.

No jealous woman back home demanding I Skype or wondering what the hell I am doing and why she hasn’t gotten a call, or a text or why so and so said something to me on Facebook. (No, really, I’m not bitter.)

Hell, I’ll probably leave the camera in the hotel room most of the time as well.

Nothing will come between me and the waves, except tequila at night and my pen and notepad, because I’ve learned writing by hand is where I find that train bound for glory.

It has been too long.

And I cannot wait much longer.

Why Did The Aral Sea Die?

Why did the Aral Sea die, because it categorically did not have to?

Qara Qum Canal

Here’s the majority of the problem, the answer as it were: Turkmenistan chose to destroy it.

How? It’s the water shown in the photo above: it’s called the Qara Qum Canal.

It channels water from the Amu Darya (the classical Oxus) at Turkmenabat, along the border with Uzbekistan all the way across the Qara Qum Desert to Ashgabat, bleeding the Amu Darya dry, and still failing to slake the thirst of the most hideously gaudy cities planet earth. (Inferior only to Vegas on the vulgarity quotient.)

It carries 13 km³ of water away from the Amu Darya into the desert onwards to Ashgabat. Along its 1,375 kilometer route through the dry wastes of Turkmenistan it loses 50% of the water it siphons away from the Amu Darya due to evaporation. Staggeringly inefficient, as it is. Also preventable. 

The Turkmens chose a lifestyle and standard of living approaching the gauche opulence of a Persian Gulf despotism (not that American ecological choices are much better) and this is why the Aral Sea died.

Now, consider this: 50% of that whAral Sea: 1989-2008ich the Turkmen’s siphon from the Amu Darya evaporates, right?

Now, take Uzbekistan which gets the other 50% of the river.

Uzbekistan engages in another form of breathless stupidity: they grow cotton (a notorious water hog) and rice, yes rice, in the desert with Amu Darya water and their irrigation projects lose another 50% due to evaporation, which also is entirely preventable.

So, before the water even irrigates anything in Uzbekistan or reaches Ashgabat fully half the entire river is lost to piss-poor irrigation technology, technology that could have been upgraded in the 90s for a fraction of what it is now costing both countries in ecological damage due to the effects of the disappearance of the sea.

“What about Kazakhstan,” you ask?

Kazakhstan is the only nation that has done anything to save it’s portion of the Aral Sea. The Syr Darya (the classical Jaxartes) feeds the north of the Aral Sea. Several years ago the Kazakhs created realistic conservation policies and also built a dam to hold back the water from evaporating, thereby creating the Little Aral Sea. Yes, it’s something, but it’s still too little, too late.

This is the result of a human policy with global implications. The obvious question is what happens when the glaciers in the Pamirs, you know, those things up in the hills that feed the Amu Darya, disappear due to global warming?

I don’t know, exactly, but it will be bloody and brutal.

Airlines In America Are Now As Terrible As Airlines In Russia

Boarding A Flight in AshgabatLet me make this prefatory remark up front: I take absolutely no joy in writing this or in making these criticisms, but someone has to tell you how it really is. If you disagree, fine, but back your disagreement up with something more than a mindless assertion that “‘Murica is the best.” Why? Well, for starters, chances are I’ve forgotten about more of my travel experiences than you’ve ever had travel experiences. Second, I have observation and experience on my side. Third, well, do you really want to have a pissing match you’ll lose? Just trust me, I know what I am talking about.

I say this each time I am at IAH (Houston Intercontinental) airport: it’s a filthy pit. And I’ve seen some in my time. While I was waiting for my last flight to San Antonio (having flown from Istanbul to Munich to Houston) a man said in Spanish to his wife, “this airport is filthy.” I was embarrassed. But then I looked around even more closely. The paint on the walls was peeling, the blue carpet was filthy, the chairs were leaning at angles and the fabric was torn or stained. I expect this in an Uzbek airport or one in some other post-imperial shit hole. But in America, the so-called greatest, richest, most awesomest country in the entire galaxy?

We should be ashamed of shitty air travel infrastructure.

Second, American airlines are fast approaching the quality of Russian airlines. United, Delta and American are and should be a national disgrace. Turkish National Airlines is better than all three and there are many airlines in the world better than Turkish. The point is that our domestic airlines are pathetic and now equal post-Soviet Russian planes in decrepitude, discomfort and cost. The food is not much better, either. I now do everything I can to avoid flying American airlines internationally. They are that bad. Domestically? Hell, I will sit on a bus for ten hours to avoid a three hour flight and the subsequent TSA bullshit involved.

Oh, you don’t believe me when I say the quality is as terrible as Russian airlines? Well, have you ever flown on a Yak-40 from Bukhara to Tashkent? Or a Tupolev 154 from Amsterdam to Moscow? Or an Ilyushin-96 from Tashkent to Moscow? Well, I have and they aren’t much different than the crap planes Boeing is now making. Airbus Industries in Europe simply makes a better quality and comfort plane.

Added to original post and edited at 5:07 pm, June 9: As reader Rodd noted, accurately and fairly, on Facebook, “[I] take umbrage with you asserting that Boeing makes crappy, low quality airplanes. It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service, Sean Paul, not Boeing.”

My reply: That’s a fair criticism on your part to make of me but allow me to elaborate in a better manner. Why? Well, most Americans wouldn’t understand. They are trained by propaganda to believe that Russian planes just fall out of the sky, whereas in reality Russian planes are excellent. (So were there space stations, and apparently their rockets as good enough to shoot our satellites into the sky). The Tupolev 154, especially. It’s like a Volkswagen Bug of the sky. It never quits. However, the service and seating and food is terrible. So, Americans have this idea that Russian planes are terrible, when in reality, they are exactly as you describe, “It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service.” So, point taken. I should have communicated that better.

This should be a national disgrace and scandal.

Furthermore, I’ve crossed at least sixty international borders, passport control and customs posts. Only three nations are more difficult, time consuming, aggressively bureaucratic and rude (read: hostile) than the USA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. That’s quite a stand up list. Seriously, it was easier and less intrusive as an American getting into Iran than it is being an American citizen getting back into America. The ICE/TSA are a bad joke. Moreover, after comparing multiple international airports with the “best” American airports, which are really decrepit dumps, our US airports flat out resemble more and more the post-Soviet Russian airports and infrastructure I saw traveling in Russia in the late 90s and early 2000s. As my friend Alexi replied to my tweet on the subject, “Weird to look back and see the future, ain’t it?” No doubt.

But there’s more: it is always sad to come home to America and realize how far behind the rest of the world we are falling. I love my country and want to see it succeed. But what I see saddens me. Our decline is now accelerating. As I already said, our TSA/ICE security theatre is a grotesque farce compared to real security procedures in places like Europe. US security procedures resemble the bureaucratic heavy-handedness in places like Russia, Uzbekistan and Nepal before the revolution. And can someone explain to me what exactly the purpose of APC is? It seemed a redundant disaster that only aggravated citizens returning from abroad than any time saving measure. What’s worse is that if you are flying business class you get to go through the speedy line. Except, there are now so many elite award card holders it really makes no difference. The only difference is you don’t have to take your shoes or belt off. Lastly, you can apply for TSA pre-check to avoid all this. But it’s pricey.

Of course, less than 1/3 Americans have a passport so I don’t expect this to change. America will soon be a second class country. But in the scheme of time, comparing Asia to the US during my first trip to Korea in ’95, is there a difference? Back then South Korea, Japan and just a little Chinese infrastructure was better than US infrastructure. Port facilities, airports, roads, etc. but y’all know this. Here’s what you don’t know: today Singapore, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and about 1/4 of Chinese infrastructure is superior to that in the United States of America.

Superior.

That means better than ours, by the way.

What’s worse is that the differential is now accelerating and we’re rapidly falling behind.

But hey, I’m just a pointy-headed academic. What the hell do I know about the real ‘Murica?

Surfing, Theoretical Mathematics And Jesus

Me and the Queen MaryFirst morning in El Salvador. Got the drop on three waves, didn’t ride them long. Out of shape and out of practice. Surfing is decidedly not like riding a bike. You lose skills when you don’t use them. But it was fun. As a buddy I met at Popoyo in 2009 says, “El Tunco’s a nice easy right off the point.” And that’s exactly what it was: as it breaks off the point it’s then a long slow roller even novices like me can ride. They call it Sunzal or El Tunco (the name seems to be interchangeable by both the surfers and the locals). El Tunco refers a large lump of rocks on the beach that used to look like a pig before a hurricane came in and rearranged them. Sunzal seems to be a local word of indeterminate origin, but most likely Spanish and English that refers to the sunset. And this beach has some of the best I’ve ever seen.

If it’s an easy right off the point at low tide at high tide it’s a different animal. Then the swells get bigger and on occasion a nice tube forms, “but don’t count on it,” Alejandro, a Brazilian Spanish teacher from Los Angeles would tell me later. I paid my respects to the wave and paddled ashore.

During the midday hours I sat with Alejandro and had a few beers. He gave me the run down of every wave and break within fifty miles and then gave me the low down on the locals: who’s who and the local rules.

“I’ve been coming to Sunzal for seven years now. I know all these guys,” he said.

“See him,” he points, “the super skinny guy with the bleached orange-blonde-blackish mess on his head?”

I nodded.

El Tunco Rocks, Once Resembled a Pig, Since Then Rearranged By a Hurricane“Boris is the local big-talker. He’s always catching the biggest waves, out on some cove south of here or north of here, but no one ever sees him surf Sunzal. Everyone knows he’s full of shit, but everyone loves him because he’s fun to party with and he’s a good friend. When guys get kicked out of the house by their girls for surfing too much, he always lets them crash at his place.”

“You see that guy over there, with the hammer, carrying the lumber up the roof?”

“Sure do.”

“He’s Hugo. Watch out for him. He’s the local asshole, and bad-ass surfer, who’ll cut you off a wave in a heartbeat just to prove that it’s his wave and his country. Last year he crashed into a tourist surfer and broke his board in half, bloodied the guy up too. If you even see him near your wave, go somewhere else.”

Our waiter came by and asked me if I wanted another beer. I waved him off, “another beer and my day would be ruined. I’m hoping to surf this evening.”

He smiled and left me an Alejandro to talk.

“Our waiter, that guy, you know he’s real quiet, soft-spoken-like. His name is Jesus. That guy shreds everyone, he can practically spin a board 360* and land on it and surf the rest of the wave.”

“Not possible, Alejandro. You’re starting to sound like Boris.”

“No, Juan Pablo, listen to me. He’s that good. He won the local championship last year here at Sunzal and some people are trying to get him to go pro.”

——-

It’s December and the tides are variable. The big swells come between March and October. Current high tides seem to be arriving at around four-ish in the afternoon. By that time the shadows lay long towards the east. The waves, water and sky in the west, however, are suffused with an ur-orange that I believe is the Platonic form from which all other oranges derive their orangeness.

What a Ride!The wave at Sunzal is long, 350-400 meters at its best. It’s smooth, good for pros and beginners alike. This time of year, December, it’s not a huge wave or even a big one—it certainly doesn’t have much of a tube, that part of the wave a surfer rides when he or she is totally covered by water and then shoots out of it. It’ll curl a little bit on occasion but not every set or even ever five to seven sets.

Fun fact: waves usually come in sets of three waves or five waves. And sets usually come in swells of five and seven. First: they are prime numbers. Second, apparently there is science behind this. It’s called a Mandelbrot set, named after Benoit Mandelbrot the father of fractal geometry and math. Brian Rothman recently called the Mandelbrot set, “the most complex mathematical object in existence. [It’s] a two-dimensional figure whose coils, sea-horse shapes and blobs rimmed by jewel-like clusters of islands defy any coherent description. It is made up of infinitely many resemblances of itself, no two exactly alike, which appear from its depths when one zooms in and magnifies any part . . . and it serves as a sublime tech mandala.” One philosopher even claimed the algorithm behind the Mandelbrot Set might actually be one of Plato’s eternal forms.
Mandelbrot Set
Bet you didn’t think you’d get higher math and philosophy while reading about a guy surfing in El Salvador?

Life is paradox and there is order in randomness, as fractals demonstrate.

Speaking of fractals, the high tide was in, the sun was a gorgeous gold, and bikinis pranced up and down the beach. (Oh, you didn’t think I wasn’t looking? How wrong you are! I may be recently divorced and uninterested, but I ain’t fucking dead.) It was time to surf.

I put on my board shorts, rash guard, grabbed the Queen Mary, walked half a mile down the beach and paddled out.

After an extensive paddle—hey, you try paddling a twelve foot board three hundred yards out into heavy surf—I sat on my board and surveyed the scene. There were about 15-20 other surfers spread out over two hundred meters, two within fifteen to twenty feet of me. I stood a good chance of a.) catching a wave and b.) not killing anyone with my ginormous surfboard due to inexperience. After a few minutes the first set came in. I paddled hard, but missed the first wave. Got my board back, on it, paddling, caught the wave but couldn’t stand—wiped out. Board shooting straight into the air and me thrashed and twirled by the waves.

Panting like an overheated dog I grabbed my board, climbed on and lay there for a moment catching my breath.

Playa El TuncoDigression: ever wondered why surfers have perfectly sculpted bodies? Upper bodies and lower bodies in perfect proportion for men as well as women? Well, it is the perfect workout. You swim with your arms and legs. You do core abdominal work when you are up on the board maneuvering. Yoga, too. Don’t believe me? See just how flexible you are when you get thrashed and tumbled by a wave like clothes in a clothes dryer.

While panting on the board awaiting the next set I began mentally composing an angry email to my ex-wife. Then I got angry at myself.

“What a stupid fucking thing to do on a wave,” I muttered. “Idiot.”

While berating myself someone paddled up to me.

“Como las olas Juan Pablo?” asked Jesus, “how’re the waves?”

“Great,” I managed to say without sound too exhausted.

Jesus, I’d come to find out, talking to him earlier while we waxed our boards, had lived in the United States for about a year. He’d been a dishwasher first and then a cook in South Carolina. Having earned enough money to buy a house and set up a surf school in El Salvador he grabbed a bus to Mexico and then home to El Salvador, only to return to a girlfriend who’d had left him. Unbeknownst to Jesus, his father had died when he was on the bus from Charleston to the Mexican border. He worked as a waiter now and spent all his free time surfing.

“The waves,” he told me that afternoon, “they’ll never lie and they never cheat.”

Playa El TuncoHe pointed towards the water. Another wave was coming, this one picture perfect, streamers coming off the top in a fine mist just like a snow banner blowing off Mt. Everest. I shook my head, not quite ready, still panting a bit.

Jesus smiled and then attacked the wave. He paddled hard then cut right so effortlessly it made me envious. On his smaller board he rode, cutting up and back, then left and right all the way inshore for twenty or thirty seconds. It was an elegant, beautiful performance. How anyone could call what Jesus did that afternoon “shredding” as if it were a violent act, like putting an end to a sheaf of top-secret documents and not call it a ballet on water is beyond me.

Speaking of, I had finally caught my breath.

I was ready.

The next wave rolled in and up. I paddled furiously, the futility of maneuvering my container-ship sized surfboard clear in my determined grimace. I barely caught the wave, stood up, but got on the board too far back. Unbalanced, I slipped backwards into the worst of the backwash there to twirl and roll underwater, salt water invading my sinuses until chaos abated. Have I mentioned having long hair in the surf sucks, too? Too often I come out of a wave with hair covering my face, salt in my eyes and another back-wave crashes into my face, which is what happened in this case too.

I shook it off. Literally.

Would number three be my wave?

No. I couldn’t get ready in time so another surfer made the drop, riding smoothly all the way in. It looked so easy, why couldn’t I?

Then I missed number four out of sheer incompetence.

Gentle reader, are you sensing a theme yet? Let me spell it out for you if you haven’t: I’m not a terribly good surfer. In fact, I suck. But I love being in the big water, feeling its power, respecting it, honoring it.

Alas, my breath was all caught up again and there I sat on my ginormous board when wave five swelled up, fat-like and pretty big too.

Looked to be a possible seven footer. Taller than me by far.

I paddled hard, furiously determined to get the drop on this one. And then it happened.

There is no thought, only pure action, I’m one with the tidal forces of the wave, which I am allowed to momentarily harness. I stand up on the board, just ahead of the curl, the wave’s crest. Moving my right foot slightly, much as a bird will move a single feather to turn left or right, I make the cut back for the first time and stay ahead of the break for an unfathomable ten to fifteen seconds. Just me, on the board, completely of the present, no past, no future. The eternal now.

SunsetI took the wave as far as I could, dropped into the water and walked out with pride.

I rested on the fine black volcanic sand of Playa Sunzal. Time passed as it inevitably does. Shadows grew longer across the beach and the shift from late afternoon gold to early evening orange happened at the fine line between subconsciously unaware and overt.

I got up and grabbed my board just as Jesus walked by. He smiled and said, “that was a good ride, Juan Pablo, like a pro.” And then we walked silently into the setting sun.