16 December

Every year I would rush, I would panic, I would hurry, to finish exams early, pack my bags, do my shopping. Every year I would beg early dismissals of professors or bosses and hitch rides with other students and sit in busy airports and drive alone down dark highways for hours.
I had to be home in time for my Dad’s birthday.
We made a fuss of it, to ensure he had a separate celebration even though it was so close to Christmas. That was important enough. Cake, and presents, and usually a prank or two. (One year I snuck five new fish into his beloved aquarium without his knowing. Each evening before bed he would sit and talk to them as he fed them, making sure they were well and happy and felt loved. It took three days before he finally realized that he was having conversations with several fish he did not know. We laughed for hours.) 
16 December was also the day he and I put up the Christmas tree. 
Wherever we happened to be in the world, Christmas was always my father’s favorite time of year.  A lot of people say that, but for him, it was not just the superficial aspects of the season that he loved. He was a very serious adherent to the concept of goodwill toward men. The Christmas season, as he saw it, was when people were a little kinder, and a little more giving, and smiles were brighter and more genuine. This time of year also meant full immersion into the holidays for all under his roof. 
The tree was the centerpiece of our holiday festivities, and it never felt like proper Christmas until it was up and decorated and presents were piled at its base several layers deep. The entire house was buried beneath layers of decor, but the tree was the focal point. So, I’d arrive by plane, train, dogsled, or whatever, in time for 16 December, and there would be that naked tree, awaiting our attention.
There was a sort of ritualistic order to it, including the annual recitation of holiday expletives for which my father was known.

First we’d drag the tree in the door, and for a couple of hours Dad and I would pleasantly argue about where to put it, how it fits in the holder, whether it was straight, and if it was truly secure enough to withstand the cats of the house launching themselves into it without the whole thing crashing to the floor. (This is about where the swearing began, which was always punctuated by debilitating laughter.)


That resolved, we arrived at the worst part — the lights.  Dad had a collection of Christmas lights, all of them different and each string holding some special meaning to him and him alone. For some reason, they were also always in tremendous disarray when they were removed from their box. Each string was plugged in, untangled, and stretched out in all directions, so the house resembled a blinking minefield. The primary rule of engagement was that the big lights were put on the bottom half of the tree, and the little ones were placed closer to the top.  The finer points of these rules existed only in my father’s head, and it had to do with the shapes of the lightbulbs and the cardinal points on a compass. Some bulbs were pinecones, some were train cars, some were flickering candles, and so on. There was a mysterious hierarchy involved that I never fully comprehended. My post was on one side of the tree, my father’s was on the other, and together we would wind the lights–just so–around the tree, for hours, until we reached the top.


Smooth sailing from this point.

Sort of.


Fortification was an absolute requirement. This was usually the point when we rounded up coffee, booze, and cookies, to prepare for what happened next: ornaments.

I believe we had something like 2000 Christmas ornaments, each of them carefully wrapped and boxed. It seems like there should have been no problem putting the little buggers on the tree and getting on with it, but that was not how it was done.

Regardless how many people were involved in the process, each individual ornament was held aloft for review, discussed at length — my dear old friend so-and-so from Uganda gave us that one in 1962. He died last year in an incident involving a motorbike and a cheetah, blah, blah — and then ceremoniously the ornament was placed on a branch. The ornaments came from around the world, from people and places I sometimes knew or remembered, and sometimes did not. This process could take up to three days before we arrived at the grand finale of placing the fuzzy angel on the top.

Supposedly we alternated years for that honor, but somehow nobody could ever remember who did it last. I suspect that my dad didn’t want to tell me I was too short to manage it, so all the confusion was to disguise that fact. I don’t recall it ever being my turn putting the angel on, now that I think about it.

The last tree we did together. He died the following summer.


The holiday season is a solitary endeavor for me now. In spite of that, and although I haven’t felt much holiday spirit since my dad died, 16 December is the day I try hardest to find some. At the very least, I’ll fortify with holiday spirits. 

And every year, I always have a Christmas tree. I swear continuously (consider this a sort of ritual chanting) as I unravel all the weird strings of lights I inherited from my dad. I remind myself of the origins of every ornament on it. I have added some new ones. Some older ones have not survived. It continues to evolve.

Much like life. 


My Dark Mind

I have something called Aphantasia.  I am an aphantasiac.  I cannot picture things in my mind’s eye.  I did not realize that it was actually possible to do so until just a few years ago.  I assumed it was a metaphor.  I assumed everyone was like me.


2% of the population is like me.  We cannot see things in our heads.  I cannot imagine the faces of people I know well, I cannot picture places I used to live, I cannot see my dog, unless these things are right in front of me.




I can describe things.  I know the nice guy I met has brown eyes and a great smile full of straight, white teeth, and he’s darker complected than I am and often wears a hat. However, those are words.  I am not envisioning him as I write them.  My mind is dark.  I see nothing.  All these words are merely facts.


I am a police sketch artist’s worst nightmare. 


Photographs have always been important to me.  In them are all the details my brain has stored away, but I cannot access like most people do.  People, places, colors, shapes.  I need the photos to recapture these things others have ability to recall at will.  I take thousands of photos, everywhere I go.  Fortunately, my father did, too.  Much of my life can be reconstructed through them.


I cannot see my father’s face without a photo.




In my dreams the people have no faces, the places are almost never ones I have been to before.  I do not relive experiences.  I can’t.  My nightmares are unseen: feelings and sensations and shadowy things lurking just beyond my sight.



I forget so much of my past.  It’s like I am being erased from the beginning, and have to outrun the eraser by living faster.  I don’t remember classmates, or events that happened, or things I have done, without writing them down.  Sometimes when people say “remember that one time…” I smile and say that I do.  But I don’t.

When I tell a story I am frequently accused of being too descriptive, and taking too much time to get to the point.  But for me, therein lies the beauty.  I crave the details I cannot picture.  I tell you about a tree, and you can imagine it.  For me, I need the words.  All the words.  There are no trees in my own mind.

It’s just dark in there. 



Where to go and how to get there


My dad loved maps. Trip planning was his favorite pastime, and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t his trip he was planning. If someone he knew even mentioned that they heard about someone else going on a trip, he planned it for them. The dining room table would be covered in folding maps, atlases, scribbled notes on scraps of notepaper. He drew arrows, and lines, and annotated every town and scenic overlook and point of interest on the proposed route.

Once, when I was driving from the east coast to Washington State to get on a ferry to Alaska for a job, he had me roaring across the plains at breakneck pace so I could get to a certain truckstop that he had heard made the best cheeseburgers in the country in time for dinner. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great cheeseburger. But that cheeseburger was the only reason I was even in Montana!

Our family trips were always major productions. We moved so frequently, each summer holiday was a relocation process, involving cars, trains, planes, boats, dogsled (no, seriously, that happened twice), water buffalo (also totally true), ambulance (nobody was injured, it was just a very small island and that was the only available vehicle), elephant, you name it, I probably rode it on my way to another new home. We always took a broadly circuitous route, detouring hundreds of miles sometimes in order to see all the things on his carefully crafted itinerary.

“Guess what? We’re going to see the World of Pigeons!”

       “Really?! Is that on the way?”

“Well…sort of. Not precisely. Okay, no. But: World of Pigeons! We can’t miss seeing that!”

He was also the master at packing anything. Luggage, grocery carts, car boots, trunks, cigar boxes, whatever, he would pack and repack until it was the picture of Tetris perfection. We never left on time, but by George, our shit was well sorted!

Some of you who know me well are laughing now, as apparently I have inherited this trait. When I pack for a month-long trip to Europe, it’s a process of several trial runs before I get it organized to my satisfaction. But, much thanks to my dad’s habits, I can indeed pack for a month in a 40L backpack, and still have room to bring home books. It helps that I’m small.

My dad died before smart phones existed, and I often wonder what he would have thought about Google Maps and GPS, and the precision manner in which most people travel now. He was fond of gadgets, so I think he would have loved the ability to find weird stuff to look at or places to eat en route. But I bet you anything he would still have relied on his heavily highlighted, post-it noted, folding maps and atlases. They were like topographical travel journals by the time he was finished with them, dog-eared and coffee-stained, road weary representations of the miles covered and the adventures had.

After I reached adulthood and was traveling on my own, I always followed his plans, without question. He had traveled extensively, knew people everywhere, and constantly read about places he had not yet been, so he had, by the time I was a young adult, a rather encyclopedic knowledge of world travel. Every Christmas he gave me a new road atlas, pre-loaded with his handwritten liner notes about places he thought I might like to go, and names and addresses of people he knew in each state or country he suspected I might pass through that year.

No matter my destination, in geography as well as in life, he was the guy to get me there with the most interesting experiences along the way. And isn’t that the whole point of it all?

How Long? Too Long.

What follows is a departure from my usual subject matter, but it is too important to me to say nothing.

My father was a rare man in many ways, but one of the most admirable was his absolute inability to treat people differently.  Diplomats, Army generals, janitors, homeless folk, they all received the same courtesy and kindheartedness.  Race, religion, nationality, and status mattered not at all.  All people were deserving of the best person he could be, in my dad’s opinion.

I was raised to delight in the beautiful variety humanity has to offer, and to always, always defend others from discrimination or poor treatment.

In the early 1960s, my father had just finished seminary, and was working for very little money in a small town in Ohio.  The Civil Rights Movement was hard at work, and the Gandhi-inspired practices of peaceful protest and civil disobedience were in line with how my father saw the world.  This was something he felt passionate about, and he saw that the world had to change.

So, in the spring of 1965, my dad made some sandwiches, put them in a small bag, and got on a bus to go south to Alabama and march with Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had some medical training from his years in the Army Reserves, he had faith in the Movement, and he believed he could help in some small way.

He had about $1.37 in his pocket.  He had no place to stay.  He had no bus fare home.  He had no plan.

But he went.  Some kind people he did not know gave him a spot to sleep on their couch for the duration of his time there.  He marched, and he patched up the wounded people who needed it.  Mostly he talked to people, listened to their stories, learned about their lives.

He never would have thought about it, but he became a part of history.  I like to think that somewhere out there are folks who met him on that march, who told their difficult stories to a kind stranger, and who hopefully saw in him that there truly are good, kind people who value all people, care about all people, respect all people, with no exception.

And here we are in America this week, facing racially motivated horrors yet again.  It breaks my heart.  For the first time in ten years, I am glad my father is not here.  He would be so hurt and disappointed in us all.  For good reason.

Please do your part to change the world.  Love your fellow man.  Do not fear what is different.  We can be so much better than this.


Note: the title of this post is a reference to a speech given by MLK in Montgomery in 1965, at the completion of the march from Selma.  My father was in the crowd, hearing him speak.



One Night In Bucharest…


It was a dark and stormy night….

Actually, it was, but that is not where our story begins. We’ll come back to that later.

I was flying from Athens to Paris, by way of Bucharest, and something went sideways with my itinerary and I was shifted to a new flight, with a 12 hour layover in Bucharest. I was rather excited about this, as I had never been there. I immediately contacted my one Romanian acquaintance, Andrei, who happened to have a retired Navy officer friend in Bucharest who was more than happy to show me around the city.

Sitting in the Athens airport at my departure gate, I glanced around at my fellow travellers. On the other side of the lounge were three stunningly beautiful young Romanian women, tall, slender, heavily made up, astonishing fingernails. In America, they would have been models. Across from me was a small herd of be-suited men. Businessmen? Mafia? Vatican administrators? No clue. They were quiet, all carried a briefcase, expressed no impatience at the delay. I was the sole American, as well as the sole native English speaker.

We boarded our tiny plane, which was surprisingly cozy inside. The carpet was richly hued thick pile, the seats were small but comfortable, and an airline employee came round with magazines. All of them were in Romanian, and I ended up with some kind of sailing and island life one, which was interesting, as I hadn’t considered that being a big deal in Romania. Food arrived not long after we departed Athens. It was hot, and pungent with spices, and I have no idea what it was, but it was delicious.

As we landed in Bucharest, the sun was setting, and what I saw of the city from the air was beautiful. Imagine a Bladerunner-meets-Paris kind of thing, but better, and you almost have it. Andrei’s friend George met me outside the terminal, and off we went to see the city.


Palatul Parlamentului!

We drove all through the city, as George pointed out landmarks big and small.  The biggest, obviously, was the Parliament Palace, or People’s House, proudly identified as the heaviest, and the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon. It was impressive. Well done, communism. 20 total floors (8 of them below ground), and 330,000 square miles. Plus there are tons of secret tunnels below, designed for the expeditious escape needs of former communist leader Ceausescu. Apparently he didn’t actually use them during the 1989 revolution, but the Top Gear guys got to try them out in more recent years! 

Speaking of the former communist leader, we stopped by Ceausescu’s house, but did not ring the bell, as George suggested it was a bad idea. I wasn’t too disappointed, however, because shortly thereafter he parked the car, and suggested we step out to admire  the 19th century Romanian Atheneum. Stunning architecture, beautiful gardens, utterly lovely, even in October.


Romanian Atheneum

As we stood there, George suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me to the street corner. “Wave politely,” he directed. We waved, politely. A convoy of large, shiny, black, expensive looking vehicles glided almost silently past us in the cold, drizzly evening. Two hands waved back importantly from within the third and fifth car. “What just happened?” I asked. George looked at me. “You just saw the presidents of Romania and Slovakia.”

No shit.

bucharestarcdetriompheExpecting that to have been the highlight of my Bucharest adventure, we stopped off a few more times to look at things such as Revolution Square, Stavropoleos Monastery, and then we wandered about Old Town a bit. We also passed by Bucharest’s own Arc de Triomphe, built in 1922 to honour the Romanian soldiers who fought in WWI.

Then George drove me to my hotel, which Andrei had arranged for me, and dropped me off in the lobby, with instructions on how to get my ride to the airport in the morning.

I know what you’re thinking: airport hotels in all the world’s cities are fairly predictable.

This is not what happened that night in Bucharest. 

It was (by this time) a dark and stormy night…

You know the thing with vampires and Romania, that everyone chuckles about but nobody believes? Well, this place was where I would hang out if I was a vampire in Bucharest. Thick stone walls, velvet damask wallpaper in blood red, creaky, enormous wooden doors…it was a monstrous castle of a place. My room was medium sized, and had all the required elements. Despite that, it retained the Draculaic creepy decor and atmosphere of the rest of the hotel, except for two things: the bathroom was all shining chrome and glass and white tile, like something out of clinical German porn, and stuffed in the corner of the bedroom on a small tea cart was a television. In case you wondered this, CSI Miami in Romanian is pretty much the same ginger fellow waving his sunglasses around, pensively saying “Eric…”


Okay, this didn’t happen in Bucharest, but it was the same year, and it suits the theme.

At some point in the middle of the night I realised that perhaps I had made a miscalculation in judgment. I was a girl alone in a creepy hotel somewhere in Bucharest, and nobody knew I was there, and I had no cell phone or laptop. Surely I was going to be bitten in my sleep and wake up in the shape of a bat. I decided that I was okay with that possibility.

Sadly, I didn’t. The alarm woke me on time, I made my way to the lobby for my ride to the airport, had a truly delightful conversation with the passport control fellow who spoke just enough English to be dangerous and entertaining, (ask me about this later!), and boarded my flight to Paris.

Despite the seeming scarcity of undead, I would return to Bucharest in a heartbeat. (See what I did there?) It is an under-appreciated, graceful old European city, worth far more than one night to truly appreciate all it has to offer.


But What Has Rome Done For Us…Lately?


But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

The quote above, from the film Life of Brian, is a fair start to a discussion of Roman contributions to the development of modern Western civilisation.  We tend to think of the Roman Empire as having died out long, long ago, and yet its influence is all around us, all the time.

Rome, by way of its longevity as well as its innovative nature, has left us with innumerable legacies.  Three of the most influential of their contributions to western culture are the Latin language and alphabet, Roman road systems, and Roman law.  The Roman organized professional military should also get an honorable mention here, as its incredibly flexible nature changed the way wars were waged.



The Roman contribution to modern legal systems is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it goes virtually unnoticed but for the Latin terminology still in use (habeas corpus, for example).  The Roman legacy of law is found not just in individual laws that carried over, but perhaps more importantly, in the theory of law.  The Romans divided their laws between public law, wherein the state is involved directly, and private law, which dealt with personal disputes.  Modern civil law is based heavily on this system.  The foundation of United States law, that one is innocent until guilt has been proven, comes from Roman law.  Lawmaking in our modern world has its basis in Roman processes as well.  During the republican era, Roman legislation was passed by the comitia, and then approved by the senate.  Many western nations, to include the US, have implemented this dual approval system in their own governments.  The application of written laws as a device of protection of individual citizens from the state is also Roman, and America’s founding fathers implemented that as well.



With the Justinian Code, Rome set up an ordered legal system much emulated in modern western nations, and included a collected case history, the prototype for the case studies of modern law in most western nations.  The Romans were not pillars of morality by our standards, but they did develop and implement a solid formula for justice and law, serving the Roman citizens and setting an example for the ideals of citizenship, government and society.



The Roman road system was instrumental in Rome’s plot to take over the world, as it was by these 80,000 KM of paved roadways that the Roman army, supplies, messengers, merchants, information, mail, news, religious ideas, money, everything made their way from Rome to the rest of the world, and from the rest of the world back to Rome.  Sure, the speed of travel was still limited by one’s horse or shoe construction, but an existing road system crisscrossing most of Europe and beyond changed the world milepost by milepost.

The original purpose of the roads was, of course, military, and beginning with local areas, Rome was connected by these roads to Latium, Ostia, and then they moved further out as the Roman army expanded its territory.  Highways gave the Roman army an advantage in speed and ease of transport of supplies and soldiers.  As with most Roman public works, the roads were built largely by the soldiers as they moved forward, pushing their frontiers further outward.  Besides the accessibility and speed the roads provided the military, commerce, communication (they had a mail service!), and civilian land travel aided the spread of cultures, ideas, Romanization.  Even the Britons at the far reaches of civilization took up Roman ways.  As a result of the roads, a taste for Roman goods developed amongst the native people, and this sometimes happened before the Romans even arrived en masse.  Romanization was heavily encouraged as the Roman method of expansion required natives to become “civilized,” and later citizens. During the earliest periods of Romanization, adopting Roman dress, behaviors, manners, customs, was likely connected with social standing amongst conquered people, their social elites being first to make the change, and on down the line.

roman road.jpg

Roman Road

Goods, troops, and people traveled efficiently across the Empire (provided they were not mugged by bandits at roadside inns, another Roman contribution of happenstance associated with road building).  The Romans understood that solid, paved roads ensured that troops could move toward their front lines in good time, the mere knowledge of which was often enough to keep outlying areas peaceful.  The roads stretched outward from their hub, Rome being the central one, other cities in the Empire establishing secondary or tertiary hubs.  This hub system is in evidence not only in the modern nations where the Empire once stood, but elsewhere, such as in the U.S.  First as railways, later as interstate highways, the Roman idea of travel directly from hub to hub is plain to see across most of western civilization.  Some of the old Roman roads remain in use, and more modern roadways are built atop old Roman ones, as they had already determined the most direct routes from city to city (and those cities, in many cases, remain today).



By far the most important, pervasive and far-reaching influence of Roman civilization is that of the Latin language.  Early Latin was spoken, and written, at least as early as the 6th century B.C.  As Rome developed from a small civilization into a conquering world power, they took their language with them across Europe and the Mediterranean.  Part of the successful process of Romanization throughout the vast Empire was the spread of the Latin language and alphabet.  After Rome divided, even as the western empire was disintegrating, the eastern Empire, speakers of Greek, kept the Latin language in use for official purposes until mid-6th century AD.

But by 600 AD Latin was dying.  During the Dark Ages in Europe, few people outside of monasteries could read at all.  As a result, spoken language changed and took on local peculiarities, giving birth to Italian, French and Spanish linguistic offshoots.  Literate monks still read and wrote in Latin, and through their diligent efforts in preserving ancient texts, especially in monasteries in Ireland, and the use of Latin in church documents, Latin held on by a thread until the Carolingian Renaissance, wherein Charlemagne determined that education was important, and set forth on a campaign to promote literacy in his realm.  Late medieval contact with the learned Arabs (also due great credit for the preservation of classical knowledge) brought about a resurgence of interest in literacy in Europe.  All scholarly writing was done in Latin.

During the Renaissance period, Europeans developed interest in reading classical authors, and incorporating Latin terms in their own languages.  Also, as study of the sciences picked up speed, Latin names and descriptions were used for their findings, in order to share discoveries internationally.  Until the early 1900s, students at university were required to study Latin, and Latin was taught in primary and secondary schools as well, for students to better understand the structure of their own languages.  Post-World War II, the emphasis shifted to the sciences as technology was growing rapidly, and Latin instruction in schools died off.

The Catholic Church used Latin as its required liturgical language up to the mid-1960s.  It is still used in some masses, and the Anglican Church implements it in worship as well, despite Henry VIII and the pope having such a bad breakup.  It remains the state language of the Vatican, used for official purposes much like it was in Byzantium.


A page from the Visconti Hours, National Library Florence. Plague of the Firstborn (Exodus 12:21-30).

Rome gave us our alphabet, and languages developed out of Latin have enough commonality that with little expenditure of time or effort, speakers of one Latin-based language can understand those of another.  French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian all owe heavy debts to Latin.  Furthermore, Latin lent heavy influence to other languages, such as English, as well. The roots of many English words are derived from Latin.  With the exception of the Cyrillic language group, the Latin alphabet is almost universal in Europe and the Americas.  Scientific, medical, legal, theological uses assure Latin’s continued legacy in our modern world.  British and American coins bear Latin text, and where would our everyday communications be without such things as et cetera, versus, and exit?


The Smallest of Prices

Everywhere we lived, my father had a home office. And the best thing about that office was that it was filled with books. Floor to ceiling, stacked in front of his desk, piled under his chair and atop tables, were books ranging in topic from religion to geography, world cultures, dead languages, history, science, and so on. Among them was one large book, with a blue spine, and in it were descriptions and photographs of Istanbul. Markets, mosques, street scenes. It was exotic, even to my travel-jaded eyes, and I wanted to experience the sights and smells for myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe obvious apple of my eye, in regard to Istanbul, was the Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sofia. I cannot think of another place so steeped in religious history.  There, my studies of Byzantine, Ottoman, Islamic, and Christian history collide in one breathtaking structure. I simply had to go there.


And so I did, many years later. I saw the Blue Mosque, and viewed the sacred relics in Topkapi Palace, and dined on a terrace overlooking the water. And, indeed, I spent hours in the Aya Sofya, touched the Marble Door, viewed the ancient Christian mosaics, and the mosque was even larger and more beautiful than I had imagined for all those years.

14 million people in a city seems like a terrible crush, and the streets and markets were at times cacophonous, but over the racket of vendors, traffic, and street prophets, the haunting müezzins’ calls to prayer resound. The city is made of magic. The sounds, the scents wafting on the breeze off the Bosphorus, the gentle ways of its inhabitants, all create a sense of calm amidst the chaos. Orhan Pamuk wrote of Istanbul, “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.”


A friendly guard at Topkapi Palace


I walked through the squares, and parks, and markets, through neighborhoods, and down city streets. I talked to guards and shopkeepers and ladies out walking with their friends and children. The people of Istanbul are friendly and funny, and curious and kind.


Later in the day, full of Turkish delight and nose twitching from sampling the wares in the Egyptian market, where spices are sold, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar.


The gate of the Grand Bazaar

The name is apt; everything about this bazaar is grand. The vendors are endless in every direction, so many I could not see the far end, and in fact never did make my way all the way through to the opposite side. I made a few small purchases: a scarf, a necklace, and by then it was growing late and the sun was setting quickly.


Not prayer rugs, but a sales demonstration inside a rug shop.

As I approached the way out, a man about my age called to me, and asked if I wanted to buy a prayer rug. They were beautiful, and I admired them, but declined. I went on, and there was a bit of a bottleneck as people were leaving through the gate. I stood waiting my turn, and the man came to me again. His English was only slightly better than my Turkish, but we managed nonetheless. He said that he noticed I admired his rugs, and he would cut the price for me, as the hour was late, and he wouldn’t have to carry it back home again.

The price was more than fair, and yet I hesitated, as the idea of carrying a prayer rug across the city, then jamming it into my bag, was a complication I was not sure I was prepared to take on. He held my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I will give you this rug, for the smallest of prices: a kiss. A kiss,” he said, “to bring me good fortune.”

Who can say no to that kind of charm? Righty-o, I agreed, he rolled up my rug and handed it to me, and I offered my cheek. Quick as a snake, he landed the most resounding smooch square on my lips, winked, and disappeared into the market.

And that is how I bought my prayer rug for the price of a kiss in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a magical city where anything can happen.



The Bog Blog


IMG_6924I stood in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin a few months ago, gazing through a thin sheet of plexi at a man. He had laugh lines by his eyes. I could imagine quite easily what his face looked like when he smiled. I saw his eyebrows, his facial stubble, the delicate folds of his ear. He was taller than I expected. His hands were strong, like he had worked hard all of his life. I could also see the places his body had been pinned down. Was he dead before he went into the bog? Probably. I hope so. There is no way to know why he was left there. Did he commit some atrocity that his community could not abide? Was he killed in a tragic accident and left as a post-mortem sacrifice? Did he volunteer to go to his death in the bog, as atonement, or out of sorrow or fervent spiritual belief? Was he a challenger to a position of prestige, killed to make way for another leader? In a body that is so perfectly preserved, there is a great deal of tantalizing information, which leads to even more impossible questions. Who was this man, how did he live and die, and why was he placed in the bog?


Clonycavan Man

Peat bogs of northwestern Europe have been the place of last repose for hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies, for over 10,000 years.  The first reported discoveries of these bodies were in the 1700s.

The bodies themselves are widely dated, from 8000 B.C. (Koelbjerg Woman of Denmark), to the medieval period. Most, however, date to the Iron Age (ca. 500 B.C.–A.D. 100). During this period, bogs were sacred to the people living there, who used them for religious rituals, such as dedications, offerings, and sacrifices.


Most are fragmented, some consisting of just a few bones or body parts. Few are nearly intact, perhaps 20 in the world. Historically the found bodies were not well cared for, damaged during extraction, left to rot in improperly controlled museum storage, or worse.

Those bodies which did survive, though, are remarkable and fascinating.  These bodies have skin and hair and are so well preserved they could have died recently. Perhaps it is because they appear to be so close to life that we give them names, such as Lindow Man, Tollund Man, and Yde Girl.


Tollund Man, of Denmark

People cutting peat have generally been the discoverers of the bodies in the bogs. However, now that machinery has taken over this work, new discoveries are rare. The machines destroy the remains as the peat is quickly removed. Research on bog bodies now focuses on learning all that can be learned from the bog bodies already found. New technologies have been helpful in that.  For example, damage to the bodies previously considered to be results of torture or violent execution were often, it is now understood, results of more natural causes such as the weight of the peat on the remains over millennia.



Gallagh Man

Back to Dublin, and my visit with the fellows under glass there.  The Irish bog bodies have some interesting features, and the story they tell is one of a possible struggle for dominance. Within an exhibit entitled Kingship and Sacrifice, these found fellows are given context, history, and a new theory as to who they were, and why they were there. (In the bog, that is, not in the museum.)


Old Croghan Man

The theory proposed, and there seems sufficient evidence to believe the argument here, is that Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man were contenders for, or defenders of, a throne, but were either defeated or removed from standing in another’s way. Their bodies were mutilated in such manners as to make them incapable of reigning according to the tradition of their time, and their bodies placed in the bog.

This all shines a very different light on just who the bog bodies we have collected over the centuries may have been. Perhaps not all innocent victims of religious right, but rather pawns in political intrigue.

Valentines Day: not necessarily the holiday you thought it was

What do Chaucer and werewolves have to do with Valentines Day?  After reading this, you may reconsider your feelings toward this holiday, or at the very least, discover some reasons it may not be such a bad thing to be without a Valentine this year.

We can begin tracking the origins of Valentines Day, vaguely, in ancient Egypt.  Men and women of the lower classes determined their marital partners by the drawing of lots.  This happened in mid-February, though its association with the holiday we know now is possibly no more than coincidental.  This does add a bit more solemnity to the phrase “luck of the draw,” however.

And now, on to werewolves:

In prehistoric societies, the wolf charmer was a fellow who had a particular affinity for communicating with wolves. A wolf whisperer, one could say.  As these ancient tribes developed agriculture and settled in small villages, it became necessary to have a person skilled in singing with the wolves in order to convince them not to attack the villages’ domesticated animals.  The wolf charmer  had the ability to howl with the wolves and lead them away from the livestock pens.  In some stories, the wolf charmer also had the power to transform himself into a wolf if he so desired.

These beliefs continued through history to our arrival in the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, amongst whom the wolf charmer was called the Lupicinus.

Lupus, meaning wolf, is not an original Latin word, but was borrowed from the Sabine dialect.  The Sabines were a nearby people, and in the very early days of Rome, when they found their male population far too heavily outnumbered their female, they raided the Sabines for their young women, who they then took back to Rome and married off to Roman citizens.

Luperca, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, was represented in a bronze statue, possibly of Etruscan origin, called the Capitoline Wolf, the presence of which was noted by such scholars as Livy, Pliny the Elder, and Cicero.


The significance of this wolf in the founding of Rome gave rise to secret fraternities known as the Luperci, who sacrificed goats at the entrances to their “wolves’ dens.”   Well, now that I’ve written this, they’re not so secret anymore, are they?  Difficult to hide a pile of smelly dead goats, so they were bound to be discovered at some point.

The Lupercalia festival, one of the most ancient of Roman holidays, occurred annually from February 13-15.  It was a perpetuation of the ancient blooding rites of the hunter, wherein the initiate is smeared with the blood of his first kill.  The sacrificial slaying of a goat represented the flocks that nourished early humans in their efforts to establish permanent dwelling places.  This was followed by the sacrifice of a dog, in honor of the watchful protector of a flock that would be the first one killed by attacking wolves.

The blood of the goat and the dog were mixed, and a knife was dipped into the blood and drawn across the foreheads of two noble-born children, possibly representative of Romulus and Remus.  Once the children had been “blooded,” their faces were washed in goat milk. As the children were being cleansed, they were expected to laugh, thereby demonstrating their lack of fear of blood and their acknowledgment that they had received the magic of protection against wolves and wolfmen.

The god Lupercus, represented by a wolf, inspired men to behave as werewolves during the festival.  Early in history, these werewolves chased down innocent victims and ate them, tearing off bites of the flesh with their teeth.  In later years, as the Romans and their practices gained sophistication, their bloodlust was satisfied in a slightly more acceptable fashion.  The men were drunk, and naked, and young women would line up for the men to flog them with leather thongs cut from the animals they had just slain. They believed this would make them fertile.  This idea stemmed from earlier practices of beating the fields to encourage crop success.

The festival also included a matchmaking lottery, similar to that of ancient Egypt, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar.  The man and woman would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.  So, ladies, if you fancy being publicly flogged by a naked drunk guy, who then draws your name from a jar, thus winning your sexual services for the weekend…perhaps this is indeed your kind of holiday.

Moving forward a bit in time to the third century; the Roman Empire was ruled by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.  He was nicknamed Claudius the Cruel for his merciless tactics, which must have been considerable for him to stand out in the crowd amongst Roman rulers.  The Roman Empire was, in this period, experiencing massive turmoil.  The Empire was divided into three competing factions, and the threat of invasion came from all sides, and

Claudius was struggling to fill his military ranks.  He decided that recruitment was down because Roman soldiers were unwilling to leave their wives and families for such long periods.  His solution was to outlaw marriage in Rome.  You can imagine how well this went over amongst the citizens.

Hope arrived in the name of a Christian priest called Valentine.  Recognizing the injustice of Claudius’ decree, Valentine began conducting secret marriages for Roman soldiers.  When Claudius discovered the secret ceremonies, he ordered Valentine’s execution.  As Valentine was awaiting execution, tradition has it that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter.  It was unfortunately a short romance, as in 269 Valentine was clubbed to death and then beheaded by Roman executioners.  Father Valentine, champion of sweethearts, was named a martyr by the Church, because he gave up his life to perform the sacrament of marriage.  When the Church gained power in the Roman Empire, the Holy See quickly made him a saint.

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century.  This was the same era in which Pope Gelasius I, in declaring February 14 St. Valentine’s Day, combined it with the celebration of Lupercalia, in order to replace pagan ritual with Christian, as had been done with such holidays as Easter and Christmas.

The early Church fathers were quite aware of the popularity of a vast number of heathen gods and goddesses, as well as the dates of observation of pagan festivals, so they made a point of replacing as many of the deities and the holidays as possible with ecclesiastical saints and feast days.  Mid-February had an ancient history of being devoted to acts of love of a far more passionate and lusty nature than the Church was willing to bless, and the bishops moved as speedily as possible to claim mid-February as belonging to Saint Valentine.  One can easily see why the early Church fathers much preferred the union of man and woman to be smiled upon by St. Valentine, rather than the leering wolf god Lupercus.  St. Valentine’s Day was celebrating the same general concept: that of fertility and love, and so it became Lupercalia with its clothes put back on.

By the Middle Ages, Valentine was among the favorite saints in England and France, popular for his romantic and heroic story.  Among the peasantry, the customs surrounding Saint Valentine appear to have roots in the traditions of ancient Egypt and Rome.  On the evening before Valentine’s Day, young men and women would gather in the village and draw names by chance.  The matches would be sweethearts for the year.  Clearly, this residually Lupercalian method of celebrating St. Valentine led to circumstances that encouraged relationships of a more lasting nature, presided over by the local priest. Among the upper classes, where arranged marriages were of greater importance to the continued success of the landed gentry and aristocracy, this practice was a dangerous prospect.  Instead, upper class families allowed their children to draw names at highly supervised holiday parties, and be chaperoned “sweethearts” for the length of the event, and no further, thus protecting the noble family lines and the future of the families.

Rarely does a day go by I don’t blame Chaucegeoffrey-chaucer-drawing1-e1329413408492r for something, and this is no exception.  Geoffrey Chaucer, medieval English poet, is known to have taken liberties with history, often placing his characters into fictionalized historical contexts, which he then presented to his readers as fact.  There are no records of courtly, romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day in the medieval era before Chaucer wrote a poem around the year 1382, in celebration of the engagement of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia.  In the poem, “Parliament of Fowles,” he makes the assertion that Valentine’s Day is a special day of romantic celebration for lovers, with the exchanging of notes and gifts.  The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds and humans find their mates.  It was only after this poem received widespread fame that Valentine’s Day became the holiday we recognize today.  Yes, Chaucer invented Valentine’s Day.  It’s his fault.

Side note: Here are links to the book of past posts from Chaucer’s blog and his current twitter for your perusal.  Your love life may depend on it.

Valentine greetings, therefore, were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400.  The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  (It is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library.)  Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

By the 1750s, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by the 1850s, Valentine’s Day cards were being manufactured and sold commercially in England, and the custom of observing the holiday with cards to one’s sweetheart became popular in the United States in the 1860s, around the time of the American Civil War.

By 1900, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.  Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.   Today, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year.

And finally, a few facts about the fellow who started the whole mess: Valentine.  The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome, in order to differentiate him from the dozen or so other Valentines on the list of saints.  Because “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular name between the second and eighth centuries, there were bound to be a few martyrs with that name, and indeed, there are about a dozen Valentines (or some variation thereof) on the official Roman Catholic roster of saints.  There was even a Pope Valentine, though all we really know about him is that he served a mere 40 days around A.D. 827.


Saints don’t get to lounge about much in the afterlife, and Valentine is no exception.  St. Valentine has a wide-ranging assortment of spiritual responsibilities, to include being the patron saint of beekeepers and travelers, and sufferers of epilepsy and the plague.  All of this on top of his duties to look after engaged couples and happy marriages.

stvalentinesskullIf you happen to be in need of his services, you can find Valentine’s skull on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.  (It’s cleverly displayed in a little gold television-shaped reliquary, with a sticky note on his forehead identifying him.  I think he looks rather fetching.)  Excavations in the early 1800s in a catacomb nearby unearthed his skeletal remains, and as is customary in the Catholic Church, bits and pieces of Saint Valentine have been shipped about to reliquaries around the world.  You can find parts of Valentine in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England, and France.

Today, of course, we have great commercial enterprises focused on St. Valentine’s Day, insisting that folks buy their sweethearts a box of candy, a dozen roses, a diamond ring or necklace, or at least a five-dollar card.  This is all Chaucer’s doing, which makes me wonder why more florists aren’t named after him.

As you stand in line to buy your roses this February 14, remember that it all began with a deranged wolfman smeared in blood, chasing down women with a leather strap.

Feel free to celebrate that as you see fit.

Columbian Exchange: 1492 fallout explained

A number of years ago a ladies-who-lunch type of group asked me to provide a lecture for Columbus Day.  I suppose they expected a whitewashed, ‘Caucasians Discovered The World’ piece.  That is not what they got.  To their credit, they listened and they learned.  I have since presented this lecture for a few other groups, and here it is for you guys to enjoy as well.  This was originally cobbled together from a lecture I gave in my American Indian History class, and it was inspired many, many years ago by a fantastic course I took during my undergrad years on imperialism.  The first time I read Alfred Crosby, I felt like all the little pieces of ‘colonial’ history were clicking into place.  Much thanks to Chet DeFonso, my former professor and advisor, and still and always my friend.  He has never failed to inspire and encourage me, for over twenty years.  This lecture is almost entirely his fault.


Before 1492, we couldn’t talk about “world history” at all; we could only talk about the histories of separate regions.  Columbus changed all of that.


Divergent Evolution

When the continents drifted apart millions of years ago, separating the Americas from Eurasia and Africa, it brought about divergent evolution—the development of different species, as the continents (and their contents) were isolated one from another.  This occurs when a group from a specific population–in this case, the population of the ancient supercontinent, or Pangaea–develops into a new species.  In order to adapt to various environmental conditions, the two groups develop into distinct species due to differences in the demands driven by their environmental circumstances.

While some similarities remained between the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds, such as the existence of jaguars in South America and leopards in Africa, divergent evolution also resulted in entirely original species for each of the continents.  The rattlesnake of the Americas has no similar European species, nor does the camel of Eurasia have an American counterpart.

Beginning with the cargo accompanying Columbus’ second journey to the Americas, the movement of explorers and colonists after 1492 from Old to New World began the reversal, in small part, of this divergence.  After millions of years of divergent evolution humming along on its own, human behavior set into motion what became an enormous reversal in geographical biodiversification.

The Columbian Exchange is a term coined by historian Alfred Crosby.  Columbian Exchange refers to the exchange of crops, animals, disease and technology between the Old World and the New World in the decades following Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. Sometimes called the Triangle Trade, this concept includes Europe, the Americas, and Africa in a three-pronged swap of flora, fauna, foods, technologies, and ideas. Not to mention people.

This exchange can be organized under four categories:  disease, animals, plants, and people.



Native Americans had exactly ONE response to the arrival of Europeans: death.  Native Americans suffered a 90% mortality rate upon the arrival of Europeans, and that was mainly due to disease.

The spread of infectious disease in the Americas was so devastating mostly because the Western hemisphere was isolated, biologically, from Europe’s pathogens, and the Americas just did not have much in the way of infectious diseases prior to 1492.

Prior to the coming of the Europeans, the New World only had a few infectious diseases, perhaps in part because the Americas were populated much later, and the cities were newer than those of the Old World.  More importantly, the Americas had far fewer domesticated herd animals, which are among the greatest sources of disease-carrying microorganisms. Influenza, for example, originates in barnyard animals such as pigs.

Smallpox, measles, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, cholera, typhus, chicken pox, bubonic plague, and influenza were all new to the Americas.

Secondary effects of disease in the Americas were numerous, as well.  For example, the deaths of Aztec and Incan rulers set off wars, which eased the spread of disease, as we all know the best way to spread germs is via hand to hand combat.

Plus, leaders kept dying.  The Incan leader Huayna Capac succumbed to smallpox before the Spanish Conquistador Pizarro even arrived!  This led to a great battle for succession amongst his sons, eventually won by Atahualpa, who was then captured and killed by Pizarro.  Without that war for succession, the Incas would have had much better chances against the Spaniards, as the Spanish numbers were comparatively small.

The same thing happened to the Aztecs:  Moctezuma was the nephew of a more powerful king who died of smallpox, leaving a weak leader in his place, which provided an opening for some of the smaller states in the Aztec Empire to revolt and aid the Spanish in the defeat of the Aztecs.

Another secondhand effect of the introduction of disease was starvation.  There simply weren’t enough people left standing to get food to keep themselves alive.  Malnutrition, then, left people more vulnerable to disease.  Smallpox was the most deadly of transmittable diseases brought to the Americas.  This pathogen sometimes took down so many adults simultaneously within a community that deaths by starvation numbered nearly as high as those from the disease.  In some cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct.

The one and only disease that spread from New World to Old World, usually via sailors and explorers, was syphilis.  It quickly made its way into the upper classes of European society, and amongst the infected were Gauguin, Nietzche, and the famously infertile Tudor family, who all suffered from syphilis.  The effects of this, of course, paled in comparison to smallpox in the Americas.

However, the New World provided tobacco to the Old World.  Cigarettes were handed out to American soldiers during World War II, and more soldiers who started smoking during the war died eventually from smoking than died from the war. Slow moving revenge for smallpox. Well done, New World.



All other purposes aside, the main reason Europeans came to the Americas was to eat—abundant land for crops and animals was highly appealing.

American animals like llamas and guinea pigs never really caught on in Eurasia, but European animals coming to the Americas were revolutionary.  Prior to Columbus, the Americas had no horses, donkeys, pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, or chickens.  Pigs breed really quickly, and eat anything, which utterly remade the food supply in the Americas.  De Soto brought 13 pigs with him when he arrived in Florida in 1539.  By the time of his death three years later, there were 700 pigs.

Large European animals changed the nature of work in the Americas.  Before the Columbian Exchange, the largest beast of burden was the llama, and at best it carried 100 lbs.  This meant that for the long distance travel that the Inca engaged in regularly, the primary transportation was on foot.

The Europeans brought the horse, which was a game changer for Native American culture.  The introduction of horses enabled many Plains tribes to develop entirely nomadic lifestyles, traveling and hunting by horse.

The Comanche became known for their superior horsemanship, and are known for this skill even in our modern world.  The horse was so valuable to the Plains tribes’ daily lives that horses were used as currency between tribe members and from tribe to tribe, and the possession of a horse or more was their primary signifier of prestige.

Oxen with their plows enabled large-scale cultivation, heretofore unknown in the Americas.  This obviously allowed for greater food production.

There were much fewer large mammals that were native to the New World that could be tamed. Buffalo, the primary large American mammal, are still not domesticated.



While Old World animals and diseases totally reshaped the New World, it was New World plants that had the biggest impact on Eurasia.

Europe gave us wheat and grapes—useful for Catholic mass, to be sure—but American plants radically changed the lives and cuisines of millions of Europeans, Asians, and Africans.

Imagine Indian and Thai curries without hot peppers; Italian food without tomatoes; or Belgium with no chocolate!  Much of what we perceive to be typical European food was unheard of prior to the Columbian Exchange.  New World crops foreign to Eurasia and Africa before Columbus arrived in the Americas also include: corn, beans, potatoes, avocados, peanuts, squash, pumpkin, manioc.

The abundance of food influx from New World crops led to a planet-wide population explosion.  The world population doubled between 1650 and 1850.

Potatoes and corn grow in soil that Old World crops cannot survive in.  Consuming primarily potatoes, the Irish more than doubled their population between 1754 and 1845, when the potato famine it.


Side note:

In 1847, roughly 15 years after their forced removal from their ancestral lands in the east, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma heard about what was happening in Ireland, and perhaps they saw an echo of what had happened to them during the Trail of Tears.  Despite their impoverished situation, the Choctaw took up a collection and sent it, via an aid agency, to Ireland.  The Irish people never forgot their generosity, and a huge plaque still hangs prominently in the airport in Dublin to honor the Choctaw people.


So, manioc and cassava went to Africa, the sweet potato went to China and Japan, and corn became the primary ingredient in animal feed around the world.


African Crop Exchange

 The European colonization of the Americas led to the establishment of plantation slavery in the New World, spurring the Atlantic slave trade. This transfer of unwilling migrants from Africa to the Americas had another, unintended effect: a transfer of crops across the ocean between Africa and the Americas, creating another leg in the Columbian Exchange. Slave ships en route to the Americas were provisioned with African food crops, and these crops, upon their establishment in the New World, dramatically influenced American cuisine.  Typical African foods supplied to slave ships included yams, African rice, pearl millet, sesame, sorghum, and tamarind. It was believed that slaves fed familiar foods were more likely to survive the ocean voyage.

New World crops made their way to the west coast of Africa in the first decades after 1492, beginning with corn, and followed shortly thereafter by manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, and others. Corn, as it is a high-yield crop, quickly became a standard cereal crop grown along Africa’s west coast, in order to supply slave ships.

South Carolina had, by 1690, established rice as its primary export crop. In order to establish this economy, plantation owners requested seeds from ship captains, and the result was the introduction of seeds from all over the globe, including a red rice from Africa. African slaves working the plantations planted the same red rice in their garden plots for their own consumption.



With the Columbian Exchange, we had the exchange of people. This was largely going in one direction, as Europeans and Africans (the latter mostly against their will) moved to the Americas, repopulating the New World following the disease and devastation that came with colonization.

Europe’s population had been cut by 1/3 – ½ by plague during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Better food products from the New World allowed Europe’s population to grow by leaps and bounds, putting pressure on the continent, causing more people to move to the Americas for land and food.


In Conclusion…

So there were our three categories: disease, food, and people.  The bottom line is, the Columbian Exchange devastated the population of the Americas; led to widespread slavery of Africans; allowed for a worldwide population increase.  And as a result of the Columbian Exchange, fewer people have starved since 1492, but the diversity of life on earth has diminished dramatically, and planting crops where they don’t belong has hurt the environment.

Via man’s meddling, says Alfred Crosby, humanity ‘has killed off more species of life forms in the last 400 years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million years.’

Recipe: New World Brownies

This recipe combines some wonderful New World ingredients.  I have been making these to accompany my lectures for years.  Enjoy!

  1. 2C unbleached flour
  2. 2C sugar
  3. 1/2C cocoa
  4. 1 tsp baking powder
  5. 1/2 tsp salt
  6. 1/2 tsp habanero powder
  7. 1C coffee
  8. 1C veg oil
  9. 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  10. 1/2 tsp jamaican rum

Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

Mix remaining ingredients separately, then add to bowl of dry ingredients. 

Stir until well blended. Pour into a 9 x 13 pan. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool ten minutes before cutting.