Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shedding my skin

It was a little less than a year ago that I returned from a week at a SC beach with my family.

Photo by Patty Lawton

And I came back changed.

When I returned, my skin was raw and itchy.  Yeah, I know.  I should have checked the expiration date on the sunblock.  I should have worn a shirt.  And a hat.  And long pants.  Maybe socks and shoes. And maybe I shouldn't have been allowed out in the sun anyways.  After seven years without letting my skin see the light of day, it was a bit of a shock to the system to get so much sun in a week.  That kind of shock was bound to change my appearance.  Pink skin.  Acne breakouts where I applied the sunblock.  Particularly sensitive skin where my shingles had not yet completely healed.  I looked very different than I did when I left for Fripp Island, SC, two weeks earlier.

As much as my poor skin experienced change during those weeks, it was nothing like the changes that have gone on in my family over the past few years. While we were at Fripp, I got to meet (and, a little bit, to know) some relations I had never met.  Jordan and Kirstyn are wounderful (stealing Pop-Pop's misspelling)

Friday, February 27, 2015


What happens when you are (burp) wrong?

My dissertation was, by all measures, an abject failure.  Everything that could go wrong did.  Here are some of my conclusions:
  • XRF analysis does not help parse out sources in chert.  
  • Fractals are not helpful in distinguishing production and consumption areas.  
  • Use wear analysis is great.... except for where confounded by midden burning, because burned chert mimics wood-wear. (And every piece of chert we recovered was burned.)
  • And on, and on...
Every single analysis I attempted failed to produce usable results.  And each chapter that I wrote essentially resulted in the statement: This analysis failed to shed any light on the ancient Maya, because...

I am, as a result, very sympathetic to people for whom the data do not deliver desired outcomes. I identify with those who fail more readily than I do with those who succeed. 

So, today, when I got hiccups, I had an odd recollection. (Bear with me.... I'll make the connection in a second.)

It was 1982.  I was a pre-teen, and I got the hiccups.  No sugar around; no peanut butter.  (Both are old stand-bys in my household).  Dad turned to me, and said:

"The reason you have hiccups is that there is air trapped.  You can burp it out, and the hiccups will stop."

Huh.  I didn't know that.  So I tried it.

"hic- BURRRRRP!"

"hic- BURRRRRP!"

"hic- BURRRRRP!"


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tall Tales from Brasil

My time in Brasil was very much an influence on me.  The stories I tell often have roots there.  I very much see the world through Portuguese lenses.  And my understanding of the world around me often has a lot to do with fundamental changes in understanding that happened to an eight-year-old boy on the Amazon.

So I was fascinated to discover a couple of recent articles in a journal that referenced the area where I lived for those seminal years.

The articles were describing some first-person accounts of early missionary work taking place along the Rio Curuari - not too far from the area where we lived.  According to the accounts, there was some significant conflict in the area between two groups.  The anthropologists suggested that the conflict was a result of fissioning - the splitting of a group into two, to take advantage of resources.

Rio (pronounced HEE-oh) Curuari is south and west of Jaburuzinho, which was just downriver of where we lived.

But the conflict was over a cadeira - a four-legged stool that was one of the symbols of office for the Big man.  Raiding parties, casualties, killings: the journal accounts of the 17th Century friars detailed multiple attempts to stop the violence.

How it happened is not clear, but eventually the friars met with the leaders of the two groups.  The Sanuma' leader (who led the most recent successful raid) hosted the meeting, but mistrusted everyone involved.  He hid the cadeira in the eaves of the longhouse, where the discussion was occurring.

During the 'peace talks', the thatch gave way, and the cadeira fell, landing on the Sanuma' leader.  Proving that people who live in grass houses should not stow thrones.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Post Mardi Gras reflection (not Lent-related)

Growing up in SC, I always considered Mardi Gras to be an exotic holiday – a day of absolute indulgence.  College buddies who road-tripped to New Orleans to celebrate this floating holiday had a cachet that nobody else could match.  To have taken days off from school on an unsanctioned holiday, attending the ultimate festival of pure decadence in the US – that was the mark of a serious hedonist.

When I arrived in New Orleans as a budding anthropologist in the late 90s, I decided that my best approach to this festival was an analytical one.  I would observe the rituals associated with Mardi Gras, allowing myself to enjoy it while maintaining a safe distance from the frenzy.

I looked at the ritual in terms of the symbolic redistribution of wealth between the elites elevated on the floats and the commoners below.  I considered the rites of passage necessary to gain entry into secretive organizations.  I observed the psychological changes involved in the masking behavior.  I wanted very much to experience the music that was so pervasive in the city, and to mark how it united the culture groups that lived here: the high school bands that take great pride in both sound and display. 

So I joined the crowd as a participant observer, with all of my observation skills engaged….

…and emerged, three hours later, wild-eyed, bead-festooned, ears ringing, reeling from the experience.  I had bloody, scraped elbows where I had ‘defended my position’ (did I really just elbow a little old lady in the face for some 22-cent beads?) and bloody, scraped knuckles

PSP - Problem Solving Priest

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a silly piece about wizardry and priests.  In it, I confessed that my understanding of electricity is very limited. If I am honest with myself, my comprehension basically ends with the statement, "there is majick going on here". The end result of that majick, I explained, is that when the majick fails, I have to call in a 'priest' (AKA a car mechanic, electrician, plumber) and make an 'offering' to the 'priest', so that he will 'bless' (repair) whatever it is that is broken.

I live in a land filled with well-paid priests.

This past week, I rode along with my brother Parker on a series of deliveries.  He works at an employee-owned lumber yard, and we were delivering sliding (yes, I know what the real spelling of that word is, but it is INTENTIONALLY misspelled.) And lumber.  And decking.

While we were driving around, I explained my priest-and-majick theory of the universe to him....  not realizing that my driver was a general priest himself.

 Problem Solving Part 1.

We got to the first site, and the forklift on the back of the truck was broken.  Turn the key, it grinds, but does not fire. I shrugged my shoulders

Friday, February 13, 2015

Archaeology, Bespoken

(Crorey, speaking in Carnival Barker tone)

How often do you think to yourself, “You know, I just don’t know what to do with all of this money?”

Nor do I, brother, nor do I.  But I’d like to introduce you to a fascinating new idea, and I will let YOU be in on the ground floor of the business.  For a small fee, you can become part owner in my new enterprise, one that is sure to get traction not only here in the Big Easy, but in interesting cities around the country.

See, the wealthy people in town tend to cluster in the older, more inbred…. Um, sorry.  I mean the areas of a city with more history.  Areas like the French Quarter.  The Garden District. Bayou St John., South of Broad in Charleston. Historic District in Savannah. Nob Hill in San Francisco. The Golden Triangle in Greenwich, Connecticut.

These are areas with HISTORY.  The residents of the homes in these areas have money. These are the VRPs (Very Rich People)

My job, and yours, is to find a way to separate those VRPs from some of their wealth….. by connecting them with their history.

Figure 1.  There is bound to be VRP living here.

That is right, ladies and gentlemen.... I am talking about Bespoke Archaeology.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Wizard and the Priest

I do not understand electricity.

I mean, I have gathered some facts.  There is something in there about water; water and electricity don't mix.  I also learned from painful experience that just because a table knife and an electrical outlet look like they would fit together, that they are not supposed to meet (I was four, and at my grandmother's house, but it made QUITE the impression).  I know that there is something about wearing rubber-soled shoes.  I also learned the left-hand and right-hand rule in Mama Chang's high school physics class, but I am not sure exactly what it governs.

Diagnosing electrical problems, therefore, is a fascinating process for me.  Mostly, it follows the following rubric:

*flips switch*
*nothing happens*
*flips switch*
*flips switch*
*flips switch*
Me: "It must be broken."

My wife, who grew up with a dad who had electrical engineering training,

Monday, February 2, 2015

Laby-rinth, and repeat as desired

A year or so ago, I was teaching a class on prayer, and we agreed to meet in the park to visit a prayer labyrinth that was laid out there.  

The day could not have been any more beautiful.  It was one of those cool, sunny spring days that we all love New Orleans for.  And….

And, the day could not have been any more aggravating.  And it was getting worse.  It was a rough day at work, with bureaucratic frustrations building all day long.  I was running late, and the traffic on Magazine St. is always tough during rush hour.  Even as near as my workplace is to the park, there was just no way I was going to make it to the labyrinth by 5 pm.  I took the ‘short cut’ on the Fly, and promptly got stuck behind some... ahem, child of God, who had trouble with his multitasking - talking on the cell phone, driving, and beating his kid who had probably struck out in the baseball game.  For good measure, he stopped in the middle of the road to focus on the other things, rather than driving.

I continued to practice my Jesus prayer, trying to center myself on my relationship with my Creator, rather than his OBVIOUSLY flawed creation in front of me. 

It didn’t work.  When I arrived, I was mad at the entirety of creation.  Beyond mad.  Furious. 

My wife Kathe had arrived before I did, and in greeting her, I did not even make eye contact.  I am going to walk this maze, I am going to check this off of my list of things to do, and then move back to my life. 

I stopped to read the plaque.  Yes, it was a gift post Katrina.  Yes, there is no wrong way to walk the maze.  Sure, long history of gardens and mazes and labyrinths as part of

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Church is Soylent Green

My brain is masterful at making connections.  The connections are not always obvious, and as an adult, I usually am pretty good at filtering out the more odd ones.  My senior high English teacher once wrote:

"Due to the abstruse nature of your intellect (at least, what I have observed of it so far), I at first thought you were satirizing literary critique.  But you weren't.  You have made some shrewd connections between Heathcliff and Lockwood.  They are, of course, off the wall for the most part."

Yes, I memorized that quote - it is verbatim from the red ink splashed on that paper.

And it really does describe what goes on in my head.  Most of the time, my brain is making connection after connection, looking for common ground, looking for similarity.  I love punning, I love analogy and metaphor.  It is as though my brain understands difficult concepts best if I can help it out with a good analogy.

It makes me a good teacher.  It also makes me a miserable conversationalist, because I am seeing connected concepts to discuss (my neighbor calls it an Irish conversation) and wanting to delve into each and every one.

It can also be terribly distracting and a little unnerving for all involved, when it happens at inopportune times.

This morning, I was finishing up an adult Sunday school class.  We are working our way through a very insightful book on the Apostles' Creed called Rooted.  Ray is a friend, and a local Presbyterian minister, and I have sincerely enjoyed leading the discussion class on his book.

The discussion we had on the statement "I believe in the holy catholic church" followed predictable form.  We discussed the function of the church as community, discussed how it was different from other communities in town (bars, Krewes, and even weekly worship sessions at the football altar at the Super Dome).

And we discussed how the church is not the building, but the people.

For some inexplicable reason, during my closing prayer, my synapses made the typical odd connection, and I could not filter it in time.  I prayed the following closing prayer:

"Most merciful and loving God, we have come here today as your church.  Like Soylent Green, Lord, your church is made of people,  Um.  Send us out into the world to carry the good news of your salvation with us, wherever we go."

Seriously.  I said that out loud.  No reason at all to bring up the connection.  Yes, the church is people.  Yes, so is Soylent Green.  And I suppose that the cannibalism of the Lord's Supper could also be brought into the connection.  But I suspect the poor, confused people at that table probably had enough.

Still chuckling with embarrassment over this one.  In the words of Mark Twain,

“Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of this scene”