Archive for September, 2022

The Bell

Living with Burke, I have become accustomed to packages arriving. The PPL guy and I are on a first name basis. When I ask Burke what has arrived in package form, I am often informed not only of the contents of the package, but that I already knew about this. She often informs me of the order at the end of a day of working and editing, when I am reclining on the couch and mentally drooling.

On a Friday in May the buzzer rang, the dog freaked out, and when I picked up the phone I was greeted by a familiar voice.

“Hello Damien,” he said. “I am here with one package.”  

“Hi Lukas. I’ll be right down.”

The package was a square. I brought it up.

“What’s this?”

“You know about this. It’s a bell. I told you about this.”

“What’s the bell for?”

She removed it. It was a small black and white spotted bell. The kind you put on the table and hit on the top to ring. It makes a perfect ding when you hit it, which I did several times until I was further informed of its purpose.  

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Magellan’s Journey and Sherry

When Ferdinand Magellan left Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 20, 1519 it was with five ships and 236 men. He had some weapons, but also 243,000 liters of wine and sherry portioned throughout 417 wineskins and 253 kegs of sherry. This no doubt made the weapons dangerous.

Magellan had a criminal record for going AWOL and he had a squabble with King Manuel meant, so that he was not only refused the financing for his proposed journey, but he was also chased and the target of a possible assassination. Like his predecessor voyager Columbus, he brought his plan to King Charles of Spain, who approved and financed the plan. This got him labelled a traitor.

The plan – go west, trade with the East Indies – the Spice Islands – make contacts and friends, and convert them to Christianity. They planned to go through the Pacific to open a maritime trade route.

It was not an easy journey. In the Straits below the tip of Chile, which now bears his name, he faced a mutiny from three of his captains. They were all Spaniards and perhaps did not think too highly of being under the command of a traitor Portuguese. One was killed in the ensuing battle for command. Another was beheaded and the third was marooned. The men who joined the mutiny were put into hard labor, but later relieved.

In Samar, the East Philippines, they befriended Humabon, king of Ceru. They traded with him and converted him and his people, who decided it didn’t matter what god they prayed to as long as they had the sea, fish, and women who didn’t wear tops. As proof of tribute, he asked them to go defeat the local king Mactan. They arrived a few days later, hit land, and then ran into a hail of bamboo spears. One tribesmen hit Magellan in the face with a spear. He ran the man through with a lance, but was unable to pull the lance back out. The other tribesmen realized that he was the chief and they fell on him and made him very unwaterproof. Perhaps if he’d spent more money on weapons than sherry, he would have had another weapon to use that wasn’t buried in a torso. But this wasn’t the case. So he died, but he probably died with a buzz on. When they went back to Humabon, he threw a feast for them in which he poisoned the crew. Several of the men died.          

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Learning about Your History

About a month ago I was contacted by one of the magazines I write for. They wanted an article on Thanksgiving. If you could make it funny that would be great. Most kids find it sort of boring.

There’s nothing like learning a lot more about a holiday you have been celebrating for 47 years. Here are some things I learned.

The very fact that Thanksgiving is even a holiday is due to one woman named Sara Josepha Hale. She pestered five presidents over 17 years until she finally got Abraham Lincoln to officially declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. I suppose Lincoln had other things to worry about, what with the country at war with itself and coming apart at the seams. She also wrote Mary had a Little Lamb. And, as we see, she had some serious perseverance.

A Thanksgiving dinner is made up of all things indigenous to North America. Turkey, corn, cranberries, potatoes (both russet and sweet), turkey, and though it’s delicious the waistline isn’t too happy about the 4,500 calories it staples to your stomach and rump.

Black. Black. Brown. Everyone knows the day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, as we all see the internet videos of legions of sociopaths beating each other senseless over a blender. The etymological story goes that most companies spend the bulk of the year without making a profit (in the red) but on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year and the unofficial kick off to the Christmas shopping season, they finally make a profit (in the black). Hence, Black Friday. This is largely fiction and a typical capitalistic spinning of the origin. Evidently, it was called Black Friday by employers to refer to their employees calling in sick on that Friday in order to sneakily obtain a four day weekend. It was also called Black Friday by police officers in Philadelphia to describe the shopping crowds downtown.

But the days before and after Turkey Day are affiliated with colors depending on one’s employment. The day before Thanksgiving is called Black Wednesday by bar workers because it’s the busiest bar day of the year. The day after Thanksgiving is called Brown Friday by the plumbers of North America, as it’s their busiest day of the year too. Evidently the Thanksgiving dinner multiplied by twelve drunken family members, and that one sibling who’s pissed off to be at the kid’s table, is not too good on the old pooper. We can imagine the plumbers’ job that Friday and all agree that their…duties are worth the time and a half they get.

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Vesuvius Explodes

On August 24, 79 AD (actually probably October 24, but I didn’t find that out until I was almost done writing), Pompeiians were probably going about their lives like it was any other day. They did their chores and cooked their meals. Rumblings had been coming from Vesuvius, the grumpy mountain which squats nearby. Around 1 pm, the volcanic shit hit the volcanic fan when Vesuvius blew a “high altitude column” spewing pumice and ash.

Many people took the opportunity to escape the city. Some didn’t, though I can’t imagine what more prompting one needs to evacuate than hot pumice falling onto your house. That night, Vesuvius sent worse gifts – a pyroclastic surge of hot gas, volcanic debris, and ash and temperatures of 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who hadn’t left, no doubt regretted it in the milliseconds during which their blood and organs vaporized.

It’s those people – the ones that stayed – that we see today in ash casts bent into rictuses of the useless gestures of protection that made up the last seconds of their lives. These figures crouch and weep in exhibits both in Pompei and museums, making Pompei famous to the world now. While Vesuvius’s violent eruption must have been rather unpleasant for a Pompeiian at the time, it has given a good glimpse into the daily lives of Romans at that time that we might not otherwise have. It preserved homes and buildings, frescoes, pubs and restaurants in ash, thus making them available for study for later generations.

One such find was a man and his (or a) dog in a small building in Regio V. The man was asleep (we hope) on a cot. The man himself isn’t that fascinating, but rather the place he’s in – a pub. The pub is a popina, a tavern, which would have sold fast food and cheap wine. One of the reasons this pub is such an interesting find is that it sheds some light on something that has been a bit mirky for historians of Rome – how the common people partied.

Whenever I am asked to imagine a Roman party (which happens more often that you’d think), I always envision the same group of nice-nosed white people in togas reclining on red velvet couches and drinking wine, eating from lavish platters of rich food, and speaking my high school Latin. Though some of this is quite clearly wrong, there’s a reason I envision this crew of drinkers. It’s what we have always been told about Roman parties – that is, only about the elite.

The elite didn’t need to go out of their homes for a good time. They had space, furniture, and facilities to have lavish parties right in their homes. What they didn’t have on hand, they could get delivered – food and drink, serving wenches and prostitutes, their friends and wives. It was ideal. But if you were a commoner, it was a different story. Many common people lived in insulae, which were apartment complexes. Most of the cells in these abodes didn’t have kitchens and so instead of cooking at home, commoners went out for dinner and drinks.

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