Sunday, June 16, 2013

Darwin unchained



Alec and I went a  Smithsonian lecture on the Galapagos  Archepelego. Everything from the structure of the Cocos Hotspot and the giant subsurface magma plume which formed the islands to the very strange fauna and flora which live there. And, of course, the man who forever will be linked to this dubious earthly paradise, Charles Darwin. Turns out, that Darwin and the HMS Beagle only spent four weeks out a total four-year cruise. They only visited four of the over twenty islands in the group. Four islands in four weeks; sounds like a budget vacation.
While visiting, Darwin made note of the several species of mockingbird, but pretty much neglected the (Darwin's finches) which he only began to puzzle over when he got home and the British Museum specialist told him that they were all, indeed, finches.  Chuck could be somewhat obtuse like that, even after the deputy governor told him that the giant tortoises were identifiable from their shell shape to specific islands. He mulled things over for close to 20 years until a letter to a mutual friend from a largely self-educated biologist working in the East Indies came to his attention. This fellow, one Alfred Wallace, came up with the same idea of change through natural selection. Darwin panicked and the mutual friend suggested they coauthor a paper to the Royal Society. The paper on natural selection was presented to not much enthusiasm. Truth be told, Charles Darwin was always something of a slapdash biologist. 
He trained as a physician at Edinburg but got nauseated by the sight of blood. Then took a "gentleman's C" at Cambridge in theology. He signed on as super cargo aboard the Beagle and spent the next five years cruising around the world.
The story goes that as a young man, he was collecting insects when he pried up a chunk of bark to find two species of beetle new to his collection. He grabbed one in each hand when he saw a third crawling away. Loath to loose it, he popped one into his mouth. Bad move, the erstwhile tasty morsel turned out to be a bombardier beetle which released a stream of boiling hot acid into his mouth. Despite everything, he kept all three for his collection. Thus are great naturalists born.

The professor and the pocket knife

The story on Facebook by a friend of Ariel, regarding a class running from 5 to 8 PM reminded me of a similar experience. My class was at the same time, 3 days a week. Fortunately, the professor set up a schedule for each of us to bring a snack for the class.  He would supply coffee.  After some initial hesitation, things began to run like clock work as veggie platters and dip, brownies, or a couple of dozen donuts made welcome appearances and were eagerly devoured by starving grad students.

 One memorable occasion, the treat was from the professor's wife in the form of a large Texas sheet cake.  She even supplied a stack of paper plates, napkins, and a box of plastic forks. Alas, she neglected a knife with which to slice the delicacy, which must have weighed several pounds, and was redolent with chocolate.  "Anybody got a knife?" the professor asked.

Immediately every one of us brandished their Swiss army knife. It looked like a scene  from "West Side Story" as played by gangs of biologists. The professor considered the array of cutlery before him and replied "Naw, y'all been cutting weird stuff with those." 

He took out his own pocket knife, a veteran of many a field dissection and geological sampling, and sliced the cake. To his credit, he did sterilize the blade by passing it through a Bic lighter flame. The cake was delicious

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Homage to Henry Pratt

It was a combination of a bad pun inspired by 1930’s classic horror movies, and modern supermarket technology. Ariel and I were at the Safeway, grocery shopping. She had scampered off to another section to retrieve something overlooked on our list.

I was in the produce department choosing veggies. The list said "Limes, (2)" . I picked my way through a pile of the green orbs, finding two that were heavy for their size (the way you choose citrus). Inspiration struck. I held the two limes over my head and cackled “it’s a lime! It’s a lime!” in my best Dr. Frankenstein voice, ala Colin Clive in the 1929 classic film. Just as I finished my intonation, the auto mist in the fresh vegetable aisle went off, complete with canned rainforest thunder. The peal faded, I double over in self inflicted laughter, and Ariel came round the corner, witnessing the whole thing. “Daddy, you are so weird.” Was her comment, but she was laughing as she said it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas, 2011

Earth’s odometer is set for another click. This has been a year of gains and losses, endings and beginnings. We hope your year has, on the balance, been one of joy and wonder.

In February, Pat and I decided cabin fever was taking hold, so we boarded a train and rode all night to Charleston, South Carolina for a 5-day mini vacation. Charleston is called the “City of Churches”, and they aren’t kidding. Dozens of them; in every denomination you care to name, including Huguenot (French Protestant), all with intricate wrought iron work at the gate.

We devoured Low Country cuisine such as gumbo, shrimp and grits, fried oysters, and more shrimp—my stomach was rising and falling with the tides. We visited the Charleston Aquarium and I took a boat ride into the harbor to see Ft. Sumter, where the Civil War began (astonishingly enough, no one was killed during the bombardment) and the original flag is on display.
We visited an antebellum rice plantation, now a nature preserve, complete with alligators and ibis. We took a walking tour of Charleston’s pirate history and our guide regaled us with stories of Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, and of Calico Jack Rackham and his cross-dressing pirate crew.

Rhiannon, our niece, was wed this August in Indianapolis, and we were invited.

Ariel flew, and Pat, Alec, and I drove. The only catch was, it was a held at GenCom (the Sci-Fi and fantasy gamer convention; both Rhiannon and Eel, her betrothed, are avid gamers); so a fantasy/time travel theme was suggested, costumes and all. Everyone at the convention, wedding guests included, appeared in various garb, fanciful and otherwise. Dr. Who in his many incarnations and dozens of Starwars characters (my favorites was the Imperial Storm Trooper in a kilt) tended to predominate; at least among the ones I recognized. Ariel was a 1940’s pinup girl, Alec, a Walk-Like-An-Egyptian pharaoh. Pat went as Lady Sybil Vimes, a character from Terry Pratchett’s Disk World series. Lady Sybil is an aristocratic (read: Old Money) lady, the last of her line who spends her time doing Good Works; she runs a charity for homeless dragons. Al went as a pirate; with his raffish good looks, it wasn’t too hard to pull off. Ariel braided his beard, ala Edward Teach (Blackbeard), and he wore his colonial tour guide outfit.

All the guests and crashers were asked to supply back stories as how they met the happy couple in the past, the future, or present-and in the dimension of choice. One of my favorite back stories concluded with the guest addressing Rhiannon: “I love you, Grandma, but it’s kind of creeping me out to watch you get married.”The wedding cake adhered to the time travel theme—constructed by Ariel and several others and made of snack cakes including Ho-hos, Hostess Cupcakes, and Twinkies. The leftovers will probably stay fresh to the next Ice Age.

Those of us not needed for the preparations toured Indianapolis. The Children’s Museum was the first stop. This has everything a kid could want to see. Dinosaurs in droves, both fossil and reproduction. The museum’s front entrance features a life-sized Diplodocus (Brontosaurus to the non-cognoscenti), rearing up on its hind legs and peering through the fifth floor windows.

An entire wing devoted to Barbie in all her splendor was a must see for Ariel.

Full size replicas of the Chinese terra cotta warriors and exquisite doll house rooms scattered throughout the building round out the exhibits, along with a water-powered clock and Bumblebee from the Transformers movies.

A glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly reaches from the basement to the skylight.

Pride of place is a working 1905 Denzel Carousel. The horses are hand-carved with real horsehair tails. Art you can ride on.

About mid-August, I was sitting down to lunch around noon. The house began to vibrate as though a big truck was passing in front. The vibrations didn’t stop and, as the dog and cats ran to hide in the bedroom, my first thought was “This must be an earthquake…cool!” The rumbling lasted a good 30 seconds as I watched the framed pictures on the wall tilt crazily, and a small figurine on the breakfront walked to the edge and fell over. Ripples in the dog water dish slopped over. I went outside and saw the old-fashioned TV antenna on the roof next door vibrate like a tuning fork. The trembling passed, leaving a silence punctuated by car alarms. Turns out we had had a 5.7 quake, centered about 130 miles south. It was the biggest quake in the area for the past century. Cracks appeared in the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, where a gargoyle fell off a wall. Check that off my list, although a 5.7 is as intense as I care to experience. Later that week, as I was giving a tour in Alexandria, I pointed out Gatsby’s Tavern and explained that the tall chimneys, dating from the 1790’s had cracked, one of the tourists piped up with “We’re from California—we don’t even get out of bed for anything less that a 7.2.” That kind of puts things in perspective.

Alec graduated this May from James Madison University, resplendent in royal purple robes and flip-flops.

He still needs to complete an internship to finish his degree. He now has it set up for this January with a speaker’s bureau/event planning agency in downtown D.C. He divides his time among Vienna friends, Harrisonburg (where he still has many friends), and his girlfriend, (Sam) near Ellicott City, Maryland. This and working at Basin’s, an upscale restaurant keeps him busy. His interest in the music industry has not diminished and is hopeful that event planning can be translated to music event planning, like some of the festivals/concerts he attends with Sam.

Ariel is working at a law office in Georgetown. She moved fro regular receptionist to Human Resources Assistant (and backup receptionist) and seems to be doing very well. She has an active social life with her friends from Randolph Macon, with movies, trips to the beach house and other adventures. She has discovered couponing and on her weekly grocery buying expeditions with Al, usually saves enough to pay for her own groceries.

Pat has successfully auditioned for the City Choir of Washington, under the direction of Robert Shafer, a famed and well-respected choir master. She has sung in two concerts this year at National Presbyterian Church and the sound is wonderful—truly fills up the space. Pat’s company has been sold (again). The new owners seem to be a better fit in terms of IT prowess, and she has high hopes for the new year.

Al’s mom passed away this summer after a mercifully short illness. She is buried next to Al’s dad in Silver Spring. Al is still working as a tour guide in Alexandria, leading walking tours showcasing the history and ghosts of the old colonial seaport. He continues to volunteer at Huntley Meadows, a Fairfax County park, and sees something astonishing nearly every time.

The animals are healthy and happy. Our boy cat, Basil, landed funny after a jump from a high place and broke his hip last June and underwent surgery to remove the fractured ball and socket joint. The vet told us this is the most common operation for cats (and dogs under 40 lb) He spent a week or so in confinement, limping about and looking pathetic, but soon healed back to his old self, dashing about the house and tussling with his sister. A recent check-up revealed that our cats, who weighed in at just over 2 pounds when 5 weeks old, have ballooned up to 12 and 13 pounds. Dinah has filled out her fur and is hard to pick up by the nape of her neck. I guess we may need to reduce one or more of their snacks.

Hoping your Holiday Season brings you joy and come-true wishes for the New Year.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hell Spawn

Now I’m not saying that the kids on my Ghost and Graveyard Tour in Alexandria the other night were anything but well-behaved and cute as bugs. But…

They were all fifth graders, they were divided up into small groups (that should have been a tip-off), and I got all boys. I don’t care how many chaperones are with them, a group of early adolescent male primates are enough to try anyone’s where with all. I’m convinced that Lord of the Flies was not fiction. The 19th century anarchist philosophers surely must have been with all boys.

One guide (who shall remain nameless) referred to his group as “Children of the Corn”, and was glad he brought his crucifix that evening.

At the start of my tours, I always lay down the ground rules: follow me—I know where I’m going; cross all streets with the light or at a stop sign; keep the noise levels down to a dull roar; save all questions to the end of the tour. Immediately, four hands shot up, and we were off and running.

When we got to the end of the tour at Christ Church cemetery, the sound levels truly could have woken the dead, some of whom slept through the Civil War. “What happens if you touch a tombstone?” “I don’t know,” I replied, “maybe you’ll be haunted.” “COOL!!” as they ran amok among the headstones. “I touched two! Maybe I’ll be haunted by two ghosts.” “Oh yeah? I touched three.”

My favorite question, though, was from a kid who asked if I were a ghost. “You have to tell the truth if you are.” Where the hell did he come up with that rule? “Don’t you know that ghosts always lie?” I asked. “So to answer you question, no, I’m not a ghost.” And left him to ponder that one.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Buccaneer Soap Opera

To the best of my knowledge, there has not yet been a really good movie about the Annie Bonny-Mary Read-Jack Rackham triangle, but there’s a chick flick (or maybe a really raunchy porn film) just waiting to happen.

Anne Bonny was born in Ireland, the illegitimate child of a lawyer and a servant girl. The lawyer, William Carmac, whose reputation and career were in tatters, brought his new family to the New World where they settled in Charleston. Carmac resumed his lawyering and through shrewd business acumen, became a wealthy man and owned a plantation. Anne’s mother died soon after arriving and daddy was too busy with his business dealings to pay much attention to his daughter. Anne became a rebellious teen, hanging out in the bars and grog shops of Charleston and mixing with a bad crowd. Starting to sound familiar?

Still in her teens, she ran off with and married an impoverished sailor man and part-time pirate named James Bonny, who hoped for a slice of daddy’s fortune. No luck there, William Carmac disinherited his daughter so Annie and James left the Carolinas. They made their way to the Bahamas, then a notorious pirate hang-out. James, ever seeking the main chance, took the King’s pardon and became an informant, disgusting Annie, who left him. She soon took up with Calico Jack Rackham (named for his colorful outfits), a former pirate captain from Jamaica. He too had taken a King’s pardon and had gone legit, but was itching for something more exciting. Annie convinced him to “go back on the account”, so the two of them (Anne dressed as a man) recruited a small crew, stole a merchant vessel, and took off to the West Indies in search of adventure and plunder. The crew all thought Annie was a man (“that funny looking fellow who never shaves”) and if they thought there was anything unusual that the captain was sleeping with another crew member, they kept it to themselves. Everything was fine until the fateful day a year or two into their cruise when Calico Jack took a Dutch ship. That’s where the story gets interesting.

On board the Dutch vessel was a handsome young English sailor named Mark Read. Mark was induced to join the pirates and soon proved an able hand and fierce fighter. Annie, still disguised as a man, was attracted to Mark and soon took the opportunity to be alone with him. Anne confessed her adoration of Mark and hinted the good things were in the offing if he reciprocated. So, to recap, here we have a hot-blooded teen temptress, dressed as a man, confessing her undying love to a young sailor in secret.

I’m sure Mark looked somewhat embarrassed, gave a polite cough, and began telling Annie (who he thought was a man), that while uh, he was flattered and really wasn’t prejudiced, he uh really wasn’t ready for a relationship with another fellow, even one of the um pirate persuasion. At this point Anne realized where the conversation was going, and took off her shirt, proving that she was in reality most emphatically a girl. Pause for long exhalation in relief.

As the story goes, fate chose that exact moment for Calico Jack to walk into the cabin. So, there was Anne, the love of his life standing half-naked before the handsome young sailorman, and Mark wearing a stupid-looking grin. Jack, thinking reasonably that Annie was about to cheat on him, drew his dagger and threatened to scupper Mark from stem to stern. Mark took off his own shirt revealing to all that Mark was a Mary. She had dressed as a man for most of her life. Mary’s widowed mother passed her off as a deceased older brother in order to fraudulently collect an allowance from her in-laws. Mary ran off as a teen, joined the army, fought in the Netherlands, fell in love with another soldier, married him, and settled down running a tavern. When her husband died, she lost the tavern, went back to drag, and signed aboard a merchant ship. Where she ran into Annie and Jack. Now what?

They say pirates had a reputation as heavy drinkers but at least in this case, Calico Jack was justified in downing a dram or two. Or twelve.

The three of them decided that the women would continue to pass as men since most sailors believed a woman at sea was bad luck. Anne and Mary became best of friends (BFFs) and would often sit above decks at night and talk girly things. Mary fell in love with one of the pirates, a young man who had been forced to join the piratical crew due to his set of needed skills (navigator, carpenter, sail-maker, or whatnot), and let him in on the secret. One of the other pirates, a real hard case began bullying Mary’s boyfriend to the point where a duel with cutlasses was arranged. Mary, knowing her boyfriend would likely end up as shark food, contrived a disagreement with said hard case, and fought a duel with him before her boyfriend was scheduled to fight (“I’ll just pencil you in”). She handily dispatched the pirate. That together with her and Anne’s ferociousness in a fight, won the respect of the remaining crew. Jack outed the girls, telling the crew that, even though Anne and Mary were in fact, women, they were the best fighters amongst the lot and left it up to a vote. The crew unanimously voted a full share for the ladies. Anne and Mary dressed as women during “off hours” but went back into drag when doing pirate stuff. Ah bliss.

It all came to a crashing end on night off Jamaica. Jack and the crew were below decks drinking rum while Anne and Mary were chatting above decks. Their ship was boarded by the Royal Navy intent on capturing the pirates. Anne and Mary grabbed weapons and held off the boarders, all the while screaming for help. Jack and the rest were either too frightened or too besotted to come up on deck. Fighting with cutlass and pistol, the women were soon overwhelmed and the ship taken. The pirates were transported in chains back to Port Royal, Jamaica for trial.

After a speedy trial, all but two of the crew were sentenced to hang for piracy (Mary’s lover, being a “forced man” was set free). When the judge asked if there was any reason the death sentence should not be carried out, Mary and Anne stepped forward. “Sir,” they announced, “we plead out bellies.” Both were pregnant and British law prohibited execution of pregnant women. They were sent back to jail to await birth, to be followed by hanging. As the crew were led off to the gallows, Anne called out to Jack “If you had fought like men, you would not now be hanged like dogs.”

Mary died in prison of a fever, likely typhus, Annie vanishes from the record soon after. Capt Eric said the story is that Anne’s wealthy father got news of what had happened and went to Jamaica to visit his wayward daughter. Money changed hands, and Anne was sprung from jail. According to Capt Eric, she became a respectable lady, a member of the Charleston upper crust, married a rich Virginia plantation owner, and is buried somewhere near Newport News, Virginia.

Historical note: Other than hanging out with lady pirates, Calico Jack Rackham is remembered for fashioning the first “Jolly Roger” flag. His flag, a skull with crossed cutlasses, can be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean when the assembled brotherhood hoist their colors prior the climactic battle with Davey Jones in the third movie. Calico Jack himself can be seen as one of the three hanging corpses next to the “Pirates Beware” sign as Jack Sparrow sails into Port Royal at the beginning of the first movie.

Pirating 101

Charleston also saw the demise of Stede Bonnet, the “notorious gentleman pirate”, hanged with his crew at what is now White Point Gardens, just down the street from Rainbow Row (Charleston’s version of the “Painted Ladies” Victorian row houses in San Francisco).

Bonnet was a wealthy Barbados sugar plantation owner who, sometime in his forties, decided to become a pirate. Capt Eric told us that the prevailing wisdom of the day was that he turned to a life as one of the brethren of the coast due to a nagging wife, but he was probably only having a mid-life crisis. Fire-engine red Corvettes not yet having been invented, piracy seemed a viable option. Bonnet had absolutely no experience at sailing or boats in general, but probably thought “hey, it can’t be that tough—it will be fun” and proceeded to purchase a vessel (real pirates either stole a ship or hijacked it through mutiny) which he named the Revenge, hire a crew (real pirates worked for shares of plunder, not wages), declared himself captain (real pirates elected their captains), and took off for the Spanish Main. He even had a flag made up.

Unlike Squire Trelawny of Treasure Island fame, Bonnet did not hire a real captain who could navigate and run a ship, so just getting out of the harbor in the first place proved something of a chore, what with all the aimless circling and running aground and such. His inexperience and general ineptitude soon became apparent. When he finally got to the Spanish Main, he met and joined forces with Blackbeard (most of Bonnet’s crew, tired of the pro/am circuit, left him to sign up with the “real” pirates). One of Blackbeard’s crewmen took over the Revenge, and Bonnet became a “guest” on his own ship, effectively removed from command. He eventually was restored to command and parted company with his mentor, and actually did manage to plunder a few ships off the Delaware Capes. It seemed he finally made it to the major leagues and left amateur status behind.

All good things come to an end, however, and in October 1718, Colonel William Rhett, a pirate hunter under orders from the newly installed governor of South Carolina, captured Bonnet and his crew in present-day North Carolina. Rhett hauled them all back to Charleston for trial. Bonnet’s crew of 29 all hanged that November. Nineteen crew members of another pirate ship danced the “hemp fandango” soon after.

Bonnet, since he was a gentleman, was allowed certain privileges, including not being stuck in the fetid prison with the rest of the pirates. Bonnet promptly broke his parole, and attempted an escape, disguised in a dress. Capt Eric, Bonnet said Bonnet made his way to the harbor, stole a boat, and sailed off, still in the dress. He needn’t have bothered—Bonnet’s total failure at Piracy for Dummies caught up with him—he ran aground on a sandbar in Charleston harbor and was recaptured with a great deal of embarrassment on all sides. Bonnet was convicted on two counts of piracy and hanged on December 10, 1718 at Charleston’s White Point.

Together with the remains of the other pirates, Bonnet was left to rot on the gibbet as a warning to other would-be buccaneers. However, the stench from close to 50 dead pirates soon became a bit too much for the citizen of fair Charleston, and all of them were cut down and, as a final insult, buried in the salt marsh at the low tide line—neither on land nor at sea.

Colonel Rhett cashed in on his capture of the “dread pirate Bonnet” even though he missed out on Blackbeard. Rhett became hugely wealthy with plantations in South Carolina and the West Indies. He died at the ripe old age of 57 and is remembered as one of Charleston's prominent citizens.