Dissertation Story

Toward the end of my dissertation writing, I posted a short story on Facebook each time I finished a chapter, describing my victory and advancing a simple storyline. It started in jest, but I began to really enjoy the updates–they were a perfect way to describe the relief I felt at each chapter’s close. While I was struggling through thick, academic verbiage I was imagining what the next bit would be like, the next genre I’d steal from. I’m not sure that the best reward for writing is more writing, but I had fun. Oh and if they appear out of order, it is because I didn’t write my chapters in order, and didn’t do a FB update for the introduction or chapter three. Enjoy!

Chapter Four:

Slowly our heroine drags herself free of Chapter Four’s steaming corpse, pausing for only a moment to consider the 20 photos, comic strip and 13,600 words that comprise the pustulent hulk that she has just slain. Though the journey remains long, and the rewards sparse, she soldiers on–sunny skies now, but the darkness of Chapter Six looming ever closer on the horizon. Alas.

Chapter Six:

With a grim twist of her blade, our heroine gutted the immense, serpentine corpse of Chapter 6.

First she had lost her closest companion to a tiny island in the North, then she lost her home in a fit of insanity. After an eternity of sailing dark tides on a tiny craft, she moored next to a great cave where the beast slept, its oddly pixellated head barely visible in the dim light. With easy confidence she cut off the head, “snicker-snack” but instead of expiring, the beast’s baleful green eye opened and shone with the light of a million computer terminals. The ground shuddered as the rest of the beast lurched into view. Not just a simple dragon–the beast was a hydra. The earlier hope, that this would be an easy part of the quest, was shown to be deeply, deeply foolish. 19,000 words later, she was done.

In the morning she would make sure the hydra was completely dead, but for now she was exhausted. She would continue to the tiny Northern island to retrieve her companion, then plot her course for Chapter 5. The nefarious Chapter 5 lived in the distant shadow mountains, where she would have to clamor up the slopes in the pitch dark, feeling for invisible obstacles as she went along. She had put off this journey, as the hydra was well-known, or so she had thought. Maybe this next one would be easy. Probably not. But now it was time to move on, as time was running out.

Chapter Five:

Her eyes fixed on the giant, flashing display and she cursed and bit her lip. Moving her little silver ship through the edge of the nova had, of course, been a bad idea. She was not ready for the wretched Chapter Fiveians to launch their attack, but she had no choice. After all, they were the prey.

She shoved the display out of the way and cut the blaring alarms. The Fiveians were coming in fast and her visibility was next to nothing, outside of the primitive sensing capabilities of her ship. She took a deep breath, then hit the thrusters hard, the entire craft shuddering around her. Something clanged out of place, probably the dinner that her co-pilot prepared and then forgot. Where was he, anyway? Probably headed off to a side-mission again.

Finally, she got a visual on the Fiveians. Their ship was lean and mean, better equipped with bigger guns, but she caught sight of a massive lacuna–there was virtually no literature on the subject! She aimed the guns on her little silver ship right at the sweet spot and fired, fired again and braced herself for the impact of the return fire, squinting her eyes and turning her head.

There wasn’t any. Our heroine, for once, had caught a lucky break. Chapter Five winked into nothingness in space, and she was free to journey on to her second-to-last destination: Chapter Two.

See you, Space Cowgirl.

Chapter Two:

The dark outline of the saguaro cut into the orange-pink desert skyline, oddly unmarked by the shotgun blasts that disfigured most of the proud cactuses in these parts. The heat of the day had passed, and I tipped the last drops of water out of my canteen to my lips. I had a bottle of whiskey in my pack, but that would wait until later.

The nag under my saddle was once a proud filly, chestnut hair shining, fractious and unforgiving. Her lank tail twitched toward a fly on her flank, but it was an empty reflex, and the fly went on undisturbed.

The shadow beneath the saguaro in the dim evening light was like looking into space without the stars. A figure slowly oozed out of the shadow, until a man was looking up at me, tall boots, battered hat. He spit into the dust. “I know what you came for. Let’s get ‘er done.”

I swung down from the old, faithful nag, patting her on the cheek as I retrieved the long rifle from where I’d strapped it across her shoulders. I unbuckled her saddle and let it drop to the ground, evoking only a mild nicker from the beast. With a sigh, I walked a few paces away, squaring off across from the man.

“It’s a shame, really.” He spit again. “But it has to be done.” I felt around in my heart for something, some hint of emotion like love or guilt or pain. Came up as dry as my canteen. I shouldered the gun, widened my stance, and shot, bracing my shoulder for the impact.

The horse fell heavily to the ground. The man took off his hat and wiped his brow. His familiar features were a comfort. “What was ‘er name, anyway?”

I cleared my throat. “Theory. Chapter Two.”

He gave me a terse nod, replaced his hat. “Well, she’s horsemeat now.”

Poor dead horse. It was time for the conclusions.

The Conclusion:

Battered, bruised, and alone, she approached the giant iron door. She knocked, three leaden tones that rung out in the silence. A very small window opened and a bored and slightly vacant face stared at her.

“You rung the bell?” The doorkeeper frowned.
She crossed her arms. “No, I knocked.”
“Good, the bell is out of order.”
“Whatever. I want to see the wizard.”
“He’s busy, nobody can see the wizard.”
“Look.” She pointed at her feet. “I have the shoes.”
“The ruby slippers! Well come right in!”
“Typical.”

The huge door swung open, revealing a massive throne. A purplish cloud of smoke obscured the top of the throne and suddenly she felt dizzy, nostalgic. Was she really ready?

“I AM THE GREAT WIZARD OF OZ.” A great voice thundered and flames burst from behind the throne.

Instead of being impressed by the display, she was suddenly completely unafraid. With a small shrug, she marched up to the throne and threw a folder full of paper at the seat.

“There it is. Finished. Now give me what is my due.”

“SILENCE.” The papers ruffled slightly, as if a breeze had swept through the throne room.

“STEP FORWARD.” She threw back her shoulders and thrust her chin in the air. Who cares if there was a comma splice in the abstract?

The placid face of the doorman reappeared. In a nasal voice he droned: “Congrats. You’ve got your Ph.D….NEXT!”

She was quickly shuffled out of the throne room and into the hall.

“Well, that was anticlimactic.” She looked down at the ruby slippers. “I guess there’s only one thing left to do.”

She smiled, clicked her heels three times, and disappeared.

Just like that.

Mount Everest and Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake

romneys_mint_cake_2_

It was probably the old-timey packaging that attracted my attention. Nestled in-between the CLIF and LUNA energy bars was a slim, indigo blue wrapper that would not have been out of place on old money, or a commemorative plate. On the back was this legend:

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake was the first Mint Cake to be successfully carried to the top of MOUNT EVEREST on 29th May 1953 this being the first successful expedition to the summit.
Romney’s were approached by the 1953 expedition to Everest, to see whether they could supply Mint Cake to them within 7 days. Sir Edmund Hilary and Sirdar Tensing ate this Mint Cake on top of Everest as they gazed at the countryside far below them. Since then Kendal Mint Cake has become a firm favourite with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District.
A member of the successful Everest Expedition wrote- “It was easily the most popular item on our high altitude ration – our only criticism was that we did not have enough of it.”

The sixtieth anniversary of Hilary and Tenzing’s successful ascent passed last May, with the requisite press flurry. I am not a mountain climber, much beyond the easiest of the 14ers in Colorado, but Mount Everest has held my interest for years. It is a site of difficult, controversial heritage, and the assemblage that is left on the mountain each year is a fascinating array of technical multicultural detritus and human remains. The narrative around Mount Everest has changed from fearless mountaineering with a heavy overlay of nostalgia to that of egotism, recklessness, and exploitation of the sherpas and the environment.

Each summer there are stories of crowded summits and vainglory; from the 1996 disaster wherein 15 people died while summiting to 2006 when dozens of people passed David Sharp, a British climber who lay dying beside the trail and the previously deceased who had become trail markers, dictated by their distinguishing features. The cold, dry clime of Mt. Everest preserves all of the garbage and corpses, and at one point there were over 200 bodies on the mountain.

Mount Everest has been steeped in colonial overtones since the British access to the mountain was secured in 1904 by Francis Younghusband’s attack on Tibetan peasants, clearing the way. Younghusband was then put in charge of the early mountaineering expeditions, who situated climbing Everest as an extravagantly useless activity. He remarked, “If I am asked what is the use of climbing this highest mountain, I reply, No use at all: no more use than kicking a football about, or dancing, or playing the piano, or writing a poem or painting a picture.” Mountaineering was a patriotic mission to improve British morale.

As Mazzolini writes, an important part of maintaining Britishness at Mount Everest was choosing identity-affirming foods. In the 1920s, meals eaten at high altitudes included quails packed with truffles and champagne, marking the expeditions as a gentlemen’s pursuit. On his 1922 reconnaissance, Mallory noted that there was an abundance of cheese, tinned food of all sorts, and they were “never short of jam and chocolate.”

The shift from luxury to efficacy came between the 1920s and 1930s, when expeditions led by Tilman dined on pemmican (dried beef and fat) with sugar and dried fruit. The climbing body was reconceptualized, says Elizabeth Mazzolini, from an expression of imperialist aesthetics to a machine without excessive concern for pleasure or comfort. This was problematic though, as at altitudes over 22,000 feet eating becomes an unpleasant assignment–diminished appetite, nausea and vomiting are common. Food that was merely monotonous before becomes unimaginable.

In this context, Hilary and Tensing brought Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake along for their successful summit in 1953. Romney’s Kendal Mint Cakes are a mixture of glucose, sugar, peppermint oil and water and were issued as rations on several expeditions. I bit off a small corner of the one that I bought and suffered from near immediate sugar-shock. A bit like a hard York peppermint patty, it was easily the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted.

The packaging of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake explicitly ties the summiting of Mount Everest to Britishness, equating eating the sweet on the summit with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District in the quote on the back of the package. On the front is an interesting hierarchy that provides the context for Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake–the outer two images feature English natural heritage in the form of Windermere and Derwentwater, the former is the largest natural lake in England and the latter is on of the principal bodies of water in the Lake District. The next two images feature cultural heritage–Romney House Kendal, a listed building that was build in the early to mid 18th century and the Kendal Castle Ruins, a 12th century castle that was the home of the Lancaster family. Finally, in the center, George Romney, a popular English portrait painter (who is indeed related to Mitt Romney). The mint cake came from a company founded by Sam T. Clarke, who merely named his wholesale business after George Romney; the painter did not invent the mint cake.

The Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake website offers an interesting additional note–according to them, Tenzing Norgay left one of the cakes up on top of the summit “to appease his gods.” If true, Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake also has the honor of being one of the first bits of garbage left on the summit. Food of the gods, indeed.

There are efforts to clean up Mount Everest every year, with an average of 50 tons of discarded climbing gear, human excrement, oxygen tanks, and dead bodies coming off the mountain. As Mazzolini notes, the news always lumps the categories together, corpses and discarded mountaineering gear. The failures, the people who did not make it down the mountain, are unimportant–their bodies could not match their hubris.

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake packaging provides an ideological link to climbing Mount Everest and portrays it as a quintessentially British triumph, one that can be cited on perhaps lesser adventures around the Lake District. Mount Everest remains a contentious place, where dead bodies are discarded like garbage, where $65,000 buys you a place in line to the roof of the world, and crass individualism is indistinguishable from sublime achievement.

ResearchBlogging.org
Elizabeth Mazzolini (2010). Food, Waste, and Judgment on Mount Everest Cultural Critique, 76, 1-27 : 10.1353/cul.2010.0013

Blackberries & Berkeley

“Bullied” by Darwin Bell

There is a ragged little blackberry bramble that grows along the fence outside my door. We live in a ground floor apartment that opens almost directly to the street, so there is no grass for a visual break–the sidewalk becomes our cement front yard. I’ve been watching the bramble all summer, the green berries turning red, then black, and then the fat blue-black when they are finally ready. There are some days that the little bramble is my excuse to get out from behind my screen and go outside to check up on the ripeness of the berries.

When I was a child in Oklahoma my grandmother would send us out with gallon buckets, buckets that had held vast slabs of vanilla ice cream made crunchy from the too-cold freezer. We’d swing our buckets, bang our scraped knees, and squabble, a little scrum of bare-limbed cousins. I remember the main blackberry bramble as being at least two-stories high, thick, shaggy and impenetrable. It was full of all manner of bitey creatures, ticks, chiggers, wasps, snakes, and spiders as big as your hand. We’d approach the bush timidly, throwing rocks and talkin’ real loud to scare the snakes away. The nearby ponds were writhing with cottonmouths and they’d get into the bushes to eat the mice. Or possibly to kill children.

The berries were thick and would sometimes explode in our hands, or go into our mouths instead of the bucket. There would be long tears across our arms, punctured fingers, thorns embedded in our socks. We’d fill our buckets and return to my grandma who would freeze most of them, but would bake a big blackberry pie for dinner. It’s the first thing she taught me how to bake and is still my favorite. While a slice after dinner was delicious, having a cold slice with cream the next morning for breakfast was divine.

The bramble outside my door doesn’t yield more than a handful of berries at a time, and these are mixed. Many are still too tart, a few are dusty and bad, but occasionally I’ll get a perfect one and then it is summertime all over again.

This was my first summer in Berkeley. I am usually out on an excavation, but I’ve been determined to stay here and work hard to finish. I haven’t quite come full circle on Berkeley summers–I still whine and groan when it is cold, gray and foggy for months on end. But the bright hatred I had of the climate has dulled over time, and I enjoy the cool, sunshiny days. As I’m wrapping up I have also regained a sense of wonder over the University of California at Berkeley. It was never really gone, I always was drawn to grand state institutions with their endless halls and vast libraries.

I had a couple of beers with the new archaeology faculty members last night, and they made me excited again with their drive and enthusiasm. Jun has some great ideas about teaching and Lisa is ridiculously smart and incisive. I had a little too much cider and wandered back through campus, along the paving stones and through the shadows of the giant eucalyptus trees that had gone sharp and cold in the evening chill. Summertime in Berkeley, my first, and maybe my last.

An American in Bristol-town

Two magpies are sitting on a chimney outside my window. They’re nodding and peering around, feathers ruffling in the slight wind. Behind them the sky is cinematic–so far English skies have most others beat in terms of cloud variety, color and just general confusion. Some of the clouds race north along the horizon, and a small gray puff wanders S/SW and still more hover, unimpressed by the action.

I’m glad it’s both of the magpies though, as I’ve been told that you have to salute a single magpie and I’ve been gamely waving my hands at the poor things for the last few days. I never really expected to live in England, not like many Americans, but Bristol is fantastic–a nice mix of city living with a great art scene and a sleepy old shipping town where shops close at random hours and a “late night” barber shop near my house advertises being open “until 7 in the evening!”

The Bristol museum is incredibly well curated (hopefully get around to posting about that later) and has a series of old maps of Bristol hanging around the second floor. Walking around the exhibit brought me through the days when there was a stately house and a big square, then a slow creep of blocks and streets along the river front, then the block of housing where I live appeared, up north, some time between the 1850s and 1880s. I’m perched on a hill, and as I write I can see a wide swath of chimneys, red tile, stone. The high street (Americans, read: main street, with all the shops) is only a block away and I wandered down there this afternoon to the green grocer, passing by the fish monger, the butcher, and a few local pubs. For something that was relatively unplanned, we managed to find a very sweet place to live for a couple of months.

When my friend Guy came to visit Oakland he found that he was much more culture-shocked than when he was in Brazil or many other places. Things were just a half-step…off. I think I understand that better now. Ultimately, Bristol is an art, hip college town and that caters to my taste pretty well, but there’s always that half-second of hesitation after you’ve asked for a train ticket or another pint, “ah, American.”

It’s a nice thing though, to write your dissertation in relative solitude, without the endless whirlwind of social things that I tend to have when I’m in places where I actually know people. I miss my friends, I get lonely, but after I write my daily allotment, the back streets of Bristol are mine to explore. If only things weren’t so damn expensive, I’d be set.

Hama, Syria

A little over a year ago, I spent a night in Hama. That day, Dan, Melissa and I were checking out sites in western Syria for potential projects and had gotten ridiculously lost in the mountains. The mountain towns were lovely, friendly and felt refreshingly relaxed. But it was late, and we were all tired, starving, and indecisive – a potentially lethal travel combination. We crashed in our hostel and then went out to get felafel. It ended up being the best felafel I’ve had in my life. Then we wandered the streets. It was the beginning of June and dead hot during the day, so most folks came out at night to socialize. At first it seemed like it was a shibab-dominated scene–boys were everywhere. But there were women around as well, enjoying the night air. We walked by the famous waterwheels – great, groaning, wooden dinosaurs that are monumental in scale and lit up like a carnival. The splashing water cooled the sweltering night, a miracle of relief in the desert breeze.

I hadn’t expected much out of Hama; it was a way-point in a misshapen quadrangle between Damascus, the coast, and Aleppo. But more than the groaning waterwheels, or the dark, cobblestone maze of the old city — the people of the city. The women. Or, one woman. There were a group of ladies on the street just wearing hijabs without a full veil, only slightly older than me, chatting and eating ice cream. I smiled at them, well, because I don’t generally see a lot of women while travelling in the Middle East and I miss their company, if only on the street. It’s a strange and lonely feeling when you recognize it.

The women hesitated, smiled back, and then one lady grabbed my arm. I wasn’t actually all that surprised by it, as I’ve become accustomed to displays of sisterly affection and warmth from a wide swath of amazing Middle Eastern women, but what came next did surprise me–she wanted me to have a bite of her ice cream. I didn’t really get it at first, but even after several demurrals, she insisted. We shared a melting bite of ice cream, laughed, hugged, and went on our way into the night.

So tonight, as the protests in Hama rage on, I’m thinking of her.

Solidarity with people who are yearning, aching, struggling to be free. Always.

Apocryphilic, Epigraphic Archaeology

Being that I am a fervent scholar of the marginalia of archaeology, and that I am in the middle of some fairly hardcore dissertation reading and writing, I thought I’d take a break to blog about the use of epigraphs in archaeological writing. For the unwashed (including myself, as I had to look it up), an epigraph is a quote before the main body of a piece of writing. As wikipedia has it, “the epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon, either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional context.” (Sorry epigraphers, I didn’t mean to get you all excited.)

While many academics either don’t read them or don’t use them, a good epigraph gives context to the intellectual universe of the piece. It’s a yearning for what you wish you were writing or what you hope to convey with the coming turgid academic prose. It can serve as a nod to a more poetic literature, or as a reference to a parallel understanding of a subject. The Archaeology of Islam by Timothy Insoll begins each chapter with a quotation from the Qur’an, Archaeology as Political Action by Randall H. McGuire begins with a Marx & Engels quote and the Gero & Conkey collection Engendering Archaeology dedicates a full half-page to a quote from John Berger’s Pig Earth about a kind of cheese. It’s one of my favorite epigraphs and I reproduced it in full on my tumblr blog if you are curious.

I admit that when I added “Life is short and filled with stuff.  – The Cramps” as an epigraph to my first archaeology paper in graduate school, it was an oversimplified reaction to the main project of archaeology and probably a reflection of how homesick I was for my family of friends in Austin.

Beyond the relatively simple, static, textual epigraph, social media and digital technology can provide generalized epigraphic enhancement. If you were following my last.fm feed you could tell that I have certain songs that I listen to fairly regularly while I write. The songs shape and invade the writing, no matter how rigidly academic or blandly passive and prosaic the report or article may be. Tumblr and Flickr serve much the same purpose with quotes from books I’m reading or images from what is in front of me. One of my colleagues said that she could always see if her grad students were busy or stressed out by how many photos of books or coffee they were uploading. Digital technology can turn writing an article into a performance, if the writer chooses to let the audience into their secret chambers.

While it is possible that writing doesn’t need this amount of embroidered reflexivity, ultimately any piece of research is an assemblage. A good, elegantly written article can stand by itself–but sometimes I wish I could turn on a more universal “track changes” to see what lies beneath.