Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Seeing With New Eyes
Taking a fresh look at things doesn’t always help us understand the past. One of my pet peeves, although it’s turned into a pet amusement over the years since being peeved gives entirely too much energy to something trivial, is a tendency to pluck events or people or artifacts from history without considering the historical context.
Maybe it started with the whole long hair thing in the late 60’s. In my small town in New Mexico, not exactly the vanguard of cutting edge fashion, it was not unusual for the police to pull teen-aged boys over in their cars, ask them to step out and then give them a haircut, usually a buzz-cut or some variation of that. The citation was a Biblical one, that long hair was an abomination.
In my tender and passionate teen years, even I knew that the reason long hair was considered an abomination had nothing to do with whether a guy expressed his individuality (questionable, of course, as all teen fads are more herd mentality than individuation) or even his feminine side, but of course more to do with lice and the dearth of CVS pharmacies in Biblical times. Back then, I would probably have said Rexall pharmacies. And in a way, that’s just my point.
You might not know what a Rexall pharmacy was, or a Sprouse-Reitz or a Sambo’s or even a Five-and-Dime. If you didn’t live in the South, you wouldn’t know what a Piggly-Wiggly was or why hushpuppies are good. You might not know whether you would have preferred a Nehi Orange or a Nehi Grape, for instance. You might not have had a short Coke for a nickel or a tall one for a dime. Basically, you had to be there.
Older people are likely to tell younger people stories, not just because they remember them better than what they had for lunch yesterday, but because they have an awareness that things have changed. Lots of things have changed. In the time before cell phones and video games and the internet, kids played outside all summer until the sun set, often giving their parents a much-needed break in summer evenings. As long as they could hear you, they figured you were safe, even if you were fighting with each other. Like kids and even adults in every culture, every “advancement” of technology, we played with what we had available.
Out of context, “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free” and “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Marcia right over!” mean about as much as an alien language. Were you really going to throw a ball all the way over a house? Would the child summoned break through “enemy” lines?
One of my Facebook friends recently bought an old whist deck and was looking for rules for whist, wondering if anyone played any more. As it turns out, there are many variations on the game of whist. While commuting on the ferry to San Francisco and back, I played bid whist with a booth full of pals. A book I purchased recently has the rules to many card games with a little historical background, just scratching the surface, but it lists the huge number of whist variations.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” becomes more interesting when the child’s rhyme is found to be a not-terribly-well-disguised political statement about religious persecutions during the reign of Mary Tudor. Suddenly, “with silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row” sounds a lot creepier than jumprope. Yet, often the frustrations, anger and sorrow of a culture can be hidden in a game or child’s rhyme, something to soften the blow, something to remind people of what happened, something to put a little bookmark in the page of history so people can cope with the impact of a sudden change or terrible event.
Out of context, of course, Mary Mary seems like something of a funny nonsense rhyme and if context is lost it loses its irony and cultural significance.
One of my favorite Irish tunes, “The Last Rose of Summer,” sounds sweet and nostalgic until you find out they are talking about the high infant mortality rate during famine times. How do you soften the blow of the loss of a child, many children? All her lovely companions are faded and gone.
The Wheel of Fortune in Tarot is that kind of spinning wheel. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. It seems like things go in cycles of want and plenty. The lowly rise to fame and fortune. The mighty fall from grace. Sometimes it can seem like a game, a roulette wheel of entertainment; sometimes, the spin of the wheel means everything you have.
There’s speculation that an artifact from ancient times may be an early form of just such a game. It’s tantalizing to think that such a thing could have survived. We think of Archaeology with capital letters so often and expect the Finding of Important Artifacts. Growing up in my mother’s antique shop, I realized that the things most likely to survive and to be stumbled upon are the jumble of everyday life, the stuff in the back of your top dresser drawer. You don’t throw it away and when you get rid of the dresser, you probably don’t even clean it out. How often when you move from one residence to the next do you find that the last thing left in your old place is a bunch of coat hangers? They have no great importance but in their small way they signal something.
So I wanted to show you the Phaistos Disk, courtesy of Bob Place, plus a little extra fun that I’ve added. We don’t know what the disk means, whether it was a game or something extremely important. There are hieroglyphs on the disk, pictures that seem familiar, but without their temporal and cultural context are a bit of a mystery. And with the disk, I provide my irreverent cultural misidentification of what’s really going on here by applying a too-modern point of view.