Sunday, December 29, 2013

Heading home

You may remember that I was planning to move to Alaska on Monday. This has been a tremendously anxiety generating process. Tuesday before, I had to admit that I can't afford to move. I don't have enough money to pay for the move. This meant, I had to put everything back into storage and head to AK with nothing more than a suitcase and a carry-on. After factoring in a few more panic attacks, unexpected delays, and other crises, I reached Friday night a full day behind schedule. Still, I got a lot done on Saturday. I had a tight, but feasible, schedule for Sunday. Everything was packed and in the staging position to move. The rental truck was backed up at the bottom of the stairs.

I got up according to schedule. There was some sort of hullabaloo going on out on the driveway between Joe and Suzi, the landlord and landlady. It seemed to involve her running back and forth between her car and the house while clutching a pillow. After she was gone, I got to work. One box, four boxes, six boxes, a small piece of furniture into the truck. Stop to stretch and have a drink of water after every four loads. Everything was on schedule at 10:15, though I would rather have been a bit ahead of schedule. Then I tried to take the big rocking chair down the stairs. Halfway down, I lost control and it flipped me head first into the door at the bottom of the stairs.

I woke up about fifteen minutes later in a puddle of blood. I stuck both hands into it before I was able to get up. Then, I staggered over to the landlord's house with blood covered hands and face. He reacted appropriately and rushed me into his bathroom to wash up. Almost all of the blood was coming from a big gash over my left ear. The rest was from minor scrapes on my arms. I called Tessa to cry about not being able to finish the move on time. I told her I was thinking of laying down for a minute before going back to work. She told me that, No, I was not going to do that; I was going to get myself to a hospital. Joe had come to the same conclusion and was getting changed.

An actual puddle of blood. I need to drop everything and parlay this empirical knowledge into writing hard-boiled detective stories.

Joe dropped me off at the emergency entrance to the Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon, almost forty miles from the apartment. He left me at the desk and ran off to work. It turns out that the hullabaloo in the morning was one of their girls going into labor and Suzi rushing to her side. This meant no one would available to take me home. That was not my top worry at the moment. I was checked in right away and sent to a nurse who took my vitals. She took me to an examination room to wait for the doctor.

A clerk came in to get my information. "Insurance?" "None." "Job?" "No, and I'm leaving the state tomorrow."

A friendly woman came in to ask some more specifically medical questions. She told me I'd need a tetanus booster. I asked if it would make me autistic. She paused. I said that Jenny McCarthy, a great medical expert, said it would. She realized I was joking and we had a great time filling out the rest of the form.

Next, came the doctor, very busy, but friendly and listening. He had me retell the story of my crash. By now, it was forming its standard narrative. When I said I thought I was thrown head-first into the door, he lost all interest in my scalp and began examining my neck to make sure it wasn't broken. It wasn't. His next concern was to make sure my skull wasn't broken. For that, he sent me for a cat scan. That was kind of cool. The machine wasn't nearly as noisy as the ones on teevee and in movies where it symbolizes the sterile and impersonal nature of modern medicine. After another wait in the examination room, the doctor returned to tell me the cat scan looked fine.

After one final wait, he came in to sew me up. By then, I was starting to feel the many other bangs and scrapes on my body. He asked if I had anything else that needed attention. I held up my arm and showed him a bloody scrape, "I have an owie on my elbow." He looked at it, "we call that a boo-boo." "Sweet," I thought, "I can't wait to impress my medical blogger friends with my new knowledge of technical jargon." The actual sewing up was anticlimactic. He washed around the wound, clipped a little hair, and stapled me shut. He finished with a quick review of the care and feeding of a head wound and concussion and the warning signs that I should rush back to the ER. A few minutes later, the friendly woman came in with my discharge papers.

And I was done. It was around five. I hadn't eaten or had caffeine all day. I wasn't sure how to get back to the apartment. I decided to start with food. Some wandering led me to the cafeteria but the cook was on break. I bought a large coffee and a bag of chips and began calling people. At some earlier point I had called Number One Sister. It's a sign of my confusion that I was more concerned about telling her I wasn't going to make my flight the next day than I was about telling her that I was in the ER, covered in blood, with several possible bad prognoses in the outing. In my mind, the headline was "Fuck-up Little Brother Fucks up Again." The flight was not her top priority. Her headline was more along the lines of "OMG Is This the One That Finally Does Him In?" She questioned me about what the doctor said, gave me my new flight information, and let me know the lady at Alaska Airlines had told me to stop bashing my head in. The correct headline was "This aging hippie tried to move his furniture without help. What happened next will have you facepalming till your nose bleeds." I called Tessa and gave her another update.

Now, I needed to get to the apartment and find something to eat. I tried calling my nephew who is a brewer near Mount Baker, but he wasn't home (probably ski boarding on the mountain). I sat around for a while pondering my situation. I wondered if the city busses from Mt. Vernon connected with the Island bus service and if they ran on Sunday evening. Number One called again to see how I was managing the last hurdles. I told her about needing a ride. She was typically practical and blunt, "take a cab." The woman at information recommended a local cab that she thought would take me that far out of town. The cab was there in a few minutes and we were on our way. That left food. Because I expected to be gone that day, I had already disposed of all the food in the apartment. While I was wondering if I could afford to have the cab wait while I ran (shuffled?) into a store, the driver came to my rescue by asking if I minded stopping at a store so he could get some water. I bought him a bottle of blue vitamin water and myself a frozen pizza.

Back in the almost empty apartment, I made a few weak comments on Facebook about my situation while waiting for the pizza to cook. I made a nest on the floor out of the blankets and pillows I had kept out to use as padding around the furniture. After eating most of the pizza, I took a handful of ibuprofen and crawled into the nest hoping this really was the bottom.

LATER: The next morning, Tessa came over to help me with the last pieces of furniture. She looked them over and told me to hire someone younger and stronger. A local labor exchange sent over two guys who finished loading the truck and followed us to the storage place to do all the unloading. I spent the night at Tessa's and, in the morning, she made sure I made it to the airport on time. I lost my debit card at the airport and my luggage didn't make it to Alaska with me. I went to bed on Christmas Eve hoping this really was the bottom.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Where have you been, young man?

While putting up my last post, I noticed That it's been five weeks since my last post. What's that all about? As I said in the last post, I planned to spend the month of November just writing the damn book, no research, no translations. I didn't quite make my goal, but I wrote over two chapters and about 18,000 words. Another month and a half at that speed and I could have produced a complete (very) rough draft.

I'm not getting that month and a half just yet. I'm down to my last few thousand dollars and paying work has not exactly leaped into my lap. In November, I sent my resume to a couple jobs that I thought I was exceptionally well qualified for and lost out on all of them. So, with the crisis at hand, I finally gave into the inevitable and decided I have to go back to Alaska. I'm not thrilled about the choice--I feel like I'm admitting complete failure and running home with my tail between my legs--but it's probably the best thing for me. I have family and old friends--a "social support network"--there. This means I've spent most of the last two weeks having non-stop anxiety attacks interrupted only by paralytic panic attacks. Good times. Good times.

It's almost over. I have ten days left. Today, I talked to the mover I'm pretty sure I'll hire. My biggest problems now are getting rid of some stuff in storage and figuring out how to get to the airport after I sell the car (it's 75 miles and two counties away). Then Christmas in AK, followed by a new panic over getting an apartment and a job. If things stabilize then, I'll jump back into the book and finish a draft by the end of February.

And that's the way it is, December 12, 2013.

"Here be Dragons" and here and here

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he usually covers the technology beat. I'm not sure that I've read that much of his work, but I'll assume he's pretty good or he wouldn't have been given that job. He is not, however, an historian. In a piece that went up on The Atlantic's website today, Meyer debunks the myth the the legend Hic sunt dracones--Here be dragons--was a common legend on old maps. In doing so, he makes some errors of his own.

First, let me quibble about the headline. This is probably not a valid criticism of Meyer. In most popular journalism, the text of a piece and the headline are written by two different people. The headline writer is usually far down the totem pole from the author. The headline and the sub-head of this article are, "No Old Maps Actually Say 'Here Be Dragons.' But an ancient globe does." The globe in question, the Lenox globe, was made c. 1510, which is not Ancient. It's not even Medieval. It's Renaissance, or, as some historians prefer, Early Modern. Like I said, I'm quibbling.

The core of Meyer's article is this:
I'd always wondered: Do any old, original maps actually say those words, "Here be dragons?"  
The answer, it seems, is ... No. 
Not a single old paper map presents those exact words--"Here be dragons"--in the margins or otherwise. Nor does any paper map include "Hic sunt dracones," the words' Latin equivalent.  
But a globe does. 
That's right: One globe—just one...
Look in a good, thorough book on cartographic history and you'll most likely read that the Lenox Globe is the earliest surviving globe to include the New World. It's also one of the oldest surviving globes, period. The Lenox Globe is a beautiful little thing. It's only five inches in diameter, about the size of a grapefruit, and made of copper. Because of its size, the amount of detail it shows is limited. It displays coastlines, major rivers, mountain ranges, and a few dozen placenames. The seas are covered with thin wavy lines which do a very nice job of distinguishing them from the land. Experts think it might have been part of a clock or some other larger display.

The Eastern Hemisphere of the Lenox Globe shows a moderately accurate Europe and Africa and a strange, too-large Asia. On the south coast of Asia, the Persian Gulf, well-known since antiquity, is there. Further east, India, though a bit squashed, is also there. Beyond that, another peninsula is in the right place for Southeast Asia. Beyond this, is an enormous peninsula that hooks down into the Southern Hemisphere and westward toward Africa. This is sometimes called the Dragon's Tail. It is a relic of Ptolemaic geography which made the Indian Ocean a landlocked mirror of the Mediterranean Sea with its southern coastline near the Tropic of Capricorn. In the 1490s, Vasco de Gama and other Portuguese mariners rounded the Cape of Good Hope and demonstrated that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were connected. Conservative mapmakers took this to mean that the western side of the Indian Ocean was open, but used the Dragon's Tail to continue to enclose the eastern side.

Asia on the Lenox Globe. Source.

Because no living European had yet visited the Dragon's Tail, mapmakers drew on Marco Polo for names to populate it. After the Dragon's Tail vanished from maps, the names gradually migrated south, through Indonesia, to Australia, and onto the Unknown Southern Continent. Sadly, when it came to naming parts of Antarctica, no one revived these names. The Lenox Globe has one addition to the Polo (Polonian?) names on the Dragon's Tail. Just below the Equator, it has the phrase "HC SVNT DRACONES." Here be dragons. B. F. de Costa, who wrote one of the fist scholarly papers on the Lenox Globe, thought the phrase referred not to actual dragons, but to one of the people mentioned by Polo, the Dagroians. If that's the case, it would be the only nation mentioned that way. All others simply have their names. Scotland simply says "Scotia," not "Hic sunt Scotii." I'm inclined to think the anonymous cartographer who designed the globe really meant dragons, though what he meant by dragons is another question.

Earlier this year, a second globe with the inscription came to light. This globe is a duplicate of the Lenox Globe, with the difference of being carefully cut into the surface of an ostrich egg and painted.  The owners agents say the tests they've had done on the globe show that it's authentic and they believe that it was the model for the Lenox Globe and not the other way around. If right, this makes the egg globe the oldest globe with a representation of the New World.

Asia on the Egg Globe.Source.

That makes two "here be dragons." There is a third. Thirty or forty years before the Lenox Globe was made the words appeared on an allegorical T-O map in book 4 of Jean Mansel's La Fleur des Histoires. The lettering on Mansel's map is in gold leaf and I have not been able to find a legible image to share with you. I believe the phrase "Hic sunt Dracones" is the inscription to the left of the Ark above the golden dragon in the forest.

Jean Mansel's allegorical map of the three parts of the world. Source

Meyer has not been derelict in his research. The statement that the Lenox is the only period map containing the words "Hic sunt Dracones" appears in a number of authoritative places. The egg globe is new enough that is hasn't yet made it into the literature. Mansel's map is something that I have only seen twice, both from the same author, one of which is a mere footnote*. I'm only in a position to correct Meyer because I stumbled across these references while looking for something else. That something else is the Waldseemüller walrus (morsus) that Meyer also mentions in his article, giving me a convenient opening to show off my knowledge of map animals.

I've written about Waldseemüller's morsus elsewhere, so I'll just give a quick summary here. Martin Waldseemüller is best known for his 1507 map of the world, which was the first to use the word "America" to describe the New World. This, by the way, is one of the brackets used to date the Lenox globe; it could not have been made before Waldseemüller's map. Waldseemüller's next map of the world, the Carte Marina of 1516, is less well known, but equally fascinating. West of Norway, on what appears to be dry land covering the North Atlantic, is the image of a large animal with an elephant shaped body and legs, but hooves. The head has fan-shaped ears, like an elephant, but no trunk. It has two short tusks that rise from the lower jaw like those of a boar. Next to the image is a caption that reads "The morsus is an elephant-sized animal with two long, quadrangular teeth. It is hindered by a lack of joints. The animal is found on promontories in Northern Norway where it moves in great herds (My translation)."

Waldseemüller's morsus. Source.

Morsus (morse, morzh) was already well established in several European languages as the name for walrus by Waldseemüller's time, but reasonably accurate images of the animal wouldn't be in circulation until the 1550s. A big animal with tusks that lives on the north coast and moves in large numbers is not a completely bad description of a walrus. However, Waldseemüller's description of the morsus includes something very non-walrusy. That bit about having no joints is something right out of natural histories of Classical Antiquity. It was frequently written that elephants had no knees. Despite the efforts of a few writers like Aristotle to correct the world, this myth persisted right up to Waldseemüller's time. Does Waldseemüller's morsus indicate some knowledge of the mammoth? Two years ago, I wrote that I believe it is possible that it does. My more recent research for the book makes me up that possibility quite a bit.

This is not a deeply thought out essay. It's just something I whacked out after seeing Meyer's article. It was a nice break from my otherwise endless anxiety attacks this month.

* The author is Chet Van Duzer. The most accessible place to read it is in his new book, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, p. 61.