Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mayflower & Izzle Pfaff!

How is that "summer reading" is supposed to be mindless? Seems like a mindless assumption. Even beach reading doesn't have to be "beach reading." An old friend of mine once went to Greece "to read about pre-Socratics on the beach," he said, and believe he did it. Then again, I have some peculiar friends.

The distinctive thing about my summer reading is that I get to read out on the deck sometimes, not that I try to dumb it down. Lately I finished Mayflower (2006) by Nathaniel Philbrick, who also wrote the splendid Sea of Glory about the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. I wasn't particularly looking for a history of the Mayflower voyage. The author is why I picked it up at the library, and I wasn't disappointed. Mayflower was a great read, and not in a summer-beach-mindless sort of way, either.

Only the first part of the book is about the voyage itself, including the travels, and travails, of the Pilgrims before leaving Europe. Remember the Speedwell? No? The Pilgrims originally sailed on two ships; Speedwell was the other. I remember hearing about that ship in grade school, but no one else I told about it had ever heard of it or even believed there was such a vessel.

I previously believed that Speedwell's unseaworthiness made her turn back to England. What I didn't know was that the non-Separatist captain and crew of the Speedwell apparently swindled the landlubbing Pilgrims by handling the ship in such a way that made it leak, but not too much to founder. So they went back for expensive "repairs." Heading out again, she still "leaked," so the captain called off the voyage to America -- which he never intended to make anyway.

The rest of the book is a history of the Plymouth Colony in the 17th century, including a lot of interesting detail. I've always heard of wampum, for instance, but never thought about it that much. But it was money for a while. That meant that people paid very, very close attention to it.

Philbrick writes: "Following the lead of the Dutch in New Netherland, the English used the Indians' finely crafted shell beads as a form of currency. Wampum consisted of strings of cylindrical beads made either from white periwinkle shells or the blue portion of quahog shells, with the purple beads being worth approximately twice as much as the white beads. To be accepted in trade, wampum had to meet scrupulous specifications, and both the Indians and the English became expert in identifying whether or not the beads had been properly cut, shaped, polished, drilled and strung. A fathom of wampum contained about three hundred beads, which were joined to other strands to create belts that varied between one and five inches in width. When credit became difficult to obtain from England during the depression of the 1640s, the colonies eased the financial burden in New England by using wampum as legal tender. In this instance, the Indians had provided the English with a uniquely American way to do business."

The second half of the book has a special emphasis on King Philip's War, which was fought during the 1670s. King Philip's War only goes to show that no matter how terrible an event is, it can still be forgotten. And not just a terrible event among some distant people on some distant shore, but a heart-wrenching, brutal war right here in North America. Keep that in mind next time some politico tells you that the memory of such-and-such will live on. The odds are against it. All it takes is a few centuries, and sometimes not even that long, for an event to become the concern only of a few historians and a few oddballs with a taste for history.

Maybe New England schools discuss King Philip's War. I hope so. But I don't ever remember hearing about it. In my Texas schools in the 1970s, the story arc was pretty much this: Jamestown, then Plymouth. Then there were 13 colonies, and after the French and Indian War, they got a hankering for independence. Shot heard around the world! (Also, the Indians and slaves suffered a lot during all of this.).

I read about King Philip's War later, even that its casualties were high, but never in such detail before now. From the Washington Post review of Mayflower: "The early years of Plymouth Plantation were exceedingly difficult but comparatively peaceful so far as relations with the many Indian tribes were concerned. Gradually, though, as English settlers moved ever deeper into New England and as Indians grasped the full extent of the threat to their established way of life, the settlers grew more belligerent, and the Indians grew more hostile..."

War came in 1675. "Taking its name after the son of Massasoit who became chief of the Pokanokets, this dreadful little war... lasted for about two years, with gruesome consequences for everyone involved. Plymouth Colony lost 8 percent of its male population -- by comparison, 'during the forty-five months of World War II, the United States lost just under 1 percent of its adult male population'... Overall, the Native American population of southern New England had sustained a loss of somewhere between 60 and 80 percent.' It was a costly and entirely unnecessary war, brought about by Philip's vanity, Puritan stubbornness and a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstanding."

Too depressing for a summer book? Maybe. Of course, Mayflower hasn't been my only reading so far this summer. I'm also working my way through the hilarious online archives of Izzle pfaff!, which is incredibly entertaining. Whoever this Seattle-dwelling fellow is, he's a got a dash of comic genius I can only dream about as a writer. Just a random sample, plucked from 2003: "At my local liquor store, the employees are friendly. And colorful. There is the hale red-faced man, who looks rather like a cross between a lumberjack and Gabe Kaplan. I'm pretty sure that for him, working in a liquor store is a lot like a boll weevil finding employ at the Gap; he always looks slightly boozed."

A 2007 posting, describing the massively productive garden his mother kept when he was a kid: "The garden, once in full horticultural freakout, inspired me to some weird, compulsive habits. One was my utter and over-the-top voraciousness for peas right off the vine. I would defoliate (delegumiate?) entire rows of peas, leaving a damning Hansel-and-Gretel path of spent pods behind me. I was the Joe Stalin of peas that summer, and my mother would wail about this: 'Stop eating all the peas, would you?' 'You don't like it when I eat a bag of Doritos! Isn't it better that I eat these peas, then?' I would reply, causing her to wonder if she had taken one too many bong hits in '67."

Finally, writing about his visit to Paris in 2008: "Paris, pound for pound, contains the most undiluted concentration of hilarious crones that I've ever seen anywhere in my life. They are, quite honestly, incredible. On any given afternoon on the streets of Paris, you will witness the most astonishing collection of grotesques, gargoyles, termagents and just plain caricatures than you would believe. I saw things such as an upswept dye-blond beehive-cum-pompadour with half-inch long visible roots, wraparound designer sunglasses, pleather jackets with "NO MERCI" on the back, and high-heel leather boots with a crosshatched rhinestone design. Unfortunately, I saw all of these on the same woman at the same time; she of course also yanked along with her a tiny little dog whose only clear purpose of existence was to be stepped on by passersby. Watching old ladies in Paris is like owning free tickets to a Commedia del'Arte show every day for free: Columbinas tottering around with their little mewling canine Punches."

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