Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Snake, The Chicken and The Archaeologist

Now many of you have heard my stories of fieldwork. Some are fantastic, some are farcical. Often times fieldwork enjoys a quiet rythem of sun up, work, sun down with very little excitement. However, there are moments which lead to the stories that have accumulated over the years starring a cast of characters from snakes to hippopotami. You never get in trouble when you first arrive. That is when you still have a more then healthy respect for the harshness of the environment and the wildlife. Soon, you fall in to a pattern of life and become more lax in how aware you are of what is around you. It is then that you often come face to face with a little reminder of where you are. I'm afraid to say that one of the new students thought I was sometimes exaggerating... You just wait. To this day, he still can't bring himself to talk about it. 

This one isn't about me. Oh, I was there, but gratifyingly I was not the hapless victim of circumstance. This time.

It was my last day in the field before leaving for Nairobi. We were revisiting a site where I had done a surface collection of artifacts several years before. NB (for anonymity) was especially looking forward to this excursion because he had just done an analysis of the previous surface  collection, but had never seen the site. In order to get there we had to hike a few km down the river bed and then find the overgrown path up the gorge to the top of the ridge. This is a long walk over unpleasant footing of cobbles or soft loose sand. We are cruising along, NB is to my left and we were talking about something inconsequential. Suddenly NB leaps into the air - 
"F*ing Hell, Mother F... Shit... God Damn...." A veritable blue streak, which I can't do justice to here. Now honestly, I've never seen a person actually levitate before, but damn, it's possible. For underneath him was a small and very angry cobra. You see they really don't like it when you nearly step on them. Fortunately NB was wearing long pants and recognized at the last second what he almost put his foot on. The dun colored little snake (the smaller ones are more deadly) blended in with the cobbles we were walking over, and we all had our guard down. How things can turn deadly in an instant always takes your breath away, your heat stutters and the adrenaline kicks in. "Oh. My. God. Are you ok?" After the appropriate breather, we carried on. 

The rest of the hike went along in comparable silence. Scanning the way ahead for any more unwelcome critters. A few hours later at lunch, I could no longer help myself. I looked over at NB and quipped "Still think I'm making it up?" 
He smiled and said, "You know, right after I stopped swearing and could breathe again, that is the first thing I thought about." I couldn't help but to laugh. Guess you are going to start accumulating your own stories now. 

The rest of the work day was long, but the journey back down the riverbed was uneventful. We were all on high alert. Across the road from the campground is a little shop that has the most coveted object around at 5 pm - cold soda, especially when you are out of water. We piled out of the truck and all ordered large sodas. We were soon joined by the other half of our group who had been up in the highlands that day. There aren't many benches and when you are this dirty it really doesn't matter if you sit on the cement stoop and we were soon joined by our friends. Of course this was followed by the innocent question "So, how was your day?"
NB looks at me and says,  "You can tell them. I can't talk about it." 

I was standing there leaning against the Land Rover explaining how poor NB had nearly stepped on the cobra. That is when the clucking started. Now goats and chickens are always foraging around hoping for a bit of  this or that which someone might drop, but we are looking around and there isn't a chicken in sight. Sylvia, the teenage girl who often minds the shop for her parents, comes out of the shop also looking around. LH pauses, "It sounds like its coming from the trash can (positioned directly behind NB)."

Behind everyone's back, Sylvia tiptoed up to the can. She reached out, keeping well back and slowly lifted the lid of the can. In a flurry of feathers, a highly agitated chicken streaked out of the depths of the trash can. Fortunately for the chicken, NB's head was right there, and the somewhat flight challenged chicken decided to use it as a launching pad, leaving a trail of feathers in its wake. For the second time that day NB levitated shrieking "F*ing Hell, Mother F... Shit... God Damn...." Didn't see that coming...
Arms and legs were flailing in a way that can only be described as something between a goose-step march and a windmill - what you might expect from someone being attacked by an angry swarm of bees. Someone was having a bad day. He was already pretty tightly wound after thinking about his cobra encounter, only to be accosted by an unkempt chicken.  Poor NB, impending heart failure for the second time in one day. I think I actually spit my soda out I was laughing so hard, as did just about everyone else. He will never, ever live that one down.

The chicken had apparently been peacefully sleeping in the can until we woke it with our chatter and it found itself trapped. I can't help but wonder how the chicken got in the garbage can in the first place? 

Weather it is a cobra or a chicken, life in the field never stays boring for too long. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Accident Prone (Episode 2)

The cat and I have just reestablished whose territory my desk is. I've won this battle with only minor bleeding.  

I've reclaimed my desk, the cats haven't killed anything unidentifiable lately, and it is still to cold for the hoi poloi to be out in the neighborhood. This leaves me a little short of new material. However, this is ME we are talking about so really there is no lack of material for a post. So sit back and get ready for the next episode of Accident Prone. 

For the first few years of grad school I also worked at a bank. Business suit in the morning, dirty archaeologist in the afternoon. The rectangular lobby of the bank was flanked on one side with the teller line and on the other with glass fronted offices. I had just started work there and my mail box had been bombed with memos overnight. I have always been absorbed by the printed word. As a child my nose was constantly poked into some book or comic book. When I turned 16 I didn't know how to get to anywhere past a three mile radius of the house (the length of my attention span before getting bored, sticking my nose in a book, and tuning out the world), and of course this habit also lent itself to walking. I have a tendency to read and walk at the same time with obvious consequence for someone of my particular talents...  That being said, I could not prolong  looking at the contents of my mailbox even for the three minute walk to my office. As I strolled down the aisle of offices I became more and more absorbed into the letter detailing the current mortgage rate changes. As I turned to enter my assigned office BAM!!!! Followed by the sound of reverb as the shock wave traveled through the pane of glass. Now some would say that it was probably a good thing I was looking down - as it was my forehead that hit the glass, and I narrowly dodged a broken nose. However, as my luck would play out every other one of the customer service representatives just happened to be in my office trading some juicy new gossip. I'd like to say they waited to laugh until they made sure I was OK, but that might be a bit too generous. Within in a nanosecond everyone was doubled over choking out 
"The look on your face...." 
"Oh my god...."
"Can't breathe...." Between gasps for air. 

Welcome to the workforce. Reputation established. 

We sort of got into decorating the office in extravagant ways for every new holiday, painting the windows of the offices to advertise our savings/loan products in a holiday theme. This was in some ways nice, as down time could be spent painting windows rather then twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next customer to walk through the front door. At the front of the lobby was the phone desk. It was one of those regular industrial strength wooden office desks with drawers to the side. Attached to the left side running along the wall was one of those desk L-additions, with drawers on the left and no legs to the right where it was bolted (supposedly) to the other desk. This desk extension held the very large central phone for the branch office. I had phone duty that day and the phones were unusually quiet although the branch was full of people. We were decorating for Halloween, and one of my co-workers brought me several bags of fake cobwebs, construction paper and some plastic bats with instructions to "make a moon" and decorate the wall above my desk. 
"Ok, sounds like fun." Right. 

With my moon lovingly made, I kicked my shoes off and hopped up on my desk to start hanging things up. Everything was going smoothly on the left portion of the wall. Then I stepped to the right. This is the precise moment that I learned that my desk extension was not in fact bolted to to my desk. It gave out under my foot and all at once the branch phone was launched into the air, my desk chair took off of its own volition, and I commenced a swan dive directly onto my desk. Unable to restrain myself, and knowing how much it was going to hurt when I landed I yelled "Oh, SHIT!!!!!!" and then "Offff..." as all the air in my lungs got forced out as I landed on my stomach on top of my keyboard... There were these two old geezers in the end of the line, they managed to squeak out a "Are you OK?" to which I managed a nod, and then they lost it. I thought Angela (one of the tellers) was going to come over her teller window and run over. I managed to scramble up, right the desk, and retrieve my chair and shoes in that order. Both the manager and the assistant manager just happened to be in the vault during my little outburst of profanity, and for some reason not a single customer complained about my language... The two old geezers laughed their whole way through the line and out the door. 

Reputation reaffirmed. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Accident Prone (Episode 1)

I've been reading (with some hilarity) the recent accident exploits of a certain good friend (JMS) who has yet to completely internalize the much used  (in my house) "freezer hop" so the frozen burrito takes out the dog and not her toe. This has inspired me to share a few historical anecdotes regarding my own clutztastic moments. 

I took my first job doing archaeology ages ago, we were conducting archaeological sensitivity testing on three national guard bases - basically digging a lot of holes in the mosquito infested woods. We began by working out in the open at Camp Rell, which is situated on a beautiful flat promontory abutting the sea, in other words prime real estate for Native American habitation. Unfortunately this meant that it was also the perfect place for the parade ground. We laid out a grid and started digging regular holes on the parade ground. Our pits were 50 cm square and more then a meter deep. Despite trying to carefully replace the grass - it always dehydrated and died, resulting in these unsightly patches of dead grass at regular 20 meter intervals across the parade ground. Now if you really want to piss of a grounds keeper -- kill his grass. I swear I still have visions of Bill Murray when I think of this guy. He would wait for us to leave and then break out the HUGE tractor pulled mower and mow down all our stakes that we used to mark out our grid. 

It was because of this that I didn't see the open hole. I was walking along with two others flanking each side of me. In my own defense - no one else mentioned the gaping hole in the ground either. I stepped out with my left foot and suddenly there was no ground... Amazingly quickly this produced a SPLAT, and there I was. A perfect face-plant: one leg was dangling free in the hole, three other limbs splayed out all around me and I had a mouthful of grass. The moment couldn't have been a more perfect comic strip panel if I'd planned it. To add insult to injury - the oddity of having the parade ground dug up had attracted an constant audience for us. So, as I managed to extract the grass from my teeth I also noticed the line up of soldiers doubled over in hysterics. Lucky me. 

The same parade ground claims another victim.. (Oh wait, the same victim. Surprised? Probably not.) I had just finished digging and drawing the soil profile for the latest test pit, and we were about to fill it in. I realized just in time that I'd dropped my tape measure in the bottom of the pit and needed to retrieve it. Unfortunately, this particular pit was over a meter deep. I did not ponder this little maneuver long.  I just grabbed a handful of grass with one hand and leaned in the pit with the other. Now I WAS thinner then but grass is not much of a lifeline, even if it is well manicured grass. Of course the clod just ripped out and I went headfirst into the pit, with one arm in front of me and one pinned to my side. I was unable to exit this position. I just love to imagine what this must have looked like at the time - two legs sticking out of the top of a pit and waggling as fait cries of "Shit, I'm stuck!" and "Get me out of here!" could be faintly heard to the surface dwellers. 

Someone whom shall remain unnamed had to grab me by the belt and bodily haul me out of the hole, asking,
 "What the hell did you do?" 
Talk about embarrassing (I had a slight crush on this guy too, which basically means I'd make an ass of myself constantly around him). 
Just to bring this point home the next summer we were both doing geology field school. We were going to be climbing around a lot of really steep drop offs trying to work out the geology. The aforementioned gentleman looks right at me and said, "Please try not to fall down anywhere life threatening." Mental head slap. 

I seem to have a knack for embarrassing spills, but I usually manage to control my spastic behavior when it might have the potential to actually kill me. Instead we were walking down a forest path - a nice, wide path clear of both roots and rocks. That is the moment I went ass over teakettle. Yep, green backpack went one way, clipboard another way, limbs akimbo - I suddenly found myself looking at the sky. 
After picking up my backpack, my clipboard and peeling me off the path, he simply asked "What exactly did you trip over?"  
"Ow, I have no idea..." I mumbled.
Perhaps this is life just keeping me humble, or just giving the rest of world an excuse for some hilarity. I'm always good for a bit of that. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Soup du jour

I am currently the organizer for our departmental lecture series. This means finding people to fill the slots, organizing their arrival, and then the dinner following the talk. This week was crazy as we actually hosted our regular speaker on Thursday as well as a special visitor on Tuesday. So I have had a couple of really late nights this week.


I usually enjoy the schmoozy dinners after the speakers, not only is the company usually pretty good but I love to eat out: a) the food is usually better b) I don’t actually have to cook it and c) I don’t have to deal with the aftermath. Tuesday night we went to our usual haunt, we hadn’t been for quite awhile. The evening just got off on the wrong foot. We walked in and the young woman waitressing had never heard of our reservation. The usually sparsely populated restaurant was already nearing capacity before we requested a table for eight. She pulled herself together (and some tables) and got us seated. Then another one of our faculty walked in, sat down to say hello and caught our waitress’s eye and said,

“When you get a chance another group is coming in momentarily there will be nine…”

The look on her face was absolutely classic - deer in the headlights. She managed to stammer out,


This is a small place, now full and she was alone and obviously new on the job. I looked up a moment later and saw her frantically calling for reinforcements.


Quite some time later we managed to get our appetizers and as I passed the plates around the table there was a sort of fracas at the other end of the table, of course at the time, no one would actually tell me what was going on. The next day in class as we were settling down, one of my colleagues said,

“So did anyone ever tell what happened at dinner?”


Apparently as my colleague went to pass the next plates around the table he revealed a very large cockroach in the classic dead bug pose one the plate underneath. This of course illicited a collective groan as about everyone around the table had been at dinner (in one of the two groups) and had obliviously eaten with gusto.


I guess I’ve learned to look at things relatively, especially after spending so much time in Kenya. So, I managed to rationalize this pretty quickly.

“My plate was “clean” when I got it. At least it wasn’t in my food…”


You delude yourself however you need to and you can get away with this as long as you don’t think about it too hard. On one of my previous trips to Kenya we were having a “nice” dinner at the Baringo Lodge while we hosted some visitors. Now I don’t know why this was supposed to be “nicer,” I would rather eat our cooks food any day of the week. My friend Boniface and I were at the end of the table and as I went to take a big bite of stew he grabbed my arm to stop me with the spoon halfway to my mouth. As my gaze settled on my spoon, my eyes got as big as saucers. The whole (rather large) soup spoon was taken up by a well marinated cockroach. Now if that had happened a few years ago you would have heard the shriek in Connecticut. As it were I managed to stifle the squawk, don’t as me how. Needless to say neither Boniface nor I were particularly interested in having any more stew. That is one of the few times I actually have left food I my plate in Africa and gladly went to bed hungry. Frankly I was pretty happy last year when the Lodge was closed and I wouldn’t have to risk finding any legs in my food. So now you better understand my ability to compartmentalize, “At least it wasn’t in my food,” on Tuesday night.   I think I’ve found a new restaurant to treat our guests, at least until I forget. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ok, Seriously?

So, I just had a vending machine attack. Yes, I know I don’t need chips, and I know my hips don’t need chips, but I had to have chips…


Fell off that wagon.


So I’m looking at the selection and what do I see:

Burger King Ketchup and French Fries Flavored Potato Snacks.


Seriously? A french fry flavored potato chip with faux ketchup? At that point shouldn’t you just go and get the french fries and enjoy the real thing?


Another example of the “flavored food” epidemic our cuisine seems to be going through. Right up there with the Clamato and Lime Flavored Budweiser that I saw in a convenience store on the way back from North Carolina.


In a word… Disgusting. 

Another Sign of (Eeeek) Adulthood?

Well most of you who know me well, also know that I’ve had graying hair since I turned sixteen. Thanks for those genes Dad (although most of my genes are really pretty good ☺). When I was younger I liked to use this as an excuse to dye my hair decidedly unnatural colors. Now I was never as daring as my more free spirited friend Mary, so I didn’t go for the Manic Panic electric blue, but the slightly more conservative Purple Passion. 

My Mother was a best less then pleased with this development. The first time I pulled the ultra violet treatment, was unfortunately just a few days before my Grandmother passed away. My Mother was as mad as a wet hen that I would be at the funeral with what could only be described as a “grape colored” head. Much to my amusement as we all stood in the receiving line at the funeral many of my Grandmother’s blue-haired and stylishly coiffed friends kept complementing my hair. Seeing that I was still an upstart teenager, every time I got one of these complements I had to waggle my eyebrows at my Mother (standing beside me) and point out that it really wasn’t so bad now was it? I swear you could almost see the steam coming out of her ears…

 About two weeks ago I got a bit nostalgic for my tendencies toward adventurous hair color, and I was more then overdue for a re-dye (we are talking two inches of roots here).

 “That it! I’m buying the Black Cherry dye!

I’m sick of having boring hair.”

 Um, right, can you guess how this turned out? My now, mostly gray, roots turned out bright (sparkly bright) purple (think neon sign) and the rest was dark brown in some spots and dark purple in others. I had failed to work the dye complete through my hair which is now much longer then I am used to. My head looked like a patchwork quilt, and not a nice one at that.

 You see, the bright purple factor would have been ok by itself – if only it was the same bright purple all over… The worst part was that I needed to actually wait a few weeks before trying to correct the problem as I didn’t want to over-dye my head and make my hair all fall out. That’s a solution that’s waaaaaay worse then the problem.

I have hence bought boring brown dye and employed the assistance of a friend to make sure I actually got the dye where it belongs and I am happy to report that I no longer look like a patchwork quilt (even I’m back to kinda boring…). 

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Humor in Science

So the rule is this whomever finds a new species is given the privilege of coming up with the name for that new species. The only catch being that the name must fit with in the standard system of binomial nomenclature originally developed by Carolus Linneaus. Many people who find themselves in this position name their species after famous individuals in their field of science, some choose names related to the place the items were discovered or the indigenous groups that live there, but others... they seek to revere or to ridicule (with a sense of humor). 

There are a few I just love:
The paleontologist who loved 70's punk who found a few new species of ancient trilobytes and named them: Sid viciousi and Johnny rotteni

Quentin Wheeler, an Entomologist at London's Museum of Natural History, and one of his students discovered several new species of Slime Mold Beetles. 
They had to use the already named genus Adathidium but chose the species names, 

are you ready for this.... 

A. vaderi
and even better... 

A. bushi, A. rumsfeldi, and A. cheneyi

What is even better is that although this, I'm sure, was intended as a slight it earned Wheeler a call from the President telling him he was honored (WHAT?). 

For more click here

Life, etc.

Life today is filled with annoying automated telephone systems, banks, and online registrations systems that refuse to function properly. I've wasted an entire morning on complete bullcrap. However I caught a few gems on the news this morning that cause me to pause and think... Since my life is pretty boring I thought I would share them. 

1. There was a story on this morning about how independent financial fraud investigator, Harry Markopolos tried for years to get the securities and exchange commission to investigate Bernard Madoff's investment schemes. Turns out Markopolos was right. Despite handing the SEC Madoff on a "Silver Platter" they dropped the ball and Madoff's giant pyramid scheme collapsed costing innocent investors $50 million . (See full story at: It seems the SEC more investing in its turf wars then doing their job.  Even after the collapse Markopolos is doggedly on Madoff's tail exposing that his scheme goes even farther then previously known. 

My question is this: Why isn't Markopolos running the SEC? 

2. The science fiction collection of Forrest Ackerman (coiner of the term "sci-fi") has died and his enormous collection of memorabilia is being auctioned off. This includes a signed first edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. 

I would about kill to get my paws on that book, but alas my bidding power is a bit below par for that one. 

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Snow! Yuck!

One of my best friends lives in Tennessee now, and is constantly wishing for a "real" snowstorm. My title is in direct response to her "Snow! Yay!" post of late. I am on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. I'm done with snow and can't wait to move away from it all. It seems we are getting more then our fair share of it this year. 

Not long after I arrived at work it began to snow. Despite the fact that they closed school early it still took 1.5 hours to get home. I also managed to go ass over teakettle trying to walk to my car. All of a sudden, plop! There I was sitting in the snow, much to my posterior's dismay. On the humorous side I did leave a sort of ridiculous half a snow angel (butt and legs only) for everyone else to admire or take as a warning (whichever) on their way to the car.

Spring please? Damn that groundhog anyway.