Cultural Appropriation Fail

The rule is, your Hallowe’en costume should be either be a horror creature, or else something  clever and funny and preferably inanimate.  Be a deer or a demon or an avocado or a donut or a steak. Don’t dress up as any kind of a person.

The only time you may dress up as a person is when you already look exactly like that kind of person, in which case, depending on the circumstances, it may or may not be much of a costume, but I digress.

A year ago I broke this rule and here’s what happened.

I am a middle-aged blond woman.  I went as Mario from Super Mario Bros. My costume consisted of a fake black mustache and the trademark Mario hat.  (It was a costume of convenience. My kids had developed an interest in Mario and Luigi, and had already acquired the props.)  It was a not terribly convincing costume, since with my shocking white skin and light-colored, curly hair poking out from under the hat, there was no disguising that I was a lady of Dutch ancestry. Also, I don’t own any blue coveralls.

Trick-or-treating in our then neighborhood was the most fun I’ve ever had trick-or-treating. People decorate their houses, come outside, and sit in lawn chairs in costume, holding bowls of candy, sometimes flanked by a glowing brazier or a bowl of dry ice.  The streets throng with families.  All the little kids and many of the parents are excitedly complimenting one another’s costumes. Cars, if they venture out at all, drive at 2 mph. Everyone is feeling happy and excited.  No one is drunk, but their inhibitions are down. It’s a real party atmosphere.

(The year my one son was two, he was so cute that people kept giving him extra candy. After an hour, his trick-or-treat bucket was so heavy that he couldn’t carry it.  But I’m digressing again.)

When I showed up in my Mario costume, it was immediately recognized by a mustachioed, curly-haired man about my own age. He pointed at me and yelled at the top of his voice,

Look! It’s an older Greek woman!

Then as I doubled over in laughter, he added, “That’s how we tease our Grandmas.”

Darn. I was trying to appropriate Italian culture.

No, Really, God IS for Everyone!

God and His Bureaucrats

Several years ago now, I found myself sitting in a house in a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia, among a small ethnic group whose name has been redacted so I can write about them.  Although I knew Christian believers in that group, on this night I was sitting across from a devotee of the local religion. 

We sat cross-legged on the ironwood floor, and he had a cigarette pack on the floor in front of him.  He was very passionate about our topic of discussion.  He didn’t raise his voice, but I could tell he was worked up.  Whenever he was making an especially important point, he would pick up the cigarette pack and slam it down again.

He spoke thus:

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that we [of this local religion] don’t believe in God. That’s a slander. We do (slam) believe in God. But we also (slam) believe in (slam) His bureaucrats.”

This is a very Southeast Asian view of the spiritual world: the heavenly bureaucracy. You can see it presented visually in some Hindu temples that resemble a tall, pointy mountain, and this mountain is covered with little niches, and in each niche is a statue of a divine being.  They are not placed in there randomly. There is a place for each of them, and each in its place.

This view is also reflected in the governing structure of the country in which I was sitting at the time. At the top is the President. Below him (or her) are the governors of the provinces. Below these, in descending order, are five or six additional ranks, each responsible over a smaller geographical area, until you get down to Village Head (or mayor). And below him, in each village, are the heads of families. It’s an elaborate bureaucratic system, but everyone knows the names of all the ranks. They have to deal with them daily. And of course, you always show respect to anyone with a rank anywhere above your own.

My pagan friend went on,

“Think about it. You wouldn’t expect the President to attend your wedding. Maybe not even the Governor. But you might get [the next rank down], or [the rank below that]. Now think about how many weddings must take place on a given day, all over the world. God can’t possibly be at all of them. He would send His bureaucrats.”

His point was that showing disrespect to the local spiritual “bureaucrats” would be akin to dishonoring God.

Now, clearly this person’s concept of God was anthropomorphic. He thought of Him as a big President in the sky, not omnipresent, not capable of (or even probably interested in) attending all the weddings. However, my main point with this story is that this person, out in the jungle, subscribing to a spiritual view of the world that most readers of this blog might find strange or even comical, had a concept of God as distinct from lesser gods. As he would be the first to tell you, he knew about and honored God.

This people group had no problem grasping the concept of “the Creator.” They had a beautiful, polysyllabic name for Him [again, redacted in exchange for the privilege of writing about these folks]. When individuals from this ethnic group became Christians, that name was the name they used in their prayers.

Local Religions Ground but also Divide

I have a lot of sympathy for local deities and mythologies. It is good for people to have their own culture and mythology, to feel grounded in something to which they legitimately belong. But in a cosmopolitan culture (and we are not the first cosmopolitan culture to discover this) there is a problem with just following our ancestors’ lead for the totality of our religion. The problem is that ancestral religion and identity politics don’t mix. I probably don’t need to elaborate on this.  You can find your own examples of the impossible dilemmas it creates. The world is bristling with them.

United by One God

I could probably write another 1,000 words about this problem and cast no more light on it.  So instead, listen to the words of Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, as he spoke to a group of sophisticated pagan philosophers:

“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

(You wouldn’t think “He determined the exact places where they would live” is very surprising, but I have heard that it brought one group of native translators to tears. They had thought that no one, human or divine, cared about them; that they had been forgotten.)

“God did this so that people would seek Him and perhaps reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”

 (By the way, notice how he alludes to the wisdom already found in their own culture. But Paul, who was bi-cultural, isn’t finished. Now he is going to call them to a purer, more direct worship of the Creator.)

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:22 – 31

Quote of the Week: God is for Everyone!

Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

Paul of Tarsus, Act 17:22 – 27

That One Song

You know the one. The one that really does something for you.

When I was about twelve, I heard that one song on the radio. While it was playing, I felt as if I was living inside a myth. All the ordinary, banal things in the world around me were transformed into things of beauty and significance. Everything about the song helped this effect – the content, the poetry, the melody, the harmony, the way all these elements worked perfectly together.

Several minutes later, the radio station played their phone number. I immediately called them.

“What was that song you played a few minutes ago?”

“What did it sound like?” they said.

But the song had completely gone out of my head. I could not remember one single musical phrase or even one single word of it.

I laughed at myself, apologized, and hung up.

The song was this:

Setting: Beringia

Here’s the setting for my second book: Beringia circa 10,000 BC.

As you can see, at this time the sea levels were lower (coastlines are a guess). Volcanoes were active in what is now the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The area that is now the Bering Strait is believed to have been a vast plain that somehow, despite being so far North, supported a great variety of game, including different varieties of mammoth.

Meanwhile, weirdly, North America was still covered in ice sheets. No one knows why this should be, but here is a guess. Anyway, the ice sheets were beginning to melt, creating an ice-free corridor down into the Americas. When exactly this corridor became passable is up for debate. There may also have been a coastal way to access North America (not shown on this map). Meanwhile, there could also have been people migrating to America from Africa via the Atlantic, and from Asia via Polynesia.

The corridor could also have been the route that Gigantopithecus took to get to America.

Late in the book, my characters discover mountains of ice. The ice is south of them and lies between them and the sea. They are just as confused by this as you are.

It’s Time to Talk about Bigfoot

Yes, Bigfoot.

Cryptids Large and Small

Bigfoot is a cryptid, which means “hidden animal,” i.e. an animal whose existence has not been proved. Cryptid is a big category. Some cryptids, when researched, turn out not to exist (for example the Loch Ness Monster, as far as we can tell). Others eventually get moved from the category of cryptid to that of actual animal. (Europeans did not believe in the existence of gorillas until the corpse of one was brought to Europe.)  Other cryptids are 100% hoax (the Fiji mermaid, constructed by sewing a preserved monkey torso onto the preserved tail of a large fish). This post will argue that Bigfoot is in the gorilla category. In fact, he is almost exactly like a gorilla: a large, elusive primate native to the deep forests of North America.

My Sources

Obviously I did not research all this stuff myself. My source is the research done by Jeff Meldrum, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. He has written a lot of stuff, but the source I am using is his book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science (Tom Doherty Associates, 2006).

By the way, I had already read the book, but last month I got to attend a Bigfoot conference in Pocatello (home of Idaho State University) and hear Meldrum give a talk. Turns out he’s a very nice guy, with none of that defensiveness that we might expect from a cryptid researcher. The pictures in this post are from that event.

It’s hard for a blog post adequately to cover a scientific topic like this one. (And yes it is scientific: detailed analysis of footprint casts, human and primate gaits, fossils, local legends, and more.)  I’ll just try to summarize some of Meldrum’s main arguments, but obviously, if you want to delve deeper, you can buy the book yourself.

Many Casts of Prints

Bigfoot is often reported in places that are conducive to taking casts of footprints, such as a muddy forest floor at a logging site. Many casts have been taken of footprints in such places. Some are up to 17 inches long.  None of them match the stiff, narrow, 15-inch wooden fake feet supposedly used by Ray Wallace and his family to fake all(!) of the Bigfoot tracks in the Northwest. Some have a step length of 50 – 60 inches and a depth that indicates whatever made them weighed more than 800 pounds (Sasquatch chapter 2).  There is even an instance of a very large club foot (page 238), a few knuckle and hand prints (105 – 111), and a hilarious butt print where the sasquatach apparently sat in the mud, then leaned on its left forearm to reach for a fruit (111 – 115).

Large, deep tracks with a 65 – 70 inch stride have also been photographed in the sand on the Oregon coast, after a sighting the previous evening (190).

“Patty,” the Lady Bigfoot

The famous October 1967 Patterson film “was shot during the day, in full sunlight, out in the open on 16mm film.  Independent researchers examined the location immediately after the encounter, and footprint casts and countless measurements and photos were taken … and yet this film remains controversial, written off as an obvious hoax by many” (134 – 135).  

Not surprisingly, the star of the video, dubbed “Patty,” has had everything about her analyzed, from her gait, to her saggital crest, to the speed of the film, to the color of the soles of her feet. The book covers this in more detail over several chapters.  The upshot is that experts, when asked to view the Patterson film, tend to be very impressed at first, then panic, back off, and start thinking the film is a fake is because if it isn’t, they would have to “believe” in Bigfoot. One typical protest is that this film is suspect because it was shot by someone who was specifically looking for evidence of Bigfoot.  It’s hard to imagine, though, how we could get such a film from anyone else.

It’s also hard to imagine how the creature on the film could have been faked. Consider:

The Bigfoot in the Patterson film appears to have breasts, and as it walks, you can see its muscles moving underneath the hair.  An experienced Hollywood costume designer who has designed many ape costumes opined that it does not look like a man in a suit. He felt that instead of a suit it would have to have been a minimum ten-hour makeup job in which the hair was glued directly to the actor’s skin (158).  (The actor would then have to have been delivered to the film site and just as quickly spirited away, without leaving any vehicle tracks.) A computer graphics animator adds that “the boundaries of the human form do not even fit within the form of the creature” (176).  Six-foot men have tried to re-create “Patty’s” walk in the same spot, and have found it difficult to match her stride and impossible to make footprints as deep as the ones she made.

Native American Knowledge of Bigfoot

Many Native American tribes, all over the continent, have Bigfoot legends. This is particularly true in the Northwest, where you can see stylized carved stone heads, masks, and statues of the buk’wus (a Kwakiutl word), or his female counterpart, the dsonoqua. Their faces look ape-like and distinct from similar carvings of bears.  (In the picture below, some of the souvenirs are adapted versions of this native art.) The Northwestern tribes seem to have more zoological detail in their legends about Bigfoot and have testimonies of sightings right down to the present day. They also, of course, ascribe spiritual qualities to the creature, as they do to other animals.

The earrings, which do not look like Native art, are based on “Patty” from the Patterson film.

As we move farther East, Bigfoot becomes a more purely spirit-like figure.  This may imply that the creatures died in out first in the eastern part of the continent, where they are remembered only as a myth. 

On Painted Rock, in central California, there is a large (2.6 meter high) pictograph of Hairy Man with tears streaming from his eyes. According to the local creation story, Hairy Man is crying because people are afraid and run away from him. 

At any rate, these legends definitely pre-date Ray Wallace, who supposedly “created” Bigfoot all by himself. The descriptions of Bigfoot’s behavior in the Northwestern native traditional knowledge match well with what has been reported in sightings and surmised from the behavior of other great apes.

Great Ape Behavior

Much of the Bigfoot behavior that is sometimes reported in sightings has parallels in the intimidation behavior of other primates.  This includes grimacing, throwing things, banging wood on trees, pushing snags of dead branches at an intruder, hair bristling, emitting a pungent stink when agitated (male mountain gorillas do this), and vocalizing (chapters 9 and 10).  There are also behaviors that resemble that of other primates but are not intimidation behaviors, such as making sleeping nests from branches.  Of known primates, the one that Bigfoot most seems to resemble is Gigantopithecus (89 ff).

But Isn’t It Really Just a Bear?

A page from Meldrum’s “Sasquatch field guide,” showing differences between Bigfoot and bears

Bigfoot’s range, as determined by footprints and reported sightings, overlaps almost perfectly with the range of the bear.  To a believer, this means the two animals share a similar habitat: temperate forests and rainforests. To a skeptic, this means that all “Bigfoot” sightings are actually bears.

This was the subject of the lecture by Jeff Meldrum that I attended.  It is certainly true that photographs of black bears have been put forward as photographs of Bigfoot, only to be exposed later. Meldrum showed a series of bear photos which, at first glance, can look surprisingly humanoid, especially if the animal is skinny and is standing on its hind legs.  However, he went on to point out, telling the difference between a bear and a huge, bipedal ape “isn’t rocket science.”  Bears do not have a clavicle, so when standing, they don’t have protruding shoulders. Their legs are much shorter in proportion to their body. And, of course, there are the prominent round ears.  

Bear tracks don’t resemble Bigfoot tracks at all, except in cases of multiple, overlapping, unclear bear tracks.  A bear’s inside toe is its shortest, their feet are shorter and very narrow at the back, and they leave claw marks.  Their stride is, of course, very different, although when a bear is walking quickly its footprints can overlap, “giving an impression of elongated footprints spaced in a two-footed pattern.”

Skeptics have also raised the question of whether two large animals can fill the same niche. Bigfoot, if it exists, is probably a fructivore like the other large primates and like Gigantopithecus, whose jaw and teeth are designed for grinding, not for predation. Bears, while also ominivores, have a very different shaped set of chompers. So even if the two animals share a range, they would not be occupying exactly the same ecological niche.

(Fun near-fact: based on his estimate of how many Sasquatch compared to bears a given region of wilderness can support, Meldrum estimates there could be as many as 175 individual Bigfoot in the state of Idaho.)

Bigfoot Outside the Great Northwest

It turns out that, despite usually having much less wilderness than the Great Northwest, nearly every state in the Union has its own version of the Bigfoot legend. I’ll let you make up your mind about these on a case-by-case basis. In Ohio, until recently my home state, we have “the Grassman.”  Here is a Hubpages article about him.  If you follow the link and read the comments, you will no doubt see many personal testimonies about Grassman sightings.

Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

Today we have a YouTube podcast by one of my favorite living writers, Andrew Klavan. Skip all the political stuff at the beginning (unless you need a laugh, cause Klavan is funny).  For this post, we are going straight to the Mailbag segment at the end of the show.

At 34:10, Klavan reads a question from a listener who says that he is writing a screenplay.  The writing process has required him to open up some bad memories of his own, which though it resulted in good writing, has been hard on him and has slowed his progress.  “How do you deal with this, Mr. Klavan?”

At 34:58, Klavan agrees that this is a problem.  “Writing can really rip you to pieces, especially if you are an unsteady personality.”  Later, he will end the segment by saying, “Especially if you’re a really good writer, you’re really gonna hurt yourself sometimes, and you have to take care of yourself and heal.”

So far so good, if so obvious.  This is something that all writers know, even if we try not to talk about it a lot because it makes us sound like overly fragile artiste types.  Still, it’s good to hear this confirmed by a professional who has written hard-boiled crime novels and screenplays and has even gotten paid for them.

But things are going to get wilder. Klavan starts elaborating on why writing can mess you up.  He mentions that if you write a villain, you have to tap in to that evil place in yourself.  Then, at 35:40, he adds, “When you create female characters, you have to go into feminine parts of yourself, which for men can be very upsetting.  I think that’s why a lot of male writers are alcoholics, because they don’t like to face that part of themselves because it makes them feel that they’re not manly.”

Whoa! Wait! Stop, Mr. Klavan. Back up. This is fascinating, and I have so many questions.

First of all, do you think that female writers have a corresponding problem? And if not, why not?

Secondly. Klavan has just said that writing female characters can be so depressing that it drives men to alcoholism. Wow. Now my question is, are they depressed just because they are dismayed to find they are capable of thinking in a feminine way? In other words, are they upset only by the implied insult to their manliness?  Or … is there something inherently upsetting and/or depressing about being a woman, and these male writers are experiencing that directly?  My money’s on the second one. I can see that it would be a lot to handle for them, poor lambs.  Being relatively unprepared for it and all.

In other words, it just more fun to be the average man than to be the average woman?

And I’m not blaming anyone for this. If there is some truth in it, I think it has a physical cause (female hormones).  Dennis Prager has said that if the average man could suddenly be given a woman’s brain for a day, he’d be totally overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in there.  Whereas if the average woman could be given a man’s brain, she would go, “This is terrific! I’m free!”

Anyway. If there is any truth in my theory, it would follow that it is less emotionally taxing for female writers to write male characters than the reverse.

Based on my limited experience, I think this is true. Perhaps it’s because, to a greater degree than men, women are already in the habit of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes.  We have been given a natural tendency to do this.  We need to do it, as mothers, so as to intuit the needs of our children, whether they are boys or girls. So, we get a head start on that being-depressed-by-other-people’s-emotions thing.

A couple of caveats.  No, I am not saying that women make better writers than men, nor that women are automatically good at creating male characters (there are plenty of counter-examples to that idea).  Just that women already tend to do, in our daily lives, a perhaps slightly less intense version of that part of the writing process that some male writers find so depressing.

What do you guys think of all this?

Maybe They Had a Tram

Today is Columbus Day, and also Native American Day. I know this because I have a wall calendar that was sent to me by St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD. If it’s Native American Day, they ought to know.

So, thanks to them – and the kids who attend the school – for this post.

Since we are honoring Native Americans today, let’s return to a common theme on this blog: ancient people were a lot smarter than we think.

“An island grave site hints at far-flung ties among ancient Americans: Great Lakes and southeastern hunter-gatherers may have had direct contact 4,000 years ago”