Archive for May, 2012

“They Shall Take Up Serpents” Mark 16:17-18

May 18, 2012


  Have you been wondering if global warming would make an encounter with rattlesnakes more likely in our neck of the woods?  Me too!  Wrong question turns out.  There has long been a resident population – and bites and deaths – but they’ve all dwindled significantly due to loss of habitat.  In fact they’re protected in many Iowa counties.

  Timber, Prairie, and Massasauga rattlesnakes live in Iowa with the first by far the most prevalent, though still far from ubiquitous. Sylvan being the preferred nature of their environment, the fact that logging is here no longer a major industry provides a clue as to their demise.

  Many of the trees harvested to make all of the paper we waste grow in the thick forests of the south and around them writhes a healthy population of crotalids.  As you probably know, some of these find there way into church.

  Snake handling as worship seems at first a wacky way to try to meet the Lord, but upon reflection one realizes it has sure thing potential.  Anyway, the practice has an American past far older than the collieries of Appalachia.  Snakes play a role in religious observances of most if not all Native American tribes.     

  The Snake-Antelope dance of ancient Hopi tradition for example, was undertaken to summon a divine rain.  Once every two years, the head priest would initiate the proceedings by gathering snakes, purifying them in a bath of yucca suds, and then lead secret rituals as prologue. 

  Then, during a late summer public spectacle, with the snakes in their mouths, dancers would circle the central plaza four times before releasing them. Soon thereafter they’d be gathered up again by priests to be sprinkled upon with cornmeal by women of the snake clan.  Serpents’d be then set free in the four directions on their mission to send back rain.

  Think I’d rather go thirsty.  Here in Iowa there have been more than seventy recorded deaths from snakebite with the last having occurred in Bellevue in 1944.  Most victims seem to have been young, old, or infirm because most assailants were Timber Rattlers which are not among the most venomous of serpents.  Bites survivable.

  But painful, serious, and no joke though and likely accompanied by some tissue morbidity**.  So, deep in a remote wood one warm summer day should you find a viper attached to your leg don’t try to cobble together an old fashioned snake bite kit, ie sharp blades and suction.  They do more harm than good.  And waste time.

  Nope, get yourself to a hospital and anti-venom.  Rattlesnake venom is largely comprised of digestive enzymes which will foment and seethe until neutralized.  Dr Brother tells me that Fougera’s CroFab** is the only widely available efficacious treatment and that adequate dosage is probable not far away.      


*cf posts of 1.15.10 and 8.7.09 for more about snakes.  The latter has a photo of me holding a Timber Rattler

**Notice in the photo above, guy on the right is missing an arm.  No way to tell, but…

*** – Watch the video


Whoa Black Betty Bam-Ba-Lam

May 11, 2012


   The look is almost passé now I guess, having first appeared in hip hopdom more than twenty years ago, but I finally got around to divining its genesis and evolution.  They are surprisingly multifaceted and complex – sort of in the manner of a Freud portrait.  In a single picture he was remarkably able to “include more than one expression”.

  The provenance of a fashion statement that requires nearly continuous attention – the holding up of one’s trousers – must be profound I figured.  Had to have entered and then pervaded the collective unconscious of a sizeable segment of society before going mainstream.  (Ok tributary maybe.)

  Some suggest that the look arose first as boys and young men wore clothing several sizes too large because of hand-me-down affordability.  Or even more purposefully to denote the absence of a more senior male family member.  The sign of a deliberate assumption of responsibility.

  Unfortunately the assumption of a role for which one has had no model can lead to trouble.  The broad swaths ofAmericalargely bereft of meaningful fatherhood are characterized by strife, violence, and dead ends.  Many young men end up in detention of one sort or another.

  Prison garb is not bespoke.  No belts.  Thus if jumpsuits aren’t the standard issue, pants will sag.  Furthermore, exposed undergarments can be the analogue of a low cut dress.  Advertising.  Or even relate to some cultures’ particularly accoutered wives, though the tone of the message here a bit more harsh: “I’m someone’s bitch, touch me at your peril”.

  Not what you get at first glance is it?  Whole thing reminds me of the backstory of the folk song Black Betty one rendition of which you can listen to below.  My initial encounter with Ms Betty was during the pregame warmup to youngest daughter’s college soccer matches*.  More than rousing, it’s almost riotous. 

  The song was similarly employed in the pilot episode of the successful and award winning program Friday Night Lights; also the pilot of Eastbound and Down; the films Blow, Dukes of Hazzard, Miss Congeniality; many advertising campaigns, video games, and more.

  Some believe that the name first was used to refer to a certain flint-lock musket with the “bam BA lam” being onomatopoetic gunfire.  In his Drinker’s Dictionary Ben Franklin tells us that to have kissed Black Betty was to have had too much.  Inmate transfer vehicles have been called by that name.

  Father and son ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax found that Black Betty “was the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons”:

Whoa, Black Betty (bam-BA-lam)

Whoa, Black Betty (bam-BA-lam)

She’s fromBirmingham(bam-BA-lam)

Way down in Alabam’ (bam-BA-lam)

Boy she makes me sing (bam-BA-lam)

Whoa, Black Betty


  No question but that she’d make me sing and the problem then would be how to find a way to kiss her while holding my pants up – all the way up – with both hands.

*Pertinent lyric: “Black Betty had a child – The damn thing gone wild” Those girls would every time come up smiling after mixing it up so fiercely they’d fall to the ground legs atangle.

Invisible Driving Force

May 4, 2012


  Years ago on kids’ first trip to the beach I noticed that the shells in which they found great interest were not whole or colorful, but in fact the most sun bleached pieces – especially those with some intricacy.  Furthermore, that observation reminded me that I’d been the same and even had some ‘originals’ in a dusty collection at my folks’ house.

  It was the shape, not the color.

  Thus it was interesting for me to read in the Science Times section of the 5/1/12 NYT that “Babies are born Euclideans” and that they “use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space”.  And not color.  Isn’t that interesting given all of the information provided by our eyes?

  The article was about a researcher at Harvard – Elizabeth Spelke – investigating the innate characteristics of our brains by means of  close observation of infants.  “…Identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet.”

  Very young babies would notice if the room in which they were was triangular or rectangular in plan.  They’d remember whether an object had been by a short or long wall.  Much to the surprise to Prof Spelke it was not until the age of five or six that color provided much help in infant navigation.

  Made me think.  First, that the ability to discern even light and dark let alone how to read a map came long after, well, the ability to swim in the primordial soup.  And that even earlier all that stuff moved (moves!) through the cosmos just fine without even being alive.

  The design of our universe is all math.  It is incredible to realize, in the words of architect and theorist Anne Tyng, how completely “we inhabit geometry”.  She showed that “the building blocks of nature are demonstrated as geometry in pure motion”* and that the “power of geometry is the invisible driving force in natural forms”**. 

  Too bad I have to take off my shoes and socks to get past ten…

* ** The comments were from the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition of the work of Ms Tyng. The first was from an essay by Jenny Sabin: “Geometry in Transformation – Computing Mind and Matter”.  The second from the essay “Dynamic Symmetries” by Alicia Imperiale.