November 8, 2014

Old Stuff...

I've noticed a common theme for how I am spending my time these days: old stuff.


Old Stuff #1

When I am in my forced march through Octagon Hell (ok, I've learned the hard way that 200+ of anything except Peanut M & Ms is just way too many), I listen to free podcasts. This month's favorite is a joint project from the BBC and the British Museum:
You can find out more about it and even listen to episodes here.  The "rules" of the program were that museum and BBC muckamucks would choose 100--and only 100--objects from the gazillions that are in the museum collection. (To get some idea of how hard that would be, know that it took us three days just to see what was on display there. Himself is still trying to figure out a way to get locked in overnight so he can see what is stashed in the basement crypts.)

The objects had to start from the beginnings of human history (two million years ago) and come up to the present day. And they had to come from everywhere in the world, with the goal of "trying to address the many aspects of human tell us about whole societies, not just the rich and powerful within them. ...the humble things of everyday life as well as great works of art."

Each episode is just a few minutes long and features a complete audio documentary--experts musing, ambient sounds, the whole works. The object itself becomes a tool to explore intriguing concepts that I haven't really ever thought about before but in many ways form the vertebrae of our existence. Like this one.
Yeah, another clay pot. This one from Japan, about 5000 BC. But the program asks you to really, really think about what happened when, 10,000 years before that, some lump of clay wound up in the campfire in a shape that could hold stuff. And what happened? Oh, just the ability to store food that baskets could not protect from insects or mice...the ability to eat stuff that had been inedible or toxic raw...the ability to serve up soup or stew. Or ice cream. A complete overhaul in diet, that's what.

The Pot changed everything and it is the damn Wheel that gets all the applause.

Here's another favorite: The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.

I love it for its title, inked in red on the front page: "The Correct Method of Reckoning, for Grasping the Meaning of Things, and Knowing Everything--Obscurities and All Secrets." It taught Egyptian civil servants from about 1550 BC how to solve 84 practical problems that still trip up us lowly homeowners today. Here's a good one for you who are tired of throwing out yet another chewed- through cereal box:
"In seven houses there are seven cats. Each cat catches seven mice. If each mouse were to eat seven ears of corn and each of corn, if sown, were to produce seven gallons of grain, how many things are mentioned in total?"
I was absent on the day they taught that at my junior high, but don't worry. The papyrus shows the answer in red, along with all work.

Spending my days with these objects triggered a thought: what are the 100 objects that tell MY history? I started a list and jot them down as they appear in my Shirley Temple doll with the hair that I straightened, my rock that looks like an Oreo that I picked up in my summers at camp in Northern Michigan, my mother's Gold Metal Flour sifter, the copy of The Prophet that my famously untouchy/unfeely mom gave me in 9th grade. My Earth Shoes and guitar, my briefcase and saddle and bridle. Try it for yourself. 


Old Stuff #2

This semester, I am auditing a course at the local rabbinical college called "Biblical Core." The professor is a whizbang biblical scholar who knows all things ancient Near East. (She read us a poem in the original Akkadian the other day and everyone oo'ed and ahhed until I pointed out that no one in the room would know if she made a mistake.You can say stuff like that when you are auditing.)

The course is increasing our proficiency in biblical Hebrew, which bears roughly the same relationship to Modern Hebrew as Canterbury Tales does to modern English literature. That's why every Saturday, my kitchen table looks like this:
 We translate roughly 20 lines at home and then explore them in class, where we learn historical context for the text. What was happening in that particular society to make someone write that section? What pre-judaic myths lie beneath the stories? And, most intriguing, where are the misinterpretations? Here's a good one:
This is a verse from Leviticus that you may have run into: You shall love your neighbor like yourself. Or that's what we've all been taught that it says, anyway.  That translation makes sense, both grammatically and because it sure seems like a good idea, no? It also concludes a long list of other very nice moral marching orders, like not insulting the deaf or tripping up the blind.

BUT hold on. It is equally plausible grammatically that it says something completely different, something way further down on the niceness scale. It could actually translate as "you shall love your neighbor who is like yourself." Not nice at all, but invaluable if you are trying to preserve your new little band of monotheists against the guys with all the gods one hill over.

I love being up to my elbows in words written nearly 3,000 years ago. I have often wrestled with the fact that the spiritual text of my people was in truth cobbled together over years and years and is full of mispellings and editorial failings rather than mysteries meant for us to unfold. But the ability to read the original helps me love the human inaccuracies for themselves...they are the footprints of the real live people who molded generations of stories and archetypes, who wrestled with the shortcomings and the beauty of human nature, who put it all together in a way that has managed to survive when I live in a world where a book goes in and out of print within two years.

I love old stuff.


  1. what a great post Julie! love your list of things, gosh you still have your saddle and bridle? Will you keep another horse in this life time? I gave mine away to a teenage girl along with the last horse when I turned 30 and moved to this big city!
    My pillow tells the history of my life, it has held all my dreams for nearly 60 years, there's not many feathers left and I recovered with a layer of blue satin over the original striped mattress ticking about 30 years ago but it's the same pillow that I have slept with all my life.

    1. Thank you...well, the bridle went with the chestnut mare with the white blaze named Pia. The saddle is in the attic, promised long ago to Thing Two, who will probably never use it but I am scared she will come claim it the day after I give it away! The pillow, oh wow. You don't even need the other 99.

  2. Old things. When I married my husband, his brothers delighted in showing me old farm implements (all having been raised on a Minnesota farm for the most part) and having me try to guess their uses...I think I got one out of 20 but over the years, Rich and I love to go to country fairs, state fairs, check out the old tractors where I get lecture # 50 on the old John Deere model B that was on the farm and learn again what a threshing machine does (takes grain from stalks etc.)

    But a funny thing is that I really enjoy all of these trips and especially when we stop and visit living history museums. When we lived in Texas there was one museum the Sauer Beckman Living History Museum, not far from Lyndon Johnson's old homestead that was one of our favorite places. The time period was 1900-1918 and the docents dressed in the style of the day, worked the garden, canned beans, milked the cows, collected eggs and might have even dispatched a turkey or two. Every day one of the docents would prepare a typical farm house lunch and we offered to pay them if they would let us sit with them at their long tables and share their meal but they couldn't due to some health we wandered around and found the pantry where row upon row of every kind of canned veggie, pickles fruits, crocks of sauerkraut and jars of sausages preserved in lard which somehow took away my wanting lunch...but it was what they did in those days.

    1. I have a photo study of John Deere tractor photos from a "museum" (AKA collection that got out of hand) in Montana this past summer. Archaeologists of the future will no doubt think JD was a god of agriculture.

      Preserved in lard. Yum.

  3. this podcast is Brilliant i listened to the one on the Clovis tool and will tune in for all
    the others. THANK YOU for bringing it here.
    and my 100 things...thinking....

    love the scene of your table with everything on it, the glimpse of your notebook, Sometimes i really miss STUDYING something that takes that kind of work and focus.
    the last paragraph is really fine....the inaccuracies, realizing these and learning to love them. Love this. A GREAT post and a pleasure to mull over, all of it. Thank you,

    1. Thank you thank you and glad you tuned in. Make sure you manage to see the photo of the object at least once or twice while you're listening. Yes, the very best part of living under a grant from the Hiimself Foundation As Long As She Cooks Dinner is that I can study with deep focus and from experts.

  4. Yes, 100 things...definitely food for thinking back. I too love your last paragraph, which is such a refreshing variation on "God said it here, there is no more to be known." It breathes life into scholarship.

    1. I wish (well, more like an idle thought) that I could host a website where people could list the objects of their histories. Since BBC used 100 for 2 million years, ten objects could tell lots.

      And I truly believe that scholarship breathes life into spirituality and, for me, faith. Gives you a way to make your own decisions but still connects you to something much bigger.

  5. what is it about ageing that makes one appreciate old stuff in an entirely different way than my younger self was capable of? at least this is how it works for me
    I used to like old stuff more for the aesthetic quality I think, vaguely knowing there was a history, now I love the history more than the object, the story passed on through time - if you get my drift....
    I too have listened to this same program, I used to be able to get BBC's radio4 on longwave in my studio, when they stopped broadcasting on LW I kind of stopped listenin to radio completely; only recently have I discovered there are many interesting pod casts for me to listen to, this being one of them; how much I love the fact we might be listening to the same program Julie.

    as for your research, wow! I can well imagine being excited about being able to read the Original and then realising how much can get lost in translation (great movie btw) moving between languages as I do, I tend to notice how subtle the variations and misinterpretations can be.
    Our bible study group has imploded as 'our' vicar no longer has the time (nor the inclination) to continue to read the bible with us, leaving us without guidance and honestly reading the bible with a group of ignorant women is no fun whatsoever; we haven't yet been able to find a new vicar or theologian so I'm afraid that's it for now.....a project on hold.

    I love seeing how serious you are about your bible studies, notes books arrows, crossed out sentences, high lights, yep it's the real deal!