"Coffee Ran-Dom," June 25th, 2016, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:12:02.
Matt Freedman: A few months ago, actually now it's about nine months ago, I got a book in the mail. It was a Moleskine notebook, an empty book that was sent to me indirectly from the Moleskin Company so that I could participate in National Handwriting Day, which is held on January 23rd every year to celebrate handwriting. I think it's a scam produced by the stationery companies of America, but all sorts of people like Katie Couric had agreed to do this. And Malaya. So, I said I would do it. They sent me the book and they sent me a pen, a very odd little flat pen, and they said, “All you have to do is draw something in the book and take a picture of it, send to us, we'll put it on Facebook and you can put it on your social media if you want. This will help people to understand how important handwriting is in this day of highly automated forms of communication.” So I made a little picture of a hand and I wrote something like, “I don't know what to think until I write it down,” which I thought was very clever, and I took a picture and sent it in to them and they said, “This is great. Could you do a little #Nationalhandwritingday at the bottom, #Moleskine?” I figured I'd already taken a little bite of the shit sandwich, so I wrote that down and I sent it in, and they said that was great. I looked on Facebook a few days ago and I never saw it there. So, I kind of sold out for nothing. Well, I got the book and I got the pen.
I lost some of my integrity, but I had this notebook. Every day for the last four years, I've been entering the events of the day with drawings into one notebook after another, so I consume a lot of notebooks and I was very happy to have this new notebook to write in, even though I had to write around this self- indicting page where I pimped for the Moleskine book people. In case you don't know, Moleskine has nothing to do with mole skin. It's a heavy cotton fabric. It's identified with the geniuses of the 19th and 20th century. Hemingway was supposed to have had one, and I think Oscar Wilde had one and Picasso and Van Gogh had one. It became a famous when Bruce Chatwin, the famous diarist, was writing Songlines and he went into his favorite Paris stationary store and was told in French that there were no more moleskine notebooks anymore for him to use because the maker had died, but they said it in French. They said there are no more true moleskines. It was a generic name for cotton notebooks. Then some smart person said, “Well, we'll make Moleskines as a brand name.” And everybody could pretend that they are Hemmingway or Van Gogh or Picasso and have a very nice book. They're highly—they're very clever people.
I guess I was about six weeks into writing in this book when I discovered that I had actually not been given a blank book at all. I've written around it, but up in this corner you can see somebody has written four lines and a date. It's November 24 th . It's in Italian. I tried to break it, tried to translate it on my own, but I was not getting anywhere. So, I had a couple of friends take a crack at it. First, Luisa who's not here, and then Paul. Is Paul here? There's Paul. Luisa’s translation, which is very close to Paul's--- and Paul, I may need to call on you for a slight intervention--She wrote, “I have a need to go to the wine bar this evening. Tomorrow I have a lesson. Afterwards. I have to order a sashimi plate for the party Thursday. I hate turkey and haven't been able to tell him for ten years.” Very intriguing. If you do a little research into the history of Moleskine you learn they have their American headquarters in Chelsea, just a few blocks from the publicist who had sent me this thing. I imagine some disgruntled employee, some woman perhaps who has moved here from Milan and has been having to go to Thanksgiving with her idiot American boyfriend for 10 years, hated turkey and would prefer something sophisticated like sushi or sashimi. And I was hoping I could sort of build a story around this. This is a perfect random piece of information. A kind of a message in a bottle. I sent it to Paul. Paul said, “This is not by an Italian. This is terrible Italian. This is somebody practicing Italian and they're making all sorts of hilarious mistakes.”
The only crucial difference in their translations, though, is that you said, “I hate turkey, but haven't been able to say it for ten years.” Is there a gender pronoun situation here? Is there a “it” and “him” problem? Is it clear what the difference is if somebody says, “I haven't been able ‘to tell him’” as opposed to say, “I haven't been able to say it”?
So does that mean that they really don't know Italian at all or they just don't know how to say “I hate turkey in Italian?”
OK. I decided it probably didn't matter whether this was an Italian ex-pat pining away, or some upwardly striving American, because in a sense they were still revealing part of their soul. Whatever they were doing, whether it's practice or not, I mean, the real mystery that remains is why anybody wrote this one paragraph in the middle of a blank book and then put it back on a shelf and then left it for somebody else to discover it, and how it ended up with me, I don't know. But in any event, there is a discomfort with a tradition and an attempt to replace one tradition with another.
As it turns out almost everybody seems to hate turkey. When I looked into it, there are pages and pages devoted to the reasons why turkey is a terrible food to try to eat and cook. One chef even said, “Having turkey for Thanksgiving is like inviting an evil midget to your house and having him defecate on the dining room table.” Which is a powerful image. Of course, turkey has a much more delightful history in America. Probably you are all aware of the anecdote about Benjamin Franklin, who in a letter to his daughter was comparing the turkey much more favorably to the bald eagle, which had been selected as our national emblem. He said he felt the eagle was a thief, merely a scavenger who sat on the sidelines while smaller, harder working birds did the work of hunting and fishing and then it would swoop down and take the food away. Whereas the turkey, which was admittedly as sort of vain and silly bird, was also very territorial and brave and would defend itself against all comers. He would've preferred the snake as our national symbol, the rattlesnake, for similar reasons, but we ended up with the bald eagle.
It's not just Italians or wannabe Italians who would prefer fish to turkey on holidays. You might have seen this piece recently about the growing preference for sushi amongst orthodox Jews. Sushi is interesting because as fish-- and often rice--it falls in that safe zone between meat and dairy. It can be used in a lot of different food situations as long as the fish itself is kosher. To be kosher, a fish has to have fins and scales, which eliminates delicious sushi like eel. One of the more controversial sushi items is imitation crab. Imitation crab, as you probably know, is not crab at all. That's why it's called imitation crab. It's made out of pollock, which is a cod-like fish that has many, many fins and many, many scales.
But the word “crab,” even “imitation crab,” is so disturbing to the observant that in order to promote the sale of imitation crab to orthodox Jews, it's called kani, which is the Japanese name. It got me thinking about the sort of power, not only of the laws, the dietary laws and rituals that we follow, but the language around them, have over us. It reminded me of a trip I had taken when I was a young man, a rafting trip on the Green River in Utah with my brother and a bunch of young Mormons. We went down the river with bucketloads of beer and they went down the river with bucketloads of Coca Cola. I remember the end of one day, when we were sitting around the river and we had drunk all our beer and they had drunk all their Coca Cola for the day, and they were still thirsty. So I took a beer can and I filled it with water and I handed it to-- let’s call her Katie--and she took the took this can of beer and she wanted to drink it and she wanted to be a good sport and she sniffed it and she looked all around. And then she put it down and we never discussed what was going on, but it was clear what was going on. I don't know what was going on. Was it the smell of beer? Was it the possibility that there was a minute amount of alcohol in the can, or was it the sign on the can? I think it had to be the sign. The whole thing was loaded with too much symbolic power, it was too much of a transgression for her to even think of putting it to her lips. Although maybe also she was afraid that other people would see her drinking and they would think she was drinking beer.
It didn't have a terrible effect on the rest of the trip, but it always struck me as a very big, strange problem. The Mormons don't drink hot drinks either. Nobody really knows what hot drinks are. It's been interpreted to mean no coffee or tea and the assumption is that the caffeine in those drinks is something that is wrong, except we've already seen that they drink lots and lots of Coke. That's a little controversial. Somebody had to actually issue an order recently that Coke was okay. When you ask somebody in the church about it, they say, “Well, the reason we don't drink these hot drinks is that we don't want to limit our choices, that consuming these beverages interfers with our ability to think clearly.” Somehow.
I guess you'd have to drink a lot of coffee to do that, but actually that's not true. Coffee has always since its very beginning had a terrible problem balancing its appeal with its strangely transgressive qualities. Jews have a problem with coffee. once a year at Passover. At least they did, because there are certain dietary laws applicable to Passover, but not other times. You're not, as you may recall, allowed to eat unleavened bread. You have to get out of Egypt fast. You can't have any- the bread doesn't have time to lie and rise, so you have no leavened bread. But that seems to mean that there are all sorts of things that could cause leavening that are also off limits for Passover, including beans, all kinds of beans, legumes, which meant you couldn't drink coffee because coffee comes from coffee beans. Apparently, but not in reality.
As it turns out, a very clever ad man hired a rabbi in about 1920 to look into this problem and he concluded that coffee beans are not beans at all; they are fruit, which is true. The bean is covered by a fruit surface, and we call it a bean, but it's basically just a seed. It's a seed from the plant. And that made it possible for Jews to drink coffee, a delicious beverage ,on Passover, which increased coffee sales. Now this came home to roost. We, as you may know, live in a synagogue, and when we moved into the synagogue, certain things had to be done. A synagogue is just the building, except for the places where the word of God touches us, so the ark where the Torah, the words of God, was stored; the Torah had to be given away and all the wood around the Torah was thrown out and buried because they touched the Torah. The wood was buried as if it was a person and then all the prayer books were buried the same way. They had been throwing them up into the attic, but now they had to be carted off and buried, which meant that we were unable to find any copies of a very famous book, The Maxwell House Haggadah.
Some people, obviously have seen this book and some people have not. It just sort of depends. In my family we used the same Haggadah for our Seders, the ritual dinner on Passover, over and over again every year. The Haggadah is the book you follow while you go through the dinner. You may know that you drink four cups of wine and you eat matzah with this sort of mash of apples and honey. Especially when you are eight years old you drop a lot of food into the book. So every year the book becomes thicker and crustier. But that was sort of the appeal of the Maxwell House Haggadah, offering Jews new books every year.
What had happened was that the Maxwell House people, who were based in Nashville and had nothing to do with Jews it all, but were very forward looking and had a very extended ad campaign, had hired a Jewish ad company who said, “Well, look. We can really increase sales around the holidays. We'll get the rabbi to say that coffee beans are fruit and then we'll make this book.” Actually a lot of companies were making Haggadahs of various kinds at the time. But theirs caught on. The Maxwell House Haggadah is the most famous. It's been around for years now. Something like 50 million copies of that book are put out every year.
Recently, online, I found the most oddest manifestation of the Maxwell House Haggadah, revolving around the idea that once they and their rabbi had convinced the rest of the Jews that the coffee was made from fruit, then why wasn't coffee the fruit of the vine as well as wine? And so in this Haggadah you drank four cups of coffee. They advised you to switch to decaf after the second cup. And I thought, this is great, this is too good to be true. And it was too good to be true. It was an artist's website. But they've done a beautiful job with this kind of fifties looking guy drinking coffee. Don't be fooled. You have to be vigilant.
But this problem of wine and coffee persists. It actually goes back to the origins of coffee itself. It was “discovered” in Ethiopia about a thousand years ago. Obviously, it's been around. Coffee’s flower and fruit system is a familiar survival mechanism for any plant. It's attractive and desirable and some creature will come, whether it's a bumblebee or a cat, and it will eat this fruit and then move away and drop the seed someplace else and spread the seed. In addition to that, whatever the flavor profile of the coffee bean fruit is, the caffeine in it has an effect on creatures that consume it. One of the first stories about how coffee came to be a “civilized” beverage was that somebody saw birds eating coffee seeds and then becoming extremely agitated and decided to try it themselves.
A more interesting and more specific legend involves a man-a mystic-named Omar, who was famous for his ability to heal by the laying on of hands. He made a few enemies with the laying on of hands and was exiled to a cave outside of town. I think it was Medina. He was starving to death and the only thing around was this bush with red fruit. He tried one of the red things and it was very bitter. He put it in the fire and then it was very hard. So then he ground it up and put it in some water and it was delicious and invigorating and he consumed this and he lived off this for days. When they came back to get Omar's body, Omar was in great shape. They took him back with his drink and they made him a saint.
A more famous explanation was that an Ethiopian goat herder named Caldi, who observed his goats eating coffee beans and then sort of prancing around with a great deal of energy. And so, he thought, “Well, if the goats like it, maybe I can try it.” He spent a lot of time with the goats after he tried the beans and he pranced around with a great deal of lightness and energy. Being a humble man of God, he took a bag of coffee beans to a monastery to give to the local monk and told him what this magic fruit had done. And the monk said “This is obviously bad. It's unnatural. Nothing should work this way.” The monk threw the beans in the fire and the delicious, enticing aroma of roasting coffee beans attracted the other monks, who pulled the beans out of the fire, put them in water and they all had coffee. And that was the beginning of coffee consumption. These are stories recorded 700 years after the fact. So they are probably not true.
We think what happened was coffee was used by Sufi mystics as a stimulant to allow them to stay up day after day in a trance like form, and it gradually spread from the sufis to be consumed in the palaces of the pashas and governors of the local Muslim colonial states. And again, it had problems. It kept being declared illegal. The word itself means wine or appetite suppressant. This problem of coffee being too stimulating made it seem to be somehow in contradiction to Islamic laws against wine consumption. It took a couple of fatwas by local governors to get coffee to be okayed for general use. It actually became sort of identified as a Muslim drink very early on. Coffee, tea and chocolate also actually come from Arabia.
From the Middle East, it spread into Europe through trade and war routes. Europe’s first coffee bars opened up in Venice from traders with seeds left over from their deals. After the great battle of Vienna, which was the turning point of the European and Islamic confrontations that had lasted a thousand years. There was an encampment with a huge Ottoman Empire army that pulled out in part because of the efforts of a man named Count Kulczycki. Kulczycki was a kind of a ne’er-do-well, but he was the polymath who spoke fluent Arabic because he'd been a trader in Istanbul. He used to sneak past enemy lines singing Arabic songs with his valet. He snuck away to the king, a local king, and dukes, and they brought in reinforcements and they won the battle and he was given his choice of what he wanted as a reward.
As the legend goes, they had all these bags of camel feed that they were going to throw into the river, but he knew they were coffee beans and he asked only for the beans as his reward. And he opened up a coffee shop where coffee is still drunk, the Turkish way with a glass of water and some milk. England got its coffee shop soon thereafter. After Paris. The original Parisian coffee shop is still operating.
The Dutch, instead of drinking coffee, right away, began to plant coffee in their colonies. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka specifically, there were extensive coffee plantations. They did not allow the laborers to drink the coffee that they harvested, because they considered it to be too good for them. But remember how coffee plants survive through the propagation of their seeds? The local rodent and called the civit, which looks like a cross between a cat and a big rat, had a particular appetite for coffee beans, selecting the juiciest coffee beans to eat. It was an omnivore, but it couldn't fully digest the beans and it would poop them out. The beans would come out in their feces and the laborers on these plantations were so interested in drinking this concoction they were producing for their European overseers, that they actually picked through the feces, pulled out the beans, cleaned them, and began drinking their own coffee.
The Dutch saw this and immediately concluded this coffee was also too good for the laborers. And they began to collect the feces, or they forced them to give them the feces. And this Kopi Luwak, which is civet coffee, as you may know, has recently become a thing. It's like the best coffee, the most expensive coffee in the world, this cat shit coffee. The idea is that the digestive process of the stomach begins the transformation of the bitter proteins into sweeter mellower sugars, and produces a more mild coffee. This is enough of an abuse story, but as soon as this became a valuable thing, people put the civits in cages so they could no longer roam freely through the jungle, finding the nicest and most sweet and succulent coffee plants. Now the beans were forced on them, like they were veal. They were forced to eat as many raw coffee beans they could hold and then they could collect the pooped out beans in the beans and clean them. And in fact, there wasn’t much quality controls there. Nobody really knows when you're getting Kopi Luwak if you're getting an authentic cat shit coffee or not. But in any case, people who try it say it's actually pretty bad, that it tastes like Folgers. A more reliable coffee animal hybrid is monkey shit coffee, monkey poop coffee. Actually, the rhesus monkey eats coffee beans as well, but being a smart little monkey, it doesn't bother to eat the whole thing, just chews it and spits it out, so it's actually monkey spit coffee. The saliva breaks downs the shell to a parchment like cover on the bean, so it's called parchment coffee. And again, the amylase in the saliva begins the breakdown process for the beans.
This whole concept was supersized recently, for the most benevolent of reasons. I think it's called the Golden Triangle Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. Reading about the popularity, but also thinking about the question of the moral acceptability of cat shit coffee, they decided to feed their elephants a mash of fruits and coffee beans. The theory was that elephants need to eat a lot and they're not very effective, very efficient digesters. They’re natural herbivores, so they're very good at mellowing the beans. They have a lot more of the acids that break down the proteins and their poop is easier to locate in the poop. They have these immense poops. I think you need 30 pounds of beans to get one pound of coffee. I don’t know how much poop that is. It's called Black Ivory Coffee if you're looking for it, and it is apparently quite lovely. It has a kind of floral chocolaty flavor. It's as mild as tea.
But that wasn't the end of the resourcefulness of elephants as machines for transformation. This sanctuary also realized that in addition to being able to produce more coffee beans that had been semi- processed, elephant dung is mostly fiber. They eat a lot. They have to eat 400 pounds of foliage a day and most of it comes out sooner or later. And the fiber that comes out is all plant work. And you clean that up, you throw in some Clorox, you can make wonderful paper. And in fact you can buy elephant poop paper, which I did and I had elephant poop paper to bring here to draw on, but I left it at home. You’ll have to take my word for it. Next week, next month I'll have some. Ernie Bushmiller, who did the Nancy comics was famous for almost always drawing stones in piles of three, as if the platonic ideal of stones is a pile of three, because one stone is just one stone. Two stone is not enough fortunes. The cartoonist R. Crumb has a similar iconic image of smell lines out of his drawings of poop. And then the flies…
I was going to insist it people buy any drawing I made on elephant poop paper because I invested so heavily in the stuff, but this is just regular paper, so you can have that. Somebody also realized that pandas are even more inefficient digesters than elephants because they used to be carnivores until very recently, so they have to eat an awful lot of bamboo and their poop is even more fiber-y. You can get really good elephant, panda poop paper too if you want. It's basically bamboo. But you have to really watch out because a lot of this paper is adulterated. Turns out they put horse poop and cow poop and donkey poop in elephant poop paper at the same time. You really have to insist on pure elephant poop. Even the elephant poop paper I got says, “Elephant poop paper with recycled paper products.” I can't vouch for its purity.
At this point, we’re going to bring this madcap adventure to a screeching halt to have a coffee break. We made some coffee here. It's has nothing to do with civets or pandas, but we have whiskey. Who wants to help with this? I shouldn't touch anything. You might want to, you want to try? Who would like tohave some? We have all the basicelements of Irish Coffee. Here we have whiskey and cream. Where's the cream? And we also have decaf or we have full bodied. What? Making bad what? We're going to say it to Maxwell House. It is Maxwell House, but yours is Lavazza and mine is maximum. I would like to defend Maxwell House. But you're gonna have to work faster because we'll lose the audience fast. It's a great time if you want to sneak out. Who wants some? Why don't we, can we deputize somebody to do this? Otherwise it's going to take a long time. Do you want to do it? I'm going to draw elephants.
Randomly found images and stories send me off on these tangents, Tim, with his finely trained ear, has a similar response to different kinds of stimuli. He was describing the experience recently of sitting at his table in Ridgewood when a plane came flying over from La Guardia, and the pitch of the engine was the exact pitch that you hear in the Beatle song Back in the USSR. RRRRRRRROAR. That sound set him off, against his will and just like that, the whole song came pouring out of his head. Even more strangely, but for our purposes, providentially, he was sitting at the table another time during a period of rapid barometric change in the atmosphere and his drum kit, which he mysteriously keeps in his living room, that Caroline indulges him in, and the drum kit began to pop and snap as the atmospheric pressure on the drum head changed. Correct? Is that right? And the rhythm of those pops perfectly aligned with your, I'd say photographic, but I guess it would be your phonographic memory of a commercial from the 60s.
I don't know what else we can do because I got nothing else. I'm ready. Let’s do the Maxwell House, one of the many Maxwell house commercials that play on many of the sensory attractions of coffee that we've already gone over. Should we try it? Am I going to draw? I was gonna do the whole Garry Owens hand on the ear announcer thing, but I would just get even more stuff on my face. All right. The ad takes a minute, but Tim told me not to rush, so I’ll be taking a bit longer. Okay, go
This is the sound of the coffee pot at work. Listen to it perk.
Look at the coffee as it gets darker and stronger.
Smell the honest coffee smell. Ah smell it but will this cup of coffee taste as good as it smells? You bet it will, because it's Maxwell House coffee that tastes as good as it smells every time.
Maxwell House coffee tastes as good as it smells every time. If you're like to look at good coffee, listen to good coffee, smell good coffee and taste good coffee, brew Maxwell House coffee, the coffee that tastes as good as it smells every time. Maxwell House is good to the last drop. It tastes as good as it smells every time. Maxwell House. It tastes as good as it smells, every time, Maxwell House. Yeah.
I should mention that the image of the coffee coming out; the last drop, which they use on their ads, has an interesting history. Apparently, Maxwell House, whatever you think of it, was one of the first artisanal coffees. It was brewed up by these coffee savants in Nashville and they gave it to the owner of the fanciest hotel in town, Maxwell House. And when they ran out of the free stuff their patrons demanded more of it. And that began their association and they used the name, and early in the history of the coffee, they were serving it at the Hermitage, which is the ancestral home of Andrew Jackson, the now discredited eighth President of United States. But Teddy Roosevelt, who is still a popular president, apparently was visiting there one time and he drank some of the Maxwell House and he said, “Bully, this coffee is good to the last drop!” And they said, “Somebody “write that down” and it became their logo. Again, probably not true, but it's a good story. Jude and I were in Kentucky last week visiting her family. Both her parents are over 90. Her mother still drives the family tractor around the property every day. Her father still is a semi active saxophone player. They're doing very well. Every morning they drink Folgers instant coffee and then we run out to the nearest Starbucks because we're pathetic little yuppies.
In the spirit of the research for this evening talk, I asked Jude’s father if any interestingly random things had ever happened to him. And he said, “Well, as a matter of fact, when I was a young man, I was about 18, living in Mississippi. I was a freshman in college and I was trying to avoid getting drafted into the war.” It was about 1943 and he didn't know how he was going to do that. He wanted to be an officer, but he wasn't in any program to be an officer. One afternoon it was raining very hard and he was trying to cut across campus and to get out of the rain, he went into a building he never been in before. He was walking down the hall and he saw a sign on the bulletin board that said something like, “Navy ROTC at University of Louisville. Learn to be an engineer.” He thought, “That's for me. I'll be an engineer. I'll be an officer and get out of the draft for the infantry.” So he did, he signed up. He went there. He became—he didn't become an engineer---but he became enough of an engineer to stay in the navy throughout the war. And he met Jude' mother. So probably we're all here because he went through that building. Except, for Tim. The theory is Tim would still be here, playing his drums. No. Right. Well, you probably would find somebody else to do the drawings. Kurt, you can draw, right?
One of Jude’s father’s friends in his band was a boy named Jimmy, a very talented clarinetist and trumpeter. Jimmy wasn't as fortunate or resourceful, or simply didn't have the rainy day experience that Jude’s father did, and he was drafted into the army. He was sent to bootcamp and immediately sent to Europe and put into the meat grinder. Ended up in the Battle of the Bulge, was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. After the war when they all got together again, Jude’s father said, “We were sitting on a hill. I remember looking out. It was a beautiful day rolling out across the valley. We were in Kentucky. Jimmy seemed different. He was, quieter He was usually very up. He’d been a very happy go lucky guy until then. Jude father said, “What happened?” He said, “Oh nothing, but all day long in the POW camps they played. Wagner, just Wagner all the time. It was very depressing.”Somehow it sapped his soul. So a week later Jude’s father went back to a school and Jimmy stayed with his parents. His parents went to church in the morning when they came back, Jimmy had shot himself. The story definitely still tugs at Jude's father. He always seems to wonder, what would have happened to him. I don't think he was in any way going to end up like Jimmy, but he still wonders what would have happened if he hadn't gone into that house on that rainy day.
We drove home from Kentucky. Usually we stay on the highway as long as we can. It's 740 miles, so it's at least 11 or 12 hours if you want to do it in one day, which we try to do. When you've got a couple of dogs, which we also have, you don't have many options. But we started early and when we got about 40 miles out of town, Jude said, “I'd like to stop at this state park. I've been reading about in this book, the Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert that I've been reading about. It's a really interesting place.” It was just up the road, so we pulled in, and sure enough, it's an interesting place. There's a giant--it's a salt lick. I'm not sure-- Lick means river, but it also means a salt lick. It’s a kind of a swamp.
It’s one of those kinds of swamps where a lot of prehistoric mammals met their deaths. They don't have a lot of money for this park, so somebody volunteered their services and made a giant cement mastodon that looks sort of like a giant horse. There's a sloth and there's a bison and they're all sort of sinking into the swamp. The story is that this salt lick had functioned like the La Brea Tar Pits. These animals went in, they didn't come out and their bones remained there. The local tribes knew about it. The salt was a source of sustenance, but there wasn't much use for these bones that were sticking out until 1739, when a French war party came down from Quebec on the way to New Orleans led by Charles LeMoyne, the Baron DeLongueil. They were camped nearby and DeLongueil sent some men out hunting and they came back and reported this field. They were carrying an enormous tusk and a tooth and a jaw bone. DeLongueil, like many of his contemporary aristocrats, thought of himself as a bit of a polymath and a scientist and so he had his men carry these objects with them throughout the rest of the disastrous campaign. Many of them were killed or deserted, but he kept the bones and at the end of the campaign he sent them back to Europe, where they sort of languished for about 50 years. At the end of the century they began to be studied by a scientist there, an interesting man named Cuvier who, contrary to lot of contemporary thought, identified these bones as belonging to a species that did not exist.
This was very important because the idea of extinction was a completely novel one. Everybody had accepted the idea up until then that there were no weak links in creation, that any animal that ever was, always would be. And they had their eyes to prove it to them. There was no evidence that any creature had ever lived before. But this was all beginning to change. One of the chief proponents of the permanence of species, but also one of the most interested scientists of the time was our man Thomas Jefferson, who was so interested in these bones that he kept sending different people out to collect more of them. Strange bones had shown up first in a field in New York in 1705, these enormous bones of elephants, which nobbody had the name for, so they were called the Interadon, “The Unknown Creature.” And the assumption was if they weren't here, they were somewhere out west.
That's one of the reasons that Jefferson sent Clark out there, to find these bones, or not to find the bones; to find the actual animal. Jefferson—this is not really a great Jefferson—he had a lot of reasons, not just scientific, to wish to find these great beasts. He was especially enraged by a theory that was very popular among French and other European aristocrats at the time, most notably proposed by a guy named the Comte de Buffon in Paris, who was one of these public intellectuals. He was writing like a 400 volume history of the world. And he was fighting with Linnaeus, the Swedish pedant, who was interested in categorizing things and Buffon said, “There are only 200 or 300 different animals to begin with. We have to concentrate on the big questions because big thinkers think about big questions.”
And the big question he was interested in is, “Why is everything so much worse in the new world than it is in the old world?” He had a theory of American Degeneracy; that everything, all the animals—the bears were smaller in America, and the elks and the elks’ antlers were smaller. The people were obviously stupider, and it was all because of the environment that was cold and damp and nothing could grow there. Even Europeans when they went there became a defective form of themselves back home. And there were a lot of reasons behind this--I mean, he had no evidence for this. All his statistics were wrong, of course, it was all second-hand information, but it was important to hold onto because they had a vested interest in trying to discredit what was happening in the new world, this democratic revolution. The idea that the aristocrats, the people that they represented, were somehow not entitled to rule forever, was a challenge to their very essence. And so, this theory was a way of negating or undermining the credibility of this new political movement. And of course, Jefferson had his own reasons to try to combat it.
He got all the other founding fathers, to measure all the bones on their plantations and send the information to him. And he compiled all these charts showing that the American bear was in fact 450 pounds and the European bear was 150 pounds and things like that. And he also sent speeches by a Shawnee chief to Europe to show the level of intellect and moral advancement of the native peoples. Which actually did begin to turn Buffons’ mind around, but he never gave in on the theory of extinction. Jefferson thought they were mammoths, but they were mastodons. The bone that the tooth is a molar and that's why they're called mastodons. Jefferson sent an entire badly stuffed moose with the wrong antlers on, to Buffon and had it set on his doorstep. He kept sending him stuff trying to convince him that things in the new world weren’t as bad as he thought.
Good old Ben Franklin had a much more timely and efficient way of proving this. He was at a dinner party where this discussion was going on about American Degeneracy and he asked all the Americans to stand up, because he had noticed that they were all really big guys and they all stood up and then he told all the Frenchmen to stand up and they were all really little guy and he said, “You see?” And then he stood up himself and he said, “I myself am a small man.” But the point had been made. A nice little story. That’s why we're wearing these ugly tee shirts, because we went into the gift shop and tried to find something with a big elephant on it and this is the closest we could get.
A little bit up the road from Big Bone Lick State Park is the Creation Museum, which is much better funded than the Big Bone Lick State Park, which calls itself, incidentally, the Birthplace of Extinction, which is a great title, because that's where the theory of extinction got started. The Creation Museum of course is at odds with all of this, because it argues that the word of God is there in black and white saying that the earth is 6,000 years old. The museum is really fascinating because it's an appeal—it presents itself as an appeal to rationality and open mindedness. Basically, they see it is a fast versus slow theory of history: Man says things take a long time, but The Book says it took a very short period of time, and how do we know? It's all there! We weren't there, we weren't around. It's the same idea: If we didn't see it, we can't prove it didn’t happen, and meanwhile they have a beautiful animatronic diorama of Cain killing Abel. They have the zip line above that you can ride on.
And they have a full-scale recreation of the ark, which is 12 buses long. It's complete with all the very elaborate explanations of how it would have been possible to get all the animals on the ark for 40 days. It also shows where Noah would have made the dry feed that would have fed them. And also, incredibly enough, a system of latticework under the stalls where all the poop would go and then they would show how they could clean out all the poop after the 40 days had ended.
In the diorama of the ark, you see the animals going in, two by two, including dinosaurs. This is where the museum parts ways with some creationists; there's no reason--and they are right--not to believe that the dinosaurs were there at the same time as Noah too. And they were in this pre sin state of grace. Everybody says there's a wonderful animatronic diagram of a little girl playing in a field with a stegosaurus right behind her. We didn't go there. I'm going to have to go there next time. We're not entirely sure we could hold it together for the entire time there, but I really would like to see some of this material.
Before we left the Big Bone Lick gift shop, I noticed something on the shelf that caught my eye because it seemed so anomalous, given the context. It was--we've talked a lot about founding fathers today, so this may not seem so amazing-- but it was this little red envelope poking out of here--I don't have it folded in properly--was Abraham Lincoln's face like this. It said, “Lincoln/Kennedy: Coincidence?” They had me right there. “Eighteen remarkable coincidences in the two assassinations reproduced on antique parchment that looks and feels old”. You probably have heard these, but they're just too compelling not to go through the ideas. The idea is there are a lot of very strange coincidences that link the Lincoln assassination with the Kennedy assassination, up to the point that some people would say they're not coincidence is at all, but anybody with any remote, rudimentary idea about statistics would realize they're not so amazing. Anyway, let's go through these just in case you need something to talk about.
Both Lincoln and Kennedy were concerned with civil rights. Lincoln was elected president in 1860 Kennedy in 1960. Both were slain on a Friday and in the presence of their wives. Both were shot from behind and in the head. Their successors, both named Johnson, were southern Democrats and were both in the Senate. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808 and Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839 and Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939--actually, he was born in 1938. Booth and Oswald were southerners favoring unpopular ideas. Both presidents' wives lost children to death while in the White House. Lincoln secretary, whose name was Kennedy-- not true--advised him not to go to the theater. Kennedy had a secretary whose name was Lincoln- not true—who advised him not to go to the Dallas. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and went into a warehouse. Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and ran into a theater. The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contains seven letters. The names Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each contain 13 letters. The names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each contain 15 letters. Both assassins were killed before being brought to trial. And finally, both Johnsons were opposed for reelection by men whose names start with G.
People kept compiling these lists even after this one. I remember seeing a list like that when I was a kid, and now there are even more coincidences to add. Both presidents had children who were appointed to office high office by subsequent presidents. like Robert Lincoln was a secretary of war and now Caroline Kennedy is the ambassador to Japan, which I don't know, makes her at least a part of this great chain of conspiracy . The most interesting one that they didn't touch here was one I read somewhere, that a week before Lincoln was assassinated, he was in Monroe, Maryland, and a week before he was assassinated, Kennedy was in Marilyn Monroe. I tried to do some research into this. I have no idea about what relationships Kennedy had with Marilyn Monroe. Well, he was with Marilyn Monroe and they were both in the same place a lot. The real problem with this story is not the Marylin Monroe romance part, It is that there doesn't seem to be any place called Monroe, Maryland. I looked it up. The only Monroe Maryland and I can find is a 120 year-old man living in Ruston, Louisiana, which is dubious enough on its own.
I was so intrigued by this, that I actually called the gift shop a few days later and said, “You know, I was in your gift shop a few days ago and I bought some shirts and I bought this thing about the Kennedy and Lincoln assassination coincidences. I'm just wondering what it was doing in a paleontological gift shop?” And there was a pause and then the woman says, “Well, I don't know. I think it's because it's a historical document.” I said, “Really?” She goes, “Yeah, it's a historical thing.” I kind of laughed until I looked more closely at this envelope. And sure enough, it says, “Historical Document Company.” So, it's quite true.
On the wall of the synagogue that we live in is a sign, a beautifully made sign---Don't worry, we're getting to the end now---that says “Admission to the High Holy Day services by ticket only.” This was obviously done in the mid-sixties by somebody who did these signs for a living. You see that cursive only rarely nowadays: “Congregants without tickets will be assigned seats and given a ticket which is to be paid for immediately after the holidays.” It's a problem in many synagogues where people aren't regular attendees; they only come for the big days and they have to entice them in and have to make them pay. I remember as a young boy being brought in for these all-day sessions in which you don't know why you're there and you're listening to lots of stuff doesn't make sense and you're sort of going a bit crazy.
To keep us little boys happy, we would be told stories of Jewish heroism. The main one that we would hear was about Sandy Koufax. Sandy Koufax was a baseball player from Brooklyn, the only Jewish baseball player since Hank Greenberg who was any good. In the mid-sixties when he was at the top of his game, Koufax was about as good as anybody and his team, the Dodgers, were about as good as anybody. They were always in the World Series, it seemed, and the World Series is in the fall, just about when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when you're supposed to--the holiest, most sacred day of the year--when you've got to atone for all your sins and hope that you are put in the Book of Life for the next year, happens.
Sandy as the best pitcher on his team, was supposed to play in the first game of the World Series. And the first game of the world series is on Yom Kippur. And he says, “I will not play because I am a Jew and I have to observe the rituals of my people.” And they say, “See if Sandy Kofax can do that you can at least sit still for a few hours.” It had no impact on my religiosity, but I did like the amount of acclaim that Sandy got for his sacrifice. So, I promised myself that when I was in the major leagues, on Yom Kippur I would not play in the World Series either, just so that mothers all over the country would be able to praise my sacrifice. There was a--the other Jewish hero that we were taught to admire because of his manliness was associated with the, lesser in significance, but more avidly followed, holiday of Hanukkah. This should be Judah Maccabee. Judah Maccabee was a sort of a freedom fighter slash terrorist fighting the occupying forces of the Romans and the Greeks in the period before the Common Era. They were the early zealots. The word comes from them. There's some question whether they killed as many Jews as they killed occupiers. They were quite uncompromising in their belief systems, and they were ferocious. Judah was the Hammer of God. And unlike all the other depictions of Jews he had a helmet and he had a sword and a shield with the Star of David on it and he was a bad ass.
The most famous story associated with the Maccabees was not about Judah, but his younger brother Eleazar, who in a battle with the Greeks noticed their lead war elephant. War elephants were sort of like the Panzer tanks of their time. They would carry a howdah on the top that was actually a turret with archers up there who could shoot down. Their tusks were tipped with swords. Only nine of these elephant tusk swords are left in the world. You can see one at the Met. Apparently a really well-trained battle elephant could throw a man in the air with his tusks and cut him in two on the way down like a shrimp at Benihana. Anyway, Eleazar noticed a particularly well outfitted elephant charging through the ranks and he assumed that the king of the Greeks with on top. And so, in a split second, he dashed under the elephant and stabbed it from below with his sword or spear, knowing that its death meant his death, but for the good of his people he was willing to sacrifice everything.
It turned out it wasn't the king's elephant and they lost the war anyway. And there's some speculation that the story was told to sort of justify the defeat of the Maccabees in this battle, to show that they were heavily out-gunned. And there's in fact a parallel history, a contemporary history of the battle, that doesn't have Eleazar dying because the elephant fell on him at all, but that he actually drowned in a pile of elephant excrement. I promise that's the last time elephant poop comes up in the story, but it seems fitting.
Eleazar is more of a footnote now, but there was a period of time when he was a very important heroic figure, not to the Jews, but to the early Christians. Early Christians were grappling with the problem of the Old and New Testament both being the words of God, but both deviating on certain points, such as these laws about being kosher in one book but not the other, or in the law of circumcision for the Jews. And one of the questions was, why would the word of God be depicted in one way in one book and not in another book, especially with the second book is obviously superior to the first book. The Theory of Allegory came out of this, that anything that had to do with the coming of Christ would obviously not be in the first book, but would be foretold and realized in the second book. It's a theory called typology, with this theory of types, because of the faces that were hammered into the faces of coins, I guess was where it came from. But the notion was that you would find in the story of Jonah in the whale a pre- figuration of Christ. Jonah went into the whale for three days and then came out. That was a form of death and then rebirth that prefigured Christ’s own reanimation. And Eleazar and his sacrifice for his people, was again a forerunner of Jesus’ sacrifice. There's a book called the Speculum Humanae, which is “The Mirror of Human Salvation”, I believe, that has the most amazing picture. It's sort of a conventional 13th century tapestry. There's a man in mail armor and he's underneath with a spear and there's a howdah and there are soldiers up here. And there is the elephant,= by somebody who had obviously never seen an elephant. It's a skinny thing. It looks like Dr Seuss somehow broke into the monastery and did their illustrations. It's a beautiful little skinny thing with this long vacuum cleaner nose and little doggy ears. And there, underneath, is Eleazar stabbing it to death.
A few years ago, I organized a show on Utopia. It had a lot of artists, many of them are in this room, who made pieces for the show. It was called “No Place like Utopia,” about the idea of perfect places. They weren't just artists from the art world, but people who were interested in utopia from all over the place. One of the most interesting artists was a guy named Gerald Jones, who was a kind of visionary painter. He had been taught as a young kid a lot of skills at the Pratt Institute, and then he'd gone to Vietnam gone through the meat grinder there, came back and spent the rest of his life trying to make work that exhorts us to be better than we are. It took him a while to find his way he said, but he talked to an artist who told him that he had to learn to paint from within and not from without. The man, said, “What animal do you admire?” Gerald said, “I admire the gazelle and the zebra.” The man said, “Those are your spirit animals, you must let them lead you.”
And so he began painting these pictures of them. They aren't quite vessels, not quite animals. They are these interesting shapes, things swooping through space, heavily decorated with elongated noses. Those are interesting enough, but the pieces that really struck me where his crucifixions, pictures of Christ on the cross. They're pretty conventional, pretty familiar images--Christ is nailed to the cross on a hill—till you get to the head. Christ’s head is on a long neck like this, stretching out like this. And he’s looking back under the right, left armpit like this. Very strange. And I said, “What's the story behind the way that you paint this scene all the time?” He said, “Well, in every picture of Christ on the cross you see, he's either looking up or he's looking down or somewhere to the right or the left. But if I was up there on a cross, I be trying to figure out what was behind me, sneaking up on me and that's why I paint him like that.”
Which I think is very good answer.
Thank you very much.
Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios have been producing their Endless Broken Time drawing, talking and percussion performances at Studio 10 gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2015. Ancestors, machines, and philosophy are told and illustrated by Freedman and take their irregular rhythm and form from the aberrant and improvised syncopation of Spelios’ broken time drumming.
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