Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Jewel of the Nile

How the ancient Egyptians revolutionized information exchange or at least made it easier to carry your ideas around, hard copy style.

As a species we are compelled to tell our stories. 

Pre historically we painted on cave walls by firelight.  We shared tales of big hunts and great nomadic adventures.  For tens of thousands of years, this was how we captured the tales of our daily lives.  However strikingly beautiful and permanent these paintings have been, they are a less than portable way of sharing information.  
What is it about a book?  

After all, it’s just paper and glue.  Sometimes linen and leather with a little gilt thrown in for good measure (not to be confused with the kind that mothers can throw at you).  And yet, the very thought of a book, stirs the emotions of the bibliophile dwelling in us all.  

No matter how many information rich downloadable e-devices you employ or how often you read your favorite stories online, few things on our fair planet compare to the feeling of holding a book in your hands. 

I think part of the allure is the paper.

The word paper is a derivation of ,“papyrus” which is the name of the plant used by the ancient Egyptians starting around 2400 b.c.e., give or take.  By way of a stripping, layering, pressurizing and polishing process, ancient Egyptian artisans created a lightweight substance that made it possible to record and trade information.  A pharoahnic data capture system, if you will.  The information of those days was everything from agricultural inventories, stories of great hunts and of course the more famous, Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Prior to the paper we use today with its infinite textures, colors and designs, few choices were to be had.  You did however have choices limited though they were.

As they grew and changed our ancient ancestors discovered additional ways to capture their stories.  Through the use of earth borne materials they created a new medium for telling their stories.  They discovered a most remarkable substance that could be shaped and molded into vessels, tools and tablets.  


They also developed characters that represented ideas and thoughts.  Through this collective consciousness they created a system of writing - cuneiform and preserved their ideas into clay tablets.  These delightful little tablets gave us retention and portability.   

Cuneiform tablets were all the rage starting somewhere around 3500 b.c.e. – cute yet cumbersome (average size about that of a credit card with the thickness of a deck of cards) and using 1000 to 400 unique cuneiform characters (the number of characters actually decreased over time), not that the characters added to the weight but consider the volume of volumes to capture a message.  Today's dictionary would have weighed a ton.

Enter the ancient Egyptians.  

An incredible civilization spanning five and one half millenia, the Egyptians of old brought technology and art to a new level of sophistication and practicality.  So much so, that their art and artifacts survive today.  From 5000 b.c.e., when the first evidence of people settling along the Nile until 650 A.D. when the last temple was built, the Egyptians were forefront in creating and refining techniques in all manner of life.  

The Egyptians were masters in most all they touched; architecture, agriculture, archivery, writing, textiles and paper.  Yes, the ancient Egyptians gave us the precursor to modern paper. 

Taken almost for granted today, papyrus was truly the Jewel of the Nile.  

Papyrus was the inspiration for paper although it is not technically paper, as it is made from a woody reedy stalk rather than pulp.  Not exactly origami material either, but you could roll it and scroll it.  Papyrus was lightweight, compared to cuneiform tablets and quite durable.  

Many exquisite ancient examples remain in museum collections today.  Beautiful panoramas depicting grand hunting parties, ceremonies of worship, dancers in celebration and of course the final rites of passage found in the Book of the Dead.  

Over time, the Egyptian culture progressed in its use of papyrus and in so doing created an entire labor force, the scribe.  The scribe was an honored and royal position, being a standard of the ancient Egyptian courts accompanied with palette, ink, water and reeds with which to make their marks.  They were associated with the ibis headed god Thoth (still trying to figure out that connection- how does a bird hold a writing implement?  Maybe they wrote with their curvy beaks).

Revered for their ability to write down the news of the day, scribes were most often male, spent years in training and usually came from within the same family.  Very few scribes came from families of other professions.  Oddly enough there are accounts of women being scribes however, they were also doctors and were taught to read and write (which is basically what a scribe did) so they could read medical texts.

What the Egyptians created allowed for the portability of an idea.  And while the paper we know today is millennia removed from papyrus, it was nevertheless the inspiration.  It was truly a gem carved from the reeds that grew along the banks of the Nile, itself a sacred part of this ancient culture.

Following papyrus, the use of parchment first began around the 5th century b.c.e. and was made from lime treated animal skins.   Somewhat Gein-esque (not linking you to that but you can look him up if you have a strong stomach for macabre murderers ((oxymoronic, I know)).  But parchment had its shortcomings – incredibly sensitive to humidity which will happen with dead animal skin.  However it was a fair substitute during a time when papyrus was in short supply due to some type of ancient embargo.

Around 100 A.D. the Chinese of the Han dynasty perfected the early process that is the paper we’ve come to know and love. More on that later. 

So the next time you hold a lovely little package of leaves and boards, think back to the breezy balmy banks of the Nile river and the ancient people whose ingenuity inspired those lovely pages.

Until next time...

                                      ...keep tripping on books!!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Norman Attacks - a cautionary tale

I find it quite intriguing when a story is claimed to have been based on "true events".  I wonder what events in the story are actually true. 

Years ago I watched and became a great fan of the movie Fargo.  This twisted tale of deception is set against the backdrop of the desolate winter wasteland on the North Dakota and Minnesota prairie lands was billed as having been "based on a true story".  Somehow that makes a story more intriguing, don't you think - like something you have to watch as much as you want to look away from it.

Many years later I watched an interview with the Cohen brothers.  Much to my shock, horror and surprise they revealed that the story was a total work of fiction.  WHAT!!!!  They'd used the tagline "based on a true story" to get butts in the seats. Nice strategy :s)

That being the case, I now I approach based on a "true story" or "actual events" with the greatest amount of sarcasm usually followed by some snarky comment.  Either way, it's entertainment.

In 1998 I began working on a series of children's books about the adventures of a little girl and her dog.  The curly headed bunny slipper wearing heroine and her vertically challenged canine companion have come to be known as Almarinda and Andy.  They embark on many wild adventures.  One of them being the story of a rather rambunctious rooster and his efforts to protect the chicken yard.  This tale is told in the upcoming book, Norman Attacks.

In the case of Norman Attacks, the outrageous and somewhat comical "true" events leading up to the creation of this story did in fact take place.

First, a little background.  I live in a rural community in southeastern Colorado.  Each day when I step outside I am greeted by the absolutely breathtaking beauty of the majestic Rocky Mountains, the rustling of the aspen leaves, a crisp blue sky and the crow of our rooster.
It is idyllic, mostly.  Some of the Shangri-La feeling is, at times, slightly shattered by the unending escapades of our rooster, Norman. 

While he is quite adept at keeping our hens safe, heralding in the morning hour (24/7) and strutting his stuff like a runway model.  Norman is also quite rambunctious. 

Webster's defines rambunctious thus: unruly, noisy, very active, and hard to control, usually as a result of excitement or youthful energy.  A perfect description of our Norman.

He wasn't always this way, chasing everything and everyone in sight. He grew into it over time.

You see, Norman came to us as most chickens do, in a box with dozens of other three-day old baby chicks.  Small and active little balls of yellow fluff on two legs, Norman was just a little chicken.

He did as the others did, ate voraciously, chirped incessantly and ran for the warmth of the huddle.  We never paid him any mind, really.  He grew as the others did, ran through the yard and perched in the juniper tree.

Then one day, it happened.  The unmistakeable cock-a-doodle-doo which signaled that the rooster had arrived.

And arrive he did. Once Norman found his voice, he also found his destiny.  He was no longer just another hen in the yard, he was the KING.

This reality came easily to him. Norman liked being the king.  He became overseer of the hens, was the first to examine the food and eventually became the head cheerleader for his little team of egg layers.

It all seemed like country living perfection.  

But wait...

It was never our intent to have a rooster!  We thought, chickens. Cool! Fresh eggs.

It was all very Currier and Ives, Americana, Rockwellian kind of stuff.  When you add the reality of a rooster to the mix, the entire story changes and this, dear readers is where our story begins.

Norman grew quickly. He foraged the yard, consumed bugs, grasses and feed.  He became a fine example of his breed.  At maturity, Norman stood from claw to comb, a full 18 inches and he was a sturdy fellow.

Strong and heavy, he would have been a welcomed addition to any dinner table.  Norman also grew into a handsome bird.  Being a well-fed and freely ranged Rhode Island Red, Norman sported iridescent plumage to rival a peacock, a 4-H kids dream.  He became a remarkable character.  Idyllic, idolic, or, not so much.

You see, Norman took his position in life very seriously.  He guarded the hens, to the fight.  It was the fight part that took some getting used to.

When you step outside each morning to take in the beauty of your mountain home, the last thing you expect is to be charged by a psychotic rooster.

But, it happens. And you shriek, run inside the house and question your sanity at the notion that for one second you have the slightest clue as to what it takes to raise livestock.

The classic "what was I thinking" thought thunders through your mind as you stare out the window gazing in horror at a seven pound creature and wonder if you will ever be able to enjoy your yard again.

We did go outside again, each day, but is was with much trepidation.

Let me add another detail to the story.  Norman was not the only adolescent in our household.  Our three children were 9, 11 and 13 years of age.  They reveled in the outdoor activities that one experiences living in the Colorado mountains. They enjoyed playing in the yard, climbing the trees and relaxing with our dog, Andy.

Each morning, bright and early, the children would head out the kitchen door, walk down the sidewalk and through the front gate to catch the bus for school.  A classic image in the mind of the average American.

If only that would have been the scenario for us.  For you see, the image and indelible memory in the neural banks of our children was something else.  Something quite Hitchcockian.

Norman had established his territory. And like any great explorer, who has stepped onto a vast and seemingly endless new land to claim it as his own, Norman had declared our entire yard as HIS eminent domain.

He exercised his rule over his land as he charged anyone who entered or attempted to leave what had been commonly known as "our yard". The scenario went something like this; kiss mom & dad and wish them a nice day, grab your coat & backpack, step out the kitchen door and run screaming down the sidewalk until you reach the front gate and the safety of the driveway outside the fence.

Did I mention the screaming?  That was a crucial part of what had now become our morning ritual.  This went on for many days, weeks even.

Variations to the run and scream ritual were added.  One being, the wild throwing of empty cardboard boxes over your shoulder as you ran to the gate.  Quite comical in a twisted sort of way.

Our otherwise Rockwellian life was turning into a Hitchcokian chamber of horrors.

It was during one of these morning rituals that Norman actually got his name. Our youngest child seemed to be the most intimidated by Norman's attacks.

On one particular morning she headed out, alone, unescorted by her older siblings and unarmed with cardboard boxes to throw and otherwise divert the beast. 

As she began her trek to the front gate, Norman approached at a runners gait.  She reacted, ran and screamed hysterically.

It was the screaming that caught everyone's attention.  For it could be likened to the scream of Lila Crane as she fights off her attacker, eventually falling to her death in the 1960's horror film, Psycho. 

Those of us who had remained in the house that morning heard only the scream, immediately made the movie reference and Norman was thusly named.

Based on these "true events" and because of our fondness for the truly remarkable creature that Norman had become, the story Norman Attacks was born.

As with any arch rival, there is always an equalizing counterpart and Norman definitely found his.  But to tell you that would be a spoiler.

So, I encourage you to read Norman Attacks  when it arrives later this year.

Until next time...