Reviews | Nazca Lines

Condor

In the Nazca desert in southern Peru there are hundreds of lines drawn in the ground. These lines were made by removing the top layer of reddish-brown iron oxide-coated pebbles to reveal the yellow-grey subsoil beneath. They are not particularly deep, typically 15 to 30 cm, and most are around a foot wide. They have existed for over two thousand years. 

I don’t know when, as a kid, I discovered comic strips, but I wish I did. I wish I could watch myself reading one for the first time, see my face as my eyes passed across the combination of words and images. I think I would have been very stoic, shown more consideration than cheer. I imagine it as a discovery. One where I needed answers, with the only way to find them to dig deeper into this new-to-me medium. Dig, I did.

In 1553 Pedro Cieza de León, a Spanish conquistador and chronicler of Peru, released the first published mention of the Nazca Lines in a book where he mistook them for trail markers. In 1586 another Spaniard chronicler by the name of Luis Monzón wrote of the lines, detailing them as the remains of roads. Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe was the first to systematically study the lines in 1926, but it wouldn’t be until the 1930s and 1940s, with the advent of flight, that the lines would finally be revealed for what they were: very large geoglyphs. Up close they are simply furrows in the ground, but when viewed from a distance they reveal themselves to be designs up to a kilometer or more across. In other words, drawings. These drawings vary in complexity. Hundreds are simply lines or geometric shapes, but many others are animals, or plants, or people. It’s often thought that the lines can only be seen from the air. However, a 2007 study that looked at 1,500 drawings in the Palpa region found that each and every geoglyph can be spotted from the ground. We just weren’t looking at them the right way.

The first comic strips I remember reading were Peanuts by Charles M. Shultz. This was almost certainly due to my Dad, who had a large hardcover book on the history of the comic and their author. This book also included the collected works of the comic from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I never read the long pages of text that detailed Shultz and his work, instead I skipped ahead to those black and white pages of rectangular boxes filled with my favourite characters. It wasn’t long until I began to collect books of my own, sourced mostly from second hand book stores and market stalls. Tattered paperbacks that contained page after page of comic strips. I found many more Peanuts books, but was happy to take whatever I could get; Garfield, Footrot Flats, Hagar the Horrible, Mother Goose and Grimm, The Wizard of Id, B.C., Swamp, and plenty others. I suspect the original draw was probably the jokes, but looking back I realise a lot of the humour would have gone right over my prepubescent head. Add that to that the fact that I would read them all over and over again, to the point that any humour I could get from them would have been lost to repetition. Instead, I suspect it was just part of my quest to understand them.

Erich von Däniken, a swiss author, claimed that the Nazca Lines couldn’t have been made by the Nazca people, deeming them too advanced for the time and tools available. His theory? “Ancient Astronauts”. Or to use the word he was so obviously trying to avoid, aliens. He made this claim despite other scholars theorising that the Nazca people could have used simple tools and surveying equipment to construct the lines, and that archaeological surveys had even found wooden stakes in the ground at the end of some lines. Side fact: One of these stakes was even responsible for showing us the age of the Nazca Lines, through the magic of carbon dating. Not willing to let such a claim stand, prominent skeptic Joe Nickell proved that a small team of people could recreate even the largest figures within days, without any aerial assistance, using tools and technology available to the Nazca people. Scientific American called his work “remarkable in its exactness”. 

Eventually, reading the comics wasn’t enough; I had to recreate them for myself. I would choose a figure, let’s say Snoopy, take the small image I could see on the page and try to redraw it larger. Not trace it, mind you, that was very important. I would draw it for myself. Despite the seemingly simplistic nature of the comics, it could take me a long time to redraw one. This was because the dimensions of a character had to be just so or they wouldn’t look right. Draw Snoopy’s nose to thin and it wasn’t Snoopy anymore; it was Smoopy, an off-brand version that straight away you would know wasn’t quite right. I would stare at the small original image, let it fill my vision, try to fix within my mind the exact curve of a single line, and then slowly, oh so slowly, I would attempt to redraw it exactly. I would look at my line compared to the original, realise it wasn’t perfect, erase and try again. Eventually, I would get it right, and when I pulled my vision out from that single line, there it was, the character living on a fresh page, drawn by my hand.

The purpose and significance of the Nazca Lines has never been exactly proven one way or another. There are plenty of theories, including: A link to early irrigation; drawn to please the deities in the sky; a type of astronomy with the lines pointing to places on the distant horizon where the sun and other celestial bodies rose or set; that they were representatives of the constellations themselves, or perhaps counter-constellations, the dark patches in between the stars. Perhaps it was all of these reasons, or none of them. 

Peanuts told of a location and period that had little to do with me. A slice of Americana that I never knew nor had any reference for as a boy. I didn’t play baseball, had never punted a football let alone had someone pull it away from me when I tried, didn’t understand Lucy’s psychiatry business, or Schroeder’s love for Beethoven, or Snoopy’s alter-egos Joe Cool and the Flying Ace. Yet I loved the comics all the same. Understanding, it turned out, wasn’t necessary. I saw enough in those black lines that was familiar, that I could relate to. The why wasn’t important. What was important was that I had discovered them in the first place, and that, even though I didn’t do so until many years after they’d first been drawn, something about them still resonated with me.

One of the most amazing things to me about the Nazca Lines isn’t how they were drawn, or even why, it’s how they’ve managed to last so long. Shallow furrows in the ground, and they’ve survived nearly intact for over two thousand years. That’s phenomenal. Think of all the entities that haven’t survived that long. All the empires that have risen and fallen in that time. Entire species of animals lost, not to mention the people who drew the lines in the first place. Think of all that has been discovered or invented or built while those lines in the ground remained etched into the earth, forgotten. The reason? Location. Because of the desert’s particular blend of dry isolation, windlessness, and stable climate, the lines have mostly been naturally preserved. Which brings me to my final question. Did the drawers of the lines know this? Did they expect that centuries upon centuries later groups of people living in a world they wouldn’t recognise would climb into a machine they surely couldn’t even fathom to fly over the land and marvel at their drawings? It seems unlikely. 

In recent times the Nazca Lines have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and labelled as one of the eight wonders of the world, drawing huge numbers of tourists every year. 

The precise meaning of the geoglyphs remains unknown. The people who made them are long gone and with them their reasons. 

Only the lines remain.

Talk soon,

Damian

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Reviews | Runner’s Knee

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I was running. I was on the Moonee Ponds Creek trail. It travels, unsurprisingly, alongside the Moonee Ponds creek, and runs from the Docklands through the northern suburbs up towards Melbourne International Airport. It also connects to its sister trails; The Broadmeadows Valley Trail, The Western Ring Road Trail, and The Capital City Trail. My intention was to run twenty kilometers. A not undifficult distance, but one I had mandated myself. I had done so for good reason, July 28th was coming. I started strong. I had the day off, a benefit of working part time, and so had prepared well. I had had a sensible breakfast, waited the appropriate time for digestion to take place, and the days weather was cool but fair. Conditions were good. 

The first kilometer I was working out the kinks, letting stiffness leave my body. The second kilometer felt good. Very good. My body temperature was low, my breathing was easy, and I was flying over the cement with the easy grace of a gazelle. Then came the twinge. The niggle. The lone forerunner sprinting to the castle to let them know trouble was just over the horizon. I did what anyone with the twin drivers of motivation and denial would do. I kept running.

Throughout the third and fourth kilometers I evaluated and reevaluated the state of my knee. The niggle had grown into something more, discomfort, but only for brief periods. Mostly, when I was going up or down an incline. On those inclines I would worry, questioning if I should stop while not really wanting to, wondering if I was doing more harm than good. Then the flats would come, the niggle would subside, and I would convince myself that everything was fine, it was just my tendons playing funny buggers; a thing they’d never done before. 

My watch vibrated, letting me know the fourth kilometer was complete, whilst simultaneously informing how long it took me to run it. It was a good time. I couldn’t stop now. Definitely not. I rounded a bend in the track and headed up a slight hill. The niggle that had become discomfort now became pain. July 28th, I told myself, and pushed through the pain. I pushed through until I got to a flat, where now the discomfort continued. That was worrying. Flats were my reprieve. They were were my optimistic delusion lived. That discomfort chased my optimism away. 

My watch vibrated again, telling me I had reached the five kilometer mark. Fifteen more to go. Fifteen more kilometers and who knew what state my knee would be in by then. But, July 28th, I told myself. Won’t be possible if you damage your knee beyond recovery now, a second voice said. That second voice sounded somewhat like my wife, who, when it comes to my limits, is more realistic and knowledgeable than me. It’s a good voice to have in my head beside my own. I let my momentum stop along with my watch. On the five kilometer walk home my knee continued to be uncomfortable and sore. It would prove to remain this way for many days to come. 

Runner’s knee is a generic term used to describe a number of overuse injuries that result in pain around the kneecap, also known as the patella. The most common form of runner’s knee is called Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome or PFPS. It’s what I have/had and involves pain around the fat pad beneath the patella, the synovial tissue lining the knee joint, and the surrounding tendons. In other words, pain in front of, around, and beneath the kneecap. You can see why it’s the most common.

As suggested earlier, runner’s knee generally comes from overuse. In my case this is one hundred percent the reason. Just a few days before it’s onset, my wife — the one who’s voice exists not only inside my head but also outside it — had wisely suggested I cool it a bit on the running. I had been going hard. Monday’s involved a ten to fourteen kilometer run. On Wednesdays it was a “gentler” eight kilometers, before the big one on Friday, which would range anywhere between fourteen to twenty kilometers. I was also riding to work throughout that week, as well as going for walks during the day. I had been completing this routine for around a month, building up that longer Friday run until now, when I was set to complete the twenty. I’ve since learned my wife’s advice had already come too late, as runner’s knee presents around two weeks after the initial overuse.

The kneecap is different to a lot of the rest of your body, in that it floats within the knee. When not floating it rests within its home, called the trochlear groove. Then it’s able to slide up and down within the knee as you sit and stand and flex and bend. What helps with all this sliding and floating is articular cartilage, which is a slippery substance. There are also fluids and fat pads that help with the lubricating and cushioning. It’s a fairly robust system — unless you overdo it. Then comes inflammation, soreness, and a certain amount of hobbling when faced with stairs. 

There a number of ways to treat runner’s knee. Icing it is an excellent first step, and second, and third, and fourth, and fifth. This is because it’s a good idea to ice the knee up to five times a day, for around fifteen minutes at a time. Compression and elevation also helps, as does taping and bracing the knee. Then there’s the one major treatment that is all but mandatory when faced with runner’s knee. Rest. On one website that I went on in researching this affliction, it asked the question, “Can I run with runner’s knee?” The answer was, “In short, no.” 

I kept running.

Well, sort of. I had a week and a half off, and then I was back to running through the pain. That week and a half did do some good, as, even with me still running, the pain was less than it had been, and the recovery the days after a run seemed quicker. I did an eight kilometer run, then a ten a week later, then tried again for the twenty a few more days after that. This was not a good idea but July 28th was coming and I knew without the mental knowledge of doing that twenty I wouldn’t survive. I completed the twenty without too much trouble. It hurt at times, yes, but less so than on that first day. Given everything, it was pretty good. The next morning was a different story. The inflammation was well and truly back, not that it had ever truly left, and the stairs at work proved to be a mighty milestone I was proud to overcome. I iced it and elevated it and the day after that it felt pretty good again.

I did one more six kilometer run before July 28th, and this pattern repeated itself.

July 28th came. The day of Run Melbourne, a half marathon which weaves through the heart of Melbourne CBD, and that I had signed up for nearly six months prior. Twenty one point one kilometers of track that I completed with a persistent discomfort in my knee and began to pay for just over two hours after crossing the finish line. Beyond that the run itself was, surprisingly, rather pleasant.

I don’t usually give ratings when I do reviews but if I did I wouldn’t rate runners knee all that highly; but then I would also have to admit that its onset and continued existence was entirely due to the choices I made. 

Choices tell us a lot about the people making them. They tell us about that person’s motivations and their desires. They tell us about that person’s faults and fears. They can, when looked at from a point of distance, tell you things about yourself you might not have known or recognised previously. 

Most treatment plans for runners knees suggest four to six weeks of non-aggravating activities, coupled with strength training exercises, and namely, not to ignore the pain. July 28th was five days ago, so now that’s what I’m choosing to do. 

I went for a walk today on the Moonee Ponds Creek Trail. I had a sensible breakfast, waited the appropriate time for digestion to take place; the weather was cool but fair. 

Conditions were good. 

Talk soon,

Damian

Reviews | ‘Hang In There, Baby’ Poster

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Many of us are familiar with a poster depicting a cat hanging from some kind of branch with the words ‘Hang In There, Baby,’ or something to that effect, printed beside it. It’s perhaps the first motivational poster created, meant to inspire us to hold on to our resolve and battle through whatever challenges we’re facing. To Hang in There a bit longer, insinuating a reprieve is coming if we can just hold strong. I can’t say that looking at that startled cat hanging from a branch has ever stirred much inspiration inside of me, although that may be because in my mind the cat looks like its about to fall. Or maybe it’s the use of the word baby. However, many others have been inspired by said poster, enough that it’s become a mainstay in our collective consciousness, the image still being shared and sold in multiple forms to this very day, and it could be argued that it’s the first of the modern kind of meme. It truly has hung in there…baby.

The original image was black and white, featured a siamese kitten hanging from a bamboo pole, and was taken by a man named Victor Baldwin in 1963. It wouldn’t be until eight years later that the poster was made, but in that time the image was already gaining in popularity. Baldwin lived in Beverly Hills in California where he owned a portrait studio and photographed famous clientele such as Sammy Davis Jr, Ronald Reagan, and Frank Sinatra. But he was also a lover of animals, so he didn’t limit himself to taking photos of just our species. He also worked as animal portraiture and photo editor for Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy magazines, which I think deserve their own reviews one day as not only were they spectacularly titled magazines but also have their own rich history.

In 1970, Baldwin and his then wife, Jeanne Baldwin, produced a book called The Outcast Kitten. It featured photos Baldwin had taken of their numerous cats, and told the story of Wiki, a lost kitten who gets adopted by a mother cat who already has two kittens of her own. Wiki, aiming to impress and gain the approval of his two adopted siblings, performs a number of acrobatic tricks, including one where he hangs from a bamboo pole. Wiki, whose real name was Sassy, was not only featured in the book in that now famous pose, but also on the back cover. The image was then used again as publicity to increase subscriptions to Cat Fancy. Soon fans of the book started writing to Baldwin, requesting copies of the photograph. Baldwin saw the demand as the opportunity it was and so produced a poster of the image, deciding to add a caption which comprised four words and one comma: ‘Hang In There, Baby’. After composer Meredith Wilson bought the first copy, orders started coming in, so many in fact that soon Baldwin had to hire staff to keep up with them. By 1973 Baldwin had sold more than 350,000 copies.

Like I said earlier, the poster does little to inspire me personally, but I can’t deny the effect it had in its time. Baldwin later spoke of receiving letters from people thanking him, saying it helped them through accidents, and surgeries, and a number of other difficult events where they needed a reminder to Hang in There. The popularity of the poster is also undeniable. Imitators quickly spawned out of this popularity; some bootleg copies of the original, others produced by major greeting card and poster publishers. As a “matter of integrity” Baldwin, who has held the copyright to the original image since 1970, sued each infringement he could find, winning every case. He’s estimated that over ten million unauthorized versions and direct copies of the poster have been made. Over ten million cats, hanging from ten million poles, or branches, or bits of rope, all of them telling us to hang in there.

 

The poster has also been featured in some way in an incredible multitude of television shows and movies, including; The Simpsons, Finding Dory, That 70’s Show, Becker, The Hangover Part III, Mad Men, Fear the Walking Dead, Family Guy, Mr Robot, and multiple others. In The Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles, the human resistance even uses the phrase ‘Hang in there, Baby’ as their motto, with one of the original posters making an appearance on the show, as well as another that features a lion gnawing on a terminator skull with the phrase inscribed beside it. At this very moment a copy of the poster hangs in an outer office of Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau; a vintage copy that previously belonged to his father. Copies were also presented to Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, signed by fellow members of congress as a show of support during their scandals. Although, as history has shown, it was perhaps the wrong advice to give on those particular occasions.

Which brings me to my final point. At some point that cat stopped hanging in there. In fact, after a number of people wrote in to Baldwin, concerned the poster constituted animal cruelty, Baldwin assured them that Sassy had in fact held onto the pole only briefly while playing, before falling gently to the ground. And therein lies the one bit of inspiration I draw from that poster: Don’t be afraid to fall. 

It may run counter to the posters original advice but to me it’s one that has more resonance. That’s because I’m someone who likes to do things right. More than right. Perfect. And so sometimes I hold onto a thing, afraid to let go. Afraid to move lest I fall into that bottomless pit of failure. Except failure isn’t a bottomless pit. I’m not sure it’s even a pit at all. I think it’s a step, one that exists as part of a staircase. A staircase that leads to something greater. Achievement.  

Without the occasional failure you can’t have learning, or improving, or the eventual mastering of a thing. Hang in there may be good advice for those going into surgery or recovering from heartache, but it’s not apt for those resisting movement due to a fear of failure. And you can be afraid to fall, you can be terrified, that’s okay, just don’t let it stop you from doing the thing. Because doing the thing, whatever it may be, is always better than never having tried.

It seems to me that if Sassy had held on for fear of falling, he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. He would have hung in place, moving neither up nor down. Static and afraid. Never knowing just how close he was to the ground.

Maybe it’s time to let go…baby.

Talk soon

Damian

Reviews | Metaphors

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A metaphor, most simply, is the device of using one thing to describe another. Which on the surface is simple enough, but it becomes infinitely more complex as you consider the infinite amount of things that exist and the infinite comparisons that can therefore be made. It’s having all the stars in the sky and the ability to draw a line between any two of them…for example. And what’s so amazing is that, with a splash of creativity, you really can draw a line between just about any two things. A storm can be an orchestra, a cup of tea the brown of a fly’s eye. In fact, I would argue the further apart two things are the better the metaphor they create. It becomes more engaging, more absurd yet understandable, and in that understanding, more wondrous. Whereas two things that are already similar barely deserve the title of metaphor. Comparing a cup of tea to a cup of coffee is a weak line to draw, and worse it doesn’t define or describe the object in a way that heightens it above just saying I was drinking a cup of tea.

My own history with metaphors is a short and simple thing. Prior to getting into writing I wasn’t too bothered with what constituted a metaphor or how it was defined. Then after I began writing I wasn’t much better, with some lingering confusion between a metaphor and a simile that I was too embarrassed to admit. The difference isn’t major, but it’s there, like an eye floater passing across your vision and impossible to ignore. And therein lies the difference, that example just there. I used the word like; a clear sign of a simile. A simile suggests a comparison, using the words like or as to buffer it and create some difference. A metaphor on the other hand isn’t so polite. It grabs the two disparate objects and forces them together while yelling These two things are the same! at least abstractly, and primarily at the point of comparison. E.g. The difference between metaphors and similes was an eye floater squatting in the corner of their vision; small but impossible to ignore.

Metaphors also contain within its category many other specialised types you may be familiar with; from allegories to hyperbole, parables to puns. It can take the form of an entire story, or a bad one liner from your dad that makes your whole family groan. Again, this rather simplistic idea that comes across as small with easy to understand boundaries is instead a piece of rubber, able to morph and stretch to fit multiple moulds. Metaphors are anything but simple.

Given this complexity and prevalence in our language and literature, a good question to ask would be why do we use metaphors? To answer that let’s first ask why we make comparisons? Namely, as a survival tool. Comparisons, at their core, are a form of pattern recognition. If you can compare two objects and find a similarity, however spurious, then you’re on your way to finding a pattern; and our human brains love a good pattern. Because recognising patterns have regularly kept us alive. This can happen in a positive way–recognising the plant/s that has the tasty root vegetables hidden underneath–or a negative way–recognising the plant/s that poisoned our brother last winter. Extrapolating from there to describe a person as that toxic vegetable in order to warn others to stay away from them uses that pattern recognition as an easy way to get the message across without having to detail all the ways a person is toxic. And what’s really interesting about metaphors is that the brain can respond to them literally, while consciously understanding them as the descriptor they are. A team of researchers from Emory University reported that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex–responsible for perceiving texture through touch–became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. Even common phrases that are used so regularly that the metaphor goes all but unheard, such as “I had a rough day”, causes this effect.

Of course, it’s not for survival that metaphors are used in today’s writing or speech. It’s for something larger and more speculative.

My theory? It helps reign in the infinite.

The universe and all it contains is so impossibly big, so impossibly complex; but making metaphors and drawing lines between the infinite helps make it all seem connected. Simpler. Smaller and easier to understand. It is more complex than the ram in our heads is able to process, so, lacking an upgrade, we need a way to organise and minimise all that data. Parcel it up, squish it together, so that it becomes digestible and file-able; even if only from a distance.

Metaphors are one of the ways we do this. Stories are another. They exist primarily as a search for understanding. And while we are unlikely to ever fully reign in the infinite, we can look at a cup of tea and notice it is the same brown as a fly’s eye, or hear a thunderstorm and recognise it has the same cadence as an orchestra.

We can draw a line between two stars and make the infinite that little bit smaller.

Talk soon

Damian