Mexico! Part I

Reading this week:

  • Dr. No by Percival Everett

Earlier this month my and my absolutely unparalleled, intelligent, funny, charming, stunning, super amazing wife!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (we weren’t married at the time, I feel obligated to clarify, but we are now, and it is a strange new world; in falling into a relationship the transitions are gradual, the obligations fluid and sometimes ill-defined, but now due to a little bit of paperwork that as a proud government bureaucrat I find maximally romantic despite the fact that I didn’t even need to have anything to do with it because we self-officiated but the only self that needed to do any of the paperwork was my Schrödinger’s superposition of fiancée/wife I now suddenly find myself with a mother-in-law and father-in-law and sister-in-law and bolstered argument for sharing a dental plan which, I dunno, interesting little construct we have put together for ourselves as a society but it’s great I have to say) and I went to Mexico, specifically Mexico City but also Cuernavaca, which is a bit outside Mexico City. We went because our friend, who is Mexican, and works in Mexico City, was getting married, but that was only one day of a week-long adventure we put together for ourselves. This was my first international travel since Guatemala, and for my super amazing wife (!!!!!! again) it was her first fix for her passport stamp craving since even before grad school, which she attended nearly directly off the plane from a two-year stint in China as a Peace Corps volunteer. So we were excited to go!

Since in the grand tradition of this blog I want to pad this out a bit, and also start in on our adventures at the Museo Nacional de Antropología with a nice clean post, I’ll bore you with the nitty-gritty of how we got to Mexico City. First off we flew, because it was much too far to walk. Because we were both cheap and also didn’t want to land in Mexico City in the middle of the night, we flew out in the middle of the night, hopping on the metro at 11pm on a Friday. The metro took us to Dulles Airport, a journey which in a previous phase of my life represented what was then perhaps the worst day I ever had, but with the miracle of the Silver Line was rendered quiet, easy, and blissful. I am a Silver Line Extension Stan. Touring the only open airport store, I got us some snacks and we settled in for a 3:30am departure to San Salvador. San Salvador is notably not Mexico City nor even in Mexico, but flying through there did allow us to have breakfast at the tiny local traditional Salvadorian chain restaurant Papa John’s before finally landing in Mexico City at a reasonable and lovely 10am. We didn’t actually get that passport stamp we were craving, having passed through the automated immigration robot thingy, but I suppose that is progress for you.

For our time in Mexico City we stayed in a small but relentlessly chic (in a good way! it was gorgeous) apartment near the Parque México. Our Mexican friend and his now-wife described the neighborhood as hip, and yeah I think they were right. Usually when I fantasize about living outside the country it is somewhere in Africa, and for my super amazing wife it is in Asia, but after dropping off our bags and heading out to find some lunch we were quickly contemplating life in Mexico City. The neighborhood is leafy and green and everyone we interacted with was very very nice. The first of these people was the wonderful lady at the café we went to get that lunch I mentioned. My super amazing wife used to speak conversational Spanish, and in grad school for two years teachers were unfairly burdened with trying to teach me the same (Spanish being at least the third language I have been taught but have not learned). So we gamely tried to order some sandwiches and got halfway through it before the server assured us that English would be okay. The sandwich was delicious, and represented the first of at least three experiences rendered sublime by acute need, the later two being a nap and a shower, but those didn’t come until later in the afternoon. We also later got some tea at a lovely little tea shop by the park, a good omen for a good trip.

Once evening came upon us, we head out to try to cap our first half day in Mexico with tacos, only to fail at that endeavor and wind up at the Chinese food place across the street. It was however a Mexicali Chinese place, which both represented a unique and rich cultural milieu we had been heretofore been regretfully unaware, and in retrospect represented a neat connection to my super amazing wife’s most recent international travel. Also the food was really good. So fortified we head back to the apartment to settle in for the night and collapse asleep so we would be fully prepared to take in the many, many wonderous sites we were destined to behold.

U.S. Capitol

The tiny little people at the very center of the fresco at the top are 17 feet tall.

Reading this week:

  • To the Central African Lakes and Back, Vol II by Joseph Thomson
  • African Europeans by Olivette Otele

Yesterday, both as I am writing this and potentially as you are reading it, my super amazing fiancée had managed to get us tickets to go on a tour of the U.S. Capitol and so we went! She got the tickets three months in advance but it seems like if you’re lucky enough you could just walk in as well. She also learned on a recent training she did that it turns out you can just wander into the office buildings and harass Congresspeople(‘s poor underpaid staff) at will (democracy!), and even though I am under the impression you see less artwork that way that might suit your particular needs better than a guided tour.

Anyways let’s get some of the technical aspects out of the way. First off as a preface I had an excellent time. We have been trying to be diligent about being good DC tourists and seeing all the historical stuff in the area and the U.S. Capitol building is certainly historical and entirely stuff. This leaves us with only the Supreme Court to visit, but as we all know the Supreme Court sucks. The tour begins with an extremely uncritical video of the general history of the Capitol building and the U.S. Congress. Then you head out and go on the guided tour. Our tour guide was very chill and immensely knowledgeable. His former job was as a schoolteacher and he later mentioned some tour guides have their Ph.D., which, you know, interesting comments on the U.S. school system there. The tour is about 45 minutes long but not very extensive. You start in the crypt, which is a little lame because unlike other places there are no actual dead people there (that we know of). Then you head up to the rotunda, admire the extremely tall ceiling (see top photo) and the paintings, and then it is over to the National Statuary Hall. The tour ends after that, though you can visit the small museum they have before exiting via the gift shop, where you can satisfy all your candle snuffing needs.

Hall of Cancleables

There are two major points I want to make about the Capitol tour, the first more general and the second more specific. As we continue to view all these sites important to the U.S. historic canon, it is increasingly a little bit weird to me the specific sorts of things and time periods we elevate. And more specifically how we like to keep them absolutely stuck in these particular moments in time. Both the White House and the Capitol were built in the 18th century, and as far as the public tour goes at least both are mostly monuments to themselves. The Statuary Hall used to be the House of Representatives, and the tour guide informed us that in a structurally questionable decision the original and literal House floor is preserved under the current marble. Into that marble are plaques where former Presidents sat when they were Representatives. Like I said the intro video to the tour is as uncritical as you can be, using scenes of Congresspeople chatting amongst themselves to portray an unbroken line of thoughtful, critical debate of laws on their theoretical merits. But what do you get when you crystallize and elevate all this as the core memory of American society, to the near exclusion of the next two centuries of development? The peaceful, independent, agrarian society that Jefferson dreamed of but which never existed becomes the norm and everything else – the lived America of the vast majority of its citizens – is a deviation that can and should be corrected. It gives a concept like Originalism moral weight as though divining the intentions of white enslavers for a society they could not have conceived is a good thing to do. Every time I see these set pieces I think we need new monuments so we can let the old ones whither.

What a loser.

Which brings me to my second point about the Capitol tour. When I say we need to let the old monuments whither, hoo boy do I have some very specific ones in mind. I was peripherally aware there have been ongoing discussions about what statues are in the Capitol, but man actually looking at some of these things is shocking. There I was, having a pleasant time seeing some cool folks like Norm Borlaug when suddenly I find myself face to face with fucking Jefferson Davis. He is there courtesy of Mississippi. And man. Just what a fucking loser move. He is there of course because of the successful effort in the first part of the 20th century to repaint the Confederacy as a noble lost cause that somehow wasn’t about slavery. So Mississippi sends a statue of Jefferson Davis to the Capitol. Jefferson Davis, you will recall, was a lame-ass loser that became President of the Confederacy because everyone was suspicious of everyone else and they all agreed Davis was too unambitious to pose anything resembling a threat. And then, you will also recall, the rebellious, un-American, entirely racist Confederacy lost their war which killed more Americans than any other conflict in history. And so when the Capitol asks the states to send up some statues to decorate the Capitol, the absolute best person Mississippi could put forward from their long history is this loser to the nth degree Jefferson fucking Davis? What does that say about Mississippi? Clearly Mississippi could do better than this (their other guy was a Confederate loser as well). One rule is that the person has to be dead, but they have Harry Cole! Oh or you know Elvis! Mississippi could have a cool-ass statue of Elvis strutting his stuff in the Capitol (or any number of Black musicians!) and yet they send not one but two pompous-ass racists. There is an angle here where it is oppressive and offensive to Black people, but for one last time I want to emphasize that it is just such a lame, sad, loser move, Mississippi. But not to just pick on them, an arguably even lamer move is sending the Vice-President of the Confederacy (Georgia), John “Slavery is a Positive Good” Calhoun (South Carolina), more random Confederate losers (South Carolina again, North Carolina, Alabama), or even Ronald Reagan (California). We gotta do better as a country in deciding who we look up to. In the meantime though, the Capitol is still probably worth the trip. It is a very impressive building.


Reading this week:

  • To the Central African Lakes and Back, Vol I by Joseph Thomson

I need an easy post this week, so I shall revisit the creative output of my past. Back in high school I drew a webcomic called Rocks. It was about rocks. The precise reasons for this escape me but a friend of mine had sent me a list of things webcomic artists shouldn’t do so I did them. I wound up drawing well over a hundred of these comics, so only a fraction of the total output is represented below. This was the point in my life where I looked forward to Friday night because I would watch Stargate SG-1 and drink a lot of caffeine and stay up all night coding HTML and PHP for my website which back then, much like today, nobody read. I had a lot of fun. Here’s the cast of characters for my little comic:

Our #1 rock, the star of the show, is Rocky. He came unto the scene as a former pet rock, abandoned by his master on the side of the trail. He’s a little irregularly shaped, but that just adds to his infinite charm.

To Rocky’s far left is his fine friend Shale. Shale’s pretty regularly shaped, but as he explains, that’s because his dad was a quartz. We don’t know exactly where Shale has been, or how he came to be here, but he does have a penchant for scaring hikers.

Finally, smack dab in the center, is Chad. Chad is semi-circular, and wears glasses. Where he got the glasses, no one knows, but he wound up in the bunch after a bird mistook him for something edible. Plus, with a name like Chad, you can’t go wrong.

Rocks started out with a episodic storyline:

After that the episodic nature of the comic petered out. I tried to do a lot of different things with my three panels and three characters, but looking back it really shined when it leaned into the fact it was about rocks:

(I’m less proud of this “plastic” joke these days)

At various points however it just went fully surreal:

And then finally one day I drew my very last Rocks and never again picked up my webcomic pen:

Sometimes I consider revisiting Rocks but I never have. I just repost them on the internet every once in a while to relive my long-haired glory days of webcomic almost-fame. I think I mined the very depths of rock-based webcomic humor the first time around, but Hollywood loves a reboot so maybe there’s a chance to tread new ground. Only time will tell.

Historic Ships of Baltimore

After a hearty lunch to replenish ourselves from a morning spent touring the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the next adventure my super amazing fiancée and I went on was to tour the historic ships of Baltimore! I suppose Baltimore probably has a large number of historic ships, being an historic port and all, but this specifically refers to four boats and one lighthouse scattered about the Inner Harbor, which you can tour all for one low low fee of like $20 (except for the lighthouse right now, which was closed when we were visiting).

The big draw today, as it should be every day, was the USS Torsk, which is a Tench-class submarine and bills itself as the last US submarine to sink an enemy ship in WWII. So pretty neat! I used to be a submarine officer, as I think we are all aware, and so I am a big fan of submarines, but my super amazing fiancée had never been on a submarine and wanted to see one to get a glimpse into that past life of mine. A WWII diesel boat is not a Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine, but it’s still a submarine and an astonishing amount of the stuff looks pretty much the same.

I think I did a pretty good job as a tour guide. Being a submarine it was pretty cramped and there were other tourists coming through so I only had so much time to point at things and you’ll have to ask her how I did but she seems to have enjoyed herself. She is now ready to fire torpedoes from both the forward and aft torpedo rooms to decimate enemy shipping in furtherance of the war effort. Hooyah!!!

Besides the Torsk, we also visited the light ship they have along with the Coast Guard Cutter, but the other highlight of the Historic Ships was the USS Constellation. The biggest thing I learned on this trip was the Constellation’s participation in the Africa Squadron, chasing down slave-runners, so that is pretty neat! Good job Constellation. It is a large and impressive ship, with a great number of detailed display placards and a lot of interesting stuff to look at. Her claim to fame is that she is the last all-sail ship the Navy ever built, with all of the subsequent ones having at least auxiliary steam power. Of course, the biggest thing that should actually draw you to the Constellation is all the hilariously spicy drama over what the ship actually is. You see there was a Constellation that was one of the original six frigates on the US Navy, and for a while they thought that this Constellation might have been that ship. The confusion stems from the name obviously but also that for fun 19th-century accounting purposes they built this Constellation out of “maintenance” funds, using a polite fiction to scrap the older Constellation and then have this Constellation replace it though on the books it would be the “same” ship. They also reused some (very small) amount of timbers, either for accounting purposes or sentimental reasons. This is all laid out in a lively report titled “Fouled Anchors” which is linked to here under question #12. However there is a group of people who are invested in the idea that the Constellation in Baltimore Harbor is the same Constellation that was launched in 1797 and they will go to great lengths to try to explain how the 1797 ship was stretched out to become the 1855 ship instead of just admitting it is a new ship, which leads to extremely exasperated historians writing rebuttals on official if little-visited US Navy websites. Absolutely fantastic.

One other point that is neat to consider. The Constellation was launched in 1855 and represents a pinnacle of wooden sailing warship technology. One of the other ships you can visit as I mentioned is the Coast Guard Cutter Taney, itself launched in 1935, only 80 years after the Constellation. But it is powered by high- and low-pressure steam turbines and actually overlapped in service with the Constellation by 20 years, as the Constellation was technically only finally decommissioned in 1955 having served as a flagship during the WWII years, which is absolutely mind-blowing to me. And then only six years after the final decommissioning of the last all-sail warship the US Navy bought, they launched the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo ship, the NS Savannah!

The NS Savannah was the last ship we visited that day, though it isn’t a part of the Historic Ships of Baltimore. You can’t actually tour it right now either, except maybe once a year, though that all has been a little unclear to me. I had wanted to see the Savannah for a while, and every time I drove south on I-95 I was trying to look for it but never spotted it. It is parked across the pier from the SS John W. Brown. I must have seen it before because I’ve been on the John W. Brown before, but maybe I missed it? Hard to miss, it is a pretty big ship. Anyways if you’re brave enough to drive into the industrial zone that abuts all these piers, you can go onto the pier and admire it. My super amazing fiancée was kind enough to indulge me in this, and I think it was really neat. The Savannah represented a unique time in the world of nuclear power, which was “what if we made nuclear power look really cool?” and the result was that it was very uneconomical but man is that a pretty ship. My super amazing fiancée especially liked the giant atom symbol on the side. We walked the length of the ship and then finally packed back up in the car and drove home. A wonderful day in Baltimore!