Thursday, September 22, 2016

This Practical Guide to Texas Mushrooms is a Keeper!





Texas Mushrooms: A Field Guide – Susan Metzler, Van Metzler (1992)



            I have always been fascinated by fungi.  They grow faster than most plants.  They move and grow like animals.  They feed off of decomposing plant matter.  They have an extremely interesting life cycle.  They create fruiting bodies which are by turn delicious, toxic, beautiful, repulsive, smelly, and mind-altering.  Every culture has some sort of tribal history that refers to mushrooms and the fungi in general, for they are found nearly everywhere that humans exist.  They are some of the most important yet ignored parts of the cycle of life on Planet Earth.  Since I am lucky to live in the humid and temperate climate of Houston, Texas, United States, Sol System, Milky Way, Universe, I have access to a huge variety of mushrooms year-round.  While most people go off on excursions in the early morning hours after a good rain, I find mushrooms all around me in the apartment complex my wife and I reside in.  Being around them and spotting them on my daily dog-walks has become a hobby of mine.  Because of this I needed to find a reliable and photographically illustrated guide to the mushrooms of Texas.  After some research, I found out that there are not many such guides for mushrooms in general and definitely not for the specific area of Texas in which I live. 

            The Metzlers are a couple who have become amateur master foragers of mushrooms in Texas, and understanding that others like themselves needed a good primer for collecting mushrooms in our state, they set out to create just such a book.  It is a perfect book for someone like me, with a basic knowledge of fungi, but with a desire to learn the differences between the different families of mushrooms, and the way to identify which ones are delicious to eat without poisoning myself.  Luckily the amazing M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston where I work had this book on the shelves.  I Love Libraries!

            Having looked through several different field guides for mushrooms I instantly found this one to be great, both for its ease of use, and for its clear colorful photographs of the mushrooms which allow for far easier documentation and identification.  Their descriptions are stated in a non-technical manner, while at the same time providing the highly-technical language of the mycologists used to designate the different species and sub-species.  To a nerd like me this is as good as it gets.  I will have to make a point to purchase my very own copy of this book for my personal library.  It has inspired me to meet up with the mushroom foragers who hold semi-annual trips to the massive and lush forests of East Texas to search for edible or useful mushrooms and to educate those who attend about the forests, the fungi, and the relationships they hold to the living plants.  The following are two which hold forays around the Houston and Gulf Coast area.




            Fungi are nature’s decomposers.  Recently, scientists have been decoding the genomes of various fungi species and have found that they are even more closely related to animals than was originally believed.  They are like some sort of organism straddling the line between plant life and animal life.  Amazing stuff!  The mushrooms and puffballs that we all see above ground are just the fruiting bodies of the mycelium, a web of fungi sometimes acres wide that lives just below the surface of the soil, or the forest floor, or on dead and rotting fallen trees.  Many tree and plant species have relationships with specific fungi, like the morel mushroom, which creates a symbiotic relationship with forest trees like Pine, Poplar, and Oak.  The fungus extracts certain minerals and nutrients and binds them to the soil so that they can then be used by the tree, while the tree helps shield and nurture the mycelium growing underground. 
            I could go on and on about mushrooms.  I can’t help it.  They are some of the most mysterious life on this planet of ours and most people simply ignore them as they live their lives.  If they think about them at all it is as a food item to add to sauces or steaks or pizza.  I cannot wait to put the knowledge I have gained from this awesome book to practical use.  The state of Texas is in just the perfect location and has such a wide variety of climate within its borders that it is home to more mushroom species than nearly anywhere else in the country.  Both North American and South American species grow here, with an estimated 4,000+ species.  Of those, maybe just over 1,000 have been categorized or are known to the scientific literature.  What a science nerd’s dream it is to discover a new species, and describe it and name it.  I want to live that dream!

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Texas-Mushrooms-Field-Corrie-Herring/dp/0292751265 )

Monday, September 19, 2016

What Exactly Did the Ancient Mystics Experience, and Why?





The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East: A Contribution to Current Research on Hallucinations Drawn from Coptic and Other Texts – Violet MacDermot (1971)

            Sometimes I find myself drawn to read a reference work.  I really love reference materials, as they gather and explore a large amount of data into one cohesive book.  I have always enjoyed pouring information into my grey matter and seeing the connections made therein.  Having read quite a few books in the past two years dealing with the rise of worship, the human need for ritual, the neurophysiology of the human brain and how it affects what is called the mystical, and the development of mythology and the mythological basis for all of our religious belief systems, I figured that this book was indeed for me.  In this masterwork, Violet MacDermot has gathered together writings from the Egyptians, the Coptic Christians, the Gnostic Christians and the Hebrews, and seeks to understand the means by which these people enabled, experienced, and interpreted mystic visions/hallucinations.  It is an exhaustive book, and well worth going back to as a reference source.
            A book of this scope has many themes to explore.  One of the main ones is the change in mystical visions from the time of the Egyptian ascetics to the Hellenic/Greek times, to that of the early Hebrew mystics and then the Christian saints and martyr seers.  It explores the details of the ritual, religious life of an Egyptian believer, and then details how this differed from the life of the hermit mystic.  During and before the time of the Egyptian kingdoms, the role of ritual and religion was to help the individual understand their place in the larger scheme of things.  This included the general understanding that the divine was to be found in all things, both living and inanimate, and that to serve the greater community was the utmost goal.  The individual themselves is not of primal importance.  They are just a cog in the greater machine.  The gods depended upon the people’s rituals to ensure their endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.  Without strict regulations on rituals and religious services, the whole fabric of human society would have crumbled (in their eyes), and the legitimacy of their divine rulers (kings or pharaohs) would be devalued.  MacDermot provides countless examples translated from original source materials to show that the Egyptian devout felt their participation integral to the orderliness of the world around them.  The mystics at this time would do everything the opposite of what was expected from society.  They would remove themselves from the towns and cities, living alone in the deserts.  They would avoid the ritual prayers and ceremonies of the regular folk, and instead focus their whole energies into meditation, fasting, and the attempt to have the soul be rid completely of the trappings of the normal Egyptian world.  Because of this they found divinity in themselves, the full realization of it coming only very near death, as one lets go of this world and the soul moves onto the next.  Instead of ensuring proper mummification so that their body would be reunited with their soul in the afterlife, they sought a total wasting away, allowing their soul to unify with the divine and avoid the endless repetition of birth/death/rebirth.  This would prove to be very influential to the Hellenic, Hebrew, and Christian mystics who came after them.
            It seems that every new culture strives to erase the ideas of the past, or at least refute them.  The Greek philosophers did not agree with the Egyptian mystics.  They saw the world as a quite different place, and their mystical visions changed accordingly.  Many of them came to believe that the material world was one of pure degradation, always rotting, always in a state of decline, and that the spiritual world, the world of ideal forms and of the spirit, was one of perfection.  The Hellenic mystics would use many of the same techniques as the Egyptian mystics to bring about ecstatic visions.  Everything from fasting, to physical deprivation, to ritual dance, to chanting, to a secluded desert hermit life was utilized.  Their end goals were different though.  They did not come from a society that demanded everyone adhere to a specific set of ritual. Instead, they lived in a world where the philosophers told them that the divine/ideal was to be reached through pure thought, through philosophy, as it were.  They would meditate on the ideal, seeking to eliminate all thought of the base natural world from their minds.  Even though their aims were different, the visions described and experiences claimed were very similar to those of their predecessors in Egypt.  This continues on through the Hebrew and the early Christian mystical tradition.
            After the Egyptians and the Greeks, the mystics of the Hebrew and the early Christian faith were a bit different.  They did not see the world as divinity manifested (Egyptian) or as a shadow of the divine (Greeks), but instead they saw a strict duality of good versus evil.  Many tended to believe in the Manichean thought that the natural world is a wholly evil construct, one in which the body is purely a prison for the divine soul.  Because of this, any and all human activity was derided as either evil, or drawn from evil.  Of course, these activities were merely the residue of the earlier ages of religious thought.  Sex was evil, where before it was a personal experience of divinity.  Orgiastic feasts were evil, where before they allowed the community to share in the bounty that divinity had provided on the Earth.  To the mystic seers even the idea of organized religion was an evil, created on Earth to draw humans away from the truly divine, which could only be achieved by the total obliteration of the self, both physical and mental.  It really is insane how humanity creates its gods and means of worship, and then rails against it at a later time, only to then destroy and rail against the latest religious ideas.  

For modern Americans, a nice view from the balcony can be an ecstatic experience.

             If anything, books such as these that aggregate the religious literature over thousands of years and dozens of cultures go to show the deep schizophrenia that exists in the human mind when it is forced to believe something that is essentially a fairy tale explanation for the way the world appears to us.  Mystics to this day continue on with these self-mortification practices, starving themselves, ingesting hallucinogenic substances, enduring endless pain and discomfort, and separating themselves from the society at large, all to attempt to commune with a non-existent divinity.  So many people have died and suffered at the hands of those that believe their rituals are the true ones, and that any others must be stopped at any cost.  Currently there is a war going on in Islam, between different cults, each claiming they are the one true way to salvation and the divine.  The same thing goes on in Christianity, as the orthodox and the charismatic Pentecostals fight it out in the court of public opinion, as well as in our legislatures.  No one talks about this.  It is a hard subject to broach.  The more one learns about humanity’s religious history, the more one sees how it is all a very carefully constructed house of cards, ready to fall down at any moment, but taking up vast amounts of resources and time from millions of blindly faithful people that could be better served in the betterment of humanity at large.
            The best part of this book consists of the translations of source materials that Ms. MacDermot has gathered up.  It is quite amazing to see the literal plagiarism used to prop up the stories about saints and martyrs and mystics.  The people who wrote about the Christian martyrs used the writings about Hellenic mystics as source material, copying nearly every detail.  The Hellenic mystery cult writers did the same thing with the writings of the Egyptians.  So many things are accepted at face value because some learned wise man wrote it down thousands of years ago.  It is ridiculous.  Every new religion has to usurp the rituals and holidays of the ones that came before it, and by doing so, usually turn out to employ the exact same means that were deemed blasphemous or heretic.  The very early Christians followed the rules Jesus gave very strictly.  Jesus said to leave your family, to avoid sex, to not worship idols, to avoid working, to basically stop taking part in society and society’s rituals.  The Christian church however, created “sacraments” to ensure that the masses would still take care of their familial obligations, would still marry and have many children, would still pray to images of saints and martyrs, would still find employment to pay the 10% tithe required by the church, and would continue in their yearly rituals, disguised as Christian holidays (Easter = Ishtar, Christian Saint Feast days replacing those of previous religions, etc.).  In other words, the Church forced its followers to adhere to the very same things that their namesake, Jesus Christ, instructed them to avoid.  If that does not let you know it is all a crock of shit, then perhaps you should read this book and start the exploration for yourself.

(This book is out of print but can be purchased used here: https://www.amazon.com/Cult-Seer-Ancient-Middle-East/dp/0520020308 )

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Best Book About American Football I Have Yet to Read





A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football – Paul Zimmerman (1970)

Man, I love NFL football.  I once read an article on the New England Patriot’s coach Bill Belichik which described his vast library of books about football, many of which he inherited from his father who was a head coach at the US Naval Academy for 34 years.  His library contains books on football history, tactics, coaching methods, and training techniques.  I bet he has this book in his library. 
The previous book I reviewed was a first-person diary of the life of an NFL offensive lineman during a full season.  This book is told from the vantage point of a sports journalist who has made his career covering the pro football ranks.  Paul Zimmerman is a bit of a legend in sports writing circles (known as Dr. Z for the past couple of decades), since he has first-hand knowledge of the last 50-60 years of pro football.  His writing is always incisive, humorous. and informative.  He rarely veers into sentimentality or nostalgia.  The best part of this boom is the detail that Mr. Zimmerman provides regarding the specifics of playing each position on the field.
There are glory players in football.  The receivers, running backs and especially the quarterback are all glamorous, flashy positions, with thousands of words written about every single detail of their practices, and game-day performances.  However, the meat and potatoes of American Football takes place in the trenches, in the pit, in the shit, as players describe it.  This is the collision zone between the offensive and defensive lines.  This is where the fates of the quarterbacks, receivers, and runners hang in the balance.  If the offensive line does not hold, the passes will not be successful.  Either the QB will be rushed in his throw, or he will be crushed by 300lb behemoths coming full speed.  If the offensive linemen do not block properly, the runners can gain neither yardage nor glory. 
Because of their anonymity, these linemen seldom get recognition for their work.  They are scorned when they fail an assignment, but rarely are they praised if they did their jobs well.  Mr. Zimmerman goes into great detail about how the different line positions must function, what coaches look for in a player for these positions, and who has been a great player at each position.  His discussions get very specific partly because he was an old offensive lineman in his youth, and partly because these positons are so much more complicated than the average fan understands.  This allowed me to better understand the roles these giant men play as the team seeks victory.
Another area that Mr. Zimmerman sheds light upon is the worlds of the coaches, scouts, and general managers.  The coaches are responsible for game-plans, and tactics.  The scouts have the task of seeking out new talent.  The general managers are the men who make personnel decisions at draft time, trade time, and when the teams have to make the dreaded “cuts.”  Their world is at once simple, and exceedingly complex.  They spend untold hours scrutinizing every last detail of an opponent, watching reel after reel of game film, and then trying to put everything they have learned into a game-plan which they then have to teach to their players.  This happens week in, week out.  It is an exhausting life.
As a lover of pro American Football, the parts of this book that most resonate with me are when I can feel Mr. Zimmerman’s enthusiasm as a fan of these athletes.  The sections where he discusses the greats of the game, or the legendary coaches, or the early stars of the sport all fill me with a deep admiration for the men who helped create this game which I so love now.  The final chapter of this book is dedicated to the player whom Mr. Zimmerman, as well as many others, considers the greatest football player they ever saw.  That would be Mr. Marion Motley, a monster fullback who also played offensive line and defensive linebacker.  The only person who could compare is the great Jim Brown, who played almost a decade later.  Mr. Brown did not play both ways though, and was not feared as a maniacally powerful hitter.  The old days when the players played both ways will never come again, but they still inspire.
A few years ago Mr. Zimmerman suffered a series of bad strokes which caused him to lose his ability to speak, and much control of his body.  He had to stop writing.  He lives with his wife (who he would affectionately refer to as “the Flaming Redhead” when he mentioned her in his columns) and has had to go through rounds of physical therapy.  He may never again regain his ability to speak or write, but he has given the world decades worth of high-quality writing and analysis.  He has written several books.  He has shared his deep passion for the sport with all of us lucky fanatics.  Thank you Dr. Z.

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/thinking-mans-guide-pro-football/dp/0525217355 )

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Year in the Life of an NFL Offensive Lineman





Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer – Jerry Kramer, Dick Schapp (1968)

            I have loved the sport of American Football, specifically the National Football League, ever since I was a youngster.  It was one of the first “American” things that I fully embraced after my family moved to Houston, Texas from Ponce in Puerto Rico.  I remember the bike I got for Christmas that year.  It was a Houston Oilers BMX-style bike.  I loved that bike!  The Oilers were my favorite team right away, even though it took me quite a few years to actually understand even the basics of the sport.  In fact, to this day I still watch games and learn something new nearly every single time.  The complexities involved have kept me deeply interested.  Even though I have loved football for over 35 years now, I never took much interest in reading about the sport itself.  I read magazine articles and articles online, but I never dug into the vast library of published work on American Football. 
            What I have seen countless times are any and all NFL Films programs put together by the Sabol family.  I learned the game’s history from these films.  I appreciated the stories about teams that won championships when my father was only a decade old.  I especially loved seeing the yearly re-runs that ESPN would air before the Super Bowl.  They consisted of 30 minute highlights of each Super Bowl leading up to the current one.  I saw the great Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers win the first two Super Bowls.  I saw Broadway Joe lead the Jets to a guaranteed victory.  I saw the shots of what seemed to me to be grizzled old men, fighting it out on the gridiron for the championship.  These men were younger than I am now, but to a young kid or teenager, they were ancient-looking warriors!  I learned not only about the past greats, but also the lore of each team, of the league itself, from the Doomsday Defense to the Purple People Eaters.  I learned about players and teams from before the Super Bowl era.  I memorized the names of the great coaches and the great athletes, and I dreamed of seeing my team win the big one.
            Out of all those films, none made the impression on me that the Green Bay Packers’ films did.  There was only one reason for this, and that was Coach Vince Lombardi.  Here was a man who seemed on the verge of a histrionic fit, screaming at his men, shouting about their mistakes and errors, but his men all loved him, admired him, and would do anything to please the man.  He seemed, and still seems, like the epitome of a great coach.  His voice alone was thrilling.  In 1967, the Green Bay Packers won their second consecutive Super Bowl and their third consecutive NFL championship.  Coach Lombardi retired after that year.  In reading articles from sportswriters, they would sometimes quote a book by Green Bay offensive lineman Jerry Kramer.  Mr. Kramer was asked before the season began to use a tape recorder to take down his thoughts daily as the preseason and then the season progressed.  This is the book that resulted from those recordings.
            A wonderful aspect of this book is that it is purely episodic.  It is a nearly daily diary of the events that occurred in Packers training camp and during the season.  There are eleven positions on both the offense and the defense of a football team.  Mr. Kramer played Offensive Line, specifically Left Guard.  That not only meant that he had to block the most fearsome lineman of the opposing team each week, but that he did so in obscurity and anonymity.  O-line players do not accrue stats.  They do not touch the football.  Their work is not glamorous and highly violent.  Anyone could have written a relatively entertaining account of what a quarterback’s season was like, or a running back, or a star defensive linebacker.  It is beautiful how this year’s tale is described by one of the men in the trenches.  This shines a light on a world that even a die-hard football fan sees little of and hears even less of. 
            Mr. Kramer discussed the doubts that come in training camp, whether he is willing to abuse his body once again, whether he can escape injury and make it through the whole season, whether or not he should just quit while ahead and leave the game behind.  He fears for the jobs of the marginal players, as the team rosters must be cut down by the start of the season.  He details life outside the game, and how little things like a group of teammates going to the local bowling alley to have a bottle of “pop” after brutal practices allowed them to feel human.  He describes his relationships with his teammates, with his coaches, and with the other NFL players.  He recounts his most fearsome opponents, men like Alex Karras and Merlin Olsen, huge brutes who were as fast and intelligent as they were massive and violent.  Greatest of all, he describes Coach Lombardi, with unflinching words.  He states flatly at times that he has hated no one more than Coach Lombardi, and then he describes how much love he feels for the man when Coach Lombardi breaks down sobbing after trying to announce his impending retirement.  He paints the full picture, and quotes the great coach liberally.  It is like being there in the locker room.  I got amped up at times just hearing Lombardi’s words echo in my head.  Having seen him on film so many times in my life, I carry his loud, Italian New Yorker voice in my brain with me.  I would guess anyone who worked for him or was coached by him has the same.
            One cool thing about the 1967 Green Bay Packers season is that the NFL Championship game that year was and is remembered as the “Ice Bowl.”  American Football has quite a few legendary games, each with their own nickname, and the Ice Bowl was one of the first I ever learned about from NFL Films.  The Dallas Cowboys and the Packers met in Green Bay and played a game in a temperature of 14 below zero, the coldest game on record at the time.  The game was evenly fought and was won at the last minute by the Packers who, after a masterful drive by QB Bart Starr, plunged into the end zone on a QB run with Jerry Kramer providing the lead block.  It was so cool to read Mr. Kramer’s descriptions of that day as I had seen it on video so many times. 

(*side note, in 2006 I drove by myself to Canton OH to see my old Oiler’s QB Warren Moon get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame alongside other greats.  The day after the ceremonies, I headed to the Cracker Barrel to go get some breakfast and who should I be sitting next to but the great one himself, Mr. Bart Starr and his wife enjoying some fried eggs.  It was like eating with royalty for me.  I did not bother the man, but wow.)
            Now I am hooked on reading books about American Football.  I hope they are all this great.  Mr. Jerry Kramer went on to have a great career as a TV analyst for games, and wrote one other book also.  I am glad he wrote this one.  As he describes in the end, the one thing he would miss upon leaving the game would be his teammates, his coaches, the people who he lived and fought and suffered with.  That is what brought him back year after year. 

(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Instant-Replay-Green-Diary-Kramer/dp/0307743381 )