A newbie discovers cultural stuff. Be gentle.

The situation is tense, as the two groups glare angrily at each other, sometimes spitting insults and curses. They have travelled long distances to get here, with the sole intent of gaining victory and not just defeating the enemy but inflicting abject humiliation too. At any second, something’s going to give, and then the deadly fight will begin in earnest.

What’s going on here? Is this the scene of some armed conflict, barely contained? A peacekeeping force faced by an armed insurgency? Or perhaps a couple of street gangs about to take each other on? Nope. This is two groups of sports fans ready to do metaphorical (and sometimes literal) battle even as their teams battle on the field or the ice or the court.

In recent weeks, many of us have gone through the playoff season of leagues like the NBA and the NHL. And these attitudes are typical of the deep tribalism that surrounds the local sports team. For the first half of each calendar year in particular, the air is thick with them. Every league that started play in the late summer or early autumn begins working its way toward the playoffs, and the tribalism ramps up to a fever pitch by the time they arrive.

Vancouver Canuck hockey fans riot on the street after a playoff game

Must’ve been some hockey game! (By Andy L (DSC_0466 Uploaded by Skeezix1000) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen it (or done it ourselves): people in a city or town focusing on the sports team as a way to express their identification with their home. The team becomes “us” and “we” (“We won the game!” or “That referee robbed us!”), people are euphoric when the team is up and depressed when the team is down, and at game time, they get a sort of “mob mentality” that can sometimes override their rationality. (Soccer riots, anyone? Fist fights in the stands? Burning cars after the team loses the cup? Or even after it wins?) In recent years, fans of particular teams have even been called “nations” (“Maple Leaf Nation,” say, or “Red Sox Nation”). We’re all in this together, baby! Let’s go paint our faces in the team colors!

But of course, most people, maybe a majority, are not sports fans. That sort of fan behavior is just too, too childish and unsophisticated, and these people, at least, are more into the arts or cooking or business or other types of interests. Thank goodness they’ve escaped that primitive tribal mentality.

The Alma Mater statue of Columbia University

Our school — so obviously superior to all those other schools

Hold on, there! Not so fast. It’s not that easy to escape tribalism. If you’ve ever felt personally insulted when someone has said something bad about your hometown or your alma mater or your country—sorry. You’ve got the virus too. You may not overturn cars or paint your face, but you are probably in as deeply as anybody. Like it or not, human beings seem hardwired to form tribes, originally based primarily on kinship, but these days, based on everything from the happenstance of people’s birth location to their choice of entertainment genre (Star Trek or Star Wars? Comics or manga?) to the happenstance of the religion or school loyalty they were raised in. And once a tribe is formed and one’s membership is rooted, all bets are off.

It’s all in good fun, though, right? Well, aside from the occasional brawl in the stands or prank pulled on the other school’s mascot. Nobody ever takes it too far these days, do they?

Au contraire. Since tribalism is so visceral and so often bypasses the rational mind, if something goes wrong, it goes really wrong, and things can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Freud’s ideas about in groups and out groups really hold up here. Being part of an in group gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Everybody in the group is your sister or brother, and you’ve got each other’s backs. But what does that make people in the out group? The exact opposite of the in group. Those people don’t make things “warm and fuzzy,” but “cold and prickly.” Rather than being your fond siblings, they are the anti-family. They may, in fact, become The Enemy.

Margaret MacMillan, in “The War that Ended Peace,” her book about the factors leading up to World War I, talked about many of the peace organizations that existed in Europe just before the war. Their membership and declared brotherhood crossed national boundaries, and many of these groups resolved that even if some kind of war broke out, their members would refuse to take up arms. Yet when the moment came, the tribal pull of country was stronger than the pull of the cause, and it was irresistible. “My country, right or wrong” prevailed, and a great many of these former peace crusaders answered the call to war despite their pre-war principles.

But don’t forget that if a person feels let down by his or her tribe or “nation,” the intense loyalty can quickly turn to hatred within the tribe itself. That’s another ugly side of tribalism: despite extravagant protestations of loyalty, it rarely lasts if a tribe member screws up. You may not know the name, “Mitch Williams,” but Philadelphia Phillies baseball fans certainly do, and so do Toronto Blue Jays fans. It was the Phillies’ Williams who threw the pitch, in the final game of the playoffs in 1993, that Toronto’s Joe Carter hit to give the Blue Jays both the game and their second Major League Baseball championship in a row. Phillies fans turned on Williams in a raging instant, egging his house and even sending death threats. Most forgave him within a couple of years, since he openly acknowledged that he had messed up, but that doesn’t always happen.

Stylized designs of American Democrat and Republican party logos

Two very familiar tribes

In today’s political atmosphere, all it takes is one person on one “side” to express an opinion that the “tribe” isn’t supposed to hold, and the attacks from the person’s own tribe rage in from all over the Internet and may never stop. Just ask a conservative pundit who admits that a progressive person may be right about even one small thing what sort of death threats they get from their own tribe. Ask people in the tribe of a single political party how thoroughly they can hate others in their own party who pull for a different candidate in the presidential primaries.

Is it possible to escape tribalism? Maybe, a bit. If one holds to a rational position with all one’s strength, the tribal temptation can sometimes be held at bay long enough for opposing “tribes” to negotiate a compromise or sign a peace treaty or even understand and empathize with each other a little. That’s the only way real progress is ever made in any human endeavor, and it’s a testimony to the courage and strength of many great people, through history, that humans have overcome their innate tribalism often enough to accomplish what they have.

But we know what lurks beneath the surface. Let just one person say something like, “Your mother smells like elderberries” or “you must abandon your preferred candidate and vote for mine, or you will guarantee that the bad guy gets elected,” and boom! Off come the gloves again, and tribalism rules once more.

(A version of this article was previously published in the February 2015 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)

In these early months of 2016, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of grief, all over the world, at the news of the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and other important musicians. On the surface, this might seem odd; after all, the vast majority of us were not personally or even distantly acquainted with any of these musical artists. This vast grief goes way beyond mere empathy for the death of a fellow human being—this is really personal. But why do we, total strangers to these musicians and their families, feel this loss so deeply?

You are shaped by your music as surely as by your genes. A song imprints itself on you during the most traumatic, mundane, or blissful events of your life, and whatever happens afterward, that music will be a part of your personality forever. No matter how profound—or silly—that song might be.

Music and roses

Think about it. You hear the opening chord of a song from ten or fifteen years ago, and instantly you are Back There. You remember that first crush, or that graduation ceremony, or driving to the vet with your sick cat for the very last time (oh, “Bright Eyes”)—and you remember every sound, you feel the rain or see the glaring sunshine, and you feel again every intense emotion you felt at that exact moment. You are once again wearing those platform shoes and that big hair and those blazers with the huge shoulders—oh wait. Am I projecting again?

But it’s true that, in my case, the music of the eighties is indelibly linked to who I was then. My “Here Comes the Rain Again” depression in the spring of 1984 blossomed into a brilliant and wonderful summer (“Might as well jump. Jump!”). Early Queensryche and late Pink Floyd were my soundtrack for visits to southern California in the nineties. And The Prayer Cycle album by Jonathan Elias led me through two pre-2001 visits to Manhattan and soared through my mourning on 9/11.

There are probably many reasons why music accompanies and shapes our lives. Surely our attraction stems first from the rhythms of our mothers’ bodies when we were in the womb and then the rhythms of our own bodies. But I think we’ve got a symbiotic two-way relationship to music where it both affects how we feel and lets us express how we feel.

Music and fireI remember when the evangelical church began railing against Jesus Rock music; anti-rock prophets assured everyone that rock rhythms altered people’s brains so much that they became literally incapable of choosing good over evil. The idea that music can remove free will is, of course, ridiculous—yet there’s no question it can influence our moods. In the past, sometimes the best cure for my gloomy mood was to play the anthemic “Never Give Up” by Boulevard, followed by “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.

On the other side of things, music lets us express ourselves. David Miller, a professor of mine at Syracuse University, once said that when you’re feeling sad, it can be good to play sad music. Happy music can force the sad feelings down, where they fester without being dealt with. But sad music helps you get those feelings out into the open so they can dissipate. (It’s true. During that tough Syracuse year, the sad “Cruising for Bruising” by Basia, together with “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, almost singlehandedly kept me alive.)

Everywhere on this planet, human beings make music. We can’t help ourselves. Music is our constant companion, our first impulse, and for most of us, our psychological necessity.

In 2004, after all my stuff had been in storage several hundred miles away for four and a half lonely years, at last I managed to get everything shipped to my new home. On a glorious, sunny Saturday, I finally got to open my hundred boxes—books and CDs first. Box after box, I found treasures I hadn’t heard in all that time. I hugged my Police CDs to my chest and cried. I played Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd. I played Loreena McKennitt and Tchaikovsky. I played The Prayer Cycle, and Officium by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek.

What I felt and actually think was true was that long lost pieces of my soul were whirling back into me and making me a whole person again. That music was me—and I was back! That’s what music does. That’s what music is.

And when we lose those musicians who had also become parts of our personality over the years, we have indeed lost a genuine part of ourselves.

(A version of this article previously appeared in the June 2013 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)

Clef

Leather jacket with back cut away, for wheelchair user

Stylish women’s leather jacket by Izzy Camilleri (Photo by Phyl Good)

“I realized that all my clients are seated…The clothes differ in dressing and ease of dressing.”

As this thought came to fashion designer Izzy Camilleri, like a light bulb going on, or perhaps a thunderbolt, a whole new world opened up, both for her as a designer and for her potential new clients—people in wheelchairs. For twenty years, until 2009, when Ms. Camilleri launched her first fashion line for wheelchair users, she had been well-known for her exciting collections in the mainstream fashion industry as well as film and television. But a commission from Barbara Turnbull, Toronto Star reporter and quadriplegic, changed Camilleri’s life. And, one can argue, the lives of a world full of wheelchair users.

When you peruse the offerings on the website of Camilleri’s company, IZ Adaptive, you don’t see the over-the-top drama of her designs inspired by Bladerunner, the spectacular fur worn by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, or even Camilleri’s signature body-fitting black leather and fur. But every item of clothing available through this online store is stylish, well-fitting, and often beautiful in an elegant, understated way. These clothes have had an effect in people’s lives that is dramatic in its own way, not to mention enduring and life-altering. As one of Camilleri’s clients, a quadriplegic from a mountain biking accident, told her, “Your clothes are really liberating.”

Stylish, yes. Fashionable, yes. But liberating? Don’t wheelchair users wear the same sorts of clothing everyone else does? The answer is yes – but no. As Camilleri discovered at the beginning of her journey, speaking to a small focus group of wheelchair users, the chair and the type of injury affect everything from the types of clothing users can even wear, to the sizing and even to where seams or pockets should go. If a person sits unmoving for hours at a time, for example, pressure sores become a problem. Add a pocket seam that exerts extra pressure, and the problem becomes quite serious.

That’s just the start. Think of the last time you wrestled backwards to get your second arm into a shirt or jacket after the first arm went in just fine. While this move might be possible (with some difficulty) for a paraplegic, who is only paralyzed from the waist down, it is likely impossible for a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, even with a trained helper. A wheelchair user may thus find him or herself wearing clothes two or three sizes too big, just to be able to get into them. And then, confined to the chair’s small space, that extra material bunches up and might make the person appear, in Camilleri’s words, “a sloppy mess.”

Men's slacks and shirt for wheelchair user

Men’s slacks and shirt (Photo by Phyl Good)

Who wants to go to a job interview that way? Or even just roll down a sidewalk?

At first, that small focus group (two quadriplegic women, one paraplegic woman, and one woman with MS) described so many different clothing issues that Camilleri was almost overwhelmed with the detail. But as she continued researching and peeling away these layers of confusion, it was that thought – “all my clients are seated” – that provided the final key. Recognize that the clients are seated, then recognize the differences in their abilities as they sit in their chairs, and ask, “What does that mean to the patterns?”

The first thing it means is that the distribution of material in the garments must shift. For a seated person to look the same in a pair of dress pants as a standing person does, with the same clean lines, the “pitch” of the pants must be different. There is less material at the front to bunch up, but there is more at the back to accommodate the curve of the hips and upper thighs. A shirt for a paraplegic may need slightly wider sleeves and shoulders than one for a quadriplegic, to accomplish the same look. Why? Because the back, shoulders, and arms of someone who constantly moves the wheels of a chair can be “pretty buff,” as Camilleri says, while someone in a power chair will not build those muscles the same way.

Power chairs require other clothing changes. Getting a jacket, blazer, or coat on and off can be difficult with all the material that normally goes behind the back and legs. Quadriplegics often wear jackets instead of coats, because it’s impossible to get extra material from coats properly tucked under, meaning that they are often underdressed for bad weather. That’s unhealthy and can leave them cold for hours. The solution? An ingenious design in which outerwear or blazers have most of the back cut out, with front and back fastenings that allow the garments simply to slide off the arms (or be put on by the arms) in two pieces. This design adds another element of convenience: even someone untrained can help the person remove their coat or blazer, without the shifting of the person’s body that would need to be done by a trained helper with a regular coat.

Camilleri has had to be a trailblazer; while mainstream fashion design always follows a certain trajectory, she has had to create the path for wheelchair fashion virtually from scratch, from researching the scattered demographic to designing the clothing to learning how to inform wheelchair users about this new opportunity. It’s hard to succeed with wheelchair fashion, as many failed competitors can attest. IZ Adaptive almost has the market to itself; only Rolli-Moden in Germany is similarly successful, and its offerings are somewhat different. Yet it has taken from 2009 until late 2014 for Camilleri to finally think about doing this work full-time without needing to supplement it with other design work.

Wedding clothes for wheelchair users

Wedding clothes (Photo by Phyl Good)

The IZ Adaptive website and Facebook page are full of testimonials from people in wheelchairs, who are for the first time wearing clothing that both fits and looks good. Providing great clothes for them was an idea that was long overdue. Wheelchair users the world over are now reaping the benefit of the hard work, dedication, and expertise in style that Izzy Camilleri is putting into what is a revolutionary and welcome design idea.

[This article originally appeared in the now-defunct online Zen Dixie magazine, December 2014]

[Photos taken at the late 2014 Royal Ontario Museum exhibit of Izzy Camilleri’s designs, entitled, “Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting.”]

I stepped aside to allow Lizzy Bennet to pass me in the hall, and then followed her into the dining room. Mr. Darcy was waiting, and I eavesdropped as they discussed the idea of humour and whether or not it had any place in civil society. I and thirty-five other eavesdroppers then followed Elizabeth into a bedroom upstairs, where she was cornered by the odious Mr. Collins–

Campbell House - Dining Room

Darcy sat right there

But wait! How could this be? How could we be walking through a house from the early 1800s, observing the events from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the sort of thing you get to see at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Not only did we see an adapted version of Pride and Prejudice enacted before our very eyes, but we followed the action, room to room, in a house from the very same time period as the novel. Talk about authentic!

This was my first time ever at the Fringe, and what an introduction! Actors Hallie Burt and Kate Werneberg performed their adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel at the Campbell House Museum, the oldest building that survives from the old Town of York, Ontario (now Toronto). And you read that correctly: two actors, performing the whole story and playing all the parts.

Campbell House - Kitchen

Lizzy refused Darcy in the kitchen

So all thirty-five members of the audience stood in the front hall, before the narrow spiralling staircase, to watch Mrs. Bennet (Werneberg) gush at the news of the arrival of Mr. Bingley in the neighbourhood. Then we followed the actors upstairs to the large room where the ball was held and Bingley (Burt) and Darcy (Werneberg) first appeared and Darcy first met Elizabeth (Burt).

We moved from room to room as the story unfolded, and although the entire production only took 75-90 minutes, we hardly noticed that anything was left out, so smoothly did the actors manage the segues from major scene to major scene. We crowded into an upstairs bedroom where Mr. Collins (played by Werneberg with delicious unctuousness) propositioned Lizzy while she firmly refused him. We sat in the kitchen area to hear her refuse Mr. Darcy’s first proposal even more firmly.

The actors managed their changes of character with aplomb and just a few minor props. For example, one moment, Werneberg might flutter as Mrs. Bennett with a frantic fan in her hand, and the next moment, she exuded a delightful smarminess as Mr. Collins, abandoning the fan and quickly adding a collar with pretentious ruffles. Burt leaned on a cane to make her remarks as Mr. Bennet, while raising her voice and squealing like a preteen as she chatted with Wickham, as Kitty.

As audience members, we needed to step out of the way if an actor had to get past us, and of course we needed to be prepared for some degree of stair climbing. But the production was so well done that these were minor considerations. The atmosphere of Campbell House provided a very realistic backdrop, while the ability of the actors to change characters on a dime brought the story to fascinating, three-dimensional life.

It was such fun, getting to be a fly on the wall for this one. I don’t know what I want more–to go to more Fringe productions next year or to see what Hallie Burt and Kate Werneberg will create next!

Campbell House - Staircase and Clock

Up and down and up and down we went!

There’s something about the second floor (*) of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that brings peace to the soul. Well…my soul, anyway. I walk up the central stairs, and the first thing that faces me when I step onto the second floor is a view of the Lawren Harris gallery, waiting in the distance. And at that moment, it’s like all the stress I’ve ever felt sluices away, and peace descends upon me.

Baffin Island Mountains - Painting by Lawren Harris, c. 1931

Baffin Island Mountains

It’s always Lawren Harris I visit first at the AGO. From the first moment I ever saw any Group of Seven paintings, Harris’s paintings have drawn me like a magnet. Though more “stylized” than the work of other Group of Seven artists (or, for that matter, than Harris’s own early work), paintings like “Mountains in Snow” or “Baffin Island Mountains” express the reality of those scenes with precision and accuracy. In particular, the blue tones he uses are so serene and clear that this is what drains the tension right out of me (**). I think I could sleep very well indeed in a room with nothing but Harris’s blue northern paintings on every wall.

Mountains in Snow - Rocky Mountain Paintings VII - by Lawren Harris, c. 1929

Mountains in Snow

I spend a lot of time in the Harris gallery–a lot. And as I wander the second floor, I keep returning to it. But even so, there are other painters on that floor whom I also love. I had never heard of Cornelius Krieghoff till I went to the AGO. But now I am always eager to visit his paintings too.

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff

Krieghoff’s stunning autumn colours in the wilderness

Krieghoff did literally hundreds of paintings of mid-nineteenth century life in Quebec. He painted everything from domestic scenes in homes to communities interacting outside in the snow to stunning autumn forest scenes to wonderfully dark, mysterious night scenes with traders in their canoes on the rivers. And amidst all his small, accurate details, you find humorous notes as well: there is one family that appears in community snow scenes rather a lot, and the sleigh in which they are riding home is almost always capsized in a snowdrift.

But before I visit any other paintings, it’s always Krieghoff’s scenes of deepest darkness that I find first. All I can think, gazing into the dark night in the Quebec wilderness, with a distant moon barely peeking through a break in the trees, is, “This must be just what the night looked like to those travellers, with none of today’s city lights and only the sharp stars directly above.” I think I could meditate for hours, gazing at these paintings.

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff of the forest darkness in old Quebec

Tiny campfire and distant moon–in the wilderness of old Quebec

But again, there are other painters here. And the third one I visit with great eagerness and regularity is William Kurelek. I always think of him as my “odd one,” because I’ve always viewed his style as rather awkward. And yet I can’t take my eyes off his paintings. He, too, painted everyday scenes and landscapes not just in Quebec but across Canada, but he painted twentieth-century scenes. So I often stop before a painting of a small prairie town with a couple of old, wooden grain elevators along the railway tracks, which reminds me of the towns where I used to visit my Alberta cousins. (Few of those elevators exist any longer, which is a terrible shame.) Or I stop and meditate before a night-time prairie scene with cold, stiff snow stretching in all directions and a glittering, icy moon making the scene almost as bright as day. I, too, have seen snow like that, dry and crisp, so crisp that you can walk along the crusty top of a pile four feet high.

I've seen prairie nights like this

But I always end with the same funny, amazingly detailed painting–my favourite Kurelek painting of all. It’s a kitchen scene, in a very small apartment or house, that is so full of objects and accurate little details that you could explore the painting for an hour and still not have discovered everything.

My favourite Kurelek painting ever

Has there ever been a more realistic little room?

By the time I’ve visited all the Kurelek paintings, I am usually done. I end with one more meditation in the Lawren Harris gallery, leaning against a corner of one of the wide doorways, just…gazing. And finally, realizing that I can’t actually live there and that I must get back to my life, I reluctantly pull away.

Whatever stress I brought with me to the AGO is, by now, long gone. I have visited my favourite Canadian painter and other favourites as well, and the serenity of their work, especially Harris’s, has seeped into my soul. There is no more room for stress, at least for a little while.

* * * * * * *

(*) The second floor is where you’ll find the Canadian Collection, most of it gifted to the gallery by the late Canadian businessman, Ken Thomson, the wealthiest person in Canada at the time of his death in 2006. Mr. Thompson collected many works by Tom Thomson and members of the Group of Seven, a lot of paintings by nineteenth-century painter Cornelius Krieghoff, and other paintings by Canadian artists.

(**) Note that any lack of clarity, brightness, or, you know, straightness in the above photos is entirely due to my inexpensive camera. This was the first time I’ve ever been allowed to take photos of anything in the AGO’s collection, but one’s photos are only as good as one’s camera.

Before posting this, I should explain my own position on things. I moved to Toronto from Calgary, early in 2000. So my number one team remains the Flames. But I’ve come to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan too, by virtue of living here and being caught up in Leafs Nation. I don’t live, breathe, and sleep hockey anyway, so I get to stand “above it all,” for the most part. (Except when the Flames go on one of their surprising playoff tears, though that’s not been possible in recent years.)

Anyway. Last night, on CBC TV’s national news broadcast, The National, commentator Rex Murphy took on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the “apology” they did in every newspaper after missing the playoffs again — for the seventh straight year. And Murphy’s little…dissertation…was a thing of beauty, and had me laughing so hard I was almost crying. So for posterity, here it is:

Rex Murphy’s Maple Leafs Apology Commentary

(And I have to issue my own apology, because CBC’s Embed code — doesn’t. At least not on WordPress. But click to go there, and you will not be sorry!)

El Castillo

There's more to Mayan culture than this! (Photo courtesy Flickr user Herkie)

All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).

Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.

Palenque

The Tower in the Palace at Palenque (Photo courtesy Flickr user Sachavir)

The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.

One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.

But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.

Coba stele

Stele at Coba; part of the Mayan calendar? (Photo courtesy Flickr user snackfight)

The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.

That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.

For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.

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