Exploration, conquest, and modernity…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, we studied something then called the Age of Discovery, or if you were feeling particularly froggy, the Age of Conquest. This was the period in history from the 15th through the 17th centuries when Europeans set out on a global search for faster trade routes, wealth, personal glory. It corresponded with a then unprecedented explosion in knowledge about the natural world. 

I’ve watched a number of reports over the last few days condemning Columbus as a genocidal maniac and all I can do is shake my head in frustration. I will never understand why educated people insist on applying 21st century morality to 15th century actions. If we “discovered” an unknown continent tomorrow, we wouldn’t approach it the same way that Columbus did in the 1490s. We wouldn’t approach it the same way the Great Powers of Europe approached Africa in the 19th century, either. We would approach it using our best judgment based on 21st century understanding of peoples and our modern sensibilities. Half a millennia from now, we would surely be criticized for our actions because they were not how some future observers would have managed the affair.

“But, but,” they say, “He killed all those nice natives.” Yeah, he did. Can’t deny it. What seems to be forgotten in the discussion is Europe in the 1400s was a regular charnel house. Between plague, pestilence, disease, and the Hundred Years’ War, sudden, violent death in the New World most likely didn’t strike anyone as an unnatural state of affairs. All of our contemporary assessments of Columbus come from a 21st century perspective that is at least a full lifetime removed from any real concept of mass die-offs caused by war and pestilence. The dying related to COVID-19 doesn’t hold a candle to what was experienced historically during times of social upheaval.

We lack a personal frame of reference for what “normal” was in the late 15th century. In a very real way, the past is a foreign country. Even as a student of history, I always had a problem with those in the business who feel the need to apply contemporary morality to historical events. History is all about subtlety and context… and both are completely lacking when we try to hold Columbus to the standards of modernity.

During the Age of Conquest, as the name implies, some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before we bothered writing the stories down. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. Now as a student of history myself, I’m all about understanding their story, but I’m not about rewriting the entire age of exploration into an overly simple victim narrative just to make someone feel better. Likewise, I’m under no illusion that Columbus or those that followed were demigods. History is a more complex animal than that.

Hundreds of millions of people lived and died during the three centuries of the Age of Discovery. Aside from kings and princes, we remember very few of them by name… and for those few we don’t remember them because they spent their often-short lifetimes boohooing the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent. 

In this household, Columbus and all the men who set out in fragile wooden ships from the Old World to lay claim to the New will always be celebrated.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The hunt. Sure, there are a few other minor annoyances, but the part of the before world that I probably miss most often while living in a plague year is regularly hunting for books. I’ve filled that particular gap by rounding out a couple sets and picking up some harder to find titles through online orders, but waiting for something to arrive in the mailbox lacks the more visceral element of finding just what you were looking for “in the wild.” There’s something special in finding that clean first edition or autographed copy laying at the bottom of the bargain bin or in someone’s yard sale clearance. I’m still gad that there’s a first edition/first printing of The Last Kingdom finally headed my way, but paying full retail and shipping definitely rankles.

2. Bloody wankers. My personal politics have always tended towards the conservative and/or libertarian. There are currently, though, whole swaths of people in that general demographic that I no longer know how to talk to. We may agree on issues of taxation, personal liberty, defense policy, and a host of other issues – but if you start any conversation or social media post proceeding from the proposition that science is in some way “out to get us,” I don’t know that we have anything further to say to one another. Science isn’t a fixed body of knowledge inherited from the ancients, unchanged and eternal. It’s an ongoing process of testing, probing, and adjusting to new facts as they develop. If, as we sit now in July, your argument against science is “that’s not what they said in March,” please just stop talking now before everyone near and dear to you realizes you’re a bloody wanker.

3. Waiting. There’s a skill to being able to wait patiently. It’s not a gift I’ve ever had, but I recognize that it is one. One of the hardest aspects of largely being able to set my own agenda over these last four months is clearly that I respond even more poorly than usual what all that’s left to do is sit around waiting for something to happen, particularly when the results are completely dependent on the actions of others.

What I learned this week…

There’s not much new under the sun. I suppose there never really is. If reading history is taught me anything, it’s that collectively we have a real tendency to do the same dumbass things over and over again while expecting different results.

With every week that goes by I find myself increasingly at odds with the world. The central pillar of my life philosophy has almost universally been I’ll leave you alone, if you leave me alone. We seem, now, to inhabit a space where even wanting to just be left to your own devices is some kind of heretical commission against one group or another.

It’s utter bullshit, of course. I don’t have much use for people. That’s not based on color, orientation, gender, or anything other than a lifetime of experience dealing with people in groups and individually. With a few notable exceptions, the experience has almost universally been disappointing.

So what did I learn this week? That’s easy. No matter the position you stake out, you’re always going to be the villain in someone’s story. If I’m going to be damned either way, it might as well be for doing what my own conscious dictates rather than capitulating to the mob on either side.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Priorities come, priorities go. My attention gets swept away to other things that feel important at the time. The one thing you can count on is that by Thursday at least there things will have throughly annoyed me. It’s comforting, like the steady ticking of a metronome. Every week. There it is.

1. Typhoid Mary. In the early part of the last century Mary Mallon was arrested and isolated as a known carrier of typhoid responsible for infecting at least 51 people with the then considered deadly disease. I introduce Mary as a reminder that if you’re sick enough to be hacking up a lung and generally sound and look like warm death, you’re sick enough to keep your ass at home. “I don’t think I’m contagious” or “I’m feeling better” aren’t good enough cover when you want to get all up in everyone’s personal space coughing out whatever version of plague you happen to be carrying. It may surprise you to discover that none of us are as indispensable as we might think we are. The world will most assuredly go on turning if we spend a few extra days on the couch, so don’t be shy about using a little time to feel better. If you won’t do it for our own sake, how about doing it for the people that get to share your recirculated air?

2. The internet. Despite that it provides the venue for any number of things that I enjoy doing, I’m currently finding the internet more of a giant time suck than usual. I need it not to be. There are things I really would like to get done – aside from being driven to distraction by pictures of cats and being tempted to read every scrap of information ever imagined by the human mind.

3. Sleep. Actually lack of sleep. The last two nights have been post-midnight bed times due to the issues discussed in Weekly Annoyance #2. As much as it pains me to admit it I need a good, solid night of going to bed early and staying there for about 12 hours. Likelihood of that happening any time soon: 0.00%.


Employee morale is generally one of those “tough nut to crack” problems. The picnics and certificates that get one employee all warm and fuzzy will likely tend to add fuel to another’s fire of discontent. How to get at the core of the problem is very rarely a one-oriental-cockroach_187x116size-fits-all kind of thing.

With that being said, I think the one morale boosting solution we can all agree on is getting rid of the insect infestations that plague the place like we’re running the Egypt exhibit at Mosesland. The drain flies that have taken up residence in the bathrooms for the last few months are bad enough. This week’s addition of cockroaches en mass really falls into a category well beyond what a cubicle-dweller should be expected to deal with.

Clogmia_Albipunctata_or_moth_flyI know funds are tight right now, but the solution really shouldn’t be just throwing more sticky traps into the corner and hoping for the best. Given the number of creatures I counted on the floor in the hallway this morning, we’re well into the realm of needing massive chemical intervention. Or possibly purifying the entire complex by fire. I’m not particularly repulsed by bugs but even I’ve reached the point where I’m starting to feel creepy crawly for no good reason other than knowing they’re there hiding in the dark recesses waiting to skulk over everything when the lights go out.

I’m not sure there’s enough Clorox in the state to make me feel OK about this one. So yeah, making things a little less buggy around the office might not cure all our ills, but it would be one giant leap in the right direction.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The first few seconds after the alarm goes off. Yeah, I’m a morning person by force of habit, but lately that alarm clock has been annoying me more than usual. If I didn’t know that a much louder and more powerful alarm clock on the other side of the room was going to go off five minutes after the first one, I’d be sorely tempted to heave it into the wall and go back to sleep. Maybe I could just stab myself in the ear with something pointy.

2. A three day holiday weekend is a glorious thing to behold. Having a day off in the middle of the week is more or less just a tease. A tease that gives you the illusion of a weekend, kicks you in the junk, and sends you back to work. In the future I’m going to need someone to remind me to schedule a few days of leave and make the random mid-week holiday a more worthwhile endeavor. On second thought, scratch that. I’m pretty sure no reminder will be necessary.

3. Veterinary medicine. After five visits to the vet in the last two months and what seems like a ridiculous number of tests, the vet has finally struck on what she thinks is the “root cause” of Winston’s skin infections and irritation: a drug resistant staph infection. This, of course, now requires a new round of treatment with new and interesting medication. If I’m not mistaken, the pills I picked up this afternoon are also used to treat malaria in, you know, actual people. Yep, the canine version of MRSA is right here in my very own house. So, yeah, feel free to stop by and tar a big “X” on my front door, because there be plague here. At least it’s not the skin sloughing, oozy kind of plague. That’s something, right?

There be plague here…

They say that stress if bad for your body, but I’ve found that it’s during those periods when I am under the least stress that I am most susceptible to illness. Over the last few days, I’ve been winding down a lot of my work and getting everything to a point where I can leave it on “pause” for the next two weeks while I’m on vacation. Wouldn’t you know that between the goddamned apocalyptic pollen count here in the south and the upper respiratory crud that we have been passing around the office for the last month, I’ve managed to get myself sick. Although it’s nothing serious and I fully expect to be back in fine fiddle by the time we leave for Italy, it’s just one of those minor inconveniences that combine to agitate the living shit out of me. I’ll take the weekend to rest up and OD on orange juice, but in the meantime, turn back, for there be plague here.