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Eric Lurio

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Little kids love dinosaurs. Ages ago, as a little kid myself, I was like everyone else in that regard. I had a Styrofoam T-rex skeleton in my room, some toys and a whole bunch of books on the subject.

One of these was a guide to ancient life published by Little Golden books. Like some of my others, it went back to the beginning of the planet, which meant that it had a little bit on the first four billion years of earth’s history and really started in the Cambrian, where the first fossils came from. I really liked this part. The animals from the Paleozoic were so exotic and weird, especially the invertebrates, which were usually ignored after the Devonian’s fish and amphibians, took the stage and stuff started to look like dinosaurs

But I was fascinated by the invertebrates. I was a trilobite freak. They dominated the seas until the middle of the Paleozoic, and then they petered out, going extinct at the end of the era. But there were others, giant sea scorpions, and echinoderms: starfish, sea urchins, and beautiful and weird stalked things called sea lilies or crinoids. Ah crinoids! a minor childhood obsession that stuck in the back of my mind for a lifetime. Crinoids still exist at the bottom of the seas and I dearly wanted to see one in real life.

Sea Lilies dominated the seas of the Paleozoic, they are some of the most common fossils and in the shallow seas of the time and, there were billions of them, covering the ocean floor like sunflowers in Kansas. One tiny group of them managed to survive into the Mesozoic and they flourished again, but after the dinosaurs died out, they retreated into the deep abyss, well out of range for snorkelers like yours truly.

Then, decades after I gave up hope, an opportunity presented itself.

Roatán is the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands. G Adventures had a month long tour of Central America that was 20% off, and it being cold up here in New York in December, I had decided to take it. Roatain was one of the stops and it was primarily for the beach. One thing I discovered when I got there was that there was this guy named Karl Stanley, who had a submarine and gave tours of the continental shelf all the way down to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. The eight year old in the back of my mind screamed out: “There’s CRINOIDS down there and I wanna see ‘em!!!” So the middle-aged rest of me decided investigate whether or not it was practicable or not.

There are lots of dive shops in Half Moon Bay, and they all knew about Stanley’s Roatán Institute for Deep-sea Exploration, but unfortunately none of them could get me a reservation. He makes them himself via his website or in person. It’s either PayPal or cash, and at $600 p.p. is out of most people’s league and I didn’t know it was per person at double occupancy. Still, it was worth a try…

I went to Half Moon Bay’s lone Internet café and sent an email. Then I went to actually find the office. This was a bit harder than I expected, as it was on the second floor of a slightly rundown house surrounded by near identical rundown houses. I found him and introduced myself. He then explained that due to weight distribution on his submarine, it was two passengers or nothing, but there was this woman who wanted a ride. He’d contact here and if she was a go, I was a go. That’s six hundred bucks, IN CASH. Something like Sixteen THOUSAND Honduran Lampiras.

So I went on an expedition to find an ATM that had that much money in it. This required a boat trip to the next town and sneaking into a ritzy resort with guards.

I went back to Half Moon Bay with a huge bulge in my money belt and prayed that I wouldn’t get robbed.

I stopped by the office again and asked Stanly if he wanted my money. He said not yet, he hadn’t heard from the other person. So I went back into town and waited…

So I had dinner and then went to a bar for a bit and went to bed. The next morning, I got up, had some coffee and went to look at the submarine. Stanley came down and told me he hadn’t heard from the other person. I said he should call, in case the guy at the hotel had forgot to give her the message.

It turned out he had: The start of a glorious day.

So we waited while my partner went to get six hundred bucks in cash while we were waiting, Stanley and his crew prepped the boat while he told me his story:

He was a big fan of nature shows as a kid, and in junior high he decided to make a deep-sea submarine in his back yard. That’s sort of like building a Lear Jet, it’s not rocket science, but…no, it IS rocket science. You have to find the right materials, understand propulsion and pressure, and make most of the parts yourself.

I guess he tried it out in a lake or something, he went to a trade show and tried to sell it No buyers, which is understandable, who in his right mind would buy the equivalent of a homemade spaceship from a frigging teenager?

So Stanly went to college, getting a BA in American politics or something. I was pretty amazed because I would have imagined he would have majored in Oceanography. I think he took some courses however.

So he took his midlevel tech toy and went to Roatan. The reason was twofold: The continental shelf was only a couple of hundred yards from the beach, and Honduras didn’t have any regulations regarding submarines. That was 1994.

Since then he’s built a better sub and has gone down thousands of times. He complained that he undercharged National Geographic and Animal planet when they went down with him to film abyssal sea life. He was telling me about the politics of the island when my partner and her boyfriend showed up.

We shook hands; I gave Stanly my money and so did she. We were weighed, signed a waiver (he doesn’t have insurance} and off we wen…no we didn’t. She went into the sub and got a massive claustrophobia attack. She got out and demanded her money back. White as a sheet she was. My dream of crinoids was dying right then and there. I still wanted to go, but without another person, it was impossible. I waited while he got out his cell phone and called another person who was interested. He still was and was thrilled he had just gotten someone else to go with him.

I was stuck. Stanly was out twelve hundred bucks and all the work for the morning’s preparations. I felt sick, but then... then he came up with an idea. He was friends with a retired nurse who ran a clinic on the island for the impoverished residents and had promised to give one of the volunteers a free trip. He made the call. Someone was picked. I would only have to pay the per person fee.

Inner space, here I come!

Continental shelves are something that is rather hard to imagine for us landlubbers. Most people who go to the beach generally find that the ground beneath the sea gradually gets deeper and deeper until one cannot stand up anymore. One doesn’t expect a two-mile high cliff. As we went along the surface of the Caribbean, it was like the glass bottom boats that were available for trips at far less money. Bits of coral surrounded by plants and small fish. It was surprisingly drab. Then we hit the cliff face, went out into the open sea, and started going down.

With our backs to the cliff face, things started getting dark,that was about two hundred feet. Then five. It was totally black and our guide decided to turn on the lights, but that wasn’t much of a help until we passed a thousand then at around 1200 feet we hit bottom.

There was a rock. Stanly told us to look for a beer can on our left. The rock was further away than I had thought, and it was huge. There was a chimera, a kind of shark swimming close by. We didn’t see it for long. However we did see sponges, though, lots and lots of sponges.

As we realized we were actually at the bottom of the sea, Jeremy got us off the bottom, turned our sub around, and began the slow ascent to the surface.

Over the last two million years, the polar ice caps have retreated and advanced many times, and with each advance the depth of the ocean has varied by hundreds of feet, and with no pollution to harm it for most of that time, the coral grew and grew. Coral only thrives near the surface, so the reefs down near the bottom are all fossils, but everything else is still quite alive and mostly sponges and crustaceans. We didn’t see all that many crustaceans, but we did see some fish swimming along the cliff face. They didn’t look as weird as I had hoped, but it was kind of strange to see them swimming vertically instead of horizontally. Then we saw one.

There are two kinds of crinoids: stalked sea lilies and free-swimming, stalkless feather stars. Down where were we were, the stalked kind pretty much had the area all to themselves. There one was in all it’s glory with its fronds hanging out, catching detritus from further up. I’d been waiting decades to see this. For a second I was a kid again, dreaming of the Paleozoic, which was what was sitting right in front of me. Jeremy pointed out a nondescript shell, which, he said was worth ten thousand dollars. It was a Monoplacophoran, which was known only from fossils and down around here. Prior to 1952, it was thought they had been extinct for 250 million years. I’d heard of these and wished they were more interesting looking.

The thing about Jeremy’s submarine was that it had a huge front window. The view of the cliff face was really easy to look out of. Life became more common as we ascended, and I got to see more sea lilies and Coral-like Sea Fans. There was a feather star sitting on a sea fan, which would have made a nice photograph, and all sorts of weird sponges and tunicates, which are vertebrates who think they’re sponges. Then at about four hundred feet we saw a lionfish.

Lionfish are an invasive species that got into the Caribbean area when either hurricane Andrew or Katrina freed some from an aquarium breeding company in Florida or Louisiana. They are currently everywhere between the Carolinas and Venezuela and are THE ecological problem of the region, which is saying something.

All too soon it was over. Had that women not gotten claustrophobia, we would have had an extra hour, but I had seen what I came to see. It would be enough.

The World Comes to an end yet again

The world is coming to an end. Again. On December the 21st, 2012, long count of the Mayan calendar, which allegedly started back around 3200 BC, for reasons that no one actually knows. So lots of people think that when the long count ends, the whole world will go blooy. I’m going down to Copan in Honduras, which is the easternmost edge of the “Mundo Maya.” There’s going to be parties everywhere, so why not?

The end of the world is something that is predicted and re-predicted about two or three times a year. Sometimes, these predictions are right on. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said it would happen in August of 1914, and some Jewish mystic said it would on Rosh Hashanah 5700 (September 1939), and lo and behold; there were two world wars. So who knows?

All the brouhaha has to do with the fact that the Maya are famously mysterious. This is because they liked to throw away their cities every now and then, and melt back into the forest. They lost all but two of their books to Spanish censors back in the 1550s, and so their alphabet (actually a syllabary like the Japanese) was long forgotten and illegible. That was until the 1990s, but before then, they were considered a mysterious and peaceful bunch of astronomers who had a perfect civilization before they vanished entirely, and left their land to a bunch of savages who took the name, and oh yeah, they had this really funky calendar which ends in 2012.

They still say that on some History Channel specials.

But in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the “glyphs” were deciphered and everything changed, the Maya were learned to be ruled by a warlike bunch who liked to fight with each other until the commoners got fed up and left for the jungles, leaving their glimmering cities to collapse.

It is these cities, which were never really lost, that have become the center of the tourist industry of Western Central America, from Chiapas to the west to Somewhere in El Salvador to the east. The most famous of these is Chechen Izta near the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula, Iconic as is possible to be, it’s located in a theme park of sorts, just the place for an “end of the world “ celebration.

Most of the major public Mayan cities are gearing up for a tourist bonanza, New Agers from everywhere are going to do their thing to celebrate what they think are the ancient rites of the pre-decipherment mythology. With any luck, there’s going to be lots of semi-legal intoxicants to enhance the experience.

It’s kind of late to do anything about getting there, but in case you can, most of the festivities are near the beach. Cancun, for example is a genuine Mayan temple in the Hotel Zone (it was the only thing there before the city was planned.), The dozen theme parks along the “Riviera Maya” are all having big events, and Belize is having a major push to double it’s usual tourism revenue.

The Mystery of the Maya is vanishing, Archeologist have managed to discover most of the reasons why the so-called “Classic” civilization collapsed (El Niño, and a long drought) and even so, the ruins are impressive pretty much anywhere. The best are Chechen Itza, which is easy go get to and Palenque, which is not, Both in Mexico, Tikal and Copan, which are in Central America and are to some extent even better, but are quite difficult to get to. There are lots of minor sites which can be fascinating.

Remember if you want to find out more, stay away from anything New Agey. The New Age movement has rejected most of the knowledge acquired by archeologists in the past few decades and tries to cling to stuff which was proffered by Eric Thompson, who was bamboozled by Mayan friends of his who proffered a totally fraudulent picture of the civilization and tried to enforce his view on the academic world for much of the 20th century.

Those who think the castles and pyramids were built under the supervision of Space Aliens are still around and are going to be down in the Riviera Maya in force. It’s going to be fun to watch them make fools of themselves up close.

The REAL thing is always more interesting than the fantasy. Hopefully the end of the world will make this idea more popular.

The End of OSCAR Season

Why don’t they make more movies out of literary classics?

One reason is because the overwhelming majority of them are vastly overrated.

One good example is Anna Karenina, based on Tolstoy’s classic soap opera. Anna is married to a saintly (as she says so over and over again) national cabinet minister, with whom she’s in love with. So, it’s obvious, Tolstoy, who was a bit of a misogynist, will move to destroy this domestic bliss. So she falls in love with a beautiful moron with the title of Baron, and…you get the idea.

Tolstoy is famously wordy. This appears to be based on the Cliff Notes® version, and that is mostly a mean little story (or two, but they appear to have little to do with each other), so how to make it watchable? Staging?

The film takes place in a theater. Since this is a movie, the entire theater, from the rafters to the seats, are used. At first, this is a good idea; the camera angles and the stylized costuming distract us from the mostly boring story. The contrast between the lush costumes and scenery and the spartan, stylized space, and things like model trains going from St. Petersburg to Moscow, but then sometime in the middle, one of the characters walks out into a field, and the illusion falls apart. The illusion that we’re watching a play is shattered, and it turns into a regular movie, and then we discover that the only reason this is considered a classic is that it was written by Tolstoy, not on it’s own merits.

The problem with a film like this is that people come for the story and not the visuals. This isn’t always the case, Avatar was a huge hit and had one of the worst scripts of the decade. But in this case, it’s literary film all about the writing, and if the writing fails, then the whole ting falls apart.

The fact that it’s having a very limited release won’t be any help either, as this sort of thing is going to be decided by word of mouth of the literati. It’s going to be a massive flop.

Another literary adaptation that isn’t doing all that well is Life of Pi, which is a much, much better film.

They said Life of Pi was unfilmable. Clearly it is. . The reason is CGI animation. Many of the backgrounds and all the animals are computer generated, creating a wonder-filled sea and a carnivorous island. The magically realist story is brought completely to life by Ang Lee and his team of animators. The technology is now fully capable, and the visuals add greatly to the storytelling.

The acting is professional. No one gives a poor, or even mediocre performance and before the it turns into a literal cartoon, it more than holds one’s attention, but then the ship sinks and the Pi() begins to play second fiddle to the CGI characters. It’s one guy in front of a green screen all by his little self. Armed only with Tom Stoppard’s script and Ang Lee’s direction. The whole thing works, so why isn’t it doing better? 007 and Vampires, as Parents were all at the stores buying gifts, as their kids go off to the movies so they don’t act as a drag on mom and dad.

This may be one of those years that the Oscars will go to film s that few before their nominated, and Classic books and recent best sellers will get the short shrift.

Commentary: Dead Presidents and Awards Season

The election is over, thank God, but fascination with the presidency goes on. The “big three” -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt -- are back with a vengeance on the big and little screens.

George Washington

The latest edition of Assassin’s Creed takes place during the American Revolution and GW is a major character. Unfortunately, I suck at video games so I haven’t actually perused it. I throw it to the audience to add your own commentary on this game and its consequences.

Abraham Lincoln

Filmmakers have been trying to portray the Great Emancipator at least since Birth of a Nation a century ago, and with the possible exception of Raymond Massey’s portrayal in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor) most have failed. He’s just too iconic. 

There’s something about being a national hero, THE national hero, that makes it difficult to do a portrayal of that person as a regular human being. In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg doesn’t do a full biography, but just concentrates on one incident, the passing of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the first in over half a century.

For the most part, the film is a celebration of the art of lobbying. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), hires three unsavory lobbyists -- William N. Bilbo (James Spader), Colonel Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Congressman Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) -- to bribe Democrats (who were the bad guys in those days) by offering retiring and defeated congressmen patronage jobs.

While Daniel Day Lewis is utterly brilliant as Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones steals the show playing Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Congressman who led the antislavery movement -- well before there even was a Republican party -- and then the Radical Republicans. He channels Don Rickles and is a hoot. This is one of his best performances, and the whole thing is reminiscent of The West Wing in 19th century drag.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Director Roger Michel’s Hyde Park on the Hudson has been making the rounds of the film festival circuit and it just recently opened. If this one doesn’t get Bill Murray an Oscar®, he’ll never get one. The film’s got everything a Masterpiece Theater fan or political junkie would want. 

After all, there’s nothing the British are better at than a good costume drama, and the visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and his Queen (Olivia Colman) -- the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth -- to the US in 1939 is the perfect vehicle for expanding the American market.

With the Great Depression finally ending and World War II looming on the horizon, someone in the administration had decided that President Roosevelt (Murray) needed a playmate, and found one in his sixth cousin Daisy Suckley(Laura Linney), who is taking care of a very aged aunt. 

The film has the feel of Downton Abbey meets the West Wing to it, as Daisy and FDR fall in “like” with each other and what happens when she discovers he’s shagging his secretary Missy Lehand (Elizabeth Marvel), while their majesties are making a royal visit to the President in order to deliver English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s request for help after he realized he’d made a huge mistake trying to buy Germany’s Adolf Hitler off.

It’s a fun film and really nice to see history done right for a change. I remember how Spielberg really botched Martin Van Buren in Amistad a decade ago, and more recently, Oliver Stone’s horrible history series on Showtime. But with the election over and politics thankfully on the back burner for a year and a half, I don’t think we will see anything like these films in quite a while. 

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