Face Value


I’ve made a few dozen trips to Russia and on each trip bought a few dozen pieces of Khoklama. This is traditional, Russian hand painted wood, usually bowls, spoons, vases, and even swans and tables. Mostly I bought bowls, but hundreds of these beautiful red and black and gold gifts are stowed about the house in Rubbermaid storage containers. These things ended up in boxes, behind shelves and in drawers. I like them. I use some for coins, some for pens, some for flowers or a candle, or candy. One holds exactly a one pound bag of M and M’s. Really, I could open a gift shop and make some serious rubles.

One of the first times I traveled to Russia in the early nineties shop-keepers still weren’t trained in selling these things and when I asked how much for the beautiful hand-painted bowl with the lid the woman said after much discussion with her colleague, “How about one dollar?” I’m still somewhat certain had I negotiated I could have walked out with two or three for a buck. But as it was, a dollar seemed fair for what would eventually cost in the same shop seventy five to one hundred dollars. I bought twenty that first time. I gave them as gifts, I used them, and I stowed them away. Once one broke and while part of me was disappointed since it came from one of my early trips, it wouldn’t be missed.

When my son was younger he liked to dig. He was convinced somewhere on our property, which sits near the Rappahannock River near where the troupes marched during the Civil War, is spent ammunition. He may be right. There are mounds along the perimeter that resemble casements, and a few seem too much like burial hills. So he dug. And it was Michael who came up with the notion that if we buried a few dozen broken Khokloma bowls, a few spent bottles of vodka, and perhaps a torn up book written in Cyrillic with some beets in an old campfire, a thousand years from now archaeologists will rope off the area and attempt to figure out the trade route that brought Russians from Western Europe to central Virginia. Future Phds might note these ancient people most likely couldn’t survive due to a fondness of bad alcohol.

Recently a horde of Bronze Age weapons was unearthed in England. From this very cool discovery of what resembles small shovels, pick-axes, and what can best be described as head-cracking-open thingys, researchers and other people who know determined the Bronze Age inhabitants of that part of England were violent nomads who couldn’t organize enough to conquer each other. Okay, on the surface I can see where it appears that way, but perhaps they just liked each other. Maybe those small Bronze Age bronze tools and so-called weapons were their version of our cold war stockpiles of nuclear threats so we won’t attack each other. They may, in fact, have meant to defend themselves against aliens but when they arrived they all got along simply divinely and they buried their hatchets in celebration of inter-galactic accords and from that time we gained the expression, “Let’s bury the hatchet.” Who the hell knows? Maybe they were the Bronze Age equivalent of ashtrays from seventh grade shop. The shovel and head-cracking-open thingys were all they could figure out how to make. “It was supposed to be a lamp, Ma!” little Zorr might have whined. “Oh honey it looks lovely,” his mom answered in a pre-British accent as she tossed it in the neighborhood pile of trash.

They didn’t recycle. Time passes.

So we’ve decided to make an archaeological compost pile. This one, Russian, perhaps in a few years after several more trips to Prague, another pile on the other side of the property made from Czech glass and pottery. We might even toss in some torn and tattered nonsensical language and send the diggers searching for a new Rosetta Stone to break the code of these Slavic people speaking odd English in America.

Yes, we are scientists of a different era, ready to guarantee future funding of necessary research projects insuring jobs to graduate students a thousand years from now. We are doing our part. Open the vodka, have some M and M’s, let’s get started.

But first I need to unearth something closer to my own surface, some relics from my recent past. I’ve gathered information and ambitions through time and place and often it is difficult to see how they match up. Did the farm house in Pennsylvania where I spent some intensely happy days in ’86 have anything to do with the Mexican blankets? And those stories an old friend of mine told me while driving to Niagara Falls on random weekends; are they related to my trip across Siberia or Spain? On the surface these events seem so disjointed, but when I dig deeper and understand the language of time a bit more, it all starts to make sense. While Browning believed, “The past is in its grave,” Jackson Browne said of the past, “I’m looking back carefully. There’s still something there for me.”

I like to walk carefully through the woods near home. If I am not paying attention I might think I’m walking through Heckscher State Park on Long Island’s South Shore where I spent many happy years; or it could be the Berkshires, or the Enchanted Mountains of Western New York. I believe if I were to look at my life many years from now to trace my journey on this earth, what on the surface seemed decisions as random as the ricochet of a pinball, underneath it all I would fine everything connected by passion and desire and some quixotic need to keep digging.


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