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It’s Not Magic Folks – Recontextualizing the Precolombian

I had the privilege recently of visiting the Yucatán in México for a Suzuki music conference in Cancún. Jaimito and I and the group took the time to tourist around, visiting Mayan temples, ruins, learning the history, and the past and current political realities of the people. I have more to say on that, but I’d like to start with two particular things that really stuck out to me. Both of them reminded me that we humans are not so different, separated by time, distance, and culture.

First, the Yucatán is an arid place, dotted with limestone sink holes called cenotes. These water filled holes are entrance points to a vast reservoir system that runs beneath. Rains have been somewhat regular, but sparse and hard to predict for centuries.

Keep that in mind.

The other: The Mayan people were a highly developed organized society with a mature and systematized knowledge of agriculture, astronomy, and government. They were not the blood thirsty primitives portrayed in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (they hate that movie, by the way).

In Chichén Itzá I came face to face with something startling, a temple to the stars.

What does this remind you of?

It’s literally just an observatory, and even more incredible is that it looks just like modern observatories. These buildings and the others are well over 1,000 years old. What was Europe doing at this time?

The observatory was used to study the skies, predict cycles, determine when to plant, when to hold ritual celebrations. Think about it. This structure was practical. It was constructed at great expense, deliberately, with great precision to have a view of Venus and the stars and to track their paths across the sky. The structure wasn’t decorative. It wasn’t thrown together. It was engineered and constructed to last (over a 1,000 years and counting), all so that the Mayan people could understand their world better.

Science. Not magic. Not superstition. Not spirits and bogeymen. It was an achievement akin to the Greeks of the ancient world, the Arabs during their Golden Age, and later to the Europeans of the Renaissance.

Let’s leave that for a bit and head to the ruins of Tulún.

Temple to the Wind

This structure was described to us as the Temple to the Wind. I got chills when I saw it. It dawned on me that the word “temple” isn’t spiritual in our modern sensibilities of the separation of the physical and the so-called spiritual. Temple to the wind here is very clearly the place where they study the wind, the place wherein the knowledge of the wind is contained and studied. Knowledge may be communicated as spiritual, to know the essence of something, to own it, is as much a spiritual as a practical experience.

Look at it. Look at the palm trees bending in the wind. It was placed on a small peninsula jutting out to sea. It reminds me of a weather station. From this point, they would have the most advanced knowledge of coming hurricanes, changes in wind direction, temperature, and perhaps atmospheric pressure.

Learning about the Mayan people, seeing their land, putting myself in their context gave me tremendous respect for their accomplishments.

Less a bloodthirsty, primitive people for whom the world was a mystery to be feared, and whose response was resorting to human sacrifice and bloodshed to survive, I saw an organized, thoughtful people using science to support their civilization through observation and study.

If we call it superstition or belief in supernatural mojo, that’s on us, ’cause that’s not what I saw.

Will You Guys Just Kiss Already?!

The year before Laura and I started dating, there were signs. The first that I can recall clearly was very typically in the vein of the clueless male.

I was talking with this girl at the Sigma Chi house. We hit it off instantly and spent the hours getting to know each other. You remember those days, no – two people insatiably smitten with each other babbling on about absolutely everything? “Do you want to go someplace else?” I asked. She said sure. I grabbed her hand and with the exuberance of a puppy I blurted out, “You’ve got to meet my friend, Laura.”

“Uh, um, sure, I guess…”

I mean, who does a thing like that? Men, that’s who. We are stupid.

What was I thinking? Did I really just ask her to meet my female friend, Laura? As luck would have it, this girl was really into me, so I got a break.  Her half-hearted acquiescence was all I needed and I took it. We rushed over to Laura’s apartment and knocked on the door. Nobody answered. She and her roommates were out.

Jana and I ended up head over heals for a time, but I still reflect upon that first instinct. I wanted her to meet my friend, Laura. I was a like a little kid who wanted his new friend to meet his other best friend. I probably also wanted Laura’s approval, to look this woman over and give me a thumbs up. Stupid, right?

Then there were the notes obviously written by lovers, the gifts, the attention. It’s a wonder I dated anyone during that time. Any woman would wonder. Who is this Laura person? Can they really be just “friends.”

Laura had her pursuers as well, pretty boys who didn’t last past one or two dates. I’d go over and help her prepare. My friend Lauren tells me she knew we were destined to be together when she saw me iron a dress for Laura. I would tell her she looked lovely, gorgeous in her outfits. Makeup was perfect. A million bucks. Now off you go. Good luck. He’s a moron if he blows it. She’d smile, tell me that I was sweet, give me a peck on the cheek and head out for her date.

“How did it go,” I’d ask the next day.


This one was too into himself. This one was too shy. This one was just a pretty face. “Ugh, I can’t believe I made out with him.”

It was all innocent. We swear it was. We were friends. There was not a hint of romance, no designs, no inclinations, just an affectionate platonic love.

And so it goes onward, just the two of us. Eventually all the way back in 1992 on this very day, we deliberately started down this path together. If we are honest with each other, though, our trajectories had converged long before. We wanted the best things for the other, the best dates, the best times, and each other’s approval in so many ways.

It’s all so transparent in retrospect, but at the time we were blindsided by that fateful day where we became more than friends.

Recounting the stories of our youth to our 16 year old, she joked, “It’s like God was watching a reality show and started yelling at the TV, ‘Will you guys just kiss already!'”

Perfect Heroes

“Hey Daddy, was Jesus perfect?”

“That’s a tough question, Javier. Hmmm, I don’t know how to answer that. I’m going to say no, he wasn’t perfect.”

“Well, some kids in my class say he was perfect, but I don’t think so. He must have made his mommy mad at some point when he was little.”

“Hah, you’re right. I’ll bet he didn’t eat his apples all the time like Asier. You raise an interesting point though, Javier. I actually don’t know if perfect is even a relevant question to ask. What is perfection? Never making a mistake? You can’t be human without learning from making mistakes and learning from them. If perfection is completely living your potential, then he might have been perfect, but still, most people see perfection as just not making any mistakes. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a perfect man. Some say he cheated on his wife. I’m sure he would be the first to tell you that he was a sinner. Does that make him less of a hero? He struggled and sacrificed for us all, but he had his weaknesses. If Jesus was fully human, it would follow that he made some mistakes too, but again, I don’t even think it’s relevant to talk about. Just like Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, it’s not relevant to mention his individual failings. The most important measure of their lives is their heroism.”

“Isn’t it more interesting to talk about heroes than perfect people? Perfection isn’t a goal. Heroism is the goal. Was Jesus perfect, is the wrong question. He was a hero because he made heroic choices in his life. He overcame his weaknesses, his fear, and his doubt to make a heroic choice.”

“So there you go, Javier perfection isn’t the goal of life, heroism is.”

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