X-Ray Vision

Take a lesson from the citizens of Pompeii. When disaster strikes, like say for instance a volcano erupts, the best thing to do is run. Or maybe not. Maybe the best thing to do is avoid volcanos. The second best thing to do is run. The third best thing to do is get mummified in lava, soot and ash so that two thousand years later smug grad students can stick you through a CT scanner to figure out why you were too lazy to outrun the deadly plume burping out of the fiery mountain.

I like volcanos. They are beautiful from a distance, a wonder of geology. But when the thing pops like an oily teenager’s monstrous blackhead, things can turn ugly fast. Mount Vesuvius, named after those obnoxious horns used at soccer games (right?) erupted in the first century A.D. The science of seismology was a budding science at the time, making it much harder to predict catastrophe. When the ground shook it was because Zeus had been caught fornicating with livestock and when red lava flowed in rivers down the hillside it was because Prometheus was a kleptomaniac and when the crops suffered it was because of “hey, fuggeddabouddit.”

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius covered Pompeii with a blanket of powdery ash that smothered the citizens who weren’t fast enough to escape it. They were entombed and preserved in the middle of their routines–washing clothes, picking olives, bringing their sundries to market, playing their rebecs, shawms, theorbos, zithers, watching their televisions–which was their term for “window that overlooks loud neighbors,” while the sky turned black and angry fire rained from the sky. For years scientists have sought to understand more about these fossilized victims. Now new CT scanning technology is hoping to uncover details about these ancient people that were previously unknown. Already breakthroughs have been made. For instance what was thought to be pregnant women left behind turned out to be fat men who were a little too slow when it came to fleeing. Most had good teeth and hair like the Werewolves of London, which points to a certain level of vanity. Most had an amphora full of wine and a mirror nearby. Most had their feet still intact, disproving the theory that the reason they didn’t seek shelter was because they were missing. Other discoveries have been made, some that seemed only natural.

“Every one of these guys had their dick in their hand,” said an archaeologist. “Go figure.”

The writer Malcolm Lowry understood about the dangers of volcanos. He wrote a novel about a couple of them down in Mexico. Unfortunately volcanos were the least of his problems, since he had an alcohol dependency bigger than W.C. Fields, Babe Ruth and Ernie Hemingway all put together. For his first drink in the morning he had to rig a pulley system in order to lift the cup to his mouth because his shakes and tremors were so bad that if he was holding it all the tequila would fly out before he got it to his lips. Being covered in molten rock would’ve been preferable to that level of hangover.

It is hard to predict how much can be learned from x-raying our ancestors, unless through some dumb luck superstition each one of them swallowed their diaries before they perished. Every civilization has its perils. The most important lesson about Mount Vesuvius is don’t get caught around active volcanos. No CT scanning necessary. Mind the funnel cloud. Don’t pet the hooded cobra or the frothing dog or the roaring lion. Wasp nests make bad beach balls. Don’t wear the suit of armor to the lightning show. The gigantic fin sticking out of the water is probably attached to something bigger. The asteroid isn’t stopping by to make friends. The blizzard isn’t there to cover up the graffiti. Birthday cake, good. Uranium cake, bad. The guy in the van isn’t the candyman. Pain isn’t the only thing that painkillers kill. The big mushroom cloud in the sky isn’t the delicious portobello kind. The internet wants to devour you. Cancer isn’t just your cells on an ego trip. Mental illness isn’t just all in the mind.

When they stick our society into the CT scanner two thousand years from now they will detail how advanced we must have been, given our prosthetic limbs, fine dental work, plastic organs, sleek caskets, sophisticated phones clenched in ossified hands, and the fact that so many citizens died wearing ornate, bullet-shaped jewelry under their skin, clearly an indication of the ruling class.

More Alembics to come.

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