“Looks like all those damn tunes are related to each other. You notice that?
Clark Terry in Keep On Keepin’ On
What’s up with the Stans? I’m not talking about a bunch of Polish stevedores working the Port of New Orleans. I’m talking about countries we know are there, but we are not sure how many, which is which and if it really matters. I’m talking about:
So what groups these five countries together? Well, they all end in stan, which is a Persian suffix meaning “place” or “land”. They are also home to groups of nomads and these nomads roam through mostly desert and mountainous terrain.
“Much of Tajikistan is unsuitable for human habitation.” The Encyclopedia Britannica
All of these countries have fallen under the control of foreign powers from the Persians to Mongrels. All became part of the Russia during the “Great Game.” All gained independence after the Soviet Union collapse and proceeded to install their own brutal regimes.
“Despite being a harshly governed police state, Uzbekistan remains an extremely friendly country.” The Lonely Planet
So, what separates Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan? What makes a Tajik different from a Turk? To help explain the subtleties it’s best not to see them as countries but five Irish brothers living in Brooklyn, New York.
First, there is Patrick (Kazakhstan). Not only is he the oldest, he is also the biggest. (Ninth largest country in the world.) He turned his natural prowess and good looks from being the high school quarterback into selling real estate in Sheepshead Bay. (Russian gulags were once housed within its borders.) He is by far mother’s favorite, a true mama’s boy constantly looking for love from an often remote, yet domineering parent. (In 1997 Kazakhstan moved its capital from the populous city of Almaty 750 miles north to Astana, a city in the middle of nowhere, but closer to the Russian border.)
Then there is Seamus (Uzbekistan). Unlike his older brother, he is more of a homebody. (A country that is doubly landlocked, meaning it is surrounded by countries that are also landlocked.) What he didn’t get in strength and looks he made up with smarts, earning money as a day trader on the commodities market. (It is the fifth largest exporter of cotton and has the world’s largest gold mine.) And since he never leaves home, he has a lot of kids. (Largest population of the Stans at 32 million.)
Then you have Donny (Turkmenistan). Donny’s career is his image and his image is making sure that everybody knows his name. (Its first leader, Saparmurat Niyazov renamed the days of the week after himself and his family.) Having no kids or steady girlfriend, Donny spends his money on fancy cars and Italian suits. (The capital of Ashgabet has the most marble-clad buildings in the world at 543.) But even with all the flash you can still see the wear in his baggy eyes. (It is 90% desert and in this vast land of nothingness is the “Door to Hell”, a Soviet mining disaster, now known as Darvaza, a never-ending, fire-belching crater.)
Lastly, the twins, Mickey and Mikey (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan).
From day one Mickey was trouble. Sullen and remote (90% mountains), he constantly fought with his mother, who eventually shuttled him off to a military academy. But it didn’t last. After a couple of months, Mickey left the boarding school and now lives with his cousin, Frankie (Afghanistan). He makes what money he can by collecting cans and dealing drugs. (Its major export is aluminum, but it is believed that the transportation of heroin from Afghanistan makes up 50% of the country’s GDP.)
Mikey also constantly fought with his mother. (In 1916 the country lost one sixth of its population in an uprising against Russia.) And even though he is as sullen as his twin brother, he found a positive avenue by discovering a love of books. (The country has a rich literary tradition and its epic Manus is twenty times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey.)
With this new found passion Mikey is getting his GED and hopes to go onto college for he wants to teach and be a wrestling coach. (It was the first country of the Stans to peacefully transfer power through an election. Also, if you are looking for some rugged adventure, Kyrgyzstan hosts the World Nomad Games, which features a lot of wrestling and horse racing and wrestling on horses.)
Similar not only runs through vast landscapes of nothingness. It can be also found in the orchestra pit. After all, what separates a clarinet from an oboe? Is the viola the less popular cousin to the violin? If one can play the flute, is the piccolo doable? And why did the trumpet so thoroughly displace the cornet?
To answer this question is to go back to the beginning for the trumpet didn’t appear like a celestial gift from heralding angels. Before cell phones and social media, rulers needed a way to get their subjects’ attention. The Hebrews used the shofar for religious ceremonies and military campaigns. The Vikings would blow their war horns to let villagers know they were soon to be plundered. Then, the Bronze Age arrived with Roman rule and the tuba and buccina.
Made of bronze the Roman tuba was the great granddaddy of the trumpet. You can even see the resemblance with the long cylinder and flared bell. And as the years progressed, the length grew even longer with the French buisine and fanfare trumpet.
Lugging a six-foot instrument with attached banners is alright if you are just standing around the palace waiting for the king to arrive. It’s not very fun if you are in the middle of a battle trying to blare out instructions to the archers. So, with the introduction of the more malleable brass, the six-foot instrument was folded into a more agreeable size (natural trumpet).
The buccina was also an unwieldy instrument. Thirteen feet in length it had to be carefully shaped into a hula hoop so a person could even play it. Still, it wasn’t an instrument you could stick in an overnight bag for a concert in Vienna. And though it provided a Roman Emperor a regal and noble sound, over time this great granddaddy became smaller (natural horn) and smaller (post horn) until you could fit a cornet into a gym bag.
Even though the trumpet and cornet come from separate musical lineages, on balance they look the same. In fact, from a distance you might not be able to tell them apart, but up close you will notice that one is long and the other stout.
Once again we can bring in the brothers, Patrick (trumpet) and Seamus (cornet) for comparison. Sure, they both have a distinct Brooklyn accent. But with a cylinder bore (think garden hose) Patrick’s voice is tight and compact and can be heard from six blocks away. Whereas Seamus has a conical bore (think ice cream cone), which makes his voice soft and mellow. Seamus might be a fine baritone singer in the shower but you are never going to hear him over Patrick if an argument breaks out at the dinner table.
“The cornet is like light in a fog and a trumpet is more like a laser beam.” Cornet player Kirk Knuffke
Long trumping wide is not only found in instruments. It can also be seen in the wild kingdom.
From a distance alligators and crocodiles look pretty similar. They both are semi-aquatic reptiles with thick plates for skin and rows of razor-sharp teeth. They have long tails and short legs. They even share the same name but from different languages.
Crocodile comes from the ancient Greek word for lizard crocodilio. Alligator comes from the Spanish el lagarto, also meaning “the lizard”. The name came when Spanish explorers reached the shores of Florida, saw the New World creature and said:
“Llévanos al oro, el lagarto gigante.” Translation: Take us to the gold, giant lizard.
So, what makes them different? Well, if you are brave enough to venture close, you will notice their snouts. The crocodile’s is long and the alligator’s is wide.
Is this genetic variance enough to make much of a difference? Well, crocodiles are much bigger than their cousins with a bite that is twice as strong. They are also more social than their solitary cousins who tend to avoid human contact and poach small game like fish, birds and semi-aquatic mammals. Not crocodiles. They will eat anything crossing a major river or served at a Chinese buffet.
Aggressive and social, bigger and stronger, does a long snout have anything to do with crocodiles having 14 distinct species all over the world, whereas alligators only have 2 found in China and the Americas. Does having an extended trap help win the Darwinian war? It appears to be the case in the muddy waters of the Nile River, but what about the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean?
Dolphins and porpoises have much in common. They are both aquatic mammals whose forefathers and mothers decided they had enough of being on land and headed back into the sea. Both are considered small-tooth whales and both are quick and adroit, using sonar to catch fish and squid. But if you are quick enough to take a picture as they dart by, you will notice a remarkable difference. The porpoise has a round head and blunt jaw, while the dolphin’s is elongated much like the crocodile.
Like the blunt-nosed alligator, the porpoise is a shy animal, preferring to plumb the depths of the ocean instead of jumping out of the water like a showboating hotdog. And where a dolphin prefers to live in communities with low association fees, a porpoise will rarely hang out with more than two of its own.
The dolphin’s social behavior even extends beyond members of its own tribe. There are tales of dolphins rescuing distressed sailors and working with the Navy. Heck, they had their own TV show. Porpoises, on the other fin, prefer a low profile. You are never going to see one in captivity doing tricks. You never are going to watch Snoepje, The Melancholy Porpoise Detective. And I wonder if their blunt jaws have prevented them from filling the oceans like their telegenic cousins with 40 distinct species found all over the world. Dolphins like the:
- Common dolphin
- Spotted dolphin
- Surf or snorkel dolphin
No, porpoises only have 7 species, mainly in the cold waters of the Arctic and off the rough western coasts of the Americas. Porpoises like the:
- Spectacled porpoise
- Harbour porpoise
- Old Spice porpoise
Trumpet, crocodile and dolphin. Cornet, alligator and porpoise. Can we find these similarities even if were to climb the highest peaks of the Swiss Alps?
Before I started this essay I wasn’t even sure there was a difference between a luge and a skeleton. Are they not sleds that give adults an excuse to slide down a hill? They both find their origins in the skiing town of St. Moritz where hotel owners rented out sleds and encouraged their guest to slide through the streets of the town. It wasn’t until the shopkeepers became irritated watching customers dodge the high-speed daredevils that the hotel owners decided to build designated tracks and start a brand new sport.
So, what’s the difference between the two sleds? Well, the luge looks like a tiny sleigh as the slider lies on his or her back, feet forward, using calves to steer the curved runners called kufens. Or as three-time US Olympian, Erin Hamlin explains:
“The whole way down the track we’re trying to stay within an inch of an imaginary line... and doing all that while not looking, and going almost 90 mph.”
That’s right! To lift your head is to create a drag, which you cannot afford when times are measured in 1/1000th of a second. Just look at the times between the gold and silver medalist in the Men’s Luge at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Gold – Austrian David Gleischer – 3:10.702
Silver – American Christopher Mazdzer – 3:10.728
If screaming down a winding track of ice without looking isn’t enough of an adrenaline rush, you can always grab a skeleton.
Where a luge looks like a tiny sleigh, the skeleton looks like a beefed-up cafeteria tray. It’s wider and heavier than the luge and for some reason, the sliders think it’s a good idea to lie on their stomachs and go down the track face first.
I’m not sure there is any sport that recommends leading with your face. And although it looks terrifying, with a wide frame, rounded blades and a bulky helmet, the speeds of a skeleton slider rarely get above 80 mph, which is still insane. In fact, I’m not sure there would be much difference between sliding down a curvy icy track at 90 mph on your back as opposed to 80 mph on your stomach. I imagine both to be terrifying. And if you were to survive the trip, what better way to settle the nerves than with a hot beverage. The problem is which one..?