Monday, February 20, 2012

A Case For Cheap Souvenirs

I’ve never been much for the kinds of souvenirs so many people buy. Hard Rock café t-shirts. Eiffel Tower snow globes. Mexican or Moroccan or Vietnamese hats that people think are funny when they wear them onto the plane for the flight home, but then realize before first beverage service that not only are they not funny, but that their five bucks would have been much better spent on an in-flight beer, which tastes infinitely better and will not end up under a heap of other crap in the back of their closet.

I’ve always preferred to take home more personally creative items. To wit: I’ve got a Bacardi bottle filled with Puerto Rican sand and a Cruzan Rum bottle with sand from St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. Totally cool mementos, and way cheap as the local booze on any Caribbean island can be had for a fraction of what you’d pay at home. Plus of course I got to personally empty the bottles on the beach before copping sand that probably shouldn’t have made it through customs.

I had these souvenirs displayed on a shelf for a while. At the moment they are in a closet somewhere.

Marriage does strange things to a man and his souvenir-acquiring habits, however, and in 2007, while cycling around Southeast Asia, I bought my pregnant wife (who was not cycling with me) this fantastic lightweight blue cotton shirt from Thailand and a chic white silk bathrobe from Vietnam. The shirt fit her perfectly when she was about six months along; I mailed the bathrobe to her from Ho Chi Min and haven’t seen it since.

Granted, these things were not particularly expensive. I even managed to bargain the cold-blooded dragon-woman at the Ho Chi Min market down a few bucks since the bathrobe had this tiny little brown spot near the bottom hem, barely noticeable to anyone but a woman. Still, I’d like to see these things I’d gotten for my beloved brought out into the daylight once in a while.

I can’t imagine then NASA’s dismay at the world’s overall reception to the souvenirs they spent tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to acquire.

‘The US space agency Nasa (sic) (should we sic improper non-capitalization?) recently announced,’ reported Mark Bosworth of the BBC last Friday, ‘that half of the moon rocks brought back to Earth from two Apollo space missions have gone missing.’

Mr. Bosworth (Brian’s cousin though neither will likely admit it) goes on to explain how 370 pieces of moon rock from the Apollo 11 and 17 missions were given to 135 countries (they got two each) and all fifty states (two each again).  ‘But,’ he says, ‘184 of these are lost, stolen or unaccounted for - 160 around the world and 24 in the US.

As of this moment FIFA has 208 members, so there are at least that many countries in the world. There were certainly fewer when these moon rocks were distributed, but there had to be more than 135. So my question is, how did we decide who got the shaft? The article states that ‘the rocks were distributed to countries ranging from Afghanistan to Trinidad and Tobago.’ Ranging? What kind of range criteria are we talking here? Or did we just start handing them out alphabetically until we ran out? No wonder Venezuela and Yemen hate us.

Among the missing rocks are those given to Romania (on December 22, 1989 the crowd in front of the Central Committee building in Bucharest began throwing rocks and bottles at Nikolae Ceausescu, who inadvertently grabbed his moon rocks from off his desk and fired them down at the wretched masses), Libya (Gaddafi whipped them at his wife when she stepped outside for a brief unescorted moment to get the mail. He missed wildly) and Honduras (they are hidden in the back of some black marketeer’s closet).

Tibet has also reported that their moon rocks have disappeared but China vehemently refutes their despicable, irresponsible, incomprehensible indirect accusations and has promised swift military action to prevent further belligerent attacks on China’s honor and sovereignty.

Then there is the story of how one of Ireland’s moon rocks ended up in a landfill. Which should come as no big surprise; those silly Irish are always losing things.

We do have hope for recovering some of our stray bits of extra-terrestrial terrane, however, in former NASA agent Joseph Gutheinz, Jr.

J-Gut, as his drinking buddies call him, got his start as our national moon rock hunter when he was working with NASA on an undercover sting to nab people trying to sell fake moon rocks. In a moment that he admits he did not anticipate, someone called offering to sell an actual moon rock – specifically the one the US gave to Honduras. That rock, a hefty 1.142 grams as H comes relatively early in the alphabet, came with a $5 million asking price. 

Unfortunately there was not enough in the petty cash box in the break room and the NASA Credit Union was closed for the long weekend so the Honduras rock remains at large, as do rocks from Malta, Spain and Cyprus. NASA is now working their mathematicians overtime to figure out why countries with lots of water around them tend to lose their moon rocks.

J-Gut, meanwhile, has scored some free labor in the form of his brown-nosing criminal justice students who have volunteered to help him find more missing rocks.

As the article notes, the value of these rocks goes beyond the monetary:
Dr Carle Pieters, a planetary geologist at Brown University, Rhode Island, says the knowledge gained from these tiny rocks is priceless. "I am continually awed when I work with four-billion-year-old lunar samples. They are beautiful and don't have ugly weathering products often seen in Earth rocks. The lunar rocks retain a record of events in the early solar system that we cannot obtain elsewhere."
Then again, a 1.142 gram rock some schmo can sell for $5 million is also something you don’t find every day.

Inexplicably, in all this NASA and science and black market talk, Brian’s more literary-minded cousin suddenly brings an art toady into the discussion.
London-based art writer and curator Francesca Gavin (perhaps a bit jaded for her own lack of rocks) describes them as "ugly little things". Then, perhaps hearing how many years worth of commissions she could get for one of them, adds that she ‘is not opposed to the idea of seeing one in an art gallery.’
"Moon rocks could be seen as artworks - relating in particular to the Chinese tradition of the Philosopher Stones as naturally occurring artworks reflecting the universe in microcosmic form," she says.
Typical artsy-fartsy bullshit. Go back to your cello tape and rubbish bags, Fran.

The upshot of all this? Cheap souvenirs are the popular way to go because they eventually get lost or stolen or end up in the back of a closet. NASA would do well to keep their rocks to themselves and give our friends, in alphabetical order, the tin foil wrappers from the zero-gravity meals the astronauts eat in space.

I want to ask my wife where her shirt and her bathrobe are. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t risk bringing up how little she likely got for them.

** NOTE: Though Francesca Gavin’s appearance in the source article for this post makes her fair game for my sarcastic brand of ridicule as far as I’m concerned, she is by all indication an accomplished and noted figure among the art community. Check out her blog here.