Tag Archives: Denver

The Man Who Invented the College Football Playoff

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are scripts,but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation. It’s improv. You get into character and run with it.

Larry Culpepper is either delusional or a consummate bullshitter, claiming, among other whoppers, that he created the College Football Playoff. He is raucous, chippy, and self-absorbed. His hair, shirt, visor, and flip-up glasses scream 1976. He’s a guy you’d buy a pop from, but likely shy away from having a beer with.

But Culpepper, the fictional character brought to life by actor/improv pro Jim Connor, is an increasingly beloved traveling minstrel who now transcends the Dr. Pepper brand he was created to peddle. Three years after his birth in an ad campaign with a potentially short leash, Culpepper now is mobbed by fans during live appearances; is part of a 10-part, football-season-long ad series; is the face of Dr. Pepper’s $35 million sponsorship of the College Football Playoff; and, increasingly, is a media darling beyond the confines of paid advertising slots.

For marketing purposes, Culpepper is from nowhere in particular. But in late August, Culpepper appeared on ESPN’s College Football Live and was asked to give his prediction for the playoff’s final four teams. His answer: Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Nebraska (fresh off their losing season).

“Nebraska?” One commentator scoffed, before asking a cohort, “Is he from Nebraska or something?”

larryculpepper2Culpepper isn’t, but Connor is. For the Omaha native and Husker fan, that moment on ESPN illuminates why he has enjoyed playing Culpepper so much. “There are scripts, but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation,” Connor says during a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s improv. You get into character and run with it. It’s a great time.”

Connor, the youngest of seven children (“which explains my personality right there,” he says), attended Creighton Prep, where, along with classmate Alexander Payne, he performed with the school’s improv acting troupe. He remembers one gig in particular that fueled his passion for the rush and satisfaction of successfully winging it for a crowd. “It was for a local service group,” he says. “We did some silly birthing scene, and the women in the group—you know, who had some experience with such a thing—really had a good time with it. It’s so cool when you connect with an audience.”

Connor was a gifted ham and public speaker. He served as vice president of the student council at Prep, wrote and acted in pep rally skits, and even placed first place for Humorous Interpretation at the National Forensic League’s National Speech Tournament in Minnesota.

After what he described as a “difficult” freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (“it just wasn’t for me”), he transferred to Saint John’s University in Minnesota. After college, he moved to Boston and worked as a carpenter while performing in theater and short films, then moved to Denver to pursue his MFA in acting at the famed National Theatre Conservatory.

The goal, “was never to get famous,” he says. “I just wanted to make a living being an actor. I wanted acting to be my full-time job.”

A dream of tens of thousands who have moved to Los Angeles. And while at 54, Connor is no household name, he has succeeded at stringing together enough commercials and small parts to make acting his career.

Besides nearly 150 commercials, his film credits include Watchmen, Meet Dave, Blades of Glory, The Onion Movie, Home Invasion, and Horrible Bosses 2. Alexander Payne asked his old friend to give the drunken wedding-reception toast in About Schmidt.

He also had numerous recurring roles in television comedies such as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and The King of Queens.

In 2014, Connor and about 500 other actors auditioned for the role of the Dr. Pepper concessionaire in a national ad campaign targeting college football fans. Actors were given latitude to define the character and riff. Connor created an amalgam of “a lot of people I’ve known” to create Culpepper, a loud, proud, gregarious huckster who seems to actually believe—in the face of constantly presented information to the contrary—that he created the four-team college football playoff system.

For all of Culpepper’s failings, he’s also affable, wide-eyed, and childlike in his zeal for the job and the game, appealingly un-self-aware, and extremely clever. “Larry is a real guy, he’s a smart guy,” Connor says. “He’s just got some unusual ideas sometimes.”

larryculpepper1Among myriad other reasons why he claimed the Cornhuskers would make the playoffs: “Nebraska runs that classic passive-aggressive offense,” he told the ESPN crew. “They’re playin’ real nice, and then you’re like a puddle on the 50-yard line.”

It was inspired nonsense, which is the foundation to good improv, which is what Connor would love to spend the rest of his career getting paid a living wage to do.

Indeed, as Culpepper increasingly becomes a star beyond the confines of college-game broadcasts, as Dr. Pepper continues to expand the ad campaign (Connor’s character is now essentially the spokesman in football matters for the company, which AdWeek magazine estimated paid at least $35 million to be a “championship partner” in the College Football Playoff).

He is hoping to land more significant movie and television roles, especially in one of the increasing number of loosely scripted, improv-heavy comedies.

“I’m not going to get cast for scripted stuff in front of a studio audience,” he says. “That’s not what I’m built for.  Shows like Parks and Recreation—where you have space to work more freely with a talented group—that’s where I belong. That’s where I love to be.”

Visit larryculpepper.com for more information.

Ice Age Tusks vs. Blood Ivory

December 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Doug Meigs

The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.

Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.

As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.

Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.

Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.

Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).

“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

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Nebraska’s State Fossil

Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.

He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.

The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.

Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.

The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.

“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”

Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.

“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.

Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.

The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).

“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.

Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”

On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.

Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”

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Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.

Elephant and Mammoth Ivory

Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.

To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.

mammoth4Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.

The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.

After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”

Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.

Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.

Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.

Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.

According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.

Changing Regulatory Landscapes

Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.

Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.

Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.

As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).

mammoth5Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.

During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.

Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.

Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.

She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.

In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.

Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.

Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”

While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.

Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers

Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.

“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”

In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.

mammoth3-2One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.

Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.

“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.

Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.

In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.

Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.

Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.

Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.

In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA

One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.

Regulation of Mammoth Ivory

Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.


Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.

Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.

Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.

Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.

In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.

Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.

Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.

“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”

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The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.

A Precious Scientific Commodity

University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.

“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”

Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.

For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.

“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.

Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.

Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.

George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.

“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”

– George Corner

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My Battle With Opiates

October 11, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I’ve had problems with a variety of drugs, but my story hit rock bottom with opiate addiction.

I was always a very straight-and-narrow kid growing up in West Omaha. I obtained my pilot’s license when I was 17, and I was very active in sports and fitness. I graduated with a 4.17 GPA, and maintained a 4.0 in my first year studying at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Toward the end of high school, I did the typical partying with friends: drinking at friends’ houses when their parents were away, maybe smoking a little marijuana. But I never felt I had lost control. My father was a functioning alcoholic, so, you could say I was somewhat predisposed to the disease of addiction. But what did I know?

So-called hard drugs caught me the summer after high school. First came ecstasy pills. I remember the first time I “rolled,” I was in my basement with a couple friends who were more experienced with drugs. “I hope this feeling would never end,” I remember saying. My friend looked at me and just shook her head as if feeling sorry for a little kid. The next day, I felt the worst depression I had ever experienced. It scared me. But, I kept taking the pills, chasing that feeling, only for a slightly less satisfying high as my body acclimated to the drug. After a summer of taking ecstasy two to three times a week, the depression stuck with me. I couldn’t seem to have fun without being high.

As I went into my first year of college, I started trying cocaine and opiates. A lot of my acquaintances—I say acquaintances because none of those people are in my life now that I am sober—were doing things like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and other prescribed narcotics. These prescriptions are relatively easy to get your hands on. There are plenty of other drugs that are synthetic forms of opium and heroin, too.

By my third year of college, I was spending $50-$150 per day to support my habit. Looking back, I don’t know how I could afford it.

Over the next two years my use of opiates grew more and more frequent. At first, I was able to hide my habit from everyone in my life. I can’t even remember how many times I was high in class or in the library working on homework. At the time, I felt in control. When I look back, I realize I was developing quite a few character defects: lying, manipulation, cheating, and stealing. Eventually it got to the point where I wouldn’t even do schoolwork without some sort of drug to aid me.

By my third year of college, I was spending $50­-$150 per day to support my habit. Looking back, I don’t know how I could afford it. I had a good job and minimal bills. I knew when the people I got my drugs from had a prescriptions refilled better than they did. I always figured out a way. Because without the opiates, I felt restless; I couldn’t sleep; I was simply miserable. It got to a point where I needed help. I couldn’t keep going on like that. After checking into a methadone clinic, I soon admitted to my mom and sister how bad I had gotten.

The methadone clinic was another horrible experience for me in the end. The $13 per day I spent bought me another opiate—meant to wean me off of my addiction to pills—that got me arguably higher than those prescription opiates I had been taking. Because of the high dosage, I was nodding off throughout the day. So, I made a decision to quit cold turkey. Relapse followed with a new sort of high, and a new low.

I didn’t sleep for two weeks, I was so restless I wanted to cut my legs off. I couldn’t sit still, I was tired, irritable, depressed, etc.

 After about two weeks, I shot up the pills for the first time. I remember it very clearly: I just gave in. I didn’t like life without drugs anymore. I told myself being sober wasn’t worth it. I was in the back seat of my friend’s car. We were with someone who used an IV, and she handed me my own syringe. She told me it was mine. I actually thought to myself. “What a kind gesture of her to give me my very own syringe.” Of course I had no idea how to cook down the pill we had to a point where we could shoot it up. But I paid close attention when she did it for me, tied me off, and injected it into my vein. My heart was racing. I fell in love.

It didn’t take long for me to become an expert. I had a box of 100 syringes under my bed along with all the cleaning supplies necessary to do it “responsibly.” Within about two months, my arms were beaten black and blue, I had lost about 20 pounds, and I was constantly feeling horrible. The only time I felt normal was when I was high. It was getting harder to find pills, though. There were days where I would skip class, drive around for eight or more hours with people I didn’t know just to get one pill or a few hits of incredibly overpriced heroin. Then again, there were times when it was easy to find, but never when I was dope-sick and desperate. It was a miserable lifestyle, a nightmare. One time I even drove to Denver and spent three days there just to get cheaper heroin. Aside from visiting the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, I didn’t do anything other than shoot up heroin the entire time I was there by myself.

When I started the IV drugs I spiraled out of control really quickly. I went to a different clinic to get on Suboxone, a newer drug for opiate addiction. It made it so I couldn’t get high on opiates and so I wouldn’t have withdrawals. At first, I even shot that up just to feel a little high. I hated not being able to feel happy or excited. I was on Suboxone for two years. During that time, I converted my opiate addiction into an IV cocaine addiction with a side of alcoholism. Thankfully, I was able to stop taking Suboxone, but it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I didn’t sleep for two weeks, I was so restless I wanted to cut my legs off. I couldn’t sit still, I was tired, irritable, depressed, etc. I went into a drinking binge, not leaving my apartment for days at one point. I almost wished I had never got on Suboxone in the first place, but it served one purpose: It got me away from all my opiate connections.

The story of my addiction is not glamorous. In fact, there is a lot that I don’t remember too clearly. There is a lot that I’d rather forget. Addiction is not an easy thing to put on a timeline (which they asked me to do during both of my treatment center stays). Addicts don’t exactly have a structured lifestyle. It’s a roller coaster, complicated, and devastating. It’s taken me three years of trying to get to the point I am at with my sobriety.

battlewithopiates1Every day the disease of addiction whispers in my ear, rationalizing and scheming ways in which I could get high or drunk. Isolation is what it wants, so my defense is fellowship. The character defects that fed my addiction are still with me— I am an egomaniac with low self-esteem who copes by trying to control the world around me—but I work every day to address these problems. I’ve destroyed and rebuilt relationships with my family and friends. I have squashed my loved ones’ hopes over and over again, yet my family still stands behind me. Their support is what sustains my recovery. They know that I could relapse, that my fight is not over.

Sam requested omission of his last name at the advice of his Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. He participates regularly in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Visit omahaaa.org for more information.

For more information about how Omaha fits into the nationwide opiate abuse epidemic, read: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/10/dying-for-opiates-in-omaha/ 

Radio Talking Book Service

October 9, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Paul Stebbins has a smooth, pleasant voice with articulate delivery. As the station manager for the nonprofit Radio Talking Book Service, his knowledge of the technical side of radio production and programming
is impressive.

His extensive background in broadcasting and engineering is obvious by his professional demeanor. Not so apparent is what he shares with listeners: “I’ve been a user of services like ours for over 40 years. I’ve been blind since birth.”

Stebbins, now in his mid-60s, was born 14 weeks premature at a time when hospitals used excessively high levels of oxygen in incubators. The practice saved lives but was a risk factor for retinal damage in babies and contributed to Stebbins’ permanent vision loss.

Stebbins, a Chicago native, credits his parents with fostering his independence. His mother introduced him to a career in radio in 1961 when she founded a station “from the ground up,” an endeavor which lasted for a decade.

“For a blind person, radio was such a natural medium because it’s all sound-oriented; it’s all audio,” Stebbins says. Although he was a natural on the air, he was more interested in the technical side of things. So, after attending technical college, he worked for stations in various markets including Denver and San Francisco. He even did a brief stint in television.

“I worked for a year in game shows…I wanted to do news and sports,” he says, wryly. “I even did Wheel of Fortune for a while, and that was fun. In fact, the director said he didn’t know for three days that I was blind.”

In 2007, a contact in Albuquerque told him about a position open at the well-regarded RTBS, one of the oldest services of its kind in the country. It only took one visit and a near-immediate offer to convince Stebbins to relocate to Nebraska, and now he is on hand to celebrate the station’s 42nd year.

RTBS uses radio as the main platform for its two primary services, The Radio Talking Book Network and Listening Link. Visually impaired listeners in Nebraska and southwest Iowa are entitled to a special receiver that allows them to access programming, which is also available online. It’s difficult to estimate listenership, Stebbins says, because RTBS has placed receivers in facilities like retirement centers where multiple users have access. The organization’s leaders know they are not reaching everyone who could benefit from the service and continually look for ways to increase awareness.

“We try to bring a variety of things, and our programming runs the gamut. It’s not like a usual radio station,” Stebbins explains. “We really try to enhance the lives of our listeners. We like to inform and entertain.”

Traditional radio stations generally focus on news-talk or music programming, so RTBN provides other material that wouldn’t typically be accessible to visually impaired individuals. Its human-voiced programming includes daily current events content from larger Nebraska community newspapers and magazines (including this one), grocery and retail ads, special interest shows from health and sports to cooking and gardening, and entertainment including nostalgic dramas from the golden age of radio, and audio from movies with special narration describing visual elements. RTBN also carries some National Public Radio programs like Morning Edition and Weekend Edition and exchanges programs with other reading services throughout the country.

RTBS’s Listening Link program provides educational content for post-secondary students.

Many volunteer opportunities are available at RTBS, volunteer coordinator Sybil Mahan says, and close to 100 volunteers provide reading services. Potential readers have to go through an audition process because “It is a talent to read out loud,” she explains. Some RTBS readers do professional voice talent gigs and have in-home studio space, but to maintain high audio quality, most readers report to the RTBS studios in the organization’s offices at 7101 Newport Ave. near CHI Health Immanuel Medical Center.

Volunteers tend to stick around, Mahan adds. “We have had people here for 26 to 30 years and that’s pretty wonderful to have.”

“It’s a good service and people here are just so good to work with,” Stebbins says.

RTBN strives to meet the needs of listeners who not only share the common trait of visual impairment but represent all ages and countless interests, Stebbins says. So, they broadcast a wide variety of programs with very little replay 24 hours a day. Because RTBN doesn’t use ratings research services like Nielsen Audio (formerly Arbitron), direct listener feedback helps shape content decisions.

Naomi Marion, a listener and RTBS board member, began listening to RTBN after losing her vision eight years ago.

“It’s valuable to me because I can’t read the newspaper, and it’s nice to know what’s going on in the world,” she says. “I think my radio stays on 24/7.”

Visit rtbs.org or call 402-572-3003 or 800-729-7826 for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha.

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Sitting Down, Slowing Down

October 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The vibe of Market House restaurant hits customers in the face upon walking in the door—almost literally. The dark interior doors of former tenant Vivace have become a lime hue that projects the type of restaurant diners are about to experience—fresh, green, and interesting.

Such is the same with the chefs at the helm. Executive Chef Matt Moser, formerly of Plank, and Chef de Cuisine Ben Maides, formerly of Avoli Osteria, take pride in crafting their own menu, and restaurant, from start to finish.

The pair, however, originally turned down the gig.

“Nick (Bartholomew) originally approached me to be the chef,” Maides says. “I had no intention of leaving Avoli.”

“And I had an opportunity elsewhere,” Moser adds. “But that didn’t pan out.”

The pair eventually ended up recognizing they wanted to run a restaurant.

“We hadn’t not known each other very long,” Moser says. “I met Ben through a mutual friend when they came into Plank.”

They discovered they share a similar approach to cooking, eating, and running a restaurant.

Moser graduated in 2002 from Millard North, and in 2005 from Le Cordon Blue in Portland, Oregon. He came back to Omaha to work at the French Cafe, then traveled to California, where he cooked in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. He bounced back to Omaha to V. Mertz, and spent five years with Flagship restaurant group, helping to open Blue Sushi Sake Grills in Denver and Fort Worth.

“For the first time in my career, it’s modern American cuisine,” he said of Market House. “We can do whatever we want.”

While Moser discovered the fresh, local approach to eating so prevalent in his casual-contemporary gig on the West Coast, Maides’ slow-down method of cooking and eating comes from international travel. He was born in Switzerland and moved to Omaha at age 9. He graduated in 2004 from Westside and in 2006 from Metropolitan Community College. Among his passport stamps is San Cascino in Northern Italy, where he worked at a five-star restaurant and learned the style of cooking owner and executive chef Dario Schicke sought for Avoli.

The third note in the triad is Sous Chef Chase Thomsen, who, unlike Maides, Moser knew well.

“I’ve known him since middle school,” Moser says. “He came to Plank and worked for me then moved on to Taxi’s. When I came here I knew he was looking. I know his work ethic, I know his talent, we’re lucky to have him here.”

Moser and Maides agree, and collaborate, on cooking methods and ingredients. They love to cook in their off-hours—Moser with his wife, Cathryn; Maides with his girlfriend. They own dogs. They also like to eat at restaurants in similar ways.

Moser says, “We discovered we both like to order three or four things and just pass them around the table.”

“Let’s stop, let’s sit down, and let’s eat,” Maides says. “We’re going from surviving
to enjoying.”

That idea of not just eating, but communal dining, inspired Market House. The seasonal menu contains eight passable small plates and five shared sides, along with soups, a salad, and six larger entree-sized plates.

“We like to go to the starter menu, the smaller plates,” Moser reiterates.

The chefs want their customers to experience their love of food in the same way.

“Ben and I get excited when we see Nancy (Crews) of Swallows Nest come through the door with new vegetables,” says Moser, who himself gardens avidly. “That excitement extends to the front of the house and out to the guests.”

The staff at Market House don’t just tell you that roasted grapes with chèvre is on the menu, they tell you where the grapes and the goat cheese came from. They tell you the story of why they love the farmer who makes the cheese. The process of ordering at Market House, like the process of eating, causes patrons to ease their pace.

Slowing down doesn’t mean the restaurant isn’t busy. Several people occupy tables at 2 p.m. on a Monday, lingering over plates of food, and, in a couple of cases, glasses of wine. That makes Moser and Maides happy.

“We’re cooking food we love, and we hope everyone else does, too,” Maides says.

“Yes, we work long hours, but my favorite part of the day is when we get to sit down and talk about what we did, and what we can do better,” Moser adds.

Sitting down, slowing down—a typical day at Market House.

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