Herculaneum & Pompeii: Fingerprints on the Earth

Everyone had warned us. Bring a hat. Bring an umbrella. Drink water.

You will sweat.

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One of the many side streets in Pompeii.  | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Day two into thirty-three days of inspiration I faced dehydration and a persistent fight against bouts of jet lag induced exhaustion to fulfill a dream. On day two I visited the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii where the heat shimmered before me, an undulating, endless wave of haze. I could almost touch the air as it moved, and when the heat overwhelmed and I struggled to breathe, water always saved the day.  Despite all this, where my body rebelled against exterior influences begging for the air-conditioning and fans, my mind was filled with exhilaration .  Continue reading “Herculaneum & Pompeii: Fingerprints on the Earth”

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From Europe, With Love

And so it begins. Over the last two months I have been interviewing friends, strangers, and colleagues about my project on interdisciplinary storytelling. Their words have been thoughtful, engaging, and challenged the way I think about my work. While I will do more interviews when I return I am now leaving for a month long European adventure – for inspiration and wonder. While I will conduct more interviews in September for now I am going to digest what I’ve heard so far and see where I go. In the meantime, if you consider yourself a storyteller make sure to fill out my survey and tell me about your art.

Ciao, for now.

Not A Raisin in the Sun

elephant“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”
William Shakespeare
The Tempest

At the end of each year I get hit with a double dose of nostalgia and romanticism. I feel regret at the time I wasted from the year before but believe in the opportunity of the many days left ahead. So this year when I sent out my holiday/new year cards I asked my friends, co-workers, and loved ones for their dreams for the coming year.

But what are dreams? They are wishes and hopes. They are goals and tasks for a better life. For others it is a broadening of skills and minds.

Dreams are a search for something more, something different. They are an acknowledgement of change. Often though dreams cannot be bound by a single year, and need to be broken up into pieces.

Sometimes dreams are for others. They are a hope for strength, for well-being, and a wish for them to have peace of mind.

My dreams aren’t simple. In my first post of the year I laid out some resolutions: to become more focused, take control, and to define success for myself. My dreams are linked to these resolutions. I hope to control the uncontrollable while also letting fate take its course.

tardisIn clearer terms. I want to know I’ll always be happy. Satisfied. Able to withstand change, loss, and uncertainty. I want to be able to accept love or disaster when they arrive at my doorstep. I want to know how the story ends. I want to be brave. So really, I want a TARDIS of my very own.

Having said that there is one clear point I need to make. Continue reading “Not A Raisin in the Sun”

Putting the Puzzle Together: Reflections on Travel in Seattle

Cross posted at PreservationNation.


Dale Chihuly Gardens of Glass Exhibition.

A metaphor I often use when talking about the past is that of a puzzle. Getting to know the whole picture of place means fitting together a number of disparate pieces that when snapped together give you a single picture — a snapshot in time that is one in a series that make up the past.

I also approach visiting new cities through this lens. A few weeks ago as a prelude to my visit to Spokane for the National Preservation Conference, I went to Seattle to visit with some friends and family. What I ended up doing was not just visiting to a popular tourist destination but also getting a sense of the place itself.

Continue reading “Putting the Puzzle Together: Reflections on Travel in Seattle”

A Long Time Ago…

I am a woman who loves history. I am a woman who loves storytelling and narratives of heroines and heroes that look beyond the black and white of good versus evil.

I am a woman who loves Star Wars.

This is not the blog post I intended to post earlier this week, that will probably come in a few days. Rather the sudden news yesterday that the Walt Disney Corporation has purchased Lucasfilm demanded a quick reflection.
Continue reading “A Long Time Ago…”

Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity

In an article between the Civil War Trust and James Percoco (one that includes some great images of him in action), my high school history teacher, stated “I think what will serve as my legacy is the numbers of young people who found their calling for life through their experiences in my classroom. The American historian, journalist, and educator Henry Adams once wrote, ‘A teacher effects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.’ ”

At his retirement party yesterday that influence was self-evident as former students (including me), family members, and colleagues stood up to talk about his accomplishments.

I know I’ve talked about Jim’s influence on my love of history (last year in a piece on the day of his induction into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame) , and so I thought I would reflect on Percoco’s remarks at the gathering last night.

Continue reading “Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity”

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

I’ve been angling for a reason to write about Downton Abbey on this blog, and an opportunity presented itself in this fun Friday post that went up today on the PreservationNation.org blog. You can read the post with the awesome-as-usual Downton Abbey images here but I’ve also included the text below.

PS: I also use it as an excuse to mention other awesome shows like The West Wing, LOST, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Because what would each of these shows be without the familiar hallways of the White House, the forests of our favorite Island, and a spaceship serving as home for a drifting civilization (or in the case of Dr. Who, the ability to hop from place to place in time)?

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

 

I think by now many of the regular readers on this blog know three things about me. I love history. I love writing about history. And I pretty much think about history, and place, and the past about 367 million times a day.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I think about the power of place and the past when doing the most mundane things — walking, cooking, and watching television.

Like many, many people, I’ve been enamored with the British period drama Downton Abbey, which just finished its second season run on PBS. For those that haven’t seen it, it begins in pre-World War I England and gives viewers a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through the intervening years.

What I love about Downton Abbey is that the story centers around the estate, a magnificent house full of both grand (for the lords and ladies) and humble (for the staff) public and private spaces that serves as a mechanism for how a family and their employees lived in the early 20th century. The way the building is used over the two seasons reflects society and class as changes in women’s roles, war, and disease take its toll. But Downton is used as more than a set piece. The home is a crucial character in itself, and plays a crucial role for how each of the characters defines themselves.

This isn’t necessarily something new. After all, the whole premise of the show Cheers is to tell the story of a group of bar patrons in a particular space. Then there are three of my favorites — The West Wing, LOST, and (nerd alert) Battlestar Galactica — which are incredibly place-centric, as ninety percent of each episode occurs within their respective main locations: The White House, an island, or a giant spaceship that serves as the only defender against the enemies of humanity (try saying that three times fast).

What other shows out there use place to tell their story? We know of course that there are plenty of serials and sitcoms that use cities as the backdrop to their storylines. The stories in Mad Men, for example, are integrally tied to their place in mid-century New York.

The point, perhaps, that I am trying to make is that as a preservationist and a historian, I’m drawn to shows that integrate where they are with the people whose lives intersect in those spaces. And it’s the same for the real world, since the places we save are often inherently important because of the mark of individuals or groups on them, or our own modern interactions or associations with them.

I recently watched an episode of Dr. Who (a show with a time-traveling theme) where the main character presents a theory that there are fixed points in time that can never change — that events will always happen in this time and this place no matter what tries to influence them. It’s a fanciful idea, one that appeals to me as a historian because of how we think about the “power of place” — that an important way that we can tell the story of our past and make it tangible is by recognizing the confluence of people, places, and events in time.

What do you think? Do you love a television show because it reminds you of history, place, or preservation? Sound off below!

Preservation and a Pressure Cooker (A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation)

The materiality of preservation is very much rooted in these places and objects ability to tell a story – to evoke the intangible in such a way that makes it more certain, more reliable, more real.

For work this week I wrote a piece reflecting on the stuff of preservation. I also managed to loop in a paper I wrote during my undergraduate coursework about a pressure cooker. Trust me, it makes sense.

I’m working on a few ideas for end of the year posts. So stay tuned!

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I also wanted also wanted to point out to any Baltimorians who might be reading my blog that there is an Unconference going on in Baltimore today. You can see what they’re talking about here and on Twitter #bmorehistoric.

Hodge Podge: On Vice, Designations, and Reviewing a Home

Happy Thanksgiving! As we head on into the long weekend I thought it would be nice to think about food and foodways as a lead in to an event I attended at Woodlawn, the importance of our latest National Monument at Fort Monroe, and a review of a book about the evolution of a particular hearth and home.

On Vice and Food

Woodlawn during the 2011 Vices that Made Virginia Event. Image from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group Flickr Page

When I was an undergraduate student I had the opportunity to take a course on foodways. We learned about the sugar and salt trade and their role in global economies while also examining objects from our kitchens to see and understand everyday life.

A few days ago I learned that my professor from this course, Barbara Carson, had passed away, and so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I learned from her.

Food can tell us a lot of things about the past. On one level we learn about diets—how our ancestors (or grandparents even) got their nutrition. We learn about how advances in canning and preservatives allowed food from California to be eaten in Vermont. And with more and more advances in transportation commodities like tea, sugar, salt, and spices became less of a luxury and more accessible—removing these items as limited only to the rich.

How this food was prepared gives us insight into familial roles—and the role of mealtimes in the cult of domesticity. We learned more about how that expectation changed, and the how advent of TV dinners moved families from the dinner table to the couch.

This was on my mind when I attended the second annual “Vices that Made Virginia” program at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, VA. A National Trust property, this fund raiser was put on by Arcadia: Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture —a non-profit organization bringing farming back to Woodlawn while educating children and adults on how food comes from the farm to the table.

The program itself was set up to highlight Virginia vices: cigars, bourbon, wine and of course the fresh produce, while introducing visitors to the farm and the historic site where it lay. It was, in one word, delicious.

Thinking about local food, and eating local harvests is a current trend in being sustainable not only economically but also in establishing a healthy lifestyle. It is a matter of looking back into our pasts and recognizing that sometimes the best things to eat is in your backyard.

Professor Carson’s course gave me a foundation to understand the shifts in thinking about how we eat, when we eat, and why we eat…what we eat. She also provided me with the essential underpinnings on how to look at material culture and find meaning. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Designating a National Monument

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation at Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. This mini-conference was a brainstorming session, a place for attendees to envision a way to save a piece of history that is not often talked about: the history of the contraband.

In short, in May 1861, a little over a month following the shots at Fort Sumter a trio of slaves ran away to Union lines at Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. When they arrived, the general, Benjamin Butler,chose to hold the runaways (Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend) as “contraband” rather then honor the Fugitive Slave Law and return them to their owner in the Confederacy. By the end of the war half a million formerly enslaved people had looked for freedom in the same way. Their legacy, which included camps in and around Washington, DC hastened Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to slavery. [Learn more]

During the brainstorming session a key suggestion from those attending was to urge President Obama to use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act and designate Fort Monroe, or “Freedom’s Fortress”, a national monument.

And guess what. this past month, he did.

Political affiliations aside, this is a “win” for everyone. I know that we are in turmoil—that finding common ground between the left and the right is a place that our politicians can’t seem find. In designating Fort Monroe as a national monument, President Obama (in my opinion, of course) emphasized how important our cultural heritage is in our identity as Americans—not merely as liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. That is, finding common ground may involve taking a risk that will make our country stronger.

Forty years ago, historians came together to look at American history through different eyes: the eyes of women, immigrants, and African-Americans. Today, we are still working towards that goal—looking at “the forgotten” and telling their story. This National Monument at Fort Monroe is one more step in the right direction–recognizing the wide breath of stories in the American past

Reviewing At Home

From http://www.randomhouse.com

Finally, I wanted to say a few words about Bill Bryson’s At Home. It’s a book that came out a few years ago that looks at a particular home, his home to be exact, and searches for the histories of particular rooms. I’ve read Bryson before (A Walk in the Woods), and have liked his meandering tales. However, this wasn’t quite what I expected.

It’s not that it wasn’t in the same style as his other books. He uses the house—an old rectory in England—as a touchstone in telling broader stories about social changes in European architecture, family life and industry. But I had hoped for something a little bit more….structured.

I know, I know. Having read Bryson before I should have known better—but it was a little disconcerting at times to go from talking about a bedroom or a kitchen to the history of bedbugs and then to a discussion on funerary arrangements and graveyards.

That minor disappointment aside, At Home is one example of how a broader story can be told through a particular structure. Certainly not the first to use this mechanism, however it provides insights into how rooms can spark interest in the unexpected.

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And with that I would like to wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, be merry, (shop local), and live large.

Life is Bigger

I am sure many of you have heard the news. REM is over. After 31 years of working together Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills have decided to move on.

I’ve taken so long to write this post, one because I was traveling (I started this on an airplane and am now finishing it on another trip), but also because I wanted to think about how I felt, especially since reactions elsewhere ran the gamut from surprise, befuddlement, to sadness.

A band born two years before my birth I am quick to admit that my gateway song into REM fandom was the ever popular Losing My Religion. As my musical education grew I found myself being drawn to songs that were a little off the beaten track (by which I mean, not Orange Crush, Stand, Man on the Moon, or Nightswimming). At present my favorite is Walk Unafraid.

Walk unafraid
I’ll be clumsy instead
Hold my love me or leave me
High

Say “keep within the boundaries if you want to play”
Say “contradiction only makes it harder”
How can I be
What I want to be?
When all I want to do is strip away
These stilled constraints
And crush this charade
Shred this sad masquerade
I don’t need no persuading
I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and

Walk unafraid
I’ll be clumsy instead
Hold my love me or leave me
High

I’ll also admit that I kind of loved the CD reviled by many (Reveal). Especially She Just Wants To Be.

It’s not that she walked away,
Her world got smaller.
All the usual places,
The same destinations,
Only something’s changed.

It’s not that she wasn’t rewarded
With pomegranate afternoons
And Mingus, Chet Baker and chess.
It’s not the stampeding fortune,
Of prim affectations.
She’s off on her own
But she knows

Now is greater than the whole of the past
Is greater, and now she knows

She just wants to be somewhere
She just wants to be
She just wants to be somewhere
She just wants to be.

Perhaps I can say that my relationship with REM was solidified by seeing them live at the Patriot Center in 2003 where despite floor seats among a largely apathetic crowd I loved Michael Stipe’s dancing and steady vocals in addition to the energy from the whole band.

That being said REM’s last swing through Merriweather Post a few years ago with Modest Mouse and The National remains the best concert I’ve been to. With three fairly well known bands I expected a short set but REM stayed on for over two hours and put the other two to shame.

While I wrote this post I was listening to an old episode of All Songs Considered called “Splitsville: Breaking Up With Your Favorite Band“. I know that many fans out there broke up with REM a long time ago. Perhaps it’s because nothing could really compare to other earlier work, or because they stayed within their musical boundaries, which dated their sound in a world of Lady Gaga and pop music. Whatever the case may be, there is something sad about never hearing another new nonsensical yet soulful lyric.

As my bro in law said when I shared the news:

“You know, everybody hurts but I find that if I surround myself with shiny happy people holding hands, I don’t feel like I’m losing my religion…in fact, I feel like the man in the moon.”

I think what I will miss the most of all is the poetry of REM. The way the lyrics flung me into new visions and played in the background of all of my early attempts to write fiction. Despite their disbanding I look forward to their catalog inspiring me for years to come.

Oh this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes, high alive
Blind to the tide that turns the sea
This storm that came up strong
It shook the trees, and blew away our fear
I couldn’t even hear

…..

Oh this could be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen
Turn to a miracle, high alive
My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches
I’m half a world away