WordPower

Words have power. Fact. We live in an age where anyone can say anything and be believed. An age where fact checking is only reliable if it aligns with your beliefs. Words. Have. Power.

But power to what? To sway, to innovate, to encourage, to bring hope – and in their absence limit important forms of expression necessary for real communication. A few weeks ago two events brought these thoughts to the surface. And while both cases are based in fiction there are real world implications.

Anthony Doerr and Me
Meeting Anthony Doerr.

Continue reading “WordPower”

Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment

The silence on this blog hasn’t been so much due to a lack of inspiration, but rather the time — or the quiet — to put it all down on paper. A lot of what I’ve had to say comes between the lines of real-life events, catching up with friends, and spending pool side time with a book.

None of these moments are particularly revelatory. In fact, they are ordinary, occasional, spur-of-the-moment flashes of joy. Like nerding out every time the John Adams theme plays at a Washington Nationals game.

So the latest Hodge Podge is a look at 500 episodes of This American Life, A few short book reviews, and a round up of a mish-mash of things my brain stopped to examine in the last two months.

This American Life at 500

It would be funny to joke that the radio show was five-hundred years old, but really five hundred episodes of top-quality storytelling is something that deserves a few lines. When I first started this blog almost four years ago my intention was to spend every week commenting on the latest TAL episode. While that hasn’t exactly come to fruition, I still find myself listening every week and thinking about the people that are profiled, their lives and what they say about living and being a citizen of these United States.

So some of my favorites from the last two years in no particular order: Continue reading “Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment”

Hodge Podge: Old Houses, Athletic Traditions, Parody, and Loss

It’s been a busy summer. I’ve ended up having a lot more vacations then expected (which is great) and not enough time to work on some upgrades to the blog that I wanted (which is not so great). I did however manage to purchase a domain name so this blog is now thisiswhatcomesnext.com. Other changes should come in early fall.

This month’s Hodge Podge is what its always been. A collection of thoughts. A sense of appreciation. A tribute. It’s also a bit random with no clear connective tissue beyond the history and links to storytelling. I end this post with a collection of links because when I haven’t been writing here I have been writing for PreservationNation.org, Fangirl, and Homespun.

Continue reading “Hodge Podge: Old Houses, Athletic Traditions, Parody, and Loss”

Hodge Podge: On Memory, Weddings, and Original Recipes

I have been working on this post for a few weeks, but alas the post-wedding catch up has taken over, plus every time I think I am done something else comes up that I want to add to it. But sometimes you just have to hit publish!

We will start with a quick word about weddings. Historically speaking weddings are the bringing together of two families and thus creating a new path of history. Two stories become one thus creating a new narrative.For those who love genealogy these events and the documentation of these events will one day let our great, great, great, great, grandchildren trace their own ancestry.

In addition to the immaterial the actual physical landscape of a marriage reveals heritage and culture, an opportunity to show the more recent past of the bride and groom. For my sister it was the trappings off India mixed in with with the quintessential American rituals (the first dance, cutting of the cake). My friends Mary and William embraced their inner Irish and love of fantasy for a ceremony filled with beauty and heart a week later.

For this hodge podge I’ll talk about This American Life episodes, a play on memory by Harold Pinter, a short conversation about fictionalizing the past through Geraldine Brooks’ work People of the Book and Year of Wonders, and finally a pop culture meets history link.

This American Life

There are actually three episodes that I wanted to talk about here. The first was an episode about Kid Politics. Where reporter Starlee Kine describes a program at the Reagan Library which asks kids to reenact the invasion of Grenada. While the show looks to see if kids make better decisions than adults, I found myself reacting to the subtle cues the library educators used to emphasize that the presidents decision was the “right one”. The kids who spent some time learning about Grenada before arrival are divided into three groups “the president and his cabinet”, “the military”, and “the press.” Than whenever the student makes a decision that Reagan did not make a light flashes along with a loud buzzer and a red light. On one level it is one way to indicate that the President made a different decision, but I think that by painting other options as wrong or right pushes kids away from critical thinking/analyzing presidential history as a series of decisions rather than because it happened this was the only course we could have taken.

The second episode had a segment that examined a television show, “This Is Your Life.” The premise interviewing individuals, and then surprising them with a carefully constructed vision of their life. Two separate episodes brought on a Holocaust survivor and a Japanese man who survived the atomic bomb-introducing these very sensitive subjects to the American audience in a way that they had never been discussed before. Each person also had a “surprise” guest–in the case of the Holocaust survivor it was a fellow camp mate, while the Japanese man (who was in the United States getting operations for girls who had been disfigured from the blast) was presented with one of the pilots of the Enola Gay. “This is your Life” seems almost like a modern day reality show. In both cases described above the individual being profiled used the show to bring awareness to what had happened to them, despite the shows structure feeling a little intrusive and voyeuristic.

And finally, for a light-hearted turn. Ira Glass believes he found the original recipe of Coke. While it is possible that it is a version of the drink we all know and love, this episode is a testament to the power of the document. Of finding things in boxes years from now that can tell a missing story. Above all else this episode showed that history is fun…especially when it involves an element of food ways and a little history of an American industry, regulation history and pop culture all at once.

Shakespeare Theatre: Old Times

The second to last show of the 2010-2011 season wasn’t a traditional tale by the bard but rather a reflection on memory written by Harold Pinter. The two leads are a married couple Kate and Deeley (played by Stephen Culp, of West Wing Fame, and the Tracy Lynn Middendorf who played Bonnie in LOST), who are expecting an old friend of Kate’s named Anna. In the course of the show, the play becomes less about a visit, and more a battle of remembrances between husband and guest. It is stark full of imagery that asks the audience to question, what is real what is true, did that really happen. It’s at times funny, yet equally gloomy as tension rises. Yet the woman at the center of each memory, Kate demands no attention. She seems content to live merely as an object of this memory, trapped in her own thoughts, often letting her husband’s former friend memorialize her as if she does not exist. The show ends in a bizarre parody leaving us to wonder about what memory really is.

I know that we see things one way in the moment, and that with time that vision shifts and is colored by the receding years. Collective memory works the same way. This play fiddles with the past, and illustrates in an evocative way about how even what we believe to be true can change in an instant. Old Times is playing at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC through July 3.

Of the Book: Two Titles by Geraldine Brooks

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, as usual. From fantasy, to catching up on my Public Historian, I find reading to be incredibly cathartic. Occasionally you come across a text so engaging that you feel inspired. This is so with books by Geraldine Brooks. Best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for March which follows the father in Little Women through his wartime journey, I picked up People of the Book and Year of Wonders. Both books use history as the backdrop for remarkable examples of storytelling. Year of Wonders is the story of a town hit by the plague, and how it voluntarily closes its boarders to keep those outside safe. People of the Book follows a book conservator and narrates her story and that of the object she is trying to save–it is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a real book with a really engaging past. It is an amazing piece of writing–in that as we step back in time with the book’s history we see fragments of the world, of Europe during times of intense upheaval before being brought back to our guide’s life. For anyone who is not convinced that material culture tells us more about the past than anything else–I would pick up People of the Book immediately.

.…and finally

I took a moment for fun and went to see the latest X-Men movie. It was fairly well plotted and takes place during a particular part of the cold war (1962 to be exact). However, like most movies–it gets some things wrong. Ta-Nehisi Coates went to see the movie with his son and tells us about it in “You Left Out the Part About….“. A good opening for a discussion….so tell me what you think in the comments.

Historian 2.0: Finding the Past Through Social Media

From the PreservationNation.org Blog

I think, like it or not, social media is here to stay. We may choose to use it to obsess over celebrity, or catch up on our daily news but I’m often surprised at how much about the past I’m able to learn and examine through the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and a wide variety of blogs. So here we go—here’s a day in the life of a historian in the age of social media.

8:00 am:  I’m on my way to work and I plug my iPod into my car or my headphones depending on my travel situation for the day. I key up my favorite podcast, one that reminds me of the art of storytelling and oral history that is so prevalent in our profession, despite most of the stories being of relatively recent times. Yes, it is the This American Life podcast—my favorite of which is this one called The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.

10:00 am: After dealing with the most important work of the day, open up my Twitter account (@pc_presnation) and look at my feeds. It usually takes me about 10 minutes to see what I may want to read later at home, and what might be interesting to share with members. While I tend to tweet little historical factoids, I like how everyone has an angle and is coming from their own unique perspectives.

Who do I follow? @publichistorian, @history_book, @trustmodern, @historyfaculty, and of course @presnation, where I have access to lists of preservation Twitter feeds.

Noon: So around lunch is when I’ve got a little bit more time so I visit my Google Reader for the latest in the blogosphere. The blogs that I subscribe to are varied but I usually like to check out Preservation in Pink’s preservation photos, and the History Carnival, which works with other bloggers to showcase history posts on a common theme once a month. For instance, January’s History Carnival was hosted by Westminster Wisdom and took a Scroogesque theme for the new year. It was by reading @PublicHistorian’s blog that I was pointed to the 2009 Cliopatria Awards by the History News Network. These awards are presented at the American Historical Association conference every January and honors great blogs in the field of history. I’ve added Georgian London and A Historian’s Craft which won for this amazing post.

2:00 pm: It’s time for e-mail lists. While I am the moderator for Forum-L (the list for Forum) I also participate in a number of free lists from H-Net. Specifically I subscribe to H-Public (for Public Historians), and H-DC (which tells you about all things historical in Washington.) While these are e-mail based I like how I can send out one message and reach a ton of people at the same time, it often spurs great discussions.

4:00 pm: Around this time sometimes I need a break, so I check out the latest This Place Matters photos on Flickr or visit the American Memory collection from the Library of Congress to peruse the HABS/HAER collection. (Want to see some great images? Search for the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument. If you want to see something more local, try looking for your home town.) If you like this, also check out their  American Folklife Collection.

5:00 pm: It’s time to go home, but not before I take a scan through the National Trust for Historic Preservation fan page on Facebook to see what I need to think about for the next day.

Those are my social media habits. What are yours?

Hodge Podge: Books that Changed A Life

One of the reasons I started this blog has to do with my love of a particular NPR podcast/radio show known as This American Life. Every week I would listen to Ira Glass and think about how much I wanted to talk to someone about what happened or I wanted to put pen to paper and write about a particular episode that moved me in some remarkable way. A lot of people I know listen to this and we’re always asking each other—did you see the one where the woman got rabies and couldn’t find vaccine (I can’t for the life of me remember the episode name)? Or in Switched at Birth where those girls are switched at birth and the mother who knew didn’t do anything about it (we always get angry when we think about this one). One of my favorites is the story of the Iranian couple who divorced and then two years later, found each other again (Reunited (and it feels good)). Don’t even get me started on the awesomeness that is The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.

Anyway I’m a few weeks behind and finally heard an episode that originally aired on August 20, 1999. and was re-aired on October 2nd. This episode was called The Book That Changed Your Life. Made up of four acts this episode took a look at the ways in which a particular book touched and of course changed lives. I think the episode is best summed up by a quotation in Act 1 which looks at how playwright Alexa Junge used a book from her grandfather’s library to feel closer to him. She says that

“When you read a book and something speaks to you and you feel understood and it makes the world a less lonely place.” Books can be powerful things and I’ll be first to admit that sometimes we read things that aren’t quite so intellectual or highbrow because they make us feel comfortable and at peace. Others challenge you to look beyond your normal scope of inquiry to see worlds beyond your wildest imagination.

It is to their credit that the power of the written world sometimes trumps other storytelling mediums (one example from the last decade would be the translation of the Harry Potter series to the big screen.) There is also something about books that reflect on the simplicity of expression. In Act III we learn about Roger a construction manager who becomes obsessed with collecting every book about Lewis & Clark known to man. At first he doesn’t read the texts, but once has the final piece (I believe it is a copy of the two volume first official printing of their journals) he opens up and begins learning as much as he can about these two people he has spent years of his life on. The magic is in his voice as he describes reading about the moment when Lewis and Clark reach the ocean, and how he would have been screaming and dancing but for Lewis and Clark their excitement is summed up in the simple text “ocean in view. Oh the joy.”

So it got me thinking about the fiction books that have changed my life. If I included nonfiction this could be a very long list, since there are many, many non-fiction books that inspired me. To some extent these five books are the ones that made me think about the construction of a story, but also made me think about the choices characters are forced to make and how powerful those choices can be as a reflection of reality.

  1. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  3. The Lord of the Rings (fine three books not one but I’m counting it as one) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin
  5. Atonement Ian McEwan

The Giver, the story of a boy living in a colorless world was perhaps my first introduction to the idea that maybe not everyone can see the world the way I do. What could I live without? A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps one of Dickens most quoted books and while not necessarily his best (I may say that Bleak House might be that) his ability to take his many story strands from incoherency and then pull them back together is just one of the reasons why I love this. It might be the vivid picture of the dirt, the gritty grime of his London/Paris that says it all. As for Tolkien it is the classic hero’s journey, and one which has parallels from all parts of life. Pride & Prejudice has more to do with Jane Austen and what she could do in the middle of 18th century England, but also the way she uses the story to provide a glimpse into all walks of English society. Lastly, Atonement…..really its because Ian McEwan has created a character who is both morally ambiguous and for whom I can never decide whether I would like to feel sorry for or just hate.

As always though as I put together this list other books started popping out at me so instead of me talking about myself—tell me about what books you guys love.

A few related notes:

  1. Claude Levi-Strauss: Levi-Strauss was a French structuralist anthropologist, who formulated theories on how and why so many myths from around the world seem to have similar structures and ideas. He died at the age of 100 last week and his writings were one of the first to push my mind beyond looking at things in one particular way. Levi-Strauss also had a big role in the creation of UNESCO race policy. Learn about his work at UNESCO here.
  2. A few weeks ago during one of Gene Weingarten (a columnist for the Washington Post) humor chats he asked us to take a look at a newly surfaced video that provides a single three second glimpse of Anne Frank prior to when her family went into hiding. He wanted us to decide if it was powerful and to explain why—so I’m asking you. Is it just a video of a girl watching her neighbors go off on their honeymoon, or is it powerful (as I found it) to finally catch a glimpse of someone whose words symbolize some of the acute horrors of the Holocaust.
  3. You might not get another long blog post from me until after November. I’ve decided to write for National Novel Writing Month (50k words in 30 days.) For more information visit www.nanowrimo.com.