A Year of Reading

When I first started this blog, I predicted that I would abandon it for the power of the written word, or more specifically, words written by somebody other than myself. It is especially challenging to have a steady balance of reading and writing (at least it is for me). After writing quite a bit in 2012, 2013 began with not having too much to say. I started the year recovering from an illness, longing for sleep and solitude; words, stories, reflections went elsewhere. I had nothing to say, even after I recovered and became myself again. The prescription for good health depended on a steady stream of books, and really, why ruin a good thing?

So without further ado, here’s how I spent my time not blogging:
1. Darwin’s Ghosts: A Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott. When Darwin first published Origin of Species, a reader called him out for not crediting those whose ideas and studies paved the way for Darwin’s own revelations. Darwin’s compilation of his fore-fathers goes all the way back to Aristotle. Interesting, if somewhat dry at times.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Absolute delight! I received this as a “Crappy Day Present”, and it is THE antidote for a crappy day. It’s the saga of a magical circus– romance, competition, drama ensues!

3. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. I don’t think this book has received the attention it deserves. Masterfully written double narrative of George and Ruth Mallory. George’s narrative spans several years as he is driven to reach the top of Mt. Everest; Ruth’s spans a single day as she reflects on her life with George.

4. Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Calasso. I read this for my art book club and take an exorbitant amount of pride in having finished it. It’s Calasso’s argument of why Tiepolo is an important artist and how Tiepolo used repeated images in his art to tell an over-arching story. I think. I mostly thought it was a load of BS, since Calasso didn’t really have a specific point to what he was saying– which is why I finished the book, to see if their was one. And, nope, not really. The benefit of having read this book is that I can now spot a Tiepolo in any museum, and distinguish it from a Fragonard (lucky me).

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Once you get past the fact that it is written in present tense and an interesting third person limited perspective (“he” always refers to the protagonist Thomas Cromwell), it’s a good book. Mantel brings to the reign of Henry VIII to life as she shows the wheeling and dealing that occurred to make his marriage to Ann Boleyn possible.

6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. This was suggested for a book club choice by my friend who “says” she didn’t want to join. My question is: why suggest a great book if you don’t want to join??? Anyhoo, I got the best of both worlds: she joined and this book is amazing. It’s based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters who worked to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Not for the faint of heart.

7. Nothing Daunted:The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden. The title says it all: two bored society girls tired of teas and husband-hunting take jobs as teachers in a one-room Colorado school house at the turn of the twentieth century. Needless to say, their lives are changed forever. A reminder of how we need to eschew routine for grand adventures.

8. An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. Besides being a comedian and playing the banjo, Martin is quite the art connoisseur. This novel is about the schemings of the art world and those that get caught up in them. It was okay.

9. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way by Bill Bryson. Exploring the development of the English language the way only Bill Bryson can. Funny and informative.

10. Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster. Rubens, it turns out, was a jack of all trades at ease in the artist’s studio and the offices of various kings and queens. He used his role as an artist to influence and spy on his subjects as he helped reshape Europe. Rubens differs from the stereotypical flighty, scatterbrained artist as he had astute political and business acumen.

11. Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers. Romping around England solving crimes with the charming and urbane Sir Peter Wimsey. Need I say more?

12. The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow. YA fiction that also makes a good grown-up read. Coming of age story of Karl Stern, a Jewish boy who doesn’t consider himself as Jewish, growing up in 1930’s Berlin. He takes boxing lessons from Max Schmeling and learns what kind of person he wants to be as Hitler rises to power.

13. The Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach. Bell is indeed an interesting figure as she explored what is now modern day Iraq alone at the turn of the twentieth century. Her knowledge of the area and relationships developed with various warlords helped unite Iraq after WWI. However, Wallach is too enamored of her subject, and seems to feel every slight that Bell received in her lifetime while overlooking Bell’s horrendous treatment and betrayal of others. Not an even-handed biography.

14. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut. This was one of this year’s biggest surprises for me. The only Vonnegut I had ever read is “Harrison Bergeron” because I teach it to my sophomores (it’s on the pacing guide), and it never inspired me to read more of Vonnegut’s work. Then at a book club Bluebeard was suggested, and inwardly groaning, I agreed to it as a “good sport”. It combines a curmudgeonly protagonist, WWII, and Abstract Expressionism. What more could I ask for? But it’s Vonnegut’s insights about the modern world and how we tell our stories that resonated the most.

15. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Klein. Cute little tome about developing creativity.

16. The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan. Fun adventure with teenage demigods struggling to find their purpose in the world while fighting scary monsters in a race against the clock.

17. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Heartbreaking story of friendship, jealousy, and betrayal in China. Have your Kleenex ready.

18. After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey. Hainey’s memoir about investigating the night his father died, which was always explained to him as “after visiting friends”. He is tenacious in his investigation to solve that life-long mystery. This memoir resonates because I think we all have those moments in our lives where what actually happened is not as it was told to us and we know it. For me, I think it also brings up the question, how much, exactly, do we want to know?

19. To End All Wars: A Story of Rebellion and Loyalty by Adam Hochschild. Engaging history of the anti-war struggle in England during WWI. The war started so quickly and there was such propaganda for it that those who opposed it are often overlooked.

20. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows. Do not be put off by the cutesy title! (I was.) A wonderful epistolary novel set in post-WWII Guernsey, an island off the coast of Britain occupied by the Germans during the war. A testament to the power of books, friendship, and community while not shying away from the horrors of war.

21. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918 by GJ Meyer. A concise and compelling retelling of the war. I appreciated that it captured the human elements and casts an unbiased eye over all of the players. It does not get bogged down in the minutiae of battle maneuvers, but instead gives overviews of the battles. If you have to read one book about the Great War, let this be it.

22. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Probably THE civilian memoir that came out of WWI. Brittain recounts her life prior to the war and shows how the war transformed her values and beliefs. She brings the carnage and destruction of the war to a human level.

23. Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle. Wonderful art heist caper written in Mayle’s breezy style. Perfect summer reading or airplane book (even better if you’re flying to France!).

24. Regeneration by Pat Barker. Reading Pat Barker’s writing was a revelation– her style is spare, direct, and vivid. It’s hard to say this without sounding a bit sexist, but as I read I had to keep looking at her picture. The novel didn’t sound/read like it was written by a woman. Not to say it sounded like a man’s voice, but it was just the way she told the story. Regeneration focuses on Dr. William Rivers who treated shell-shocked soldiers in WWI such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to highlight the inhumane treatment of those who fought bravely on the front. It’s an anti war novel that reveals how many soldiers wished to decry the war, but could not leave their units behind.

25. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I didn’t want to read this one, but it was for a book club, and I hoped for a redeeming “Vonnegut effect”. None came. Bradbury explores what would happen if we colonized/invaded Mars. Lots of social commentary. Still not a fan.

26. The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker.
27. The Ghost Road by Pat Barker. These finish out the Regeneration trilogy. She continues following the life of Dr. Rivers and his patients. Highly recommend. A side note: I finished the trilogy right before I left for my trip to the UK. At this point I had read six books about WWI, and at the Edinburgh Castle there was a monument to the Scottish soldiers of that war. Inside, etched into the walls were the names of all of the battles: Ypres, Dardenelles, Verdun, the Somme; lining the walls were counters topped with thick books listing the names of the Scotsmen who died in the war (over 150,000) and how and where they died. Everything that I had learned was still fresh in my mind, and it felt very personal. It was quite overwhelming.

28. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. This was my first exposure to any of Somerset Maugham’s work, and his writing style places you squarely in the scene– you are there. This is a reimagining of Gauguin’s life in Charles Strickland, a middle class stockbroker and family man who shocks everyone by abandoning his comfortable life for art, poverty, and Tahiti. Ultimately forces us to ask ourselves, what is a life well-lived? What is art’s purpose and who is art for?

29. Love by Toni Morrison. Do not be fooled by the book’s small size (just over 200 pages). What it lacks in physical weight, it more than compensates for emotional weight. This is not an easy book to read, even by the typical Morrison standard. Set in an all-black resort town run by Bill Cosey, the novel explores the relationships of the women who loved Cosey, now deceased. No one is likable and the first 120 pages are the longest 120 pages ever (unless you’ve read Young Man Luther by Erik Erikson– it trumps this book), but it finally picks up and revelations are made, and before you know it, you feel for these characters and their shattered lives.

30. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Perkins Gilman is most known for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper”; there’s a reason for that. Steer clear of this “feminist utopia”. It might have been revolutionary in her day, but it has not aged well.

31. Garlic and Sapphires: The Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl. Fun, fun, fun. Reichl’s memoir about being the NYT’s restaurant critic, and given the competitive nature of the NY food scene, all of the restauranteurs had the low down on her. This forced her to visit eateries in disguise. As she goes about her work as somebody else, she learns how people are treated and about herself. She also gets herself into many funny–and hair-raising–scrapes. Her reflections are down to earth, and if I were took look to a mentor on how to write a memoir, Reichl is an excellent candidate.

32. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Here is a story that has aged well: a good man trying to do the right thing, but is screwed over by forces outside of his control. My AP kids and I had many debates over how much control he had over his destiny.

33. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. One of my favorite novels, and this year’s Academic Decathlon novel selection. Finally, after The Grapes of Wrath (snore), Heart of Darkness (snore), and Dr. Zhivago (less of a snore, but what the hell is going on?!), the powers that be threw us a bone. Again, it’s another novel that grapples with the question if what does it mean to live–especially after your life does it turn out how you intended? Even though it is centered around Jake Barnes, all of the characters struggle with this this question (except Pedro Romero who is young, unscathed by war, and is saved by the church of “aficion”).

34. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Good lord! Have some Prozac ready after this one. Miller’s timeless morality tale of the perils of false values and the American Dream. Dr. Phil would have a field day with the Loman family.

35. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. YA WWII fiction about female pilots and spies and unlikely friendships. This is an intricate plot chance, coincidence, and irony as one gets caught by the Nazis in a secret raid and the other seeks to set her free. Intense!

36. A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron. If you are an animal lover, go get this book! Told from the perspective of a dog, this story reveals the bond of a dog and his human. Cameron writes this tale with warmth and manages to not make this saccharine or corny. I guarantee, though, that you will cry a minimum of four times.

37. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman has a devoted following. I get it. However, after reading this fantasy of unleashed spirits that haunt a vulnerable little boy, I’m not part of that group. My response after reading this book was, “And? So?”. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but I just didn’t see the point. But I have friends who love it.

38. The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. In 1990 Boston’s Gardner Museum was robbed– most notably of a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. The paintings were knifed out of their frames, rolled up, and carted out. After years of investigation, the leads ran cold, and Boser decided to pick up the loose ends. Long story short: he doesn’t find them either. His book details the social, cultural, and financial value of art; problems museums face with hubris, funding, and security; the mafia and the art world; and a whole cast of crazy characters who may or may not have seen the art. This is especially upsetting to me since my goal is to see all of the Vermeers– there are only 36 (now 35)– and I,and everyone else, will never see “The Concert”.

39. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. This book sat on my bookshelf for years before I read it; for some reason–don’t ask me how– I equated it with Milan Kundera’s Incredible Lightness of Being. Instead it is a Danish crime drama where snow is an important motif. Smilla is the proto-type for Lizbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: single-minded, determined, an outcast. Very technical and, well, cold. If you’re into all of the Scandinavian crime genres, then you should add it to your repertoire.

40. Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. This is a quiet and beautifully written novel based on Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother”. It spans the life of Mary Coin, based on the mother in the photograph, and Vera Dare, a fictionalized Lange. It shows how both women survive tImes of great hardship, determining who they are as mothers and women, and the choices they make for survival.

41. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower. Edgar Allan Poe was one bitter, combative, and manipulative little man! Gee whiz! When you buy a book with a sensationalist title, you hope for a sensationalist book. I think Stashower tried to do too much here by showing how the 1830’s press, the fickle public, and the uncooperative New Jersey and New York police forces bungled up the investigation of the murder of Mary Rogers, the beautiful cigar girl. In the meantime, this inspired the habitually broke and scheming Poe to write a story about it that purportedly solved the crime. The most interesting thing for me was reading about NY and how it was in that time and trying to imagine 66th Street as farm land, but otherwise much of this was repetitive.

42. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This is one delight of a novel. Simonson weaves together the clashes of culture, generations, tradition, and the expectations of others and creates two endearing characters in Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Jasmina Ali in a comedy of manners. It’s also set in England. So get your tea and biscuits and cozy up to this novel.

43. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Where to begin? How about this? Italy, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Idaho, writing, acting, performing, building a tennis court on the side of a cliff, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Cleopatra, taking chances, staring over, search for love, identity, redemption, and last but not least: Pasquale Tursi. Don’t know Pasquale? Read this novel and meet him.

44. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. A biting and satirical (doesn’t this describe all of his works?) novel about an American stationed to work with the Nazis now on trial for war crimes in Isreal. I read this on the plane back from NY; I was really tired and sensed I was missing much of the sarcasm. I want to reread this one to get the full experience.

45. Othello by William Shakespeare. “Oh monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world,/ to be direct and honest is not safe.” The levels of irony and betrayal in this line from Iago and its effect on Othello is one of the reasons I teach this tragedy. Except this year one of my (AP) students missed the point and thought Iago was quite the matchmaker and rooted for #teamCassio. SMH.

46. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. Reichl spent her youth guarding her parents’ guests from eating her mother’s “cooking” to prevent untimely deaths and other disasters. With such a dubious background, it’s remarkable that she embarked on such a successful career in food. In this memoir she explains how she got from here to there.

47. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Let’s be real here. How can you not like this novel? It’s got everything: a proud but misunderstood and shy man, a woman prejudiced by her own abilities, a secret feud, elopements, great fight scenes, a creeper, a player, lavish estates, an imperious old woman set to have her way, a quirky family, and unrequited love. Every year I have the great joy of exposing this novel to teenagers, and what makes me happy is the amount of boys who like it. This year one of my boys wrote me note thanking me for introducing him to P&P, one of his new favorite books.

48. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. If you need to escape from reality, let this book be your portal. Set in post WWII Barcelona, ten year old Daniel Sempere and his father visit the secret Cemetery of a Forgotten Books. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by the mysterious Julian Carax. This selection changes the course of his life and leads him to adventure, danger, and romance as he searches the past of the elusive author. Full of larger than life characters and plot twists galore.

49. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I didn’t want it to end, so I read it again.

50. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. This is probably one of my favorite contemporary novels. This was my third time reading it. It’s about asthmatic Reuben Land whose father works miracles and whose brother is on the run from the law. He, his father, and younger sister go on a voyage looking for their outlaw. Together they grapple with what is legally right versus what is morally right. Enger’s other novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome is also worth a read.

51. October Sky by Homer Hickam, Jr. This was originally titled Rocket Boys, but they used the anagram for the movie. This is Hickam’s memoir of growing up in a coal mining town in West Virginia in the 1950’s. Inspired by Sputnik, he and his friends are determined to learn how to build rockets. The community rallies behind them as they create prototype after prototype. This is also a story about a boy trying to understand his father and his place in the world. It’s a bit dry in places, but overall a good read.

52. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The great thing about teaching this novel is that it generates its own discussion. My kids came in everyday with some point they wanted to discuss. Janie Crawford resonated with my students; I wonder if it is because they, too, are going to be on their own journeys soon and will they find the bee to their blossom?

53. The Painted Veil by W . Somerset Maugham. Again, Somerset Maugham puts you right there in his books. This is the story of a Kitty Faine who enters a loveless marriage, gets caught in an affair, and is then taken to the cholera-plagued Mei-tan-fu region in a China where she can reflect on her actions. If you’re looking for “happy ever after”, move along. If you’re looking for a clear-sighted look at the confinement of women’s choices, this is your book. As I was surprised that Pat Barker could tell men’s stories so well, I was equally surprised how well Maugham could capture the thoughts and feelings of a woman.

54. Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman. America, being such a new country, lacked great art, and as it became a greater player in the world, it needed art and culture to prove it. This is the story of Henry Marquand, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick, and other tycoons buying up art to display their status, rebuild their images, and leave a legacy of culture and learning to the American people.

55. The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones. One way to determine the type of book you’re looking at is seeing whose endorsements are on it. This particular book has one by Nicholas Sparks on the front. And on the back. AND inside. So is this romantic? Yes. Are there hardships? Yes. Are the lovers seperated? Yes. Does someone die? Yes. There we have it, folks! A novel Nicholas Sparks would like. Fortunately, the subject matter saves this book. It’s about a woman who becomes an art dealer alongside her Jewish husband in 1930’s Munich. They specialize in Modern art, or “degenerate art” by Hitler’s standards. She works to save what art she can before it is destroyed. How much art Hitler deprived the world of will never be known– my mind cannot wrap around how much death and destruction he caused.

This is my wrap up of 2013. On my shelves are more books yet to be read, so here’s to a new year full of reading , exploring, and learning. What book made an impact on you this year?

“She took life by the throat and dealt with it.”

This post’s title is a quote from Dorothy Wickenden’s book Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, a biography of Dorothy Woodruff (the author’s grandmother) and Rosamond Underwood who in 1916 left their upper-class lives of teas and socials in New York to teach in a Colorado school for a year– far, far away from the comforts of home. Nothing impelled them to go; they were college educated, unmarried, and bored. The wilds of the still untamed West sounded like an adventure. And it was. Thrust into a world more foreign than the Grand Tour of Europe, the girls, with their charm, wit, and grace, embraced it all: the landscape, the people, their students. Their experience challenged them, and through the community, its children, and the wild terrain, they learned the true meanings of work, tenacity, and survival. Later they described their year in Colorado as being the best in their lives. It also prepared them for the challenges of life outside of their parents’ money and close knit community. Both experienced immense struggles and heartbreak later in their lives, but they “dealt with it”.

I read Nothing Daunted right after finishing Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel about the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic who fight against Trujillo in the 1950’s. Like Woodruff and Underwood, the sisters gave up their lives of comfort, but this time for a principle rather than boredom. Through the use of facts, documents, and interviews, Alvarez presents a fictionalized account of how Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa (Mate) each come to the realization that they must fight against Trujillo’s regime, one of the most bloody in Latin America, and their transformation into las Mariposas— the Butterflies. Dede, the fourth sister, whose domineering husband and own need to not “rock the boat” prevent her from joining up with her sisters, is left to tell their story. Each woman “took life by the throat and dealt with it”. Each understood the meaning of their commitment– destruction of possessions and property, prison, torture, death, and the fact that someone else would live to take care of their children. While they are single-minded in their battle against Trujillo, their journey into the revolution breaks down their pride– whether it be their pride of family, God, status, or marriage. Alvarez develops the theme of appearances and what is “buried” underneath– the outward revolution against the regime leads to inward revolutions as each questions what she knew of life before.

These women’s stories inspire me. Woodruff, Underwood, and I are much closer in spirit– I am always looking for the next adventure. But I wonder if I have the same tenacity of spirit and dedication to ideals as the Mirabal sisters. Could I put a principle above my life? Would I? Woodruff and Underwood had the luxury to make their choices– a warm bed and a cushy life would always be there to welcome them home. In Trujillo’s Dominican Republic the choice is not as cut and dry. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” To live life as the status quo may prevent one from getting into trouble, but it is not a guarantee for safety. It might leave one with a warm home, but a cold conscience. In a regime as cruel as Trujillo’s (or any regime for that matter), where people were killed or disappeared as a matter of routine, the sisters’ ambush and murder might seem in vain. By the time of their deaths they were revered national symbols of the revolution, and their deaths inspired Trujillo’s future assassins. In the end, they achieved their goal. I’d like to think that if I had to fight for what I believed in that I would do so with as much humanity and courage as they did. They knew the risks of their decisions; they knew what they were giving up; they “took life by the throat and dealt with it”.

Life, Examined

One of the joys of winter break is the long, uninterrupted stretch of reading.  It’s even better when the books read are given to you.  My friend Christine passed along Aryn Kyle’s first novel The God of Animals and my MIL gave me Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution.  Happy that neither were in MLA format, 12 point Arial font, and full of high-school errors, I eagerly dove in and devoured the delicious diction.  Even though they are completely different books, Kyle’s novel is a coming-of-age story of a young girl on a horse ranch and Stott’s non-fiction work delves into the naturalist-philosophers who helped create the idea of evolution prior to Darwin, both share a similar theme: observing the world around us and the consequences of that knowledge.

the god of animalsIn The God of Animals, the protagonist is twelve-year old Alice Winston who is left to fend for herself after her beautiful and talented older sister runs off with a rodeo cowboy.  Her mother is a recluse and her inattentive father is lost in dreams of how to make his middling ranch a success.  Her life is shrouded by mysteries: Why did her sister leave?  Why does her mother never leave her room?  Why is her father so silent?  Why are people the way they are?  And in the recent death of a schoolmate, why did she die and what were her secrets?   Having no Atticus Finch as a father to explain life’s mysteries to her, Alice relies on keen observation to come up with her own conclusions.  She delves into the mysteries of love, growing up, others’ actions, and the choices people make. What should she do with the knowledge she learns?  Should she keep it to herself?  Share it?  And to what purpose: to help or hurt?  Ultimately, she has to grapple with the truth about her family and her own actions.

Naturalists who explored ideas and studies in “transmutation”, ultimately, evolution, had to grapple with the truth they unveiled and how to disseminate it to the public.  Stott explores the list Darwin compiled for his book On the Origin of Species that acknowledges the work of other men (including his grandfather) who helped bring forth the idea of the descent and modification of species.  The first third of the book is devoted to Aristotle, Jahiz, da Vinci, and Bernard Palissy and their devotion to observing and questioning the natural world and learning that organisms have existed a lot longer and are more connected that previously thought.  What differentiates these men from those who came after them is that their knowledge did not threaten their livelihoods or threaten the power and belief of the Church.  The evolutionary plot thickens as Enlightenment philosophy takes hold in the 18th and 19th centuries and the formations of life turn from theorizing and the biblical narrative to close observation and research.

Darwin's ghostsDarwin’s list of predecessors runs long.  Benoit de Maillet, a French consul to Egypt, discovered the age of the earth was much, much older than previously thought and that life descended from the sea and was not formed by God.  Everything happened by chance rather than divine intervention.  He wrote his findings in a book titled Telliamed and presented them as though an old Indian revealed the earth’s secrets to a philosopher rather than stating his evidence outright.  His book, which he wrote anonymously, was eventually published in Amsterdam, since it was too seditious to be printed in Paris.  Three decades later Abraham Trembley cut a polyp into two, and with the help of his newfangled device called the microscope, was shocked to discover that it regenerated its missing parts.  He was just a tutor to two aristocratic Dutch boys creating exciting lessons and experiment for them, not someone out to dismantle the hierarchy of man.  But as he shared his findings with just about everyone of importance in Europe, people began to wonder about man’s role in the world.  Man could not regenerate himself, but polyps could.  Philosopher Denis Diderot, who wrote about species mutability and how they change and fall away, wrote and worked under constant police surveillance.  His work was deemed heretical because he placed the Catholic church on the same level with other churches, declared that the only things we can really know are what we see, and that the chain of being is not separated but each species is bound up with the others.  Erasmus Darwin cloaked his views on mutability and adaptability in poetry  and buried his evidence in the footnotes in order to avoid controversy.  Charles Darwin’s former mentor, Robert Grant’s career was destroyed because of the backlash against his beliefs in “transmutation”, even though he discovered that plants and animals shared a “monadic base” in the past as he proved with his study of sea sponges.  Publisher Robert Chambers had his book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation anonymously published.  What made Chambers different from the rest of the naturalist philosophers was that he wrote his book for the lower and middle classes; he understood that people wanted to learn and be educated, but only the few could afford the university.  He explained his ideas in layman’s terms and had it priced for the everyday consumer.  While his work was deeply heretical, it was also very popular with the public; it provided the basis for the public to accept Darwin’s theories.  The efforts of these men and others set the stage for Darwin’s knowledge and study.

It was the effort of Alfred Wallace that set the stage for Darwin’s publication.  Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, caught, preserved, labeled, and sold insects, birds, and animals from Brazil and the Malay Archipelago to museums in England.  In a fit of  malarial delirium, he came up with the idea of the survival of the fittest, an idea that took Darwin twenty years to form.  Wallace sent Darwin his discovery.  Darwin, in fear that Wallace may gain credit for the same idea he himself had labored on, got the okay from other scientists to hurriedly publish his work.  We all know and are still dealing with repercussions of that publication as many continue to deny and refute his science.

Both books shed light on the importance of asking the big questions, observation, learning, and finding answers.  Kyle’s style is lyrical and cemented in a sense of place; her characters are finely drawn, and Alice is a sympathetic protagonist.  The story builds slowly, so much so that I often realized that nothing of great importance “happens”, but her writing propelled me forward to the startling climax at the end.  Stott has the ability to bring people from the past to life.  The first part of her book is not as engaging as the rest, mostly because she’s setting the background and its devoid of conflict.  The rest of the book picks up, mostly because it explains the discoveries and their times are more similar to our own.  Stott writes well, but is often repetitive in her phrasing and sentence structure (long sentences that catalog names, animals, and ideas– there are a lot of them).  If you want an interesting read on the history of nature, evolution, or ideas, I recommend it.  If you want just a really good story, read Kyle’s novel.

Into The Great Wide Open: Two Book Reviews

On the face of it– or if you were to judge two books by their covers, if you will– my  two most recent reads have nothing in common.  Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before has an  appropriately blue cover graced by a small globe wearing a ship at a jaunty angle like a sailor’s cap. It captures what his subject, the enigmatic Captain James Cook, would have seen each day at sea, the endless blues of the ocean and sky with nothing but clouds to break the monotony.  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, on the other hand, features a well worn hiking boot.  The boot represents the journey: the leather worn and broken-in, the laces broken, the base of the sole encrusted in dirt.  The boot was where Captain Cook often was not: terra firma.  Cook sailed the seas far, far from home in the 18th century; Strayed, a woman with no home, hiked the Sierra Nevada and Cascades in 1995.  But if we crack open the spines and delve into the stories, we see that they have much more in common than at first glance.

Captain Cook did not leave much beyond his ship’s journals to posterity that explain why a successful man who pulled himself out of abject poverty and broken through England’s rigid class system would leave not once, not twice, but three times on perilous journeys into the Arctic and Pacific that lasted three years or more.  He left behind a stable home, a lucrative position, and his wife and kids to fulfill Homeric quests; his first solidified his place in history, so why did he keep going?  Tony Horwitz, a writer who combines humor, travelogue, and history into one, takes up the challenge to climb into Cook’s skin to learn what kind of man he was, what drove him, and why he continued to set sail.  The best way to learn about a man is to walk in his shoes, so Horwitz follows Cook’s routes around the world, including back to York, England, Cook’s home, to discover what Cook might have seen, his legacy, and how he is remembered today.

Cook’s history and legacy, as Horwitz learns, is messy.  While Cook could have easily earned an A+ in the 18th century explorer grade book, for he didn’t try to convert, take over, or kill the native people he met, nor was he an unjust captain and instead under his watch kept the majority of crew alive, he happened to be the messenger to the world of changing times.  Like all messengers, Cook is blamed.  Horwitz compares Cook’s journals with what he witnesses first hand and concludes, like Cook did with incredible foresight, that Western influence has brought on much harm to the South Pacific island nations.  Horwitz uses Cook’s early life and infers from Cook’s habits and routines to create a profile of the type of man he was.  His findings are incisive–  the fact that Cook strived so hard to raise up in the ranks, leave home, and not name any of his discoveries after his family or childhood home suggest that his early youth was difficult and he struggled with his parents.  This is corroborated by the fact that Cook was meticulous and precise in everything he did (his maps that he drew were so accurate they were used until 1994), a trait of people who grew up with alcoholic parents.  Cook’s legacy is as disheartening as his childhood.  In the South Pacific he is either vilified or forgotten, and many island nations are still coming to grips with how to represent him.

Horwitz’s narrative readable, informative, and funny.  He offsets the seriousness of Cook with his own traveling high-jinks, mostly in the form of Roger, his drunken, foul-mouthed Aussie friend and traveling companion.  Horwitz tries as much as possible in today’s age of technology to keep his travels as close to Cook’s as he can, but he also uses his hard-nosed investigative skills to uncover as much about each place he can, as can be seen in my favorite chapter: “The Hunt for the Red Banana.”  Overall, he paints a compelling portrait of Cook, flaws and all, and shines light on what it meant to live at a time when two worlds began to collide.

Over two hundred years later Cheryl Strayed puts on her own shoes to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  As Cook’s journey was onward and outward, Strayed’s journey was inward as she reflected on what it means to live in her own skin.  How did she ruin her life and end up on this journey for which she was ill-prepared alone?  The PCT was just as unknown to her as the Pacific was to Cook.  In her months-long journey she faces this question as well as dangers such as bears, rattlesnakes, strange men, inclement weather, and her own inexperience.

At the beginning of her journey, it’s rather easy to not like Strayed.  In the aftermath of her mother’s death, she makes some really bad choices– it is difficult to not pass judgment.  What makes her memoir so successful is her recognition of her failures at the beginning.  She does not ask for the reader’s forgiveness, nor does she excuse her choices.  She takes a hard look at her relationships with her mother, family, and ex-husband.  She comes to terms to who she is and why she is that way.  Her thoughts and actions are unflinching as she says, “The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer– and yet also, like most things, so very simple– was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do” (69).  There is no escape on the trail, yet she stuck with it, tenaciously plodding ahead.  She earns her redemption through each step of her journey, gaining respect from other hikers, her readers, and herself along the way.

One of the greatest lessons she learned on the trail was how much we let stories define us or let ourselves be defined by others.  In the beginning of her hike she thinks, “Fear, to a great extent, is born from a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe.  I was strong.  I was brave.  Nothing could vanquish me” (51). This story motivated her to push on when most of us would have run for the nearest set of four walls with a locking door.  She examines how the stories of her parents shaped her story and eventually learns which parts are their story and which are hers.  In the end, she has her own story to tell that is hers and hers alone.

We have to respect those who go out into the unknown, uncertain of their safety and what they will find.  They make discoveries far more than those of us who cling to the familiar and the safe.  While Cook was not out on the ocean soul-searching, he and Strayed made the same discovery.  Strangers out on the trail or on faraway islands are often kind and seek understanding.  When Cook and his men met the islanders, the majority’s first impulse was to show goodwill; the second, to establish communication.  Strayed met many who wanted to share stories of the hike and have camaraderie with others.  In the end, even though our journeys are as far flung as places on the map, our destination is always the same: understanding.

The Meanest Teacher In All The World

“Man!  Why you gotta hate?!”

“I’m not hating.  You’re missing a period,” I calmly replied.

“It’s just one period!  Can’t you accept it?”

“No. Plus your headers not the right size.  It’s supposed to be 12 point font.”  My student looked like he was for sure going to clobber me now, which he could have easily done since he towered over me.

“It IS 12 point font!”

“No.  No, it’s not.  Once you fix both of the problems, I’ll accept your essay.”  He let out a cross between a growl and a groan.  He was so pleased that he was going to turn in his essay early, but that’s one thing that was in his favor.  Since I caught those errors, he was able to fix them (and conceded that  his header was in 11 point font) and became one of the five students out of my 33 whose essay I accepted the day it was due.

Essay due dates are stressful for both me and my students.  My students want to unload this essay that they’ve been spending their time on, but first it has to pass inspection of its MLA format, font, overall formatting, and works cited page.  If it is not perfect, I don’t accept it until they fix it.  The thing is, I warn them.  I tell them exactly what I’m going to do on the day they turn it in.  In addition to this, I also give them the resources they need to do it correctly.  I provide tutoring, feedback, and often spend my prep helping a student with his or her essay.  They have everything they need to do it correctly.

They, however, do not believe me.  They do not believe I will reject their essay.  They do not believe my resources and opt to use impostors that lead them astray. They do not believe me when I say, “Do it just like this one,” nor do they believe me when I walk them through it. They do believe that I will “let it slide” or capitulate at their sob story or story of heroics that they “tried”.  They always have a rude awakening.  Their response to my refusal of their “best effort” is anger and frustration– while I believe it’s often at themselves, it’s taken out on me: The Meanest Teacher In All The World.  One boy refused to believe me when I said his works cited page was wrong and implied that my version of the 7th edition MLA handbook was wrong, while his computer generated works cited was correct.  He would not budge from his position, and it nearly escalated into a shouting match until I remembered that I was the grown up.  One girl made snide remarks to me about how much money it was costing her to print out numerous copies of her essay until I replied, “Do it right the first time and then you don’t have to spend so much money.”  Some students, to avoid my wrath, started double-checking their work (what a concept!), and were prepared for me, “Ms. L, I put the wrong date, my works cited is not in alphabetical order, and I messed up on the punctuation.”  Acknowledging their mistakes left them a bit more unscathed.

The problems with formatting and the works cited page reflects a greater problem of students: not using resources, not paying attention to detail, and using short-cuts.  This is bolstered by students who toe the line of acceptance and/or are used to just turning in “effort”.  Many students think they can do the bare minimum and get away with it; they don’t realize that they need to be an advocate for themselves when it comes to knowledge and learning.  One boy today didn’t advocate for himself at all when I totally forgot to check his paper yesterday.  What did he do?  He left class with his essay and went home.  Today, he turned it in late for half credit blaming me.  I apologized for over-looking him, but then asked him whose responsibility it is to make sure his essay’s turned in. Did he ever call my name so I could look at his essay?  Did he stay after class to make sure it got done?  Nope. He went home.  Today he stayed after class and fixed his mistakes.

This phenomena of not advocating for oneself and taking short cuts played out in my history class on a recent exam.  The exam was very fair, and I was quite sure they’d do well on it.  Their study guide also covered the material on the exam. The result?  My highest score was an 80% and it went down, down, downhill from there.  The results befuddled me.  How could my bright, engaged students do so poorly?  There were no trick questions.  Their scores were unacceptable, and I allowed (demanded is probably the correct term) them to retake it.  In preparation for the retake, they started to study and make flash cards and quiz each other. One of my girls reviewed her failing test and asked about one of the questions; she thought she knew the answer, but it wasn’t in the glossary.  This stopped me in my tracks, “Did you just use the glossary to study?”  She nodded her head.  I called out to the rest of my class, “Did you all use the glossary to study the first time?”  Everyone nodded their heads.  Everything made sense.  My test questions asked them to apply their knowledge and the glossary just provides the who, what, when, and where.  It neglects the hows and whys.  Their short cuts lead to failing grades and having to retake the test.  Fortunately, fourteen of them came in to retake it and all did much better.

I remember being a high school student and studying fervently for exams.  When it came to history exams, I re-read the chapters and quizzed myself. No one taught me how to create a works cited page; I had to use a handbook to figure it out.  I followed the directions and double-checked my work against the examples. My student population is more diverse and mostly impoverished, so I understand that they don’t have the resources at home, but where is the disconnect?  Where is the initiative?  Do teachers (including me) with all of their scaffolding and second chances take away the motivation for kids to learn how to do things on their own?  Is this a result of No Child Left Behind that passed failing kids along?  When is the onus taken from teachers and given to the students?  What’s frustrating is that they can all do it.  If they sat down and took their time, each and every one of them can do it.  So how do we get them there?

“Out Of Hopeful Green Stuff Woven”

Walt Whitman
via loc.gov

During the Civil War the American poet Walt Whitman learned that his brother Frederick, a soldier, had been injured.  Whitman made the trek to D.C. to find him, but in the process found something else that would irrevocably change his life.  Washington, D.C. greeted Whitman with a variety of tent “hospitals” bearing piles of sawed-off bloody limbs.  Inside were tens of thousands of men of all ages and walks of life who were far from home, most were uncertain if they’d ever see home again, and all knew that if they returned, it would not be as the men or boys they were when they left.  Most of the soldiers had nothing to their names, were illiterate, and had no way to communicate to their families– not just because they didn’t know how to write, but because they lacked pencils and paper.  Frederick, Whitman learned, was okay; these men in front of him, were not.

Moved by the soldiers’ sacrifices, Whitman stayed on D.C. by taking a variety of odd jobs.  He spent the majority of his time doing his best to look healthy, clean, and keep his long white beard shining for his visits to the troops. He believed that he, like his poetry created a “new” America, could imbue health and good spirits into the soldiers.  But he did more than just look good.  He solicited donations for paper, pencils, money, fruit, anything that he could take to the soldiers.  He gave soldiers small gifts, knowing the power that having something, anything, can have on a person who has nothing.  He served as a scribe by writing letters to their families; he visited; he read to them; he sat quietly with them; and on many occasions silently watched as the blanket was finally pulled over their faces.

Whitman stayed on for two years until his own health began to deteriorate.  He saw his unique opportunity to provide help to other’s in need.  He understood that it did not take much– just a token– to revive men’s spirits or ease their souls.  He did not shy away from his chance to spread hope.  Hope, he realized, was not his alone.  In his most famous poem, “Song Of Myself” he uses the image of grass to convey hope.  A “leaf” of grass is quite small and insignificant, but all of the leaves together cover everything, sprout from those who have come before us, and signal our return to it:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

At the end of his poem, Whitman reminds us that he, too, is part of the grass, and as such, never leaves us.  He eternally waits to replenish us, make us new, and give us hope:

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.


This post is in response to Melanie Crutchfield’s Blog Relay for Hope.  Laura from I’d Rather Sit On The Couch passed me the baton, and I’m passing it on to purplemary54 at myelectronicjukebox.  Please check out all of these blogs!

Here are the instructions:

Step 1: Write a blog post about hope & publish it on your blog.
Step 2: Invite one (or more!) bloggers to do the same.
Step 3: Link to the person who recruited you (me, in this case) at the top of the post, and the people you’re recruiting at the bottom of the post.

Melanie Crutchfield will gather up little snippets from people who wrote about hope, so make sure you link back to her as the originator of the relay.

Regarding sources used: Most of this springs from my memory of previous grad school studies.  If there are any inaccuracies, the fault is all my own.  My thoughts on the poem and what it means to me is my own.  I did, of course, refer to Leaves of Grass.

(On a silly side note: When I teach Whitman to my students I always end the lesson with, “If you guys see me rolling around on the school lawn, you’ll know I’ve found him!”. )

When Creativity Speaks

A recent episode of PBS’s History Detectives featured a woman who wanted to know about the man who drew a picture of her father Bill when he was in a Nazi POW camp during WWII.  She wondered who he was, if he survived, and if he went on to become an artist.  What emerged was an interesting glimpse into wartime suffering, community, and humanity.  Many of the American soldiers held in this camp, located in Austria, had been shot down over France and Germany and were cut off from everyone they knew and all ties back home.  As one can imagine, life was tough there, and it was only through the Geneva Conventions and assistance of the Red Cross, that these soldiers received the little they did.  There were over two hundred men to a barrack, and these were reminiscent of the barracks used in concentrations camps: close quarters, no privacy and wooden pallets for sleeping.  The food was chopped rutabaga, gruel, and bread made mostly of sawdust.  The survivors of the camp recalled how easy it was to forget who they were there.

To combat the forgetting, the men turned to creativity and to each other.  Most were strangers, but they created a community for survival.  They wrote poems and stories.  They put on a Christmas review full of carols, an reenactment of The Christmas Carol, and skits.  They put on other performances, and, of course, they drew.  Bill had traded cigarettes for two onions and a potato with a Russian POW when he met “Gil” Rhoden.  Rhoden offered to draw his picture in exchange for the food.  Bill thought, “I can eat these, but still be hungry.  Or I can give them to him and have something to show for it.”  The result was an excellent pencil sketch of Bill looking healthy, clean, and handsome– an image of the way he was before entering the camp.  Bill looked at the picture throughout his captivity as a reminder to who he was and could be again.

Rhoden, it turns out, survived the camp, too, and went on to become very successful.  He passed away in a plane crash in 1989, but the history detective was able to locate his son and show him the picture.  The son was overcome with emotion as he looked at the sketch. “It’s like shaking my father’s hand again,” he said.  He and Bill had the chance to meet and share stories about Rhoden and life since the camps.

This story of two men and survival is simply beyond words.  Rhoden drew for sustenance and his drawing gave Bill hope.  Bill’s sharing of his picture with Rhoden’s son, allowed the son to reconnect to his father.  This episode serves as a reminder how we never know the impact that we have on others.  Our smallest or most routine actions can mean so much to someone else.  It also shows that even though we can be in the most dire of situations and cruelest of fates, we can seek solace and strength in our humanity.  The men turned to things that were personal and could be shared or created a shared experience.  They sought that which was good.

This story coincided with some thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain of late– the community of bloggers.  Granted, bloggers are not POWs in a Nazi prison camp.  But we do seek connections to others and give each other hope.  We come from all walks of life as there are many blogs about teaching, books, writing, reading, music, motherhood, parenting, poetry, photography, art, mental illness, food, travel, gay rights, community issues, saving historical landmarks, and the list goes on.  Some commonalities that bloggers share is that they are all intelligent and highly educated; all have something to share.  Even though we are all different, we are all doing the best we can.  Together we share our stories and work and offer support and encouragement and new ideas.  By reading about other’s lives and thoughts, we gain wider empathy and insight into other perspectives, even if we do not agree.  In this time when so many things are uncertain, this is a nice community to be a part of.

Contextualizing The American Dream

School starts tomorrow, and one of the exciting things I have to look forward to is the opportunity to teach American History.  Even though I only one class for the whole year, I feel like I’ve come full circle in my education.  It was in my junior year of high school, sitting in my American History class, that I determined that I wanted to teach that subject.  My teacher does deserve some credit for this decision, mostly because I thought I could do it better than he could.  Throughout my life my parents and family fostered a love of history.  My mom made sure I had a well-stocked library of historical biographies from Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nellie Bly.  My dad took a four-month job in D.C., so my mom and I could come out and visit for three weeks.  We saw Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Independence Hall, Harper’s Ferry, Ford’s Theater, and all of the sights D.C. has to offer.  History was real.  My granny showed me slides of her trip to Boston during the Bicentennial; Gramps showed me where Al Capone lived in Chicago; my grandparents took me all over Michigan and Indiana to see historical homes.  History turned out to be everything I love: ideas, stories, personalities, innovations, geography, and struggle.  This propelled my college studies.  Even though I followed my bachelor’s in history with a master’s in English (literature is people’s responses to their history), my interest in history has never waned.

The challenge of teaching history is that it can become very chronological: this happened and then that happened, then this general said this and caused that over there to happen….  Snooze.  Compound this with the breadth of information, the class could feel like it’s just skipping across the surface.  The students might get the who, what, and where, maybe the why, but not the “so what?”.   So my big idea this year is to incorporate theme-based learning, and to make it easier on myself, there will be only one theme: the American Dream.

Since it’s called the American Dream, is an American phenomena, and is still talked about today– mostly whether or not it still exists, everything in our history connects to it.  It is also still how Americans define themselves; they believe in it and it is a source of identity.  We are resourceful, innovative, adventurous, and daring because we have the national resources to be that way.  We have that innate belief that we can ourselves up by our boot straps and better ourselves. To understand how the dream came to be, the students can explore how the early settlers’ motivations and beliefs contributed to the foundation of the American Dream and examine how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution support it, to how the Westward Movement and influx of immigration solidified it.  In addition to looking at it’s growth, students can also analyze the shortcomings and challenges to the American Dream: slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement.  At the end of the class we can debate if the American Dream is still relevant to our times.

To begin this study my students will write a reflection about the American Dream, what they think it means in general, and what it means specifically to them.  They’ll discuss their responses in small groups and create a list of their common ideas to share with the rest of the class.  During that discussion we will create a master list and I will give each group an idea from it.  They will have to think of how that idea came to be and which aspects of America lead to that idea. This info will be added to the master list.  The list will be posted in the classroom for the students to refer to.  During each unit I will use reflections, HOTS questions, creative writing, and small projects to have the students connect the concepts and facts to our theme.  My goal is for them to see how history is connected and how our life today is a reflection and extension of our past.

Readers: I want to hear from you– what did you really enjoy/not enjoy about your history class?  What do you wish you did in your history class?  Do you have any suggestions or resources I should be aware of? Please share.  

A Rant And A Recipe

At my grandma’s house I read her Better Home and Garden’s Cookbook from the late 1940s.  The descriptions of how to entertain guests, the pictures of the food, and the fact that some ingredients were a “No. 2” can of tomatoes (what’s a No. 2 can?) were a kick to see. Reading the most important part of the cookbook– the cookies section, of course– I landed on a recipe that called for one cup of molasses.  One cup!  As a molasses lover, I could not pass this up. These cookies I had to try.  These would be perfect to share with my friends at the dinner picnic for Shakespeare in the Park. We planned to see A Comedy of Errors.

The title was rather prophetic as there was an error, but not at all funny.  On Wednesday night, someone stole the theater’s lighting and sound equipment. The Thursday show was cancelled.  My friend, Pat, who had already made the main course, salvaged the evening by inviting us all over to her house for dinner. I baked my cookies and had a good time visiting and meeting new people.  Pat served a light chicken salad mixed with celery, green grapes, almonds, pecans, and mayo with a green salad on the side. We ate off of lovely pink china and used the silver. Even though every thing was high class, nothing felt pretentious. It really made me wish I had nice china and kept my silver at home, so I, too, could enjoy nice things everyday.

While we had a great evening with good food and company, my mind drifted back to those who stole all of the equipment and the fallout of their actions.  Everybody’s plans were changed. The theater company is going to lose money– from a cancelled show to rescheduling subsequent shows to an earlier time to make use of the daylight. They have to reimburse for Thursday’s tickets and are selling the rescheduled shows at a reduced cost.  The theft deteriorates the sense of community and undermines the theater’s work. This is a constant in life, but I was reminded how the actions of a few hurt the many.

Turning on the news this morning and learning of the massacre in Aurora, Colorado only built upon this theme.  I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the terror and fear felt by those in the theater felt and will feel for a long time.  And the question I have, as well as many others do, is why did this happen?  Not why did James Holmes do it, which can possibly be answered by his desire to live out a fantasy as he did call himself “The Joker”.  It is senseless to ask for a logical reason “why he did it” when his act defied logic and doesn’t make any sense.  No answer that he can provide as to why he did what he did will suffice.  There is no “why” for his actions– there’s only the “what”.  The news networks have replayed, reanalyzed, and reported what he has done.

The only “why” in this tragedy that can be answered in any real way is “why was he allowed to do what he did?”.  When James Holmes walked into that theater, he had riot gear, a gas mask, four guns, possibly 600 rounds of ammunition, and smoke bombs.  All of this he purchased legally.  In the aftermath of the tragedy, both Obama and Romney sent forth the usual platitudes: “Solemn moment… time of reflection… hug your family… be considerate of others… blah, blah, blah.”  What I’d really like to hear is, “Look, I know a lot of you mo-fos love your guns and all, but it’s time to get your heads out of your asses and give up some of your ‘rights’.  WTF is a 24 year old doctoral student doing packing major heat?  More gun control.  Now!”  Neither man running for office mentioned guns today.  I know, I know, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  But our lax gun policies make it very easy for people to buy guns which make it very easy to kill people.  I know there are background checks in place, but James Holmes only had a traffic violation to his name.  This doesn’t raise a red flag.  Background checks on someone’s past cannot predict their future behaviors.  How many stories have we heard about of nice normal people who snapped?

I don’t own a gun, never used a gun, and do not plan on doing either.  Having one in the house would not make me feel safer, but instead would make me feel less safe.  Knowing that other people own guns and possibly carry them doesn’t make me feel safe.  I know many people disagree with me, and they would state how guns make them feel more secure.  But would having the likes of George Zimmerman living nearby make you feel safer?  The pro-gun camp most likely would remind me of the poorly worded 2nd amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  Therefore, I should not infringe on their right to own weapons.  However, this right is not an absolute right.  The First Amendment does not protect all language– slander, fighting words, are hate speech not shielded from scrutiny.  And the language of the second amendment suggests regulation.  Many scholars see the connotation of “Militia” and “right of the people” to mean individual rights, while others see it as the past need to have an armed populace for the lack of a standing army.  The pro-gun camp believes that it is their individual right to own guns.  I want to zero in on the second clause, “being necessary to the security of a free State.”  The point of keeping arms is to provide security, but what happens when that security has been breached?  Are semi-automatic weapons necessary for security?  Are endless rounds of ammo necessary for security?  Our history of mass shootings and daily gun violence show that we are no longer in the realm of security.  We need to provide real gun control that honors people’s rights to own guns (it is constitutional), but also protect people from guns.  We do not need guns that fire 50-60 bullets per minute.  Limiting those types of guns and magazine cartridges can go a long way to limiting the amount of damage one can do when they decide to live out their violent fantasy.  As of right now, not “infringing” on the right to own guns is killing us.

Anyway, I made the molasses cookies. They were a hit at the impromptu dinner party and at Steve’s band practice.  Here is the recipe:

Molasses Cookies

Cream together 3/4 cup shortening with 1 cup sugar.

Add two well-beaten eggs and 1 cup molasses; beat well.

Sift together 4 cups of flour, 2 tsp. ground cinnamon, and 1 tsp. each of salt, baking soda, and ginger.

Add dry ingredients to batter alternately with 3/4 cup cold, strong coffee.  Beat after each addition.

Drop by teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 for 15 minutes.  Cool on cookie rack.

Makes 7 dozen cookies.

These are cake-like cookies that are very plain aesthetically.  To jazz them up, you may want to create a glaze to drizzle over them.  A regular confectioner’s sugar glaze or a lemon glaze would work well.

The resource I used regarding the Constitution is The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution by Linda R. Monk.

Plane, Train, Automobile? Try Couch.

When I was eight years old my granny took me on a trip of a lifetime.  She took me by train from Chicago to California and pointed out all of the sights along the way.  There were buffalo, rolling plains, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, fields of corn, silos, the Rocky Mountains.  We saw it all.  As with any little kid, the most exciting thing for me was being in a sleeper car. Is there anything more cool than having a bunk on a train?

The train wasn’t just any old train, nor was the bunk any old bunk.  It was the itchy brown, yellow, and gold plaid sleeper sofa in our guest room.  The scenery?  White walls.  My time with Granny?  For real. 

Granny, my dad’s mom, was a fiercely independent woman.  She grew up on a farm in Nebraska and went away to college at age 16 (her father sent all three of his daughters to college in the 1920s and 30s– a time when it was unlikely for girls to go beyond high school).  She received her Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, where she met my grandpa.  They got married, had four kids, and divorced.  She reinvented herself from a realtor to a school teacher.  She traveled all around the United States and drove alone cross-country.  Twice.  She even went on a cruise to Africa to see the total eclipse of the sun and got lost by herself in Senegal.  Using the barest of French, she communicated with a little boy who led her back to the ship.  In addition to all of this, she remembered everything. 

Granny was an amazing story-teller.  She liked to remind me of my demands for stories “from her brain.”  Really who cares if a prince stumbled upon Snow White when I could hear exciting tales of farm life and using bloomers to catch fish in Bell Creek?  Or when my great-grandpa shot a hawk and picked it up only to discover it was still alive?  It sank his talons into to his hands, and my great-grandma had to kill it with a piece of wood (after fainting at the sight).  He had to drive himself into town for the doctor, hands wrapped, because she didn’t know how.  When Granny did read me a story, it was Something Is Eating The Sun!, a tale about farm animals’ reaction to a solar eclipse, and this often lead to stories about Africa. 

But the most fun was sitting on the sleeper sofa mattress, listening to her go, “Chugga-chugga! Chugga-chugga! Choo-choo!”  and describing where we were in our journey.  It was not the white walls that I saw, but the towns, fields, landmarks, and sky.   She made me aware of the other people on the “train” and intoduced me to proper train decorum.  At this point in my short life, I had only been to Chicago, Michigan, Indiana, and various places in California.  The “travels” she and I took introduced me to history, geography, and culture.  She taught me that exploring new places was fun and that there were other ways of life besides mine.  When I graduated college, she gave me a suitcase to represent all of the places I’d go. 

Granny passed away in 2005.  Prior to her death, she planned her last trip: to have her ashes put into a biodegradable box and buried next to her parents in Nebraska so she could return to her “native soil”.  To her death was not death, but a journey back home.