Insatiable Lust

Who knew I’d learn far more than I wanted to about bestiality at the dentist today? While the dentist lectured one of my kids on her inadequate brushing, I flipped through an old copy of New York Magazine and came upon the WHAT IT’S LIKE TO DATE A HORSE story. As the prig I am I only got about halfway through and turned my attention to a more enjoyable pursuit: watching one of the Toy Story movies in which a young cowgirl toy remembers being tossed into a Goodwill box and abandoned by her person–yet another throwaway piece of plastic. I teared up. Yep. Don’t know why it hit me. Maybe I’ve never grown up and have a guilty conscience about my own lost and abandoned toys with eyes that always seemed to peer into my soul (I’m sorry, Bunny–where are you now?)

Toy Story does that weird thing–the story makes you want more toys that you know you’re going to toss aside one day for new interests. Maybe that interest will be equestrian sports or boys. Maybe you will one day embrace your bestiality.

511x3yev3ul-_sy346_Woody Register’s book THE KID OF CONEY ISLAND Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements offers a look behind the curtains of manufactured fun. Isn’t seeking out FUN fun? I’m reminded here of a slightly overweight man walking back to his wife’s car with a bag of craft items from AC Moore. My daughter and I laughed about the stick figure stickers on the back window proclaiming to the world that both man and wife were members of the Disney cult of fun.

“What self-respecting man drives a minivan with a stick figure version of himself sporting mouse ears?” my daughter joked.

We felt bad for the guy. (When we spotted the sweet looking wife carrying even more Halloween craft projects we felt a little guilty).

mouse-ears

I like toys. I have an antique toy double barrel shot gun. It looks real so I don’t bring it outside much. I like dolls and horses. I don’t date them. I’d like to say I’ve never been taken in by a mass-produced craze, but that would be a lie (I collected Smurf figurines as a child).

 

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
 1 Corinthians 13:11

Fred Thompson was an idea man. He was a motion man and an engineer of flimsy amusement masquerading as therapeutic respite for the over serious man (or woman) tired of the 19th century pillars of thrift, diligence and self discipline. Fred was a man of FUN. Work must be fun in this new paradigm shift. Fred was a spendthrift at a time when people questioned a man’s masculinity for spending with childish abandon. He never settled. Settled boys became MEN.

Have you ever spent time with a child who laughs at the dinner table and at first it’s cute, but then it turns bad with milk and food sputtering everywhere? Fred Thompson’s life was kind of like that.To  be sure, everyone who visited his theme park on Coney Island or went to one of his extravaganzas at the Hippodrome was amused (his creditors not so much).

In the beginning Fred created a world and he became that world. He was the light of that world–the world of blinding incandescent bulbs and dancing girlies; trips to the moon and the Orient, but as with all false paths to fulfillment his lights began to flicker.

At the San Francisco Exposition his plans for a comeback after a failed marriage to a child-like woman and a series of health scares brought on (some whispered) by the  grown-up drinks he consumed, the facade of the Peter Pan world Fred created began to crumble. The organizers, a mix of high-minded fellows grappling with the modern lust for cheap thrills, let the man-boy Fred have his way (secretly nervous when Fred shared his idea for a hot dog concession stand set up to look like a factory where stray dogs were ground up into tasty treats).

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

19th century thought: Human needs and markets are final and satiable.

20th century thought: Markets and people can be made to be insatiable. The dissatisfaction of never ending desire opened many a new market.

Here’s what Woody Register (not to be confused with the adorable cowboy toy) has to say:

“Luna (Fred Thompson’s Luna Park at Coney Island) elevated the temporal, fabricated, and personal over the universal, the timeless, and the divine.”

coney-islandAnd so I discover while watching Toy Story and trying not to imagine men having sex with horses the reason Chuck E. Cheese and POP MUSICIANS EXIST–they are easily digested (who cares if we feel dissatisfied after bad pizza and Rihanna singing her repetitive techno garbage?). I understand why architecture took a nose-dive in the 20th century ( we all know that children aren’t any good at taking care of their toys).

Beauty, reflection, and reverence require discipline, thrift, and  maturity.

And, yes, I come from Puritan stock.

 

Taken Prisoner

A Confederate officer stood alone at a crossroad goading his horse to move on in the aftermath of the Union retreat at BULL RUN. Sensing danger he glanced over his shoulder. A Yankee raced over the field tramping the freshly cut hay. As the Yankee drew closer he struggled to pull something from behind his back. The Confederate, with heart thumping through his uniform, pulled out his revolver and took aim.

The Yankee waved a white flag,  stopping abruptly at some distance. He wavered there for a few minutes until the Confederate swore he would do him no harm. Looking to his left and then right, the Yankee weighed his options and moved forward.

The Confederate noted the man’s flushed cheeks and face not yet ready to be shaved. The boy could not be more than twenty yet he was a lieutenant from a New York regiment.

“I give my word to you, sir. If you let me go I’ll never pick up a gun again. I’ll leave at once for my father’s farm,” the boy begged.

The Confederate kept silent and the boy on his horse soon followed, resigned to his fate.

The Confederate and the Yankee may not have realized at this early stage of the war that to be a prisoner was as deadly as fighting on the battlefield, but something in the young man’s cowardice already worked on the Confederate’s conscience. We don’t know if this Confederate officer cursed the angel on his shoulder as the two men walked ten yards.

“Go back to your friends, boy,” the Confederate ordered. “One more prisoner will hardly make a difference.”

When the Confederate met his own scouts they asked what had happened. When they set off in search of the “escaped” prisoner, the Confederate officer refused to join them.*

I wonder about the young New York lieutenant. The other night I happened upon our cat devouring the skin and fat of a just killed chipmunk and was surprised to see the organs still in movement. What moving things did this young man see at Bull Run? Was he a shy boy having trouble fitting in? No. There was something of a leader in him to be made lieutenant. Did he run all the way home or just to his friends?

A Confederate officer stuck on a stubborn horse gave the New York lieutenant his life back. Like a fish released from a net there was no time for gratitude. The currents of war and blood and peace move men along with hardly a moment to consider a chance meeting at a crossroad.

Why did boys on both sides enlist? CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS Their Expectations and Experiences by REID MITCHELL presents  the uplifting and awful traits that make us human.  Mitchell shares  the forgotten stories of individual men. Each one of them (unlike fish unable to escape mere instinct) left  marks on others they  encountered only briefly and never met again.

How did that New York lieutenant live and die? His fear, his youth, his innocence touched a Confederate soldier once. The man was never the same.

*A re-telling of one of the many poignant stories written about in Civil War Soldiers.

**Image courtesy CIVIL WAR TALK

No Trophies for Effort!

helga-clara-estby-walk
Their outfits were comfortable but frowned upon by polite society (yet they were taken in and treated well at almost every town they visited).

What if a shadowy stranger in New York offered you $200,000 (about what $10,000 was worth in the 1890’s) to walk across America in weird clothes and with only what you could carry. Would you go? Now imagine it’s before an electric grid and fast food. The newly built railroad tracks will be your only guide.

Helga Estby convinced her teen-aged daughter Clara to  accompany her on the bold endeavor–strike that–the desperate endeavor after a series of unfortunate events. Helga’s husband Ole may have wished for her not to go (what would the close-knit community of Norwegian immigrants think of Helga?), but the shame of being unable to provide for his large family after a debilitating injury  silenced much of Ole’s disapproval. They were desperate and not for the first time. Only a few years before Helga had fallen at a city construction site and been badly injured–her eldest daughter and Ole had taken over running the household until she was well again and a settlement with the city put them in funds  for a while, but the Panic of 1893 hit and all work dried up. Farms went under as mortgages were called in and life for the Estbys began to unravel again.

Helga and Ole were doomed to a boom and bust cycle. Young love left Helga with child and unmarried. Ole came and hid her shame. Did they love one another? Did they see something of themselves in each other? Their life was one of settlement and upheaval, one of putting down roots and ripping them from the comfortable homes and sod houses they lived in as they traveled west seeking stability.

By the time they took up farming in the Far West they’d had piles of well-loved children, but an accident and a mortgage to pay tore at Ole and Helga. Unemployed men with shame sitting on their shoulders are often tough to bear around the house. Fretful women are no picnic either so when the opportunity arose for Helga to march east she grabbed it. Maybe husband and wife were relieved. Maybe they felt it was their only chance.

The name of the wealthy female donor who offered the $10,000 reward to any lady proving she was strong and smart enough to make the arduous journey on her own has been lost to history.

How desperate Helga must have been to trudge through snow and rising rivers with no real safeguards, no assurances!

Helga and Clara carried small pistols and once or twice had to use them, but for the most part found American people to be generous and curious about their journey. They met with mayors and governors, women’s suffragists and vagabonds. Newspapermen always remarked on their intelligence, pluck and respectability.

As the end came in sight Helga worried. They were a few days past the deadline, but in the agreement the donor had made allowance for the occasional sick day. Clara had been sick and injured along the way, causing a small delay, but the newspapers in New York sang their praises and looked forward to covering a happy ending story.

The wealthy donor informed them that they were too late and there would be no happy ending. Helga and Clara were penniless in the big city. Gone from home for months they were now in need of work and a place to stay until they could save funds to get back to their family. A letter arrived from Ole. The note as I imagine it was brief:

Our daughter Bertha has died of diphtheria. You were not here when she asked for you. I did all I could do. The other children wait in the cold shed and I call to them but can’t see how they are for fear of infecting them. I made a coffin feeling quite alone in the world. The neighbors keep their distance.

Helga notes there is no reassuring sentiments of love. She worries and begs city officials for loans. Finally a generous railroad man buys her and Clara tickets west. Ole and the other children meet Helga with cold and bitter distance. Helga looks for Johnny her son. Ole shakes his head. Diphtheria had taken him, too and they were lucky not have lost everyone.

The children–and Ole–never forgave Helga for leaving them. Would they have felt differently if she’d won the money? I doubt it. Despite it all children resent a mother’s distance when troubles come. Ole, I imagine, had more complex feelings. His wife had taken a stand and had done no better than he had. Did he admire her courage? Probably–but he had already known she was courageous. I bet he blamed himself, but sometimes took out his anger on her.

Years later Helga’s manuscript was found and burned by her still bitter daughters. A daughter-in-law found a few newspaper clippings and saved them. And that is how we know about Helga today.

When telling my husband about Helga’s walk and how it ended with the donor withholding the reward my husband reminded me of my disdain for trophies at children’s soccer leagues given out for effort, not excellence. What do you think? Should Helga have been given the money?

BOLD SPIRIT: HELGA ESTBY’S FORGOTTEN WALK ACROSS VICTORIAN AMERICA

 

Books I’ve Known and Loved

demons_witchinghour_872
The Witching Hour, The Huntington Museum

EVIL: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister, Ph. D.

Do you want to get inside the mind of a serial killer or an executioner? You need go no further than your own mind. Well, you have to go a little further, but not much. Turns out people who do evil things are a lot like you and me.

Have you ever noticed when arguing with a spouse that you’re always right–until you’ve had a few quiet moments to think about the part you played in flooding the basement? Have you noticed too that when you drink the argument about how well the basement was cleaned after the flood gets more heated than it really needs to be ( you’ve been harboring the grudge about the ruined Christmas ornaments for a week now).

The first time we had to execute a rooster my husband sent me indoors because my crying was a distraction. The next time a rooster punctured my leg with his filthy spur when we had no health coverage I quite happily ordered him dead (and he was my favorite rooster).

Imagine a post-Civil War scene down south. A group of bored young veterans on the losing side of the war with no job prospects and stung egos get together for drinks. Someone comes up with the idea to dress up like ghosts to spook the newly freed and uneducated ex-slaves in their neighborhood. Just a boyhood prank, is all. They scare a black man the first time and off he runs, but the next time they do it the man is wise to their humor and waves them off with a laugh. The game is no longer fun. Putting a little fear into a man who used to be subordinate but now is equal was fun (and each young man is holding a grudge against the powers that be and the freed slaves). The mission becomes to scare the black man–a little more and a little more. Each time the black man sees through their pranks–they raise the stakes.

Are you that person in a group who stands up when everyone else is going down a bad path? Are you the person who jumps in the swollen spring river to save the young boy from drowning when everyone else waits to see who will get wet. Twice in my life I’ve witnessed someone drowning and both times I watched as if in a dream as someone else jumped in.

In Rwanda a mother of six participated in the clubbing to death of a group of neighborhood children because she thought it would put them out of their misery. A man responsible for killing Jewish children in WWII rationalized his job in the same way.

Why aren’t there more serial killers? The difference between “normal” people and evil doers comes down to a few key things: self-discipline, a sense of being responsible for one’s actions and feelings of guilt (which for normal people kick in often before they even contemplate doing something evil). People who tend to say, “I couldn’t help it” or “It’s because society made me do it” or:

“Guilt? It’s this mechanism we use to control people. It’s an illusion. It’s a kind of social control mechanism–and it’s very unhealthy. It does terrible things to our bodies. And there are much better ways to control our behavior than . . . guilt.”

we need to worry about. The last quote comes from Ted Bundy–the serial killer.

The drugs made me do it, my genes made me do it, this country made me do it . . . I couldn’t help eating all those cookies! But here’s the thing: in order to kill someone with a gun you must think about getting a gun. You must walk towards the gun using the legs you make move, and you must pull the trigger. The gun doesn’t magically cling to you, take over your fingers and shoot someone.

An early 20th century study showed that most soldiers shot above the heads of their enemies. This was a problem to be solved. Another interesting study showed that playing video games did make for more short-term aggression in players, but only people who were already tending toward evil actually used gaming as an excuse for bad actions. Most people play video games and DON’T kill their cats.

Remember when your mother warned you about the slippery slope toward evil? Remember Jesus saying something about cleaning out one demon but letting 7 more in? Evil seems to be like that.The first kill is the toughest–but then the sirens and hand cuffs don’t arrive. Life stays pretty much the same. So you kill again.

Don’t think this book is a thoroughly depressing read. On the contrary if you like gallows humor you’ll love this book. I did. But it is scary how close to evil I can become.

Books I’ve Known And Loved

51ruU2pYgFL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her  because she wasn’t married and could not  be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.

Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.

Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.

Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.

So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband,  average children and life of housework.

There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).

In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:

My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)

In shady paths, serene, content I grew,

Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:

When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,

Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:

“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”

I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–

The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.

The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,

And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”

In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.

But god-like still he waited long and sought.

Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams

of high renown, with cries to him I fled.

And now, serene, content, with him I roam

In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.

Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.

Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one  about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for  things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.

Books I’ve Known And Loved

WARNING: This is not about gay marriage. It’s not about gender politics or more aptly put: gender war. This about history.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18

For much of recorded history most people looked around and noticed that men and women looked and acted in different ways (with some overlap). They looked at animals. Rams and sheep, bucks and does, ducks and drakes. We don’t have to believe in the Biblical account of creation to understand that most people realized a duck and drake were of the same kind,  but their purposes were complimentary and different.

Let’s march onward to the US Civil War. In THE VACANT CHAIR The Northern Soldier Leaves Home Reid Mitchell devotes a chapter to the need for femininity in  the masculine world of war.

But women are soldiers now you cry. Yes and for a disturbing look at women who kill from thousands of miles away click HERE. Women are strong. They write songs about roaring and not needing men. Go women!!?

I’ve never seen our ducks declare war on our drakes (though occasionally they squabble). Same goes for our sheep and goats. Same goes for the Civil War soldier and the women folk back home. Reid even goes on to say that one of the reasons the southern soldier had it so hard is that he believed in his manly role as much as his northern brethren. Northern women remained safely out of the actual war’s reach. Northern men could at least rest easy on that. They could go fight a war and miss their wives and sweethearts and dream about being nurtured by them at war’s end in the same homes they left.

Not so for the southern men who had the added worry of their women and children directly in the war’s path. Towards the end of the war the Confederacy held back the troops mail for fear of large scale desertion–though not really desertion but an adherence to the manly virtue of protecting one’s family.

Woman Dressing by Anders Zorn
Woman Dressing by Anders Zorn

And what about womanly virtue? Modern culture decries anything that smacks of the Bible–maybe it’s why there is such a hatred for history (especially American) but as a college student being indoctrinated by men haters who blamed Jewish rabbis and Jesus freaks for everything I wish I would have opened up the good book myself and read PROVERBS 31 which describes what a virtuous woman looks like. It would have given me some balance:

10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.

12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.

13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.

20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.

24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.

28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

The soldier of the Civil War even if not a Christian (though most were) lived in a culture saturated by Judeo-Christian values. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. The basic notion of men and women serving complementary yet distinct roles seemed to serve humanity fairly well for thousands of years. Despite Louisa May Alcott’s fictional tomboys and the few hundred women who impersonated men to join the ranks of the Union Army most women played mother or lover to the soldiers. Whether as nurses or homemakers, activists or laundresses most women accepted their feminine side–many actually valued it!

And so did the men. They missed the nurturing, the companionship and the spirit of women. They did not wish for more men. Letters home were filled with talk of home and the women who made it a home. Of course there were some men happy to get away from women and some women relieved when such men left, but the overriding feeling as the war dragged on was one of deep missing, deep lonesomeness for the opposite sex. Other men just couldn’t cut it.

A Rainy Day in Camp by Winslow Homer
A Rainy Day in Camp by Winslow Homer

How does one make sense of this desire in a culture bent on gender fluidity?

When researching for my novels many of you know I “went to war” as a reenactor. My college indoctrination was wearing off as I studied history not through the eyes of embittered leftist college professors, but through the eyes of the men and women of the time writing about their lives in diaries and memoirs.

I still clung to the notion that I had to be the same as men so I convinced my father to buy me an Enfield rifle. We drove to Gettysburg to pick it up. The thing is beautiful, but I immediately realized with sinking heart that there was no way I was going to enjoy carrying it in a wool uniform.

I wrestled with womanhood. First of all I was hardly virtuous. Then came Antietam. A friend let me borrow a corset and hoop skirt. I figured as a researcher it would be interesting to see how the other half lived before getting fitted out to play one of the few hundred women who fought.

And then it happened like magic.

As I walked around owning my feminine side I suddenly understood the power of it. At first I assumed the feeling would go away, but it got stronger each time I slipped into the role. And here’s the equally weird thing: men treated me differently. Now to be fair we were all slipping into what we thought we knew about the 1860’s.

Weren’t people more polite back then? Yes and no. But the part that intrigued me and intrigues me still is that once we played at respecting gender roles we found that we respected the opposite gender more. We behaved better towards each other. (Okay better is relative–I get it, but I don’t care).

Maybe someone smarter than me can explain how playing a virtuous northern woman actually made me respect myself and men more.

Why did men stand a little taller as I walked by? The same men who chatted with me in jeans the day before as we set up our tents. The uniforms we wore as men and women of the 1860’s fit better than the unisex jeans and t-shirts we wore in our real lives. Some will say it’s just a game we played–but it was a game worth playing.

BTW, THE VACANT CHAIR by Reid Mitchell offers such valuable insight into the minds of the northern men who went off to war I think every angry man hater (and woman hater) should be forced to read it as penance. Can’t we just love one another?

Books I’ve Known And Loved

An explosion at the DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library
An explosion at a DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of
Hagley Museum and Library

“The patriotism of the people who worked in the powder mills during the war was only exceeded by the front line soldiers.”

On the day of the final explosion  Helen remembered her mother at the sink. The tree-lined village with its substantial homes and churches lit by new stained glass sat chilled by a March wind off the river. The men were at the powder mill. Some men worked there because they had to, but some came for the excitement of working a dangerous job. And dangerous it was.

The powder necessary for guns, signalling devices, whaling harpoons and later for movie making filtered into every shirt pocket, every wrinkle of a man’s skin with each tiny particle ready to explode from the smallest spark, the tiniest mistake of a worker. The mill made the town and the town devoted itself to the mill. Children delivered lunch pails to their fathers but only at a safe distance (though no place in town was truly safe when the mills exploded as they occasionally did).

Windows shattered, dishes crashed to the floor and hearts froze when the mill whistles blew signalling danger, yet on most days the townsfolk lived happy, productive lives either at peace with life’s inherent dangers or unable to really imagine that one small spark could take their lives. Other people died young–a man with young children, camaraderie at the mill and lazy evenings spent chatting on the porches of his neighbors’ house in the beautiful Hoosic Valley of New York could fool himself.

Not me. Not mine.

Jump in the river. This was the advice when sparks flew. The amount of powder at the mill, in the crevices, on the window sills, in the men’s hair determined the extent of the damage.

Back to young Helen watching her mother at the sink in their neat kitchen just after breakfast. Some tried to describe the look of a blast–towers of flames through billowing smoke, silhouettes of friends suddenly gone in a flash as the lucky men shivering in the river looked on.

Helen’s mother froze as the whistle droned on and on. Women and children lined the streets waiting, some fainting. When Helen’s father wet and dirty came through the door and collapsed into a chair at the clean table, he wept for his friends–the ones he and his surviving coworkers would have to gather the pieces of in the mill yard–a hand here, a foot with a shoe there. They picked up the pieces in a basket and covered them in a red handkerchief.

Funerals began on St. Patrick’s Day. Helen’s mother had knit her a perfect green sweater for the saint’s special day. But March had remained a lion and winds down Powder Lane where the children sledded in winter spoke the mood of the people. Springtime and green would come again, but for now life was cold and charred.

A retelling of Anne Kelly Lane’s informative and heartbreaking little book dedicated to her mother’s memory The Powder Mill Gates Memories of a Powder Maker’s Daughter.   

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Books I’ve Known And Loved

IMG_0001Of two minds. It’s how we live without crumbling into tears of frustration, terror and despair. We play mental games, don’t we? When I say “we” I mean slave owners and slave traders (past and present), black and white, vegetarians and trophy hunters.

Abraham Lincoln was just like the rest of us until he was sainted by assassination. Of two minds, he wrestled with slavery. Ambition isn’t always a bad thing for it gets a person out of their easy chair. It forces a person to declare something, to speak up–maybe the words and the ideas aren’t perfectly crystallized yet. Maybe a consensus hasn’t formed in the popular mind, but an ambitious person with moral qualms takes up the challenge knowing that even if he stumbles it’s better than sitting on the couch eating popcorn.

Better. Now there’s a word. It hardly means anything anymore. I’m surprised it’s not a banned word in public schools for it hints at meritocracy and superiority. And here is the mental game again: let’s pretend somethings aren’t painful. Let’s pretend that if we don’t like something it doesn’t exist.

Except for some outspoken and at times incredibly naive and hypocritical abolitionists most people in the North just preferred not knowing too much about the ins and outs of slavery. While most opposed it, it wasn’t their problem. Some may have read a few horror stories and congratulated themselves for being open enough and courageous enough to read the stories in their entirety.

I imagine if there was Facebook back in the day animal stories would go viral, celebrities would organize campaigns to save the Cecils in faraway lands. But would they allow themselves to watch an entire Planned Parenthood video? Would they watch a slave being whipped or beaten or raped? Would they pretend that slavery was like a clinical doctor’s office–clean and pain-free?

Or would they wrestle as Lincoln did with their own prejudices, fears and ignorance? Today in our tolerant and polite society how many of us are willing to be called vicious and mocking names for our beliefs? Let’s be honest with ourselves. How many of us would be willing to die for our beliefs or even be shunned for our beliefs? How many of us take the time to study what we think we already know because a talking head on TV or a blog told us it was so?

When I say “we” here I mean ME. In Africa the people wonder why we care more for an animal that they understand eats people than we do people. Our president chides African nations (in a  condescending way I find offensive) for selling albino body parts for rituals. Okay. I’m with him on that, but he’s of two minds isn’t he? There’s a big body parts controversy right here in the states.

When I felt the child I was told I had to abort or I’d die move inside me and when I saw the ultrasound they had to take before the operation I was of one mind: SAVE ME. I understand the fear, despair and embarrassment of believing the lie of exploding populations and a  life made easier without another baby to feed. I was poor and of an environmental mindset.

That baby haunts me still because I didn’t want her even before the health crisis. I want her now. (And yes it was most definitely a baby. I saw it and felt it).

I may lose my limited readership taking a stand here, but It’s impossible after watching bureaucrats chowing down lunch while callously discussing harvesting baby organs for thoughts not to crystallize. My heart had been wavering this summer about the foster care/adoption classes I took this spring. My life is peaceful and good here on the farm, but how can I not open my life up to the many families in crisis? How can I stay of two minds?

Some of you may wonder what this has to do with one of the best books ever written about antebellum America. This book requires an expansion of the mind. This book is an exercise. Yes, it’s thoroughly readable and full of anecdotes, but it’s more. It’s a study of the American mind and soul in all its wonderful and horrible complexity. David M. Potter spares no one, but he’s the rare soul who captures the difficulty of coming to one mind about things. He understands (and loves?) people.

Lincoln was an American man. Not a perfect man, but he took a stand and a chance. Here’s what Potter says about him:

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis
David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Why history should be written for the masses.
Why history should be written for the masses.

Men and women of integrity, listen up! The popular opinion that most Americans during the Gilded Age were stealing land and involved in corrupt schemes has some holes in it. Maybe not too many–but some. Enter Washington and Emily Roebling. I’ve introduced them to you before from The Great Bridge, but damn they’re good.

It’s over a hundred years after their incredible life’s work was completed and they manage to make me want to be a better person. If you read only one chapter in the book go to the one about Emily because it’s not just about her, it’s about THEM. Talk about adorable couples! They even kick each others shins under tables for fun. After only six weeks Washy proposed to Emily with a diamond ring (he was still in the army, in uniform–sigh). She said yes.

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There’s a few pages of this sweet stuff. Cynics, step away from me. I love this!

Now the book is about a bridge. Ho-hum and all–but not so. I tried to build a puppet stage with Elmer’s Glue once and even I came away with at least a vague sense of how the Brooklyn Bridge was put together and it was strangely very interesting (my husband the engineer glanced over at me shaking his head with a smile at my sudden obsession with bridges–after railroads).

And then of course there were scandals and hurt feelings. I kept waiting for the terrible shoe to fall–the one that said Washy took bribes or cut corners–but the exact opposite happened. I was treated to that rare ennobling feeling you get when you’re in the presence of people who live with great integrity and compassion. Washington, how is it that through every set back and through every horribly painful moment of your protracted illness that you stayed so decent?

Emily had something to do with it. She married a lively, strong and intelligent young man and now 14 years later he was irritable and housebound and still 100% in charge of the building of one of the greatest bridges in the world. He wrote that at one point he considered giving up. His physical and mental anguish too much, but then his best friend, Emily stepped in. She didn’t take over, but she refused to let him give up. She stayed with him night and day. Made certain that their house remained a refuge and made certain that despite what must have been a very heart-breaking turn of events that he knew that she loved him and admired him.

His mind–a brilliant one–worked overtime. His vision had turned against him so she wrote out his long, detailed orders and plans–pages and pages in her fine hand–every day for YEARS!. She read him the papers and became his eyes and feet traveling to the bridge site to report back what she saw as the many workers looked on admiringly.

I’ll never build a bridge, but I do have a marriage. I wonder sometimes if I would be self-sacrificing if something happened to my engineer. I’m not really known for my compassion and after reading about Emily’s devotion and even the way Washy didn’t just throw his hands up when wrongly accused of scandal but fought the good fight I wonder what sort of person I really am. We’re all always told were basically good, but am I really?

This is not the time to step in and tell me I am. We’ve been programmed to do that even with our kids when they suck at soccer. And it’s getting worse (maybe it was always this way). If every person’s way is as good as the next guy then there really is no need for history or religion or morality or excellence. We’re all just going to die anyway. Isn’t watching kids play soccer just as good as watching the World Cup? I wouldn’t know. I like American football.

Integrity, graciousness, self-sacrifice and abiding love often lead to lives of suffering and depth and in all of that is a gift to the world. When you stand next to or read about a hero there’s a bracing excitement, a thrill and wonder. I don’t know why but it makes you look at your own work differently. It makes you look at love differently.

People like the Roeblings should be our heroes, should be on t-shirts and coffee mugs. I know there’s going to be a movie and the Harry Potter guy is going to play dear Washington (ugh). I probably won’t go see it, but I will recommend you read this book.

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Books I’ve Known and Loved

51HDcX+wyqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I sat across from a handsome and earnest white college classmate in an artsy cafe near NYU after our Minorities in the Media class listening to him struggle with his “white guilt” for if he didn’t struggle with this and express how terribly sorry he was for happenings hundreds of years ago or last year that he had nothing to do with the class would erupt as a mob to shut up anything else he had to say. We’d both witnessed the shout-downs when another braver student (also white and male) questioned the historical accuracy or the basic logic of some of the theories put forth by the professor and other students. We noted the almost gleeful look on the professor’s face when things turned ugly. So much for a safe place to explore ideas.

My friend actually said something like this: “You’re so lucky you’re a woman because you have an in with everyone else who feels victimized. None of my struggles matter because they’re not race or gender based.”

I probably agreed with him. I’d found the path to good grades–stick in the race and gender classes and avoid the history classes (too hard and lots of reading). At the time I will confess  my only real interest in college was to avoid work and meet handsome guys.

I’m glad I’m not a slave. Who isn’t? I watched the movie adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave through jaundiced eyes–it was Hollywood after all. I’d heard people rave about a certain whipping scene, but when it arrived on the screen I was already so uneasy about the movie that Patsey’s pain (and Solomon’s) barely fazed me and here’s why: the movie felt like nothing more than a dressed up “torture porn” extravaganza. There was not a single penetrating insight, not a single honest glimpse into the complexities of the characters or the time in which they lived. The actors tried very hard and I appreciated that but there was no soul. Watch Glory for soul and beauty. Anyone remember the mixed feelings, the horror and the humanity of that whipping scene?

But this is not a debate about whipping scenes in movies.

I don’t believe in collective generational guilt. If body shaming and gender shaming are bad then so is white shaming. Sorry MTV but I see through your transparent attempt at race baiting. It’s actually kind of pathetic and a distraction–as was 12 Years a Slave the movie. Should we still hold Jews and Romans accountable for the death of Jesus? Should we hold a young black girl from Harlem accountable for atrocities during the Rwandan genocide based on skin color? Have we Americans fallen under such easy manipulation?

Here’s why we need to look at heroes and read memoirs instead of watching corporate productions which rarely get things right:

Solomon Northrup’s memoir is alive with contradiction, nuance and humanity. He’s honest enough and sure enough of the wrong that has been done to him to not need to embellish. He doesn’t have to make broad generalizations. Solomon can allow for loving one master and hating  another. Solomon struggles with mixed emotions and shares even feelings we find almost impossible to understand today: “During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as fellow mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days.”

In no way am I saying I condone slavery. What Solomon offers in his book is more than a laundry list of bad men doing bad things. He manages to capture the evil of a system without losing his ability to judge people as individuals caught in that system–some are basically decent  and some are horrible.

For centuries Jews were persecuted for killing Jesus. What did that persecution achieve? Gas chambers. What does white shaming achieve? Picking at old wounds leads only to infections not cures.

As we watch young white boys and girls worry about how their lives offend everyone, real slavery goes on. Men are abducted and kept as slaves on fishing boats for decades, women and children are taken as sex slaves. THEIR STORIES are so similar to Solomon’s it’s shocking. 

220px-Robert_Gould_ShawI question the timing of a movie like 12 Years a Slave. Where GLORY offered an inspiring (and true) story about overcoming prejudice and sacrificing even life for higher ideals, 12 Years seeks to inflame indignation and hatred.

Wounds and pain exist for everyone on this planet. Only the rare person (and I’ve never met one) escapes suffering and struggle. Slavery is not a black issue only. It’s a human issue. Life and death, love and hate, forgiveness and whatever–we are human–even white kids.

“‘torture porn’ made for arthouse moviegoers.”