The Life and Times of Things

I am absolutely fascinated by the relationship people have with things. I am fascinated by the meaning and value humans add to otherwise meaningless objects. I've written about it before: Why do we keep what we do, discard what we decide we do not want? How do we use things to celebrate and make meaning in holidays? And long after we are gone, what patterns do our consumptive and domestic habits leave behind about our lifestyles and value systems?

This is probably part of the reason I am drawn to working in museums with objects that have been selected to be kept, preserved, valued as historical in some way, and chosen to represent people, moments, and eras past, present, future.

That's also why I wish I had thought of this first.

The concept, the hypothesis, and the execution is brilliant. Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker were apparently pondering the regular, conventional assumption, that what gives an object value is somehow determined by laws of utility, supply and demand, or "qualities intrinsic to the object -- e.g., craftsmanship or design." No, there are more powerful, less explicable forces at work behind the irrational behavior of humans (I myself just finished reading Predictably Irrationaland its author Dan Ariely would agree here) and why and what we value. So they created the Significant Objects project, and drafted a hypothesis: "that regardless of of the thing's aesthetic or utilitarian properties, an object's value can be increased by way of the narrative attached to it."

They sough to find more evidence of this link between ordinary objects and extraordinary meaning.

Glenn and Walker thrift-store shopped for one hundred items, spending a total of $128.74 Then they asked one hundred authors (most pretty unknown names) to write a story about an object, so they would end up with one hundred objects and one hundred stories to match. Then, they listed them for sale on eBay, with the story in the item description (and a disclaimer that this was, in fact, a fictitious story).

When all the items were sold, the grand total of what people forked over for otherwise meaningless objects: $3,612.51. For tchotchkes.

They compiled their whole project and process in a beautiful little book that I purchased immediately after hearing Rob Walker talk about their project on Marketplace. They refer to this as a literary and economic experiment. After conducting three series of the experiments, three hundred items given invented meaning and then sold to interested parties online, they compiled the best 100 stories and their conclusions and thoughts into this book. It's part short story fiction, part economic enigma, part "in-your-face, logical economic thinking."

The experimenters, shall we call them, came up with these categories of significance, to try and determine if these kinds of factors play a part in determining what people might value, and how much they will value it (in an actual monetary amount). The short answer is, it's complicated. The shorter answer is, No; these distinctions don't matter overtly. Neither did the author who had penned the tale.

Neither, really, did the object type, which had been split into these categories: Novelty Item, House & Table, Figurine, Decoration, Kitchenware, Toy, Kitsch, Tool, Promotional Item.

It is befuddling, mysterious, and glorious to browse through the items in this series, examine the item, read the story that accompanies it, and marvel at much, or how little, it went for in the end, on the internet auction block. Sometimes a fantastical, or intriguing tale would only garner $20 from a buyer; other times, stories I thought were a bit throw-away (compared to some) brought in a cool $100 or more. Each item was, by their own rules, purchased for less than $4 originally.

What's also interesting is how now, precisely by being featured in a project like this, objects that had no meaning at all, tchotchkes and trash at best, again have a value and shelf-life, because you are unlikely to ever spot a second of these random, old, forgotten things elsewhere in the world. Pairs, brothers, additional copies produced long ago are now likely to have been long trashed, destroyed, abandoned, forgotten.

It speaks highly of the project creators, Walker and Glenn, that these pieces were so well-chosen and curated to begin with. They limited themselves, for example, from including "mid-century-through-1980s pop culture ephemera," and consciously did not include any furniture, clothing, books, or other things that were deemed to obviously "object-like."

What an entirely enigmatic project. I am so jealous to have not thought of this experiment first.

I spent a whole semester reading and discussing and researching topics in material culture, learning about British tea culture, eighteenth century American clothing culture, white and black spaces on the plantation homestead, hand embroidered crafts made by women living in refugee camps, Puerto Ricans' meaning in their homes and spaces on abandoned plots in New York City, and meaning in punk rock clothing and attitude, among other things. I spent a semester thinking about and researching, asking questions about meaning in quilts, for my own final project. We talked of tchotchkes and trinkets and souvenirs from trips far and near. I should have been thinking more deeply about the stories, the ones we create, the ones we forget, the ones that are passed down to us, the ones we make from our own life experiences.

Valueless objects take up lots of space in our lives, even when we consciously resist such a phenomenon. We can be upset that this occurs, and try our best to live simply. I agree. But I also think it is just a source of too much intrigue and love, sadness and grief, too much human drama for us to ignore those little trinkets that survive and speak to moments passed. That is what we do in museums all the time, after all, use objects to represent was once was, what stories have come before us, what things happened here. Who lived, and what they owned while they habited this earth.

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"This is part of our family history" - meaning in the AIDS Memorial Quilt

I want to share with you the meaning behind Parnell Peterson's quilt panel, which is in Block 2744 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I have learned so much about Par through his sisters and my mom since I first visited his panel in January, and much of it shall remain in my unpublished writing and memories. However, I think his quilt panel is an extraordinary example of something that occurs on a larger scale within the enormous memorial--the largest piece of folklore in the world--and that is still expanding with new panels submitted every year. (It currently contains over 48,000 panels.) You can look at a hundred quilt panels and see things that look similar to Par's, which is pictured here.

Now I want you to read his sister Margi's description of their process, each piece, and the meaning of it all:

Making Par’s Quilt panel was a wonderful and healing endeavor for all of us – indeed, many of us.  We had sent out a letter, inviting friends and family to make a small square that we could then incorporate into the larger panel.  We got so many, with so many wonderful stories attached that we soon realized that we would have to make a double panel.  The top of the panel symbolizes the Northern Lights, which became our symbol for Parnell, after an amazing and miraculous experience we had with them, the night Par died.  (That is a story in itself, which I will share at another point.)  We had decided to use a tree as a symbol of life continuing, nature, the land that Par loved in his professional life, as well as personally, having grown up in the UP!  The photo we placed in the middle of the upper panel was the inspiration for the whole thing – and then at the last minute, we decided to attach it because it is so beautiful and fit so well.  The inscription, “Your Light Shines On” refers again to the Northern Lights and our belief in his continued presence which lights each of our lives and always will.  We then decided to put all the small squares on the lower panel and to run the roots of the tree down through and amongst them….symbolizing that this is the ground and foundation from which Parnell came, grew, was nurtured, and lived – all these people who were somehow a part of him.  The hands at the bottom of the tree are those of immediate family members, including niece and nephew, protecting the memory and holding it close.  We loved how it turned out!  We each actually have a small photo album of each square and the story that came with it…such love and grace in each one!

There is a stunning amount of meaning put into every, single, thing in this panel. Knowing how much thought went into his, I imagine similar kinds of deep meaning in each quilt panel. It makes me stop, linger, ponder and examine each square that I do see even more closely. What was compelling and inspiring these people, or this person, who loved this other person, who we are now remembering? If even the dyeing of the denim fabric behind Parnell's panel had boundless personal meaning for his family, imagine this same thought multiplied by the number of people memorialized on this Quilt.

The past two Mondays, I have confirmed a few more of these meanings, backstories, which remain so mysterious and anonymous to most people who visit the Quilt on display, or view its panels online. I have been volunteering to offer my small amount of help to the larger effort of bringing the Quilt back to Washington, D.C., where it will be for almost four weeks this summer. The first team departs this week to bring the acres and acres of fabric to the Mall, the Smithsonian, and various other locations in the capital.

My job has been quite extraordinary: check, assign a working panel number, and document each new square that has arrived this year, so that these unfinished panels may also make the journey to Washington and be sewn into the larger Quilt during the ceremonies and viewings. It will be a very active way of sharing the Quilt, having these newest panels sewn in as part of the displays themselves. So I also go through and record any additional things that arrive with the new panel, like a letter, photo, or other momento.

Last week I read a letter from a woman explaining that this panel was made in memory of her mother, who died in 1994 or so. But it was made not by her--it was a surprise from her fiance. It was he that was also going through the sadness; I don't even think he knew her.

Today I read a letter from a mother asking forgiveness for "mistakes" or "imperfections" in her panel, which she submitted in memorium of her son, Scott, who passed away in 1997. "I've never done anything like this," she wrote. It is so interesting to me to read people's unsure, honest thoughts when mailing in something so personal, so much a part of them. Margi, Parnell's sister, said actually handing over Par's quilt panel, after all that work, was much more difficult that she anticipated. Almost like giving up a piece of Par himself, some of that closeness and memory.

It makes me smile, as I cannot imagine anything that would be similar to submitting a panel to the AIDS Quilt; of course this is new territory. But she described the lovely details she incorporated into her son's panel: dark denim and light denim from the pants of his older and younger brother; velour from his niece's jacket, and a patterned piece of his maternal grandmother's blouse. Once I opened up the panel to see, I was struck by her use of the bits -- not as a random assortment, but as mountains in the landscape she created for him out of fabric--he was also a lover of nature. Again, I am struck by the meaning behind some simple stitched mountains.

Another of my favorites, steeped in meaning and yet so simple, is the family who submitted several squares for individuals in their family who have been taken by HIV/AIDS, and this other panel to accompany them all in the Quilt. "This is part of our family history," it says simply.

This is absolutely so. I hear a lot of family histories in my work at the National Archives. Every other person has a family tree to rattle off to me, a Native American chief ancestor, and several on the Mayflower. HIV/AIDS is such a significant part of human history, and it is now part of the family histories of so many.

"Life in the Age of AIDS is the Story of Us All."

This is the adage that hangs printed in the front offices of the NAMES Project Foundation, the headquarters and keepers of the AIDS Quilt. This sentiment speaks so much truth, and relates exactly to that family's panel, an actualization of their grief, and their insistence on making sure this remains a part of their story. Because we all own it.

I cried only once during 5 hours of processing new panels. I opened one up, unfolded it gently on the table, and pictures of a young man stared back at me. I read his lifespan: January 5, 1987 to September 11, 2010. He is, he was, my age. He was lost to AIDS at the age of twenty-three. How does this still happen? I felt outrage, sadness, shock, anger, thinking we were at least more equipped to handle HIV in the 21st century. But Ricardo did not survive it. This is why the Quilt is still important; and it is not a problem existing only far away from us, in Africa or in the 1980s. We are not immune in the United States and it is crucial that young people have the information they need. Seeing Ricardo's square was a reminder, a wake-up call that this is not an abstract health crisis. He died, and he was my age.

What are the words to properly explain this, to come to terms with it, to understand? I can only keep offering my time, skills, and love to a cause.

 

Genealogy and history: love & hate

My hate story

Recently I was talking about the main duties of the student archives technician at the National Archives, and it lead me into a tangent about perceptions of archives and the public’s idea that digitization is some panacea for records management, and an easy fix.

What I didn’t get to are my other duties at work. Besides holdings maintenance projects (the ones that started the tangent on the sheer number of materials we have), I also work in the public areas, assisting the public and researchers, and complete research requests for patrons who are off-site but need help. The first of these assignments takes up half of every workday, as it is the job of the students to assist the public so that the full-time archivists can get down to doing the projects and work they are here to do. Not that their duties don’t also revolve around aiding researchers and the public, but if someone has to sit in the textual research room while a researcher is here and she must not leave the room, well, that limits the amount of other activities that she can complete while essentially on lock-down. In this case, right now, I am in the text room supervising a researcher for the Corps of Engineers, and so I cannot leave the room; it allows for time to write journals reflecting on my duties here, for instance. Sometimes, if the timing is right, we can bring a project into the text room and work on it while we’re trapped in here.

The other room is the research room, and that’s the general public area, the one where you do not need a researcher card to enter, and pretty much anyone who can get past the security guards and metal detectors is allowed in there. It means we are safe from criminals, but we are not safe from idiots and crazy people, and we are especially not safe from… genealogists. I am not the first person to write (no, complain) about genealogists as the annoying part of the duties of a student employee here at the Archives.

Not to sound snooty, but historians have a hierarchy, and genealogists are basically at the bottom, maybe even below the base marker. Family history is basically a nonstarter for most of us working here; it just doesn’t matter too much. We get a tiny thrill maybe the first time we see an ancestor’s draft card. That was the first thing I researched when I started working here, because they are commonly requested, and so I used it as a learning experience in pulling WWI draft cards. I found Perley W. Grubb, scanned his card, and refiled him with rest of the Wisconsin draftees. But where my family was positioned in history does not dictate either my feelings about history, nor the scope or basis of my research.

The problem is, most people’s families did really nothing much that would put them anywhere in the historical records. We have federal records here, and most people go their whole lives never really being really involved in federal functions. You fill out your census every ten years—that’s the main thing. Some people have military records—that’s another biggie. And if your ancestors immigrated or filed for a passport, they would also have filed federal records. But even then, in the case of immigration, they would have had to file their petition for naturalization in a federal court, and before 1907, it wasn’t required that they file them in federal court. So anyone who came to the United States in the nineteenth century could file in any level of court—county, state, federal, random Podunk local courthouse. And that’s if they naturalized at all; they might have remained nationals of their birth country.

We have research tools here for people to begin to find records their ancestors more commonly filed—vital records of birth, marriage, and death. Those are records filed with the state, and so are most often held by either the state’s historical archives or the vital records office—depending on how old they are and varying widely by state. People often get frustrated that before the twentieth century (and even in that one, in many cases) births were not recorded officially. If their great-grandfather’s birth was recorded on the inside of some Bible somewhere, I can’t help them.

It’s not to say that I wholly dismiss genealogy. I understand regular people’s need to see themselves in the past in order to make it meaningful for them. Genealogy is a significant historical experience for many people in today’s digitization-happy world. Part of public history is finding a way to make the past matter to an individual; this means including genealogy on the totem pole, for what value it does offer to a public craving connection. Historians whose focuses lie in larger themes, events, historical trends, and connections—oftentimes professional historians and scholars—don’t focus on minutiae of particular individuals unless they did do something significant or relevant to the subject of their study. Whereas genealogists go looking for a particular person to see if he might have done anything worth recording, historians find the things that were worth recording and then find out more about the people who did them. They start from different points, and work in opposite directions.

I understand though, that a large portion of the public we serve is here to do just that, to find their family. So I work in the research room, patiently helping octogenarians use the printers and computers, and try my best to let them do their own research even when it means teaching them how to move backward and forward on an internet page. (Yes, really.) We don’t do the research for them, we give them tools, indexes, direction on where to begin and what kinds of records will serve their needs best, and then we let them loose.

Once you’ve heard about Great Aunt Gertrude once, you’ve heard about her a hundred times. I cannot tell you how boring it is to hear someone rattle off names in a complicated web, as if I am going to remember or care how their whole family tree is organized. Funny anecdotes to them are a dime-a-dozen to me; but I try not to let my eyes glaze over, and always listen politely for as long as seems normal before bowing out and into my little glass room to hide (which doesn’t work so well in a glass room). Also fun: I can no longer count on two hands the number of people who’ve told me they are related to someone who came over on the Mayflower. This comment is my single biggest pet peeve of working in the research room, bar none. First of all, it’s probably not true; there are so many generations to prove unequivocally. (And there were not that many to survive, if you recall.) Secondly, it truly makes no difference to me whether your long-long-ago ancestors happened to live, even if it was in a colony that is super-famous and iconic in American history. You’d be more interesting to me if YOU have been on the Mayflower. Let’s talk about that!

The most frustrating thing about working with genealogists is when they get angry, upset, or even cry over not being able to find much about those farther back in their family tree. I had one lady in tears at 4:45 one afternoon, because an ancestor she had been researching twenty-five years was still eluding her. He was drafted from Michigan into the Union army during the Civil War, and then she knew that the family received record that he died. She was distraught that there was no record of anything in between. Ma’am, I wanted to say, what the heck else would he have filed with anyone? He was at war. Unless he wrote some diary that somehow made it back into the arms of his family after the war, which is highly, crazily doubtful, there would be nothing else. He fought in a war and he died. That corner of the tree is complete. I am sorry if that is unsatisfying. In my experience, genealogy is highly unsatisfying, because it is so unlikely that your ancestors left much of a paper trail.

We make more of a paper trail these days, but it’s technically an electronic trail. Maybe in one hundred years, my Amazon Wishlist will provide a descendent of mine with endless insight into what I was like. They will also be able to read my Twitter feed, which I do think is very interesting to ponder. I so wish I could read the Twitter feed of Young John Allen, or those sent among the members of a nineteenth century quilting group. But until some of those things become “history,” for now we have the United States census, where you can see interesting things like whether or not your ancestors spoke English and were or were not the head of the household. (Am I coming across here as scathingly sarcastic? I do hope so.)

In which discussing my job becomes instead a tangent on why we cannot digitize everything

I work part-time as an Archives Technician at the National Archives at Atlanta. During those days, half of my time is spent in the public area, meaning I am either in the research room assisting genealogists or in the textual research room observing and assisting researchers who are examining and using our original records. Working in the public areas is one of the most important tasks student workers do here, as it supports all the archivists by giving them more time to do the many projects they have going on, freeing them up from time-consuming work with the general public. The other part of my time is split between several tasks. One, which has pretty much been on the back burner since December, is a holdings maintenance project, as everyone who works here is assigned at least one of these, so that downtime that might crop up can be used for maintenance, organization, description, and database creation for and about the many, many collections and materials we have here. Over time, we are entering information about the items in collections and folders into a finding aid, as well as creating a database that helps archivists and researchers alike to navigate each particular collection. There are so many records here at the National Archives that I know we could all do this for the rest of our lives and not complete the task.

I often walk in the bays—which is what you call the giant warehouse-style caverns that hold the endless shelves stacked with FRC boxes, Hollinger boxes, abnormal-sized boxes, cylinders, map cabinets, and marvel at the sheer amount of material they hold. There are four bays total at the Atlanta facility. I cannot even estimate any remotely meaningful number of cubic feet or number of boxes—let alone estimate a number of documents within those. Billions. Kajillions. I laughed at a recent series of online articles and commentaries that were addressing the recent Civil Case Screening Project that NARA has undertaken in the last year (I'll explain soon), in which people objected to the National Archives deciding which records in the enormous backlog of civil cases would be kept, and which would be destroyed. People have been upset for a number of reasons, some founded, most unfounded or unrealistic. My favorite innocent comment came from a woman who perkily suggested these records all be digitized instead, since one of the arguments for destroying a portion of them was due to space constraints within NARA facilities. She proposed digitization as if that was the simpler, easier answer. Clearly this woman has neither spent much time digitizing anything (it is ENORMOUSLY time-consuming and painfully monotonous) nor, obviously, has she ever taken a peek at the cavernous bays I walk through every day I am at work. I think it would be a healthy dose of medicine for each patron, every American citizen who gets angry at the federal government for not being able to locate a record they are seeking by searching for someone’s name, to take a look inside the bays of the Archives for a glimpse at how many things we keep here. Records are not organized by a handy name reference, no. And they never will be if you understand anything about federal records. Nor, also, will they all be digitized. Not ever.

My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.

 

That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.

 

What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.

 

Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.

 

I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.

 

I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"

 

Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.

 

What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.

 

I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.

 

I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.

 

I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.

 

I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.

 

It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.

 

I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.

 

Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.

 

I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.

 

I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History

 

I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.

 

I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

On people, or: "I didn't want to start with an issue"

Peter Hessler, former English teacher in China and author of several books on Chinese life and people, both historical and modern, is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and long-form journalist. In his interview in reception of his prize, he spoke on what it is to write about China and Chinese life, to him:

“There's always been a tendency to see a place like China in very political terms. I think this is partly because it’s a communist country, it’s run by the Communist Party. And from my perspective, living in China, starting especially the way that I started, as a Peace Corps volunteer, in a small community, teaching in a small college, it gave me a very different starting point. And I really wanted to write about ordinary people in China. I didn't want to start with an issue, or start with a political idea, I wanted to start with an individual, start with a community.”

To me this exemplifies the kind of approach that public historians take to topics of history that have traditionally been very idea-based, politically oriented, and top-down in nature. We can look at a country or an issue or a group of people through these high-minded mechanisms, or we can study people themselves, and how they fit into the larger historical fabric. That is a much more important goal, and ultimately more meaningful.

Hessler is a journalist, that is an important distinction; but he writes based in a historical context, referencing the past at each step, and this is also valuable. (I will fight with people who dismiss great books written by journalists.)

Looking at one individual person's perspective can lead towards a dangerous of generalizing based on not enough larger perspective, yes, but it is in knowing the balance, and in incorporating these people into history that we are best served by learning of the past. Genealogy is not real historical study, but it gets people engaged, and that is important. Someone is interested in feeling a personal connection to the past, and that cannot be ignored in our own, professional approaches to studying history.

I am always reminded of British writer and historian William Dalrymple's  fantastic skill for emphasizing the individual's experience of history, as he does in The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857which keeps the reader vividly engaged by showing us the Indian Rebellion of 1857 through the eyes of several key player on the ground. I have never read a book of history in which I felt so deeply connected to the characters of the era, and when they all begin falling at the hands of their enemies, I had a true emotional reaction to the destruction of this city and these lives. I've heard he does the same thing in one of his other works, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.  An inspiring example--though not without his critiques--of this kind of engaging historical writing.

Oral history in practice: find the people, and a project becomes real

I've started putting into practice the things that up until this point in my oral history class have only been discussed, that existed only in theory, as things we would eventually have to do. I've begun the process of cold-calling a list of strangers, to me, nothing more than a series of names and phone numbers that I found on a national organization's Atlanta chapter site. And to them, I am a stranger asking to be let into their lives, who is asking to hear their stories, often quite personal and emotional. I am asking, after all, about the process of adopting their own children. This is a very strange thing to explain in a message on an answering machine to a person you've never spoken to.

And in several cases, I've had kids answer the phone, and take the message. This is even stranger, having to summarize in a brief sentence or series of key words to a child or teenager why this random graduate student wants to talk to their mother. (Note: It's about them. Talk about awkward to explain.) "My name is Jessie, I'm a graduated student at Georgia State, and I want to talk to your mom about an oral history project I am starting, on families who've adopted children from China." Hmm, random, indeed.

The first time I dialed a number, I was so thankful it was no longer in service, because I slammed the phone down and felt my heart rate come back down from through-the-roof heights. A few deep breaths, and onto name #2 on the list. Many calls later, I am slowly but surely reaching out to some families. All in its own time, I am in no hurry, and want these families to feel they can respond to my request in time. We're all busy people.

This is, by the way, preliminary work for what will be my master's capstone project: an oral history series and podcast series, compiled and stored on a website that also allows for interaction and visitor submissions, on the stories and histories of Metro Atlanta families who have adopted daughters from China. This enormous diaspora of Chinese girls has spread far across the world, and Atlanta is just one corner of that vast space. This community, the girls and their adoptive (and biological) families, are part of an important historical event, beginning largely in the early 1990s and reaching a peak around 1999 - 2005, and waning in recent years as the process has become extremely cumbersome and slow for adoptive families. This twenty-odd-year period marks an important occurrence in China-U.S. relations that reaches directly into the homes of American families whose families have changed forever because of it; and I want to study this in that historical context, by compiling the oral histories of those living it.

To do this, I've had to muster up some courage I haven't used since my days in student journalism--when it was nothing to phone a stranger and ask them some questions.

But oral histories are by nature very intense, quite distinct from a journalistic effort. And it has been thrilling so far, to find what's at the other end of the line, when you call someone out of the blue--a total stranger--and ask them about something like the experience of adopting their own child.

Exhilaration even more enormous than calling as a journalist. No, I'm not a reporter, I'm a historian, and I want to record your oral history. Just as we have talked about in class, people immediately begin to question you ("How did you get my number?"), and question themselves, retrospect on their own life--"I haven't done anything important." But they have and that's the point of oral histories. They are a part of history.

I am awestruck all over again, every time I think of the phone call I received last night, in return to one of my messages left with a woman's daughter. She was rightfully questioning of me, but I clearly passed the test, because she became so open and willing and engaging, by the time I hung up with her my jaw was literally hanging open. I sat in shock in the driver's seat of my car.

This family has an extraordinary part in the history of Chinese adoptions, from a very early point in the larger narrative timeline. Each of their three daughters is from China, adopted in the 1990s. I have researched this process and read books and articles, and I have never heard of a family like this, ever. And they are part of the exact Metro Atlanta community that I so want to document. I absolutely cannot wait to speak with her further, and collect her story (stories, for sure).

There is a huge difference between theorizing and structuring and dreaming up a plan, a project, and executing it--and making the final product effective, interesting, helpful to participants and the larger public. Without knowing who is out there to talk to, I had no idea if this would even work. I now feel that it is not only possible, but it has the potential of being extremely fruitful. The families who have adopted from China are an extraordinarily connected and close-knit community, across the nation. I hope this small project can somehow contribute to those within that cross-national community, and inspire other initiatives. It's an important international event that deserves to be contemplated in its proper historical context. I'm so excited to bring us a step closer to doing this.

Telling stories without paper: human voices and created objects

Without realizing it earlier, this semester I am in two courses that I have been extremely excited to take, and that both deal with forms of historical evidence that are neither paper nor text. The Document is the historian's love, her bread and butter, that which is often the basis of entire projects, which turn into the articles, tomes, textbooks, and popular history books that everyone else reads. In public history classes, though, it is a simple truth that the regular person goes to museums not to read lots of label text and long passages that, though their stories may be astonishing, do involve more words. No, they most often go to see the things that make history come to life for them. Artifacts, small and large, can often be so powerful, say so much with no words. And this is where my classes are taking me. The emphasis in Material Culture is obvious: the objects, created or altered somehow by man, that offer insight into customs, social patterns, lifestyles, foodways, and larger culture of the people of our past.

So too do I find this in Oral History, the other aforementioned class, where our discussions, readings, and projects revolve around the spoken word, in a historical context, and using a proper methodology that puts it far beyond casual conversation. In conducting oral histories, we are formally and methodically documenting the past, in ways that effect immensely both the narrator (the subject) and the interviewer (me).

I find both of these mediums so powerful. I conducted two oral histories earlier this year, after a one-class-period crash course in one of my other classes, and while they were on two very different topics, I discovered the many nuances that oral historians have been raving about since the 1960s; one of the most significant to me was the unexpected paths the interview can take, and also the candidness of my narrators. By asking very simple questions and then shutting my damn mouth, it was astonishing what stories they would tell me, without my ever having to ask them something provocative or controversial. Not that the primary goal is provocative information, not at all. But, for example, I was interviewing a couple in the late forties who have a young daughter they adopted from Guatemala, and there were a lot of delicate and sensitive subjects I wanted to broach with them, like whether or not they would someday tell her about her half-siblings that they knew she had back in Guatemala, or whether they would help her in finding her biological roots, if she ever wanted to know more about them. These were things I didn't think I would have the guts to ask. But I never needed to: the family was so welcoming and so willing to explore their complicated emotions on those subjects, via other more basic questions I had asked within the larger subject of their family and their relationship to Guatemala right now. I know this won't always be the case, and this is a topic I am continuing to work with, but it was an extraordinary first dive into the process, and into the revelations of what oral histories are, and what they do for larger historical projects you are producing.

And material culture, whose roots can be found across disciplines--archeology, folklore, sociology, history--has been enchanting academics in these fields for far longer than I have been alive to ponder its worth. I am not a natural at gleaning information and historical clues from innate objects the way I have been able to do with documents, even though, at their core, neither one is more or less equipped than the other to tell a story about the person who created it. Documents are not purveyors of truth any more than a three-dimensional object that lacks a description or context of any kind. Just because something has words on it, a handwritten letter, say, does not mean we can understand it any better upon finding it than we would a shard of porcelain. My goal this semester is to begin to better navigate and interpret our material past, in more nuanced ways than I have ever known or cared to explore.

Museum staffs, and so, museum exhibits, have as their goal the interpretation of the past, in a way that makes people look at their own lives and relate the past to them, to where they live, to those around them. This can be done very well with historical documents, presented in a cohesive manner, that tell a wonderful story. But, as soon as you add the human voice, and the objects created by men and women in that same story, you have brought the exhibit to life. You have succeeded in a more successful, effective way, in relating the story to your audience, and they will leave remembering it more clearly, and hopefully in a way that connects them to the past, to its utter humanity and enormity.

Henry Glassie, in his book Material Culture, describes our relationship to things in our everyday life, and inspires us to think about them in more significant ways, as pieces that connect us to the larger humanity of the world. After all, if it as not us personally, someone created every single thing in our lives. That is a powerful thought. I leave you with the passion of his words, so inspiring and clearly telling, as he has spent his life studying the Things of People.

Among the new things, the most important, I believe, is the collection: the assembly of gifts, souvenirs, and commodities into a home--the domestic environment in contradistinction to the house. The collection represents a victory over disorder in industrial times, when the flood of goods threatens to sweep us to madness in a rising tide of irrelevant trash, just as the house of stone represented a victory over disorder in the days when people lived close to nature, when the lean wolves came down from the heath and the night winds wailed. But we should not be confused. Today, while we create things out of things made by other people, all across the globe, people in no way less real or alive are going up into the woods and down to the riverside. They are chopping out chunks of nature and fashioning artifacts that display their spirit and serve the serious needs of their neighbors.

Artistry in the world, in our work, in ourselves

"William Morris told us to cease thinking of art as the rarefied expression of a mystically talented few, or as the peculiar possession of rich men. He argued that work is the mother of art, directing our study to carpets as well as paintings, axes as well as statues, and he bade us consider our own work as a source of insight into the work of others. With him, we come to wish that the painter in the loft, the scholar at the desk, and the industrial laborer on the shop floor might know the joy of the peasant girl at the loom."

Material culture historian Henry Glassie reflects on the value of the world as an inspiration for art, and how artistry, at its core, comes from age-old trades. He takes us through the lifespan of a traditionally-made Turkish rug to illustrate this, and brings us back around to the very fact that he is writing about it, to ensure we understand that all manner of artistry, big and small, is a product of the creative soul of humankind.

The chapter I read today was a joyous revelation, a celebration, of the material as historical, as everything we can and hope to be, in what we create on this earth, with our hands, our patience, our inspiration, our minds.

Homage to midcentury last: the ranch home

An entire month has passed since I last was brought to this computer screen, to compile some sort of thought, rant or other revelation on life for you to read. It has not been because there has been nothing to say. I often find that when I am writing many things on a weekly and daily basis, for work, grad school courses, or personal projects, I am much more likely to also write a blog. Sometimes (OK, oftentimes), it is because I am thinking about something else that is not related to the topic of my paper or the project at hand, and I am overcome with the need to write down my thoughts on something. I can easily pump out a big essay during this larger weekly routine of writing, and it somehow feels much easier than it does now, in my current state, where I have been asked to write very little (and read even less) for my summer coursework and in my duties at work.

What I have been doing is writing a few papers about Cuba and Caribbean tourism, museums on an international perspective, and a few other strains of similar topics, and learning more than I ever cared to know about the kinds and styles of chairs in American and European interior design. The History of Interior Design class was my first foray into the other half of my graduate program--the half that I am not in--historic preservation. With the basis of this class being on preservation, we studied much of the architectural styles that impart themselves on the interior fashions and furnishings we have used throughout history--and we also covered exciting things like wall plaster (hint the sarcasm).

For a lot of people in my field (many of those being fellow members of this class), that actually is exciting stuff. Me, I'm always more interested in the people. The material culture aspects of interior design fascinate me, because I care most what people were doing with their things and why they used what they did. My professor did a fantastic job bringing this element of the field into our class, too. But there was a whole heck of a lot of architecture involved along the way, and a lot of design terms I did not know (and many which still elude me).

For six weeks, I trudged through Classical, Greek, Federal, Victorian, Rococo, Queen Anne, all the various Revivals, and plenty others that I have forgotten, and then Craftsman, cottage, and various other late nineteenth century styles to arrive at the twentieth. Ah, the twentieth century. I love many aspects of early twentieth century design, and more of midcentury design. And it all comes together in my love--my adoration--of that which I once loathed: the midcentury ranch home. 

 Ranch homes evoke in me visions of my childhood, visiting friends' houses, ranch-styles, that sat on streets with dozens of other ranch homes, and inside, layers of brown, and thick carpeting, and wall-size windows that take over rooms. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, there was an added element of water outside, the windows offering a view of the lake that was nearby, or just in the backyard. I remember thinking about those homes, in my young mind, about how frumpy they seemed, very unpleasing and cottage-y.

I imagine this is because the few that I do recall specifically--most are fuzzy in my memory, with me left searching my brain for who even lived in the house I picture in my mind's eye--are poor examples of ranch home style, with the innards of the structure not at all reflecting the midcentury flooring, furniture pieces, lighting, window decor, and built-in bookcases that appear in photos of the ranch homes that now make it into modern design books and are featured in large, glossy spreads of home decorating magazines. And rightly so; I can't imagine those friends' homes had much worth plastering in a magazine or book in the states they were in--after all, those published materials are to serve as "what-to-do" guides more than "what-not-to-do."

For the final project in my class, we each have to concoct a furnishings concept plan for one room of one house that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Georgia. I have selected the first ranch home to make it on the Register in the state, since the Ranch style has recently turned 50 (the minimum age to qualify), and because I have an absolute and total crush on the Ranch. It is shocking how much I have enjoyed staring at photographs of hundreds of ranch homes over the past few weeks, coming up with an aesthetic and a concept, and choosing furniture pieces appropriate for the era. Oh yeah, and deciding that I  must actually have a properly conceived, open floor plan, windows-for-walls ranch home, someday, hopefully when I am much, much older. (I am thinking my 20s and 30s need to be spent living in some sort of warehouse, a concrete and wood and ancient tile adventure, something crazy that I could never do once I have children.)

I know that when I present my project this week, many people will meet my passion with crinkled noses; the ranch home, they will think, that hangover from the post-war era when we first became addicted to consumption. Yes, I will also think, but before we had to build McMansions with dozens of closets to store it all. This was the era when function and clean lines, minimal clutter, a few strong furniture pieces, and built-ins everywhere, was the height of home fashion. Maybe not for everyone, there will always be those who want their homes filled with Rococo Revival--some of those people are in my class--and to each, his own. I was self conscious about classmates thinking my ranch home project is unsightly for about half a second, until I remembered how many Victorian and Federal-style homes I spent the summer looking at for hours in each class, and how I crinkled my nose numerous times at those.

The Ranch: ugly, to some, yes, and in my childhood, I vividly recall thinking I would never want to live in a ranch home, just as I was positive I would never wear loafers or high-waisted pants or voluntarily tuck in my shirt. Wouldn't you know it, taste grows up, and things you once thought so grandmotherly and out of fashion rise again into the aesthetic, and you realize just how fashionable your grandmother really was.

StoryCorps and the lives of ordinary people

Recently I've taken a keen interest in oral histories, and in the technical and artistic feats behind creating audio stories and making them powerful and relevant. I am overwhelmed by how natural the journalists on NPR and its member stations make it seem. There is a lot of work, a lot of practice--and a lot of talent, really--behind making a compelling audio story. I'm interested because I am starting the groundwork on my own podcast project, a history podcast. The topic or range of themes, I don't know yet, but I have a few ideas I am working on. I want to take the notions of community and of roots, and really challenge notions of identity and nationality through the stories I seek (or happen to find) and the questions I ask. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am fascinated with the fluidity of nationality and its meaning in lives and across national boundaries. So when I sit down to think about communities, I inevitably return to this thought, to this theme in the multicultural lives we live today. There are more specifics that I can expound on later when I have solidified my project further.

But one of the first places I began looking for inspiration, of course, was the StoryCorps project, which is an initiative of NPR, and both are funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The StoryCorps project records regular people (with often far beyon regular stories to tell) who are interviewed by a friend or family member in booths located at various spots throughout the country (and in the traveling booth). Interviews are housed in the Folk Life Collection at the Library Of Congress, where they stand as historical record that the lives of everyday people matter in our past and in the present.

Beside the fact that NPR is absolutely my primary source of news, and I am admittedly an NPR-podcast junkie, the goal of StoryCorps is valuable and significant in ensuring that people feel both connected to the past, and feel that they matter themselves. This project cannot disappear now, just when technologies are allowing us to share stories in more ways than we ever could. It is a brilliant way of collecting oral histories, focusing on whatever the interviewer wants to know about their loved friend or family member. I am thinking I will take my dad sometime very soon.

I was reminded the other day of one of the most memorable stories ever to air on Morning Edition, the morning program that regularly airs a brief interview from the StoryCorps booth: that of mother Sarah Littman and her then-12-year-old son Joshua, who  has Asperger's. Their poignant conversation (which you can read more about and hear, here) received an incredible response, and is still considered a milestone event in their lives. Littman wrote about it recently, in an effort to illustrate how important StoryCorps's mission is, and to remind everyone how much it meant to her, her son, and everyone who heard and was moved by their story.

She had this to say:

I’ve tried to analyze why our interview had such an impact on so many lives. I’ve wondered: Is it because it helped raise awareness about Asperger’s syndrome? Is it because the interview helped people understand that seeing the world “differently” isn’t necessarily a bad thing? Is it because—and this is the gift of StoryCorps—it showed how much we learn from “ordinary” people (whom, it turns out, are really anything but) if we take the time to sit down and listen?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all of these things, but at the core of it all is that last question from my son. This question is at the root of what all of us, no matter who we are or what our age, gender, race, religion, or social status, wonder. Deep down, we all have the desire to know—Do you love me the way that I am? Am I who you expected me to be?

Josh is now 17 and a senior in high school. When applying to colleges for the fall, he chose to write his application essay about our StoryCorps experience. I plan to take him back to the StoryCorps Booth after his first semester for another interview to talk about this next chapter in his life.

StoryCorps’ single largest funder is CPB. The elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting would essentially be a death knell for StoryCorps, which not only has brought so much joy to so many, but in our celebrity-obsessed culture is an incredibly important reminder that every individual matters, and that there is so much to be learned from our stories if we’d only take the time to stop and really listen. This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s about what really matters.

Her sentiment and thoughts on the matter really got to the heart of how I had been feeling about the issue, and about how NPR and the programming I love could take a huge hit in the very near future. She just expressed those thoughts much better than I. So I ask you to also stand up for the value of all of our lives, big and small. Let Congress know everyday stories and lives matter in our collective past. I got a response from Sonny Perdue's people last week.

Do it for me! Where else will I get my daily 2+ hours of news and entertainment?

 

A city, not a blank slate. More like "an empty and brightly lit stage with lots of directors, scripts, auditions, designers, audiences, and reviewers."

I haven't written recently, but it has not been for lack of compelling ideas and discussion in my classes and reading. It has been in fact because of too much of it, alongside a new, second job that I have taken on, and the regularly hefty amount of school work. But I just finished another book for class, that has again drawn me into contemplating a few other compelling books and themes, and alas, this is the place where I can put those thoughts concretely.

Historian Alison Isenberg's 2004 book Downtown America: A history of the place and the people who made it is in fact a testament to the people, more than anything, who are responsible for the good and bad and the complicated personality of U.S. cities today. Oftentimes the city holds a nostalgic identity for people, a loss of something bygone, a sort of deflated self that holds some sort of hard-to-define sadness. Isenberg reminds us however, that in considering our efforts today at defining our downtown economic areas and "Main Streets," we must recognize that "the democratic, melting-pot downtown has been an evolving ideal, not a past accomplished reality from which Americans have strayed." Certainly there was never a democratic reality in the segregated shopping districts of the early and mid twentieth century, yet it is oftentimes portrayed or revered in memoriam as having been a free-wheeling, glorious environment. That may have been so, but for a very selective group of individuals; for everyone else, it has a much more complex definition, a much less rosy spot in memory.

She also sheds light on the criticism of some of today's shopping centers that hark back to historic facades or utilize (some might say exploit) nostalgia in the creation of their urban commercial centers. This is not a new desire, this image of a tidy, historical ideal. In the early twentieth century, there was an entire industry around artists' renditions of American cities, which the book's images show to be very much tidy clean-ups of what the actual cityscapes looked like.

This is not a criticism of either the 1920s-50s, nor of the most recent efforts, either by Isenberg or myself. Rather it is part of her argument that it has been and will continue to be the people who construct the cityscape, both literally in physical development, and ideally in how they invision their city and its image.

It got me thinking of another study on the American city, or one in particular--the public history project that has resulted Lowell, Massachusetts as the subject of an entire National Park, and the recent book on its history. One of the questions at the core of Cathy Stanton's whole study of the city is whether or not economic development and interest is compatible with public historians' goals of preserving and interpreting a city's past and its meaning in American history. Both sides can be argued, I am not here to answer this, but this same thought came back many times while I read about the larger developments of the economy of "downtown America" over the years, and the many vested interests that laid at the heart of each decision within a city's planning. Most often, it was businessmen, investors, retailers, and real estate appraisers who were making the biggest decisions, but in the wake of urban renewal projects and other controversial methods of "cleaning up the downtown," historians and preservationists had their say as well, spanning much of the city's recent past (1980s to the present).

Most compelling to me is the way in which every vested party uses the past to their own ends, and how many of the symbols of the past appear very differently depending on who is looking at them. This was most explicit in Isenberg's description of the 1997-98 exhibit "Main Street Five-and-Dimes," which was on display in Washington, D.C. at the National Building Museum. The exhibit's interpretation says nothing about the enormous effects of integration of the downtown, and how many of the department stores had not been serving African American urban citizens. She uses the comment book to show just how much people really did want to talk about the effects of a separated society on the downtown, even if the curators only wanted to show nostalgic "thingamabobs" and enlist positive images of the way things used to be.

Some of those are truly thought-provoking, so much so that I will post the entire excerpt a little later on. But it reminded me again of how much specific images and symbols from the past are used to many different ends. To investors and retailers, symbols of the past utilize memories, or perceived memories, to add significance to their project. To some white citizens, like this guestbook commentators, it was a vision of a "happier, kinder world," while to other less-than-subtle commentators, it was a positive memory of "'whites only' drinking fountains--the way it should be." To black visitors, it was that "some change is good," and that these old department store must be considered in the wider context of the times they were in, including the fact that while they no longer exist, life itself has in fact gotten better for many people who live around the same places the stores were located. One guest book writer agreed that yes, it was a look back on a simpler time. "Simpler perhaps but was it better?" Indeed, a more complex interpretation that gives us more to consider.

Surely I have gone past making a concise point. But my intention was just to unite the discussion in the Lowell Experiment about what history means to certain people while having wholly different definitions to others, and trying to reconcile every group and perspective when your goal is to consider the larger narrative of an entire community, or city, or even a larger metro area. In Lowell as well, part of the complicated story was often the notion of history on an upward ride, that we have surely improved our lives from those of our grandparents, that we no longer suffer in factories. And in the case of Lowell, residents could tout its more recent past as having also given this same improvement to new immigrant groups. One of the corkscrews thrown into its cohesive interpretive plan has been that complicated truth that this reality has really only moved to another part of the world, and that there are people in other countries who would like this to someday be their story too. That is something that Lowell has recently included in their story, making it altogether more complicated and global, but also reflecting much more accurately the world we live in, as one that is connected to the past, rather than separate and removed from it.

This trajectory is indeed a labyrinth of complicated stories, controversies, diverse groups with specific vested interests both in their past and present lives or portrayals, and when it comes down to it, questionable whether it truly is an upward climb of improvement at all points in time. Almost certainly it is not.

But that doesn't get Isenberg down. "It remains to be seen which constellation of values and participants will chart the course of downtown real estate and urban commerce in the twenty-first century," she says, bringing it back around to her book's economic focus. But, during the twentieth century, "Main Street [was] a place to teach, debate, exclude, fantasize, argue,  include, make new dreams, and visit old ones." Maybe we start there to find the best way to write inclusive, thoughtful histories of our city spaces, and of the communities that live in them. Lowell is certainly one prickly example of this, are there will surely be more.

(The colorful quotation that is the title of this post is by Isenberg, found on page 313 of her book.)

Place: "writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world"

Part of the profession of writing and studying history demands an indifference to place. One reason for this is the slim chance of finding an academic position in the exact city where you might want it, so we want to be assured that any location is surely a great place to do our jobs. But the other, more significant, aspect of our profession is that we almost always start with something that happened and then look around at the place where it occurred. The location, the city, the larger community, is the secondary thing that we consider, after the initial social or political bit caught our interest.

Local and public history is almost exactly the opposite. For the people living in their home, in their city or town, in their region, they begin with a place they care about and ask what happened there, in that spot that they claim, maybe even identify with.

It might be the disassociation, the impersonal way that we take history and dissect it, interpret it, and polish it up into a book filled with delicious complication and some big words, that sometimes causes our own alienation from everyday people, who consume a wholly different kind of history. While the doctoral works sit in the university library for other noble scholars to ponder and converse over, citizens of my city are consuming history through television documentaries and films, theme parks, mass market historical fiction, facts and tidbits on Snapple caps, and maybe (hopefully!) a museum every now and then. Part of why I find public history so important a field is that we see how both of these types of history are important, and, as Michael Frisch said in his book with the same title, we have a "shared authority." The conversation about history is not only taking place in the university, nor should it. We are not allowed to shake our heads, smiling sadly, at the interpretations of Hollywood movies or History Channel specials if we are not willing to take the discussion to the table, equally set, to have a talk about the complexities and contentions in our past.

And we can talk about community histories together. This is an exciting idea to me, because I am a bit of a product of that American placelessness problem (although I don't see it as a "problem"); I did not have deep connections with particular cities, communities, or regions on a historical level until the last few years, when, either adulthood or my upper division history courses or both dropped me into a strange reality: I cared about where I lived. I don't mean that I never cared about a place, what I mean is deeper, on a historical level: I care about what happened in that place before I got there. That is a significant difference, and it changes your approach.

A majority of the courses I took to earn my bachelor's degree were on world history. I know a lot about Chinese history and politics, India and South Asia and their politics, West Africa, Central Asia, even a bit (though only a bit) about Europe. But not being from any of those places, there is only so much I can ever hope to know about them, and I may never understand them fully. That leaves me knowing not very much about the larger world, but even less about my own history. I learned a lesson, I grounded myself and thought headily about how much I need to learn about my own complicated past (and how it relates to all the other ones I've studied, which fold back into each other in beautiful important ways.) Wouldn't you know, the American history and public history courses I did take had some of the most profound impact on me, and my career path.

The deeper I get into history though, I need to have my areas of expertise, of core interest, the parts of history whose facts I know, like the professors who sometimes amaze me with thee breadth of their knowledge. (I rest more easily when I remind myself that they've had a lot longer to learn all these things.) I don't officially have my list yet. I don't know what I want to study, maybe because there are so many things I would like to study.

Usually I'll ramble off something about the immigrant experience in America, as that is an area I am extremely interested in. Regular readers will know I have an ongoing fascination with the notion of nationality and identity, and what happens when you are too many of those things, and what point in the spectrum garners you a hyphenated identity. It has been interesting recently, for example, to read of the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, the strict Chinese mother (living in the U.S.) who has raised her children markedly unlike the American counterparts around her. But in China nowadays, Chua's is an old guard of parents, a generation past. To Chinese people, the controversy is surrounding an American mom; she is an American mom to them. So who is she? What is she? That is just juicy, good stuff. So, that is one area I really do hope I get to work in. There are so many stories from so many countries that become part of our American history as soon as they enter our country. Some have been here a long time, others, not so long. They're all important stories.

Anyway, this week I read historian David Glassberg's Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life and it was brimming with quotable and thought-provoking observations and experiences in the minds and matters of the public and their past, and what it means. His concluding remarks were both a revelation in combining emotion and a study of the past, and in reveling in connectivity and separation at once, a challenge and aspiration for historians to tackle today. But he also spoke right to newcomers to the field, and reassured me that I have talents and ideas to bring to the world yet, and I'll figure out what they are before long.

The distancing from life, the quest for perspective that historians learn in graduate school as the core of the historical enterprise must be balanced by a recognition of our personal needs for the past. Our own experiences, our own families, our own communities, can be the source of historical insights, not because we assume that everyone is like us, but because we can establish who we are only by writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world.

So what will I tell my students wanting to become historians? Certainly to learn the history of the profession, and the skills necessary to earn a living doing history, whether through teaching or any number of other pursuits. But also to find a place from which to write, and to cultivate a humanity within yourself that allows you to connect with others in that place. To help the residents of your community to see the value of the ordinary places where they live. To help your neighbors to expand their time perspective beyond a generation or two. And perhaps most difficult, given the tendency Americans have to make histories that exclude others from their life-stories and neighborhoods, to help your fellow citizens to expand their social perspectives beyond their immediate families, so that they discover in their quest for a history and place that they can call their own, that they are part of a larger society and environment.

I have been sitting on an idea for my own historical and creative endeavor that I can hopefully turn into my larger capstone project for my master's degree (that class will be next spring). And I can tell you that reading this passage makes me want to jump out of my seat and go start it right now. So many good discussions to have out there... so much amazing history, wrapped up in people's lives and surrounding them every day. Since the day I decided I wanted to be a journalist, in high school, I've had the urge and the need to share stories that illustrate the grandness of human drama, and to show people the larger perspectives and how they fit in. That urge is at the center of everything I've been doing since then, although it has taken many positive twists and turns from that title "journalism." It's really writing. Telling stories. That's what I do, have done, will do.

The city and the country

The semester has shifted into full swing, even though I have yet to attend a class. I've been doing so much reading though, and already have so many dog-eared pages and underlined sentences and bracketed paragraphs, I can tell it's going to be a theme here for awhile: the public and history, the relationship, the interaction, the communication challenges, the chasm between public memory and historical awareness and the world of academic scholarship. Readings for two of my classes have overlapped to a freakish degree, meaning I have read literally dozens of articles and chapters in the last week and every single one has been on this subject: the public and history, and public historians.

I do love when class readings overlap with similar themes, authors, and topics, as it creates an even deeper dialogue for my own thinking on whatever it is I'm focused on. It almost always surprises me too, when it happens, because it has often been in seemingly unrelated classes. These aren't as surprising. One is Museum Studies, the other is Intro to Public History.

There are so many juicy subjects that I have been pondering this week, most of which I don't have time to develop into larger posts, and quite honestly, my extended writings on some of these things might rehash or drive into the ground the words and arguments the historians have already composed. But because some of it is so juicy, so thought-provoking to me, I have to share, if for nothing else than to have some of these tidbits in one place.

So here:

This quotation is from William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, from the prologue, in which he dissects his childhood notions of the city as compared to the country, and how those contain such specific constructs in our minds. His thoughts absolutely resonated with me, with some of my own childhood perceptions, and with those moments of revelation when you discover something so stunningly simple that still took you years to figure out.

Never having lived in a great city, I had no idea how little I understood it, but my continuing instinct was to mistrust and dislike it. Loving the rural landscape--and later, as I discovered the West, loving still wilder land as well--I felt quite certain that I could never call the city home. Like many who came to adult consciousness during the environmentalist awakening of the late sixties, I wished to live close to "nature." If asked to choose between city and country, I'd have felt no hesitation about my answer. More important, I'd have thought it perfectly reasonable--perfectly natural--to pose the choice in just these stark terms. Chicago represented all that was most unnautral about human life. Crowded and artificial, it was a cancer on an otherwise beautiful landscape.

One of the pleasures of childhood and adolescence is that one can experience emotions of this sort without worrying too much about their possible contradictions. These feelings came easily--my love of nature and the pastoral countryside, my dislike for the city, and beneath them, the romanticism which had schooled me in such perceptions. It took me a long time to realize that I had learned them from a venerable tradition in American and European culture, and an even longer time to suspect that they were distorting my sense of city and country alike. I can't pinpoint when it happened, but I gradually began to sense that my own life (including my affection for things natural) was not so free of the city and its institutions as I had once believed.

Reflecting on the various expeditions I made between my parents' Madison home and assorted rural retreats around Wisconsin, I became troubled by what seemed a paradox in my easy use of the word "natural." The more I learned the history of my home state, the more I realized that the human hand lay nearly as heavily on rural Wisconsin as on Chicago. By what peculiar twist of perception, I wondered, had I managed to see  the plowed fields and second-growth forests of southern Wisconsin--a landscape of former prairies now long vanished--as somehow more "natural" than the streets, buildings, and parks of Chicago? All represented drastic human alterations of earlier landscapes. Why had I seen some human changes as "natural"--the farm, the woodlot, the agricultural countryside--but not the other changes that had made "nature" into "city"? How could one human community be "natural" and another not?

My job as a psuedo travel organizer

Part of my job involves reading travel guides. You know, the big fat Lonely Planet ones, and the TimeOut guides that have the colorful pictures. And more than that, the ten-or-so books on my desk are about Cuba: a place I never thought I'd visit. In my regular life, I would have no time to even peruse guidebooks on Cuba, because it's not even a place I could travel  if I had the money. As it stands, I don't even have the patience to read guidebooks on India, knowing I cannot actually plan a trip with any certainty, because I have no means to get myself to India anyway.

So that in these last five weeks I have been planning a two-week trip to Cuba--right down to writing the application to the Office of Foreign Assets for the license for travel--is beyond anything I could have imagined in a job. It felt entirely exhilarating to write the application letter to the feds, knowing that something I was producing was going to effect something much larger: this trip would not occur if we were denied a license. I was representing the entire university. I am excited to report that we just received notice yesterday that we have indeed been granted a license to travel to Cuba, good for one year for anyone, either faculty or student, who wishes to go to the Cuban island for academic purpose. The fact that I am being paid to perform this job strengthens my belief in their being "real" jobs that are both enjoyable and rewarding, and that employ many of the skills I have and use already.

This is my first semester in grad school. Besides showing up at an entirely foreign campus in downtown Atlanta, I had also moved into an apartment on my own several weeks earlier, and was naturally leaving my job at the campus bookstore at Kennesaw State (where I received my undergraduate degree) because it was simply too far to commute for a student position.

So naturally, I needed another job, and I was hoping that would come in the form of a graduate assistantship through the history and heritage preservation department of my school. By mid-July, I still hadn't gotten a definitive answer, and had begun applying to other full time jobs in the area, because grad school with no job was not an option. When I did finally hear from the director of my department, I was so excited just to be employed I was hardly concerned what I would be doing. Research or making copies, I didn't care.

Now though, I feel I have definitely lucked out; I am working with the director, and I am not making copies or filing paperwork (or organizing paperwork, or shredding paperwork, etc.) but am handling all the groundwork for next the Heritage Preservation Program's Maymester abroad. There is a lot of work involved, but I have yet to mind one task. To me, looking through old slides of Cuba, writing up brochure text, and manning a booth at the study abroad fair is not "work."

Oh, and with any luck, I'll be going on the trip too. What an amazing opportunity.