Thursday, September 17, 2020

Listen up

Today during my faculty meeting I had an epiphany as I listened to colleagues talking.   That epiphany is the subject of this post.  


         It's no secret to historians that African Americans have long used visual evidence to convey the everyday horrors they've experienced in America.  From almost the time photography was invented to the present you've probably seen the pictures and videos: the back of a man known to us only as Peter with the scars of a whipping criss-crossing his flesh; the battered body of Emmet Till, 12 year old Joe Bass lying in the streets of Newark, and now George Floyd.  As these images and videos circulated, white folks paid attention.  Each of these, and there are others, has played a key part in bringing the reality of suffering to a white audience.  Each has helped turn the tide of white public opinion.  

        But why were these images necessary?  Black folks had been describing the horrors of slavery from Olaudah Equiano to Frederick Douglass.  Black folks wrote (and spoke) about their experiences but far too few whites heard them or believed them.  The conditions of Jim Crow in the 1950s were made real by Emmett Till's photograph, even though many, many Black writers from Ida B. Wells on had described the violence and terror.  While African Americans complained about police violence in Northern and Western cities, they were largely blamed for the long hot summers of the 1960s.    And now here we are again, the complaints and documentation were there, but white folks didn't listen.  We white folks didn't listen when it was Abner Louima, and blamed his rape and beating on one bad cop.  We didn't listen when it was Tamir Rice, we didn't listen when it was Eric Garner, we didn't listen when Aiyana Jones died in her Detroit home sleeping on the couch.  There were always excuses, he shouldn't have been playing with the gun, he was overweight, her grandmother grabbed the gun.  We never listened to the context, to the parallel stories, to the corroborating evidence.  "It's not that bad," we white folks told ourselves.   But then came the video evidence, and many of us changed our minds, confronted by the repeated reality of police with itchy trigger fingers and violent tendencies.  We shared these images on twitter and facebook and the nightly news, each time demanding the African Americans on our friend lists and in our feeds and in our neighborhoods relive their own traumas, reignite their own fears for themselves and for their children.  We mad them suffer so that we would believe.  

The thing is, we didn't have to share the images.  All we had to do was listen to black people.  African Americans shouldn't have to be subjected to watching black bodies suffer and die just to prove their credibility to white folks.  

Today, I was asked what I could do to move social justice work forward at my school.  I have struggled with this for the twenty years I have worked there.

I know the answer now.  I plan to listen.  

Friday, March 6, 2020

Address to the School: Cum Laude induction.

Last year I became the first faculty inductee in our school's Cum Laude society.  In a new tradition, the faculty inductee has to give the address.  The motto of the society translates as justice, honor, excellence.  Here are my remarks: 

The most difficult thing about this speech is figuring out who the audience is.  Is it the folks on-stage? Congratulations by the way. You’ve worked hard. If you want to take a nap now, or play on your phones, or whatever, go for it.  You’ve earned it. You don’t need to hear anything from me. Is it their parents? Good work by the way. We all know it was your good parenting that led to your children being up here and that any problems your children give you are strictly the fault of genetic mutations or your in-laws.  You also probably don’t need to hear from me. Is it the faculty? They here me bloviate every Thursday in faculty meeting and most of them can’t believe that somebody has actually given me a microphone to address you all unedited. So definitely not them. So that leaves all the people facing me.  All the students not on the stage. Some of you may be up here next year, some may never be up here. And most of you are really wishing you were at snack right now instead of listening to me. So, you’re who I’m going to talk to. Especially the folks who are positively, absolutely sure they’re never going to be up on stage.  I don’t want to take anything away from the folks on-stage. Good work! Congratulations! Well-done! Hard work paid off and all that. Anyway, last year, when I was inducted into the Cum Laude society as an adult, it was far more meaningful to me. And I want to explain why that is and why, if you think you’re never going to be on this side looking out, you’re probably wrong.  

So we start with a question.  What’s the point? Not in Douglas Adams’ terms of   “Life the Universe and Everything.” We know what the point is of all that.  It’s 42. Rather, what’s the point of school? Hands? Anyone? No the point of school is not to get a better job, that is merely a pleasant side effect.  Somebody else?     

Okay, I’m going to tell you the point of school.  It’s to make you a better person. And to prove this, I’m going to discuss a couple of really important texts that I think sum up everything humanity has learned since we separated ourselves from the Neanderthals up until about 10 minutes ago..  

The first text I’m going to discuss is a dark, dystopian film about what happens when people immerse themselves in technology and completely disconnect themselves from authentic human relationships.  The anti-hero in this film, and you have to call it a film because this is serious stuff not one of those popcorn superhero movies, was orphaned, bullied as a child, but phenomenally intelligent. He uses his academic gifts to invent technologies designed to harm rather than help as he seeks revenge on those who wrong him and he creates virtual experiences that only he can participate in.  While his genius attracts some loyal followers, he pushes even them away until he ends up alone, isolated, quite mad, and surrounded by nothing but mushrooms. This modern classic, is of course, as many of you have recognized, the Sonic the Hedgehog movie. Mismarketed as a buddy movie about a space alien and his cop friend, it is actually Jim Carrey’s tour de force performance that carries this cinematic masterpiece.  Carrey’s character is an object lesson in how intelligence alone, unanchored by any moral framework or care for his fellow humans leads inevitably into insanity.   

Our next text is one song by an artist I hope you’ve heard of, David Bowie.   The song is Heroes.  Inspired by seeing friends kiss near the Berlin Wall, Bowie, who had recently kicked a drug habit that nearly killed him, wrote a song about lovers separated by the division of Germany into two states, one communist and one capitalist after World War II.  In the divided city, where trying to cross the border could mean instant death, Bowie’s lovers meet in no man’s land. “Though nothing will keep us together, we can beat them for ever and ever” sings his protagonist. What magical weapon does Bowie possess here that can vanquish Cold War hostilities (and the cold eye of East German marksmen who killed at least 140 people trying to cross from East to West)?  That weapon is love. Despite the “guns shot above our heads” Bowie’s lovers kiss “as though nothing could fall.” Bowie here is reminding us about the transformative power of love to fight evil. It is our innate capacity to love each other that has been behind every successful social movement since recorded history started. And, of course, it was Jim Carrey’s character's failure to nurture this most important ability that led his Dr. Robotnik’s untimely exile to an outer dimension.  

Now, we might not have the opportunity to turn the awesome power of love against a totalitarian state.  At least, I hope we don’t have that opportunity. So when can you do this? When can you use this awesome talent each and everyone of you has to change the world though the thing that makes you human, your capacity to love.  

For that answer, I turn to another music artist, Alt-country/folk singer Robbie Fulks.  Who I think is worth quoting at length on this topic.  

When you're really needed,
You can rise to meet it,
Or you can fall.   [Fulks’ narrator warns  his son. But he continues]
Where you're headed now is not really mine to say,
You've been more than patient
To hear my story through,
And now you are ... on your way,
here are some few simple things I wish for you,   [And I would echo Fulks’s sentiments for all of you]
That you will steer past shallow freedoms as you follow your own star,
When your life is at it's darkest please remember that you are
Needed,
Something about "needed"
Leaves every other word
Weak and small.
Needed,
I hope you know that you're needed,
That you'll rise to meet it,
And never shall fall.



I first heard “Needed” on my 50th birthday at a Fulks concert in a small venue in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  I went with my friend from college, because my wife of almost twenty years had broken her ankle earlier that month and was trapped at home on crutches and unable to navigate the steps out of our house.  A few weeks later, a blood clot would dislodge from that same ankle and end her life. And I thought, at the time, mine too. But I was needed, needed by my children, and by my mother-in-law, and by my students, and by my colleagues.  The transformative power of their collective love for me brought me back from a place I thought I never would leave. You all were part of the community that loved me so hard I had no choice but to love you back. It was a work of justice, and of honor, and most definitely excellent.    And so each of you, in some small way, shares this stage today. And that, that, is just one small example of the transformative power of love. With every transformative act of love, you can enter into our secret little honor society I’m creating right here and now. And each of you can ascend that stage again and again.  So hug your loved ones, mend your fences, do some good. This life is too short.  

Thank you.  

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Changing technology, changing histories?

 One of my former teachers asked me what I thought about this article in The Atlantic and needless to say I have thoughts.  One of them is that if you aren't following Alex Wallerstein on twitter you should be.  He's a historian who gets a lot of ink in this piece, and he's done really interesting things with digital history, including building this nuclear bomb simulator:  which was fun when it first premiered but as gained an unfortunate relevance of late.  The article, I think, overestimates and underestimates the extent to which digitization, laptops, and cell phone technology changes historical practice.

First off, let's discuss the way the article exaggerates the way cell phones and cameras have changed historical practice.  The article points to Robert Caro as an example of a historian who is deeply immersed in archival practices and is someone who is typical of historical practices.  I've never met Robert Caro.  I've also never met a historian who works like Robert Caro and I've met hundreds of historians.  Let's talk about the realities of history writing.  Most historians will write one book.  Some historians will write more than one book, although how many is unknown, at least to me.  The second book problem, has expanded to many institutions where previously it was not an issue, even as fewer tenure track lines are available to support such research.  The first book is often completed on a subject where the graduate student a) chose a project that was doable (often with the help of an advisor), had time to spend in archives, and often had someone or someones to help them through the writing process (shout out to all the great dissertation advisers and grad student reading groups out there).  Such projects are often designed to be done cheaply, close to or at a home institution, or nowadays, based primarily on a digitized archive.  Reading Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound in graduate school, multiple professors pointed out how well-designed the project was because it required a minimum of travel primarily using one data set available at Radcliffe.  It was held up as a model for how to write a great book with a minimum of travel.*      The cell phone, or the digital camera, has not really changed historical practice all that much.  Most folks never got to spend that much time in the archives anyway.  A lucky few might get to spend a summer at the Newberry or Huntington Libraries, and fewer still a year there.  The rest of the profession was usually doing fly-bys.  I was one of the lucky few who got to spend a summer at the Newberry, but most of the resources I ended up using there were books, nor archival and the summer I spent there was more useful for writing than research.  Far more typical was my funded week of research at the library at Michigan Tech, going through the Calumet and Hecla papers.  Spring Break in the UP is unforgettable, especially if you've never seen designated snowmobile parking in front of a bar before, but my five days there yielded lots of photocopies for just a handful of footnotes and a line on my c.v..

So when Madrigal talks about how this kind of tech is changing research, let's just say I think they are a little off base.  There have always been scholars who would immerse themselves in the local and there have always been scholars who thought that was a waste of time.  Cell phone cameras aren't changing that.  Far more important, to my mind,  were the list of structural changes in academia that were relegated to the penultimate paragraph.

But for oral historians, a group not discussed in the article, the technological changes have been huge.  New standards involving first, digital voice recording, and then digital video recording developed.  Transcription of interviews, like I used from the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project, are no longer the gold standard.  These interviews were recorded, often in Navajo. on reel to reel tapes and then translated and transcribed.  I was not allowed to listen to the originals, since repeated listening would wear down the tapes.  Coincidentally, when I was there, librarians were re-winding the tapes as part of a maintenance project and fluent Navajo-English speakers were hired to assess the translations.  I did get to speak to one of these folks who said the translations were pretty accurate and captured the way most of the folks interviewed would have spoken in English if the interviews had been conducted in English.**  Now, those interviews would be done on camera and I would be expected to follow along as I read the transcript, looking for places where the interview subject might appear uncomfortable or if the interviewer appeared to push a particular line too hard, perhaps cueing with their facial expressions, to get a desired response.  None of that was available to me, and my own interviews that I conducted are in a precarious state on DAT formats that aren't really used anymore, the transcriptions gone when a computer died before I could pull the data off of it.

And therein lies the next set of challenges, the digitization of data leaves it too precarious and subject to technological change.  So much of our ephemera, the stuff we build rich histories out of, depends on digital storage that may not be readable in the future.  If the story about the data loss from the 1960 census is apocryphal, the underlying problem is not.  Most archives don't have the resources of the National Archives and have a hard enough time ensuring proper HVAC conditions to prevent decay of paper materials much less worrying about converting digital files.



*A close reading of the acknowledgements, by the way, suggests that this was not the actual case.
**The interviews in question were done by a man named Tom Ration who was a native Navajo speaker and spoke "Navajo-English" dialect that a lot of folks on the rez spoke until fairly recently and can still be heard among many elders today.  In addition to pluralizing words with an s that don't take it (such as sheeps, lumbers) there are tons of other phrases and oddities from standard English or even local New Mexican English.  For example, putting the higher number first in an estimation "way long time ago, maybe forty, thirty years ago.  Head over that way five or four miles."
 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

In with the old! In with the new!

Dear Lori,

Two years ago tonight I sat in my mother's house and wrote this blog post explaining to the world that you left it.  I was too numb to cry anymore, having howled like a beast into the arms of my head of upper school who came to be with me while I waited for the M.E.s to take you away.   Two years later, I write from the dining room in my new house, that  the boys* and I share with a new woman, and her four year old son.  It's hard doing the work of building a new family.  It's hard work for everyone.  And I know that there are some folks who look askance at how quickly this new situation developed.  And I know, if you were here, what choice words you would have for those folks.  Yes it's been fast.  But J makes me feel more like me again, instead of someone who looks like me but isn't.  She's been supportive and loving and I think it's been far harder for her to adjust to us than it's been for us to adjust to her.  That said, she delights in Becker and Weber and fiercely advocated for Lenny through her recent concussion.  She has created space and time for me to care for your mom who has been hospitalized since early September.  She loves fiercely, and deeply, and well.

Not long ago, I learned that having big ear lobes, like I do, is considered a sign of good luck in China. And I have had incredible good fortune.   I am deeply fortunate that J came back into my life at just the right time.  The person who is happiest about all this might be "Grandma" Irene.  I moved in with her daughter, "our sister"Antoinette just after you stopped living with her.  I stayed at their house on the rez, before you.  When we met Antoinette and Irene for lunch at the flea market in Gallup this summer, they were so truly happy for us (as was "brother" Nathaneal).  These are, I think, the only folks who really knew us both separately, before we were together.  Their happiness for us, helped convinced me of the rightness of us as a couple.

And so, Lori, I'm in the midst of a new adventure.  It's not one I planned on having so soon, but here it is and I am as fully committed to it as I am to you.  Notice that use of present tense there.  Loving J. and H. doesn't mean I don't miss you still or love you less.  I'm as in love with you as I ever was.  But I'm also in love with J.  It can be a little confusing at times but I think it's essential.  Because as long as I'm love with you, you're still a real person with flaws and mistakes not some idealized ghost hovering over this new thing like some vengeful Chinese ancestor spirit ready to derail my life by being the perfect wife that J. could never be.   She is her own person with her own flaws and imperfections, just as I have mine.  It's what makes us human and what makes the act of loving someone both terrifying and necessary.

The new house is a Victorian but we are decorating it with a postmodern eye, mixing and matching time periods from my grandmothers reproduction federal dining room set to J's Swedish modern kitchen table and everything in between.  It's a nice metaphor for our relationship.  We both came into it with our unique histories, and we are trying to blend them to create something new.  In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi, Brown and Izenour asserted that "We look backward at history and tradition to go forward... And withholding judgement may be used as a tool to make later judgement more sensitive. This is a way of learning from everything."  And so we look backward.  And we look forward.  And we learn anew how to make more love in the world. **

In with the old!  In with the new!

Love,
David

*Lenny will share it too when she returns from her semester school in Colorado.
** I correctly predicted here that my education would make my mourning easier.  I had no idea just how broadly I would draw on it over these last two years.  But this is perhaps another post. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Today was not a Good Day

On the whole, things are going pretty well over here at the Panopticon.  It turns out that while I'm great at writing about grief, I'm not so great about writing about normal stuff.  I started a new relationship in the spring.  I had a busy summer.  I was off the grid in New Mexico for a month.  Lenny headed off to semester school in Colorado.  The boys and I started school.  My mother-in-law fell and broke her arm, got a pacemaker, got surgery to repair her arm and is in rehab with some cognitive impairment.  I bought a house and got engaged on the same day.  I moved, or at least I moved enough stuff for me and the boys to live in the new house with the intended and the step-son to be.  The new house is around the corner from the old house so a lot of stuff is going to move a few boxes at a time.  So, in general, life is good.  But....

Today was not a good day.

Today I came to school expecting to teach nineteen children in my US History class, only to find out that there would only be eighteen today, eighteen tomorrow, eighteen for the rest of the year.

Today I came to school expecting the hardest thing I would have to do was co-proctor a big study hall as a sub and instead I had to explain the unexplainable.

Today I came to school expecting to teach first period, not go to a class meeting where I had to face  a room full of kids who had come to school because it was Wednesday and expecting this Wednesday to not be particularly different from any other Wednesday.  And today I had to watch while the school psychologist told them that their classmate wouldn't be coming to school anymore, and we didn't know why, or what happened, but the adults would be here to help and there were extra counselors on hand, and that we loved them and cared about them.

Today I came to school and the above happened and I had to pretend that minutes earlier I hadn't been sayin "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck" when I found out.  I had to be strong and brave even though I was mess.

Today I came to school not expecting that my own loss and grief for my Lori would emerge in such a raw way.

Today I came to school and I erased my white board and I wrote in all caps, "Hug your loved ones.  Mend your fences.  Do some good.  This life is too short."  Today I thought about how long I'll leave it up there.

Today I came to school and I spent most of the day thinking about how long I should wait before I rearrange the chairs in the room so that the missing child in the empty chair won't be a distraction to me, and make me think of the void that still aches.  And I thought about the kids who would that memory of her there.  I decided we would make the decision as a class.

Today, that class went out to the middle school playground and played on the swings and the climbers and sat and talked because who the hell could work when you find out that somebody in 11th grade just didn't wake up this morning.    Today I was reminded of the healing power of sunshine.

Today I went to school and I was reminded that "This sucks" is one of the most powerful phrases in the vocabulary of grief.

Tomorrow I'll go to school and try to get back on track.  And I'll be damned sure to get my students on track.  We can honor our grief, but we cannot wallow in it.  In the coming days, there will be a funeral and there will be a meal train, and there will be a whole lot of other stuff I'm way too familiar with.

But today, today I kept the tears away.  I kept them away for my students, and for my own children.  But tonight my tears are flowing freely.  I'm crying for my student and the future she'll never have.  I'm crying for her family and the hole that will never be filled.  I'm crying for me and my own loss and pain.  And I'm also crying because I'm so grateful for my new life.

Hug your loved ones.  Mend your fences.  Do some good.  This life is too short.