Tuesday, February 23, 2010
"A shotgun blast, a thunderclap, a loud metallic noise, the clash of cymbals, a lightning strike..."
And here I thought it was just the cars on the CSX Railroad bumping
on the ties as they clatter through downtown Marietta.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
MSN's list of top 10 most depressed cities in the country?
Well, they've done it again.
As if depression wasn't a big enough problem, now we're struggle
with general miserableness as well. That's right,
the top 10 most miserable cities in the country based on "we
have to write something" boredom---er, I mean, "meticulous
analytical research methods"---at RealEstateMSN.
This time, I was pleased to note that Atlanta didn't make the cut.
That realization suddenly lifted my dark clouds of misery away.
On the other hand, how can Atlanta be depressed yet not
miserable? Are they not more-or-less synonymous, at least in
the public mind? Or is one condition far worse than the other?
This discrepancy alone causes me to doubt the study's
Of course, Thomas will not be pleased to learn that Memphis has
made the list again: #3. Thomas, you really should consider
moving to a city that's only depressed and not depressed and
miserable. Perhaps New York?
Monday, February 15, 2010
rite of passage: buying a guitar and learning how
to play it. Now, that rite was succeeded by a
complementary one: joining/forming a band.
Recall that I got my first guitar in August, 1996.
I had exactly ONE YEAR of playing experience when I
felt this urge. By any reasonable standard I was
jumping way ahead of myself.
But I was full of vigor, stoked by my ability to
change between the major and minor chords in something
slightly less than glacial speed---an obvious indicator
of my mastery of the fretboard!
And I had a partner in crime who felt the same way.
Like Thomas, Jenni had come in with the class of 2000.
And like Thomas, she was a member of the PC Choir.
In addition, she had a crush on me, which led her to
follow me around like a pet nearly every where I went.
I wasn't annoyed; in fact, I was flattered by the
attention, even if I wasn't interested in dating her.
What was more important, she was a guitar player too.
And she had already done something I only dreamed of
doing: she had played an original song one night at
an FCA meeting. A minor-keyed number about longing,
frustration, and God's plans, it went over well.
I envied her.
Once this particular bond was established, we
fellow musicians spent much of our time playing together.
She would play a few of her own songs, and I would teach
her the bluegrass "boom-chuck" style of playing, which
I had picked up on my own.
One evening while dining at the Waffle House, I pitched
the band idea to her.
"Yeah, that's cool!" she said.
"We could play our own stuff!" I said.
"Yeah, that's really cool!" she said.
"And we could play at Inklings like the other guys do!"
"I'm all for it!" she said.
"Good!" And we sealed the deal over chop-steak melt
plates with SSCCTD hashbrowns.
I started looking for other members. Thomas was receptive
to the idea as well. That made three guitar players, all
presumably strumming (I never thought in terms of any
I tapped the bassist for Jazz Onions, wondering if he
would be interested in some "side work". He was.
All we needed was a drummer.
I found him one afternoon, practicing in the basement
below Belk Auditorium. I walked in, introduced
myself, and explained what I was looking for: a drummer.
Period. And what do ya know? He fit the bill, obviously.
He was in.
The practice space was in Inklings, and was tentatively
scheduled for Friday afternoons, when everyone ought to
Songs? I had started writing another song, a Biblical
allegory about infidelity (which used my arthritic "A"
chord), and thought it was a sure-fire hit. The opening
verse---"Hey, hey baby, your love is dead / You took to
the comfort of another's man bed / You told me child
that I was just too much / You wanted to taste what you
shouldn't have touched"---suggsted a worldly knowledge
that I certainly DIDN'T have at that time (being a
rather cloistered, traditional Christian) and hinted at
libidinous pleasures that I knew were sinful but wanted
to sing about anyway. (Hey, no one ever said rock n'
roll was about subtlety and restraint...)
Jenni had several originals, but didn't feel like contributing
any of them. So I dug up some up old blues songs from
library books and photocopied the lyric sheets. I was already
a blues fanatic, and I figured they would be o.k. (I also
nixed Jenni's suggestion to include a Billy Joel song;
as far as I was concerned Billy Joel was passe, and there was
no way in HELL I was going to sing any of his songs...)
The first practice time rolled around. We assembled in
Inklings, set up the drum kit (usually a lengthy undertaking,
as I would learn over the next few years), plugged into the
PA (or, in my case, put our guitars close to the stage mics)...
and let fly. My song, titled "Unfaithful", sounded gorgeous
with full instrumentation. We played a few more songs, then
got bored and started noodling. After an hour or so, we
packed up and said our goodbyes.
What an auspicious beginning! Surely it was a sign of
things to come! We would open at Inklings, then play Belk
Auditorium, then score gigs across the length and breadth
of South Carolina, and then...Carnegie Hall!
As it turned out, that first practice was the creative apex
of our little group. Looking back, I think I can explain our
First and foremost, I (the erstwhile leader) had no real
talent to speak of. It wasn't long before the other, more
experienced members recognized this, and began dominating
the practices. The problem was that none of them had any
idea what else we could/should do. So it became an exercise
in indecision. We would gather together, futz around, and
then slowly drift away.
Second, we never worked on a potential set list. I never
finished "Unfaithful", and I'm sure the other players
got tired of hearing that hoary old chestnut banged out
time and time again, raggedly incomplete (I only wrote two
verses and a bridge) and going nowhere. No one other than
Jenni suggested any cover tunes (and, like me, no one else
seemed enthused about playing anything by Billy Joel), and
no one liked the ones I picked (which were admittedly beyond
our capacity; many years later, when I had a better
command of the idiom, I would finally get to play something
closer to real blues). We would strum around, look at each
other, and say, "Well, what should we play?"
Third, we never told the Inklings people we wanted to play.
I think that maybe setting a deadline would have forced us
to get our act together. Maybe we would have played at
least one show before splintering. But we never acted on
our vague ideas. Without a plan, we soon had little reason
to get together. Strumming chords aimlessly isn't a jam
session; it's an act of avoidance.
Fourth, we never came up with a group name. That may sound
inconsequential, but, like the concept of working under a
deadline, it might have forced us to pull things together.
Again, no one had any ideas. I suggested a few lame ones,
such as The Shindig or The Flying Clouds. I was obsessed
with 60's culture at the time, and thought these were
pretty hip monikers. But when I mentioned them, the drummer
would just give me a pained look and shake his head.
Finally...it wasn't the time. Who were we kidding? We
were college juniors and sophomores. Life was beautiful, youth
was fleeting, and other things demanded our attention.
Who among us was really interested in applying himself/herself
to this band idea? It was just a lark to pass the time.
Still, for a handful of days in the fall of 1997, I had a
band. I had arrived!
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Popular Uses of History in American Life; Columbia
University Press: New York, 1998; 291 pp.
Every few years an "official" study concludes
that American's don't know---and don't care to learn---
anything about history. The study shocks the nation.
Colleges and universities vow to add more history classes
to their curriculums. Politicians admonish their
constituents to start studying the past. And the media
declares that something must be done about the thousands
of graduating high school seniors who can't explain the
significance of the Battle of Gettysburg or the New Deal.
Despite these best efforts, another study years later
comes to the same conclusion.
One might be forgiven for concluding that American
historical ignorance is terminal. But what if our
understanding of historical consciousness is flawed?
What if Americans really DO know and care about history,
but simply can't connect with it in the context of
classrooms or textbooks? What if the key to improving
historical consciousness is to understand the average
Professional historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen
pose these questions, and offer their own answers, in
Presence of the Past. Culled from the results of a 1994
survey, conducted in cooperation with Indiana University's
Center for Survey Research (CSR), Presence of the Past
examines how almost 1,500 respondents interacted with
Do Americans value history? In the most literal sense
they don’t. “History”, according to the respondents, is
boring, biased and irrelevant. “The past”, on the other
hand, is invaluable. To the respondents, in fact, it
is essential. It defines their identities, while also
encouraging changes. It explains their personal
victories and defeats. It helps them prepare their
children for adulthood. Clearly Americans do value
history, even if they call it something else.
Do Americans engage history? They certainly do, and often.
Nearly all 1,500 respondents frequently engaged history---in
family reunions, photo collections, oral interviews, books,
films, TV shows, historical associations, museum visits and
many other ways. They professed to feel connected to the past
while participating in these activities. In addition, they
astutely judged the reliability of historical sources they
encountered. They were neither as ignorant nor as indifferent
as professional historians often claim.
With a wide range of respondents, it was no surprise to
interviewers that age, race, gender and socioeconomic status
affected historical interactions. Respondents with higher
incomes participated in more expensive activities, such as
collection and restoration, than respondents with lower incomes.
Male respondents participated in reenactments and historical
associations, while female respondents compiled family histories
and made scrapbooks. Asked to name the defining historical
event in their lives, respondents’ choices---World War II,
the Civil Rights movement, the Battle of Wounded Knee---
generally fell along racial lines.
A separate survey of minority groups revealed other differences.
While white respondents generally trusted books and education,
African- and Native-Americans believed books and education were
biased and dishonest. As indicated above, African- and Native-
Americans identified with historical events and figures particular
to their own pasts; African-Americans, for instance, overwhelmingly
identified with Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet rejection of white
historical narratives did not mean rejection of American
historical narratives. The historical narratives of
African- and Native-Americans were in fact strikingly American:
struggles for truth and equality, and the upward progress of
society. When contrasted with white respondents’ narratives of
disillusionment and decline, minority narratives suggest that
historical interpretation is not completely black and white.
Despite such obvious differences, several constants emerge in
Presence of the Past. Respondents valued formal education only
inasmuch as it allowed them to participate in and investigate
history, not simply to memorize and regurgitate facts. They
enjoyed historical films and TV shows, but they did not completely
trust them. They read historical books, but formed their own
opinions. They considered eyewitness accounts and artifacts
more trustworthy than secondary histories. Most importantly,
they felt most connected to the past when participating
in family reunions and museum visits.
Rosenzweig and Thelen disagree on the survey’s implications,
and each author offers his own conclusions in the chapter
“Afterthoughts”. Rosenzweig sees great opportunities for the
interaction of academic history and public history. The former
can offer a larger historical context, provided that academics
treaty public historians with respect, while the former can
keep history “human” so long as they embrace inclusiveness and
objectivity. To Thelen, such strict group distinctions are false
constructs. With the illustration that “an individual could be
a woman, lawyer, Republican, Chicagoan, lesbian, Irish American”,
he concludes that different forms of history (academic versus
public, local versus national) are all essential and are all
interconnected. In his opinion, it is impossible for Americans
to completely divorce themselves from history.
Both authors insist that historians must help Americans to
understand and engage history. By what means? Presence
of the Past makes the case for public history. More books
and more formal education won’t suffice; neither will more
historical films and TV shows. Family reunions and photo
collections are useful, but often these fall outside the
strict purview of history. By contrast, museums and historic
sites inspired great trust (8.4 of out 10 on a trustworthiness
scale) and a great sense of historical connection (7.3 out of
10 on a connection scale) among respondents. If academics and
the American public are to find any common ground, then public
history seems to be the key.
Presence of the Past is sure to provoke partisan debate. Some
will claim that a survey of only 1,500 people doesn’t prove
anything, although it is doubtful that a larger survey would
alter the basic conclusion. Some professionals and some
educators will retort that reunions and museum visits don’t
constitute “real” (read: larger nation-state narratives)
history. Historical consultants for films and television
will likely engage in either painful soul-searching (“Why don’t
they trust us?”) or else in self-congratulation (“Who cares if
they trust us or not? At least they’re watching!”). Public
historians alone will praise Presence of the Past, for it
Yet this validation comes with a warning: the public’s trust
in public history must not be betrayed. If Americans believe
that museums and historic sites set standards for accuracy and
objectivity, then public historians must ensure that these
standards are met. Lies and distortions in public history,
like those in films, books, and TV shows, will not be overlooked.
Should public history grow complacent, should it ignore public
dialogue and cooperation, or should it succumb to special
interests, then Americans will reject it. The potential
result---complete and deliberate historical ignorance---is the
stuff of historians’ worst nightmares.
Monday, October 26, 2009
snarky and amusing---right up my alley. Maybe it'll be up yours
too. (Actually, that last part didn't sound right...)
This particular paragraph is academia to the nth degree:
The most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator;
he brings to the enterprise the biases of his training and
the vagaries of his personal temperament, and he is
often obliged, in order to make his name, to murder
his forefathers by coming up with a different take on events
from the one that held sway when he himself learned
the discipline; he must make the old new, because his
department's academic standing depends on it.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Atlantic Monthly Press: NY, 2007; 279 pp.
Almost 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln continues to
dominate American history and popular culture. Yet who is Abraham
Lincoln today? Why does he have so many different faces? Why is he
claimed by different interest groups? And how should we separate
Lincoln the man from Lincoln the icon? In Land of Lincoln: Adventures
in Abe’s America, newspaper reporter Andrew Ferguson tries to
answer these questions while searching for the real identity of our
Born and raised in Illinois, Ferguson
was a full-fledged Lincoln fanatic as a
child, eagerly devouring all things
Lincoln: his writings, his statuary, his
place of birth, his tomb, and the
mountains of trinkets made in his
honor. Almost inevitably, Ferguson
wandered away from his passion as
a young adult, distracted by growing
pains and disillusioned by Lincoln
debunkers. But the controversial
dedication of a new Lincoln statue in
Richmond, Virginia, where Lincoln stayed a week before his death, forced Ferguson to re-examine America’s Lincoln ideology as well as
his own. Determined to understand the public’s view of Lincoln,
Ferguson traveled from Washington to California in search of
Abe’s America. From his travels Ferguson has culled a rich---
and hilarious---story that reflects our national quest: always
seeking, yet not quite finding, the elusive Father Abraham.
Ferguson finds Lincoln beset with lobbyists and special interest
groups, all trying to claim him as one of their own. Lincoln is asked
to be skeptical but pious, urbane but homespun, literate but
ignorant, peaceful but destructive. He has been dismissed as an
elitist, a bumpkin, or a shrewd manipulator. He has been made
a caricature of American imperialism. He has been asked to pull
the public’s heartstrings. Often, he has been forced to make
money for his modern-day disciples.
Ferguson decides that the last is the most ridiculous Lincoln of
all; as a failed businessman from the 19th Century frontier, how
could Lincoln possibly embody the spirit of 21st Century corporate
America? Nonetheless, Lincoln is co-opted by the Tigrett Corp of
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as a model of good business management
for executives and administrators. Ferguson’s survey of a typical
Tigrett Corp workshop illustrates more than the dangers of trying
to fashion Lincoln into our own image; it shows how an out-of-context history lesson, dressed up in entrepreneurship, can turn history into something almost unhistorical.
Thankfully, Ferguson does not spend much time with the business
executives, preferring to focus on three main Lincoln interest
groups: Lincoln collectors, Lincoln impersonators (though they
call prefer to call themselves “presenters”), and Lincoln historians.
Their widely divergent views seem to obscure the real Lincoln as
much as they reveal him.
In the Cult of Abe, Ferguson finds collectors and impersonators to
be the most accessible. Their passions for the man make them
ideal Lincoln proselytizers. As they see it, the key to understanding
Lincoln is through full immersion: either dressing up like him or
buying anything and everything connected to him. Their scholarship
might be patchy, but their hearts are in the right place.
By contrast, Lincoln historians earn most of Ferguson’s scorn. The
rangers and docents of the National Park Service and the curators
and administrators of the Lincoln Presidential Library, are the most
influential of the Lincoln interest groups. They provide the filter
through which the public sees Lincoln as he was. Thus they owe it to
themselves and to the public to get Lincoln “right”.
But if public history is collaboration between historians and the
public, then by Ferguson’s standards most public historians have
failed. They refuse to collaborate with the public. Instead, they
distill Lincoln into a series of Disney-esque vignettes, complete
with wax statues and pithy sound-bites, to make him more “fun”.
They sanitize his Illinois home with 21st Century efficiency,
exorcising the imperfections of the 19th Century in which he
grew up. They make him dull, weak, comical, biased,
ordinary---all in the name of protecting and educating the public.
In Ferguson’s eyes they have missed the point, and he is satisfied
when their grand efforts are rewarded with poor attendance
and low ticket sales. After all, they haven’t bothered to ask the
public what it thinks about Lincoln.
However, these public historians fare well compared to Lincoln’s
academic historians. When mentioned at all, they only serve to
illustrate the cluelessness of academia. A Richmond symposium
of academics formed to defend Abe’s honor is dismissed with a
brief paragraph; the best they can offer is the wan conclusion that
Lincoln “wasn’t so bad”. An academic social historian writes an
uncomplimentary study of of an exhibit at the Chicago Historical
Society, forcing the society to change its presentation of Lincoln
(one of Ferguson's favorite exhibits as a child). Other academics
find nothing to praise about the public interest in Lincoln. A
Altogether, academia wants to criticize and savage, rather than
to make any useful contributions.
By the last chapter, standing before the Lincoln Memorial in
Washington, D.C., Ferguson has found the real Lincoln: the icon.
Though debunkers try to knock him off his pedestal, though
academics belittle his greatness, though public historians try to
make him more “common”, most Americans prefer to see him
as extraordinary. Why else do they spend hours in his museums,
why else do they still visit his birthplace and tomb, why else do
they make his biographies bestsellers, if not because they
recognize his greatness? It is the old Lincoln, the Lincoln of folklore
and fable, the Lincoln of pomp and circumstance, the Lincoln of
the Lincoln Memorial---grand, oversized, unchallenged,
uncomplicated---that they long for.
In his particular criticism of the National Park Service and the various Lincoln museums, Ferguson offers a challenge to public historians. Rather than beginning with assumptions about the public, they should first seek to understand their viewpoints, not only about Lincoln but about all American history. They should carefully balance preservation, education and entertainment. And they should never forget that history, as the public sees it, is extraordinary. For those who would be public historians, Ferguson’s conclusion is a warning: don’t mess with Old Abe. The people still love him.
That's the only way I figure I can keep posting, so I might
as well try.
For my Introduction to Public History class at the University
of West Georgia, I'm expected to write five book reviews over
the course of this semester, for books related to public (i.e.,
non-academic, but rather museum- and historic-site-related)
history. I've already written three, so I figure I'll share them