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Posts Tagged ‘History’

The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

In antiques, beauty, cities, culture, journalism, life, photography, US, women, work on August 10, 2014 at 12:13 am

By Caitlin Kelly

20120415141416My photo, not hers!

Have you seen the terrific documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”?

I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”

She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.

The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.

And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.

But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.

If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.

Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.

The allure of time travel — which century would you choose?

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, education, entertainment, History, life, men, Style, the military, travel, US, war, women on August 24, 2013 at 12:34 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I haven’t yet read this book, by an American author who spent time with some hard-core historical re-enactors who re-make the Civil War on a regular basis.

But we recently had New York City photographer Mike Falco over for dinner. He’s obsessed by the Civil War — an odd pursuit for a Yankee from Staten Island — and has been traveling the U.S. to photograph Civil War battlefields, using a pinhole camera he made himself. 

A pinhole camera requires making long exposures, so that movement is blurred, giving the images a ghostly, timeless feeling.  I love his passion, and his artisanal way of moving backwards in time. He even wears period clothing, and people have greeted him by name as Mathew Brady, the legendary Civil War photographer.

He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997,...

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997, by Rick Dikeman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.

I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I  understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.

I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.

I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.

For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.

Surprisingly, I felt completely comfortable, and we married in this rivers’s edge chapel from 1840 with no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit with candles.

Here’s a link to the most recent Victorian ball held in Nahant, Massachusetts a week ago, at which guests wore period clothing, much of which they made themselves.

I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.

I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!

The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!

I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.

I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag)

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag) (Photo credit: Lone Primate)

I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!

Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?

Where would you go — and why?

What’s the most important letter you’ve ever received?

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, culture, History, journalism, life on February 20, 2013 at 3:02 am

Letter?

You know, something written on paper, possibly even written carefully in ink by hand, folded into an envelope with a stamp on it…?

kim letter

This lovely object was a going-away card made by my friend Kim, a former colleague and close Toronto friend, when I moved to Montreal in September 1986.

For a generation or two, and possibly future generations, a letter on paper may soon be, if not already, some odd artifact of the ancient past, like cuneiform carved into stone or hieroglyphics painted on papryus.

For historians and writers and researchers of all sorts, letters are gold, a direct and unadulterated conduit into how someone, possibly someone we’ll never meet, maybe centuries dead, was thinking at a particular moment in time.

What did Chopin or Livingstone or Emerson think? Here’s a link to books with their letters.

Do you follow the phenomenal blog Brain Pickings? You must! Here’s her 2012 post on books of letters, with several lovely and moving excerpts.

Here is Friedrich Engels, writing on Nov. 12, 1875:

The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois economic theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population. This feat having been accomplished – (as indicated under (1) I dispute its unqualified justification, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned) – the same theories are next transferred back again from organic nature to history and their validity as eternal laws of human society declared to have been proved. The childishness of this procedure is obvious, it is not worth wasting words over.

Some of the most life-changing messages have come to me by mail, like the letter from Paris that arrived in my Toronto mailbox in June 1982. I had just turned 25, and became the year’s youngest fellow in an eight-month journalism fellowship that would base me in Paris with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Japan to Brazil. We would travel alone to report stories all over Europe, (and fall in love, break hearts [sorry, Carlo!], and discover ourselves and the world in ways then impossible to imagine…

When I was 12, at summer camp, I wrote to Ray Bradbury, a writer whose work left me awestruck and envious, urging him (!) to not stop writing. I was in Northern Ontario and mailed my letter to his Manhattan publisher, Ballantine. Within a few weeks, I had a hand-written reply, on a blue custom postcard with his address and signature, from Los Angeles.

It was magical and improbable as finding a unicorn in the mailbox.

A writer, thousands of miles away in a foreign country, a man of tremendous accomplishment and repute, had bothered to make the time to write back to me, a young girl. Writers were real people! They had hearts, and postcards and pens and stamps. They care what we think!

This early success later emboldened me, and I wrote, in my early 20s, to the late John Cheever, another giant of American literature. My first was a fan letter, (to which he replied), about Falconer, an astonishing novel. But I wrote again, from a long trip through Europe alone, to ask him to explain an expression he has used in his earlier stories. He wrote back again.

(I now live a 10-minute drive from his home, his daughter reviewed my first book and I met his son at a local authors’ event. How odd, and unlikely.)

My mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship, lived most of her life very far away from me — in Peru or New Mexico or Mexico or England or British Columbia — but wrote me typewritten letters almost every week for many years. I have only a few of them now, and they have a poignancy that is almost unbearable in their chatty, loving desire to stay in touch with me, her only child.

I cherish a few personal letters in particular, two of them photographed here. One is from a former assistant minister at our church, which he wrote to me when my first book was published to thank me for sharing my talent. Another  — with no year’s date on it — is from a man whose vision and humor and affection changed my life, the late Philippe Viannay, who founded my fellowship (and a newspaper, and a home for boys and a sailing school and…)

I cherish the last line of his letter: “Thanks again for the way you played the game.” (More precisely, the spirit with which…) It was important to me, then as now, to be so appreciated by someone I so deeply admired.

letter

For all you Indigo Girls lovers, here’s one of my favorite songs: Burn All The Letters.

What letter has changed your life?

Wandering the graveyard

In aging, behavior, culture, History, life, travel, urban life on June 22, 2012 at 1:11 am

Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.

I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?

I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.

How must have life, and death, felt like then?

Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.

Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.

How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.

Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.

It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.

Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.

My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.

If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.

I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.

My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.

Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?

Why?

Which eyes do you see with?

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, History, life on April 16, 2012 at 12:14 am

In 1988, I took a class on connoisseurship, to learn about antiques, at Historic Deerfield, in Massachusetts, led by its young, enthusiastic director. Five women showed up for the class and our first session showed us a battered, ugly, brown shell of a chair. And a bright blue, very pretty Bible stand.

Which one, he asked us, was authentic — i.e. of the period — and which was a reproduction?

Of course, the repro was the blue box. To our, then 20th century, gaze it was small, neat, tidy. And so pretty!

But not at all the right size or shape to be true to its time. Inevitably and until then unconsciously, we were seeing it through a contemporary lens, thinking how it fit into a 20th century home and life.

The hideous chair, of course, was the real thing, and terribly valuable.

That class taught us some indelible and powerful lessons:

not to make snap judgments

not to be beguiled by the externally soothing

not to be seduced by mere aesthetics

Whenever I see an early painting or building or use an early textile, (like this one, in the photo above, that covers my desk, sitting beneath my Mac, a 19th century woolen paisley shawl), I wonder about the people who made it and used it. They didn’t have electricity or television or computers or cars or effective anesthesia or antibiotics.

I know my love of old things is some powerful desire to time-travel, to place myself, even safely and temporarily, inside the lives and minds of those long gone. I often start my mornings, if I wake up before sunrise, by lighting several candles. The illumination is gentle and makes me ponder how the world appeared when that was the only source of light.

Imagine how different everything looked!

Having studied interior design, I’m passionate about interior (and exterior) beauty, whether in materials, colors, use of space. I live in suburban New York, but I often buy and read design magazines from France, England and my native Canada to see how differently their homes are created. I find them inspiring and often much more adventurous than the looks offered by American publications. The light is different, the use of historical allusion easier and colors often much richer and more muddled.

Not to mention I live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. The bathrooms and kitchens featured in American magazine are sometimes bigger than my living room! Europeans are more accustomed to designing well and intelligently for much small(er) spaces.

I love that elegant European homes often mix very modern and very old objects, as our does ours; a Tizio lamp and 18th century engravings of a South Seas voyage, to name two. For inspiration, check out Elle Decoration, Marie-Claire Maison, every version of Cote Sud/Ouest. etc.; my absolute favorite is British magazine,  The World of Interiors.

Having lived in Canada, England, France and Mexico — each of which has distinct aesthetic styles that also vary by region, in materials, colors, scale, proportion — I see design with an eye that adores the brilliant pinks and blues of Mexico, the deep black-green of Canadian forests, the gentle tones of a William Morris print, the impossible elegance of a Parisian maison particulier.

This afternoon I walked the cobble-stoned streets of old Philadelphia, looking at homes built in 1752. How did those streets appear then to the first residents?

On Saturday we visited a show of van Gogh’s paintings and I was most moved by one image, of a field in a downpour, the view through his hospital window. If you click that link above, the painting I love is in it!

How did his physical and mental state affect how he saw?

How do you see things?

What has influenced your eye?

My life in 10 objects

In antiques, art, beauty, culture, design, History, life on March 25, 2012 at 1:44 am

Have you heard BBC Radio’s The History of the World in 100 Objects?

I’m addicted!

It’s based on 100 objects in the enormous collection of the British Museum, and I’ve so far heard the fascinating backstories of a Mayan lintel, an Anglo-Saxon helmet and a Korean roof tile; you can download all of them from the link above.

If you’re as much a fan of history, global culture and design as I am, you’ll love it.

This series also made me wonder which 10 objects might somehow sum up my life so far, and how they have shaped or reflected my own history. These are not the only ones, certainly, but each reveals a facet of my character and what matters most to me in life..

1964

Olympic badges from Tokyo

My father went to Japan to make several documentaries and brought me back some cloth badges from the Olympics. I was only seven, but seeing them made concepts like foreign travel, Japan and the Olympics alluringly real to me. It also piqued my  insatiable curiosity about the rest of the world — the hallmark of the rest of my life, really. (I still haven’t made it to an Olympics or to Japan though.)

1966

My Canadian passport

I was maybe seven or eight when I first recall using my own passport, and my first solo trip I remember was flying from Toronto to Antigua. I love being able to move freely between countries.

1960s

Two bears and a bunny

And yes, I still have them…photo of two of them above! The bunny was a gift from my maternal grandmother one Easter and his battered remnants are in the back of my closet. He was so stitched and repaired by the end he was practically transparent. He saw me through some tough times as an only child with no sibs to commiserate with.

The tiny bear is perfectly pocket-sized and kept me lucid and sane through yet another boarding school church service. The larger white bear looks a lot like (!?) my paternal grandmother. Don’t ask me how. He just does. He’s been all over the world with me, even in recent years, and is a very good travel companion. I imagine he has much amused TSA agents and chambermaids.

1970

Acoustic guitar

I attended summer camp in northern Ontario and every Sunday we put on a talent show that anyone brave enough to step onto the stage — in front of the whole (all girls) camp — was welcome to try. Thanks to my guitar and some crazy self-confidence, I did it often and sang songs I’d written. The welcome I received taught me to not be so scared to try new things or in front of a crowd.

1974

Pentax SLR camera

Loaned to me by a friend of my father who knew I had a budding and passionate interest in photography. I sold three color images of the city — one of our garage! — to Toronto Calendar magazine, a monthly — while still in high school for $300, a fortune in 1975 and still a pile ‘o dough. Discovering so young that my work had some commercial value gave me the courage to start freelancing as a (self-taught) shooter and I sold a photo to Time Canada when I was still in college.

1982

Carte de sejour

This little pink piece of cardboard, the official French document allowing me the legal right to live there for a while, was my ticket to the best year of my life, on a journalism fellowship based in Paris. I spent eight months living, learning and traveling on their dime (or franc!) and studied with 27 peers, all of us aged 25 to 35, from 19 countries, from Japan to Brazil to New Zealand. I’m still in touch with a few of them. That year taught me the true meaning of one of my favorite words — se debrouiller (to be resourceful, to figure it out on your own.)

1988

Green card

As the then unmarried child of an American citizen, my mother, I was able to apply for, and get, a “green card”, also known as an alien registration card.  I am a registered alien. That card gives me the legal right to live and work (although not vote) in the U.S.

2002

Softball glove

I started playing softball with a local group of fellow suburbanites, men and women ages 18 to 70-something, which includes a cantor, several psychiatrists, college professors, an orthopedic surgeon, a pastry chef and a retired ironworker. These people know me better than almost anyone here in New York. I usually play second base and can hit to the outfield.

I love having an activity that’s outdoors, social, athletic, fun, builds skills and is competitive enough to be energizing but mellow enough to be enjoyable.

Here’s my New York Times essay about my gang.

2009

A pink and orange polka-dot apron

I love to cook and to entertain and a big, pretty apron is a must! I bought this one, in such deliciously French colors, at one of my favorite Paris stores, BHV. If you visit Paris, check it out.

If you were to select a few items that could explain your life to those who don’t know you personally, what would they be and why?

Aaaaah! Seven Soothing Things

In beauty, behavior, design, domestic life, life on November 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm
Lake Ontario at Sunnyside, Toronto, Canada.

Lake Ontario...Image via Wikipedia

Half an hour before I walked down the aisle to re-marry, after 19 years as a divorcee, I was sitting in a church pew, barefoot, my legs stretched out before me, savoring the moment.

“You’re calm, cool and collected,” the minister, said, surprised. No hyper-ventilating, no last-minute panic, no wardrobe malfunction. A bride just…happy and calm.

I realized that day why I was so calm, because I had included, without consciously thinking about them all, seven things that always soothe my soul. Enjoyed in combination, bliss!

Nature

I’m always happiest when I can easily escape into nature, and the church we chose for our wedding is set in a public park on an island. The little white building, from 1888, stands beneath ancient weeping willows, shaded by maples and oaks, a carpet of green grass all around. Ten minutes before the ceremony, the minister walked outside and began gathering huge armfuls of goldenrod, which he put into two tall metal buckets at the church door. I loved his spontaneity and this powerful reminder we were as much as part of that world as that of the church itself.

To get from the vestry to the church door, I walked, barefoot, through the grass, before slipping into my Manolos, connecting me to the earth.

During the silent moments of the service — which we deliberately built in — we could hear one sound from outside. Crickets.

Water

I’ve been a water-baby forever: sailing, water-skiing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking. I grew up in Toronto, on Lake Ontario, attended summer camp ages 8-17, always on the water, often living in a cabin where the lapping of waves on the shore was the lullaby soothing me to sleep each night. I now live with a clear, year-round view of the Hudson river and take a commuter train into Manhattan along tracks that hug its shoreline. I love being near water.

Animals

The photos of my father and I, standing outside the church awaiting the music of my processional, show us laughing so hard we could barely stand up…because the sound we were hearing was that of cows mooing from a nearby field. I’d forgotten that Centre Island also has a petting zoo with cows, sheep and other animals.

I’m much happier and calmer I become when I’m around dogs and horses, especially. (Cats, not so much.) One of my happiest moments anywhere ever was riding on an elephant’s neck (!) in Thailand.

Beauty

I thrive on physical beauty — in nature, design, color, architecture — and feel its absence keenly. I flee surroundings that are ugly, thoughtless, dirty or poorly maintained. I seek beauty everywhere I go, and am grateful and delighted every time I find it. Our church that day was spectacularly lovely, its stained glass windows glowing with late afternoon sunlight like jewels.

Intimacy

I don’t have many acquaintances and make little time for people unless they become, and want to be part of, my inner circle. Emotional intimacy matters deeply to me, and when I find it, I try to nurture it as the treasure it is. We had only 24 guests at our wedding, every one of them carefully chosen as the dearly beloved to us that they are.

History

Old places, buildings and landscapes with a long, deep, rich past, move me most deeply: the Grand Canyon, the Arctiche rough, wild,  landscape of Corsica. Shiny, new, sleek modern spaces leave me cold. I want the patina of others’ hands and lives, to know I, too, am a part of their tapestry, a continuum reaching back centuries, even millennia. Our church that day had the smell of sun-heated wood, a scent which shot me back to my 12-year-old self in the hall where we rehearsed our musicals at camp. Heaven!

Music

My wedding processional was, a capella, the lovely round Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) and our processional the joyous and playful “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder. Music is a daily pleasure, whether jazz, rock, classical, or big band.

What are some of the things that soothe, calm and satisfy your soul?

Why Old Things Have Such Power

In antiques, art, beauty, design, History on September 27, 2011 at 12:05 am
Ru Ware Bowl Stand Detail of Glaze/Crazing, Vi...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m no fan of things that are made of plastic or chrome, things that buzz and beep and demand my constant attention, let alone charge cords and batteries. I use them because they’re useful. They make work easier.

But I much prefer objects with patina, provenance, crazing, chips. Made of wood and stone and glass and porcelain, often worn smooth by others’ hands, cradled 100 or 200 or 500 years ago by someone long gone.

I admit it without embarrassment — buying antiques also allows me to own crystal and silver and beautifully made objects that don’t carry today’s retail prices.

I recently leafed through several worn black leather photo albums from 1912, awed by the women in their bonnets and boots, the men standing proudly beside the very latest in technology — a hand-cranked car, an airplane.

What were their lives like? How did their air smell? What music did they enjoy?

When I drink from a tea bowl from 1780 or sit on a chair made in 1850, I’m intimately connected to history. I’m a part of it — as we all are — but attaching myself, physically and emotionally, only to the shiny and new, is too seductive. It de facto erases the past; an “old” cellphone may be barely six months past its date of production.

I’m drawn, inexorably, to antiques, to items that have passed through history, whether from a distant farmhouse or shed or a merchant’s home or a trader or a teacher. I like the fact they are memento mori, the implicit reminder we’re all just passing through, borrowing — for a few decades — the objects we allow to define us and our taste to others.

For now I’ll enjoy them: rush-seated painted chairs; early gilt frames with bubbled glass; botanical prints; heavy silver forks and light-as-a-feather coin silver spoons; hand-woven rugs and linens. My most recent antiquing trip yielded terrific finds, from a large ironstone pitcher ($16) to a swath of mustard-colored charmeuse silk ($10.)

One of my latest acquisitions, found in Port Hope, Ontario, is a black painted wooden folk art horse, about a foot high and a foot long, beautifully hand-carved, standing on a base painted with the words “Souvenir de”.

That’s it.

A memory of….what? Did his creator lose interest? Forget? Die?

I love this omission. It gives me something to wonder about.

Don’t Know Much About History…

In books, children, culture, education, History, journalism, Medicine, politics, world on June 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm
Edith Cummings was the first woman athlete to ...

Athlete Edith Cummings, the first woman to appear on Time's cover. Image via Wikipedia

American students, it seems, are not terribly well-educated when it comes to their country’s history.

This, from the Boston Globe:

Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in US history, and the percentage declines as students grow older. Only 20 percent of 6th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrate a solid grasp on their nation’s history. In fact, American kids are weaker in history than in any of the other subjects tested by the NAEP — math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics.

And here’s historian David McCullough on the same issue, from a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal:

Another problem is method. “History is often taught in categories—women’s history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.”

What’s more, many textbooks have become “so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back”—such as, say, Thomas Edison—”are given very little space or none at all.”

Mr. McCullough’s eyebrows leap at his final point: “And they’re so badly written. They’re boring! Historians are never required to write for people other than historians.” Yet he also adds quickly, “Most of them are doing excellent work. I draw on their excellent work. I admire some of them more than anybody I know. But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.”

I really enjoy reading history, and have for years. As a geeky only child with little or no access to TV, reading was one of my pleasures, and one of my favorite books ( I can see your eyes rolling!) at the age of maybe 12 was a history of medicine. OMG!

It was soooooooo cool: Galen and Hippocrates and Semmelweiss and Harvey and Jenner….all giants who made our lives safer.

Semmelweiss is my favorite, the man who in the mid-1800s discovered that women were dying after giving birth because surgeons — !!! — were not washing their hands between patients.

Some of my favorite books in the past few years have been histories:  Roy Porter’s social history of 18th. century London; different histories of Paris (there were icebergs in the Seine once many centuries ago!); of Elizabeth I, and all the Western women’s history I read while researching my first book, about women and guns.

Did you know that entire chunks of the American West were homesteaded exclusively by women? Glenda Riley is one of my favorite historians for this topic, with 11 books (so far.)

I love Vincent Cronin’s writing; he’s a British historian who died this year at the age of 86.

And yet…I remain woefully ignorant of Canadian history (where I was born and raised) and not great either on U.S. history (although I know some of the players, like Col. Andre [captured about 200 feet from my town library!] or the Roebling family, who designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge.)

I admit it — much classic “history” — written and edited by men about men, focused on economic, military and political issues — bores the bejeezus out of me. I want to hear about women and kids and clothing and science and medicine and what they read and ate. Call it “social history” but I want to feel, smell, hear and taste what everyday life was like, not just the Treaty of This and the War of That.

What sort of history — if any — do you know best and why?

What would be a better way for American kids to learn and really care about their own history?

What Will We Leave Behind?

In art, behavior, business, culture, design, domestic life, education, entertainment, History, journalism, life, Media, men, Technology, women on January 15, 2011 at 4:50 am
Michel de Montaigne.

Michel de Montaigne. Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a smart piece that addresses the issue, from The New York Times Magazine:

But increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders. At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000.

I think about this a lot, maybe because I write for a living as a journalist and non-fiction author. I like to think my work will live on for decades or more, stored as it is within the databases of the many newspapers and magazines I’ve written for since the 1970s. I’ve written many personal stories for publication in print: about getting married, getting divorced, returning to church, and know that millions of strangers who have read them, like those who read my blogs, “know” me as a result.

But I don’t have kids or even nephews or nieces, so I also know that all my beloved family photos, and those of my sweetie — my favorite image, being cuddled by his Mom as a baby — will end up as detritus or, maybe, in some flea market bin.

Same with my journals and notebooks, decades of insights and observations. Gone.

But I worry about the loss of all the paper artifacts so many of us now disdain and no longer use — letters sent through the mail and kept, whether love letters or documents — that make up our individual and collective histories.

On the morning of 9/11, one of the most poignant and terrifying artifacts were the burned shreds of paper that floated all the way into my sweetie’s Brooklyn backyard from the fallen Twin Towers: invoices, letterhead, faxes…

Think of all the men and women we’ve come to know only through their letters and journals over the centuries, even milennia, from Herodotus to Pepys, whose diary of daily life from 1660 to 1669 is considered one of of the world’s greatest. I love (geek that I am) Montaigne’s travel journal, from 1580.

One of my favorite songs, Virginia Woolf, by the Indigo Girls captures the profound connections we have with the long-dead through their writing:

They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I’m all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it’s all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say each life has it’s place

The hatches were battened
The thunderclouds rolled and the critics stormed
The battle surrounded the white flag of your youth
If you need to know that you weathered the storm
Of cruel mortality
A hundred years later I’m sitting here living proof

What will you leave behind?

Does it matter?

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