Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Which the Student Becomes the Teacher

Today was my first day as a college instructor. Now, I've taught two college courses on my own, but I did both as a graduate student. Today, I walked into my classrooms as an actual member of a university faculty. I've wanted to teach college for at least a decade. The goal was to get a Ph.D. and then teach. For multiple reasons, I am spending a few semesters teaching before moving on to a doctoral program. I don't want to teach nothing but survey classes forever, but for now, I'm thrilled to be where I am.

I'm not gonna lie. The last few weeks, I've been increasingly terrified of teaching nine hours-- THREE different courses-- two of which I've never taught. I wasn't too worried about US107 (US History II), because I've taught it once and TA'd for it twice. I've kinda got that one down. US105 (US History I) is one I've never taught, but it's history, and American history, at that. It'll take some work, but I knew I'd do okay. I was definitely nervous though-- it's amazing how much you realize you DON'T know when you start teaching something. I'd say I had a moderate amount of anxiety over that one. The class that really had me worried was UI100 (First Year Seminar). It's not history, and I was not at all sure of myself on that one. Not only that, but it is an ITV course, which means there's all sorts of techy "schtuff" I have to keep up with. I had no idea how I was going to pull off this course. I just kept reminding myself that I always feel that way about any significant academic projects ( 90 page thesis I wrote in *seven* weeks), and then I always end up doing surprisingly well in the end. It's a matter of just pushing on and moving forward, trusting that I'll end up on solid ground, and not walking off a cliff.

This morning I awakened at 5:30 (after having gone to bed after 1 in the morning, trying to finish all my prep), terrified that I'd crash and burn, and that I'd have to go find a secluded cave in a  third world country in which to live out the rest of my life. When I got to the Sikeston campus, I looked for my room assignment, and seriously, there has to be a better way of displaying those than writing them all on a series of white boards in no particular order, but this is how they were listed, and I triple-checked to make sure I was looking at the right room assignment. Then, when I got to the room, I triple-checked the room number. I spent the next 30 minutes terrified I'd "pull a Ted Mosby." For those of you who are not very familiar with How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby wound up getting halfway through a lecture on his first day as an instructor at Columbia before realizing he was in the wrong class. Thankfully, I managed to not make the same mistake (less legendary, for sure, but I'm good with that).

8:00 came, and I did the obligatory first day roll call, introductions, and syllabus. Then, I launched into my first lecture on industrialization. I really didn't think about it until the end of class, but when I looked at the clock when I reached the end of my lecture, and it had all taken exactly 74 of my allowed 75 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised. I walked out of class with my confidence renewed. I got in the car to drive to my next class in Cape, and thought, "Yes. This is what I want to do with my life." Industrialization is not my area of expertise, but I taught it, and I taught it well. It's amazing how encouraging it is to see how much better a class can be the second time around. When I gave this lecture a year and a half ago, it was a struggle to make it through 40 minutes of class, even WITH the standard first-day content. I added nothing to my lecture, and yet I was able to do more with that same content. And for the first time, I made it through an entire lecture with no notes. It was amazing.

After completing that class period, my anxiety regarding my next two classes dissipated. I was reminded that teaching is one thing I can do well. Were the next two classes as polished as the first? No. But neither were they even in the vicinity of "crash and burn." This is going to work.

I can't even begin to describe how excited I am about this school year. I get to teach, and not only that, I get to work on my own research projects without having to do them for a class.  I have at least one, possibly two articles I want to have published by spring. I hope to give a couple of presentations at history conferences again this year. I'm working as a historian outside of academia too. My public history training is actually being put to use (and I'm weeping, just a little, inside) with a project for a museum in Charleston, Missouri. While I'm currently not working on my final degree, I'm building my CV, establishing myself as a professional historian, and continuing my own contributions to the academic community. My undergrad advisor, Dr. Motl, told me years ago that I had all the tools I needed to be a professional historian and college instructor, but I couldn't really see it then. I am finally coming to see this on my own, and to have more confidence in my own abilities and potential.

Of course, this doesn't mean I don't think I need more training and more guidance. I don't think I've "arrived." I'm simply starting to see the forest through the trees. And the view is grand.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Butler

I wasn't going to write this now, but it really was a fantastic movie, and people keep circulating this article, and I feel the need to do more than continue repeating myself on the same issue. This isn't the review I had intended to write, but it seems it's the one that needs to be written.

Overall, I thought it was a fantastic movie, with one significant caveat: too many people won't realize how loosely based on a true story this movie is. The public will see "based on a true story," and put it in the same category as something like 42. While The Butler was indeed based on a true story, a lot of liberties were taken with the details regarding the butler himself and his family. As a historian, that does bother me a bit, because I believe it is important to keep the integrity of the story intact. However, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The article I linked to claims that there were 5 huge inaccuracies. I take issue with four of those.
1. The movie did not portray Ronald Reagan to be indifferent to the sufferings of African Americans. In fact, the movie showed the main character, Cecil, and his co-workers being promised by Nixon during the Eisenhower Administration that the African American White House staff would be given equal wages with the white staff at the White House, should Nixon become president. That never happened. The movie brought up this issue multiple times, and who was it (at least in the movie) who finally got the black staff equal pay? Reagan. How is this indifference? Reagan actually stepped into a realm in the White House where the President doesn't need to step. He went above and beyond to get all of his staff the pay they deserved. If he was truly being portrayed as indifferent, the director would have left that out. (Side note, this was the only time in the entire movie that the whole theater erupted in applause- it was that noticeable.) Not only that, but when Cecil tells Reagan he is resigning, Reagan says, "Cecil, I fear I am on the wrong side of the race issue," and is clearly troubled. If he was actually indifferent, I'm not sure he would have appeared so troubled. The movie DID portray Reagan accurately in regards to the Mandela/South Africa issue.

2. In reality, it was Johnson who got the Civil Rights Act passed. What the article (and voting records) doesn't tell you is that had Johnson not intimidated so many people into voting for it, Congress never would have passed it. Johnson took it upon himself to make sure Kennedy's Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Johnson was famous for something some historians refer to as "the Johnson treatment." Basically, he was a political bully. Now, whether he should have bullied people into voting for anything is another issue entirely, but had Johnson, a Democrat, not personally taken it upon himself to make certain Kennedy's bill (another Democrat) was passed, neither enough Democrats NOR Republicans would have voted to pass it. Not only that, but the Civil Rights Act could have its own movie. This one was about the president's butler, not Congress. In fact, the Civil Rights Act was so briefly mentioned in the movie I'm surprised it made a "top 5" list of anything.

3. Nixon, well, Nixon was an interesting person. In fact, there is significant speculation now that Nixon suffered from a mental illness or personality disorder. I say that to say, Nixon had three chief concerns during his administration: 1. Wrapping up Vietnam, 2. Opening relations with China, and 3. Making sure no one was plotting against him. You think I'm joking with that third one? I'm not. Nixon was absolutely paranoid, and that actually took a significant amount of his attention during his administration. Yes, he did a lot for school integration. But I attribute that less to his concern for African Americans and more to the time at which he became president. One could argue that Eisenhower did a lot for integration too, and yet it's fairly well known that he was not a fan of it at all. Eisenhower only did what he did because he was the president and he did his job. I have seen no evidence to suggest that it was any different for Nixon. And whether Allen (the REAL Cecil) spoke well of Nixon in his memoirs or not is rather irrelevant. Many individuals are much more palatable as, well, individuals, than as public leaders. Nixon was a rough personality, period. It's hard to say what his true feelings were about many things. I don't think this movie did him any real disservice.

4. Again, I didn't see that Cecil disliked the Reagans. I saw that decades of civil rights struggles had taken him to a place where he was more disenchanted with anyone he perceived to be less than fully dedicated to civil rights. Reagan DID in fact oppose Congress on the South Africa and Mandela issues. Additionally, during the state dinner, Cecil did say, "I only wish we had been there for real, and not for show." That's a legitimate feeling. Unless there was a lot left out of the movie, and the Reagans actually played cards and had drinks with Cecil and his wife regularly, it would be hard to make a solid case stating that he had actually been invited with absolutely no shred of motive for "show." Again, considering the era is a must. This does not reflect poorly on Reagan as a man. It portrays him as a human being with human faults. What I did see was that Cecil did not at all dislike Reagan, but rather, he was disappointed by Reagan's unwillingness to do more on the Mandela issue. In his shoes, I think I'd get weary of that too, by the 1980s.

As a historian who is unfamiliar with Allen's particular story, but who IS rather familiar with Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and the presidents in the movie, I really didn't have any problems with the portrayal of those things in the movie. Again, yes, I do have some issues with them taking a true story and changing it SO much, but had it been a fictional work, like The Help, it would be phenomenal. Therefore, my suggestion is definitely to go see it and learn from it. It does accurately portray the various presidents, the struggle of the students on the front lines of the civil rights movement, the horrors of Jim Crow America, and the struggles faced by many black families during the civil rights era. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

In Which the Woman Behind the Curtain Begins to Emerge

There is a lot here I want to say, but typing with one hand is a bit of a challenge.  Under normal circumstances, my thoughts flow faster than I can type- multiply this by about 10 for me right now, and that's about right. So we're going to see how well I can get this out.

This is going to be the first of many posts along these lines. I'm going to get very real. Some of you may find yourself saddened or angered by my words, and that's okay. Some will be shocked, some of you may resonate with what I have to say, and some may simply disagree. Some may decide I'm too far fallen to be helped. Whatever your response, you're entitled to it. I'm simply tired of living in fear. Fear that if I say what I really think, I'll lose someone I love. I've lived long enough to know that it's not worth living that way. It's simply not. I can't live my life hiding all of my opinions on important matters so no one will leave me. If I do that, I'm being dishonest-  both to myself, and to those in my life. I don't want to be like the wizard from The Wizard of Oz; just a lie behind a curtain, hiding the fact that the grand facade is just that: a facade. I'm no longer willing to do that. So here I am, beginning to step out from behind my carefully woven curtain, for better or for worse.

This morning, I read this post by Rachel Held Evans, regarding the reason Millenials are leaving the church in droves. Like her, I'm a mix of Gen X and Millenial. The oldest Millenials were born in 1982, and I was born in 1983, which places me among the very oldest of that generation, and honestly, I have more in common in terms of life experience with Baby Boomers than I do with kids born in the mid-90s, but I digress. I was also born into a family with two significantly older Gen X siblings, with no siblings close to my age, which means in many ways, I experienced a lot of the Gen X teen culture along with my siblings. Not only that, but in nearly every circumstance, my parents are the oldest represented in a group of my peers. In fact, get a bunch of people together that were born in 1985 or 1986, and my parents are often older than at least one, if not all, of their grandparents. My parents pre-date the Baby Boomers, having been born in 1940 and 1944. As a social historian, I will tell you, all of these things are highly significant, and help inform who I am and how I think, and how I perceive things.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a highly unusual denominational background. By the time I was 22, I had spent 13 years as a practicing Catholic, 14 years in a mainstream Evangelical church, and 9 as a patriarchal fundamentalist Christian. Yeah, I know that adds up to way more than 22. There was a lot of overlap there. My parents were Catholic. But by the time I was born, they had also established ties with a local Presbyterian church, which was very mainstream. So from the time of my birth until I was 13, my Sundays consisted of me getting up for 8:00 Mass with my parents and siblings, then after Mass, going to Sunday School at College Hill Presbyterian (CHPC), while my parents went to the service. I was baptized as a Catholic, and went to a Presbyterian preschool. I went to Catholic school and received my First Communion and experienced Reconciliation, while I went to VBS and summer camp at CHPC. I felt perfectly at home in both places.

When I was 12, some of our family traumas came to a head. For various reasons I won't go into here (except to say, I do not blame my parents for the next choices they made...they were in an impossible situation), the summer I turned 13, we officially left the Catholic Church and joined the Advanced Training Institute of America (ATI), which is a far right-wing Christian patriarchal, fundamentalist organization.  Their beliefs most closely align with those of many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches. If you're interested, you can read more about ATI here, or to be fair, you can also read about them here.  By this time, CHPC had experienced a split, and we went with the splinter church, Evangelical Community Church (ECC). When I was 14, we left ECC and began attending an IFB church, which was an unofficial ATI church, as most of the members were in ATI. I didn't get out of that situation until I was 22, and perhaps I'll write more about the specifics in a later post, but I spent the ages of 22-27 in mainstream Southern Baptist churches. The last 3 years have been varied and complicated, so I'll leave that for another time.

I wrote the above two paragraphs simply to explain I have had significant exposure to three very different facets of Christianity: the Catholic/high church tradition, mainstream evangelicalism, and patriarchal fundamentalism. I'll also just add here that I have also experienced the Charismatic tradition- CHPC was surprisingly charismatic for a PCUSA church (it was very conservative PCUSA, more along the lines of EPC or PCA). The three different facets were in many ways distinct, but also, in many ways, very similar. All of them taught against abortion. All taught that Scripture is inspired and inerrant. All taught against homosexuality and fornication. All taught against divorce. All encouraged modest dress to varying degrees.  All believed in Christ's divinity, the three-in-one nature of the Trinity, and the existence of Heaven and  Hell. The similarities certainly don't stop there, but I will.

The experiences I have had my entire life have brought me to where I am in my spiritual journey today. I will say that all of what I like to call my "spiritual traumas" have come from my time in ATI and my IFB church. However, those traumas have forced me to take a hard look at and re-evaluate every aspect of my Christian beliefs and upbringing. And boy, do I see major problems.

Now, of course, any honest Christian in the church (and I use this term to encompass all sects within Christian orthodoxy- Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, fundamentalist, etc.) will admit there are- and always have been- massive problems and abuses within the church. Christian history is rife with horrible teachings and acts, all taught and performed in the name of Christianity. However, my personal experience caused me to step back and take an even bigger look at things, much like Rachel Held Evans has done in her blog. What I have seen has left me saddened, shocked, disgusted, and even angry, regarding a lot of things. But wait- don't write me off as backslidden and apostate just yet.

I do still identify as a born-again Christian. I can still recite the Apostle's Creed without being dishonest or saying anything I don't agree with. But I'm also really struggling with the church. I'm really struggling with my own spiritual experience and past spiritual abuse. It is rare that I can handle church without flipping out over something. I'll be the first to admit, many of my triggers are not rational, and I'm working on that. I'm going to be working with a pastor, starting in August, to work through my issues. I would love to be able to sit through a church service and not worry about being triggered, having a panic attack, or a string of horrible flashbacks I can't stop. I really wanted to go to church this morning, but I just couldn't. I can't begin to express how much I hate where I am. But until I can sort through and differentiate emotionally between my irrational issues and my rational ones, church is probably not going to  be a great place for me to be.

Now don't get me wrong. Logically, I know what my irrational issues are, and where my rational, legitimate disagreements lie with the church. I can argue my points well. I just can't emotionally separate the good from the bad when I'm sitting there listening to others talk. There's a huge difference, and I thank God for that. If I was as logically confused as I am emotionally, I'm not sure I'd still be able to deal even with my own faith.

I read Rachel Held Evans's CNN post this morning, and it resonated with me so very much. Over the next weeks and months, in addition to my movie, history, and other such posts, I'm going to be writing many posts regarding the problems I'm seeing in the church as a whole, and how they're affecting me, and how I see them affecting others, and even threatening the future of the church in America, and the world in general. This is going to be me, honest and open, taking responsibility for my own thoughts, opinions, actions, and future. I do not see myself as a poor, wronged victim. Please understand that.

For now, I encourage you to read Rachel's post, which I linked to at the beginning of my post. I'm going to go through and talk about many of those issues in my next posts. This is simply my introduction to the posts to come. I hope you can read them and understand I write my thoughts without blame or malice towards anyone. This is simply my journey, from the world of today's church, to the essence of the Gospel, and the true teachings and grace of Jesus Christ. I truly hope all who read can take my posts in the spirit in which they will be written; a spirit of grace.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Liberty, Patriotism, and America

I have recently developed a friendship with an amazing person, Chilan Ngo (pronounced shuh-LAWN No). Chilan is a first generation American, and her family is from Vietnam. Had it not been for the war, Chilan's family would still be in Vietnam, but now they all live in Southern California. History geek that I am, I've been having a ton of fun the last couple weeks, asking questions and learning more information about her family, the war, and their "new" lives here. Chilan is extremely American herself, but like many first-generation Americans, also has a soft spot in her heart for her parents' homeland, and is a great connoisseur of both American and Asian food.

Last week, Chilan sent me this photo and her thoughts on it and patriotism. I thought it was a fantastic perspective, and asked her if she'd allow me to post them here today, because it is definitely worth reading for all of us. I hope you enjoy it, and have a fantastic 4th of July!

"Paris - Gay Lussac Street - 3pm on April 27, 1975

From Lutèce Student Housing, South Vietnamese students from the Universities of Paris and Orsay-Antony silently marched to show their support to South Vietnam and express their gratitude to soldiers who had laid down their life for liberty and democracy...

Three days later, Saigon fell..."
A college friend of my dad’s found this picture. It’s of my mom, my dad, and their friends, participating in a student peace rally to support South Vietnam. The rally took place in Paris, 1975 — just three days before the South Vietnamese capitol fell to the Communists. It is profound and heartbreaking.
My mom tells me that the French authorities were nervous about any organized demonstrations, due to all of the fighting and confusion brought on by the war. Riot cops lined the streets, though it wasn’t necessary. The students were simply showing support for their country while in France—a country which would grant them asylum when the Communists overtook their homeland. The signs they are holding are written in French, and read, “Great Day of Mourning,” and “Honor to our Soldiers who Died for Liberty.”

Although my mom is hidden behind other people in the photo, she knows her location based on the friends around them. (She pointed each one out and told me where they are now, mostly working professionals still living in France.) My dad's head is just visible in all its long-haired glory; two years later, he would be forced to cut it should-length for his wedding. Everyone is wearing a white headband as a sign of mourning for the fallen soldiers—nothing to do with hippies. When my Ba Noi (paternal grandmother) died, we wore similar headbands for her funeral services.

So what does an old photo from Paris have to do with American patriotism? Well, along with many others, my parents gave up their Vietnamese citizenship after the country fell and established French citizenship. They were married in '77 and immigrated to the USA in '82—a year and a half before my older brother was born.  A decade later, they were granted American citizenship.

Us kids were beyond lucky. We grew up in Southern California as full-blooded Americans, and were raised in a upper middle class neighborhood with Caucasians. Our parents taught us English as a first language, ensuring that we didn't adopt their French-Vietnamese accents. I'm as Twinkie as you can get. It's easy to forget just how privileged I am to be here, sheltered from all the horrors and hardships that my elder generations went through. Although my parents had it relatively easy as exchange students, the rest of my extended family had to flee the country as refugees. That horrific experience alone would take a book to describe.

This photo reminds me that third world countries may be less rich, educated, and "cultured" than others, but their people can have just has much heart, humanity, and patriotism. Patriotism isn't about firing your constitutionally-mandated guns and having BBQs on the 4th of July. People everywhere have bled and suffered for freedom—not only our Founding Fathers, but also those in countries all over the world.
As a graduate student, I spend most of my time caught up in research and bemoaning my lack of better data. Amidst the madness, it's good to step back and be thankful that I am here, sitting at my own desk in a new, clean building, working at a top-notch university, self-supporting and having my own good credit, getting to do great things (for SCIENCE), and not even having to go into debt for it! Taking a bigger step back, I am here in a truly free country, enjoying my rights as a citizen, woman, and human being. I'm proud to be American, and Vietnamese, and even French! My parents may not throw a party for every US holiday, speak English without an accent, or watch the Superbowl, but they have a deep, unique appreciation of the liberty granted here. As my mom said, "It's a wonderful country!" Being American is an overwhelming privilege. We may hate whichever poor soul is president, rage about the government wasting our money (or the universities spending it on administration), and bicker about politics in general, but we must never forget what it means to be free.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Twenty Years

It was way past my bedtime, and I knew better, but I hopped out of bed and opened the door, to where my mom and sister were in the hallway on the phone. “Mom, I wanna talk to him!” Mom looked at me, surprised, and said, “Kathleen, it’s after nine. You have school tomorrow. Go back to bed.”
“But Mom! It’s been two weeks! I just wanna say hi!”
“Kathleen-“ Mom’s warning tone was quite clear. Normally, I would have obeyed, but for some reason, I just had to talk to my brother. So I pushed.
“Mom! I’m not tired! Let me talk to him!”
“Kathleen, you know the rules. Go to bed. NOW. You can talk to him the next time he calls.”
“But it’s been two weeks!”

I turned around, slammed my bedroom door, and stomped back to bed. I’d gone weeks without talking to my brother before, and hadn’t ever thrown a fit about it. I don’t know why this time was different. But what happened the next day has kept me wondering about that for the last twenty years. My fit was very out of character for me. All I am really sure of is that for some reason, I felt like I absolutely had to talk to my brother. The feeling bordered on desperation. I didn’t have anything specifically to tell him, I just really needed to talk to him.
The next morning was just like every other morning. I got up, ate breakfast, and put on my uniform. It was the second-to-last week of school, and I was looking forward to the summer. I was about to finish 3rd grade and turn ten. Double digits! My mom reminded me not to tell the kids in my class she was coming to school in the afternoon to help a couple other moms give ice cream to the other kids in my class. It was supposed to be a surprise. Mom dropped me off at school, and I headed to my classroom.
Mid-morning, I realized I had left my English book in my mom’s car, and went to the office to call her at work and ask if she could drop it off on her lunch break. The school secretary made the call, and when she hung up, she said simply, “Your mom went home sick, so you’re going to have to share someone else’s book.” A knot formed in the pit of my stomach, and I knew something was wrong. I started crying, and the school secretary said, “It’s not bad, she just didn’t feel well.” I kinda freaked out a little, standing there in the school office. I absolutely KNEW something was wrong. My mom really doesn’t get sick just like that. She never has. And she rarely stops when she’s not feeling well unless she just can’t function. And that never just suddenly happened. I remember sitting there in the office thinking that someone had died. My dad’s mom had been experiencing declining health, and I thought perhaps she had died. Something was very wrong, I just didn’t know what.
By the end of the day, I still felt something was off, but I was no longer overwhelmed by this awful feeling that something was horribly wrong. I just thought something weird was going on, and I’d find out later. I didn’t know who was coming to pick me up- usually my mom did- but the secretary had told me someone would come. I figured whoever it was would tell me.
School always ended at 3, but around 2:50, my mom’s secretary hurried into my room. She told Miss Cornelius she was taking me home, showed her my mom’s note, and then looked at me, and said, “Come on, let’s go!” Rose was always high energy, but she was really nervous about something. She was already at the top of the steps out in the hall before I could call after her, “I have to get my bag!”
The feeling of dread slowly came back as Rose chatted nervously all the way to my sister’s high school. Anna was waiting where she always did, but I had to jump out of the car so that she’d see me. She’d had no idea anything was going on. She got in the car, looked at me strange, and said, “Where’s Mom?” I told her what I’d been told, and she just sat still, looking at me with an expression that mirrored my feeling that something just wasn’t right.
Fewer than five minutes later, we pulled up in front of the house, and Anna and I both saw Mrs. Molloy’s car in the driveway. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh.” We knew this wasn’t good. Mrs. Molloy was a good friend, but for her to be at our house in the middle of the day, supposedly when our mom wasn’t feeling well, we knew something BAD had happened. I don’t remember if Rose came in with us or not, but I know she wasn’t around long. All I really remember is that as soon as we walked through the door, Anna and I KNEW something awful had happened. We’d already been through an awful lot for our ages, but this was different.
Mrs. Molloy was sitting in a chair in the living room, and mom walked in from the kitchen. She’d obviously been crying. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but Anna and I sat on the couch as we were informed that our older brother had been found dead outside his apartment in Dallas, Texas, earlier that morning.
My world had been turned completely upside down. My brother was dead.
Shortly before 4, a police chaplain showed up. He was going to meet my father when he came home from work, about 4:15. My dad was still completely unaware anything had happened. I remember him walking in the door, and as he always does when something is unusual and confusing, said, “What’s going on?”
The chaplain introduced himself and told my dad what had happened. Now, I’d seen my dad cry before (seriously, the guy weeps watching most movies), so that wasn’t the disturbing part. What was so disturbing was the way his face crumpled. It was immediate. I’ll never be able to describe the way he wept. I’ve never seen anything like it since- in movies or in real life. He just wept hard, making very little noise. He looked completely beaten.
The chaplain left, and our pastor came, then left. My mom’s brother and sister came, with food. My dad’s older sister Mary and her husband Bob came. I remember they met me at the doorway. I was smiling. I always look back on this moment when I think about how I process grief or something horrible that has happened. I usually react very badly and very dramatically for 5-10 minutes, then I’m good for hours, sometimes days. Then it hits again and I fall apart for another 5-10 minutes. I realize this isn’t normal, which is why Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob hugged me, and then Uncle Bob leaned over and said, “It’s okay to cry, you know.” I said, “I know, I already did.” This is bizarre, I realize, but I was genuinely happy to see everyone who came.
I’ll never forget Jon Detroy, one of my brother’s best friends, coming over and basically spending his entire night with me, in the midst of 50 or more people who were crowding our home, bringing love, food, and support. Jon told me story after story of my brother. He had me laughing almost all night. The stories were hilarious. He told a few of them at my brother’s funeral- including one about how my brother would set the Nintendo (we’re talking the original one here) to one player, then hand me the disabled controls, and he’d sit behind me with the active controls, beating every level, and making me think that was me! Jon- if you’re reading this, thank you. You were exactly who I needed then, you reminded me that my brother loved me, and for that, I will always love you!
The next few days were a blur. I opted to go to school, and I must say, I will NEVER forget how amazing my friends were there, particularly Amy and Kelly Schomaker, Laurie Hall, Sara Otero, and Amanda Hoffman. Looking back, the maturity with which they dealt with the situation is astonishing for a bunch of 8 and 9 year olds. Maybe it’s because we’d all lost a classmate to a brain aneurism the year before, or maybe it was something else, but they never left my side. At least one of them was with me at all times, and somehow, they managed to deal with my random crying with amazing grace and compassion. If you girls are reading this- thank you. I haven’t forgotten. I don’t know how I would have made it through those days- and the next year and a half- without you. Really, everyone in my grade at school was great.

It’s amazing to me that all happened twenty years ago. Twenty years today. It’s funny- grieving doesn’t happen in a straight, steady line. I struggled for about three years, and then I was good for about fifteen. I’d go four, five, maybe six years without crying, then maybe cry once, and then be good for another several years. It’s not that I no longer missed my brother, but I had learned to live without him. The wound was there, but it had healed. Not perfectly, but healed.
So imagine my surprise when one day in 2010- nearly 17 years after his death- I was sitting in one of my English classes discussing Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Tennyson wrote this poem over a series of many years, after the death of his best friend, and his sister’s fiancé. There were three Christmases featured in the poem, one being the second one after his friend’s death. Things were still more somber than usual, but unlike the year before, the family was back to playing some of their regular Christmas games, and singing their songs. On the one hand, Tennyson mused, it was a relief that the pain was no longer so raw. But on the other hand, he felt a little guilty that they were starting to find joy again, even though a beloved member of their family was dead. He specifically wondered what it would be like when his friend had been gone seventeen years.
Seventeen years. I got out of my seat and barely managed to close the classroom door before the tears started falling. I ran outside and doubled over- the pain was more than I could bear. It was even worse than when I had first been told Matt had died. I was 26, about to graduate from college, hadn’t cried over his death in I don’t even know how many years, and suddenly, I couldn’t breathe from the utter anguish. I called my parents, and my mom answered. I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t even talk. My poor mother just stayed on the phone, telling me it was going to be okay, whatever it was. When I could finally talk, I remember shouting into the phone, “But it’s not okay! Matt’s dead!” Mom teared up a little- I could hear it in her voice- and said, “Yes, honey, he is.” All I remember is standing outside, trying to get ahold of myself for the next forty minutes. I walked back in after class, determined to calmly explain to Dr. Curlin what had happened, but as soon as I started talking, I started crying again. I managed to explain, and, loving father of seven children that he is, he was nothing but understanding.
That incident was surprising and a little disturbing. Disturbing, because it’s a little disconcerting to think you’re over the worst of something and then suddenly have the emotions come back times ten. But in a way, it was also reassuring. I hadn’t forgotten my brother. I hadn’t forgotten what an important part of my life he was. He hadn’t stopped mattering to me.
The last three years have been harder than probably years four through sixteen combined. I’m in a new phase of my life, and while I grieved the loss of my brother as a child, I’m now in the process of doing that as an adult.
Matt was a really troubled individual. I remember standing outside with him in the snow as he smoked in our backyard, and he looked at me and said, “Promise me you’ll do something with your life. Promise me you won’t grow up to be a loser like me.” I promised him I would do something with my life.
And here I am, twenty years after his death. About to turn thirty, the only one of the three of us to have graduated from college, finishing my Master’s thesis and a mere two months away from being awarded my M.A. My health has often not cooperated, and as most people who know me well at all will agree, I’ve had a rockier road on multiple levels than most. But I’ve pushed on, I’ve made it through. I choose to be healthy- or to take the necessary steps to become healthy- personally and physically. In a couple years, I’ll go on to a Ph.D. program. It’s been hard not having him here to encourage me along the way, but I know he’d be so proud of me.
To those of you who are reading this who knew and loved my brother- even when he was hard to love- thank you. He desperately needed positive attention in his life. Aunt Mary, Uncle Bob, Scott, Jason, Danny, Aunt Marlene, Uncle Dave, Bob and Sue Wade, Jon, David, and so many more- thank you. You will all always have a special place in my heart, simply because you loved a boy- my brother- in so much pain.
So, Big Brother, you’ve been gone now longer than the 19 years you were here. You’ve been gone from my life more than twice as long as you were here for it. But I’m always grateful for you, your life, your love, and the things you taught me. I wish you were here still.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Reds Hall of Fame and Museum Review

Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. Cincinnati Reds Organization. Christ Eckes, Building, Operations Manager, and Chief Curator; Greg Rhodes, Team Historian.
The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, located at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio, is a two-story museum, filled with Reds memorabilia and history. Upon admittance to the museum, visitors receive a small brochure with a guide to the museum’s layout and exhibits. On the back of the guide, it says,
Celebrating Greatness, Preserving History, Providing Inspiration. A not-for-profit 501(c) (3) organization, and widely recognized as the premier team Hall of Fame in the country, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum encompasses 15,000 sq. ft. of interactive and informative exhibits. The museum also boasts impactful, educational, and entertaining programming for baseball fans young and old.”
The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is funded by the Reds organization and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce as well as private donations. Its intended audience is Reds fans, members of the community, and fans of other teams who may be in the area.
On the whole, the museum does an excellent job with the above stated goals. There are a number of exhibits, two being temporary, and presented as the 2013 feature exhibits. The first of these exhibits is entitled, “Signature Reds: A Century of Reds Autographs,” and is sponsored by the Dinsmore legal firm. There are mounted and framed autographs hanging on the walls along the perimeter of the room, all divided by decade, dating from the pre-1920s era, through the 2000s. Each decade has its own sign underneath, giving visitors a synopsis of the Reds during that decade. In the middle of the room stand a number of display cases holding autographed baseballs, equipment, bobble heads, photographs, magazine and newspaper covers and articles, and similar items. My only criticism of this display regards the two display cases containing autographed items from television, music, and movie stars, as there is no explanation tying those autographs to the Reds in any way. Because the rest of the museum is exclusively about the Reds, or topics directly related to the Reds, these two cases stand out as not fitting in.
The staircase leading to the second story and other displays focused on the career of Pete Rose. The “Wall of Baseballs” contained 4,256 game- and practice-used baseballs, each ball representing one of Pete Rose’s career hits. While the museum utilized this space well, I do have one criticism: The photos in the hallway are exposed to a large amount of sunlight, causing significant sun damage to the photos. Though the photos are clearly not originals, I found the sun damage distracting. The concept of using a stairwell for displaying extra information is good, but I would suggest investing in fade-resistant prints or refraining from displaying them altogether.
The second temporary exhibit of 2013 is on former Reds second baseman, Joe Morgan. The wall is paneled with enlarged photos and headlines regarding Morgan’s career, and there is a flatscreen television with a video in which Morgan’s former teammates comment on his career. While most are nationally recognizable, one player on the video is mostly only recognizable by those from the Cincinnati area, Tracy Jones. While Jones played for the Reds for two years, and for a number of other organizations, he was a career utility player, and never did anything to gain himself any significant recognition. However, including him in the video was a wise move by the exhibit designer, as Jones is a regular talk show host on local radio station 700WLW, with a fairly large audience. Most locals know his name and feel more connected to Jones than they would to someone such as Johnny Bench or Sparky Anderson. A large display case exhibiting some of Morgan’s game-worn jerseys, two Golden Glove awards, as well as a Jackie Robinson  award, among other relevant items, concluded the Morgan exhibit.
The rest of the museum contained impressive collections of pre-1920s Reds memorabilia. One room highlighted the 2012 Reds season, from beginning, to post-season, leading into a long room with hands-on opportunities for visitors. These activities included a replica of the Center Field fence, and an activity for fielding balls, as well as chances to try calling strikes or balls behind home plate, pitching the ball over the plate, trying on catcher’s equipment, and even making calls from the radio booth. The same room contains two replicas of Crosley Field, lockers and seats from Riverfront Stadium, and sundry facts about both stadiums. A few stations had video monitors with signs telling visitors to press a button to watch catching tips from Johnny Bench, or batting tips from Sean Casey.
The final room of the museum is a tribute to the greatest teams in Reds history, especially the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, and the “Great Eight,” including such players as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Davey Concepcion. It highlighted the Reds pennant and World Series wins, team statistics, and included a few World Series team trophies in display cases. In the middle stands a large sculpture, entitled “The Great Eight,” with life-sized replicas of each player from the Great Eight. Like the Morgan exhibit, the walls were paneled with enlarged photos and headlines from the Big Red Machine era, and contained another flatscreen television, with a video detailing the successes of the Big Red Machine. This exhibit is very engaging for Reds fans- or even baseball fans in general who remember it. I have one criticism of this display, and it is perhaps the most significant of my three criticisms in this review. While the video showed footage of the 1976 World Series win, with voice-overs of Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman calling it, the background music on the video was the Kyrie Elision. Because the words, when translated into English, literally mean, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy,” it really stood out as not fitting the supposedly celebratory mood of the World Series win. I looked at it thinking I should be watching footage of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings or the destroyed Oklahoma City federal building, rather than that of a World Series win. The museum then gives way to the Reds Hall of Fame, which is a simple display of plaques for each player in the Hall, containing an engraving of the player’s face, and a synopsis of the player’s career, and their Reds Hall of Fame induction date.
Overall, the museum is excellent. While I was unable to visit the museum’s theater, which was closed to the public for a school field trip, the rest of the museum is impressive, not only from the standpoint of a Reds or baseball fan, but also from the historian’s standpoint. The presented history was very informative, accurate, and comprehensive. The museum’s curator and historian did an excellent job of creating a museum which would cater to its target audience. It maintained a good balance of entertainment with historical education. Throughout the museum, aside from the faded photos, there were no indications that funding could be a problem- there were many activities and displays which would too expensive for many museums not attached to a major sports organization. Though I have not been to museums for any other baseball teams, after my visit to the museum, I have no trouble believing the brochure’s claim, that the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is “widely recognized as the premier team Hall of Fame in the country.” 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Week Last: Do You Wanna Go Straight to Hawaii?

This week's readings put me in mind of the abovementioned Beach Boys song. One of my well-hidden obsessions is the Beach Boys. You can listen to the song here. That has nothing to do with the readings. But it's in my head now, so I thought I'd share. Moving on.

This week's reading concerned a very real problem with public history: the evidence/truth vs. people's perception of it. In 2003, Robert R. Weyenth wrote a book on the history of Hawaii's "Central Park," otherwise known as Kapi'olani Park. As is almost always the case, actual historical documentation differs here from the local people's memories. According to the residents of the area, the park had been created around 1870 by King Kamehameha as a gift to the people of Oahu. It was, in public memory, a benevolent gift from the king. Weyenth's research suggested otherwise. According to the research, it was indeed established in the 1870s by the king, but instead of being a gift to the subjects of Hawaii, it was established more as an exclusive seaside suburb/resort for the Hawaiian aristocracy. And thus it remained for about twenty years; a luxurious getaway for the members of the royal court. As a result, Weyenth received a bit of hostility regarding his book, including legal action, as community members called his work "libelous."

Weyenth's point was that public historians have to always be ready to face such hostility from their communities. Native Hawaiians wanted to remember their former royalty as benevolent, rather than otherwise. This of course is understandable, especially since Hawaii has such a unique heritage from the other states. I suppose that for some, it'd be more or less like the reaction a lot of people had to the movie Lincoln, in which they discovered he wasn't the "friend of the black man" they had always imagined. In these cases, the public historian has to make sure that he or she is aware of the possible controversy, knowledgeable of the sources and possible other interpretations, and willing to know when to fight- legally, if necessary- and when not to. It is a hard call to make sometimes, but it is a challenge all public historians must be willing to accept, especially when dealing with something which has become legendary in the community.