On Wonderland and Mortality

Between learning how to be an information-literate historian and dissecting the various perspectives of Greek historiographies, my brain hurts. I’ve done this to myself, on purpose, and there will be rewards at the end. Of that I am certain. Maybe I’ll be working in a library, or a museum, or teaching American history to middle schoolers. I don’t know. What I do know is this: sometimes I read so much in a given week (anywhere between 200-400 pages) that I have no idea what I just read. This is why people write in the margins of books and highlight the shit out of everything.

I understand that now even though I don’t actually do it. The closest I’ve come to making notes of any kind is to dog-ear page 139 of On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss. After scanning and skimming over thirty academic books and scholarly articles on smallpox, yellow fever, and influenza, I needed a break from disease. It made sense to read the history of vaccinations, which is still on topic, but not really. On Immunity is the kind of book that feeds on the reader’s emotions. It is not academic, but personal, smart, and well-thought out. It will remind you that we are responsible for each other, while simultaneously make you wish you could punch Jenny McCarthy right in her big, fat mouth.

But, moving on…

I’m only a handful of weeks into juggling two history courses that are very heavy on the reading. After these, I dive straight into core classes which will be very heavy on the writing. So when I came across a particular passage on page 139 of On Immunity, I was both overwhelmed and relieved at what lies ahead for me – academically and professionally. Here is the author’s take on navigating the world of information:

Being lost in Wonderland is what it feels like to learn about an unfamiliar subject, and research is inevitably a rabbit hole. I fell down it, in my investigation of immunization, and fell and fell, finding that it was much deeper than I anticipated. Like Alice, I fell past shelves full of books, more than I could ever read. Like Alice, I arrived at locked doors. “Drink me,” I was commanded by one source. “Eat me,” I was told by another. They had opposite effects – I grew and shrank, I believed and did not believe. I cried and then found myself swimming in my own tears.”

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My brother and I caught the chicken pox as young kids from our friends across the street, also siblings. And, as is usually the case, we both shared our virus with our younger brother who, if I remember correctly, was not even yet a year old. I don’t recall being particularly uncomfortable throughout the whole pox ordeal (aren’t they supposed to itch?). It was summer in Upper Michigan and we had been recently let out of school. My biggest inconvenience was being stuck indoors for weeks, unable to sit near the sun which had finally reappeared after 9 months of winter. If you’ve ever lived north of any of the Great Lakes, then you know summer is very short. The only reminder I have of my summer with the pox is a small scar on my left hand and the knowledge that the virus still lives inside me, in the roots of my nerves.

It can reappear as shingles any damn time it pleases.

I’ve had to be tested for tuberculosis in high school after someone in one of my classes presented symptoms. I was cleared. (There is a TB vaccination, but so far the US hasn’t had to make it a regular thing.) I’ve also had to take a tetanus shot in my left arm as doctors sewed stitches into the top of my right thumb to keep it from falling off. Metal window blinds don’t feel so good when they slice through a finger, but I imagine tetanus feels much worse.

Every year, I get a flu shot. I know that soon I need to get another tetanus shot. And I wish I could have taken advantage of the HPV vaccine. I also can’t help but stare at people my parents’ age when I see the scar from their polio vaccination. When we have successfully rid our part of the world of some diseases (smallpox, hepatitis B, etc.) that only decades before meant certain death – and, in some countries, those diseases still do – I can’t help but feel tremendously lucky that vaccination is even a reality.

None of this really mattered to me until I became a mother, too. Like Eula Biss, I worried that my child’s body would be overwhelmed with chemicals, foreign substances that her immune system would reject. She’d become allergic or, as is still debated but debunked, autistic. But my daughter was also born three weeks after terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into building, killing thousands. Two days after her birth, war was declared. Our country, and our people, have been involved in a some war or another since my kid was two days old. She just turned thirteen.

So, for me, a possible, yet unlikely, reaction to vaccines was weighed against all the rest of the world’s horrors. The vaccines, which probably goes without saying, have won out.

What is History?

According to E.H. Carr:

“The historian starts with a provisional selection of facts and a provisional interpretation in the lights of which that selection has been made – by others as well as by himself. As he works, both the interpretation and the selection and ordering of facts undergo subtle and perhaps partly unconscious changes through the reciprocal action of one or the other. And this reciprocal action also involves reciprocity between present and past, since the historian is part of the present and the facts belong to the past. The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless. My first answer therefore to the question, What is history?, is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present.”

Put aside, if you will, any personal feelings you might have about Carr. To be honest, I have none at all. I don’t even know the first thing about this guy. Well, except that he wrote those words and they sound like poetry to me. Historiography is already proving to be an interesting class.

As you read your next nonfiction book, or even your next historical fiction novel, keep this in mind:

  • all written histories were once oral histories
  • all historical accounts are biased in some way, by someone’s perspective or, simply, by cultural misunderstanding
  • the addition or omission of a single adjective or verb can alter the tone of one’s historical interpretation
  • political thought influences historical bias; historical bias influences political outcomes

Speaking of influence over politics and, ultimately, the course of history, I have noticed a strange phenomenon in the Oklahoma City metro area in regards to Rasputin. Twice now I have visited eateries that depict some artistic rendering of the Romanov’s favorite “political” adviser.

First, he watched me from across the room while I ate the most delicious restaurant-made grilled cheese sandwich ever. Oddly enough, he is standing next to the Pope. My husband and I tried for quite a while to understand Rasputin’s place in this collection of famous people, which includes Michael Jackson, Babe Ruth, and Oscar Wilde.

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The Abner in Norman, Oklahoma

The second time was just last weekend. Rasputin hovered over me as I ate my slice of pizza. He, as you can see, had one of his own. I’m not much of a student of Russian history. I’m fascinated by the way the Romanovs were killed, so I mainly read about the immediate events leading up to their execution. The Romanovs were Russian royalty, their fate sealed by the revolution and, probably, by their association with the man who is strangely celebrated around Oklahoma City.

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Empire Slice House in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (Plaza District)

September

Two consecutive weekends of being outside? It does a body good. While I can, and often do, complain about my constant and undiagnosable jaw and facial  pain as of late, it seems that being under a tree canopy and/or fishing are great ways to help me forget that I’m hurting. So is the soma prescription – a generous helper of a muscle relaxer that puts me in such a deep sleep that I actually remember my dreams.

An example of a soma-induced dream: Matt and I were in a new house, one that included separate wings, and the kiddo wanted her room to be closer to us. As the two of us contemplated the many uses of Elle’s then vacant two-story bedroom, our Mexican contractor offered me up a gorgeous plate of cauliflower cheddar mash while his two Russian female assistants apologized profusely for being unable to provide me with their favorite crepes, which can only be had in Poland. Seeing as my jaw and ears were screaming from pain prior to falling asleep, I’m pretty sure the cauliflower cheddar mash appeared in my dream only as a reminder to stay on my soft-food diet (aka How Many F***ing Ways Can A Person Prepare Eggs?).

But back to being outside…

It’s finally not 147°F out there. These recent temps in the mid-80s have me pining for Wisconsin once again. Instead, I headed for the trees. A couple of weekends ago I went to Martin Nature Park in northwest Oklahoma City. The birds were out, and so were the deer. I didn’t get a good shot of the one I did see across the creek bed, but I left knowing she was there and my deer-sighting streak is still going strong.

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I emerged from the woods a couple of hours later, drove home to pick up my family, and headed out to a lakeside restaurant where we had dinner. I broke the soft-food diet rule and enjoyed the hell out of some broccoli salad. Later I snacked on two cups on tapioca pudding because, well, I’d learned my lesson. The following day’s meals consisted of scrambled eggs for breakfast, a fried egg for lunch, and egg salad on potato bread for dinner. So, there are at least three ways to prepare eggs while on the soft-food diet…

Saturday morning, after having enjoyed a few decent nights of sleep on the soma, Matt and I woke up at the crack of dawn and headed south with our fishing gear in tow. Lake Thunderbird is just outside of the city of Norman. And it’s beautiful early in the morning. We arrived just in time to catch the fog as it lifted from the water’s surface. Herons, egrets, and ospreys caught their breakfasts and laughed at us as we caught nothing. It didn’t matter, though.

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We saw deer, wild turkeys, a rabbit, and a lot of jumping fish. They were mocking us from a distance as we stood on shore, just begging us to buy a boat – that discussion continues (between Matt and I, not with the fish).

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What I’ve read: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. It involves Antarctica, Seattle, and snobby, rich moms. While it was entirely predictable, it was really fun to read.

What I’m reading: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. I started this on my first night on soma and only got to, like, page 7 before I crashed haaaaaard. It’s a historical fiction novel based on true events of the 18th century that include murder and the capital punishment of a woman in Iceland.

What I’m watching: The Killing on Netflix. If anyone else is watching this, let me know. My coworker got me turned on to this series, but he’s only recently finished season 1. I’m well into season 4. I have nobody to talk to about the plots and drama, but my husband does a decent job of showing interest when I start a conversation like this: “Oh my god! Let me tell you about the dead teenage prostitutes!” I need friends.

 

Early Morning

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As I type this the wind is howling through the city, shaking up the trees and my metal porch rocking chairs. You can actually hear it roar before it blows through. This, I’ve learned, is typical of the southern winds that come from Texas. The photo above was captured last night just before the winds became so unbearable that Matt and I cut short our lakeside walk and headed back home. Blowing dirt in the eyes – it’s not a pleasant feeling. Being around a large body of water during sunset – that’s a pleasant feeling.

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It’s a little after 6 o’clock in the morning. I woke up nearly three hours ago – on my own, on a holiday – and have already had breakfast and watched an episode of Parenthood on Netflix. The rest of the family is still in bed. The dogs did get up  to have their first meal of the day with me but even they promptly went back to sleep. I hopped online to get a head start on some classwork but, as usual, I was distracted by stories. This time is was a blog post written by a young woman who is touring the arctic waters near Greenland, where icebergs and belugas outnumber people. Another time I was sidetracked by an entire blog series about women who travel solo in Iceland.

I’m not sure when I developed this fascination of life around the Arctic Circle. I much prefer being in the subtropics. My loyalty to the North Florida swamps is proof of that. Even my current Facebook profile photo is of me riding an alligator, all giddyup style. I’m also concerned about how the manatees will fare if their federal protection status goes from endangered to threatened, which is very possible. So while my heart is in the coastal south, perhaps my sense of adventure (which is very underdeveloped) enjoys learning about life in the high Arctic because it knows I’ll never go.

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So, back to why I’m online in the first place. What it’s like studying history? Well, I’m not studying history yet. I’m actually studying how to study history. Sometimes this is very boring, as there are only so many ways one can be told how to interpret a source. Also, there are way more types of sources than I ever thought possible. I’m enjoying parts of this, though. We are told to be critical and skeptical, yet to remain open and able to consider context. I am a Libra, a middle child, and have played Devil’s advocate all my life. I feel very comfortable in this role.

Clearly, there can be no perfect interpretation of history. My classmates and I have compared historical interpretation to practicing medicine or law – you’re only told so much by the source/patient/witness, then you must factor in what they are possibly not telling you, and then you are expected to create a narrative/diagnosis/judgment. In the end, someone is always going to be pissed off by what you’ve decided.

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Books I’ve read recently:

  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: It’s a young adult novel, and one that kept me awake all night. It’s also one of those stories that cannot be summarized without giving away the parts that lead to the bigger parts, and therefore giving away the end. If you read reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, be careful of spoilers. It’s best to go into this one headfirst and clueless, maybe only knowing that the end is worth it.
  • The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani: This was my first audiobook.  It was 13 hours of someone telling me a story while my husband did the majority of the driving from Oklahoma City to Milwaukee. The book reviews are harsh, not so much on the book or the author, but on the main character. I loved her. Most readers seemed to hate her. Set in Florida and North Carolina, the story we are told centers around something that has happened between this girl and her cousin, something unspeakable, and it takes a damn long time to get to it. However, that unspeakable something is just the catalyst.
  • Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley: A novella originally published in 1917, Parnassus is a comical look at life for one woman who decides to make her “spinsterhood” work in her favor. I enjoyed this one, which surprised me. It took me nearly two weeks to get through this book because it doesn’t have the same kind of drive and drama most books today have. That’s not the book’s fault, though. The story itself is nearly 100 years old! When I finally read it with the idea that most women in 1917 were tied down by, well, oppression, it took on a whole new life.

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I opened the blinds hours ago so that I’d be able to catch the sunrise. I wasn’t paying attention so I totally missed it. At least the wind has stopped.

Tree Mail

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A few of my favorite things can be found in the picture above: water (!!!); a blue sky with little puffy clouds; fishing boats and docks; soft, green grass that doesn’t stab your feet with the sad effects of an Oklahoma drought; and blue spruce pines. This is Little Cedar Lake, outside of West Bend, Wisconsin, which, in itself, is the best part of the picture above.

During our vacation to southeastern Wisconsin this summer, I couldn’t get enough of those blue spruce pines. I’d point and exclaim, “There’s another one!” every time we drove past one. My uncle drove us to see his old farmhouse and, lo and behold, an entire section of the property had become a tiny forest of blue spruce pine trees. It turns out my cousin, who has lived at the farmhouse for years now, brought a few of those abandoned trees home a long time ago and stuck them in the ground to see what would happen.

This is what happened:

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Ever since I left Wisconsin I haven’t stopped yammering on about how much I love these trees. I’ve looked for them in local nurseries (Oklahoma City, believe it or not, actually has a few USDA planting zones because the terrain is so varied here), and I’ve looked on Google for information regarding the care and planting of these trees in my particular zone. The chances of a blue spruce surviving this environment – hot, dry, windy – are minimal. Not impossible, but the chances aren’t great. I figured I would just hold out until our next trip to Wisconsin to see them and smell them again.

Then I got a package in the mail yesterday. It was from my aunt and uncle in Wisconsin who have been known to gift members of my family with huge boxes of Wisconsin-made cheese. This usually happens around Christmastime, but I eat Wisconsin cheese any time of the year! Except this package smelled like…pine?

Inside the carefully wrapped package was a tiny blue spruce pine of our very own.

Bruce the blue spruce

I’ve talked with two tree experts at a local nursery, both of whom are wishing me luck. In some parts of the city, these blue spruce pines might make it. In other parts of the city, they don’t stand a chance. It was suggested that I keep Bruce (yes, Bruce the Blue Spruce) in a container until our ground temperatures drop to 60-70 degrees (it’s been in the low 100s this week, if that’s any indication of how long we might be waiting). Then we’ll plant Bruce in the northwest corner or the yard and coddle him like that newborn baby he is.

It’ll be decades before our blue spruce pine is the size of those in the pictures above. We’re realistic, though. Our goal, at least for now, is to keep him alive in the container until late fall/early winter. I’ve already decided he will live on my bedside table in the meantime.

 

Museum Library Finds

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I’ll be completely honest with you: I have no idea what this means.

Each week I spend at least a couple of hours organizing the books in my museum’s library. When I come across something that interests me, I photograph it. The same day I discovered this dedication I also found the word MURDERER written neatly over a snapshot of Reinhard Heydrich’s face. Beneath that were the words NOW IN HELL FOR ETERNITY. I photographed that, too, along with the title of the book. It’s not often I find such emotional, and quite obviously personal, notes inside the books.

But with Oppenheimer I forgot to photograph the title of the book in which this dedication was found. I’m more than a little pissed at myself for that.

There are very few things I know about this, Oppenheimer OR the bomb, seeing as I’ve never watched The Manhattan Project nor do I study things that include terms like “quantum molecular theory” or “deuterium-tritium fusion bomb”. I don’t think I even associate with people who do.

So how was Oppenheimer made a victim prior to the bombing of Hiroshima? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. After some quick research I learned he was accused of being a communist, but that was nearly a decade after the bomb dropped in Japan (the Red Scare isn’t something most high schools teach kids about). Did the author of this book (boy, wouldn’t it be nice to know which book!?!?) have a personal relationship with Oppenheimer, or some other means of being privy to his private feelings? Or is this in reference to Oppenheimer being forever tied to mass death as soon as he discovered the ability to create such a weapon?

If someone knows, or even has an inkling, please share it with me.

Oh, and for any of you Nazi history enthusiasts out there:

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Taken from Wilhelm Hoettl’s The Secret Front, published in 1953. Hoettl was a prominent prosecution witness during the Nuremberg Trials, a valuable asset indeed after all his years serving as Adolf Eichmann’s right-hand man. And Heydrich, who I’d never even heard of before I came across this picture, seems to come up in all my research as the man who thought up the “Final Solution”. Heinrich Himmler merely wanted the Jews deported. Heydrich took it a step further.

So here you have three men who were all responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the brutal deaths of millions.

Oppenheimer: Victim
Hoettl: Author
Heydrich: MURDERER NOW IN HELL FOR ETERNITY

My museum library has around 8,000 books. I’ve only cleared maybe 250. What else can I possibly find in there?

Garden Update: Week…I have no idea

I really underestimated the power of a good garden box. Matt and I have no idea how many tomato plants we actually put in (we’re guessing six?) but they’ve become their own region of the garden. The tomato jungle, I call it. My supports – which include stakes, towers, tie-ups, and, as a last resort, 5-foot tall broken tree limbs – cannot contain the tomato plants. They’ve fallen over. They’ve put so much weight on the nearby sunflowers that the sunflowers have fallen over. As a result, I have a ton of delicious tomatoes. This means homemade pizza sauce and pasta sauce, BLTs, tomato and cucumber salad…oh my god. The cucumbers! They’ve taken over the sunflowers, too.

My vegetable plants are pretty much self-sufficient. So are my zinnias. The okra are coming in quite nicely. The peas got pulled a few weeks ago. I have a whole batch in the freezer, so they’ve done their job.

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What happens when it's too hot to check my garden on the daily... #garden #gardening #veggies

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I’ve moved on to succulents. This is all new to me. I don’t even know what a cutting is (I think I do, but I’m not 100% sure how to make it work). Because I work in a library I have an endless array of informative books at my disposal. Books on succulents, cacti, and the like are plentiful. But as soon as I open one wanting to learn, I get distracted by all the photographs. The reading, the learning, doesn’t happen. All I really know is there’s a ton of pea gravel in my backyard and it’s been useful for potting my new plants. These, by the way, are what I plan to bring indoors during the winter.

When it comes to seasonal depression and how to alleviate it a bit, I like to plan ahead.

I adopted some cacti and succulents this morning. Though it's mid-July I'm already prepping for winter with indoor-friendly plants. #succulents #garden #gardening #babyjade

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#succulents #garden

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