To Colonize

When French explorers landed upon Nova Scotia in 1617, it is believed they brought with them the smallpox virus that nearly obliterated the Indian population of what would later become known as New England. In 1633 another smallpox epidemic raged, this time across the Boston area. It infected colonists and Indians alike. Approximately 1,000 Indians became sick with smallpox and more than 950 died. Native peoples had virtually no natural protection against the disease, leaving them more susceptible. Yet, as unknowing hosts, they gave the virus the very fuel it needed to continue spreading across the North American continent.

This region of New England, better known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would endure a half dozen more outbreaks, some quite significant, before the end of the seventeenth century. But going into the eighteenth century, Boston was different. The city had a number of quarantine regulations in place. The people who lived there were now better protected than they had ever been. 

Colonists endured, as an unquestionable reality of life, a barrage of infectious diseases. Their children, and their children’s children, were also familiar with sickness and death. Smallpox and yellow fever. Influenza and diphtheria. Cholera and typhoid. Before it was even understood how diseases were spread, quarantine measures were often imposed.

New York City was the first American city to enact a localized quarantine order during a cholera outbreak in 1663. Boston went on lockdown in 1783 to halt the spread of yellow fever. Philadelphia, only ten years later, lost over 10% of its population to a smallpox outbreak. Officials only managed to slow the spread of the disease by imposing isolation orders on those who remained in the city. History shows us that most of the time isolation has worked in our favor. 

Viruses, such as influenza and smallpox, and bacteria, such as cholera and typhoid, are often confused as one and the same. But viruses cannot survive without a host, which gives them their only opportunity to reproduce. Bacteria are much more self-sufficient. Viruses cause disease whereas bacteria can be quite beneficial. One thing they both have in common, though, is the ability to colonize a person’s body, leaving them asymptomatic and completely unaware they are carrying the illness. A colonized body is not an infected body, but it still must become an isolated body so as not to infect others. 

It’s an interesting choice of words, isn’t it? Colonize. Historically, colonizers have been brutal oppressors, intent on violating the social order and recreating cultural norms. The violence inflicted by colonizers upon a body of people is such that the people yield, they submit, and they eventually succumb. It is how our country came to be and it is how our country has endured. It is both an individual surrender and a collective one. American history simply begins a new chapter each time.

Yet here we are again in the very beginning of a new chapter. What is being inflicted by colonizers this time is upon single bodies, and it is not violent. It is in my body, perhaps yours, too, but we feel fine. We walk the aisles of the grocery store because we are bored, or take too many visits to Home Depot because we have time, tired of being stuck in our homes. We do not practice social distancing. We do not stay in the house. Some of us do not even believe such measures are necessary. We are asymptomatic, completely unaware. With each breath, each touch, each close encounter, the virus is spreading because of us. We have unknowingly become colonized.

People must acknowledge that quarantines, whether imposed by law or by self, buy researchers the time they need to understand the disease. Quarantine is not a punishment, just as it is not the cure. There is no cure. Coronavirus, like smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, and AIDS, is the oppressor. It is violating the social order. It is recreating cultural norms. It is making people so sick that they yield, they submit, and they eventually succumb. Over a quarter million Americans are infected. Hundreds of thousands of us could die from this. Most of the sick will recover. But many of us are simply colonized.

Colonists, their children, and their children’s children, endured the grim realities of infectious disease outbreaks. They accepted the brutal deaths that accompanied these epidemics as a part of life. If our bodies are colonized by the virus, then we, too, are victims. But if we continue to break quarantine, we are no longer victims. We have become the colonizers. We have become the brutal oppressors, intent on violating the social order and recreating cultural norms. We bring the virus with us everywhere we go. We ARE the virus.

 

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artwork by David Owens, 2020

 

Finding Providence in New Hampshire

We are mostly packed and ready to go. There is a new house to move into, a new town to navigate, a new school with which to become familiar. There are jobs, library cards, and state-issued driver’s licenses to obtain. Change of address forms. A running list of banks. The veterinarians, cable service providers, former employers, medical providers, etc., that we need to contact before we leave town. You know how it goes.

But, then again, maybe you don’t.

This is nothing new for us. The places are new, as are the jobs and the schools and the roads and the neighbors and the culture. But this – moving – is not new. In fact, my cousin in Wisconsin recently unearthed a photograph of my parents preparing for their move from San Antonio, Texas, to Oscoda, Michigan. My parents, in their mid-twenties and new to the military, had just been given their first assignment in what would be a career of moving across the country, around the world, and back again. My brother was three, and this was already his second move. I was only a few months old, having been born into this life when I was delivered in a military hospital while my father was in basic training. It seems it’s all we’ve ever known.

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Even my husband comes from a military family. Between the two of us we have lived in three countries, eleven states (some of which we have both called home), and countless houses that we grew up in as children, always knowing the situation was temporary. At any moment, our parents could receive word that they, that we, were being transferred to another part of the country, or another part of the world. The transient lives we led were never boring, always changing. New neighbors were expected, whether we were the new neighbors or someone else was. Yet this was exactly what made us have to keep moving, what made me have to keep moving. I know this now. (I think it’s why I love hotel work so much – everything, and everyone, is so very temporary.)

Over the years, especially since I left Florida, I have tried to reconcile my feelings of rootlessness with an almost frenzied need to be a part of a community. If you’ve been a long-term reader of this blog, or even know me personally, you know that I’ve been quite vocal about this part of my life that I have yet to find a word to define. Hiraeth is the closest I have come, yet American culture does not recognize this concept of homesickness. Our country, populated and governed by the descendants of immigrants and refugees, does not even have a word for it in the English language.

We all are here, yet we are all from somewhere else. Pamela Petro wrote, “To be American, I sometimes feel, is to be blank, without a nationality or a language. Is this because America is such a polyglot culture that it contains pieces of everywhere else, or because American culture … is so monolithic and transcending that it is everywhere else?” How do we fit in even with ourselves? The last few years have taught me that some are just born lucky, in the sense that they are born in the place they will love, into a culture that is celebrated, always, and it will never go away, even if they do. Their culture is rooted, somewhere or with someone, within a group, transient or not. Most importantly, it is accessible. That is not the case for some of us.

Back in New Hampshire, on Day Two of our house hunt, we met a realtor who assured us that nearly everyone here is from somewhere else. Our new home is in a town that sits on the south end of Lake Winnepesaukee, thick with tourists and temporary lodgers.  It’s a town where the population swells with visitors, but only briefly, and then returns to normalcy after the leaves fall off the trees. Sometimes those visitors become residents. Hearing this put me immediately at ease. It is difficult to explain, as are most of my feelings on geographical homelessness, but it was encouraging. To know we are not the only ones. To know we won’t be the last ones. That, perhaps, is my culture. One in which change is the only constant.

Moving is an exhausting task. We are all, admittedly, tired, physically and emotionally. Over the last month I have jokingly tossed around the statement I am never moving again, but is that really true? You might be surprised to learn that I hope it is. For some reason, being in New Hampshire brought out the part of me that wants to stay put. As it turns out, my own ancestors traveled around New England looking for a place to settle, to dig in and put down roots. They arrived in 1632 with Roger Williams on the ship Lyon. Before moving westward to Ohio and Oklahoma, they built the First Baptist Church in Massachusetts, and established the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, while their shipmates founded the city of Portsmouth, originally part of the Providence Plantation.

We are not searching for the spiritual guidance of God, nor are we asking the stars to speak to us, but perhaps I am simply retracing my ancestors’ steps in a sort of backward migration, grabbing hold of the opportunity to find my own family’s version of Providence. It has been years since we have felt settled. To end up where my family’s story in America began seems to lend a kismet-esque quality to my own feelings about home and belonging. So, like them, we keep moving in the hopes that we will find home and home will find us.

Indie Bookstore Day 2017

Last month I rallied up the family for a literary adventure through Cleveland. I had recently heard about Independent Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually on the last Saturday of April, and I thought it would be a fun way for us to see some of the city while we supported local businesses. Since I was finishing up a final assignment on this particular Saturday, we didn’t have a lot of time. Otherwise we would have hit up more than just the two stores we visited.

Our first stop was Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland. Right away I knew I was going to love this place. I mean, just take a look at the mural that’s painted on the side of their building. It pretty much gives you an idea of how seriously they take their books.

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Once inside, it’s easy to see how Loganberry Books serves as a community anchor. Not only does it extend back and feature a fair amount of new and used books of every genre, but there are other rooms off to the side for author signings and art exhibits. They even have live music events.

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And in the back room, the Lit Arts room, is a bookstore cat. His name is Otis. He really didn’t seem to care that so many people were hovering around, and why would he? He’s used to it. But the day was especially drizzly and gray, and the cat bed was warm. The cat bed was electric! (I have something similar. I have an electric heated mattress cover.) I left Loganberry with two books: Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Land by Lauret Savoy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America.

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Our second stop was to Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights. It’s a much smaller bookshop, but it still felt very much like a bookshop. The owner seemed very excited to meet and greet everyone who came inside, and was super helpful in locating for me a copy of American War by Omar El Akkad.

The walls of Appletree are papered in book pages. And then there’s the staircase…

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After our short tour of Cleveland area bookstores, we found a soul food restaurant on Shaker Square, splurged on some shrimp po’ boy sliders and red Kool-aid (that’s how it’s listed on the menu: red or purple Kool-aid).

And then we returned home so I could finish a paper on the role smallpox played in the founding of America. I submitted it the following day and received a note from my professor urging me to consider the topic as my master’s thesis. I chose another topic, though, which I’m excited to share here on this blog once I get everything approved. And so it seems I’m committed to one final paper before I graduate, before I can finally get around to reading those three books I just bought.

Believe me, I’m looking forward to it. And I’m looking forward to Independent Bookstore Day 2018. For now, I’ll leave you with a closer look at that beautiful book mural.

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A Passion For Donkeys (you’ll see)

My garden doesn’t look any different than it did a few days ago, and I don’t lead the kind of life that just throws exciting blog fodder my way. Instead, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about some of the stuff we do and deal with at work (I work mostly in the back room of a local library).

  • My coworkers and I thumb through every book and magazine that comes in before it goes back on the shelf. We find all sorts of forgotten pieces of your life: birthday party invitations, baby announcements, bookmarks, punch cards to various food and fitness establishments, your homework, your hair (I wish I was kidding), and bobby pins that we believe have nothing to do with your hair and more to do with keeping your page. Seriously, get a bookmark. Our library gives them away. FOR FREE.
  • The next time your cat pisses all over a library book, have the decency to let us know or at least have the consideration to bag that sucker before you throw it in the book drop. This, by the way, doesn’t make you anonymous. It makes you a jerk. And your cat’s a jerk, too. Thanks for reminding me to get my hepatitis B shot.
  • Part of my job is to pull books for customers on a waiting list and label them for pick up or delivery. To maintain privacy, our reserve stickers only show the first four letters of the customer’s last name. We have made a game out of this, of course. A coworker of mine confided in me that she likes to add “-alicious” to the end of those four letters. It produces some wonderful new names, especially if your last name is something like Titsel or Titson or Titsworth. Let me tell you something, Titsalicious, yours is still my absolute favorite.
  • When pulling books from the dozens of bins we deal with everyday, we usually try to find the most ridiculous book title and hand it over to a male coworker to read in his best seriously sexy voice. Why? Well, imagine James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman reading the title of this book with a come hither stare and you’ll understand why it’s so darn hilarious.
  • We find notes and letters of all kinds, which probably means this particular bullet point is just an extension of the first one, but they’re usually good enough to make them their own category. I have two favorites so far. One was written in a child’s scrawl, advising everyone with a question about anything to ask an old person. Old people are good at answering questions because they know everything. Or they think they do. The second was simply scribbled on a post-it note warning two girls (of unknown age) to stop causing each other so much conflict or else I’ll have to contact the State of Oklahoma Department of Mental Health.

I really like my job. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say I think I could love my job. I’m surrounded by books. And I’m surrounded (mostly) by people who love books. Besides the free internet access, most people visit a library because they are readers, which is to say they are my people.

Libraries have changed a lot in the last decade (or maybe two decades, I don’t know the stats, really). They have always been a vital part of the community but now libraries have to work harder to maintain their relevance in the community (and their funding). Many offer programs that may have been considered wasteful or frivolous in years past. These days, they’re necessary. Tax filing assistance, cooking with kids, music programs, and meeting spaces made available to everyone from government entities to homeowners’ associations. I get it, I really, really do. And I’m ALL FOR IT. What I don’t get, though, is when did it become acceptable to allow the screaming meemies you call your children to disturb an entire building of people?

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That look above, on Teddy’s face, is the look I give to kids who scream, run, push books onto the floor, throw tantrums, and otherwise disturb the general quietude of the library. I was born with that look on my face, and I believe Teddy was, too. It’s probably why we get along so well.

Versions

When I was five years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer. My mother still has the “books” I wrote in kindergarten. They’re nothing more than lined pages folded over with illustrated construction paper covers, but I was always proud of those stories. One in particular involved a girl named Kathrene who bought a free puppy for .05 cents. A free puppy for .05 cents? What a deal! Obviously I was in need of an editor, as any five-year old author would be, but that puppy story was a work of fiction and creative license says anything goes.

In fact, I think the name of that book was A Puppy Story. I’m telling you, sometimes the creativity just oozes out of me.

It hasn’t been lately, though, and I’m hoping to fix that. The good thing is that I get to be around a lot of writers, or writer-types. Some of my co-workers are writers (which isn’t unheard of in a library).  A couple of my museum volunteer friends have written books. And I joined a writers’ group back in January, a collection of historians and fantasy world creators and novelists gunning for a spot in the competitive world of Young Adult fiction. One of our members just won a national award for an article he wrote that was featured in Oklahoma Living.

Writing is not easy for me. I don’t know if it’s my lack of an attention span or my interest in so many things that makes narrowing down a topic so difficult…and then sticking to it. Even my own inability to not make a plan gets in the way – how can I justify spending all those immeasurable hours ignoring the world, my family, my responsibilities, just so I can write something that might turn into nothing? All of these are part of the problem.

But nothing is still something.

I was sharing some of my frustrations with my co-workers this afternoon, mainly about my poor timing. It seems I have a habit of developing an idea and putting it down on paper (virtual paper, these days) just before learning that a similar, if not exact, story has already been written. This has happened enough times that I honestly wish Jodi Picoult and Claire North would just slip into a short-term coma or something, long enough for me to get ahead of them for once.

My co-workers, though, being the friendly and supportive bunch that they are, simply reminded me, “Their version of the story has been written. You just haven’t written your version of it yet!”

Sound advice! I think I’ll be working on my version from now on…

Edited to add: WordPress thoughtfully suggested I use “free puppy” as a tag for this post. Psssh, why not?

Life’s Answers & Other Things

After I got my degree in December, I had the opportunity to be very selective about where I would go to work. The months that followed were, not surprisingly, very boring. I watched a lot of Netflix, read a lot of fiction, and eventually decided to volunteer at a local military museum until the right job came along. Then I got stir-crazy and cried a lot (mostly out of boredom and from suffering a vitamin D deficiency during this winter that seems to be never-ending).

That most recent bout of crying led me to consider pursuing a master’s degree. Actually, the conversation I had with myself (and my husband) went a little like this:

Will you ever be happy with just a bachelor’s degree? NO.

Will you ever be able to work in a field you really love without a master’s degree? NO.

It was that simple. I needed a master’s degree. But I also needed a job to pay for it, so the job hunt got a little difficult because…well, how selective can you really be when you don’t have the master’s degree you need to get the job you want? The answer: NOT VERY.

What do you really want to do? This was where I got stuck.

I flip-flopped between working in a museum (but without all the technicalities of archiving and grant-writing), working with teens, or simply living in a room full of books. After a few weeks of perusing the job boards available to the public through the American Library Association (ALA), the American Historical Association (AHA),and various humanities organizations, and speaking to some MLIS-carrying friends of mine, the answer was becoming clearer. It just wasn’t clear enough.

Then I was called in to interview for a position in our public library. When I was asked why I wanted to work there, I rambled on about my work at the 45th Infantry Museum’s library and how I really enjoyed being part of the community project (without having to be the face of a project itself). I think I mentioned that I was going to start working on my MLIS in the fall, too. I genuinely enjoy outreach work, local history, and, let’s be honest, being around books. Suddenly the answer was very, very clear.

Two weeks later I got the job. A lot of it, I think, had to do with me wanting to fuse my two favorite things into a single attainable goal: my love for history and my love for books. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be preparing my application for graduate school because I just can’t seem to get enough of this college thing.

So in this day and age of modern technology, online catalogs, and our overall ability to Google just about anything we want (and some things we don’t want), keep in mind that card catalogs still exist and that they’re really, really cool. Thanks to World War II, I’m already very familiar with works filed under MDS 940.53 through 940.54. Luckily for you, you can Google that.

That meme about prehistoric googling? It's real. #45thinfantry #museum #library #deweydecimal #cardcatalog.

In other news:

    • There have been a few 80-degree afternoons scattered amongst the snow storms and overall shitty days. I saw some henbit growing in someone’s yard earlier in the week and after becoming absurdly excited at the show of color (even though it’s considered a weed), I went ahead and put in my garden seed order. Now spring has to happen. I’ve already paid for it.
    • I finally found some friends who are willing to play Scrabble with me during my husband’s game nights.
    • We have a futon! It’s a beautiful cranberry color but you’d never know it. These dogs think everything we buy is meant to be a dog bed. Except the dog beds, of course. The futon is currently covered in a paisley fitted sheet. Sigh…
    • I decided to treat myself to a quarterly book box through Book Riot. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, you pay a set price (Book Riot’s is $50) and you receive a box of surprise goodies. It’s like Christmas every three months up in here! Here’s my loot. (And to think, I’d been shopping around for a book-themed coffee mug and blammo!! It showed up just like that. Also, advanced reader copies of books, y’all.):

My quarterly surprise! #bookriot #quarterly #books #reading

About the Appearance of Books in Wartime (and of me, in 1988)

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The private library of the 45th Infantry Museum is where I’ll be spending my volunteer time from now on. There are around 8,000 titles that include everything from Bill Mauldin’s cartoon collection to the documented fishing conditions of Scandinavian waters during wartime.  The museum’s card catalog is not up-to-date (not to be confused with “outdated” in this case), so I will be checking all the books to be sure they each have their respective filing cards. I only spend about 4 to 6 hours a week there, and I’ve estimated I’ll be finished by the end of the summer.

While thumbing through the first shelf of books, I came across this notice about the War Production Board’s ruling on publishing materials. I had never before heard of this conservative measure. Most of my knowledge of wartime policies comes from reading specific kinds of war narratives or from watching Bomb Girls on Netflix.

It turns out that the War Production Board’s policy on conserving certain materials helped to create the mass-market paperback book. Because the books were lighter, held together with glue (not staples), and used less ink, they were understandably cheaper. And more profitable. Book clubs, which were a regular part of a housewife’s social activities, grew to be even more popular. During the war years, authors worked their magic to have a nationally known book club select their book and distribute it to paying members as the Book-of-the-Month.

Paperback books have been around since the late 19th century, marketed around the United Kingdom to train riders. Their popularity soared, however, when American readers became the recipients of paperback books’ advertising campaigns.

What I find really interesting is how 1940s conservation and consumption applies to today’s world. E-books are not so alien to us anymore, and they allow us to carry thousands of less expensive and more portable versions of a book – any book. I know I’m not the last holdout, but I am a genuine fan of actual pages. I like the feeling I get when I physically turn a page. That’s not to say I’m against e-readers. I do own one. It’s just that I live in 1985 and I can’t seem to love that which I don’t understand: modern technology.

My favorite purses are large enough to carry what I consider necessities: my wallet, cell phone, lotion, makeup, hand gel, lip balm, notepads, pens, hairbrush, camera, and a book (preferably a paperback, for obvious reasons). I might show up somewhere looking like I’m ready to move house, but I’m never bored. When I stand in line at the bank, I read my book. When I wait in the doctor’s office, I read my book. When I’m stuck in traffic, I read my book. And because I’m the slowest eater in the world, my family often abandons me at the dinner table where I finish my meal and read my book. I think it’s obvious that I am a voracious reader, so I can appreciate having access to less expensive and more portable versions of any book.

I am indubitably devoted to the library; I can understand libraries, which is why I’ve taken on the overwhelming task of updating the museum’s card catalog. The fourth-grade version of me is finally living out her dream.

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This is actually the seventh-grade version of me: fluffy permed hair, a stonewashed-denim and lace skirt with suspenders, a very short date wearing an ill-fitting jacket. Even back then I looked like I belonged in a library, though I should have done a lot more research in fashion.

Reunions on the Mall

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Reunion on the Mall, 1993

Back in January of 1993, I stood outside in the cold and wet in Washington, D.C. to watch the festivities leading up to Bill Clinton being sworn in as our 42nd president. I was just seventeen, accompanied by my parents and two high school friends, and my feet were freezing in the mud and snowmelt. We climbed up trees and barricades, my friends and I, in our attempts to escape the mud. We even accepted lifts from taller, stronger people who offered to help hoist us scraggly teenagers to the tops of the portable toilet stalls for a better view.

That is where I spent the majority of my time that day – on the small roof of a public john where people in need of relief tried to ignore my presence directly above them. I’m sorry if I distracted anyone from answering the call of nature, but at least my feet stayed dry and out of the mud. I could see Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross very clearly from my portable rooftop. Tony Bennett even briefly appeared. Shai performed, LL Cool J showed up, as did Bob Dylan. Maya Angelou read a poem.

About George W. Bush’s inauguration, Sarah Vowell wrote in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, quoting her friend Kevin,

I found myself looking down, too, at all the mud on the Mall, and thinking about how young this country was. This was, after all, the primeval mud of our soggy capital, sunk into a Maryland swamp that everyone – diplomats, presidents, congressmen – used to complain about in the early decades of Washington’s existence. There were plans in the mid-nineteenth century to really landscape the Mall – to turn it into some ingeniously planned English-style facsimile of nature, much like Central Park. But the landscape architect they hired died in a spectacular steamboat crash on the Hudson, and they never did get around to putting his plan in place.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington and that wasn’t until 1801. In 1817, James Monroe was the first to take the oath outdoors. Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural parade in 1865, which honored his second term, was the first time African-Americans were allowed to participate. A month later on the day of Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson was sworn in. There have since been 43 separate presidential inaugurations. Not all have been at the Capitol and not all have been outdoors. But imagine, if you can, how many millions of people have stood in these piles of mud and snowmelt just to be a part of the same crowd, before and after the official construction of the Mall. I, for one, love to stand in a spot for a while and envision who before me has seen the same thing. Yes, even if it’s just mud but especially if it’s 200 years’ worth of mud!

That landscape architect mentioned above, Andrew Jackson Downing, was memorialized at this place with an urn that stood on the Mall until 1965. It has since been moved to the Smithsonian Castle lawn. Downing was not the only celebrated name to die in the disaster of the Henry Clay, that spectacular steamboat crash on the Hudson River in 1852. Nathaniel Hawthorn’s sister also perished. The following year, Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne’s close friend from his college years, took the oath of office on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. It faces the Mall that even then was thick with mud and snowmelt.

In ways I can’t define, we are all connected to the things that happen around us and to those who make things happen. My sentimental nature likes to imagine that I am kin to the people who have shared an experience with me. It doesn’t have to be shared on the same day or in the same year, it only has to be in the same mud.

(The United States was understandably a smaller country back then. Learning that Nathaniel Hawthorn had befriended the future president during college surprised me less than learning that Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, and Al Gore were once Harvard roomies and used to chase women together. Ick.)