History and Pop Culture: Billy Joel

For someone who was so willing to plunk down thousands of dollars (and what felt like an equal amount of hours) into researching and writing a master’s thesis, I have done absolutely nothing since I got my degree. I attributed it to burn-out and to starting a full-time job. Then winter in Ohio came and I endured my usual seasonal depression. Then we moved to New England. It’s been eight months since I submitted that sucker, and I can finally admit that I simply believed the same enthusiasm I had for historical disease research would carry over into my non-academic life. It didn’t. Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I had shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I was just tired. I believe, in a way, it was all three. No accountability. The work was done. Now what?

I hoped, however, that being literally surrounded by early American history (even the trees in New England have historical significance) would jump-start my interest once again and send me head first into a topic which, considering my location, would have ample sources to investigate. And that happened, temporarily. First, I came across a local controversy involving a Civil War hero and his horse in a nearby cemetery. Then I discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s involvement in creating New Hampshire’s tourism industry and the actual field of trauma tourism. Then…nothing. The spark of light that held my attention petered out just as uneventfully as it appeared – that is to say I hadn’t expected it to come or go, but I’m happy it kept me from being too overwhelmed with responsibilities during my first weeks here in New Hampshire.

Recently I started reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. When I think of North Korea, I often think of Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” As a kid, I absolutely adored Billy Joel’s music. I still do. I’m pretty sure my parents had a few of his albums, so his musical presence was nothing new whether it was from inside my house, or coming from my parents’ car stereo. I grew up in the 80s, but more importantly I lived on a military base in Northern Italy during the first half of the decade. I was always keenly aware of the Soviet nuclear threat and the fact that international flights were frequent terrorist targets. By the time the video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was released, I had memorized all the words and became ridiculously interested in all of Joel’s historical references. What is a Communist Bloc? Why are children on thalidomide? What IS thalidomide? Where is the Congo? And why are the Belgians there? It would be fair to say that Billy Joel deserves just as much credit as my visit to the Peshtigo Fire Museum and my high school history teacher, Mr. O’Malley, for enrooting in me the near-obsessive compulsion to discovering the who, what, where, when, and, most compellingly, the why in anyone’s story.

Sometimes I have to go back to the beginning to remind myself why I love history so much. It’s not that I forget, necessarily. It’s just that I find myself uninspired sometimes by the negativity of this world, weighed down by the heaviness of our current political climate. Earlier this year I deleted all of my news apps and, coincidentally, Facebook friends (and some family members) who feed the monster that is, in my opinion, besmirching the ideals that a good percentage of Americans from every background had finally started to come around to. Some of you might argue that my past research on biological genocide against native North American tribes or racial and economic disparities regarding Yellow Fever outbreaks is just as negative. I wouldn’t say you’re entirely wrong. But I think the country’s current epidemic of the Orange Fever is dangerous in its own way. Why? Because it’s happening now. Will Trump and anecdotes about his presidency ever make it into a song that also includes the lyrics “Black Lives Matter,” a reference to Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” and the inevitable end of the world? Maybe. And I’d probably love the hell out of it.

For me, there is no reason to study history if I can’t find some way to connect events, from yesterday or past centuries, to the reasons something exists, or doesn’t exist, today. Again, Billy Joel’s song encourages me to do that. He sang about the Ayatollah in Iran and Bernie Goetz, remember? Because of that Ayatollah in Iran, I know what an air raid siren sounds like because I had to respond to them when I was five years old. And because of Bernie Goetz, gun rights enthusiasts and activists can still make a good point in being legally self-armed, decades after Goetz made his.

About that fire, though: Billy Joel wants to know When we are gone, will it still burn on? Probably. Like he said, It was always burning since the world’s been turning. And with that, my fascination with historical trauma events and their affects on the modern world will never be without material. Admittedly, I am a little sad that I haven’t been terribly motivated by anything or anyone in history, as of yet, to start plugging away on the research and the writing. Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps I have shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I am just tired.

Perhaps I should just write a history book that tackles every single one’s of Joel’s references in the order in which he sings…

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.

uhaulforever

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.

You Are What You Read?

 

My reading preferences seem to surprise a lot of people. It’s not a matter of me preferring dystopian YA fiction over the works of Margaret Atwood. It’s not a matter of me preferring Amish romance novels over the meatier, literary stuff*. It’s that I tend to read books based on the horrible aspects of what it is to be human. My shelves are overflowing with texts on infectious diseases, genocides, slavery, and Holocaust literature. I own memoirs written by survivors of natural disasters, combat, and terrorist attacks. Lately I have found myself watching Netflix documentaries about honor killings and war refugees. I tell myself it’s to help me with my history studies, and it is. Culturally speaking, it opens my eyes to a lot of things I would have never known about otherwise and I can use those new perspectives in my future historical interpretations.

When I was younger I always gravitated toward reading the darker stuff, mostly books about old hotel hauntings or serial killers. This never seemed to bother my parents. As a kid I visited my grandmother often when she lived in the same Milwaukee suburb as Jeffrey Dahmer. Later I moved Gainesville, Florida, a town that became infamous after the gruesome murders of five university students. One victim’s mother frequented the pharmacy I worked at. I always stared at her in awe (tactfully, of course), and thought Jesus. How have you managed to get on with your life?

I’m just a curious person.

It got me thinking about the way people grieve. All of us will experience a devastating loss at some point in our lives, and it is likely that we will be able to grieve privately. We will get to choose the people with whom to surround ourselves and we will all recover, over time. But how does one grieve privately when one’s loss is so public and only a fragment of the whole? In the event of enemy occupation, I could lose my home. In the event of a terrorist attack, I could lose my family. In the event of any mass trauma, I could lose my identity along with millions of others. How does one grieve when one’s loss becomes a thing the entire community, nation, or even the world claims as their loss, too? How does one grieve when the pharmacy technician keeps staring and thinking I know what happened to your daughter and I can’t un-know this.

Just this weekend I scanned and organized all my books into virtual shelves with my Goodreads app which I have set up to interact with my Facebook page. I mentioned this shelving frenzy on Facebook, and encouraged my friends to notice all my chick-lit and feel-good books. I’m not all gloom and doom, I told them. Yet the only book that showed up was a paperback I recently found called Night of Stone, an account of 20th century Russia and the culture of mass death in the wake of famines, political violence, and war.

Is it a wonder nobody believes me, that I can actually be found reading Sophie Kinsella or Elizabeth Gilbert? So this weekend I decided I would toss aside the Auschwitz book, ignore the collection of Holocaust poetry on my beside, and read an honest-to-goodness book of fiction.

I was immediately taken by In the Shadow of the Banyan and fought to stay awake on my first night with this book. The narrator is, at the moment, a 7-year old Cambodian girl trying to understand why her family has been forced from their home by men in black pajama pants. I was able to read a little bit at work on my break, during which two coworkers brought up my penchant for “happy” books (oh, the sarcasm). By this point, my book’s narrator was getting a lesson from her father on the push and pull of the river’s tide, the forceful expulsion of water that sometimes leads the river into unknown territory (a metaphor, yes, for forced migration).

Surprised that I was not delving into a detailed report on Ebola, my coworker asked, “So, what are you reading today?”

I showed my coworker the book’s cover and, without apology, explained, “It feeds into my genocidal interests, but this really is fictional.” We had a good laugh. Oh, that’s just Dena.

I don’t want to use the word fascination when trying to describe just how intense my interest is in traumatic recovery. There just isn’t any other word. Nothing that seems suitable, anyhow. My interest in this stuff is one of absolute respect. I am completely in awe of how one reconciles the loss of their homeland, culture, or every single member of their family, to violence, and can wake up the next day with…what? Hope? It obviously exists. Why else would a person want to go on?

While my studies are focused directly on American history, I choose to use much of what I read toward understanding cultures in general. Whether it’s learning about families who live in border refugee camps, or about the mother who lost her child at the hands of a serial killer, there is this kind of hope that each one of them carries. Their stories are out there and, in my privileged position as a graduate student with all the freedoms and securities I can ask for, I feel a responsibility to learn them.

* I am not one of those types of readers who looks down upon those who choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey or Beverly Lewis’ Pennsylvania Dutch love stories over, say, any other book. I don’t read that stuff, but if that’s what you wanna read, read it! I’m just happy you’re reading.

“I feel more at home with the landscape…”

Everything I read and everyone I know says to “write, write, write!” I find I have a difficult time focusing on writing something unless I’ve been given a deadline and a specific assignment. I’m a better writer of history, of threading facts together to build a narrative. Because of that, I cannot wait for my master’s program classes to start. Two years of nothing but Civil War, Civil Rights, and the rebranding of the New South? BRING IT.

Well,  Colonial America and some Constitutional law will be sprinkled in throughout my studies. For the most part, though, I’m inching evermore toward a degree in American History with the help of a Florida-themed thesis. Why Florida when I’m so far away? I recently read this line in a book, a memoir written by a woman who ran away to the sea: “I feel more at home with the landscape than with the people.” These are words I have apparently been waiting years to read.

I won’t pretend I don’t enjoy the hell out of my current easy access to free-roaming bison and farm-fresh foods, because bison are awesome, but truth be told – You Are Temporary, Oklahoma. And while I’m sure I’ll look back on my Oklahoma years fondly (I don’t hate you anymore), right now I have other things to work on and other places to be, even if it is mainly inside my own head.

In the meantime, I have been writing, writing, writing! FINALLY. And Morgan Freeman is spending a lot of time in my head, too, but only because he’s the imaginary narrator to my short story. It involves a Seminole princess, the Devil, and a giant hole in the ground. It’s a real place, too.

more moss

boardwalk...going back up!

lovely moss

Adapt.

Adapt.

This word was practically drilled into my head when I was growing up. You’ll adjust. You’ll be fine. You’ll adapt. And I always did, for the most part. I’m still adapting to Oklahoma (which is a record).

I moved around a lot as a kid. In fact, there was a time in my childhood when I attended a different school every year for 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. Before I had settled myself in Florida at the age of 19, I had lived in two countries, five states, ten cities, and twelve houses. All that time I knew not a single one of those places could ever be completely mine to call home.

Enter the term Third Culture Kid (TCK). A friend of mine recently introduced me to this group label. What’s interesting is that I have spent most of my life avoiding any such labels. I never felt comfortable being called a member of Generation X. I was never part of the popular group, or the jocks, or the goths. Actually, during high school, when most labels start gaining serious play, I was only ever called out as white. There weren’t a whole lot of us white kids in that place, so we were probably as novel a species as goths are to any other American high school.

I never knew until recently how badly I wanted to belong to a group. Although I am a pretty solitary creature, the idea of belonging brings about good feelings – security, comfort, connections. I like the label TCK and here is why: this single term connects me to every other person on the planet who has ever felt out of place, even when they’re “home”.  TCKs grow up in a culture different than that of their parents’ yet are expected to “repatriate” to their home cultures after significant time away.

This resonates with me in so many ways.

There is a disconnect even with our own families because we, as TCKs, spent so much of our lives with other people’s families. Thanksgiving dinners were spent at the Chow Hall with airmen or sailors or soldiers who had no family nearby. Other times they were invited to our holiday table. Neighbors helped each other move into (and out of) each other’s new houses. The sight of a Mayflower moving truck down the street was always exciting. It meant new kids and new friends. I didn’t grow up in South Florida or Wisconsin with my cousins and aunts and uncles. I did, however, grow up behind barbed-wire fencing with other people’s cousins and aunts and uncles. I’ve probably spent more holidays with them than you have. It’s just the way it is.

Some people call this a fortress mentality. This, I think, is a stupid and misguided label. It might apply to some people but it certainly doesn’t apply to us or, in general, to military families. TCKs (and the adults who are raising them) know how and when to adapt. The term fortress mentality is defined by behavior that is completely opposite of that.

Years ago, long after my father had retired from the military, he and I were talking about how difficult the transition from military to civilian life had been for him. The military had given him a crash-course in how to live the military life, but there was never any help transitioning out of it. In a way, I think this traumatized him. And he’s not the only one. I’ve met several career military people who have suggested life “on the outside” was proving more difficult than they’d expected.

But here’s a question that nobody has ever thought to consider: What about the kids?

During that conversation with my dad, I openly confessed to him that I, too, was having trouble. Born during my father’s run though boot-camp, I had never known life as a civilian until his retirement. I was clearly an adult by now, and if I remember correctly, well into my 20s. Yet the only new friends I had made in this civilian world were with other adults who had spent their childhoods moving around, too. We seem to cling to each other, our own kind. Nobody else understands the kind of lives we’ve lived.

So it doesn’t surprise me that I married another TCK. Except my husband doesn’t seem to think much about place and home they same way I do. In fact, I don’t think he gives it a second thought. He has been able to come to terms with it – it was, after all, his childhood, which is over. Matt is more of a present-to-future thinker. I am a past-to-present thinker. Matt wants to help colonize Mars (he has my permission if I’m dead). I want to go back to the Colonial days (but with better sanitation).

He and I might not think alike, but he understands my life up to now. He’s been there, too. Matt tolerates my constant blubbering about feeling at home and belonging, and he doesn’t tell me to get over it. I don’t necessarily believe getting over it has anything to do with what I’m looking for, either. The term TCK has helped me understand that my ability to adapt doesn’t mean forgetting where I came from, even if I have to count those places on two hands.

I’m looking forward to learning and writing more about Third Culture Kids. It not only speaks to me on a personal level, but I think it touches on how we all actually have more in common than we allow ourselves to recognize. For example, I am interested in learning how being a TCK affects one’s personal opinions on religious tolerance, gay rights, immigration, and refugees of war. I’m also curious to know if other kinds of people consider themselves to be TCKs. I didn’t just grow up in two countries; I grew up in two very distinct cultures within my own country. I’ll save the story of my culture shock from Upper Michigan to Prince George’s County, Maryland, for another day. (As a teaser, I’ll let you know right now that it involves going from living in the middle of nowhere to a world with assault weapons and a barrage of gang warfare.)

My own child is growing up in two very distinct cultures within her own country: North Florida vs. Central Oklahoma. Even as an adult I’m having a hard time figuring out what the hell is going on in this Bible Belt state half the time. I can’t imagine what it must be like as a kid. I’m quite proud to say that North Florida, even with all its flaws and good ol’ boy networking, is at least a step ahead of Oklahoma when it comes to the care of human rights. My only hope is that Elle can adapt, that she can learn how each place is her home, even the places she’s never been. Maybe she, too, will claim to be a TCK and a much more compassionate person because of it.

Other resources for TCKs (or to learn more about TCKs):

This book, which I’m reading now – Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds

Or this, Denizen Magazine

Unknowable Factors

Over the years I have tried to be a little more optimistic about the human race. I am a strong supporter of the death penalty and for taking responsibility for one’s actions, so it’s not often that I go about defending people who have wronged others. I have also long believed that there are more unknowable factors that go into making a person, well…such a horrible person. Nature V Nurture is a fascinating topic and all, but I don’t know if our society, as a whole, really considers these arguments when facing looming crises or when just encountering a bonafide nutjob.

So let’s take, for instance, my recent defense of Dennis Rodman. My father is a pretty conservative guy who, like me, tries to see the good in people (though he’s much better at this than I am), and we somehow ended up discussing Rodman’s then-upcoming trip to North Korea. Perhaps it is the generational gap or simply our differing points of view, but dad and I couldn’t come to an agreement on why or why not Rodman should steer clear of such political matters. I defended Rodman and his desire to bridge the cultural rift North Korea has created with the modern world. I defended his friendship with Kim Jong Un as our countries’ best opportunity to move forward.

And then Rodman went to North Korea. And then Rodman did this. Damn you, Rodman. What the hell was I thinking? What the hell were YOU thinking? Ugh.

As a result, I haven’t completely given up on Rodman. I haven’t given up on North Korea, either. A few years ago I fell in love with the idea of seeing North Korea join the modern world sometime during my lifetime. I started watching countless documentaries about North Korean defectors and the regime’s brutal labor camps. I compared the myths of modern Western folklore with those of North Korea, and read numerous accounts of families torn apart after decades of violent rule by the Kim family. None of this makes me an expert in North Korean relations by any means, but it has helped me learn a lot about the human spirit and simple compassion.

When I came across this video yesterday for Grouplove’s song “Ways to Go”, I wasn’t sure if I should be horrified or hopeful. I watched this video before Dennis Rodman opened his big mouth, and last night, while I was still oblivious to the whole scandal, I told my husband about it. I wanted to share it but I was a little concerned that people would think Grouplove was mocking the  atrocities carried out by the Kim family regime. I was concerned that people would think *I* was mocking such atrocities. I decided to share it, though, because you all know me better than that.

My husband and I talked last night about the possibility of North Koreans being introduced to the real world. It’s a favorite topic of mine and holds so many questions: Who is responsible for them when that happens? How many millions of people will feel displaced in their own country? Can they even call it their own country? Will they suddenly become refugees in their own land? It’s like these people have been living in a terrifying version of The Truman Show, but I genuinely want to see the North Korean citizens have a chance to be welcomed by the rest of the world. It’ll be, in some weird way, a mass repatriation. Don’t you think?

As I get older, I find myself being more lenient when it comes to forgiving people who do really ridiculous things. A part of me still wants to defend Dennis Rodman’s outburst. Seriously. And I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why. It might have more to do with me trying to be compassionate and less to do with Rodman as an individual. Still, the Nature V Nurture argument rages on in my head, trying to figure out what makes Rodman want to defend a man like Kim. It’s the same argument I’m using to figure out what makes me want to defend a man like Rodman.

I want to believe he is in North Korea for the right reasons. I want to believe he and Kim have deep heart-to-hearts. I want to believe that Rodman isn’t just as crazy as Kim. I want to believe that my being optimistic about the human race isn’t a big, big mistake.

Favorite Nonfiction 2013

I didn’t really begin working on my thesis until June, or maybe even July. The proposal asked for fifteen starting references. By fall semester’s end I was up to over thirty. The title of my thesis is Inventing America’s History: The Myths That Make for Better Storytelling. The entire project consisted of arguments over the textbook wars and history education’s common core standards, American folklore, and, my favorite topic of discussion, the building of America’s history from the white man’s perspective. I believe that America’s narrative is missing multiple points of view. I also believe that future generations will happily fill in the gaps. Good on them.

So, needless to say, most of my reading over the last six months has been very centered on history and historic events. All reading before that was…well, mostly centered on history and historical events. As a matter of fact, I’m currently reading Off The Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration, which includes stories of global and seafaring adventuring gone wrong (oh, that Christopher Columbus guy was such a wanker). And after that? A Brief History of the Vikings. I just can’t stay away from that history stuff.

I want to make it clear to you all, though, that as much as some people might be bored to tears by historical accounts (or, even, nonfiction in general), I am, too. I’m quite picky about my reading material. If something hasn’t grabbed my attention by the second or third chapter, it gets shelved and I move on to something else. To me, nothing is a bigger waste of time than reading a book that doesn’t interest me. So…

As promised, here is my list of favorite nonfiction that I read in 2013.

1. Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll – I was reading this book and feeling very overwhelmed by all the possible topics on which I could write my thesis. Within a few pages, Carroll mentioned the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and my paper practically wrote itself right then. Even if you’re not a fan of history, Carroll’s stories cover everything from inventions and government cover-ups to medical breakthroughs, and he manages to connect seemingly minor details from the past to our own recent history. Case in point: Skinner V Oklahoma in 1942, eugenics, Nazis, Tim McVeigh, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, back to Skinner’s armed robbery case…there’s a thread that connects each event and brings it all full circle. I’m not telling you how it goes. You should read it for yourself.

2. Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin – At first, I couldn’t stop thinking about that movie Soul Man, but the author obviously had better intentions than those of C. Thomas Howell’s character.  This is the story of a white man who successfully passed as a black man in the 1950s South. Remember my earlier mention of perspectives and how I believe some of them are missing in America’s story? When a white man pretends to be a black man in the South and then comes home to his white-man life to tell about it, people tend to listen.

3. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky – Let me start this off by saying I spent nearly 15 years in the hotel industry. I’ve worked the front desk, in the sales office, and mid-level management, and I cross-trained in housekeeping, maintenance, and food & beverage. I was a little unnerved by Tomsky’s descriptions of his grossly irresponsible behavior while on the job (sleeping with hotel guests, destroying guests’ luggage, and snorting coke with the bellman), but then it hit me: THIS SHIT HAPPENS. Oh my gawwwd, does it ever happen! Ha! So if you want some insight on how things operate in a hotel (and what we’re really saying about you as a hotel guest), read this book and keep in mind that we, the hotel staff, know more about you than you think we do. Rule #1: the walls are thin so keep your sex noises down. Rule #2: tip your housekeepers and bellmen graciously.

4. The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby – While we were sitting in the Jerry Lee Lewis restaurant in downtown Memphis this summer, my husband bit into his barbecue sandwich and proclaimed it to be one of the best he’s ever had. I then subjected him and my daughter to an informative rant about why we have Yellow Fever to thank for such delicious Memphis barbecue. And Elvis. And rock and roll in general. I also finally learned who Walter Reed really was and why he’s so worthy of a military hospital bearing his name. This book will teach you a lot.

5. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray – If you have been reading this blog from the beginning, then you know of my struggles with missing North Florida, of missing home. What you don’t know is that this blog was almost named Cracker Horse. The term cracker is culturally significant to the ever evolving stories of South Georgia and North Florida. Ray’s memoirs took me home for a little while, where trailer parks are plentiful and the gopher tortoise population determines the region’s ecological health. She spends a lot of time talking about longleaf and loblolly pines. I miss them. I miss it all.

6. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – This was my first Lamott novel and it certainly won’t be my last. Bird by Bird was a quick read, but her tips on writing (and on life) come from a seasoned veteran. She is both the writer and the student, all at once. Her biggest piece of advice, a theme that replays constantly, is to make it your goal to write well, not to be published. Sure, being published feels great, but the truth is that most writers will never be published. Get over it, then get back to writing.

7. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathanial Philbrick – I read this book in two days, but then again I’ve always been into reading about disasters at sea and what leads people to be cannibalistic. Philbrick’s writing style is phenomenal (I have his Mayflower on my bookshelf waiting to be read), which just makes me believe that his retelling of Bunker Hill will simply be more of the same brand of awesome. There is a lot of fascinating history of the whaling industry and of the ports that boomed during the industry’s heyday. In the Heart of the Sea is one of my favorite books of all-time.

8. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner – An assignment for a biology course and, strangely, my professor had us read it out of sequence. Chapter 7, then chapter 3, then on to chapter 14. One doesn’t have to read it in chapter order, though, because I genuinely became interested in learning more about the finches’ beaks. This book is not boring at all! Had it not been forced upon me by my professor, I may never have read it. Until then, I’d never even heard of it and that’s a shame. The best way to read this book is to read it outdoors. I read it while camping, just before I saw my first bison and hiked around a beautiful blue lake in the Wichita Mountains. Being out in nature lends to the thrill of the read.

9. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed – You’ll come away from this book wanting one of two things (or maybe even both): 1. To call you mom just to say hi. 2. To load up a pack and hit the trails. I’m too afraid of wildlife and strangers who are at home in the woods, so I will never do a solo hike. But I have convinced my husband that we should, at some point, hit the Appalachian Trail and do an overnight together. There were some complaints from other readers about a scene involving her mother’s horse. Some felt it was unnecessary while others felt her narrative was too graphic. I was too busy crying through the whole damn scene, so I think she made her point quite clear and it’s very well-written. Seriously, don’t go into this book thinking it’s anything like Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It’s not.

10. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King – Okay. So I’m cheating a little bit with this one. I read King’s book last year (late) but it did receive the Pulitzer recently. If you have any interest in the Civil Rights era, race relations, the justice system, or the culture of the Old South versus New South, this book will blow you away. These events took place near where I once lived in Florida, yet most Floridians are either unaware of the story or unwilling to speak of it. Did you know that in all of the South, Florida carried out the most recorded lynchings? There is no telling how many went unrecorded or were simply murders written off as accidents or a white man’s self-defense. Florida’s history is being rewritten with the retellings of events from new perspectives. I find it all very exciting.

(For my favorite fiction of 2013, click here)

 

 

 

Winter Arsenal

Do the accidents of our births mean we can’t feel hiraeth—only homesickness?” Pamela Petro wrote those words in her essay “Dreaming in Welsh“. I’ve just come across this new word – hiraeth. It’s Welsh and has no English translation. To hear it spoken is a kind of ear candy.hiraeth

The way Petro writes about hiraeth is almost like she’s describing it as a hex, as a curse. “I’m American, but I have a hiraeth on me for Wales.” For someone such as myself who has spent so many years feeling this unbearable feeling of homesickness, I was liberated the moment this word presented itself to me last night. Homesickness is so juvenile, it seems. It’s so sleepaway-camp-like. I’m too old for that. Besides, I have never been able to pinpoint where it is exactly that I want to be or where I belong, for that matter.

Yesterday morning, though, before all this talk about hiraeth, I was dreading the upcoming wintery forecast. Snow, ice, freezing rain. I was as prepared as one can be for the next few days of cold and gray (called brumous – another one of my new words). My Vitamin D, my SAD lamp, my books about Norse goddesses and their love affairs with the seasonal moons. They’re all there in my winter arsenal, the only weaponry I can think of at a time like this.

Instead of having breakfast, I grabbed a cup of coffee and started thinking about Upper Michigan, my childhood. (I don’t miss childhood, I just miss the time in my life when things weren’t so disheartening, which goes back to my earliest years in the north.) Those thoughts tend to lead to other thoughts, thoughts like fishing for smelt with my dad in the Dead River, sticky sap on my mittens, the peninsula’s mining industry*. (I don’t know why the mining industry weighs so heavily on my mind, but there has been some serious controversy happening up that way. Besides, iron ore pellets are very special to me. I have my reasons.)

Before I knew it, the snowflakes were coming down hard and fast here in Oklahoma City. These weren’t the kind of snowflakes a seasoned winterling would scoff at, either. These were serendipitous snowflakes, the big and fat kind that I’m convinced were falling from the sky just for me. They were accumulating softly in some places and freezing into dangerously icy piles in others. I found myself feeling very strange about the whole thing, too. This swelling of, dare I say, contentment (?) was forming inside of me. I smiled. I laughed about it. I was wholly confused by my behavior.

Then my husband suggested we go outside and enjoy the big, fat snowflakes from the warmth of our steamy hot tub. So we did. And it was the most fun I’ve had in a very, very, very long time. In fact, for a few moments I was so happy that I thought I would cry.

We stared up at the grayness of the sky (the brumous!) past the bare limbs of our backyard trees. Nearby a neighbor had lit a fire. The air was perfectly chilled and the scent of burning wood permeated all around. I am not too embarrassed to admit that I pretended I was back up in the big north woods, just for a little bit. I had to. I have a hiraeth on me for the place. The snowy woods, the sticky sap, the scented pines, the bears, the wolves, the Northern Lights.

And so I’ve added this hiraeth to my winter arsenal. Finally, it has a name.

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*My mind is like fun house sometimes. There is a (likely) malfunctioning and (seemingly) boundless train of thought that can go in a million different directions, and often does. It’s exhausting.