Tag Archives: history

Civil War Reenactment

dsc02012

Quite timely, considering that Livi and I have been studying Lincoln in the past couple of weeks.

dsc02015

dsc02016

A pretty good event, especially the mock battle and the cannons firing!

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“My Mercedes Is Not For Sale”

A quick summary: a memoir wherein the author, Jeroen Van Bergeijk, drives a Mercedes into West Africa to have a bit of an adventure as well as to turn a profit selling it to an African car dealer, or deserving cabbie, or whoever ends up actually producing the cash in the end.

It may be that in translation, pulled off by one John Antonides, the tight, clever character of the writing was utterly lost. But whatever the reason, a chant of the writer’s commandment to SHOW DON’T TELL grew in volume in my head as I progressed through the book.

Also, I think there is some kind of guideline about not treating your reader like a blockhead. If every time I read an analogy, and three sentences later the only thing I can think is, “DUDE! I get it…” then something needed to be edited, methinks. Let me soften this by saying, I was never actually insulted by the overexplaining; it is not pompous, just annoying.

That said, where else are you going to be able to read about an automobile trek across the Sahara? I’m sure there are other places, but there are enough things in the plus column to warrant joining Van Bergeijk’s trek:

1. It’s a pretty quick read, assuming you don’t have little kids interrupting you for food every couple of minutes.

2. The narrator is successfully presented as somebody you’d actually want to hang out with (even if he is a bit circuitously long winded).

3. He pulls in a lot of references to other relevant texts and some historical facts to illustrate the events and his observations, so you feel like you’re exploring the continent from several angles.

4. It takes a fairly balanced look at Africa – I’ve been studying the continent’s history and art for a few years, so I’m attuned to some of the common pitfalls as far as assumptions and prejudices go. The narrator manages to present his feelings (which tend toward compassion) but makes sure to include enough alternate testimony that you feel you’re getting a sufficiently broad crosscut of various points of view.

In conclusion: it’s worth a go, if the African continent holds any fascination for you.

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Lincoln Inspiring American Heroes

Inspired by President Obama’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln, my daughter and I have been focussing some of our homeschooling efforts on learning about Lincoln’s life and his participation in American history.

This morning we watched “The Real Abraham Lincoln,” which I’d recorded off the National Geographic channel. I highly recommend it. Fascinating and accessible, even for a 6 year old! It helped that we had read a book about him yesterday so she was able to key into facts she recognized, little touchstones along the way.

What struck me today was how this man from humble beginnings made it so far. How he had the courage to face the conflict with the South, not knowing at the outset who might win.

Something I learned today was the context in which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As one of the commentating professors explained, this historic act occurred at a moment when Lincoln was freed by a dark hour of the war, when failure seemed a likely outcome. At this moment when there wasn’t much more to lose, he decided to make his boldest move and free the slaves. Apparently it was a “now or never” act, he had been waiting for the right moment and realized that, if the momentum of fate was truly on his side, then he would have to move forward and commit himself and the country to the profound change that he’d always wanted to see happen, to repair one of the glaring errors our founding fathers had neglected to fix, namely, the inhuman treatment and status of a large segment of the American population.

The connections with President Obama’s election are so deep that I can feel history happening now even as I watch how it happened back then. A black man finally residing in the White House. The desire to move towards a new unity, a more complete justice, a further validation of the rights of all citizens. A belief in the value and the dream of the United States of America. A willingness to dedicate one’s public and private life to serving one’s country. All these details link the two presidents by more than just the fact that President Obama studies Lincoln’s life and words.

The commentating professor also stated that one of the most important characteristics of Lincoln that led to his great success was believing in himself. After all, he ran for president directly after having lost two bids for the Illinois senate seat. A powerful reminder to us all that if we don’t stand behind our own dreams with our whole heart, then we are certainly doomed to be drowned in the inevitable, occasional failure that happens even to the greatest people who have ever lived.

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The inauguration according to e

The kids and I attended the local celebration and it was great. There were three speeches by local school children, a dance performed by children in the local Hmong community and a step dance performed by members of the local Black Youth United group. Plus seeing the inauguration live in such a crowd was overwhelming; an entire auditorium full of people cheering, shouting, expressing great joy at this new beginning.

As a brief aside, about a tenth as big as my happiness was a wave of relief whenever I would see Bush’s face. It. Is. Finally. Over.

My favorite part of Obama’s speech was when he said, “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West -know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” What a statement, one we might all take to heart: focus on constructing a better world, focus on creating, stop with the destructive hatred. I do not oppose criticizing the West, I have a couple of choice comments myself, that’s what freedom of speech is all about. But expressing your criticism through violence is wrong.

Another wonderful part: “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.” Altruism is not entirely selfless, charity is not a one-way gift; when we help out those around us, we make our community stronger, and that is good for the giver as well.

I feel quite drained (in a satisfied way) and not able to be very articulate, but I couldn’t wait to add my tired voice to the hopeful throng that spent today in celebration, and now seems poised and ready to take on the future.

I set myself the task of deciding what my part in this great beginning is, how I intend to contribute in concrete ways in whatever areas are within my reach. I will post on this when I have my thoughts together.

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Top Five: Historical Moments

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the momentous inauguration tomorrow, today’s top five is: in no particular order (unless you wanna), which five events or moments in history strike a chord with you, inspire you, or otherwise give you the warm fuzzies? It has nothing to do with which you feel are most important, because I feel like that judgment would be impossible (for me anyway.)

My top five historical moments:

1. Rosa Parks on the bus- the fact that a regular person did a small act that was also a large, difficult act, reminds me that I, too, should be standing up or sitting down or whatever it takes to point out injustice and make things right.

2. Samantha Smith – In 1982, a 10 year old girl named Samantha Smith from Mancester, Maine wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov expressing her fear that a nuclear war would occur between the Soviet Union and the US. I was about her age and suffered similar nightmares. She was invited to go to the Soviet Union, and hearing about her trip was, seriously, one of the first moments when I realized that citizens of the Soviet Union were not monsters but ate breakfast and stubbed their toes just like Americans. It is also inspirational to me that a little girl could engage in dialogue with a world leader.

3. The invention of the printing press (so many books… so little time…)

4. Development of agriculture – the transition from a nomadic, hunting/gathering/gee-I-wonder-if-we’re-going-to-eat-or-be-eaten kind of community to a settled down, looking-out-over-my-fields-with-a-shotgun kind of life definitely appeals to me. I like me some illusion of security!

5. Obama’s victory – I know it’s not very imaginative, but I would feel dishonest leaving it out. I got a serious jolt of hope out of this past election, and I am eager for the country to get started on the next four years. I think it is a moment reminiscent of the 1960’s when people came together in a wave of energy to make things happen. Not the acid trips or the love fests, I mean the kind of action that came about through the inspiration of Dr. King and Rosa Parks and all the other heroes of the day.

So what moments in history move you?

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49er Fantasy

No, not the football team.  Euw.

The miner kind of 49ers.

I’m from California, and the Gold Rush of 1849 has always been one of my most favorite periods in history.

The other day my daughter and I were watching a documentary of the pioneers and the Gold Rush.  It told the story of a family who went west to seek their fortune.  Usually men went without their wives and children and just hoped to make a bunch of money to bring home, or send for their families later.  But this family took off together.

When they arrived, the lady found that the miners would pay five dollars to have a meal cooked by a woman, which of course was a lot of money back then.  Well, maybe not to a guy who just found a bunch of gold nuggets in a creek and has blown phenomenal amounts of cash on booze and prostitutes.  Five bucks for a “home cooked” meal would be nothing.

But anyway, these miners had gone so long without being fed by their womenfolk, not to mention even seeing a woman up close, that she was greatly appreciated.  So much so that she was able to open a restaurant and make a tidy living off her culinary skills.

Now I know that some people fantasize about being Eddie Van Halen, or Angelina Jolie, or maybe even Bill Gates.  Having fame, fortune and glory is a commonplace desire.  But I haven’t felt as envious of anyone’s life as I felt hearing about this woman feeding all those men, winning their innocent affections and being compensated handsomely.  

I imagine, being her, I would feel like the most beneficent goddess mother, appeasing the boys’ stomachs and comforting their loneliness (she had her husband there, so I’m assuming that she was relatively safe from untoward advances.  Either way, nothing inappropriate figures into this particular fantasy of mine!)  They would adore me, looking up at me with their sad, scruffy, hungry puppy dog faces as I set before them some stew and biscuits still hot from the oven.  It would fill their bellies and warm their hearts and their homesickness wouldn’t sting quite so badly for just those few moments.  After their many months of perilous journeying, miserable gold panning, lousy food and rough male company, just the swishing of my clean skirts as I went to fetch the coffee would be like music to their ears.

Silly, I know.  But if a person’s fantasies reveal their essence, then I am all about food, earning a good living and being an adored mother-figure.  

I can live with that.

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“What is the What”

Since I have almost zero time free to read, when I do read something it had better be good!

The book I just finished fit the bill.  What is the What by Dave Eggers is part autobiography and part fiction, recounting the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who survived the civil war that destroyed so much of his homeland.

I find the mixture of truth and fiction intriguing, but as Mr. Deng explains in the preface, “It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What is the What a novel.”  But he goes on to assure readers, “The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.”

It is also interesting that Mr. Eggers helped him write it, and is the only author listed on the cover.  One might ask, whose story is it, really?

Having studied in college the genre of testimonio, a category of writing that includes texts which tell the true story of individuals who have survived oppression and hardship, I am sure that theorists would go nuts over the truth/fiction blend going on in this book.

For me, I find it worth reading for the history as well as for the perspective of a person who has lived in both the US and Africa and can inform us of the contrast.

It is a story that never stops for a moment.  It will take you out of wherever you are and move you through a world that few of us, thankfully, will experience otherwise.  

It was worth reading just for the moment when my husband was watching a rerun of a goofy sitcom while I had my nose in the book, and I could hear the characters on the TV joking about their party-gone-sour while in the book young Achak is riding in the back of a military truck with a load of dead bodies… I had to stop reading.  Just to let it all digest, that we are all on this planet together but our realities are separated by light years.  Just to feel that moment when our realities existed, paradoxically, in the same space, when they came together in my conscious mind.

If you get a chance, join Mr. Deng’s reality for a moment.  How can we resist someone who wants so badly for us to hear his story?  As he says in the book, talking to us, the readers, about his storytelling, “…I speak to you because I cannot help it.  It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there.  I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us.  How blessed are we to have each other?  I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words.”

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Top Five: Historical Figures

Okay, you’ve found a genie in a bottle, and instead of three wishes you get five!  

Unfortunately, the only thing you are allowed to wish for is a visit with a person from history (you would also be able to understand each other, no matter if they spoke English or not).

Which five is it going to be?

Mine:

1. Mark Twain (he just HAD to be an entertaining guy to hang out with – and I’d love to know what he thinks about what’s been happening in the world since he stopped being able to comment on it…)

2. Beryl Markham (famous aviator/ bush pilot in Africa – I’ll bet she has even more great stories than what I read in her autobiography)

3. Leonardo DaVinci (I’d want him to show me around all his inventions and sketches and everything, just hear in person what was going on in his head)

4. Josephine Baker (entertainer and fascinating personality – I’d want her to show me around the castle she owned in France and answer about a million questions I have about her wild life)

5. Jesus – I mean, who could resist the chance to be face to face in our clay vessels.

What about you?

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Repost: Thanksgiving Ingrate

Okay, since y’all didn’t disown me the last time I pulled a fast one like this, I’m going to do it ONE MORE TIME.  (All caps means it’s a promise!)

Thanksgiving Ingrate

Americans love to get presents and be the center of attention, which is probably why most of us claim our birthday as our favorite holiday. Thanksgiving is also near the top of the list because it brings together four of the greatest joys in life: feasting, family, a four day weekend and, of course, football. It is a day which allows us to cure momentarily our chronic case of the gimmees and just be grateful for what we already have.

Despite Thanksgiving’s huge popularity, there are a few Americans who, though their hearts may swell patriotic and their stomachs appreciate the traditional meal, nevertheless harbor a secret resentment toward the beloved Turkey Day – I speak of those late November birthday babies.

Oh, we are a sorry bunch. When next year’s calendar comes out we must look ahead to see how close the fateful day comes to impinging on our specialness. If Congress had just left the date of Thanksgiving in the early fall, as it was when the Pilgrims originally celebrated it with the Wampanoag Tribe in 1621, we of the November 22nd through 28th set could be guaranteed chocolate cake instead of pumpkin pie with candles. If they’d just left well enough alone when Colonial Governor John Belcher declared Thanksgiving be November 12th in 1730, or when President George Washington proclaimed in 1789 that Thanksgiving be observed on the 26th of November, more of us could consistently have pizza for our special birthday dinner instead of green beans and cranberry sauce. Admittedly, even with such arrangements there would still be some whiners among us. But there would be far fewer and most importantly, I, being born on the 24th, wouldn’t be in their midst.

Our annual “birthday roulette” began in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln established that Thanksgiving be celebrated annually on the last Thursday of November. This custom held until 1939, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in an effort to stimulate an American economy still reeling from the Great Depression, declared that Thanksgiving should always be celebrated on the next to last Thursday of November, thereby giving Christmas shoppers an extra week to spend money. Some states protested, refusing in 1940 to go along with FDR’s “Franksgiving” celebration. (It should be noted that Texas, not wanting to be rude, decided to make a holiday of both weeks.) In 1941, Congress compromised by declaring Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November, which is sometimes the last Thursday, sometimes the next to last. Either way, it always threatens to land on my special day.

Of course, in 1970, being newly born, I couldn’t care less, but I did manage to ruin my parents’ Thanksgiving. I was born on a Tuesday and, in adherence to the medical wisdom of that era, my mother and I were to be released two days later on Turkey Day. Right in the middle of a football game, my father got the call to come pick us up from the hospital. Originally from Detroit, my Dad is a loyal fan of the Lions, who have played football on Thanksgiving since 1934, a full 32 years before the Dallas Cowboys tried to steal the spotlight by starting their own Thanksgiving game tradition. My mother graciously permitted him to come get us during halftime.

The Lions were playing none other than the Oakland Raiders that year – I was born in Hayward, California, a mere ten miles down the Nimitz Freeway from the Oakland Coliseum (now called “McAfee”). The game was tied at halftime, so it must have been quite a dilemma for my Dad: bring home the new baby, or watch a nail-biter between our hometeams. I like to think he was rewarded for his familial loyalty since the Lions went on to win 28-21.

My mother didn’t fare so well, having missed the feast, though she did get some leftovers. But that’s just not the same as sitting around the table with all the fixings, the all-important centerpiece being a golden roasted turkey. North Carolina contributes greatly to the event, being second only to Minnesota in turkey production with 39 million annually. (There is even a town named Turkey about 70 miles south of Raleigh on Hwy 40.) Those who love sweet potatoes with their bird owe some gratitude to North Carolina for growing 702 million pounds of the tasty tubers, the most of any state and almost twice the amount of the runner-up, California.

Occasionally, people attempt to include some new-fangled culinary innovation in the holiday fare, such as the vegetarian’s “tofurky,” which is tofu sculpted then baked as though it might replace a juicy fowl, and “turducken,” the carnivore’s delight out of Louisiana consisting of a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. But no matter which new dish enters the scene, we still refuse to turn away from our traditional meal.

Biased as I am by the holiday’s total disregard for my basic civil right to be the Birthday Queen of the Universe, my favorite part of the traditional spread is the appetizers. This is not to disparage my family’s cooking talent; on the contrary, my mother and grandmother are the best cooks around. No, this is to say that when you skip breakfast to try to save your appetite for the big dinner, you’re going to need some serious appetizers. I mean really, when has a turkey ever been ready within three hours of when it was supposed to be done? Those always seem like the three longest hours of my life, as the aroma of slowly roasting bird teases my nostrils and the warm rolls waft waves of irresistible scent that follows me through the house. That appetizer plate with the various deli meats, cheeses and pickled vegetables is the only thing that keeps a person from going mad and eating the couch.

And during our Thanksgiving feast we must be surrounded by our loved ones, who will often travel long distances to celebrate with us. This is all fine and dandy, but try arranging a birthday sleepover under such conditions. As a kid I always knew that for every member of my family that arrived for the holiday, there was one less friend still in town to come over and bring me presents.

So you see, those of us who came into this world within a few days of Thanksgiving do not get a break from the gimmees, and in fact have our special birthday desires so thwarted that we aren’t very grateful for anything.

On the other hand, this uncivilized selfishness never prevents me from thoroughly enjoying the cornucopia of treats that Thanksgiving has to offer. And I’ve decided, this year, I’ll be a big girl about it and hope that the holiday is a truly special day for everyone.

Horton family appetizer plate:

Arrange on serving plate in artistic fashion:
Salami, Black Forest ham, pastrami (cut in triangles)
Sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, Danish fontina (cut in squares)
Black olives, green olives w/pimientos, dill pickle spears, pepperoncini
Contents of a jar of spicy pickled vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, pearl onions, etc.)
Garnish with fancy cut green onions and radishes
Crackers: Triscuits, Wheat Thins, Ritz

This article originally published in
The Lake Magazine November 2007

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New release of a brilliant movie

One of my favorite writers and directors, Sembène Ousmane, about whom I have previously posted when he passed away last year, directed a movie called “Camp de Thiaroye” which is coming out on DVD on November 11th.  I am so excited that I even pre-ordered it.

Normally I wouldn’t shamelessly plug something, I’m a fairly mellow consumer, but to most people, African cinema is so obscure that I feel like if speak up, there might be a couple more people in the world that know they have another choice besides a Hollywood flick for their entertainment.

There are a lot of reasons that these movies stay obscure.  People don’t like subtitles.  Non-Hollywood movies tend to move slower and so spectators used to rapid-fire action can’t sit still ’til the end.  These movies aren’t widely available (I haven’t checked Netflix) but you have to know someone to borrow them from or else order your own copy through Amazon (definitely worth owning!) The budget that an African director works with is so much smaller than what is available for a Hollywood film that the movie’s set, costumes and such sometimes seem amateurish compared to what spectators are used to.  And sometimes, people don’t want to view a new perspective of the world in a movie, they just want the same rehashed plotline with more cleavage and a bigger explosion.

But there is so much that the average American doesn’t know about the history of the world.  Did you know in the 1880’s the big European nations got together for the “Berlin Conference” and agreed who got which part of Africa, so that they didn’t waste their energy fighting each other over parcels but could focus their efforts on suppressing (that is a nice word for killing and enslaving) the indigenous African populations?  Did you know that many African nations got their independence in the 1960’s, but that Europe and the US essentially maintained control over the countries through puppet dictatorships (which Sembène shows clearly at the beginning of his movie “Xala”)?

The movie coming out in a couple of weeks, called “Camp de Thiaroye,” tells another important, and true, story, that of the soldiers from Senegal who fought alongside French soldiers against the Nazis.  The movie exposes what happened when the Senegalese soldiers returned home and were “rewarded” by the French.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the movie.  I wish I could hold a screening in my living room and invite everyone.  I feel it is so important for us to get outside our comfort zones and our narrow points of view and see the world through totally new eyes.  Sembène achieves this result, plus entertaining us, making us laugh, endearing us to characters, and amazing us with things we’ve never seen before.  Making us think and realize a new truth are just the icing.

If you somehow get a chance to see it, I highly recommend this movie.

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