Past in Present: World Books #tbt 001

I recently unboxed my grandmother’s set of World Book Encyclopedia–the same set my uncles used to research school assignments. Fathom that: a time before the internet. Grandma also purchased supplemental year books, 1965 through 1984 (the year I was born), and they’re fascinating in their brevity. An entire year reduced to a series of essays on international and domestic affairs written by journalists, professors, diplomats…astronauts.

I love this set of encyclopedias, although I didn’t need to inherit them. I already took the set I grew up using when we sold my childhood home, and DID NOT need a second clogging up valuable shelf space in my San Francisco apartment. But it was either that or the dumpster, so lo and behold–my bedroom has not one but TWO complete yet different sets of encyclopedias. Like grandmother like mother like daughter. 

They say history repeats itself, but this isn’t wholly true. The pendulum of culture swings towards extremes with reliable regularity, but the faces and places and the events they unleash are always unique if not tainted by similar archetypes. We live in uncommon, unsettling times but I find solace in history knowing that we’ve been annihilated (in every sense of that word) before only to rebuild the world anew. Given the state of the world, I’m particularly interested to see how people assessed their uncommon time. It helps to know people before me also tried to make sense of nonsense, so I thought it would be a “fun” to start some #tbt posts in which I extract passages from Grandma’s World Books that resonate with the now. 

This is from an essay by James R. Reston called “Focus on The Nation.” I recommend listening to The Barr Brothers’ new album, Queens of the Breakers, while mulling this over.

“‘This is a day,” Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare John W. Gardner said in October, ‘of dissent and divisiveness. Everyone speaks with unbridled anger in behalf of his point of view or his party or his people. More and more, hostility and venom are the hallmarks of any conversation on the affairs of the nation.

There used to be only a few chronically angry people in our national life. Today all seem caught up in mutual recriminations–Negro and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, dove and hawk, Democrat and Republican, labor and management, North and South, young and old.’

What produced this mood of self questioning and self-doubt? Was it as bad as it sounded? And why did these symptoms of something like a nervous breakdown suddenly seem so much more serious in 1967? These were the questions of the year.”

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Evolution of a History Nerd

Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.
Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.

A coworker recently suggested I incorporate more “steampunk librarian” content into Nostos Algos. I don’t know if I’m onboard with the usage of “steampunk”, since that’s a very distinct cultural subset, or “librarian”, since I don’t work in a library, but the man has a point. My Instagram is riddled with archives gold, but Nostos Algos is strangely devoid of the same and I mean to fix that now.  In tossing around ideas, I found it difficult to pick a starting point. I encounter awesome stories every day as a consequence of the job, so how can I pick just one and run with it? Eventually, I decided to lead with a post that seeks to explain my evolution as a self-proclaimed History Nerd.

If I’m honest, I am an archivist because I landed an internship class in my final year of undergrad, and that internship turned into contract work that turned into full-time work. No master career plan, just an American History major giddy to find a field that directly utilized my undergrad degree. My major, however, chose me–the teenager that preferred an antique store to a shopping mall that grew into the young lady more at ease with geriatrics than those her own age. I am an archivist by chance, by choice, and also for the same reason I read so many biographies–an acute interest in people.

That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn't into it, and it was awkward for everyone. (Launching of Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)
That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn’t into it, and it was awkward for everyone, but totally entertaining for the table in the back. (Launching of the Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)

This interest has fermented with age. The longer I live, the more defined mortality becomes–fostering a fascination with the limitlessness of individual people who work against the physical limitations of their bodies, as well as the governing bodies that build their civilizations. No matter the epoch they hail from–the 1880s, the 1920s, the 1970s, or now–men and women dream big, accomplish much, fail often, and always die. This has become abundantly clear in my eight years as an archives technician, during which time I’ve processed materials ranging from Civil War discharge papers to records from the Sixth U.S. Army Environmental Office. Often I’m given a box filled with mementos that visually and textually form the arch of an entire life. Sometimes it’s just a box of discarded records from an abandoned office. In either scenario, however, the human element always shines through: in obvious ways, like an informal photograph showing a grieving graveside widower, but also in less obvious ways, like a defiantly lewd doodle on the title page of an official report.

It’s easy to think of the past as past, and as people who lived in those times as static, unrelatable figures. I believe this is a problem of presentation and perception rather than reality. This problem begins in the monotone way history is taught in lower levels of school, which, by necessity, moves quickly through centuries of stories and rarely delves deeply into individuals save for key figures who accomplished monumental things, be them good or bad. Perception is also affected by the technological constraints of the times that captured moments in black and white, moments that seem so stiff and remote in stark contrast to our digital age of colored animation; when you add differences in dress and custom it seems almost impossible to cross the historical divide. The most crucial component of misperception is an institutional bias that prioritizes the exceptional over the every day.

Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.
Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.

In their quest to acquire the best of mankind–the quintessential Warhol, that first edition Hemingway, MacArthur’s West Point cadet uniform, or Lincoln’s last handwritten speech–many museums have become palaces that honor little else besides perfection, achievement, the heights of humanity. Preserving and showcasing elite objects is a vital component to museum work, but for me and many others in the trenches, the items that excite us most are the ones that should never have survived. Items like movie tickets, catalogs, receipts, pressed flowers in a Nobody’s diary, or the likeness of President Nixon made of binary numbers and printed out by a bored computer technician in the 1970s. One military historian I know was beside himself with glee to see a pair of standard issue Women’s Army Corps socks and nylon stockings from World War II. The things that are used and discarded without a second thought by regular Joes and Janes become the most rare simply because they were the most unwanted–unwanted by those who used them, as well as the institutions pledged to protect our history.

In my time as an archivist for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, I’ve cataloged the personal effects of some of the most historically significant men of the 20th-century. Men like Brigadier General Frederick Funston–the local lady killer who killed it in the Spanish-American War, “saved” San Francisco from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire (no big deal), and is the namesake of what was once known as 13th Avenue in the Inner Sunset. I’ve unfolded his pants, and preserved his wife’s family photograph album. Men like General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II who lost his battle with cancer while in command of the Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco. I’ve cataloged his favorite rocking chair, which is covered in plush pink fabric. Men like Medal of Honor winner Colonel John C. Gresham, the officer who chose protect native women and children in a ravine while Custer slaughtered their husbands and fathers at Wounded Knee during the Indian Wars. I’ve hung his coat with care.

These were great men, but not the men whose effects I’m most honored to preserve. Call it an affection for the underdog, call it curiosity in the lesser known, call it what you want: I gravitate to voices with less volume. If you look at the etymology of the word history, you’ll see it originated as the Greek “histor”, and referred to a learned or wise man; it then evolved to “historia” and embodied narrative history, meaning “finding out”. That encapsulates my approach to history: each day I find out about a different person, place or thing, and my love of that daily discovery comes from the commonalities I always discover. People are funny, situations are awkward, and the history that those people and situations write is equally as entertaining. When I find something particularly weird and wonderful–like a late 19th-century Cavalry officer who wrote science fiction as a hobby–that captures the quirkiness of history, I jump for joy and instantly want to share it.

What's there to do if you're a teenager (and John Muir's niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain't no 1927.
What’s there to do if you’re a teenager (and John Muir’s niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain’t no 1927.

In conceiving this post, I inevitably listened to Bob Dylan–especially his album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Bob Dylan also loved history, and sourced many of the story lines in his early songs directly from old newspaper articles. A line from the last song on the album, “Restless Farewell”, struck me as particularly relevant to the way I mine history for moments that have slipped between the dusty cracks of the sanctioned historical narrative: “If the arrow is straight, and the point is slick it can pierce through dust no matter how thick.”

Somewhere a story is waiting, sticking out from under the dust, and I feel compelled to free it. So tune in to Nostos Algos for future gems, and be sure to follow me (@nostosnic) on Instagram and Twitter or search #historynerd for my latest nerdy posts.

Taking the Internet to Task

Reluctant Blogger

Let’s call a spade a spade. A writer’s promotion of his/her writing is an incredibly narcissistic act because it signals their belief that their opinions are worth merit, worth your time, worth a permanent place in type set into mankind’s artistic chronicle. “I am a delicate snowflake, here is my flurry; you’re welcome” could be the dedication of many books, particularly those of an autobiographical nature. That said, I am a reluctant blogger. As a freelance writer of the 21st-century it’s the best tool to expand my “brand” by showcasing my ability to use words good, defining my artistic eye and promoting my sense of music in conjunction with Twitter and Instagram. However, by expanding my online presence I’ve exposed my unique insights to copyright infringement and plagiarism I’ve not the resources to combat, and unintentionally invited internet creepers to send me emails in which they call me “Little Girlie” and ask to view and share lewd photos (a real thing that really happened). The internet is as disgusting as it is enlightening, as much a resource as is it a source for distraction and is also the ultimate manifestation of narcissism in many ways. Facebook, Foursquare, Google+, Path, Pinterest, SoundCloud, Tumblr, Vine: nobody is interesting enough to create and divide content on that many platforms.

Part of my beef with blogging is the preponderance of uneducated and uncritical posts. To clarify, I don’t use “uncritical” to mean lacking in criticism but rather to pinpoint synthetic contributions to the stream. Generating blank content such as uploading a photograph or inputting a quote without context or discussion only adds to the barrage of unexplained crap on the internet and serves as yet another superficial layer through which one must sift in order to find something worth reading or viewing. Too many sound-bytes, not enough polyphonic sound. Perhaps a more disturbing trend is the democratization of the role of critic. Whereas I’ve clearly benefited from this, I’ve also often said any asshole can have a blog, and in lieu of credentials many bloggers feel the need to savagely attack whatever it is they’re reviewing. Be it music, literature, art or movies, they break their subject down to build themselves up, mistakenly assuming a soap box and an authoritative tone produce the sum of a critique. I ask, for what purpose? I don’t want to read about an album or book that sucks, I want to be turned on to works that will give me chills and send me reeling onto the next thing inspired and engaged.

This opinion was solidified after watching a friend’s band solicit album reviews from music blogs. One such blog (which shall remain nameless) would review any band that paid them with writers who were “hired” merely because they left 100+ comments on the site. This band was given a review that was artless, cruel and untrue–that went through the album song by song to note why each one sucked, and gave no further information on the artist outside of that one album. In addition, the site made no mention that the review had been written in exchange for money. That is not a review, it’s an un-researched 3rd Grade essay without a hypothesis that conceals its ulterior motive. Clearly I’m biased towards and protective of my buddy’s band, but I’ve also reviewed albums semi-professionally and know a farce when I see it. This type of jury-rigged scholarship void of professionalism is described perfectly by Noam Chomsky in his observations on Twitter from the recent book Power Systems: “If you look at [tweets], they have a fairly consistent character. They give the impression of being something that someone just thought of…If you thought for two minutes, or if you had made the slight effort involved in looking up the topic, you wouldn’t have sent it.”

I’ve attempted to counteract (or at least not add to) these problems with this blog in a few ways. First, this site offers no paid content. Just as James Franco recently quantified his own process at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, I merely attempt to understand certain forms of art through other forms of art–literature as an instrument of music, philosophy as a photographic lens, and so on and so forth–as a holistic approach to understanding my world, offering no answers merely unpaid observations. Second, I’ve added a brief biography in the margins to note an academic background and provide professional footing. While this makes me vulnerable to the aforementioned creeps, content written in anonymity engenders no confidence from the reader. If nothing else, I want my relationship with you, kind reader, to be genuine so the trade-off is worthwhile to me. Third, I do not write negative posts. The blogosphere and more traditional media outlets are already screaming with negativity and I see no need to turn up its volume; instead, I want to change the channel to something that has tickled my fancy and hopefully will do so to yours. At the core of this is the fact that I am neither a musician nor a filmmaker, not a baker, not a painter, and far be it for me to identify flaws in a song or a bundt cake I couldn’t dream of making.

Unchecked content, however, is not my only issue with the internet and its derivatives. In addition to his thoughts on Twitter in Power Systems, Chomsky talks of an “atomization” in today’s society. As we increasingly channel our efforts into online communities, our earth-bound relationships are suffering. We connect better with avatars than we do with the faces that sit beside us on the bus, and we are measured not by what we say in a job interview but by how well our LinkedIn account is formatted. Selfies have seemingly become more relevant and revelatory than the Self outside the computer, which is ironic considering the backbone of online communities is often anonymity as every Tom, Dick and Harry register blogs that thrive on sensationalism and unsupported facts. There’s a name for this: it’s called Yellow Journalism.

These fears are not my sole property.  What technology is doing to us and has done to us is widely studied, and the dearth of reputable, intellectually stimulating content in popular culture is bemoaned by every generation from Lincoln’s time to our own. Perhaps it’s motivated by a fear of change, or maybe just the human tendency to bitch about our present because misery loves company. Whatever the reason, poets and scientists alike are fascinated by the fluctuating intricacies of human interaction–hence the writing of poetry, hence the practice of psychology (which are two sides of the same coin, really). The universality of the fears expressed in this piece became more real to me after reading the poem “Emerging” from Pablo Neruda’s Extravagaria (1974):

“A man says yes without knowing / how to decide even what the question is / and is caught up, and then is carried along / and never again escapes from his cocoon; / and that’s how we are, forever falling / into the deep well of other beings; / and one thread wraps itself around our necks, / another entwines a foot, and then it is impossible, / impossible to move except in the well— / nobody can rescue us from other people.

It seems as if we don’t known how to speak; / it seems as if there are words which escape, / which are missing, which have gone away and left us / to ourselves, tangled up in snares and threads.

And all at once, that’s it; we no longer know / what it’s all about, but we are deep inside it, / and now we will never see with the same eyes / as once we did when we were children playing. / Now these eyes are closed to us, / now our hands emerge from different arms.”

This, I suppose, is why I blog in the face of internet stalkers and the stigma of irresponsible blogging. Obviously, there are a plethora of brilliant bloggers and internet entrepreneurs who have used online tools to great effect, and have bettered the world because of it; thank goodness they were given the opportunities afforded by online marketplaces. This post is not meant to discount them, it is merely an attempt to offer my observations, state some of my fears and start a dialogue. For I fear binary numbers are usurping words, and the sterile future this fact implies is very scary to me. When we devalue the impact of words we shatter the importance of language as it’s used to communicate with members of our community–the one in which we move by day and not the one we fabricate by night while in the privacy of our shuttered homes. Anonymity afforded online breeds nothing good, and avatars with unspecified agendas hold no one accountable and bring nothing new to the table. In this vacuum of accountability, the social contract is subverted and we enter a realm fabricated from haphazardly connected content that does not foster ingenuity, which is the product of shared ideas of merit. Instead, it often leads to bickering fueled by a neoliberal obsession with profit in its most potent forms: fame or fortune. God, who’d want to be, God who’d want to be such an asshole.

So…my name is Nicole Meldahl, this is my blog and I wrote this piece while listening to “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse. Discuss.