Friday, November 11, 2011

Absent Comrades

Today is the day that most people either commemorate Veteran's Day or Remembrance Day, to honor the veterans of the armed forces and also to commemorate the end of the First World War, probably one of the more horrific wars that mankind has ever been involved in.  An entire generation of young men was virtually wiped out, and entire societies were dramatically changed by the events that transpired during the war or afterward.

It's not a real secret that the First World War is one of my primary interests in history.  The war marked the real end of the nineteenth century and shook Europe and the world out of the nineteenth century and brought everyone into the twentieth century.  Everything that we associate with the modern world has direct roots in the First World War, from the Berlin Wall to the troubles in the Middle East.  The world was forever changed and there was no turning back.

What really keeps my passion going is the fear that it will become a forgotten conflict.  In the United States, WWII and Vietnam are the two wars that have lasted in the public memory.  Korea has been relegated to a dustbin but has seen a resurgence in people pushing it back into the forefront, as evidenced by the presence of a Korean War memorial on the National Mall.  But the First World War has not seen the same treatment, save for a little known memorial tucked away in the woods lining the National Mall (which I had written about previously).

Go and visit it.

In this talk about the nations who commemorate this day, we forget about the other side, the other players in the war.  We forget about the Germans who faced the Allied Powers in those mucky trenches, who faced similar conditions and the same terrifying specter of a twentieth-century war death from a nineteenth-century mindset.  The soldiers on the front also deserve the same honor that those who came from the US, UK, France, Belgium (heck yeah Belgium), Italy, and elsewhere received from their home countries.

Sometimes all you need are wooden crosses and a field of poppies.

Which is why it troubled me to discover that those soldiers who did not have the opportunity to return home have been figuratively been buried in the collective memory of Germans.  They had the misfortune of being overshadowed by the only thing that could top the horror of the First World War: the Second World War, the Holocaust, and everything else that came afterward.  These are men with names and ages.  Men such as Martin Heidrich, a 20 year old musketeer, and August Hütten, a 37 year old lieutenant from Aachen.  Yet they live on in relative anonymity, most likely forgotten by whatever family survived them and most definitely forgotten by the nation as a whole.

Being forgotten is a terrible thing for anyone, but especially those who decided give it all.  I find it especially tragic that those German soldiers suffered the horrors of artillery bombardments, poor living conditions, and chemical warfare to only become buried in the mud of the trenches and the sands of time.  One can only hope that no one forgets any veterans from any war.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Je Me Souviens

As a child, I loved going to library and checking out the VHS copies of the Peanuts television specials.  Most of them were fairly light-hearted fare -- we are dealing with the adventures of perpetual elementary school students, a beagle, and his cadre of yellow bird friends.  However, there was one that, while amusing, definitely had a more poignant message than some of the others.  (I remember this because, unlike the other Peanuts specials, I only saw it once and I still recall the message.)  It is called What Have We Learned Today, Charlie Brown?

Beagles make interesting pilots, for one.

The special follows up on the gang's exploits following their student exchange experience in Paris.  (The most "foreign exchange" I ever encountered in elementary school was wondering if the school lunch pizza was made in China.)  On the way back to London, car malfunctions derail their journey and eventually they wind up camping on a beach in Normandy overnight.  Upon waking up, Linus realizes that it is Omaha Beach - one of the beaches stormed by Allied troops on 06 Jun 1944 (D-Day.)  After Linus recounts the story of the D-Day invasions, they wind up going to Ypres and the fields of red poppies.  Linus recites the famous poem "In Flanders Fields" written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a field physician at Ypres.  The group all realize the sacrifice the service members made and the mark the wars had on people.  Linus then turns and asks "What have we learned, Charlie Brown?"

On the anniversaries of September 11th, I always hear people saying and posting on Facebook/Twitter the phrase "never forget."  And we should never forget what happened and make sure future generations who were  not alive that day have a sense of what happened that day.  In order for that to happen, however, we must do more than simply "remember" or "never forget."  We must take lessons out of that day and the bad memories.  Understand how something like September 11th happened.  Understand the meaning the event has in shaping us as people.  Understand how remembering the people who perished fits in to the grand fabric.  Letting how you make sense of the events evolve and develop over time.  Use those memories to motivate you to do something to better your surroundings, with the hope that it does something to prevent a repeat of the events.  Just plain "remembering" and "not forgetting" is a travesty.

And so is listening to bad country music.

On this tenth anniversary, take some time to not only remember those who perished or those who were profoundly changed but to understand and to learn something, anything the events.  If you find yourself or someone else simply parroting "never forget," take some time to ask, "What have we learned today, Charlie Brown?"

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Hex

Professional baseball is pretty rife with superstition.  Wade Boggs reportedly ate chicken before every game.  And don't get me started on Turk Wendell and his "rituals."  

There are also the various curses that linger over teams.  The Boston Red Sox had the famed "Curse of the Bambino" from 1918 to some hazy point which I've blocked out of my memory.  The Chicago White Sox have long labored under the shadow left by the 1919 Black Sox.  The Cleveland Indians are apparently still under "The Curse of Rocky Colavito," and the Chicago Cubs are trying (mostly) everything goat-related to unhex themselves from the "Curse of the Billy Goat."

The Redskins are laboring under the curse of Dan Snyder's ownership.

Having witnessed the sadness that is the Baltimore Orioles for the last few years, this has gotten me thinking.  Are the Birds under some sort of mysterious slump?  Has some witch doctor thrown a hex their way?  Is Edgar Allen Poe not happy?  Well, after some conversing with this guy, I have come up with an answer: the Curse of Lou Gehrig.

Can't you just sense the dark energy?

Here's the theory: everyone knows in 1995 that Cal Ripken, Jr. decides to break the Lou "the Iron Horse" Gehrig's pretty crazy consecutive games streak of 2,130 games played.  (Think about that when you try to call out of work because of the "sniffles.")  My theory is that you probably do not want to anger the spirit of any one nicknamed "the Iron Horse" and especially if that person had to deal with Babe Ruth on a day-to-day basis for much of the year.  Cal Ripken decided to do that, and thus brought upon the Baltimore Orioles "The Curse of Lou Gehrig."

The evidence goes as such: 
1995 was the season that the record was broken by Cal Ripken, Jr.  That was the same season that the New York Yankees made it to the playoffs for the first time since their 1981 World Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the first (and last) time that famed first baseman Don Mattingly, who played the same position as Lou Gehrig, would make the playoffs.  Also, 1995 was the same season that a young shortstop named Derek Jeter made his debut.  The same Derek Jeter who hit the "hand of God" home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series against...the Baltimore Orioles.  The Yankees would go on to win the World Series and experience relative success afterward, while the Orioles would make the playoffs once more and haven't made them since.  It is also worth noting that the year Cal Ripken, Jr. retired (2001) was the same year the Yankees lost the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Nonetheless, the Orioles have still toiled in much obscurity.  Their most promising glimmer of hope was in 2005, when they spent 62 days in first place but went on a losing streak, resulting in the firing of their manager, Lee Mazzili - a former Yankees first base coach.

Now considering that Babe Ruth's curse lasted about 80 some odd years, the idea of one of his teammates, who has an equally storied spot in Yankees lore, putting a hex on a team isn't a very comforting thought.  Also mind you that this is from the grave; the Babe's curse got its start when he was alive.  So who knows what extra caveats that might add?  And of course, the Orioles could just be naturally and perpetually terrible.  But who wants to believe that?

Also having to deal with the Babe on a pretty regular basis makes you a pretty tough sucker.

So if you're an Orioles fan (or one of the players reading this for some strange reason), I'd start eating chicken or something to break the hex.  Or just consider a different team.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Man Up Little Boy

Being a Washington DC sports fan must be probably one of the most depressing things ever.  And I know depressed sports fans, being that I still remember the glory days of the Knicks with Patrick Ewing and John Starks and that I have been to an Orioles game.  But DC...hoo-boy, you guys have it BAD.  Long saddled with the Washington Senators in the beginning of the 20th center and the quip "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League," sports in DC is a fairly depressing business, save for the occasional bright spots.

DC comforts itself by doing Independence Day right.

Not only that, but you have all these miscreant transplants (me being one of them) milling around your town and espousing loyalties to other teams not of the area.  Go to a Nationals game and you'll most likely see jerseys of the opposing team making up a large percentage of the spectators.  Hell, you can walk around the city and see quite a few Dallas Cowboys hats and jerseys.  This is akin to me parading around Boston in full New York Yankees gear, a crime which probably would earn me a drowning in a vat of Samuel Adams beer.

" tastes like scotch and shame..."

So if you're going to be a GM or an owner of a major national sports team (sorry, lacrosse), you're going to expect a lot of crap from people who have come in from other places (who know how a sports team should function) that have adopted the local sports teams and long time fans in the area who are simply being fed up with being known as the breather team on the schedule.

Apparently the "Boy Wonder" Dan Snyder didn't get the memo.  In response to the Washington City Paper's article "The Cranky Redskins Fan's Guide to Dan Snyder," Snyder decided the brightest idea (outside of hiring Jim Zorn, of course) was to sue the Washington City Paper's parent company over the content of the article.  

Face of a genius.


You have to be honest, the team's gotten pretty cocked up, to put it gently, over the past few years.  Outside of the perennial genius of the Jim Zorn era, the more recent season exemplifies the hilarity of whatever strategy  he and his crack team of experts is implementing.  And when your team loses after watching your much hyped new coach falter and essentially pissing away two hundred million dollars, you're going to have to expect a hot ton of criticism piled on you.

I'm glad the money from my $10 beer went to a good cause.

Being a sports fan from the New York metropolitan area, I've been attuned to and "informed" about sports from probably one of the nastiest media arenas for sports you can think of.  Any loss inspires more analysis than I've seen this side of a Sunday morning political talk show.  Heaven forbid you turn in a playoff-less season or *gasp* a losing one.  Rarely does the media show you any mercy.  You more or less have to earn it.

Snyder should be damn thankful he isn't in that market.  If he sued one paper for giving him the business, he'd either go bankrupt paying lawyers suing pretty much every media outlet in New York City or wind up in the fetal position in his bathroom sucking him thumb and sobbing.

Toughen up or sell the team to someone who's got a plan or at least a tolerance for pointed criticism.  And don't clog up the judicial system with frivolous lawsuits.

Jack McCoy is not happy with you clogging up the judicial system.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

11th Hour, 11th Day, 11th Month

Today, 11 Nov, is Veteran's Day in the United States.  (Elsewhere in many other countries, it is Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.)  I implore you to immediately drop what you're doing and go thank a veteran in your life.  Hell, go out and find a random veteran to thank.  (Veterans in the DC area, you've been put on alert for my presence.)  Take him or her to Outback for a blooming onion.

The origin of the holiday not only in the United States but the world over is signing of the armistice to end the major hostilities of World War I.  For many other countries, such as the members of the former British Empire, France, Germany, and Belgium (can't forget those plucky Belgians), the day definitely has a large focus on the First World War.  For the United States, due to the somewhat limited engagement it had during the war, it doesn't ring too much with the national conscience.  Nevertheless, it was a major conflict that Americans gave their lives to.

Which brings me to the main driving point: Where is the memorial for the WWI veterans and casualties?  We've got one for WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.  What about the doughboys who went over with General John "Blackjack" Pershing?  What about the US Marines who got trapped in Belleau Wood?  Don't they deserve some sort of memorial among the other veterans?  Such was the concern raised by the last veteran of WWI in the United States.

Technically, there is a memorial to the veterans of WWI on the mall, but it's a bit off the beaten path.
Okay, really off the beaten path.
The DC War Memorial was erected in honor of its 26,000 citizens who served in WWI.  On it are the names of each life the conflict took from DC.  Its seclusion is unfortunate and yet poignant in the same way, a way of signifying the unfortunate status befallen upon many WWI veterans who never really got the legacy they deserved in the national consciousness.  I had never heard of the monument and found it by accident as I was moseying my way around the National Mall between the various other more notable memorials.

There has been a push to rededicate the memorial to honor all veterans and casualties of WWI.  Now while a part of me wishes they would have the same treatment the WWII memorial has been afforded, on the other hand, it would be nice to have more people at least know about the memorial dedicated to the people who served in WWI, if only to make sure no one forgets them.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Run Through the Jungle

Washington DC, being the nation's capital, will every so often attract hordes of people for some sort of event or another.  Sometimes I couldn't care less.  However, this weekend was the weekend of the Rally to Restore Sanity/March Keep Fear Alive, created and devised by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, respectfully.  I thought to myself, "Okay, that sounds neat.  I can totally roll with that.  Jon Stewart is a funny guy from New Jersey and Steven Colbert is a Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast, two things I can support.  What's there not to like?"  Oh lord, was I in for a surprise...

What I attended was something less than the experience my friends did to watch the Obama inauguration in the cold on a television.  I didn't get to even see the damned thing on a television.  Instead, I got to take pictures of clever signs.

The theme of the rally.
Now, granted, it wasn't that horrible of a time, as I was with friends as we milled around on the mall getting that exercise that cubicle jockeys are deprived.  Nevertheless, I'm sure we would've had a bit more fun sitting around watching it on the television with a few drinks.

The day started off innocently enough.  I woke up a bit rough from the night before, as a few friends had rolled into town and I decided to go out and hang out with them for a bit while they were in town.  So I was a bit weary as my friends gave me a friendly morning text and phone call.

After I straighted myself out and made sure I put on non-stained clothing, I trudged out my door and went to the metro station with my friends.  It was a bit packed, but I was fully expecting the crowd level at the station.  It was an event, and I've seen somewhat similar crowds around when there's some sort of other event in DC. I can deal.
I also found Waldo.  Hell yeah.
However, once we got on the metro, you could sense that things were going to be fairly tight, if you will.  It was pretty packed once we rolled through a couple of metro stops, such that people on the platform figured they'd just wait for the next train instead of getting a deep tissue massage on my abdomen from a stranger's elbow.
First person view of having a deep-tissue massage on the Metro.
So we finally get off at the metro in downtown DC and make our way slowly through the crowds and such to the rally area.
But I did see some helpful signs along the way.
We finally get there and start seeing the crowds pile up a bit.  Okay, perhaps more than a bit.
Picture definition of "crowds piling up a bit."
It got pretty crazy.  The crew of people and I tried valiantly to find some sort of spot in the horde worthwhile enough to camp out in and get a halfway decent view of the event.  We wandered our way up towards what we believed to be the front of the stage.  In reality, however, we had no real idea that was where we were headed.  I was perfectly happy to follow the crowd if it brought me to any combination of coffee, food, and napping cots.
I also would've have settled for a bowl of pho.
Despite our best efforts, we could not wade into a better vantage point.  Every point we tried getting a view of the actions, we were thwarted by a combination of distance and the sheer thickness of the crowds.  Nevertheless, we trekked on through the morass of humanity that flooded the mall.
"Morass of humanity."
We finally decided on a spot that was semi-close enough to the stage and a screen that it was almost tolerable.  (Key word there is "almost," if for some reason the italicized text doesn't show.)  However, we still were fairly far from the stage and thus could barely hear what was going on and could barely see the stage or the screen.

Now what really irked me while I was standing there was seeing the vast swatches of empty space in front of me prime for the taken.  Prime for the taking, that is, if there weren't metal fences in front of me giving me the internal organ deep tissue massage of a lifetime.  So while we were herded on the outside looking in, there was plenty of empty space ripe and ready for the taking...right in freaking front of us.
Empty space waiting to be utilized.
What the heck were they trying to do with that free space?  Now I heard the explanation that it was for just in case something happened that the appropriate authorities could get there in time.  Of course, I heard this explanation as I was trapped in between a crowd of at least eight or nine deep and a metal fence.  I'm sure the authorities would've had a fun time getting to me.  But of course, I was one of the commoners on the outside.  Why would they care?

It got fairly contentious.  One woman decided that the fence was not enough to hold her back and slipped through.  The people working the "concession stand" in front of us caught her and immediately called over the police.  Naturally, the crowd started booing and started voicing their displeasure.  One of the guys next to me started getting into it with the concession stand workers and it got fairly heated.  I do believe that the phrase "Stop snitching" was uttered.  I had to explain to one of the people with me what it meant.

We eventually decided the value of our time standing there and watching what we believe were Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the stage (it also could have been marionette puppets for all we know) wasn't worth it, so we decided to go around and look at signs.
I guess he gave up too.
Probably could've found the latter a bit easier that day.

The best view of the stage we got...from behind.
We eventually left and made a stop at one of my compatriot's relative's place for luggage.  After a brief respite to rest our tired legs and to wet our parched throats, we decided to hop on the Metro for what would be a fairly easy ride home to rest some more and prep for the Halloween festivities we would be attending that night.

Of course, it was anything but fairly easy.  Apparently it was a record-setting day for the Metro and Comedy Central declined to fork over $29,000 for extra service (while the Marine Corps Marathon organizers gladly paid that amount, mind you).  As such, we were stuck on the platform for an eternity, watching full trains of Metro cars roll by with little to no hope of squeezing ourselves and the luggage with us in there without creating a few broken ribs and earning the ire of a few people.  We also saw a few trains roll in that were not taking passengers as it was somehow their terminal stop.  The collective morale and willpower of the group was whittled down.  After a few of the full trains rolled by, there was a collective chant from our group of "USA! USA! USA!"  The Rally to Restore Sanity at this point became a rally to frustrate and irritate us.

One of the guys with us had the bright idea to go to a station down the line and board there.  After watching a few more full trains roll by, we take him up on his idea.  The plan works and we manage to get on a train four stops south of our original position.  At this point, I've been broken down.  I probably would've agreed to most anything if it got me home.  It got so bad that somewhere along the way, I exclaimed with glee "OH MY GOD IT'S GUMBY!" when I saw someone dressed as Gumby get on the Metro.  It was that sad.
I was ready to make him my lord savior at that point.
We manage to make it back home with enough time to grab some Chik-fil-a (god that was the best chicken sandwich I've ever had in my life), get some residual Halloween stuff, and get ready for the night's festivities.  I was just glad the whole ordeal was over and was ready to just forget the entire ordeal, including the four hours spent on the Metro.

And an hour and a half later, we were dressed in our Halloween costumes...back on the Metro.

While I could gripe on and on about the mishandling of the entire thing by the crack team at Comedy Central and the basic meaninglessness of the entire thing, all in all, it was a good time spent with some fun people and good friends.  I'm sure we all bonded as we herded from place to place while I made snide remarks and witty comments every few yards.

That or my friends are looking to push me on the Metro tracks on the way back from another major DC event.
They look like good sports, right?  Right guys?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Constitution Lesson

A little less than a couple weeks ago was Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.  As I was picking up lunch (a two out of three patriotic red Thai curry on white rice, as apparently "blue" is not a dish), they were giving away free pocket versions of the US Constitution.  "Hell yeah," I thought, "this should come in handy should I need to whip out some Constitutional knowledge."  Well, today's the day.

Everyone knows the warm and cuddly figure known as Ann Coulter.  You know, the tall, blonde super-Republican who highlights how not easy on the eyes Rush Limbaugh is in in any kind of lighting.

Cuddly if you're a praying mantis or a Nosferatu.
Recently, Ann Coulter got invited to Homocon (I am not kidding -- click on the link), a convention for homosexual conservatives.  Coulter got touted as "the right wing Judy Garland."  From what I've gathered on Judy Garland as a gay icon, that's pretty high praise.  I'm still waiting on being named a "Bruce Lee keynote speaker" designation.  Hell, I'd settle for the "Judge Ito Appreciation Award."  These guys are still searching for a "Hunter S. Thompson Literary Honor" designation.

Inviting her soon backfired, much like having Marion Barry at a seminar on corruption free government.  She soon decided that instead of saying "go gay GOP-ers!" or something like that she decided to let the crowd know how thankful she was for the totally spitting on it and grinding it under her stilettos made out of the charred bones of cute bunnies and shined with the tears of children.

"One of history's liberal diversity lovers" -- Ann Coulter (unsubstantiated)
Besides the other ridiculous points she made (like how kindergarten-level kids would learn about fisting), perhaps the most ridiculous point was that the 14th Amendment only applied to black people.  That's it.  Only  black people.  Not gays, women, other ethnic minorities, other minorities period...just black people.

Well, now that I have my handy-dandy pocket US Constitution and while it's still in its non-coffee-stained edition, I can go look it up.  One second...

[insert rifling through pocket filled with old receipts and gum wrappers]

...okay, here's the actual text for your own perusal (I'll provide a link if you don't believe me)

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. it refers to slaves, who were black, it doesn't exactly discriminate in terms of color, race, creed, ethnicity.  Hell, it doesn't even technically discriminate in terms of citizenship.  Note that it refers to "persons" and not "citizens."  So you didn't even have to be a citizen to receive the protections of the clause, a handy phrase in the amendment when being a naturalized citizen of the United States was pretty much damn near impossible.
You can touch my underpants, but you're not getting citizenship.
For the record, the Amendment has helped not only blacks but also Chinese-Americans (Yick Wo v. Hopkins, United States v. Wong Kim Ark), Hispanic-Americans (Hernandez v. Texas), women (United States v. Virginia -- women's admissions to VMI), illegitimate children (Levy v. Louisiana), people of different races who want to get married (Loving v. Virginia), and family people in general (Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs).  Family member rights!  Isn't the Republican Party all about "family values?  (List of some of the cases where the 14th Amendment has been citied...for better and worse.)

Now either the Supreme Court might've applied it incorrectly all these years (Plessy v. Ferguson, pretty much any WWII ruling involving Japanese people), but I'm pretty sure there's not hidden "blacks-only" clause within the 14th Amendment.  And really, that would pretty much defeats the purpose of the 14th Amendment.  It's like claiming the Alien and Sedition Acts enacted by John Adams were backed by the 1st Amendment or the dance your suspect did with "Mr. Billy Club" was totally 8th Amendment approved.

(Note: I know that women got left out, but they got the vote...eventually.  I'll give you that one.  But you got into VMI because of the 14th Amendment, right?)

Plus, I can imagine that it's pretty ludicrous that one would get up in front of a crowd of people and tell them that not only do they have no rights under one of the more important amendments of the US Constitution whey they not only specifically honored you with an invitation but also put you on their damned promo graphic.  Really, Ann Coulter?  Really?  Do you have any sense of modesty?  Or are you some sort of harpy who subsists on any sort of publicity?
Sketch of Ann Coulter.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Holy Crap It's Stuff

Many moons ago (okay, about five or six months ago), I was a graduate student pursuing a degree focusing on Public History.  Eschewing the technical intricacies of what exactly that means, one of the fields brought up time and time again was the issue of material culture and how to look at it as a historian.  In simpler terms, how to look at stuff and make history out of it.

Recently, one of my co-conspirators put up a blog post about how the discovery of some really old scotch transported by Shackelton's expedition in Antarctica really doesn't matter a whole lot.  To quote the poignant part of the article:
The Liquor itself has no historical importance, besides being liquor that isn't made anymore that was the drink of choice for a great explorer. He brought it with him to drink it. What's the point of leaving it? Would there be any difference If we just filled the bottles back up with wild turkey, and split the original liquor between the modern relatives of shackletons team, The modern explorers who uncovered it, and the scotch maker who will try to replicate it? It would be a serene moment for all of them, and the shackletons Scotch Whisky tale would have a great ending.
Mind you, the scotch that's been sitting there hasn't gotten any better (or worse, for that matter) sitting in the Antarctic ice, so it's not like you can taste the nutty texture or whatever scotch pricks like to wax poetic about when they're swirling the single malt in their flute glasses.  It tastes the same as it did back then.  What's so special about it is the association we have with the scotch.  Hell, it doesn't matter if it's scotch.  He could've carried with him a case of Natty Boh and if we found it now, we'd be oohing and aahing over it the same.

Delicious Natty Boh.

What matters really is the meaning we've associated with the item in question.  Sure it's a rare recipe, but in the end, all it is really is just really old scotch.  Nothing more, nothing less.   What adds value are the associations assigned to the scotch.  Attached to it is the name "Shackelton."  If we added the cachet of somewhat less famous people, it would just be really old scotch that wouldn't get the deference of a holy relic.

And this is why sometimes trying to incorporate material history is so difficult.  (See?  I eventually brought this back to academic matters.)  Things are inherently meaningless.  For example, someone might have an heirloom ring that might not be worth more than maybe $100 at best in the open market.  Yet to someone who knows the "inherent" "meaning" of the ring, it's worth can't be expressed with all the zeros in the world.  Or perhaps someone has a ratty old shirt they consider lucky.  Someone else might think the shirt would be better off used as a rag.  Things only have the significance given to them by regular human beings.  Any time a curator sticks something in a display at a museum, he or she is stating, "This is important and significant."  Before then, it was just some old junk sitting around in storage.

So take a look around you.  That crusty old plate that you've been eating your Chef Boyardee meals off of or the half finished bottle of Steel Reserve might one day be historically significant.  At least to someone.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Anthony Bourdain is My Hero

Being from New Jersey is much much different from being from somewhere else.  Outside of the well-entrenched stereotypes exhibited by the "reality" shows Jersey Shore (which I have written about before) and Real Housewives of New Jersey and the dramatic series The Sopranos, not much is known.  And while they have their accuracies, they don't tell the full story of the state.

He comes really super close.

Enter Anthony Bourdain, host of the show No Reservations on the Travel Channel.  Bourdain is himself a Jersey boy (from Leonia, home of a massive Japanese supermarket featured on the show) who achieved something that most everyone from Jersey has aspired to or at least entertained: making it big in New York.  (The exception are those people from the Philly area, but that's another story.)

What those folks near Philly can aspire to.

There exists an unmistakable edge that Bourdain has, however, that really distinguishes him from virtually every other chef or travel guide on a television.  He's not happy go lucky.  Innocence for him probably ceased once could start shaving.  He's rough and doesn't give a damn, and yet still receptive and open to various new and wacky things.  That edge is what makes him popular.  He's a breath of fresh air, tinged with a few drags of a cigarette.

Plus, he's just damned good-looking too.

Part of what I think that edge is the whole "being from Jersey" mentality.  There's always a chip on your shoulder.  You're somehow always viewed as second class, especially from those hoity-toity folks who reside on that island known as Manhattan.  Hell, even people from other states who probably matter as much as the vintage of cornmeal processed in their state have that attitude. (Know your place, Nebraska.)  And even when you make it big, such as being a successful chef, author, travel show host, and speaker like Bourdain, you've still got that edge that's a result of having always to compete.

Look!  He even likes the Ramones!

I can empathize.  I grew up in New Jersey, looking towards the city as the Promised Land.  I went to UMBC in the suburbs of Baltimore, MD, which sat in the shadows of UMCP, located near the power environs of Washington DC.  For most of my life, it hasn't been about where I am but instead looking to the place that casts shadows upon me.  You're continually looking up.

Not to say that's it's a horrible thing, mind you.  It seems to worked out well for Bourdain.  He's parlayed the crick in his neck and grimace in his eyes from looking up at the skyscrapers and big dreams in New York to something that's made him a multi-faceted superstar.  I will wager that someone like Anthony Bourdain would most certainly not have come from anywhere else but New Jersey.  While other patriarchal relationships exist all around the United States and the world, there's a uniqueness of the way it's conducted in New Jersey that makes it distinctive.  And it's that uniqueness that's earned Bourdain the admiration of thousands of fans and other people like me, who really wish they could parlay that sort of experience into a multimedia celebrity instead of really terse quotes that don't earn you invites to parties.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Advocacy on a Full Belly

Sometimes I really wonder about some of the activists out there.  Okay, maybe I wonder all the time.  Things that could contribute greatly to progress (in my opinion), such as nuclear power, are being halted because of activists.

One of the things that's irked me for a while is the whole uproar about so-called "Franken-food" or (more properly known as) genetically modified food.  From what the advocates say, it's something out of a real bad miniseries on the SciFi (sorry, SyFy) network.  You'll eat it and freaky stuff will start happening to you or something.  Although if the comic books are right about that, I wouldn't mind.

If Franken-food means this, gimme my lab-engineered corn now.

BBC columnist Jonathan Jones wrote an interesting piece about the great benefits that "Franken-food" could provide the world -- if only those damned activists would get off it's tail.  To me, it seems highly pretentious of us in the first world lording over the rest of the globe telling them that their people have to starve because it makes us feel icky on the inside to genetically modify crops which could save millions of lives each year and greatly improve the quality of life tenfold.

Sure, there's some argument to be said where once we start dicking around with plant genomes and stuff, eventually we're going to get to the point where we're engineering the optimal human for god knows what sort of immoral purpose we could concoct.  While that is a remote possibility, the fact remains that we're A) dealing with plants and B) speeding up processes that would naturally happen. We're not making hybrid pig-humans here.  We're finding plants that'll survive in hardier conditions and selecting them for reproduction, something that botanists and agriculturalists the world over have been doing through sheer trial and error for a while.  

Man-Bear-Pig: Not cool.

So until scientists have developed some sort of genetic abomination that's a cross between the Yeti and a sunflower, don't sit there with your full belly and tell me that Franken-food is wrong.