Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day 62/365 Postcard From The States

Dear World,
We're back.
Sorry it took so long.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 61/365 Inauguration Oddities

Since tomorrow is packed with running and watching and generally being overcome with delight at the change in administrations, I thought I'd add this post tonight.

The inaugural pomp and circumstance has changed over the last 233 years, not in the least because the crowd on the Mall tomorrow is estimated to be almost more than the population of the entire country at the first inauguration. (In 1790 our population was around 3 million, but only 2.4 million were free, and of those, less than 39,000 were eligible to vote (meaning less than 39,000 were old, rich, white guys, who also owned enough property to qualify to vote).

Yes, Virginia, you had to qualify age-wise, race-wise, financially, *plus* you had to actually own enough land. Meaning even if you were a 30-year-old dashing young gentleman with impeccable pedigree from the finest white family, if all your ancestral lands were in England, you still couldn't vote over here.

One thing they were progressive about: the polls were opened for 3 weeks for voting, and the results were determined by run-off: George Washington ran unopposed, but 11 guys ran for Vice-President, and the one who got the most votes won (John Adams).

Washington's inaugural was held in New York on April 30, 1789, and paid for entirely by private citizens. His wife, Martha, didn't even bother making the trip.

Thomas Jefferson was sworn in on March 4, 1801, and was probably the only president to walk both to and from his inaugural, which was the first held at the U.S. Capitol. This was also the first time the local newspaper saw fit to publish the text of the inaugural address.

James Madison was the first to invite the U.S. Marine Band to play for the first inaugural ball (1809).

In 1825, John Quincy Adams was the first president to be sworn in wearing long trousers. One may assume this was because male fashions changed, not because the previous presidents showed up minus pants.

Lincoln's vice-president -Andrew Johnson- also holds the dubious distinction (as far as is known) of being the only VP (and probably the President), to take the oath while completely drunk.
Johnson had been suffering from a head cold, and took several large glasses of whiskey to get him through the speech. During the speech not only was he noticeably drunk, but almost fell off the platform. (the photo above is of that particular Lincoln inauguration -if you look closely you can see Andrew Johnson riding the wave in the mosh pit below the official platform -just wanted to see if you were paying attention)

Franklin Pierce drove to and from the Capitol standing up in his carriage, and broke with the tradition of kissing the Bible, prefering instead to merely place his hand upon it. Pierce also gave his speech without notes, speaking extemporaneously.

The first inaugural to be photographed was James Buchanan, in 1857. (Photography caught on, and documented the upcoming Civil War.)

Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in at the White House in 1877, for no apparent reason.

William McKinley had his inaugural recorded by a movie camera in 1897, and watched his parade from a glassed in reviewing stand (you'll see that tomorrow too, but now it's bulletproof glass, and heated)

Theodore Roosevelt was the only President not sworn in on a Bible, just lifting his hand instead.
There is no requirement that a Bible be used, or any holy book - just that an incoming president
swear that he (and someday, she) will serve to the best of their capabilities. Roosevelt also refrained from saying "so help me God" (which is not part of the official oath), preferring instead to say "And thus I swear".

President William H. Taft rode in the first automobile in his parade, and the dome of the capitol was illuminated for the very first time that night.

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson broke precedent by taking the oath on a Sunday, and allowing women to march in the inaugural parade (although he drew the line at allowing them to vote).

The first inaugural to be broadcast on the radio was in 1925 for Calvin Coolidge.

Television followed 24 years later with Harry Truman's inauguration in 1949.

In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower refused to kiss the Bible, choosing instead to recite his own improvised prayer. Odd, considering it was under his administration that "In God We Trust " was added to our money. But that's largely due to the insistence of Joe McCarthy, the icon of blacklisting and Communist witchhunting.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy broke tradition on more than a few fronts: he invited the first poet to the ceremony (Robert Frost), moved the ceremony to the Capitol's East Front, saw the parade coverage broadcast in color,was tha last president to wear the traditional stovepipe hat, *and*
used Army flame throwers to clear snow from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Richard Nixon was the first to use two Bibles for his swearing in in 1969. In hindsight, even two Bibles weren't enough to help Nixon.

Jimmy Carter was the first president (with his family)to walk all the way from the Capitol to the White House. Solar heat was used to heat the glass reviewing stand during the parade, and a provision was made for the first "handicapped" parade seating section.

Ronald Reagan outdid all the other Presidents for the most inaugural balls, including 10 balls held in Washington D.C., with transmission by satellite to 32 other inaugural ball sites around the country.

And finally...Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1997 was the first to be broadcast live on the Internet.

Tomorrow's inaugural will be full of another round of firsts. It's a proud day for America!

Day 60/365 On Being A Hybrid Southern White Girl on MLK Day

On September 15, 1963, I was sitting in my Southern Baptist Sunday School Class with all the other 8-year-old's, at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Like every other Sunday, we wrapped up the lesson, then went into the main sanctuary for the children's sermon, which would be followed by an hour of the adult's sermon. Then everyone gathered outside on the lawn for the potluck lunch, followed by the afternoon church league baseball game, and then the evening service. It was one of many, many, long Sundays.

But in Birmingham, Alabama, that very same Sunday morning, another little girl named Carole, a 14-year-old girl, spent her morning being dead.

Someone decided to bomb her church, right before Sunday School class, at 10:22 a.m.

A massive explosion shook the church to its foundation. The noise was deafening. The entire Sixteenth Street wall of the building collapsed into the room amid screams of terror. Broken glass flew through the air like bullets. Rocks and chunks of mortar crashed into the ceiling and into opposite ends of the basement. Those that survived said the incredible force of the explosion propelled the little girls through the air like rag dolls. "It sounded like the whole world was shaking," said Reverend Cross later in court. "And the building, I thought, was going to collapse!" All the stained glass windows in the upper part of the church were shattered. The basement room filled with fine dust and all the lights went out. But one windowpane, which later became symbolic of the explosion, had remained mostly intact. Only the face of Jesus had been blown away.

Of course I didn't read that till many years later.

But what I did hear was my name, Carole, on the radio the following morning, September 16,1963, while I was eating breakfast. Mom had it turned on every morning, and I pretty much tuned it out for the most part, but that morning I heard my name coming out of it, so my ears perked up.

That night while my dad was reading the paper, I saw the front page, again, with my name, spelled the same way as I spell mine, with an "e", something I hadn't run across until then.

The Carole in the paper was Carole Robertson. She was 14 years old and went to Sunday School just like me. Her mom was a librarian, and Carole was "an avid reader" and she wanted to "be a historian, or do something with history when she grew up". That Carole was older than me, but she was starting to sound an awful lot just like me. I remember wondering what kind of people bomb little girls who like to read.

My parents did not discuss the bombing with me. They didn't hold the paper out in front of me and point it out. But they didn't stop me from laying the newspaper out on the coffee table and reading the article slowly to myself. And they didn't flinch when I pointed out that the picture of the little girl had her name under it, and her name was the same as mine. There was no discussion of who, why, or whether it was right or wrong.

All those things seemed to be beyond discussion, as if some tipping point had been reached.

Thinking back on it now and trying to pinpoint when my perspective changed,
exactly when something changed my outlook, and meant I would never turn out like some of my Deep South cousins or neighbors, I think this is the pivotal event. Living in Louisiana in the late 1950s and early 1960s meant knowing how to read the words "white" and "colored" before you could even read Dick and Jane; it meant knowing that no matter how much you love your nursery school sitter, she would never come to your house for dinner; and it meant never questioning why the children of the maid were not in your school, much less sitting next to you in class. It just was the way it was.

But then, there was that tipping point.

And everything that was "normal" slid sideways, and righted itself in new ways.

For me it was because of Carole-with-an-e-Robertson.

For the grownups, it may have been because of speeches by other grownups, words that resound again today, and remind us that, thankfully, the tipping point is here again, and events are sliding into new places, to right themselves yet again:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy... The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Martin Luther King Jr I Have A Dream (8-28-63)

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.

Martin Luther King, I've Been To The Mountaintop (4-3-68)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Day 59/365 Pictures Worth A Thousand Words

Andrew Wyeth died this morning, in his sleep, at the age of 91. By odd coincidence, last weekend I sold a book of his artwork entitled Christina's World, and found myself paging through it (when I was suppose to be packing it). Somehow I lost an hour or so, just looking at Wyeth's incredible paintings and sketches. If I had looked more closely before, it never would have been sold.

Of all the paintings, Wind From the Sea is my favorite. I can almost feel the worn curtains blowing against my face.

Thank you, Mr. Wyeth. Godspeed.

Day 58/365 Lee-Jackson Day Served With Delicious Irony

Today's post was to be all about moonshine (it helps with the cold), but then it occurred to me that it was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, and the rest of you non-Virginians might enjoy our peculiar state holiday.

A bit of short pre-history: when we first moved here in 1997, we would see signs up at banks and libraries that they would be closed on Monday for "Lee-Jackson-King Day". Coming from old-time Virginia families I immediately recognized Lee and Jackson as part of the holy mantra muttered by my grandmothers, but it took a minute to realize that the state had officially rolled Martin Luther King Day together with the commemoration of its most prized southern sons.

Savor this moment.

It was either a conscious push back at a holiday the state really didn't want to recognize,or someone in the upper echelons of Virginia state regulations had a delicious sense of irony and restitution, not to mention a wicked sense of humor. I know it made me giggle everytime I saw a Lee-Jackson-King reference, something I can't say about any other holiday.

Unfortunately, several years ago, the tangle was straightened out -and now state employees get two holidays - today -Friday is Lee-Jackson Day, and Monday will be Martin Luther King Day.

Then on Tuesday, we will inaugurate our first black President. There is a beautiful, somewhat surreal, symmetry to it all.

This is the print that my grandmother had framed and hanging in her dining room. She got it from her mother-in-law, my great-grandmother, whose father served under Stonewall Jackson in the Fourth Virginia. This was not unusual room decor for that generation. Great -grandmother also had a second portrait of Stonewall across the room, plus the mounted-on-horseback one below and the top portrait of General Lee, the last two hung in promenient spots in the parlor.

I prefer this portrait of the 27-year-old Thomas Jackson from his VMI teaching days, before war and history turned him into a mythological legend. He looks thoughtful, and seriously grownup, but still open to possibilities.

Biographies of Jackson abound. He's one of the most researched figures of military history, and his lessons are still taught at VMI. But there are small lesser known tidbits, perhaps pertinent to this particular Jackson day:
  • During his teaching days at VMI (1851), Jackson took it upon himself to finance, organize and teach a colored Sunday School at his Presbyterian church. From his journal:

In my tent last night, after a fatiguing day's service, I remembered that I failed to send a contribution for our colored Sunday school. Enclosed you will find a check for that object, which please acknowledge at your earliest convenience and oblige yours faithfully. ( in a letter to his Pastor)

  • The Jackson family owned six slaves. Three were wedding gifts, two approached Thomas Jackson and asked him to purchase them so they could work for their freedom (which they did), and the last was a four-year-old orphan with a learning disability, brought to Jackson by an elderly widow from his church.
Upon joining the Confederate Army, Jackson assumed command of what would become the Stonewall Brigade, formed entirely of soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley, and including my great-great grandfather in the 4th Virginia. This brigade participated in almost every major battle fought in Virginia. My great-great grandfather was the first soldier from his county to be wounded (a fact constantly reinforced throughout my childhood) during the Battle of Manasses/Bull Run, returned to the fighting after recovery, and was wounded again at Chancellorsville/The Wilderness, recovered, and returned to the fighting, finally returning home for good after the official surrender at Appomatox.

Not that he ever mentioned this. Never. He never spoke of the war, or his experiences, to any of the family. What we do have is his dictated accounting, given on his deathbed, to his closest friend, a pastor, and signed by him in shaky, barely legible handwriting. We also have letters he wrote home during the war, describing the events with minimal, somewhat resigned, words: Marched 14 miles. No food. Small skirmish. No word as to tomorrow. And we have his official muster papers, and of course, the history books full of where the Stonewall Brigade was.

One thing we do know: Stonewall Jackson was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville/Wilderness by friendly fire, May 2nd,1863, then lingered for 8 days until his death. Harper's Weekly in New York published a full page obituary, as well as a full-page portrait. Somehow, my great-great-grandfather (still fighting with the Brigade, mind you) got hold of one of those full-page portraits and sent it home, folded up, with instructions to put it on the wall. Ninety-seven years later, I could sit at my great-grandmother's dining table, and still look at Stonewall's portrait. She use to say her father would have followed General Jackson into hell, if he had asked.

In honor of Virginia's peculiar holiday, and in light of its odd juxtaposition this year, of all years,
and while emphasizing that I am so incredibly proud that Virginia was firmly in the Obama column and helped to make history, still, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are deserving of their day.

In the words of Robert E. Lee's New York Herald obituary (October 12,1870):

Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us—forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony—we have long since ceased to look upon him as the Confederate leader, but have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us—for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be today unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.

“Never had mother a nobler son. In him the military genius of America was developed to a greater extent than ever before. In him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment. Dignified without presumption, affable without familiarity, he united all those charms of manners which made him the idol of his friends and of his soldiers and won for him the respect and admiration of the world. Even as in the days of triumph, glory did not intoxicate, so, when the dark clouds swept over him, adversity did not depress.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day 57/365 Sub-Zero Cold and Frozen Memories

You know how old people are always saying: "In my day, we walked 2 miles to school,in a blizzard" ?

Well, in my day, I walked 2 miles to school, in a blizzard. That was before they expanded the bus rules to include those of us who lived "close enough to walk". That was in Iowa, in high school. Then I got smart, moved further north to Minnesota for college, and ended up walking around in blizzards again, in sub-zero weather (also known as "normal" in Minnesota).

The photo above is to help you visualize the interstate driving experience during a Minnesota winter.

Or not. Because sometimes it's so bad, even the Minnesotans don't drive. And then the state police close these huge gates at the interstate entrance ramps. (And yes, there are always a few people these gates do not deter. They would be the ones found frozen in their cars, with only the car roof visible from the air).

One of the best winter experiences I ever had in Minnesota was in January 1975. Here's the official description of it:

Jan 10-12, 1975 one of the worst blizzards and strongest storms. Closed most roads in the state, some for 11 days, 20 ft drifts. One to two feet of snow, train stuck at Willmar, 15,000 head of livestock lost. Many low barometric pressure records set (28.55 at Duluth), winds to 80 mph, storm intensified over the state, 14 people died in blizzard, and 21 more from heart attacks.

Two months later, in March, a second round of storms hit:
100 mph winds, 20 ft waves on Lake Superior damaged shoreline properties, zero visibility near Duluth, which received 1 ft of snow from each storm.

But my all-time favorite was in March, 1985:

Blizzard with 6 to 24 inches of snowfall. Duluth reported winds to 90 mph, and huge multi-story drifts. Schools in International Falls closed.

At the time, I owned my first home, and this blizzard taught me to rake the snow off the roof as well as to avoid walking under 5' long icicles hanging from the eaves.

Eventually, you do get your garage dug out. The trick is to get both the garage and a path cleared out partially down the alley, so you can get a running start, but at the same time finishing quickly enough to make it to the end of the alley before the city plows come by clearing the side streets. If you do not beat the plow, you will have to stop your car to get out and dig through the 4' snow ridge the plow threw up across the alley exit. Or you can just lay in bed, listen for the plow, and then go out and do all your shoveling at one time -meaning you arrive to work sometime around 10-ish.

Work? Yes, people work in this weather. A blizzard is no excuse for not going to work. Nor are sub-zero temps. There are rarely school closings (note that official description above of the blizzard in March,1985 - they actually mentioned that International Falls schools were closed).

My kindergarten age daughter never missed a day of school until we moved south to Virginia.

So, this winter we all get sub-zero cold. Looking at the weather map Minnesota is at -29 below wind chill. Been there, done that. Dress for the weather and you'll be fine.

Interesting things that happen in sub-zero weather:

  • Cars and machinery and guns work much more slowly because the oils in them are gooey. (As in frozen gooey).

  • A human can dehydrate faster in sub-zero weather than in heat -so keep those water bottles with you, preferably inside your coat, where your body temp will keep them from freezing almost instantly. (If yours does freeze, don't knock it against your car's dashboard to break up the ice. This will literally crack your dashboard in half, since it is frozen too. Trust me on this.)

  • Blink a lot. It will keep the water in your eyes from freezing too much. You'll hear a crunchy sound as you blink, that'd be the ice crystals.

  • A ski mask would seem to be a good idea. However, if it covers your mouth and nose, your breathe will be funneled up across your eyelashes, where the moisture in it will immediatley freeze, and make your eyes stick shut.

  • Cover exposed skin in vaseline. It can freeze with less than a minute exposure.

  • Those mittens with flaps, and finger gloves inside don't work that well. Your fingers will get frost bit. Again, trust me on this.

  • At -30, contact lens will freeze right in their solution, even if you have them inside your insulated coat pockets, next to your sweater (and your turtleneck, and your silk long underwear, and your T-shirt).

  • The wind chill formula was re-vamped in 2001, meaning that what is now -50, was formerly more like -75. Dress accordingly.

If you are still wanting to brave the sub-zero, just to see what it feels like to inhale and freeze your lungs, here's a couple fun experiments:

  • Heat up a pan full of water to boiling. Carry it outside. Throw the water into the air. The water will disappear immediately, a la Harry Potter.

  • Spit. Yep, spit. Especially if it's -60. Spit freezes immediately at -60.

And finally, not to be attempted in a public place, and definitely much easier ifyou are a male, but works for women too: Pee. If it's -40, pee freezes. You could carve freaking ice sculptures from it.

How do I know this you wonder? Let's just say it was an ill-advised camping trip.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Day 56/365 One Last Look at Christmas..or...Cigarettes Are Good For Something

This was my mother's Christmas tree this year. It's the top of a cedar tree, with a handmade wooden board for a stand. Usually my folks cut a full size cedar from some corner of the farm,
and decorate it with white lights.

This year Mom decided to make a Christmas tree like she had as a child, growing up in an isolated part of the Appalachian mountains. My grandparents started their marriage in 1917 as sharecroppers (and occasional ridge runners). They moved from place to place depending on who had money to hire Grandad to pull in a crop, plus a house to shelter his wife and six kids.

Those houses were generally one step away from falling down, with newspaper insulation over the inside of the clapboard, woodstoves or fireplaces for heat and light, and plank flooring. This was the Appalachia of the 1930s. For reference, my grandmother got one electric lightbulb in 1946, and indoor plumbing when I was 15 (1970).

For a sharecropper in the 1930s and 1940s, Christmas was a low-scale affair. There was little money for food, or shoes (the kids got one pair a year, and were expected to kick them off when they got home from school to save wear. They did their chores, winter and summer, barefoot.)

So all year long, Granddad gave his empty cigarette packs to the kids. They carefully took out the liner foil, and pressed it flat, putting it away until the following December. In November they gathered round furry sycamore seeds and laid them out to dry.

Grandad would go out on Thanksgiving and cut a cedar tree, then nail it to a wooden plank for a stand. The kids would take the saved up cigarette foil, and wrap the sycamore balls with it, making ornaments for the Christmas tree. Extra foil was cut in skinny strands to make "icicles", while a cardboard star was covered with foil for a treetopper.

Each child placed a shoebox under the tree for Santa to fill. The ultimate Christmas present was an orange, maybe a candy cane if it had been a good year, and rarely, if it was a very good year, one small toy.

I hadn't heard my mother's Christmas memory before this year, but it reminded me that my own early Christmas' at my grandparents home weren't that much different. Instead of shoeboxes, the grandkids all had stockings, but they were still filled with oranges, and since my grandparents had moved up a bit in the world (now able to afford indoor plumbing and have electricity wired throughout the house) they could also afford to put mixed nuts in the stockings.
It never occurred to me that they were poor - I just thought it was a family tradition -the oranges and the nuts. To this day I can't eat either without thinking of my grandparents.