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When History Gets Personal

13 Jul

Like so many others, I’ve been swept up in “Hamilton“-fever. I’ve listened to the musical’s soundtrack on repeat, I’ve watched video after video of its cast, I’ve fawned over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s thought-provoking Tweets and speeches. I could sing much of the soundtrack for you at this point – though I guarantee you don’t want to hear me sing. I’ve read the show’s plot synopsis too, trying to envision what action accompanies the show’s masterful lyrics. But the other day, as I queued up the soundtrack yet again, I started wondering about the characters’ real-life stories, beyond the musical numbers and creative license of a Broadway show.

I started by Googling the Schuyler sisters, who comprise the female protagonists in “Hamilton the Musical” (and also sing one of my favorite songs from the show). Eliza Schuyler became Hamilton’s wife, so I figured I’d start there. Googling inevitably took me to Wikipedia, where I pored over Eliza’s biography. The story of how Eliza met Alexander caught my eye – but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t the details of their courtship, or hard-won approval that I found interesting. Instead, it was where they met: Morristown, New Jersey.

Eliza Marriage.pngYou see, I spent time in Morristown too. I stayed there for a few months in 2010 to do a consulting project a couple towns over. In my personal history, Morristown is another marker on my “memory map”: a place I have summarized to represent a particular moment in time. When I think about Morristown, I remember the friend I made on that project, our attempts to get (good) pizza delivered to the client site, my first ever Tres Leches cake from a nearby restaurant. I think about the assignment I was on and what I gleaned from it. I never got to explore Morristown beyond my day-to-day life, so my associations with the town are purely personal, and relate to my own experiences.

But isn’t it sort of mind-boggling to think about all the things that happen at any given spot? 230 years prior to my discovery of Morristown’s best Tres Leches cake, Eliza Hamilton discovered her future husband in that very same town. Long before I made a new friend on my work assignment, Eliza befriended Martha Washington just a flew blocks over. Like Alexander, I was sent to Morristown for work. But my client’s technology didn’t even exist during Alexander’s lifetime!

I’ve always been fascinated by the way personal memory, collective memory and “history” overlap. It boggles my mind to think about all the things that have happened at a particular site. Not just the monumental moments, but the things that make up “normal” people’s personal histories.  Reading about Morristown reminded me of the many layers that make up every physical location we see. For every “history marker,” there are plenty more things that happened in that place, that mattered to someone, who maybe just wasn’t famous.

Think of all the mysteries that lie beneath the surface everywhere we step. What else happened there before now? Who else crossed that point? Who do we “share” that spot with? And in 200 years, will it be an important place for someone else’s story?



Step In Time (Picture Prattle)

12 Nov

1974177_10100420981311902_9040177066353721022_o (1)I came across this creek as I wandered around Austin earlier this year. I was walking through a residential neighborhood on my way from Point A to Point B, and decided to delay my arrival by just a few minutes so I could stop and stare. For some reason the creek captured my attention, and then my imagination. I thought about what it must have been like to wander the area before it was full of subdivisions and beer gardens. It made me imagine what it would have been like to move west to Texas from another part of the U.S., eager to explore and lay down new roots. Something about that creek felt magical to me, and transported me back to an earlier time. It’s weirdly easy to forget that all the land we see around us was empty at some point. That our city blocks were once pure nature. That our highways were once open land. Especially for someone who grew up in well-developed suburbia and now lives in a well-developed city. It’s nice to remember that our neighborhoods weren’t always so plotted and constructed and bustling. Sometimes it’s nice to step back to a time when the land was more raw, the area less developed, the nature less disturbed. Sometimes it’s nice to stop your quest from Point A to Point B and just stop, reflect, and enjoy.

So I stood there, staring at this creek, thinking about discovery and nature and the beauty of contemplation. And then I went on my merry way down the street, back to the world of vintage stores and food trucks and music halls.

Meet Me At The Fair

2 Nov

What do sewing machines, electrical outlets, and elevators have in common?  They were all introduced to the public for the first time at a Universal Exposition, more commonly known as a World’s Fair. As I’ve written before, World’s Fairs used to be the go-to place to pioneer inventions and ideas. Sure, Fairs had rides and shows and concession stands. But visitors also expected to see inventions and get a preview of what companies were going to sell next. This was the public’s best chance to learn what was happening all over the world, to get excited about the future, and to feel engaged in the global experience.

While in college I stumbled upon a collection of diaries and newspaper articles written by people who attended the grand World’s Fairs of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. I got sucked into these travelers’ journeys, intrigued by what it must have been like to wander the fairgrounds. The combination of discovery, amazement and, often, disappointment, was fascinating. World’s Fairs inspired these travelers to think about their own place in society, analyze their homeland’s reputation, and predict how things were going to change next. Everything from their interactions with people from another country to their explorations through corporate-sponsored exhibits made an impression, and shaped their point of view.

Recently I read a letter written by Isaac Asimov about his visit to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. As a biochemist and author, Isaac was certainly qualified to analyze the technology he saw on display. But rather than simply talking about what he saw, he predicted what people would see at a similar Fair in 2014.  His letter starts by talking about an attraction sponsored by General Electric at the ’64 Fair: the precursor to Disney World’s Carousel of Progress ride. The Carousel of Progress is comprised of four rooms, each set in a different time period to show the evolution of American life and technology over time. The final room is set in the future, as a statement on what may come. With the Carousel as inspiration, Asimov dug into his predictions.

Some of his predictions are about technology: appliances without electrical cords, better robots, moving sidewalks that crisscross entire cities. Others are about food: the rise of non-meat proteins and algae as alternative food sources. He talks about how the population of the world will grow so big, cities will have to move structures and people underground to make space. That ceilings and walls will use electroluminescent panels. That we’ll have contactless, airjet travel instead of ground transport.

A few of his predictions have rung true – we do have 3D TVs and video-conferencing technology, and soy protein sure is on the rise. The most interesting prediction, though, is his expectation that we’d be bored. Asimov assumed that the world would be so automated, so machine-dependent, that humans would essentially have nothing to do. In his words: “the lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.” This hasn’t come true – but it’s certainly a big scare of our generation. We see article after article telling high school students what major to choose so their skills don’t become “obsolete.” We see warnings to find a job that can’t be automated. We hear about layoffs due to better technology. Of course, the concern today is unemployment and lack of income, not boredom.

There’s actually a World’s Fair next year – yes, they still happen. Expo 2015 is going to take place in Milan, with the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Given the theme, I don’t think there will be too many of the inventions Asimov predicted to see in 2014. But I’d love to see someone take his letter to the Expo and compare it to the technology on display. Or better yet – why don’t I do it myself? Anyone want to buy me a ticket to Italy?

In 2008, I went to an International Exposition in Zaragoza, Spain. International Expos are smaller and shorter than Universal Expos like the one in ’64 and the upcoming Milan 2015. Zaragoza’s theme was “Water and Sustainable Development,” so a lot of the exhibits focused on water in one way or another. Here’s some shots to show you how that plays out.

Traces of History

30 Mar
A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas' Ransom Center

A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center

Last weekend I saw one of the Gutenberg Bibles. I only knew it was a Gutenberg Bible because a placard told me so. Otherwise, it bore no signal of its importance. Just looking at its pages gave me no sign that it was one of the first substantial books ever printed with moveable type.

Last weekend I also saw what’s called the “first photograph.” It was barely visible, the actual image faded since its production over 180 years ago. I only knew it was the so-called first photograph because it was in a special exhibit with information cards that told me all about it. Otherwise, it just looked like a reflective surface in a decorative frame.

Sometimes, historical things just look like things. To the naked eye, neither of these objects looked particularly important. Sure, they looked old. But there are lots of old things out there, and only some are bestowed with a particularly significant meaning. For all the old books out there, a very small fraction are protected by layers of glass and temperature-controlled technology. To really appreciate these sorts of objects, you have to think about what they mean, not just what they look like. We’re quite used to books and photographs in today’s world, so why should an old book or photo catch our eye?

With all the books around us today, it’s easy to forget that at one point in time, the Gutenberg Bible was proof of astounding innovation. Moveable type, and the inventions that followed, made it possible for more people to have more books. It improved literacy, and changed the future of education. It changed how stories were passed down between generations.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

Looking at the Gutenberg Bible, it sure didn’t look like much. But when you take a couple of steps back in your head, and think about what that book means  – it’s hard to not feel a sense of awe. That book represents so many changes to society, and so much wonder. The mere fact that the book was printed so long ago in 1454 or 1455 makes it pretty impressive. Then add on the layer that it took 3-5 years to print this single copy. Then the fact that there’s only 21 complete copies around today. Suddenly the book feels much more meaningful. Then take another few steps back, and reflect on how much this book changed society, forever. And suddenly, that weathered, leather-bound book in front of you shouts “revolution!” from its pages.

In 500 years, maybe someone will stand in front of a glass-protected copy of one of the first things produced by a 3D printer. And perhaps there will be placards explaining how the 3D printer worked, and why it changed society. Maybe there will be stories about 3D printers bringing clothes and food and medicine to the masses, improving health and nutrition all over the world. And a 20-something girl will find herself staring at the printer, wondering what it must have been like to live in an age where the mere act of instantaneous object-printing was something to celebrate. And she’ll take a step back, reflect a bit, and think about the traces of history before her eyes.

Your Attention Please

25 Nov

You know those announcements that warn you when a moving sidewalk is about to come to an end? I’ve always found them odd. I mean, we all know how to use moving sidewalks, right? Of course, there’s probably a lot of people these days who are staring at their phones instead of the world around them. But that aside, it’s always seemed unnecessary to have so many warnings that the sidewalk is about to end.

Photo from Paris en Images, via the Parisian Fields blog

The announcements also make me chuckle though, because they remind me of an anecdote I read years ago about the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. Today we see moving sidewalks everywhere from subway stations to malls. But back then, moving sidewalks were a novelty. They’d only premiered 7 years before, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. So for most people at the Parisian fair, this was their very first time seeing a moving sidewalk, let alone riding one. And apparently, a lot of them managed to fall over. At the end, during the ride- they just weren’t sure how to handle the whole the-ground-is-moving thing. So for them, announcements and signage warning them about how to use the sidewalk were quite necessary.

In the early 20th century, the concept of an automated moving system was rather thrilling. The sidewalk drew large crowds, and a lot of media attention. In fact, there were all sorts of proposals to construct city-wide sidewalks that would turn the technology into a mode of public transit. Of course, we all know that didn’t happen (though I wouldn’t oppose escalators built into the hills of San Francisco!) But to the people at the fair it was a beautiful and exciting dream. 

One more moving-apparatus fun fact while we’re at it, courtesy of a book I read on early U.S. department stores. When escalators were first installed in stores in the 19th century, shoppers weren’t quite sure how to use them. They soon got the hang of ascending via escalator- but were a bit more afraid of descending. So they’d take the escalator up, and the stairs down! At least they let the machine do the hard work.

Check out this awesome footage of the 1900 moving sidewalk (or as i was known then, “le troittoir roulant”:

Everyday People

6 Nov

Today’s a pretty important day over here in the U.S. Some might even call it “historic.” And while I certainly don’t want to diminish the significance of today’s elections, I’d like to direct your attention to a different kind of a history, just for a few minutes.

The other day, the administrator of a historic home explained to me that they can’t declare that anyone famous lived/slept/breathed there without very concrete proof, i.e. a visitor log, belongings that were left behind, DNA, etc. That’s why hotels tend to have more “so and so was here” signs than other places- they have guest registers and are more likely to have the right info to make the claim. It made me giggle to think of just how many hotels would be able to put up “Felicia slept here” plaques if I were to become famous. After all, I’ve stayed in at least 20 hotels in the last year alone. You’re welcome, hotel friends!

But if I don’t become famous, it’s not like that history disappears. My everyday, personal history still matters, and it’s still there, seeping around the corners of the places I’ve been. It may not be evident to anyone else… but it’s undeniably there. As I think back to all the places I’ve lived and visited, I have very vivid memories of what happened at specific intersections, in particular restaurants, etc. That’s my everyday history- it’s the things that have happened to me and have shaped my life. Some of them may be classified “monumental” on my personal timeline- e.g. graduating from college- but others are simply memories of a really lovely afternoon or a particularly great first date.

You know when you walk through a historic site and there’s little plaques everywhere telling you what happened in each exact spot? Now imagine doing that to the town you live in. Where would those plaques go? What moments would you deem important enough to mark? What moments would you keep to yourself? It boggles my mind to think about how many people’s lives have played out in the exact same places, unbeknownst to anyone but the parties involved. For example, there’s a spot in the main square of Madrid that I specifically associate with meeting a particular new friend. But that square has been integral to Madrid since at least the 15th century. So, I wonder, how many other sets of new friends have met in that same spot? What other personal histories have played out there? If I were to round up 25 Spaniards and take them to that spot, would it also be on their personal history guided tour? Or, maybe, they would have never even noticed that spot before, and they’d be surprised to hear I find it so important.

I know you all want to get back to monitoring your Facebook newsfeed’s reactions to Election Day, so I’ll wrap up here. But when all the hoopla of the Election has died down a bit, I encourage you to rewind your brain and think about what happened to YOU, specifically, over these few days. Elections and voting aside. YOUR life, the apolitical part. Because maybe what happened to YOU, personally this week is not going to change the way our country is run- but it might be an important part of the Biography of You.

Don’t Know Much About History

23 Oct

Do you ever wonder which events and people of our time will make it into the history textbooks of the future? As I read articles about the Occupy X movement this morning, my mind started planning how information about the protests would be laid out in a book- the section headers, the subtitles, the pictures. I’m very positive the protests will make it into the next generation of U.S. government text books. I’m sure the BP oil spill will, too. But what else will make the cut?  I read a book in college that consisted of several different accounts of the same event, told from the perspective of a handful of various characters. The point was that anyone’s version of a story is just that: a version. Details may be left out or added, often unintentionally, but per that person’s point of view. The same seems to be true for text books, in my mind. Editors have a great task at hand to figure out what is “relevant” enough to include. There is likely some system for ranking possible content that I simply am not aware of but really, the power to decide what is included is rather curious.

And what about the way that we excavate old places? For some reason about a decade ago I started thinking about how future generations would analyze our culture. If they came across a crumbled old house and searched through its contents, what would they think? What if the only music they found was a Britney Spears CD (circa 2000)? How would that affect their interpretation of what our society was like, and how would that contrast to their interpretation if they only found a Metallica CD?

I know that history and cultural studies require the experts to sift through many sites, many examples, etc. and that the “facts” aren’t based on a sole account or sole excavation. But still, I like framing what happens in the world against questions like: “Is this event significant enough to be discussed in 5 years? 10? 100? Are my future (hypothetical) children going to know what happened on this day in history?” And more importantly… “Will they care?”

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