Another dream

Sunday morning I woke from a dream in which I was working in a library. Not that dreaming about library work surprises me—I work for a library now, and my very first job years ago was working for a library. The library in my dream was unlike any library where I have worked, but it was not an odd or peculiar library. What made less sense was the matter of what my job involved in working for the library.

I did not seem to have any set tasks or responsibilities, although at one time I was gathering information for a researcher to use. Much of the dream involved walking around the library, using back staircases and passing through administrative areas, overhearing the gossip of various departments, but not really accomplishing anything of note. At one point I crossed paths with a group of business leaders who were on a tour of the library, but I had no responsibility to guide their tour. Whatever my job might have been, it did not seem to require me to stay in one place or to perform any task to completion.

The best part of the dream, though, came at the end. I walked into an open-air meeting area with tables and chairs in place. Seated at one of the tables, with two or three other men, was Richard Nixon. I sat at the next table, hoping I would have a chance to speak with him. The other men got up and left, and Mr. Nixon greeted me. I moved to sit at the same table across from him. He first asked me if I had lost some weight. (For years, in real life, it has been common for people who know me and haven’t seen me for a while to remark that I seem to have lost weight. In fact, my weight has been surprisingly constant over a number of years. Evidently, people remember me as heavier than I really am. And those thoughts, true to the real world, went through my mind in the dream.) He asked how I was doing, and I asked him the same, and then he asked how my family was doing—all routine conversation, nothing that indicated that he had any interest in me or anything I might have to say.

But—and this is the most interesting aspect of this dream—without acknowledging to myself that I was dreaming, I was aware that this Richard Nixon was not simply Richard Nixon, but was Nixon from a particular time in his life. Before I could say much more to him, I needed to know where he was on his personal timeline. So I asked him about his family, trying to make it clear that I had a genuine interest, not mere courtesy. His first remark was to say that David had just turned twenty. In the dream, I knew instantly that he meant David Eisenhower, who would marry Julie Nixon. (David was not only the son-in-law of President Nixon but also the grandson of President Eisenhower.) If he had just turned twenty, I calculated, David had not yet married Julie, even though they must be engaged if Mr. Nixon was counting him as family. I gathered, therefore, that the Nixon I was addressing was Richard Nixon of the late 1960s, a Richard Nixon who had not yet been elected President.

I must have awoken at that point, because I don’t remember what I said to Richard Nixon once I knew the year he was experiencing. Later in the day, though, I did my research and learned that David Eisenhower was born March 31, 1948. If he had just turned twenty, then Mr. Nixon and I were in the spring of 1968. Nixon had announced that he was running for President and had won the Republican primary in New Hampshire, but he still faced serious rivals for the nomination: George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan. President Johnson had already announced that he was not seeking reelection, and the Democratic nomination was being sought by Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and others.

What might I have said to Richard Nixon that spring? I knew that he would receive the nomination and would win the election. I knew what challenges would face him as President. I could foretell his accomplishments and his disappointments. What would I have told him about the years to come? What promises might I have offered? What warnings might I have spoken? What things might have changed if Mr. Nixon and I could have spoken in the spring of 1968, given everything I know about his years in the White House?

I will never be able to answer those questions. More to the point, why would I dream about an opportunity to talk with Richard Nixon? Why would my dream mind have chosen that very time in his career for us to meet? Is part of my mind hoping that, like Nixon in 1968, I am about to enter the most important time in my life and career? If so, what doors might open for me in the coming months? How might I finally reach my potential and be of benefit to others? And what advice would President Nixon have to offer me this spring if we could meet and visit today? J.

History and sources

As a history instructor, naturally I explained to my students the meaning and significance of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from people who were there, those who took part in the event or who were witnesses of the event. Memoirs and autobiographies are, of course, primary sources. So are diaries, letters, oral histories, photographs, recordings, and receipts. Primary sources do not have to contain words: artwork and architecture can be primary sources, as well as tools, weapons, clothing, and other artifacts. Garbage is a great source of primary sources. (Imagine how much an investigator could learn about your family by examining your garbage from the last month!) Dead bodies and the artifacts buried with them are also great primary sources, although contemporary historians and archaeologists are showing greater respect for burials than was the case in previous centuries.

Secondary sources collect data from the primary sources, examine them, and draw conclusions from them. A soldier writes about sights and sounds on the battlefield, while a politician writes about decisions made in the halls of government; the author of a secondary source combines those perceptions to produce a fuller account of the war than either primary source could create. Secondary sources should contain notes and bibliographies listing those primary sources they used to form their interpretations, as well as which secondary sources were consulted to help the writers interpret those primary sources.

Newspapers, magazines, and web sites can be a mixture of primary and secondary source material. When a reporter quotes a participant or witness, that quote is a primary source; the rest of the article which describes and explains the event is a secondary source. Even those secondary sources become primary sources for the historian who wants to know how events were understood at the time, before historians began writing about an event and trying to understand and explain what happened, why it happened, and what it means for people today.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia articles (whether in print or online) are tertiary sources; so are textbooks. Student papers are tertiary sources. If a student only looked at the textbook and an encyclopedia or two and then wrote a paper, that paper would be a quaternary source, which is effectively useless. Junior high and early high school students might get away with that approach, but by college a writer should know how to read, evaluate, and summarize information from primary and secondary sources. The best uses of a tertiary source at that level of education are to get a general idea of what people are saying about the event and to consult the bibliography to find good secondary sources for research.

At this point, I ask the students if they agree with the statement that, “the more sources you have, the more likely you are to reach a firm conclusion about the event.” At first that proposition sounds reasonable, but too much information can be worse than not enough. Think of the assassination of President Kennedy. We have many primary sources—hundreds of witnesses who saw and heard the shooting, the doctors in Dallas who treated the President and declared him dead, the doctors in Washington who performed the autopsy, photographs, moving pictures, a bullet, bullet fragments, the President’s clothing, the car, and much much more. So many secondary sources have assembled interpretations of the event that probably no person can read and watch them all. Yet massive disagreement persists about what happened in Dallas that day. With so much information, researchers can choose those items and reports that match their theories while disregarding or dismissing contrary items and reports.

(Actually, good research affirms that the President was shot from behind. Analysis of the shirt and tie he was wearing confirm that the neck wound was an exit wound, not an entrance wound—as the Dallas doctors first thought and said. Still pictures taken from the Zapruder film clearly show the aftermath of the fatal head would exiting toward the front, indicating that the bullet struck him from the rear. Researchers who insist that other evidence indicates that shots were fired at the President from in front of the car must then explain how it was that those shooters missed their target—something I have not seen addressed in secondary sources.)

I have seen many sloppy works written by authors who deliberately skipped sources that did not agree with their preestablished conclusions, authors who misquoted and distorted their sources, and authors who relied on emotional persuasion rather than solid academic research to state their cases. These sloppy works are not limited to college students; they include professional historians, even some respected academic writers, who were more interested in publishing the conclusions they wanted to share than in being persuaded by the evidence of the sources that they were wrong. As I said before, historians have an obligation to be honest and fair with their information. The reputations of people from the past and the effective thinking of people in the future is in the hands of today’s historians. For this reason, I am very concerned about the way history is being taught in many classrooms today, and I am sorry that my voice is no longer among those being heard in those classrooms. J.

Teaching history

I miss being in the classroom. The COVID crisis helped the school for which I taught hasten its transfer from classroom teaching to online teaching. They had already been pushing that direction for some time. I took the training sessions but did not offer to teach online. The students who enrolled in my classes preferred to learn in the classroom. But when the campus was closed, the conversion to online teaching forced me to take a break in my college career. Now, I suspect, the break has become a permanent retirement.

My classroom was on a military base, although the school responsible for the classes is a state institution. Many of my students were active military personnel; others were family of active personnel, retired military personnel, and people from the community who enrolled through the state school. I had a few students older than me, while I also had students still in high school earning their first college credits.

I taught history. Occasionally I taught a class in world religions or in introduction to philosophy, but mostly I taught the survey history classes: World History to 1650 and World History since 1650. The year 1650 was arbitrarily chosen; it was the middle of the textbook. Even when the school faculty changed textbooks and the new textbook split around 1500, they didn’t bother to change the name of the classes. Sometimes I would challenge students to guess why the class either began or ended with 1650. I heard some good suggestions about the Industrial Revolution, the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, and other landmarks that might have happened around 1650; students groaned when I told them that the only reason the year was chosen was that it was the middle of the book. But I then made the point that we have as much information to study and learn about the past 370 years as we have for the thousands of years that preceded 1650.

Some of my student signed up for the class because they love history. Others took it only because they were required to have one class in history. I managed to benefit the entire range of students. People who think they hate history, more often than not, had history ruined for them by a bad teacher, one who forced them to memorize names and places and dates, to focus on trivia that is easily found online. I focused on teaching the bigger themes of history, giving students a reason to seek the details online. A survey class cannot spend time on details. Taking a survey class in history is like running through a buffet restaurant—one sees and smells some of the food available, and one can return later to sample the dishes that seemed most appealing. I had the students write some “compare and contrast” essays to force them into a bit of focused research: What similarities and differences can one find studying Napoleon and Hitler? What similarities and differences can one find studying Socrates and Confucius? I gave them choices so they could focus on topics most interesting to them (and so I wouldn’t have to read a dozen versions of the same essay). But mostly I invited them to see the vast themes of human history on this planet. We discussed migrations, wars, economic trade, and the spread of ideas. We talked about significant developments in technology, artistic expression, and philosophy. We analyzed the significance of geographic features, climate change at various times in history, foods, and diseases. At times we debated similarities and connections between past happenings and current events.

The first night we met was always exciting, and also a bit stressful, even anxiety-inducing. They would find out what kind of instructor I aimed to be and how their work as students would be evaluated; I measured how willing they would be to discuss ideas in the classroom and to share experiences that related to our lessons. For example, when we talked about the beliefs and practices of Muslims, some of my students were able to describe things they had seen in Muslim countries. One of the joys of teaching college is the presence of students who have learned things I haven’t learned or who have had experiences I haven’t had. I always invited them to share what they knew with the rest of us.

I also invited them to challenge interpretations of history, even those that were presented on the quizzes. I wanted them to see that history is more that memorizing a list of data; history is sorting the data, connecting the data, and interpreting the data. Historians sort through information, seeking understandings of what happened, why it happened, and what it caused to happen. Historians are allowed to disagree with one another. Sometimes I disagreed with the textbook. Students were allowed and invited to disagree with me—not to earn an extra point on a quiz, but to help all of us learn more about history. If they stated their case well, using valid information from the textbook or other sources, I gave them the point. If they were merely quibbling, I held to the point, defending it and showing how historians work to gather and share their understanding of history.

Near the end of the first night’s discussion, I told the class about President Nixon. In August 1974, Nixon resigned from the office of President—he is the only U.S. President to resign. The Watergate scandal that produced that resignation is complicated, and I did not describe it that first night. But I explained how distraught, discouraged, and depressed he was having to leave that important job that he had fought so much to gain and to hold. I then told the students how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tried to comfort the President by saying that history would remember him more kindly than his contemporaries. I also quoted Nixon’s response to those words, as he said, “That depends upon who writes the histories.”

I pointed out to the students that, by enrolling in that class, they had become historians. They were taking on responsibility—they would help to write the histories. They owed it to their subjects, and to those who would read their work, to be accurate and fair. They would need to do thorough research, to think clearly and deeply about the information they had studied, and to communicate their conclusions effectively, convincingly, and honestly.

I would like to believe that, over the years, I have helped to shape a few good historians. I miss being in the classroom. J.

Remembrance of opportunities lost

We all carry regrets from the past. What we cannot fix, we try to forget. Sometimes, though, the memories linger for a while; they refuse to be lost in the mists of time now expired.

I remember a college cheerleader—I’ll call her Lori. One summer she and I were among the first students to return to campus for the new school year. We first crossed paths at an all-campus party for returning students. I happened across this party by accident and remained at the edge, not wanting to be surrounded by the crowd. Somehow, Lori and I noticed each other and began a conversation. The conversation continued back at my dorm room. (Nothing else happened; we merely talked.) She encouraged me to attend a scrimmage the school’s football team was holding the next day. Because of her invitation, I went to the scrimmage. It seemed odd to me—the team was recreating the closing minutes of the game they had lost to our biggest rival at the end of last season. They were experimenting to see what might have happened with our new quarterback in charge of the offense’s final drive in the place of last year’s quarterback. The scrimmage was designed to turn into a pep rally (celebrating the win that might have happened but didn’t); the pep rally included a meal, and Lori asked me to attend, but I declined. I wanted to get back to my room and finish unpacking, and I wanted to see if my roommate and other friends had arrived. Although some of my roommate’s possessions were in the room, he was not around when I returned, but a couple of other friends were there. While we visited, Lori dropped in again. I meant to introduce her to my friends, but somehow—in the confusion of the moment—introductions were not made. Instead, I pulled out a wooden box I had made that summer. Picturing it in my hands today, it would have made a nice cage for a cricket or other large insect. One of my friends asked if it was made from toothpicks, and I answered no, that it was made from splinters pulled off an old railroad tie. I did not say this, but I was thinking that no cheerleaders had been around to encourage my work on this piece of art. It seems that somehow Lori read my mind, because she suddenly ran out of the room, sobbing. At that instant, I was torn—I wanted to go to her, to comfort her, to have her come back so I could introduce her to my friends and make her part of the group. At the same time, I was reluctant to leave my friends for her, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her. Before I could resolve the dilemma, I awoke.

Yes, this was all a dream and Lori, like the wooden art project, was only a creation of my dream mind. She didn’t even have a name in the dream; she was only “the cheerleader.” But the regret I felt was real. I appreciated our brief friendship, I wanted that friendship to continue to grow, and I hated the knowledge that I had hurt her feelings, even if it was only in my thoughts and in my dream.

I didn’t mention the earlier parts of the dream in which I visited a classroom where I had earlier taught a class, spoke with some of the students in that classroom, watched the new professor hand out candy and pizza to the students, then left and tried (but failed) to find my car in the parking lot, all of which led to the party where I met the cheerleader. I’ve been having (and remembering) a lot of dreams this year that are like this dream—vivid, filled with related happenings as well as people and places, and often shaping my feelings for the entire day following the dream. These dreams may be due, at least partly, to medications I am taking, but they obviously come from my own mind. I dream about people I remember—family and friends and coworkers, including some who have died, others who I haven’t seem for years, and some I still see nearly every day. At times the dreams are so vivid and realistic that I confuse them for memories of actual events or scenes from movies I’ve recently watched. (Did I recently see a deer, dream about a deer, or watch a movie that included a deer. That’s right—the deer was in last night’s movie.) In no way do I consider my dreams to be messages from God or predictions of the future. Dreams are mental problem-solving devices, managing hopes and fears, often in symbolic ways. But I still feel bad about upsetting Lori. If I could, I would let her know that I am sorry and that I still want us to be friends. J.

Long hair and Lynda

I have not had a haircut since December. Usually I get a summer cut in May—get my hair off my neck and away from my ears and generally short enough to be comfortable in the summer heat. But everything was closed in May. Even now, in the last days of July, I haven’t bothered to try to schedule a haircut. Most men around me have had their hair shortened this summer. I don’t know how many made appointments with professionals and how many are sporting a home cut. I may try for a home cut this weekend. Time will tell.

My hair is probably longer now than it ever has been. This week I tried to see if that is the case, looking back in high school and college yearbooks. There may have been a time during my second year of college when my hair was almost as long is it is now. It’s hard to say, but I think my hair is longer now.

Finding my portrait among my high school classmates, I happened to notice Lynda’s portrait. We have the same last initial (or did when we were in high school), so of course our portraits were on the same page. We also sat near each other for freshman math class—for the same reason, because the math teacher assigned us desks in alphabetical order. I remember noticing Lynda in that freshman math class—in fact, I noticed Lynda many times during the four years we were in high school. We never dated. We never had any long meaningful conversation. If she sensed that I liked her, I gather she didn’t feel the same about me. Nor did she ever make a point of telling me that she didn’t like me. We were just part of the scenery for each other during those difficult adolescent years of secondary education.

Having seen and noticed, Lynda’s high school picture, my mind added her to a dream last week. In fact, I remember part of that dream in which I was introducing her to my parents and other family members. Usually my mind works the other direction—it pops a person from the past into a dream, someone I haven’t thought about in years, and then that person remains on my mind for the next several days. This time, at least I have a reason to have dreamed about a long-lost acquaintance. But, after that brief glance at one photograph, followed by a dream, I have been thinking more about Lynda and about high school in general.

Last night I pulled out my high school yearbook for senior year and looking up pictures of Lynda. (I hadn’t bothered looking at that volume earlier, because I knew my hair was shorter senior year than earlier in high school.) I saw photographs and Lynda and me in the National Honor Society. I saw photographs of Lynda working on the school newspaper. I saw Lynda’s senior portrait and other graduation pictures. Many years have passed since I’ve seen Lynda, but her high school pictures remain unchanged.

One of the novels I have considered writing at times over the past twenty years would be set at a high school reunion. The main character and his wife would find themselves seated at a table with another man who looked much like the main character and also had the same name. But the main character and his doppelganger would have taken different paths in high school, gone to different colleges, followed different careers, and would have married different women and raised different families. This novel idea is loosely based on my own experiences—specifically a choice I made my sophomore year of high school when I did not have enough time to work for the student newspaper and also take part in the spring musical production.

Even though I wanted then to be a writer, I chose to abandon the newspaper and stay with the musical production. That, perhaps, has made all the difference. Most of my enduring friendships from high school have been with people involved in the spring musical productions. My writing career has largely been limited by other professional obligations. Many things in my life might have turned out very differently if I had stayed with the newspaper and dropped the musical. One of those things is that Lynda and I might have become close friends… might have dated… might have stayed in touch after high school graduation, maybe even attended the same college… might have gotten married. The list of possibilities is endless.

I never featured Lynda in any short stories. I never wrote a song for her. Aside from yearbooks, I haven’t kept a picture of her. And, unlike other schoolmates I have remembered and researched, I cannot find Lynda on the Internet. I’ve searched her name in various ways, and the most I have found is the same yearbook photographs I already have.

It could be a great work of fiction, though. What if, somewhere out there, Lynda has suddenly started remembering me and thinking about me? What if she wonders what ever happened to me and what I have accomplished since high school? If the two of us could time-travel and communicate with those awkward teen selves, what changes (if any) might we recommend to them? And, after all this time, what difference, at this point, does it make? J.

Ebony and Irony

Two dozen years ago Alanis Morissette had a hit song called “Ironic” which was annoying, for the most part, because most of the situations it described were merely contrasts of opposites, not ironic at all. Getting a free pass when you’ve already paid for a ticket—that, I will grant, is ironic. But rain on your wedding day? Where’s the irony there? Meeting your dream man and his beautiful wife? Awkward, perhaps, but hardly ironic.

Here’s some genuine irony for you. Imagine an author whose latest project is writing a book about depression. He wants to describe the condition, offer some helpful explanations of depression and some workable remedies, and—most important—make it clear that Christians can face depression in this sin-polluted world. Christians should not feel guilty about being depressed. (What a spiral into deeper darkness!) Christians should let no one tell them that, if they had more faith, they would not be depressed. Christians should stop expecting joy and flowers every step of the way. They should believe Jesus when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sale.” Christians should rediscover the meaning of “the dark night of the soul,” the time when faith grows strongest because it has no distractions from the power of God’s promises.

So, this author tries to write. But the writing goes slowly, because… the author is depressed. COVID-19 shutdowns and mask wars on social media and the politicalization of every event under the sun has this author too discouraged to put into words his lessons on depression. He wants to address how physical challenges and mental challenges and emotional challenges and spiritual challenges can share responsibility for a person’s depression; he also wants to discuss how the solution to depression includes physical factors and mental factors and emotional factors and spiritual factors. Maybe the July heat and humidity and clouds and thunderstorms are interfering with the author’s creativity. Maybe the author needs to take a week’s break from news sites and social media. Maybe some spiritual enemy wants to keep this book from being written. Or maybe, just maybe, the topic of depression is just too depressing for some authors to address at book length.

Isn’t it ironic?

I had two dreams last night. In one of them, I was playing in the outfield for the Chicago Cubs. I was not in uniform and had not signed a contract with the team, yet there I was between center field and right field during an official ball game. Twice I had to field ground balls that had found their way past the infielders for a single. In the other dream, I was visiting an old flame. (I hope you know what that means; I’m in no mood to stop and define my terms.) To me, the visit seemed awkward and I felt that I should leave. But she said she was happy for me to be there and encouraged me to stay. Now that I am awake, the dream puzzles me. It would far better match my frame of mind, short-term and long-term, if I had wanted to stay and she was insisting that I leave.

What does it mean?

We have passed the half-way mark of the eventful year 2020. I have the instrumental portion of Kansas’ “Song for America” running through my head, which is a worthwhile soundtrack for this summer afternoon. The cats are resting; the house is quiet except for an occasional outdoor rumble. I hope that your day and your summer are going well. J.

Binary writing styles

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide people into two groups, and those who do not.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who prefer that their toilet paper roll be served over the top, and those who prefer that the paper hang behind the roll. A few don’t care; and a lot of people in the world do not use toilet paper; but those facts disrupt the point I wanted to make.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have excellent math skills, those who have average math skills, and those who have poor math skills.

There are two kinds of writers in this world. One kind of writer, usually after creating an outline, writes a first draft of the introduction, then a first draft of chapter one, then a first draft of chapter two, and on to the end of the book. Afterward, those writers go back and edit their work, starting from the first page, making corrections, additions, deletions, and other improvements until they have achieved a final version of their book. The other kind of writer creates the book in sections, often writing the middle and even the ending before covering the beginning. Those writers then sift and sort what they have written, organizing their work into the best arrangement, as well as making corrections, additions, deletions, and other improvements until they have achieved a final version of their book.

I am the first kind of writer. Ideas brew in my head for weeks, months, even years, but they remain unwritten until I have created an outline that covers the ideas I have been carrying. After making an outline, I write the first draft of the article or book, starting at the beginning and continuing until I write the ending. Then comes the hardest part: evaluating each sentence and each phrase, deciding if every idea is stated in the clearest way possible, making sure that pronouns clearly reflect the nouns they represent, breaking long sentences into shorter sentences, discovering and eliminating needless repetitions of ideas, filling in jumps of thought that were not clearly handled in the first draft, and otherwise improving the article or book until I am ready to send it to the publisher.

There are two kinds of bloggers on WordPress and other platforms. One kind of blogger has an idea—perhaps a reaction to a recent news item, an event in his or her life, or an idea expressed by another blogger. Such bloggers write a quick draft representing their thoughts, perhaps read through their draft once to check for spelling and grammatical errors, and then post what they have written and go on to read other posts or accomplish other tasks. The other kind of writer considers a post for days, perhaps weeks, before composing it on a computer. Such writers often work from an outline, organizing their thoughts, and arranging them to make them clear and complete. Before posting what they have written, they carefully check their work for spelling and grammatical errors, needless repetitions, jumps of thought that were not clearly handled, and other improvements. Their final product might appear days or weeks after the prompt that first led to their post, but even if they are late to join a conversation, their ideas are presented in a competent and professional form.

I am the second kind of blogger. Often I write posts in the first fashion, quickly responding to something that is happening (or merely trying to keep the blog active while new thoughts are slow to develop). My better posts require time to develop and more time to complete. Along the way, I catch most of my typos and other mistakes. Even my most spontaneous posts call for a second reading, a flurry of tweaks and corrections, and reconsideration of their significance. For that matter, I rarely send an email or even a comment on FaceBook or WordPress without reading what I have written once or twice to be confident that I said what I wanted to say.

Some of my grammatical corrections are natural, done almost without thought. Unlike James Kirk, I rarely split an infinitive; unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi, I rarely end a sentence with a preposition. Nine times out of ten, following those rules produces better sentences. My harder work involves shortening sentences, separating different thoughts into different sentences so that both are stated clearly. I try to ensure that pronouns and prepositional phrases clearly identify what they represent or modify. I strive to find synonyms rather than repeating words (except when repetition makes a statement clearer). I aim for punctuation that best demonstrates the connection of the ideas I am presenting.

For weeks, I have been mulling a series of posts to be called “Racism without race.” Obviously, the topic of racism and race relations has been highly relevant for weeks. Obviously, clear answers to the problems posed by race relations are hard to find. Obviously, I am no expert in this area; but, all the same, there are ideas I want to share about racism and race relations.

Tomorrow, I hope to write my first draft of “Racism without race.” It will probably be divided into several posts of one thousand words or less that will appear as a series next week. Meanwhile, I am preparing an outline for a book about Christian faith and depression, while also trying to compile book-length publications of earlier writings in two different areas. My thinking and production have been stuck in two ways. On the one hand, my ideas are like characters in a comic movie, jammed together while trying to exit my head from the same doorway. On the other hand, I have had occasions when I wanted to work on any one of these projects and have not mustered the energy to begin. Summer doldrums, combined with the stress of the past several weeks, have made writing harder for me than writing usually is.

I am a writer. Even though most of my salary and benefits come from jobs in which writing is only a byproduct or a step in the process of my assigned duties, writing is my dream, my goal, and my passion. I hope to turn the corner this weekend, beginning a productive summer, and culminating in posts and in books that will attract and benefit readers. J.

More about my family

When I composed yesterday’s post, I got so excited sharing the history of my family that I forgot part of what I wanted to say. Here it is:

This month I have been posting historic family pictures on FaceBook each day. Sometimes it’s a single picture, sometimes it’s two or three pictures. I’ve been getting good reactions from family—including cousins I almost never see anymore—as well as from other friends.

Why am I doing this? Well, as a historian and an archivist, I want to promote the business. Especially those weeks that I had to work from home, trying to do the same things I would be doing at work, I knew that I had to do the full job of an archivist—not merely to preserve and to organize, but also to share. Archivists don’t digitize the entire collection and put it online—we digitize a small amount of material that is interesting or informative. Real researchers don’t stop at surfing the internet; when they find something of interest, they identify where it is located and come to that place to look at the rest of the collection.

Beyond that, I have gotten major fatigue scrolling through FaceBook and other social media. It feels like a game of dodgeball back in junior high school, trying to avoid all the mentions of disease and politics and the intersection of the two. So I thought I’d change the subject—give myself and other people something different to talk about and think about. And that has worked.

It has worked so well that my sister and some of my cousins commented over the weekend that I ought to take all this family information I’ve been gathering and write a book. I’ve handled books written by genealogists. They tend to be dry as dust—recording vital information, but often omitting the interesting and unusual family stories about these various individuals.

So I’m considering a book on the Salvageable family. The first question is: how much of the family do I want to cover? Am I writing for my children and their descendants—do I want to include my wife’s side of the family? Do I want to focus on me and my ancestors? Or do I want to stick to my mother’s side of the family, which contains most of the interesting stories that have come to light thus far. (And includes those cousins who are suggesting that I write a book.)

Even though that matter is not settled, I have made two other decisions. If I write this book, I will start each family line with the immigrant who came to the United States. Where I know names and dates for ancestors who remained in Europe, I might include them in an appendix or sidebar, but I want this to be an account of the Salvageables in America. Also, rather than focusing on one line at a time, with chapters relating to different streams that entered the river, I want to make the book chronological. I would like to write a chapter for each decade, describing where the various ancestors were during that decade and what they were doing.

Moreover, I want to include some historic context in each chapter. Think how much fun the 1860s will be—men fighting each other in the Civil War (and I have ancestors who fought for the Union and ancestors who fought for the Confederacy). Wouldn’t it be cool to find two great-great grandfathers involved in the same battle, shooting each other? (And, if either of them had been a better soldier, I would never have been born.)

I can only guess how long it will take to complete the family research and begin writing. This project likely will be years in the making. And it will not be lucrative—we’re not talking Roots here. I don’t care to dabble in historical fiction, creating conversations that may have happened. I want to include verifiable facts, along with family stories and mysteries.

And this is much more fun than slogging through the current international crisis and thinking only about it night and day. J.

Photographs and genealogy

Years ago, when I first saw this picture in the family collection, it puzzled me. I knew that the little girl to the left was my grandmother, and I suspected the other two children on the floor were her brother and sister. I assumed that the man to the left was her father and that the woman in back was her grandmother? But who is the other boy in the room? My family and I dubbed him Heathcliff, remembering that he joined the Earnshaw family by adoption when he was a young boy (Wuthering Heights).

This spring I’ve had the opportunity to go through family photographs and also to research my family tree. I deduced that this picture was taken Christmas 1905. The extra boy is a cousin to my grandmother. These same people were still in the same household at the 1910 census. The grandmother, by the way, is the mother of my grandmother’s mother, mother-in-law to the man in the picture.

Here’s another picture of the same family taken a few months earlier. The younger woman is my great-grandmother; she died in June of 1905. The man with the cigar is probably Heathcliff’s father, and the two additional girls are Heathcliff’s sisters.

Why are those sisters missing from the Christmas picture? According to the 1910 census, they were boarding at the Chicago Industrial School for Girls. Later records show that both grew up, had jobs as clerks, and got married.

 

Here’s Heathcliff and his sisters—possibly taken at their school. On the desk is a cube with the date: Wednesday December 27. Historians, archivists, and genealogists love clues like that hiding in photographs. (December 27, 1905, was a Wednesday.)

And what became of Heathcliff? He also got married. He and his wife had a son who lived only three months and a daughter who eventually grew up and married. In 1917, when Heathcliff registered for the Great War, he was a clerk supporting wife and mother (possibly mother-in-law). In 1920, he was living with his wife, in-laws, and infant son. In 1930, though, he was divorced and living alone in Chicago. October 1930 saw him incarcerated at Leavenworth, Kansas—I have no idea why. By 1942, when he registered because of the second World War, he was back in Chicago, working for Keller & Sons. He died in 1959, at the age of 63.

“Heathcliff’s” real first name was the same as his father and his grandfather. By coincidence, my wife and I chose the same name for our son. After skipping several generations, it’s nice to have the name return to the family, even though the previous holder of that name was a crook. J.

 

Keep your soul diligently

We’ve all seen those memes on Facebook and other places where the letters of each word are scrambled, but the first and last letters are kept unchanged. Sometimes these memes are accompanied by statements such as, “Only intelligent people are able to understand this message.” Actually, most adept readers are able to read them; as we learned to read, our brains developed shortcuts that recognize words even when the internal parts of the words have been changed.

But, by the same token, sometimes we mistake one word for another. The slip-up can be amusing, such as confusing “immorality” and “immortality.” Usually a second glance fixes the misreading. But this morning in my Bible reading, I faced a misreading that indicates just how overwhelming our current virus crisis has become.

I was reading Deuteronomy chapter four. I got to verse nine, which says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” This is a trustworthy saying. But when my eyes first scanned the verse, my brain changed the beginning to, “Only take care, and keep your social distancing.”

Of course a second glance fixed the misreading. I suppose the words “take care” only added to the tendency to expect s…l d……..y to be “social distancing.” But my mildly amusing experience only shows how overwhelming this virus crisis has become, that I even expect the holy Word of God to command social distancing.

My experiences with the virus crisis are like those of most people. As an introvert, I don’t mind keeping my distance from other people. Three times a week I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. I do what I was taught as a child: I walk on the left-hand side of the road, facing the traffic. But now, with social distancing, if someone is coming toward me on the same side of the road, I cross to the other side to avoid that person. I’ve always wanted to do that. Now, not is it not rude to cross the road to avoid people—it’s recommended.

I’m very much blessed to have three jobs that all paid me my regular salary while I worked from home. Every week I write a sermon, and every Saturday I email it to the members of the congregation. Our church musician presents a concert of church music on Facebook every Sunday. We mail in our offerings, and my check comes in the mail. My history class was changed from classroom to online. Some students dropped out, and a couple have fallen behind on the work, but several are faithfully taking their quizzes (open book, since we don’t have the classroom discussion before the quiz) and—I expect—writing their essays that are due next week. But my full time job at the library raised the biggest concerns. How can a library function when the doors are locked and the workers are told to stay home?

The first week the library was closed, we were told that it was like snow days—we would stay home and be paid. The second week, they began encouraging us to do tasks at home that were somehow job related. Since I am an archivist, I began sorting and arranging the family pictures I brought from my father’s house several years ago. After they were arranged, I even started putting them on Facebook and tagging family members. I also explored the family genealogy. More than half the people who visit our research room in the library are doing genealogy—some in great depth, others just getting started. I’ve always been able to guide people to resources, but now I have much more experience in genealogical research and will be more helpful.

By the third week, we had a process of reporting how we were spending our time “on the clock.” But after that, the library decided that 75% of our hours had to be of direct benefit to the library system; the other 25% could be for learning and wellness activities. Some library branches began experimenting with curb-side services. Four branches are providing free meals to neighborhood children who usually get fed at school. My department remains locked up; but we are taking turns being in the building to answer the phone and help patrons.

Last week, with the phone-answering system in place, I was invited to return to my desk and continue processing archival materials. I must wear a mask everywhere in the building except at my desk; I must wash my hands frequently and wipe down surfaces often. This procedure might last for the rest of the summer.

Since it is losing some money—parking and meeting room fees, and overdue fines—the library director decided that he would reduce or eliminate some positions temporarily to save the library money. All positions will be restored when the crisis is over. People in eliminated positions retain their health insurance and other benefits but must apply for unemployment. Those who are reduced will—if the state government allows—work only part-time and receive unemployment money for the hours lost. I have been placed in the second category.

I do not feel comfortable with the likelihood that I will be receiving unemployment compensation for ten weeks or so. It’s not that I don’t need the money. It’s that every person thrown into the unemployment system is added to the financial burden that taxpayers like me and my children will be reimbursing for years to come. I disagree with the library’s decision to lower its costs by putting its workers temporarily into unemployment. In fact, I cannot help but view this as a cynical political ploy to deepen the crisis (and the feeling of crisis) at the expense of the current administration.

We will all get through this together. Stress and anxiety are high right now. (I spend little time on social media precisely because I rapidly tire of all the talk of virus and quarantine. It makes me shaky and queasy.) Meanwhile it’s important for each of us to take care, and keep our social distancing… I mean, keep our souls diligently. J.