Questionable Advice to Underage Minors

Last Saturday I was invited to participate in History Day, wherein students put together historical projects — papers, documentaries, museum exhibits, websites, you name it — based on extensive research and interviews. The projects are then judged and the winners are awarded something — what, I’m not sure. Towards that goal, the Fairfield Museum and History Center collected a bunch of historians and invited kids from around southwest Connecticut to ask us, one-on-one, for advice and direction.

I’m flattered to have been asked to help out, especially because I was only one of two historians present who didn’t have a PhD after his or her name. Most of the kids were middle-school aged and I was amazed at how deeply some of them had leapt into their subjects, but after the original shock — this was my first experience with History Day — I realized I could provide something the other historians probably couldn’t, namely guidance on finding interviewees and resources like images and how to structure their narratives.

I’ve been asked before to write articles or columns on writing advice. I always decline, mainly because I feel every writer’s methods and path are too particular to be much use to anybody else, and also because I often feel too lost at sea myself to advise others how to navigate. That said, as I sat and talked with the students there were four recurring suggestions that popped up over and over, and maybe it’s helpful to repeat them here in case you, my noble reader, find yourself or your offspring working on something similar.

Make it personal. I felt afterwards that my experience as a parent played a bigger part than my work as a writer or historian. You know how it is: your kid comes home with some grandiose idea for a school project, but when it comes time to sit and do the project with him, the ellipsis between Point A and Point Z becomes abundantly clear. Many of the attendees at History Day simply needed help drilling down to what their end product would be and how they would present it. To that end I recommended identifying a specific person or point in time — or, if the project was biographical, an episode in the person’s life — that is illustrative of the overall history or arc. One young woman was doing her project on the Radium Girls and I advised her to highlight one of the girls in particular. Readers or viewers naturally empathize with individuals and by showcasing one girl’s experience, the student could communicate the broader phenomenon.

Prioritize your content. In research, you always wind up with more information than is germane to your project. All projects have limits, whether it’s a word count or a maximum running time for a documentary or skit, and limits are good because they help structure your narrative. For example, in Smedley I left out a lot of info about Smedley’s post-war merchant trade. To the internal completist it seems a shame to leave stuff out but throwing in everything will get you, and your reader, lost in the weeds. You have to prioritize what to include, and in doing so you give the project an architecture. A zillion biographies have been written about what made Hitler be Hitler. They all work from the same pool of facts but each historian places emphasis on a different aspect: one thinks Hitler was the way he was because he was a failed art student, while the next thinks Hitler was Hitler because of his experiences in World War I, and so on. Each writer arrives at her conclusions by emphasizing or prioritizing episodes or sets of facts over others. Use the scissors. The good news is that the stuff you cut often shows up in other projects. Especially blog posts.

Pick up the phone. Free lunch was included in History Day, which was certainly an inducement for me to attend. As we sat munching, the grown-ups chuckled over how reluctant the kids were *to call* someone on the phone. One young man I spoke to was researching early Fords and how they changed American culture; another pair was doing a project on the Black Sox scandal; and still another couple of students was making a doc about cannibalism at Jamestown. Yet none of them had actually contacted Ford or the White Sox or Historic Jamestowne. I told them that big longstanding companies or franchises like Ford and the White Sox will often have dedicated historians and archives, and places like Historic Jamestowne, whose whole mission is public outreach, will likewise have staff happy to answer questions (especially from kids). It’s always worthwhile to contact a company or group directly to see what they have. Go to their website and look for their media or PR office. Or, worst case, just call their direct number and ask the voice on the other end.

Use your network. The line between history and journalism thins the closer the horizon reaches the present. There are no ancient Egyptians left to interview but if you’re writing about the Beatles as one group of girls was, then you’re in luck — as I told them, not only are there fifty years of interviews they can mine, there are still people around who’ve met the Beatles (including a couple of actual Beatles). Journalists use their contacts and networks to find and write stories — stories that others can’t write because they have different networks. Mrs. Kuhl’s dad and uncles, who sell sailboats, once sold a boat to John Lennon and even accompanied him on his 1980 cruise to Bermuda, making for some of the best stories I’ve ever heard around a Thanksgiving dinner table. If you’re writing about something that happened within the recent past, ask your family and your network about it. Even if they don’t have any direct contact with the person or event in question, they may be able to direct you toward someone or someplace that does.

On the Wagon

CC BY Dwight Burdette
CC BY Dwight Burdette

Wil Wheaton posted a list of Seven Things I Did To Reboot My Life which might as well be subtitled, Because Now I’m in My 40s. For this guy, all of them hit close to home:

Drink less beer.

I love beer. I mean, I really love it. I brew it, I write about it, I design recipes of my own, and I’ve structured entire meals around what food will pair with the beer I want to drink. The thing about beer, though, is that it’s really easy to just keep on drinking it until it’s all gone …

Like Wheaton, I’m invested in beer culture: I like to collect the glassware and I’m always DTF local craft creations (especially pilsners, which are a terribly underrepresented minority in a world of IPA privilege). But also like him, I’ve lately discovered that drinking alcohol isn’t as easy as it used to be. A good buddy of mine — a friend I used to drink with as a teenager — recently told me he started cutting back on his evening adult-beverage intake because just a couple of beers puts him in a bad mood the next day. I’ve had the same experience, though the following morning I’m not so much grumpy as I am groggy and addlebrained. The reason, Wheaton points out, is due to our metabolizing alcohol as sugar, which means drinking two or three beers at dinnertime is like chugging two or three bottles of Mountain Dew right before bed and then expecting a full night’s sleep to ensue. Even after a pair of seemingly innocuous low-APV drinks I don’t sleep as deeply. As Wheaton says, “it turns out that drinking alcohol to help you go to sleep does not result in good sleep, but does result in feeling like shit when you wake up.” Hence I’ve joined the temperance movement, at least on school nights.

Wheaton’s whole post feels semi-autobiographical for me, from the endorphins produced by writing, to trying to make more time to read, to his preference for running over lifting weights. This is 40, I guess.

NecronomiCon 2015

On Sunday I did something I swore I would never do: I attended a writerly convention.

I’ve mulled attending writers’ cons before but the programming — forums on television shows or movies I’ve never seen or academic panels hashing obtuse literary points — never appealed to me, and the current radioactive climate of genre writing is not an invitation to reconsider my apprehension. But when I learned of NecronomiCon 2015, a celebration of all things H.P. Lovecraft located in Providence, Rhode Island, just two hours up the highway from me, I was tempted. When I also realized NecronomiCon only happens every two years, and moreover 2015 was the 125th anniversary of HPL’s birth, I threw down $30 for a day pass and put gas in the car.

I don’t regret it. A panel on Clark Ashton Smith provided a wealth of biographical details I hadn’t known beforehand, and a later discussion on Lovecraft and philosophy, which ranged from existentialism to the Kantian sublime to Schopenhauer, was a hilarious high point of the day. A sure way to make a cynic laugh is to point out that Lovecraft’s monster-worshipping cultists were just millennialist Christians in bathrobes — the Rapture is great for them but a horror story for the rest of us.

Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and ST Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith's love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.
Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and S.T. Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith’s love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.

Over at the marketplace in the convention center, I met the super-nice artist Jason C. Eckhardt, who has done work for Chaosium as well as the illustration for the cans of Innsmouth Olde Ale. He said he had received enormous positive feedback at the con and was considering making prints of the Olde Ale artwork. Narragansett Beer also had a booth; their next offerings in the Lovecraft Series will be the Reanimator — a modification of their helles bock — and, in the winter, the I Am Providence stout. I bought some books and a T-shirt, which I suppose are connish things to do.

Reanimator Helles Lager

Yes, Lovecraft has his issues. But you know what else he has? Fun. As H.L. Mencken wrote,

The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.

I love Lovecraft’s incredible descriptions of New England landscapes, I love his globetrotting mysteries, I love his Jazz Age atmospherics. Decades after first discovering him, I can crack open a Lovecraft story and still thrill as ordinary men become detectives, drawn to uncover dark secrets and cosmic conspiracies at the cost of their lives and sanity. There’s something powerful there, and it was worth $30 and a two-hour drive to reflect upon it for a day.

Space Invaders

Garlic mustard.Our little castle finds itself under siege once again:

Alliaria petiolata is an aggressive invader of wooded areas throughout the eastern and middle United States. A high shade tolerance allows this plant to invade high quality, mature woodlands, where it can form dense stands. These stands not only shade out native understory flora but also produce allelopathic compounds that inhibit seed germination of other species. Alliaria petiolata is native to Europe and was first introduced during the 1800s for medicinal and culinary purposes.

Though a member of the mustard family, when crushed or rubbed the leaves of A. petiolata generate a garlic scent — hence its more common name, garlic mustard. Apparently its leaves make a tasty pesto, a recipe I’m willing to try since I have so much of it growing on the edge of our woods.

I’m skeptical of the whole concept of invasive species; what some may see as imperialism by the exotic, I see as natural selection. A species using what it’s got to get what it wants is the engine of evolution. The first mudskipper who crawled onto land was an invader; so too are the first seeds to germinate in the black sands of a new volcanic island. Concern about invasive species here in the U.S. is less about conservationism and more about restoring it to an imagined pre-Columbian ideal. We know that American Indians altered the environment to suit them, drastically changing the Western Hemisphere as they found it, and yet we fantasize about furbishing the land to how it appeared in 1491.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we buy an old house, we may admire aspects or details from an older period (like, say, the original hardwood floors) and strip away modern additions that obscure them (wall-to-wall carpeting). But we’re conscious of making those choices and acknowledging those preferences. When we label a species as invasive, we intend it pejoratively. We mean that we simply don’t like them. The Earth is a garden, a place where we discriminate between species: we water the elephants and weed the smallpox. What’s so wrong with admitting that to ourselves?

For a few short hours in this lifetime, our acre is my garden — and I don’t like garlic mustard. The stuff spreads like a brush fire and seems headed straight for our lawn; thus I’ve started the four-to-five year process of eliminating it from our yard. It’s notable that some studies showed that outbreaks of garlic mustard didn’t damage species diversity, so the stuff is hardly kudzu. But it’s easily recognizable with its serrated heart-shaped leaves and white cruciform flowers and pulls easily, especially after a rainstorm. I think Connecticut has already lost the battle — or at least is in the process of evolving — because I see it everywhere I go, and who’s going to yank it from public land or along the roadsides and in the abandoned lots? No one. But I mutter a prayer to Saint Jude and pull it anyway.

In With the New

Who has two thumbs and just entered the twenty-teens? THIS GUY.

For over a year I’ve been wanting to update this site with a fresh WordPress theme. I had been using the same template since 2008, but because The Journalist was no longer supported (I think its designer forgot about it five minutes after writing the code), I was modifying it as I went. The biggest problem was making it look good on smart phones and pads, and I completely lacked the skill to somehow make it backwards responsive.

There were many things I liked about The Journalist — the clean white layout, the big punchy blockquotes — and so I wanted something that kept those features. Then again, I also wanted something with bigger typeface (I experimented heavily but could never achieve the perfect intersection of font, line spacing, and kerning), a top menu instead of a sidebar, and most of all, to be responsive to devices. I sought and I seeked but my metal detector never uncovered the diamond ring in the sand.

And then, colbie caillat! Earlier this week I stumbled upon Caroline Moore’s Penscratch and installed it. It still needs some fixes: I want to tweak the color palette a little more, and while I like the simplicity of the top menu, I’m not sure how to handle navigation within the blog’s archives without cluttering it up or resorting to a sidebar. The About page needs a rewrite and I wish Genericons (those circular symbols in the lower right-hand corner) supported more social media, though they say some kind of update is in the works. Otherwise I love how Penscratch looks — and in fact, at this point I think the site looks better on my Android than my desktop.

The biggest improvement I could make here, however, is to post something more than once a month …

Ignorance Is Bliss

Illustration from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by True Williams, 1876I’m in my second week of a self-induced news blackout. It is neither total nor entire; one cannot escape completely. But after spending a week at my dad’s house where my attention was distracted by canoe adventures, museums, aquariums, and Cape May, I decided upon my return to keep a good thing going. I’ve been off Twitter and avoiding news outlets. Smart choice too, between Ferguson and Robin Williams.

Paddleboarding, running, writing, reading Tom Sawyer to my boys and Moby-Dick to myself — that’s my news.