Blogs: History

Chester A. Arthur photoYou remember Chester A. Arthur, right? Twenty-first president of the United States. Served from 1881 until 1885 following the assassination of James Garfield. Not really? Don’t feel too bad -- you’re in good company.

Several years ago, I set out to memorize all 43 (now 44) presidents in order, along with the years they served. I thought it would be an interesting brain exercise and a great alternative to counting sheep when I couldn’t sleep. However, I soon found that if I neglected reviewing the list from time-to-time, I would forget some of the lesser known figures like Arthur, Taft and Pierce.

Now, this phenomenon of forgetting the presidents has actually been documented in two studies on cultural memory published in the journal Science and reported in the New York Times! The long and short of the studies is that most people can identify five or six recent presidents; the founding father presidents like Washington, Adams and Jefferson; and a small number who were at the helm during huge events in our nation’s history such as Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.Image of Presidential Seal

Maybe committing the list to memory isn’t important to you, but maybe you are interested in learning more about some of our chief executives through time. Here here are some great resources

 

I like towers, roofs and cliffs - anywhere where I can get a birds-eye view. One of the most memorable views I have had is from the top of the dome on Florence’s Duomo, or more properly, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. This dome is there because of one man, Filippo Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi's Dome book jacketHaving an impressive cathedral was one way that Florence wanted to show its importance and power. In 1296 they started on a new cathedral that was going to have the largest dome in the world. In 1418 the cathedral was finished except for the dome. The problem was no one knew how to build it. With a diameter of 143 feet it was too large for conventional building techniques. A competition was announced to find a design that would work. Fillippo Brunelleschi was one finalist and Lorenzo Ghiberti was the other. Ghiberti had beaten Brunelleschi years before in the competition to design the Cathedral’s Baptistery doors. Since then they were fierce rivals. The difference was that Ghiberti now had a solid reputation and Brunelleschi didn’t. Brunelleschi’s design was for a dome that would be self supporting while it was being built, but he would not divulge the details since he did not trust others not to steal his ideas. In the end Brunelleschi’s design was chosen, but since this was his first big project, the more experienced Ghiberti was assigned as his partner on the project. This greatly frustrated Brunelleschi who saw this as a lack of faith in his abilities and because it was his design, he was doing most of the work directing the construction of the dome. He finally got rid of Ghiberti by falling ill at a criticalPippo the Fool book jacket step in the building and while Brunelleschi was home sick everyone realized that Ghiberti had no idea how to build the dome.

The Duomo’s dome is still the largest in the world and you can read the whole fascinating story of the dome’s design and construction in Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King.

There is also an excellent children’s picture book Pippo the Fool by Tracey Fern that tells the story of Pippo Brunelleschi and his dome.

When you get to Florence, don’t forget to climb the dome.

 

"FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD"
(New York Daily News Headline, 10.30.1975)
Love Goes To Buildings On Fire Cover
By 1973-74, the US was facing serious economic collapse following a property investment boom and crash - not entirely dissimilar or unrelated to the crash of 2008.  New York City, in particular, felt the strains of over-speculation and an inability to make good on massive infrastructural spending debts (for a clear-minded synopsis of this trajectory, check out David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism). In essence, the major banks of NYC refused further loans, pushing one of the largest cities in the world to the brink of near-total shutdown.  When the city turned to the executive office for federal assistance, then-President Ford refused to assist (though it turns out the Daily News headline quoted above is kind of apocryphal), essentially placing the city in a hostage situation with the increasingly powerful banks.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, Will Hermes' excellent Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever explores the simultaneous explosion of musical cross-pollination, experimentation and invention that emerged from what many in the US were then calling "a cultural dead zone."  Hermes scope is impressively broad though he zeroes in on a handful of truly critical players and scenemakers including DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, disco pioneers David Mancuso and Nicky Siano, as well as punk provocateurs the New York Dolls and the Ramones.  Hermes's primary focus is on Manhattan but he also touches on the music coming out of the peripheral boroughs - like salsa, disco and rap/hip-hop.

Last summer 13 year old Mo'Ne Davis, whose fastball has been clocked at 71 miles per hour, was the first Little Leaguer to get on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Have you seen her pitch? Amazing!

Did you know that just 42 years ago girls were not allowed to play Little League?

I learned this and more in the book Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, the law that changed the future of girls in America. The book is well written and full of startling facts, great photos and cartoons. Did you know that U.S. Representative from Oregon Edith Green was the author of Title IX? I didn't. 

A few more facts to get you thinking about life for females in the U.S. before Title IX:

  • In the 1970's a school district spent $250,000 a year on boys' sports teams and only $970 on the one sport offered to girls.
  • In the 1970's University of Michigan spent $2.6 million on men's sports and $0 on women's sports.
  • Before Title IX, many law and medical schools limited the numbers of women they would admit.

Oh, the difference Title IX has made in the lives of women and girls in the U.S.

 

I think it was in the late 1980s when I became a Remedios Varo admirer. It might be that her close relationship with Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington made me aware of her contextual Celestial Pablum by Remedios Varoexistence. Born in Spain in 1908, this surrealist artist was strongly influenced by her father, a hydraulic engineer, her second husband Benjamin Beret a French dadaist, and her friend André Breton.

When living in Paris she was forced into exile during WWII and settled down in Mexico City. She found refuge in Mexico until she died in 1963. Graduated from the prestigious San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, she created around 150 art pieces, 110 of them created in Mexico using oils on masonite panels she prepared herself. Her art is full of ambiguous characters; the elements of her painting are mostly biographical, and her art is allegorical, humorous, fantastic, and oriented to science, the spiritual and the psychological.  

From the very beginning I was fascinated and intrigued with her peculiar style and wanted to know who she was. Back in the days before the internet, information was very limited so I couldn't pursue my research; but I held in my mind some images of her artwork that I saw in books and postcards. Then one day, I was reading the newspaper and discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City would be hosting one of her exhibitions -- what an opportunity! I went and spent and entire afternoon contemplating her creations and trying to digest every single image. Among my favorite paintings were "Celestial Pablum," "Creation of the Birds," and "The Cats Paradise." Her potential and her creative mind were not recognized as she deserved; you probably won't find much information about her. For me, the afternoon I spent in the company of this forgotten surreal artist will always remain in my mind. Learn more about her work in The Magic of Remedios Varo.

Chocolate bookjacketMy Mexican pride elevates each time I hear the word “chocolate”, knowing that the word comes from the Aztec “Xocoatl”. The great recognition of this peculiar Man holding cacao fruit -  National Antropology and History Museum of Mexicobean and is unprecendented; it is one of the most relevant contributions from the Mesoamerican civilizations to the world. The Olmecs, a social group established along the Gulf of Mexico, were the first to taste the flavors of this special fruit in the form of a drink where the cacao (cocoa) was ground, fermented and mixed with herbs. In those days cacao was used as currency in trading among Mayans, Aztecs and other social groups in Mexico and Central America.

The cacao was a symbol of great abundance and was used to pay taxes, to honor gods and goddesses in religous rituals, and as an offering during the funerals of the elite. The Xocoatl drink was reserved exclusively for privileged social groups and soldiers, who used it during times of war.

Columbus tasted the drink in 1502 on the island of Guanaja in Honduras, on one of his last voyages to the New World. He brought it back to the King and Queen of Spain, who didn’t see the value of the product. It wasn't until 1519 when Hernan Cortes “the conquistador” was invited to drink it by Moctezuma, the Aztec Emperor and then revealed the culture of the cacao for the first time in the Old Continent.

After its introduction to Europe this great product inspired the imagination of artisans, and cooks all over the world who have transformed it into delightful treats.

When you eat a piece of chocolate don’t forget the history and culture behind that delicious taste.

 

November 11 is Veterans' Day. President Woodrow Wilson first declared the date Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of The First World War, occurring at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. 100 years this past July, WWI began. It lasted four awful years and changed how we think about war. Historians still debate the exact causes of the conflict but they agree that the level of carnage and horror was to that point, and maybe since, unmatched.

At the outset, the war was a patriotic rallying point on all sides, for all levels of society. Poets were not immune to the zeal of fighting for king and country, but they also reacted to the hideousness of trench and gas warfare. Here are two poems. The first was written by the English poet Rupert Brooke in 1914:

 

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

By the end of the war Brooke’s poem was criticized as an example of a mindless patriotism that contributed to the zeal for war.  In high contrast the following poem was written by another English poet, Wilfred Owen, in 1917:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin of the last line translates to “it is sweet and right to die for your country”.


In the United Kingdom November 11th is called Remembrance Day.  A hundred years on, the importance of remembering the horror of that violence is something no one should find controversial.
 

 

Although I hope never to experience war first-hand, I find exploring the topic through books and other media endlessly fascinating. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. Since there are many fine resources that explore the conflict on a large scale, I thought I would feature a couple of recent releases that provide more intimate looks at this world-changing event.

The burning of the world BookBéla Zombory-Moldován was a young Hungarian artist when the war broke out in 1914. The Burning of the World, recently published for the first time, recounts his experiences as a soldier on the eastern front and his observation of the drastic changes the war brought upon the world. A short read, this reminiscence is a Behind the lines jacketfirst-hand account of a little-known front in the conflict and brings to life the horrors of war on a very personal level.

In Behind the Lines, soprano Anna Prohaska and pianist Eric Schneider explore the repertoire of the soldiers’ song. Although the focus is on the First World War, the songs range in time from the Renaissance to the 20th century, sung in English, German, French and Russian. Included is a German folk song; lyrical songs by Beethoven and Schubert; the four songs by Hanns Eisler offer some challenging listening; and Charles Ives’ setting of "In Flanders Fields." A carefully conceived and thought-provoking collection.

tiki popCome with me, if you will, to a tropical paradise. The darkness has returned to Portland, and with it, my desire to read about all things palm tree. Imagine my delight when I came across this new edition to the collection of Multnomah County Library. Published in connection with an exhibition at the prestigious Musee du quai Branly in Paris, Tiki Pop , by Sven Kirsten, is a massive coffee-table exploration of the Tiki phenomenon.  

Tiki culture at its height was a manifestation of exotic visions of island culture inspired by the tales of American soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during World War II: trees loaded with exotic fruits, sleepy lagoons, white-sand beaches, and gorgeous people dancing in grass skirts. Americans made Tiki their own, often ignoring authenticity, and created a mid-century cultural movement that was then forgotten until the recent Tiki resurgence.  Tiki Pop explores the history of Tiki, from James Cook's first explorations of the Pacific Islands in the 18th century, all the way through Hollywood's embracing and manipulating of the Tiki culture through its jungle films. But the real highlights of Tiki Pop are the hundreds upon hundreds of glorious, colorful images. Kirsten has assembled what I think might be the penultimate photographic memory of a time in our culture that was unique in so many ways. What a pleasurable journey!

So, if the rainy skies are getting you down, mix yourself a zombie, a mai-tai, or a hurricane, settle in, and be transported to a different (and warmer) time and place. Cheers! cocktails

 

 

cup of teaMany mornings lately, I have had a date with an Earl. During the hot summer months I don't often crave his company. But when the rains begin, he once again becomes appealing. He is warm and steamy, he smells wonderful, and he gets my day off to a great start. When the Earl is not available, or I'm just not in the mood for his charm, I soothe myself with a robust English or Irish breakfast, or perhaps even some zesty orange and spice. And for those mornings when I need extra calming, green always does the trick.

This is your friendly reminder of the wonders of tea. Coffee is swell, but, to me, nothing beats a warm cuppa. The endless varieties only add to the pleasure. One of the best parts of my mornings is the daily choosing of the tea! Black (especially Earl Grey), green, white, or red, I can always find a tea to match my mood.  Then it's time to take in the aromas and flavors of the day's selection, a bit of peace and tranquility before the start of the day.

The library has many wonderful books about the history and culture of tea. If you are so inclined, check one out, brew yourself a steaming pot of your favorite blend, wrap yourself in a blanket in front of a rainy window, and lose yourself in the world of tea.

 

 

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