Note: This is not another of my historical articles from 25 years ago. This series–I am going to post all three today–talks about the steps that brought me to the resurrection of my blog just shy of a year ago. I’m posting this on the first anniversary of the events described in the second in this series. You’ll notice how fast and how deep I plunged, and the fact that I’m talking about it now shows how significant it all was. It made me want to think and write again–and I’ve spent the last year figuring out how I wanted to do that. So….part I.
Between the first and fourth grades, growing up in Columbus, OH (first in the west Columbus neighbourhood of Westgate, and then in the suburb of Upper Arlington), I was a member of the Campfire Girls. Campfire and the Girl Scouts had a rivalry of sorts going, and I had joined the former, I think, because the organization for the youngest members was called Bluebirds, which I though were way cooler than Brownies. Anyway, at the end of your third grade year you “flew up” to full-fledged Campfire. Campfire (like a lot of similar youth organizations in the 70s) had this sort of pseudo-American Indian thing going on. At the first level (fourth through sixth grades), you got a blue felt vest, and you earned beads of various colours for projects; usually people sewed them to the back of their vests to make designs. (Higher levels got to take the beads and attach them to actual fake Native American regalia. The organization is still around, but they’ve ditched that part. Go figure). On the front of your vest, you’d have patches from various larger projects, and a sort of pictogram of your “Indian name,” which you would pick based on what you wanted to be when you grew up, or some such f*ckery. My “Indian name” in English (I can’t remember the “Indian” version) was “To tell things as they ought to be told.” Why am I telling you this? Because I have come to realize that this is, in fact, my vocation, my calling, and has been for almost as long as I can remember, even when I thought otherwise. I am telling things now as they ought to be told.
There is a photo of me as a baby, in diapers, on my stomach, “reading” a newspaper. I was, of course, not actually reading it, but, as my parents liked to point out, it didn’t take too long–I credit newspapers with helping me to learn to read well before most of my kindergarten colleagues even knew the alphabet. And there were books, of course, too. I was voracious. In the second grade, my teacher put up a “Current events” bulletin board for us to bring in things from the newspaper. I brought stuff in so frequently that she eventually took it down because it was pretty much the Susan bulletin board. That year, my parents were plotting to move to a “better school system.” Columbus was about to desegregate, and my parents were–no tiptoeing around it–pretty damned racist, but I was also bored in the second grade. I’d get impatient that people weren’t answering the questions in class blurt out answers. My teacher had me filing stuff to keep me occupied. So off it was in the third grade to a new school. It didn’t go well. It took me to later in the year to make my first friend. Until then…and even after–there were books and newspapers.
I remember my first research project during that first long year. We all had to write a piece on a city of the world, and I got Moscow. Off it was to the World Book encyclopedia (the Britannica was still a year or two off), and the result was a one-page essay ending in the memorable line “The city has many bells.” (Well, it does.) I did way more research than most of the kids, though (I didn’t have anything better to do.) This project triggered my passion for finding out about different countries–and my increasing focus in the non-fiction section of the library. From day 1, my interests were in science and what I now know is history. (I didn’t think it was history at the time. History to me was that boring stuff about the Mound Builders we did in the 4th grade). I became fiercely passionate about each subject in turn: The planets. Horse racing. Volcanoes. Continental drift. Beethoven. All kinds of interesting countries, such as Iran and Thailand and Spain. And Russia, and Germany. Always those two. Because in the third grade, I found out about the Second World War. By the fourth grade, I was reading adult books on the war, including a fiction book that I remember very little about, except that it was about a girl during an awful siege in Leningrad.
So, the name. At the time, in the fourth grade, still in love with the newspaper, I had decided that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. I loved the whole idea of gathering information and writing a story about it. The faux Indian name I chose was translated as “To tell things as they ought to be told.” My journalism dreams didn’t last all that long; my astronomy obsession took over and I would spend most of the rest of my school years believing science would be my career. But that blasted history just kept sneaking back in. I found out about volcanoes from a Time-Life book that described the destruction of Pompeii. The volcano was cool, yes, but what was really cool was the buried city where they found casts in the ash of the people who had died, and amazing artwork on the walls. And when I found out about Thera and the destruction of the Minoan civilization, I had, of course, to research the Minoans. I found myself enjoying my 8th grade history class immensely, particularly when we studied the Civil War. Each of us was assigned a battle. I got Petersburg–more a siege than a battle, but featuring one of the more dramatic episodes of the war, when the Union attempted to blow a hole in the Confederate lines (tl:/dr: Didn’t quite go as planned). I was so fascinated that when my family went to Washington that summer, we made sure to take a detour to see the battlefield where you can still see the Crater. There are quite a few stories like this from my junior high and high school years (not to mention an interest in Shakespeare, my gateway drug, it seems, to the Middle Ages and Renaissance).
I ended up adding ancient history and classics as a second major after two years at Ohio State, and after the third I abandoned genetics, my original major, altogether. I had taken an honours classics course on Rome (you know, that civilization that Pompeii was part of…ding ding ding) during my first year, and written a research paper on Roman coins that won a prize (I got $50 and a book; I used the $50 to buy an actual Roman coin.) Other history classes followed, and then that major change, and then grad school, and eventually a doctorate. And then it became fairly clear that the job market for history PhDs was shrinking, and I found I was unwilling to do the dog and pony show required to build a career in academia.
I crossed that significant threshhold of my fiftieth birthday last year, and entered a kind of malaise that seemed to accelerate through 2017. The world seemed a rather shitty place, and it seemed like I didn’t have a lot to contribute to it–outside of the SCA and Toastmasters, and even there, there was a bit of burnout and exhaustion. Nothing was exciting anymore. My PhD hung on the wall. I would never be a professor (especially now, in the age of slave labour adjuncts). I had no “ideas for research.” I sure as hell wasn’t going to write fiction; that had never been in my wheelhouse. So what could I write? I was stuck in the present, which was full of orange-coloured presidents and petty Internet squabbles and general overall crankiness, not to mention genuine concern for the state of humanity and the decline of compassion and kindness. It didn’t help that I had become more or less legally blind in my right eye due to a cataract. My bad eyesight had started to affect my self-confidence. It impacted my work. It impacted everything. Surgery fixed the issue, but not after a period of panic when my original doctor called off my scheduled surgery and had to refer me to a new surgeon because my case was now “complex”, and warned me that it could take weeks to get an appointment. (As it turned out, it took less than 24 hours). I honestly believed I might lose my ability to drive and work. Combine that with my general dissatisfaction with the state of me–once the holidays had passed, I floundered.