On Thanksgiving

So this is the week when we are supposed to reunite with family, say grace, and eat a bird. I rarely do this anymore, spend the holidays with family. This week I’m going to do it with my friends. And I’m making the bird. So, here we go….

Generally, on Thanksgiving, I wake up, have coffee, watch a parade, and give thanks that I get to spend this day however I please, away from work, quiet, usually reading. Still, I always give grace. Grace for what I am very fortunate to have in this life, and the folks I know.

I think we should do this everyday; wake up each morning grateful for something. I think many of us find it hard to do even in the easiest of times. I do try and find it when I’m simply driving to work with the assholes on the road, or in the convenient store where the one person won’t budge, or when we’re at work in a meeting listening to the seemingly meaningless words that cause me to wonder why I’m an academic sometimes.

My family is not close. Not in proximity or literally; we generally go our separate ways. It’s not that we don’t love each other, it’s just in a “I’m glad I don’t have to see you everyday” and a “We’ll get together at some point” sort of way. This doesn’t make us a bad family. It makes us more honest than most.

However, as much as I don’t see my family and relegate our time together to the phone, I am grateful for them. And many other things in this life. These are the things I am grateful for and find grace in everyday. Think about it. Maybe you can’t relate, but I bet a lot of this rings true. Grace often finds itself in the oddest spaces. It’s there if you look for it.

It’s about finding grace in all things

And so…

I’ve lived through shit most people will never know about and survived. Seriously. Ask and I will tell, but I’m a Doctor of Philosophy, not a drug addict. Amazing.

If you wake up. You’re fortunate.

If you have clothes to wear, you’re fortunate.

If you have a warm place to sleep, you’re fortunate.

At some point in my life, I hiked a really big mountain (actually, two) and I own it and love it and I did it with my best friends.

I love my dog.

Many people I know are just shit. Most folks are not.

Love with your whole heart. Every. Single. Day. Even the shitty people.

Everyone is tired. It’s relative.

If you think life is hard. Just breathe.

Breathe. Everyday. And then. Breathe again.

Jazz  music makes everything better.

If you love your life, you’re fortunate.

If you love your job, you’re fortunate.

If you love the people you surround yourself everyday with, you’re fortunate.

And then, if you can say that your life is okay, and you are not struggling, generally, and you are living well, then you are okay.

I think, every day, all of us, are okay. Let’s own this. And be grateful. And gracious.

This! Is Thanksgiving.




On Sport

I grew up in Chicago thus, I am a Bears fan. Walter Payton, The Fridge, the Superbowl Shuffle, Mike Ditka. In my late twenties, I found myself in graduate school in New Orleans and Mike Ditka emerged from retirement to coach the city’s beloved Saints – “bless you boys.” I immediately jumped on the Saints bandwagon. It didn’t hurt that the person I was dating at the time was the Saints Mascot, Gumbo, and I could attend football games in the Superdome regularly.

Every Sunday, the Joe’s gang meets at the bar to watch the New York Giants. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, and stressful. Interestingly, as a Bears/Saints gal I wouldn’t want to watch football, and not a team that I generally find myself a fan of, anywhere else. I’ve written about Joe’s in the past. It’s the place where “everybody knows my name” and they are “always glad I came.” But, watching the New York Giants play there, on four large screen televisions, is quite the experience. It’s loud. It’s raucous. It’s beyond fun. And, I’m with my Joe’s family.

I love sports. I love the competition and the camaraderie. I love it all. My affinity for the game(s) is so strong that I taught The History of Sport in America when I was a Visiting Professor at West Virginia University. Sports bind us, bridges the divide, and makes us more alike than different. It makes friends where they might not necessarily exist and creates family where one might not necessarily exist. In the early twentieth century, when black Americans were subjected daily to Jim Crow, sport allowed them to be American, when they couldn’t be mostly anywhere else. At baseball stadiums, where black Americans were segregated, they still joined with whites in cheering on the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. And for those few hours, while athletic young white men hit balls around Fenway, black and white folks cheered for the same outcome. Sports make light of difference, if only for a moment. That moment, however, is integral to us all finding community.

Joe’s is a New York bar. We root for the Yankees in the summer and the Giants in the fall, even if some of us are from Chicago or New Orleans or New England or, because it’s Bethlehem, Philadelphia. We drink beers with Russ, the owner (his father, Joe, is the namesake of the bar). We cheer loudly when they score and we are silent when they lose in the last few seconds of the game, by nothing more than a field goal and perhaps some bad ref calls. And then we depart, to our respective places only to regroup the following week, unless we are on a “buy,” of course.

Giant’s kitsch overwhelms the bar. However, the regulars feel the need to bring tokens of luck. There’s the New York Giants gremlin that Nicole passes around for everyone to touch its long, red hair, in great hopes of a touchdown. Amber brought in a tiny Tom Brady, to be tormented by the patrons. There is plenty of Giants gear around the bar, but the awful Giants sweaters that resemble the bad Christmas sweaters that are on the eve of arrival are present and the myriad Giants jerseys that the patrons wear, are all intended to bring us to a win. A bar of patrons cheering vocally for Eli Manning feels like the prayers that Christians say every night before bed hoping for a better week ahead. (I’m quite familiar with the religious overtones of a football game being a Saints fan.)

Most of us have to be at work on Monday mornings. So when the games are late, we drink beers and eat nachos and Buffalo wings and pizza and try not to fall into our Saturday night modes of operation where we indulge more than we should. But, for those brief three or four hours, when we are all together, our Joe’s family high five’s and screams at the television and sighs then laments and yells at the actors on the screen hoping for a better outcome. I can’t imagine spending a Sunday afternoon any other way. With my family of friends, decked out in Blue and Red, and me, in my Black and Gold, but all of us, together, a community. Go Giants! (And Bears! And Saints!)

On Wanderlust

Wanderlust always seems to creep up on me in those sacred, quiet moments where I find myself tired and contemplative and procrastinating and, generally, listening to Tom Waits or Townes Van Zandt, those singer/songwriter men who seemed to understand world weariness at its best. It is when I find myself reconnecting with my teenage years, when I was so absorbed with being on a road going somewhere else and contemplating a life that was easier than what I was living at the time. Wanderlust overwhelms me at some moments, the worst moments of the day, when I simply want to be anywhere but here.

I have written about the fact that I generally and always want to be anywhere but here. I’m finding this much more the case as I have returned back to the classroom, back to teaching, back to my somewhat normative life of academia and not having the time, yet always feeling the immense desire to write as much as I did when I had more than eight months to mull over my life and my place in the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful to be back to a regular schedule, even if that consists of me having to buckle down and get to work and get to reading and grading and attentive to email. I find myself embracing the immeasurable gratitude I feel that I possess a job that I love; a job that brings me great joy daily – a job that only 40% of those who graduate with a Ph.D. these days find themselves in some way lucky enough to possess. I was on my way home tonight, in the driving rain, thinking about the fact that after my last class of the day, when I was profoundly tired, a student stopped me to continue our discussion about labor history and capitalism and philosophy and how we operate in the world. And so we talked about books and writing and the evolution of thought. A mere fifteen extra minutes of intelligent musing on the world is what made my day complete.

And then. Still. I want to be anywhere but here. Rebecca Solnit, prolific writer, historian, and contemplator of life has found a way to describe how those of us who are writers and experience wanderlust on a daily basis feel:

“Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been plowed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use…time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space — for wilderness and public space — must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space.”

I yearn for the free space that brings about a different kind of musing. And not the free time that I find myself in when I’m home and sitting under my ivy-laced tree awash in varying greens and blues from the sky that peeks out between the trimmed branches. For me, that kind of musing, particularly on writing, comes from sitting alone in front of the ocean where I can consider the enormity of life and how the music that perpetually occupies my mind reminds me that there are years past that I have yet to write about with conviction. I long for the presence I had while in Woodstock immersed in a community of creative folks who think and write about the world with fascination. The awareness I had while traveling in Ireland and observing the wonder of history and architecture and the bricks that lined the hundreds year old streets, streets that once held up the writers who I admire and hope to emulate in some small way someday.

On a quite limited income and with a vast group of friends and events that always hold me to Bethlehem I wonder how to be anywhere but here. The pull I feel to hike the John Muir Trail or to fly to Italy to inhale the sweet salt air of the Mediterranean and devour a true margarita pizza envelops me so much in the small spaces of quiet time that I wonder if I am ever truly present in the moment.

And then. I have that one brief thought that what is happening in the present is enough to sustain me until I can indulge my wanderlust. Without breaking the silent promise I have between me and myself and my students that until the semester is over, I will keep my wanderlust in check.

On Katrina – 10 Years Later

On August 29, 2005 I had just moved my newly minted Ph.D. self to Morgantown, West Virginia, when I awoke to the news that Hurricane Katrina had inched eastward, on the map, barely missing my home, the city that I love. But then, like the news of a death, the levees broke. As my friend Phyllis so eloquently stated in her memoir of the same name, not just the levees broke that day. My friends, my alma mater, my restaurants and bars and coffee shops and bookstores, my city, they all broke that day. As an ex-pat academic living in West Virginia it was all I could do to watch helplessly as the news showed stranded New Orleanians on rooftops of homes in the unbearable 90+ degree heat; men, women, children, dogs stranded at the Ernest K. Morial Convention Center and the New Orleans Superdome. My best friend contacted me that she had indeed made it to Mississippi, to her cousin’s home inland, before her newly renovated home was subjected to the wind that tore the roof off the house and the rain, that soaked the second floor dwelling and all of her belongings.

I’m a writer and a historian. I write about the city that I love. New Orleans. I write about it’s heroic people. I wrote a book about female civil rights activists, black and white, who fought against the entrenched racial status quo to effect change in their communities, for their communities, for their children, and for themselves.

But, I also write about the blooming night Jasmine that catches ones olfactory senses sweetly off guard while walking home after a long night of imbibing with friends in May. I write about the sultry, steamy, oppressive humidity and the seemingly insatiable cannibalistic mosquitoes. I write about the ever present, delicious music that feeds the soul of the city, and me. I write about the indescribable food that doesn’t taste quite as good without the humidity and music and general raucous sentiment that hangs in the air like the devil on your shoulder.

As my writer and comrade friend Chris Rose wrote, in the midst of his own Katrina depression,”Dear America, I suppose we should introduce ourselves: We’re South Louisiana…You probably already know that we talk funny and listen to strange music and eat things you’d probably hire an exterminator to get out of your yard. We dance even if there’s no radio. We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large and, frankly,we’re suspicious of others who don’t.”

I am suspicious of anyone who doesn’t live life this way everyday. One is not from New Orleans. One is of New Orleans. I am of New Orleans. I miss it everyday. I miss my friends who are historians and musicians both. Those who are writers and imbibers (they generally go together).  I miss the foodies and the readers and the lovers of architecture and all the intangible, albeit beautiful detritus that makes up my home. I miss what it means to walk down Bourbon street on a rainy March afternoon with the trumpets playing and the drinks flowing. I miss the Rivershack and Cooter Browns, the one bar that had the best beer selection long before anyone knew what craft beer was. I miss being a New Orleanian on a daily basis. Those of us that are ex-pats generally do.

I go back frequently; not frequently enough. It took me almost two years to step foot into Louis Armstrong National Airport after Katrina. And then, onto the soil that reflected the sweltering sun and then on into driving by the barren homes in the Ninth Ward. I drove through the drive-thru daiquiri shop and got a drink so I could steel myself against what I was bound to encounter and so I could adequately move through the mess that was still my home almost two years later. I still lament what was, but I cheer on what is so much yet to be.

Today my New Orleans is much stronger, but still not the town I call home. It lacks a certain something that goads me back year after year. I have a book coming out that will ensure that I’ll be spending much of the next year there. My hope is that I can find myself in my home again next year, among my friends and my coffee shops and my bookstores and my bars. I am of New Orleans. And as a New Orleanian, we always seem to find our way back there.

What I’d Say to my Twenty-Something Year Old Self

So I think every writer does this at some point. But, I started thinking about this a month ago and I though I would put it down in words. I’ll add to this periodically. Perhaps your list is different. But this is mine today. I’m cleaning house!

Travel more.

You are not fat.

Stop wearing make-up. It’s not you.

Live every day to the fullest.

Read more books. I know you’re an historian. Read more books.

You are lovely.

People love you.

Life is sweet.

Music will always sustain you.

You love the rain.

You love a snow day. Particularly when friends are involved.

You love to hike.

You will meet people that will love to hike with you.

You are going to always be surrounded by amazing people. Fret not.

Being alone is a good thing.

You will never be lonely.

Some people will disappoint you.

Some people will never disappoint you.

Sadness eventually ends.

You will go to Ireland. With your best friend. It will be amazing.

You are going to find a bar named Joe’s, and that is where you will find your people.

Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.

You are a writer. You are a writer. You are a writer.

You will be invited to a writing retreat where you will own that you are a writer.

You will find your tribe. They are writers.

Your tribe are also music lovers.

You will eventually come to love bourbon. And then, folks will know you as “the” bourbon lover.

Every day is adventure. Embrace it. Even if you are on the couch.

Some days are hard. For everyone.

Some people will love you. Some people won’t. And that is ok.

You will always have people in your corner.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania will end up being your home. Even when you thought it wasn’t.

You can and will get a Ph.D.

You are not an imposter. You are smarter than you think you are.

You will write a really good book.

You will write another really good book. And then, another one.

Your life will never be your job.

Your job is amazing, but not your life.

Life is hard. Own it.

Life is good. Own it.

On Ars Historica

Ars Historica

I love being a historian. I especially love everything that defines the profession. I’m an archive rat so I delight in researching in dust-filled, musty-basement smelling archives (something that is quickly becoming unnecessary as we move more and more into the digital age). I treasure the intimacy that comes with delving into the lives of those who have long since passed and who probably never thought that anyone would be interested in anything that they did or had to say. More than anything, I love to write about these individuals whose seemingly mundane lives tell us something about who we are today in the 21st century.

When reading the hundreds of letters and diaries and plantation records it is not lost on me how our lives are quite similar to these men and women who came before us. We eat and sleep. We get sick and deal with complicated family matters. We long for love and, at the same time, we long for solitude. Mostly, over the centuries, it seems that we all just want to feel like we matter; that in the long stretch of time that is our lives, lives that were not so long in the 19th century, we mattered to someone or something in this world. I think that at the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we want to know that we made a difference in some way in this world. At base, in every letter I read, no matter how brief or seemingly insignificant the missive, the overarching theme seems to be this: “What am I doing today that will live beyond me?”

Over the course of several months I read a long stretch of letters dating from the 19th century through the mid-twentieth century. These letters were mostly to the women I’m researching and are brimming with sentiment that is fascinating, intriguing, and funny. They are also, at times, quite sad. However, largely, they are not unlike what we Tweet or post on Facebook or spend hours discussing with our friends on a daily basis. There are men who are quite sappy and, to be perfectly frank, quite needy. There are friends who want to know the minutiae of someone’s daily life, from what they ate that morning to what book they are reading that week. There are seemingly inconsequential details about the weather and the crops and the myriad insects that exist in the Deep South, all of which mattered to a 19th century plantation owner. And in this particular case, because Cross Keys Plantation is located in close proximity to the Mississippi river, there are weekly reports about the water table, which seems to flood regularly threatening crops and roads to be traveled.

Beyond the seeming mundanity of the words, what these letters reveal are lives. And stepping back in time allows me to leave my life for a while. I have become immersed in the worlds of the Watsons and the McCalls and the Striplings and the Cooks and their neighbors and friends. I feel as if I have born witness to numerous births, illnesses, and deaths. I now have a personal stake in Lucille Watson’s fortune, particularly whether the year will yield a good or bad crop. I want to say, “Right on sister!” when she laments living with fleas and gnats and mosquitoes and sweating in swampy, oppressive temperatures that I long since left back in Louisiana. I could identify with Lucille’s alarm when a friend wrote to inform her that a gentleman suitor intended to bring her a watermelon, a gesture that meant he was determined to propose marriage (I’ll note that for the future). And, during WWII, Lucille and I both waited patiently for word from her love, Joe, a pilot who was lost somewhere over Africa in 1943. He did, indeed, return.

Still, what is tucked between the history and the incidental and the well-worn comments about the Mississippi and the weather, is so much sweeter. Love between brothers and sisters and cousins whose main form of communication was letters, not text messages or email or Facebook, immediate modern communication that we often take for granted. Genuine sentiment about what it means to be family who are far apart in time and miles. And bonds that form not because people are convenient, but because they actually mean something and are authentic and don’t wish to be anywhere else but with you when 19th century infrastructure didn’t make it quite so simple.

There’s something to be learned from stepping back in time. I encourage everyone to read 19th century letters. I think that we all could bear reminding how fortunate we are to be living here, this day, when we have immediate access to the folks that matter to us, and how we don’t have to wait for the river to subside to see them.

On Joe’s

I think we should all have a place where we can go to feel safe and wanted and loved. A place where we can go to escape the mundanity or, insanity, that generally and, regularly, plagues our everyday lives. For writers, that place is usually a bar; a favorite, local haunt that nourishes the soul in the most intangible ways. It is a place where we go to ease the heaviness of the day. It’s a place where, and forgive the Cheers reference, if we’re lucky and spend enough time, everyone knows our name and they’re always glad we came. And, if it’s a good bar, it’ll level the playing field. A good bar should be a place where everyone is the same no matter their occupation or lack thereof or income level or lack thereof. A good local bar should smooth the rough edges, provide solace and alcohol, when necessary, music or an ear, when necessary, and make us feel wanted in this often hard-scrabble, fight-or-die world. Ernest Hemingway had Les Deux Magot in Paris and  Sloppy Joe’s in Key West (among myriad others around the world), Hunter S. Thompson frequented the Woody Creek Tavern, and Oscar Wilde drank at the Hotel Cafe Royal. My local bar is Joe’s and they are my family. Because friends are the family we choose for ourselves, I choose Joe’s.

Back in February, when it was rigidly and brutally cold, and the entire east coast of the United States was dreaming of and praying for warmer days and sunshine and an end to the seemingly endless winter, I met the most intriguing and interesting man I’m fairly sure I have ever met in this lifetime, a Joe. And it was at my local haunt, Joe’s, my favorite bar in the whole world, which says a lot because the number of pub thresholds I’ve crossed rivals any aging Irishman. It was a snow day and even though I’m on sabbatical, I felt inclined to take the day, like the rest of the people, and simply do fuck all. So my best friend and I took a lovely stroll through our beautiful historic town, on a picturesque snowy day, up the hill and ended up (well, it was planned) at Joe’s. And as we walked into the bar, I swear the Cheers theme was playing (more about that later). Our friends were there; they had summoned us. And so we drank delicious craft beer (Maple Mistress – shout out to Saucony Creek brewing) the crazy regular, another Joe, who seems to live at the bar every day was playing the jukebox (do they still call it that?) He generally plays TV theme songs, which is why I think, or know, that I heard the Cheers theme when I entered the bar. This February day he was playing Christmas music, not what any of us wanted to hear while we were channeling summer, discussing how we’d soon be spending Thursdays at Tunes at Twilight and the various festivals that summer in Bethlehem brings and of course, the best of them all, Musikfest. “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” was like nails on a chalkboard and crazy tv-theme-show-playing Joe was on our shit list.

Joe’s is what most people would call a dive bar and I write this in the most lovingly of ways. It’s an old bar; we just celebrated 50 years this past March. It’s dimly lit with odd yellowish-orange lighting. The bar itself is wood and runs the length of the building, holding about 20-25 seats. It’s modern in that it has great craft beers and two large flat screen televisions perched high at each end for sports viewing (NY Giants and Yankees). What I think I love most about Joe’s is that it is decorated with all kinds of insanely awesome kitsch including books and puzzles and every kind of Giants or Yankees memorabilia a customer can find; Joe’s is a New Yorkers dream. It has live music on the weekends and delicious bar food prepared skillfully and lovingly by Bruce (seriously, the French Onion Burger is the closest thing to nirvana, so I’ve been told because I don’t eat meat). The bartenders are convivial and smart and not hard to look and, gratefully, they have become close friends. Joe’s radiates all the ambiance and love and warmth that always ignites sheer joy in me when I walk through its doors.

This Thursday – a cold, snowy February afternoon – I was seated at the far end of the bar, near the kitchen, on a stool with my best friend, Sarah, on my right, my oddly tattooed, pierced, and genius friend, Ben, to the right of her, and my lovely teacher, happy-to-have-a-snow-day friend Nicole standing behind us. The seat to my left was vacant. And then, just like that, the seat to my left was occupied. The gentleman beside me, Joe, had deep mahogany hair and eyes to match. His skin was olive and he smelled good. He smoked, Marlboro Lights, and drank bourbon, Makers Mark. When he finally introduced himself to me 20 minutes later, I had already decided that we were going to be friends. Within the course of a few hours we had covered work, writing, unions, business contracts, marriage, divorce, why I don’t believe in marriage (divorce, many between both of my parents), snow, the unrelenting cold, where we might retire someday (near the water – him in Italy, me in New England), bartending, owning a bar, owning a bookstore, you name it – life, love, all of it, all of the things you discuss when you’re at a bar in the afternoon on a snowy day and have had many drinks and cigarettes and nowhere else to be but there.

At a young thirty-something-years-old he is quite old school. He likes Frank Sinatra and Townes Van Zandt; he thinks I’m “aces” and “easy on the eyes;” and he says “good stuff” about everything from bourbon to meeting me randomly in a bar. (Well, not quite so randomly. He has since admitted that he sat next to me on purpose.) That night we exchanged information, but not promises. We said we’d see each again at Joe’s. And we have.

I frequent Joe’s at least once a week. If I’m not there they send out the rescue team. Life at Joe’s, and the people that frequent that bar, from the ordinary to the most odd, is what makes it my favorite place to be most of the time. I can’t imagine life without Joe’s, and now, without all of the Joe’s. Almost four months later, Joe, not the quirky, tv-theme-show-loving Joe, but the other one, and I are still friends. We meet regularly at Joe’s, and other places, to check in with each other. We text every day, again, just to check in. We tell each other about the stupid shit that we’re forced to deal with during the day and we rejoice when life seems to be behaving the way it should more regularly.

It seems to me that this is how the world works. We meet people randomly and all of a sudden, unbeknownst to us, they become our people. I like that Joe, and Joe’s, are now my people. (The tv-theme-show loving Joe is a work in progress.) I’m never quite sure how it is that we meet the people that we do or even how it works in the whole scheme of the universal, or if it’s merely happenstance or kismet or just random showing up in some place at some time. I’m not quite sure I believe in the whole “everything-happens-for-a-reason” bullshit that most people embrace when they need to make themselves feel better about some fucked up shit that happened to them. I’d like to think that we randomly meet folks who enlighten us and show us who we are in the world at a given time. So we (Joe and I) have decided to ride out our Joe’s friendship and see where it takes us. In the past few years I seem to have found some quite lovely Joe’s friendships, all of which have made my life enormously and happily a better place to reside. Joe’s makes it difficult for me to want to be anywhere but here, which is the place in my head where I normally want to be. That said, Joe’s is home.