In Pursuit

Sign of the times.
Sign of the times.

Now that I’m closer to being 70 than I am to the ‘70s, I find my enthusiasm for the hectic skirmish of modern life is tempered by the cold shower of perspective.

In January, as I joined thousands of women thronging the streets outside the Capitol rallying for justice and civil rights for all citizens of this still young country, I couldn’t help noticing how many of my fellow marchers were too young to have experienced the  protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was encouraging to see their passion and conviction that right must prevail over might. However, having witnessed more than a few wrong turns in the journey of this rough and tumble democracy, I’ve come to feel that flashy speeches and flag waving are just smoke and mirrors. The nitty gritty work of democracy is accomplished in the quiet dedication of scholars and the unflinching courage of soldiers.

Real heroes have no need for boasting and threats. They simply do their jobs.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the scholars and soldiers who helped establish this democracy of ours. We hear the stories of George Washington and the lore of Jefferson in school. But how many of us have the time and energy to dig deeper into the complexities of the characters who shaped our national heritage?

I am no scholar. I’m more of a cultural mayfly, skimming the surface of the mysteries of life. Recently I read with delight “And the Pursuit of Happiness,” Maira Kalman’s illustrated journal, published in 2008, a moment of historic optimism. Her piquant drawings and dry observations offer a refreshing mix of offbeat humor and  admiration for our history and democracy itself.

She covers so much territory, from Leif Ericson to Herman Melville, from Dolley Madison to Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And in each case, Kalman delivers surprising insights into the past and what we can learn from it.

I was particularly intrigued by the chapter on Thomas Jefferson. Having spent most of my life in Virginia, I thought I knew all there was to know about our third president, the one who wrote, “I cannot live without books.” He also wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was 33 when he wrote it. He owned hundreds of slaves, even though he was against slavery. As Kalman puts it, “The monumental man had monumental flaws.”

It’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of “so-called” statesmen measuring up to the achievements of the early men and women who dedicated their lives to the ideals of this democracy. But in addition to the sketches of famous patriots, Kalman also offers vignettes of lesser known men and women working then and now to keep the democratic dream alive.

I was heartened to learn of the Thomas Jefferson quote engraved above the door to the women’s room in the Capitol Building. “Enlighten the people generally and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

Read on!

Et Tu, Anthony?

"The Big Train,"pitcher Walter Johnson led the Washington baseball team to the championship in 1924.
Baseball has its own history. Walter Johnson led Washington baseball to the world championship in 1924.

There is history, and there’s History.

Lower case history tends to be personal. It happens to all of us as we go through our little lives. Upper case History more often involves the rise and fall of nations, civilizations, great leaders and vile despots. Such history generally relies on a  fair amount of hard facts and reliably recorded data.

Hard facts have always been a stumbling block for me. I’m inclined to step around the side of any fact and imagine how it would look without its makeup. It’s my firmly held belief that perception influences data. At least that’s how it seems from my angle.

This aspect of history baffled me throughout my academic years. I struggled to get through every history class. The sheer volume of history was just too discouraging.

However, as we learn if we give History a chance, Time changes everything. Including history.

Television has dramatically enhanced the way history is shared. Ever since Ken Burns began making his engaging documentaries about defining events such as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, and World War II, as well as his inspiring films dealing with social and cultural topics such as Prohibition, Jazz, and The Brooklyn Bridge, history has escaped from the quiet pages of books. In Burns’s films the soul and passion of history are revealed.

As may be apparent from the gushing, lately I’ve come around on History. While reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s thrilling Team of Rivals I was enthralled by the wisdom, the patience, and the sheer goodness of Lincoln. Now I’m reading David McCullough’s fascinating The Great Bridge and learning  things about Brooklyn I’d never known, in spite of the fact that my Dad was born and raised there.

Admittedly, history may never grip the general population the way reality TV apparently does. But I’ve been delighted to learn that history buffs come in all sizes and uniforms. As regular readers of this blog may be tired of hearing already, I am a baseball fan. I have my favorites among the teams and certain players whose skill and style lift my mood. One of these is the National’s Anthony Rendon, who shines wherever they put him on the field.

However, Rendon ruffled a few feathers recently when, in answer to a reporter’s question about whether he would be watching the All Star Game during the break, he replied that he didn’t like to watch baseball because it was too long and boring. And that he preferred to watch The History Channel.

The way the media fell all over themselves analyzing this shocker was good for a few laughs. You would have thought he’d insulted the Pope. Some fair-minded reporters suggested that perhaps he had been kidding.

Well, all kidding aside, I’d like to think Rendon enjoys The History Channel from time to time. I mean, Ken Burns made a great documentary about baseball, too. What’s not to love?