How to Live History

I returned home last night from the party held in memory of Blake Hayes in Cherry Valley, New York. This post is a bit unusual in that it’s written for colleagues in the museum field, the line of work to which Blake dedicated his life—especially for members of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM).

I met Blake at ALHFAM’s annual conference in 1986. We got married and were together 15 years before we moved on personally, but we remained engaged professionally and as friends. (Don’t worry, Blake and his wife Lorraine and me and my husband Tony all get along!)

His memorial party was an amazing event, with his friends from childhood, high school and college, his immediate family, adopted family, extended family (I think there were even in-laws of in-laws there!), “ex-family” (still regarded as family), professional colleagues, neighbors, local and regional friends, kids who grew up around him and brought their own kids, ALHFAM colleagues, Jell-O shots (which no one understood except the ALHFAMers), pets, meats, and music.

I heard Katie Boardman, one of Blake’s partners at the Cherry Valley Group, say that the comments and tributes to Blake “broke the ALHFAM-L,” a professional listserv normally used for questions and comments about museum matters. I think they also broke Facebook. After not checking my inbox for three days, I discovered literally hundreds of unread emails, nearly all Facebook notifications, ALHFAM-L summaries or personal messages about Blake.

This electronic outpouring, however, made me realize that as much of a tech enthusiast as he was, Blake didn’t need social media. He was social in the old-fashioned way—in person. He met, called, welcomed, taught, partied, shared time and stories, food and drink. Even when he was arguing his point of view passionately, it wasn’t personal. Even when he couldn’t type or walk any more, he talked. As his family reported, it was when he stopped talking that they knew the end was near.

Almost the only thing he didn’t share widely was news of his illness.

While we miss and remember and treasure all of our departed ALHFAM colleagues, I think it was Blake’s extremely social nature and long-term, deep commitment to ALHFAM that has made him so profoundly missed by all of us. Wherever Blake was, the party was. But when the party was over, valuable teaching and learning and doing occurred, informed and enhanced by personal relationships. Blake’s life is a reminder that opinionated doesn’t have to mean obnoxious.

As Dr. Takuji Doi, a long-departed ALHFAM colleague from Japan, once said after observing the flow of the annual meeting: “The difference between Japan and America: In Japan, make big decision, get drunk. In America, get drunk, make big decision!”

We need to continue to tell all of ALHFAM’s stories, the jokes, and the memories. And as much as possible we need to do it in person. There is no real substitute that can perpetuate our history. Maintaining the folklore of this organization and of your sites depends on you.

So go to your regional meetings, or those of other regions. Attend the annual conference whenever you can. Show up for your local history-related events. Gather with colleagues after hours for meals. Do it in memory of all our dearly departed, do it for yourself, and do it for the next generation.

Telling stories is, after all, the essence of history.

I recently came across something that, to me at least, seems to embody Blake’s professional and personal philosophy. It’s the last paragraph of Will and Ariel Durant’s book, The Lessons of History, published in 1968 (the year Blake graduated from high school).

To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious county of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

May Blake live long in that spacious country of our minds, building and organizing, cooking and joking, helping and sharing. With much love always, ms

(Thanks to Eileen Hook for this great 2013 photo of Blake going Full Woodstock at ALHFAM!)

 

NTS+GUI=HGH+AVT=YOD+BIS (WTF?)

I’ve been a fan of sci-fi-cyberpunk-whatever-you-call-it-or-him author Neal Town Stephenson for years—well, decades actually. From back when he had hair. (No, I’m not trying to insult him even though I probably just did. I’m a few months older than he is, and besides, I think he shaves his head.)

(BTW, the title of this post is a lame attempt at doing a Neal Stephenson-style title. Eventually, if you care to try, you might figure it out. I tried using some HTML symbols in it, but Word Press wanted to read it as actual HTML. It got weird. But no weirder than my love of parenthetical asides.)

I first became aware of him sometime in the mid-1990s through one of his articles in Wired. I kept a few, the oldest a 1994 issue that included “Spew,” a short story that today I’d describe as The Matrix meets Hee Haw. (Now that I think of it, The Matrix would have been more fun with a few Buck Owens types. Imagine if The Oracle turned out to be Minnie Pearl!)IMG_4917

Whenever I look back at Stephenson’s older works I invariably find a passage which has new resonance with me. For instance, if I changed “guy” to “gal,” I could have written the first sentence of “Spew” about myself today:

Yeah, I know it’s boring of me to send you plain old Text like this, and I hope you don’t just blow this message off without reading it. But what can I say, I was an English major. On video, I come off like a stunned bystander. I’m just a Text kind of guy.

Video is massively more important today than in 1994, but I’m still a video voyeur. I’ll view it, I’ll shoot it, but I don’t want to be in it. (I’m a Twitter voyeur too, but that’s another story.)

In keeping with my habit taking a fresh look at Neal’s old works, I cracked open the slim non-fiction paperback, In the Beginning was the Command Line, his 1999 analysis of the state of computing back when the Mac v Windows debate actually mattered. (“Cracked open” is not a cliché in this case. The book was so brittle the binding literally cracked.) It was published in that short span of time after all the other commercial operating systems had flamed out and the era of the mobile device had not yet dawned. (Yes, Linux was around, but A, it’s free, and B, it was only used by serious nerds. Some things never change.)

It was fun to re-read Stephenson’s take on the relationship between computers, their users, and their designers and coders and think about our first home computer (an Osborne “portable” with a CPM operating system), or recall that first magical mouse moment (complete with phantom wrist pain).

But then I read a paragraph that instantly—in my head, anyway—became a dead-on analogy between early developments in computer operating systems and today’s Next Big Thing in automotive engineering: the drive-by-wire-on-human-growth-hormone known as the autonomous vehicle. Maybe someday it’ll make cars safer. But will cars still be fun? I doubt it. Makes me want to hang on to my 2003 Mini Cooper S with the John Cooper Works performance package. No USB port, but on the upside no snoopy black boxes or mommy-car helpers either.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about Autonomous Vehicle Technology (AVT) lately.

So here’s Stephenson on the graphical user interface, or GUI—all the graphics and images and icons that mask the zeroes and ones that comprise the code running the machine:

The introduction of the Mac triggered a sort of holy war in the computer world. Were GUIs a brilliant design innovation that made computers more human-centered and therefore accessible to the masses, leading us toward an unprecedented revolution in human society, or an insulting bit of audiovisual gimcrackery dreamed up by flaky Bay Area hacker types that stripped computers of their power and flexibility and turned the noble and serious work of computing into a childish video game?

With apologies to Stephenson, here’s my automotive analog:

The introduction of autonomous vehicles triggered a sort of holy war in the automotive world. Was autonomous driving a brilliant design innovation that made vehicles more practical and therefore safer for the masses, leading us toward an unprecedented revolution in human mobility, or an insulting bit of drive-by-wire gimcrackery dreamed up by ambitious Bay Area corporations and embraced by Detroit, et al, that stripped automobiles of the power of human-machine interface and turned the noble and serious work of driving into a childish video game—sans joystick?

I had never before thought of the increasing digitization of the automobile/driver interface as a GUI, but it pretty much is. Although there is an irreducible number of mechanical interfaces required to move a mass of metal, plastic, rubber, and glass down the road, there is no longer any such restriction in the cockpit. With an autonomous vehicle, no mechanical interface is required to start and control the vehicle, other than perhaps Butt in Seat (AKA BIS).

BIS was the same AVT once enjoyed by drunks in Ye Olden Days (YOD), when Old Dobbin waiting patiently outside the tavern could be relied upon to know the way home no matter what state his owner was in.

In YOD horse/rider interface code, the program might read:

Butt in Saddle
Home Dobbin!
Run
End

In the 21st century however, the fact that your ride has a brain (virtual or actual) won’t get your DUI charges dropped. I recently saw a news item about a guy in Louisiana who got pulled over and ticketed for riding his horse under the influence (would that be an RUI?). (For some reason this reminds me of when my horse-avoiding husband—auto journalist Tony Swan—said to a horse-owning friend, “I refuse to drive anything with its own brain,” to which our friend said “Have I got the horse for you!”)

So after all this appropriation and misapplication of Neal Stephenson’s genius, this is the only semi-profound thing I came up with: did it ever occur to you that the abbreviation for “Neal Town Stephenson’s Books” is NTSB, AKA the National Transportation Safety Board? No, I’ll bet it did not.

(A belated postscript: Someone asked me to help decipher the title of this post, and when I revisited it I realized I’d forgotten what HGH stood for and it took me 10 minutes to find it in the text! So here it is: Neal Town Stephenson plus Graphical User Interface equals Human Growth Hormone plus Autonomous Vehicle Technology equals Ye Olden Days plus Butt in Seat.)

Big Sound

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to combine my personal and professional interests in music, the history of technology, and exhibit development in one great project: Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience. Its run will soon come to an end, but its a project I’ll never forget. Les was talented, humble, innovative in the truest sense of the word. He was an entertainer and a teacher who prioritized helping others the way he had been helped. While I wish I had known him, through this project I feel like I do.

I was honored to work with people at the Les Paul Foundation who knew Les and the designers and developers at MRA to help bring this project to life with research, scripting, and concept development.

Q: How do you win a one-minute-story writing contest?

A: Take more than one minute to write it.

Depending on where you put the hyphens, it could be writing a story in a minute, or writing a story that can be read in a minute. This was the later. I won’t analyze the possible hyphen permutations now, although it’s a fun exercise if you’re a grammar geek.

Along with two other Michiganders (I reluctantly have to call myself that now, since I’ve lived here for almost 28 years!), I was honored to be selected as one of three winners of the Michigan Radio story-writing contest. Out of 175 entries, that’s not too bad.

The rules specified no more than 120 words—about what can be read in a minute. A friend suggested I enter. He thought my experience writing museum exhibit labels might be helpful. In fact, when I heard I had 120 words, I was thrilled. That’s almost twice as much as I have for most exhibit labels!

The occasion for the contest was the Michigan Humanities Council “Great Michigan Read,” a statewide program focusing on a book about, or written by, a Michigan author. Schools, book clubs, libraries, and other groups participate in readings, author discussions, etc. over the course of two years. The winners of the radio contest were selected in time for the finale event of the Great Michigan Read. The winners were invited, and in addition to good food and great beer, we got signed copies of the featured book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. (If I’d known about it earlier, I’d have suggested a traveling exhibit to go along with the program. Maybe next time!)

The book provided the theme for the radio contest: “Hidden branches of your family tree: Unexpected stories that changed the way you think of yourself or your family.” Steve Luxenberg is an editor at the Washington Post. He read our winning stories at the event, noting that his journalists often turn in lengthy stories with this apology: “Sorry it’s so long; I didn’t have time to write it short.”

Of course Steve is right. When I’m bidding on an exhibit label writing project, I’m always reluctant to offer per-word pricing. You have to learn as much as possible about the subject, much of which will never make it into the label. But in order to choose which bits would make the best label, you have to have all the bits in your head. Then you have to focus on the most intriguing part of the story, and chose every word for maximum information and impact. Often that means editing it several times.

I thought it was interesting that all the winning stories set up the tale, but didn’t try to complete it. They tell about the moment of discovery with no attempt to fill in the blanks. The reader wants to know more.

My trick is to read it out loud before declaring a label complete. So the idea that these short stories would be read on the radio was intriguing. I’ll admit I was disappointed with the way it was read/recorded for the show. But I’ll link to it anyway, and print it below. My disappointment made me remember how critical an actor’s craft is to the success of a play or a movie. I read a lot of Shakespeare starting in 6th grade, but soon discovered that reading a play and seeing good actors perform it were entirely different experiences. The nuance, emphasis, timing, and gestures added meanings I never imagined.

I’ve been wanting to write some of our nutty old family tales for years, but I could never decide if they should be histories, fictionalized novels, songs, poems, or short stories. Well, I now have a start, thanks to Michigan Radio!

The Revelation

Portsmouth Ohio, 1951. Walking with his new wife, my father watched an older man shuffling toward them. As they drew closer, he saw a face partially paralyzed, tragic eyes, trembling hands. “Poor bastard,” he thought. “I wonder what happened to him.”

Suddenly his wife drew up stiffly. “Uncle Noah! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” They spoke quietly—pleasantries mostly—then Uncle Noah limped on. Uncle Jack. Uncle Hobart. But Uncle Noah?

Before he could ask, the woman who became my mother leaned toward him, eyes straight ahead, voice low. “They never did get the bullet out of his brain.” As if it were normal. As if he knew what had happened. And why.

ET and Me

My band played at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop in Nashville recently. It’s part museum, part record store, part music venue, and all real. It’s one of those rare places that evokes the presence of the past with no pretense or self-consciousness. As we were setting up, our bass player needed to elevate his small amp. We started to hand him an old wooden soda box—the type that little bottles of Coke were once shipped in. The sound man stopped us. “That’s the box Loretta Lynn stood on when she sang here! She was so short the folks in the back couldn’t see her.”

If the place were a museum, that box would be an artifact in a case with a label. Here, the whole building and everything in it—the decor, the memorabilia, the staff, the shows, and the stories—is a living artifact.

It’s the continuity of purpose, I think, that keeps the record shop from being touristy. The stage is the same one Ernest Tubb played on when he opened the shop in 1947. The Midnite Jamboree radio show that he started is still broadcast every Saturday night at midnight, right after the Grand Ol’ Opry. Traveling bands and local legends play here often. People just crowd in off the street when the music starts, standing around the record (now CD) bins–no chairs, no drinks, no cover.

I wonder what will happen to the store if and when music recordings leave the physical realm for good. They sell shirts and books and trinkets too. But it wouldn’t be much of a record store without recordings.

As we were packing up and the store was shutting down, the sound man told us the place was once a Civil War era hospital. He said they’ve heard liquid splashing, as if from the second floor windows to the street below, when no one was upstairs. Footfalls on the old wooden floorboards. Sawing sounds.

I’m not sure about ghosts. But even a confirmed skeptic like me might be converted to a believer. Just before I left the stage, I swear I saw ET.

No longer under construction

I’ve owned the domain name maryseelhorst.com for years, but I never wanted to have a web site or a blog. Why bother? When you google my name, what y0u find is pretty much me—give or take a petty thief. (And to find her, you have to know my middle initial.) Because I’ve led an exemplary life—well, online anyway—there isn’t much out there on the internet machine that requires plausible deniability.

People who wanted to find me could always find me. For my main line of work—museum exhibit development and exhibit script writing—word of mouth worked just fine. It seemed to be an appropriate way to find someone who studied folklore in grad school. And because word of mouth includes a lot of context, it meant I didn’t have to repeatedly answer the question frequently asked: “Are  you an exhibit designer?” (For the record: no, but I work with designers on most projects.)

Finding my band is easier. (You can go to the band’s web site, or find us on Facebook.) But because I’m too busy these days to do many gigs outside the band, it didn’t make sense to maintain a web site. And if I had one, I’d have to answer the other question frequently asked: “What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin? (For the record: it’s the way you play it. And I play fiddle, not violin.)

So what made me change my mind? First, that embarrassing “site under construction” page you get when there’s no there there. Second, my husband’s pseudo-semi-kinda-sorta-retiring at the end of this week. As a major automotive journalist, he’s better known than I am,  but has a more generic name. Googling him could be dangerous—who knows what kind of reprehensible deeds other Tony Swans have committed? Despite his Luddite tendencies I convinced him to manage his own brand and  start a blog.

So I figured I’d better put my arse out there too; what’s good for the cob is good for the pen (sorry, you have to know your swan-like waterfowl taxonomy to get that one). I may not post often, but at least you’ll be able to find it.