Forgotten History

My mother was born in Marinette, Wisconsin, a small northern town you’ve probably never heard of that sits on the border with Upper Michigan. Marinette is only a couple of miles northeast of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, another town you’ve probably never heard of. And that’s a shame.

I could try to recreate the town of Peshtigo for you from memory, but decades have passed since I last went through the place. I can’t believe too much about it has changed, though. It was (and probably still is) a close-knit lumber town surrounded by pine forests and smelled of the nearby paper mill.  Peshtigo is also divided in half by a river, not surprisingly called the Peshtigo River.

Because I grew up in nearby Marquette, Michigan and passed through Peshtigo at least a handful of times every year as a kid, I know its history. I know its story. I know why nobody else knows it, too. In fact, during my junior year of high school in suburban D.C., Peshtigo’s story was the one thing that helped me graduate from high school on time. My class attendance was awful, truancy-worthy, even, but my history teacher gave me a final shot at passing his class. His challenge:

Teach me something I don’t already know.

So I told him about Peshtigo. I told him about the lumber town, the river, and of one of the driest summers on record. I told him what happened on October 8, 1871, and he asked, “Isn’t that the same date as the Great Chicago Fire?” Why, yes. Yes, it is!

I passed my history class, became a senior, and spent some of my final year of high school helping to grade juniors’ papers with my former history teacher.

***

The reason most people have never heard of the town of Peshtigo is because of Chicago. More people were killed in the Peshtigo Fire, an estimated 2,500 compared to Chicago’s 200 to 300. They both occurred on the same date. Peshtigo’s fire was caused by drought and lightning, not by a legendary cow (I’m looking at you, Mrs. O’Leary!). The firestorm in Peshtigo was exactly that: a storm. It created its own weather patterns complete with cloud-to-ground lightning and tornadoes. But what’s all that worth when a cosmopolitan city on the lakeshore is nearly destroyed by a cow? Forgotten history, indeed.

(I had been struggling a bit to come up with a topic for my upcoming thesis for my bachelor’s degree. When I came across this page in Andrew Carroll’s Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, I took it as a sign. Also, if you have knowledge of any resources or people, historians or otherwise, that/who may be able to help me with my research, please let me know.):

Hey, Girl: History, Ryan Gosling, and a ton of book recommendations

The three of us went out to eat a few nights ago and my daughter was playing a game called Plague, Inc. on Matt’s iPhone. Elle wanted me to help her choose symptoms, just a few things to support the launch of her virtual pestilence that she and my husband so heartwarmingly named Mother. We discussed joint pain, fever, vomiting, jaundice, and even tossed around the idea of a painful rash. When Matt ordered his dinner, I mistakenly thought I heard him say “barbecue” so I immediately, and very excitedly, went off on a tangent explaining the 1868 Yellow Fever outbreak in Memphis and its likely contribution to the city’s deep African-American roots. Think about it: were it not for that pesky epidemic, we might not have ever heard of rock n’ roll, B.B. King, or barbecued pork.

Matt and Elle both called me a nerd and never before had I felt so sure about my future career plans in public history.

C.S. Lewis once said, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” This, whatever this is, is not another goal nor is it a new dream. It is simply a more refined goal or, if you prefer to be all woo-woo about these sorts of things, an old dream with much better direction.

Also, Ryan Gosling can Hey, girl me any day of the week.

Some fascinating reads on diseases:

Some good reading material on American history and why public history is important:

This post went off the rails about ten links back, but I love to share a good read with anyone who is interested. I am also thrilled to receive new book recommendations so feel free to fire away.

At times, I feel disconnected from the parts of the country that I really love to learn about – Oklahoma is rich in Native American history, obviously, but I’m more of a Civil Rights and Civil War kind of girl. If you know of any war monuments, landmarks, or related places of interest here in the middle of the country, please share.

 

When colleges & universities can’t (or won’t) keep up

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with the president of the university I worked at.  The president spoke about keeping up with the times but mainly how to do it while increasing enrollment and maintaining affordability. He asked for suggestions, opinions, and answered questions about the future of our school. Being a former mayor of our city, allocated funding issues and public relations were more his niche. At least, that’s what I believed.

It was about this time that I had applied to the school to work on my bachelor’s degree in history. As an employee, my tuition would be covered 100% and I would be transferring my college credits over from a large community college turned state college I’d been attending for a few years…via online courses. I had taken traditional courses before when I had the time. It’s just not that easy to do when one works full-time and is a single parent (a true single parent, none of this co-parenting existed). Night classes presented childcare issues and I preferred not to be enrolled in a course with dually-enrolled high school students who, let’s face it, couldn’t transition so easily from their 4th period gym class to being in a room full of tuition-paying adults.

I also missed tucking my kid into bed at night so I opted to do my classes, when possible, from home.

The university president continued to talk of larger and more popular state schools being our competition, such as University of Florida and Florida State University, and he wondered aloud at what could be done to make ourselves stand out. How could our mid-size university become better with what we had to offer, that being a fantastic array of degree options and affordable tuition compared to the bigger schools?

I asked him, “Would our university ever consider offering degree options online?”

The president replied, “Oh, no. We want to preserve the integrity of our school. We wouldn’t want to diminish the quality of our education with online courses.”

I was insulted. I did not argue with him or try to change his mind in any way, but I was fully aware that UF and FSU (as well as many other state universities, large and small) offered degree options online at the time. Isn’t that how you keep up with your competition, by not only doing what they do, but by doing it better?

My co-workers and I headed upstairs to our offices and got back to work, but this nagged at me for hours. Finally, I asked a few of my directors who hadn’t attended the roundtable for their opinion on the president’s feelings toward online degrees. To my surprise, all of them agreed with him. One even went so far as to tell me that if she were presented with two equally competent and experienced job applicants but one attended a traditional program and another completed a degree program online, she would hire the applicant who actually “attended class”.

I have learned quite a bit in the last few months of researching other degrees and there are quite a few online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs available all across the country. For example, Harvard University offers a bachelor’s degree online for liberal arts majors. And both Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities offer a master’s degree in museum studies online.

Tell me again, Mr. President, how exactly have these two prestigious schools failed to preserve their integrity and diminish the quality of one’s education? Because that’s quite a low blow.

I ended up getting laid off a month after receiving my acceptance into the history program. Without a job, I couldn’t afford to drive back and forth to classes every single day, much less pay university campus fees and university-level tuition. And what if I found a new job that wouldn’t work around my class schedule? I took myself back to my less expensive state college and worked on my bachelor’s degree online. My former employer, that mid-size university, had already made it clear to me that they weren’t willing to help me or even deployed service members become graduates of their school.

When I get my degree in December, do you know what I will have printed on it? It will say that I graduated from University of Oklahoma, not University of Oklahoma ONLINE because she was too lazy to attend an actual class. I fear the for-profit colleges and universities are to blame for the negative reactions people give and receive at the mention of earning a degree online. I don’t want this to discourage people from doing it anyway.

Here is what I have learned from working on my degree online:

  • how to multitask
  • time management
  • how to meet deadlines
  • how to complete research with limited resources (as in actual human interaction and immediate responses)
  • online etiquette
  • direct communication skills
  • how to fly solo on a project

If you want a degree, get a degree. If Harvard is willing to offer an online option, that’s saying something. It means that the good folks at Harvard, and a hundred other colleges and universities across the country, understand that times have changed. People have had to put off their education goals to raise families or work two and three jobs. It also means another revenue source for these schools and another way to get their school names printed on degrees that will be celebrated by families and that’s damn good marketing.

I think it’s a shame that some places of higher learning consider it a step down in quality to cater to those of us who can’t afford the time or the outrageous campus fees to earn their degrees. Perhaps it’ll catch up to them, perhaps it won’t. But in the meantime, so many universities are accepting the students and the tuition payments currently being refused by others. Take advantage of it.

What I’m Reading

As I crawled into bed last night, I reached over and grabbed the book I’m currently reading from my shelf. This book is on my own personal bookshelf, of course, much to the surprise of my husband who looked at me and said, “You’re reading that for fun?”

688 pages of things I should already know

Yes! Then I blabbered on about all I had learned in just the first three pages (sadly, I don’t have a lot of free time these days for fun reading). What isn’t entertaining about hearing how Christopher Columbus set into motion the complete extinction of the Arawak people in the Bahamian Islands beginning in 1492? He was a schmuck, a liar, and a manipulative bastard who managed to pocket an annual pension away from a sailor named Rodrigo. Apparently a reward was to be given to whoever spotted land after more than a month at sea and Rodrigo saw white sand on the horizon on October 12th, legitimately having claim to the reward. Well, here comes Christopher Columbus who swore he’d seen land the night before. C’mon, really? What a jerk.

How Columbus managed to persuade the king and queen of Spain to completely finance his wackadoodle sea voyages to capture gold and slaves (and slaves were way more plentiful than this gold he kept yammering on about) astounds me. Was he like the Rasputin of the New World or something?

Moving on…

Matt is sometimes baffled by how I can manage to read more than one book at a time. He is faithfully committed to finishing any book he starts and never gives attention to another until the current book’s last page has been read. Aside from my textbook readings that require about three hours of my time a day, I have four books on my current bookshelf. These are the books that I read at night to decompress and I’m honestly pretty thrilled when I can manage to get through more than two paragraphs before I fall asleep.

Howard Zinn: The People’s History of the United States – I only read the first page yesterday while waiting in the car pick-up line to get my daughter after school. Three pages in, I was hooked. I know history books are usually written by the victors of wars or the mentors of a struggling government and everything comes out in the end hunky dory, but I have a feeling this isn’t one of those books. Do I believe everything Zinn writes? Of course not, and therein lies the responsibility of the reader – research, research some more, then research even more! There will always be people who disagree with your conclusion.

Sarah Vowell: Take the Cannoli – I love this woman. Sometimes I find her writing style difficult to appreciate when she tries too hard to describe certain events with run-on sentences that I have to read more than once. This book is more about her personal life, though, and includes often hilarious essays such as how her Cherokee ancestry affects her opinion of Andrew Jackson or how she hid her obsession with The Godfather movies from her roommates so they wouldn’t think she was weird (if only they’d known she used to ride her bicycle to town as a teenager to hear presidential debates). Her book Assassination Vacation is one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. I only wish it had been around in my D.C.-livin’ days. Ford’s Theater will be seen with fresh eyes the next time I visit.

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time – The simple fact that Hawking is a scientist intimidates me but I read this book for an astronomy class years ago and actually enjoyed it! I wouldn’t have this on my bookshelf again were it not for the fact that I’m taking yet another universe-evolution class. Hawking has a unique writing style that reaches out to those of us who don’t understand even the basis of how stars are born and he explains everything clearly. On the flipside, he adds personal touches to his narrative by discussing his earlier fears regarding his ALS diagnosis and (false) life expectancy and at one point even admits that even he no longer believes in the theory he worked for 20 years to prove. It is now one of his goals to convince all those other scientists that he was wrong. You gotta love a guy who can admit he’s wrong, amirite?

Jonathan Weiner: The Beak of the Finch – Again, this is another book I am reading for a class on biology and evolutionary progress, but it is very well written! I have enjoyed this book more than I expected and I actually packed it for our camping trip (and no other books). My spring break vacation was spent camping, hiking, and reading about the evolution of finches’ beaks while the campfire roared away. Weiner is sometimes repetitive with his information but I don’t find it distracting. In fact, I quite appreciate it. Perhaps this is why the book is so popular – not only does it break down the decades’ worth of work put in by the Grants on the Galapagos Islands, but it is written so that anyone can understand it. Have you ever read an entire chapter on how a single millimeter can make or break the evolutionary cycle of bird’s beak? Neither have I but it was fascinating! Evolution doesn’t take millions of years. It can happen over the course of one or two generations.

Behold! The finchy beaks of Darwin’s darlings:

Flight Between Questions

Plans for the summer are already in the works. There is no question that I’ll be returning to Florida for a few weeks, but I might try turning this 2-day drive into a less frantic rush to reach the North Florida coast. I am hoping to make some time with the kiddo to walk the Civil War battlefield in Vicksburg, Mississippi or to tour the USS Alabama battleship in Mobile Bay, which is the last thing to disappear in my rearview mirror as I cross over Escambia Bay into Florida.

I think the overdue appearance of spring here in Oklahoma has me already pining for summer in Florida. There is even a remote possibility of finally seeing Key West with my husband.

Vicksburg cannon

Mississippi River and Civil War cannon in Vicksburg, MS

I like having a plan, as I’ve mentioned before. My astrological sign accuses me of being indecisive and a website I recently came across calls my Libran indecisiveness legendary. I won’t argue with either of those statements although I wish there were more emphasis on the Libran’s ability to commit to that hard-to-come-to final decision. Happily, I have made a decision for myself and it will have everything to do with what happens next year as far as deciding whether I will continue on with my education or rest for a while and enjoy life without research projects for once.

Or research projects in the academic sense, I should say, because I’ve decided to volunteer at the Oklahoma History Center. This opportunity will teach me a variety of skills such as preservation, genealogical research, and cataloguing as well as help me to become more familiar with specific exhibits and, ultimately, Oklahoma itself. As much as I get exhausted by the socializing required of me when my husband and I host weekend gatherings at our house (one Sunday after our hot tub party, I barely moved out of bed for the entire day and thought I might have caught the flu – nah, I was just tired and I’d been sober the day before!), I really do enjoy being in front of a crowd of people, even kids, and sharing knowledge. This experience will give me that knowledge to share. I’m a history nerd and I want to get others excited about it, too.

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(Case in point: I had my daughter watch the Capital Cities video for Safe & Sound and explained to her the evolution of dancing and how it corresponds to the video’s scenes of war. She immediately went off to Google the Hindenburg disaster and learn more about the A-bomb. Mission accomplished.)

It feels good to have a plan, to have some kind of direction, even if it seems vague to everyone else. Sarah Vowell even wrote in Take the Canolli: Stories From the New World, “There comes a time halfway through any halfway decent liberal arts major’s college career when she no longer has any idea what she believes. She flies violently through air polluted by conflicting ideas and theories, never stopping at one system of thought long enough to feel at home.”

Sarah (I once had a dream that I picked her up in my neighborhood where she was hitchhiking so, in my head, we’re now on a first name basis with each other) closes this thought by adding, “Until I figured out that the flight between questions is itself a workable system, I craved answers, rules.”

It hits me as rather strange that it’s taken me this long to figure that out. Thanks, Sarah.

Making a Plan

For the last few months, I have been sitting around thinking about what I am supposed to do next. Next…after what? Like I told my husband last night, I like having things to look forward to. I am undoubtedly looking forward to graduating from college in December but this only leaves me with approximately 8-9 months to come up with a plan for what to do next. I like having a plan.

There has been a quiet but manageable voice in the back of my head for months, maybe even years, telling me that I have fallen behind in this blasted life timeline. Actually, I fell behind a long time ago. The career path I chose when I left my teens and entered adulthood didn’t require a college degree. Conveniently back then, there were occupational ladders that I could climb based on merit, hard work, dedication, and just being damn good at what I did, and I was already climbing it. I earned two promotions within a few years and gained experience in almost every facet of the business. Then I had a baby and became a single mother, which wasn’t part of the plan. Suddenly, I wasn’t available in the middle of the night to relieve my sick auditor or to fill in for the exhausted college student who needed to cram for exams. I couldn’t work on holidays when daycare was closed or when my infant was vomiting for three days straight because of a milk allergy.

So I had to walk away from that career after trying really hard to make it work. I failed, and that’s okay. But I fell behind because I didn’t have a “what’s next?” plan.

I picked up Monday through Friday jobs that paid well enough to keep me afloat, that allowed for time off so I could attend a preschool sing-along ceremony or take my daughter, and even myself, to the doctor. I had health insurance, a schedule, and a supportive work family who believed children should be everyone’s priority. I didn’t get serious about a college degree until 2008 when I started to realize there was no occupational ladder for me to climb. A secretary’s desk rarely comes equipped with an occupational ladder and after so many years of being a secretary, people start to treat you like you’ll never be anything more than a secretary. That is what bothered me the most. So I finally came up with a plan.

And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past five years – working on a college degree that I hope will allow me to be more than somebody’s secretary.  That will soon be over, though, and I will actually have a bachelor’s degree with my name on it by the end of this year! But then what? What am I going to do next?

Because, let’s face it: I’m in my mid-thirties and while I am proud of myself for making it this far in my education, I’m not special. A bachelor’s degree does not make me special. Teenagers begin this process all the time. I suspect most of them finish it, too. That’s my competition, twenty-two year olds who have had the time and the opportunities to do what I never had the time or the opportunities to do. I’m playing catch-up now.

Are any of you in this position or have you found yourself in this pickle but already pulled yourself out of it? Have your age or personal and family responsibilities held you back from pursuing these opportunities or have these factors encouraged you to go forward? Regardless of circumstances, do you find your years of hands-on experience competing against the younger set of educated graduates who have no experience? I’m still in the process of deciding what to do next, although I’m fairly confident that my choice of a master’s degree will be specialized enough to make me…well, special. It says so right there in the word itself: specialized!

My biggest concern is that the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. Everybody’s got one, right? What are your thoughts on going to the next level, pursuing a master’s degree in this economy? While I’m not terribly worried about the student debt (I’ve had legal bills higher than some student loans), I do want to make sure that I am armed with just as much education, if not more, as these newer and younger college graduates, regardless of the specialty. I want to get back into the workforce and I need to make a plan.