Saturday, May 8, 2010

Passions Series: History, Part I: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Past: Colon Movie Blog for Theaters

This post is part of a series on my passions, interests and hobbies. Other entries in this series can be found here. The posts in this series tend to run long (1500+ words), so you may want to make sure you're in a comfy chair.

What I love

History! Specifically U.S. history, more specifically the ways people have lived on this land for the last ~400 years. My interest lies in several areas:

1) The everyday lives of Americans at every social and economic level, and how they differed from life today;

2) The lives of the presidents, specifically the ways in which they were flawed, vulnerable, or goofy, just like the rest of us;

3) The different political climates of days past, specifically what has changed (a man with Wilson's awful teeth, Lincoln's lack of formal education, or Jefferson's atheism would never be elected today) and what hasn't (smear campaigns - Martin van Ruin, anyone?);

4) The histories of groups which have either been forgotten or sorely neglected by your standard history textbooks - i.e., everyone besides wealthy white Christian men.

On a global scale, I'm fascinated by the progress of societies as they've developed throughout human history, the history of diseases and how they were handled by various cultures, how various religions and other rituals and traditions developed, the way languages have developed and spread and evolved over time, and the history of all kinds of technology - especially of simple things you wouldn't normally associate with the word "technology", like blankets, tables, and shoes.

How I came to love it

Did you notice how broad the above is? Maybe you wondered why I even bothered to list those things individually, when "I love all of history" would've sufficed. Or maybe you noticed the few things I didn't include:

1) Battles
2) Treaties
3) The drawing of borders
4) Long, boring speeches

Look through a typical history textbook, and you will find that they are in fact made almost entirely of battles, treaties, the drawing of borders, and long, boring speeches. Barely a word about how people actually lived, unless you're lucky enough to be looking at a humanities book, in which case you might at least get some cave paintings or the lyrics to "Old Folks at Home." Almost nothing about science, except quick mentions of plague or smallpox. And since it's the personal and scientific sides of history that fascinate me, there was never anything in these books for me.

In fact, until just a few years ago, I absolutely hated the living shit out of history. You couldn't get me near it. History class was a chance to squirm, space out, act goofy to get attention, doodle - anything but listen. I would've preferred calculus. I would've preferred getting hit in the head by basketballs in gym class. I would've preferred getting hit in the head by rocks. Anything, I thought, was better than hearing one more damned thing about feudal serfs. And it wasn't even the teacher's fault - I was lucky enough, every year, to have my least favorite subject with my favorite teacher, my gifted ed teacher who I'd known since elementary school. She was absolutely on fire for the subject she taught, and she tried to bring it to life for us by showing us all kinds of awesome artifacts, and assigning fun projects, and even one time showing Monty Python and the Holy Grail in class. It was the best history class I could've hoped to have in K-12 school.

But she still had a curriculum to cover. We still had to talk about the damn battles and treaties. We still had to talk about Europeans all the time, with no room for Asia or the Middle East or Africa. We still had to read My Brother Sam is Dead, which I'm sure is a good book, but at the time I didn't care one bit about it. The plain fact was, at that stage of my life, I wasn't ready to love history. At least not history that far back. I was excited about time periods just before my own, like the 80s and the 60s, and occasionally as far back as WWII. If I could connect to it - if I actually knew people who lived during that time, if I could see movies and hear popular music from that era - I was interested. I just wasn't able to relate to those dusty old dead people and their dead, dusty wars.

But that's all about how I came to hate it, and I'm supposed to be telling you how I came to love it. I know. I just wanted to make sure the stage was properly set so that when I reveal how I came to love it, you will smirk. Because the main things that made me love history - after years of reviling it in school - are as follows:

1) Two cartoons
2) A video game
3) A parody of a history textbook.

See, when I was 18 I was volunteering at a local elementary school, which required getting up at the bare ass-crack of dawn, at which time there is nothing on TV except infomercials and PBS cartoons. So I started watching Liberty's Kids, mostly just to have background noise to keep me awake through breakfast, and after awhile I found myself actually getting into it. The characters - Ben Franklin and the other historical figures, plus some kids invented for the show - were presented as real people. Sometimes actual quotes were used, especially for Franklin and for people like Paul Revere, and since the show had to put them in some kind of context, they made sense. And despite being a PBS cartoon, the show isn't babyish at all; it shows the realities of war (toned down a bit, of course, to avoid being nightmare fuel) and the complex political climate of the time. I learned a LOT of American history from this show.

About a year later, my then-boyfriend bought me a copy of America: The Book. If you're not familiar with this book, it's put out by Jon Stewart and the other writers of The Daily Show, and it parodies those godawful textbooks I hate so much. It has sidebars like "Were You Aware? The phrase 'Did You Know?' is copyrighted by a rival publisher", and "activities" like "Found a country" and "Construct a tri-corner hat out of whalebone, fine felt, and a mercury solution." The actual text of the book, while still being parody, actually does contain real information, most of which was new to me as a person who had spent my life avoiding history. I was surprised when I realized I was actually picking up facts from this book!

So I got a little bit interested in history from those two sources, but it didn't really take off into me wanting to learn more. Fast forward to 2008, when I started playing Civilization II. This is a computer game where you start from just a tiny village and have to build up your society over thousands of years, until you either conquer the world or send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. It's a very complex game, because most of what you're doing is deciding which scientific and cultural developments to pursue, what military units to build, and what improvements to build in your cities. Once I was sucked into the world of this game, I started getting curious about the details of it. What's a trireme? A phalanx? Why did polytheism come before monotheism? Who's Adam Smith? What's an aqueduct? Why do I have to discover astronomy before I can research navigation? Answering these questions led me to a lot of Wikipedia-surfing, but it also led me to historical programs on TV. I'd flip past the History Channel or the Military Channel or A&E, and there'd be a show on about early civilizations, or weapons that are in the game, and I'd be hooked. Before I knew it, I was watching these kinds of shows all the time.

In January of 2009, I made a list of goals for myself, some serious and some frivolous. One of the frivolous ones was to memorize several songs from the cartoon Animaniacs, where they name all of the countries in the world (as of 1993) or all the states and capitals. The first one I decided to memorize was one where they name all the presidents (up to Clinton), and that was where the big fascination with American history started. I'd play this song over and over, trying to memorize it - remember that memorizing all the presidents was not my goal, even though that's what I was doing; my goal was to learn the song for novelty's sake - and eventually I started getting curious about some of the lesser-known presidents. Specifically, the line "John Tyler he liked country folk" stuck out in my mind. What did they mean by that? I looked him up on Wikipedia, which led to reading a whole bunch of other stuff, and soon I was getting hooked on this stuff. Then, because Presidents Day was coming, the History Channel started almost constantly airing a series about all of the presidents. Despite it being shown ad nauseum, I watched this every single time it was on. When I got mono and had to miss two weeks of work, my main comfort was that I had a lot more time to watch historical shows. That's how fascinated I was, and this obsession was still going on months later.

And here we are now. I haven't spent the whole past year engulfed in history, because I took a huge rabbit trail into sci-fi, which actually gave me a lot more philosophical context for why history is important. But that's a topic for another post. I'm still really enjoying history, which is exciting. So many of my interests end up being fleeting, and even though I learn just as much from those, I'm always really happy when one sticks.

Since this post got way the hell long, I'm breaking it into two parts. In the next post, I'll tell you why I love history, why I think it's important, and how I use it in my life.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Should've studied in England. We did Greek, Roman, Egypt (so lots of gayness) and then for some weird reason boats through history. Which was kind of cool because our boat teacher read us a story about the Mary Celeste and I pooped a little in fright.