Thursday, June 22, 2017

Trains Settle the West

The theme of the 2017 Willa Cather Conference, held recently in Red Cloud, Nebraska, was "Picturing the American West, The Railroad and Popular Imagination."  Linked with the subject of railroads were the Opera Houses that were built in prairie towns served by railroad lines.  Not only did visitors coming to see performances in the Opera Houses sometimes arrive by train, more importantly, the trains allowed performers to travel from town to town, easily transporting their costumes and scenery. 

The image at left is from the County Capital in St. John to which Isaac Werner subscribed.  You will notice that the advertisement is dated June 4, 1890, but the railroad had arrived in St. John earlier than that date.

Sharing his stories about abandoned rail lines was James Reisdorff, who spoke to us from the Burlington Depot on the southern edge of Red Cloud.  His program was titled "Pulling Up Stakes:  When Trains Leave Town," and he shared the impact on towns that lose their railroads.  He also described how others like himself go in search of abandoned sites, some still having evidence of the old rails while others are discernible only from the elevated grade.


James Reisdorff at the Red Cloud Depot





The last morning of the conference a panel of Dr. Ann Tschetter, Dr. Elissa Sartwell, city planner and author Ann Satterthwaite, and Dr. Mark Facknitz discussed 'Railroads:  Myth & Metaphor.'  Dr. Sartwell addressed the tragic mistreatment of Chinese workers laying the transcontinental lines, using references from plays performed in the Opera Houses and cartoons belittling the Chinese to illustrate the era.  Particularly illuminating was the work of Dr. Facknitz, pointing out the significance of the railroad in Cather's writings.  I do hope their papers are published so that I can study them further.

Dining one evening at the Red Cloud Depot
A special treat was the performance of The Red Cloud Cannonball, a vaudeville-inspired performance of classic railroad tunes and humor.  Seated in the Red Cloud Opera House Auditorium, we felt as if we were experiencing exactly the sort of show Willa Cather might have seen.

For Isaac Werner and his contemporaries in Kansas, the railroads represented a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand, populists blamed the railroads for the unfair shipping costs charged struggling farmers to ship produce to the East, compounded by the distrust and resentment felt for the wealthy and powerful exerting unfair political influence concerning railroad regulation.  On the other hand, they sought railroad lines near their communities for transportation and shipping, and they desired the prestige of being a local director for the advancing railroads.  Isaac wrote in his journal about the stimulus to growth of the small prairie towns when the railroad arrived. 

I will never again take for granted the role of the railroad when I read a Willa Cather novel or short story, and I will reflect more closely on the role of the railroad in my manuscript about Isaac and the Populist Movement.   

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Preserving the Old with Something New

Dedication speakers and honorees with Rev. Charles Peek
Laura Bush delivering keynote
In 1932 a young teacher arrived in Webster County and was introduced to the writing of a former resident,  Willa Cather.  Cather could not have inspired a more devoted fan!  That young teacher was Mildred Bennett, and she is considered the founder of the Willa Cather Foundation, although it should be recognized that every leader must have those who share her vision and follow her.  When Mildred Bennett died, her vision was well established, but equally important, others have carried on the dreams she imagined, which include championing the arts and humanities.

Bennett's gift for dreaming big must have inspired the Foundation Board when they undertook the restoration of the Moon Block, a 2-story collection of commercial buildings stretching north from the beautiful Opera House all the way to the end of the block.  In 2015 my husband and I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the project and toured the interior.  Oh, my!  It took real vision to imagine that the neglected building could ever become the structure that was planned.

Ribbon Cutting at Cather Foundation Dedication
Yet, it has.  Because Mildred Bennett was a teacher who came to love the writings of Willa Cather and who asked, "What better way would there be for us to understand each other than through the fields of humanities and the arts?" who better to deliver the keynote address at the dedication of the National Willa Cather Center than a former teacher and librarian who as our nation's first lady stressed the importance of reading, and who just happens to be a great Willa Cather fan herself.  Fortunately, just such a person exists and agreed to speak at the Dedication!   On June 3, 2017, former First Lady Laura Bush presented the Dedication Address and joined other key individuals in cutting the ribbon opening the Willa Cather Foundation expansion into the Moon Block.


The Foundation carries on the mission envisioned by Mildred Bennett, not only preserving structures identifiable as the models for Cather's novels and short stories so fans from around the world can literally step back in time to experience sites described in her work, but also welcoming researchers to the ever-growing archives, hosting plays and lectures and other performances in the Opera House, providing writing seminars, hosting working retreats for visiting artists, and awarding scholarships to young scholars.  The back-stage facilities had been inadequate for performances in the Opera House, and some of the Moon Block space has remedied that.  The archives available to researchers, both in person and to fulfill requests sent from distant places, make preservation and access possible.  The hosting of events, the office space, the display of objects and information are now adequate to the Foundation's mission.


At street level, the renovations have created beautiful commercial spaces, which will be leased to business tenants.  In that way, the Moon Block renovation not only serves the Cather mission but also serves the entire community commercially.

I hope my blog posts over the years have made some of you curious to visit Red Cloud, and to hike the 612-acre native prairie just south of town.  To learn more details, visit the Foundation website at www.willacather.org.   Remember, you may click on the images to enlarge them. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Home on the Range at the Orpheum

Orpheum Theater in Wichita, KS
A recent blog shared Oscar Wilde's visit in 1882 to theaters in Kansas.  This week I am going to share a visit to another one of the great old theaters in Kansas to attend a showing of Home on the Range.

First, a little about the theater.  The Orpheum Theater opened September 4, 1922 and was designed by architect John Eberson to create the impression of a Spanish garden, with sidewalls depicting mock tile roofs, window grills, and wooden lattice arches across the ceiling.  When it closed in 1976, its appearance and the standard of its entertainment had deteriorated significantly.  For nearly two decades the theater remained dark, but today it is Wichita's Non-Profit center for the performing arts, concerts, films, and more.  It was decided to open the theater and complete renovations as money was available, most of which has come from private grants and individual donations.  The Orpheum is like a grand old lady with a few runs in her stockings, her hat slightly askew, and rouge that can't conceal the wrinkles, but the elegance underneath all of that remains.  



Our evening at the Orpheum began with meeting the cast of Home on the Range in the lobby before viewing the movie, after which the cast assembled on the stage to speak about their experiences making the movie, why they were drawn to the project, and their careers in general.  Starting at the left is Michael Martin Murphey, who not only played Judge John Harlan in the movie but was an early supporter of the project and of the restoration of the Home on the Range cabin.  Next is Darby Hinton, an actor from early childhood who portrayed the bartender in San Antonio, Albert Fraidlich.  Well known from playing Newly in TV's Gunsmoke, and a highly collected artist, Buck Taylor is seated in the center of this group and portrayed Trube Reese in the movie.  Next is Rance Howard, a life-long actor who portrayed Cal Harlan.  Rance has the further distinction of being the father of actor-director Ron Howard.  At far right is Mathew Greer, who played the old cattle trail cowboy Bill Jack Curry.  In the movie, Mathew sang the version of the song Curry remembered from hearing it on the trail. 



 Picking up from Mathew, (holding the microphone) in the next picture is Mitch Holthus, who played the announcer in the radio studio, an appropriate bit of casting, since off screen he is known as the 'Voice of the Chiefs' in Kansas City.  Mitch was raised in Smith Center and his father has been a driving force behind the saving of the Home on the Range cabin.  To his right is Mark Mannette, who played the lawyer-investigator, Samuel Moanfeldt, who determined the true origins of the song.  An actor and a professor, he bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Moanfeldt.  Seated at far right is Director, Ken Spurgeon.  


Our evening was not over, for we enjoyed the delight of front-row seats for a concert by Michael Martin Murphey.  While he may be best known for his sad ballad Wild Fire, the talents of this singer-songwriter extend well beyond that mega-hit song.  Even more to be admired by Kansans is his generosity toward the preservation of the Home on the Range cabin near Smith Center. 

We were in for an additional treat when Michael invited his son to join him on the stage.  I had never realized that the clear pitch-perfect voice that sings Western songs so beautifully is the voice of a genuine Irish tenor--although his name certainly should have been a clue!  That Irish heritage is further honored by his son's artistry on the Irish harp, and we had the opportunity to not only hear him accompany his father but also to enjoy a solo on his beautiful instrument.  Our evening at the Orpheum was definitely one to remember! 

You may click on the images to enlarge them.  

You may wish to visit www.lonechimneyfilms.org to read more, and to link with sources to buy the Home on the Range CD at that site.  You may also visit www.wichitaorpheum.com to learn more about the theater and see upcoming performances appearing there.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hometown Memorial Day

I have written about the traditions of our community on Memorial Day in other blogs posted in late May or early June, and I am writing this blog in the evening after attending the 2017 Memorial Ceremony in our hometown.

My husband marches in the honor guard, so we arrive early so he can assemble with the other marchers, and I use the time to make a complete circuit of the graves of all of our ancestors and many of our friends.  It is a route learned when I was very young and the original part of the cemetery had many flowers decorating the graves.  Today, only a few in that section had flowers, their descendants having joined them in their final rest, or members of their families no longer living in the area.




Most people now decorate graves of parents and friends in the newer sections of the cemetery.  Even the open lawn purchased for expansion has gradually acquired gravestones.  For people like me, with ancestors that came to Kansas as homesteaders in the late 1870s and 1880s, several generations are buried in Farmington Cemetery.  Among those in the community who have carried on  family farms, more generations are likely to follow.






The Memorial Day Services are conducted at the 'new' monument near the west gates, but it is the second Memorial Monument in the cemetery.  The original  monument honored soldiers, sailors, and marines of the "Civil, Spanish-American, and World War.'  Remember, W.W. I was believed to be 'the war to end all wars,' and it was not called W.W. I until there was a W.W. II.

When my husband began marching in the honor guard, there were several W.W. II veterans among the marchers, and the Vietnam veterans were the 'young guys.'  Gradually the W.W. II veterans became the ones being honored in the memorial ceremony, and the Vietnam veterans became the marchers with gray in their hair.  With our current all volunteer military, there are fewer young veterans in our community to carry on the tradition.

As I walked the cemetery I thought about all of the people I had known who are now buried there, and since I have spent so much time with Isaac's neighbors as I researched the late 1800s described in his journal, I have come to feel as if I know many of that generation who are buried in Farmington, their stones in the section of the cemetery where three sets of my great grandparents are buried.

However, perhaps what I recall most from the 2017 Memorial Ceremony was the participation of the two remaining W.W. II soldiers that once marched with other veterans their age. Although they no longer march, they still participate.  One delivers the familiar lines promising that although the flowers placed on their graves will fade, the veterans being honored will not be forgotten.

The other W.W. II veteran marched last year, although for the first time he did not carry a rifle.  This year he was not able to march, but he waited at the Memorial and joined the other marchers to stand between the flag bearers, supported by a helpful arm.  As determined as he was to stand, the ceremony was long, and he needed his wheel chair.  Yet, he remained with the other veterans, doing his part as best he could.  That is what moved me.  Every one of those men, (and this year, a female service member) was there because he or she saw it as their duty to serve.  They had served their country when the call came, and today they came when they were called to march in honor of those with whom they had served and generations of veterans before them.  It made me proud.  

(Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge.)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Oscar Wilde in Kansas?

Oscar Wilde
Can you picture Oscar Wilde scheduling a speaking tour in Kansas?  Yet, in 1882 he arrived!  This week's blog owes a debt to Charles Harmon Cagle, whose full article can be found at www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1981winter_cagle.pdf.  I have supplemented research found in Cagle's article with some of Wilde's quotes that I thought you would enjoy.

"I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying."  

The population of Kansas rural areas has dwindled since the time of Isaac Werner and smaller cities have shrunk, leaving emptier rural landscapes and a few larger cities.  However, in the 1880s great curiosity about the "wide open spaces" attracted foreign visitors.  Even small cities built opera houses that accommodated performances of all sorts.  In 1882 the famous English writer and lecturer Oscar Wilde came to Kansas.  Not everyone was impressed.

Pessimist:  One who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both.

Oscar Wilde spent only five days in Kansas, arriving in Leavenworth on April 19, 1882, and departing following his final lecture in Atchinson on April 24.  The opinion of the reviewer in Leavenworth was immediately apparent from the headline:  "His Lecture Falls Flat."   The reviewer of another Leavenworth paper briefly described the lecture:  "The famous aesthete, Oscar Wilde, who lectured to and bored such a small audience ..."

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious."

After traveling to Topeka, Wilde was interviewed by a more sympathetic reporter, who wrote:  "Mr. Wilde has a handsome soft womanish face, around which his long wavy hair fell in the finest decorative art.  He is a very pleasant conversationalist, has a wonderful command of words, and expresses himself in a very clear lucid manner, much contrasted with the soulful utterances of his burlesquers."  However, as for the lecture, he called it, "...an unrelieved waste of words, words, words; like a great desert of sand with the edges all around touching the sky and no green thing in sight."

"Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."

In Lawrence the reaction was not hateful but clearly tepid, describing Wilde's delivery as a "...not disagreeable sing-song, perhaps what an aesthete would call rhythm."  The Atchinson newspaper, however, held nothing back, reprinting a Kansas City paper's description of "...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound, and trash, signifying nothing."  But adding, "People will, of course, continue to go to see him as they do to view sideshow curiosities and monstrosities."

"Those who find ugly meaning in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault."

A different Atchinson reporter suggested:  "Mr. Wilde should dress like a gentleman, cut his hair, learn to speak plain, stop calling everything 'lovely' and 'joyous,' or 'stoopid' and 'dreadful,' and so convince the world of the existence of the good stuff there really is in him, buried beneath a heavy weight of idle affection."

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

So, who was this Englishman that got such treatment?  Born in 1854, a decade after Isaac Werner, Wilde was a writer of great variety--novels, essays, plays, and poetry; however, he may be best remembered for his unorthodox dress and his clever commentary, as are indicated by the photograph and quotes scattered throughout this blog.  At a young age he became a spokesman for aestheticism, and even in college he attracted attention by decorating his room with peacock feathers, sunflowers (which became a symbol for aestheticism), and blue China.  Mocked as that era's equivalent of a "sissy," he surprised four fellow students who physically attacked him by defending himself effectively.

"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Wilde's trip to Kansas was only part of an American lecture tour which began in January of 1882.  His lectures were received more warmly in places other than Kansas, and the originally scheduled four months were extended to nearly a year.  His flamboyant appearance and his literary successes, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, are part of his enduring fame, but also the scandal of his personal life, which lead to imprisoment for two years 1895-1897, is part of his reputation.  

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes."

After leaving prison he made his home in France, where he died in 1900.  He is buried outside Paris, having died of cerebral meningitis which may have been traceable back to the incredibly harsh treatment he suffered at Pentonville Prison.

"Memory...is the diary that we all carry about with us."

Isaac Werner must  have known of Oscar Wilde, although none of his books were mentioned among Isaac's library.

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."  

Isaac Werner believed in education, just as I do, but it is sadly true that we do seem compelled to learn some hard lessons for ourselves that past generations would have been all too glad to have taught us, had we only  been willing to learn from both their wisdom and their mistakes.

"Always forgive your enemies--nothing annoys them so much."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Books in Our Lives

Jefferson:  "I cannot live without books."
When I did the series on favorite children's books and ask readers of the blog to share the favorites from their childhoods, I was inundated with so many replies that it took several blogs to share all of your favorites.  Last week, I invited readers to share their favorite adult book titles, and only a few of you replied.  Since I know that so many of you were eager readers as children, and because educators believe forming the habit of reading in childhood will develop active adult readers, I expected to be inundated with adult book titles.  I'm disappointed, but I did receive some great replies!  

One of my foreign followers  loves reading history, so he began by admitting that he doesn't read much fiction.  However, he does like John le Carre (1931-    ) spy novels and named The Night Manager as his favorite.  He also enjoys Westerns, naming Ernest Haycox  (1899-1950) and, especially, Jack Schaefer (1907-1991) as favorites.  He warned against trying to take the easy way out by seeing movies based their books--pale imitations, in his opinion!

Edward Bellamy
I have another friend who enjoys mysteries and travel books, neither of which appeal to me.  She has shared some wonderful suggestions outside those genres that I have loved.   Our friendship really took root when we discovered we both had read The House by Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church (1903-1987).

Two people responded to my call for favorite adult books by telling me we share a favorite.  LS chose To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1926-2016), which I think every aspiring lawyer should read.

SGR agrees with me about East of Eden being our favorite among John Steinbeck's novels.  She is a voracious reader and declined naming a specific favorite among all the books she loves.  However, she did share a favorite from  among books recently read, and her recommendation came with three reviews and an interview of the author as attachments.  Yes, she has tempted me to read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (1964-    ).

Life is too short to read all of the books I'd like to read, so I enjoy recommendations from friends who are readers.  Recently, JD recommended The Sympathizer, which I mentioned in last week's blog.  I would never have read it without his recommendation, and I'm so glad that I did.  In turn, I recommended All the Light We Cannot See, and he tells me he enjoyed it.

I do believe what we read shapes who we are, and for that reason I find no pleasure reading books that are no more than a way to pass the time.  Researching my manuscript about Isaac Werner, I felt that I came to know him from the books he chose to read.  He also led me to books being read during the populist movement, so that I came to understand what inspired and shaped working class people of that time.  Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1850-1898) was so popular that Bellamy Clubs, whose members sought to implement some of his futuristic ideas, were formed around the world.  Mark Twain (1835-1910) is still popular today.  Other books that he owned are no longer read, but I appreciated the immersion into that era that reading those books gave me.

Thanks to those of you who shared "the books in your lives!"

Thursday, May 11, 2017

What and How We Read

Steinbeck Home and Restaurant
Recently a friend we met on the John Steinbeck Retreat forwarded news that Steinbeck's childhood home, which had been operated as a lunch-time restaurant by volunteers (with a professional chef and helper in the kitchen) was closing because of inadequate funds to sustain its operation.   The day our group ate there, all of the tables were filled; however, that included 24 of us.  My husband and I ate there when we visited Steinbeck Country several years ago.  It is a wonderful part of the Steinbeck experience, and it would be a shame for it to close.

Mural across from Steinbeck Center
I suppose I am not a typical reader.  I have mentioned my Millennium Reading List, which I compiled at the turn of the century, consulting the lists of great books several publications printed at that time, supplemented with titles from other sources.  My intention to select 100 Great Books quickly expanded beyond the 1900s and grew to more that twice the intended number, and it continues to grow faster than I can keep up, encompassing both fiction and nonfiction.  My attitude is that life is too short to read everything, so why waste time reading junk!

Not all my favorite authors are dead.  I have a shelf of David McCullough histories, and I am a fan of Barbara Kingsolver.  I do read Best Sellers, but usually months after they were on the Best Seller lists, and only if reviewers (professional and friends) that I respect have recommended them.  It sometimes seems that each book I read leads me to more--by the same author, on the same subject, or to learn more about the history of the period described in the book.

Steinbeck Center
Those of you who regularly follow this blog know that I love Willa Cather, and now you know that John Steinbeck is one of my favorites.  I am a great believer in the importance of a literate citizenry necessary to support a great country.  I have shared a favorite quote from Einstein:  "If you want intelligent children, read them fairy tales.  If you want more intelligent children, read them more fairy tales."  Several of my past blogs have dealt with encouraging the habit of reading in our children.  Most adults who are regular readers of books learned that habit as children.

I fear that reading is a habit on the decline.  Even in her home state of Nebraska, the great Willa Cather is no longer on the required reading list of public high schools.  Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is still read in many schools, but it is often relegated to younger readers who may not fully appreciate it.  Too few readers get past Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," a great book but not the only one worth reading.  Despite the huge popularity of "Downton Abbey" on PBS, few readers explore the great English novels written in the 1800s, of which my favorite, "Pride and Prejudice," is only one.

Enjoying access to archived material
But I will continue to be a cheerleader for reading, and sharing time with others who love to read is a special treat for me.  The photographs in this week's blog were taken when our retreat group visited Salinas, California, Steinbeck's childhood home.  We toured the Steinbeck Center and enjoyed a special opportunity to view items from the museum archives not usually seen by visitors.  We had lunch in Steinbeck's childhood home, and we ended our day with a visit to the graves of Steinbeck and other family members.

My favorite Steinbeck book is "East of Eden," a challenging book that I first read about fifteen years ago.  I will close by sharing a conversation from that novel between Samuel Hamilton, who visited his younger friend Adam, to help select a name for the twin boys whose mother had deserted them soon after they were born. In his grief at having been abandoned by his wife, Adam neglected his sons, imposing fears about their mother's evil having been inherited by the boys.  Samuel tells him:  "I don't very much believe in blood.  I think when a man finds good or bad in his children he is seeing only what he planted in them after they cleared the womb."  Adam:  "You can't make a race horse of a pig."  Samuel:  "No, but you can make a very fast pig."    

Graves of Samuel & other family members
Just as Samuel believed in bringing out the best that was possible in Adam's sons, I admit that I believe that reading quality literature and learning from reading history can bring out the best in all of us.  I would love it if you took the time to share the titles of your favorite books with me.  The long-time readers of this blog will remember what a popular series of blogs resulted from your sharing of favorite childhood books, so sharing titles of favorite books you have read as adults should be fun too. 

It was Isaac Werner's love for books, and his amazing personal library, that drew me to him, after all!



(Remember, you can click on images to enlarge.)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Reclaiming Our Own Lives

Isaac B. Werner's Journal
We are the beneficiaries of a homesteader named Isaac B. Werner who kept a daily journal from 1884 through 1891 describing his daily activities and what was happening in the surrounding communities.  From his journal I learned about weather and implements and barn dances and illnesses and young deaths, and I have shared that on this blog.  I have also shared how communities built school houses, established newspapers, formed local organizations, and joined national organizations.  They slaughtered their own hogs, plowed fields one row at a time, sewed and mended their own clothing, built homes in dugouts, from sod, and with dearly bought lumber.  They fought prairie fires and built roads and bridges with their neighbors. From Isaac's journal we know that he and other ordinary people accomplished amazing things, day in and day out.

Homemade Sand Hill Plum Jelly
How did they manage?  We have the benefit of automobiles, microwaves, frozen dinners, ready-made clothing, hospitals, computers--tools, equipment, conveniences that they could not have imagined, and we have diversified labor so that we no longer build our own homes, sew our own clothing, build our children's school houses, grow our own food, fight our own fires or build our own roads and bridges.

Most of the things Isaac Werner and his neighbors did for themselves we no longer do.  And yet, how many of us complain that we are overworked and tired all of the time.  As hard as we try, we never seem to get everything we meant to accomplish finished at the end of the day.

A recent article in "Live, Write, Thrive," a writer's blog I follow, was intended as guidance for writers who struggle to find enough time to write, but I think many of you who read my blog will find some of the ideas meant for writers very applicable to your own daily lives.  The title of the article is How We've Ruined Our Brains in This Modern Era.

Quilt making--hobby or necessity?
When I was practicing law, I had a routine around which I organized my day.  It began the evening before, when I stacked all of the files I had to handle the following day in order of priority--the ones I absolutely had to attend to on the top, the ones that might be put off another day in the middle, and the ones I hoped to find time to look at on the bottom.  When I arrived the next morning I was able to focus my attention on one matter at a time, without being distracted by concerns that perhaps something else deserved my attention.

The point of the article How We've Ruined Our Brains in This Modern Era is that today many of us fail to prioritize and concentrate on one priority at a time.  We multitask!

Sod School House
In thinking about your own day, consider how many times you are interrupted by your phone.  Consider how you use your computer, turning it on to do one thing and realizing you have spent two hours jumping from one interesting distraction to another.  Consider how much time social media interrupts what you are doing.  Even when you think you are relaxing, do you take your phone when you go for a walk, work in the garden, go to the gym?

In the book, Disorder:  Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us,"  Larry D. Rosen, PhD, writes:  "The bottom line is we are all constantly self-distracting, whether you're in school, at your job, or just at home."

In "Live, Write, Thrive" the following statistics were cited:
Multitaskers experience a 40% drop in productivity.
Multitaskers take 50% longer to accomplish a single task than if focusing only on that task.
Multitaskers make up to 50% more errors.
Multitaskers take four times longer to recognize new things.
Multitaskers spend 40% more time switching tasks.
(The source for these statistics was not identified.)

When Ira Flatow on NPR's Science Friday interviewed, Clifford Nass, a Stanford University professor and researcher, and author of the book, The Man Who Lied to his Laptop, Nass said, "People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy...They're chronically distracted.  They initiate much larger parts of the brain than are irrelevant to the task at hand...they're even terrible at multitasking.  ,,,they've developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused.  They're suckers for irrelevancy.  They just can't keep on task."

Main street:  Iuka, KS 
When I reflect on how Isaac Werner described his days, he did many tasks during the year, but he prioritized what was to be done, without jumping unnecessarily from one to another.  He planned work to match the seasons.  Crops had to be planted, weeded, and harvested when those tasks were essential at a particular time.  Homes had to be readied ahead of dropping temperatures by stuffing or plastering cracks and readying fuel if occupants were to survive the cold winter weather. Winter was the time for mending, repairing tools and sharpening shears, studying seed catalogues, and socializing.  The year Isaac was distracted by attending political rallies and taking photographs he failed to market his potatoes when he should have, and the price dropped from $1.25 a bushel  to a third or less.  He ended up feeding potatoes to his pigs.  Tasks that had to be done in town were accumulated so that the trip accomplished more than one thing.  Homesteaders multitasked in the sense of being able to do many things, but they learned how to stay on task and prioritize.


Not all of us feel as if we have "ruined our brains," but many of us agree that we are self-distracting by the way we allow ourselves to be interrupted.  Not only the distractions initiated by others cut into our days, but also our own choices.  Do you go online to check your e-mails and find yourself following links for two hours?  Do you allow yourself to half-watch television every evening when you could have been reading a good book or playing games with your children or having a real telephone conversation with an elderly parent or friend.  Do you start making a grocery list in the kitchen and wander off to put clothes in the washer only to return to the grocery list and spend five minutes rethinking where you were in remembering the things you needed.  Do you get sidetracked by the greeting card rack or the holiday display just inside the entrance when you run into a store just to buy aspirin?  
Gardening--hobby or necessity?

I came upstairs this morning to print something, and since I was at my computer anyway, I thought I would quickly check my e-mails.  I opened "Live, Write, Thrive," and decided a comparison of today's distractions and tasks with the distractions and tasks of Isaac Werner's times might be interesting.  My morning is gone and I didn't finish reading my  e-mails.  I did draft this blog, however, and at least I remembered to print the document that was the reason for my having come upstairs!



Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Impact of Friendships

Bronze bust of Ed Ricketts at site of death
Researching Isaac B. Werner and his community gave me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of friendships.  He was a prairie bachelor, far from his siblings and the Werner cousins, uncles, and aunts that had surrounded him as he was growing up.  Isaac's story involves his relationships within the prairie community, his place as a bachelor in an environment in which most men his age were married with children.  Part of the prairie story is the constant movement of new settlers arriving and others giving up on their homesteads, and while friendships were interrupted and new ones were made, those relationships were essential to survival.

During our recent John Steinbeck Retreat, one of the segments I most enjoyed was learning about the friendship between Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed "Doc" Ricketts.  Prior to the Retreat, I had not read Cannery Row or The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and I was unaware of the influential relationship between Steinbeck and Ricketts.  Fortunately for me, one of the members of our group, Russ Eagle, has been a devoted fan of those books and the friendship between those two men, and his enthusiasm was contagious!

Display at Steinbeck Museum
Learning how many of the characters in Cannery Row are based on real people that Steinbeck knew when he lived there as a struggling writer, I was especially intrigued by the character "Doc."

In 2000, I created my Millennium Reading List of great books, together with a personal review form that I complete after finishing each book.  The reading list has grown (and I may never manage to read every book on the ever-expanding list), but I have maintained my commitment to do a review after finishing each book I read.  When I reviewed Cannery Row I described "Doc" in the Character section of the review as follows:  "...the owner and operator of Western Biological Laboratory, regarded as the local philosopher, respecter of music, literature, and art, and scientist whose speciality is marine life but whose experiments included rats, cats, and rattlesnakes."  In the Literary Techniques section of my review form, I wrote:  "The plot is draped loosely over two parties for Doc--one well-intentioned but catastrophic when he returns late and his 'guests' have destroyed his place, and the other a birthday party on the wrong day that began with sincere intentions and erupted into the only kind of successful party they could enjoy."  At that time I assumed the characters were creatures of Steinbeck's imagination.

Ed Ricketts Lab
View from back of lab, holding tanks
By the time I read The Log from the Sea of Cortez, I was aware that "Doc" was a real person and Steinbeck's great friend.  Frankly, I wasn't excited about reading The Log but it was one of the books to be discussed during the retreat, so I began.  The opening page was titled "About Ed Ricketts" and by the bottom of the page Ed's car had been struck by the Del Monte Express, and although he was conscious the severity of his injuries did not bode well for survival.  After his funeral Steinbeck turned to writing as his way to deal with the loss of his friend.  "...there is another reason to put Ed Ricketts down on paper.  He will not die.  He haunts the people who knew him.  He is always present even in the moments when we feel his loss the most.  ...Maybe if I write down everything I can remember about him, that will lay the ghost.  It is worth trying anyway."


Clay Jenkinson overlooking Ricketts holding tanks
I don't think Steinbeck's plan worked.  I believe he carried Ed Ricketts with him for the rest of his life.  Perhaps that is what all of us who are fortunate to have a great friendship in our lives must do.  Certainly Steinbeck made many of us feel like we had known Ed Ricketts...or wish we had known him.


Having introduced readers to Ed Ricketts, with whom the expedition on the Sea of Cortez was planned and experienced, the actual Log is introduced.  Steinbeck explained:  "The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer.  This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact.  And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there."  What follows is not only the literal description of their adventure, beginning with all of the planning before chartering the Western Flyer with its tolerant skipper Anthony Berry, and hiring the crew, but also the literary wanderings typical of Steinbeck that I so enjoy.

Acquarium
Also included in the Log is a discussion of "teleological thinking" which inserts its way into the book on Easter Sunday, when the crew did little collecting of specimens, instead half dozing and "...thinking of old things" and later discussing "manners of thinking and methods of thinking" involving what Steinbeck identified as teleological and non-teleological thinking.  This sort of discussion was typical of Steinbeck and Ricketts, who enjoyed exploring ideas and reason.  In fact, Ricketts had written his philosophy on this subject for which he had never found a publisher.  Much of this section in The Log from the Sea of Cortez came from Ricketts' writings, a sort of posthumous gift from Steinbeck to his friend.


Docent
During the Retreat we had a wonderful tour of the former Western Biological Laboratory, guided by an outstanding docent and concluded with a talk from author Susan Shillinglaw.  Although the laboratory had a brief life serving other uses, it was fairly well preserved during that time so that today it feels like Doc might soon return from one of his tidal pool forages and offer his guests a drink.

Susan Shillinglaw

After hard service and severe neglect, the Western Flyer is being restored, with plans for use as a sea-going classroom.  The magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium is only a few steps down the street from Doc's lab. The legacy of Ed Ricketts lives on.



(Remember, you may enlarge images by clicking on them.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Messages from History

Rock formations guided early settlers
I am fascinated by history.  It helps me evaluate the significance of current events and balance seeing those events as too impressive or too frightening.  As children we see the world as brand new, with each day seeming to have been born with us.  Life seems full of magic and monsters under our beds, because our personal history is only as long as our own tender lives.

With maturity, we lose some of the wonder but we gain greater knowledge of the world.  Part of that is simply experience.  The longer we live the more experiences we have to make us aware, and part of it is vicarious experience from education, reading, watching television, and picking up information helter-skelter--some of it valuable and some of it worthless or worse.  The formal teaching of history in schools is difficult and too often ineffective.  As adults most of us can still remember how ancient events only a decade or two in the past seemed.

Kansan John Brown's role in Civil War
As much as I appreciate an awareness of history now, I can't quite recall when it became important to me.  As a child I don't recall that I read much history, although I do remember seeing movies set in the past that intrigued me.

The thing that first intrigued me about Isaac Werner's journal was how many similarities I found in the late 1800s with current events.  When I first began working on the manuscript I was anxious to finish it and find a publisher as quickly as possible, because I thought it was so relevant to current events.  Yes, I do wish I had found that publisher more promptly, but what I have realized is that history doesn't go out of style.  Perhaps the things I initially found so relevant have subsided, but other current events have arisen that share common issues with the late 1800s when Isaac lived.

Another thing I have recognized is that in my youth I paid more attention to things that happened elsewhere than exploring the history of my own region.  I suspect that people fall into extremes, either overlooking the importance of things that happened in their own region or being too provincial in ignoring what happened elsewhere.  History gives us a broader view that helps us put things into perspective.

Beecher Bibles came to Kansas
I try with the blog to share overlooked sites and events of historical importance in Kansas.  I have certainly learned a great deal about my home state in the process of doing research, and I have  learned to be more observant.  Now, if we see a road sign pointing to some attraction a few miles off the highway, my husband and I are much more likely to take the time to explore.  How many times had we driven Interstate 70 without taking the time to visit the amazing rock formations nearby?  Why had we not discovered the church connected with Beecher Bibles.  Would we ever have bothered to see Dr. Higley's cabin?  I have shared those three experiences in this blog, as well as many others, and as one blog follower told me, "You have given me many new places to visit."

But what I also have tried to do is share ideas from the past that have relevance to today's events.  They are part of our heritage.  How many Kansans know that a significant reason that Kansas is a "red state" today is because so many Union soldiers staked homestead claims here after the Civil War.  They were soldiers from Lincoln's Army, they voted Republican, and many of their descendants still do.

We are losing voices from the past
My great-grandfather was one of those Union soldiers, but I had no idea his military history influenced the political conversations around the dinner table when I was growing up until I began during the research for my manuscript.  Soldiers were given a year's credit for each year they served as a Union soldier to apply toward satisfying the five years required to live on and improve their claim in order to acquire title.  Confederate soldiers received no such benefit.  Many of Isaac Werner's neighbors were former Union soldiers. I suspect there are historical explanations of all kinds lurking unknown in most families' histories.

I think it is interesting to discover those things.  The current popularity of genealogy research would seem to indicate that others agree.  Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites include ways to not only discover who your ancestors are but also what was happening in the times in which they lived.  I hope those of you who follow my blog find the the grab-bag of historical information I have shared on the blog to be of relevance and interest to you and your children.

Our community recently lost one of those people who could share first-hand accounts of World War II.  Emerson Shields spoke at the Veterans' ceremony at the Stafford School this past Veterans' Day, but now he is gone.  Isaac B. Werner left his daily journal, whose pages inspired me to write a manuscript about the struggles of the working class of farmers, miners, and factory workers in the late 1800s--a struggle that led to the creation of the People's Party that many people living today know little or nothing about.  Yet, many of the goals of those struggling workers are accepted realities today.  Our current lives are filled with whispered message from the past that we should pause to hear.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Look at Poetry

Visiting the grave of Emily Dickinson 
It has become my tradition to remember the importance of Poetry in April.  Those of you who are regular followers of the blog may remember my post inspired by a reading given by Kansas Poet Laureate (2013-2015) Wyatt Townley.  It was my friend Shirley who invited me to join her at the Kinsley Library to hear Ms. Townley read some of her poetry at an event sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC).

Two specific things were the direct result of my participation in that KHC sponsored event.  First, I tend to write poetry in spurts, a genuine amateur who lacks the discipline to sit down regularly and wait for the muse to whisper in my ear.  Rather, some sight or sound or thought will inspire me, and the result will be another poem added to my ever-growing notebook.  Wyatt Townly inspired me that day with her own poetry, her enthusiasm, and a challenge to try a form of verse I had never heard of, and consequently, had never tried to write.  The Cinquain consists of five un-rhymed lines of poetry with a strict adherence to the number of syllables per line:  2/4/6/8/2.  Each Kansas Poet Laureate develops some project to encourage an appreciation for poetry, and Townley encouraged Kansans to write a cinquain about their state.  Each month she selected a cinquain to be published as part of her regular poetry columns printed in newspapers across the state.  One month, mine was chosen to be published.  My cinquain that was selected by Wyatt Townley for recognition appears below.

Summer

Lightning
Bugs at twilight,
Juicy watermelon
On the lawn, serenaded by
Crickets.

Wyatt Townley at Kinsley
At that time I was serving on the Board of the Vernon Filley Art Museum in Pratt, KS, and the second direct result of hearing Townley was my recommendation that we invite Wyatt Townley to speak and read her poetry to our Legacy Arts Supporters.  She was nearing the end of her two-year appointment as Poet Laureate, but she managed to fit an evening into her schedule.  Frankly, there were those whose enthusiasm for inviting Wyatt did not quite match mine; however, the evening was a huge success--among the most enthusiastic fans by the closing poem were some of those who had worried the most about how well a poetry reading would be received!  Of course, it doesn't hurt that Wyatt Townley is an excellent speaker as well as a fine poet, but the doubters in the audience that night learned that poetry, well-read, can be a compelling experience.  Wyatt Townley even sold out some of the volumes she had brought to make available at the end of her presentation!

Recently, I received an e-mail from Wyatt and three other past Kansas Poet Laureates--Denise Low (2007-09), Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (2009-2013), and Eric McHenry (2015-2017).  The message reminded Kansans that in 2016 KHC had provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of our state.  The current cost-cutting threat to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which costs the average American 50 cents a year according to the e-mail, is the primary support for many humanities programs in Kansas and other states.  

Robert Service "The cremation of Sam McGee"
The e-mail pointed out that the Kansas Poet Laureates average 50 public appearances a year at colleges and schools, but primarily small-town libraries and community centers, with the travel stipend they receive paid entirely by private donors--like those who paid expenses when Wyatt visited the Filley.  (It should be noted that, in turn, Wyatt spent that stipend for lodging, fuel, and other purchases in the Pratt community in connection with her visit.  The benefits to the community were economic as well as cultural.)  The NEH funding of the Kansas Humanities Council funds the staff that supports the Poet Laureate program, a program with a national reputation for excellence.

The number of "closet" poetry fans is surprising.  We had a friend who could launch into the recitation of long narrative poems with the slightest encouragement.  Our niece, who has been engaged in a brave battle with cancer for several years, finds solace and courage in poetry and is sometimes inspired to write her own.  Humorist Garrison Keillor shares his love for poetry on NPR; former President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, has published a book of her favorite poems for children; young parents recite nursery rhymes to babies who will carry on the tradition to their own children in an unbroken generational chain...  Traditional, un-rhymed, humorous--the list of poetry that people enjoy is endless.  

So, as I tend to do each April, I encourage you to pick up a book of poetry this month--if you have forgotten how much enjoyment and inspiration poetry holds, or pick up a pencil and exercise your own talents for poetry which you have allowed to lie dormant.  And while you are thinking about it, you might consider speaking out in support of the importance of the arts and humanities to the nation.  We must not realize the individual and national importance of those things only too late--when they are already gone...

(Just for fun, I challenge you to write your own cinquain about April or Spring, or whatever inspires you, and send it as a Comment to this blog post or directly to me.  Teachers, challenge your students of all ages to write a Cinquain.  Remember:  five lines with specific syllables in each line--2, 4, 6, 8, 2.  It's about the creative discipline of imagery and feeling within the strict limitations of syllable counts.  I'm curious to see if any of you will take the challenge!) 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Climbing Fremont Peak

View of Fremont Peak
In early 1846, John Charles Fremont arrived in the Sacramento Valley and set about stirring up American patriotism among settlers there.  When he camped near the highest summit of a mountain range bordering the valley, now called the Gabilan Range, at what is now known as Fremont Peak, he nearly provoked a battle with Mexican General Jose Castro, who had thousands of troups in the Monterey region.  Had the conflict occurred, Fremont's troops would likely have been annihilated.  It was judgments such as this near mistake that have left Fremont with a mixed reputation among historians, some saying his impetuous actions over-shadowed his military accomplishments, which other historians judge more highly.

Steinbeck Retreat Climbers
The same mixed assessment of 23 climbers who scrambled to the topmost point of Fremont Peak might be made as to whether their assault on the jagged peak was brave or foolish.  The oldest climber was 80 years young, and she, like all the rest of us, would not have missed the experience.

We did not climb the peak to start a war but rather to experience the emotions John Steinbeck shared in his account of Travels with Charley.  We were led not by Fremont but rather by historian, author, and host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour, Clay Jenkinson.  We had come together for a week to discuss John Steinbeck and his books, and to visit sites relevant to the man and his work.  It was our last day of hiking to places Steinbeck had visited and written about, and it was an especially awesome site.

Preserving the view
When Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley, In Search of America, he was no longer young.  He had not visited his beloved California in several years, and living on the East Coast he sensed that he could no longer feel the pulse of the nation.  He decided to set out with his beloved standard poodle Charley 'in search of America.'  He had a camper custom-made atop a pickup, and he headed north to Maine and traveled across the upper states before reaching Monterey.

His return to the California coast of his youth was a disappointment, for the places he remembered were not the same, nor were the old friends who were still there.  "In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me."  He realized that Thomas Wolfe had been right.  Steinbeck wrote:  "You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."  However, he allowed himself one last sentimental thing.  He drove to Fremont's Peak, now Fremont Peak State Park,  and with his dog Charley, "...climbed the last spiky rocks to the top."

Reading from Travels with Charley
On March 8, 2017, 23 Steinbeck enthusiasts found foot and hand holds in the craggy rocks and helping hands to grasp as they summitted this rocky peak.  At the top, they listened as Steinbeck scholar Russ Eagle read the passage in which Steinbeck reclaimed his affection for this place from his youth.  "Here on these high rocks my memory myth repaired itself.  Charley, having explored the area, sat at my feet, his fringed ears blowing like laundry on a line." Charley had not been a part of Steinbeck's life in that region when he was a young man, so Steinbeck described for his canine companion his memories of the place,  relating what his heart saw rather than the changes which had so disturbed him.

When Steinbeck finished sharing his memories with the dog, he wrote, "I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love."

My husband & I atop Fremont Peak
It was to hear Russ Eagle read those words in this place that all of us had risked personal safety to make the climb.  The sky was clear and the breeze was slight--the most perfect day of the trip, and we savored the experience a while longer before reversing our path.  It was a great day.

Isaac B. Werner was only a toddler when Fremont nearly started a war, but John C. Fremont became the 5th Territorial Governor of Arizona in 1878, the same year Isaac came to stake his claims in Kansas.  Although Fremont was born 3 decades before Isaac, he outlived Isaac by 5 years.  Both men are now a part of my experiences with history, but especially, my afternoon on Fremont Peak gave me a feeling of Steinbeck the man, beyond Steinbeck the writer.

Our Steinbeck Retreat was wonderful, and I will continue to share some of our experiences in future blogs.