Category Archives: culture
Northwestern Lake Superior, May 27, 1933, 6pm—The passenger steamer George M. Cox plies briskly through the frigid waters at full steam ahead, despite a heavy fog having settled over Lake Superior. On her maiden voyage after an elegant and expensive refit financed by New Orleans businessman George Cox, the Cox is bound for Port Arthur, Ontario carrying a load of 127 prominent guests, passengers, and crew. The captain and owner of the Cox need her to make good time on this voyage in order to impress her passengers and to show the Cox’s viability against other steamer lines in the lucrative vacation travel business. In the heavy fog enveloping the lake, Captain Johnson and First Mate Kronk can hear the fog signal from the Rock of Ages Lighthouse—they know they are near Isle Royale, but continue onward at 17 knots. Suddenly—a jarring jolt and the sound of scrapping metal. The George M. Cox runs full speed into the Rock of Ages Shoal, lifting 110 feet of her bow out of the water and giving her a dangerous list to port. The command to abandon ship is immediate.
On watch from the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, head keeper John Soldenski hears the crash and lowers the rescue boat to race off to the scene of the wreck. Though the wreck of the Cox was spectacular, there were no major injuries and Soldenski is able to tow all the life rafts safely to the lighthouse. At this cylindrical lighthouse on an isolated rock outcropping no bigger than 50 by 200 feet, all 127 passengers and crew onboard the Cox would spend a bitter and cramped night. The rescued crammed into the spiral stairwells of the Rock of Ages, or alternatively took turns huddled against the cold on the rock itself to avoid the overcrowding. The next day, rescue ships removed all George M. Cox passengers and crew with minimal injuries sustained and no loss of life in the wreck and subsequent rescue. As for the Cox herself, insurance declared her a total loss and she sat beached on the reef for months. She became a tourist attraction in her own right, and local Isle Royale fishermen brave enough to enter found many luxury goods to plunder. October storms later that year broke the Cox in two, and she slipped quietly to the depths of Lake Superior.
Despite this history of heroism and lore of rescue on the high seas, technological advancements and automation eventually led to the end of the keeper era at Rock of Ages. In 1978, the light was automated and the final keepers said their goodbyes. The lighthouse itself was prepped for its abandonment—windows were filled in with cinder blocks, doors and fixtures were removed, and all the interiors were coated with semi-gloss white paint—even the remaining light bulbs. In 1985, Rock of Ages’ magnificent 2nd order Fresnel lens—a lens that allowed a flame to shine for 29 miles—was removed and replaced with a much smaller solar-powered lantern. The door to the lighthouse was locked. The magnificent beacon that is the Rock of Ages was left to weather the elements alone.
But such an iconic and storied lighthouse could not be left alone to weather away indefinitely. A group of citizens, concerned with the fate of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, formed the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation society with the mission of restoring the lighthouse to its 1930’s appearance and to opening up the light to public visitation. Restoration work has been undertaken on the light since 2014. In July of 2019, I was able to join in these restoration efforts for a week of volunteer service at the Rock of Ages itself.
The crew was led by two-time lighthouse volunteers, the Nebraska couple Josh and Heather: odd-job experts, and woodcraft miracle workers. Joining them were me and Dakota Dirk, a professional historical restoration carpenter from Minnesota and an avid collector of antique oddities. For five nights, we stayed at the Rock of Ages itself. Our project goal for the week was to finish installing the 3rd floor hardwood flooring and to install window, door, and baseboard trim on the 3rd floor galley and the 4th floor keepers’ quarters. I would be staying in the unfinished 5th floor assistant keepers’ quarters.
The Rock of Ages Lighthouse is located more than 20 miles off the North Shore of Minnesota, and another five miles southwest of the Windigo Visitors Center on Isle Royale National Park. Upon arriving at Windigo on our first day in service, we immediately took a smaller, former NPS patrol craft to the shoal on which the Rock of Ages sits. Seeing as how Lake Superior is rough and unpredictable, and how the lake has claimed many larger ships throughout the years, the length of our stay would be determined by when the weather was favorable to access the light. It is a situation still the same as the keepers of old; during the active years, the keepers’ tours of duty would be subject to the mercy of Lake Superior. Keepers could often be stranded for days or weeks until weather would allow a ship to remove them at the end of the season. One crew of keepers was down to a single can of tomatoes for provisions when they were finally removed from the lighthouse. Hopefully our restoration crew would not suffer the same fate; we packed plenty of extra peanut butter just in case.
At the dock on the Rock of Ages
Our first day on the Rock of Ages was spent exploring the place that would serve as our home base for the next five days. The rocky reef on which the Rock of Ages sits is a jagged piece of basalt that emerges from nowhere and drops precipitously off into the azure waters of Lake Superior. No wonder this place posed such an immanent threat to shipping traffic. The Rock of Ages Light was built to mitigate the hazards of this reef. Construction began in 1908, when workers blasted a 50-foot diameter hole in the rock down to water level, in which the foundation of the lighthouse would be laid. The first two levels of the lighthouse, encased in steel and concrete, were finished in 1908 and served as storage areas for the Light. Being at water level, these two levels were constantly battered by waves and exhibit a characteristic clammy dampness. The remaining eight levels of the Light were completed in 1909. The main floor of the lighthouse was the third level up, and contained the engine room. From there, the spiral staircase leads past the 2nd floor lounge and office, 3rd floor galley and mess hall, 4th and 5th floor keepers’ quarters, 6th floor watchroom, 7th floor service room, and finally the 8th floor lens room. A journey up the lighthouse’s 149 steps will take one past various unrestored levels with peeling paint and blocked-off windows, as well as a few freshly finished and yellow-hued rooms. From the panoramic views of the lens room, 117 feet up, one can look out on Lake Superior and see the buoys that mark the wreck of the ill-fated Cox, along with the 1877 wreck of the Cumberland and the 1898 wreck of the Henry Chisholm.
Our volunteer work focused on installing flooring and trim work in the 3rd and 4th floors. Restoration crews in prior weeks and years had previously demoed and painted these levels in order to make them habitable for work crews staying out at the lighthouse. Our job was to wrap things up by installing the finish trim. This was no simple task, as all our trim pieces were straight, and the entirety of the lighthouse is circular (not to mention that water damage and exposure had rotted out much of the underlying structural wood we were nailing into). Using a variety of construction techniques, some woodbending, lots of trial and error, and perhaps some voodoo magic, we as a crew were able to finish most of the trimwork on these floors. Adding the trimwork really tied the rooms together. And being period appropriate too, all the trimwork was a fancy compilation of early 1900’s-style solid oak. Despite being such an isolated lighthouse, the keepers at Rock of Ages were blessed with quite ornate woodwork.
Even though the restoration crew put in long hours on the restoration project, there was still plenty of time to enjoy spending at the lighthouse itself. With so much restoration work actively going on, the lighthouse was a great place to play architecture sleuth. One of my favorite down-time activities was roaming the floors of the lighthouse trying to piece together its history—its construction, its changes, and its restoration. Hanging out in the lens room was the best location to feel the immensity of Rock of Ages’ isolation. To the east is a view of the entirety of Isle Royale; to the north is Minnesota’s North Shore and the Sleeping Giant of Ontario; to the south the endless expanse of Lake Superior. My favorite spots to watch the sunset were in the lens room and on the 7th floor catwalk. With favorable weather most of the week, we were always treated to spectacular sunsets and to watching seagulls fly in the wind.
Blow Ye Winds!
Despite the lighthouse’s isolation, we had several visitors stop by throughout the week. Maintenance workers from NOAA stopped by to maintain weather equipment, and the National Park Service had groups of protection and maintenance rangers stop by. Our daily break was also timed around 2:20, when the Sea Hunter III would pass by with day-trippers to Isle Royale who all took pictures and waved.
Our friends also included the many seagulls who called the Rock of Ages home. Their calls intermingled with the wind to provide the constant background music of Rock of Ages. In high winds, from the lens room, we would watch as the seagulls had a heyday soaring in the breeze. There were also several fledgling seagulls born on the Rock that we watched in anticipation, waiting for their first flights down to the water.
Our other constant friends were the midge flies. Every object outside the lighthouse was coated thickly with a layer of midge flies and other insects taking shelter from the constant wind. On the few occasions that the Lake Superior winds ceased to blow, the midges would take flight, forming an airborne swarm. I, as well as everyone else, inhaled too many midges to count.
At last, it came time to leave the Rock of Ages. The final two days of our volunteer period had thunderstorms in the forecast; we would need to leave the reef while we had a good weather window. Though I find it disappointing that we never experienced the extreme weather that the old-time keepers had experienced (with waves crashing up to at least the 6th floor ), it was a spectacular week on the Rock nonetheless.
If you are interested in learning more about the Rock of Ages Lighthouse restoration project, volunteering, or donating to the cause, please visit the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society website.
There is a strangeness to these folks up here in Minnesota. They say Minnesotans are a special breed, marked by their behavior of being ‘Minnesota Nice’. Well, after doing my firsthand ethnographic research, Minnesota Nice is actually a very subtle way of being passive-aggressive. Minnesotans aren’t very keen on being physically aggressive, as it is. Instead, theirs is a subversively passive method of controlling your behavior with their outward niceness.
Imagine the common scenario of a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies laying out on a tabletop for all to freely grab. At first, when the cookies are plentiful, folks wolf them down like oxygen. Then, as the cookies becomes scarcer, folks start taking the remaining cookies less frequently, until, of course, there is that lonely singular cookie left. That last remaining cookie will sit undisturbed for a while, until someone decides to do the world a favor by taking the last cookie and cleaning the whole mess up. That’s human nature. Except in Minnesota.
If that plate with the one remaining cookie were in Minnesota, Minnesota Niceness dictates that one must never take the last cookie (or the last of anything, for that matter). That final cookie will sit untouched, though lusted after, for perpetuity. That is, until some Minnesotan is brave enough (though always unseen) to initiate the Pandora’s Box of food division. The initiator will cut the final cookie in half, consume one half, and then leave the other half on the plate for an unknown future cookie consumer. The floodgates have then been opened. All the Minnesotans who have long been craving the taste of cookie in their mouth will stop by, cut the remaining fragment in half, eat one half and leave the other ever-decreasing portion. Minnesotans would continue this food division game ad infinitum, I’d theorize, until they start splitting cookie atoms. Thank goodness, for the Minnesotans sake, that there are some out-of-staters living surreptitiously in their midst. As a native Michigander, I grew up with zero qualms about taking the last cookie off the plate. In fact, finishing off a food item was often seen as performing a favor. Now living in Minnesota, my out-of-stateness is my justification to take the last of anything and finally put an end to all this food division tomfoolery. Though getting the last cookie is a huge benefit, it does mean that I’m always stuck with cleaning up the plate. This whole scenario causes me to wonder if Minnesotans are actually nice and are seeking to share with others, or if this is just their way of forcing other people to do the dishes.
Sharing a family meal with Minnesotans is also a foray into how Minnesota Nice can actually be a way to control the behavior of others. Imagine, again, the common dinner scenario where there is only one biscuit left in the bread bowl. By now you should understand that Minnesotans will never, ever, take the last of anything if no one is watching. But in a social setting, a Minnesotan is allowed to take the last of something if, and only if, the Minnesota Nice ritual is performed. Here’s how it goes:
Dinner guest who is eyeing the last biscuit for himself: “Does anyone else want the last biscuit?”
Everyone else at the table: “No, go ahead. It’s all yours,” (while silently whining to themselves ‘but I wanted the last biscuit!’).
The code of Minnesota Niceness prohibits anyone from grabbing the last biscuit outright. Instead, our dinner guest’s general inquiry about anyone else wanting the last biscuit is the very aggressive statement that, in fact, he intends to eat the last biscuit all by himself. In front of everyone else. Everyone else at the table must now politely insist that he indeed take the last biscuit. Not only has he eased his inherent Minnesota guilt about taking the last of something, he has also procured the blessing of all his table mates (though inside, all of his table mates are irritated at his aggressive move).
For someone to respond positively to the dinner guest’s inquiry by saying ‘yes, I would like the last biscuit’ would be a grievous violation of Minnesota Nice norms. Even if another diner had had an eye on the last biscuit too, they must now hold their tongue, for it is too late for them to stake their claim. They will inwardly seethe with rage at the diner who took the last biscuit while their face shows a smile and they pass the bread bowl over with a friendly “okie dokie, you betcha!”
This dinnertime ritual is done to appease the guilty consciousness of the Minnesotans who dare to take the last of anything. For, deep down inside of themselves, the Minnesotan knows that anything that they desire is also desired by someone else to a greater extent (but they don’t necessarily know who else, they just know that someone else is out there somewhere). To take the last of anything would be to deny that unknown someone of the thing which they highly desire. The Minnesotan feels inward guilt that by enjoying something themself, they are taking away such enjoyment from others. Thus, by going through the ritual of asking if anybody else wants that last item, the Minnesotan gains a positive affirmation (at least on the outside) that no one else is hurt by them taking the last thing.
If a Minnesotan becomes quite adept at this game, then the ritual can get quite domineering. They can dictate their wishes upon other people by simply being very outwardly nice. Now, I’m not blaming you for anything, and it’s not your fault, and I know you didn’t mean anything bad by doing it, you know, and I think you’re a good person, and maybe it was the circumstances, but it’s just that, you know, someone else may have wanted that last cookie, possibly.
“This is a free country,” was his terse response.
This all unfolded recently at my local public library, while I was quietly working on some writing projects. Around the corner of the room another patron started up a loud, profanity-laced phone call.
No longer able to concentrate and firm in my conviction that this was not the appropriate venue for such a call to be held, I calmly approached the man to inform him of my grievance and offer the radical suggestion that he should, in fact, take the call outside.
“Who are you to tell me what to do,” he bristled, “this is a free country.”
No, this is not a free country. This is a public library. You do not have the right to be an asshole to those around you. At least that’s what I had wanted to say to him, but lacking quick wit and impulsive retorts, I merely reminded him that he ought to be respectful to the other patrons. This diffused the situation, but I was left fuming over his cavalier attitude.
‘This is a free country:’ the battle cry of the libertarians. Who are you to tell me how to live. Leave me alone and let me do what I want.
It’s all evocative of talk we hear in America quite frequently. Ours is a nation that highly values its liberty. The very founding of our country, in fact, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, was built upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But of those unalienable rights, liberty has become the most proudly flaunted, not to mention the most fashionable. Think of all the t-shirts and Americana tchotchke you’ve seen emblazoned with eagles, red, white, and blue with the big word ‘FREEDOM’ written in bold capital letters. Liberty, understandably, is a quite attractive value.
Liberty indeed has been a vitally important core founding principle of America, and the resulting American psyche of being able to choose one’s own destiny factors greatly into our national pride and identity. However, there becomes a problem when liberty is touted above all other American values, such that even other rights enshrined in the constitution including justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare take a backseat to liberty. When this occurs, we lose sight of the reality of America as a nation. For, contrary to Americanized myth, we are not a country composed of rugged individuals best left to our own devices. We are instead a multitudinous society comprised of a diverse cross-section of humanity struggling to live out all the founding values of our nation. Though the founding fathers valued liberty, they themselves also came together to practice the compromise of their desires in order to form a more powerful nation capable of generating more of the common good for more of its citizens. We cannot operate for the greatest general welfare of all citizens of this country with an unabashed ‘leave me the fuck alone’ mentality. We need to transcend the simplistic thought of this being a free country—as in free of obligations to other people—and realize that it takes more than just liberty of conscious to promote other American values like fairness, equality, and protection of the minority. It takes a collective effort of knowing the limits to your freedoms and practicing the extent of your responsibilities.
The classic litmus test for the limits of liberty is that your rights end where my rights begin. Your rights to swing your fists freely end where my nose begins. Your right to speak freely ends where disorderly conduct begins. There are inherent limits to our liberty in this country, and that is designed for the better of society as a whole. But beyond basic limits to freedom, there is a certain respect and civility in public life that libertarian ideals don’t aspire to. The live-and-let-live philosophy makes little impetus to improve society for us all. The belief that everyone left to their own devices would make an ideal society ignores the systemic and structural inequality we have in America, let alone doesn’t compel us to become better citizens of our country.
The English philosopher Alain de Botton makes an observation that Western political theory prizes liberty as the ‘supreme political value,’ and that libertarian ideals have infiltrated all political parties, not just the namesake Libertarian Party. In his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton explains how libertarian thought, in political life, seeks to cast no moral judgment on citizens and offers no vision as to how best to live together; in other words, that the greater welfare of the group is not a sufficient warrant to necessitate interference from the state upon the individual. The libertarian ideal, de Botton argues, is that moral behavior is a question for the conscious of the individual alone and should not be subject to judgment from a committee of governmental regulators. In America, any moralistic push of the state is viewed as paternalistic at best (nanny state), and suspect of a devious agenda at worst (fascism). But the downside of all this liberty is that we no longer know how to handle ourselves properly with all of our freedom. We often find ourselves in want of some moral guidance for how best to live our lives in relation to others. Here, de Botton argues, is where civil governments can take a cue from religions and not be afraid of being seen as paternalistic, but instead work to foster qualities, like harmony and forgiveness, which often run counter to our basic human nature. In a pluralistic society, it would take just a little nudging from the civil government to get us to behave on our best behavior.
Let’s think about how libertarian ideology can be harmful in this analogy:
A large group of individuals are traveling on a massive ship. They don’t all know each other, yet they share the same vessel. One day, the travelers begin to notice that the ship has started to list to one side, that is has started taking on water. They employ a sudden search to find the source of the leak in order to save the ship. Upon searching the lower decks, they find a stateroom that is the source of the water. They pry open the door to find a man standing over a hole in the boat. The man yells aggressively at the others who have found him: “I paid for this stateroom. I can do whatever I want to it!”
America, it could be said, is a giant ship, the home to a diverse multitude of people. As citizens of this country, we cannot do absolutely whatever we please and still expect to form a prosperous and civil society. There are limits to our freedom put in place to promote the common welfare, just as there are civic duties that it is our obligation to uphold for that same welfare. We are all in this together. The libertarian philosophy, unfortunately, often blinds itself to this interdependence to others in society.
Though we must value our liberty as Americans, we must also exercise that liberty with constraint. The freedom of speech does not give one the right to falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre. The right to bear arms as part of a ‘well-regulated militia’ does not imply that there should be no restrictions on civilian firearms. The norms for behaving properly in this country have been developed as practical limits on our freedom in order to promote a compatible society of diverse people. Once we can embrace the fact that indeed our liberty is not the sole virtue of our American society, we can move on to creating a better government. For, even in the text of The Declaration of Independence, with its intended purpose of severing ties with the English Crown, the abolishment of government altogether for the sake of increased liberty was not an end in itself. Rather, the alteration and re-institution of government mentioned was expressly intended to protect the rights and welfare of the people—not just for the sake of increasing personal liberty alone.
Given my parent’s penchant for bestowing gifts on each other during the Christmas season, it came as quite a surprise to me, upon arriving home for the holidays, that this year they would refrain from buying gifts for one another.
And to learn that after I had wrapped up all my holiday shopping, buying all my gifts on my drive home through Canada. I even thought I had outdone myself this year with thoughtful, unique presents. Now, no gifts at Christmas?
In the end, it wasn’t a giftless Christmas at the Bleeker household after all. Instead, the reduction on presents was targeted at mandatory giving—the kind of gifting one does because one feels obliged to at least buy something for another. My parents, after years and years of buying similar items for each other every Christmas (shirts, kitchen gadgets, gift cards, cashews), finally decided it was time to put an end to the convention. During the rest of the year, they could just as easily buy anything they needed for themselves or each other. And, the pattern of gifts given at Christmas had become standard and predictable. No need, then, to buy and consume more just because the culture around the holidays dictates it. This year, no to the stress of shopping crowds, no to obligatory gift-giving, and no to mandatory consumerism.
Except that for me, I had already purchased all my gifts. Darn.
As much as my parents’ new perspective on gift-giving surprised me, I was delighted by the change in practice. I for one actively decry materialism and bemoan consumerism. I have, at more than one Christmas, broken the heart of my well-intentioned mother by rejecting gifts and returning them instead. I can be a quite the difficult gift-receiver. Though I do love the joy and surprise at receiving a gift, the holidays are held in a strange tension for me because I don’t really like owning that much stuff. Is there a way to practice the meaningful expression of gift-giving while avoiding the downfalls of becoming bogged down in excess material extravagance?
Reflecting on the gifts I gave this past Christmas, I think that’s where my own shopping tendencies have been taking me. Seventy-five percent of what I bought was food or drink items—things that can easily be wrapped up and handled, but magically disappear after a few months. Consumable items like these provide the benefit of the gift, but one without the long-term conundrum of storing more stuff for perpetuity.
What’s more, behind the gifts I gave, there was something more I wanted to say with them. I had done all my holiday shopping while traveling by myself for three weeks in Canada, visiting some pretty spectacular places along the way. When I purchased each present, it was a way of saying to the intended receiver ‘I wish you could have been here with me.’ The bottle of cider I gave to my sister was a way of saying ‘it would have been fun sharing in the taste-tasting at the cider mill with you.’ The maple sugar candies from Quebec which I gave my friends were small tokens of physically sharing my trip with them too. In the absence of actually traveling and spending time with each other, sometimes a small gift with meaning behind it can say ‘I wish we could have done this together.’
In the end, the notion that gifts have to be material and given primarily at Christmastime misses a lot of the larger points behind gift-giving. For me, the best gifts I have received have often been immaterial and have come at many different times of the year, often unexpectedly. At Christmas, gifts of experiences are often the best gifts you’ll receive. Spending time with those you love in a shared activity can beat any pair of socks.
It’s challenging to wrap up a Christmas gift of experience in a box. Until then, I’ll keep wrapping up small tokens of my experience as my gifts.
What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in
Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been
a Pond I Used To Visit Every Summer Afternoon
Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.
Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?
Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.
Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.
And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.
With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the other cleverly-named days which promote consumer spending behind us, the holiday shopping season is well on its way once again. The lure of irresistible deals and the culture of acquiring the latest fads spur us to accumulate endlessly more and more stuff. I myself have had stuff on my mind lately, though it’s not because of an inclination towards holiday shopping. Rather, ending one out-of-state job recently and preparing to re-locate to another has got me sorting through all my stuff in preparation. And with my parents moving houses in the past few months as well, I’m coming home to all my possessions haphazardly boxed up and scattered about. It’s been a time to re-analyze all that I consider ‘mine.’
As I’ve been sorting through my possessions, I’ve begun to pause and go through them more deliberately. When I’ve been away working my various seasonal jobs, I’ve always kept my possessions to a few duffle bags, or a comfortable car-load at the very most. But, I’ve realized, I have a lot more stuff that I’ve left behind—stuff I own and keep, though I don’t actively use it or even remember I own it. Actually, going through my possessions again, it surprised me the sheer amount of objects I could say are still in my possession—even though I like to think of myself as a minimalist. I always enjoy considering how light a packer I am, and how well I can improvise using the few possessions I do have. But I also know I am a collector of things, a pack-rat as some may call it, and I have acquired a considerable amount during my time on earth. Though I may decry the negative rampages of American imperial consumerism, I too am complicit in the lust and greed to acquire more. I too see things I would like to have, and take steps to ensure that I acquire them and keep them solidly in my possession. The primal urge to accrete does not leave easy.
And now, I’ve found myself in this more reflective situation, as I go through my many possessions box by box. I do tend to be quite utilitarian in my philosophy of things, viewing objects as tools to be used in life, caring mostly about function over form. But even though I concern myself with the practical value of items, I also feel strongly that things should not be treated with careless indignation, as though they were simply disposable without consequence. Utility also means looking to gain the maximum use and value out of every single object I possess, to use and wear things out until they are no more. If each object has a purpose, then each object also has a value. The things I’ve found myself to be holding on to are things that still have some sort of value left—practical, sentimental—and most likely only I could see the value in maintaining these things indefinitely.
As I open each box to rediscover what had been placed inside long ago, I take out each object and cradle it in my hands slowly, reverently. These are merely things, but they connote more than that—they have stories of mine interwoven in them. They have the stories of how I acquired them, of how I used them, and—having made the decision to keep them around—they hold some aspiration for the future as well. Holding each object, I try and recollect as much as I can about it. It may help that I have a particularly detailed memory, but I can often recall when and where I acquired each object, and the circumstances of my acquirement. Everything I find are artifacts of myself, intricately connected to my history of being. I amuse myself by speculating far off into they future, imagining that I have had a long and famous life and that upon my passing my possessions are being sorted by museum staff for a curated display of my life. So many of these objects I hold, rather than having a monetary value, have something much more priceless. Airline boarding passes, concert tickets, maps of places I’ve traveled. Yes, so many of these objects, rather than carrying a practical value, hold an emotional, sentimental value. They are relics of my past, reminding me of where I have been but also hinting at the trajectory I am going down.
Though mindless consumerism disheartens me, I remain quite ambivalent about the acquirement of stuff, on one hand cherishing what I own but on the other hand feeling the imperative to make do with less. Having been of modest means through most of my adult life, my metabolism for objects has been slower than most. Few objects, a minority I would conjecture, I have actually purchased for myself with money. The objects which I do own came from other means: trades and barters, unclaimed remnants of lost and found boxes, things pulled from the trash, participation prizes, gifts from friends. My boxes of things are filled with second-hand clothes, book-exchange finds, and rocks which I have collected during my travels. I am an opportunist in my acquiring of things, and usually it is not the object itself that is important, but the use it presents. So long as the object is useful to me, even if just for memories sake, then I will adopt it into my litany of things.
The fact that I can recall so much information about my history with these objects proves just how much emotional weight these things have on me. For now, I do not find it a burden; I have enough memory space available to justly devote to each object. But as I continue to acquire, and file more and more things into the repository boxes in my parent’s basement, I wonder how long this will still last. You see, whenever I make the decision to adopt an object, I gain the burden of seeing that object to the end of its natural life or re-homing it to another possessor. Once I acquire something too, it is incredibly difficult to part with it, to imagine no longer being in control of it. I am very glad to have avoided the worst of the lures of American consumerism with its throw-away mentality and the lust for more and more. But I also wonder: might I feel freer with less stuff, with more time to devote to this grand organic world which I love?
When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing — the reason they can fly.
To an American, the term Acadia (or in French, Acadie) will likely conjure up notions of an extraordinary national park in eastern Maine, but will prompt little more significance otherwise. However, the term Acadia is much greater than that, referring to a vast and rich cultural region beginning in the south with Maine and extending northeast to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. But Acadia is more than just a region—it is its own strongly identified culture. From the earliest French colonists in Port Royal on Nova Scotia in 1604, a distinct culture began to develop that is undeniable to the modern traveler today. The Acadians are a people hewn from their landscape of gentle agricultural valleys isolated by rough coastal waters. Their way of life is largely pastoral, tied to the land. Their self-reliance has also produced a culture of folk artists and craftspeople who produced goods for their communities. Indeed, Acadia is a region with its own distinct identity, and traveling around the region one will not fail to notice the abundance of Acadian Flags or hear the French language being spoken.
The name ‘Acadia’ derives from the Greek word Arcadia which was applied as a place name to maps of the Atlantic coastline by early European explorers. The early French settlers adopted the name Arcadia for themselves, as in Greek it meant “refuge” or “idyllic place.” As they were far from their native lands and seeking a better life in the New World, these French settlers were able to turn the Atlantic coastline into both their refuge and an idyllic agrarian society for themselves. The letter ‘r’ was gradually lost from the name Arcadia to become what we now refer to as Acadia. The French, relying strongly on the traditional knowledge of the native Mi’kmaq peoples likely adjusted the name of their region to align with the Mi’kmaq suffix -akadie, meaning ‘place of abundance.’ Indeed, the pastoral villages soon became prosperous.
Many of the original settlers to Acadia had been peasants in Europe, seeking a better life in the New World. In the absence of the rigid European social hierarchy, these settlers were able to use to own skills and talents to determine their rank in society. With little material support coming from France, the Acadians had to produce most of their own goods, and the skills and talents of the settlers became the basis of their culture of craftsmanship. Imperial France also showed negligible interest in governing their North American colonies. As a result, Acadian government was a system of village self-rule, where the communities were governed as a society of equals. The isolation of the Acadian villages, along with their essential independence from Imperial France, contributed to an independent spirit and a wariness about outsiders. However, the Acadians relied strongly on the native Mi’kmaq peoples to survive and prosper, using their traditional knowledge, intermarrying, and adopting many of their customs. In time, the population of the Acadians grew rapidly through high fertility rates and agricultural prosperity. Outside travelers to the Acadia region remarked on how tall, strong, and robust the Acadians were, with darker complexions and longer hair symbolizing their biological and cultural inter-connections with the native peoples.
The prosperity and independent spirit of the Acadians, along with their population explosion, soon was viewed as a threat by Imperial Britain. Territorial conflicts marked most of the history of Acadia, and the roots of this conflict stemmed from the long-held rivalry between the French and English, as it was played out in the New World. As early as 1613, a mere nine years after the founding of Acadia’s first permanent settlement, the British sacked and burned Port Royal in a territorial conquest. Decades of conflict would ensue, with the British militarily taking territory and the Acadians attempting to reclaim their lands. The last debate in the matter was the French and Indian war, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763; that resolution ceded the last French strongholds in Acadia and French Canada to British control. As the British gained control of more and more Acadian territory, they began a program of expelling the Acadians to neutralize any military threat. The Acadians knew this era as Le Grand Dérangement, or the great expulsion. Acadians, who had long since been settled and identified with their landscape, were forcibly deported to places like French Louisiana, the 13 colonies, Britain, or France. However, with their knowledge of the land, many Acadians evaded deportation by seeking refuge in the wilderness. When the culture war on the Acadians gradually faded, the Acadians came out from hiding and some eventually returned to Acadia, creating their own small Acadian communities. Their cultural identity and ties to their land could not be abolished.
Today, Acadia is a peaceful land once again, returning more in-line with its idyllic agrarian beginnings. Acadians still live fruitfully and independently off the land, cultivating their crops and producing their crafts. The region is a mix of cultures—Acadian, English, Native, and others. So too is the Acadian landscape one of contrasts. From the rough rugged shores of Nova Scotia where hardy fisherman eke out a living, to the gentle pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island where the soils are fertile and the climate is mild. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few weeks touring around Acadia taking in the sites. Though my focus was on the landscape and not the people, they are a people intricately connected to their land.
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After spending a summer leading adventure camp trips for teens, I have a perplexing question: are there any hipster children out there?
Being immersed in the experience of a camp counselor for teenagers was an ethnographical experiment. What exactly, constitutes the life and thoughts of these strange creatures, the standard American teenager? My observations led me to an archetypical picture of what makes the average teenager tick; I found a thread of common interests and mannerisms highly influenced by mainstream popular culture. And then I began to think further: was I like that as a teenager? Though I’d like to look back and think that I was unique in my youth, that I was a fiercely independent thinker, I wonder if perhaps this was not the case. Does hipsterdom—that blatant and intentional disdain for all things considered mainstream—emerge later than childhood? And thus, is the dominant teenage culture not a choice of the teenager themselves, but rather a product of the consumerist culture they are bombarded with?
I’ve been pondering over the similarity of certain interests for the teen-aged demographic to which I’ve born witness. With the vast amount of driving campers around which I was required to do this summer, I acquired keen insights into their musical tastes. The music that is sure to please is easy to find; the campers all know the frequency and call letters by heart. The sure crowd-pleasers, the jams that get them all pumped up are the American Top 40 songs on the local pop station. AT40 songs are absolute earworms. Not only are those songs engineered to get stuck in your head and stay there, radio stations will play the same six songs at least once an hour, every hour to ensure that they do. Fortunately, just to keep things fresh every couple months, the old songs will be replaced by a batch of new, similar-enough sounding songs that will be all the craze for the next few months. For me to save my own sanity while driving at camp, I sometimes tried to introduce my underground indie jams from the local community radio stations. Vetoed right away—always. If music is just not similar enough to what they know already, they seem quickly repulsed by the musical difference.
And what about the shopping interests of teenagers? They are fascinated by chain stores and name brands. Driving, as we often do, down the busy suburban commercial strips, the kids will look out the windows with excitement as they shout out the chain-stores they see flying past in the Big-Box landscape. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-11, Cumberland Farms. They salivate at the chance to go to those stores and buy their products. Even though the campers haven’t been to this particular location before, they know nonetheless what every store on this commercial strip will offer. The cultural homogeneity of chain-retail stores leads to a predictability about the products each store sells. These teens know what they want—and not only are they entertained by the thought of visiting a chain-store to get it, they are in fact motivated at the chance to spend their money on it. And mostly what they buy is just junk food.
And then there’s the speculation that kids often offer about what profession they would like to do as adults. The teens I was with did have high aspirations; they talked of becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers when they grow up. But, they seldom noted that their motivation was a passion for the job duties or the desire to help others. Instead, the dominant motivation for these high-end jobs was to earn money—lots of it. They talked about how they want high-paying jobs so that they can afford to travel and to own nice things. I was disappointed by how seldom a teen would talk about desiring to enter a profession based on a sheer passion for it, no matter the pay. These teens are far from the hipster stereotype of following their dreams of doing what they love in a career path—even if the consequence for the hipsters is working for minimum wage at a coffee shop in spite of their fancy liberal arts degree.
Was I a hipster teenager? Even as a child, I was fiercely independent and more likely to do my own separate thing rather than follow the crowd. But did my tastes reflect my temperament at that age? Perhaps, but maturing is always a process of becoming. As I grew older, I began to develop some of the interests of hipsterdom: underground music, obscure foods, and a penchant to avoid commercialized mass-produced mainstream culture. Maybe I was a hipster child all along, but it only took a fair amount of time for this attribute to manifest itself in my behaviors.
To be fair to teenagers as a whole, there are a handful of teens who break the mold of the unquestioning follower of consumerist appetites and media-conceived notions of entertainment. There are those teens who loathe American Top 40, preferring instead classic rock or foreign instrumentals. There are teens who not only can pronounce the word ‘quinoa,’ but enjoy eating it as well. There were those teens who weren’t overjoyed at visiting a gas station convenience store to buy candy and soda. There was even a contingent of campers, I found, who were quite interested in learning more about my home-made sprouting jar and eating the ensuing vegetable sprouts. Actually, most of the teenagers at camp exhibited at least some form of cultural independence apart from the mainstream stereotype (albeit some more strongly than others).
But even for the masses of teens leading indistinguishable lives, there is some hope. At the very tip of Cape Cod, away from the influence of mainstream America lies a place distinct from the popular culture known as Provincetown. Though not even remotely a hipster destination, Provincetown is a place and economy that revels in its unique, off-the-cuff identity. During the summer, most trips at camp include a visit to Provincetown. Often it’s a highlight for the campers. In Provincetown, the conventional teens can revel for a spell in a town like no other they’ve been to. There are no big box chains here. Instead, the main Commercial Street becomes a narrow pedestrian mall flooded with people milling about the business district perusing the town’s counter-cultural offerings. Here you’ll find Hippie stores and stores of the Occult. Tucked around the corner is a musty used book store, a palm reader, and a costume shop. Street performers, drag queens, and artists freely roam the streets. Even though in Provincetown the kids will still go for the junk food, at least they’ll buy it from the quirky Donut Experiment or the exclusively pink cupcake store. Maybe in a place unique as Provincetown, that tiny part of us that gets excited by difference can start to peek through. Maybe, after all, there is a little hipster in all of us, even the teenagers.
I have a confession. I have sent anonymous secrets through the mail to a man named Frank who lives in Maryland.
What is it about secret confessions and their anonymity that draws us in? Why are we intrigued by the private admissions of others? Is it a voyeuristic thrill at becoming privy to someone else’s inner being? Is it that we feel oddly connected to the vulnerability espoused by another—a vicarious living through another’s susceptibility without having to be vulnerable ourselves?
Since 2005, there has been an active channel to send one’s anonymous confessions broadcast on a postcard via standard mail. The PostSecret project, as it is formally known, was started by a man in Maryland named Frank Warren. It was an experiment. A community-fueled mass mail art project. Confessions being mailed in had no restrictions on content or style, so long as they were true and a genuine first-time confession. Since its inception, the PostSecret project has grown into a large social experiment shedding light on the hidden side of human life. It has become a clearinghouse of secrets and confessions, both mundane and salacious. The collective consciousness of the confessions is a window into the human condition.
I find myself continually drawn to the PostSecret project. I am inextricably attracted to the struggle and humanity expressed in the postcard confessions. A simple piece of paper, an anonymous hand-scrawled message, is a gateway into the breaking down of the barriers and facades that bind us to polite society. The reader of the postcards is as anonymous as the sender, a conversation happens in which no one speaks face to face. Does the reader relate to the struggle of uncertainty and vulnerability? Is the reader only humoring himself? And how many people, if any at all, will eventually see one’s confession?
After being merely a consumer for many months, I have decided to join the ranks of the confessors. Understandably, I have sent in no groundbreaking confessions of my own. Compared to the content of many postcards, mine are quite tame. I will not spoil my secrets by publically disclosing them here. But mine have been confessions more akin to bad manners and personal oddities that don’t quite match up to social etiquette. ‘I enjoy peeling gum of off the bottoms of chairs,’ would be an example similar to the content of my confessions. It’s a small start. But it imbues a powerful feeling nonetheless.
Reading these postcards and sending in my own confessions, I feel a sense of solidarity with the community of unknown contributors. It gives me a sense that I’m not so much alone in the world. That other people, like me, are indeed strange and have many quirks and idiosyncrasies that we cover over in the going-abouts of our daily lives. Each confession sent also provides a sense of relief. A freeing feeling. A sense of liberation at getting something off your chest.
Has the PostSecret project amassed its popularity because it is so hard to be open and vulnerable? Because it is so tough to find a confidant in other people? Perhaps it’s because life is so much about image, about putting on a game face and hiding what’s underneath. We don’t normally get exposed to the nitty-gritty details that lie at the core of a person. Is it because we have a deep-rooted desire to be known and exposed that we seek to confess to others?
Posting this blog article is a confession in itself. A confession of having confessed something. But the audience remains anonymous. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, writing is the most egotistical endeavor; instead of personally telling their story to a select few people, the writer chooses instead to pursue the attention of anonymous thousands. Maybe sometimes all it takes is a nameless confession in front of a multitude of strangers to feel some sense of comradery.
Check out more about the project at http://postsecret.com/
Send in your own secret to
13345 Copper Ridge Road
It all changed after a series of bad days. Especially after one particularly tough day where I ended up reaching a turning point. It started, innocently enough, in a kindergarten classroom. Within the first 20 minutes of class, one troublesome boy raised both his middle fingers and yelled ‘fuck you’ to a classmate. Accepting his correction, but not changing his behavior, he continued to harass and hit other students throughout the morning. Later on, a tardy student walked into the class, promptly stealing some chapstick from another student. After refusing to correct her actions and to make amends with that student, she became defiant. “Make me, motherfuckin’ bitches,” she called out as she ran around the room, “Go ahead—call the principle. She’s a bitch!”
The afternoon, unfortunately, got worse. Instead of kindergarten, I was switched to a second-grade classroom. Older kids did not mean more mature behavior. Instead, when the students came in from lunch recess, they immediately proceeded to physically fight with one another. One student raised a chair above his head and threatened to throw it. The principle had to be summoned—the quarrelling students had to be removed. While waiting for backup to arrive, I held the most intent student back by the shoulders. He had been insulted by another student and was now deadest on pummeling him. I got down on the student’s level to reason with him. He made no eye contact, he spoke nothing. All I could see was the glazed, glowering expression of a young boy narrowly focused on physical atonement on those who he felt had wronged him.
Both classrooms ended in chaos. That school was not a safe learning environment. It was a place where physical and emotional violence was dripping at the seams. Driving home that day, I reflected on what I had just experienced. It was a lot to process. Once back to the safety inside my house, I plopped down on a chair in the living room. A visceral sense of relief finally settled over me. As I debriefed my day with my housemate, my body started to physically tremble, sympathetically, autonomically. While at school, my adrenaline was flowing in the moment as my attention was focused on the extreme behavioral challenges in the classroom. Once fully removed from the situation, my body was left quaking from the trauma of the day.
That was the turning point for me. At my third week of substitute teaching, I came to a crossroads. It was either get tough or get out. I knew I couldn’t continue in the teaching position with my idealistic attitudes of kindness and compassion. So I got tough. Instead of focusing on nurturing the development of the students, it became more imperative just to control them. It was an unfortunate reality, but this change of focus was a move for my own survival as a teacher. The situation had devolved to a point where basic jungle survival instincts kicked in.
As an idealist, I came into the job soft and compassionate, motivated by the belief that I could make a profound impact upon the youth. I wanted to look favorably upon children as kind and innocent. I wanted to run the classroom with fairness and generosity, giving the students the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Fundamentally, I wanted to foster holistic personal growth in the students—all within the short day-long duration of my stints as a sub.
Instead, I shockingly found what could become a very corrosive environment inside the classroom. These kids don’t know you, and they don’t respect you because of it. They aren’t of the upbringing where they learned to respectfully listen and obey adults or authority. To them, you are a stranger with no weight or consequence to their lives. They see you and think they don’t have to follow because “Man, I don’t even know you,” or “You’re not a real teacher.” The relationship I developed with the students never reached my idealized version of youth mentorship; instead, what organically developed was a predicament of antagonistic adversaries. As a substitute, you have to be stern and assert your authority, lest you quickly lose control of the class. You budge an inch, the kids take a mile. Eventually, you begin to develop the mentality of a prison guard controlling your wards. Your task as a sub is to force your prisoners to follow the lesson plans no matter how much they try to derail your efforts.
In the end, I became a much more callous person. My patience shortened. Authority and control became my goals—not out of a desire for control itself, but out of sheer necessity. Each morning, I had to prepare for battle with the mindset that these kids are out to tear me down. In a behaviorally troublesome classroom, I had to enter drill sergeant mode quite frequently, barking the students into a terrified submission. Often, I had to publicly shame certain students in front of the classroom just to make an example of them. Teaching was not an uplifting experience—for me or for the students.
For all those reasons, I had to quit being a substitute teacher. The person I feel that I am and the person I feel like I want to be did not line up with who I was becoming as a substitute. So I had to quit while I was ahead, before my integrity became corrupted by the corrosive classroom environment. I honestly enjoy working with children, but how did teaching become a position where children are viewed as the enemy? I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be that kind of person. But I am as much a product of my environment, and those toxic classrooms created a menace in me. I never wanted to yell at kids. I didn’t enter education to yell at children. But nevertheless I found myself slipping into the mire of the circumstances.
More than anything else, I was appalled by what I witnessed as the toxic learning environments that predominated in many school classrooms. It started with a culture of disrespect for the teacher and for the learning process, then broadened to include a disrespect for any students interested in learning. In my classrooms, there were numerous fights and countless episodes of crying. There were times where I as a teacher did not feel safe in the classroom. No doubt that my students, young and vulnerable as they are, felt any safer. Instead of becoming an opportunity for inquiry, learning became the punishment for misbehavior. How, then, can you expect anyone to value or invest in the educational process? Thus, I had to remove myself from the situation once I felt myself contributing to the culture of school as a penal system.
In stark contrast, life was much easier in the suburbs. I found I could be more relaxed and compassionate towards the students, reaching closer to my idealized vision of classroom flourishing. Instead of being a punisher and enforcer, I could be a friend, mentor, and teacher. But even though the suburbs are easier, I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I could never feel right about selling out to the suburban school districts and contributing to the flight that attracts resources away from the already under-resourced districts. I felt it more important to be in the urban school districts where the behavioral issues were most pressing and the impact of a teacher is most needed. But I also found that I couldn’t survive there—at least, I found I couldn’t survive there while being the type of person I was striving to be. Being in the inner-city classroom for too long reverts one back to primitive survival instincts. Values like kindness and compassion take a backseat when your main goal becomes surviving the day.
I’ve recently spent a week in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., touring the important sites and institutions that run the country. In terms of educational vacation destinations, Washington D.C. is ideal because most of its signature attractions are free of charge. While I visited America’s capital city, I also learned a lot of interesting and obscure facts about our country:
*The nation’s premier museum institution, the Smithsonian, is an oddity in itself. The founding benefactor, James Smithson, was a British chemist and mineralogist who never once set foot in the United States. In his will, Smithson wrote a stipulation that if his only nephew should die childless, Smithson’s entire fortune should be gifted to the United States government as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson’s nephew died a boy in 1835 and the fledgling United States government shipped Smithson’s fortune in gold coins from overseas to begin the Smithsonian Institution.
*Looking for a unique gift this Christmas? The largest book in the Library of Congress is Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, written by Michael Hawley. It is a 5 foot by 7 foot photographic exposition of the country. (Library of Congress)
*The 1980’s saw a tremendous explosion in the diversity of Poinsettia colors. Horticulturalists used radiation to induce genetic mutations and cause colors other than the standard red and white to be produced. (National Botanical Garden)
*As president Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Lincoln was true to his adage by being the only US president to ever hold a patent. Lincoln’s invention, patent number 6469, was an inflatable apparatus under the hull of ferry boats that was intended to buoy boats over shallow channels. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not quite invent the future as his creation proved impractical and was never manufactured. (Smithsonian Museum of American History)
*Though typically thought of as an instrument of white Appalachia, the banjo owes its origins to African Americans. African slaves who were brought to America in the 1700’s fashioned a stringed banjo-like instrument out of a hollow gourd similar to an instrument in their homelands. Their instrument later evolved into the banjo form we recognize today as it became popular in white minstrel shows and in American folk music. (Smithsonian National African American History Museum)
*When the Senate Wing of the United States Capitol was completed in 1859, Senate vacated its old chamber. Filling the vacancy for seven years afterwards was a pop-up farmers market complete with livestock in the old senate chamber. Back in the late 1800’s, building security was not as tight as it is now, but some still consider the capitol to be full of swine. (United States Capitol)
*The hot air balloon’s early history is tied intimately with military use. Hot air balloons were used for spying efforts in the French Revolution and by the Union in the American Civil war. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)
*Could you have an antique form of American currency lying in your wallet? For the greater part of the 20th century, the United States government produced three types of bills which circulated as legal tender paper money. The currencies—Federal Reserve Notes (current), United States Notes (until 1996), and Silver Certificates (until 1968)—were of visually similar design but had different legal implications. Today, all bills produced are Federal Reserve Notes, but that doesn’t mean the older types don’t show up now and then. As I now know, the odd blue-tinted dollar I kept in my wallet during high school was actually a silver certificate, which would has been redeemable for one dollar worth of silver…until I unintentionally spent it. (United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing)
*Wood is a renewable building material that is gaining interest for large scale building projects. The city of Springfield, Oregon, is planning on building a 4-story, 350-car parking garage completely out of wood. (National Building Museum)
*Though the Washington Monument is made up of 555 feet of stone, the very top of the obelisk is a small capstone of aluminum. When the monument was completed in 1884, aluminum was more costly than silver or gold due to the price of electricity needed to produce it. (Washington Monument)