Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass..."

Photo from the Boston Public Library

January 15, 1919 was an unseasonably warm day in Boston, rising past 40 degrees at noon after several days of frigid weather.  Consequently, there were a number of people outside--hanging laundry in the relatively fresh air, eating lunch, making deliveries in horse-drawn carts or, occasionally, in automobiles.  Thus, there were presumably a great deal more people outside than there had been on previous days when the rumbling first sounded.  It was only a matter of moments before the sound grew louder...and the day was distinguished by an event so bizarre, and so peculiarly tragic, that it deserved to be mentioned and remembered.

It's interesting also to remember that this was not a time too long-passed, or too rusticated to know real tragedy.  In 1919, there would have been a number of servicemen returned from the trenches of Europe who could identify the sound that broke through the commonplace afternoon bustle as similar to the quick, harsh sound of machine gun fire.  The man-power of the city had been significantly reduced by the outbreak of what was called the Spanish Flu, which was born and bred in Massachusetts a year or so earlier.  Honestly, it was a time far closer to our own than many would likely realized.  The economy was in a slump, people were ill and falling ill faster than doctors could keep up with demand, and though it was a time of declared peace, it was also a time of constant fear.

That machine-gun-like rattle soon grew to something described as the thunder of an oncoming train (remember, the T was already almost 40 years old), and then the wave came.  It started high up--nearly five stories in the air, higher than almost all the buildings in the area.  It came from a tank of molasses, a 50-foot tall metal tank, 90 feet in diameter, owned by U.S. Industrial Alcohol and operated by the Purity Distilling Company (molasses, you see, can be distilled to alcohol, which was used for munitions).  It was a wave of molasses, containing approximately 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, weighing an estimated 26,000,000 pounds and moving at 35 miles per hour through the North End of Boston.

Bostonians like to joke about the streets smelling of molasses on hot summer days, but realizing the colossal amount of force and weight that descended on the city when that tank burst is startling.  Buildings were flattened, then swept off their foundations.  The elevated railway lines of what would have been the A Line of the Green Line were warped like children's toys.  21 people were killed--some drowned, some were crushed. 

Photo from the Boston Globe

But what surprises me most of all about this story is what follows.  Because the explosion happened so close to the Navy Yards, the crew of the USS Nantucket was on the scene in minutes, and sailors and Red Cross nurses alike dove into the waist-deep sea of thick, sticky filth to rescue people trapped beneath the surface.  And because so many people showed up to help, the area was clean, with molasses removed from the cobblestones, wiped off the sides of buildings and washed off of cars and carriages.  An historian of the event (Stephen Puleo) estimated that it equaled roughly 87,000 man-hours, or ten years worth of work for a single individual.  The Harbor ran brown with molasses runoff until the late summer.
Photo from “The Great Molasses Flood,” by Deborah Kops

I wonder what those residents of the North End, those nurses and those volunteers with shovels and brooms and rags and coffee pots would think of us now.  I don't know if they'd be particularly impressed, but I think they deserve more credit in this story than the molasses.  They survived.  They restored their city, and, in the end, they forced a nation-wide regulations on industrial construction projects and engineer certification, after a class-action lawsuit brought by residents of the North End led to the revelation of the U.S. Industrial Alcohol's shoddy safety and construction practices.

So if you're in Boston, and happen to be in the North End, take a stroll over to Langone Park and see if you can smell the molasses that is said to still cling to the ground and the buildings around it.  Or read the plaque in Puopolo Park that recounts how "A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood".  But don't forget what came afterwards.  That might be the best part of all.

Monday, December 24, 2012

“You No Shoot, We No Shoot”

We were in the front line; we were about 300 yards from the Germans. And we had, I think on Christmas Eve, we’d been singing carols and this that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks more often just joking remarks. Anyway, eventually a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot.’  And the morning came and we didn’t shoot and they didn’t shoot.

So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jump down quickly in case they shot but they didn’t shoot. And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms and we didn’t shoot and so on, and so it gradually grew. 
(Private Marmaduke Walkinton)

It was denied.  It’s been politicized.  It’s been the subject of songs and stories and speeches and books. 

The facts can’t be outlined in simple detail, because there were so many different, unique moments across an enormous stretch of land.  But there are enough eye witness reports to verify the fact that beginning on Christmas Eve, 1914, the men in the trenches of the First World War developed an unofficial truce. 

In some areas, they simply marked the day without shooting, allowing the men across no man’s land to exist for a day.  In other places, the men sang carols across the darkness to each other, each in their own language, as Colin Wilson of the Grenadier Guards remembered:

We heard a German singing Holy Night of course in German, naturally. Then after he’d finished singing there were all sorts of Christmas greetings being shouted across no man’s land at us. These Germans shouted out, ‘What about you singing Holy Night?’ Well we had a go but of course we weren’t very good at that.

  In still other places, men climbed out of their trenches, chatted with the men they met in no man’s land, traded trinkets and addresses, and playing football.  As one British soldier, Peter Jackson, recalled, “And it was a melee. It wasn’t a question of 10 aside, it was a question of 70 Germans against 50 Englishmen.”

When you consider the pomp, circumstance and general enthusiasm with which the war began, it’s not too difficult to image the how it all could have happened.  Cold and wet, exhausted and far from home, I can only imagine how many men felt totally alone.  Hearing a familiar song in the freezing wind of France must have been a shock.  A beautiful, aching reminder of home—or of how far away from home they all really were.  In the midst of darkness, the light of the tiny trees some Germans apparently brought into their trenches must have been a haunting sight, and a cold comfort, in every sense of the word.

The events of that day were covered up for years, since it was considered a collapse of discipline.  Rumors remained, however, and by the time I was in high school, the story had become part of the First World War story, albeit one was that wasn’t discussed regularly.  I first heard of it on the PBS miniseries The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century (if you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough, and not only because it quotes Kenneth Macardle several times).  You can see the specific clip below:

It was an April morning when I saw this.  It was the first warm day of the spring, and I was itchy in my tights and really cranky that my mother had made me wear them that morning.  The TV in our classroom was too small for all of us to see it from our desk, so some of us sat on the floor.  My arms ached from propping myself up, and sitting on the floor in a skirt was never my specialty.  But when this clip started, I was riveted.  Shocked.  And utterly, completely heartbroken.  When the film ended, I was in tears.  Messy crying all over my spring dress.  Up until that moment, the First World War was a muddy, mysterious event that took place before the Second World War.  A place where tanks were built.  Where gas masks were needed.  Not a place where people laughed and shook hands.  Not a place where people looked back at you with proud smiles on their chapped lips, or sang Christmas carols across the dark morass of a battlefield, bringing humanity to a place that no human mind had imagined until then.

Whenever people ask me why I study the First World War, outside of a really silly story about my mother and her explanation about French road construction (which can be discussed later), this is the answer I give.  It’s not something I can elucidate well at all.  But the utter humanity of this one event captured my heart and my imagination, and I’ve never looked back since. 

So, this Christmas, I pray for that humanity.  For that faith, that can reach across the darkness and breach the highest barriers.  Even if only for a few moments.  Because even in 1914, it couldn’t last forever.  
December the 26th: At 8:30, I fired three shots in the air, and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it.  The Germans put up a sheet with “Thank You” on it.  And the German captain appeared on the parapet.  We both bowed, and saluted.  He fired two shots in the air.  And the war was on again. [From PBS]

But in being remembered, in being shared, in a way it does.  And as long as stories like this keep inspiring others, I think there’s still some hope.

Merry Christmas.

If you have a few moments, give a listen to this.  It’s the Imperial War Museum’s First Centenary Podcast on the Christmas Truce.  The quotes above were taken from there unless otherwise mentioned. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Austrian National Day--An Overzealous Historian Investigates

It all started because I had nothing interest to post on Facebook this morning, and thought a Fun-Fact Friday might help pass the time.  So I go to Google and I type in “October 26”, hoping something interesting happened today on which I can pontificate to the internet. 
And what do I find, but that today is Austrian National Day.  

“Yay!”  Thinks I, because I love Austria.  Vienna was like a new friend you feel you’ve known for ages the first time you speak with them.  Which isn’t surprising, considering I spent most of my childhood convinced that I was a descendant of the Hapsburg Monarchy and would one day be whisked away to claim by birthright.  But, regardless, it’s a stunning city with a mind-boggling history and a people whose collective hobby is apparently Sitting Outside Cafes.  And thus, Austrian National Day seemed an excellent reason to go home and have that bottle of Grüner Veltliner that’s been waiting for me.  “But what is Austrian National Day?” I then asked.
And then things got interesting.  And historical.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, Austria was occupied by the four Allied Powers (the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain and France), and divided, like Germany, into four zones.  It was a miserable time in Austrian history, what with most of its industry having been destroyed and having to foot the bill for the roughly quarter-million foreign Allied troops (the majority of whom were Soviet, and who were very interested in socializing the Austrian economy).  Starvation level rations were in effect until after the Marshall Plan was enacted, and Occupied Forces were still controlling the country a decade after the end of the war.
In 1955, the Austrian State Treaty was signed on May 15, 1955. The last Occupying soldier left Austria on October 25, and the next day, the first day of the Second Republic of Austria, was declared its first national holiday with the passing of its guarantee of permanent neutrality.  After a generation of losses and darkness, of being treated as the enemy and the victim by the western world, Austria had a nation, and it had a new sense of national pride. 
According to the website of the Austrian Foreign Ministry:
The Federal Government celebrates this day every year with a series of events in Vienna:
The Federal President and the Federal Minister for Defense attend a Mass on the Heldenplatz
The Federal President followed by the Federal Government lay wreaths at the tomb of the unknown soldier in the Crypt of the outer Burgtor
A festive meeting of the Council of Ministers is held
The government attends a Concert for Austria at the Vienna Staatsoper and finally the new recruits of the Austrian Armed Service are sworn in.
The citizens are offered the possibility to visit the federal museums for free.
Various institutions also traditionally open their doors for the day (ie. the Federal Chancellery).
Around the country so called "marches for fitness" are organized to raise awareness among the population about the benefits of exercise and fitness.
Around the world the Austrian Embassies celebrate the National Day with receptions for the Austrian citizens.
And can you guess the part that caught my eye—and what I spent the next hour clandestinely researching?
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies beside the Äußeres Burgtor (outer castle gates) of the Hufburg Palace in Vienna.  The wall itself was originally built to defend the city from the Turks during the siege of 1660, and was destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1809.  In honor of the 11th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, soldiers of the Austrian Army rebuilt the wall to commemorate the heroic actions of their comrades in defeating Napoleon.  Though my German isn’t good enough to find this out for a fact, I can only assume that it was because of its symbol as a soldier’s place of commemoration that this wall was chosen to shelter the Unknown Soldier nearly a century later. 
The first memorial of the Great War was placed on this wall in 1916, following a suggestion by the wife of an Imperial Chancellor named Flora Berl, who wanted to commemorate the soldiers of the Habsburg Monarchy with permanent laurel leaves, with funds raised by public subscription.  In creating this memorial, it was specified that these laurels should not be a wreath, which is traditionally laid on a grave, but “victors laurels”, and that they should be cast “from an allow that is not suitable for lethal projectiles”.  They were hung on the Äußeres Burgtor in 1916, with the inscription: "LAURUM MILITIBUS LAURO DIGNIS MDCCCCXVI (bay laurel worthy of the soldiers 1916)".  At that point in the war, there was a chance that those laurels might indeed be for victors.  But Austria lost one million men in September against the Russian Empire.  By the end of the year, German officials would be complaining that they were “shackled to a corpse” by having to fight alongside the rapidly deteriorating Austrian Army.  The 700-year-old Empire collapsed two weeks before the Armistice.
 (Britain’s Unknown Warrior was memorialized in 1920, the United States’ Unknown Soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1921, and Germany commemorated the Neue Wache in 1931).  When they did do it, though, I think their intent was really beautiful.
The outer gate was converted into a memorial place by Rudolf Wondracek.  He built two staircases on either side of the wall, leading to a “roofless hall of honor” on the top.  When asked why he refused to change the structure of the wall, even so much as adding a roof, Wondracek replied “The heroes of the war have fallen in the open air, they are to be honored under the open sky.”  Inside the gates is a crypt for the Fallen of the First World War, which houses a red marble effigy of a soldier crafted by one Wilhelm Frass.  At the soldier’s head is a small altar, and he is flanked by ten books with the names of the Austrian subjects who fell in the war.  The pages of the book are turned daily, so that every name is visible, and gets his place in the sun.

And here is where it gets even more interesting. Because this will be the first year that the traditional ceremony was not observed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  And the reason why is fascinating, and haunting.
So this Wilhelm Frass who designed the memorial deserves a little more attention.  He was an infantry officer during the War, returned to Vienna where he served as the President of the Austrian Art Association from 1934-1938.  His work received the Austrian State Prize in 1936, and from 1938 to 1945, he worked for the Department of Culture as sculpture consultant and as a supplier of busts.   Wilhelm Frass joined the Nazi Party sometime around 1933. 
Though he was ‘reintegrated’ after 1945, rumored swirled for a long time that Frass has left some kind of Nazi tribute within the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, based on a “treasonous” letter he wrote to a fellow artist.  Jewish and Pacifist organizations in Austria were vocal about the persistence of ceremonies that were held there, citing the fact that the statue was being used by Nazi supporters to commemorate the fall of the Third Reich as much as it was used to commemorate the dead whose names were on display.  But it wasn’t until July of this year that those rumors were investigated.  And they were confirmed. 

When Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos ordered the red marble statue carved by Wilhelm Frass lifted, a metal capsule was found implanted in the base.  Inside the capsule were two letters.
The first was written by Frass and dated April 8, 1935.  News reports I could find only quoted the letter in parts, but apparently Frass was writing in support of “the eternal strength of the German people”, and offers his hope, “May the Lord, after the horrors, after all the humiliation, end the unspeakable and sad killing between brothers and lead our noble people united under the banner of the black sun!  So, comrades, you will not fall in vain.”
(The black sun is a direct reference to the swastika)
It’s easy to be disgusted in reading this.  It’s easy, in hindsight to feel horror at the thought that a man who was charged with commemorating so many agonizing deaths and such an international trauma, could turn to the darkest force in modern memory for comfort.  But I see something indefinably tragic as well.  A misplaced hope.  The sheer despair of a man who had seen the depths of hell and thought he had found a way to save himself and his fellow soldiers.  I don’t condone Frass’ actions in anyway, but I can’t bring myself to despise him for that alone, either.
There was another letter found in the capsule.  It was signed by Alfons Riedel, who was one of Frass’ assistants in constructing the memorial.  Riedel was born in 1901, meaning that he saw the Great War from the sidelines, too young to serve until the war was nearly over.  But his letter shows a wisdom that surpassed his years—and a real hope amidst all the fear and desolation.  
As an employee of the dead warriors the experience of the Great War, with all its heroism and horror, has made a lasting impression on me as a teenager in the back country, and made me cherish the full knowledge of the fight of the German people for right to live and desire only that which was the desire of generations and unfortunately remains this:
"I hope that future generations will no longer place our nation in a position where they need to erect monuments to fallen soldiers who fall in violent clashes between nations."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Try to remember the kind of September...

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.
(Harvey Schmidt & Tom Jones)

 I hate this day.  Hate everything about it.  I hate people asking each other "where you were when it happened".  They always say "It".  And everyone knows precisely what "It" means.  As if "It" is a secret.  As if those who know "it" are part of an elite group.  Which in itself is ludicrous, because that day, of all days, I don't know anyone who didn't feel completely and utterly alone. Even surrounded, suffocated by people, the sights of that day, the sounds, and most of all the fear of that day, made everyone alone.  

I hate feeling that hollowness all over again.  It never really goes away, and it never really changes.  You just manage to shove it on a shelf in a dark corner of your consciousness for a while, but every year it gets taken out and aired out all over again.  I hate that every 11th of September seems to be sunny and peaceful, because no matter how lovely it is, no day will ever be as bright, as radiant, as splendid or as tranquil as it was on that day.  And no day will ever end as quietly.  A hushed, stale quiet that swallowed sound.

I hate that there are people alive today who don't have that same bruise on their memory.  That their world is nothing but a world after "It" happened, and all the darkness that came after "It" is normal.

But what I hate most is remembering how, for just a few days, we seemed, as a United entity, to get it right.  When everyone was brought low enough to see eye to eye.  When people showed up with buckets and blankets to help repair and restore.  When strangers shared trains and rental cars and stories and email addresses as they tried to get home to their families, or to make their way to other people's families who needed their help more.  People were human.  And they had the courage to  see the humanity in others.  And they had to strength to reach out their hands in friendship.

And from that moment....we arrive at today.  And the headlines full of prejudice and anger and division.  People who wish for nothing more than to limit the rights and lives of others.  People who prevent, who destroy.  People who let that hollow, alone feeling consume them and isolate them.   Who stand near wreaths and bow their heads and then go home.  Who don't build anything.  Who don't restore anything.  Who vow "never to forget", but never bother to remember anything but the fear, not the hope or the humanity that was there, as well.

I remember the men and women who willingly gave their time, their earnings and their lives for the sake of strangers.  I remember rescue workers who lay in the rubble so their search-and-rescue dogs wouldn't be discouraged.  I remember boat owners and ferry captains who came without a second thought to help people they had never met get to safety.  I remember driving home and seeing candles light the streets, making light in the middle of the darkness.  I remember when we could all watch things like this an empathize without criticism.  I remember where there was a "We" to discuss.

I remember the kindness in the midst of the rubble; when it wasn't about retaliation or preemptive prevention or rhetoric and anger.   I remember the darkness, but I want to remember those moments of light.  And the saddest thing, the thing I hate the most, is that it seems the lights having been going out for eleven steady years.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ranting on Romance...

Ok, so I have a confession.  I review romance novels.  I get paid to review romance novels.  And I love doing it, though Heaven help the author who makes any historically inaccurate comments.  I like to challenge myself, and have recently decided that I need to read more contemporary romances.  Just because.  It’s not fair to say you don’t like to read them if you’ve never read them, right?
So I now have a really good reason why I don’t like contemporary romances.

          When did the socially normative heroine become an annoying doormat?
          In 6 out of the 7 books I have read for review in the past two weeks (we're going to stay in the realm of the generic here), every single heroine, without exception,

1)    Has a body mass index higher than a Victoria’s Secret model
2)    Has a self-image that would make a 15-year-old girl look sane and rationale
3)    Has co-dependent tendencies that would make Freud chortle with glee
4)    Is incapable of judging their heroic counterparts in a logical manner because they (and this one is my favorite)
5)     Believe themselves to be unworthy and/or incapable of love.
(This is often coupled with some major parental and financial issues, about which more, perhaps, later)

Until, that is, they stumble (quite literally, in most cases) into The World’s Richest And Also Most Attractive Man.  A God Among Men.  The Most Beautiful Man on the Planet.  A man whose attention is as awesome an event as “touching the sun” (here’s looking at you, Ms. James).  A man who could never condescend to look at, much less care for, a lowly, hideous commoner like them.
                Look, I know we’re dealing in the realm of fiction here, and wish-fulfillment fiction at that.  And I’m not saying there isn’t a little part of my psyche that wouldn’t mind being in that scene where Richard Gere comes barreling up the boulevard in a limo that is screeching opera music because he simply can’t live without his lady love (though in my head, it’s usually Liam Neeson or Jeremy Irons, but whatever…).  But there are two enormous problems I have with this trope.

1)      Cinderella was so 1697.
And she at least had the good sense not to spend fifty pages obsessing over her dress size when the mice put it on her.  But today, we find heroines not only despising their own bodies, but believing that others will do the same. 
All these poor ladies, all of them, find their first glimpse of self-esteem in the approval of their menfolk.  Until they once again remind themselves that the possibility of their genuine attractiveness or equality is but a momentary delusion and promptly recall their inherent unworthiness/hideousness.  Love (they said it, not me)  blossoms because, naturally, these walking Adonii know inherently that our heroines are smart and funny and sexy, blah, blah blah, and make it their goal to "make her feel beautiful/sexy/loved".  And usually, they accomplish their goal by pointing out the heroine’s stupidity, irrationality or sightlessness in terms of her own worth (because calling someone an idiot is always the first step in earning someone's affections and build up their self-worth).  In doing this, the men are able to open the eyes of these heroines to their self worth by accepting their man’s viewpoint.
          Not to overlook the fact that these women are, by and large, lower-middle to the margins of the upper-upper classes, and are usually assistants or junior partners, who are being “spoiled” (apt word, that) by their ridiculously, unbelievably rich menfolk.  And, all 6 of the heroines in question, after some flustered refusals, always end up accepting the man’s “generosity”, as well as his opinion.
                What, precisely, are we meant to think about our gender roles, per these (wildly popular, might I remind you) tomes?  That structurally perfect people are the ones who deserve love?  That, in order to be loved, one must “overlook” your inherent flaws?  That woman are financially… Unambitious? 
                  Or, perhaps even worse, that a woman’s self-respect lies in the good opinion of a man?  A perfect, rich, suave, usually manipulative, alpha male at that?  That they are unqualified or too cowardly (or too emotional) to get on the same career track as their heroes?
The urge to write long, declarative statements about my feelings, with a large handful of exclamation points included, is nearly overwhelming.

2)      Am I supposed to sympathize with these women? 
If so, there is something fundamentally, critically, irrevocably wrong with me (and there ain’t a man in the world to fix it.  Damn!)  Because I haven’t the slightest interest being manipulated.  Or fed and dressed by someone else.  Or spending time with people who make me question my self-worth. 
                When did this kind of heroine become the trope by which we are measured?  Because if this is how the ‘modern woman’ is portrayed (largely by other women, which is even more worrying), then we have some pretty big issues.
                The women I’ve always associated with are the kind like Jo March, who had her issues and her moments of self-doubt, but they were almost always focused on her character, and on earning the respect of people who she respected.  Not to mention the fact that she “preferred imaginary heroes to real ones, because when tired of them, the former could be shut up in the tin kitchen till called for, and the latter were less manageable.”  When she married, it was to a man who made her the best version of herself she could be, not one on whom she was dependent for emotional support.
            Or Jane Eyre, who, when faced with behavior on a level very similar alphas of this decade, responds as his equal, not by any stretch believing herself to unworthy of his love or respect.

            “Jane, you understand what I want of you?  Just this promise—‘I will be yours, Mr. Rochester.’”
“Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours.”
Another long silence.
“Jane!” recommenced he… and turned me stone-cold with ominous terror—for this still voice was the pant of a lion rising—“Jane, do you mean to go one way in the world, and to let me go another?”
“I do.”
“Jane” (bending towards and embracing me), “do you mean it now?”
“I do.”
“And now?” softly kissing my forehead and cheek.
“I do,” extricating myself from restraint rapidly and completely.
“Oh, Jane, this is bitter!  This—this is wicked…Then you will not yield?”
And, of course, there is always my beloved Mina, who eats when she is hungry, marches barefoot across town and up 199 steps to save her friend from a vampire, teaches school, reads her husband’s law books (with the implication that she has at least a good as grasp as him, if not better), and, in the end, is the one with the courage to march off to whatever wild outpost she must (wielding the only gun, by the way) in order to save the world and her own immortal soul.
So where have all the heroines gone?  The real ones, who are content by themselves and confident in their own worth and goodness?  I realize that this is a romance novel we’re discussing, but none of these women are learning to stand on their own two feet.  They are overcoming their issues by finding someone who will validate their feelings.
What are we really saying, or accepting in our own society if this is the kind of characters that women write for other women?  That these feelings are alright?  That your place really is at the side of a big intimidating Alpha?  And what does it say about us that the women in the corsets, with no right to property or to vote, have a better sense of their own self-worth than their great-granddaughters?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Spare Change

Spare Change News began in 1992 with the mission "to present, by our own example, that homeless and economically disadvantaged people, with the proper resources, empowerment, opportunity, and encouragement are capable of creating change for ourselves in society." The paper employs roughly 100 vendors, who sell the papers throughout Boston and Cambridge, as well as numerous others who contribute to its articles, editorials and fiction sections.  When I worked in Cambridge, I ended up walking past a one of the Spare Change vendors on my way to lunch and the T. 
He was a big guy, not fat, but tall and broad.  Being a head taller than the crown around him made him easy to spot, along with a rumbling, Baptist-preacher-voice that could be heard a block away.  He was always smiling, always solicitous, and told me I had a lovely smile, so clearly, we were fast friends.
One afternoon in early summer, I was bustling through Harvard Square, stomach rumbling for lunch,  when I heard this Vendor’s voice advertising his newspaper.  His normal banter broke off when he caught the eye of a kid with a backpack coming up the street from the T.  This kid was thin and pale, wearing a t-shirt that was washed thin and a faint gray-yellow from too much wear and washing.  His backpack was green, he needed a shave and a haircut, and I was fairly sure he was younger than I.
“You got a place to sleep?” The Vendor asked, giving the kid a hard stare.  His response was too quiet for me to make out, but I saw the Vendor nod.  “You  eaten today?”
The kid shook his head.  I was close enough now to see the shadows under his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks.
“My sandwich is over there.  Under the railing.”  The Vendor pointed to an Au Bon Pain container that was tucked behind his own backpack about three feet away.  “It’s yours, now.  You take care of yourself.”
I just stood there and stared while the kid nodded mute, wide-eyed thanks, collected the box and loped off on skinny, sun-burnt legs.  The Vendor picked up his call right where he left off, complimenting a lady on her hat or shoes as she bustled down the sidewalk.

                This morning, as I took my copy of the Metro from the man at the top of the escalator at North Station, I heard the local Spare Change Vendor calling from the bottom.  He hadn’t been around all week, so I stayed to the left of the umbrellaed, high-heeled masses in order to stop and chat. 
                He’s an older gentleman, with the little white hair left around the crown of his head usually covered in a baseball cap.  I don’t know where he sleeps, but he always has a small suitcase on wheels where he stashed back-issues for when he sells out.  We have a brief weekly chat, usually about the weather or baseball, but just as often about politics or how everyone walking past seems to be in a terrible hurry and not too pleased about it.
                “How are you this morning?”  I asked, wrestling my wallet out from underneath my book.
                “"I'm doing great.” He answered, folding a paper for me.  “I'm looking for the miraculous in life."

Well, then.  Why not?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bridget's Complaint: An Overzealous Historian Takes on Sadie Hawkins Day

When I was younger, my Grandfather would always call on Leap Day to wish me a Happy Sadie Hawkins Day. I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, but after a Saved By The Bell episode featured a Sadie Hawkins Day Dance, I figured this was an actual holiday and not, say, that holiday that my family celebrates in March known as “Rake Day”, when all good children are given a rake and sent to the backyard to prepare the ground for spring (I was a very gullible child).

However, I always had it in my head that this Sadie Hawkins character was a noble suffragette, an advocate for woman’s equality, or perhaps an adventurer like Amelia Earhart, or a somewhat talented, multifaceted eccentric like Julia Child. So when someone told me that on Sadie Hawkins Day, women were allowed to ask men whatever they wanted, I was fairly sure it was a day of retribution, or at least a day of emancipation, even if it was obviously instituted by a man, since it only occurs once every four years…

So this morning, as I was leaving the gym, someone bade someone else a Happy Sadie Hawkins Day, and I thought to myself that it was high time I know just who this Sadie Hawkins lady was, and what it was she had done to earn her a quadrennial day of recognition. Thus, when I got to work, I embraced the twenty-first century and ‘Googled’ Sadie Hawkins (which sounds far more inappropriate than the action warrants). And this is what I find:

Sadie Hawkins Day: An American folk event, made its debut in Al Capp's Li'l Abner strip November 15, 1937. Sadie Hawkins was "the homeliest gal in the hills" who grew tired of waiting for the fellows to come a courtin'. Her father, Hekzebiah Hawkins, a prominent resident of Dogpatch, was even more worried about Sadie living at home for the rest of his life, so he decreed the first annual Sadie Hawkins Day, a foot race in which the unmarried gals pursued the town's bachelors, with matrimony the consequence. By the late 1930's the event had swept the nation and had a life of its own. Life magazine reported over 200 colleges holding Sadie Hawkins Day events in 1939, only two years after its inception. It became a woman empowering rite at high schools and college campuses, long before the modern feminist movement gained prominence. The basis of Sadie Hawkins Day is that women and girls take the initiative in inviting the man or boy of their choice out on a date, typically to a dance attended by other bachelors and their aggressive dates. When Al Capp created the event, it was not his intention to have the event occur annually on a specific date because it inhibited his freewheeling plotting. However, due to its enormous popularity and the numerous fan letters Capp received, the event became an annual event in the strip during the month of November, lasting four decades.[i]

Now, leave us to consider this a moment. First, Sadie Hawkins is no vigilante feminist. She is no six-foot cook, no socialite pilot. Indeed, it would appear her only talent is a gravity-defying braid and the ability to repel any mammal with a Y Chromosome. Also, she apparently has an eggplant for a nose and is that a beard?! And, according to tradition, Sadie Hawkins Day is not a celebration of women’s equality or, dare I propose it, superiority, it is a day when all single females are encouraged to, quite literally, chase after a man? How, exactly, one wonders, is this ‘emancipation’? Wouldn’t ‘emancipation’ involve running away from the men? Or, perhaps by giving said women sticks with which to chase the men (or fend off the chasing men, come to that)?

I feel cheated, and I’m not entirely sure why. In every conceivable reality, I would be inviting Miss Hawkins in, offering her tea and a bracing pep-talk about the benefits of not having to share the remote control, or watch Conan the Barbarian because…just because. Dammit. But today, I’m really quite aggravated that I didn’t know I was permitted by society, nay! That I was encouraged to go around chasing people! Well, men. And frankly, unless someone resuscitates Leslie Howard and sets him to wandering around Copley Square, there aren’t too many men at whom I’m going to be sprinting anytime soon (what does Tallulah Bankhead have that I don’t?). But still. The fact that I can is pretty exciting. Also this shows why Al Capp insisted that such a day only occur every four years. I’ve only know about this holiday in any real sense for about 10 hours, and the power is already going to my head.

And imagine my joy, my unalloyed delight when I read that Sadie Hawkins Day actually has roots in a much older tradition from Ireland. In that fair land on February the 29th, woman are allowed to propose to men, giving birth to the tradition of woman being permitted to run riot for one day…every four years. And do you know the name of this tradition?

St. Bridget’s Complaint. Naturally.

It is believed this tradition was started in 5th century Ireland when St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait for so long for a man to propose. According to legend, St. Patrick said the yearning females could propose on this one day in February during the leap year.[ii]

All of which is awesome until you realize that, in the English legal calendar, February 29 had no legal status, and therefore, no contracts or agreements made on this day were considered real or binding. Cute, St.Pat. Real cute. Do you really want to demean a lady who can turn her bath water into beer? I didn’t think so.

The point, however, is that, despite my utter confusion over this Sadie Hawkins Day business, the simple historic fact of the matter is that Al Capp was simply modifying (and masculinizing) a tradition hat had been around for centuries, was originally (in some form) created by a woman who was fed up with the way things were. And who was named Bridget. Therefore, February 29 is officially an awesome day in my book.

Note: In order to save you some trouble, I wanted to let you know that Starbucks does not honor Sadie Hawkins Day In spirit or actuality. I had to pay for my macchiato. Also, apparently a proper understanding of this day needs to be foster among the general populace. Men disembarking from an MBTA bus apparently don’t appreciate being charged in public and asked to dance. Sorry, Mr. Blue Suit. Your loss.

Remind me next Sadie Hawkins Day to bring a stick.

[ii] http://marriage.about.com/cs/holidays/a/leapyear.html