Tag Archives: history

“objects have lives. they are witness to things.”

There’s an episode of This American Life that I’ve listened to three times now. It originally aired in 2001, but the first time I heard it was as I was driving to meet friends for dinner, probably in 2012. I was so engrossed by the story that I sat in my car in the restaurant’s parking lot to finish listening. I was 20 minutes late to dinner.

The episode is called “The House on Loon Lake,” narrated and reported by Adam Beckman. When Adam was a kid, he broke into an abandoned house in the small town of Freedom, New Hampshire. The house was filled with things, objects, treasures. Somebody had left all of this behind. In the story, Adam returns to Freedom as an adult to find out what happened to the family.

nason

Photo from This American Life

The story kept me glued for several reasons. I love a good mystery story, for one. I could also relate to Adam’s mischief. When I was a kid, maybe ten years old, I also broke into an abandoned house with a friend at the end of our street. We called it a mansion — it really wasn’t a mansion, but for the town of Mountain Grove, it sure seemed like one. (The median income for a household is $21,131, and 28.2 percent of Mountain Grovians live under the poverty line, which is twice the national average.)

Given its stature — why would the richest family in the town abandon their house like that? — the house was ripe for mystery and rumor, especially for a fourth-grade girl with a wild imagination. There wasn’t much inside the house, except a grand piano. The pool had been emptied of chlorinated water, but standing water from rain had reached maybe a foot. Leaves floated in the water. It was, for lack of a better word, gross.

nason2

Photo from This American Life

But I digress. There’s one passage that causes me to pause the episode so that I can sit in silence and mull over its meaning. I’ll leave you with it, an exchange between Adam and his mother.

Adam Beckman: When my great grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they’d left furniture, paintings, letters, all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn’t bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.

Adam’s Mother: And here’s a spoon. It’s all very melancholy, all these little remnants.

Adam Beckman: Why is it melancholy?

Adam’s Mother: The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.

 

Objects have lives. They are witness to things.

 

Advertisements

rambling from my journal in hungary: les jours tristes/szomorú nap/smutne dni

Art museums are some of my favorite places. I like staring at pieces of art that tell a story about a certain time and place in history, and I like filling in the blanks with my own ideas.

In Kansas City, I’m always within twenty minutes of  the Nelson-Atkins. That museum’s gallery of American paintings is something else. So much Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, those capturers of the middle-American spirit. They were Missourians, so it’s appropriate that those paintings of small-town Missouri politicians soliciting local shop owners in suspenders are gathered in the state’s museums. And it’s great! I love those paintings, I love those stories.

But I don’t identify with them. They tell me nothing about my own history or even my own culture. First-generation American, watching other museum-goers muse over their great-great-great grandparents. So what, I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life? I still don’t recognize Missouri as my Home-with-a-capital-“H.” Those paintings are foreign to me, to my place in time, to my history, to my family.

I prefer going to art museums in Eastern Europe, like the National Hungarian Art Gallery I visited in the Buda hills of Budapest. The photos of those peasants — tending to sheep and picking flowers in the fields — that’s my history. I come from some of world’s the poorest people. When my grandfather was a child, his parents were too destitute to care for him. So, he went to live with his uncle. His uncle gave him chores, and one of them was to let the cows out during freezing morning hours. Nagypapa (Grandfather) couldn’t afford shoes as a little kid. So he’d go out barefoot in the frosted fields. And he’d step in cow shit to keep his feet warm.

My dad told me this story on the car ride back to Izsak from Budapest, and I crinkled my nose in disgust. Visceral reaction: “ew, ew, ew.” But that’s where I come from. The child of immigrants. Poorest of the poor. Half-Hungarian, half-Polish. One hundred percent Eastern European. Adopted, engulfed, eaten up by the States. That’s temporary, I hope.

But the art I saw in that National Hungarian Gallery, of the peasants in the countryside from the turn of the century — sure, maybe that’s the first time I saw those paintings. But that’s my story. Those are my great-great-(great)-grandparents. And I felt a familiarity with those subjects, you know?

“Biro elott” (“Before the Judge”), Bihari Sandor. 1886.


I’ve always been conscious of class struggle, mainly because my family has been desperately poor for the better part of history. People say, “You’re so lucky!” when I tell them that I’m visiting Hungary. “How cool!”
How do I tell them that my savings account is more-or-less depleted? This is not a vacation. I came for my grandmother, because at 84 years old, she’s dying of cancer. The medication is dulling her brain. She thinks she’s 15 years old, and she’s convinced that my dad (her son) is her older brother. She’s helpless. I’m helpless. All I can do is watch her waste away as her brain slows down. The cancer sped up the process, but her anxiety has been killing her for years. It scares me like hell.

IMG_0458

pierogi in greenpoint

It’s Dec. 27, 2014, which is almost 2015, and I’m ready for it. 

I carved out a bit of time in my break for filling out internship applications, and instead I’m sitting next to a pile of Hershey’s Kisses wrappers with my dog at my feet and I’m blogging instead. Go figure. 

I don’t like to forget things, but I often do. That’s why I try to scribble my thoughts down whenever I can. Even if it’s not well-written, or if it’s one giant rambling mess, at least it’s been recorded. So I’ve decided to share a memory from 2014. Read if you want to, or not.

Let’s start with New York.

Two days after I arrived, I decided to skip out early on the mixer for the business journalism conference I was attending. I was ready for dinner, and after reading novels and stories and blog posts about New York, I knew exactly where to go: Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

Greenpoint is one of the few Polish neighborhoods in the States, and I was eager to eat authentic pierogi. Roll your eyes at me if you must, but America is full of sickening pierogi imitations. It had been two and a half years since I had last visited my grandmother in Poland, so two and a half years since I had tasted real-life, actual, laboriously hand-made, cheese-and-potato peasant pierogi.

Thank you, God, for smartphones, I thought as I found my way to the G-Train. I was still dressed in the outfit I had planned for my New York Stock Exchange visit earlier that day, complete with a pencil skirt, blazer and oversized black heels. When I got off at the subway at Nassau Avenue as dusk fell darker and darker into night, I felt completely out of place.

Just walk around like you used to in London. I thought. You’ll find a place to eat, easy peasy. 

Except for a few things. I knew London fairly well. This was the first time I had ever set foot in Brooklyn. I was surprised to see that the streets were almost completely deserted. I saw a few mothers with strollers head inside their brownstone homes. Gentrification had taken over the Greenpoint of my imagination. Silly.

I walked into the first restaurant that I saw. It was a narrow place decorated with Polish memorabilia  with a bar up front and booths in the back. The bartenders and waiters were dressed in traditional Polish costumes, and although I’ve never been crazy about cheesy tourist vibes, I was too comfortable in the heated restaurant to consider walking back out in the cold. So, I sat down at the bar, ordered a bottle of Tyskie–my uncle’s favorite beer, which has an okay taste, not great, but I didn’t know of any other Polish beer–and opened the day’s Wall Street Journal so that I wouldn’t be bothered.

Wishful thinking.

Not ten minutes later, I received a glass of red wine.

“From the man sitting behind you,” the bartender told me in Polish.

A few things you should know about me before we move forward: I’m 23 years old, and I’m small. Five feet tall on a good day. I’m the sort of person that grandmothers look at and ask, “Well aren’t you terrified to be out in the city on your own?” And the truth is, maybe I should be, and sometimes I am, but I often feel at my most comfortable when I’m on my own and exploring. That is, until I get unwanted attention from men. Like, for instance, the 60-something year old man who was eyeing me and who had apparently sent me that glass of wine. Oh God. 

This was the first time I had been to a bar on my own, and it also happened to be my first time in New York. I had no idea what proper protocol was for this situation, so I smiled at the old man politely and took a sip of the wine. He then came over to sit next to me. I felt terribly awkward and was totally sober. I was going to have to sip on the wine a lot faster.

“Cześć,” he said.

“Dobry wieczór,” I replied with a formal “Good evening.”

Then he got real personal, real fast. He told me his name, and the fact that he hadn’t been to Poland for thirty years, but he was going to go back in a couple of weeks because he had cancer and that’s why he couldn’t drink alcohol, you see, and it was a terminal illness and that’s why he wanted to die in the country where he was born and grew up.

I felt bad for him for a moment. And then he said, “That’s why you must live in the moment, you know, and live without regrets.”

I’ve been hit on by enough slimy men to know exactly what that meant. So I breathed a sigh of relief when my pierogi–my gorgeous, delicious, authentic piegori!–were placed in front of me.

“Ah, I’ll leave you to your food,” the man said. “It was lovely meeting you.”

Saved by pierogi!

Except not.

I was just about to pay the check when he came back over. He had a beer in his hand.  The wine and beer had gone to my head a little bit, but for not being able to drink alcohol, this man now appeared flat-out drunk.

“You look so young, you know? Like no older than 19,” he said.

Whoomp, there it is. I assured him that I was 23 and spit out that memorized joke about how lucky I would feel in ten years. But he didn’t laugh politely as everyone else did. Instead, he asked where I was staying.

“I’m all the way in New Jersey,” I said. I got out my phone and began to draft a text to my friend Kouichi. Hey, we need to meet up.

“New Jersey? Cholera. That’s not New York. Come with me, I’ll show you around in my car,” he said.

“Oh, no, I–”

“Why not? Live in the moment, Kasia! This is New York City!”

He was leaning in closer to me, reeking of beer. I implored Kouichi to text me back, hoping that he would connect with me on some trans-city brainwave.

My phone buzzed. Yeah, let’s meet up! I’m in Times Square. Where are you?

“Actually, my friend–he knows New York well–he was going to show me around. He’s in Times Square, so I better leave–” I was thankful for Kouichi, but scrambling for words.

“I can take you there!” the man insisted.

“No, that’s all right. I’d rather just take the subway…”

“Well at least take my number.”

Now, that I could deal with. And that’s how I ended up with “Tomek Brooklyn” in my contacts.

The pierogi, by the way, were totally worth it.

vote baby vote!

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

In journalism school, we like to talk a lot about reporters’ role in a democracy. Inform the public of affairs! Power to the people! Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!

Too bad there’s a lot of pre-election reporting that falls into the so-called Horse Race; rather than covering the issues, journalists pick up on the minute details of a politician’s behavior, or unflattering fashion choice, or accidental speech flub. When paired with the negative campaign ads that saturate the t.v., is it any wonder that voters get turned off from politics?

In fact, on Tuesday, only one-third of Missourians are expected to go out and vote.

Perhaps our election coverage should cover voting itself. We’ve come a long way since the new American nation considered land-owning white men as the only people worthy of voting. It’s important to remember that women and minorities had to fight for their right to vote.  It’s also important to remember that laws continuing to disenfranchise minorities still exist.

I know that the upcoming elections are only the mid-terms. Maybe it’s not glamorous or exciting to vote on state amendments or local ballot issues, but they have direct implications for you. You’ve got a day left–that’s plenty of time to get educated about your state, district or town. (If you’re in Missouri, by the way, here’s a good place to get yourself up to speed.)

So in the end, it’s up to you. Power to the people! Go and vote!

railroads, highways, and stories of self

These stories that we tell about ourselves, they’re almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to, but once they’re in place, this whole inner landscape grows around them. So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least conscious of it. Because once you’ve told it, once you’ve built the highway, it’s just very hard to move it. Even if the story is about an angel who came out of nowhere and saved your life; even then, not even the angel herself can change it.

This week’s rerun This American Life ended with this vignette, written by Michael Lewis. The episode’s title, “How I Got Into College,” is a bit deceptive in light of the story told by Lewis. He interviewed Emir Kamenica, a man who came to America as a Bosnian refugee in high school. In his brand new American English class, Kamenica plagiarized an essay from a book he’d stolen in Bosnia. His student teacher was utterly unaware of his cheating, and she was so impressed with his essay that she got him into a private school on full scholarship. Kamenica later went on to Harvard and is now a faculty member at the University of Chicago. The episode of This American Life hired a private investigator to track down the elusive student teacher/possible angel. It’s a fantastic story, and I encourage you to listen to it the next time you’re scrubbing the bathtub and in need of a serious happiness pick-me-up

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Swoon. Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Not to advocate smoking, but swoon, right? Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

It certainly stuck with me; I haven’t been able to shake this metaphor on the infrastructure of personal stories since I heard it on Sunday. 

Lewis digs into the notion that we create ourselves based on how we tell our own histories. This cognitive railroad is the dominant understanding of who we are, and perhaps more importantly, how we came to be. Take this part of the episode:

There was no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself, but I think there’s a not-so-obvious one. When you insist the way Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you? It’s just very different than if you tell yourself that you deserve all the stuff that happens to you—because you happened to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard. That way of telling your story, well that’s what you hear from every miserable bond trader at Goldman Sachs, or for that matter, every other a-hole who ever walked the Earth.

Is Lewis suggesting that happiness is simply a choice? Well, consider his earlier language. He compares our personal stories to infrastructure–a complex system that takes years to build, and then signifies a sort of cohesion, a means of letting the rest of society to run smoothly. Once infrastructure is built, it’s so tightly fixed that to completely uproot it is to uproot society.

Our personal histories are similar, I think. How we render ourselves, the cognitive reinforcement of repeating a memory from one frame: this creates a personal infrastructure that cannot merely been restructured by waking up one morning and thinking, “La dee da–I’m going to be happy today!” That inner landscape that grows around the railroads and highways is comparable to how we see the world and, furthermore, how we digest and react to its events. Once that landscape grows thicker and the roots deepen, it becomes even more difficult to reframe whatever history we’ve created for ourselves.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image, I think. Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image.  Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

Lewis’ piece examined composing personal infrastructure on an individual, psychological level, but his metaphor can be expanded to a much broader level. After all, what are the stories we tell ourselves but histories? And histories (no, not a single history) should be understood on a pluralistic level, taking into account perspectives beyond a dominant narrative. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” Sure, and as Howard Zinn would tell you, the native peoples have their own story to tell about his arrival in the Americas, too.

In terms of our modern world, one might say that the all-encompassing “Media” has a dominant narrative of culture and society stuck in its hammerlock. Of course, the word media itself suggests a plurality of way to tell stories, which already complicates this idea. In the world of news media, journalists are active in creating and framing every article that they write, every piece that they produce. Who they choose to interview, what questions they choose to ask, what quotes they choose to include–all of these factors are directly influenced by their own biases, the infrastructures set in place by their personal histories. And get this: based on their railroads, they put another bolt in the track for those who read their stories. 

The point? Reporters should, at the very least, be aware of their inner infrastructure, even if they can’t put it under construction. Especially as this summer of discontent ends, marked by shells between Gaza and Israel, ISIS’ mass killings in Iraq, ethnic tension in Eastern Europe resulting in a fatal plane crash in Ukraine, and the shooting an unarmed black teenager right here in Missouri, it becomes more and more obvious that these personal infrastructures have consequences on a global scale.

thoughts on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the invasion of poland

September 1, 1939: Seventy-five years ago today, when my grandparents were twelve years old, Adolf Hitler invaded their country.

My grandparents lived in a village near Lwow in the eastern part of Poland.  Dziadziu (my grandpa) had been in love with Babcia (my grandma) since kindergarden, and, according to stories from my mother, his preferred courting technique was throwing rocks and frogs at her. This method of romance somehow worked, obviously, but I digress. The Nazi invasion rudely interrupted their childhoods.

Map from The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/6080985/World-War-2-Poland-resists-invasion-on-three-frontiers.html), only slightly altered by my incredible editing skills to show you where my grandparents are from.

Map from The Telegraph, only slightly altered by my incredible editing skills to show you where my grandparents grew up.

Dziadziu was too young join the army, but by the time when he was 15, German soldiers began forcing him to help them with odd jobs like unloading Nazi train wagons.

Soviets parading through the streets of Lwow in 1939, before the Nazis took over this part of Poland. Photo Credit.

Soviets parading through the streets of Lwow in 1939, before the Nazis took over this part of Poland. Photo Credit.

Much of the violence inflicted on the Poles in the eastern part of the country was actually imposed by militant Ukranian nationalists with the support of the Nazis. One of Babcia’s sisters had a mother-in-law who was killed by the massacres imposed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists when they burned down her house. She was not the only one. An estimated 70,000 Polish women, children and unarmed men were killed in an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1943 led by Ukrainian Stepan Bandera.

After the war, Poland’s borders were redrawn and my grandparents’ families were forced to leave their home. They left almost everything they owned in their village, stuffed their livestock into train wagons, and actually sat on top of the trains into their uncertain futures. My great-grandfather packed up his belongings into his own wagon. I’ve never met him, but I can’t help but picture him as Tevye singing “Anatevka” at Fiddler on the Roof’s end, pulling a wagon filled with a pot, a pan, a hat, a broom. They had no idea where they were going; authorities dictated where they would stop.

My grandparents’ families stuck together, and they were kicked off the train at a town called Olesno in Silesia, the western part of Poland that was occupied by Germany only a few months before. Ethnic Germans had heard horror stories of incoming Soviet soldiers, killing men and raping women, and most had run away from the area before my grandparents arrived. So, Polish women arriving from Lwow camped out in ditches as men scoured the area for abandoned homes.

Another very impressive display of image editing. The route my grandparents took from Lwow, and where they ended up. Image Credit: Biega.

Another very impressive example of my image editing skills. The route my grandparents took from Lwow, and where they ended up. Image Credit: Biega.

Babcia first lived in a nice brick house, but as it happens, the German family who had run away later returned and reclaimed their house.  That’s how my grandparents’ families ended up living together with a few other elderly couples in a large house on the border a tiny village called Lasowice Wielkie. My grandparents married in November 1948 and continued to live in the meadow house. This is also where my mother was born in the 1960s, and where she lived for the first twenty-some years of her life.

Babcia and Dziadzu's home on the meadow. My mother's home, too, in Lasowice Wieklie.

Babcia and Dziadzu’s home on the meadow. My mother’s home, too, in Lasowice Wieklie. Photo credit: one of my sisters, probably.

Since I’ve come to grad school, I’ve been asked “where are you from?” almost as many times as “Wait–did you say your name is Tasha?” The question always gives me pause. I’ve lived in many towns and cities, but one of the two places with any consistency in my life is this house in Lasowice Wielkie (the other is my Hungarian grandparents’ home in Izsak–more on this in another post, I’m sure).  It’s strange to think that this place that signifies stability in my life also signifies uncertainty and usurping for the generation just before my mother’s.

I come from a family of displaced peoples, people who became refugees in their own land, products of violence from ethnic tension that has dominated Eastern Europe for the better part of known history. If you’ve been paying attention to the news beyond U.S. borders, you may have noticed that echoes of history are becoming louder and louder. If you haven’t heard, it’s time to start listening.

a woman who writes has power

Today is March 31st, and Women’s History Month is waning. Here’s the fun thing about women, though: our contributions to society are not limited to a 31-day time period. I know. Shocker.

With that radical reasoning in mind, I’ve compiled a list of five* of my favorite women writers from American history and today. Feel free to enjoy their poetry, stories, and novels in April. Or May. The summer months, too. Hey, if you’re feeling ambitious, try all year round.

Phillis Wheatley

Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley might be the most important person in American literary history, which is probably why she is never mentioned in public schools. Wheatley was the first-ever African American published poet and the second published woman in America, right after Anne Bradstreet. I might have forgotten to mention: she was born in Africa and sold into slavery at seven years old. A couple of other notable facts: she published her first poem in a newspaper when she was only twelve and her first book at age eighteen. Oh yeah, after she wrote a poem in support of George Washington, he invited her to his home so that he could personally thank her. No biggie.

All this from a teenager who was named after the inhumane ship that took her across the Atlantic and turned her into property.

Flannery O’Connor

O'Connor

Let’s skip forward to the 20th century (sorry, Dickinson and Alcott). I first read Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in a class I took my first semester of college called “God, Sex, and Violence in American Literature,” after which I decided to study English. O’Connor suffered from lupus and passed away when she was only 39 years old, but she spent her life writing some of the wittiest prose on the grotesque I’ve ever read. She once wrote in a letter, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”

She was also really into peacocks.

Anne Sexton

Sexton

Ask me what my favorite poem is, and I’ll answer without hesitation. It’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Anne Sexton version. Here’s an excerpt:

Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother,
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.

You can read the rest of the poem here, but I suggest picking up a volume of her collected works. Sexton’s reimagined fairy tales are only a few of her gems. Like her friend Sylvia Plath, she’s well known for writing her confessional poetry during a time when women who challenged the idea of the housewife were considered total nut jobs  Also like Plath, Sexton committed suicide; she dressed herself in her mother’s coat and took off her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, and locked herself in her garage, killing herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. She was in and out of mental institutes for her entire life, but her writings on her private life are actually fairly representative of many woman who felt trapped in their prescribed gender roles and later embraced second-wave feminism.

Karen Tei Yamashita

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, contemporary writers. I read Yamashita’s novel The Tropic of Cancer in my capstone on global literature during my senior year. This book is the literary embodiment of post-modernism. Instead of a table of contents, it has a grid outlining which parts of the book are written from which character’s perspective, and potentially, you could read it in any order.  Yamashita is Japanese-American, born in California, and The Tropic of Orange is set in a Los Angeles that isn’t white washed with so-called “beautiful people.” Her characters are Hispanic, Asian-American, black, poor, rich, and all in the throes of magical realism. It’s a book that’s as entertaining and nuanced as it is socially aware, and it doesn’t romanticize multiculturalism for the sake of self-righteousness.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Achidie

If you’ve listened to Beyoncé’s song ***Flawless, then you’ve heard Adichie’s voice.  Beyoncé actually samples a TED talk given by Adichie titled We Should All Be Feminists. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” she says. “We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.'” Adichie is not technically American, as she was born in Nigeria, but I’m including her on the list anyway. I’m about to finish her novel published last year called Americanah, written about race relations in the States from the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant to comes to Philadelphia for university. The book is brilliant, and I plan to write about it as soon as I’ve had time to process it. Immigrants like Adichie are the new Great American Authors.

Remember. “A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” – Gloria Anzaldúa

*A difficult list to narrow down, obviously. Perhaps this would be better phrased as “five women writers who I’ve been reading a lot of lately but sometimes you’re just strapped for time.”