How do we value

The artistry of this

Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Copyright to Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (Paris), 2004, Concerto Köln; Susanna: Rosemary Joshua, Cherubino: Angelika Kirchschlager, Conductor: René Jacobs

Over this

Copyright to Lin Manuel Miranda and the cast and crew of Hamilton (2015); Burr: Leslie Odom, Jr., Lafayette: (The) Daveed Diggs, Washington: Christopher Jackson

Or this

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (originally produced 1879/1880). Copyright to the cast and crew of The Pirates of Penzance 1983 film; Frederic: Rex Smith, Ruth: Angela Lansbury, The Pirate King: Kevin Kline, Director: Wilford Leach, Producer: Joseph Papp

If the artistry is there, why should rap be valued any less than a patter song or a recitative? If you argue the artistry isn’t there, how do you frame your arguments?

What is the difference between fans learning Korean to sing along at a Blackpink concert, and others spending hundreds of dollars to listen to European opera being sung in Italian, French, Czech, Russian, or German (though certainly there are English language operas, even American ones, and certainly American composers of more classically orchestral pieces).

Is it the subject matter? Perception of class and status? Perceived tradition of heritage? The style? Or is it the language?

How do we express one artist as having greater culture or value than another?

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021. And a bunch of other folks (read the captions).

Killed by “demons”

For anyone who’s seen the opening scene of Poldark then (spoiler alert) you’ll know it takes place in Virginia during America’s War of Independence.

Ross and others in his company (I assume company, cause there doesn’t appear to be enough British regulars sprinkled around the Virginia trees in that opening scene to deem it a battalion or beyond) are bored, gambling, and quickly ambushed by what looks to be American militia (likely under Wayne, Lafayette, and Nelson).

That scene has stayed with me. Not because of Ross. Well. Not just because of Ross.

It reminded me that the British died here. Sounds so obvious, but we spend so much time remembering the victorious American (and French, and Spanish) dead that we forget the so-called “enemy,” many of whom probably had a cousin, brother, mother, sister, wife, or some friend or business partner fighting for American liberty on the other side.

America’s War of Independence was America’s first civil war. It was brutal.

I never saw such fighting as God made me. The Americans fought like demons.

Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis

As much as Americans died in our fight for independence, how many British (and French, and Spanish) never walked away from our battlefields, and lie unmarked beneath them now?

I was at Guilford Courthouse National Battleground in North Carolina. And there’s a spot where it’s estimated 500 men died.

If my understanding is correct (apologies if it isn’t), a vast portion of these 500 or so men died for Britain.

That made me pause.

I looked up, looked around, examining the trees around me.

It was noted that Guilford Courthouse was a heavily wooded area in North Carolina on March 15, 1781. The day 500 or so men died in a few hours, in the service of King and Country.

When they, this so-called “enemy,” were dying, could they have seen what I saw now?

The battle happened in March, so the leaves wouldn’t have been changing, but this could have been a similar scene, certainly the same area where around 500 British (and German, actually, from Ansbach-Beyreuth, Hesse-Cassel), those men, lay because they would not survive the hour, could not pick themselves up, though perhaps only to crawl maybe stumble as they attempted a run for cover, hand over their gushing wound because they were bleeding out, screaming, crying, gasping, writhing, dying.

Instead of home, they were trapped on a foreign battlefield. Did they just give up, lay back, and watch the tops of the pines above them? Was there a March breeze that swayed the pines back and forth? Did a breeze bring them comfort? Were they the only ones to see a bird shoot across the tops of the pines, as it fled the noise of the battle below? Did they look around them to see young and old trees barring their way to a shelter, or to a friend they could die with? Could they see anything through the powder smoke?

They died here. And what memory is left of them, beyond the land?

And these men who died, they likely knew someone (or knew someone who knew someone, six degrees and all that) fighting for the American side! Why did they have to be sent to die in a war where the enemy was their cousin, or best friend’s brother, or whatever, and in a land where some of them may even have been born? General Sir Henry Clinton grew up in New York, for heaven’s sake!

And the British troops dying and buried at Guilford Courthouse (with varying degrees of grace and ceremony, I’m guessing)…

Where in Britain were they from? Wales? England? There’s the 71st Regiment of Foot, or Frazier’s Highlanders, so we know there were definitely some Scots in North Carolina that day (I mean, obvi. It’s North Carolina. You’re always gonna find somebody with a connection to Scotland).

General Charles O’Hara (the officer who was charged with the surrender of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown in October 1781) was of Irish and Portugese descent. Augustus O’Hara (who I believe was Charles O’Hara’s nephew and a British artilleryman) was killed at Guilford Courthouse. He was young. Or young enough.

Who did they leave behind? Did every “Ross” have a “Francis,” an “Aunt Agatha,” an “Elizabeth” waiting for their return? A “Trenwith” or “Nampara” that they were crying out for, wishing they could die in the comfort of a familiar place rather than on a brutal alien soil? Did every “Ross” who lay dying in North Carolina, have a “Demelza” back in England who they would never meet? Did they have kids waiting for their Dad to come home?

Americans fought like demons. We killed like demons, too. And not every British or German soldier was quite the demon that centuries-old propaganda (I absolutely love Jason Isaacs, but *cough* The Patriot *cough*) has made them out to be (Tarleton is however, excluded from my reprieve).

How many people were waiting in Bristol? In Liverpool? In London (I know of at least one family who was split between Virginia, and Kensington and Knightsbridge because of this conflict), in Ripon, in Peebles, or Dublin, or Cardiff? I mean, just pick one. But how many people were left waiting in Britain (or France, or Spain, or any of the German principalities) for soldiers now buried in an undiscovered, unmarked mass grave that’s now a parking lot?

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021

Boomers started it

This is a copy of a letter from my Dad to the Federal Energy Administrator. My Dad [who I’ve kept relatively anonymous] is a so-called “boomer.” And this is what a “boomer” had to say to his government on the state of the environment. The letter is dated 5 March 1975.

Administrator

Federal Energy Administration

12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, D.C. 20461

Dear Sir:

During March, the EPA will be holding hearings on the motion of the automobile industry to postpone higher emission standards on 1977 model cars. This is but another indication of this industry’s deliberate procrastination in coming to grips with the vital issue of environmental protection as well as its evasion of energy conservation problems. I fully realize the gravity of the present economic crisis and its effect upon the automobile industry, but this is certainly no time to make environmental sacrifices and condone a wasteful energy policy. The automobile industry must be convinced that it has to comply with the high standards. I urge you to work for this policy.

Your Truly,

[Dinsdale Piranha]

Dad also wrote a letter to the EPA [let’s call that the “other operation”].

The protests for environmental protection and awareness. Boomers started it. Or at least kept it going. The generations before them would be the minds creating the EPA and NEPA and Earth Day.

So maybe those who came before us weren’t all careless idiots. Maybe they could teach us something if we listen to them, and if they listen to us.

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021. Do not reproduce without permission. You wouldn’t want Doug using sarcasm on you, now would you?

Copyright Python (Monty) Pictures Limited and Spiny Norman.

Clear off the Coal Ash, then do your homework.

The following conversation was between myself and a person very close to me. Identities are changed since they’d like to remain anonymous and I’d like to respect their wishes.

But make no mistake, it’s true that back in the day (read: 1960s), cleaning off the power plant’s coal ash that blanketed your home was as daily a chore as tidying up your room, or washing the dishes. Or doing your homework.

Myself: How often did y’all have to clean off the cars and sun porch from coal ash? Was that [coal ash] also from Duke Power?

Lucy: It was Duke Power. They would vent the [coal] ash at night if memory serves and if the wind was blowing in a certain direction there would be gray dust all over the screen porch that we would have to hose off. I can ask [Schroeder] about it. [They] may remember more than I do.

Myself: Good grief. How often did they do this?

Lucy: Don’t know. Fairly regularly I would guess, but cannot say with any authority.

Myself: So it wasn’t every week. Was the community trying to get them to stop?

Lucy: I don’t think so. I think that’s just the way business was conducted at the time. For a bit of perspective- we moved into the house on […] in the fall of 1966. Environmental issues did not begin to come to the forefront until the first Earth Day in 1970. I was a sophomore in high school at the time.

Myself: Did Earth Day have a big impact or was it more of a curiosity? What did [Linus] and [Snoopy] think of it?

Lucy: [Linus] just got tired of having to clean ash off the porch. [They] would get the hose and wash off the cement floor and then shoot the water [from the hose] through the screens to wash them off. Then we’d wipe down the furniture that was out there [on the porch]. Not sure about Earth Day. To the high school students it was new and exciting and we got out of class to go around town picking up trash and cleaning up stuff.

Myself: That’s cool. Did that happen every year?

Lucy: I think it did happen every year for a while. Don’t know what happened after I graduated.

Coal ash is pretty toxic. And this conversation only covers the air. I haven’t begun to ask them about the waterways they were drinking from that would also have been highly affected by the toxic coal ash.

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021. Don’t reproduce without permission. Lucy wouldn’t like it.

Be a Doll

Photo courtesy of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Mercury Records

Of course- America was not going to accept the New York Dolls!

Sylvain Sylvain, for Vogue November 2015

The New York Dolls.

Some of my favorites to challenge American masculinity….or at least the perception of what is American masculinity.

Cause let’s talk about 1776, and how wigs were popular. For men.

And let’s talk about General Lee. And how he was vain, and dedicated enough to his looks that he would cut his “hair, moustache, and beard” and follow the styles of the day, transitioning from “George IV curls, bushy sideburns, a matinee-idol moustache, and the [American Civil] war-era beard as soon as they came into style,” every single day from when he was sixteen to when he died, aged sixty-three.

(emphasis added, source taken from Pryor, Elizabeth B., Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. Viking Penguin, 2007. Page 198. Elizabeth Brown Pryor is quoting Humphrey’s Autobiography, Milton Wylie Humphreys Papers at UVa. and Lee’s letter to Sam[ue?]l Frost in 1840)

So this idea of American masculinity being historically-rugged enough to never care about appearance, fashion trends, hair, or cosmetics.

Where’s the evidence?

Looking forward to the Scorsese film.

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021

Before Napoleon there was Smellie

“…there are extant several directions and recipes on the subject of Midwifery, collected from the writings of one Cleopatra…and some people imagine this was no other than the famous Cleopatra, queen of Egypt…”

William Smellie, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, Vol. 1, 5th ed. (1766)

Pausing on the fact that there were 18th century speculations claiming the Cleopatra wrote advice on midwifery (though Smellie later dismisses this in his treatise), I am surprised to see Egypt being referenced in a scientific medical treatise that was first published in London in 1752.

It is not surprising that Egyptians had advanced medical knowledge thousands of years before Dr. William Smellie was born in 1697.

It is not surprising that knowledge of Egyptian medical, political, artistic, and scientific advancements created thousands of years before the birth of Smellie and his contemporaries, would have reached Britain’s shores by the time Smellie was writing in the 18th century. If nothing else, Rome’s invasion of Britain that began in 43 AD would forcefully unite “Britannia” and Egypt as part of the Empire, thus leading to the potential transfer of knowledge between the two lands.

What is surprising for me is the mention of Egypt in the pages of an 18th century British medical treatise, and not in the copies of 18th century British Bibles and religious sermons.

Many folks I know believe Europe to have been closed to the knowledge of Egypt until Napoleon’s 1798 campaign against British interests in Egypt and the surrounding region. Works that were produced by French scholars accompanying Napoleon’s l’armee d’Orient such as Voyage dans la haute et la basse Egypte (Denon, 1802), or Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country, ignited European interest to the point of having Egyptian architecture, art, and sacred artifacts transported out of Egypt to create museums to satisfy European interests.

Smellie does not put Egyptian knowledge on a pedestal.

“…indeed it is natural to suppose, that while the simplicity of the early ages remained, women would have recourse to none but persons of their own sex, in diseases peculiar to it; accordingly, we find in Egypt Midwifery was practiced by women…

…in Athens a law was made, prohibiting women and slaves from practicing physic [medicine] in any shape: but the mistaken modesty of the sex rendered it afterwards absolutely necessary to allow free women the privilege of sharing this art with the men.”

William Smellie, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, Vol. 1, 5th ed. (1766)

While Smellie does acknowledge the Egyptian practice of midwifery, he focuses on the “free women” of Athens who shared their knowledge of midwifery “with the men.”

The way that Smellie writes of Egypt, where “Midwifery was practiced by women,” he writes that “women would have [no other] recourse,” or no other choice, but to seek another woman for help with childbirth. Smellie seems to imply that given a choice, women who were able and free to choose, would choose a male physician to assist them in bringing life into the world. As happened in Athens. Not Egypt. According to Smellie.

Knowing Smellie’s goal of promoting the practice of “man-midwives,” or bringing 18th century male physicians into obstetrics, his tone is unsurprising.

In his Treatise, Egypt is honored for understanding midwifery. Athens is deemed superior by Smellie. Superior only perhaps because free Athenian women brought male physicians, or “man-midwives,” into the birthing chamber.

According to Smellie.

And according to Smellie’s readings of the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates.

I wonder what Smellie would write, had he been exposed to hieroglyphs. Perhaps in those hieroglyphs he would have read the works of Ancient Egyptian physicians and midwives. I wonder then if the tone of his Treatise would have changed.

For now, I can only wonder what the mothers and midwives of Egypt would make of Hippocrates, or Smellie, and their writings on the experience of childbirth.

I wonder how Cleopatra would react.

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021

An Open Letter

Dear One of My Third Great-Grandfathers,

                You’re quiet, I’ll give you that. It’s deafening. The words that they plaster onto your memory, in your defense they say, are all I hear. I still remember the first time I saw you. It’s those memories that impact you so deeply, that are so formative, they direct your path for eternity. They cut you off, they grab you by the shoulders twisting you around whether you like it or not. This moment, when I first saw you, my breath caught.

The memory of this moment formed a visceral imprint on my life. When I remember it, I can see the way the light poured in and over us. I can smell it, I can taste it. I can feel my pulse pounding beneath my young skin.

                I was given a family history project at school. No worries there. I am privileged and blessed enough that the archival system seems to care about my ancestors, about you, and to be related to your descendants who have built a foundation of paperwork and pictures for me to easily fill in the family tree. That is a privilege. Part of the family pictures kept and protected was a copy of a daguerreotype. A copy of your portrait.

There you were. In your butternut gray uniform, because you had been told to fight for South Carolina and The South. That was the first time I questioned my morality, looking down at your daguerreotype copy.

I was seven and wondered if I was condemned to evil because I am descended from you. Blood of my blood. I think sometimes I even have your eyes.

You fought for evil. You are not the only one. You are not the only one in my family, but you’re the first one of the family that I saw. You’re the dictionary picture, putting definition to the word-vomit answers I would get when I would ask, “So. The Civil War. What was our part in it?”

Other family members of mine (those you’re related to, and those you’re related to only through me) who also fought for The Evil have left their own words. They have left their pride. They have left their ego and their blind, passive-aggressive, short-sighted prejudice in the documents that have been kept and protected.

And where are you? I know where you were. From the references I read, you saw more than any other of my fighting family members.

Is that it?

A daguerreotype, a picture from later in life, and a small snippet of something you wrote to your wife?

That’s it.

I see.

Well, that just makes me want to scream.

In case that wasn’t obvious. I know no subtlety. Just ask the people who know me.

Do we have that in common? If I were to ask those who knew you, who you are, would I see a masculine portrait of myself unfurl? Just- FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE SCREAM SOMETHING!

Because what they’re telling me…for your defense, they say…do you agree?

I have to know if you agree. I need to know if you want to see these monuments topple to the ground you fought for. Were you present when they went up? Did you help? You were a master mason after all. Were the monuments your idea, or did your voice contribute to their creation? Or did you curse their existence every time you’d pass them, since they were reminders of victories lost, and the men lost to them.

At parades for the people, did you ever have to wrap a tight smile across that portrait face I saw, when you were approached, your hand was shook by those who would die for a monument to dodge the battlefield you refused to dodge for yourself?

Tell me how many of those monument men’s names you knew.

Tell me how many times on a field somewhere you found yourself spontaneously fall into prayer because you knew in your bones that you were about to become one of them. That your infant son’s memories of you would only be a name carved in a monument. Did you want that? Did you just want it to end? Even if it meant your separation from him? And my grandmother, your wife? What of her who was left behind for duty’s sake? Did you only want your name, your son’s memories to be held in the stories your wife would tell him?

Did you ever tell him your stories from your lips? What only your eyes saw, what only your ears could hear? Or did you surrender, cause he could never understand.

I’ll admit, that my civilian brain cannot understand the realities of military service.

I cannot understand what you saw.

My humanity can imagine why you would never want to see or hear that war again, even in memory.

The historian in me sees how others speak for you.

The historian in me wishes you’d left tomes and volumes pouring forth every detail experienced by you.

What would they tell that is different?

You still fought for evil.

Blood of my blood, that’s not a lie and it never will be.

You did as you were told, even if you never owned.

Were you ashamed?

Were you happy?

Would you do it all again?

Even if they didn’t tell you to, would you enlist as soon as was possible?

Did your wife want you to go?

Did she need your protection?

Of all those who served and spoke, it’s you I want to hear from.

Describe to me the feeling of finding life continuing.

Describe to me the absolute knowing that you were able to walk off that field, marching home over hundreds and thousands of bodies.

Describe to me the screams going silent and the sulfuric smoke rising.

And what made you special? What made your life worth more than another soldier?

What survives beyond you?

You’ve given your power to those who never knew you.

Because silence is now acquiescence.

Dear Seven-Year-Old-Me-Holding-That-Daguerreotype-Copy,

Do not be silent. Do not do as you are told.

Be loud. Ask them: Why they are Proud?

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021

Social Distance. It’s Smallpox, Abigail Adams.

“I have attended publick (sic) worship constantly, except one day and a half ever since I have been in Town.”

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 5 August 1776

Even though her beloved John was fighting his own battle with the smallpox virus, even though John was experiencing “Pains, Achs (sic), [and] Qualms” and had an “Absolute Fear” of the “Paper” on which he was writing his wife, that “so much infected as it is,” if he sent it he feared the letter would cause Abigail and their children to die of smallpox, even knowing all of this, Abigail Adams attended worship and other public gatherings five days after her own inoculation against the virus.

Inoculation was incubation.

Abigail knew of the dangers of smallpox. Boston and Braintree, where she would worship and live was no stranger to the ravages of this virus.

John had less to fear about the “Paper” he would send to Abigail and their children since Abigail knew how to sterilize it. Abigail knew to use smoke to sterilize letters she received from John as she had done with letters received during their engagement amidst a 1764 outbreak of the virus.

As Elizabeth Fenn writes in Pox Americana,

Abigail Adams did not know about viruses or the way they worked, but like most colonists, she was clearly aware that smallpox was contagious.

Abigail Adams is not widely regarded as a stupid woman.

So…

It’s interesting.

She obviously knew what smallpox could do in her community. Smallpox had been attacking New England since at least 1722, twenty two years before she was born. This was not a new virus. Even before she “went with the Multitude (WHAT?!) into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for Independence read and proclaimed,” she had inoculated herself and her children against this virus in order to combat its virulence (gobsmacked parenthetical exclamation added). Twelve years before this she was sterilizing letters from her beloved John who was writing her through yet another epidemic.

She. Knew. What this virus could do.

And three days later she began experiencing “many disagreeable Sensations.” And she went “out to meeting” anyways.

It’s like Florida. Or Michigan. Or North Carolina. Or any other state in the Union.

Why, across the centuries, in the face of death do we still risk our lives and the lives of those we don’t even know (see, “Multitudes” above) to gather?

What innate human drive for community leads us to risk death?

Copyright Off The Porch History, 2021 and Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana (2001)