When I was young, I had a fascination with panda bears. I had several stuffed pandas that I loved. It’s funny looking back that I collected teddy bears that I often slept with at night as a child. I had one named Andy Panda and one named Sandy Panda. I don’t remember the names of the others, but Sandy was always my favorite. Whenever I was feeling down, Sandy was always there to cheer me up. She and my cat Calico never failed to be my faithful companions when I was sick or scared. Calico was an actual real cat and the sweetest animal I have ever known. When it comes to my cats, Victoria and I had a special bond, but she could be mean to other people. She tried to kill my grandmama’s chihuahua one time. Isabella is a one-person cat who is more persistent than any cat I’ve ever had. She does not understand the words “No” or “Move,” and she can be very temperamental at times. She is also a murderess and torturer when she finds a mouse. I won’t even describe some of the horrors I woke to occasionally in my old apartment.
Pandas, though, were a fascination of mine growing up. I wanted so badly to go to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and see Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, two giant pandas given to the United States as gifts by the government of China following President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972. Sadly, Ling-Ling died suddenly from heart failure in 1992, and Hsing-Hsing died in 1999 due to painful kidney failure. I didn’t get to visit Washington until three years ago when I went for work, and I got to see very little of the city. I wouldn’t see my first panda in real life until sometime around 2012 when I got the chance to see the Giant Pandas at Zoo Atlanta. Even as a grown man in my thirties, I was so excited to get to see real pandas. It’s the only time I have ever seen live pandas, but it was a memorable experience.
Did any of you have a stuffed animal that loved? What brought you comfort when you were sick or scared as a child? To be honest, I wish I still had Sandy sometimes. I loved that bear.
Yesterday’s conference sessions were really interesting. Yesterday was a pretty good day all around. My lunchtime program for the museum with our guest speaker went very well. This was my first time hosting a virtual event like this with another speaker. I introduced the speaker. I had written a nice introduction if I do say so myself. The speaker gave a fascinating talk on women warriors through history, and when it came time for the Q&A portion, I came back on the screen and acted as a moderator, having some lovely banter with the speaker. All in all, I don’t really think it could have gone any better.
The only hiccup in the day was that for some reason, the desktop computer in my office would not let me load the conference webpage, but that wasn’t too bad because it meant I had to go home early and participate in the conference on my laptop at home. I will be leaving early today to do the same thing. Today’s sessions are not as attractive as yesterday’s, but they may surprise me. Today, there is one on publishing books based on oral histories and then a session on museums and oral histories. The plenary session (a session of a conference which all members of all parties are to attend) will be a live oral history interview, which might be interesting, but we will see. I’ve watched people conduct oral history interviews before, so it might be interesting to see someone else’s techniques.
The thing about all conferences is that in the conference program, they list all of the sessions with a title, a description, and a list of the participants. As a general rule, you can only count on the list of participants being correct. Session titles and descriptions never convey what the session is actually going to be about because when you propose a session, you send in an abstract. Then you have basically until the conference to write your paper. I think most people who have ever written anything will say that the end product is rarely what you initially imagined it would be. At least, that is how it is for me. Even with these blog posts, they have a life of their own once I start writing. My first session yesterday was like that. The description didn’t convey what the session was about, and it ended up being about highly technical issues, which quite frankly went over my head. I should have realized that because I have seen one of the speakers present numerous times, he is always over my head with the technology and programs he is discussing.
The other session, though, was one of the few that lived up to its description. I was about the Human Rights Campaign Oral History Project at Columbia University. Something happened at the beginning of the session that surprised me and probably would not have occurred if it had been in person and not virtual. I logged onto the session a few minutes early so that I wouldn’t miss anything. I did not expect that the lead facilitator for the panel would start up a conversation with me. It caught me off guard, and I had to scramble to turn on my microphone to answer him. We had a friendly little chat as everyone was setting up and getting ready. He also later gave a fascinating talk using some of the oral histories from the HRC project. If this had been an in-person session, I would have come in, sat down, and probably busied myself with my phone waiting for the session to begin. I have struck up conversations with someone sitting next to me at these things, but I have never had one of the presenters strike up a conversation with me. The exciting thing is that I would love to work on this oral history project about the HRC, especially if they were to delve into the campaign to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. With my oral history and military history background, I would be well suited for that aspect of the project. Who knows, maybe I made a good contact yesterday.
As a general rule, whenever I mention who I studied under for my oral history training, people are inevitably impressed. One professor went on to become the head of a major oral history project in North Carolina and was on the board of the state’s oral history project. Another professor is now the head of the Baylor University Oral History Project, which, under his leadership, has become the most respected oral history program in the country. Both, I believe, were also past presidents of the OHA. My third professor is the Executive Director of the OHA Executive Office. In the history field, it’s not always about where you studied or where you work, but about who you studied under, and I studied under three of the best.
One of the things I enjoy about the OHA’s Annual Meeting is that I never feel out of place or out of my depth. Yes, some of the technical issues about website design and such is a bit over my head. I am not a computer science person, though I know my way around a computer for the most part. However, when it comes to oral history, I do know my stuff. I have researched legal aspects of the discipline, best practices, and methodologies. I have taught oral history workshops, and I give an annual lecture to my current university’s historical methods class on oral history and its importance. I don’t often toot my own horn, but I am very knowledgeable about oral history. There are still things to learn because no matter what your field of study is, there is always more to learn. What I am saying is, I feel confident when I discuss oral history. I can’t always say that about other things.
This week is the annual Oral History Association (OHA) Conference. As a member, I do like this conference. I’ve been to several academic conferences in the past, and some can be very contentious and pretentious. Academics want to show off in front of each other, and they can be very critical of historians presenting a paper at one of these conferences. When a historian presents a new interpretation of historical sources, other historians like to stand up and tell them what is wrong with their research. I always hated this about conferences. The Southern Historical Association (SHA) was always the worst one I attended. I loved the various places it was held, but the personalities were horrendous. The SHA is somewhat unique in that its members both comprise historians who study the American South and historians who are in the American South, so there is always a wide range of topics presented. However, the bulk of the panels are about Southern history. By the nature of the organization, you have many groups and cliques that just don’t get along: neo-confederates (a dying breed in academia), the Civil Rights historians, Civil War historians, African American historians, etc. You can see how this could be a contentious group.
The OHA, on the other hand, is an enjoyable conference to attend. The main topics are social justice, how to advocate for oral history, and best practices for oral history. They rarely ever argue on the methodology of oral history; in fact, I don’t think I have ever seen an argument at the OHA. They are, by nature, a delightful group of people. Basically, if you are an asshole, you will not make a very good oral historian because you won’t have the people skills to conduct a good oral history interview. I have to admit that some of the social justice people are a little overboard at times because, for them, no one should be marginalized in history, and there is always a new cause for which to fight. (Museum professionals are the same way at their conferences.)
The other conference I try to attend since I became a member of the organization a few years ago is the Rural Women’s Studies Association (RWSA). You won’t meet a nicer group of women. I seem to be one of the few male members, and while some women’s historians don’t like for men to study women’s history, I was welcomed with open arms by the RWSA. If you read the Washington Post, you will often see historian Katherine Jellicoe interviewed for various historical subjects. She is the co-chair of the group, and she is so kind. She took me around the first night of the conference introducing me to nearly everyone. I had presented a different version of the paper I presented at the RWSA conference at a graduate student conference in Mississippi. Since it was about a community of female African American landowners, I was criticized for telling the African American community’s history when I am white. It’s not a fair assessment as a good historian can write about anything as long as they are objective. I reworked the paper for the RWSA conference a few years ago, and it met with great applause and interest. I have an essay in a forthcoming cookbook being published by the RWSA. Their triennial meeting is next May, but they have already decided to make it virtual. It was supposed to be at the University of Guelph in Canada, which likely meant I would not be able to attend, but I will be able to participate since it is virtual, and I will be able to go to the virtual book launch.
Speaking of the RWSA conference being virtual, the OHA conference this year is also virtual. It was supposed to be held in Baltimore, and I was hoping to get to go. It wasn’t sure I would have been able to afford it or that the museum would have paid for me to go, so the fact that it is virtual allows me to attend this year. Monday, I had a pre-conference workshop, which went very well. I am not sure I learned anything new, but it was nice to discuss issues with people in the field. Yesterday was not as pleasant. The two sessions I attended were not exactly what they had advertised them as being and turned out to be quite dull. Had I been in Baltimore for this conference, I’d have likely snuck out the back and gone to my room or a café and gotten a coffee. I hope today’s sessions will be more enjoyable. There is one about the Human Rights Campaign, so I am looking forward to it.
Today is going to be a hectic day. I have my next COVID test today. (We are being tested every three weeks at the University.) At noon, I am introducing our first live virtual program with a speaker on warrior women in history. It should be interesting. After that, I have two different one and a half-hour sessions to attend virtually for the OHA conference. This evening, there is a welcoming reception, which I sincerely doubt I will participate in because, at the same time, is the annual Pritzker Gala in Chicago, which will also be virtual. Col. Jennifer Pritzker (the first transgender billionaire) owns the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, which hosts the Gala. Col. Pritzker is also a major benefactor of my museum. Today will be a busy day. It’s going to be a busy week too, as the conference doesn’t end until 5 pm on Friday.
By Paul Verlaine – 1844-1896
Translated by Arthur Symons
When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long
Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.
And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.
By Paul Verlaine – 1844-1896
Les saglots longs
Blessent mon coeur
Et blême, quand
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;
Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Pareil à la
About the Poem:
“Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”) is a poem by Paul Verlaine (1844–1896), one of the best known in the French language. It is included in Verlaine’s first collection, Poèmes saturniens, published in 1866 (see 1866 in poetry). The poem forms part of the “Paysages tristes” (“Sad landscapes”) section of the collection.
In World War II lines from the poem were used to send messages from Special Operations Executive (SOE) to the French Resistance about the timing of the forthcoming Invasion of Normandy. In preparation for Operation Overlord, the BBC’s Radio Londres had signaled to the French Resistance with the opening lines of “Chanson d’Automne” were to indicate the start of D-Day operations under the command of the Special Operations Executive. The first three lines of the poem, “Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” (“Long sobs of autumn violins”), would mean that Operation Overlord was to start within two weeks. These lines were broadcast on June 1, 1944. The next set of lines, “Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”), meant that it would start within 48 hours and that the resistance should begin sabotage operations, especially on the French railroad system; these lines were broadcast on June 5 at 23:15.
In 1940, Charles Trenet made changes to the words of the poem in order to change it into a song. There has been speculation that it was the popularity of his version that led to the use of the poem by SOE.
Today marks my fifth anniversary at my present museum. When I started five years ago, I was the oral historian. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster since. While I knew I was hired under a grant, I did not realize that my job was a three-year position scheduled to end on this day in 2018. After the university fired my original boss for mismanagement/embezzlement in late 2017, my new interim boss came into my office and asked me if I knew that October 19, 2018, was supposed to be my last day. The news floored me, and I began scrambling to look for a new job. I had several interviews at some major oral history programs in Chicago, Oklahoma, and Stanford University, but none of them panned out.
When the university promoted our museum registrar to be the new director, he reorganized the museum’s staff and created my new position in the process. While they advertised internally for my position, they did not make a public appeal for it, and I had to interview but was the only one interviewing and thus got the job. It came with a nearly 25 percent raise. It’s been a series of ups and downs at the museum. However, for the most part, I do enjoy my job, even if I don’t always enjoy my coworkers.
Here is what I wrote five years ago on my first day at my new job in Vermont:
Today is my first day at my new job. I’m very excited, and I’ve never been excited about a job before. I’ve always had jobs that were supposed to be temporary until a “real” job came along. (Little did I know that this job too was supposed to be temporary.) I went to graduate school, thinking I’d teach college. I’ve always loved teaching college, but I ended up teaching high school instead. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know the story.
One thing though that I did when in graduate school was to diversify within the field of history. I covered military, Civil Rights, American, European, Women, and Native American history, as well as various research tools, such as language, oral history, public history, literary analysis, and art history. By doing so, I wanted to make myself marketable. While it has taken many more years than I expected for that strategy to pan out, it finally has. I landed a job in which I was uniquely qualified for because of my diversification, and while it is not a teaching job, it is a job that I am very happy with beginning.
So today is my first day. I’ll get the keys to my new office and get to work making this position mine and molding it as I see fit. I’ve basically been given free rein to make this position, and the program I’m taking over into what I know it can be. I Will Try to do my very best because that’s all we can do is try to do our very best.
That was five years ago. I am now a professor at the university and a museum curator. I also earned my museum studies certification in the process. I would have never predicted any of that five years ago. I would have never thought that I’d be working from home on my five year anniversary. My how things have changed!
My life is very different here in Vermont. I am more out and open about my sexuality than I have ever been, and I am much more comfortable in my sexuality. I am also in a politically and socially liberal state for the first time in my life. Even though we have a Republican governor, Vermont Republicans are more akin to Alabama Democrats than the National Republican Party. Vermont has a robust Progressive Party, which forces the state Republicans to be more of a center party.
One last thing, last week, I talked a lot about politics. I plan not to do that this week. That could change if something significant happens in politics this week, but I don’t want to be a political blog. I have other things I want to write about and discuss. Next week will be the last full week before the election, so it will probably be filled with a bit of politics, if not a lot of politics. I hope everyone has a good week.
Per Roderick’s request, here are some pictures of outside my old apartment: