booknotes: the accidental diarist

The latest issue of NEHA News (PDF) arrived in the post earlier this week. Actually, four copies arrived because for some reason Hanna and I are listed on the membership rolls twice each and can't get the organization to fix the glitch.

Anyway. I have a review therein of Molly McCarthy's most entertaining new monograph The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America (University of Chicago Press, 2013)*
For nearly two decades, I have habitually carried a day planner in which to note future tasks and appointments, track expenses, and mark the passage of time. At the end of every year, I add the used-up planner to a box in the back of my closet before opening a fresh volume and starting anew. Until reading Molly McCarthy’s The Accidental Diarist, I had never considered this habit in historical context. Now I have. 
In five thematic chapters, loosely arranged in chronological order, McCarthy (Associate Director of the UC Davis Humanities Institute) explores the development of the modern day planner from early Colonial almanacs to the advent of the Wanamaker Diary in 1900. Combing through centuries of daily records kept by American men and women in pre-printed “blank” books, McCarthy documents the way in which Americans learned to use almanacs, diaries, and planners to both reflect on the past and plan for the future. She argues convincingly that the daily planner was a training ground for modern ways of organizing life. 
Read the full review at the NEHA website.

In the interest of full disclosure, Molly McCarthy is a former MHS research fellow, although her residence at the MHS was before my time, and I assisted her on obtaining images of materials at the Society to illustrate the book. Her project is, I would argue, an excellent example of the work historians can do with the seemingly opaque objects of history that, when put in context, are much more revealing than they first appear.


michigan monday: stuff & things

I'm not gonna even pretend Hanna and I are fully back in Boston headspace, although we arrived back home mid-afternoon on Saturday. It's been a pretty intense ten days (two weeks if you count from the day my grandmother had her initial stroke). 

So instead of any substantive post, here are a few Michigan-related things for you. Starting with the Detroit symphony orchestra's flash mob performance of "Ode to Joy" at a suburban IKEA. (via)

You may have heard NPR's coverage of the event on March 9th.

On a related note, the city of Detroit is offering free houses to writers looking for a place to live and be creative. I admit that part of me wishes that librarianship & archival science were slightly more mobile professions, since it would be really exciting to be part of a rejuvenation project like that -- and the urban core of Detroit has some amazing, historic spaces.

Within driving distance of Brewed Awakenings, this trip's coffee shop find.

And half a day's drive from Gaia Cafe in Grand Rapids, the visual-sensory display in my head whenever anyone uses the word "granola" as a cultural descriptor. 

Plus, soon enough Hanna and I would actually be married-married there. Instead of Massachusetts-and-federally-married there.

In fact, Hanna and I heard the news about Judge Friedman's ruling overturning the Michigan ban on marriage equality while we were driving through New York (oh, the endless endless miles of I-90) on Friday. Huzzah! 

I read the DeBoer v. Snyder decision yesterday afternoon. Some of my livetweets:

Judge Friedman also turned up the snark to full volume by pointing out, in a quote too long to excerpt on Twitter, that:
Taking the state defendants’ position to its logical conclusion, the empirical evidence at hand should require that only rich, educated, suburban-dwelling, married Asians may marry, to the exclusion of all other heterosexual couples. Obviously the state has not adopted this policy and with good reason. The absurdity of such a requirement is self-evident. Optimal academic outcomes for children cannot logically dictate which groups may marry.
As of this writing, Michigan marriage licenses for same-sex couples are on hold until further review, but it's worth noting that Friedman himself didn't issue the stay -- I think it's pretty clear he's had enough of these anti-gay shenanigans.

And finally, for anyone who missed it on Twitter and Facebook, my father wrote a lovely obituary for my grandmother (his mom) which appeared in the local paper this past Wednesday.


jean cook, in memorium

My grandmother's funeral is today, and of course what can you possibly say about a person who -- until late Monday afternoon -- has always been a part of the world while you were alive within it? The earliest memory I have that can be attached to a specific period in time is of staying with Grandma Cook while my mother was in labor for the birth of my brother, Brian. I was just shy of three years old. 

So there are any number of stories I could tell about my growing up in relationship to her, grandmother and granddaughter, two people who didn't always agree. The story I want to share today, though, is one that can be told in her own words. For, like a good historian and archivist, I saved the document (in an archival box!) and was able to locate it on Friday as Hanna and I were packing to leave on this journey.

This is the letter my grandmother wrote me when she learned that Hanna and I were together as a couple -- the event that was, for most people in my life, my coming out moment as a person with bisexual desires. Reading it over, my political-critical self notices limitations, but I will refrain in the here and now from pointing them out. What I hope comes through in this very human document is its author's overwhelming impulse to "only connect."

 9 Nov. 2009

Dear Anna, 

It was so very nice to see you on your visit home. I know there were many people to see in your short time. Also, perhaps you caught up on a little needed rest. That is what 'coming home' is all about once you have left.

On Sat. evening your Mom and Dad shared with me your loving relationship with Hannah [sic]. There are just a few things I want to share with and about you.

First of all, Anna, there is no more beautiful relationship in life than when two people fall in love. I am so happy that you have found that love. Your grandfather believed firmly that relationship is the most important aspect in life. It sometimes means putting aside your morality code or other norms society has established for itself.

Anna, you have always been a person who has challenged some of life's "norms." No doubt sometimes it was just a reaction but perhaps other times with thoughtful research and decision making. To not live in denial of your sexual orientation has been an admirable step in knowing just who you are. You come from a family that has always known inclusiveness in whatever form it make take. Know that you are surrounded with love and acceptance for all that you are and will still become.

I don't know what your relationship with God is - that is between you and God. However, I truly believe that at times God does choose certain individuals to [bear crosses?] in our society -- whether it be for peace and justice, sexual discrimination or whatever the societal cause may be. You have shown such strength in accepting the recognition of who and what you are that I know you will be a [wholesome?] advocate of others less confident than yourself.

Remember always that behind you is a loving, supportive family. We trust that your relationship with Hannah will fill the deep love in your heart.

Your grandmother who loves you always


deathtime reading list

On our drive to Michigan, I kept thinking about what I could do besides be here with my grandmother, as we gathered to help her through the final days of her life. And what I kept coming back to was reading aloud.

Ours has long been a family of reading together, and there is something about the experience of being read to that I think cues being cared for in a very deep part of our psyche or soul. It is also something that Hanna and I share; one of the most effective ways for us to help her back down from a bad spell of anxiety is to put on old cassette-tape recordings of her father reading aloud, like he used to do when she was small.

So when I got to Holland on Sunday morning, I stopped off at my parents' house before going to Grandma's and picked up an armful of books. Here is what I have read so far:

Springtime in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban

Miss Rumphuis by Barbara Cooney

half a dozen chapters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

and the opening chapters of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader also by C.S. Lewis

The text probably isn't that important, though I've been conscious as I've been reading about themes of exploration and home-coming, of journeys into the unknown, and of familiar family tales. The act being read to has helped calm everyone through the ups and downs of this process.

It's made me think about what stories I will want for myself, someday, to help with the journey on.


the season of the dying grandmothers

moon + venus. norridgewock, maine.
Hanna and I are back in Michigan.

My grandmother had a stroke on Tuesday afternoon and at first they thought it was minor, but internal bleeding developed at the hospital and she slipped into a coma on Tuesday night. My family was able to bring her home Wednesday evening, so that she can die in the home she and my grandfather shared during the majority of their marriage, until his death in 2007. It is a space that has been the hub in the wheel of the paternal side of my family for my entire life.

As I type this, I am sitting next to her bed in the living room. All the children and grandchildren and their spouses have gathered, along with a few close friends,  and my grandmother's golden retriever who circles around everyone, keeping track.

It is cold here, with ice still on the lake that we can see out the front windows. Snow banks are deep alongside the steep drive that leads from the road to my grandmother's house, which stands on a small rise. Out behind the house is a once-landscaped gulch with a creek running through it that, in the spring, will become carpeted with daffodils.

We are entangled with our own watchful waiting right now, but I know others among you are also wrestling with life transitions and trauma. My thoughts are also with all of you, whatever your life-changes and stressors may be.

It is good to be here, and I am grateful to all of those in my life who made it possible for Hanna and I to travel on such short notice. Thank you all.


random access blogging

Montague Bookmill, interior (December 2012)
I'm in the final stages of writing my conference paper, a week behind my self-imposed deadline. So no book review this week. I did, though, get a chance to read Violet Blue's Smart Girl's Guide to Porn (Cleis, 2006) this morning over breakfast, which I recommend for those interested in moving-picture porn. I personally have never done much with the genre, in large part because my interest in porn generally stops where the pay wall begins, and I'm not as willing to weed through the dross for the gold as I am with fan fiction. But Blue's slim guide is a great introduction and guidebook full of suggestions for getting the most, well, bang for your buck in a feminist-aware sort of way.

The reason I had Smart Girl's was that Hanna and I spent yesterday on a field trip to Montague Bookmill for lunch with friends, and then a subsidiary field trip to Brattleboro, Vermont, for weekly shopping at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. At the co-op, I spotted a gardening display featuring my friend Joseph's book on plant breeding!

It is so much fun to know people who write books and publish them.

Spring is just around the corner here in Boston. I feel I can say this despite the fact that I'm typing this hunkered down under two comforters and as many cats because today, for the first time since November, we were able go the whole day without turning on the electric heaters. A real milestone.

Plus, I went out yesterday in just a heavy sweater. Liberating!

(And I can tell I've reached adulthood because my major concern is not how early I can get away with running around barefoot, but rather whether or not warmer spring temperatures will balance out the cold-weather electric bills before a new twelve-month cycle of payments begins.)

The "not renewing" notice to our current landlords is sitting on the table by my messenger bag ready to go in the morning's mail. We have until March 31st to decide, but we talked it over on Friday and realized there was no point in waiting until the last minute: we know we're ready for somewhere new. My colleagues are all gunning for us to move to Jamaica Plain, a serious contender, though we're open to a broad swath of Boston within a three-mile radius of the Fenway where we both work. It's an adventure, our first joint search for a home. I think of it as our "going to housekeeping" moment.

Though of course this spring marks the sixth anniversary of my moving in to this space.

The longest I've lived anywhere except my childhood home.

The rest of the month is busy for us, with both of us attending (with duties) New England Archivists and then the following weekend me presenting at the Biennial Boston College Conference on Religion and History (that paper I'm a week behind in finishing). I'm looking forward to celebrating my birthday on the 30th as a way to mark the end of a hectic season!

I hope all of you are well; and to everyone whom I owe an email (there are about half a dozen of you, I know!) please know I haven't forgotten you and letters will be forthcoming once we're on the other side of conference sessions and such.


wednesday cat blogging [photo post]

Teazle's latest favored place to sleep is in the box where Hanna keeps her knickers. She has to jump up onto the shelf above and then worm her way into the box. It's a process we shamelessly mock her for.

Gerry, meanwhile, clearly feels relaxed enough these days to do a dead bunny impression. She slept this way for a good half hour on Sunday, effectively trapping me on the couch!

Sunday was definitely a day for snoozing.

Hope everyone's week is going well and that y'all are staying warm. We're definitely ready for spring!


booknotes: for people, not for profit

A few weeks ago, I was hunting for information on the Fenway Interagency Group (FIG), a coalition of neighborhood organizations that came together during the early 1970s in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston as background for a blog post I'm writing for the MHS. Thanks to full-text searching on Google Books, that search led me to Thomas Martorelli's For People, Not For Profit: A History of Fenway Health's First Forty Years (AuthorHouse, 2012). Hanna and I have been using Fenway Health, originally Fenway Community Health Center, as our "healthcare home" since 2009. We stumbled into it on the recommendation of a friend and, from the inside out, have slowly become more aware of its national and international renown in the fields of community-based, culturally-competent healthcare -- particularly within the fields of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and more recently trans* healthcare.

For People, Not For Profit is an institutional history written from an insider's loving perspective: Martorelli is former chair of the Fenway Board of Directors. Nonetheless, he doesn't paper over the growing pains of an organization that grew from an all-volunteer collective of health activists into the established health and research center it is today. Like many activist groups that formed during the idealism of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Fenway Community Health Center initially relied on volunteer labor, with collective decision-making processes and interminable meetings. It offered walk-in clinics for target populations -- namely women, gay men, and the elderly residents of the neighborhood. As it grew into a non-profit organization with a paid staff, successive directors arrived to find finances on shakey footing and physical space in chronic shortfall.

It was the AIDS/HIV crisis during the 1980s that became the fire that forged modern Fenway Health; already positioned to serve the gay male population of Boston, Fenway staff were on the front lines of the epidemic providing innovative care and conducting ground-breaking research that helped develop treatments to extend and enhance the lives of those with HIV and AIDS. Simultaneously, Fenway was also offering education and resources to single women and women with female partners on the options for getting pregnant (alternative insemination), and working with feminist-minded area women's health organizations to reach women across the sexual orientation spectrum who might benefit from community health education and services. In the past decade, Fenway has also become a leader in providing respectful and effective care for members of the trans* community as well.

Martorelli documents each phase of Fenway's growth in a series of chronologically-arranged chapters, each of which contain a section on care, education, advocacy, and leadership. Lengthy excerpts from interviews with key players provide insights into how people involved in Fenway's various programs and projects view their work in historical and social context.

Future historians of queer experience and the history of medicine will have more work to do telling the story of Fenway Health in wider historical context; thankfully, the historical records of Fenway Community Health Center have been donated to Northeastern University's archives and special collections (where Hanna had a hand in processing them in 2010!) and are available for research. When these historians get to work -- and I hope some of them are already digging in! -- For People, Not for Profit will be a valuable starting point for more in-depth studies that focus on specific aspects of the Fenway Health project, as well as explorations of Fenway's participation in the tumultuous landscape of queer activism, AIDS/HIV politics and care, and the rich story of Boston's neighborhood-based activism.

Meanwhile, Martorelli's book has given me valuable background for my own participation in the Fenway Health project as a volunteer on the consumer/community advisory board. I'm grateful that such a resource is available -- and am developing librarian-ish plans to make it (and other Fenway publications) more visible and available to the patients who utilize Fenway's services.