Ken Burns Life Goals

When I left my academic research job, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I’d moved to Atlanta hoping the postdoc position I took would propel me into a job of a similar nature in industry or government. I imagined myself working for the CDC or a state public health agency or a consulting firm. But by the end of my academic career, I wanted to make a much more radical change.

I told people I was going to write a novel, which I did although I never published it.

I also had a more obscure goal: watch Ken Burns’ Baseball in its entirety. It was a strange thing for me to want to do at the time because I’m not a particularly big fan of baseball. But something about its history called to me. As did the freedom to spend my time exploring something that fascinated me with no expectation of it furthering my career.

In that sense, my plan to watch Ken Burns’ Baseball was indicative of what was to follow. I’ve never resumed working full time since leaving academia, but I’ve found much joy in pursuing my curiosities: comedy, history, writing, and art.

It was curiosity that brought me back to Ken Burns recently. I’ve spent the past couple years steeped in Atlanta’s history, which has made me want to know more about the Civil War. Enter Ken Burns’ nine episode documentary on the topic.

With Baseball, I managed to finish most of the series, but then I took a road trip that disrupted my progress and I failed to make my way back to it. In contrast, with The Civil War, not only have I managed to finish the series, I’ve already started watching it a second time so I can retain more of the content.

I’m also looking forward to an upcoming documentary from the Ken Burns’ team about East Lake Meadows, a public housing project in Atlanta that was torn down in the mid-1990s and replaced with a mixed income development that’s become a national model for revitalization.

There’s so much to know in this world in terms of what’s happened and how that impacts what’s going on now. I’m grateful that there are people like Ken Burns and his team who are dedicated to sharing this information. Watching Baseball set off a passion for history that I’m still now stoking–a fire for knowledge that even a strained relationship with academia couldn’t squelch.

Riding the Waves of Popularity

We stood in a line in the street waiting to order crepes for about twenty minutes while the neighboring crepe maker watched us from his vacant window. David had warned me about this aspect of his favorite crepe shop–that there was a less popular one right by it. But knowing it in advance didn’t make the situation easier for me. I still felt a great deal of sympathy for the lonely crepe maker, which made the delicious crepe we eventually ate slightly less delicious.

I’ve had a deep respect for popularity ever since I became aware of its existence around fifth grade. Over the course of my life, I’ve found myself both high and low on the ladder, and while I’m generally more comfortable at the bottom and have found lasting friendships there, I like the magnetism I feel when I’m on top–the way people seem attracted to me.

I’ve been to a number of museums this summer, and at them, I read a lot of signs because I’m a fan of information. I’ve found myself particularly attracted to stories of artists and political figures who traverse both the fringes and the heights of popularity during their lives. For example, Winston Churchill, who despite having enjoyed political success in the early 20th century, spent a decade in political isolation before becoming Britain’s prime minister during World War II. This isolated period in Churchill’s life is referred to as his “wilderness years” and during it he sought comfort through painting.

At the Louvre, I’ve learned about artists who encountered criticism and censorship but were ultimately revered (e.g., Delacroix), artists who achieved fame and then fell out of favor during their lifetime (e.g., Gros), and artists who lived their lives in relative obscurity only to be rediscovered and heralded in a later period (e.g., Vermeer).

These stories comfort me because they’re a reminder of how much is out of my control in terms of the reception of my work. This in turn reminds me of a quote from the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham on the responsibility of an artist:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

-Martha Graham*

A friend shared a printed copy of this quote with me last year advising me to put it somewhere I could read it often. I chose my bedroom mirror. It’s good advice for weathering troughs in the waves of popularity and a reminder of the effort needed to reach the crests.

*Source: Wikiquote’s Martha Graham page

What to Pack for Eternity

I walked away from my exploration of the Egyptian Antiquities section of the Louvre yesterday with two impressions: 1) I’ve taken the Christian idea of heaven for granted and 2) burying someone in Ancient Egypt sounds super stressful.

Re: the first impression. Growing up Christian, my sense has always been that my choices here on Earth determine whether I will make it into heaven, and if I do, then everything I need in the afterlife will be taken care of by God and the angels once I’m there. Although I’ve never been to one, I’ve pictured heaven to be like an all inclusive beach resort in the Caribbean (minus the problems of income inequality and other legacies of colonialism).

From the artifacts I saw and the audio commentary I listened to at the Louvre, the Ancient Egyptian conception of the afterlife seems to be much more BYO and DIY. For instance, in one display there was a well worn chair, a mat, and a fly swatter that had been placed in tombs to be used by the deceased. In another room, I saw a picture of a princess depicted with the food she would need. Most curious were cases filled with servant statues–small replicas of a person meant to take their place in the work shifts one must complete in the afterlife.

With all that was required for life after death in Ancient Egypt, it seems to me that the pressure would be on the loved ones of the deceased to provide. What if the family had only one chair? Does it go in the tomb or stay in the house?

The living would also be responsible for making sure the deceased was mummified properly, which from my understanding of the audio commentary was how people made it into the afterlife. Whether there was some moral component or salvation on top of that like there is in Christianity, I’m not sure.

I don’t know enough about Ancient Egypt, and I have my childhood self to blame for that. When I was in grade school, I had a family member buy a book about hieroglyphics for me. I was determined to learn the material on my own, but I gave up after only a few attempts.

To think if I’d persevered, I would have been able to translate what I saw yesterday rather than relying on the audio commentary.

Regrets! I hope I don’t take too many of these into the afterlife.

Preparing for Normandy

I had a lot in common with the man sitting beside me on the plane to Paris this summer. We were both Midwest transplants now living in the South, we were both wearing compression socks, and we were both highly anticipating our upcoming trips to Normandy.

He would depart for his shortly after we arrived in Paris, and his tour would take him to several sites culminating in Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. I still have some time before I make my way to Normandy for a day long tour of the five D-Day beaches, but I’ve been preparing for awhile now.

Like my general understanding of French history, my knowledge of what happened on D-Day has come and gone a few times over my lifetime. I’m sure I knew something about it in high school when I took AP US History and the movie Saving Private Ryan premiered (although I didn’t see it). I probably touched on it again in college when I studied abroad in Europe.

But most of what I knew then has been lost. So to prepare for myself for my Normandy tour, I’ve watched the first few episodes of Band of Brothers, I’ve listened to an abridged version of Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day audiobook, and I’ve visited the French Army Museum in Paris. On the plane, along with the man beside me, I watched The Longest Day, a 1962 film about the Normandy landings.

The films and the audiobook tend to jump around between different units, and my lack of knowledge of military terms (e.g., division, regiment, etc.) has kept me from following the storylines of any individual or group very well. But I have a sense of the larger picture now.

Here’s what I’ll be thinking about when I make my trip to Normandy and what I’m thinking about today on the 75th anniversary of D-Day:

  • The extent of the physical obstacles the Allied soldiers faced on the beaches like land mines, barbed wire, barriers, the terrain, and the sea itself. Laden down with equipment, the troops navigated these obstacles while under intense fire from Germans positioned above them. They had to pass fellow soldiers lying dead or wounded on the ground.
  • The magnitude of the Allied fleet that came to launch the attack: 7000 ships and landing craft with 156,000 Allied soldiers landing at Normandy.* There’s a scene in The Longest Day (that my seat mate on the plane had me watch for) where a German officer in a beach front barricade looks out to the horizon through binoculars and a wall of Allied ships appears before him.
  • The French citizens in the towns behind the beaches who were waiting to be liberated after four years of German occupation.
  • The problems that clouds and the weather introduced, making it difficult for the Allied air fleet to drop the paratroopers in their designated zones and to carry out an aerial bombing of the German defenses along the beaches before the infantry troops came ashore.
  • The extent of the casualties among the Allied troops: over 10,000 with 4,414 of these confirmed deaths.**

As overwhelming as they are, these numbers represent one day in a war that lasted years. Learning about D-Day has reminded me of all the things I don’t know yet about World War II. Like what else happened on the Western front and what happened on the Eastern front, in North Africa, and in the Pacific theater.

The horror of D-Day is overwhelming and to continue to follow it means coming to grips with even more horror–military campaigns, concentration camps, and atomic bombings.

Knowing history can’t change it’s course, but I find I’m scared to learn it. Part of me wants to hide from the horror, but there’s another part of me, a stronger part, that wants to honor the memory of those involved by learning their stories in Normandy and beyond.


*From BBC News article “D-Day: 10 things you might not know about the Normandy invasion”
**From the Wikipedia entry on Normandy Landings