I’ve been reading a book, Carol Berkin’s First Generations: Women In Colonial America.

The title gives away the subject matter pretty well. It’s a synthesis of different approaches in research to the study of women in the American Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The subject matter is endlessly fascinating to me. There are chapters that address the regional differences that had an effect on women’s lives as well as chapters about race and class. It is really striking to me just how important property and inheritance laws are in determining how a culture thinks of women.

Two chapters in particular have been phenomenal; I especially enjoyed reading the chapter about English immigrants to the Chesapeake Bay in the 17th century and the chapter that focused on the experiences of Native American women throughout the Colonial period.

As I’ve been reading the book, however, I’ve noticed my critical thinking skills kicking in, and I’ve found myself analyzing the structure of the author’s writing. It’s so transparently Academic Writing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but on numerous occasions I have found myself questioning the author’s argument because I recognize the way it is constructed. I have written arguments like that myself, usually late at night, just hours before a paper is due. I have also noticed what seem to be holes in the research that the author has attempted, for whatever reason, to neatly patch over. I have done that too. Maybe I didn’t have enough time to do the research, or there weren’t enough sources to make a solid conclusion, but I wanted to keep the content. Some chapters read like stand-alone academic papers. I know that many books get their start as a great doctoral dissertation or Master’s thesis, when the writer is encouraged to flesh out the topic. If that were the case with this book, I think I might have identified which chapter was its genesis.

I’ve also been wondering if my analytic activity while reading the book interferes with my enjoyment of it. Just because I know what the author’s doing, does that make it a bad book? I’m relieved to decide that no, it doesn’t, not for me. She’s good at it, this style of writing. And maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve read a book like this, I forgot that I actually think about them when I’m reading. It’s part of engaging with the book, right? Maybe it also means that I know how to write things like this, that’s why I recognize it.

In a different telling of my life I would have gotten a PhD and been a real fancypants academic, but I didn’t figure out in time what topics I needed to explore, nor did I have the confidence to believe that my PhD would be worth something. Oh well. The real telling of my life is going its own way, and that’s just fine.

On genealogy

August 23, 2011

Here’s a little secret:

When I was a small girl I had really dorky secret obsessions/pursuits. They embarrassed me, both in their subject matter, and the fervor with which I pursued them.

One of those secret obsessions was the genealogy of obscure European noble or royal families. I spent hours reading Debrett’s Peerage from the library, making neatly spaced and annotated tables in notebooks. The tidy accumulation of data into family trees fascinated me. One generation came after another, and they went on and on, but sometimes they didn’t. I started to learn how history affected demographic patterns, when I noticed that in the 18th century British families had lots and lots of children who lived to adulthood, which had been (and still is) an uncommon family pattern in world history. These patterns in the family trees came because families were able to grow and live due to advances in medicine, wealth generated by new technologies, and other social conditions and innovations.

I became fascinated by the Spanish succession, how the interplay of unions between close family members meant generations of uncles marrying their nieces, and cousins (on both sides of their family) marrying cousins, which both tangled up and tightened lines of inheritance. The fates of nations directly arose from the patterns I saw in the family trees, as ambivalences in the pattern started wars and combined nations. They also lead to sad inherited conditions that eventually ended lines and actually physically deformed the people.

But how could I explain something like that to my friends? As a 10 year old? As a 14 year old? As as 20 year old? It’s impossible. So I kept it to myself.

Then I had my own children, grew older, became a librarian, worked in an archives, learned the tools I needed to research REAL PEOPLE’s histories, and I became focused squarely on my own family’s history. Now I engage in genealogical research as a hobby. Yes, one of my favorite pursuits is an old lady hobby.

But I’ve always been fascinated with history. And I’ve always loved neat progressions of data like those in family trees (or library catalog cards, or lists of Signers of Famous Documents). And I grew up in California, where everything was brand-new and lacking history – read Douglas Coupland’s excellent Microserfs for a fantastic encapsulation of this phenomenon – and the idea that my own family had a past FASCINATES THE HELL out of me.

So now I’ve learned some interesting things. I’ve just scratched the surface. The majority of my ancestors were immigrants, and when i reach the immigrant point, I lose the tools I have to keep following the family line.

My father’s father Sidney Davies immigrated to the United States from Wales, so I assume at least 25% of my ancestors were Welsh.
My father’s mother Alice Bracker was the daughter of immigrants from Germany, so I assume at least 25% of my ancestors were German.
My mother’s mother’s father (my great-grandfather Frank Richards) was the son of immigrants from Germany, so that’s 12.5% more of my ancestors being German.
And my mother’s mother’s mother (my great-grandmother Edith Jones) was the daughter of immigrants from England and Canada.

I know, it’s a lot of confusing data, especially without the cool charts, but basically that means that I don’t know very much at all about 75% of my ancestors because they are from other countries, and I don’t know how to do that kind of research yet.

So I’ve focused my attention on that other 25% of my family that comes from my mother’s father, my Grandpa Alfred Dallas Sloan, who died when I was a little girl and always makes me think of John Wayne. I remember him, and I remember his funeral because that was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body, and I liked getting dressed up, and it was shocking and new to see so many sad people at once, and I enjoyed the wake very much. The wake was the only time I’ve ever felt like i got a real taste of the 1950s in real life experience.

Grandpa Sloan’s family is my American side of the family. This is the part of the family that goes back to the very beginnings of what has become the United States, my country. I’ve found clusters of ancestors that fascinate me. There are pre-Revolutionary War families of English and Scottish stock that lived right here where I live now. Some of them were Patriots in the War. Some of them were Regulators. They lived on this orange land that I walk upon, and I recognize their surnames in the names of things around me.

There are Quakers who came with William Penn and stayed for a while in Philadelphia and Berks County, and later, German Quakers. There are English indentured servants in early 17th century Maryland, working on tobacco farms, dying before their children were grown, short and hard lives. There are prominent New England Puritans, but just a few, but VERY PROMINENT.

Regardless of their entry point and time into the country, most of the lines seem to have followed a route into North Carolina, then a constant progression westward through Tennessee and Kentucky that stopped for a century in Missouri. That Missouri farmboy grandfather of mine went off to the Korean War, came back to San Diego, California, and that’s part of how I become a California girl.

But isn’t that NEAT? I mean, that so many of them lived HERE. Right here, I’m talking about. North Carolina. Orange County and Chatham County. Somehow, of all the places I could have called home, I chose those counties. I chose this place, where my friends and community live and struggle and grow and smile.

I think sometimes of the places I have had potential opportunities to move to in my life, for jobs and school: Ann Arbor, Madison, New Orleans, deepest darkest Connecticut, Boulder, DC, Chicago. I have absolutely no family ties to any of those places. As far as I have researched, none of my ancestors have ever lived in those places. Out of all the places where I have deeply considered living, I chose Chapel Hill, a place where the hills for miles around are littered with the bones of my distant cousins.


Operation Heavenly

August 17, 2011

Tonight, I write a love letter to one of my favorite albums.

I’ve been digging pretty deep into the records I love lately for potential money-rallying material. This week I sold one of my favorite albums, Operation Heavenly by Heavenly.

I bought this album brand-new my sophomore year of college, 1997. Consider the 19 year old me:

wardrobe – one pair of Levi’s 501 button-fly jeans, one pair of black jeans, one pair of ill-fitting off-brand ugly jeans, a half dozen t-shirts emblazoned with my favorite bands’ logos and comic strip panels custom-done in Mexico with my friend Tanya, a few 1960s shells, one light blue Harrington-style jacket, black Adidas Campuses, black steel-toed Oxfords, electric blue 10-hole Dr. Martens, a handful of school-uniform and Girl Scout-uniform dresses, and a few cardigan sweaters

haircut – totally DIY, either black, or platinum blonde, dyed myself, cut myself, short or in a bob, always with bangs

poverty – extreme

major – Latin

favorite past-times – reading fiction instead of studying for finals, getting drunk, avoiding eye contact, reading comics at Cody’s, taking the BART to San Francisco, going to shows, dancing at Popscene

I had a boyfriend. We’d just started dating my 2nd semester of college. I’d never had a boyfriend before. I lived at Andres Castro Arms, a 70+-bed co-op house just up the hill from campus, across the street from Delta Delta Delta, three houses down from the football stadium. The house sat directly on the San Andreas Faultline (you could see a crack running down the facade of the stadium), but it had the most glorious, sweeping, amazing view of the Bay, the Golden Gate, the Marin Headlands, the Berkeley flats, Oakland Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Alcatraz Island, and the Port of Oakland. Berkeley had a very extensive system of cooperative housing arrangements. It was great for the poorer, less mainstream students because it was cheap to live in a co-op compared with renting in Berkeley and meals were provided, cooperatively. It was awful for someone like me who enjoys a bare modicum of cleanliness and hates it when people steal my lunch out of the walk-in. There were some good parties though.

My friends and I devised our social life around Britpop music. We went to shows in San Francisco, we went dancing in clubs to Britpop music, we flirted with boys and girls with floppy haircuts at the record stores. Britpop got me into this cute little teenaged DIY poppy punky band from Scotland called Bis, who’d been putting out fun, enthusiastic EPs on 7 inch records for a little bit. My bug for buying 7 inches had begun. Bis had a split 7″ on K Records with Heavenly that was among those I bought. I fell absolutely mad for the Heavenly song, which was “Trophy Girlfriend”:

Of course I had to buy the album.

I shared a room at Andres Castro arms, and my room-mate was a quiet Biosciences major. Her computers were noisy. We didn’t share the same taste in music (I think she was into J-pop maybe), but we got along and tried to respect each others’ spaces, so I listened to my records on headphones. I spent an entire semester sitting on my bed with my Latin homework, conjugating and declining page after page, listening to Operation Heavenly.

This album keeps coming back into my life. Every other year or so I listen to it for a few weeks, and I fall in love with a new song. One year I learned that “Nous ne sommes pas des anges” was a cover of a really cool French song. Another year I chuckled at the cultural specifics in the lyrics for “Ben Sherman.” I learned that that funny voice in “Pet Monkey” was Calvin Johnson, who seemed like a cool dude I should check out.

In my junior year of college, an acquaintance gave me a box of records he’d scooped up on a visit home to Wales when he heard I liked Heavenly. He’d bought them when he was a kid; he didn’t need them anymore. There were about two dozen records, and they formed the nucleus of my Sarah Records collection. Half of those records became my most favorite songs EVER, including Heavenly’s “I Fell In Love Last Night.” I’m never selling that record.


August 12, 2011

Because this is the Internet, let’s just say I have a lot of mental anguish, and I’ll keep the details to myself.

Because I am a woman with a currently-functioning reproductive system, I also have monthly cycles. Y’know, I get my period.

The Common Wisdom holds that women get emotional right around That Time of the Month, which is a bad thing. I’m a bit of a late bloomer in understanding my personal cycles because I went through a period in my early 20s when I only had one cycle over the course of three years. That was due to two pregnancies plus two bouts of on-demand nursing (the natural birth control!) The Extreme Feminist in me, however, has never held truck with the idea that women being more emotional at certain times in their cycle is a bad thing. For a while I didn’t even believe that really happened, and I thought that it was possibly a cultural construction. I still don’t know about that.

But really, how many times have you heard someone say, “Oh that it explains it, her period just started.” How many times have you said it? How many times have you heard it crudely and disparagingly stated on television?

But back to mental anguish.

Some days my mental anguish gets really bad. I don’t necessarily control when those days are. I try to be aware and prevent things from getting too bad. That’s the best I can do right now. I do pay attention to the calendar, though, and I can’t find a pattern to suggest that the bad days happen with greater frequency when my period is about to start. Some months, my period starts, and I think, “Hmmm, I was feeling totally fine this last week. No bad days at all.” Other months, my period starts, and I think, “Oh, that explains it, my period just started.” That’s a pretty dismissive statement I make to myself about real events in my life.

I tend to think my body chemistry and my monthly cycles do affect the way I feel. I’m sure there are a lot of smart science people figuring this out at the molecular level.

Regardless of the observations on my own cycles of reproductive health and mental anguish, I want to ask why is it OK to dismiss the way a woman feels because it’s due to her period? This American culture seems to think that it’s OK. Does being on one’s period make a woman’s responses and behavior less real or important? It’s called biochemistry, and it’s real.

Mixtape Theory, Part 1

August 10, 2011

I’ve been making mixtapes and mix CDs and online playlists for a while now, twenty years? I’ve thought a lot about mixtapes over the years, and I think I have a few things to say about them. These thoughts apply specifically to the classic 60 or 90 minute cassette tape variety, but can be expanded to include aspects of more modern composed mixes.

I think Mixtapes can generally be classified into a few categories:

A. Relationship mixtapes
B. Thematic mixtapes
C. General mixtapes

The first category can be a bit tricky as it deals with romantic relationships. Within this category are the following:

1. the I Think You’re Cute tape – This one should be light-hearted and include just a lot of good songs that you really like or are into right now. Perhaps a few songs from your past. Thematic content of lyrics should be examined very closely; there should be nothing indicating obvious desire or love. That’s too much, too soon. You want to show someone a little bit about yourself by the music you love, especially if they love music too.

2. the I Think I’m Falling In Love With You tape – This is a “next step” in some relationships. There should still be a lot of light-hearted songs that you love, especially ones you think the recipient will particularly enjoy, based on what you’ve learned of their musical tastes. This is when you can drop hints about your feelings, choosing songs about love or falling in love or being in love or wanting to spend time with someone. But they still can’t be obvious. The recipient needs to slowly realize the way you feel, as the lyrical content of some of the songs begins to dawn on them. That’s why you keep the light-hearted ones interspersed with the dropping-hints songs.

3. the I’m Definitely In Love With You tape – Finally you can put all the songs you’ve ever loved that are too sappy or too obvious onto a tape, the ones that you’d feel embarrassed about in any other situation. You can put songs with “love” in the title. You can put a few “let’s go to bed” songs, but not more than two or three. Absolutely none of the songs should be downers. Think positively. You’re in love!

4. the Break-Up tape – I don’t have a lot of thoughts on these. I hear people make them for themselves after a relationship ends. An ex-boyfriend and I made each other one once, but it was more of a silly thing than a serious thing.

Of course, not all relationships unfold accompanied by mixtapes.

Next time: Thematic Mixtapes!