Scrap

Moving means looking at your own material culture. For me, the biggest change after ten years is the number and kind of books I brought with me, compared to the ones I’ll be taking to Potsdam. Almost all of my art books are making the move, big, heavy, beautiful tomes that let me travel through time and space, curled up on the sofa. Some of the novels that shaped my outlook are coming, too, especially those given to me by family and friends when I was younger. Those are my emotional books.

But most of the books I’ve enjoyed over the past 10 years are going to friends, hoping others will enjoy them as much as I did. My reference materials are going to whoever wants them, including all of my encyclopedias. I’m keeping some hard copy dictionaries, but mostly because they were so expensive. Who would want those big, fat books, in the age of free online resources for first reference and then digital formats for more authoritative content? As for those coursebooks I admired and collected to see how the masters teach English? My scrapbook collection.

Books in the internet age… Germans say “Papier ist geduldig,” paper is patient. It’s also slow. Yesterday came that moment of clarity, when I was looking at some of my history and cultural anthropology books. One in particular made me think, where an ageing academic published an anthology of articles he had researched and published long ago. Looking back in 1990 over his work of the previous 30-40 years he wrote how new research had made him edit in changes and footnotes, mostly incorporating references and adding postscripts changing his conclusions. Reading his reflections on his own intellectual growth was like looking at the cross-section of a tree. It reminded me how every bit of information is modulated every time we add new information and shift our evaluation and rephrase what we say. Instant information and prompt turnaround is such a poor substitute for a steady growth of knowledge. Will younger generations have our experience of slow intellectual growth?

Bob Dylan once sang “I forgot more than you’ll ever know about love.” I forgot more than you’ll every know about … oops, what did we learn at German colleges in the 80s? Looking through the academic tomes I collected during my studies I was simply amazed to be confronted with ways of thinking that worked for me at the time but seem completely alien to me now. When I was an academic working in museums, I was preoccupied with material culture, looking for ways we could learn from artifacts to create a better life for everyone. For example, in intercultural projects I’d be looking for signs and symbols that proved that the confluence of cultures is an anthropological norm, or would develop activities for vistors based on that concept. Funny, it seems like such a roundabout route to me now. I’ve left all of that behind. I’m really only interested in the people themselves now, in real day-to-day experience.

Will I still remember how I used to see the world now that I’ve left behind the material evidence of my own past mindset?

I’ll be reframing this blog soon, after my move-related sabbatical.

My dad

My dad died 15 years ago yesterday.

He came down with Parkinson and diabetes just as I was finishing school in 1981. That very long summer, from May to September, I got a job at the company he’d begun working for a few years earlier, a big computer consultancy, and had the fun of commuting to work with him. He was getting gentler, becoming a better listener. Gone were the days when we hadn’t seen eye to eye on anything. He’d fought my teenagedom tooth and nail. The summer I was 18 all that was no longer an issue, and I realized how similar we were.

Soon after I left home that fall he was fired because he regularly fell asleep on the job. But his colleagues stood up for him, and his dismissal was converted into early retirement, with a disability pension.

So my mother and he got very lucky. They were able to enjoy the second half of the 1980s and the early 90s together in retirement, doing volunteer work and part-time jobs and spending more and more time on Drummond. Some time, it must have been in 1991 or 1992, they moved up there year round. Larry, Mike and Adam helped them move. I was busy starting my museum career and getting to know Helmut, and saw my parents only once a year. Helmut and I got married after two years in love, relatively soon, in effect because I wanted him to meet my father as my husband. They loved each other. I’ll never forget Helmut carrying him upstairs. A year later dad was gone.

When I think of my father I see individual scenes. In Washington: Him in his home office all those years, running his own company from home, with his Wang computer. Him with his rotary printing press, printing off flyers for the various associations he was involved in. Him watering the roses. Him cooking. Him at the clavicord. Him leading Gregorian chant as the cantor at early morning mass (the only time slot granted him) with about 5 parishioners. Him reading Scientific American. Him refusing to throw out 35 years worth of National Geographic. Him laughing about wonderfully silly jokes until the tears came. Him burying one of the dogs, and almost breaking his back over it. Him looking dapper in a grey suit and a pink shirt.

On Drummond: Him at his beloved Macintosh, creating the Latin font he called “Roma”. Him in boats. Him standing silently in the water, looking out. Him defending the trees against my mother’s perpetual wish for a better view of the lake. Him falling asleep over his reading. At the end, him watching the Pope on TV.

He’d converted to Roman Catholicism in 1945 when he came to Germany and saw the cathedrals and met my mother’s family, a scientist who actually believed that Mary had risen to heaven body and soul. We still know so little about what is possible, he would say. We had to get a grip on our emotions, he believed, and think logically. That was actually a huge bone of contention between us, and I studied philosophy for a year or so to try to work out where I stand with regard to the emotions.  He was interested in everything connected with learning, a big fan of Martin Gardner and reading everything to do with how the brain works, and I sometimes feel him very close when I’m working.

How I would love to meet him again and pick up where we left off.

O is for old

In the olden days… — The Germans say: Damals… In alten Zeiten… And that is usually the beginning of a story.  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But this man has some new tricks to teach you about how to get “old dogs” to tell you really good stories about the olden days.

Marc Pachter, former Director of the National Portrait Gallery and of the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), created “Living Self-Portaits”, a program of interviews with great Americans staged before a live audience. One of his decisions in selecting the candidates was that they should be of a certain age. We call them elderly, but actually think of them as old. Here master interviewer Marc Pachter unlocks the secrets of empathy that allowed him to ask them the questions they had always wanted to be asked, getting them to share their surprizing stories. Take a quiet 20 minutes to watch this beautiful presentation. You won’t regret it!

Given at the EG Conf 2008, posted and downloadable at TED.com.

Gold Cadillac

Detroit is going down. The whole rescue package is just so hopeless. I remember when American cars were still attractive. Cadillacs were the family car, my dad’s one life-long fetish, bought used for second-hand glamor. That was until the oil crises hit, when he got sensible and we got a VW beetle and then later a Toyota.

My favorite car was a gold-colored 1966 Cadillac convertible with light seats. I loved the hugeness and sleekness and majesty of it and used to take my dolls and stuffed animals along for rides in the back seat, the wind blowing through my hair as my dad chauffeured us around. That’s about as good as it gets. Today? Forget it. Sinking fast.

1966_cadillac_eldorado_convertible