Apocalypse, zombie style

Working in Radio is Scary
Working in Radio is Scary

I did a fun interview with Ed Ayers for about 45 minutes yesterday.  Ayers is one of the hosts of Backstory with the American History Guys, and they’re preparing an episode on Apocalypses (for December 9th).  Here’s hoping they’ll use a lot of me, but we’ll see.

I couldn’t help but mention Pontypool and urge them to watch it.  Mwa ha ha.

Update: Alas, it appears I didn’t make the show!


Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
written by Dee Brown, narrated by Grover Gardner

Brown’s history the years between 1850 and 1900 (or thereabouts) documents the brutal genocide of band after band of Native Americans (whom the book calls Indians as was common in 1970) by whites who wanted the land they occupied.  It’s a difficult read, but a crucial one for anyone who values a deep and complex understanding of the past as part of an understanding of the present and the future.  A few thoughts:

  • By the halfway point in the book, even the most dense reader will have uncovered the pattern:
    1. Whites arrive in an area occupied by a band of Native Americans, demand a piece of the land for their own.  The band either agrees or fights.  If they fight, the whites kill them mercilessly, or bring in bigger and bigger military forces until they can.  In the treaty for the land, whites promise rations and annual payments in exchange for the land the band gives up.
    2. Whites fail to deliver the rations and/or payments that were promised.  Often, new settlers in the region begin encroaching on the reservations for mining, hunting, or general settlement.  If the Native Americans react to these violations in any way, they’re blamed and held solely responsible.
    3. Whites decide they want the reservation land too, and send “peace commissions” to negotiate further sales of the limited land.  Return to step 1.
  • Brown writes the book from the Native American perspective, using language like ‘pony soldiers’ for cavalry and ‘one star chief SoandSo.’  This distinct style choice continually reminds the reader of the perspective and experience being documented.
  • The sheer volume of tribes on whom the land grab / extermination was practiced is grueling and mind-numbing to contemplate.  By the end of the book, it’s painful to continue reading.  Sometimes well-intentioned individuals managed to scrape together reasonably solid situations for the tribes for whom they mediated, so the reader could foster hope for a moment. But inevitably, other individuals driven by greed, arrogance, and a system that favored whites over natives in every way upset these situations, driving the Native Americans mercilessly until they rebelled, and then bringing in the Army to kill them.
  • I was particularly sad to read the chapters on Minnesota, as in my schooling there, I’d learned nothing of the treachery my ancestors brought along when they settled the land of 10,000 lakes.  The particular brand of betrayal we used was to persuade natives to settle on reservations and promise to give them rations and money in annual installments, then forget or refuse to pay them the rations and money.  Then, when they got mad about being lied to, my ancestors killed them.  As I said above, this happened in nearly every encounter between White Americans and Native Americans.  But somehow, I wanted to think Minnesota was different.  Of course, many places in the state are named after the men and peoples they killed: Shakopee, Wabasha, Minnetonka.
  • Two “fun facts” I’ll take away from this book are: 1. The Native Americans who encountered George Custer (a particularly brutal military leader who well-deserved what he got at Little Big Horn) called him “Hard Backsides” because he could ride for hours without a break.  2. Sitting Bull received a trick pony from Buffalo Bill Cody after he toured with Cody’s Wild West Show.  The pony was trained to sit down and raise one hoof at the sound of a gun shot.  When Sitting Bull was killed in a scuffle that triggered the massacre at Wounded Knee, his horse performed its trick right on the field next to the dying Chief.

Two books came to mind as I read this history.  First, Jared Gardner’s Guns, Germs, and Steel helps explain the historical accidents that gave some cultures (Western Europe, particularly) a leg up in the technological race that determined the outcome of so many battles.  But it doesn’t explain the attitude that accompanies them, the idea of ownership and conquest that drive the people who arrived from Europe and proceeded to murder the people already living there.

Second, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael suggests that the modern world has been swept, in the last  5,000 years or so, by the mindset of the takers rather than that of the sharers (it’s been a long time since I read that book, so forgive me if I’m using the wrong language here).  He suggests that the equilibrium developed by many societies hinged on an idea of shared ownership and communion with the land, but that this perspective conflicted with the new perspective of takers, who believe in ownership and dominion over the land.  This latter perspective fosters greed, etc, and also provides an incentive to overwhelm one’s neighbors. The clashes in North America and Australia represent two of the more recent encounters between takers and sharers, with the takers brutally sweeping the sharers aside.

I also can’t help but notice what a strong role the belief in religious superiority had in shaping the white political and military actions.  (Usually greed was the first role, with miners and settlers encroaching on land the government had already ceded to the Native Americans.)  Usually the whites believed their Christian views gave them moral superiority–even the “manifest destiny”–from which they could decide the fates of the tribes with whom they dealt.  It also gave them the justification to punish the tribes who had come to live on reservations.  Often, almost immediately after the tribes had given up their land, their agents and the legislators who funded them resented the “handouts” they had to give the reservation residents, conveniently forgetting that these were not charity, but payment owed for land purchased.  Already by the 1880s, the U.S. was welching on its debts.

The big question, for me, is not how we can recuperate these moments, as we’ve tried to do with films like Dances with Wolves or Avatar (the latter of which strikes me as a science-fictional Native American revenge fantasy–despite being tainted with the White Messiah plotline–that should be shelved right next to Inglourious Basterds at the video store). Instead, I would like to know how we can move forward while both accepting that our culture is built on that horror, and acknowledging that no individual should be punished for the sins of his/her parents.  That said, the systemic poverty on reservations stems directly from the actions of the government and its agents in the years since the treaties were signed.

This isn’t a question I have a satisfying answer to yet, I’m afraid.

The Atlantic


By Simon Winchester

A solid and enjoyable audio book about the history of the ocean and its influence on human society.  A couple thoughts:

  • The Atlantic is getting 4 inches wider each year.
  • The story he tells of how the Grand Banks were wiped out is downright sad.
  • I love Winchester’s voice.

Overall, not bad.  But not as good as Krakatoa or The Crack at the Edge of the World.


A New Opportunity

I’ve long been involved in the leadership at the PCA/ACA.  I’ve been on the Executive Board off and on for several years now, and I was elected to the role of VP of Area Chairs last Spring.

About a month ago, the Executive Director of the PCA/ACA resigned.  After some considered discussion, the Governing Board asked me to step in as Interim Executive Director.  This is a huge opportunity for me, but also a massive task with many, MANY moving parts.  It’s taken up most of my free time and other time besides, so I’ve found my blogging suffering. I apologize for this, and hope that as I get a handle on this new task, I’ll find more time to post the reviews and commentary you know and love.  I the meantime, please be patient and keep my RSS feed alive.

Regarding the Interim Executive Director job, I’m excited to have the opportunity to fill this role for the organization I care about, but I’m also sad to get the role in this way.  It’s both disheartening to see the previous ED resign and stressful to have to hit the ground running.  But I’m excited and confident about meeting these challenges, and looking forward to putting on a great conference.

In which I wax smart about zombies

Here’s a link to a radio interview I did with Jon Grayson, who hosts the late-night syndicated radio program Overnight America.  I sound pretty smart in it, if you ask me.


How Comcast lied to me

Sigh.  I’ve always liked Comcast’s service, and the tech people have been very helpful even when they have to visit my home over and over and over to fix bad lines, etc.  But this is the first time I’ve had to restrain myself from shouting at someone on the phone.  I just went through three different call techs regarding this.

Here’s what happened:

In early September a Comcast sales person called to see if I wanted to subscribe to the “triple play” phone/tv/internet service.  Up to that point, I did not have the phone service.  The selling point, for me, in fact the ONLY reason I agreed was that I would be paying less after the upgrade than I was paying currently.  Let me repeat that. He told me I would be paying less after the upgrade than I was paying currently.

The first month, my bill was higher, but I thought this was due to a monthly overlap in billing.  Fine, I didn’t say anything.

The second month, my bill was still higher, so I called.  It turned out that I’m now being charged $9 a month for the cable card that I have had for free for 3 years. (They installed it and had it on my account, it’s not like I was pulling a fast one on them.)  So my bill is higher than it was before.  I called because I felt that this was deceptive.

Throughout an hour on the phone with three different reps, I was continually given justifications for why that new $9 fee was on my account — mostly along the lines of “you should have been charged for this all along.”  My response was always this: “I haven’t added any equipment beyond what I had before.  The salesperson told me I would be charged less each month than I was being charged now.  I’m now being asked to pay more.  That’s wrong.  Give me the price you offered me.”

They gave me excuses about how they would fix it but the system wouldn’t let them, about how I was getting a CREDIT for it before, excuses excuses excuses.  Finally, I’d reached the top guy on the floor and he still insisted he could not give me a credit for the rate I was told.  What a bunch of bullshit.

If a salesperson calls and makes a specific offer about the bill, you should have to honor the rate they offer, at least for the trial period, even if you discover that you were undercharging me before.  It’s the right thing to do.

Bad form, Comcast.  I’ll have to seriously consider whether to stay a customer, at least of the television and phone service.

In which I cut a dashing figure

An article about the play I did on 2 and 3 November in the Forest Park Review:

I wasn’t just entertained by the “Meeting of Minds XVIII” production at Centuries & Sleuths, I was inspired. The panel of resurrected historical figures included America’s preeminent mystery writers, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, as well as a female pioneer in the genre, Craig Rice.

As Hammet, Brendan Riley cut a dashing figure, wearing a gray suit and black moustache. The author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man used his deadpan manner to deliver some of the evening’s best lines. …

…”Alcohol,” in the form of convincing-looking tea, flowed throughout the performance. The three acknowledged alcoholics even shared swigs from a hip flask.The interplay was so seamless, the audience didn’t know how much time and effort had gone into these impersonations. The cast had been working on their characters for eight months. It took that long to complete their research and become comfortable in their historic skin. Eventually, they were relaxed enough to banter with their colleagues. …

Hammet was also an inspirational presence. He was the only panelist who had actually been a private detective. He started writing hardboiled novels because the detective stories he’d read didn’t reflect the realities of the job. (This had also been my motivation.) I didn’t identify as closely with Craig Rice, though we may be distant relatives.

Proprietor Augie Aleksy should be applauded for putting on these painstaking productions. The authors certainly appreciated it. Hammet, whose favorite activity was “liquid loafing,” hoisted his glass and declared, “Forest Park’s my kind of town.” When asked how they looked so well-preserved after decades in the grave, he quipped, “We’re pickled.” (link)