Amerikan Rambler: Podcast 32: The Revolution of 2016

From Nov. 2016: “Colin’s recent visit to Fredericksburg took place in the wake of what historians should be calling the Revolution of 2016.”

Fredericksburg is a nice place to spend a day thinking about and experiencing history. It’s also a good place to get a cup of coffee. But Colin’s recent visit to Fredericksburg took place in the wake of what historians should be calling the Revolution of 2016.

via Podcast 32: Fredericksburg. The Revolution of 2016. — Amerikan Rambler: Everybody Has a Story

Amerikan Rambler: Podcast 28: Ira Berlin

From Oct. 2016: “Ira Berlin has been called ‘one of the greatest living historians of slavery in the United States.’ “

Dr. Berlin talks about his first plane ride, activism in the 1960s, and why he chose to exchange a lab coat for the historian’s garb. Also, Ira and Colin share their thoughts about the 2016 election.

via Podcast 28: Ira Berlin — Amerikan Rambler: Everybody Has a Story

My grand strategy

Today I turned 43. In these later years, I perceive a small but steadily growing pool of wisdom fueling a clear philosophical perspective on the increasingly complex calculus of my life.

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Today I turned 43.

The number doesn’t bother me. When I look back on my past accomplishments, both professional and academic, both modest and respectable, I’m comfortably reminded that I’ve always been a late bloomer. The great triumphs — comparatively great — always came right the end of each chapter of my life, just when the time came for me to move on and start over somewhere else. Perhaps for someone like me, with my ambitions, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Every day begins with two thoughts: “There’s still a little time left. Relax.” and “Pretend this is your last day on earth because one day it will be. Work faster.” I stagger through the days wavering between those two sentiments.

At the end of 2014, I completed a master’s degree in U.S. history at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), topped off with a 190-page thesis — the cherry on the sundae. I never had so much fun — ask the people who know me … “fun” is not a word they ever expect me to use. During that last half of 2014, I attracted the attention of UTSA’s Communications office, which sent a reporter to profile me, perhaps to hold me up as an example to others, perhaps to highlight the interesting and intelligent people enriching and enriched by the UTSA’s wonderful History Department. Perhaps it was just my turn. Nevertheless, I was flattered and honored. I shamelessly shared it throughout social media, as I am now. “We are all very proud of you,” one of my beloved professors wrote me. My heart burst with teary pride — the rarest of my few expressed emotions.

The best part of the article came right at the beginning. The first paragraph captured the grand strategy I set out for my life: “At an early age, [Ortiz] charted the life he wanted to lead: journalist, academic scholar and author.” At some point in my twenties — not sure when, exactly, but probably as I began to seriously study history and biography — I determined to approach life with a larger consideration: “How will I be remembered?” I knew enough to know that a great legacy was constructed with small pieces, carried one small step at a time, and sometimes at first only imperfectly constructed. I held close to my heart a few simple rules. Never turn away from a challenge. Never shrink away from leaping out of your comfort zone into unknown terrain. Never decline the opportunity to fail. Never fail to learn from those failures. All are easy to say and painfully difficult to follow.

In early 2015, I was honored when Dr. Catherine Clinton, a leading Civil War scholar, asked me to assist her with some special research for a few months. Just as that ended, I was honored yet again with an offer to actually teach U.S. history to college undergraduates at Northwest Vista College and then again at UTSA in 2016. Solitary research and writing — annotated bibliographies, briefing memos, etc. — is ideal for someone as shy as me. Teaching and discussing U.S. history with 70 to 80 young men and women is not. I stood in those classrooms and wondered how I could teach these young men and women. My comfort zone was nowhere in sight. Nevertheless, I knew when I accepted the challenge that I was undertaking the most difficult and the most important job of my life. Perhaps someday I might actually be good at it (though student applause is always reassuring). These are a few of those crucial pieces of the larger something I am trying to build, just as the men and women who came before me struggled to build their own lives, faced down their challenges and fears, and took one more step forward.

My Peruvian great-grandfather was prosperous fisherman who owned a fishing fleet. His son, my grandfather, was an Army general and special forces commander. His son, my father, is a physician. My father’s son — me — is … what? I was blessed with generous, loving, and supportive parents, who always pushed my brother and me to succeed. They trusted us to find our own way within their explicit expectations. It was assumed that we would become productive and honorable men as we kept in mind who built the comfortable world we inhabited. My interests guided me toward history, literature, and psychology. My mind naturally blossomed as historical concepts, literary theory, psychopathology, and the hourly drama of news cycles all caressed, molded, and ignited my growing intellect and imagination. But I realized that some kind of structure was needed. Simply wandering through my interests was not enough — it all had to amount to something in the end, something my descendants would look back on and admire … and perhaps emulate.

In some small way, this blog is an expression of that grand strategy. I’ve written about and shared with my readers my love of podcasts and photography, of the Civil War and fiction writing. I’ve shared with them a plethora of strange stories and documentaries, thoughts about Hemingway, rum cakes, books, and TR. They’ve experienced my passion for “Miami Vice”, Elvis, a Louisiana woman fleeing Union invasion during the Civil War, and a Cuban woman who disguised herself as a man and savored every moment of that same brutal war. Each piece fits into the larger plan.

In these later years, I perceive a small but steadily growing pool of wisdom fueling a clear philosophical perspective on the increasingly complex calculus of my life. Every failure becomes simply the moment when a fresh opportunity is revealed to me. Every hard-earned success merely offers a better vantage point on the harsh terrain ahead. As I move into this new year, from my new vantage point I can take in a horridly-jagged landscape stretching out before my eyes, seemingly endless, on into the horizon. But that far-off horizon is gleaming. The shimmering edges are only now in sight, the barely-perceptible glitter drawing me forward, igniting the ambition filling my heart, and steeling my spirit for the disappointments, setbacks, wrong turns, and frustrations darkening the journey.

My grand strategy, glowing in my soul, burned into my mind, never leaves me. The sweet promise of a final victory — a life well-lived — is my last thought as sleep and dreams wrap their arms around me and carry me away into the silent night.

Dec. 31, 1999: The last day of the past

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On Dec. 31, 1999, I was a junior news editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the newest member of a team of about a dozen editors and page designers. Reporters mostly worked during the day writing the stories. Editors like me worked at night editing the stories and assembling and designing the newspaper. So I was shocked and elated when my supervisor told me in late December that I wouldn’t have to work on New Year’s Eve. I was smart enough not to ask why. My then-girlfriend was coming to Corpus Christi to celebrate with me, and I was looking forward to a long, romantic night in a downtown hotel.

But on the morning of the 31st, my supervisor called and apologetically asked me to come in for a few hours that night to help edit the extra-big pile of stories for the first edition of the new year. He assured me that I could leave by 7 or 8 p.m. I agreed, trying to sound gracious and appreciative of his promise of an early release. The promise of extra overtime pay further softened the news. I informed my girlfriend of the minor change in plans, which wouldn’t drastically affect our evening.

I dutifully returned to my desk in the newsroom, and I explained to my puzzled (and relieved) colleagues why I was there. As I settled in, I gradually realized there was nowhere else I wanted to be that night (if only for a few hours).

There were great advantages to sitting in a newsroom that night, if only because of the tremendous access I had to countless news services from around the world. Every news service offers special packages every year that examine, analyze, celebrate, or condemn developments in politics, technology, science, sports, film, and music over the past twelve months, but this year was different. The millennial angle brought rich historical and cultural flavors to the coverage. That year, there were fascinating and thoughtful reflections on the evolution of democracy throughout human history, the torments and treasures technology brought to human civilization, and the great and terrible conflicts and comforts religion brought to every society.

That year’s year-end gaze focused as far on the future as it did on the past, predicting peace for most of the world, except for the inevitable tensions between a resurgent China and the post-Cold War United States. Analysts predicted that an economically healthy world would strengthen even the weakest societies in Africa and the Middle East. Terrorism was mentioned, but only in passing as one of a series of minor dangers the U.S. of the future might have to confront and snuff out. Foreign affairs experts predicted the imminent liberation of (and possible civil war in) Cuba once the Castro brothers died. Some political analysts wondered what an Al Gore presidency would look like.

That night I watched live news coverage of the (symbolic) new millennium dawning on the other side of the world. I cheerily chatted with my new co-workers. I munched on the growing buffet of sandwiches, fruits, and vegetables the newspaper ordered for the staff. I noticed a strange new sensation growing in my body, a warm happiness enveloping my heart and mind. Later I realized that warmth I felt was a deepening love for my new job, specifically for the particular intellectual role I played in the newsroom. There was an energy in the air that night, something I never felt before, and something I would feel for the next ten years, every time the newsroom mobilized to absorb and understand a big news event. I was part of something noble, challenging, and fulfilling. I was part of something that mattered.

There was another important reason why I wanted to be in the newsroom on that night, another important explanation for that tense excitement in the air. For months, the news wires were filled with stories about Y2K, the looming technological disaster everyone feared might take place at midnight. Technology experts, military officials, and others fretted about what might happen when the calendars in software programs and defense systems turned from 12-31-99 to 01-01-00, or some other variation of a date dominated by so many zeroes. Would there be power failures? Would computers everywhere melt down? Would planes fall out of the sky, hospital life-support machines shut down, or satellites spin out of control? Would defense systems accidentally launch missiles at Russia or at the U.S.? Would the symbolic end of the millennium inaugurate an actual Armageddon?

Despite these concerns, no one in the general populace seemed to be seriously concerned about Y2K. Government officials, scientists, and engineers were well aware of the potential problems, and the general consensus was that most of the spots in software, where there might be glitches over those zeros, were fixed. Russian and American military officials teamed up to monitor defense systems in an admirable display of transparency and professionalism. No one really knew what might happen. One of my favorite podcasts, “Witness” from the BBC World Service, recently examined the worries over the “Millennium Bug.”

Nevertheless, Times Square in New York City filled up with its usual crowds of bundled-up revelers with their strange eyeglasses, hats, and signs. Peter Jennings anchored ABC News coverage from New York, smiling to himself as he tried to speak to increasingly inebriated correspondents from Asian and European capitals, where the skies exploded with fireworks, church bells pealed, and the streets filled with millions of people, all dancing, kissing, and cheering. I imagined myself in Paris with my girlfriend, holding hands on the riverbank, sharing a deep kiss, the Eiffel Tower’s searchlight sweeping across the cloudy sky above us, the twinkle of distant fireworks sparkling in her dark eyes. Someday, I told myself, I’ll take her there.

Eventually, the newsroom’s clock struck 8 p.m., and my supervisor thanked me for helping edit the extra-big pile of stories for tomorrow’s edition. I smiled, shook his hand, and wished him and and my envious co-workers a happy New Year. I strolled out of the newsroom, glancing one last time at the TV. Peter Jennings smiled as he reviewed the growing crowd in Times Square. It was a smile I never forgot. I spent the rest of the night as I hoped I would. My girlfriend and I had a romantic and relaxing evening — the perfect end to the year, the century, and the millennium.

In the morning, we learned the world did not end. Instead, the first day of the new millennium was bright, breezy, and warm. We had breakfast and then drove to Padre Island. Amazingly, the beach was empty. She and I walked together through the frothy waves hissing across the yellow sand. I stared out across the water, shielding my tired eyes from the sunshine. A new year, I thought to myself. I felt a greater sense of hope, determination, and ambition at that moment than ever before. I felt fortunate, safe, and content. I asked myself, would I ever feel like this again?

I glanced at my girlfriend, radiant in the morning light, slowly dancing her way down the beach, watching the water flow around her legs, her gleaming black hair streaming down her shoulders, her arms outstretched to catch the breeze. She smiled at me. I took her hand in mine. It was time to move on. The future awaited.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: George Michael dies / 2016’s best science stories / Texas and Planned Parenthood / What men should know by 22 / Plantations and public history

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This week: George Michael dies / 2016’s best science stories / Texas and Planned Parenthood / What men should know by 22 / Plantations and public history

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Ex-Wham singer George Michael dies
BBC News | Dec. 25
“The star … is said to have ‘passed away peacefully at home.’ … Police say there were no suspicious circumstances.”

2. Ordered Deported, Berlin Suspect Slipped Through Germany’s Fingers
By Alison Smale, Carlotta Gall, and Gaia Pianigiani | The New York Times | Dec. 22
“Amri’s life and odyssey underscore a vexing problem, common in Europe: how to handle hundreds of thousands of virtually stateless wanderers who are either unwilling or unable to return home.”

3. ‘Life disappeared before my eyes’: photographer describes killing of Russian ambassador
By Burhan Ozbilici | The Guardian | Dec. 19
“Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici went to view an exhibition in Ankara but instead witnessed the assassination of Andrei Karlov”
Also, from the Associated Press: A look at the most significant attacks in Turkey in 2016

4. The Most Popular Science Stories of 2016
By Andrea Gawrylewski | Scientific American | Dec. 19
“The presidential election took center stage, but our readers were also fascinated by everything from particle physics and rage disorder to autism in girls and the polar vortex”

5. The Best TV Performances of 2016
By Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg | The Hollywood Reporter | Dec. 20
Sadness, fear, strength, vulnerability — 2016 had an incredible array of acting achievements.

6. Texas officially kicking Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid
By Alexa Ura | The Texas Tribune | Dec. 20
“Planned Parenthood had previously received $3.1 million in Medicaid funding, but those dollars will be nixed in 30 days …”

7. 22 Things Men Should Know By Age 22
By Todd Brison | Medium | Dec. 15
“Most of the people in your life now will not be there in 5 years. Tell them how much they matter to you today.”

8. The Plantation Tour Disaster: Teaching Slavery, Memory, and Public History
By Niels Eichhorn | Muster :: Journal of the Civil War Era | Dec. 5
“Regardless whether a plantation does or does not cover slavery, they provide an interesting mechanism to teach about the institutions of the Old South, collective memory, and public history.”

9. Mexico: The Cauldron of Modernism
By J. Hoberman | NYR Daily :: The New York Review of Books | Dec. 12
“To a degree, ‘Paint the Revolution’ is the story of the three star muralists, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, who along with the posthumously canonized Frida Kahlo, defined the new Mexican art.”

10. From White Knight to Thief
By Michael Beschloss | HistorySource :: The New York Times | September 2014
“At the start of the terrifying market plunge of October 1929, he had bravely helped shore up the market by parading around the exchange floor, placing bids for shares of U.S. Steel, as well as other blue-chip holdings.”

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Deadly Africa / Celebrating ‘Dr. Strangelove’ / Our nation of secrets / Touring the 9/11 museum / Attacking Obama’s drone war

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This week: Deadly Africa / Celebrating ‘Dr. Strangelove’ / Our nation of secrets / Touring the 9/11 museum / Attacking Obama’s drone war

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Between Life and Death
Lifeline :: Al Jazeera English | May 15
“Why is Africa still the most dangerous place in the world for mothers and babies?”

2. Robert Capa’s Longest Day
By Marie Brenner | Vanity Fair | June 2014
“Seventy years ago, the great war photographer joined the first slaughterhouse wave of D-Day, recording WWII’s pivotal battle in 11 historic images of blur and grit. But that is only a fraction compared with what he shot — and lost.”

3. The half-century anniversary of ‘Dr. Strangelove’
By David Denby | Culture Desk :: The New Yorker | May 14
“It may be hard to believe now, but Kubrick’s original intention was to do a straight, serious movie. In the late fifties, he became obsessed with the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. …”

4. ‘So Jayson Blair Could Live, The Journalist Had to Die’
By Sridhar Pappu | New York Observer | May 2013
“Why had he done it? Why had a promising 27-year-old reporter with a career in high gear at the most respected news organization in the world thrown it all away in a pathological binge of dishonesty?”

5. A Grandson Traces His Grandfather’s Voyage to Auschwitz
The Takeaway :: WNYC | May 13
“The ship was the MS St. Louis. It departed from Hamburg, Germany on May 13th, 1939, with 937 Jewish refugees seeking asylum abroad. But the ship’s passengers were denied refuge by the United States, Canada, and Cuba. The ship returned back to Europe on June 20, sealing a tragic fate for many aboard.”

6. The United States of Secrets
Frontline | May 13
“How did the government come to spy on millions of Americans?”

7. 9/11 Memorial Museum: an emotional underworld beneath Ground Zero
By Oliver Wainwright | The Guardian | May 13
“Scorched car doors, salvaged firefighters’ uniforms, banners, toys and the hallowed ‘last column’ to be removed from the World Trade Center clearance … the relics of the twin towers have been elevated into art objects at the new museum. …”

8. Jeb 2016: The Bush battle within
By Maggie Haberman | Politico | May 13
“Jeb Bush’s decision whether to run for president in 2016 is being driven by competing impulses within his own family.”

9. #BringBackYourDrones drive launched against FLOTUS
Al Arabiya English | May 14
“A relatively small group of social media users said the first lady was overlooking the victims of the U.S.’s drone program which is operated mainly in Yemen and Afghanistan.”

10. This is the world’s oldest sperm
By Jamie Condliffe | Gizmodo | May 14
“The samples found themselves in the hands of John Neil, a specialist ostracod — that’s fancy for shrimp — researcher at La Trobe University, who realized they may contain something a little more… ballsy.”