April 19, 2011

420 Ain't So Bad....

For years, I’ve commemorated 420. Except the literal train touring the Dole Plantation in Hawaii, I’ve never ridden the Pineapple Express. I’ve merely bombarded my fellowmen with trivia about the historic date. It’s just generally an awful day in history. Besides being the cannabis feast day, it’s Hitler’s birthday. It’s also the day not-very-American-supported troops failed to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It’s also the day of the Columbine shooting. Generally bad stuff all around.

Although I started telling people 420 trivia back in the eighth grade, more recently I’ve been writing a “This Day in History” column for the Pepperdine Graphic. It lets me peruse Wikipedia, ground my historical understanding in concrete events, and disseminate history humorously. I have a lot of fun with it.

But the Graphic’s last issue of the semester hit the stands on Thursday, 7 April. (There are almost certainly still copies on the vermillion rack in Firestone Fieldhouse. Pick one up if you haven’t yet. Also, check out Currents.) Thus, if I want to rehash events that happened on 420, I must do it on this, my blog.

My goal in this entry is to redeem 420 from the throes of wacky tobaccy, the F├╝hrer, American military debacles, and Coloradan school shootings. I want to prove that even on the darkest of days, many good things happen too.

On 420 in 1657, the colony of New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) granted Jews the freedom of religion.

Jews first came to New Amsterdam back in 1654. They came in two waves. First, Ashkenazic Jews arrived with passports from the Dutch West India Company from (Old) Amsterdam. The second wave were Sephardic Jews escaping Portuguese persecution in Brazil. Since I don't have much more information on that, here’s a list of famous Jews.

Famous Ashkenazic, read ‛German’, Jews include psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Zionist Theodor Herzl, the physicist and highly quotable Albert Einstein, despairing author Franz Kafka, Israeli PM Golda Meir, American composer George Gershwin, and... diary-writer Anne Frank. Quite a lineup.

Famous Sephardic Jews, or Jews from the Iberian Peninsula include rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Conservative British PM and demigod Benjamin Disraeli, “New Colossus” poet Emma Lazarus, and Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria. In my book, while the Sephardic Jews make a good showing, they just don’t measure up to the Ashkenazic Jews.

That having been said, on 420, 1657 the Dutch gave these new Manhattanites the right to worship freely. This was no small feat, for it went against the will of the ornery, peg-legged director-general of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, who would still not allow the Jews to build a synagogue. Little did he know how thoroughly Jews would come to dominate the culture of New York. And little did he know his colony would be conquered by James II, Duke of York and become New York. Today, Stuyvesant’s name lives on in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z were born— “Bed-Stuy, Do or Die.”

315 years later, in 1972, Apollo 16 landed on the Moon.

The lunar module had an engine crisis before landing, and Thomas Mattingly, the astronaut who was removed from the infamous Apollo 13 mission at the last minute, was able to deal with the issue, correct course, and land the craft. This was the penultimate manned mission to the Moon, and astronauts roamed the surface in the lunar rover and collected over 200 pounds of moon rock, exfoliating the pores of the chronically dry-skinned Man in the Moon.

Four years later, former Beatle George Harrison sang the “Lumberjack Song” with Monty Python.

When Harrison died, Royal Albert Hall hosted a tribute concert to George where a reunited Python crew, including Tom Hanks (look for him in the lower right-hand corner of the Mounties) sang an ode to the enthusiastically transvestite Canadian. I can’t really make any joke about this song to make it any funnier than it already is. Here’s the link:

420 has also been a good day for the Chicago Bulls. In Jordan’s 1986 rookie season, he scored a then record 63 points in a playoff game against the Boston Celtics. Larry Bird described the rookie: “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

On this same day ten years later, the Chicago Bulls won a still record 72 games in a single season. That means they only lost 10 games in the whole season. Incredible. The Bulls went on to defeat the Seattle Sonics to win the NBA Finals, making it their fourth win in the ’90s. The really amazing thing in those days, however, was the Bulls’ starting lineup video. So good.

My point is not that these events outweigh the bad things that happened on 420. I really don’t think there’s any way to measure that. My point is that no day, no matter how bad, is all bad. Whether it’s begrudgingly bestowed freedom of religion, a Moon landing, a Beatle making his mark on British comedy, or just generally a good day for Chicago sports history (and thus world history), no day is as dark as it seems. Remember that this 420.

April 05, 2011

Where/When you at? – An Exploration of Place and Time

"History is philosophy teaching by example, and also warning; its two eyes are geography and chronology." –James A. Garfield (Twentieth president of the United States)

When Charles Guiteau pulled a .44 on President Garfield, he was targeting one of the great minds of the nation. Garfield was a Republican in the tradition of Lincoln and was serious about granting blacks civil rights during Reconstruction. He was even smart enough to oppose the fiat currency Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase had peddled on the nation during the Civil War. It’s truly a shame Garfield’s doctors weren’t smart enough to sterilize their hands before they went digging around in his back for Guiteau’s bullet.

That having been said, Garfield’s thoughts on history are intriguing. If history is a why meeting a how, then, according to Garfield, that union has both a where and a when.

Disgruntled office-seeker and crazy person Charles Guiteau (left) put a bullet through the lung of ambidextrous polyglot President James A. Garfield (right). 

When and where consistently converge in discrete events. E.g., President Garfield was shot in Washington, D.C. on 2 July 1881. But discrete events are merely the pegs on which we hang our understanding of the past. Do the how and why emerge directly from the where and when? Specifically, how do place and time affect an individual like Guiteau?

Individuals are the most beguiling variables of history, but are they merely pawns of place and time? If I can answer where and when someone is, can I determine what he or she is going to do?

Which place and time made Guiteau shoot Garfield? Was it growing up in Freeport, Illinois during the 1840s and 50s? Was it spending his younger days getting rejected by a utopian religious cult in New York? Was it spending the 1870s writing a speech for Grant and being repeatedly rejected for cabinet positions for which he had no qualifications? You might think the cult is what did it, but the assassin is often described as a disgruntled office-seeker. And does mere rejection really necessitate his shooting Garfield?

Okay, I’ve probably asked a few too many questions, but I hope you’re tracking with me. I’d like to think place and time aren’t the sole determining factors for an individual’s path. I know Morpheus would be upset with me as I cling to free will — “What happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.” —but Laurence Fishburne isn’t Emperor of the Universe, even if I’d like him to be sometimes.

This is the captain of the Nebuchadnezzar and Neo’s Obi-Wan, not the Emperor of the Universe.

Like the Oracle’s kitchen lintel plaque says: TEMET NOSCE. Know thyself. I’m going to make this piece a bit more personal than “History is for Lovers.” After all, it is my blog. Don’t worry: I’m not going to turn this into my diary.

I’m going to give three instances of place and time being the how and why behind one of my choices. Then, I’m going to go on the flip side and give three instances of place and time clearly pushing me in a direction I consciously turned from. Calm down: I’m doing it with pictures.

Elementary school Nathan was in the same class as P.J. Mangan from kindergarten to fifth grade, excepting the depressing fourth grade. Nathan became best friends with P.J., and they are still friends today. (There’s a great picture of us in a furniture/pillow fort back in kindergarten that I just don’t have access to. Believe you me, it’s a great picture.)*

Middle school Nathan could not watch PG-13 movies until he was 13. Thus, he watched all the old James Bond movies, rated PG before the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984. He developed a deserved hatred for George Lazenby. He appreciates Australian Lionel Logue’s work with King George VI as portrayed in The King’s Speech, but no Australian has any business playing James Bond as Lazenby did in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

  High school Nathan watched CoCo, who was then just Conan, interview Sarah Vowell about her book Assassination Vacation, probably on 21 February 2006. (That book is an excellent read and, incidentally, is how I learned about President Garfield’s tragic assassination.) Now college Nathan wants to express history creatively like Sarah Vowell did in that book—even if it means sporting the original General Burnsides sideburns.

Now for ways in which place and time pushed me one way and I went t’other. Again, pictures.

Middle school Nathan’s parents were, and are, straight-ticket Republicans. He, however, developed a strange fascination with communism, even using the AOL screen name “SovietSting.”
     Nathan’s Texan mother pushed high school freshman Nathan into attending football summer camp. Instead of showing up to doubles, Nathan stayed home and played his Nintendo Gamecube.

      Prospective college Nathan was an intelligent, white, Protestant from Wheaton, Illinois. He did not attend Wheaton College but randomly decided to enroll in Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Go Waves.

The careful reader not distracted by these poorly Photoshopped pictures will notice that even in these contrary examples, I still reference specific places and times. These places and times did have a bearing on my choices, of course. But did they determine my choices? I’m leaning toward no.

We cannot escape where and when. We occupy space-time. But given the inputs of where and when, I believe we have a little wiggle room in choosing our own how and why. If only I could have chosen for Charles Guiteau to have been anywhere else besides Washington, D.C. on 2 July 1881. Then, I’m confident, we would all celebrate the Garfield presidency and see his bearded visage hewn into Mt. Rushmore. Would that it were. Would that it were….

President James A. Garfield takes his rightful place in the presidential hall of fame.
*2014 update: P.J. found the photo.