Category Archives: History

Tall Ships, July 4, 1976. New York Harbor to Hudson River.In 1976 I lived in a highrise apartment in Yonkers, a few miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan. A couple of friends lived on the same floor but on the river side. From their balcony they had a great view of the river all the way south to the George Washington Bridge.

On July 4, the day of the United States Bicentennial, my friends invited me to come out on their balcony to view Operation Sail. Sixteen ships had sailed to New York City from all over the world to celebrate the 200th anniversary of American Independence. They’d come from Europe, Scandinavia, Central and South America, the Soviet Union and even Japan. All were working ships with young crews learning to sail the way that seafarers had sailed for uncounted centuries.

Of course, I said yes to the invitation. It was Sunday and the weather was fairly clear except for the slight haze that hung over the water. I could make out the pale silhouette of the bridge as we waited for the ships to come into view.

Suddenly one of my friends touched my arm. “Look,” she said, and pointed. I caught my breath. From beneath the bridge, sails were moving upriver. They were faint and far away, growing slowly larger. Soon there were three.

Like the ships from far away that had come into this river three, even four hundred years before, they passed between the dark cliffs on each side of the Hudson, swaying slightly, unrelenting as time. Ghost ships. Haunted ships. Invaders.

I felt my lips grow cold. I was afraid.

The feeling is clear to me even after so many years, maybe more because my reaction was so unexpected. It was as though I’d been standing on the banks of the river that day when the first European ship had come into the estuary. I’d looked up to see a massive craft with great wings that filled with wind and brought the future into my land. A future that I didn’t want and couldn’t have imagined.

I couldn’t look for long. I left the balcony. The image, the feeling, they’ll always stay with me.

Human cycles: history as science

Human cycles: History as science : Nature News & Comment.

In the current issue of the weekly science journal Nature, freelance science journalist Laura Spinney writes about cliodynamics, the application of scientific modeling to history.

Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut, who developed the method, suggests that we should anticipate severe political upheaval around the year 2020, similar to the political instability of the post-Civil War period, the Roaring Twenties and the flower power era.

We may live to see even more interesting times! (Wait a minute—isn’t that a curse?)

Standing Shoulder to Shoulder

Live oak on riverbank, 12-30-11The changing of the year was exquisite in our corner of the Hill Country

My husband and I never get tired of walking down to the river. With the variable weather, the rising and falling waters, the freely roaming animals, the constantly changing light and shadow, the wind like ocean surf and our unique neighbors, this is the most alive place we’ve ever been.

Sometimes we’re stunned that we ended up in this place, though moving here was a deliberate decision. We’re also stunned that we–who can go for days without wanting to speak to another human besides ourselves–we’re stunned that we like so many people here. And there are so many worth liking.

It’s not like we’ve been holed up somewhere all our lives. Each of us has lived in other states and traveled extensively. We’re originally from New York, my husband from the City and myself from the Island. But now we become uneasy when we cross the Cibolo River into the moderate congestion of San Antonio. The little town of Blanco, north of us, is as bustling and cosmopolitan a burg as we want to visit.

We’re not withdrawing from life. We’re doing the opposite. We have more positive human interaction than ever before because the people here are different.

Perhaps that’s because this area retains some of its frontier quality. This place was the edge of Comanchería before the 1860’s, and Apachería before that. Settled mostly by mountaineers from Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas, and then by German immigrants just before the Civil War, Texans here count their generations on a single hand. The past is recent. There are fewer people, but more interconnections among people.

On a frontier, it’s vital to know the character of your neighbors. People talk to each other here. People measure each other here. Each person is an asset or a liability. Can your neighbors be trusted? If you help them in an emergency, will they come to your aid when it’s your turn to need help? Will they stand firm? There’s a degree of solidarity, of standing shoulder to shoulder, that seems to be handed down from an earlier time. It’s a strange but wonderful feeling to stand shoulder to shoulder with people you know you can trust.

On a frontier, people’s jobs don’t define them. They define their jobs. They do what they have to do. They make opportunity. Conchay and Mari opened a Mexican restaurant that revived a dying shopping center, then opened a Chinese restaurant next to it. Derek runs a 300-acre ranch and is one of the two fire department captains. Paty sells the best tacos in 50 miles from a tiny trailer on the side of the road. There’s confidence and self-sufficiency here that we’ve never seen in a city or a suburb.

People are more individual. Not that they try to be–they are. Katie, who worked in a factory, has such an original mind that we’ve thought about walking around after her with a pad and pen, writing down what she says. Her husband built an airplane in their living room.

Most amazingly, there’s no propaganda–or, at least, propaganda is recognized for being just that. Only after we left the East and West Coasts did we realize how bombarded the rest of the country is with constant propaganda.

This isn’t Pollyanna-land. There are plenty of problems, including underemployment, poverty, drugs, drought, flood and fire. But we’ve found what feels like normal life. Standing shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors, we mean to hold on to it as long as we can.

By S.J. Driscoll

The Devil Made Me Do It

A response to Colin Falconer

Historical author Colin Falconer brought up interesting yet disturbing points in his November 13 blog post, “For Evil to Triumph.”

Colin comments on the recent Men’s Health article by Bill Phillips, “Why Joe Paterno Didn’t Call the Police,” about alleged child abuse at Penn State. The article draws parallels between the failure of people to report the alleged abuse and the controversial psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961.

As Colin describes:

“[Milgram’s] tests were designed to measure the willingness of subjects to obey an authority figure who told them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.

“[This] was inspired by [Milgram’s] curiosity about how millions of people in Nazi Germany could go along with horrors of the Holocaust, even when it violated their deepest moral beliefs.

“A volunteer was given the role of teacher, and separated from the learner; they could communicate but could not see each other. The ‘teacher’ had a list of word pairs to teach the ‘learner’. If the answer was incorrect, the ‘teacher’ would administer a shock to the ‘learner’, with the voltage increasing in 15 volt increments for each wrong answer.

“The ‘learner’ was an actor; but the ‘teacher’ did not know this. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Though clearly uncomfortable about it, most continued after being assured that it was necessary and that they would not be held responsible for the outcome.

“How many continued to the final, potentially lethal 450-volt shock?… 26 out of 40. Even with their ears ringing with the screams of their ‘victims’, authority won over. They listened to the man in the white coat before they listened to their own inner voice. Ordinary people, good people, thus became agents in immoral and destructive behaviour.”

Phillips notes that “humans are programmed to not question authority…. And men are even less likely to rat out an authority figure when that person is also a mentor.”

Colin suggests, “It seems to me that as human beings we all have a higher authority that we surrender our scruples to.”

My question is, why surrender?

My question is, were these people good?

Ordinary, maybe. Good… maybe not so much.

They may never have been in a situation like this. It was unfamiliar, uncomfortable. The guy in the white coat assured them nothing was wrong.

Things like this didn’t happen in their normal reality. They’d entered an alternate reality, a sort of fairy tale. The guy in the white coat would protect them through this Twilight Zone.

Under these circumstances, I disagree that their “inner voice” told them to stop. I believe it may have told them it was fine to murder.

Those 26 of 40 may have felt they could distance themselves from the result of their action. They could do this by hiding behind someone else. In return, they granted that someone “authority” over them.

By sleight of mind, responsibility could have been mentally transferred to the leader. The authority figure could have become a buffer zone between themselves and the reality of their decisions and actions.

“Obeying” was what the leader received in return. The leader had “power”—to do what? To set up the rules of the fairy tale. And once reality exploded the fairy tale, the result was the leader’s “fault.”

In reality, outside the fairy tale, wasn’t this what happened instead: the followers sacrificed the authority figure to the action they themselves decided to take.

That sort of authority figure is not a leader.

In circumstances like this, the person who’s set up as the authority figure is nothing but a scapegoat.

By S.J. Driscoll

Inspiring Blogger Award

Many thanks to children’s book author Lynn Kelley (Curse at Zala Manor), who granted me the Inspiring Blogger Award along with fellow writers Angela Orlowski-Peart, Debra Kristi, Susie Lindau and Samantha Warren.

I now pass the award on to five bloggers who inspire me:

Kristen Lamb’s Blog about writing, publishing and social media

The Passive Voice: Writers, Writing, Publishing, Disruptive Innovation and the Universe

Diekenes’ Anthropology Blog

The Art Department, a blog by Tor.com Art Director Irene Gallo

Postcards from Santa Barbara: a daily painting project by plein air artist Chris Potter

Thank you for blogging!

Rockaway, Far Away

The best thing in the world–one of them, anyway–is to feel sand beneath your bare toes when you walk on a sidewalk.

That’s what I thought when I was a kid visiting my cousins in Rockaway in Queens, New York.

They lived in a 2-story gray house tucked behind another house a block and a half from the water. The air smelled sharp, of brine from the ocean, and popcorn and hot dogs from the boardwalk.

You could walk down the block and go straight from concrete to the fine, warm sand of a Long Island beach. Turn left, and you’d be on the splintery boardwalk wood. I must’ve been small, because I could never see the top of the vendors’ carts, only the sides. I got only a glimpse of the pink cotton candy in white paper cones and the hot dogs impaled on spikes. The open doors of the arcades and other attractions were off limits.

I must’ve been very small.

When I told my parents we should move there, they laughed. They each came from the City–Mom from Brooklyn and Dad from the Bronx. To them, suburbia meant moving on up. To me, it meant deadly, deadly boredom.

At night, the pink and yellow boardwalk lights lit up the sky. I heard music against the background of the gentle surf.

Decades later, when I lived in Northern California, the feeling of Rockaway came back to me when I walked along the beach in Santa Cruz and entered the dark arcade with its flashing neon and ringing bells. It wasn’t a feeling of remembrance, though. Just a feeling of loss.

Why are children so powerless?

My cousins didn’t live in Rockaway too long. My older cousin went to live in Japan. My other cousin, an accomplished accordianist–we used to be so close–I’m not sure where he is. Somewhere playing his music, I hope.

My Rockaway is gone. All the little single-family houses were knocked down to build high-rise apartments. At least, that’s what I heard. I’m not going back.

As long as I don’t go back to find out, the sand will still be warm beneath my toes.

By S.J. Driscoll