Seeking Treasure and the Joy of Not Knowing

One of the greatest moments in historical research is when you discover there is a file of documents in an archive that relates to some aspect of the story you’re trying to uncover. You don’t yet know what is in it, but from the moment you learn that the file exists you begin to dream about what secrets may found there. Perhaps there is a key that will unlock an entire new path.

Getting to that material is not always– or even usually– easy.  If the archive is in another state or country–and isn’t it always?– you either have to travel, to find a local researcher to help or to pay the institution to make scans. All of these are time consuming and sometimes cost prohibitive. The very difficulty of the task makes the file seem indispensable.

I am enjoying a moment of anticipation at the moment, as I wait for a 91 page document to be scanned and sent to me from the UK. Will it provide the missing piece of the puzzle that will answer all of my remaining questions about that enigmatic con artists from the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe? Or will it be a big nothing?

In the course of researching Oscar’s Ghost, and in my continuing search for Schwabe, I’ve driven across states to read rare books that had nothing particularly relevant in them. On the other hand, there was a wonderful moment when a bankruptcy file provided the only example I have of Schwabe telling his own story in his own handwriting.

Early on in my research I learned (through a note in a review of a book on Gilbert and Sullivan) that Lucas D’Oyly Carte, the son of the impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte, had kept a diary during his time at the Winchester school. I knew that he and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas had been students at the same time and that Bosie and Lucas had had a relationship throughout their school days that Neil McKenna described as “a tortured love affair.” Love letters from young Lucas had been stolen by blackmailers and used against Bosie.

Bosie wrote a poem inspired by Lucas:

To L —
Thou that wast once my loved and loving friend,
A friend no more, I had forgot thee quite,
Why hast thou come to trouble my delight
With memories ? Oh ! I had clean made end
Of all that time, I had made haste to send
My soul into red places, and to light
A torch of pleasure to burn up my night.
What I have woven hast thou come to rend ?

In silent acres of forgetful flowers,
Crowned as of old with happy daffodils,
Long time my wounded soul has been a-straying,
Alas! it has chanced now on sombre hours
Of hard remembrances and sad delaying,
Leaving green valleys for the bitter hills

A diary could be very revealing indeed. So where was it?

As it happened, I could not get my hands on a copy of the Gilbert and Sullivan book, or track down its author. So I wrote to the author of the review who contacted the author and asked about the diary. He said it was in the British Library, so I contacted them. They told me that it was not, and they directed me to another institution in New York with a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection. That institution directed me back to the British Library. By now a year had passed, and I wrote back to the author of the original review explaining my troubles and asking if he had any more information for me. He went back to the author who said that he had interviewed the man who had owned the diary and that he was certain he had donated it to to the British Library but that it was part of a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection which had not been cataloged yet.

Armed with this information, I went back to the British Library (through e-mail), and the very helpful librarian there confirmed that they had received a collection which was not yet cataloged but she couldn’t give me any idea of when that might happen.

A couple of years had gone by and I wrote back to the original reviewer to tell him about my lack of progress. He finally put me in touch, directly, with the Gilbert and Sullivan book’s author. He told me that while the diary was still in a private collection, he’d had a chance to scan it. He confirmed that the diary did mention Bosie, and he offered to send the scan to me.

At long last, after three years of searching, I would finally have the diary of Lucas D’Oyly Carte and I could read for myself what he had to say about Bosie…

Which was, as it happened, not much.

Lucas D’Oyly Carte liked to report on the weather and the time he took breakfast (usually 9:30). When Bosie appears it is usually in reference to sport. For example, “Very showery all the afternoon…Bosie made 50 odd runs, I made 7…”

What I learned from all of that searching was that it sometimes rained when the boys were students and they sometimes played sports.

Yet somehow experiences like these have failed to dim my excitement over archives and the documents they contain– cataloged and not yet cataloged.


The Angel and the Idiot

1358983This rare book, tweeted out by Provincial Booksellers Fair Association, caught my eye, combining, as it does two of the themes of my novel Angel: The Angel and the volcano.

The working title of Angel was “The Minister and The Mountain” and I suspect on one of the character Paul’s self-critical days this is the title he would give his story.

If you want to buy The Angel and the Idiot it will set you back £850. You can get Angel for just $15. Bargain!

Yucky Framing: The Dollar Value of a Farmer’s Life

Somewhere along the line we assimilated the idea that in order for an argument to be taken seriously it had to be framed in quantifiable economic terms. People who are making a moral or aesthetic or quality of life case feel the need to make the argument that somehow doing the less moral thing is also more expensive.

A story in the Economic Hardship Reporting Project goes this route in an article on the high suicide rate among America’s farmers. It is higher than the rate of suicide among military families although it receives much less attention.

The article talks about a plan to replicate a successful local mental health initiative on a national scale, a program called  the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). The program was approved as part of the 2008 US Farm Bill, it was not funded. The man behind the program Dr. Mike Rosmann complained that politicians “promised support to my face and to others who approached them to support the FRSAN, but when it came time to vote … they did not support appropriating money … Often they claimed it was an unnecessary expenditure which would increase the national debt, while also saying healthy farmers are the most important asset to agricultural production.”

You could make a moral argument that such politicians have a set of human values that are seriously out of whack. Instinctively, however, well-intentioned people try to argue in the language that they presumably understand: money. It’s not that having farmers living with such desperation that they end up taking their own lives is a shame upon a wealthy country that could do much better by them. The argument instead becomes that it’s actually more expensive to have farmers kill themselves than to fund the program.

The program, which would have created regional and national helplines and provided counseling for farmers, was estimated to cost the government $18m annually. Rosmann argues that US farmers lost by suicide totals much more than this – in dollars, farmland, national security in the form of food, and the emotional and financial toll on families and entire communities.

I am sure that Dr. Rosmann does not actually view the farmers who call him for help in these marketplace terms, but the fact that he feels compelled to argue in this way says something about our culture.

The thing is, these arguments don’t actually seem to work. The political party in power now has demonstrated with its tax bill that they are not opposed to deficits, they just have particular priorities about what they think is worth going into debt for– and it seems that it is not preventing suicide in agricultural communities. Perhaps it is time to start making unashamed moral arguments about what our priorities should be.

And I Feel… Fine


Although it is for an old New Year, this video from last year’s Colbert show seems to strike the right note at the moment.

I (and a number of family members) were struck with flu over Christmas, mine reaching its feverish peak during a snowy drive back from Minnesota to Michigan. Still dealing with a heavy cough, but today I managed to sit down and work on my next novel for a while.

I wrote for about two hours and was about done with my document when in a fast type I swiped the touchpad and the cursor jumped back and deleted everything. It left  only the word I happened to be completing just then. Tried “undo” but it wouldn’t come back. After that my little second wind blew away.


The Christmas Spirit

evening public ledger dec 24 1921This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.

I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.

In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)

By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary.  The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool.  His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.

There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.

The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.

In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.

But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas!  I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.

Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?


Yucky Framing: The Economic Impact of Crib Deaths

I have become frustrated with meaningless news stories that talk about “rolling back regulations” but do not talk about what those regulations are. The president on December 14 had a big media event where he cut a giant red ribbon to represent bureaucratic red tape.

Most of the stories on this spectacle followed the lead of the event organizers and talked about the number of pages of regulations being cut. To cheer cutting regulations without saying what they are is foolish. “Yea, extra rat parts in my food!”

I searched up and down for a list of what those regulations were. The best article I found was at Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s reporters Alan Levin and Jesse Hamilton did the work of going through government records to identify all of the regulations that the administration was touting as deregulation victories. The frame of the article was that the president was taking credit for ending regulations that were already dead.

A rollback of one of the regulations, which fined nursing homes that delivered substandard care and put residents at risk, got a scathing treatment in Esquire.

In my quest to find out what was in that stack of symbolic paper, I came across an article in CNN Money. This article provides the following examples of deregulation:


Coal mining companies won’t be obligated to protect the nation’s streams from debris when extracting coal from mountain tops.

Firms that operate in hazardous industries, like electrical contractors and freight truck operators, face looser reporting requirements when their employees get hurt or sick on the job…

He’s halted a bid to address risks of bumpers on baby cribs that have been known to lead to infant deaths.

His administration has imposed an 18-month delay on the so-called fiduciary rule that would require brokers who manage retirement accounts to act in their consumer’s best interest rather than their own.

He’s postponed enforcement of a rule that would minimize 2.3 million American workers’ exposure to silica dust, a known contributor to lung cancer. He’s abandoned plans to streamline patient medical information into a one-page form to make it easier for consumers to understand how to use their prescription drugs safely. And he’s blocked efforts that would prohibit federal contractors from winning taxpayer-funded contracts if they violate basic labor and employment laws.

Here is where the yucky framing comes in. The focus of the article is about the economic impact of the deregulation. The last word:

“These policies have not yet fully gone into effect,” said Dan Goldbeck, a research analyst on regulatory policy for American Action Forum. “It is too early to judge the economic impact of this shift. It’s reasonable, however, to think that the magnitude of these changes — both in slowing down and rolling back regulatory burdens — will have a positive effect.”

Should we ensure that vulnerable populations in nursing homes receive basic standards or care? How about making sure that the stuff in cribs doesn’t kill the infant?

I don’t know, how much will we save if we don’t do that? Bleecchhh.

Oh, Those Charming Stalkers

Back in September I found myself musing on the phrases “making a pass” and “throwing oneself”.  It seemed to me that “throwing oneself” was used primarily as a disparaging way to describe women who made advances.

While doing some random research I came across an old article from The Atlantic that furthers this discussion. The article talks about how romantic comedies often treat behavior as charming that would be considered stalking in the real world. Of course, how romantic persistence is viewed in Hollywood depends a lot on the gender of the character.

The article refers to research by Julia Lippman, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of communication studies at the University of Michigan.

Generally, women are far more likely than men to be stalked (one in six women and one in 19 men experience stalking that makes them “very fearful” at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime), and men are more likely than women to be stalkers (according to a national survey in 1998, 87 percent of stalkers were male).

In spite of this, movies are more likely to portray men’s stalking as charming and women’s as crazy. “There is an unfortunate Double Standard common in the depiction of this trope,” as TV Tropes puts it. “Stalker-type behavior in a man can make him a romantic hero but the same behavior will almost always make a woman dangerous or pathetic.” (Another page on TV Tropes is titled “No Guy Wants to Be Chased.”)

“When men pursue women, the way they’re acting is consistent with dominant gender roles,” Lippman says. “When women pursue men, they’re acting in violation of those roles.”…“This is absolutely supported by social cognitive theory,” Lippman says, “where the reinforcements that are at play, these are going to shape how we ultimately view actions and values. We’re going to be more likely to adopt whatever behaviors or values are communicated if they seem to lead to a positive outcome. And what could be a more positive outcome than getting to be with the woman of your dreams?”

So here’s a question, why do we keep buying into stories that say women who make advances are scary and rejection by a woman is just an invitation to try a bit harder?