On a shelf in my garage sit a clunky set of headphones and a 1980’s era Sony Walkman that no longer serve any purpose. I can’t bring myself to part with them, though. They belonged to my husband, and he wore them (for over three decades) every time he cut our acre of lawn. His Sony Walkman would be holstered on his belt, and each week of the cutting season, a different cassette would whirl reel to reel, pleasantly mixing with the muffled engine sound outside his head. When he exhausted the playlist options — it wouldn’t have taken long — the cycle would repeat. Long after cassette tapes fell from favor, George stuck to his habit. I look at his headphones and the memories mushroom up and fill me with nostalgia.
In my retirement, I begin most days with some type of inspirational or thought-provoking article. This morning I ended up on the Smithsonian Magazine website, as I often do when I want to explore topics that are historical or scientific in nature. In January I posted about NFT’s (“non-fungible tokens”), so it was natural that I would be interested in a bizarre stunt pulled by a self-styled philanthropist who has hitched his star to the potential profitability of NFT’s.
Martin Mobarak is the founder and CEO of Frida.nft who, in July, had high hopes of blazing new trails in the world of priceless art collection. . . in the virtual sense. Attired in a sequined blazer festooned on the back with the face of Frida, he made a showy display involving martini glass, blue rubbing alcohol, and lit match. He thus irrevocably “transformed” an authentic (and irreplaceable) drawing done by Frida Kahlo in the 1940’s, a sketch entitled “Fantasmones Siniestros”. Its estimated value is. . . was. . . ten million dollars. But was it real? And what if it wasn’t? While the extravagant spectacle received little attention at the time, Mobarak’s impulsivity has now landed him in a heap of trouble.
On the one hand, if the drawing was indeed authentic, Mobarak faces criminal charges. (According to a statement made by the Mexican government in September, “The deliberate destruction of an artistic monument constitutes a crime in terms of the federal law on archaeological, artistic and historical monuments and zones.”) If the drawing that was permanently “transformed” was a reproduction, he is in violation of copyright laws. Lastly, he may be guilty of deception and fraud. No bueno, in any scenario.
I’m straining not to react with pure disgust. Who in their right mind burns a Frida Kahlo work? It seemed important that I venture down the rabbit hole, in this case by mining the annals of Martin Mobarak, flashy businessman from Mexico, currently home-based in Miami. The quick and dirty synopsis looks like this: fisherman in the Bering Sea, prospector (silver mine), developer of an internet service in Alaska, food service provider as well as aviation services in Florida, a B&B in Mexico. One has to admire his enterprising nature and sheer pluck. And I do. . . admire that.
After I sifted through the layer of news about the current Mobarak-Kahlo controversy, I was able to temper my feelings about the permanent loss of priceless art. Built into the scheme is a charitable offshoot. Inasmuch as the endeavor was to enrich Mobarak (in his wildest, non fungible dreams), 30% of proceeds are — or were — intended to benefit charity. The causes about which he feels most passionate are rare childhood diseases and abuse of women. On the surface it would seem that careful and deliberate thought went into his charitable choices, more so than the hastily-planned “transformation” event, which was likened to “the ice bucket challenge, but with fire” (according to Gabrielle Pelicci, who helped him plan the risky stunt).
In the end, the Kahlo NFT’s have not been selling — the intent had been to fractionalize the ten million dollar iconic work into 10,000 NFT’s. That didn’t even come close to happening. Apparently, the “Fantasmones Siniestros” sketch is nothing more than a few unrecognizable flakes of ashy residue, reducing Mobarak’s speculative move to a tragedy, one that — but for his ego (and a sense of desperation) — was completely avoidable.
Perhaps my sense of alarm is so great because I haven’t bought into the idea that we now fully exist in a sphere where things of value can be digitally “memorialized”. When I recently digitalized several hundred family photos (including daguerrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and all manner of photographs from the 20th century) and made them available for family to view on Flickr, it very much occurred to me that the digital images will ever fail to evoke the same emotion that the physical ones do. When I hold in my hand the ambrotype of my great-grandfather, I’m better able to imagine the moment in which the photo was taken. I imagine, even, the thought process behind my great-great-grandmother’s decision to have the picture taken in the first place. The high school portrait of my dad, still sitting in its frame, presents an opportunity to reflect on, not just his life, but his parents’ as well, even the society into which he was born. The portrait would have hung on one of the walls in their home on Warner Street, Medford (“on the Somerville line”), later in their home at Wolcott Park; it would have kept the wallpaper underneath it bright and light as all around it faded and became dingy. Of course I only knew my father as an adult, a parent, never as a seventeen year old. At seventeen he had yet to confront the real obstacles that life predictably serves up. And he had yet to be judged harshly — or, in fact, be coaxed himself to judge, for example, the sobering calculus that would result in 7.5 million American service men and women being sent overseas to safeguard democracy in the 1940s. Dad’s face is smooth and unlined; he looks serious, but innocence and vulnerability can be read in his dark eyes.
We have a habit of needing to attach a monetary value to all that we own. I can’t do that with some of my possessions. In many cases, to do so would miss the essential point. Value so often resides in the stories that objects hold and the historical moments they beseech us to preserve.
Is it unwise of me to think that NFT’s are a fad, that their popularity will eventually fade? Are we too deep into a world that is virtual that we’ve lost reverence for all things tangible? George may have defied the march of technological advancement, but even he was alert enough to know that his headphones and Sony Walkman had passed from being “cutting edge” to being quaint, outdated. And an 8″ x 10″ grayscale, monochromatic high school portrait in a simple 1930’s frame will only ever hold sentimental value. What, then, will NFT’s be replaced by? I wonder.
It would grieve me to think that any of us are okay with destroying an original, as Martin Mobarak did, in order to inflate the value of its representative equivalent. Moreover, let’s never lose sight of why we strive to preserve objects of value (such as a Sony Walkman or a family portrait), or — of greater consequence — why we place our treasured artifacts (important documents such as the Declaration of Independence, priceless works of art, etc) in museums. They trumpet our achievements and our trials — in short, our story. As authentic artifacts, they evoke curiosity and emotion, and sustain interest much more effectively than any cryptographic asset can possibly do.
Maybe that’s why Mobarak’s scheme failed.
Sources of Information:
“Did This Man Destroy a Frida Kahlo Drawing to Make an NFT?” Smithsonian Magazine, November 10, 2022.
Sure, a second dog is a good idea. Gives the first one a companion. I bought that. . . and, so, there’s Bowie.
That no one ever consulted the pet with the most seniority — Sonny, of the feline sort — has led to a fair degree of resentment, as well as pee and poo deposited in undesirable locations. It hasn’t been so long a time that I don’t remember Sonny’s deviousness where it concerned my sweet Scout. He used to lie in wait around a corner, crouched and ready to ambush my gentle little kitty. She had no use for him, but from her current vantage point on high, she must be smiling and thinking about the beauty and rightness of poetic justice.
Bowie builds in quality time every day — multiple times a day — so that Sonny should never feel neglected. He appreciates Sonny in ways that are unrecognizable to him, that make him anxious. Because of the said level of “appreciation”, Sonny has taken to over-grooming his tail. You should see what that looks like these days!
It all has me thinking about the pecking order that establishes itself, quite naturally. No amount of cajoling, psychologizing, gating, or sweet-talking seems to alter the course of domestic history. At present, Bowie is enjoying an outsized degree of supremacy. He drubs little Mona, he corners and harasses Sonny, and his general swagger — both in home and out in public — suggests that, despite the yearned-for results of bootcamp, I am at the end of his leash, not the other way around.
Admittedly, I haven’t been as consistent as I should be in order to make the usual commands stick; things like sit, stay, leave it, off, come, get-out-of-the-trash, drop-the-poop. Outside of the home, progress is more discernible, but the signs inside are discouraging. I have an improvised gate at the bottom of the stairs on the main level (with a heavy tool bag wedged against it), my deck has another gate, one that is free-standing. (It is only a matter of time before Bowie discovers that if he paws at the edge or noses it, he will gain blissful admission to the free world.)
The most frustrating signal that I’m losing the battle concerns the trash barrel. Once upon a time I was able to have a tall kitchen trash barrel, no lid, open to the elements. In my stubbornness, I have failed (thus far) to concede that a small barrel under the sink is my only remaining option. Instead, I have a lidded stainless steel one to which Bowie recently learned how to gain access. At first he would tug on the plastic liner, which would bring the goods up and into the lid, causing the lid to lift. In answer, I readjusted the liner so that it wouldn’t extend outside the barrel. From my standpoint, it made for a messier affair internally. However, Bowie’s determination led him to re-think his mission and come up with a more creative mode of access. Hence, the “flick and dive”, meaning he would flick the lid with his nose and thrust his head in with one smooth move. My counter-move has been to place a hand weight on top of the barrel. Obviously, he’s going to figure out how to nose it off, and I’ll be confronting what I know must be done: place a small barrel under the sink. . . and then rig a fail-proof lock system on the doors.
I want to say I’m ten or eleven years old, but, no, it’s 1969 and I’m thirteen years old. I should know better, but I give in to temptation nevertheless. I’ve hopped onto our washing machine, careful not to let my bare toes “clunk” into its frontside. Crouching-standing on top of the washing machine, I reach with my right hand to push aside the line of forward-facing common dwellers, solid-feeling containers of flour and neglected items long past their ”use by” date. They stand sentry on the top shelf, alert now, positioned to conceal the treasure sitting somewhere behind. Unseeing, my expectant fingers caper across one or two unfamiliar shapes before encountering the familiar smooth surface — my brain’s pleasure center lights up. With both hands now cradling my prize, I sit back down on the washing machine and quietly lift the cover on the bakery box. I’m smug in the knowledge that I have found it before anyone else. I’m sure others have already searched.
Aunt Ginny’s wedding was yesterday, thus bringing to conclusion a well-seasoned (decades-long) engagement. Jimmy’s a sweetheart, and we don’t mind adding “Uncle” to his name. My three older brothers and I stood stiff and awkward in our “best attire”, clothing that hung on us as uncomfortably as hair shirts. It wasn’t just the clothing — we don’t do formal very well. Give us rolling fields, ponds to swim in or skate on, sunshine, and fresh air. Especially, give Kevin hard-packed lanes across those fields so he can race a car — better still, if pursued by patrol cars supplied by the nearby prison. Let us brawl. But dressy and solemn are not our jam.
We spectated in silence through the church ceremony, standing when others stood, kneeling, too, genuflecting just a beat late, yet casual enough to suggest we do it all the time. I cried in the church. I was thinking about my younger (and only) sister, Margaret, who should have been there — she had a new dress, too, but she was in a hospital (trying to remember who she was and who she belonged to, after a really bad car accident). We maintained our silent observation throughout the reception, bewildered by the tender father-daughter dance. Our grandfather, whom we all call “Gama” (rhymeswithllama), is still in deep grief, adrift alone. His Anastasia, our Nana, died last year.
We all noticed the white bakery box that came home with us. No discussion. We are all in silent competition. Bakery boxes never come into our house. With no thought to dignify the act with fork or plate, I dip my fingers into the delicious cake. Inches of creamy and smooth white frosting give way to moist cake. My fingers — rapacious little grubbers — clutch mounds of cake and frosting. I shove the sweet, spongy confection in my mouth in helpless desperation. It’s as good as I had hoped. And well worth any punishment by Dad — or expressions of disappointment by Mom — when I’m found out. Wary of being discovered, I replace the cover and return the bakery box to the high shelf, arranging for its concealment once more. I will see you later, I promise, as I leap to the pantry floor.
Back a few months, when I was refining my list of goals for canine boot camp, the trainer wondered if I wanted to curb “counter surfing”. We both immediately acknowledged that with havanese, as long as you limit objects that can be used as ladders, there’s little need for training in that realm.
Once again, Bowie proved to be a bundle of vexation.
Normally, I don’t get excited about cooking. Last night, however, I was eager to prepare BLT’s, using lettuce from my garden and bacon sourced from a local farm. I had also been planning to make a basil vinaigrette with basil snipped from Megan’s garden. We could either jazz up the BLT with it or add it to the cucumber I picked earlier in the day.
It was an easy summer recipe, one that involved few bowls and pans and didn’t require the oven. What could possibly go wrong?
I have a little Black and Decker food chopper that I love, despite it habitually conking me in the head when I remove it from its high position in the cabinet (its top-heavy motor piece always separates as I lower the unit). It takes up hardly any storage space, does a satisfying job of mincing and pureeing, and is easy to clean. But it has been giving me a hard time lately — something is not lining up right, causing the top part to not sit properly. Of course I didn’t notice until I had added all the ingredients — basil, minced garlic and shallot, fresh lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. This was the first opportunity to make an oily mess in my prep area, which for most people means the entire kitchen (every surface and point of contact within that space.)
Transferring the vinaigrette to the dressing bottle was tricky and resulted in additional oily mess. While the bacon was sizzling in its pan and filling the kitchen with an intoxicating aroma, I cleaned up the second oily mess and chopped the cucumber. Mona and Bowie were only slightly satisfied with my offering of bits of cucumber — their noses were communicating more hopeful messages about available food stuffs. As the bacon pieces each arrived at that perfect degree of crispness I transferred them to a paper-towel covered plate. . . right at the edge of the counter. (See where this is going?)
Now ready to pull it all together I gave the bottle of homemade vinaigrette a good ‘n vigorous final shake, spraying green matter in every direction. Not only were there globs on the island, the floor, the ceiling, the cabinets, and everything resting on the island; but it was all over my face and arms, in my hair and ears, and sticking to my t-shirt. It smelled divine — as far as vinaigrettes go — but, well, it did mean I wasn’t going to be eating my dinner at the planned hour.
I dashed upstairs to do a quick shower and then skipped back down to clean the kitchen. . . and then I saw it. Or, rather, I didn’t. At the edge of the counter sat an empty plate. No paper towel and NO BACON. Bowie was just finishing up (because dogs don’t waste paper towels that are suffused with bacon grease).
So, here’s what I have. (A) I’m a slow learner where it concerns my doggies. This wasn’t the first time that Bowie made good use of my neglectful attitude. He has helped himself to things that I’ve (on occasion) left at the edge of the counter. He only needs it to overhang by about 1-mm. (B) I’m a slow learner in other aspects of my life, as well. Ask Megan about my bad habit of not tightening covers. And why does it always seem to be that the very items that need to be shaken up are the ones for which I leave the cap loose? (Juice bottles in my refrigerator are not to be trusted. Nor are the several cans of chalk paint in my craft area.)
And Bowie, other than exhibiting an increased need to slake his thirst in the quiet hours before even the earliest of birds is signaling a new day, is none the worse for his episode. He’ll not appreciate that it was very expensive bacon, and there’s no hint that he’s remorseful. Of course it is twelve hours later, so I’m not sure what I can realistically expect. I’m reminded by something that the trainer had said. In a different context (boot camp) I was expressing my worry that Bowie and Mona might be missing me. (In truth, I was more worried about Mona. She’s. . . . sensitive.) Jennie assured me that dogs very much live in the moment, so I shouldn’t worry. When I look at Bowie’s adorable little face with his crooked little teeth, I think, I wish I could be more like you. His ability to push “reset” gives him fresh starts over and over, all day long. Not a bad thing. . . unless it means you once again forget to tighten a cap on a bottle of vinaigrette.
When you own pets, it’s a natural law that if things are moving along without friction in one area, another area goes to shit. Expressed more politely, whenever a pet owner’s horizon presents hopeful signs of good health and just generally a mood of tranquility, something must happen to disrupt it.
Recently, Sonny — our fifteen year old cat — decided to have emotional issues with his tail. He’s always been a bit fastidious, keeps himself well-groomed with that little raspy tongue of his. Of a sudden, he ramped up his vigorous tongue-grooming, and became obsessive about cleaning his tail. That may not be entirely true; what may be true is that we happened to notice a “balding” at the base of his tail where he had been aggressively grooming. (Likely, he had been making a sustained practice of doing this for quite some time, but we just hadn’t noticed, what with two frenetic barky dogs ‘n all.)
What followed was this:
Call the vet. Wrestle Sonny into carrier. Anyone who has done this knows that a 10-lb feline with typically restrained behaviors converts into a whirling dervish with demonstrably effective claws and teeth. He’s like a puffer fish, small and insubstantial until threatened. And then. . . the claws and teeth all of a sudden seem out of proportion to both the size of the creature and the known number of defensive weapons assigned to the species. Drive seven minutes to vet’s office (an uneventful ride nevertheless punctuated by pitiful emanations from “pet-friendly” carrier, a ride that also — nevertheless — results in one prostrated 15-year old cat. Well, he is fifteen years old. We’re aware. Fleas, perhaps? Nope, we’d know if that were it. Any new changes at home? Not really any permanent ones — just that Sonny should be enjoying more the absence of the usual stressors in the form of two energetic creatures of the havanese sort. Well, he is fifteen years old. Yup — still aware.
No visit to the vet’s office is complete without a prescription or two to clutch in one hand as you exit with your less-than-pleased feline squirming in the carrier that tilts starboard, port, bow, and stern in no discernible pattern. One doesn’t even try to walk a measured line in such cases. Just get to the car posthaste. Feeling much lighter in the pocket if only slightly less worried about Sonny’s emotional state, we quickly settle back into the quiet new (and short-lived) routine that had evolved while Bowie and Mona were at boot camp.
Meanwhile. . .
For two weeks, in a 24-hour/day program, Bowie and Mona learned how to behave in a socially-acceptable manner. Both had already been through multiple programs, and should have been prime examples of “perfectly behaved” canines. They weren’t. At boot camp they “learned” (or relearned): heel, come, sit, stay, leave it, off, and quiet (or, as I like to call it, “shoosh”). The reason why I sent both of them is not because both are out-of-control, but because the objectionable behaviors of each seem to become amplified when they’re together.
Beginning with a goal-setting session, the program is tailor-made so that the owner articulates what she wants to achieve with her canine companions. I stated that I wanted to be able to walk with the two of them together in public without drama (and resultant necessary apologies.) (See earlier post — “Boot Camp: Prelude”.) That, along with a wish to be able to open my front door to friends and family without excessive barking and threatening behaviors, were the two primary goals. By the time I dropped the two mini-beasts off, my goals had expanded. I wanted. . . well, let’s just say, I wanted perfection. Simply put, their halos should blind anyone who approaches. The overflowing of compliments would be more than I could bear. I had great notions of how this would play out.
For two weeks Sonny luxuriated in being the only non-human inhabitant in the house. He was chatty, he explored anew regions of the house that he’d long abandoned, and he was affectionate once more. And he didn’t urinate in places that he shouldn’t (like on beds and in baskets of freshly-washed laundry.) We reminded him regularly that the new normal in which he was reveling would end shortly and even though I had my own high hopes, he might not be so enthusiastic upon seeing the two noodleheads charging up the stairs. When should we break out the Gabapentin, I wondered. (Maybe when I headed out to pick up the mini-beasts.)
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also enjoy the two-week break. I was able to visit family in both the Berkshires and down the Cape, all without making complicated arrangements. But I missed my little monkeys, too! It made me smile to see the pictures that were uploaded daily. Bowie and Mona stuck together even when they had the freedom to roam, Bowie continuing to “resource guard” Mona, of course.
On the day I arrived to pick up my improved models, we had another training session. It felt like I was being trained to operate a complex and unfamiliar piece of machinery. I was very impressed with how compliant they both were. Nothing, however, about what I was instructed to do felt natural. This is going to take some getting used to, I mused out loud. Jennie, the trainer, did also point out — more than once — that at home they’ll test me. It’ll take some time (and consistency) to suppress their bad habits when they see and hear the same triggers in that same environment where they hitherto had honored no rules and essentially got away with everything.
After our lengthy lesson, we climbed into the car and headed home. And then we all took a nap.
Sonny, of course, has intensified his tail-grooming efforts, making clear that he is not happy. He truly believed that our home had been permanently rid of noxious pests.
Mona and Bowie, on the other hand, are happy to be with their mommy again, even if they’re a bit confused by her “firm manner”.
It’s a slow process, friends. I had a low moment about five days into their post-boot-camp training, and I now can’t remember if it was because of the f-ing FedEx truck barreling down our road or “exuberant” dogs on the rail trail. It’s really hard to re-train dogs with ingrained behaviors (and they’re not even that old.) Maybe a big part of the problem is that I have ingrained behaviors, too — I’ve allowed them too much freedom, but I also still reflexively tighten up on their leashes and tense when dogs approach us. They sense my level of anxiety and respond accordingly.
Like I said, it’s really hard. In a few weeks we will have our final follow-up training session. It would be unfair if I didn’t say that they are much better, and they do try to be good doggies. The trainer had such high praise, especially for Bowie — he’s very trainable, she assured me. And now when I say, Come, Bowie, come! he charges to me and throws his back end right down on my feet. I nearly weep.
We’re all trying here — that’s the message, even if Sonny remains unconvinced.
Some of my best thinking happens while I’m enjoying my morning coffee and reading something from Smithsonian magazine. This morning’s read included an archeological piece on the workers who constructed Stonehenge 4500 years ago; in particular, it was about their poop (and their dogs’ poop, too). But, as fascinating as the short article was (one that I just had to share with my daughter in Portland, whose scientific curiosity is as distinctive as mine or — alternatively — whose filial sense of responsibility demands that she indulge me), it was the second article that I read that struck a more emotional chord. And, frankly, the current topic is nothing if not fraught (with its political overtones), and one likely to provoke an emotional maelstrom. . . if one reflects too intensely on the “historical moment” in which we currently find ourselves.
I invite you to imagine this scene: a husband and wife are in a passionate embrace in their bedroom when they hear rustling outside their second story window. Peering at them as they’re involved in “the act” is a furious-looking man whose enormous bald pate catches the reflection of the full moon filtering through the trees. He has held his tongue until he is sure that the couple have committed an illegal act. The illegal act? The husband has slipped on an industrial-grade condom (not the micro-thin, lubricated and scented “rubber” that wouldn’t become available for a looong time after). The man outside the window — as a “special agent” for the United States Post Office Department — leaps from his perch on one of the tree’s limbs through the open window and shouts, “You’re both under arrest for violating Connecticut’s obscenity laws.”
Sound ridiculous? Anthony Comstock was a pretty ridiculous man of the 19th century who was nevertheless instrumental in the passage of one of our country’s most restrictive federal laws concerning civil liberties and the right to personal privacy. Moreover, he was granted an insane degree of power to police it. So, the image presented in the paragraph above is indeed far-fetched, but Connecticut’s 1879 version — one of the many “little Comstock laws” that were implemented by states subsequent to the 1873 federal anti-obscenity law — illustrates what could happen. You could be a married couple who utilizes any manner of contraceptive, and — if found guilty — be subject to a fine, imprisonment, or both. Even coitus interruptus — always an option treated with natural skepticism by the woman — and the rhythm method (the Catholic Church’s favorite recommendation that compliant mothers of large broods likewise — long after the fact — viewed with mistrust) were outlawed. Nearly one hundred years would pass before the Comstock Law would be successfully challenged.
Whether you see yourself as someone who will be affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to overturn Roe v. Wade, there’s a gnawing sense that our society — already dangerously frayed — will be re-shaped by the Court’s unwillingness to preserve the most private of privacy rights of our citizens. Excuse me, . . . our female citizens. And whether you stand on the side of the majority of our citizens who wish to preserve the rights guaranteed in Roe v. Wade, or you’re instead guided by a belief system that sanctifies the rights of a fetus (or maybe even an embryo), you’ll no doubt appreciate the magnitude of this issue. It’s quite illuminating to note at this juncture that the first half of the 19th century — and even through much of the 18th century, as well — women enjoyed much more freedom (at least legally) to exercise control over their own bodies. How, then, did it all get upended? Who determined that a woman — any woman — was incapable of making her own decisions where it concerns her own body, her own health, her own needs?
To form an idea as to how our society veered onto a more noxious path, you can take a look at the disproportionate number of patent medicine ads in newspapers of the late 19th century targeting women, who were seen as constitutionally weak and nervous, whose very womanhood was viewed as pathological. It truly must have been a bewildering time for women. At the same time that they were beginning to flex their muscles in the work arena (outside the home) and to insist on being included in political discourse, they were being assaulted with messages of their inadequacy, their inferiority. Clearly, gaslighting is not a new phenomenon!
It is interesting to note that running parallel to the rise in feminist activism and advocacy was a contemporaneous (and insidious) trend that over time proved ruinous in terms of women’s constitutional protections. What began as a shift in perception evolved into a potent mechanism to wield control. You see, women had little agency until some time around the Civil War — in other words, they posed no threat to the establishment while they performed their wifely duties in the home.
As our country became more urbanized and people adapted to industrialized life, the social and business interactions that they engaged in became less intimate and less defined. . . and a whole lot less principled. The foods that people ate and the medicines they took were no longer ones that they grew or concocted. By the turn of the century, abuses were happening throughout the food and drug supply network and everyone seemed to recognize that some type of oversight was needed. When you set up a regulatory program (such as, for example, the Food and Drug Administration), you rely on experts. The mandates inherent in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were just one instance in which the opinions of the male-dominated medical establishment were deemed unassailable.
So, while women made visible gains during this time in some ways — the vote in 1920, for example — they lost immeasurably in other, more subtle but distressing ways. Their greatest surrender, in my mind, was conceding control over their own bodies to men of medicine and men who cited men of medicine. . . and even men who purported to be men of medicine. As if the matter were one of choice. It was a time of great opportunism, and a great time to be a man, especially a self-righteous, moralistic white man whose puritan (and puritanical) lineage dated back several generations
I’ve always been intrigued by 19th century American history. Admittedly, it’s probably because the invention of photography has made it easy to study intently the figures of the era. Bustled, corseted women standing stiffly next to an even more stiffly arranged Victorian settee are an invitation to reach for my magnifying glass. Even if I have no idea who the subject might be, I’m still very curious about what her life may have been like. Did she hate turnip as much as I do? What kinds of arguments did she have with her parents? Did she like to dance? And if I knew who she was, my questions could be endless.
When I study the portrait of Anthony Comstock, I’m curious about his life, too. He was part of that era when important men tugged on their mutton chops, puffed up their chests with self-importance and passed sweeping and important legislation that would leave future generations wondering what perception-altering drugs they favored when they were looking for professional inspiration and (of course) further opportunities for self-importance, further reason to puff up their chests.
It’s important to examine the broad historical context for clues — it allows for a more meaningful understanding of how we’ve arrived at this moment, one that keenly feels like a worrisome return to an earlier time characterized by huge social inequalities. Only by doing so can we fully acknowledge what’s on the line.
The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has always been seen as a watershed moment in our country’s long journey to wrest from the federal government control over women’s bodies. For nearly one hundred years, petitioners had been agitating to de-fang a federal law that was forcefully promoted by Anthony Comstock, a tyrannical, mutton-chopped Connecticut yankee whose puritanical upbringing caused in him some pretty inflexible ideas about acceptable behavior among his brethren. . . especially if we include women in that cohort.
Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1844, either the fourth child of eight or the fourth child of thirteen if you include his five youngest half-siblings. The son of a successful farmer, he was able to directly trace his American ancestry back six generations to the founding of Wethersfield, Connecticut. By Anthony’s time, the family had established a legacy based comfortably on agriculture and civic-mindedness. In William Comstock’s case — William was Anthony’s 4x great-grandfather — such civic responsibilities involved protecting family and community by hefting a musket at critical moments, such as during the Pequot Wars (1636-1637) when he joined his fellow puritan comrades and Mohegan allies in a massacre of 500 Pequot men, women, and children. Such was the sense of duty among Comstock men in their readiness to answer the call that each successive generation either signed up in eagerness to defend their turf (and God-given rights) and/or apply for proud membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.
In trying to make sense of Anthony’s extreme views about decorum that fueled his later crusade, an examination of his formative years goes a long way in explaining his skewed outlook on humankind. He had just turned ten (in 1854) when his mother died in childbirth. Simply put, his orderly and predictable world pitchpoled. With eight children and two servants, Anthony’s father Thomas (for a while) continued to toil and till — rather listlessly — on his farm in New Canaan; soon, however, Anthony’s two oldest brothers began to assume more responsibility for the farm’s management.
And then the Civil War happened.
And then Thomas laid down his pitchfork for good and removed to London. . . where he married a girl (younger than half of his children). Thomas would begin a new family with his second wife off in England, eventually running into financial difficulties. After crossing the Atlantic a few times, he transferred his new brood to Brooklyn, New York, where he would take up residence a mile away from his by then high-profile and very outspoken son Anthony.
Meanwhile, and before striking out for New York City himself, Anthony continued to struggle as he tried to restore order and sense in his world, but heartbreak pursued him. His older brother Samuel died (at age 21) in a Gettysburg hospital after wounds suffered in that battle. (His name appears in a long list of soldiers who succumbed in the months following the Battle of Gettysburg; interestingly, a high percentage of them were casualties of chronic diarrhea — typhoid fever, consumption, and dysentery also being frequently cited as cause of death. ) No doubt devastated by the loss of his brother, Anthony was moved to likewise answer the call, thus joining the Union cause three months later. He was nineteen. His experience as a private in the infantry exposed him for the first time to the rude realities of locker-room behavior among men. He was shocked and appalled. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that his resultant crusade against obscenity and all forms of immorality — one that lasted throughout the rest of his life — had its origins in that episode and was informed by the strict moral code that had been instilled in him by his late mother.
After mustering out and with his eyes now wide open, Anthony descended on the roiling hotbed of indecent behavior — New York City. For a while he held an academic position, but his growing indignation over what he saw as positive proof that American society (being systematically diluted and debased by the rising immigrant population) was slithering its way toward a vile and vulgar morass of immorality led him to advocate with every fiber of his being for the passage (in 1873) of the federal Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.
The implications of this 1873 law, soon dubbed The Comstock Act (or Law), were far-reaching, opening the door for states to draft their own stringent laws that, in many cases, underscored the differences between the haves and the have-nots. People of the upper and middle classes continued — largely unhindered — to avail themselves of outlawed products, but the working class encountered all manner of difficulty in their attempts to access the same. Once Anthony was installed as “special agent” for the United States Postal Service, he was uniquely positioned to observe how New Yorkers exchanged information; some of that information made him quake with disgust and anger. With his new unfettered powers — he could open mail, arrest suspected perpetrators, even entrap people — Anthony Comstock was delirious with his own sense of importance and authority. And he was unstoppable.
And he was easy to spot a mile away. He was a short block of a man with a shiny bald head and ginger-colored sideburns that sprang audaciously from the sides of his face. Purposeful in his stride, his forward motion was, nevertheless, hindered and made comical by his habit of walking on the balls of his (tiny) feet. Often caricatured because of his physique and behaviors, as well as his idiosyncratic opinions, whenever he turned his glowering attentions on potential victims, the intensity of his gaze alone could make them tremble in fear.
It’s worthwhile to take pause at this juncture in order to contemplate the very real — as well as the emotional — fallout from this one man’s crusade. The law made birth control illegal. Let’s just start there. And abortion was seen by Anthony as the most egregious violation of the law; recalling how his saintly mother died giving birth to her eighth child, it must have been abhorrent to him that women (even those who were married) would entertain the thought of rejecting a pregnancy. They should be willing to die in service to their primary (procreative) purpose, must have been his thinking.
Moreover, it may have been one thing to arrest people who were peddling “obscene” literature — notwithstanding the subjective (and highly variable) nature of the word’s definition, but Anthony always seemed to veer into the extreme. He once was offended by an undressed mannequin in a San Francisco store display window and brought charges, (which of course were later dismissed in court.) Equally absurd was the controversy over an oil painting. Google “September Morn” — not Neil Diamond’s song, but the oil painting by Paul Chabas. Even if you don’t look it up, let me sum for you: it’s a naked young woman standing in the shallows and striking a modest pose. Her nakedness was displayed in a NYC shop window, causing our crusader to storm angrily into the shop and demand that it be removed at once. Anthony was often impulsive and quite the hothead, not averse to getting physical or threatening . As the painting had already withstood legal scrutiny earlier in Chicago, our friend Anthony knew that the painting — and the reproductions — had standing, and the most that he could do was cast his opinion publicly, declaring it “demoralizing in the extreme and especially calculated to excite immodesty in the young.”) (Wikipedia)
If there was any “exciting” going on, it was the controversy that clung to Anthony Comstock in every encounter that resulted in him zealously exercising his powers of arrest or through his efforts to otherwise publicly condemn the shameful behaviors of his contemporaries. Occasionally, there were campaigns to overturn the Comstock Law, but at least while Anthony was alive, he enjoyed the backing of some very influential businessmen‚ most notably J.P. Morgan and Samuel Colgate. As always, Congress aimed to keep the captains of industry happy. And it must be said that many U.S. citizens, too, were pleased that they could rely on the indefatigable work of this uncompromising crusader against smut. Nothing would change until 1965.
Griswold v. Connecticut, a case being closely parsed of late, has been considered — from the outset — to be one of the most influential precedent-setting decisions where it concerns right to privacy. Pursued all the way to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff Estelle Griswold, who was executive director of Planned Parenthood, (through her lawyer, Yale lawyer Thomas Emerson) successfully argued in 1965 that Connecticut’s law banning the use of and/or dispensation of contraceptives violated a fundamental implied constitutional right. Eight years later, the success of Roe v Wade would depend on a broadening of the marital privacy rights that were articulated in Griswold v. Connecticut. A woman’s (and her doctor’s) right to privacy and freedom from governmental intrusion was re-interpreted to include abortions. In Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion yesterday, he alludes to future reconsideration of — among other cases — the due process protections that were decided in Griswold v. Connecticut.
As I’ve noted, it’s important to recognize what’s on the line. It feels terribly wrong that a body of nine — not a single one of whom has the biological capacity to become pregnant, either because of gender or age — exercised their power to nullify the constitutional right to an abortion, which, let’s just acknowledge it right now, disproportionately affects black and brown women. It should also be very unsettling that Justice Thomas is essentially welcoming other cases that will further subvert the rights of under-represented cohorts — same sex couples, for example. We’re wholely unaccustomed to court decisions that so ravage constitutional protections, but it does have familiar historical echoes. Our society can’t seem to escape its tradition of suppressing rights that should be enjoyed by all constituencies (while simultaneously broadening rights that imperil our most vulnerable, as also happened this week by means of the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. vs. Bruen.) Over and over we find ways to preserve the status quo, by which I mean the perceived threat to the rights of privileged white men. Anthony Comstock — whose extreme beliefs were cultivated from the cradle and indulged for nearly his entire adult life — caused irreparable harm to our less fortunate, disenfranchised citizens. Our shameful past — we can never seem to shed it, and yesterday’s ruling simply magnifies the recurring hurt.
I had a dream last night that I killed someone with a handgun. I’ve never owned a gun, never even held one. Well, that’s not entirely true. When I was a young girl I was allowed to hold my mother’s .22 rifle for about 5 seconds. Other than being surprised at the weight of it, I had very little interest in it. I don’t see myself as a violent person. When I feel myself at the extreme limits of exasperation, the best image I can summon is of me kicking the source of my vexation in the shins.
Why, then, did I have this dream? It likely had to do with the announcement yesterday that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called “New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. vs. Bruen,” struck down a restrictive gun law in New York. No longer will there be (reasonable) limits on who can carry a firearm in public. On hearing this I felt a sense of dread. Here in Massachusetts we can fully expect our own restrictive laws to be similarly challenged in the near future. Some of you may recall that our Governor, Charlie Baker, bragged about our “controlled” numbers relative to crimes committed with guns. Well, that just jinxed it for us!
The specifics of yesterday’s Court decision are summarized thusly: “An individual who wants to carry a firearm outside his home may obtain an unrestricted license to ‘have and carry’ a concealed ‘pistol or revolver’ if he can prove that ‘proper cause exists’ for doing so. . . An applicant satisfies the ‘proper cause’ requirement only if he can ‘demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.'”
Now, that seems terribly easy to do — I mean, how hard is it to demonstrate (in this country) that one has a “special need for self-protection” when all of us are already viewing the “general community” with great distrust, skepticism, and (at times) fear. I’m left with a dispiriting sense that while we have taken one important step forward with the bipartisan federal bill that was just recently hammered out, any gains will be stripped away by the New York case ruling. And let us not deceive ourselves that it will end at New York State’s borders. As a society, have we lost all sense of reason, all sense of proportion?
It is generally agreed upon by historians that the context in which the 2nd Amendment was written relied upon a common understanding of our new nation’s greatest existential threat. All sides of the debate back in 1791 were in agreement about the dangers of a standing army. Noah Shusterman (Washington Post, 22-February 2018) distilled the prevailing thought this way: “any society with a professional army could never be truly free.” It was never about an individual’s right to bear arms; it was ever about their participation in a militia. In that fragile moment, no one could foresee the broader implications.
The debate now cannot presuppose a common way of looking at our nation’s greatest security needs. For sure, there are coalitions among the American citizenry who still fear either a foreign take-over of our country or a coup staged by army generals, but can we really say that that is a greater threat than the threat we pose to each other? And, last I saw, we have a “Regular Army”, so do citizens still feel the need to bear arms? Against whom? Has our mutual distrust reached capacity, such that we will find it impossible to disentangle ourselves from our consuming resentments and grievances, our stubbornly-held differences?
Having a dream in which I killed someone with a handgun really shook me up. Even though I convince myself that my dream took that direction because of all the recent episodes of gun violence — especially the mass shootings — the 6-3 ruling (big surprise) by the U.S. Supreme Court expanding gun-toters’ rights seems morally wrong. If it isn’t starkly obvious by now, yes, I do believe there should be limits on gun ownership and carry laws.
Some might call it morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by dead people. . . and nearly dead people, which is how I viewed my dad’s parents when I was growing up. In truth, they weren’t (much) older than my mom’s parents, but where there was liveliness and humor and tenderness on the one side — all obvious signs that Papa Joe and Nana May (my mom’s parents) were of this world, Nana Morrissey and her perpetually scowling partner Gama were stern, dull, and disapproving. I grew up believing that Nana May and Papa Joe were the kinds of grandparents that one could more easily love and want to be around, to nestle (maybe) in their laps, and that Nana M and Gama were unhappy people who were born old and whose only concern was that we children not touch any of the fragile furnishings (and they were ALL fragile) in their tiny, old-fashioned home that perched — cramped and awkward — on a rocky ledge uphill from the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford. As a child, how freely one could run around and get dirty, maybe even break things (and each other) were immensely important activities, and our degree of freedom to do so defined how we adjudged the character of our four grandparents. It was unfair and shortsighted, but that’s how children are.
Recently I acquired (from that same tiny house on the rocky ledge) a cache of archival collections and loose photos that belonged to my ancient Aunt Ginny, my dad’s only sibling. She lived to 103 years old and displayed an enduring reverence for “the family record”, maybe a by-product of her long career as an attorney. Taken together, the photos tell a story that I never knew, one that upends (in a most meaningful way) my conclusions about my Medford grandparents.
“Circus Day” in May 1959 was one of those occasions for which there are several photos of Kevin, Tom, Chris, and me. We’re all spit-polish, scrubby-clean top to bottom, ready for Aunt Ginny to widen our country-dwelling horizons by treating us to The Greatest Show on Earth, an annual extravaganza held at Boston Garden. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was 88 years old in 1959. I was a little over three years old, the baby of the family. (For nearly five years I was able to enjoy that vaunted status until the second half of the family began to arrive.) In at least three of the snapshots, I’m leaning cozily into my Nana M and she’s got a protective (one might say “loving”) arm around me. To me, the gesture looks natural. As an adult with a lifetime of opportunity to reshape the narrative, could I really have had it all wrong? Were Nana M. and Gama just a typical couple of a certain age and time period, grandparents whose lives ran parallel to but distant from our other set?
And so I begin to remember things.
My favorite birthday cake is — and always has been — “Hershey’s Chocolate Town Special Cake” with “7-Minute (Boiled) Frosting”. Although I can’t remember how established it was as a tradition, Nana M. began making it for me for my birthday when I was very young. Each year when she presented it, I was dazzled by its exquisite, snow-white beauty and, of course, would be nearly insensible with joy as I shoveled it into my mouth. Whenever I make the same cake, I use Nana M’s magnificent creation as my benchmark, striving to achieve a rich, moist cake texture and swirly snowdrift frosting perfection that I recall her cakes having. And I can’t help but conclude that she made that cake. . . for me. . . with love and pride.
It seems that I never knew my Medford grandparents at all.
It’s a simple truth that anyone doing serious family research will — at some point — hit a brick wall. The more obdurate that wall, the more determined we are to surmount it. Given the ease with which we can obtain contemporary information about people, it vexes us that with a little earnest effort we can’t find out all we’d like to know about our ancestors. Since we Morrisseys descend nearly entirely from Irish forbears who left the Isle in the period extending from the Famine (latter half of the 1840’s) up through the 1880’s, with few exceptions our ability to confirm lineage beyond the ancestors who immigrated is hampered by several factors, such as:
Vague references by those who settled here as to their home of origin. In most cases, we have the county name only (if that).
Inconsistency in the self-reporting as to year of birth, especially on census records and death records, but also marriage records. Rather than assume that the variance was born of suspicion and distrust, the inconsistencies are most likely attributable to their own uncertainty about their birth — bear in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, knowing precise dates was unimportant (unless you were Irish and neglected to register a birth within a required time period, in which case you would simply alter the authentic date to comply with the law.) Family bibles have been perhaps the most reliable records of births (or more importantly, baptisms). . . if the researcher has access to them.
Early census records (19th century) for Ireland were destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Records Office. As a “census substitute”, Griffith’s Valuations is the go-to, but despite its voluminous listings of tenancies, teased out by townland, barony, parish, and county; it has severe limitations. (A more thorough examination would be better suited in a separate essay.)
Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland did not begin until 1864. Wouldn’t you know that most of the ancestors for whom the trail runs cold is right before that year — it inevitably seems that the 1850’s is the period of time that we most need to examine? For Roman Catholics (as nearly all our ancestors seem to have been), having the name of the diocese (as well as a fair idea of year) is crucial if we want to do a work-around and establish dates and confirm family connections. (Even here, the records are incomplete, especially regarding burial information — fewer than half the parishes kept burial information prior to 1900.)
When we pause to consider the driving force behind our research, it seems we are most motivated by our curiosity about our own part in the ongoing narrative — why am I dreamer, for example? Do I get that from my dad? And, in turn, where did he get it from? Is Margaret’s (or Michaela’s) widow’s peak a genetic trait inherited from Gama’s family? Is Tom’s intensity something passed down from the Morrissey side of the family? (They were, it seemed, a very competitive and intense lot.) Surrounded as we are by blue or green-eyed siblings, Bobby and I have brown eyes — are they a Murphy characteristic? And, let us not overlook shortness — is that from the Gildeas or the Morrisseys? (The Murphys — at least the women — were on the tall side, but Annie Mulhern — Papa Joe’s mother — was purportedly a “very tiny lady”.) Following are some of the questions to which we are always seeking answers in our researching of ancestors:
What did they look like?
What types of personalities did they have?
Did they get along with each other? And with others?
Did they have any health issues?
What types of livelihood did they have? (And how much of that was by choice or through coercion?)
What was their academic life like? (Achievers? Underachievers? Smart? Lazy? The educator part of me would want, furthermore, to tease out multiple intelligences.)
What did they do in their spare time? What were they passionate about? (Sports, social or political causes, travel, The Church, etc.)
What should each one be remembered for? (I always am most moved by the ones who would otherwise be forgotten over time — the ones who strayed or disappeared. . . or were institutionalized, and the ones who never had their own children. Who can assure their legacies? Who will perpetuate their memory?)
I recently went shopping with a friend at a nearby antique market, and while we meandered through the vast indoor space — a converted mill building alongside the North Canal in Lawrence (off-shoot of the Merrimack River), we kept up a running conversation. At one point, we both agreed that we were ideal companions in that particular endeavor. Both of us have a casual approach, not in the least like how her husband undertakes the task, nor how my husband used to — each can (or could) spend up to an hour in one nook, closely examining every piece. When my husband George was alive we enjoyed our antique shop adventures immensely, but it always was the case that as soon as we entered the door, we’d part ways. Inevitably, he would emerge with something amazing, and I would be spending my money on something that before too long would end up in a Goodwill bin. I just don’t have the eye for spotting treasures; either that, or I’m too impulsive. . . or impatient. . . or lazy. Maybe I’m all those.
Every once in a while, however, I’m inspired to be different. I want to be that person who can while away an hour or two in an antique shop (or an entire morning at a fair), inspecting countless pieces of recycled merchandise, moving some aside to reach for the hidden gems. Just as gratifying would be the casual conversations that can be struck up with knowledgeable (and quirky) vendors, especially the ones who get excited when you’re curious about an item’s history or backstory. (Having lived more or less in the shadow of my much more social and outspoken partner, let me just say it’s a slow process learning to position myself center-front on that same stage where for decades I occupied a position slightly behind George. . . right where I was comfortable.)
In most rooms of my house there is at least one of George’s antique finds. I find I’m less able to part with the unique, one-of-a-kind vintage and antique curiosities that reside politely — in some cases joyously entertaining — on shelves. One of my favorites is a pair of folksy-looking Cuban musicians, hand-carved and depicted in a stylized manner. They’re an exuberant couple with posable bodies. The man is playing the güiro, the woman — bongos, and both are singing. Every so often, in order to fully appreciate their vitality, I reposition their arms or their heads or their feet. I’m not likely to ever part with my Cuban pair because their most recent story — the only chapter I’ll ever know — fills me with my own version of joy. On one of our antique adventures, George and I found ourselves somewhere downeast in Maine. As we typically did, we entered an antique shop together and immediately parted company. My interests tend to lean toward old textiles, sewing machines, 60’s lunchboxes, books, and 19th century photos. George’s particular interests were tools, toys, bottles, and anything he thought I would like. After about 30 minutes George appeared at my side and silently handed me the pair of figurines. He knew I would love them, and maybe imagined that I would add them to the decor in my Spanish classroom. Not for a moment would I entertain such a thought — I wanted them just for myself. It didn’t surprise me at all, either, that he had found them in a part of the shop that I had already breezed by.
Over the years, I feel I’ve come to know Yoselin and Bembe quite well. (Yes, I’ve named my high-spirited, posable Cuban musicians.) Like most people, I’ve formed an attachment to a possession that obviously has only the slightest of monetary value. It must be said, though, that whenever we enter an antique shop or attend a fair or (especially) a flea market, we entertain a hope that we’ll find a hidden gem. Yoselín and Bembe are enough of a treasure for me, but this morning I read in Smithsonian about a woman who really hit the jackpot. . . in a Goodwill store, of all places. For the price of $35 (if you shop at Goodwill, you understand that to be top dollar), Laura Young emerged with a very heavy but cool marble bust that she knew would look perfect in her hall entryway. Young isn’t a complete novice — she trades in antiques, so she knew she was on the better end of the transaction.
Audentes Fortuna Iuvat
The 2,000 year-old story began with some famous Roman commander or emperor’s son or son of a disgruntled statesman (good guy, bad guy — it’s hard to know with certainty). In death, all these guys are elevated anyway, whether in status or as blocks of marble shaped into beautiful, proud heads and placed on a pedestal. . . literally (or, at least their likenesses are. . . literally).
Whoever was being represented by the sculpture, its beauty and value were appreciated (many centuries later) by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made it a part of his permanent collection, housed in the newly constructed Pompeiianum Museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany. One hundred years would pass uneventfully until very eventfully World War II happened, and the Allies bombed the Pompeiianum. The shame is made greater by the fact that looting then took place by the Allies. One way or another, the stolen head made its way to the United States where it remained a secret for nearly eighty years. And now, the real story is as much about our curiosity about the moron in Texas who dropped it off at a Goodwill recycling center as it is about where it has been for eighty years.
There’s a lesson here, and I don’t think it’s caveat emptor. Perhaps caveat donator (“donor beware”) better captures the moral. Also, bona quarentibus (which, if I’m not totally making up my own form of Latin, means “Good things come to those who seek.”)