The Mona Lisa is Non-Fungible*

I learned today that the Mona Lisa is non-fungible. It only took me three articles and two You-Tube videos to learn that. Don’t get me wrong — I learned a lot today, all having to do with virtual reality and things like “NFT’s” and blockchain and bitcoin (although I have to admit there’s a certain quality about all these things that my brain just naturally rebels against, and, consequently, I’ll probably forget by tomorrow everything I learned today.) If you’re wondering why I would waste “valuable time” on things that don’t really exist or only exist digitally or intangibly, it’s because I wanted to understand why the hosts of Good Morning America were behaving this morning as if they’d all just glanced out the studio window at 44th and Broadway and seen a flying saucer. Gobsmacked, they were.

I can only take so much of GMA’s reporting, as it tends to see-saw between alarming, ohmygodwe’reallgoingtodie delivery and overly ebullient, ilovepuppies feel good stories. I understand that if they reported that Grady McGrady (not a real person, by the way), an average person working in a typical job was having an average day, it wouldn’t capture and hold anyone’s attention, even the average American who would — and should — be inclined to sympathize with Mr. McGrady. I always feel as if they’re masterfully manipulating my emotions. I’m up, I’m down. I’m up again (because heaven forbid I be left in a puddle of my own despair at the end of the show.

The news that apparently left the GMA hosts dumbstruck was the disclosure of Walmart’s recent forays into the metaverse and their plans to create their own cryptocurrency, as well as begin making and selling virtual goods. That’s right; pretty soon you’ll be able to buy personal care items and toys — the not real kind — if you have approved levels of NFT’s (non-fungible tokens). If you pause for just a moment to reflect on why they’re muscling into this realm, well, why not? In their own words, they’re “continuously exploring how emerging technologies may shape future shopping experiences.” (It’s perhaps cynical of me to suspect that this big-box giant has within its mission statement some language about garnering a bigger percentage of consumer spending than the competition.)

You might be surprised to hear that I don’t believe the lines between our physical and virtual lives are becoming blurred. I’m more apt to reframe it all by pointing out that our virtual behaviors are claiming more of our time, time being something that will always have finite value. If I ever have occasion to look back on something I either did or had and can’t remember if I did it or had it virtually or physically, then I might concede that the lines are blurred. The argument really has to do with how realistic-seeming these virtual elements have become, how effectively they mimic the real world.

This all brings me to my larger point. I’ll offer an example here: RTFKT is a sneaker brand; they design virtual sneakers that are then auctioned off, one pair per month. They’ve sold out every month, and the highest bids consistently come in at $15,000 or higher. I can’t speak for other consumers, but even if I had that kind of money to spend on anything virtual, I question the authenticity of emotion that that type of purchase (and possession) would generate. I spend more money on boots than I ought to, but when I physically wear them, they make me feel good. Could I feel the same if I dressed up my avatar in one of my pairs? Mmmm. . . doubtful.

So, why have we become a virtually acquisitive society? Washington, D.C. filmmaker/journalist Johnny Harris explains this phenomenon from a psychological standpoint, “As soon as humans have enough abundance to have their basic needs met — food, shelter, warmth, etc. — the next frontier is to create value in things that have no inherent value.” Cyclically, perhaps, and often tied to periods of plenty, we’ve been doing this for a long, long time. All it takes is a persuasive salesperson to proclaim that such-and-such has great inherent value, and it provokes a human response to want to acquire it. Hence, you’ll have people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, er. . . NFT’s to “own” a few seconds of video of NBA Top Shots.

For Johnny Harris’ clear and very understandable explanation on YouTube, click here.

*”non-fungible” – A term used in economics, for all intents and purposes it means unique and irreplaceable.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth*

I had every intention of letting the rejection just roll off my shoulders. But I thought about it again today, and I think I’m even angrier. So this is primarily a rant (which I promised I wouldn’t do in this new blog space. Gee, that didn’t take long.)

A couple days ago I reached out to the Schlesinger Library, a special collections library within the Harvard Library with what I considered a generous offer. I’d long known about their status as a research organization; in particular, they champion efforts to highlight the accomplishments of women. In their words, they stand apart as “the leading center for scholarship on the history of women in the United States.” I assumed that a copy of my mother’s World War II album would be a welcome addition to their holdings, useful to those doing scholarly work about women’s contributions at critical moments in our nation’s history. I personally do not gain by donating the book; in fact, I would incur the printing and shipping costs, but as someone who gives my time freely to a local historical society, I understand the value of firsthand accounts by people who played a part or were witness to pivotal events in history, whether those events were at the community level or much grander in scale.

Nagasaki after atomic bomb, August 1945

It may be that we all imbue treasured family artifacts with inflated value, but there are elements in my mother’s story that — through photos and notations — dramatically capture important subtleties, as well as complexities, in a war that likely will always hold our gravest lessons about the depravity of humankind. For example, my mother, in her military role as dietitian, was deployed to Namur, Belgium in February of 1945 (in a mission referred to by its acronym RAMP) to serve as part of the team that would intake and treat liberated and recovered Allied POW’s.** Incorporated also into the album are a few photos that were captured by one of the first photojournalists to arrive on the scene after the Americans dropped “Fat Man” on the city of Nagasaki, Japan August 9, 1945. The photojournalist who gave the pictures to my mother’s family was able to memorialize one of the most controversial actions of the war. To see these pictures — in stark and minute detail — simply leaves one without words.

In boldly bragging about “its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism,” the Schlesinger Library nevertheless is spurning a great opportunity to preserve a relevant first-person portrayal by a self-styled feminist. The final insult in the Library’s rejection letter, after offering the now-customary excuses about pandemic constraints and hurdles, is that if it had been a chronicling by someone who fit within their “strategic priorities”, for example, by a woman of color or a conservative woman, they would gladly accept it. They apparently don’t see the hypocrisy with their stated commitment to deepen their holdings by “women of all political philosophies” and to promote “a more complete story of human accomplishment.” As if it weren’t already fairly remarkable to be a female commissioned officer serving in France, Belgium, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II.

Unlike New England School of Law, which was thrilled recently to receive my aunt’s overstuffed scrapbook from her years at Portia Law (Cl. of 1939), the Schlesinger suffers by its hasty rejection. The word arrogant comes to mind. Perhaps I should be more sensitive to the organization’s efforts to level the playing field, whereby it gives more space to underrepresented groups. I would argue, however, that any primary source material that succeeds in deepening our understanding of complicated and consequential events in history would be inherently desirable.

It’s their loss.

And I’m sorry I even thought they were worthy.

For an account of “Hospitalization and Evacuation of Recovered Allied Military Personnel” (RAMP), click here to visit the WW2 US Medical Research Center.

*See how I found a way to connect with my earlier Greek mythology posts?

**There was an interesting distinction made inside the hospitals that were set up to treat our recovered POW’s. When the Allies opened up the concentration camps (or they were abandoned by the retreating Germans), some PW’s followed orders to remain in place until transported to the hospitals, while others responded to a primal urge to put distance between themselves and their misery. The first group’s members were designated “liberated” and were given priority over the second group of “displaced” PW’s, those who often just wandered staggering into the army hospital grounds.

Smoking is Bad for Your Health

Each day I get an alert from History.com’s “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”* and (nearly) always find something about it that fascinates me. A couple days ago it was about Christopher Columbus’ mistaking manatees for mermaids, and that sent me down a rabbit hole. I learned about the Steller’s sea cow (and of course that recalled for me the recent sightings of the wayward Steller’s sea eagle who is having trouble finding his way home to Eastern Russia), their namesake (George Wilhelm Steller – quite an amazing fellow in his own right; I’ll have to study this 18th century botanist/explorer further), manatees, and ending with a perusal of mermaid-centered 15th century art. I hardly need to point out that all of this took place in the comfort of my home via the internet. How would we otherwise manage COVID restrictions?

This morning was no different; I happily descended the rabbit hole; in fact, I haven’t fully re-emerged. On this day in history in 1964, the U.S. surgeon general Luther Terry reported the findings of a two-year commission: succinctly put, smoking was hazardous to your health. Its obviousness is laughable now, but you can’t help but time travel back to 1964 and re-experience — in your imagination — how prevalent smoking was, and how accepted its practice was. My parents were both smokers, and I’m sure nearly half of my readers can say the same thing. We can commiserate about all the joyless car rides in which our greatest challenge was how not to breath in the secondhand smoke. Meals were typically followed by a ritual lighting up of either a Kent or a Winston, and no project by Dad went unaccompanied by a smoldering cigarette notched into the rim of an ash tray. With just the merest effort, I can re-imagine the distinctive aroma of a filled ash tray. I was forever emptying the abalone and clam shells that we used as improvised ashtrays and washing them out, but of course the cycle was perpetual, therefore making my gesture pointless.

Surgeon General Terry’s 1964 report was a watershed moment. As the percentage of adult smokers had surpassed 40% and there was no sign of the upward trend reversing, he had done something quite courageous. Knowing that the pushback by the enormously powerful tobacco industry would be fierce and prolonged, and mindful of Wall Street ramifications, he nevertheless put his (unsurprising) findings in front of the public. While it took decades for legislation to subsequently be enacted, Terry’s principled stand serves as a heartening example of one influential person’s choice to prioritize the public good. In a world where profit, expediency, and self-interest on the one hand compete with public health, humanitarianism, and charity on the other, today’s leaders could use such a reminder.

Check out “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history

A Thousand Ships

For those paying close attention (and I’m not suggesting that you should be paying close attention), you might have noticed a thematic repetition in some of my choices of books lately. It began with Circe, and having loved that book, I eagerly read The Song of Achilles by the same author, Madeline Miller. I just finished A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, and walked away from it with that same feeling of satisfaction. So, now I’m left puzzling over why I am just now being turned on by stories inspired by Greek mythology. Why now? Why not before?

One would think that there might have been a smidgen of curiosity way back when I was in high school. After all, our school mascot was a Trojan. Perhaps the turn-off was that everyone always considered the name’s other connotation much more naturally than any association with Odysseus, Helen, or Achilles, or just generally the whole Heroic Age. It’s possible that I quailed at the prospect of mispronouncing all those Greek names with a preponderance of vowels (and off-putting diphthongs). It is equally likely that the ancientness of it all failed to inspire me. I think I’m closer to understanding why I now can embrace these stories. The gradual shift within me has to do with a new acceptance of ambiguity, uncertainty. What I mean is, in the past I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading a story centered on the Trojan War, mostly because of archaeologists’ inability to say definitively where Troy was. While the accepted wisdom is that the walled city held an unassailable position at the southern approach to the Dardanelles (along the Turkish straits), I couldn’t imagine investing all that time into reading about an event that may or may not have taken place where the experts were in reasonable agreement that it did take place. Moreover, hedging their claims about the real names behind Homer’s characters only left me even more frustrated. If I were to read a book about war, I wanted a war from the last couple of hundred years. Everything about them seemed more conclusive.

The reason A Thousand Ships appealed to me is because Haynes freely admits (big surprise) that there are enormous gaps in our understanding of the role of women during that ten-year war (and the ten years that followed). With her imagination thus unfettered, she wove a vibrant, highly entertaining tale, one that portrays the female characters in ways that allow us readers to nod vigorously and say, “Yes, I can see how it might have played out that way.” There’s nothing high-brow in Haynes’ writing style; in fact, she very artfully transforms the unapproachable and fabled characters into flawed, mortal, touchable beings.

If you can get beyond the challenge of accurately pronouncing Greek names*, you’ll love this book. (I’m trying to ready myself to read The Odyssey, and maybe I should do the audio version to avoid my own mishandling of names.)

*As I read, I used online pronunciation guides, but even they were not in agreement. Sometimes, the British pronunciation deviated from the U.S. pronunciation, and other “guides” were just rubbish, contradicting rules of Greek phonetics (as I am beginning to understand them).

Spectator Par Excellence

From the moment I could toddle without great risk of thumping my head on objects in my path, Mom’s unvarying instructions to my older brothers before they hurtled out the door for all manner of improvised adventure was always, “Watch your little sister, please.”

“Sure, Mom,” was their standard reply, never breaking stride and never glancing back, but assuming — accurately — that I would tail them wherever they went. Whether I have a right to be, I am reassured in my belief that they took that responsibility seriously, and would never let harm come to me. At least that’s what I say now. As a child, I was pretty skeptical that they were in full accord with the mantra of “leave no soldier behind”.

Gildea cousins at the First Pond (Papa Joe’s birthday, 9-Feb 1965)

Behind our grandparents’ farmhouse at 1777 South Street were three small ponds tucked into a wooded area.  They were imaginatively named “The First Pond”, “The Second Pond”, and “The Third Pond”. Rarely were they ideal for skating because the surface would be covered with leaves, twigs and branches, or snow. For early efforts at learning to ice skate, however, they should have been perfect. There were frozen streams, too, that connected the three ponds, allowing you to conveniently skate from one to the next. I was forever pursuing my older brothers, who, without warning, would all race off to the next pond. I think I cried a lot when they did that; without their reassuring nearness, scary woodland creatures could easily pick me off. As I watched their receding figures cut a swift and serpentine path away from me, I couldn’t help but contrast their elegance with my own on-ice conduct. Where their movements were fluid — there’s undeniable and exquisite beauty in skating (especially on those long stretches of straight-away where the arms and legs form a harmony of sweeps and arcs as one’s stride lengthens) —all I managed to do was walk around gingerly, tentatively, objecting to the foreignness of my figure skates. With crooked ankles nearly grazing the ice and arms akimbo, mine was a style that forced my body to either do splits every eight feet or so, or go horizontal to land flat on my back, whereupon I lay motionless and studied the undulating tips of the trees stroking the sky directly above me.  One can only hold that position for a few minutes before the cold forces you back on your feet.

Whenever the command “move!” was issued as I crossed into areas where frenzied hockey action was taking place, I responded with a fresh startle reflex much like an infant who has been presented with a sudden loud noise or a bright light, my feet shooting out from under me and my arms splaying. I was better at locating logs to sit on. . . and even better at experiencing hypothermia, giving me yet another reason to cry. I should add that I did have an indispensable role; whenever the puck sailed into the surrounding woods, I was sent to retrieve it.  It was an honor to be serving in such an essential role. Consequently, my skates were regularly being taken to the shop for sharpening. (I can’t even say that with a straight face.) I grew up not very fond of skating. . . until I met David, and Johnson’s Pond in Raynham provided a new venue for that dance that teenage boys and girls do in large unsupervised groups.  My feet were just as cold then, too, but I didn’t mind. At least I didn’t cry.

Watching a high school game (possibly 1972)

All my brothers were groomed from an early age to be ice hockey players, and I was groomed to be spectator par excellence. Mom and Dad imagined themselves, at least in the beginning, as devoted hockey parents. Mom, for her part, was always there when called upon to shout at the refs or rattle the cow bell when a goal was scored. Easy to spot in her red quilted “car coat” among the fans in the bleachers, she was a little woman with a big voice. She did not need the cow bell. My grandfather, whose world revolved around music, had only ever foreseen for his oldest daughter one application for all that training in voice, that careful development of the diaphragm, and it wasn’t to give full and honeyed expression to the soprano section of dedicated fans. It was to skewer the referee with comments like, “Hennessy, you’re a dink!”

In rinks all over the South Shore I watched my brothers on the ice, and I watched Mom watching them. As a teenager, I then expanded my spectating to include my younger brothers who began their training by pushing wooden boxes or kitchen chairs all over the ice. Organized youth hockey programs were just taking off in our region; their popularity quickly skyrocketed, propelling hordes of youngsters throughout my town to the area’s frozen bodies of water; there were several ponds and lakes — as one would expect in a town called Bridgewater — that provided great conditions for skating: Carver Pond, Skeeter Mill Pond, Sturtevant’s Corner, and the Ice Pond (aka State Farm Pond).  Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly — ice skating never struck me as especially fun; on those occasions when I did take to the ice myself, I would be the lone skater, trying over and over to perform a simple move such as stopping forward motion or resuming forward motion. . . artistically.  I never progressed, and as impressed as I was with Peggy Fleming, her moves just totally confounded me; how did she spin so fast and leap so high. . . all with such grace and beauty? I only knew it had something to do with physics. . . I think.

The 1960’s and 70’s were the sweet spot, I believe, for pick-up hockey games in which teams were naturally selected by blood ties.  The baby boom generation — lots of families with lots of kids — provided a ripe culture for casual team sports.  The Bruins’ success, too, in the early 70’s converted young spectators into NHL aspirants.  Although gear was optional, hockey gloves were one of the more prized pieces of equipment, given that rules of engagement were rather loose, and hands were constantly getting smashed.  It didn’t matter if they were mismatched, or had holes, or even fit properly; when two players squared off, as long as those gauntlets could be thrown down in a flash, they served their greatest purpose. On the other hand, a helmet, perhaps the most important appurtenance from a long-term health standpoint, was audaciously absent. Although randomly assembled teams were a perfectly suitable option, in many cases entire teams could be made up of a single family or a neighborhood combination of families.  Hence, there were rivalries that evolved rather organically; the Morrisseys and Maloneys, for example, nurtured a competitive relationship that regularly included family sponsored fighting.  Kevin, of course, in his typically zealous manner, nobly did his part for the Morrisseys.  As feared as he might have been by his foes, there was genuine admiration of his skill set, which extended even to ice surface management. Few kids, for example, would risk submerging their own vehicles in order to clear the ice of snow. As the shinny baton was later passed to younger brothers Marty and Bob, the family names changed; the Heslin brothers and the Blakelys brought greater finesse and skill to the pond hockey scene. At this point, kids could just generally boast a more expansive indoctrination. Organized hockey had truly arrived in Bridgewater.

Pick-up style hockey continued to enjoy popularity in subsequent decades, but, naturally, the game has experienced a metamorphosis. What we observe in the sport today is akin to a coming-of-age; rarely do we see genuine, improvised games on local ponds. It catches our eye when we do see a small clutch of kids with sticks in hand, movement back and forth between two makeshift goals on a suitably frozen pond. Even the length of the season has shortened; in earlier years it might have been possible, at least in coastal Massachusetts, to take to the ice in November; extended periods of cold are much rarer these days.  

Baby boomers never really left their passion behind, however. Pick-up games now more readily conjure ice rink settings, and schedules are firmly set, leaving one to wonder about the persistence of the name.  And if you live in cold winter states such as Minnesota or Colorado, outdoor pick-up tournaments, which draw thousands of participants and are often sponsored by big-name purveyors of beer, bring you that much closer to your unfulfilled dream of playing professionally. They’re highly organized programs, with perimeter boards and goalie nets that are the real deal, (one even boasts Zamboni service!), so prepare accordingly. Make sure you arrive with matching gloves, fashion forward attire and a mouthguard for your few remaining original teeth.  

As impressed as I am with the dedication and zeal displayed by players in the “well beyond their prime” age bracket, there is no other way to describe my own experiences on the ice than to say that they were fraught. My tenure as spectator — of the plein-air and local rink sort — provided more pleasurable memories, even if these days I now greatly prefer an experience that involves a large screen TV while sitting on a couch. . . with a cozy afghan. . .  and a beverage (cold or hot, it wouldn’t matter). My heart twists, though, whenever I inveigh against a controversial call by the ref; it’s as if I’ve been transported back to those state rinks throughout the South Shore, when several times in any given game my mom’s voice would boom across the ice, poetically goring an earnest ref whose only crime was wielding a whistle. Good memories, after all.

(This is a revision of a story that first appeared in my Scosche of Class Blog in March, 2019.)

Goodbye, 2021

Before we all kicked the year 2021 square in the butt, I’m sure we were already imagining ways in which 2022 might be better. It can’t be worse, we all say with more wishful thinking than confidence. I wonder, though, whether we begin 2022 with greater determination to succeed in our resolutions and promises or instead with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders that suggests we wield less power over our lives than we would wish. Like the next person, I gave some thought to the new year, but at this juncture there’s still a great deal of vagueness; I’d say my resolutions are yet unformed, but might include ideas such as “be kinder” and “practice intentionality”, which means, I think, that I won’t be able to continue for long with my yet unformed resolutions. The impediment to launching — right now — into any list of concrete, measurable, and healthful goals is that I’m not finished with 2021.

It started by musing out loud in the presence of my daughter that there must have been something positive about 2021, some gains; you can’t have a whole year that was just awful from beginning to end. . . can you? Thus, before I wrestle with any mental exercises to view 2022 with suitable optimism, I’ll pause to reflect on the upside of 2021.

So, here’s what I’ve got:

  • Our society is thinking more creatively about the 40-hour/week/9-5 work paradigm. The concept of “deep work” finally caught on, resulting in lots of companies going to a four-day work week. The common sense inherent in the term means that businesses have re-structured how their workers behave while on the clock. Without getting into the finer points, a couple of typical examples would be: adjustments to meeting schedules to allow for greater productivity, and when and how many times a worker should look at email messages. Businesses have generally been urged to consider modifications that bring about greater efficiency, less wasted time. In a related way, working remotely has become acceptable; finally, employers are trusting that many tasks can be performed off-site and out of view of the boss.
  • Lighter traffic on the roads. As a consequence of the first item on this list, there are fewer cars, hence fewer annoying people out there. In many cases, we are also surprised by available parking where heretofore one had to be unusually lucky to find a parking spot.
  • Improved air quality (especially in countries and regions with historically horrible patterns of pollution, namely the United States, China, and Europe), less so in countries that have already been proactive in reducing carbon emissions (such as Sweden).
  • Expanded choices for lovers of jigsaw puzzles. I leave you to reflect on that however you will.
  • “Oobleck” is officially in the dictionary. (Increased home schooling likely was a factor.) In a year in which Dr. Seuss’ legacy came under harsh scrutiny, this validation by Merriam-Webster warms the heart of all of us. Who didn’t — at least once (and probably only once) — destroy their parents’ kitchen creating a school project with a cornstarch, water, and food coloring concoction? And, of course, because memory softens over time, we repeated the nightmare with our own children.*

It’s easy to see how the few examples above inter-connect, at least if we tease out their genesis. And while it might cause us to pucker our faces, the notion that COVID has brought about anything good is worthy of rejoicing. Such thinking allows us to say with no sense of contradiction, Hallelujah, and good riddance, 2021!

*Recipe for Oobleck: 1c cornstarch, 1-2c water, few drops food coloring; add water to cornstarch in mixing bowl; add food coloring. To achieve desired consistency, add more water or cornstarch as needed.

Fun Fact: quicksand operates on the same principle as Oobleck; they’re non-Newtonian fluids, neither solid nor liquid. Instead they get their properties by either increasing or decreasing pressure. Here’s a great article on Oobleck by Scientific American, whereby they even coax you to make a “big batch” of the substance in a large bin, then remove your shoes and socks and step into it and walk around in it. (Do you sink in when you stand on it? they invite you to discover.)

Lamenting the Decline of the Semicolon

Seriously, when was the last time you used a semicolon? Are you so afraid of using it wrong that you just don’t? Did you know that it’s considered the most controversial punctuation mark?

This past week I came across an essay on the diminished use of the semicolon, and it piqued my interest. I confess that I’m a big fan of that particular mark of punctuation; sometimes, a comma just can’t do the job, and using a period to create a full stop hews my ideas too radically. If you shy from using it, here’s a simple piece of wisdom from a 17th century language expert; Richard Hodges gives us this guidance: “At a comma, stop a little; at a semicolon, somewhat more.” (Follow link here to ThoughtCo.)

The essay that caught my interest, “The melancholy decline of the semicolon” by Will Lloyd (follow link here) was a delightful look at how authors and readers feel about the inherent worth of a punctuation mark that is so often misunderstood that it engenders strong feelings of contempt. Imagine that! A tiny grammatical function has the power to incite loathing.

Pause to consider what Ben Platt discovered in 2017: from 1800 to 2000, semicolon usage decreased 70%. Also, researchers at Lancaster University tell us that in the last 30 years, usage of the semicolon has decreased by 25%. One should not conclude that I’m a smug know-it-all when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I make lots of mistakes, and I frequently will re-write chunks of sentences just to avoid cornering myself in a situation in which only the best editors and language experts can maneuver with finesse. But there are times when I will not be dissuaded from its use; I will not, as others might suggest, use the em-dash or simply slap a period down with a sense of dramatic finality. I worry, too, that I’ll wake up one of these mornings and the headlines will be some version of: “Semicolon Usage to be Outlawed.” Just as worrisome is the thought that I’ll be among the 5% still using the semicolon, while the rest of the population will be communicating entirely in acronyms and sentence fragments. At some point, someone will ask with complete bewilderment, “What’s a sentence?” SMH WTF

The Bugler and His French Wife

Sometimes all it takes is a photograph, and we family researchers are like a dog with a bone. I had always known a few of the essential facts about my grandmother’s brother, “the one who moved away”, but other than being only mildly curious about Edwin Lincoln Murphy’s life in France, there wasn’t any single detail that made me especially interested in his story. He was just one of Nana Morrissey’s many siblings, and that’s how it remained for nearly forty years.

Recently, however, I was busily examining a boxful of family photos and albums that had been sitting in storage at my Aunt Ginny’s house in West Medford, Massachusetts. It was impossible to ignore one of the largest photos in the box, an 11” x 14” portrait, still sheathed in the photographer’s protective sleeve. The curious photograph instantly captured my attention; peering intently at the subject, my first thought was, this is not a relative; she’s too pretty. All my Murphy ancestors could be described as long-faced, mournful, in some cases dour-looking; it may be somewhat unfair, but the word that always comes to mind is “horsey”. Reine’s portrait had been professionally done by a well-known photographer whose studio was in Biarritz, France; it featured a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had delicate features and dark eyes that hinted at vulnerability; her smile, too, suggested an innocence, or at least an openness, as she looked slightly over her shoulder at the camera.

More than one hundred years after Winchester, Massachusetts native Edwin Murphy married the enchanting Reine Latrille of Bordeaux, France, we still don’t know — and likely never will know — how and where they met. Their long lives together remain a mystery, a romantic one, to be sure, and with all that we don’t know — yet can’t help but imagine — about the couple, it makes their story all the more captivating.

The first time I knew of the existence of Reine was an oblique reference by my Aunt Ginny back in the 80’s. I was beginning to get serious about my family research, and Aunt Ginny was the best informant I had for details about my father’s side of the equation. Reine was never mentioned by name, nor the fact that she was French. She was only ever referred to as Edwin Murphy’s wife.

Edwin in photo preserved by Reparations Commission post- WW1

 To begin, you’ll need to understand who Edwin was. Edwin Lincoln Murphy was my one of my grandmother’s two younger brothers, the fourth child (of eight) born to my paternal great-grandparents, Edward P. and Honora (Walsh) Murphy. Until the age of twenty-two, he lived with his family in Winchester, Massachusetts. The only biographical details I could tease out about his early life came from a few mentions in The Winchester Star. It appears he, like two of his sisters, was big into basketball; he also played football, for which he was awarded a varsity letter. Edwin was also a musician and performed (in a Shakespeare scene) at his Winchester High School graduation in 1914. After graduation, one of the things we know about him is that he joined the Massachusetts Militia as a bugler. He would continue to have that unique responsibility when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. In March of 1918, he left the United States on an Army transport and began his military career, making France his permanent home, but visiting his family often in Winchester and (later) Somerville throughout the years. From the end of 1919 — when Edwin and Reine married — until about 1980, Edwin and Reine alternated between Paris and their home in Bordeaux, but gave up the Paris apartment on Rue Marbeauf (known as “the street of the shirtmakers”), thus making Gradignan their year-round home for the remaining ten years of their lives.

Aunt Ginny with Reine in
Somerville MA c1926

It is easy to see how my Aunt Ginny, who was always enamored of exotic and sparkly people and things, could be smitten by her French aunt, an alluring creature with a buoyant personality and unconventional behaviors. When I reflect on the eye-catching couture style choices that seemed as much a part of Aunt Ginny’s persona as her forthright manner and careerist mindset, I suspect her greatest fashion influence was her Aunt Reine. She adored her, besides.

Reine Latrille was born in Gradignan, Bordeaux, France on April 16, 1898 to Marguerite Catherine Latrille and “un père non nommé” (unnamed father), the French people’s neutral way of saying a child was illegitimate. To date, no records have been found to suggest that Reine had siblings or that her mother ever formally married, although unofficially Dominique Michel is referenced as her husband and Reine’s father. According to one of Edwin’s expedited passport applications, Dominique — Edwin’s “future father-in-law” — appeared to be a successful Parisian businessman with an interest in freight shipping (via railroad). By July of 1919, Edwin had already partnered with Dominique, having invested 50,000 francs in his business. I often come back to the question, Is that how Edwin met Reine? Through her father? Or was it the other way around – he met Reine, and, through her, formed a business relationship with her father? At the very least, it’s safe to say that they met in France. Whether it was Paris, where he was stationed in the U.S. Army, or Bordeaux, where the more temperate climes made for pleasant escape, Edwin very likely was instantly love-struck upon meeting Reine. 

What we’re able to piece together about Edwin and Reine’s early years of marriage is that they lived with her parents, and that they made occasional return trips to Massachusetts, at least every few years. Also, they vacationed in Biarritz, on the French Riviera; the seaside resort town — a popular destination for French aristocracy — is described as the “jewel of France’s Atlantic coast”.

At this juncture, it would be prudent for me to confess that I tend to fall under the spell of my own restless imagination. Inasmuch as available documentation often fails to offer the finer details of a subject’s personality or the most engaging features of a person’s life, it is of great benefit to introduce an element of wonder as we contemplate the full story. Thus, in stitching together sufficient (documented) details, the narrative becomes much more satisfying by having, let’s say, “gilded” the cold, hard facts. I’m okay with this approach, even if the purists within the genealogical community are not. After all, we are all prone to fill in our own blanks when confronted with stories that have empty spaces. 

Furthermore, it’s useful to keep present in our minds the impact of historical context. In the case of Edwin and Reine, it is particularly meaningful that during World War II they lived both in Paris, which surrendered to Germany quickly and with little resistance in June of 1940, and Bordeaux, the region to which the French government and many Parisians consequently fled. I stifle the urge to imagine that they immersed themselves in all manner of subversive acts or that they inserted themselves into La Résistance. I see it as perfectly acceptable, however, to make qualifying statements such as, “It’s conceivable that when Paris was invaded by the German Army, Edwin and Reine retired to Bordeaux, to wait out the war.” Bear in mind that while Edwin initially held a subordinate position in the U.S. Army while serving in the earlier world war, his trustworthiness and sense of responsibility were qualities that his superiors recognized soon thereafter and rewarded through several promotions. For an unspecified period of time, he held the position of court reporter for the U.S. Army. As a staff member of the Reparations Commission that was formed once the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been “negotiated,” he began as the private secretary to the head of the Finance Service, then moved on to assistant cashier, next promoted to cashier. It would appear, then, that he knew how to make himself very useful to upper brass. In any event, it’s doubtful that either he or Reine would have wanted to invite the curiosity of any Nazi officers.

I made the mistake early in my searching of assuming that Edwin and Reine had children. So, when I hired a French genealogist to investigate records in his country, I included instructions to look for birth records, beginning around the time that the couple married (1919). Paul-Marc was a tenacious investigator, but he came up empty-handed in that particular task. It puzzled me because I had for so long imagined that the presence of children would have been why they never migrated back to the States. I returned to the clues that Aunt Ginny had given me, and realized that she had never indicated that the couple had children. There was never a mention of “family”.  I then, of course, wondered if that was by choice. We’ll never know.

Reine vacationing in Biarritz

From available military records, held from the time he served on the Reparations Commission, it was easy to piece together a pattern in the 1920s, whereby he gave written instructions to have his pay deposited into a Paris bank while he and Reine vacationed in the French Riviera for a month at a time. Photos from the era support the claim that they favored the popular seaside town of Biarritz. I found one interesting account of a swanky Easter weekend gala at the Hotel Miramar, which — if the newspaper reporter’s numbers can be trusted — was attended by 350 guests, several of whom were singled out by name; they represented the French aristocracy and many majors and captains, barons and baronesses, counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses . . . and Mrs. Edwin Murphy, apparently unaccompanied by her husband. (Disclaimer: I have no proof that this is our Mrs. Edwin Murphy, but signs do point in that direction.) Among the glamorous, bejeweled attendees were several members of the Rothschild family; of note were Edouard and two of his children, Guy and Jacqueline. The names will mean something to those who have always followed with interest the fate of the priceless art that the Nazis stole during WW2. For those to whom the Rothschild name means nothing, they were an established French family whose wealth and stature were tied to banking. Their unforgivable sin — to the Nazis, of course — was their Jewishness; thus they were deemed unworthy of possessing fine art.

Available evidence of Edwin and Reine’s activities from the 1940’s until their deaths in 1990 dwindle, making it impossible to color in any details of their lives. It can be said that, with the exception of one visit in 1950, after the deaths of Edwin’s parents, first his mother in 1946 and then his father in 1949, their trips to Massachusetts ceased. Not only does it leave us with a lot of unanswered questions, but great disappointment about the apparent detachment from the family.

With several decades of unaccounted movements and activities, their final hours on this earth nevertheless capture our attention and evoke our sympathy. On February 13, 1990 — one day after he turned 94 years old — Edwin passed away at their Bordeaux home in Gradignan. Twenty hours later, Reine, too, died in that same place. No record has yet to be found that confirms their final resting place. Their bodies were cremated, and given the absence of any French relatives, Paul-Marc conjectures (with more wishful thinking than the evidence suggests) that they may have been buried alongside Dominique Michel in Paris, where, also and presumably, Reine’s mother was laid to rest. 

As is the case with any family research project, I imagine, we remain most unsettled about the members of our family whose stories persist as mysteries. Often they live and die without descendants to keep their memories alive, and their deaths go unnoticed, unremarked upon, unmemorialized. The worst fate, in my opinion, is to be forgotten. Like most family researchers, I’ll never completely close the book on a subject, even one for whom further clues remain obdurately hidden. No matter what bargains I might be willing to secretly or pointlessly negotiate, I’m always hopeful for just one more hint. Rarely, then, do we consider the job done. Most researchers pledge, “At least guide me to the headstone that proclaims, ‘Here lies so-and-so’ and I’ll be content.” Memory would thus be ensured. The hunt, then, is still on for the final chapter on Edwin and Reine.

A Few Memorable Reads from 2021

If I were to settle on the one book that I found most satisfying to read this past year, it would be Circe by Madeline Miller. When I finished it, I wanted instantly to call Lindsey so we could talk about it. And then I scrabbled around in my head, thinking, who should I give it to next? Circe now is in my other daughter’s queue. For those looking for a fresh (subversive) take on a peripheral character of Homer’s The Odyssey, I give this book my highest endorsement. (And this is coming from someone who has never even dabbled in greek mythology.) As I’m sure others have done when they finish a book that leaves them thirsting for more, I launched eagerly into another of Miller’s greek myths, The Song of Achilles (which was published in 2012, and, of course, endorsed on the cover of Circe). Loved that one, too!

It only seems fitting that I include a link to the indie bookstore where I bought Circe: https://www.waterstreetbooks.com/book/9780316556323

Here are just a couple other good reads, neither of which are new releases, but well worth your trip to the library:

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe, 2019. The granular details of the 30-year struggle for peace in Northern Ireland (ending as recently as 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday accord) impress upon the reader the complexities and fraught realities of life in the region, particularly Belfast. As fascinating as this account is of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, not to be overlooked is the story behind the story, the controversial interviews that took place with key members of the IRA. Boston College’s Belfast Project became the focal point of an international court case as the two sides fought over control of the cache of interview tapes, the secrecy of which was promised by BC. I assure you, as soon as you finish the book, you’ll be online in a flash, trying to find out all you can about the “rest of the story.” Start by googling “Boston Tapes”.

The Immortal Irishman, the Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan, 2016. When my brother-in-law Tom recommended this book to me, I knew it would be captivating because there are few books that can grab and hold his interest for the duration. My other motivation had to do with a discovery I had made about one of my Uncle Jimmy’s Irish relatives; Se´an MacDiarmada, a possible second cousin of his father, was one of the seven signatories of the Easter Rising of 1916, all of whom were executed for their role in the insurrection.

The Immortal Irishman follows the inspiring life of Thomas Francis Meagher from his privileged beginnings in Waterford City to his participation in the Rebellion of 1848 to his life sentence on Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Australia, and his escape from there to the United States. You’ll follow with rapt interest his exploits as the gritty leader of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, at every turn asking yourself, “How did he survive that?” His is a remarkable story, and Egan does him full justice in his methodically researched and even-paced narrative.

As you can see, my interest cleaves to 19th and 20th century Irish history, and that’s no accident. On nearly every branch of my family tree, my ancestors immigrated from counties all over Ireland — Donegal, Galway, Waterford, Clare, Monaghan, Cork, Kilkenny — to this country either during the Great Famine or a generation later. It’s natural to want to understand the lifestyle of our forebears and their reasons for leaving home. . . for good.

I’m curious to know what books have captured your interest in 2021. Any common elements or particular motifs?

My Favorite Book: the Evolution of a Bibliophile

Depending on when you ask me, the mood I’m in, I’m apt to give you a different answer to the question, “What was your favorite children’s book?” Sometimes I might answer, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (The full title is actually A Little Princess, Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe, Now Being Told for the First Time). Other times, I’ll say Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It surprises me, then, that I’m now casting the exercise in a different light. If I tried to resurrect the good feelings that surrounded the experience, I would have a hard time saying which one made me feel the best. Memory plays tricks, especially if the experience is weighted with emotion. 

I’m doing just that right now — resurrecting the early emotional experiences of reading — and trying to dissect how I felt in the moment.  I read Misty several times; what made that such an enjoyable read was its ability to allow me to imagine myself owning a pony. . . that I would have bought at Pony Penning Day. It’s a common fantasy for little girls, and I fell hard in my pony yearning. It would last until I fell hard for boys.

Misty was, I believe, as much about the illustrations as the story. Maybe even more. Years later, the name of the illustrator, Wesley Dennis, would come more readily to mind than the author’s name. I began to search for books that he illustrated, finding that he regularly did the artwork for Henry. I enjoyed those other stories, including The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, but not as much as Misty

While I’m pretty certain that I bought Misty at one of those Scholastic Book Club fairs that schools often had (and still do), the mysterious appearance of A Little Princess serves as an enduring vexation. I loved its story, even more, perhaps, than Misty, and greedily — no matter where I was in my reading — sought out the illustrations, scant as they were. Try as I might, I cannot call to mind where the book came from. Nothing was ever said about it, and because nothing was ever said about it, I concluded that it wasn’t for me to know. But, why wouldn’t the “benefactor” (as I would always view the anonymous person who put it conspicuously in my path) make a show upon presenting it?

Reading A Little Princess was a much different experience from reading Misty. The first time I held the book in my lap, I had shut myself in our upstairs closet. The closet was a favorite hideaway for all of us Morrisseys. It was a roomy space in the eaves between the two upstairs bedrooms. Importantly, it had lighting — a single lightbulb screwed into a porcelain lampholder with a chain pull, within easy reach of the deep cocoon that one could make with the sleeping bags and blankets. Surrounding my nest were army cots, Christmas decorations, boxes of photos and other items either permanently forgotten or relegated to uncertain status. The closet had a door. I was only seven years old, but even then I understood the value of solitude and privacy.

 My pleasure in reading A Little Princess was intimate, private, and solitary. One might say it was transformative. It was the first time that I could truly feel I was escaping, not just my family, but my tiny life. I lost myself in the story; it defined for me — for all time — the chief purpose of books, that is, to imagine oneself in another place, another time, and in different circumstances. It wasn’t as if, at age seven, I was weighed down with fearsome burdens. That wasn’t it at all. It was just that I discovered for the first time that books offered magical alternatives, and, yes, temporary escape. Who wouldn’t love that, no matter what your life was like?

Nowadays, I typically have two, three, sometimes four books going simultaneously.* Even if I’m reading nonfiction, there’s a need to consider how the topic might tie into my life. It’s never remote or static. When I’m reading about specific moments in World War II, for example, I ask myself, how would my life be impacted if I were, say, a Frenchwoman living in Paris when Germany invaded the city in May of 1940? Teasing out that thought allows me to conclude that many residents — especially single women — found their options to be especially difficult. I can better appreciate their conflicted feelings about collaborating with the Nazis. If you’re starving or afraid, your unfortunate decisions are thus shaped. 

That’s merely one example of how books can shape our thinking, broaden our understanding of the world. Whether it be fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, true crime, etc., in some sense we are all looking to be transported. And although a return to a much earlier favorite might not produce the same feelings — in fact, it likely will not because our adult needs are far removed from those of our childhood years — we never stop seeking opportunities to deflect our current worries and to occupy our minds with more pleasant alternatives. 

*I should point out that although I read a lot, my brain often does a vigorous scrubbing; i.e., I’m apt to forget what I’ve read just as soon as I put the book aside.

Question for my readers: Can you think of books that, as a child or even now as an adult, you found transformative or influential?