Thursday, November 12, 2009

the new rock stars

We were watching an old "American Experience" on disc today, about John Dillinger, and like all historical documentaries -- all of the ones on "American Experience," for sure -- since "The Civil War," it's done Ken Burns-style, which means a lot of period photographs, mournful fiddle music by Jay Unger and/or Matt Glaser, and talking-head experts. About half of the talking heads are generally historians (the others being descendants, friends, experts in certain fields, etc.). Anyway, we're watching the Dillinger one today, and one of the talking heads was an old friend, Claire Potter, who was a grad student when I worked at the History Department at NYU. She's a professor at Wesleyan now, which is where I should have gone (but that's another story). So I dropped her an e-mail, saying, "Isn't it cool that historians are becoming rock stars?" This started me thinking about historian trading cards, and that the first one I would want would be Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Now that reminds me of an interesting bit from my two-year career in publishing. Through one of my authors, I found myself in a room when one of the folks was Justin Theroux, who had just directed his first movie and was talking about how glad he was to get Tom Wilkinson for it. (Good taste. I love Tom Wilkinson.) He was then talking about how he had been on a trading card, when he was one the TV show "Alias." He seemed to find it kind of funny. I told him that I once bought an action figure, from a "Jurassic Park" set, because it was a Jeff Goldblum action hero. He found that funny, too.

My husband's nephew, when he was a young teen, was reeeally into wrestling; he was also being raised in an orthodox home, albeit modern orthodox. (My husband and his brother were not raised orthodox, but his brother married an orthodox woman.) So one birthday, we bought him an action figure of Goldberg, a wrestler whose actual name is Steve Goldberg. Maybe I just think all Jewish action figures are funny.

I did hear, though, that some Hassidic Jews, the ultra-orthodox in the long coats and sidecurls (pais, for those of you who need your daily Yiddish lesson), do have rabbi trading cards. For real.

Back to history -- I worked at the NYU History Department as a secretary, when such things still existed, from around 1983-1985. My friend Evan had told me that if you worked there full-time, you could get nine free credits of tuition each term, which was what he was doing. Evan worked in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, so we were in the same building.

OK, for anyone who is kinda young -- it used to be that people like college professors had someone to type their paperwork for them. If a professor was giving an exam, or wrote out a syllabus, a "secretary" would type it for him or her, and make photocopies. Oh, and the typing would be done on an electric typewriter, generally an IBM Selectric, where you would have to switch out a little golf-ball-sized thingie for a different one to change the font.

A couple of forward-thinking and high-ranking (read: well-paid) professors bought themselves some of them newfangled home computers. The guy who seemed to know best bought himself a Kaypro, so the other few faculty members did, too. I didn't think too much of it, except that now we didn't have to type for those few professors. But then, magically, someone anonymously gave the department a big fistful of money to buy our own copier (at the time, we were sharing with two other floors' worth of departments) and a computer and printer!

You have to understand: unlike the Law School (where I served the greater portion of my NYU time), the History Department didn't exactly have a lot of wealthy alumni. A successful historian is a college professor like Claire, or some kind of researcher or archivist or teacher. A successful NYU lawyer is a Supreme Court Justice or a partner in a huge New York law firm or an elected official. So we had relatively shabby digs, which was perfect for me, because the students were relatively shabby, and I was relatively shabby, and we all got along pretty well. My trademark garment at the time was an oversized camouflage jumpsuit overdyed purple, and I got teased at my going-away party that I wouldn't be able to wear my jumpsuit at the School of Law, implying that it was a snootier, more formal place. (I mean, they actually had their own building!)

So this money to buy the copier and computer and printer was manna from heaven. The copier I remember was a desktop job and we still needed to use the communal machine for big runs. But what I remember, of course, was the computer, *my* first computer, the first one I ever got my hands on. This was one of the best things about working academic for so many years: besides the awesome benefits, I always got my hands on new technology fairly early in the game. Not techie-level early and I never learned to program or write html, but I did get on a personal computer when the operating system was CP/M and the actual computer was sort of like one of those kids' record players that folds up like a little suitcase. It had a tiny little monochrome screen, green on black, and you had to put in one enormous floppy disc to load the program you wanted to run and another enormous floppy disc to access or save your file.

Rather than opting for a dot matrix printer, we got whatever you called the other kind -- like a giant typewriter as loud as a jackhammer, even with the sound shield on. But it looked like real typing.

The thing that I was also thinking today -- the place where I was heading before the many sidetracks -- was that when I worked there, with all of those fantastic faculty and students, I had no interest in history at all. I had some really good history teachers in grade and high school, but the love of history never stuck. But the last ten years or so, I'm *very* interested in it. I have a few books "on deck" that are simply histories of the impact of one commodity: bananas, clay, wood, cotton. There are all kinds of cool subtopics and eras that are fascinating. For instance, I had no idea that Claire was into this stuff -- I actually didn't know her specialty or dissertation topic.

Were any of you lucky and smart enough to major in history? what was your field?

My B.A. (deep breath) is in Interdisciplinary Studies from the Gallatin School at NYU. It was the Gallatin Division when I graduated, and though the program may have changed since I was there, it went like this: you could take courses from any part of the university, as long as your adviser signed off on it. In this way, you could design a program that interested you. But you were also required to do a lot of classics, from a list that included various Shakespeare plays, the Bible, Greek philosophy, Homer...the usual suspects. At the end of all of this, you make up a bibliography which is half from the required classics and half from your other courses, and get yourself ready to talk about this all with your adviser and two other professors for two hours. This is called the "oral exam." I actually passed my orals "with distinction," but there was no way no to be nervous beforehand. I had to be responsible for knowing, I think it was 28 books. And since I did my studies in two stretches -- 1984-86 and 1987-93, more or less -- I hadn't actually read some of those books in a while.

In the earlier stint, I took writing courses, and a couple of interesting lit courses in Gallatin. I particularly remember one that my adviser taught, about autobiographical literature. We read things like Thomas Merton and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. When I went back to school, I took a course in the Religion Department on mythology, and became a raving Jungian, and took a lot of my "great books" courses, in which I wrote mostly Jungian literary analyses. I was a little obsessed.

I did have a great education at NYU, but I wish now I'd given my experience more breadth. Actually, now that I remember it, I had registered for a European history class, and gone a couple of times -- it was good, and hard -- but then Gallatin called me and said they'd miscounted my credits, that I had enough to graduate. So I did drop the class, because the work/school combo for the last two years was really rough. I took a lot of graduate-level courses and wrote long papers. Plus I was still making a lot of AA meetings at that time. Those last two years of college? NO SEX. at least not with other people.

This, and this alone, I think, accounts for the Really Bad Relationship I got into not long after graduating. That hung me up for most of a year.

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