Here’s the Question

Do you think this man:

Resembles the man in the suit in this picture?

No matter how much I try to convince myself that I’m seeing things, I feel like I do. Nose, cheeks, mouth.

I’m going to have to ask my dad.

The top photo is one of Philip Phillips’s descendents. The man in the suit is my Grandpa Phillips (that’s my uncle Blain next to him and my dad playing the drum.)

Edited to add: Okay, I sent it to my dad and my dad’s first question is “Is this one of my dad’s relatives?” And I said, “That’s what I’m wondering.” And he said, “That’s for sure my dad’s nose and his ears. I can’t tell if he has dimples, but those could be our cheeks.” So, that’s Joseph Reno, who died in Kalamazoo, who is the son of Hannah Phillips, daughter of Jeruel Phillips, son of Philip Phillips.

If this is Luke’s family, he could either be the youngest son of Philip and Elizabeth, though his birth in 1808 would put his mom at 44 when he was born (not unheard of, but late) or the son of one of Philip and Elizabeth’s oldest sons–James, Reuben, Augustus, and Benjamin were all born around 1790.

Based on this picture of Joseph, I’m moving the odds of these Phillipses being our Phillipses from 25/75 to 50/50.

My dad, I think, is more convinced. He thinks this makes sense of why he was always told that the Phillips family wasn’t close–the white Phillipses didn’t want the black Phillipses discovered by their kids.

The Buddha

The Masons have it. And other items from Ben Allen. I am so excited I can hardly sit still. I’m going tomorrow morning to look at them. The man I talked to on the phone says they learned that Ben Allen and his buddies had seances in the basement of the Old Scottish Rite building–had a special room for it. They also learned that the Buddha was left on Allens’ front step, and not given to him by a Persian or picked up by him on some overseas trip.

That makes sense. Still, holy cow, I can’t wait to see it. He says they also have a jewel-encrusted sword Ben made for one of his friends and some other good stuff.

And he invited me to lunch.

Good lord, people. Between the Masons and the gun nuts, I am having to revise a lot of my prejudices.

Oh, plus, I had a nice conversation with my uncle all about the Masons, of which he is one, though he and Grandpa weren’t Scottish Rite, they were/are the other one, because they prefer the more mystic ceremony stuff.

From here on out, I am asking people about guns and their ties to the Masons, because those are interesting conversations. I will probably make some government watch-list or be on Ancient Aliens, but it will be worth it.

“This Song of Love”

This is absolutely one of my favorite songs sung in the shape note fashion. But I think it’s because it almost sounds like calliope music. If you’re not familiar with shape note singing, what you’re going to hear at first is them going through the song singing the names of the notes–Doe, Ray, Me, Fah, So, La, Tee, Doe–as they get the tune worked out. It sounds like there’s four parts–the women, the lead singer, and then maybe a couple of basses and a tenor. Then they’ll start to sing the words.

It’s a really incredible example of shape-note singing, but what I really enjoy about it is the way the melody flits between the lead singer and the women, with the other men sometimes reaching in to further it along.

I think because it sounds so strange to our ears, shape-note singing is often described as primitive, but honestly, if you just listen to everything that’s going on in that song–which, yes, sounds strange–that’s a sophisticated arrangement.

Anyway, I like it. It’s such a catchy tune, too, that I was hoping to hear what different gospel singers had done with it. But I can’t find any other version of it but this one on YouTube. Maybe it has another name?

Hit By a Wave of Fretting

I know I’ve said it before, but one of the hardest things for me at this stage in my life is that I’ve believed, for my whole life prior to my late 30s, that, if something is not right–either externally or internally–if you can figure out why it’s fucked up, even if you can’t fix that it’s fucked up, its fucked-up-ness cease to affect you. The explanation will be the solution.

But as I’m getting older and more used to the rhythms of my own quirkiness, I realize that “the explanation will be the solution” is just false. I mean, I can tell you why I get such vertigo in high open spaces, why certain stairways are just off-limits to me, but that doesn’t mean I still didn’t have to find a libertarian to haul me across the catwalk to Radley Balko’s talk.

And I know I didn’t used to have problems with something at that height even when I was in grad school, because I navigated the library just fine. But I also know that, with the exception of Monday and my trip to the Nashville Room, that it’s been many, many months since I’ve had problems at all. So, it’s worse than it was way back when and better than it was a while ago. But it’s not resolved, you know?

So, all day I was feeling good about “Sarah Clark” and proud and then, like fifteen minutes after I got my revisions turned in, I got this massive anxiety about myself as a writer. I spent the evening getting the final version of “The Witch’s Friend” copied from the website into a Word document because I am overcome by the need to “do the right thing” with it.

Oh, fuck. “The right thing.” Much like “deserves” it’s a boogeyman of a concept that floats around after me, often compelling me to good things, sometimes compelling me to waves of fretting that cannot be soothed.

I couldn’t work on Sue last night, which also caused me great fretting. I sat down to write what should be the most fun scene to write of this whole section–a full, formal seance–and I just finked out.

But anyway, I’m thinking about selling “The Witch’s Friend” on Kindle if I can figure out how to get it from a Word document into an ePUB. I’m not preserving all the links, but I would like the table of contents at the beginning to work. I guess this is going to require either a brief foray into XML or a long trip into Amazon’s website to see if they have directions.

A City of Ghosts is about 80,000 words, I think, and it’s $4.99 for Kindle. “The Witch’s Friend” is just about 20,000, so I’m not sure if I should just price it at $.99 or if I should price it at $1.99, so it seems like it’s a little more than just fishing for readers. But I am fishing for readers! I don’t know. Feel free to fret with me about this. I think $.99 is probably right.

“Sarah Clark” Revisions

I’ve been doing revisions on “Sarah Clark” which is going to have an interesting life, which I will tell you about when I can. Meanwhile, I’m left thinking that it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written.

I’m excited and proud of it.

It’s good to have small good thing to sustain you while you’re waiting for the big things to decide if they’re going to amount to anything.

The John Henry Question

NooooooooOOOOOOOooooooo! This is really a position more than one historian is going to take?!

What next? Shall we ban singing at museums because we don’t know if John Henry’s wife was really named Polly Ann? Or because “Frankie and Johnny” should really be “Frankie and Albert?” Or because we can’t for certain identify the House of the Rising Sun?

I think that advocating that cash-strapped museums should not take the money of people who want to give it to them just because they object to the historical beliefs of those people is weird. And I’m not sure what the difference between letting a known-ghost hunter pay the regular entry price for your museum and wandering around there all day is different than having him pay over $100 to wander around it all night.

That doesn’t seem to be about the legitimacy of his historical knowledge. That seems to be about the comfort or discomfort you feel about his beliefs.

And speaking of beliefs, a belief in ghosts, who can be contacted by talking to them and having them communicate back, has long historical precedent in the U.S.

Oooh, it does make me wonder–are historians okay with people going to the Hydesville Memorial Park as long as they ignore any strange noises they hear while they’re there?

Let’s just let people love history, in whatever weird ways they want to, and let our jobs be to clarify the history parts and leave the religious/spiritual parts un-judged.

Miranda Lambert is Not a Feminist, But…

She’s the only celebrity I’ve heard of who objected to Chris Brown at the Grammy’s.

Country singer Miranda Lambert doesn’t get why controversial R&B star Chris Brown was allowed to perform twice at the Grammys on Sunday.

She tweeted on Monday: “He beat on a girl…not cool that we act like that didn’t happen.”

But, you know, if they’d said “We’re not going to bring up on stage anyone who’s a known domestic abuser,” it would have made the Glen Campbell stuff very strange.

Heh. Maybe instead of not letting them up on stage, the Grammy’s should have just taken a moment to invite them all up on stage–anyone who’s known for violence against women. Just to illustrate the depths of the problem.

That would have been interesting.

Anyway, if “I’m not a feminist” means a willingness to speak out against domestic violence, then I welcome “I’m not a feminist”s to the feminist fold.


Coble sent me a link to this really interesting article over at Wired about the competing interests in the “obesity as a health issue” arena. The hook is a little trite, but the article is actually much more complicated than just “75 million Americans may have something called metabolic syndrome. How Big Pharma turned obesity into a disease – then invented the drugs to cure it.”

This is the part I want to say something about, though:

Diet and exercise? It’s easy to recommend, and it’s good in theory, but there’s surprisingly little proof that lifestyle intervention actually works as a weight-loss strategy. In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiated its Diabetes Prevention Program, a $174 million study hoping to prove that behavioral changes can induce weight loss. To make the point, the program went to extremes. The 3,000 participants received gym memberships and personal trainers, had their food provided, and were coached with daily phone calls from nutritionists – all for two years or more. After all that hand-holding, patients lost an average of 7 percent of their body weight.

The CDC hailed the study as proof that diet and exercise work, but it just as readily proves the opposite. After all, how likely is the average American to stick with – let alone be able to afford – such an intensive program?

Two or more years to lose on average seven percent of your body weight.  If you’re a three hundred pound person, your gym membership and your personal trainer and your food and your nutrition coach lost you about 21 pounds. Over two years or more. A three hundred pound person who’s ideal weight is around 150 would need at least seven years to lose that weight, assuming the CDC’s plan doesn’t lead to plateaus. I’m with the Wired writer. Who can afford that? You’re basically limiting weight loss to the wealthy, who are, by and large, not obese anyway.

Never mind that there’s nothing here about whether those people were able to keep the weight off once they didn’t have the CDC paying for the gym and personal trainers and providing food and a nutrition coach.

It’s basically admitting, without being upfront, that thinness is a class marker, reliably available only to the wealthy.

But the other thing I wanted to address is how whiplash-inducing it is to hear “Oh my god, you have the death fat! You must lose weight immediately!!!!!!” and then to hear that even studies touted as proof that diet and exercise work take a long time. I think that’s where the needs of the commercial weight-loss industry dangerously obscure the medical realities, even to the point where medical professionals somehow think that “needing” to drastically lose weight means that you should be able to lose weight drastically and, if you’re not, that you’re lying or just not trying hard enough.

I have mixed feelings about turning obesity into “metabolic syndrome” but when I think of the potential it has to turn the tone of the discussion away from moral panic and toward medical issues, I kind don’t mind it.

I Love Them Already

People, I am having to ban myself from Phillip Phillips’s family. I just wasted half of my lunch hour looking up his descendants, trying to figure out if there were rhyme or reason to which ones “became” white and which ones “became” black.

I do NOT want to do that much work on people who might not even be my family.

And yet, my desire to slip Jeruel’s census records to my racist relatives is at an all-time high. Come on, history! Give me relatives that will scandalize my other relatives! I found a bunch of Reuben’s descendants (Reuben is Jeruel’s brother, Philip’s son) in Kalamazoo at the same time Jeruel’s people are in Barry and my people are in Charlotte, Marshall, and Battle Creek.

Bridgett found mention of Augustus in the history of the place they lived in Ohio (Augustus is Reuben and Jeruel’s brother): “1817 Augustus Philips, said to be a descendent of the Indian chief King Philip, settled on the south half of Lot 53, sharing the property with F.A. Abbott. Philips’ parents arrived in 1820.” If this is the case, it means that there there isn’t just the English Phillips family (centered around Windham and Pomfret) in Connecticut, but that Phillips was a last name adopted by Philip’s descendants.

At the least, it means that I can’t take for granted that anyone named Phillips from Connecticut with a layover of a generation in New York who’s now in the midwest is related to the huge Phillips family. Unless, of course, in Phillip’s case, where he married into that family.

I despair a little of ever finding Luke’s parents, but I am having a blast learning about all the Phillipses that are probably not them.

Things, Secret Things

1. The gun guys I’ve been emailing with have been so helpful. I can’t even begin to tell you. Yesterday, they were teaching me all about sighting a rifle and how you come to learn at which distances your rifle is going to put a round right where your sight is aimed and at which distances it’s going to be a little higher and a little lower. Everything else about our discussion has been appealing to me as a writer. I’m not sure how much of it is going to be visible on the front end of the book, but by god, it’s going to make that character better. But something about learning the arc the bullet makes… oh, that appeals to me just viscerally. Like the way you learn your car and its quirks, you learn your rifle and its quirks.

Seriously, there’s a good argument for birth control giving women unprecedented freedom, but I think I’d like to argue for the machine first.

2. Yesterday I stumbled upon a plausible reason why Luke Phillips’s parents might be so impossible to track down. I had been operating under the assumption that the Phillips family that was in Connecticut and then came to New York and then came to the Midwest was one family. And then I found Phillip Phillips married to Elizabeth Phillips and they both were born in Connecticut, had at least one kid who was born in New York, and then they came to the Midwest–the standard arc for Connecticut Phillipses. Elizabeth’s maiden name was Phillips and she’s clearly a part of the large Connecticut Phillips clan I must also be related to in some way. But there’s NOTHING on Phillip’s family. I thought I’d find him as a cousin in there some place, but no.

Here’s the census entry for his son, Jeruel (or Jeruth) and his family, living in Barry, Michigan in 1860. Note how close Barry is to Charlotte, Marshall, and Battle Creek, where my known branches of Phillipses are.

I think there’s a small, but meaningful possibility, that something similar could explain why Luke’s parents can’t be found (or that, perhaps, Phillip and Elizabeth were Luke’s parents). I’m still 75% sure I’m eventually going to find his parents among the branch of the family that is full of other Almyras and Franks.

But, in the meantime, I have been asked to not share this with any family members and, if I find definitive proof that this is Luke’s branch of Phillipses, that this is the census record of one of Luke’s brothers, to not share it, ever, with my aunt.

Ha ha ha ha ha. Oh, U.S. history, you make people try to keep some weird secrets.

Radley Balko

I went to see Radley Balko at Vanderbilt tonight. He was taller than I expected. I’m going to write something up for Pith, but I wanted to say, on the side, that I was in awe of his ability to engage ill-phrased questions that had some nugget of something interesting at their core while just shutting down some of the conspiratorial nonsense about like 9/11 and Pat Tillman.

I would never in a million years have the finesse to pull that off.

Two History Things

1. If you want to make an argument against Thomas Jefferson not being the father of some or all of Sally Hemings’ children, “Thomas Jefferson then was 64-years-old, making him an unlikely paternity candidate” does not cut it. Sixty-four year old men have sex, with women quite a bit younger than them, all the time. And 64-year-old men rape women easily, too. But that aside, in order to discount the “Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Heming’s children” theory, it is not enough to cry “It could have been ANY Jefferson male.” Because here’s the thing–Hemings’ children believed they were Jefferson’s children. Her grandchildren believed they were Jefferson’s grandchildren. Their contemporaries also believed this to be true. So, this isn’t a matter of “Everyone knew Jefferson had no enslaved children and these contemporary historians are attempting to overturn that.” This is a matter of “Everyone knew Jefferson had enslaved children, historians and white family members attempted to build a case for why that should not be acknowledged or believed, and now historians are giving credibility once again to the original claims.”

Why should we not believe the Hemings family? Make that case, if it is to be made. Why would the Hemings family lie about this or how is it possible that they’ve been mistaken about it all this time? And how do you know they’re wrong? If someone says “Thomas Jefferson is my dad” and then almost 200 years later, we find that his family shares DNA characteristics with the Jefferson family, we have to cut the bullshit with Occam’s Razor, not try to nominate any other Jefferson for fatherhood.

Plus, any other Jeffferson’s willingness to socialize in the slave cabins at night doesn’t tell us anything. Sally was a house slave and it’s more than likely her duties kept her in the house until late at night. Depending on what she was doing with/for the children, she may have even slept in the house. You know, where Thomas Jefferson was. Plus, Campbell says nothing about which set of slave cabins Randolph Jefferson hung out in. Along Mulberry Row? Back with the field hands?

There’s skepticism and then there’s ridiculous. “It could have been any Jefferson” without addressing why the Hemingses would say otherwise is ridiculous.

2. Speaking of ridiculousness, sometimes I’m in favor of it. So, this is a case in which I am in disagreement with the marvelous Gordon Belt (who you should be following on Twitter, because it’s all history goodness all the time). Ghost stories are great ways to get people interested in history. And ghost hunting is the main way we have of telling and passing along the very ghost stories that get people interested in history. Ghost stories are also important because they are important clues for telling us what people need from the past and what their misgivings and misconceptions about the past are.

Yes, it’s folklore more than it’s history and, in the case of ghost hunters, it’s folklore as performance. But would you dissuade a museum from having a storyteller come in and tell stories about Davy Crockett? I doubt it. So why the discomfort with this form of folklore? When the “ghost” of Davy Crockett was at the Tennessee State Museum telling stories, he was able to clear up a lot of misconceptions–in truth, he wanted to be called David, that he didn’t wear a coonskin cap.This presents similar opportunities.

Folklore is the close sibling of history and an understanding of one can help you understand the other. Historical places are often seen as “dead” places, places where nothing happens any more. But ghost hunts return museums and cultural heritage sites to the living as places where things do happen, where new experiences can be had, where new folklore is accumulated.

How is that a bad thing, even if it doesn’t serve obvious historical purposes?

I’m biased, because I write ghost stories and I sit at the TSLA or scouring old books to make sure that my ghost stories have a good historical foundation. But ghost stories are some of our most intimate connections to history, even if they are often the least-historically accurate.

It seems unfortunate for historians to be wigged out by that rather than seeing it as an opportunity.

A Not-Bad Miley Cyrus Song

The Butcher claims that this is evidence that any musician can be improved with pot smoking, either the musician’s or the audience’s. The musician’s, in this case. I’m not saying that this is a good song. But I’m used to Miley Cyrus songs being really bad. And this is truly not-bad. I can hear a little Tanya Tucker echo in there and the style of the song really suits her voice.

As hard as it is for actors to go from child-star to respected adult actor, the road from singing child-star (or just from that Disney model) to respected adult musician seems to be even more difficult. But this sounds like a way, you know?

And there are worse ways to build a career than as a Bob Dylan cover artist.

The Lesser Warner

The SS Flag

If you remember the discussion on this post, this will be the most disappointing/least surprising thing you’ll read all day.

Obviously, I have no way of knowing for sure that the people in that thread were Marines, just because they claimed to be. But I think we can safely say that, if they were, that’s evidence going back three years that they do indeed know what the insignia means and, in fact, use it for precisely that reason.

And, as I said in that thread, they’d better hope they never run into World War II vets who have learned of this nonsense, because it is completely dishonorable and spitting in the face of those men. And I wonder how they will feel in 50 years, if Marines start tattooing some kind of tribute to Bin Laden on their bodies, because he was “so brilliant” or “so ballsy” or whatever dumbass thing they come up with.

But most of all, I wonder how the hell these kids come home and be a part of society again.

I Have Questions about HYPNOTISM: A HISTORY

1. How can a book about hypnotism, in which women seem to be orgasming every other page, be so boring?

2. Honestly, did people spend from 1790-1890 making women orgasm in public, but pretending like they didn’t know what they were doing? I swear, if you wrote “A Secret Orgasming Woman History of the 18th and 19th Century” it would be just like regular history but with a “yes, they were orgasming” every time a woman went into a fit, had a small seizure, and then languished around in a state of contentment, which seems to be how women spend the majority of their time outside the house.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather live now than in 1790, for sure. But, seriously, if all women were doing is going from one unrecognized orgasm to the next, I may have to rethink that.

The Innkeepers

Holy shit! I skipped out of work early to catch The Innkeepers and I am now sitting on my couch with the lights on and the tv on but on mute so that I can both have plenty of light and write this post.

Downsides: Sometimes the acting is a little too theatrical. The ghosts are less scary when you see them.

Upsides: Every fucking thing else. Plus, the ghosts are less scary when you see them. Or at least, they appeared that way from behind my fingers. It’s a beautifully filmed movie. Just visually I really enjoyed it. I picked up right away on the maiden, mother, crone symbolism (there’s literally no other reason for the mother to be a guest except to invoke that triad.

But man, now I’m wondering if there really aren’t five archetypal roles for women–maiden, bride, mother, crone, and ghost. Not that men can’t be ghosts in real life, but I’m talking about symbolically. Honestly, if I were going to design my own tarot cards, I’d stick those five in there. Anyway, all five of those roles are there (the bride also being the ghost).

Anyway, since it’s mostly noises, it’s really scary. The actors are great. It’s like they cast the gal for being all eyes and the guy for being all wrinkly fearful brow. And Kelly McGillis, from Top Gun, is in it and she is amazing.

It’s really good.

But now I have major heebie jeebies.

Gun Nuts, Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid

Okay, so, in the project I’m working on, there is a bad guy who shoots people. And, as you know, I know next to nothing about guns other than that you point them at things you want to shoot at, don’t point them at things you don’t want to shoot at, always treat them like they’re loaded, and keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. And… that’s it. The extent of my gun knowledge.

So, I have a two-fold problem.

1. I’d like to shoot some guns, just to get a feel for what my character would be doing. But I have zero idea how to go about this. Should I make friends with someone very well-armed and just stand in his back yard and fire his weaponry? Can I just show up empty handed to a gun range, pay my money, and try some shit out? Should I try to corral a friend who does shoot and have him take me? Do you call ahead and make an appointment? Just show up? How does that work?

2. Obviously, I’m interested in the logistics of shooting and killing people. But I already feel like a complete tourist about the whole gun thing (see above). Is it going to weird someone out or get the cops called on me if I ask questions about the logistics of shooting at a person? I can’t avoid being a tourist. I just don’t want to be the rude tourist.

Ideally, what I’d like is to explain my character a little bit, have someone with some knowledge say “Yeah, okay, a guy in that situation is probably going to shoot either this or this. He may also have this. Here are some things you should consider about each of these weapons.” and then I could try them out. Is that something that one can do?

I Bring You Cool Things

1. A whole gallery of cursed gems. Man, I secretly want to own a cursed gem. Like the one that’s cool for girls to wear.


This is really cool and so many of the women look like my dear friend, B., that it’s kind of disconcerting, but hot damn, that’s a lot of white women.

3. Composite sketches of literary characters. I’m disconcerted to see how much Humbert Humbert looks like Jim Carrey. Oh, but you know! He does drama well and he does kind of inhabit that space between creepy and charming. Maybe he would be an excellent casting choice.

4. I would have always thought this was cool. Lord knows, it has meant so much to me to find evidence of my ancestors. But after trying to help Sam research his family and having to confront just what an enormous clusterfuck researching your family if they were enslaved is, I feel like this isn’t just a cool website, but a real gift to a lot of people.

One More Morose Midwestern Post

As I think I’ve made clear, I have very mixed feelings about small-town America. I kind of hate the little towns I grew up in. And yet, when I bought a house in Nashville, I moved to the Davidson County suburban equivalent of a small town–a couple of restaurants, two gas stations, a grocery store where everyone turns to see whose walking in the door when it whooshes open and enough people know me by sight to smile at the sight of me, where more pick up trucks than cars pass me on the road when I walk the dog most mornings.

So, yeah, I hate it, but only in the way you can hate something you feel in your bones. The hate you feel toward something you can’t live without.

And so I am torn about the pending death of Keithsburg, because it’s not just Keithsburg. Driving to visit my parents sometimes feels like town after town on the verge of giving up the ghost. Places where people where born and lived their whole lives and died after having a life are drying up and crumbling away.

It’s hard for me to imagine that it will ever come back. Jobs, what jobs there are, have moved to the cities and people have to follow.

But it’s weird. It’s like we’re just slowly abandoning the countryside. The land we killed people over and now we’re just letting it go. I mean, I doubt Illinois is going to trudge over to Iowa, hat in hand, knock on the door of the Meskwaki and say “Um, oops. Turns out we don’t want the Yellow Banks anymore. You can have it back.” Or go track down what’s left of the Illinois Confederation and admit we’re emptying out of the land we forced them off of. So, it’s like a tragedy with an insult at the end. We did these terrible things to you and, in the end, we were like, eh, fuck it. We can’t make it work here.

And I see the same thing happening in Tennessee, watching West Tennessee emptying out.

Is that it? We just end up these dense urban centers surrounded by ghost towns?

The Stage Coach Route

Just to give you a sense of how the river is shifting and how quickly, we lived in Aledo from my junior year of college until I went off to grad school in ’99, though, obviously, I was away at college during much of that time.

But when I was home, I did much like I do now–drive around and look at stuff. My dad and I once tried to take the old stage coach road from Keithsburg to New Boston and, if you look at the map, you can still see parts of it. But the road we started on in Keithsburg is gone. You can’t get to the old stage coach road from Keithsburg anymore. Which is weird to think about because my dad and I took that road after the ’93 flood. That wasn’t enough to erase the part of the road that came into town. But the ensuing twenty years have been.

Twenty years. Oh my god. I have wasted so much of my life. Nothing. I have nothing to show for it. Lord almighty.

Anyway, at the time, on the maps, it looked like the old road might still go through, so my dad and I drove it north from Keithsburg one afternoon. Even then it didn’t go through. It ended at some guy’s farm and, looking at the map, probably picked back up again on the other side of another creek. But the cool thing was, when we drove it, we were right at river level practically and we startled a blue heron, who flew right in front of the van, so close we both gasped.

Lord. If I’d have had a kid when I graduated from college, I’d be getting ready to send her to college.

I hope we reincarnate because lord knows I’ve just wasted this whole life goofing off.


Seeing this picture made me a little dizzy. When I lived in Aledo, my closest friend in the community was from Keithsburg. Her mom was the mayor. In ’93, she told me that the Corps went around and spraypainted lines on all the telephone poles, to warn people how high the water was going to get in their homes after they blew the levee. And she said, “I don’t have a line on my telephone pole.”

And the guy from the Corps said, “You don’t have a home.”

She said that they were not allowed to go back to their homes while they were flooded, but that some of the men in town would sneak back in at night in row boats to go on expeditions to childrens’ second-floor bedrooms to retrieve long abandoned stuffed animals, because kids who had not needed the comfort of a toy in years couldn’t sleep in strange places.

If this is the building I think it is, it used to house a pool hall. The woman who owned it was convinced that she and my friend had inadvertently cursed the town, that it was their fault it flooded.

I think this was supposed to make it somewhat just that they lost their homes.

The strategy then was that the government would not rebuilt your house in the flood plain. They were just, slowly, abandoning the original sight of the town to the river.

If you look at the empty lots on Google Maps now, you can guess that they’ve continued this plan. I don’t know how it’s set up now, but when I was there, there was a levee along the Mississippi and then a levee along the creek just north of town. When the Mississippi flooded, it backed up into the creek. They blew the levee along the creek to try to keep the levee along the river functioning. That’s why Lincoln Street was lost.

If you look at the patterns the empty lots make, you can guess that’s probably how it flooded in 2008 as well. Their FEMA map doesn’t make me feel too confident about the viability of Jackson Street, either.

I think Keithsburg will vanish in my lifetime. And that makes me sad. To put it mildly.

I remember my friend’s mom’s anger at the Corps, years later. But what can you do? Some folks in town believed that the river used to flood more often before the levees went in, but not as severely. But none of them lived in Mississippi or Arkansas in ’29.

So, who can say?

Sometimes, it’s heartbreaking, but you can’t fix it.

Santorum Surges

I’m actually kind of intrigued by the Republican primary. I mean, yes, I’ve been alarmed, too, but mostly intrigued. It seems like Romney has been anointed the obvious front-runner almost from the get-go and the media stories have all been “And here’s where Romney’s lead becomes decisive and unassailable” only to have the decisive and unassailable lead evaporate. And yes, no delegates were awarded to Santorum yesterday, but he’s got very little money and his association with poop is even more yucky than Romney’s “I let the dog shit on the roof of my car” association. So, I think the fact that he pulled three wins out of his ass (sorry, folks, sorry) says something important.

But what?

I think it’s obvious that Romney doesn’t have the support of regular Republican voters and I think regular Republican voters are trying to signal as hard as they can that they wish they had someone else to vote for. But I’ve been trying to understand why, exactly, in order to speculate on whether he could turn it around.

Clearly, his religion is a problem. And one that the Republican establishment doesn’t quite understand. I think they think that he says he’s a Christian, so fine, he’s a Christian. But I don’t think Republican voters buy that. When he says he’s a Christian, I think it makes a lot of non-Mormon Christians uncomfortable and upset. The problem is that, for him to say he’s a Christian, for a lot of Christians, means that basic doctrinal tenets of Christianity can just be ignored. It’s not a matter of whether women can be preachers or something (though people get really worked up about that, too.)–not a “B” level problem. Christians don’t believe men become gods–an “A” level issue, so to speak (I’d lump in the divinity of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity as being other examples of “A” level issues). So, a religion that does believe that and which also calls itself “Christian” is going to dip into a lot of people’s uncanny valley–it’s supposed to be Christian and it comes so close that its inability to bridge the gap causes revulsion.

But would it be better for Romney to say that he’s not a Christian? I don’t know. We have another prominent example of a religion that believes Jesus is a holy dude, but that Christianity isn’t the end-all-be-all of religions and that they, in fact, have a later revelation that surpasses the New Testament. But I have a hard time imagining a Muslim Republican Presidential Candidate. Except that, I feel like, if I squint a little and imagine a Republican party that was like “Hey, let’s focus on economic conservatism and religious freedoms” and that turned away from xenophobic bigotry, it’s not hard for me to imagine Muslim Republican politicians. The party’d have to move some, but it’s going to have to move some if it doesn’t want to be lost on the trash heap of history.

I mean, consider where Republicans were, even twenty years ago, with Catholics and now Santorum is running for president as a Republican. And he’s getting votes, at least in the primary, from people who believe Catholics aren’t really Christian.

So, I don’t know. Maybe that’s an argument for Romney to continue to say he’s a Christian–eventually people will come around? But I don’t know. The differences between Catholics and Protestants aren’t at that “A” level.

And I stand by my earlier statement that this kind of has the Republicans over a barrel. If Mormons come to believe that Republicans won’t vote for a Mormon because of his religion, the Republicans face an enormous and very real risk of losing the Mormons.

But the other thing is that, as assholish as I think Santorum and Bachmann and Gingrich are, they’ve done a very good job of having a point of view and a message and getting it out there.

What does Romney really stand for? I don’t know.

One thing is clear, though. The time has NEVER been riper for a conservative party that wasn’t xenophobic. A political party that appealed to conservative Mormons, Muslims, African-Americans, Latin@s, and gay people as well as fiscally conservative white people would be incredibly popular. And I wonder if we’ll see a party like that come into being.

Isn’t This Kind of an Obvious Line to Draw?

I had a hard time finding a smart, general history of hypnotism along the same lines as the books on Spiritualism I’d read earlier in the Sue Allen project. But I’ve started Hypnotism: A History by Derek Forrest and it’s okay so far. It’s just that the lines between hypnotism and Spiritualism seem so obvious–go into an altered state, let the funkiness begin–that I’m already frustrated by the book.

What I need, I guess, is a scholar of mesmerism (I’m not really interested in what happens once it enters the modern era) who I can just question directly. Because I’m very curious about whether mesmerism and Spiritualism are two-gendered sides of the same coin. Is one more acceptable for men to practice and the other more acceptable for women? Is the seance table at the end of the 19th century a place where mesmerism and Spiritualism overlap, with the set-up so often being men who induce receptive states in women who then channel spirits?

I mean, I thought this was interesting in some of the Spiritualism books I read, that late in the 19th century, you’d often find the men referred to as mediums, when it was the women who were channeling spirits and the men were just aiding the women in entering altered states and then directing that consciousness shift. From our perspective, we’d call the women who were embodying these spirits the mediums and the men would be some kind of guides. (And, interestingly, earlier in the 19th century, the person who contacted the spirits–male or female–didn’t need anyone to help him or her.)

But the men were the mediums. Not in every case, but it’s very important when you’re looking at those old accounts to not assume that the person identified as the medium is the one who is embodying the spirit (or in whom the spirit is manifesting). The medium is always the one communicating with the spirit, but where that spirit is–either in that person’s body or in the body of the woman at the table with him–needs to be assessed. This is really obvious in Ben and Sue’s case, historically. Ben was considered a great medium. But there’s are a couple of give-aways in the Lindsley Warden piece that tell you how the seance actually proceeded–the most important being that Sue would have seances even when he wasn’t home.

In other words, she was the conduit. He lead her into an altered state, the spirits came through her, and he talked to them.

And, deliciously, Allen was infamous for his hypnotism skills.

Which leads me to believe that, even if scholars have not yet made the connection between the two, practitioners at the time had.