Kate

My wife took her last breath on Saturday night, March 23rd, and her remains were cremated after her funeral this past Friday night.  Her ashes (and mine, eventually) will be buried in her maternal grandmother's family plot in rural Ontario.

After the unimaginable diagnosis last fall, Kate seemed to be improving in November and December.  After a summer and fall of not being able to lie down in our bed, she was able to fall asleep in my arms and recover from the chemotherapy for 4 or 6 or 8 hours.  I believed that my amazing wife was going to be able to add cancer survivor to the long list of plaudits and achievements.  To me, it seemed no less possible than becoming a national class athlete or a world class scholar or an unbelievably great mother.  She could do it. She was the most capable person I've ever met -- because of the force of her will. She attacked every major challenge in the same way, immersing herself in it and giving her all, whether rowing or teaching or research or child rearing or fighting cancer.

But she couldn't.  She didn't get better.  Nothing really helped the cancer that had spread to her bones -- the only thing that had any effect was the radiation she hated so much, and that was only temporary relief.  Even by the time we moved to Virginia she was starting to experience anemia from the cancer and the return of pain in her neck and back.  When we got back from her 2-week stay in the hospital, she was so thin she looked like the old films of concentration camp survivors.

At every stage I thought we would have more time.  In December I thought we would have years.  A month ago I thought we would have months.  The last week I thought we would have weeks.  The last day I thought we would have days.  It just does not seem possible -- even now, the woman who was so vital, so forceful, so firm, so tender cannot possibly be gone.  As I look at the photo I took of her at 32 from the summer we moved from Ann Arbor to Evanston, part of me thinks I must be able to find her back in the yard beside her house at 214 West Ann Street, smiling at me and our future.

This woman was amazing and I still can't believe she fell for me.  I had a sense early on that she could open up the world for me and she was certainly part of the <a href=\"http://lwinling.livejournal.com/18839.html\" target=\"_blank\">class movement</a> I was feeling a few years back.  So what are some of those amazing experiences she made possible?

1. The <a href=\"http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbanoasis/5432317925/in/set-72157625890302941\" target=\"_blank\">sun setting</a> on Marrakech, Morocco after a day of <a href=\"http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbanoasis/5432249759/in/set-72157625890302941\" target=\"_blank\">bargaining in the market</a>.

2. The <a href=\"http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbanoasis/3428512063/in/set-72157625890302941\" target=\"_blank\">Paris cafe</a>.

3. <a href=\"http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbanoasis/6908166946/\" target=\"_blank\">Fatherhood</a>.

4. <a href=\"http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbanoasis/6160108304/in/photostream\" target=\"_blank\">Everything in Italy</a>.

5. My career, now <a href=\"http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbanoasis/6919328795/in/photostream\" target=\"_blank\">based in Virginia</a>, enabled by her total support.

She was the one with the ideas and who provided the direction in our relationship.  Now I've got to figure out who I am without her.  After every decision and every action for the last 8 years was made with Kate and our partnership in mind, I've got to face each decision and each day with only my own feeble mind as a resource. And I've got to figure out how all the old relationships will work without her. And it's pretty terrifying -- I need her now more than ever. Thank God Ernest is too young to understand.

Originally posted in March, 2013.

Caldwell Walk -- the walk

Two colleagues agreed to walk the first half: Grace Hemmingson, a grad student, and Peter Schmitthenner, a faculty member (in both History and Religion and Culture).  Another grad student, Katie Brown, wanted to walk but had a conflict, so agreed to do the last 5 miles of the walk.  Mindy Quigley, a friend and the wife of a colleague, agreed to jump in for a couple miles in the second half.  One more colleague and friend, Danna Agmon, made me a period lunch based on a passage from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book -- a sausage roll, a butter sandwich, apple turnovers, cookies, and apples.

Peter, Grace, and I arrived at the Cassel Coliseum parking lot to get onto the buses out to the Caldwell homestead in Craig County, which still exists.  We left about 8am and I sat on the bus and talked with Mike Weaver, deputy commandant for the corps, who is a Tech alumnus and came back to VT after a life in the military and a Masters in Divinity from Duke.

Caldwells had been living in the area for about a hundred years when Addison made his walk -- descendants still live there now.  We stopped in front of Mt. Carmel church, which was all closed up, got off the buses, and followed the cadets as they formed into two lines, one on either side of the rural road -- 624.  Peter knew the parts of the route -- as a hiker and cyclist, he has been over all of these trails and roads many times.  The weather was cool but clear and sunny.  The cadets were loose and relaxed, joking with each other along the way.  Their lives were going to get much better because the Fall Caldwell March marks the close of the Red Phase for freshmen, one of strict control of their lives.  Peter, Grace, and I chatted about our backgrounds and generally caught up, passing the time pleasantly.  The route was gently rolling, without too many big ups and downs, surrounded by farmland, for the first 3 or 4 miles.  We turned onto 626, then onto State Route 42/CR 629, then stopped for a break of about ten minutes at Bethel Church.  I saw one or two cadets I knew in the course of things, Grace knew several cadets from her undergrad time at VT, and Peter knew many cadets from his classes.

After a downhill walk in single file along 42, we turned off onto a farm property and the cadets got their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, a mediocre but multi-course and portable meal), then we started the long trek up Sinking Creek Mountain.    It was about a mile on the horizontal axis, but rose from 2400 to 3300 feet.  The first 2/3 was grassy, so it was just a matter of walking slowly or taking a break after short segments.  The moderate altitude and the steepness made everyone short of breath.  About 2/3 of the way up or so we reached the edge of Jefferson National Forest and the trail turned to some loose dirt, which was hard to keep your footing on.  I fell in with the first group going up, E20, who recited Jodies, military cadences, to keep their spirits up.  We made it up to the top, and the Appalachian Trail followed the top of the Sinking Creek Mountain ridge.  This was where everyone stopped for lunch, so we had about a half an hour to sit and eat.  Peter and Grace came up with the last group -- Grace had an especially heavy pack and Peter switched with her to even things out.  It was cool and a little breezy, which was a nice contrast to the heavy sweating everyone did on the way up.  This was about 9 or so miles in and I was feeling a little worn, but basically strong.  I had a delicious lunch.  The sausage roll, especially, was dynamite.  The only thing missing was some coffee.  (Next year remind me to swing by Idego with a Thermos in the morning.)  In the month leading up, I had taken 2 ~10 mile walks with the same socks and shoes that I was using, so I was feeling pretty good.  I didn't sit down much, even on the breaks, so I didn't stiffen up and I didn't have any problems with blisters.  One of my key worries, based on my marathon experience, was chafing, so I had made provisions by getting some body glide, an excellent and simple product.

There was some disagreement with the Jefferson National Forest where the Corps can get permission to walk in the forest with a large group, but not on the trails, on the thought that it would be too destructive to the trail.  Thus, they have to blaze a new trail themselves each year.  I don't understand this and it seems like there must be something missing to the story.  The takeaway is that once we started moving again, we had to veer off the trail and trek through brambles and what not, winding back and forth over spongy and rooty ground that was not very sure, and heading down at a fairly steep angle.  Overall, not pleasant, and I was a little worried about rolling an ankle or slipping and banging a knee or something.  I had several tiny slips, but there was one where I slipped on a steeply angled flat rock and landed on my butt, with my leg bent back.  Fortunately, there were no weird forces or pressures -- my weight went onto my butt, instead of onto my knee, and I didn't hurt anything.  This is a serious drawback to going with the Corps.  This a nonsense solution and should not be tolerated.  We got word that one cadet twisted her knee badly and limped down to the logging trail where a truck could pick her up, and was done for the day.  I saw several slips and falls -- fortunately, a Corps EMT was along for the trip -- and there could have been much more serious injuries.

The roundabout route seemed to have put us about 45 minutes or an hour behind schedule.  We had been planning to get to Caldwell Fields, on Craig Creek Rd., by about 2:30, when buses would take people back to campus.  We got to Caldwell Fields about 3:00 or 3:10.  Peter and Grace peeled off, we said our goodbyes, and I headed east on Craigs Creek Road for the second phase. 

This route, being closer to Blacksburg, was more familiar to me and wast totally straightforward with the exception of scaling Brush Mountain.  I walked solo for about an hour, texted supporters with updates when I had cell service, and listened to music.  I was feeling tired but still good -- no trouble spots on my body, I had drunk plenty of water throughout the day, and Craigs Creek Road was fairly deserted.  It didn't have much of a shoulder and cars were driving fast when they came through, but overall it was fine.  The challenge was going to be Brush Mountain.

The Brush Mountain climb was just as high and nearly as long as Sinking Creek, but all wooded -- tougher to get your bearings visually.  I had found a spot to step into the woods on Google Maps that approximated the Corps' route, so when I got there, at a crossing with Craigs Creek, I started heading south.  The plan was to head due south up to the Brush Mountain ridge.  I made the mistake of reading my surroundings and going a bit by feel, climbing to the top of a ridge.  Once to the top, I saw a drop and another, higher ridge.  These were steep, so I had to climb on all fours at times, and had to stop every three or four steps.  I did this a couple times and got a bit discouraged.  I could see the sun through the treetops and had a compass, but aimed roughly towards the sun to have a consistent navigation point, in the southwest at this time of about 4:30.  After another ridge or two that then took me down to a little creek again, I was getting discouraged and worried.  Down at the bottom of a ridge it was dark, and there were lots of fallen trees and things to twist your ankle upon.  It was chilly in the shade, and I was lamenting not having a jacket (which was mostly unnecessary for the day's hike), because what if I got lost and was out there after dark?  I was cursing myself for not packing for a worst-case scenario -- matches, a blanket, an extra phone battery.  On one of the ridgetops I still heard a car on Craigs Creek Road and realized I had been moving too much to the west and not enough to the south.  I pulled up the compass and map apps on my iPhone and, though the compass had precise position down to the second, the map app put me south of the VT airport.  It did not inspire confidence.  Worrying scenarios were playing out in my head.  Should I press forward or head back to Craigs Creek Road?  I scrutinized the topographic map again and concluded that I had been crossing a series of finger ridges that led down from the Brush Mountain ridge, and I needed to get to the top of a ridge and head due south on the ridge until I made it to the top.  The way was brambly and I got quite a few scratches, some serious.  There was evidence that a path had been lightly trod, but I couldn't tell if this was by humans or animals.  A due-south path made sense, but after 45 minutes in the woods I hadn't seen another soul and was late to meet my fellow walkers.  The good news was that I could see flecks of sky through the trees at the top of the ridge up ahead.  It could very well be the top of Brush Mountain, or at least someplace where I could see the lower surrounding land.

I plodded on for another twenty or thirty minutes and finally came to a clearing.  Just 30 feet away was a paved road.  I stepped out and wondered weather it was Jefferson Forest Lane, my goal street, or if I had gotten totally turned around and was back on Craigs Creek Road.  50 meters on I saw a house and walked towards it.  No one seemed to be there.  A little farther on was an intersection with a street sign that was turned around.  One of them was Jefferson!  But which one?  I looked down one road and saw buildings that had to be Blacksburg.  I thought about walking down without confirming but decided on caution, not wanting to head in the wrong direction.  I walked back towards the house, and saw a car come to the intersection.  I flagged down the driver, asked which road was which, and where Preston Forest Rd. was.  She told me, I walked a quarter of a mile on and found it, and was back on my way.  I had felt tired and my legs were burning on the Brush Mountain ridges, but once I set foot on Preston Woods Drive, I knew I would make it.  I reconnected with Mindy and Katie, who had arranged to wait a little bit and meet me later, but together, and after a half mile down Preston Woods Drive, Paul drove up with those two and Alice.  Paul joked that the registrar's office was closed so, unlike Caldwell, I would not be able to enroll in classes when I got to Virginia Tech.  I had run out of water, so Mindy gave me some, and, in just a minute, we were happily chatting, three quarters of the whole walk done and the two hard parts in the rearview mirror.

We got to Mount Tabor Road, which was just about the only danger we faced on the whole walk.  Traffic was light, but there was little to no shoulder, and of course no sidewalk, so in a couple of cases we had to really crowd against the edge of the road and hope a driver would be responsible as they came around a curve.  I had brought bike lights, but it was still light enough that they wouldn't show to drivers.  After about 45 minutes or an hour, Paul and Alice pulled up to collect Mindy and gave me a Gatorade, which I downed quickly.  I had a 3-liter bladder in my backpack and refilled it once during the hike, but I had anticipated one more water stop at Caldwell Fields that wasn't there.  Katie and I were about a half mile from North Main Street and started getting walking/biking paths, which tided us over until we reached the place where the sidewalk ends.  The sun was setting, and that part of Main Street is bleak. We got to Patrick Henry and cut across to Giles, in order to pass my house and the Agmundzas, where Ernest was stayingand ready to cheer us on.  We got there with the last light, stopped and talked for about 10 minutes.  I didn't sit down because I was worried about stiffening up.   When we were done catching up, Katie and I headed off into the darkness for the last half-mile to the Caldwell statue on the upper quad.

My feet were really sore and my left hip was hurting with each step, and a scratched leg was a little bloody, but I still had energy and a decent stride.  It was fairly anticlimactic getting to the statue.  No one was around, and since I had gotten back onto paved roads I knew I would finish, so it wasn't too much of a relief.  Katie and I took some photos with the statue, then headed off to The Cellar to meet up and debrief with Peter and Grace, which we had arranged earlier.

NOTE: My best calculations using web-based distance-measurers indicate 8.25 miles to the base of Sinking Creek Mtn, on the private farm land; 12.5 miles to Caldwell Field (possibly more based on the winding, bushwhacked path); 16.75 miles to the turn-in point for Brush Mountain; 18 miles to Jefferson Forest Rd.; and 24.5 miles to the Caldwell Statue.

Originally posted October, 2016.

Mapping Inequality

Since we launched in October of 2016, Mapping Inequality has received a good deal of public recognition.  National Geographic named it one of the top mapping projects of the year and Slate's Rebecca Onion put it on the list of the year's best digital history projects.  Justin Madron recently wrote a summary of the project that gives a good overview of the data resources.  I wanted to augment that with an account of helping pull this together as a faculty member, in order to give other historians a sense of the process and what a project of this scope entails.

It was somewhere early in graduate school when I first read about the Home Owners' Loan Corporation in Ken Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier.  At the time, I was deep in coursework, barely starting on my graduate research and, while I was concerned about the practice and impact of redlining, it was not my first line of inquiry.  Besides, I didn't see this as a debate I could contribute much to.  Jackson set the line of the debate that still dominates among historians, and Amy Hillier had just published her articles a year or two before, using GIS no less, which was totally beyond my grasp.  Eventually I did develop some GIS skills with some intense summer work.  It took me several years of thinking about the state of scholarship on HOLC and redlining, of developing a familiarity with the National Archives, and of getting a sense of big data possibilities before I began to think about a HOLC digital project.  In fact, it was a set of trips to NARA and NARA II that was really eye-opening -- how much material there was there and how increasingly friendly the institution was to digitization.

When I started at Virginia Tech, I thought about digitizing the whole run of HOLC maps, talked to a few people who had some interest (or had it and lost it), and realized that it would be a plausible project.  After a few exploratory trips to College Park, I had about 25 or 30 maps that I made publicly available, which at that point, was the largest collection available on the web.  It was in this period, 2012, that I talked to the friend of a colleague and got introduced to Richard Marciano and the team (then) at UNC, as well as Rob Nelson and the DSL team at the University of Richmond.  These two had recently been gearing up and had digitized a large set of their own, far larger than mine, and they had some pretty significant funding support.  At the same time, Nathan Connolly and I had had a few conversations about the possibilities for bringing this story out to the public.  Four collaborators at four institutions seemed fairly unwieldy, but it was only with this four that we really had the range of research, writing, institutional, and technical capabilities to make the project work in a reasonable amount of time.  A smaller group, even individuals, probably could have conducted the digitization, the development, etc., but it would have taken a much longer time and a significant set of resources.  Virginia Tech didn't quite have the infrastructure for a project like this, as it lacked a digital history center and the central staff and infrastructure that entails, so working with the University of Richmond team made great sense for me -- our efforts didn't need to compete.  But each member played important roles and I can't imagine we would have brought the project about this way without everyone.

A key challenge we had was that redlining was not the top priority for any of the participant members.  Nathan and I, as historians, had the obligation of finishing and publishing our books, the main elements of a strong tenure case.  Rob and the DSL staff were working to launch their digital atlas "American Panorama."  Richard is a computer scientist and took a position at the University of Maryland, had a lab to set up (<a href=\"http://dcic.umd.edu/\">DCIC</a>), and had a wide array of projects to manage.  Everyone was committed to the project, however, and so it proceeded on a semester-by-semester basis.  I had classes where students would georeference maps and create polygons; I would send students up to College Park to digitize maps on a few summer trips; and I would hire undergrads to enter Area Description data for several cities.  All along, Rob, Justin Madron, and Nate Ayers at the DSL were churning along with their interns and students. Justin was great in maintaining quality control over the material we submitted (including a manual for a standardized process of georeferencing), something really essential for a decentralized effort like this.

We started working together in 2012 and the project only launched in October 2016.  Four years is a long time.  Patience in this kind of collaboration is necessary.  We applied for a few NEH grants without success; I had a steady stream of internal grants at Virginia Tech that were smallish, but were essential for keeping my team working.  In 2013, we hardly made any progress, in part because I faced personal difficulties, another digital project was competing for my attention, and we didn't yet have a lot of the momentum that came later.  But we did have Google Hangout meetings every few months and kept making progress.  If I had a unique contribution to the project, it was in keeping people shuffling ahead -- calling meetings and circulating agenda, pinning down action items at the end of meetings, and sending my research assistants to NARAII to get the last few maps and materials we were lacking.  The greatest progress we made in site development on the Web side came with the launch of <a href=\"http://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/\">American Panorama</a>.  Stamen Design created a toolkit for Rob and the DSL and that launched in December 2015.  With that project set and the toolkit handy, Rob and the DSL could develop the interface for Mapping Inequality and start populating it with material.   

The inclusion in American Panorama was an opportunity that I had not been expecting.  I was initially a little skeptical, largely because I had been thinking of this as a standalone project.  But Rob suggested it and Nathan immediately saw the value of putting these geographic resources in dialogue with other maps -- voluntary migration, forced migration, infrastructure development.  In this sense, the collaborative aspect of the project has made it better overall -- in bringing together a group of really capable people, larger labor forces, and building up a bigger project, American Panorama, which has the potential to be the most significant historical digital mapping effort in the country (if it isn't already).  I am now planning to incorporate my other major digital project, Mapping Congress, in American Panorama in plenty of time for the 2018 Congressional elections.  It was also a good collaborative effort for me in hearing and accepting input and decisions from a group.  This is key to the work of public historians, but in much of academic historians' work, we make individual decisions and take solitary steps to create and market our work.  Credit was and is a concern for historians, too.  When I make my case for tenure, this project will feature prominently, second to my book, but it will take a great deal of explaining what my intellectual and administrative contributions were.  Even with that, I'm not confident I will get adequate credit for the ultimate impact of the project.  This is something I'll discuss in another piece.

Reposted from my former site, Urban Oasis.

Credit

The issue of credit for digital and public projects is a key and not-at-all clear one within the academy.  I have long claimed that public and digital historians generally have to do double duty.  We are expected to develop exhibits, web sites, and other public-facing forms of communication to engage the public and train our students.  This is while still meeting the same standards for peer-reviewed scholarly publication -- a book with a university press and some articles for tenure, and another book for promotion.  

There are a handful of dissenters of this assessment.  Mark Souther, co-creator of Cleveland Historical, disagreed in the course of a UHA roundtable on digital urban history, pointing out that selective, thoughtful strategy could allow faculty to create digital/public products and scholarly products from the same base of research material.  This is true -- in some cases, publishing about public engagement experience can help cover both bases, as Andrew Hurley did, for example, writing about a St. Louis neighborhood in his book <em>Beyond Preservation.</em>  The NCPH <a href="http://ncph.org/history-at-work/">History @ Work blog</a> is a great resource for these kinds of debates and discussion.

But I think most public/digital history faculty generally agree that they are expected to do more.  My basic reading of this is because the nature of public projects is not well understood by non-public/digital history faculty.  There is a clear understanding of what a scholarly publication looks like: a work of original scholarship based on primary source research, peer-reviewed in a recognized journal within the author's subfield or sometimes a broader, discipline-wide journal.  However, the expected primary source basis for a public or digital history product and how to convey primary research is not clear.  There is no consensus format for citing primary source research in an exhibit, for example.  Even if there were, it would normally be inappropriate or unnecessary for a public audience.  The materials we point to are often secondary sources because they are intellectually and physically far more accessible to the public/non-specialist audience than a primary source collection.  This inherently obscures the original research that goes into an effort like an exhibit.  The wide variety of formats (like the wide varieties of sensory perception we have and media types to engage them) also throws things into confusion for evaluation and credit.  How to "read" a museum exhibit?  Or a web site?  Or a data visualization?  Is there an introduction, body and conclusion?  Is there even a narrative structure?  

I don't blame non-public historians for not getting it all.  It takes special training to work with all of these -- the training that public/digital historians undertake.  BUT it is an expectation we must have and we must impose on non-public/digital faculty -- these are the people who create the positions and hire public/digital historians to their faculty in the first place.  We must not hire the faculty without developing the appropriate competencies and processes for judging them.

Another way that faculty should think about the work of public and digital historians is in terms of arguments.  This is a recognizable concept for academics.  Historians are making arguments all the time.  We are evaluating arguments, agreeing and disagreeing and revering the quality or novelty of arguments.  However, because of the limited audience for scholarly publications, we are not winning arguments.  Most scholarly arguments have little impact on society because few people read them and those only specialists.  This is an awful failure of the academy.  Our ideas deserve greater place in civic debate.  

The original historical research on the HOLC redlining maps, for example, was by Ken Jackson in a <em>Journal of Urban History</em> article and a Bancroft-award winning book, <em>Crabgrass Frontier.</em>  It had some public impact, especially through other public-oriented scholars and journalists.  But <em>Mapping Inequality</em> will likely eventually surpass the impact of the book (even while it contributes to it) by making the wide variety of HOLC materials available directly to the scholarly and non-academic public alike enhanced by an accessible interface and contextualized by minimalist, updated interpretation written for the public.  The project treads with Ken Jackson's arguments but then cuts its own interpretive path.

Public and digital historians win arguments.  They conduct research and communicate it in a museum or over the web or in person to shape public understanding of a topic. They take good arguments that suffer from jargon or otherwise mediocre prose and synthesize and edit them in new ways to reach non-specialists.  They build on existing arguments and find new primary source material to explore or support the argument, and they rewrite it for the public.  And the public pays attention to these arguments, in a way that they do not to scholarly publications.  This is what stands equal with scholarly publication -- the creation a work of historical interpretation and argumentation, based on original research, with impact on society.  This more generalized or abstracted way of thinking about our work builds on the importance of arguments to put public and digital work on even footing with journal publication.     

NB: For reference, this is informed by the 2010 OAH/NCPH white paper on engaged scholarship.  It made the case that departments should value engaged scholarship, but did not make specific recommendations for how.  I saw how it was a useful for opening a conversation about credit, but not one for closing with an agreement.

Starting Over, Part 4

One of the other key challenges of re-starting my life in the wake of my wife's passing was figuring out how to work.  I have never had difficulty putting in long hours or letting my research consume me.  In seven years of marriage, Kate and I took two vacations of a weekend each, one to Milwaukee as a surprise birthday trip for her one year, and an agriculturismo near Caltanissetta, Sicily, in the middle of her sabbatical year.  I was so committed to work that I continued teaching via Skype for the remainder of the semester after Kate's passing.

This kind of commitment was just not possible on a long-term basis afterwards, however.  And I was floundering.  I had already arranged to use my pre-tenure sabbatical semester for the fall of 2013, so, while I needed some time to figure out my new life, my book revisions slowed way down.  I worked on them nearly every day, trying to maintain the breakneck pace I had kept up before and to keep up with the 60+ hour pace assistant professors often keep.  But I wasn't getting anywhere.  Workshop comments on my chapters were not very positive and I wasn't feeling the prose.  It just was not working for me, and I more or less lost that semester off, which for many of my colleagues was highly productive time.

I had no epiphany about what to do, but there was an evolution to my practice and thinking about work.  I actually took on more service work, advising the VT chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, so I could have some greater connection to our undergrads than just teaching hours.  I also started a semi-annual department tea (just the idea, really, and a little organizing, but it won the support of my chair).  There were logics to each of these activities, but I didn't have anyone to talk with about my overarching direction, in part because my situation was so unusual.  I have a few professional mentors who are supportive, but I doubt any of them would feel comfortable asking, "In the wake of this horrible event, do you still really want to be a historian?" or "what are you going to do to reorder your life and value system to disengage from the priorities you once had and to create more relevant new priorities?" or "can you still expect to be a historian when you really cannot travel to do research?" or something similarly blunt.  I read a good number of blogs and other pieces about individuals with various crises that I thought I could squint at and see some relevance for myself.

At some point I realized that I was going to have to emphasize just a few top priorities and say to heck with the rest.  Beyond a 35-45 hour work week, more work was going to come at the expense of my son.  I could not let that happen.  I also was working on two digital projects that would drain time and attention from my book.  I decided to slow down a bit on the book and work with an emerging set of collaborators on a HOLC redlining project that became "Mapping Inequality."  There were a couple milestones in that project and collaboration that helped build momentum and let me believe I was on the right track.  I had to put another digital project off, on Congressional political history, essentially reversing what had been the top priority of my digital work.  I also started writing regularly with a colleague.  This was not really more productive, but these things did let me feel some satisfaction and a real path forward, let me look forward to doing work, and helped me enjoy my days again.

It boiled down to doing what I enjoyed and found most valuable on my own terms, which was my natural inclination anyway.  My wife, Kate, and I spent every waking hour talking about our work and our ideas in great detail before she passed away.  I remember conversations and even horror stories of people who had put themselves through a wringer, emotionally, physically, even financially, and ended up not getting tenure.  I decided I did not want to risk chasing someone else's vision and priorities for the job and have that work against me -- I didn't want to get denied tenure trying to satisfy somebody else. (I use sports metaphors quite a bit, and often say if someone is a fastball pitcher, they should throw fastballs, meaning making sure they are featuring the strengths that their whole career is built around, rather than some half-assed model and priorities somebody else suggested was the right thing to do.) 

I also wanted to see if I could not work during the summer.  In the summer of 2014 and again in 2015 I took a vacation with my son, of about a month each, and with no obligation to work in the months I was not being paid.  After this, I came to the conclusion that we, and certainly I, should not feel obliged to grind myself into paste chasing more money or more productivity beyond a 40-hour work week, 9 months a year.  Whatever I did beyond the academic year had to be for pleasure or satisfaction.  This was specifically freeing in that I didn't let things like email or requests for meetings in June clutter up my day.  It was also more generally freeing in that I realized I should take advantage of the really great things this job provided -- weekly flexibility and summer independence.

Finally, I made working out a priority again.  This was partly necessary to help me deal with my growing son.  He comes from large parents, and by age three he was at the top of the size and weight charts.  But a three-year-old sometimes needs to be carried, and I needed to increase my strength to be able to comfortably pick up and carry a 35-pound, then a 40 pound, then a 45 pound kid (usually in one arm).  So I started going to the gym more often and working out more regularly, and I always feel much better, both in my ability to do things with my son and in overall health and satisfaction.  It's also an activity and setting in which my son and colleagues are almost never present, so I can disengage from both work and parenting for a bit, and I think can approach work with more vigor when I come back to it.

All of this has worked fairly well so far.  I got my book in under the wire, rather than a couple years early.  But we also launched Mapping Inequality, which has turned out to be very high-impact.  It is satisfying to me, and more than makes up for the article or two I might have written if I had just been focused on traditional publishing.  And those internal motivations and satisfactions are my true compass.  I've been somewhat privileged all along to follow the white dude's mantra of "do what you like," without having to do much to satisfy or reassure anyone that I fit the mold of what a historian is.  But I hope anyone faced with daily micro-aggressions or major life crises can find some internal reserve of energy, or affirmation, or set of priorities to keep going on what they love.  

Kate's rowing coach, a Hungarian man now in his 90s, fought in World War II, was captured by the Germans and escaped twice.  Then, after the war, he made the Hungarian Olympic rowing team.  He eventually immigrated to the U.S. and then Canada and was just a tough dude.  He used to tell her how to manage priorities while excelling at rowing.  "First, the mother house, then the school house, then the boat house.  Then, everything else."  Good advice.

Starting Over, Part 3

In my last post, I mentioned my son and I moved to Blacksburg with no friends, no family, and nothing else resembling a social life or community, other than a handful of work colleagues.  I had started work in January of 2012 and for a year-and-a-half split time between Blacksburg and Evanston, IL, where my wife worked.  We really had not made (or had opportunities) to make friends in VA.  I was not that great a father, either, as Kate had been much better and more patient than I was with a baby/toddler/small child.  

This sounds like a bleak situation, and in casting my mind back, the bleakness returns in a way I had forgotten or blocked out.  I was only able to make my way through by relying on those far-distant friends.  We skyped weekly with some good friends from graduate school and from Evanston, we had a couple visits from some friends from college and from family, we traveled quite a bit, and I tried to explore the new relationship I would have with my son.  But there was not much in the community.

This was a tough nut to crack.  I cannot emphasize enough how much attention a two-and-a-half-year-old child requires: all of it.  You must pretty much constantly have eyes on and be offering stimulation or correction or supervision.  My son was probably working through issues of his own, always asking me to play with him and climbing on me, even while I was trying to cook him dinner.  (One of my wife's former colleagues had lost his mother at about age two and offered the comforting assessment that it had never been a source of trauma for him.  I think that was generally the case for my son, but I'm sure he felt the loss in some ways, including the halving of the attention he could receive.)  Unfortunately our day care was several miles away and drew kids from all over the town, meaning there was no local dynamic to the emergence of daytime play friends.

It turned out that food was a key part of the equation.  I was reading some work by Michael Pollan, who was discussing cooking and community in several forms, and reading several chef's memoirs.  This was part of my process of learning how to cook more skillfully and ambitiously, because I was suddenly fully responsible for family food.  But I also continued a tradition of a weekly pizza night that the family had established during our year in Philadelphia.  I thought back, again and again, to an account of a 36-hour dinner party around a wood-fired cob oven that Pollan wrote up in the NYTimes.  It had appealed to me then as a struggling, childless grad student, but even moreso as a desperate, widower single father who wanted to attract people over to my house to provide stimulation for my son and some form of adult discussion.

I had hit it off with a colleague and we decided to organize a backyard lamb roast in May of 2014, and it went off quite well.  It was about the same time I decided I wanted a wood-fired oven of my own.  I had pledged that I would have to make pizza once a week for a year in order to make the oven worthwhile.  We met that goal and I found someone to help design and build it in the fall of 2014.  In 2015 we started holding regular backyard pizza events, where I provide all the pizzas you can eat and everyone else brings sides and beverages.  Now, if a weekend goes by where we don't bake, I feel the loss.  There is a group of regular attendees from the neighborhood and from VT, and my son has organized a "kids' table" on the front porch, where they get a little more autonomy.  There are also a few kids who ask to come for the pizza parties, as word has spread around his school.  I'm pleased to think it has become a destination and we have created an event where kids and adults like to meet each other, catch up, and eat.  I'm now considering my own 16-hour party in the fall (not yet a full 36 hours) to see what is possible with a wide array of people cooking in the oven.

At this point, 4 years after the death of my wife, the prospects for reconstituting a family are not yet certain.  It's difficult in Blacksburg, a town with a major university bubble that heavily features nuclear families.  But I am really glad to have found a way to connect with my neighborhood and found a regular social outlet that makes use of the house and yard that had been a dream for so long.  My son is also very confident and socially adept, and I'm glad to have created opportunities for him to be able to build those skills and some of the relationships we had to start from scratch.

Starting Over, Part 2

While I'm starting over with my blog and web presence, I think it's important to acknowledge the most difficult form of starting over I faced in my professional and personal life: the death of my wife, Kathryn Bosher, from cancer in 2013.  I hope this will be useful for anyone else facing such a challenge.

During the most demanding and vulnerable part of my professional career, I have been a widower with a young son (now almost 7), living about 500 miles from my nearest family member.  I chose to keep the job and live in Blacksburg because I wanted some stability for my son.  We had lived in 4 cities in the 2 1/2 years since his birth in order to balance our dual careers (Philadelphia for my career, Rome for her career during a sabbatical, Blacksburg for my career, and back to Evanston for her job) plus the upheaval of our seeking medical care.  I had a job (I was in the first year on the tenure clock upon Kate's death) and also didn't want to make any rash decisions about redirecting my life or starting another career.  Basically, I stayed with the plan I had been on for the last ten years, accepting the geographic and cultural change as a tradeoff for personal and professional continuity.

On the plus side, I was able to purchase a very nice and well-located house for my son and me, more or less the dream home my wife and I had always wanted, and I did not really have to worry about where my next paycheck was coming from for five years.  I also fulfilled the life goal of publishing my book, which will come out in the fall.  On the negative side, I basically knew no one outside my department colleagues, and had no friends.  Kate and I were the type of people who made a handful of friends over the years and then kept them, and they were scattered across the country and the world.  In pursuing our careers, we had no community to lean on.  In addition, I had no help with child care or around the house, other than the help I was willing to pay for in the form of nannies/sitters and cleaning people, and a visit by my parents each year.

All of this was easier because we had gotten a pretty generous life insurance policy.  I can't emphasize enough how important this was.  The discussions Kate and I had had beforehand boiled down to her idea that, whatever happened to one of us, money should not be another worry on top of it.  And it wasn't.  We also got a will after she was diagnosed with cancer, and that was also helpful in settling her affairs.  It was difficult to take any of those steps and envision the worst when we were still in the flowers of our lives, but it was worthwhile.

I know some people who, after life upheavals such as the dissolution of a marriage or a death, returned to their hometown in order to be closer to family or friends.  This was not a serious option for me because my career work is fairly specialized and I'm sure I bought into the idea that being a history professor is too important to leave.  In addition, the life that my wife and I had chosen was about leaving our hometowns in pursuit of a new community that was not defined by our parents' choices or familiar landscapes.  I have questioned this, for each of us individually and for us together as a family, whether we might have been better off setting down roots at the expense of our chosen careers, and I can't see how it would have worked for us.  The ideal we sought was a setting that was cosmopolitan and had community, and had jobs for us.  We were still seeking it.  But I cannot imagine that we could have chosen a city over a career, reasonable as that choice may have been for many others.  And so I kept playing our strategy.

In the next posts, I'll discuss how I tried to (re)build our social lives, and then how I re-thought my work.

Starting Over

I have been blogging since 2004.  I recently decided to change hosting services when it became clear that tech support at the other service was seriously deteriorating.  It was impossible to speak with a person on the phone; the live chat support people took your information and kicked it to the engineering team; you never got to speak with, answer questions, or ask questions of the engineers, so it was a terrible unending cycle of waiting and getting no help.

This is not terribly revelatory or shocking, but it has meant both an opportunity and a need to relaunch my work on the web.  This fall my book will be coming out and I will be working on a new set of projects.  Thus, the new site and a slow piecing back together of the important pieces of my old content.