Thursday, March 15, 2018

Preserving our Memories in the Digital Age

I'm holding a rare artifact right now-- it's a fan letter, written in longhand, from late December 1935. It was sent by a man from Newburyport MA to his favorite radio announcer, Howell Cullinan of WEEI in Boston. You've probably never heard of Howell, but he was someone people in the audience thought of as a friend, and they loved to listen to his program.  In addition to being a news reporter and announcer, he was also a story-teller, a raconteur, and a world-traveler; he even wrote two books about his adventures, and about his experiences in early broadcasting.

At a flea market a few months ago, I found some letters sent to him in the early to mid-1930s, and I must admit I was excited to read them; they helped me to understand how important he was to his listeners.  But I may be among the last people to read and appreciate these kinds of artifacts, since they were composed in cursive.  Fewer and fewer schools are teaching kids to write in long-hand these days. In fact, in a growing number of elementary schools, I'm told that students only learn to print; the focus is now on learning to type (since keyboard skills are necessary for online communication).

I understand. Really I do.  Times change. We're living in the digital age, and handwriting doesn't matter as much as it used to.  And yet... as a media historian, I believe we're losing something that is still important. Several weeks ago, in the Boston Globe, there was a wonderful essay about the importance of letters and notes.  The author brought up an issue I've thought about a lot:  "For historians, handwritten letters are a gold mine. So what happens when they disappear?"  (You can read the entire essay here, and it's definitely worth thinking about. )
Losing tangible aspects of our past is no trivial matter. I've written six books, as many of you know, and I couldn't have done my research without having access to handwritten notes, diary entries, postcards and letters, which were in the possession of some of the people I was researching. Being able to read them took me back to that exact time and place, and made me feel as if I were there; it made me feel closer to the folks whose lives I was studying.  Reading a 1935 fan letter, written by an actual listener, it was as if he were speaking to me in the present, talking to me about why Howell Cullinan was his favorite radio announcer.

Okay fine, I can read digitized and transcribed copies of some of these materials, but contrary to what my students believe, there is so much that is not online, so much that isn't digitized yet-- and in the case of materials from folks who weren't especially famous, so much that may never be digitized.  And while today's emails, tweets, and text messages are quick and convenient, they're also ephemeral-- they can be deleted in an instant.  There's also something impersonal about them, even when you dress them up with an emoji or add a meme.

Call me old-school, but I like to work with original handwritten documents when I can; and I like going to library archives and seeing actual historical items first-hand.  I feel the same way about viewing old photographs, old books, and old magazines-- yes, the online versions are a wonderful convenience for researchers, and I am grateful for access to them; but to hold an old publication, to look at the item itself, brings up a sense of amazement, a feeling of gratitude that somehow this part of our history has survived. (And I am sure the librarians and archivists who are reading this know exactly what I'm talking about.)

The other day, unexpectedly, I found some old photos of my mother and father from back when they were dating. Yes, I digitized several of the photos so that my friends on social media could enjoy seeing what my parents looked like in the late 1930s/early 1940s.  But holding the actual photographs was very emotional for me.  And whether it's old letters or old photos, preserving these memories, and respecting them, is worth the effort.

I'm not asking everyone to be hoarders or pack rats.  I'm simply saying that we've become a throwaway culture, where all that matters is the newest technology, and stuff that's considered "old" (or old-fashioned, like handwriting) is disposable. Maybe one day, after I'm no longer here, someone will find the fan letters I saved from my radio career, most written in cursive; and perhaps they will be curious about who I was, or why I kept them, or what these items meant.  And I wonder if there will be anyone who can explain.   

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Mystery from My Past

There's something I've never been able to figure out:  how did my last name get to be Halper?  I understand that it's a common last name for Jews with European ancestry (also seen as Halpern, Helpern, Helperin, Helprin, Halpert, or even Alpert); but where did the name itself come from?  Well, according to some reference books, "Halper" is a name that goes back more than four hundred years-- it originated in Germany, and came from a town named Heilbronn.

Except... I can find no evidence anyone on my father's side (the Halpers) lived in Germany nor even paid that country a visit.  My father's relatives are all from Russia, in the area that is today Belarus.  And the only place we know my paternal grandfather ever traveled was to what was then called Palestine (today Israel).  He emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1906, and his immigration records do not indicate a name change.

If you have ancestors who came here in that massive wave of European immigration during the 1890s-1920s, you may have heard stories about names being changed at Ellis Island.  I certainly heard those stories as a kid; and I was told that's what happened with some of my relatives-- for example, at some point, Beresofsky became Bear, and Drazznin became Dresner.  Perhaps something similar happened to your relatives too, as a longer or difficult to pronounce ethnic name got shortened or Americanized.  But I cannot find out more about the Halper side of the family-- the documents don't show any other name, nor even any other spelling of it.      

Since nearly all of my older relatives are now deceased, there is no-one who might be able to offer a theory.  But I wondered if new technology might provide some additional information.  So, I sent away for my DNA report from  on TV, there are these great commercials where someone suddenly discovers they're related to George Washington (rather unlikely in my case) or they find they have Norwegian relatives they knew nothing about (also unlikely for me).  I figured my DNA would show that my maternal ancestors were from Lithuania (or possibly Poland) and my paternal ancestors were from Russia.  And sure enough, there were no exciting discoveries.

On the other hand, I found two distant cousins I never knew I had-- both on my mother's side of the family.  We've been in communication, and there are a few questions about my mother's relatives we are trying to answer.  But how I came to be a Halper is still a mystery.  And unless one of the readers of my blog is an expert at genealogy, it's a question that may remain unanswered.  As someone who does research for a living, I much prefer questions that do have an answer.  But for now, this one gets filed under "not enough information," a mystery that may not ever be solved.    

Friday, February 16, 2018

Wanting Assault Weapons Banned Isn't a "Gun Grab"

After seventeen innocent people, most of them high school students, were murdered in yet another mass shooting, I went on Twitter to remark about two verifiable facts:  most of our mass shootings have involved so-called "assault weapons," with high-capacity magazines; and when the Assault Weapons Ban was in place, there were fewer crimes involving these weapons.  Agreed, people who wanted to commit murder were able to get other weapons; but weapons like the AR-15, and high-capacity magazines, which could kill large numbers of people quickly, were no longer easy to get. And many studies showed the ban did make a difference, although of course, it was not a panacea.

So, I suggested it was time to restore the Assault Weapons Ban that Republicans allowed to lapse.  (In fairness, this isn't entirely partisan: some Democrats, and many Republicans, have taken campaign donations from the National Rifle Association.  But there was a Republican president and a Republican-led congress that allowed the ban to expire.)  I did NOT say I wanted to revoke the Second Amendment, nor did I say I wanted the government to take away all guns.  But of course, that was the predictable response:  you liberals want to ban all weapons.  Not true. It is worth noting that many liberals and progressives appreciate the Second Amendment; I have friends who enjoy sport-shooting, for example.

But what most liberals and progressives do not support is Second Amendment absolutism:  that's the belief of some conservatives that, according to their interpretation of the Second Amendment, they have the right to carry any gun anywhere at any time.  I don't want to argue about the intent of the Second Amendment--there are varying interpretations, and that's a good debate for another day, preferably not while we're still thinking about the kids who were murdered by an angry and emotionally disturbed nineteen-year-old who had no problem buying an assault weapon and lots of ammunition.

Truth be told, Congress has passed laws placing restrictions on just about every right in the Bill of Rights. No right is absolute, in other words.  We live in a society where our behaviors affect other people.  I may have freedom of speech, but I cannot slander someone; there's freedom of the press, but it does not protect unscrupulous people who use their position to libel someone they don't like.  And while congress shall make no law about an establishment of religion, there have been rulings about prayer in the public schools.

So, I fail to see what the issue is with keeping assault weapons out of the hands of average folks-- to me, the only people who need such weapons are in law enforcement or in the military.  There are plenty of weapons folks who want to hunt or sport-shoot can use, and plenty of choices for those who want to protect themselves. But we seem to be living in a culture where certain people (often egged on by the National Rifle Association, which has a vested interest in selling more guns) think all that matters is their rights.

Meanwhile, grieving parents are asking, "What about my rights? Don't I have a right to send my kids to school and know they'll be safe?"  Again, the predictable reply from some conservatives on social media is "We need more guns! Let's have armed guards in every school!"  But this school did have an armed guard. Unfortunately, Florida is a state where it's really easy to get an assault rifle. We currently have a congress that is big on offering "thought and prayers" and small on taking on the NRA.  So... I ask you:  which right is more important-- the right to own weapons meant for war, or the right to protect our kids?  Which right matters more-- the right to buy any gun at any time, or the right to raise our kids in a less violent society?  I'll be interested to hear what you have to say, because this should not be a liberal versus conservative issue.  And yet, these days, it seems that everything is...

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

My birthday is coming up:  on Valentine's Day, I'll be 71.  Most of the time, I don't think much about my chronological age-- I know I don't look like I'm in my 70s, but even if I did, I see no reason to lie about how old I am, or try to hide it. However, this birthday has a special significance for me; and although I'm looking forward to a birthday dinner, along with cake and ice cream, there's something that keeps bothering me, no matter how I try to ignore it.

In September 1989, my mother (of blessed memory) lost her battle with cancer, at the age of 71. Truth be told, not many women on my mother's side of the family have escaped getting cancer-- as many of you know, I got my cancer diagnosis in late 2014 and had surgery in mid-December of that year. Thus far, three years later, I am still cancer-free, and I feel grateful that the doctors found it in time.  But that doesn't stop me from worrying about what could still happen, especially now that I'm approaching my 71st birthday.

I know it's not rational to worry-- I'm a former counselor, and I've been a motivational speaker for years, so I know all the right things to say when it's someone else who's worried. But I'm not as good at encouraging myself.  Believe me, I understand that worrying doesn't solve anything. And I really do try to think positive; I try to treat each day like a gift, and use it productively.  I've got all kinds of coping strategies when I find myself feeling afraid-- I have a busy schedule (I work full-time, plus I also do volunteer tutoring and mentoring); I have hobbies that I enjoy; and I have a husband who is not only my best friend but who also bakes amazing apple pies. It ain't such a bad life.

And yet... as I enter my 71st year, I can't help thinking about my mother.  I remember how vibrant and active and dynamic she was (her birthday was in February, like mine); and then, almost out of nowhere, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer; and not very long after that, she was gone.  I don't mean to be morbid or depressing.  It's just that it was all so unexpected, and even the best doctors could do nothing for her. My situation, on the other hand, has a much more hopeful prognosis (and thus far, a much better outcome). Despite a few relatively minor health problems, I'm doing okay, and I've got no logical reason to be concerned.  And yet... sometimes I am.    

People often tell me I seem like such a strong person; I'm known for being there when folks are counting on me.  But I'm ashamed to admit that when it comes to being a cancer survivor, I'm neither strong nor courageous. In fact, I worry more often than I should. Yes, I've learned how to hide it, and I never let it stop me.  But the fear of a recurrence is still a part of my life, even though I wish it weren't.  Since I don't have the ability to predict the future, maybe my 71st year on this planet will come and go uneventfully.  I certainly hope it does. But I'll probably still worry sometimes, even though I know that's no way to get ready for my birthday! 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Setting the Right Example

On Martin Luther King Day, President Trump played golf. It's something he often does; by some accounts, he's already been on a golf course about sixty times since becoming president, far more times than President Obama was in his first year.  Of course, Republicans were outraged every time Mr. Obama played golf, yet strangely silent when Mr. Trump does the same thing. But that's to be expected:  each side loves to complain about the other, whether it's something relatively minor like supposedly playing golf too much, or something more substantial like a serious policy disagreement.

But my problem wasn't that Mr. Trump played golf again; it was that he ignored an opportunity. For the past several decades (since 1994), at the request of Dr. King's family, presidents and others have spent some time performing volunteer work, helping in their community. It was a non-partisan activity:  Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all did it.  Yet Mr. Trump chose not to.

No, I don't plan to spend yet another blog post expressing my dismay about what this president said or tweeted recently. I'm simply going to suggest that Mr. Trump seems unwilling (or uninterested) when it comes to performing acts of public service.  I find that disappointing.  Part of being president is the ceremonial aspect, the role model aspect.  But what he seems to be modeling is being self-centered. He evidently didn't feel it was important enough, or he didn't feel it was necessary, so he didn't do it. He played golf instead.

The problem is that Mr. Trump's behavior affects others, and people (especially kids) may imitate how he acts.  I worry about his young son, for example. What is Barron learning from watching his dad act in such an egotistical way? What lessons is he drawing from his father's vulgarities, his pettiness, his grudge-holding, and yes, his unwillingness to be charitable? Barron may be the beneficiary of wealth and privilege, but money is no substitute for having a father who sets a good example.

Like him or hate him, Barack Obama taught his children to be compassionate and to treat others with courtesy.  Are his kids perfect? Of course not, and neither were any of us at that age. But he and Michelle insisted upon performing community service and their kids were expected to participate.  The same was true for George and Laura Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, all of whom raised their children to think about others.  Perhaps you too do volunteer work; and perhaps, like me, you were apprenticed into volunteering by your parents. (We didn't have much money, but we could always help a worthy cause by giving our time. It's a valuable lesson for any kid to learn.) 

Whether or not you agree there should even be a King holiday (President Reagan did not, although eventually he accepted it), the fact remains that it's a great opportunity to reach out to those in need; in fact, almost any day is a good day to do that.  So, in the new year, my hope is that the president will take his obligation more seriously and make time to help those who are less fortunate-- it will not only benefit the country, but it will teach his young son a valuable lesson: money and power may come and go, but in the end, people will judge us by how we treat others.