I lived in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, from 2006 to 2014, teaching English at two universities there. I arrived as the city was demolishing the last of its ancient neighborhoods in its rush to “progress;” to waste so much valuable architectural and cultural heritage seemed criminal. I wandered the city and documented what remained with my camera. Learn more about the transformation of one historic area here:
No, I’m not talking about my upcoming 65th birthday. Come to think of it, however, I am grateful for Medicare.
I’m talking about an ancient piece of research history, my 1993 M.A. Thesis in art history, titled Three Public Buildings in St. Joseph, Missouri, 1873-1891.
That’s the Buchanan County Courthouse above, one of my three chosen buildings which, within a roughly 20-year period, proudly proclaimed St. Joseph’s “golden age.” I decided to venture into my past and to resurrect my thesis, which survives only in one bound photocopied version, with indistinct illustrations. In case you’re wondering, most theses and dissertations have only been stored in digital format since about 1995; mine is stored in the UMKC library in its original, archival-quality paper format.
Long story short, I have now scanned all 151 pages, put them through OCR software to be saved in an editable Word format, and laboriously proofread and corrected the document manually. The process took two weeks, and was good occupational therapy during COVID-19 lock-down. While I was at it, I sourced new illustrations from the internet, replacing my old, worn, badly-photocopied ones.
Above is the 1873-74 St. Joseph City Hall and Market House, a rather self-important-looking building that was unceremoniously knocked down in 1929.
My slightly altered body of research has now been uploaded to www.academia.edu. Speaking of the digital world, I was amazed to discover how much historic research material is now available online. Many of my original sources, requiring trips to libraries, interlibrary loans, and scanning fragile microfilm, are now available online, searchable and downloadable at the touch of a button. Printed sources dating back to 1873 can now be found on Archive.org and HathiTrust, as well as Library of Congress archives. How extraordinary, then to find something like this:
It’s a promotional booklet for St. Joseph produced about 1901, formerly available in crumbling copies in locked cabinets of local reference rooms, now digitized for anyone to see. Or how about this, a local newspaper article from 1873 available (for a fee) from a newspaper archive site?
That’s amazing. Now that I’m all fired up about architectural research, I plan to do some more digging online, and expand sections of my thesis in future blog posts.
Just thought I’d share that with you.
I’ve been reminiscing about past good times during my time of isolation, viewing many photos from my years in China and from some of my travels. My favorite photos are of food; among the hundreds of images, I can remember the exact location and the taste of every dish as I savor it again in its afterimage. During the COVID-19 lockdown, there’s a lot of time – too much, even – to reflect on the world as it used to be, when people moved freely and wandering through crowded places didn’t pose untold dangers.
In many ways, however, the isolation suits me. I’m an introvert, and what others call “loneliness” is actually my preferred existence; you see, I enjoy my own company. In the midst of global uncertainty, I’m actually developing new skills as an online teacher, and as a designer of online study materials. My visual contact with students is limited to four hours a week of virtual Zoom classes. Zoom is a poor substitute for personal contact and moving through an actual classroom, monitoring students and viewing their work. However, it’s the primary tool for social contact in this new existence, even though I reach out to my students in other ways: by email, text messages, video lessons on YouTube, Brightspace (a virtual learning platform used by my college), Google Docs, and the occasional personal phone call.
My personal sheltering-in-place will last until at least August, when summer classes end, and some speculate that in-person classes won’t resume until early 2021. No one knows. Our country’s response to the pandemic has been criminally inept, endangering health and lives, and proving that our government’s real allegiance is to profits over people. I’m not naive enough to believe that we’ll emerge from the pandemic with a system of universal, single-payer health care, a more a equitable society with job and income guarantees, or greater democratization of our social and political processes, but it’s nice to envision such a country.
Winter this year hasn’t been too severe. I wouldn’t mind if it were, because I love this season. It’s nice to be living in a place that experiences the four seasons.
Life has settled to a continuous hum. I have my work, teaching two classes that I love, and I look forward to the opportunity to eventually add more teaching hours. I have my daily writing practice, in which I rotate my various fountain pens and inks in filling page after page with the best handwriting that I can produce. It’s not exactly a journal, but a form of meditative practice that leaves me feeling incredibly content. It’s the physical act, the movement of writing instrument across paper, that’s captivated me since childhood.
I’ve just finish a book by Anne Fadiman on the joys of reading, book collecting, and yes, becoming attached to writing instruments. In her case, it was a special 1940s Parker 51 pen given to her by a classmate at age 15, who had evidently stolen it from his father. The pen eventually was lost, and no instrument, even a duplicate pen of the same vintage, ever wrote as well or made her as happy as the original. I can understand that sense of irretrievable loss.
I’m currently deep into James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s one of the items on my personal bucket list. This is the year in which I’ll turn 65, and my thoughts naturally turn to my own mortality; for goodness’ sake, I’ll qualify for Medicare in a few months. Other items on this list, in no order of importance, include: trekking in the Himalaya, circumnavigating the globe, attending a wild sex orgy, and parachuting from an airplane (once). I’d also like to become really good at something; abilities such as playing the guitar, calligraphy, or becoming fluent in French come to mind. I secretly envied other kids while I was growing up who developed talents and did something really well. I never managed to develop a real proficiency at anything, except perhaps for academic writing (so guess what I teach now – academic writing). I felt inferior. Add to bucket list: no feeling of inferiority!
A relaxing evening draws to a close, and it’s time to put myself to bed with my current murder mystery (Ulysses is not bedtime reading). Perhaps this year I’ll be better at updating my blog, but that’s not a promise, since it’s not on the bucket list.