Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Drive Through the State

We had never been to the western part of New York, so my daughter Alison and I were excited to make a visit to two historical sites, Matilda Joslyn Gage Home and Museum in Fayetteville and on to Seneca Falls. You read on this blog my introduction to Mrs. Gage via a show at the Rosendale. After that I contacted Sally Roesch Wagner, curator of the Gage Home and Museum, sent her a copy of That Was Tomorrow, and told her I wanted to visit her museum.

The Gage Museum is unique; set in a home, it is rife with information about the Underground Railroad, the birth of the women's suffrage organizations, later to be known as the Feminist Movement, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribe which Gage studied, worked with, and was admitted to as a member of the Wolf Clan. Gage lived from 1826 to 1898, was an early friend to Susan B. Anthony, and with Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the first exhaustive history of the suffrage movement in the United States. She ran the day-to-day operations of the National Women's Suffrage Association from its inception until 1889. Her opposition, as the movement began to take hold, to the admission of the Temperance-and-Fundamentalist factions into the organization, caused the others to vote her out of power and essentially to remove her from their ranks.

I am especially touched by unsung heroes and heroines, like Gage and education visionary Marietta Johnson, so Matilda has a special place in my heart.  Alison and I sat and talked with Sally for what may have been hours--and we could have gone on for many more had there been time. Sally told me she loved That Was Tomorrow, and I gave her a copy of The Fair Hope of Heaven. She is working on a biography of Matilda Joslyn Gage that I cannot wait to read.

The next day we drove on to Seneca Falls, missing the President by just a couple of days. This is the birthplace of the early women's organizations, and the town is bursting with Women's History museums, as well as the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is in a beautiful canal setting, with tree-lined and old houses, and the atmosphere of Americana all about. We learned a lot, talked about what we were learning, and stretched the drive home by driving back roads through hills and valleys and surprisingly magnificent rural scenery.

New York State has much to offer, and much of it is not what you would expect.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Memories of Woodstock

Woodstock, the Woodstock (meaning the music festival in Bethel) was 44 years ago this weekend. I wasn't there but it changed my life just as it did everybody's.

This is what I wrote on my blog "Finding Myself in Hoboken" a few years ago. Living so close to both Bethel and Woodstock, I find myself thinking of it again today.

I was older than those who flocked to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, NY, not far outside the village of Woodstock 40 years ago this weekend. Being just ahead of the baby boomers, I have been observing their behavior all my life, and here was the seminal event for them, a gathering of thousands in a peaceful, chaotic, scary, sexy, drug-enhanced weekend of the music and musicians that resonated to their very souls. I saw ads for the upcoming concert in the New York Times, and thought it seemed like an amazing event.

In those days I loved the protest rock music of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and the many like them. Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Joe Cocker were beyond me. I have been a square since before it was cool not to be and I've never quite shaken it. As to music, although there were many performers I would have love to have heard, the venue of a huge outdoor concert didn't appeal to me. (If you don't know what "square" means, that's pretty much it in a nutshell.) I was old enough to think about my creature comforts.

But thousands weren't. They were the boomers--the engaged, the sincere, the aching kids distraught at the prospect of the quicksand of Viet Nam and the injustices they saw all around them in the world of grownups--and they outnumbered my own silent generation by a long shot. Many of them went to Woodstock '69 as innocents just wanting to hear the music and be with their friends and significant others; many returned transformed into to young men and women who would take us all on. We on the outside read news reports and heard on the broadcast media and were impressed and relieved that, despite the lack of facilities or bedrooms, in spite of the rain, mobs, and mud, and even though there was some use of controlled substances, a mood of controlled peace and love prevailed.

That generation wore their hair longer than we did. All the girls bore the same hairstyle--long, parted in the middle and straight as a poker. Now their boyfriends did too, although some of them had curl in their hair and they would not iron it as the girls did. After Woodstock, this "look" was with us for a decade. It was a Woodstock look, a "hippie" look, a defiant look that clashed with any that was different. In a way, it was at least as conformist as the look it seemed to protest.

Woodstock was the crystallization of many things for this country. Because it was about music, primarily, and because much of the music was political, a generation was politicized as none had been before. Many who were not hippies before Woodstock became so after it. All of us had to take notice; the world was upside down and parents were forced to listen to their children. Those who hadn't been to Woodstock behaved as if they had. The upheavals and protests on college campuses took on a different tone, and life in these United States would not be the same.

Was it good? On balance, probably so. What really happened was that the rest of us had to accept the dominance of this generation of post-war babies, like it or not. Now that we've had enough time, I would say I like it. But I'm glad I'm still square.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reflections of Another Place

It's not that New Paltz doesn't occupy a unique niche in my consciousness. It's not that I'm getting old and everything reminds me of something from the past. It's not, I repeat not, that I'm hung up on the little town where I grew up, where "all the women were strong, all the men were good looking, and all the children were above average." The little town where I grew up--Fairhope, Alabama--was full of nice people, some of them smarter than others, but almost all were a little off-center.

After I left Fairhope for good I was so haunted by the way it used to be I began writing about it. I had written about it before on my blog "Finding Fair Hope," in which I often philosophied not only about the town but about the concept of combining "fair" and "hope" in one place. My first book of recollections was written in collaboration with Robert E. Bell, and entitled after his book The Butterfly Tree, which was a novel about some of the eccentrics he had run into in the town in the early 1950s. Our book Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree covered some of the same ground and included letters we had sent to one another. Bob never lost his fantasies about the town and I felt Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree was hostage to those fantasies, so I rewrote it and retitled it The Fair Hope of Heaven, alluding to the utopian vision of the founders of the town.

The Fairhope of my childhood was unpolished and bare, a haven for seekers of all kinds of dreams. It was attractively located on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, where sunsets were spectacular and by all rights dreams were destined to come true. Unfortunately, dreams so seldom do come true as we imagine them that many people over the years came to be disillusioned with Fairhope, and as they did so, they left, only to be replaced by a new crop of people with something else in mind entirely.

It is now highly decorated, highly focused, and highly productive. A horticulturist changes out flowers on every street corner on a regular basis, and establishments move in with alarming alacrity to capitalize on the town's tourist population. Events are frequent and well-organized, money is flowing in, and everybody claims to be ecstatically happy. This is something that would astound and probably not please the founders. I can only speak for myself. This is not an aspect of the new Fairhope that pleases me very much.

I miss the smattering of genuine eccentrics who used to walk around in odd clothes or with beards and/or bare feet. I miss the give-and-take of honest debate, the lifelong feuds and making-up. I miss the forums and the fire of conflict on philosophical subjects.

In New Paltz I see something similar to the Fairhope I recall. There is a contained smallness to the community, interesting offerings at the library and the local amateur theater. There is a scruffiness, an almost-bohemian savoir-faire.  Its resemblance to my childhood home is heartwarming to me. It has an authenticity that cannot be papered over by the influx of too much money and too little taste. I have fair hope for it.