The Shipwreck We Missed in History Class

The first time I heard Stuff You Missed In History Class, I knew I’d found some some kindred spirits in Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson. Each episode is like you drove a Subaru hundreds of miles through the Appalachians, to arrive at a college town just in time for a dinner party where everyone’s educated, and you sit between two engaging women with subtly different Southern accents, who tell you all about a topic in thirty minutes. All that, except you didn’t have to leave your Subaru.

The conversations – and there are hundreds of them – could be about Victoria Woodhull; about Copernicus; a concise history of air conditioning; the Lumiere Brothers (two episodes); Martin Luther’s wife; the woman who led the repeal of Prohibition; the Sepoy Rebellion; or anything else.


I mention them today because they recently told the harrowing story of the sinking of the S.S. Princess Sophia, which left Skagway, Alaska on October 23, 1918, around 10 pm, three hours later than it should have, going a lot faster than it should have, and you can either guess the rest or listen to them tell it.

Theirs is the only podcast I’ve ever truly binged on, more than once in fact, and what’s remarkable about it is how spare the story-tellers are at injecting any kind of first person. Sure, they’ll say “I think” here or there, or leave you with some impression about them while having an ironic chuckle, usually at the expense of some ill-informed or overly confident participant in their stories, but they graciously keep that to a minimum.

I guess I do know that one of them is a mother and the other an animal lover, and any mention of cruelty to animals or kids gets a “You know this pushes my buttons” comment. Otherwise they leave out any of the personal-voyage-of-discovery anecdotes that tend to flatten every story in the National Public Radio orbit. It’s like, you can’t hear about a murder-mystery without the narrator mentioning the nature of the epiphany she had while on her way from the coffee shop to the crime scene.

Others have written about them with more access than I have. They have lots of stories about women, a sympathetic appreciation for religious subjects, and a sense of wonder about entrepreneurs.

Stuff You Missed History Class has that rare balance, both a sense of humor and a reverence for its subjects. In those hundreds of hours you rarely hear any theoretical rhapsodizing, though Holly Frey has a knack for stepping back and reminding you of the context of the story. In the case of the S.S. Princess Sophia, she muses, the end of World War I and the world flu pandemic kept us from committing this utter disaster to public memory.

What a vision, by the way, to think of a ship full of the bodies of the dead pulled from the water, arriving at a Canadian port on November 11, while people are celebrating the just-announced Armistice that ended the war.

I, for one, would have been tempted to stop the story and say “Think about that! Now that’s irony.” The Stuff You Missed History Class ladies, however, almost always stick to the third person and keep answering the question every story-teller should: Then what happened?

No Direction Home

I’ve not posted in a while, but not because I’ve stopped working. On the contrary, forward! (“Forward,” by the way, is the official motto of Wisconsin, a state I’m inordinately fond of.)

For the record, I’m revising my upstate New York thriller, and writing and co-producing another short this summer. Enrico Cullen’s A Man Full of Days, a film I helped produce and wrote about in the past, is getting screened May 20th at the Anthology Film Archives here in New York.

I’ve also been cherishing a book by Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan In America. Wilentz has a personal connection to the subject – his father and uncle, Elias and Ted Wilentz, ran the 8th Street bookshop back when Dylan lived in Greenwich Village – but he doesn’t just shake his family tree for some connections that yield some Dylaniana. He places Dylan at the heart of a complex mid-century cultural circulatory system, with arterial connections both unsurprising and astonishing. There is Ginsberg’s influence, sure, though I wasn’t aware of the extent to which Ginsberg felt Dylan was the inheritor of the Beat mantle. There’s also Brecht, Aaron Copland, and Marcel Carné (?!).

Wilentz says Dylan loved seeing contemporary world cinema, films now regarded as the golden age of arthouse. He apparently liked Shoot the Piano Player but found Last Year at Marienbad impenetrable. My kind of cineaste! Among Wilentz’s many insights, he points out that most commentators, and Dylan himself, regard his period from 1967 to ’73 as “fallow” years. All he did was make John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, appear in a Sam Peckinpah film, publish a book of poems, and write a catalogue of songs that would later appear as Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes. To most people , these would be great and highly productive years!

"You can never step into the same river twice."

“You can never step into the same river twice.”

Like everyone else around me, it seems, I tuned into Serial late this past fall, the podcast produced by This American Life. It was so widely written about, I had nothing to say about it, but for me, like many others I’m sure, it was the gateway podcast. Now I’m in the habit of listening. The one I’ve really taken to, and gotten a few friends hooked on, is The History of Philosophy, Without Any Gaps, an exhaustive series of 18-or-so-minute-long talks about the major ideas in Greek, Arab, and Western philosophy. I never thought I’d find Heraclitus’ notion of one-ness so riveting during a train ride home at night.

The Jinx was good, but Going Clear, the HBO doc about Scientology, spoke to me more. During my end-of-winter getaway to DC I had dinner with some dear old friends I’d worked with at an environmental organization many years ago. The subject of how we felt the organization had taken advantage of our idealism and goodwill came up – it came up, in fact, because I brought it up. I was gratified to find agreement all around. Pores gushing open with white wine and garlic, one person asked, tongue half in cheek, “Did we join a cult?” Another took her at face value, and pointed out that our elders at the time were all of 26 years old themselves. The group’s worst sin, she felt, was the prohibition against quitting, which seems to me a fairly accurate indicator of the four letter C word: If you’re staying because you fear the social ostracism you’d suffer if you left, then there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a cult.

God bless screenwriter Paul Haggis for speaking out in Going Clear. Of all the first-hand testimonials, he’s the only contributor with a successful career and credential besides Former Scientologist. He has something to lose. I know a kind septuagenarian from Texas who met her husband of 50+ years in postwar Los Angeles, the place and time where Scientology started, but she was at a Christian evangelical camp. It sounds like an atmosphere teeming with spiritual seekers, and it only makes sense. World War Two boomtown after the boom, depressed economy, rootless Okies realizing there is no home to go back to, hundreds of miles from the nearest family members, PTSD and copious sunshine. Fertile ground to plant a loopy religion.

This spring I’m also doing something any norteamericano my age should have done 30 years ago. I’m taking Spanish 101.

Couldn't put it down.

Couldn’t put it down.

I’m a quick study with the structure of languages, being a classics minor in college. I can look at most romance languages and deduce what the subject is, what’s a real verb versus a participle, and what adjective agrees with what noun, but conversation is a totally different matter. I waited till my 30s to take a French class because I dreaded that awful feeling of being asked a question and not having the vocabulary to answer it. It’s like opening a toolbox and seeing no tools in it. Spanish of course comes up much more often in this hemisphere. On top of its practical applications, it is without doubt good for the mind and the soul to get reduced to not just a total dummy but a quaking mess every once in a while.

On my way to Spanish class every week, I’ve gotten in the habit of stopping for a beer at South, a bar in my neighborhood: Having a round first helps loosen the tongue-tied inhibitions. And the bartender at this joint on this night is Rosie Schaap, author of the memoir Drinking With Men.

Of all the narratives I’ve followed this blogless spring, Drinking With Men came easiest. Schaap tells the story of her life by breaking it down into eight or so periods of being a regular at various bars. She portrays bar life as a society with loosely codified rules, then decodes them for us. She’s an economist of the moral currencies of bars who estimates their values by recounting the times she either broke or followed the rules. Though it comes up plenty of times, the matter of gender isn’t the main focus of Drinking With Men. Bar life, as she describes it, is full of warmth and (as much as I hate the abused word) community.