“All The New Years”

The most hoopla seems to center around January first as the beginning of THE new year. However, there are many other times observed as the start of a new year. In fact, in the United States(then the British colonies), the new year was seen to begin on March 25 until the Julian calendar was switched to the Gregorian one. This throws genealogists off track, resulting in what is called “double dating”(no resemblance to what you may call to mind from your youth!) A person may show two different birth days.

The other new years that have frequented my life include the academic year, the fiscal year, the Jewish New Year and the Chinese New Year(upcoming is the Year of the Rat–make of it what you wish.) I still seem to orient my felt sense of chronology around the academic year with September finding me full of new ideas and plans. January just meant the start of a second semester, rather than any kind of fresh start.

Sadly the fiscal year is as confusing as the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar. The state, the federal government and my health insurance seem to use different fiscal years. Most confusing is my health insurance. While most people seem to have to use up their deductibles by December 31, I need to use mine by July 1.

I know that around the world there are many other new year definitions and celebrations. Please share any that you participate in.

At any rate, to celebrate the turn from 2019 to 2020—HAPPY NEW YEAR.

“Who’s Counted?”


(While the above chart can’t be read in the screen shot above, it will send you to the readable page at the US Census web site for a full display of the different ways the United States has classified its citizens in each census from 1790-2010. The categories for the 2020 census can also be found at the site.)

The United States has counted its citizens in a formal census every ten years from 1790 to the present census underway in 2020. After 75 years the data is made available for researchers to explore. One of the fascinating aspects of the book Passing Strange which I reviewed two posts ago was the various ways that each member in the Copeland/King family was designated in the census counts in which they appeared during the last half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.

The first census in 1790 counted only slaves, free white males and females and “all other free persons.” The questions on race varied widely over the next 200 years. In 1860 we find Indian, Chinese, Black/Mulatto and White. But by 1890 the categories have changed to Indian, Chinese/Japanese, White, and the “one drop obsessed” Black/Mulatto/Quadroon/ Octaroon and White. To be clear, an “octaroon” has one black great grandparent. By 1900 this focus has been eliminated and it is back to Indian, Chinese/Japanese, Black(Negro or of Negro descent) and White. So even in the census Ada’s children go from white to black and back to white.

From an administration claiming to abhor “identity politics” which it says is an obsession of the Democrats, the census categories for 2020 seem to give lie to the statement. A respondent can choose from a seemingly endless list of “races.” But for the first time “White” is no longer a monolithic designation. Now, these people are asked, as others have been for years, for their “origins.” Examples given include English, Italian, Lebanese and Egyptian. I have no idea who has decided which nationalities are “white” since Spaniards are considered “Hispanic,” not “white.”

I found it rewarding to think about race in this nation through the lens of the census questions. Clearly as a country we have never been clear what we mean by “racial” categories. But that has never stopped us from continuing the tallies!

“It’s Just What I Wanted!”


At Thanksgiving a friend of my daughter’s (he has a head, but I don’t post photos without permission of living people) and I had a discussion about red licorice. I said I loved Red Vines. He said that Twizzlers were unequaled.

We bought a five pound box of Twizzlers as a small gift for him for Christmas. On Christmas Eve he arrived at our house with a present for me. My daughter whipped out her camera since, unlike us, she knew what was about to happen. Sure enough, he had brought me a super size barrel of Red Vines. She quickly snapped the photo above(including his head!) and sent it to me.

The dentist probably is groaning, but two people got exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

“What a Tangled Web We Weave…”


As Sir Walter Scott once put it “what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” I thought of that when I finished the book pictured above, Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss. I checked it out of the library after seeing an intriguing reference to it in the book about Rudyard Kipling If that I wrote about a while back.

The book explores the double life of Clarence King, the first head of the United States Geological Survey, a scientist, an historian and a writer. King was white, of Puritan descent, privileged member of Newport, Rhode Island and member of New York elite men’s clubs. But in King’s other life, he maintained that he was an African-American railroad porter named James Todd. Under that name he met, married and had five children with Ada Copeland, a former slave from rural Georgia, living in an African-American section of New York City. Sandweiss meticulously researches both King and Copeland’s backgrounds. In King’s case much primary source material exists. For Copeland, Sandweiss has had to speculate from primary sources about women such as Copeland, but without specific source material about Copeland herself.

But clearly the fascinating aspect of the book is how it was possible for King to “pass” as black when he was to all appearances white. Here Sandweiss explains how King was able to exploit the particularly racist times of the end of the 19th century. At that time if a person had even one grandparent, and in some cases one great grandparent who was African American, the person was declared to be so also. While many “white” looking citizens with such backgrounds “passed” as white, this also allowed King to “pass” as African American.

King moved back and forth between both worlds without disclosing to either his friends or his wife his double life. Eventually the strain broke him. But Sandweiss draws back the curtain on an unexplored part of a famous man’s past. And she meticulously shows us the tangled lies King lived with in order to be with a woman it is clear he dearly loved.

“But I Don’t Feel 50..60..70..80!”


Yesterday at the gym a woman shared that she was turning 65 but complained “I don’t feel 65.” I pondered that comment for a while and wanted to respond in this post. Above the picture shows on the left my Great-Aunt Margaret and on the right my Great-Aunt Elizabeth, both in their mid eighties. They were my grandmother’s younger sisters. I remembered how much I loved them and enjoyed their personalities, different but equally witty.

What does it mean to say we don’t feel our age? In one sense it is foolish. We feel exactly the age that we are. I am 72, so however I feel is how it feels to be 72. But that disconnection is possible for two reasons I can think of. The first is that we have absorbed some cultural bias against aging. To us to feel our actual age would be to confronted with our preconception of how we would feel at that age. Of course as a child I had no way of knowing how I would feel in my mid eighties. But fortunately I had these women around and wasn’t worried about it. Many others absorbed the idea that by their late eighties they would be dull, stuck in the past and resistant to new ideas. Of course they don’t feel their age as they imagined it since they feel so alive.

The other reality is that we seem to remain essentially ourselves as we age. I am still very like the child, adolescent, young adult and middle-aged adult I once was. So in that sense I don’t feel any age. But when I acknowledge that I am in fact now old, I can embrace some of the gifts that I didn’t have when younger. I am slower to judge, quicker to forgive, less likely to bear a grudge, more likely to cut someone some slack. My edges have been worn down a little. My soft body reflects my softened personality. Still lots of prickly quirks which have been there forever, but I am different.

I do in fact feel 72.

“Kipling Redux”


When I was in seventh grade, one of the poems I memorized was If  by Rudyard Kipling. Among the lines I still remember are :”If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” and “And–which is more–you’ll be a Man , my son.” At the time it seemed perfectly natural that I, a girl, was memorizing a poem promising to make me into a Man.

Recently I finished the biography pictured above which narrates Kipling’s ten year residency in Vermont, in a town just under an hour north of us. It turns out that much of his most popular writing, including The Jungle Book and Just-So-Stories was penned there. I remember from my childhood a line from the Just-So-Stories: “the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River.” The stories of how animals came to be intrigued me.

In the intervening years I somehow absorbed the common notion that Kipling was a nasty imperialist who wrote shoddy books and was no longer of any literary interest. It turns out that I was not alone, and when Benfey, who wrote the book, told peers what he was exploring they warned him that a focus on Kipling would doom his academic career. My thoughts on that kind of dismissal of a writer will follow in another post. Needless to say, somehow I had absorbed the disdain without questioning its veracity.

Kipling, as are most of us, was infinitely more complex and intriguing than I could imagine. Even If seems not a call to manhood but rather a preview of the daunting requirements set out by society for men. The question for anyone is If it is possible to surmount all the challenges. And the use of Kipling to justify wars by the United States chilled me. The final chapter about the generals misusing his quotes in Viet Nam is worth the whole book.

In the end, Kipling has a sober last word:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

So much for the irrelevant imperialist!

“I’m Gonna Mail Myself To You”


One of my favorite silly songs, written by Woody Guthrie and sung by Pete Seeger is the song “Imma gonna mail myself to you.” Since I am unable to do that, I have to resort to mailing packages to my dear friends on the other side of the United States. I procrastinate around mailing things, knowing I will face long lines at the post office. Of course the longer I put off the task, the longer the lines will be at the post office. So I put it off even longer. Eventually I realize that the gifts will be arriving for Valentines Day instead of Christmas if I don’t act.

Amazingly I learned today(during yet another session of avoiding going to the actual post office) that I could buy postage, print my own labels, put them on regulation packaging and leave them on the front porch to be picked up by the local mail carrier. I had the packaging gathered in bulk the last time I was at the actual office. I had only to fill out forms, use my printer, and stick the labels to the boxes. Above is the fruit of my work, a group of items ready for tomorrow’s collection.

For all I know I could have been doing this for years instead of endlessly whining about waiting in line to mail gifts. Christmas seems to be the only time that the people in front of me in line are mailing 50 items, all various sizes, needing custom’s declarations and insurance. Their partners in crime seem to have only one package, but when they get to the front of the line they say “the rest are outside–I’ll be right back.” And in come 20 more boxes.

Can’t say that I will miss the experience!

“Dressed For The Occasion”


I have been setting out our Christmas decorations and came across this trio of little figurines, each about two inches high. (It is hard to get a sense of the size in this photo.) I inherited them from my grandmother and they represent three phases of my beloved grandfather’s life. On the left is his uniform from World War I. He never went overseas, but he did serve in the Army. In the middle is his academic outfit. He graduated from Harvard with a PhD.  and was a college professor throughout his life. On the right Grandpa is dressed in his liturgical robe. He never could decide between the church and academe, so he did both. He attended Harvard Divinity School and was an ordained Episcopal priest all his life.

I enjoy the smiles on each figurine. Grandpa was, as my favorite aunt used to say, “a hoot.” He loved limericks, jokes in bad taste(not terribly bad taste, just enough to annoy my proper grandmother,) “hillbilly” music and an afternoon nap. He was deaf in one ear from a mastoid infection in his childhood before antibiotics were available. The left side of his face was covered with a port wine birthmark. Neither issue ever mattered “a hill of beans” to him and so it didn’t bother us either.

When we were able to visit him at his summer place in Western New York he was always up for an adventure. He was the one who took me outside to marvel at Sputnik going by overhead. And he piled us all into the car when the town fire siren blared so we could “see what’s burning.”

I would love to hear from any readers about Christmas decorations which bring similar memories.

“Christmas Music”


Here I am playing Christmas songs for my two little sisters. My brother was off to the left, but I cropped him out keeping to my promise to not show living people without their permission. I played out of the Fireside Book of American Folksongs, a treasury of tunes including a handful for Christmas. We seem to be singing We Three Kings judging from the illustration.

Despite the totally non-religious household in which I was raised I learned numerous Christmas songs. My grade school music classes taught most of them, culminating with an annual Christmas pageant and songfest. No one in my 1950’s era questioned the overtly Christian atmosphere in the events. It was Christmas vacation and Christmas concert and Christmas play each year. I was pretty oblivious that there were any Jewish people in my neighborhood. When I grew older I learned that was probably a result of housing covenants preventing them. The first Jewish boy arrived in my class in sixth grade, but nothing changed around Christmas.

Now that I attend church regularly I can belt out Christmas carols without ever looking at the song sheets. It is ironic that my ability comes from secular settings, but that is how pervasive Christian culture was when I was a kid in Oregon.