Sunday, September 23


Many friends make fun of me for my nerdy fascination with history. Some even accuse me of a morbid obsession with so many sad, sad stories. In the past year I've chosen to read about the plague, the sinking of a great war ship, The Worst Hard Time and so on (Come to think of it, my good friend Shandon has referred me to all of those books. She's become a far superior alternative to Oprah's bookclub!). Even when I vacation, inevitably the "best" part of my time off is learning more about remarkable stories of injustice and those who survive and thrive. When I went to London, my trip to the Cabinet War Rooms was by far the highlight of my trip. That means it was better than Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, The Tower of London and Abbey Road. When I visited Mt. Rushmore last year my spontaneous stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial ended up stomping Rushmore and Deadwood. The only thing that came close to beating it was the visit to Walnut Grove... another place made noteworthy by it's famous resident's survival story. And let's not forget my favorite road trip titled Diners & Disasters... that's right, another story of human suffering and survival. While most of my best friends share these interests, my "friend" Sarah Vowell expresses this drive best in her excellent Assassination Vacation. (Highly recommended.)

The fact is that I'm not drawn to morbidity, I swear. What I'm drawn to are stories of survival. I also admit to a certain obligation to bear witness to those who have lived through such terrible human suffering. If someone lives through something few others have to endure it's seems only fair to listen to their stories and do what we can to prevent them from happening again.

I spent the weekend reading a not-so-morbid book that's been hard to avoid this summer called Eat, Pray, Love. It's a wonderful story of a woman coming through a terrible divorce and how she overcomes anger and depression and learns to forgive and love again. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, decided to divide a year into visits to three places: Italy (Eat), India (Pray), and Indonesia (Love). She often focuses on ordinarily somber topics, especially those of spirituality, but writes with such humor that I found myself literally laughing out loud. She admits that going to an ashram in India to pray and meditate is a scary and freaky thing to most Westerners but she goes for it anyway. She meets some amazing characters along the way. They are a joy to get to know. There is no way I can do her story justice here but I can tell you it's a nice cross between Under the Tuscan Sun and your favorite Bill Bryson book but with gorgeous Italian men, great food, a Guru and an elderly medicine man thrown in. Check it out, I really think you'll like it.

I followed up that wonderfully uplifting read with a 2 1/2 hour viewing of part one of The War. (Yes, I'm going to talk about it again.) First of all, it's as good as I'd hoped. Secondly, I genuinely admire the honesty of those contributing to it's storytelling. Because there are still folks around who remember WWII, Ken Burns, the Director, decided to lose the historians and experts for this documentary and let the the real folks tell their stories. He relies wholly on first hand accounts of veterans and those who waited for loved ones to return to the home front to tell this story. It's the first time I've heard such honesty about WWII. You hear one veteren admit that he didn't enlist for any noble, patriotic reason. When explaining what motivates a young man to sign up for a war he says "It has nothing to do with patriotism or who the enemy is. It's the opportunity to be somebody more exciting than the kid you are." At other times we hear a veteran admit that yes, his unit killed POWs if a buddy had been killed that day. He says that most will deny doing such things but that he saw it and he admits "We were supposed to be the good guys, but it happened". It's all revelations we've suspected but never dared to ask. Also, this "Greatest Generation" fought a war, then came home and buried all of those dreadful memories into the darkest corners of their hearts and minds. We didn't know about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or other post war disorders back then. Veterens suffering from those traumas were lumped under the ignorant label of being "Shell Shocked". No wonder they didn't want to talk about it. If they opened their mouths they might never be able to stop it all from pouring out. It seems only now some of them are willing to speak about what they saw and what they did.

I'm ashamed to admit how little I know about this fairly recent war. I've already been enlightened on some details. For instance, I had no idea MacArthur had a dreadful beginning in WWII. Did you know he had 9 hours warning about the attack on Pearl Harbor but most of his planes were on the ground when the Japanese attacked? I had always been led to believe it was a complete surprise and that's why so many planes were on the ground. Who knew? I don't think I'd ever simply looked at a map to see how important the victories at Midway and Guadalcanal were to us. Also, we'll never even know how many people died in WWII but it's estimated that the number is somewhere between 50 to 60 million, and most were civilians. I don't think I'd ever heard those numbers before. Unbelievable.

I've only seen the first part The War but I'm sold. Mr. Burns (and not the one from the Simpsons) has really outdone himself this time. I think it's because he, and his team, have been able to interview so many survivors first hand. Of course, this is also why Baseball so great. Imagine if he'd had the chance to interview soldiers for The Civil War.

Ultimately, both my wonderful read, over this weekend, and the mesmerizing viewing this evening all come down to the same point: Listen... never forget to just listen.

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