Write About it Wednesday: The Berlin Wall

“Then the East banned the sale of rope and twine that was strong enough to hold a human being.”

The Berlin Wall is a staple of recent history. The day it came down was celebrated around the world and many families and friends were reunited for the first time in close to thirty years. I knew very little about the wall going into reading A Night Divided, so I decided to dig deeper. As I was reading, I started to develop opinions about our current wall endeavor in the United States. This isn’t some far off history.

The biggest thing that stood out for me was the Allied involvement with Stalin. I do not know a lot about him, but I know he wasn’t a great guy. I’m guessing the United States chose the lesser of the two evils when it came to the division of Germany. Although the division was meant to be temporary, it took 44 years to reunite. Also, NATO was created as a defense alliance in peacetime. The split of East and West Germany led to violent revolts and the loss of freedom for East Germans. Soviets ruled with an iron fist and shot many who tried to escape. The plan for the wall was kept secret until action was taken at 15 minutes past midnight on “Barbed Wire Sunday.” The Allies wanted negotiations instead of military intervention to solve the division. Meanwhile, methods of escape were formulated. Many chose to jump, climb (most dangerous), go through or under the wall or swim across the water. One couple even tried to use a hot air balloon to cross over. If you were unsuccessful or caught by the guards, you were likely shot. Would you risk your life for freedom?

Once the Cold War ended, talks to reunify began. There was a distinct move toward democracy. When the wall came down, families were reunited but the problems did not stop there. The German reunification agreement was 1,000 pages with many details still to be decided. The government needed to decide the fate of the Stasi (East German secret police) files, amnesty for spies on the Western side, restoration of property to original owners, and who was to pay for all the updates necessary in East Germany. The West felt burdened by the drain of the East. The Germans began selling off the wall, watchtowers, even the guard dogs to pay for restoration projects.

That this wall ever existed is beyond my realm of understanding. It screams misguided ignorance. Fear of a German take over led to a physical barrier but what did it achieve? No one thought, hey people might try to escape? A barrier is an obstacle to stop an enemy. Was the enemy intellectual freedom? The right to pass freely? This was a power play by a government that was encouraged by others including my own. No one stepped up to say this is wrong and offer a solution. We watched as families were torn apart, people were shot for trying to escape, and people were starved and brainwashed.  What will happen with a new wall?

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Write About it Wednesday: William Henry Harrison

“Sir, I wish you to understand the principles of the Government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”

William Henry Harrison was born a Virginia aristocrat, but was marketed to voters as a humble soldier in a cabin. He is best known for the Battle of Tippecanoe which didn’t result in a large military victory. Harrison screwed up the defenses resulting in high American casualties. This somehow landed him as a military hero in the eyes of most Americans, secondary only to Andrew Jackson at the time. I am still baffled this falls as a victory for Harrison since he led his men into a trap, most of the Indians escaped to wreak havoc on neighboring towns and resulted in Tecumseh allying with the British in Canada. His time spent in battle did lead to an advocacy for fellow veteran rights, a fight that would last his entire career. My main issue with Harrison is not only his misguided hero status but his blatant attempt to stay in the middle of the road with his opinions. The man said whatever needed to be said to the audience in front of him. It is hard to know what he truly believed on any major issue. He declared himself opposed to slavery but voted with Southerners when it came to prohibiting slavery in new territories. He presented himself as anti-bank but insisted that the Supreme Court had final say in these matters. Harrison did not believe in alcohol, but his campaign promoted drinking with souvenir whiskey bottles. At what point do you have to stop and think, why am I doing this? Did he only care about getting elected?

Most notably, he was the first presidential candidate to campaign which is where my interest lies. The voters of this period wanted change. They didn’t care who it was if it was different. Does this sound familiar? They were willing to pick Harrison even though his entire campaign platform was false. He never addressed real issues. His previous government posts were minimal, and he was reliant on the campaign strategies and his speeches to win over the voters. This was the first election that women were urged to take part in and voters turned out in record numbers to elect Harrison. Unfortunately, Harrison dies shortly after his inauguration. Some believe the length of the address in the cold weather brought on pneumonia, but others believe it was his constant campaigning and the pressure of his new position. His Vice President was never questioned on his beliefs because many assumed that he would never have the chance to make a difference. No one else would accept the position, and now Tyler found himself President. I am eager to begin his biography as well as several other key names that continue to pop up on my journey through the Presidents.

The perceptions of Harrison versus the true Harrison are drastic. I am reminded of the saying, “History repeats itself,” as I read about these voters compared to the recent election. Sometimes change is needed so badly that we allow people to be elected that seem improbable. What do we really know about presidential candidates? Most of our news is secondhand sources and we rarely meet the person. What change are we expecting when we only see what we want to see?

Write About it Wednesday: Rubio Murders, Brownsville, TX

“If the building stays behind, it will always be a landmark of three children who were never given an opportunity to live, to see the sun rise one more time, to see the moon.”

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts dives into the city of Brownsville, Texas and the repercussions of a horrendous murder of three children and what happens to the building where a crime of such nature is committed. This true crime novel is written in a unique way that focuses outside the murder itself and shows what is left behind. The author was asked to cover the potential demolition of the site of the murders but saw a story that went much deeper. This led to a six-year journey into the effects on the city in the aftermath, the larger significance of such crimes and an exploration of social issues such as poverty and mental illness. John Allen Rubio, with the aid of his common law wife, murdered his three children after voices told him to. These were not simple, point and shoot murders but were gruesome in nature. These children suffered at the hands of their parents. My first question is always: Could this have been prevented? Were there signs?

Rubio had a rough childhood. His mother would use his disability checks to pay their rent instead of providing therapy and assistance. He was pushed into prostitution and moved in with girlfriends to get away from the abuse. He had dreams of going into the military after high school but failed the aptitude tests required for entry. He became addicted to drugs and was homeless on and off. He could not hold down a steady job. Tillman spoke with past teachers, coaches, neighbors, shelters that Rubio visited about his childhood and disability. She left no stone unturned. She even corresponded with Rubio through letters and visits to the prison. He sent her pictures and school reports and painted a picture of a loving father, dedicated to his children. So, what went wrong?

The neighbors believe the building where the crimes were committed is cursed, it has a bad energy that passes to those that come near. Tillman made countless visits to document the changes occurring in and around the building, but didn’t truly grasp the murders until she walked into the Rubio apartment. Her description of not being able to wear the shoes she walked through the apartment in anymore shares how deeply involved she became while covering this crime. She spent six years of her life on this project and it shows. The research is impeccable. As she describes the building, the community, the neighbors, the reader can truly feel the effects of the murders and begin to question their views and opinions on major issues such as poverty, mental illness, the death penalty and many more. These are uncomfortable topics that she doesn’t skip over but instead brings to the forefront and makes you think. He murdered his children. He is a monster in the eyes of most because that is how the media portrays him. Who could kill their own children? He deserves to die. What if you had to look him in the eye? What if you knew his whole story? Would it change your mind…?

I have been lucky in my nonfiction choices lately. I would easily add this book to my favorites list, not only for the content but the writing is something to learn from. As always, I did further research and considered various aspects of the story, the city itself and the coverage of the crime. It made me reflect on issues that I’ve always felt my mind was made up on. Isn’t that the power of good writing?

Cheers to another year of reading, writing and continuing to fly through a million pages…

Write About it Wednesday: Front- Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign

“Every day on the campaign trail Trump’s actions test the definition of normal.”

This is quite possibly my favorite read of 2017. Unbelievable is just as the title states: Unbelievable. I watch the news. I follow campaign trails. I don’t get caught up in the day to day as often as I used to, but I like to know what is going on in the world around me. Katy Tur’s first-hand account of the recent presidential election had me questioning everything I know and remember. The book starts out with her receiving the Trump assignment (and some sex with a man she met on Tinder) and follows the campaign from the very beginning of Trump’s announcement of his candidacy to the final victory party. She pieces together her time on the road through memory, tweets, TV scripts and a compilation of notes that were outlined and then published for us to enjoy. Although Tur asks difficult questions of Trump, she claims no political affiliation to remain unbiased. I did feel she leaned toward Democratic views, but her book focuses on Trump and the evolution of campaign coverage. It truly was the CRAZIEST campaign in American history and she was there through it all.

What makes this book so great? I keep asking myself this question. I cannot pinpoint the exact reason that I loved it except to say that I took my reading further than words on the page. When an interview was mentioned, I found myself searching YouTube for the video. When a person is mentioned that I hadn’t heard of, I found them on Twitter. Tur’s story is down to Earth, easy to read and opens your eyes to the things that journalists deal with in our current media climate. Trump called her out on multiple occasions and violent threats were a real possibility from his supporters. Her interviews weren’t flawless, she didn’t claim to be perfect, she was real.

I think this book is a must read for anyone who enjoys politics, history or a laugh when it comes to presidential candidates. I will look at political coverage in a new light and have become an active Twitter follower of many news sites and organizations. I have been looking for a journalist from the Clinton campaign to come forward with a similar title, but no luck so far. As many of you know, I try to always read both sides of any story so if you have recommendations, please feel free to share!

Book Review Saturday: Lincoln in the Bardo

“That stillness seemed the most terrifying thing of all. He was on his own now. None could help or hinder him on the profound journey which, it seemed, had now begun.”

I did not know what to expect with this book. I checked it out from the library previously but did not get around to reading it until the Man Booker finalists were announced. I love historical fiction, but this falls into a category all its own. I have never read a book like this. Saunders wins the award for most creativity, but the book did fall flat in some regards for me. The research is impeccable and presented in a new way that grabbed my attention. The history is entwined in the story with direct accounts from people who witnessed the events. It shows the discrepancies in what is remembered and how history can be misconstrued.

With a cast of 166 narrators, the book can be overwhelming at first. Saunders grabs your attention right away with stories from characters in the mysterious Bardo. It reads as a ghost story with historical elements. You will laugh, blush and feel sadness for the President in what must have been a heart wrenching experience. I do not have children. I can’t imagine having to bury one while still maintaining leadership of an entire nation. The weight of the world on his shoulders and watching his every move.

Unfortunately, the afterlife consumes most of the novel. I was more interested in the historical elements which left me a bit disappointed. I was ready for the ending about 50 pages before it came. The people trapped in the afterlife provide insight into the struggles of self and humanity, but I wanted more of the historical side of Willie’s passing. I am curious where the inspiration for the ghosts originated because they are so diverse. Their stories are well developed, and every detail was captured. It begs the question; do we really know we are dead once we pass? If there is an in between, why must we wait? Saunders tackles these issues and more with a book that is worth the read. I believe it will stand the test of time and be read for many generations to come.

Write About it Wednesday: Andrew Jackson and Reading Goals

“His capacity to build upon his anti-aristocratic instincts, to learn from his mistakes, and still command the loyalty of others, is what finally defined his presidency.”

I made a goal last year to read a biography of each President. Five biographies a year seemed reasonable given the amount of time I spend reading for myself and the blog. October came around and I realized that I have yet to finish one this year. I set about to remedy the situation at my local library only to realize that the library consortium does not carry a biography on every President. Are you as outraged as I was? This seems like something people would want to learn about. Unfortunately, we have hit a digital age where students no longer “read the book” when Google holds all the answers. I for one need to hold a book in my hand, turn the pages and watch history unfold before me. Luckily, I have friends who share similar interests and allow me to book swap or my book budget for the year would be tanked (I mean, I do TRY to stick to it but let’s be honest…I need ALL the books).

Next up on my list was Andrew Jackson, the President that everyone loves to hate. Most known for his part in Indian removal, his courage and willingness to fight the aristocracy is often overlooked. He looked up to Thomas Jefferson and believed that American government was designed to undo artificial inequality. He served as a courier during the Revolution, worked as a public prosecutor in Tennessee, fought his first duel against a fellow lawyer and then became protégé to a territorial governor. He held several elected positions but his military ambition took precedence when he was awarded the post of Major General of the militia leading to his involvement with an expedition to Florida, aborted missions and retaliation against the Indians that are covered in most history classes. He loses his first election to John Quincy Adams and blames Henry Clay. This is a reoccurring theme throughout Jackson’s life, so I will be adding him to my reading list!

Jackson aimed to make merit and performance the basis for preferment in government. He suffered several scandals during his Presidency, and proved to lack judgment when it came to many men’s character. When he set out to accomplish something, he did it. He completely extinguished national debt, but the success was overshadowed by banking issues. He survived an assassination attempt and beat his assailant with his walking stick (I mean that is bad a, I don’t care who you are…). Jackson is responsible for making the presidency the center of action and opening positions in government to citizens outside of the elitist realm. He was a “President of the People” and while reading I noted several similarities to our current President. No one thought he would win, he surrounded himself with smart people, stood by what he said even if it contradicted his original statements, and led with a forceful style.  

How did it take the country so long to go to war over slavery? I had no idea that tensions were already so high during Jackson’s presidency. Jackson regarded the anti-slavery movement as a political threat to the nation and democracy. He respected the Missouri Compromise and managed to shift the focus allowing Van Buren to be elected. I have done my fair share of research on abolitionists but the battle over mail was a new one for me. Jackson proposed legislature to combat the messages sent to the South calling an end to slavery. It brought the slavery issue to the national front but the campaign fizzled quickly. Also, what other President can say he wiped out national debt? Does anyone remember those debt calculators that used to be all over Fox News and CNN? What happened to those? Did we just realize we will never pay it off or is it a distraction from the real news?

I must know more, therefore I read. I need to know what happened and not just what I’ve been told. There is history happening all around us. The more you know, the more you can contribute to society. Bring on Van Buren!

Write About it Wednesday: Carry A. Nation

“You put me in here a cub, but I will go out a roaring lion, and I will make all hell howl.”

I love podcasts. I subscribe to anything from history to crime and books in between. Two different podcasts covered Carry Nation and peaked my interest. Most would say that listening to two episodes about a woman would be thorough enough, but leave it to me to have more questions. I had never heard of Nation before listening: first to Stuff You Missed in History Class, and second Criminal with Phoebe Judge and I wanted to know more. I’m a sucker for strong female leaders.

Carry was a trouble maker in her youth until she fell ill and found God. She devoted her life to religion and saw fit to improve the lives of others with HER opinions. She was very reserved until a doctor who was boarding at her home stole a kiss in the dark. She soon found herself in love. Carry married Dr. Charles Gloyd, a well-known to everyone (except Carry) alcoholic, in her early 20’s that set her path in life. He was drunk at the ceremony and she never saw him sober again. Her father came to check on her a few months into the marriage and decided she had to return home immediately and leave her husband. Dr. Gloyd died 6 months after she left from complications due to alcohol abuse. No shock there. Carry was now responsible for her daughter and mother-in-law and needed a career. She became a teacher until she was fired for refusing to change the pronunciation of the short and long a. As a teacher myself, this excuse is so ridiculous that it’s comical. They just wanted her gone.

Her only plan was to marry. When she ran into David Nation she believed it was divine intervention. They were married a few weeks later and moved to Texas. This would be one of many moves as Nation faced disaster everywhere they attempted to settle. Their eventual move to Kansas started the famous saloon smashing and prohibition speeches. Carry noticed that several saloons were still fully operating under laws that forbade the sale of alcohol. She started with warnings but then began to throw bricks into saloons, carry a hatchet which she is well known for, and call out bar owners to close shop. It was her divine calling. She had visions that directed her behavior and many saloons were forced to close after Nation swept into town. Not everyone agreed with her behavior. In 1901, she was beaten by a group of women. She was jailed numerous times and during one of the stays, she began publishing a newsletter that eventually turned into a newspaper called “The Hatchet,” which supported prohibition and women’s rights.

I could talk about Carry Nation all night, but I’m going to save you time. Why in the world is this woman famous? If I decided to walk into a bar, tear it apart and break everything in sight and then tell everyone how they should be living…I’d be in jail for a very long time. Should you be honored for breaking the law because it doesn’t hold true to your own way of thinking? Her visions from God sound almost like Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her children in the bathtub because she had a vision. Believer or non-believer, do we get to use a vision as an out for committing crimes? My research left me with only one thought: Carry Nation was a stubborn, semi-crazy woman in a network of prohibitionists who blamed alcohol for all the problems in the world. I don’t see her as a leader, but as a woman who is just as bad as the people she is trying to stop.