Tag Archives: History

Thirsty for history? Pore over this book

If you don’t like history or minutiae, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

But if you like sweeping analysis, interesting historical detail right down to flavors, and a clever look at where culture, politics and technology intersect, then you ought to pick up A History of the World in 6 Glasses and peruse it while quaffing a beer, sipping a whiskey cocktail or lingering over a nice cup of tea.

Author Tom Standage tells the story of agriculture, civilization and globalization through the lens of what we humans were drinking in six eras:

  • Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt
  • Wine in Greece and Rome
  • Spirits in the Colonial Period
  • Coffee in the Age of Reason
  • Tea and the British Empire
  • Coca-Cola and the Rise of America

I picked up this book at the behest of my aunt, who chose it for our family book club discussion. Though some of my relatives found it was too detailed and would be better as a television documentary, I enjoyed it.

This is not a book about fine wine or how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Instead, Standage persuades readers that each of the six beverages literally changed the world by bringing people together—as wine did in Roman households or Coca-Cola did in globalization—or driving them apart—as in the role tea played in the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. “Everyone has to drink,” Standage writes, “Each drink tells us about the priorities of the people who drank them: who drank what, and where they got it from, tells you a lot about the structure of society.”

I knew Ancients drank beer because potable water was sometimes difficult to get, but I learned that’s true also of wine, whiskey and even coffee and tea (to make coffee and tea, the water has to be boiled, which improves germy water immensely).

I also learned the role rum played in the slave trade. Enjoying a fruity rum drink now feels vaguely wrong to me. The chapter on European coffeehouses in the seventeenth century functioning as the internet by offering news, gossip, networking and lively discussions was also fascinating.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses, isn’t exactly a beach read, but it is an easy read considering all the ground it covers (where else could you find the history of the world in 265 pages?). It is a good choice for a book club (at least, if members are amenable to reading history) because everyone can chat about their takeaways over their favorite drink. Cheers!

A Fire Sparkling tells sweeping tale of love and family secrets

Well-researched and descriptive details bring to life a love story in A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean.

Actually, the story showcases more than one love story, but that’s part of the magic of the plot. MacLean weaves together historical fiction, romance and mystery in A Fire Sparkling, and it’s successful.

I picked up MacLean’s book only because it was a book club pick. As I began reading, I noticed most of her other titles were romance novels, and I was instantly skeptical. I didn’t expect to like A Fire Sparkling as much as I did, but MacLean is so successful in writing about a small piece of World War II that it felt a bit like reading memoir, my favorite genre.

The story opens with modern-day Gillian Gibbons fleeing to her family home after a lover’s betrayal. There, she and her father find an incriminating photo of her grandmother, and the multigenerational story shifts to Grandma’s devastating, harrowing and exciting experiences in England before and during World War II.

The title comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs; being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes …,” and after reading descriptions of the Blitz by Germany in the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, you understand the references to smoke and fire.

My only quibble with the story is that Grandma appears more than once to be a damsel in distress, rescued by a handsome, courageous man with whom she falls in love. This is a romance novel trope, in my opinion, but other members of the book club pointed out the situations were an accurate reflection of the times.

The story is satisfying, easy to read and a page-turner. If you appreciate books about that era, you might enjoy this one. There’s death, of course, and mayhem, and Adolf Hitler lurks on the edges, as in all World War II novels, but MacLean focuses on the characters and emotions wrought by war in a palatable way.

Book about Texas is best appreciated for the journey, not the destination

I invested in God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State when it came out 2018 in hardcover because I intuited that I might settle in Texas at some point. I thought I ought to learn something about the state.

undefinedLawrence Wright’s book certainly taught me something, that Texas is a state of contradictions. It’s big and it’s intimate. It’s conservative and it’s liberal. It’s rich and it’s poor. Its people value ancient natural resources and space-age technology, religion and themselves, independence but also community. Whatever you might want in lifestyle or geography, you can probably find in Texas.

According to the acknowledgments, the book came to be when Wright’s editor at The New Yorker asked him to “explain Texas,” exactly what a transplant needs. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Wright covers a lot of ground in this story, a little bit memoir and a lot of history and politics. He is clearly left-leaning, but his book paints a balanced picture of a state known for both Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

The writing, as you would expect from such an esteemed correspondent, is lovely, but not in love with itself. Here’s how Wright describes Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger:

It has a big hole near the bridge, worn through by Willie’s pinky and ring fingers. Pick marks have scored the face paper thin. The entire instrument feels sheer, the frets worn down to nearly nothing. It’s been signed many times—Leon Russell used a pocketknife—but the signatures are fading into the patina. If you saw this guitar at a garage sale, you would walk on by.

Wright is a keen observer who understands what makes Texas distinctive in so many ways. He devotes whole chapters to the state’s unique politics (“The Cradle of Presidents” and “Sausage Makers”), music (“The City of the Violet Crown”) and geography the defines it (“Borderlands”). Ever been to Buc-ee’s? “It is the largest convenience store in the world—a category of achievement that only Texas would aspire to,” he writes, and then describes in the sort of detail an extraterrestrial visitor would appreciate and understand.

If I have a problem with this book, it’s that it lacks a narrative, or at least one I could follow. This is a book about place, not person. I began reading it in late 2018 and it wasn’t absorbing enough to keep my attention. It wasn’t until I bought property in Texas that I returned to it and finally finished it. It’s good in pieces, just not compelling as a whole. But whether you aspire to be a Texan or not, it’s a good little piece about a mighty big state.

Nonsense and honesty


Hello! My name is Felix. I’d love for you to take your picture with me, but please don’t touch my head or hands. I’m very old … and I volunteered for this.”

This is Felix. His skin is smooth for how old it is, and his hair! I only wish I could have run my fingers through it! That dreamy look makes you believe in the permanence of Constitution again. We, the people and all that. Felix even has a hashtag: #prezwax

I don’t remember the details of his resume anymore, but I met Felix a couple of years ago at the National Presidential Wax Museum in Keystone, South Dakota (just a stone’s throw from Mount Rushmore), and today, as the snow comes down everlastingly, this picture strikes me as funny. It reminds me of warmer days. And I’m using it as a segue to commemorating Presidents’ Day, which we Americans celebrated earlier this week.

Ah, yes, February’s other holiday.

Abraham Lincoln would have been 210 last week, and if he’d stuck around to see what he’d wrought, George Washington would be 287 on Friday.

Isn’t it interesting that the two presidents we celebrate on Presidents’ Day each have legends of honesty associated with them. With Washington, it’s the cherry tree myth, how he confessed to his father that “I cannot tell a lie … I cut it down with my hatchet.” And, of course with Lincoln, he was known as Honest Abe.

With these two great men on my mind, I give you two great quotes:

“A sensible woman can never be happy with a fool.”

~ George Washington

Can we assume Martha wasn’t just a pretty face then? Such handsome jowls, hers. And speaking of pretty faces, this:

“There are no bad pictures; that’s just how your face looks sometimes.”

~ Abraham Lincoln

This explains a lot about all the selfies I delete.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Mount Rushmore

This is how Mount Rushmore looks if you don’t pay $18 to park.

12 days of buffalo

After spending 12 days in Yellowstone National Park earlier this month and reading what explorers, park superintendents and authors throughout history have had to say in roadside signs and interpretive exhibits, I’m fresh out of superlatives for the place.

If you’ve never visited Yellowstone, you simply must put it on your bucket list. There’s no place like it on earth.

So instead of trying to describe it or show it to you in pictures which simply cannot do justice to real life, I’ll tell you about our visit through a series of buffalo pictures. Though hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, North America’s biggest mammal made a rebound and is literally everywhere in and around Yellowstone.

buffalo may 29

One: When we arrived in the late afternoon of Memorial Day at one of the KOA Kampgrounds west of West Yellowstone, Montana, we were greeted by this colorful statue, part of a public art installation by the Buffalo Roam Art Project.

The late Joe Halko, a Montana artist and sculptor, created the buffalo model from which a mold was developed and rendered copies in fiberglass by none other than Fiberstock Inc. of, wait for it, Buffalo, Minnesota (interesting trivia: I was born 50 years ago in Buffalo, Minnesota). Artists from four neighboring states painted 26 buffalo and 10 calves, and a dozen painted buffalo still exist in various locations around West Yellowstone.

This particular buffalo, painted by Jan Johansen, is titled “Now and Then” and features images of camping through history. “My buffalo celebrates America’s love of nature and the outdoors,” writes the aritst. “With the invention of the automobile, camping boomed. Nowhere was this more evident than in Yellowstone National Park.”

buffalo statue

Two: In order to get to Yellowstone National Park, we drove through West Yellowstone every morning, and this imposing life-size bronze statue by Mike Flanagan greeted us at the city entrance.


buffalo close

Three: More than once, we observed buffalo munching on grass just feet from the roadway. This majestic beast was eating breakfast in Hayden Valley, a fairly common sight if you’re driving around inside the park early in the morning or late in the day.

buffalo may 31

Four: One rainy day, we decided to skip the park and pay a visit to the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone. It’s a nice little museum, if a little dingy, about Yellowstone’s history. Another painted buffalo from the Buffalo Roam Art Project stands outside the museum, and there’s a second one inside.

buffalo june 1

Five: Another drive through the park, another herd of buffalo (can you spy the calf? Most buffalo calves are born in April and May, and their reddish fur makes them stick out). In this shot, you can see the ground steaming—that’s not that buffalo’s breath. Of course, if you know anything about Yellowstone besides its large mammals, you know it is home to the largest concentration of thermal features on earth. The ground steams. The water steams. Geysers of steaming water shoot out of random holes. Steaming water pours over muddy steps of limestone. It’s a wild and beautiful place.

buffalo june 2

Six: Painters and bronze sculptors aren’t the only artists who’ve drawn inspiration from the bison. A skilled wood carver exhibits works at Send It Home yarn & quilt shop, 30 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone. You can also find all kinds of Western-themed and Montana-inspired quilt fabric and craft projects to take home and remind you of all things Yellowstone.


buffalo june 4

Seven: One day, we drove from West Yellowstone through Yellowstone park to Grand Teton National Park. If you have the time, I highly recommend this diversion. We headed back northish when we reached Jackson, Wyoming and chose to take the Teton Pass back through Idaho and Montana. The Teton mountain range is impressive, even from the back side in cities like Driggs, Idaho, where we saw this buffalo guarding main street.

buffalo june 5

Eight: We woke up at 4:30 a.m. one day in order to drive the suggested route for Wildlife Day in the Yellowstone Association’s Yellowstone In A Day book. That route took us through the “Serengeti of North America” in Yellowstone’s northern range from Mammoth Hot Springs nearly to Cooke City, Montana. The book recommended leaving from Mammoth by dawn, but the early alarm was worth it. This was our view while we enjoyed yogurt and granola in the cab of the truck. We saw nearly 1,000 head of buffalo before 9 a.m. (I’m not exaggerating), and almost none on the way home. We also saw a number of elk, mule deer and pronghorn. We hoped to see an elusive bear or wolf, but no. On other days, we spied moose, a coyote and eagles. We avoided a lot of traffic by getting into the park so early and did so another day, too.

buffalo taco salad

Nine: Didn’t expect this shot, did you? We enjoyed bison tacos, mine in the form of a taco salad on one evening. Bison meat is readily available in the small supermarkets in West Yellowstone and elsewhere. Try it! You’ll like it!


buffalo june 7

Ten: One of the perks of joining Yellowstone Forever is a tchotchke in the form of a hat or a “plush toy” (I called it a “stuffed buffalo,” and I was quickly corrected—see Image 12 for that).

Yellowstone Forever is the club for supporters committed to visitor education and park preservation. For a $35 charitable contribution, I got a 15 percent discount on two books I found at one of the park stores, both of which I highly recommend: Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foodlhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey and Yellowstone in a Day, the field guide for tourists on a tight schedule I mentioned in Image 8).

My miniature schnauzer enjoyed playing with her miniature buffalo. The dog won.

buffalo june 8

Eleven: The buffalo has a high profile advertisers have seized upon. More than one motel and restaurant in West Yellowstone have buffalo or an allusion to buffalo in their names. After a day of observing wild life and taking in the thermal features in Yellowstone park, we enjoyed spicy bloody Marys and juicy burgers at the Buffalo Bar in West Yellowstone (which is also a casino and sells Ross Taylor Original items). Ross Taylor makes things like golf putters and canes from buffalo pizzles—not sure that that is? Look it up). My Beloved invested in one of Ross Taylor’s unique shoe horns.

buffalo june 9

Twelve: This stuffed buffalo is on display at the Buffalo Bar, and it’s probably the safest way to see one up close. Live bison are wild animals and can be dangerous, if you don’t know. Three people have been killed in Yellowstone when they got too close to angry and/or unpredictable bulls.

buffalo in front of hotel

A Baker’s Dozen: Why stop at 12 when I have 13 memorable buffalo images of our trip? I almost missed this lonesome figure when we were driving by the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. He was wallowing in a dust bowl one morning, so perfectly still and centered between the hotel and the lake when we drove by that he could have been a statue. Truly a majestic sight.

Tomorrow: Top 5 tips for seeing Yellowstone National Park

The glorious picture of Yosemite

Yosemite valley

Look closely and you can see Bridalveil Fall, and behind it Half Dome


“Pursuing my lonely way down the valley, I turned again and again to gaze on the glorious picture, throwing up my arms to inclose it as in a frame. After long ages of growth in the darkness beneath the glaciers, through sunshine and storms, it seems now to be ready and waiting for the elected artists, like yellow wheat for the reaper; and I could not help wishing that I were that artist. I had to be content, however, to take it into my soul.”

These words are naturalist John Muir’s, but if I were more eloquent, they could have been mine. The vistas at Yosemite National Park seem to prove the existence of God. I couldn’t preserve it, especially with my little phone camera, so I had to be content to take it into my soul.

We visited Yosemite earlier this year for one reason: El Capitan. It’s the sheer rock face on the left in the valley view above, and it was made famous (to me anyway) in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Trekkers: Can’t live with ’em, can’t understand ’em.

Shake your head if you must.

el capitan

El Capitan is nothing if not imposing. That’s our little truck there at the bottom right.

The scene to which I’m referring occurs early in the movie. Capt. Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Spock are camping at Yosemite. Having been there now, I can imagine Star Fleet officers stationed at headquarters in the San Francisco area taking shore leave at nearby Yosemite. Very little else about the 1989 movie makes any sense, but this does.

While free-climbing El Capitan (which is rich with irony—a Star Fleet captain climbing El Capitan), Kirk loses his grip and falls (foreshadowing?). Spock, who is hovering nearby wearing jet-powered boots, catches him before he smashes at the bottom.

It’s a great scene that puts one of Earth’s natural wonders in the spotlight. So when I had the opportunity, I had to see it myself. “Because it’s there!” (That’s Kirk’s line in the movie for those of you who don’t memorize such trivia).

As you might expect, seeing Yosemite in person is nothing like seeing it in a movie. Set in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s remote, but it was worth the trip. It’s a beautiful and wild place, and surprisingly busy in mid-April. I can’t imagine how crazy it must be there in July.


Even crowded, the meadow near the foot of El Capitan in the Merced River valley is wide open and relatively quiet. This is a good place to take in the majesty around you. Unless you intend to free-climb El Capitan. Good luck to you.

For a review of The Wild Muir, a book of Muir’s adventures stories from which the opening quote is taken, check out my author blog.

Spirituality quest on the banks of the great Columbia River

Columbia River Gorge museum

Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum

Spiritual thoughts on a Sunday. Not to imply spiritual thoughts should be limited to Sundays …

spiritual quest

I found this deep-thinking museum label at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, a grand building on the Columbia River near Stevenson in Washington State filled with historical information about the residents through time of the Columbia River Gorge (and some interesting tidbits about explorers Lewis and Clark and about the Oregon Trail).

The label above is a description accompanying the Spiritual Quest Gallery on the top floor of the museum where the Don Brown Rosary Collection, the world’s largest of its kind, finds its home. Brown was a resident of Skamania County, Washington, in the early part of the 20th century. Nearly 4,000 rosaries are displayed along with other religious artifacts identified with Pacific Northwest history. It’s a bit like walking through a bead store until you realize every single string of beads is a rosary.

Here’s the biggest rosary on display.

large rosary

And here’s another set of rosaries that are probably apt for Memorial Day weekend.

patriotic rosaries

I don’t know what drove Don Brown to make his life’s work about collecting rosaries. I’ve read that collections of anything are manifestations of something one was lacking in a past life. Maybe Don Brown should have prayed more in a past life. One of the lines in the museum display card attempts to define it: “Deep within each person is a spiritual longing. It is a thirst unquenched, a hunger unfulfilled, a vision only partly seen.”

Cool and collected, Titanic exhibit impresses

I was Mrs. Peacock.

Not the Mrs. Peacock who was strangled with the rope in the library in a game of Clue, the real Mrs. Peacock was drowned with a child in her arms on the Titanic.

“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” uses a clever method to invest the viewer. Each ticket to the exhibition is a copy of a real passenger ticket on the doomed steamship.

Going in, I knew the odds were long that I would survive, as Mrs. Benjamin Peacock was traveling in third class. She, her 3-year-old daughter and 9-month-old son were leaving England to meet her husband in Elizabeth, New Jersey. A mechanical engineer, he had immigrated the year before. Mrs. Peacock, pregnant at the time, had fallen ill when they were due to sail, so she stayed behind and booked passage months later on the Titanic.

Benjamin Peacock never saw his wife and daughter again, and he never met his son. They all drowned when the unsinkable ship hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912.

The exhibition at the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas features actual objects — dishes, luggage, floor tiles — fished out of the sea, refurbished and displayed in all their eerie glory. One enormous multi-ton hunk of the ship fills one room.

Observers employ all their senses. One reads the history. Recordings whisper and shout the stories of the doomed. One room is dark and cold, like it was that night on the deck of the ship. Actual samples of a perfumer on the boat are displayed in such a way as to be able to inhale their scent.

As I completed my journey through the artifacts, I was sad, yes, because Mrs. Peacock, her children and 1,500 other souls perished, but I was enriched because I was impressed with the effort required to rescue and display the artifacts.

“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” is worth the time and money away from the gaming tables because unlike so much else in Las Vegas, it’s real. The victims are not forgotten.



This monument of classical Greek columns, supporting nothing but the sky, rises out of nowhere in the middle of the Florida Everglades as a tribute to Barron Collier, a New York City advertising mogul and real estate developer.

Collier, namesake of the county in which this monument stands, moved into Southwest Florida a century ago and built the Tamiami Trail, an alligator-infested highway that crosses the expansive wetlands that comprise the southern half of the state.

The iconic, perfectly symmetrical architecture is juxtaposed with the surrounding wilderness of mangroves, palm trees and saw grass. I caught a glimpse of it today when I attended the Jammin’ in the Hammock Bluegrass Festival.

A hammock, in ecological terms as it is surely defined here, is a stand of hardwood trees in the midst of a wetlands. Bluegrass and the music for which it is named, as defined here, is native to Kentucky and Appalachia.

All these things — a New York real estate mogul, Greek architecture, bluegrass music and the Everglades — came together under sunny skies this afternoon.

The seasons come, the seasons go.
We get a little sunshine, rain and snow.
Just a way that it was planned to be.

Is the end of the world upon us? I take comfort in small things

Is it possible universal fears of Armageddon change over time?

I’ve been traveling the past few days and taking the opportunity to visit with friends and acquaintances with whom I don’t get to associate on a regular basis.

Strangely, after chatting about kids and jobs, many discussions have veered into talk of doomsday.

(Maybe it’s me that’s obsessed with doomsday, not my friends, so this phenomena might not be strange as much as I’m making fertile ground for such talk. Let’s just state, for the record, that I believe change is constant and doomsday in some form is not only possible but inevitable. Remember the Roman Empire? They were once the world’s superpower and look where they are now — the stuff of Hollywood. Even their numbering system has been reduced to trivia questions. What is D + MIV?)

In any case, the theories on the end of the world or, at least, the end of America that I’ve heard in the past few days include: currency devaluation, governmental debt, political discord, the end of Big Oil, zombies (go figure, he’s a fan of “Walking Dead”) and yeti terrorism.

OK, I made that last one up. My nephews are obsessed with Big Foot so they’re the only ones terrorized by tall, hairy cyphers.

No one I’ve chatted with is afraid of a worldwide contagion (unless it causes zombie-ness) but let’s add that to contemporary doomsday fears.

Interestingly, I ran across a relevant program during a visit yesterday to the local historical society. The typewritten program was for a high school symposium in 1970 titled “Society Today … Tomorrow?”

Note the ominous addition of the question mark at the end.

HS 10

Among the discussion groups outlined in the program was “The People Crisis: After 200,000,000 … What?”

At first, I thought 200 million was a reference to the worldwide population. In fact, 3.7 billion human beings populated the earth in 1970.

Instead, the discussion group pondering our future in 1970 was discussing the U.S. population which had just crossed the arbitrary “200 million” mark in 1968, and China has just begun “encouraging” its citizens to have only two children per family.

My mother said she remembers this was a hot topic in schools during that time frame (she was a high school teacher in the ’60s and distinctly recalls students coming to class braless, gasp, so overpopulation wasn’t the only hot topic back then). In fact, when she became unexpectedly pregnant with my brother (her third child), she felt guilty for contributing to this serious societal concern.

Overpopulation is less “hot” today — shall we say lukewarm? One of the conversations I was party to this week centered around the continuing wisdom of investing in farmland which can be used to grow food for the world’s growing population. Google “is the United States overpopulated?” and the top two returns in order are “The United States is already overpopulated” and “Overpopulation is NOT the problem.” (“The United States is already overpopulated” brings you to the webpage for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, so consider the source.)

For the record, 313 million people live in the United States today. I would side with the “overpopulation is NOT the problem” camp if I had to choose.

Ultimately, that program from the symposium in 1970 comforts me. If overpopulation was the end-du-jour of the world and now ranks a distant 10 or 12, then surely today’s Washington gridlock will someday (soon) be the stuff of historical documents.

Unless the U.S. debt gets us first.