Every place on earth has its stories. Since I spend too much of my life ruminating about politics, Washington, D.C. — even in the close and clustered heat of August — speaks to me loudly. A little too loudly.

1) The Supremes. You can’t pass by the U.S. Supreme Court and ignore it, even if you want to. It looms majestically, demanding your attention. This is the court that decided Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, changing the course of our history.
US Supreme Court Building

More recently, it ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that a corporation didn’t have to support contraception for its employees. (Contraception! Will you please remind me which century we’re living in?)

This has produced my current dilemma: How do I boycott Hobby Lobby when I never went there in the first place?

2) The Do-Almost Nothing Congress. And here’s the Capitol — gleaming and pristine. Congress has already adjourned for its lengthy summer break after doing precisely nothing for months.


( http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=770)


I start to think about Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, wit, and lifetime curmudgeon. When told the notoriously silent Calvin Coolidge had died, she asked, “How could they tell?”

Similarly, Congress. They’re on vacation, we hear.

Oh, right! But how can we tell?

3) Survivance, If You Say So. Then, there’s the National Museum of the American Indian, an imposing collection of artifacts, maps, photographs, sounds, and stories of the native peoples in North and South America.

Here, I learn about the term “survivance” — a new word to me. According to Wikipedia, Anishinaabe cultural theorist Gerald Vizenor first applied the term to Native American studies. Survivance, he wrote, “is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.” It’s an interesting term for a people whose numbers have plummeted and whose way of life has been destroyed.

I wander around the exhibits, which strike me as well-meaning, but scattered. How do you tell the stories of so many lost civilizations, so many millions of unknown people who lived for millennia from the farthest reaches of South America to the North American tundra? I know, I know — that’s always the dilemma of a museum or any kind of monument. Do you go ahead and build it with its inevitable shortcomings or do you not try at all?

For me, it’s more personal. “I’m part Indian,” I told the man who searched my purse as I came in. He looked deeply bored; I couldn’t tell whether it was the contents of my purse or my confession. “Go on in,” he said.

My great-grandfather, Benjamin Crooks Burney, who was born on the Trail of Tears. My great-grandfather, Benjamin Crooks Burney, who was born on the Trail of Tears.


Maybe my frustration with the museum has to do with my inability to find anything connected to my own tribe, the Chickasaws. The Chickasaws were one of the Five Civilized Tribes. who were driven from the Southeastern United States to Oklahoma Territory in the mid-19th century. More than half of them died along the way, so many that the journey was called the Trail of Tears.

The tribes were called “civilized” since they mimicked the dominant Anglo culture’s dress and agrarian habits. Some of them also owned slaves. To me, there’s such a poignance to their desire to blend in and join the dominant culture — and a sense of horror they were also slave owners (so much for pure victimhood).

But whose heritage isn’t mixed and who doesn’t carry blood on their hands? I am in our nation’s capital, where millions of dollars have been spent on a museum to honor the country’s native peoples. But you never see the word “genocide” in that museum — even though you can certainly infer it — and it’s located in a city whose premier professional sports team is called the Redskins.

Survivance, you have to think, isn’t any prettier than it is pure. I am 25% American Indian and 100% confused.

4) Why Are We Here? Don’t complain to me about the tourists in D.C., since I’m one of them. Like a few other places I’ve visited, I find myself fascinated by the crowds themselves –their many languages and cultures, their varied dress, their rainbow of skin shades.

What have they come here looking for? Are they looking for the brilliant promise of this country’s experiment in democracy, wondering how it has come to such a bitter impasse at the nearby Capitol? Or, do they reject the idea of even the noble beginnings of this nation, since it condoned slavery and genocide early on? Are they profoundly disappointed by what we’ve come to?

Disappointed? Come to think of it, anybody over the age of 12 with a working brain has been repeatedly disappointed by something. I think I’d better get a grip and stop whining. Move on!

5. Faces of American History. I could take up residence in the National Portrait Gallery and stay there forever. Here are the faces and personalities that formed the new world — making the past as personal as a good biography or family tree.

Beside the portraits are descriptions of the persons, their lives, why they were significant. This is how history comes alive to me — in the vivid details of individual lives. Who knew that Samuel Morse was an artist, with no training in science, when he became obsessed with the idea of sending messages over a wire? Or what about Whitman, who despised flattering portraits as he aged, insisting on seeing himself as he really was? Or that Richard Nixon could look almost warm and convivial when painted by Norman Rockwell? And who knew that Raymond Chandler was the product of an English boarding school?

I am standing in the presidential room, looking dutifully at Herbert Hoover’s portrait. A woman, man, and teenage girl step up behind me.

“Herbert Hoover — ” the woman begins.

“Invented the vacuum cleaner,” the man says.

“No!” she says loudly. “He was the head of the FBI!”

The kid says nothing, staring at the portrait. I just hope to God she isn’t being home-schooled.

6) So Maybe Surrender is Good for the Soul. And here’s another personal story from the National Portrait Gallery: After Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, another Confederate general fighting farther South, Joe Johnston, surrendered to his Yankee counterpart, William Tecumseh Sherman. (Yes, that Sherman, whose march to the sea was the stuff of generations of Southern nightmares and enduring bitterness.)

Grant had been generous during Lee’s surrender, allowing the Confederate soldiers to keep their sidearms and horses. Sherman’s terms to Johnston were even more generous — so much so that Washington, D.C. ultimately rejected them. (All of which makes me wonder: Here were two relentless, implacable  warriors — Grant and Sherman — who were uncommonly magnanimous to the defeated army they had been fighting for years. Do the greatest warriors make the greatest peacemakers, too?)

But I digress. As I have pointed out on more than one occasion, I spend my life digressing.

The point of the story is that Johnston and Sherman got on well at the surrender. As the years passed, they became good friends. When Sherman died in 1891, Johnston was a pallbearer at his funeral.

I find this story deeply touching. Maybe because it’s about a close male friendship, which strikes me as a far rarer bird than a close female friendship.

Or maybe it’s because if Sherman and Johnston could overcome their violent, blood-strewn past and become friends, maybe there’s hope for us all in this jumbled, divided land of the Trail of Tears and the Washington Redskins, Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover and the vacuum cleaner, and Roe v. Wade and Hobby Lobby. Anyway, as a great writer once wrote, it’s pretty to think so, isn’t it?

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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The Beauty of Low Expectations

by ruthpennebaker on August 13, 2014 · 3 comments

A couple of years ago, I had lunch with a group of close friends.  We’d known each another for years and we were of an age that indicated we’d spent enough time on this earth to have been pummeled and battered by life now and then.

And yeah, we had been pummeled and battered, off and on.  Among the four of us, we’d lost a spouse to death or divorce, suffered the death of a child, been overwhelmed by debt, contracted a potentially fatal disease, gotten sued, feared for the future of one of our children, been alienated from family members.  And so on.  Hey, if you live long enough, the minuses start to add up.

What I found most interesting — aside from the amount of sheer heartbreak at a single, unremarkable table in a busy restaurant – was the attitude we all shared: We didn’t understand people who said Why me? when disaster struck.  Individually, when we’d gotten slammed by life, our attitude had been Why not me?  Life is tough, it sucks sometimes.  Why should I be exempt?

I’d always blamed my own morose, pessimistic, hell,-maybe-I-deserve-it attitude on my parents.  (That’s safe.  When you’ve got an unattractive problem, blame Mom and Dad.  This works just fine till you have kids yourself and you get a little wobbly and defensive on that particular point.)

Growing up, nobody ever told me to shoot for the stars.  I was supposed to know my place in the world and not expect much of anything.

“What makes you think you’re so good?” my mother would ask me time after time, when I wanted something, presumed too much, dreamed too big.

It was a hard, mainline Protestant view of a world that was harsh and unforgiving.  It was also part of growing up female in the 1950s and 1960s.  Or, as my father always said, “Don’t get your hopes up.”

I hated it all, of course, and blamed my parents for my low expectations about life and my paltry store of self-worth.  But time passes and you look back and see different aspects of something you thought you knew and understood and rejected completely.  My parents were teaching me what they knew and what had made them feel safe.

Then, as these things sometimes work out, I met and married someone who thinks life is a gas and you should have a great time of it and why not aim for whatever you want.  Why the hell not?  Over the years, we’ve balanced each other in so many ways.  Didn’t I tell you everything would work out? he’ll chortle when my worst fears aren’t realized.  Didn’t I predict the stock market would tank? I’ll gloat in return.

At this age, though, I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not a bad thing to have been taught and to believe at your core that life can be tough and implacable and that you’re not a special case.  It makes you appreciate the good that can happen and girds you, just a little, when catastrophe hits.

Why not me? you ask yourself.  It doesn’t make you happy, but it just might make you a little less miserable.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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Other People’s Dramas Are Always More Fun

July 29, 2014

Early Saturday evening, my husband and I were walking along the South First bridge that crosses from downtown into South Austin. The weather had cooled into the 80s — a rarity in July — and we were headed to a women’s roller derby game. We’d always intended to go to one of those games and tonight was our first. The Holy Rollers were playing the Putas del Fuego, so you knew it had to be good.

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Upgrade Me, Please

July 23, 2014

Right now, I need to update 11 apps on my iPad, three on my iPhone, and my computer is constantly bugging me to install some new gizmo and then restart. (Restart! Like I don’t have more pressing things to do like reading Jezebel.) Anyway, I could have sworn I just did all of this yesterday, so why don’t they leave me alone, since I am not in the mood to update today, so get off my back.

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Question: Why Do We Cry at Weddings?

July 16, 2014

The question today is why do some of us cry at weddings? As a weeper, I will count the many reasons

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