Out of the Zoo: Conversation Starters

flight

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reminds us that when we study history, strangers can become friends. –JF

I think airports are fascinating places. In airports, people from all walks of life come together for a brief moment–whether they’re sitting next to each other on a plane, waiting together for a TSA screening, or paying way too much for food at the same kiosk. Then after the plane lands, after they get through security,  after their breakfast is ready, travelers promptly part ways.

I spent a lot of time in the Detroit Metro airport a couple weeks ago en route back to Messiah after Christmas. My connecting flight took off several hours late, leaving me in Detroit for several hours before I boarded my next plane. During my extensive layover, I found ways to entertain myself–using up a Starbucks gift card, people watching, and walking to the other side of the terminal to get Chick Fil A. It wasn’t an ideal situation by any means, but I made the most of it.

When I finally got on the plane, I took an aisle seat next to another college-aged traveler named Matt, who was on his way back to Philadelphia for culinary school. Normally I’m a pretty quiet passenger, exchanging a few lines of small talk with my seat-neighbors and then leaving them alone, but this time proved an exception. Perhaps to the dismay of the rest of the cabin, Matt and I chatted through the entire flight. I learned that Matt has traveled to China, took two gap years to work before starting college, and even saw the movie Cats with some of his friends over break. We talked about the shows we watch, the music we listen to, and the places we’ve been. After picking up our giant suitcases from the baggage claim, Matt showed me how to catch the train to 30th Street Station, and got me there just in time to board the 4:45 Amtrak into Harrisburg.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Matt again. Maybe our paths will cross on a flight back to the Midwest in the future–I sure hope so–but regardless I’ll always be grateful we met. I can’t help but smile when I think about how we got on the plane as strangers and parted as friends. All we had to do was start a conversation.

I love to meet new people. I think that’s partly why I love history so much. As historians, we are in the very business of meeting new people–people we’ve never seen or contacted or even heard of before. Sometimes the strangers we meet are no longer living.  Sometimes, after reading their stories, we find out they’re a lot like us; and other times we discover that they see the world a whole lot differently than we do. Regardless, it is our job to see historical actors for who they are–to seek out their likes and dislikes, their passions and their fears. Then as we work, as we write, and as we research, people who were once strangers become familiar. We just need to start a conversation.

Introducting Pietist Schoolman Travel

Pietist Schoolman Travel

Do you want to take a trip to Europe with historian Chris Gehrz, aka the Pietist Schoolman?  Check out his new venture: “Pietist Schoolman Travel.”

Here is a taste of Chris’s latest post describing the new venture:

As announced here two weeks ago, I’m going to lead an eleven-day tour of England, Belgium, France, and Germany next June: “The World Wars in Western Europe.” There are still openings, but I’d suggest that you apply sooner than later: Bethel University will be mentioning the trip next month in its alumni e-newsletter.

For the most part, leading this trip just feels like an extension of what I already do as a teacher and scholar. In January I’ll lead a couple dozen students on a three-week World War I travel course, the fourth instance of that trip; and I write and speak about World War I and World War II fairly often.

But preparing to lead this trip — and thinking ahead to other trips I might lead in summers to come — has forced me to do something I never imagined doing: I’ve started my own business. Pietist Schoolman Travel, LLC will never have all that much overhead or all that many employees, but it does have a bank account, an IRS number, and a need to get its name before potential customers in a market place with no shortage of competitors.

I’ll try my best to make it worth your while. I’m in the process of walking through the June trip, each day sharing some photos from some of the sites we’ll be visiting. And I’ll keep posting other photos, reading excerpts, video clips, and links related to the world wars. And even if you’re not interested in the World Wars trip, following the page will make it easier for me to reach people with news about future trips. (I’ve already floated the idea of doing a summer 2020 trip to Germany around the themes of the Reformation and Pietism.)

So if you’d like to learn more about the trip — or if you can just help boost our public presence — please start following our PS Travel page at Facebook. I started small over the weekend, inviting a few family, friends, coworkers, and former students to click Like. But I’d certainly be happy to add blog readers to that number.

On the Road With Susan B. Anthony

Susan_B._Anthony_G.E._Perine

A life crusading for women’s rights was not easy.  Over at the website of National Public Radio, Nina Martyris writes about what it is was like for Susan B. Anthony to spend so much time on the road.  Hint: she ate a lot of bad food.

Here is a taste of Martyris’s piece:

The journeys were punishing and the reception, while sometimes warm and encouraging, was often apathetic, sullen or viciously combative. On the eve of the Civil War, when the national mood was fissile, rotten eggs were lobbed at the stage and cayenne pepper flung on the stove to disrupt the meeting. Implacable, Anthony stood her ground. But one can well imagine how much she and her companions longed for a hot meal and a clean bed after these brutal encounters. In most cases, however, they went back to a dirty hotel and terrible food.

“Most of the food served them was green with soda or floating in grease and the hotels were infested with bedbugs,” writes her biographer Alma Lutz in Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian. “Susan wrote her family of sleepless nights and of picking the ‘tormentors’ out of their bonnets and the ruffles of their dresses.” One South Dakota hotel served “sour bread, muddy coffee and stewed green grapes.” In others they were faced with unclean water, straw pallets and coffee without cream or milk, sweetened only with sorghum – a good cup of coffee was something Anthony sorely missed, as is evident from a report she filed for a newspaper describing how she “luxuriated in a Christian cup of coffee” in Trinidad, Colo.

“I can assure you that my avoirdupois is being rapidly reduced,”Anthony wrote with characteristic humor in a letter to her family in Rochester, N.Y. Fortunately, she had a robust constitution and weathered the harsh travel conditions mostly without complaint, but a plangent sigh in her diary reflects her frustration: “O, the crimes that are committed in the kitchens of this land!”

Read the entire piece here.

Hotel Tips

Hotel

Over at The Smart Set, writer Bernd Brunner offers some advice on how to survive in a hotel.  Here is a small taste:

So, what is important nowadays when you check in? First of all, get along well with the receptionist, whatever it takes, because this person has the power to decide whether you are welcome or not. It’s a good sign if he calls you by your name and even pronounces it correctly without you having to model it. If you don’t (pretend to) respect him, you may find him to be your worst enemy. If you have visited a hotel often enough and are acquainted with one of the employees, he or she may reveal aspects of the inner workings that you are usually shielded from. The probability of you having access to these insider facts correlates significantly with where he or she is in the staff hierarchy — the lower down, the higher the chance you will find out what you want to know (to satisfy your curiosity) or what you don’t want to know (to still be able to sleep well). This can range from the latest news on demolished hotel rooms, famous or unwelcome guests, or the occasional suicide. While hotel detectives are no longer fashionable, there are CCTV cameras. The bustling people who clean the rooms, once called “chamber maids,” may have the most intimate knowledge about the guests. Whether they want to or not, they notice everything, from guests’ habits to the kinds of medications they take. Just leave them a generous tip. Always.

Read the entire piece here.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #76

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Writing on the road is not easy.  I spent the day traveling to California (Pepperdine University) for the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  It is almost impossible for me to write new prose while traveling. I need my notes and research in front of me. I also need my two computer screens.  I like to have my manuscript on one screen and my notes on another screen.

But plane travel is conducive to rewriting and polishing prose. I only need one screen to do this and I find that I can concentrate in airports and on planes. 

It is important that I keep moving forward on this project, even if my writing time is limited on the road. Today I worked on the first several pages of Chapter Four–rewriting, refining, and polishing. It was a long flight from Harrisburg to Denver and then on to Los Angeles, but it was also a productive one.