Lost in the Archives, Found on Castro Street

CASTRO5

This post comes to you from a hotel room in San Francisco, where I’ve spent the past ten days doing archival work. I’ve been here for ten days now, and—thank goodness—will be returning home tomorrow. In the past month, I think I slept in my own bed four times… the rest of the time has been spent living out of suitcases at various and sundry points across the United States. It’s been a very long month.

This research trip was incredibly productive. I’m leaving tomorrow with thousands of pages of material.  I’m also leaving in an acute state of information overwhelm. The quantity of information I found in the archives, and the limited time frame within which I have been working, has meant I’ve only been able to actually read about 1/5 of the material I collected in the past ten days. Even so, I know there are at least two more archives that I should have hit up while here. It’s actually pretty amazing; folks in SF have done an amazing job collecting and preserving the history of the AIDS crisis.

Panicking over the amount of material at my disposal, and trying to figure out the logistics of a return trip, are great problems for an historian to have. Trust me: I’ve had the experience of coming up empty, and it’s the worst. Nevertheless, the position I find myself in right now is… uncomfortable. I’m not fun when I’m overwhelmed.

Overwhelm sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. Earlier this week, I was utterly unmoored. That wasn’t the end of the world either, but try telling that to an unmoored-Andrea. Try telling that to any academic, actually.

Much of the past week and a half has been spent in a fog, trying to wrap my head around the outlines, the ethos of the archive, as opposed to thinking through individual documents. In my case, that’s a dangerous place to be… a slippery slope of insecurity. What does it all mean? What kind of conclusions can I make based on these kind of archival materials? Can I really construct an argument on the basis of documents like this? Do I need to change my dissertation topic to accommodate the archive? Could it be that nobody’s done this kind of research before because it’s not actually interesting? Could I have just wasted a ton of time and money? Is it possible I just collected thousands of pages of material I’ll never use? Did I lose my iPhone charger? I DID! Holy crap! What am I even doing here?!

One day this week, my research anxiety got so bad that I was either going to vent, or have a mini-breakdown. I did what I always do when I’m in trouble: I called my mom. She listened quietly as I rambled for about ten minutes, jumping wildly from “I’m seeing this interesting trend…” to “I don’t think I can write a dissertation,” from “I think I’m going to need to do oral histories” to “I can’t deal with all the street harassment in San Francisco!” She then proceeded to tell me exactly what I needed to hear:

“Go home. You could have everything you need in front of you, but there’s no way you’re going to see it right now. Walk away.”

CASTRO4

I was only able to take half of that advice, given the time constraints within which I’m working. I spent a couple more hours taking photo after photo after photo, and then I went home, and fell into bed. At, like, 5 PM. I got a (very) good night’s sleep. The next morning—instead of running to archive A for a couple hours before my appointment at archive B, the original plan—I got on a cable car, went to the Castro, stopped by Hot Cookie, and bought a bunch of food I have no business eating, including a cookie shaped like a certain part of the male anatomy… because it’s the Castro.

CASTRO2

I wandered the streets, stared in shop windows, and imagined what it was like living there in the early eighties, the late eighties, the nineties. I thought about the people I met through my research: the archivists, who told me about their experiences; the dead, whose voices live on in the sources; friends, colleagues, and mentors who once walked the same streets; and those people who, if very much alive, still only exist for me on papers tucked away in folders and boxes.

I wandered the streets of the Castro, and I remembered why I came to San Francisco to begin with, why I decided to go to graduate school, and why I want to be an historian.I also realized why I was so scared.

Rummaging through archives is a wonderful experience, one I wish everybody had at least once in their life, but it’s a space in which one is easily unmoored. Sometimes that means that the people you read about become hopelessly abstracted, other times you lose track of your research question, or realize that question is utterly unanswerable. Still other times, you lose track of yourself. In my case, I think all of those things happened.

CASTRO1The sheer volume of information I encountered in my archive forced me to recognize how little I know. Meeting people who lived the experiences I’m interested in historicizing—while inspiring—left me questioning my ability to tell their story. I realized that my dissertation needed to be radically restructured; some topics were far better documented than I’d anticipated, and others proved to be total dead ends. I realized that the archive is slowly but surely forcing me into work that strays from both my intended path, and the path I’ve prepared myself to travel. I began to feel incredibly small in comparison to the big, big, big task ahead of me.

Once I got myself out of the old musty rooms and into the streets, I remembered why I’d entered those musty rooms to begin with. I remembered that all the amazing people I’d encountered want me to do this work, have encouraged me to do this work. They built these archives so I could do this work. The task before me is very large, and yes, I feel a bit small in comparison, but the answer is to GROW, not shrink. If I became unmoored in the archive, I dropped my anchor in the Castro.

And so here I am, sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco. I’m physically, emotionally, and intellectually exhausted. I’m totally overwhelmed. I’m also very thankful that my anchor has been recast, and really, I couldn’t have chosen a much nicer place to do it.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The SMDS “Suggested Reading” List

I have to apologize to those of you who’ve joined the SMDS RSS feed over the past week or so, because your (much-appreciated) interest in my blog happens to coincide with my needing to step away. A dissertation deadline beckons, so I need to hoard all of my creative juices, gremlin style, until Tuesday, October 23.

Until then, dear reader, I thought I would pass along a “Suggested Reading” list for those of you who are new to the website. These are some of my favorite posts so far, and hopefully offer a little insight into what The Six Million Dollar Scholar is all about.

My grandmother being nutty as she was wont to do.

Nude Models, Pot Brownies, and Frankenfoot: A Tribute to My Grandmother

I wrote this post on what would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday. It’s my favorite post because it’s about one of my favorite people; you’ll enjoy it because it’s a reminder that sometimes we don’t need to look very far to find a hero. In my case, I realized I grew up with a brilliant, hardcore feminist in my basement, a woman whose improbable life deserves to be the stuff of books.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

What I’m Learning from A Giant Stack of Obituaries

I came home from my most recent research trip with literally hundreds of obituaries, and no immediate use for them. I’ve since discovered that they may indeed have a home in my dissertation. Even if that turns out not to be the case, they were worth the money I spent printing them, because they taught me a lot about myself, about the research process, and about the fiction that is the personal/professional binary.

Dear Diary

This post has a special place in my heart, because it’s probably the single most effective life hack I’ve implemented since starting The Six Million Dollar Scholar. At the time I wrote the post, I’d only been journaling for six days, but today I can report that, for the first time in my life, I have a daily journaling practice. it’s now been almost two months, and I’m still going strong. It’s incredibly rewarding, and—for an historian, anyway—a great reminder that not all archives are brick and mortar.

Taken yesterday.

The Human Thundershirt

Quite possibly the strangest proof-of-concept blog post ever, I demonstrate that my newfound ability to calm the world’s most disturbed canine is a sign that the world needs more blogs like mine. Plus, there’s an abundance of pictures of a sweet baby puppy dog face girl.

When One Door Closes, Make Lemonade

My summer session course ended up being cancelled, a highly improbable scenario realized by a perfect storm of utter lameitude. When I wrote this post, I thought I’d done a pretty great job polishing a gnarly turd of a moment in my teaching career. In hindsight though, it’s nothing short of amazing how everything worked out. After all, while I didn’t anticipate being out of a teaching job, I neither did I anticipate running into medical problems this summer that would have made teaching a damned-near Herculean task. Maybe, just maybe, the universe was looking out for me?

That oughta keep you busy! See y’all again soon!

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The Archive is Open

Secret archives of the Vatican

I walk a difficult tightrope on this blog. I want to be as authentic as humanly possible, but I’m also a professor-in-training; I don’t want to put anything out into the world that I would have trouble explaining to a hiring committee, to my colleagues, or to my students. So I often find myself debating the merits of a post. The problem with this particular brand of censorship is that it’s entirely too fuzzy. That’s because I haven’t articulated to myself what constitutes fair game.

Just now I found myself sitting in front of my computer for a good ten minutes, contemplating the merits of writing a deeply personal post. While this kind of introspection is a good thing generally, SMDS is first and foremost a personal blog. My logic is simple: teaching difficult material is often the best way to learn that material. I blog about becoming the best scholar and person one possibly can because it’s something I want for myself, something that requires daily work and a willingness to open oneself up to new possibilities.

That’s why—after much hemming and hawing—I’ve decided to talk about what’s happening tomorrow. It’s a routine procedure, but as with most medical procedures, there’s nothing routine about it for me, the patient.

Tomorrow I am going to go to an imaging center, where a complete stranger is going to jab a very large needle into my hip, large enough that it needs to be guided by an X-ray. She or he will then inject contrast fluid into said hip, which—in addition to making abnormalities in the tissue easier to see—will actually push the ball and socket further apart. This is good for imaging purposes, but it feels pretty darned uncomfortable. Imagine a basketball getting filled with air… in your groin. It feels about as odd as that simile reads.

Since the giant needle’s is already positioned, and my mobility has been been seriously compromised by pain over the past few months, my surgeon’s decided that the dye injected into my leg should be followed by a cortisone chaser. He hasn’t diagnosed me yet (he needs to gaze deep into my basketball groin to do that) so we don’t know that cortisone will actually make a difference. It’s worth a shot. It also means, however, that by the time I waddle into the room with the MRI, I’ll be a human water balloon.

That, friends, is all considered “prep.” But take it from me, after that kind of prep, an MRI is decidedly anti-climactic. A claustrophobic metal tube that yells it’s strange language at you for an hour? Yawn.

I was seventeen the first time I had an MRI Arthrogram. I cried after the doctors injected the contrast not because I was in pain (which I was) but because I felt violated.

Not only had my personal space been invaded in a pretty epic way, with an equally epic needle, but in a matter of a minute or so I experienced a new and foreign kind of pain, in a part of my body where pain had never before existed. I’ve had two MRAs in my life, and as best I can tell, that extreme sense of dislocation from one’s own body is something that one only experiences once in their life. After that, your relationship with your body changes. I can’t quite articulate how it changes, but it does.

Tonight, I’m scared. It’s a very routine procedure, I’ve been through much worse, and I’ll be completely fine once I’m on the table, but tonight, I’m scared. I know exactly what’s going to happen to me, and I know that, in a couple of days, the chances are good I’ll feel a little better. But—because I know exactly what’s going to happen to me—I also know that it’s going to feel worse before it feels better. My hip hurts more today than it has in weeks; I can almost feel the basketball inflating.

I’ve long suggested, as have others, that the body is an archive that historians can, and should, read. This is not a unique opinion. In moments like this, though, I realize the body’s archival potential anew. Certainly part of the fear I’m experiencing comes from anticipating pain, from knowing all the ways the procedure could potentially go wrong, and from the fact that ahead of me lies a diagnosis and treatment plan that, for once, I can’t discern ahead of time. While I can’t conquer those fears, I can suppress them, because my rational self is aware that nothing that happens to me now will be as difficult or as painful as the surgeries I’ve already endured.

What I can’t do is close the archive. I became an historian of patient advocacy because it was the best and most fulfilling way to instrumentalize difficult memories, to use them as tools to better our understanding of the human condition. Pain is not so easily harnessed. Narcotic medication is no match for the narrative unfurling inside of me at this moment. Tonight, I have no choice but to bear witness to sensations I filed away years and years ago, hoping never to revisit again. For these few short hours, my archive gets to speak.

I am an historian, and so—to the best of my ability—I’m listening.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

 

Containing “Ebolaphobia”

I sat on my hands for as long as I could, but folks, it’s time to talk about the Ebola outbreak.

Cards on the table: when I first heard that cases of Ebola were being reported in West Africa, I had a momentary freak out. I’ve been terrified of contagious diseases since I was a wee pup, when I made the ill-advised decision to join my parents in watching a made for TV movie about Steven King’s The Stand. I only made it through the first night of the three night series, and I still get goose bumps thinking about it. If I ever start digging a mysterious hole in my backyard, it won’t be a bomb shelter… it’ll be a poor-man’s quarantine unit.

So no, this is not a holier-and-not-so-coincidentally-smarter-than-thou rant about how silly it is that there are folks out there worrying about an Ebola outbreak outside of West Africa. I totally get it. This stuff is scary.

The thing is, I’ve made a career of learning about all the terrible things we’ve done to our fellow man in the name of protecting ourselves from contagious diseases we didn’t understand. So, briefly, I want to use the knowledge I’ve acquired to help other hypochondriacs out there who know they probably shouldn’t be nervous about Ebola, but still kind of are. You might not be able to un-learn the fear, but you can at least harness and use its power for good.

Before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear:

We have been culturally conditioned to fear Ebola.

If you’re like me, the word “Ebola” provokes an immediate response because, and only because, you saw the movie Outbreak.

The disease around which the 1995 movie revolved—“Motaba”—is fictional, but it’s also widespread knowledge that the writers had Ebola in mind when crafting their super virus. I haven’t seen that movie since the 7th grade, when I wrote a paper on it, but believe you me, I remember it very well. It was simultaneously one of my favorite movies, and one of the scariest things I’d ever seen.

(Note: the 2011 film Contagion may be the source of your paranoia, but it’s basically a remake, so we’re going with Outbreak for the time being).

The first symptom of Ebolaphobia is repeat viewing.

Here’s the thing: Motaba is indeed based on Ebola, but there are some really key differences between the two. The reason Outbreak was so freaking dramatic was because the virus in question was airborne. Remember the scene with the tiny tear in the hazmat suit? OMG!

Wouldn’t happen in real life. Ebola is spread through contact with the blood and bodily fluids of an infected animal or person. You can’t get it by the sheer act of breathing, much less by having an itsy bitsy tear in your hazmat suit. Ebola is scary, but it’s not Motaba-scary.

Okay Andrea, you say Ebola isn’t as scary because it’s not airborne… but you study AIDS. That’s a pretty scary virus tooI! Touché, imaginary interlocutor!

But wait! The containment period for Ebola—“containment period” being the time during which you are infected but not displaying symptoms—is measurable in days… sometimes weeks. The reason HIV/AIDS is so insidious is that you can be HIV positive and entirely symptom free for years.

Hard to miss symptoms like this, folks...

Hard to miss symptoms like this, folks…

So what? Most of us have a natural aversion to people who look really sick, especially when there’s a lot of diarrhea—and eventualy blood… Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever, remember—involved. The folks at risk of contracting diseases like Ebola,therefore, are the ones who run towards the sick: the people who love them, and the health care workers whose sworn duty it is to help them. Put put another way, if you’re coming in contact with the blood and/or bodily fluids of a person with Ebola, you probably know that you’re doing it.

None of this should be news to anybody who’s been reading about the actual Ebola outbreak, but a re-articulation of those ideas can’t hurt.

Now that you have (hopefully) removed your respiratory infection control mask, here’s my advice: every time you catch yourself thinking about Ebola becoming the next great pandemic, donate some cash to the people who are actually putting themselves in harm’s way to contain it. I suggest giving to Direct Relief. That way, you know that your unfounded fear is at least productive.

Me? I’m going to get back to writing about AIDS now.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The Human Thundershirt

It’s 4:30 AM, and I’m awake. I got up around 3:30 to use the restroom, only to realize that there was a gnarly thunderstorm going on outside. “This is my time to shine” I thought to myself, and raced into my mother’s bedroom—privacy isn’t really a thing in my house—to attend to Maggie.

Maggie playing with her Christmas present. It almost survived the day!

Maggie playing with her Christmas present. It almost survived the day!

Maggie is a 5-ish year old rescue dog. She was about to be put down (in Kentucky, of all places), when my mom—who at the time was volunteering as a foster mom for rescue dogs—got the call: would we save Maggie’s life?

Duh. The person on the other end of the phone knew exactly what he or she was doing, because the fact is, we’re terrible foster parents. No dog that we’ve taken in has ever been adopted. Each one has been absorbed into our menagerie, so like those who came before her, Maggie went straight from the doggy version of the green mile into her forever home.

This photo of my little brother communing with Maggie is a few year old, but I love it.

This photo of my little brother communing with Maggie is a few year old, but I love it.

Whatever happened to her before we did… it left a mark. While never hostile, this is a dog that approaches people with trepidation. You have to know the right and the wrong way to engage her (in fact, to this day certain kinds of human contact will cause her to lash out in fear). When we first got Maggie she was completely silent, a first for us, as we’ve always had “guard dogs” that protected us by alerting entire neighborhoods to the presence of squirrels, human puppies on tricycles, etc. It was pretty exciting to have a dog with no bark, until we realized that she did indeed have a voice, a voice that fear and abuse had long stifled. Within a week or two in our house she’d assimilated beautifully, and now she barks with a reckless abandon that is as endearing as it is annoying. She throws back her head with such relish whenever she barks… it’s truly a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, in learning how to bark, she’s also learned how to cry. We’re exceedingly good to Maggie, and she knows it. So great is her fear of losing her forever family that coming home—be it after six months in California, or, you know, six minutes at the grocery store—elicits the kinds of yelps and doggie tears normally reserved for YouTube clips of returned servicemen and their pets. No matter what we do, this is a dog that believes we will abandon her.

Sad as her aforementioned separation anxiety is, it’s not unusual in rescue dogs. But don’t be fooled: Maggie is special. She is quite possibly the most neurotic dog in the world.

Another oldie but goody. Both Maggie and Dibbles (the geriatric chihuahua, who will one day have her own post) really brought their A game.

Another oldie but goody. Both Maggie and Dibbles (the geriatric chihuahua, who will one day have her own post) really brought their A game.

This is a creature who recently picked up the habit of hiding in my brother’s room whenever my mother picks up or answers a phone. Why? Because one time, while on an important business call, my mom yelled at her to stop barking. Now her tail goes between her legs every time a member of her family tries to contact the outside world.

Dinner? No way… you can’t eat that without adult supervision. Even with a human sentry standing guard, you need to stare at the kibble for at least a half hour (or four) to make sure it’s not, in fact, a threat.

At the tender age of five, Maggie takes evening walks measured in feet, not miles. After all, who knows what’s behind that stop sign? Trying to get her to expand her boundaries in the slightest throws her into a panic, as if you’ve suddenly decided she’s not allowed to come home. (This is a trait she shares with another of our three pups, Sadie. It’s hard not to feel like a bad pet owner when walking all of your dogs separately only takes about ten to fifteen minutes.)

And then there’s thunder. Many dogs are afraid of thunder; three out of four members of our animal family (three dogs and one cat) have storm-related anxiety. But Maggie dials it up to eleven.

At even the hint of a storm, Maggie begins trembling… not shaking, trembling. She drools, and her tail goes between her legs. Sometimes she’ll content herself with hiding in the bathtub or behind the toilet, but more often than not she responds to thunder by going into a blind panic. She runs from room to room, family member to family member, too frightened to be soothed by any of us. “Get a thundershirt” you say? Hah! Been there, done that. Despite numerous efforts, it’s become clear that no amount of tightly-wrapped fabric will soothe the likes of Maggie.

Then I came home for a month.

When mom went out of town for a conference last week, I became Maggie’s surrogate person. This is what I woke up to each morning.

My mom was the first one to notice it. Around the time I started this blog, Maggie started spending more time with me generally, and starting sitting in my lap for extended periods of time when thunder threatened. “You must be in a good place mentally,” my mom suggested, “because Maggie doesn’t normally sit still this long during a storm. You make her feel better in a way the rest of us can’t.”

My family is currently living in South Florida, so storms are an almost daily occurrence. That meant I had time to test the theory. And test I did. Taking a cue from thundershirt technology, I started grabbing Maggie whenever the thunderstorms began. I held her so tightly I worried that I was going to scare and/or hurt her, but after a couple of seconds of struggling, she’d lay down. Even after I released her from my grasp, she rode out the rest of the storm on my lap, trembling and drooling, but calmer than we’d ever seen her.

It worked day after day after day. I am, as it turns out, a human thundershirt.

So at 3:30 AM or so, when I realized that Maggie was in distress, I jumped into action. I am not this dog’s primary person—my mother is—so she doesn’t automatically come to me for relief; I have to go to her. I tried bringing her into my bedroom, but she didn’t want to leave the rest of the group. So the two of us crawled into my mother’s bed (permission neither requested nor attained) and assumed the position: me curled up on my side, her laying in my arms. It took almost a solid hour, but Maggie finally stopped shaking. And I decided to go blog about it, because who needs sleep?

Taken yesterday.

Taken yesterday.

As a kid I was terrified of thunderstorms. To be honest, they still scare me a bit. I don’t let it show anymore, though, because somebody’s counting on me for protection. In fact, part of me actually looks forward to thunderstorms these days. The light and noise offer me an opportunity to bond with my crazy dog, to—through nothing but love and a decent gripget her through her terror. I’m not here foreverin fact, I’m heading back to California tomorrowbut for the time being, I get to be Maggie’s hero.

Being a canine thundershirt also validates all the Six Million Dollar Scholar-style work I’ve been doing these past couple months. The more I do to get right with myself, to be the best version of myself I can be, the more I radiate peace. The more I radiate peace, the easier it is to bring peace to others. As of 4:30 this morning, I have a new mantra to deploy in the moments of self-doubt, the moments where I start to wonder if this blog—if all of the self-improvement crap—is motivated by narcissism:

I AM A HUMAN THUNDERSHIRT.

And now… this thundershirt is going back to bed.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.