Summer Movies’ Nostalgia

Looking back on this summer’s films, what stands out are quite a lot of sequels: Avengers: Endgame, John Wick: Chapter 3, Dark Phoenix, Toy Story 4, Spiderman: Far from Home, Men in Black International, Shaft, The Angry Birds Movie 2.

Some of this summer’s films are less sequels than remakes—recreations of films originally released sometimes 20-something years ago. For instance, Disney’s Lion King (2019), released to record-breaking profits, was not a reinterpretation of the 1994 film, but rather a remake (often shot-for-shot) that substituted CGI-animated animals for the original’s more traditional animation. Essentially, the same story with the same characters and (most of) the same dialogue. Just with different voice actors (one of which, admittedly, was Beyoncé), and animals that look more real than animated.

Reviewers were, on the whole, skeptical of the film’s quality. The CGI animals were an impressive technological feat, the consensus went, but the 2019 Lion King was missing some of the original’s heart. “The animals’ lips may match their dialogue, but there’s next to nothing going on behind the eyes,” writes NPR’s Justin Chang.” “Who knew photo-realistic lions were this bad at emoting?” Given the film’s monetary success, one suspects the lukewarm reviews are not that much of a concern to Disney’s executives. Indeed, in article after article exploring Disney’s predilection for said remakes, journalists note that “security” and “bankability” are the primary reasons. “Disney is (literally) banking on people already liking the animated films it’s remaking,” argues Alexandra Whittaker. “If people already like it, there’s a greater chance they will pay money to see it in another form, and [Disney] skillfully skip[s] over the step that brand-new stories face of drawing in a devoted audience from scratch.”

From this helpful comprehensive list, it’s apparent that a good part of Disney’s film strategy for at least the next three years or so is exactly these sorts of live-action remakes. Lady and the Tramp is slated for this November, with Mulan in 2020 and Cruella in 2021. A recent announcement of Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel in the upcoming live action Little Mermaid drew backlash from certain quarters; Bailey is black, and, in the original movie’s animation, Ariel is white.

While Bailey’s casting was celebrated by many, that there were objections (although perhaps exaggerated) highlights an issue with these sorts of remakes: if people have warm feelings for those earlier films, remaking the films risks not recapturing those same warm emotions. You might think here of the complaint by people—many of whom were men—who objected to the all-woman remake of Ghostbusters because the remake would somehow ruin their childhood memories of the original. We could call this the nostalgia dilemma.

While we now think of nostalgia today as a sort of sentimentality, its origin lies in war. Coined by medical student Johannes Hofer in 1668, “nostalgia” described the intense homesickness associated primarily with Swiss mercenaries fighting in the lowlands of France and Italy. It was viewed as a serious neurological affliction that was difficult to cure except by sending those stricken by it back home; the term comes from the Greek nostos (return home) and algia (longing). (The Swiss were thought to be particularly susceptible “due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.”) Today, researchers consider nostalgia—now recognized as a feeling felt by all humans, not just the Swiss—a potential source of comfort rather than a debilitating illness. Nostalgia, writes John Tierney for The New York Times, “has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.” Importantly, in modern concepts of nostalgia, the longing is not about returning home to a specific place, but instead a feeling (often pleasant, although perhaps bittersweet) associated with a memory of the past.

This nostalgia is one felt by individuals, particularly at transitional moments of life; researchers note young adults and the elderly are particularly nostalgic, citing the large life transitions these groups go through. But what happens when nostalgia moves beyond individual memories into broader, cultural ones? Cultural scholars argue that these sorts of nostalgia, seen in films, public events, and other social productions, reflect a specific idea of the past and its relationship with our present. Nostalgia, writes Susan Stewart in her book On Longing, “wears a […] face that turns toward a future-past, a past which has only ideological reality.” Nostalgia’s past, in other words, is not the actual past, but a perception of a previous time that aligns with a particular ideological stance (e.g., depicting the 1950s as an idealized time in American life, which in the process elides the social inequality experienced by many Americans during that time).

Commonly cited in discussion of nostalgia, the scholar Svetlana Boym distinguishes between two types of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. While both nostalgias are very much focused on an imagined past, their relationships to that past are quite different. Restorative nostalgia, for Boym, is a nostalgia that seeks to recapture and restore an imagined, idealized past; as such, restorative nostalgia “does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition.” Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, focuses more on the emotions involved in recollecting the past than an attempt to recreate that past. It accepts, explains Hal McDonald, that “the past is, in fact, past, and […] savors the emotions evoked by its recollection.” Rather than calling up an ex at 1 a.m. because you heard “our song” play—a move that McDonald argues falls squarely under restorative nostalgia—reflective nostalgia “would be more likely to make us reach for an old photograph than for our phone, evoking in us a momentary sense of emotional pleasure rather than a restless urge to recreate a special moment from our past.”

Boym emphasizes that “these distinctions are not absolute binaries,” that nostalgia can be both “a poison and a cure.” This echoes psychologists’ own cautions about the personal benefits of nostalgia: while dwelling on how memories of the past can help people (and warm them!), direct comparisons of the past to the present are less productive. Thus, reflecting on “what has my life meant” would be more beneficial than saying “those were the days.” For both Boym and these researchers, allowing flexibility in nostalgia—resisting restorative nostalgia’s tendencies to rigidly recreate the past—allows for more productive outcomes. “Perhaps,” muses Boym, “dreams of imagined homelands cannot and should not come to life.” “The prepackaged ‘usable past’ may be of no use to us if we want to cocreate our future.”

So how does this connect back to the spate of remakes? Boym and others provide a caution again demanding a restoration (or, a shot for shot remake) of certain films. That rigidity, that insistence that a certain story can only be told one way, or lived by one type of person, ultimately limits the stories that might be told, and our imagination with them. The animals might look good, but they fail to capture the feelings of wonder and delight we associate with the original. Perhaps, instead of trying to recreate those feelings, we spend some time with those memories and then seek out different stories to enjoy. “In the end,” argues Boym, “the only antidote for the dictatorship of nostalgia might be nostalgic dissidence.”

Paniolos, Columbus, and Language’s Power

Summer in Wyoming means rodeo season. Speaking to C-SPAN, Sheridan Mayor Roger Miller noted that the entire city operates around, with, and for the rodeo during the Sheridan WYO Rodeo. History was made just recently at the Cody Stampede. Rodeo and the West are synonymous with each other.

And while this western cliché may always hold some truth and will undoubtably remain an important part of Wyoming and our economy, there is more to this history and it serves as a reminder for all of our conversations in the humanities and our society. One about the power of language and the language of power.  

Consider the influence of the Spanish on the entire vocabulary of the West. The renegades and vigilante gangs that chased them, the lasso used to tie them up, and the saddle ridden in the West were all influenced by the Spanish. Yet rarely, if ever, is this heritage embraced. Even more obtuse to the history of the West and rodeo is the Paniolo.

Well before the West had been ventured into, in February of 1793, Capitan George Vancouver of the HMS Discovery unloaded 10 longhorn cattle on Hawaii. Here they would proliferate until the 1830’s when King Kamehameha III recruited a few vaqueros from California to help manage the cattle and turn this into resource into an export for the island nation. This led to the emergence of the Paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboy. As the authors of the new book Aloha Rodeo write, the Paniolo faced challenges that made the West seem easy – lava fields, sharks, fatal bullock pits camouflaged into the jungle. In 1903, after the American annexation of Hawaii, Eben Low, owner of the Pu`uwa`awa`a Ranch, sent three of his best men to Cheyenne to prove the Paniolo could best the West – and they did.

Despite adopting the Spanish vocabulary for the West, the West also used language to discriminate. The Paniolo were called interlopers; the spectators at Cheyenne Frontier Days believed they did not belong with their bright and colorful outfits and dark skin. And while the Paniolo would win the overall championship, it would not be until 1999 when history would begin to recognize these three and their contributions, and only more recently has this history been “brought to the mainland and received the attention it deserves.” In effect, a lack of language – of storytelling or use of language – kept the Paniolo from the attention they deserved.  

For the Paniolo, the language of power used determined they were not wanted and did not belong; as the saying goes, “History is written by the victor.” Through the power of language, history had left them behind. Without their stories being told, being written down, and passed along, fewer still knew they had even existed. It is a simple but plain example of how power can be used to maintain the status quo, create homogeny, and trivialize the other.

A more recent example is seen in an episode of Yellowstone as the character Monica Dutton, a Native American history professor, arrives at her first class. Before starting her class, a student begins making lewd comments towards her. She responds to the student by noting if he can “work in a Pocahontas joke, you’ll hit the trifecta.” She then asks him to define power but continues before he can respond. “It’s the ability to direct or influence another’s behavior or course of events.” She notes his lack of power within a classroom as she can fail him and influence his future.  

Without pause, however, she continues reading from the journal of Christopher Columbus about his meeting of Arawak people in the Caribbean:  

They willingly traded everything they owned. . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They would make fine slaves. . . with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

She then asks the student, “Do you ever feel like that Trent? Do you ever feel like making someone do what you want?” Monica Dutton is a minor character. Her speech is a tool foreshadowing the events of the major characters, alluding to the larger battles which will be fought in the show. It is a jab at what she calls the European mentality that stems from government, religion, and power structures dating back colonial times. And, it is a constant reminder of the treatment of all native peoples by the English, Spanish, American, and others – also, a smaller theme within the show. But, in the 21st-century, it is also a reference to the issues of power we find in our everyday lives. The treatment of women, minorities, and all those labeled as interlopers within our society by one or another group – the power of language which leads to actions.  

We use language in a not dissimilar way to Columbus; primarily because we also speak English, but also because our language becomes our actions. In this phenomenon, first identified by Terry Winograd he states: “People act through language;” which is to say how we use language determines our how use information in decision making, and ultimately how we choose to act on that information. In this way language can be come more powerful than simply ignoring events in history or labelling people and cultures as “other.” This is exactly what the Europeans did for centuries. And it is not a problem of the chicken and egg, someone first came up with the idea to enslave people and communicated this before it happened – the power of language to make someone other than.

Our language and how we use it has the power to change our perceptions of time, color, and space. More recently, the power of language however has taken center stage for abilities to initiate crimes and violence. Following in the wake of the El Paso shootings, the reclusive website 8Chan was shut down. And while the websites role in the violent acts may be disputed, it serves as a small example of how isolation imbibes limited points of view, can result in distorted viewpoints, and the harm the restriction of information can cause. It is just as true in terrorism camps overseas as it is here in America.

For Columbus and the indigenous populations of North and South America, the power of Columbus’s words subjugated people, subjected them to genocide, and forced them to the edges of existence. A path which otherwise might have been avoid had he (and others) spoken about them with respect as equals. For us, today, the power of our words is just as dangerous — the difference between life and death for our children and for adultstoxic or harmful work cultures are just a widespread.  

How we speak, what we write, and, just as important, what don’t say and write is about more than just our history. A fuller, richer, and honest story of our past can only add value to who we are, what our celebrations and iconic events are about, and the possibilities of us as humans, the power of language is about of very being. If we take this away from people, we are subjugating them to our will and removing their freedom…could there be anything less American than removing freedom?  

This is our past and power of the humanities. From the unexplored events and cultural influences in our famed legacies to the covering up of historical atrocities for the sake of progress. As it was then, we do so out of fear and as we fear the loss of power we seek more. But what is there is to fear? What would it mean to Cheyenne Frontier Days to have embraced the Paniolo for nearly a hundred years? What might our nation be had we embraced the unique differences found in hundreds of native people’s cultures? What can our future be if we speak about each other with kindness and acceptance?  

Monica Dutton ends her monologue with this about the past “… that was the mentality of the men who ‘discovered’ America, and it’s the mentality our society struggles with today. What you know of history is a dominate cultures justification for its actions. And, I don’t teach that. I teach you what happened to my people and to yours. [Be]cause we’re all the descendants of the subjugated, every one of us.”  

The Capitol Grand Re-Opening: the Importance of Our History and Heritage

It was a magnificent day. The crystal clear blue sky set the stage and the cheerful, buzzing anticipation of the crowd was not dulled in the slightest by the mid-summer heat. Standing in the audience as close to the front as I could get, I couldn’t help but think that the splendid atmosphere, without a shadow of a rain cloud, portended great things for our state’s future. July 10 was the long anticipated grand re-opening celebration for our state capitol building and it was a glorious event from start to finish.

Folks of all ages came to listen to Wyoming dignitaries regale us with tales of the history of “the People’s House” as well as to acknowledge all those who came together to make the restoration of this majestic building a reality. Plus, there were food trucks. And music, dance, and theatrical performances as well as cultural demonstrations, exhibits, book signings, an Air Force Squadron flyover, and fireworks. And did I mention food trucks?

The incoming chair of our board of directors and former state senator, Rev. Dr. Bernadine Craft, blessed the capitol with an opening prayer that acknowledged we are in the midst of celebrating the 150th anniversary of Wyoming Territory granting women suffrage. You know it’s going to be a great event when a prayer gets cheers! Our state’s leaders, President of the Wyoming Senate Drew Perkins, Governor Mark Gordon, former President of the Wyoming Senate Tony Ross, and Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives Steve Harshman led up to the closing remarks by former Governor Matthew H. Mead, and then the dignitaries cut a giant red ribbon and quickly moved aside for the rushing crowd of Wyomingites wanting to be among the first to see the carefully and lovingly restored building.

Celebrating our capitol’s 130 years brought the historian out in many of our state’s thought leaders. A League of Her Own Acting Troupe, composed of members of the Cheyenne League of Women Voters and organized by another of our board members, Mary B. Guthrie, performed a play, “Wonderful Wyoming Women Voters,” written by Guthrie and Rosalind Schliske, featuring four historical figures involved with passing the first legislation giving women the right to vote and hold office, then with defending the effort to repeal it, and with refusing to deny the vote in exchange for statehood. The cast included Julia Bright, played by Schliske; Esther Hobart Morris, played by Denise Burke; Amalia Post, played by Guthrie, and Theresa Jenkins, played by Debra Lee. Keren Meister-Emerich played the researcher, who time travels to interview these women. In addition to their involvement with Wyoming suffrage, three of these women also had the most important roles in the statehood celebration on July 10, 1890. Post was the chairman of the celebration; Morris presented the state flag to the governor, and Jenkins was the primary speaker.

In his remarks just before the ribbon-cutting, Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, Steve Harshman, brought to life the young engineer from Adam Feick & Bros., the Sandusky, Ohio company that won the bid to build the original capitol in 1886. John Feick, the 25-year-old son of Adam Feick, came to Cheyenne in early 1887 and Wyoming State Archives has several letters he wrote home to his newlywed wife, Lizzie. Harshman brought the crowd to laughter and tears with some of the excerpts he shared:

From early February 1887:

Dearest Wife:

I suppose you received the letter I wrote you when I arrived. I had quite a long trip, and feel very lonesome and homesick for you, to be fifteen hundred miles away from you and in a part of the country where you have to wear a belly-band to keep your cap on your head is a pretty bad thing.  [I]t is snowing & blowing bad enough to scare a man to death his first night.

A few weeks later in early March he wrote:

There are very wealthy people living in this town but they all look to me like Cow-boys, Lizzie you can not imagine what kind of a country this is… you can go one hundred miles straight out in the country and not see a house or a living sole, but wolves, prairie dogs, deer…

His letter in May described the laying of the cornerstone and he concluded by writing:

I tell you this is a great country for excitement. People are more liberal & a nicer class of people than you find in the east.

Many thanks to Speaker Harshman for sharing parts of his speech with me to share with you. It was quite moving as he used this history to introduce the audience to John Feick’s descendants, including grandsons and great nieces and nephews, from Ohio, where Adam Feick & Bros. still operates today. They all must have been incredibly proud to see this building restored so closely to what their ancestors designed and built. Some of the excerpts from John Feick’s letters are featured in an excellent article on the history of the Wyoming Capitol on WyoHistory.org.

The ceremonies concluded with a Re-dedication of the Capitol Cornerstone by the Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of Wyoming, as the Masons of this lodge had conducted the original dedication of the Capitol cornerstone on May 18, 1887. It was a stirring patriotic and spiritual ceremony that captured everyone’s imagination and attention. The children in the crowd were fascinated by the pomp and pageantry—especially the brilliant sword that led the Masons as they marched to the cornerstone. Many historic buildings in the United States have Masonic cornerstones, including the U.S. Capitol, which was laid by President George Washington. The ceremony was solemn, symbolic, and felt very historic and was a perfect way to mark this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Seeing our elected officials and so many state leaders all in one place celebrating such a happy and important event, I couldn’t help but think it was just what Wyoming needed. We have many challenges facing us and a day like July 10, 2019 reminded us that we are all in this together. It also showed the importance of history and protecting and understanding our heritage—and the importance of art and culture to understanding our past and our present. And did I mention there were food trucks?

Wyoming Humanities’ 2019 Summer Reading List

During your summer travels, hikes, and hang outs, don’t forget to bring a book! Here are some recent reads by Wyoming Humanities board and staff to get you started:

Nancy Guthrie, Board Member:

I just finished listening to Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw narrate their book Songs of America. It’s excellent. History of songs that are a part and force in America’s history. Songs composed and sung pre-revolutionary times up to and including President Obama’s 2008 election.

Also, I found Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep a most compelling true crime drama. It’s long but worth it. One reviewer called it the “In Cold Blood” Harper Lee tried to write.

I’m half way through Mind of a Raven by Bernd Henrich. I felt compelled to find out about the raven who spent time on my porch this winter. Sometimes I could summon him with a whistle. He left a couple months ago but came back last month with a mate. They built a nest in the common area next to my condo and are now proud parents. Ravens have a level of intelligence that has amazed me.

Scott Henkel, Board Member:

I cannot speak highly enough about Madeline Miller’s Circe. The book retells an ancient story from a different perspective, and in the process, transforms the views of how stories are told and who gets to tell them. The writing is captivating and beautiful.

For years, Julius Scott’s recently-published book The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution was only circulating as an unpublished dissertation. Nevertheless, it influenced a generation of scholars seeking to see the Atlantic world as an interconnected network, linked together through trade routes for goods and enslaved people. The stories of those enslaved people come alive in Scott’s book; it is a must-read for anyone interested in the making of global capitalism, the history of race relations, and the struggle for a more just world.

For anyone interested in how technology is changing the world of work, making some jobs obsolete and creating new ones, I recommend Joseph Aoun’s Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Aoun is a humanities scholar and a university president, and he makes a compelling case for why the humanities are growing even more important with these changes.

Erin Pryor Ackerman, Director of Grants:

Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. Leckie has gained a reputation as a science fiction author (winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards for her debut novel), but here she dips her toes into the fantasy genre. What remains is her interest in non-human perspectives and a finely-tuned attention to the ways in which life is and isn’t fair. With accessible language, this is a perfect summer read.

Milward Simpson, Board Member:

Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. She expounds a theory of the most important traits for leaders in difficult times by examining the approaches and actions that allowed four American Presidents – Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ, to lead the nation in overcoming its most challenging obstacles. It’s hefty but really compelling.  If you’re doing a lot of road-tripping this summer, this one’s for you!

The Death of Truth by Michico Kakutani. The Pulitzer prize winning journalist writes in clear, succinct, urgent and direct terms about the “fake news” era in which we now find ourselves and the cultural/political trends that led to it. This is a brilliant, pithy page turner – perfect for folks who want to bring something they can knock out on an extended weekend summer getaway!

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The author explains exactly how and why humans are “creatures of habit,” and how we can use the knowledge to alter our own individual habits as well as the habits of organizations. The case studies he examines are fascinating and it’s an empowering book for those who like to use the summer as a time to reflect and plan for the future.

Sarah Jo Sinclair, Board Member:

I just read City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Gilbert spoke in Sheridan last spring or I might not have picked up this book, but it was a joy to read.  Gilbert’s tag line is “You don’t have to be a good girl, to be a good person.” Her characters raise great questions about morality and personal judgement – a wonderful summer read.  And I believe it passes the Bechdel test!

Shannon Smith, Executive Director:

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – A very well-written, deeply profound and engaging book. The evocative descriptions of the beauty and bounty of the salt marsh of the North Carolina coast transport you to the small boat the very young “Marsh Girl” learns to drive through the swamps to the small town on the bay where she trades for the necessities of life that can’t be drawn from her land. It’s a murder mystery, coming-of-age love story, social commentary (based in the Deep South in 1969), and ode to the splendor of the natural world. And did I say it was well-written? It’s a must-read.

Eternal Life by Dara Horn – A novel about what it would be like to live forever. The protagonist is born in Roman occupied Jerusalem 2000 years ago and to save her son, she and her lover make a vow at a temple in which they give up their ability to die. Based in present-day, with sometimes hilarious observations of how technology has changed over the millennia, and flashbacks drawing from Jewish history, this is a fantastic read. It ends suddenly and is one of those books that makes you mad when that happens.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – OK, this is apparently an old book, written in 1990, by two superstars of science fiction. It’s been released as a miniseries on Amazon and when I saw the ads for the video series I checked the book out. Turns out the audio book has very high ratings so I’m listening to it as we speak. I’m not kidding, there have been times where I had to pull over while listening because I was laughing so hard. This is a funny story and as creative as you’d expect from these two brilliant authors. The audio book is 5+ stars good so I assume the series and the physical book is too. Imagine a demon (Crowley) and an angel (Aziraphale) who are both based on earth and over the millennia have become friends and quite accustomed to living with us humans (vs. heaven or hell). When Crowley is ordered to help bring the Antichrist and forthcoming Armageddon to earth, and the final battle between heaven and hell, Crowley and Aziraphale collaborate to prevent the end of the world. It’s great!

Kristi Wallin, Board Member:

A few months ago, I asked several of my friends to recommend their favorite books.  My plan is to read 60 of them before I turn, ahem, 60.  (Good thing I have a couple years to complete the task.)  I will pass along a couple suggestions that my friends shared with me.

Dave Jost, my buddy from Fremont County, recommended Stephen King’s Elevation.  The Washington Post described the novella as “a slim, humane novel about the virtues of being neighborly.”  It was a quick read — or actually a quick listen since I checked it out of the Wyoming State Library’s RB Digital app.  I wholeheartedly recommend it, even if you are not a Stephen King junkie.

My dear friend Amy Enzi Strom recommended L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  It turned out to be the perfect summer read.  The plot summary on Wikipedia states, “Anne takes much joy in life and adapts quickly, thriving in the close-knit farming village.”  It was refreshing to read a children’s classic that has lessons of hope and positivity for all ages.

Josh Watanabe, Assistant Director:

Henry Mintzberg’s Managers not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of of managing and management development and Simply managing: What managers do – and can do better

Although it seems an odd topic for the humanities, Henry Mintzberg speaks directly to the need for more “humanities” in practice of business. For decades, Mintzberg has worked on understanding the underlying issues found in management and business practice with the result conclusion that we are not training business people (MBAs in particular) properly for the jobs they will encounter. In short, we have removed the human element from business with dire consequences.

In Managers Not MBAs, Mintzberg speaks to gap found in the traditional MBA education which focuses on marketing, accounting, HR policies, mergers, and shareholder value and the true nature of the job of management which is managing people. People who need to interact daily, who have differing motivations, values, ethics, and all the like but yet need to be brought together to do the work of the business. Management is about soft skills, practice, and reflection (the importance and work of the humanities?), he argues and less about the monthly profit and loss statement and daily stock ticker. The result is decades of MBAs turned C-Suite managers who can only see the price margin and have forgotten about the people who make the work happen, i.e., ENRON.

Simply Managing is a shorted, easy-to-read and digest version of a longer study and academic paper/book from Mintzberg titled Manging. In this book, Mintzberg attempts to demystify the difference between leadership and management, which he claims have been separated for too long. Driven by our historical recollections, myths, and stories, the 20th and current 21st-century vision of leadership invokes images of Steve Jobs, Howard Shultz, or even Walt Disney and Henry Ford. Our most famous leaders are mythicized, not unlike Hercules, Odysseus, or James Bond. Yet, despite there successes, there are an equal if not greater number of failures of business leaders attempting the impossible. Unlike our literary counterparts, it is simply not possible to become the great hero of the business world without much luck that cannot be authored. Instead, Mintzberg goes back to the ideas presented in Managers Not MBAs and highlights the failures of this approach while offering an alternative. That our workplaces are communities, that the best leadership is not separate from management but is in fact management done well and in concert with individuals being managed. Although his vision may often sound utopian, he presents solid, evidence-based management techniques that lower the status of our CEOs and places in the context of the true work of managing people and work tasks.

“The Brontes had their moors, I have my marshes”: on Lorine Niedecker’s poetry

As we head into the calmer end of Spring and the green of early Summer, I find myself turning to the poetry of Lorine Niedecker. While less well-known than other 20th century American poets such as William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, or Ezra Pound, Niedecker’s depictions of seasonal changes combined with an abundance of bite-sized poems makes her poetry perfect Spring reading.

Consider, for instance, two of her poems referencing our two most recent months:

March

Bird feeder’s
      snow-cap
              sliding
                       off

Get a load
          of April’s
                           fabulous

frog rattle—
       lowland freight cars
          in the night

For someone who by March is desperately searching for any hint of spring, Niedecker’s brief poems echo my own (and, I suspect, others’) attention to signs that warm days are ahead: the slip of snow off the top of a bird feeder, local fauna’s riot of noise.

Niedecker (1903 – 1970) spent most of her life in Southern Wisconsin, beginning and ending her life on Black Hawk Island, near the town of Fort Atkinson. “The Brontës had their moors,” she wrote to the poet Louis Zukofsky, “I have my marshes.” Many of her poems reflect elements of that rural, marshy life. Scholars have particularly noted her poems’ attention to the requirements of rural living, including the objects that help one do so. Two of her poems, for instance, are titled “To my small / electric pump” and “To my pres- / sure pump.”

While Niedecker celebrates the glory of her marshes (“April’s / fabulous / frog rattle—”), she is also attentive to the hardships that can accompany rural life. In her poetry, rural spaces do not invoke nostalgia or romance but instead, as Becky Peterson writes, force “the reader to always confront the physical and practical world.” A perhaps brutal example of this is a poem that contrasts looks against the necessities of daily life:

Ah your face
but it’s whether
you can keep me warm

That “Ah” may be one of longing, awe, or regret—its multiple potential meanings, to my mind, are one of the poem’s strengths—but the second line’s “but” makes clear no matter how beautiful (or ugly!) the face, other, more practical priorities, must come first.

Yet another poem focuses on a particular solution to a winter challenge:

Popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
            so the cold
can’t mouse in

This poem is one that very much confronts us with the “physical and practical world.”  What is notable here are the feelings—or lack of pronounced feelings—found in Niedecker’s poem. There is not a lament over needing to use said popcorn-can cover, nor a celebration of the resident’s (perhaps Niedecker herself?) cleverness or nobleness for solving the problem. In other words, there is no romanticization of either the challenge of a hole in the wall in winter (ah, how we must pity and/or admire that poor-yet-so-noble resident!) or of the solution. Instead we are given a matter-of-fact and vivid description (cold does mouse in, doesn’t it?) of both.

Niedecker is associated with the Objectivist poetic movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which valued calling attention to the “poem as an object”—paying attention to how a poem looks and sounds—as well as, according to Becky Peterson, “a level of objectivity in representation.” That is, Objectivist poets were concerned with everyday language and life and generally wrote in a style that focused on vivid imagery and mimicked everyday rhythms of speech. The first two poems quoted in this article are good examples of both: “Get a load / of April’s fabulous / frog rattle—” uses everyday language (“Get a load”) and visually breaks up a continuous thought in a way that draws attention to the arrangement of the words on the page. “March” does this just as explicitly, the arrangement of lines mimicking the sliding off of the birdfeeder’s snowcap.

The “objectivity in representation” we see in Niedecker’s poem about cold also extends to her poems focusing more exclusively on the natural world:

A monster owl
out on the fence
flew away. What
is it the sign
of? The sign of
an owl.

Here Niedecker slyly undercuts the poetic convention of reading larger meaning—a symbol, a sign—onto animals or natural events. A monster owl flew away. What does it signify? What could it mean? An owl. No more, no less.

The poems I’ve highlighted here might imply Niedecker was only interested in nature and isolated rural living, an implication that her body of work does not support. While many of her poems focus on that subject matter, others range from her state’s history (“Pioneers”) to meditations on such figures as James Audubon (“Audubon”), Vincent van Gogh (“van Gogh”), and Thomas Jefferson (“Thomas Jefferson”) as well as fellow poets (“If I were a bird”) and Mary Shelley (“Who was Mary Shelley?”). While attentive to her surroundings, in other words, Niedecker’s interest and curiosity encompassed a wide swath of topics.

Niedecker’s poems were highly admired by her fellow poets, but awareness of her work slipped away after her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1970.   Niedecker’s Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy, were finally published in 2002. “There’s a tendency when writing about an underacknowledged writer,” argues Elizabeth Willis, “to try to set her up as a kind of hero, but Niedecker is inspiring less in her heroism than in her perseverance—the perseverance of a poet who would not be separated from her cultural and aesthetic sources.” If you’re stuck inside weathering that last Spring storm, spend some time with Niedecker’s poetry, be it individual poems or her collected works. It will be worth your time.

More of the Same: “The Momo Challenge” and Critical Thinking

In the introduction to the 1964 Report of the Commission on the Humanities the authors state: “If the interdependence of science and the humanities were generally understood, men would be more likely to become masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.” Indeed this theme is commonplace in our history and goes well beyond technology. Not unlike our fear of technology, bias, prejudice, and xenophobia are all rooted in the same fear of losing something or merely the fear of change. The question, is how do we better manage real concerns and filter out those which are invalid?

Perhaps the question is better phrased as, how should better inform ourselves? What tools do we have at our disposal to dispel myths and hoaxes while becoming more enlightened about the world around us? For nearly three-quarters of the American population, social media is the tool of choice despite questions about its trustworthiness. Like any tool, it is only as good as we make (or, demand) it to be.

Between February and March, an old, but seemingly new, hoax re-emerged from the annals of social media. The “Momo Challenge” instantly took hold of our social media channels and traditional media outlets, and it became a genuine and immediate threat for parents and children. The in effect the challenge was supposedly an escalating series of public stunts that worked its way towards convincing young people to commit suicide. While the news coverage was real and the potential for concern real, this “news” was not. However, we listened still, and we reacted with force. Our technology demanded a response, and in the most unthinking way, we served it.

Social media’s outward purpose is a drive for attention. By producing content on your favorite social media channel, you are seeking attention. We may want more likes (social approval), we may want compensation or to draw attention to a wrong (think about the numerous product callouts), or in the most benign sense, we may just be communicating with family and friends. However, the result is the same. Social media is designed to fulfill this need. The more popular a post is, the more it will be shown to others with similar interests.

Hoaxes are designed to draw attention to the creator. This need for attention is nothing new; it may be for basic attention, monetary gain, or malicious intent. Newer research shows younger generations are the loneliest. And it’s not just a social media issue. Consider the oft-criticized art of “tagging.” “When you’re young and powerless, graffiti is an easy way — well, not that easy — to earn the respect of your peers.”  

In some ways, nothing has changed. Jonathan Swift played a very public hoax against Isaac Bickerstaff in 1708. Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels purposefully as a hoax and commentary about travel expeditions of the time. Perhaps, our ability to perceive and create hoaxes makes them a critical component of our behavior. Perhaps, we are all too gullible and this allows them to succeed. Maybe, as in the case of magic, we simply want to believe in something unbelievable and awesome.

In the case of the “Momo Challenge,” however, this does not seem to fit. While someone undeniably created this with a desire to fool people, it was neither our basic gullibility or belief in the fantastic that drew so much attention. It was our fear. For Machiavelli, fear was his tool of choice. Fear is a driving component of Bentham’s panopticon. And fear is what created “Momo.”  

Before “Momo” it was Slender Man. Before Slender Man, there was the Insane Clown Posse and before that, something else. With regard to the last two, there are very real concerns about dangerous behaviors, crimes, and the impact on younger children. But there are also seemingly incomprehensible dangers to children that rise from innocuous items like the Tide Pod Challenge. After children have been injured or killed with absurd stunts like the Cinnamon Challenge, how do we filter out the unbelievable truth from the cynical hoax? Better yet, what is the harm in being too cautious?

To approach social media with an abundance of caution suggests a validation of fear, that there is something to fear about social media inherently. But the problem has existed in some form or another well before social media. And, while there are debates about its efficacy, many people turn to social media as means to supplant their loneliness and perceived isolation. In fact, banning children from social media can increase these and other issues of social acceptance.

Perhaps the best approach is one of skepticism. Simple as it may sound, it is not that easy in real life. But it is an approach we may all benefit from and need, sooner rather than later. Rather than reacting and acting in servitude of social media based on immediate concerns, enjoyment, or initial reaction and pressing the share or heart button, we need a more instantaneous employment of critical thinking. We need to ask why more often to understand the needs of ourselves and society.  

Instead of fearing the influence of social media, we should be asking ourselves why children feel the need to participate in the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge or Skin Eraser Challenge. Before immediately believing the latest fear grabbing story, we should verify its validity as a true concern or not – a task easily accomplished on the same device used for social media consumption. We have more information and power available to us at any given point in the day than at any other time in history – if we chose to master it. Our technology is not the problem. We, its servants, are, and rather than being more concerned about the effects of social media, we should take a closer look at ourselves, our families, and our friends and show concerns for them – here and now, not on their social media profile.

The Government Shutdown, the NEH, and State Humanities Councils

As you are surely aware, our nation recently experienced the longest government shutdown in US history, 35 days, surpassing the 21-day shutdown of 1996. Because the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is funded through the Interior Bill—one of the bills that had not been completed by the time of the shutdown—it was one of the federal agencies that were immediately closed by the shutdown. As state-based affiliates of the NEH, this shutdown directly affected state humanities organizations across the country, including Wyoming Humanities.

It is no secret that the current administration has called for the elimination of the NEH. Fortunately, congress and America continue to believe that our work is vital to our nation and our federal funding was handily secured for 2018. Over fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation in 1965 creating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities because congress and the nation believed that support of the arts and the humanities is in the national interest. Indeed, the NEH was the manifestation of the belief that the humanities stimulate reflection on the values that Americans collectively hold as a nation as well as the unique values we all hold as individuals. Our elected leaders tell us they continue to believe this and their votes to support the NEH reflect that.

The NEH founding legislation was also shaped by what was going on in the late 60s. The underlying rationale for the agency was based on the then widely-held opinion that the American experiment in self-government requires a thoughtful and informed citizenry. With this starting point, an eloquent public argument was made that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” Our leaders also recognized the need to heal a country deeply divided by the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War, so Congress determined to ensure that funding for public humanities programs reached every corner of the nation to help us find a common ground. In 1970, five years after the founding of the NEH, Congress directed the agency to establish state-based programs that could effectively reach all citizens. The NEH conducted a year-long experiment in six states, including Wyoming, to determine the best way to accomplish this. After this experimentation period, it was determined that the model tested in Wyoming and Oregon—to distribute funds through an independent committee, unaffiliated with state agencies or universities—was the best model and soon after, the first six humanities councils, set up as independent 501c3 nonprofit entities, were confirmed. The United States now has 56 long-standing, hard-working humanities councils that serve every state and U.S. territory—all based on the “Wyoming model”—that receive annual funding through the NEH Office of the Federal/State Partnership.

In the ensuing decades, funding the federal government became a public issue year after year and views that the arts and humanities were non-essential public services took hold in places, leading to reduced funding for the NEH and NEA. State humanities councils have had to adapt and seek other sources of funding to do the work their constituents have grown to love and need. This federal funding insecurity encouraged all state councils to pursue other forms of revenue to maintain and enhance their capacity. For many states, that included turning to their state government. Today, 80% of state humanities councils receive some level of funding support from their state government—and we are blessed to have been receiving funding from the Wyoming State Legislature passed through the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources for ten years. We have also pursued funding directly from foundations and corporations for specific programs, and we’ve had to learn how to raise funds from our fellow citizens to help us grow and operate at the most impactful level possible.

When the NEH was shuttered in late December, not a single council had to close. Many councils temporarily cut back their granting operations, but we all had at least some amount of reserve funds to draw upon to keep our doors open and services running. Those reserve funds came from our donors. Our state humanities councils represent the very best of the marriage of public and private resources to serve the greater good. When you give to us, your dollars are matched by BOTH federal and state dollars to accomplish amazing things, and one of them, sadly, is to help us build a reserve to protect our operations from the insecure nature of our federal funding.

The humanities are needed now more than ever as we yearn for civil discourse and an understanding of the complexities of being human. We need to talk about the function and importance of our government and explore finding common ground rather than focusing on issues that currently divide us. For nearly 50 years, Wyoming Humanities has served the entire state of Wyoming with no-cost, first-hand, engaging experiences with the humanities and I’m excited for the celebrations we’ll be hosting to commemorate our 50th anniversary in 2020.

Wyoming Humanities is the very backbone of the creative and cultural infrastructure of Wyoming and our work is vitally necessary as we seek to diversify our economy and strengthen our society. The shutdown forced us to tap our reserve and we now must put an even greater emphasis on replenishing and growing it. Please consider donating to our Legacy Fund reserve account by selecting it when you donate online or simply write “Legacy Fund” in the memo of your check if you prefer to mail it to us.

I genuinely appreciate your comments and guidance so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any questions.

Sponsored Program Spotlight: Casper College Humanities Festival and Demorest Lecture

We sat down to chat with Valerie Innella Maiers, Casper College Humanities Festival Committee Chair, and Aaron M. Wood, Casper College Dance Instructor, about the Casper College Humanities Festival and Demorest Lecture and this year’s theme, “Around the World.”

You can attend the Casper College Humanities Festival Feb. 20 – 22. Click here for the full schedule.

What’s the history of the Casper Humanities Festival?

Innella Maiers: It started over 30 years ago. The key person spearheading the effort was a woman named Margaret Demorest. And Margaret Demorest taught English here at Casper College. Her personal research was in the area of Shakespearean literature and I believe one of the early festivals was intended to bring together a group of Shakespearean scholars for conversation and discussion. And over time the topics grew really broad and we were trying to incorporate all of the disciplines found in the humanities. And so this event naturally partnered with Wyoming Humanities and we were finding ourselves immersed in topics as diverse as “Sin,” from a few years back, to “Pilgrimage” to “Greco-Roman Pastimes and Pleasures.” We even had a “Renaissance Revisited” Humanities Festival. And today our keynote speaker is part of the Demorest lecture, so we honor this early pioneer in hosting a broad discussion through that particular keynote.

The themes, as you said, allows a lot of different disciplines to come in and consider a particular subject. Can you talk about how you all landed on “Around the World” for a theme this year and what types of questions or issues you think attendees will be asked to think about?

Innella Maiers: So the theme each year has come from the Department of Theatre and Dance at Casper College. Because we want this event not to be isolated from our student curriculum. We don’t want to discount the fact that we have all these engaged learners enrolled in classes at Casper College, and a great portion of the event is held at Casper College and thus we can explore the topic throughout the academic year. We have a wonderful partnership with other areas to also focus on this theme or even look at their class conceptually to consider this theme in, say, literature.

We probe our understanding of the world and negotiate our understanding of the larger world. Everyday I listen to the news and hear stories—especially in the political realm right now—that are speaking to the United States and how we are situated with others around the world. And so to understand more about various cultures, where people are coming from, and just connecting ourselves globally to a larger world, I believe is exciting and will generate a lot of great conversation.

One of the things I appreciate about this Festival is that in addition to all these amazing talks like Demorest lecture, there are other types of programming that touch on the theme. So I’m thinking about the Living Library, where you get a really brief interaction with someone with an expert on a particular topic. And it seems like what Aaron is doing is thinking about this topic in different ways than a traditional lecture.

Innella Maiers: Music is also part of the Humanities Festival; an art gallery exhibition is also part of the festival this year. We are really looking broadly at how we communicate through so many different media. And engaging our attendees in different ways, appealing to that sense of hearing, or watching our dance students perform with Aaron are particularly engaging sessions, along with the traditional format. […] Our keynote will share her own photographs from her global travels when she talks about the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Aaron, if you could tell us a little bit of what your program is.

Wood: Yes. So I had performed with the Reparatory Dance Theatre out of Salt Lake City, Utah for seven years and in that time the company was selected to become the repository for the Michio Ito work and his legacy. After I retired from RDT I stayed in contact with the Ito Foundation and with Michelle Ito, who is Michio Ito’s granddaughter, and asked her if she would give me permission to teach the technique, to continue to teach his legacy because the thing that’s very wealthy about his legacy is that he is a connector of human experience. He didn’t believe that he was Japanese, he didn’t believe he was American, he believed that he was a human. And his technique really serves that purpose of uniting the East and the West. So the Ito Foundation has given me permission to continue to teach the technique and also to create an original work, in which I’ve recruited our Casper College dance majors to participate in. So we’re in the process of creating a work based around this 10 gesture series and exploring what that humanity means within dance.

When you say technique, it’s a particular type of movement?

Wood: It is. Michio Ito created a masculine phrase and a feminine phrase. We also call them Gesture Series A and Gesture Series B, because these gestures can be done by anybody, he didn’t really believe in gender. So these gestures are definitely a gender neutral experience.

So we have our feminine phrase and our masculine phrase and these gestures live within the arms, within the hands, within the elbows. There’s a breathing cycle that goes along with it. It’s a very meditative experience. There’s a stylized walking that’s also incorporated into it. And that’s the actual technique itself. But then the really cool thing that Ito did was that he took those gestures—there’s a total of 20 gestures—and he abstracted them in a way that he then created over 300 dance works. And so that’s what our current mission and adventure is with our work for this festival.

Innella Maiers: I think another exciting aspect of this event is that we not only have scholars like Caroline McCracken-Flesher from Laramie coming up, but we also have student performances—the opportunity to dance in the premier. We have student actors who are going to part of the theatrical production and we have that affiliated book club where the student actors will also be acting out scenes from the short stories the play was based upon at our Natrona County Library. So, working with community partners not only bringing in scholars who are very well known, but also thinking about our students as scholars and promoting their exploration of culture.

One of the things that’s really cool about this Festival is the partnerships both within and outside the college.

Innella Maiers: Yes, we’ve partnered with quite a few of our community institutions over the course of this event. In previous years, we’ve partnered with the Nicolaysen Art Museum and had a mini-symposium on feminist art practice. We’ve also partnered with the Veterans Museum to think about our local and regional history as it’s connected to the Air Base in Casper, during WWII. We also have partnered with Fort Caspar, the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, and really tried to reach out to partners that have a broad audience as well. And institutions such as Fort Caspar are also hosting many school groups—4th graders especially go to the Fort to learn about our County history. So if they are able to partake in some of these conversations, I think we’re really cultivating an educated populace in Wyoming.

Are there things that I didn’t ask about that you think people should know about the festival?

Innella Maiers: I’d really like to promote the book club and the fact that complementary books are available at the Natrona County Library and Casper College Goodstein Foundation Library. It is a first-come, first-serve, but they are available to our community. And having a book club at one of our downtown locations in Casper has really facilitated engagement with community beyond those who might normally attend festival sessions.  We’ve talked a lot about fine arts and humanities, but it’s exciting to note that we do engage in discussions about political science, science itself as well.

I should also note that you can earn continuing education units for Casper College Training and Development credits for attending the Humanities festival.

On the Importance of Stories

To misquote a former Wyoming Humanities employee: the humanities are our stories. The stories we tell ourselves determine who we are and what we believe. My misremembering of the exact quote causes this to lose some of its immediate effects, yet the truth it contains remains. We find this truth in everything from our national or social identity based on historic stories to the stories we tell our friends about the daily catch on the river, to nearly every self-help guide which advocates changing your situation by telling yourself a new story about yourself, your abilities, or your reality.

We are bombarded by these stories daily. Our ability to tell stories is what many note as a defining feature of what makes us human. From memory to language, from social structure to imagination, the process of story-telling relies on many of our most fundamental human qualities. Moreover, while the technology involved with telling stories has adapted and changed – think movies, news, and the internet – the result is still the same. Our stories define us.

In the Netflix special Sacrifice, illusionist Derren Brown attempts to create a new story from an old, one with a hero who saves the day; a hero he claims may be convinced to sacrifice his life for a stranger. More outlandish, he claims our hero, Phil, will take a bullet for a man our hero has a particularly negative and common story about. In the end, Phil will be led to believe he has a choice to save an illegal immigrant lost in the desert. However, from the outset of the film, Phil makes it very clear he does not approve of or have compassion for immigrants who come to America. Brown notes for a person to sacrifice their own life for someone, a stranger, with whom they do not identify or relate to in any way he must create fearlessness and empathy – through stories.

To achieve this, Brown recruits an unsuspecting volunteer, Phil, for a medical device test. As a part of this story, Brown attempts to create fearlessness in Phil by telling him a story about heroic actions. Brown suggests to Phil that the facetious medical device will give courage. While the viewers are ultimately left unsure about the efficacy of this story, the more impactful story, to both the viewer and our hero, is the story Brown tells Phil about his origins and identity. It is a narrative about the mixed backgrounds of all Americans, one which should be more prevalent perhaps in our national and local discourse.

This moment, or few minutes on screen, also hides another quality for our hero that Brown glazes over – self-awareness. Arguably the foundation for empathy, self-awareness is gaining traction as a necessary skill. While a majority of people would classify themselves as self-aware, shockingly few ever truly are. From this skill comes creativity, confidence, better communication and relationships, and more ethical behavior. We find this in our hero during the time he is given to reflect on the narrative of himself Brown presents.

Brown recreates a modified version of an experiment done by Dr. Arthur Aron. During the original experiment, claimed to make two strangers fall in love, the two individuals take turns asking some questions and then sit quietly staring at each for four minutes. The questions are difficult and require, or perhaps force, self-awareness and awareness of the other. Every taped iteration of this experiment is emotional, heartfelt, and somewhat difficult to watch as we witness how uncomfortable it is for the participants.

It is a truly powerful experiment, love aside, which forces us to slow down and recognize the other person. However, empathy appears here; it is, in fact, difficult or even impossible to love without empathy. For our hero, however, this modified experiment does not have him ask or answer questions about the stranger. Instead, Brown reveals the results of a genetic test done for a fictional medical device and tells Phil he is less “American” than he might believe. Brown explains to Phil that the test shows percentages of Middle Eastern and Central American backgrounds in Phil’s genetic history. Then Phil is seated directly across from an unknown individual, as in Aron’s experiment, who fits the stereotype of a “brown” person, an illegal immigrant, the other. There are no questions or talking, but it is apparent that Phil is beginning to reflect on his new reality.

Here the first story, or act, resolves. Our hero is released from the medical device experiment and sent on his way. However, another carefully concocted story begins in which our hero journeys to an isolated area, is left somewhat alone due to a vehicle malfunction, and thrust into a story which should play into our hero’s old stereotypical negative narrative about strangers. It is here that the viewer’s story reaches its climax and we witness the results of Brown’s attempts at manipulating the behavior and responses of our hero.

There are no spoilers here, and there could be no stronger recommendation to watch this hour-long special than to find out exactly what happens. However, after our climax, we find the resolution, and our third story emerges. It is a story about a different person who, in his own words, states: “I don’t feel like that [hateful] anymore. I want to know other people’s stories.” Our third story, is in fact, the story about the power of our stories and new beginnings.

Sacrifice is a story, perhaps a faked one, about the power of our stories to manipulate us. Brown’s other stunts have been questioned. However, the truth is no less real. While our stories help to create us, we also create stories to fit our reality. During the Wyoming Business Alliance’s November conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming Humanities sponsored Samuel Western, who spoke about the Wyoming narrative and our need to adapt to new ways of thinking. It was the logical continuation of his story Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River.

With this in mind, Wyoming Humanities embarks on a new year, and we are looking forward to myriad stories from our newly designed grants. We are looking for stories to expand the Wyoming narrative through the humanities; in other words to build and expand on the existing stories we have about Wyoming. By looking at our stories, we can find more common ground than we might believe possible. We can use the humanities to explore our deep love of the very things that make Wyoming, well, Wyoming. We’ll start a new story about the richness and wealth of opportunity our state has within its cultural infrastructure. Moreover, we can contribute to the next chapter of economic growth, new industries, and adaptation among Wyoming businesses.

We do not need Brown and his experiments in Wyoming. Wyoming’s story is rife with history about self-efficacy and defying odds. We need not be afraid of those stories in our past which may cast doubt; for these have still contributed to who we are now. To increase our fearlessness, our self-awareness, and our empathy, we need only examine our old stories and craft new ones. We can become our heroes and heroes to others, and we hope you’ll join us.

Remembering President George H.W. Bush

Today is a National Day of Mourning to honor the late former President George H.W. Bush, who died last Friday night, November 30, at 94. Friends and family will celebrate his life during a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington on this day. President Trump is expected to attend along with former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Wyoming’s former U.S. Senator Al Simpson and his wife Ann were close friends of President Bush and his wife Barbara. Senator Al will be one of the four people delivering President H.W. Bush’s eulogy today, alongside former President George W. Bush, former British Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Presidential Historian Jon Meacham. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is encouraging Wyoming citizens to join with the rest of the nation in honoring former President George H.W. Bush on this Day of Mourning. We at Wyoming Humanities want to join the state and nation in paying our respects by sharing with you how our 41st President supported the humanities and cultural arts.

Just this past Sunday, Former President George H. W. Bush played a prominent role as some of the entertainment world’s most famous faces — including Cher, Reba McEntire and Lin-Manuel Miranda — were lauded in Washington at the Kennedy Center Honors. The night kicked off with an extended standing ovation in Bush’s memory at the request of hostess Gloria Estefan. “I think it’s appropriate to recognize the passing of a wonderful man who dedicated his life to service and who graciously attended this event many times during his administration, laughing, applauding, singing along and even shedding a tear from right up there in the presidential box,” said Estefan, who recalled being invited to the White House and how Bush “literally spent 45 minutes patiently talking to my eight-year-old son” about how the government worked.

During his presidency, George H. W. Bush expressed his support of the National Endowment of the Humanities while other politicians sought to defund public support of the arts and humanities in response to controversial projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s. In his fiscal year 1991 budget request to Congress in January 1990 he wrote:

“Direct Federal expenditures and tax incentives for preserving America’s cultural heritage are a relatively small part of the [federal] budget. For a variety of reasons of political and cultural philosophy, they must remain so. But they should never be viewed as so small that they should be overlooked, nor so insignificant that they might be dismissed…Only through the memory and understanding of our past, and the past of other countries whose civilizations have contributed to ours, and to the world, can we gain a true sense of the present and the ways in which we might influence the future.”

In September 1990, as the National Endowment for the Humanities celebrated its 25th anniversary, President H. W. Bush delivered these comments:

“I am delighted to extend warm greetings and congratulations to the staff and friends of the National Endowment for the Humanities as you celebrate its 25th anniversary….The National Endowment for the Humanities has given the American people a wealth of opportunities to learn more about our nation’s history and culture. Its grants, in combination with matching funds raised through private resources, have not only enabled teachers to attend special seminars but also enabled researchers to visit distant archives. They have also helped colleges to create professorships and improve their course offerings, and they have enabled community libraries to sponsor book discussions. Endowment grants have also underwritten major educational and cultural events such as the exhibition of “The Treasures of Tutankhamen,” as well as historical television series such as The Adams Chronicles and, now The Civil War. By helping to make these learning opportunities possible, the National Endowment for the Humanities has enriched the lives of millions of Americans. I commend its dedicated staff and supporters for their efforts.”

Leaders from around the country and around the world are paying their respects and reflecting upon the gentile, civil, kind-hearted and open-minded public servant who was our 41st president. We at Wyoming Humanities share in our nation’s mourning for this great American and are grateful and pleased to share his lifelong appreciation for the work we do.

Wyoming’s Common Ground

Today I am in New Orleans for the National Humanities Conference. It is the annual opportunity for all 55 state and territorial humanities councils, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Federal/State Partnership to come together alongside the National Humanities Alliance, a coalition of organizations dedicated to advancing humanities education, research, preservation, and public programs. Wyoming has a great contingency, over a dozen, attending this conference including board and staff of our organization and faculty from UW. We will have the opportunity to network with all 50 states (and 5 territorial jurisdictions) to learn from each other and find common themes and issues we can all explore together through the humanities.

I write this the day after the mid-term election. It is clear that America is facing a great challenge. We all know that there are many great divides that seem to separate and categorize Americans that go beyond political parties. State humanities councils are in a unique position to enable their states and the nation to find common ground and explore these issues through the tools of the humanities disciplines. What I think may be the most relevant and concerning issue that this election has clearly exposed is the growing rural/urban divide. I am proud to share with you that Wyoming Humanities will be helping our state take a very deep dive into this topic over the coming two years, including a year-long tour of the Smithsonian Museum on Main Street exhibit called “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.”

My five years in this position have shown me that Wyomingites are eager to find common ground with each other and with their fellow Americans. Just two weeks ago we hosted the “High Noon in America” tour where we showed a film featuring four Wyomingites—two Democrats and two Republicans—sitting across the table from each other and demonstrating ways to find common understanding about controversial topics. Folks in Jackson, Moorcroft, and Cheyenne came out to see the film and discuss the political divide. One common strand of conversation in all the communities was that they wanted to know what the other communities thought and “how can we reach out to them?” Wyomingites want to find what unites us, not what divides us. It was a very empowering and exciting tour, and we will keep this important conversation going for the whole state.

Indeed, we realized on this tour that because our towns are small, nearly everyone is involved with their community and that makes it easier to find common ground. We tend to have higher-than-national rates of voters in elections and many of you volunteer your time with local organizations and doing the things that make an engaged community: going to a local sports game; taking part in a book club; viewing an exhibit at your local museum or gallery; attending a play. These activities bring people and towns together to interact, talk, explore ideas, learn from each other, and have fun. These are the very same actions Wyoming Humanities encourages with our programs and grants. We bring Wyomingites together to better understand ourselves and the narratives that shape our state. Through this understanding, Wyoming can make informed decisions about our future.

Our work creates strong active communities and a statewide bond at a time when Wyoming has many challenges to face. Wyoming Humanities is deeply grateful to all of you who help us to create, fund, and put on these events. Beginning next week, we will launch 15 Days of Wyoming Gratitude to share with the whole state how our tight network comes together to take a closer look at the human experience. I hope you will follow this fun online campaign to learn more about the cultural infrastructure of Wyoming and how we band together.

If you are on Facebook, you can follow our 15 Days of Gratitude to Wyoming on our page at https://www.facebook.com/thinkwy/. You can also follow along by checking out our gratitude page on our website at www.thinkwy.org/15Days. We’ll send occasional updates via email, along with our thanks to you when it’s YOUR turn!

How Harry Jackson made me a conservationist: exploring the intersection between conservation and the humanities

by Milward Simpson

Trips to Cody, WY were always special and exciting occasions growing up. My brother and sister and I looked forward to going to the family ranch down the south fork of the Shoshone to go horseback riding or fishing in the Ishawooa river or listen to ghost stories about the legendary horse thief, Jack Bliss. Going to town was always something we looked forward to as well, especially the chance to visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Whenever we visited and whatever part of the museum we were there to see, I’d always end my visit by going to the far end of the Whitney Gallery to see the two massive and forbidding Harry Jackson masterpieces, Stampede and Range Burial that dwarfed my childhood frame. They depict cowboys caught in a giant stampede on the sage brush plains in a huge thunderstorm and its aftermath. Looking at those paintings, your senses quickened with the fearful anticipation of the storm coming in and you could smell the rain soaked sagebrush, feel the awesome wind and experience the human drama of our powerlessness against the sheer force of nature – out there in one of Wyoming’s vast, wild landscapes.

Staring up at those huge paintings, I could feel what it meant to be from Wyoming. I felt I understood my place in the world – how I fit in. I knew I loved art, I knew I loved the natural world and I knew I was a part of a particular culture defined by the experience of being closely tied to the land, being subject to it and drawing subsistence from it.

I’ve been blessed to pursue a career that has allowed me to focus on both. I’ve worked as a professional music and theatre artist, as a nonprofit arts administrator and as a state government cultural and natural resources manager. I began pursuing my passion for conservation in earnest during my years as Director of the WY Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. I now work for The Nature Conservancy, a science-based organization whose mission is to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.”

So, what about this question of the intersection between conservation and the humanities?

First of all, I’d say that part of humanity’s soul is rooted in nature and so conserving nature is an expression of our humanity. Conservation is a human impulse that manifests itself in cultural institutions, in certain mindsets, traditions and ways of being in the world and ways of relating to others. It is born of personal and collective values and beliefs that have their origin in our essential ties to the natural world and our ultimate dependence on it and how that those ties have expressed themselves in our cultures. Conservation is enshrined in religious traditions as a spiritual duty for stewardship of the earth. It is expressed in philosophical traditions such as transcendentalism that define the meaning of human existence in terms of our relationship with nature.

Conservation also intersects with the humanities through art. Conservation is an impulse that, inescapably, is born of the aesthetic impulse. I believe that, for artists like Harry Jackson, the natural world inspires an artistic expression of human concepts, emotions and experiences like awe, majesty, wonder, surprise, stillness and repose, splendor, humility, vastness, the joy of the senses being fully engaged as they are in nature more than in any other mode of living. Those expressions can, in turn, inspire conservation.

One of the most powerful illustrations of the power of the arts to influence conservation is the 1860 Hayden Expedition of the US Geological Survey. The expedition was dispatched by President James Buchanan to explore the Yellowstone region. Among the 32 participants in the 40-day expedition were the photographer William Henry Jackson and the artist Thomas Moran. Hayden included their artistic documentation of over 30 sites in his report to congress. Ultimately, masterworks such as Moran’s breathtaking painting of Yellowstone falls, and Jackson’s photographs of the energy and majesty of Old Faithful helped convince congress to establish Yellowstone National Park.

Examples like this abound and are just as influential today. Earlier this year, at a conservation conference in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to meet long-time National Geographic contributing photographer and National Geographic Fellow, Joel Sartore. He gave a keynote presentation about the making of his new book and accompanying travelling art exhibit, “Photo Ark,” which enjoyed a successful run at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson last year.

Photo Ark is a collection of photographs of the world’s most endangered animals, many of which now exist solely in the world’s zoos and aquariums. He has photographed over 5,000 wild creatures to date and he frames them each individually and in equal size, irrespective of actual scale, against a black background. This stark artistic approach heightens the intimacy of the encounter with these fellow travelers on our fragile planet and the immediacy of the crisis that they represent to the world’s rapidly vanishing biodiversity in all it’s overwhelming variety, fragility and wonder. Each creature was beautiful and striking in its own way, and each successive picture evoked a powerful, almost empathetic emotional response in the audience. I was deeply moved and found my professional commitment to conservation reinvigorated by the experience.

We don’t feel compelled to conserve what is ugly or unnatural to us. We conserve what is beautiful to us, what has moved and inspired us. One wants to conserve out of love, out of what one cares about, what one values. We conserve what we have grown to identify a crucial part of ourselves with. Therefore conservation becomes intimate – it becomes self-conservation.

The vast, wild spaces depicted in those two paintings that I first encountered as a wide-eyed child exploring the Whitney Gallery were a part of me, and the impulse to take care of them was an act of self-preservation.

Harry Jackson helped me understand the depth of my love for Wyoming and part of why I serve on the board of Wyoming Humanities and work for the Wyoming chapter of The Nature Conservancy is because I want my granddaughters to see those paintings some day and know that they can still stand out on the wide open western plains that he depicts, feel the power and awe of nature, and know that they belong to a culture that was shaped by those who stood long ago in the same place having the same experience, and that they love Wyoming …as they watch the thunderstorms come in.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51104746