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Leave them your stories

My paternal grandfather, Clyde Bowden Beaty, was a Texas cattleman who rode his land on horseback with a snake gun in a saddle scabbard. Pop was 67 when I was born, so by the time I was old enough to really talk to him, he was elderly. A colorful character by all accounts, I’d give anything to sit down with him and hear more about his experiences. I know that he was forced to sell his cattle and raise sheep during the Great Depression—the photo at left was taken during that period—but he must have had a treasure trove of other stories he could have shared.

I suspect most of us can identify a family member whose stories we regret not hearing or preserving in some form. And while genealogy research can help us fill in the blanks after the fact, nothing can replace hearing someone’s personal story in their own voice. Four years ago Nick Baum, a former Google software engineer, decided he didn’t want to lose his parents’ memories and experiences. In Baum’s case, the situation was complicated by the fact that he lives in San Francisco, while his parents live in Sweden. Instead of waiting for their visits together, Baum started sending regular emails asking his parents questions about their pasts. The idea caught on among family and friends, and in 2013 he and his wife Krista launched StoryWorth to make it as easy as possible for people to record and collect their memories.

I received StoryWorth as a Christmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law. The app works like this: each week I receive a question to respond to in as much or as little detail as I choose. Thus far I’ve written about my favorite toy as a child, life in the Sixties, and my first big trip. Photos can also be included in the stories, and selecting pictures has been an enjoyable exercise as well. If the question I receive doesn’t resonate with me, I can choose another from a lengthy list. Family members can receive the stories electronically as I write them, and at the end of the year a hardcover book, with photos, is created from my stories.

The StoryWorth prompts cover lots of territory—personal, historical, funny, serious—and I love the fact that someone gives me a starting point. The favorite toy question resulted in a lighthearted trip down memory lane about playing dress up and performing brain surgery on my Barbie doll. By contrast, the Sixties were turbulent years in my family and in the nation, and writing about that period wasn’t easy for me. And yet, when the piece was finished, I realized how much of who I am and what I believe was formed during those years. Remembering and reflecting on everything that happened during that one decade proved to be as meaningful for me as I hope it will be for my children and grandchildren.

We are our stories. I can’t think of a better legacy to leave behind than the memories of our experiences and life events in our own words.

The Bear Facts

Here in the eastern Sierra Nevada all of us—including the bears—are getting ready for the first Atmospheric River of the season. Throughout the fall our local bears, which number about 30, have been foraging all over town as they gorge themselves in preparation for the Big Sleep. Unlike most other mountain communities, people and bears here in Mammoth Lakes coexist pretty amicably. And on the very rare occasion when we don’t get along—meaning a bear has to be put down—it’s humans who are at fault.

There are approximately 30,000 black bears living in California’s 28,000 square miles of mountainous terrain, which means it’s fairly crowded. And the more we encroach on the bear’s natural habitat, the more likely human-bear interactions become. More than thirty years ago, our town took the unusual step of hiring a wildlife specialist whose job is to manage the bears and educate humans.

Steve Searles, also known as the Bear Whisperer, is a one-man force working to ensure that bears and humans coexist peacefully here in Mammoth Lakes. Steve, who had his own show on Animal Planet for several years, says the task is fairly straightforward: teach humans not to leave food for bears and they won’t acquire a taste for it. In other words, managing bears begins with managing humans.

When people leave garbage outside or food in their cars and campers or when dumpsters are left open, bears take the easy path. Why work for food when there’s a buffet right in front of you? Once accustomed to a diet of easily available human food, the bears also discover they can break into homes and find food. And that’s when Steve is forced to give them a dose of tough love. Using a shotgun that fires rubber bullets, bean bags, and various pyrotechnic devices, he scares the bears off while also teaching them about unacceptable behaviors. Steve says the bears are a quick study, and over time they learn to stick to their natural diet.

It takes a village to make this concept work. In cooperation with the police department and the town, Steve campaigned to replace regular dumpsters with bear-proof models. He also designed the Please Don’t Feed Our Bears sticker you see above that local residents and business owners display. Over the past three decades, Steve has built what experts consider the model program for bear-human coexistence, and he has talked to communities all over the country about how they can better manage their bear and human populations.

We’ve come a long way, and for the most part our bears are very well behaved. The biggest challenge for our town continues to be tourists. Unfamiliar with our bears, visitors don’t take us seriously when we implore them not to leave food or even food wrappers in their cars and campers because bears will pry open the doors and destroy the interior of their vehicles. We also stress that bear-proof dumpsters don’t work if you fail to latch them properly. Some visitors learn how serious the issue is when a bear breaks into their car or camper; others drop a bag of garbage and leave, never seeing the end results of their carelessness. These kinds of issues aren’t indicative of a bear problem, but a human one. Apparently we don’t learn quite as quickly as the bears.

Check out the amazing Steve Searles on Facebook, and watch videos about his work here and here on YouTube. Steve, we are  grateful for all that you do to foster peaceful coexistence with our bear brothers and sisters.

Family Stories, Family Secrets

Lady Liberty didn’t welcome Rosina Zumstein and her family when they entered New York harbor on November 16, 1885. Although the statue had arrived six months earlier, the base for the iconic creation hadn’t been built yet because of a funding shortage. Rosina, a 44-year-old widow from Eptingen, Switzerland, had crossed the Atlantic with her stepson Johann and three younger children aboard the French ship Normandie. Even without the Statue of Liberty to greet them, their first glimpse of New York, which already boasted a population of almost 1.3 million people, must have been equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.

Rosina and her family were processed at Castle Garden, a receiving station operated by the state of New York on the grounds of today’s Battery Park. (Ellis Island, under the oversight of the federal government, didn’t open until 1892.) According to the passenger list, the Zumstein family was ultimately bound for Nebraska. They did head west, but instead of going to Nebraska they put down roots near Chicago, where a thriving Swiss community existed.

Nineteen-year-old Johann, already an adult, probably married soon after reaching Illinois. Six years later Rosina’s only daughter, Ida, married Adam Traudt, a German Congregational minister who had emigrated from Russia. The Traudt family, including Rosina, moved to Denver, where the young minister founded the First German Congregational Church. The first of their eight children was born in 1893, and grandmother Rosina undoubtedly played an important role in the family.

By the early 1920s, the family had settled in San Antonio, Texas. In September 1923, Ida Traudt died of pneumonia at age 52, which was about average for the time. Ida’s mother Rosina, 82 when her daughter died, lived for another six years.

I like to think there’s a bit of Rosina Zumstein, my great-great grandmother, in my DNA. I’ve done some digging into my genealogy over the years, but I only recently discovered Rosina, and thus far, of all the people in my family tree, she fascinates me the most. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, as a woman alone in 1885, to leave the only home I’d ever known with a stepson and children in tow. Evidence suggests that her family, while not wealthy, was not poor either, so it’s unlikely she came to this country only for economic reasons. Perhaps she was simply something of an adventurer by nature.

With persistence—and often a little legwork—uncovering stories like Rosina’s has been possible for some time. In the last few years, however, online databases and DNA testing have given us powerful new tools to shed light on family stories—and family secrets. I didn’t discover anything unexpected on my DNA test; my genes reflect a heritage dominated by those from Great Britain (50%) and Ireland (31%), with a helping of Western Europe (10%), and a hodgepodge of other places (9%).

Maybe you’ve seen the commercials where someone who thought their ancestors were Scottish learned their roots were Italian instead because of a DNA test. Interesting, but hardly earth shattering, right? Then there’s the New York Times story about Mark, a banker in Delaware, who received his test results back from along with a list of relatives in its database. There was no one on the list from his father’s side of the family, but he did recognize one name: that of his father’s best friend. His biological father, as it turned out. That’s pretty earth shattering.

My husband John had interesting experience with his DNA test. For years his grandmother and her siblings talked about their ancestor, a Polish Jew, who’d converted to Catholicism in order to avoid persecution during the Russian pograms of the nineteenth century. Great story, except for the fact that his DNA test revealed no Jewish genetic connection. John considered the possibility of a mistake, but recently a cousin who’d had a DNA test that also showed no Jewish genetic connection contacted him, largely debunking the idea that his test was a mistake. They agreed it was puzzling and wondered where and why the tale had originated. And despite databases and DNA testing, that puzzle may well go unsolved.

As exciting as it was for me to discover Rosina and unravel her story, there’s something of a cautionary tale about this whole process—namely that you need to be prepared to accept what you find. Those of us alive today are well aware that, thanks to social media and the internet, keeping a secret is pretty much impossible. But our ancestors couldn’t have foreseen that those tools would expose their long-hidden secrets. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad one is a discussion for another post. In the meantime, I’m just delighted I found Rosina Zumstein.

Retirement Reboot-Part II

A few weeks ago, four of us mature folks got the deal of a lifetime, literally. At the North Entrance to Yellowstone we purchased Senior Passes that allow us lifetime access to every national park in the country for $10. We’d heard about this screaming deal via social media, but until we held the passes in our hot little hands none of us believed it. On August 28, 2017 the price of the Senior Pass rose to $80, but all things considered that’s still pretty reasonable.

One member of our group joked that the $10 pass could be an elaborate scheme to entice older folks into the park and then do away with us. We laughed, but given our burgeoning numbers, maybe it’s not so funny. In case you missed the statistics I threw out last month, the U.S. Census bureau calculates that by 2020, 55.9 million people in the U.S. will be age 65 or older, and by 2030, that number will reach 72.7 million.

As I indicated in my previous post, John and I have decided we can’t afford and don’t want to quit working, despite our boomer status. Neither do we want to spend the last third of our lives doing the same things we did during the first two-thirds. Which is why our friend Dutch Mandel says we should be calling it rewirement instead of retirement. I love that, don’t you? We’re not leaving the field, we just want to play the game a bit differently.

As Robert Laura wrote in a recent Forbes article: “In the past, retirement was defined as freedom from the workplace. Now boomers are redefining it as freedom in the workplace.” He goes on to point out that the work we boomers are looking for is “flexible and fluid.”

But what does flexible and fluid work look like? Again, the answers are as varied as we are. Longtime Autoweek publisher Dutch Mandel became an independent automotive writer with the freedom to pick and choose his assignments. Legendary writer and editor Jean Jennings left Automobile magazine for Jean Knows Cars, Inc., which utilizes social media to provide automotive content tailored to women. Another friend retired from the navy and started a venture using drones for aerial mapping. John and I have recently opened Devils Creek Distillery, a family-owned company producing small batch spirits.

Not all of us are starting our own businesses, of course, but recent research does suggest that boomers are more likely to do so than any other generation right now. And why not? We have a lifetime of skills and experience to draw on, and with luck, a lot of good years ahead of us.

Most boomers who don’t relish the risks of starting a business still want a career change of one sort or another. Maybe it’s similar to something you’ve done in the past, or maybe it’s completely different. According to Business Talent Group Founder and CEO Jody Greenstone Miller, “Your life has a cycle and you value different things at different points. You need to match up your career objectives with your life cycle.”

Rewirement is not without its challenges, and one of them is certainly a cultural predisposition to dismiss the potential of those over the age of 65. Sure, we feel younger than our parents did, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the population can see past our gray hair and character lines. And it’s not just that we’re hanging around longer. As Robert Laura points out: “Instead of extra years being tacked on at the end of the line, superchargers are being installed near traditional retirement age.” And, he continues, those superchargers mean we have “10-20 more productive and capable working years when compared to previous generations.”

Some days I have my doubts about that supercharger, but for the most part I agree with Laura. That’s not to say it’s all rainbows and unicorns from here. Few companies offer phased retirement options or flexible opportunities for seniors, and age discrimination is a serious issue. City and community planners haven’t really given much thought to the kind of support systems we’re going to need to continue living vital, productive lives. Finally, the cost of health care appears certain to become even more of a burden.

At the end of the day, I guess it’s a good thing there are a lot of us, because the sheer size of our cohort is bound to drive at least some changes. And we are no strangers to change. As George Lorenzo points out in an excellent article in Fast Company: “The baby boomer generation has lived though decades of radical political and social change, so it should be no surprise that they are also revolutionizing retirement.”

I say let’s show them how it’s done.

Retirement Reboot – Part I

Let’s face it, forty years ago retirement pretty much meant the end of the road was near enough to see. You basically left the working world behind and settled in your recliner to await the arrival of the Grim Reaper. Sure, maybe you did some gardening and made up for all the golf you missed during your productive years, but by and large you worked at play.

In 1980, average life expectancy was only 70 for men, so guys, you didn’t have that much time left anyway. Grandma, whose life expectancy was 77, crocheted a few more blankets and baked a few more cookies, but no one expected her to contribute much. I don’t know who invented that whole Golden Years deal, but I’m convinced it was really a marketing ploy to shuffle us off to our recliners. Think I’m kidding? Read on.

The idea of paid retirement is a relatively modern concept. Conceived by Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, it was a sop he threw to the masses in an effort to hold off the Marxists. It worked. But along the way, Von Bismarck also established the precedent that government should pay people for growing old, and he set the world standard for the exact year when old age begins: 65. Which worked just fine back then because almost no one lived to that age.

Jump ahead to 1935, the height of the Great Depression in this country. Unemployment was at record levels and guess what? Older people who didn’t want to quit working were taking jobs from younger individuals with families to support. And so the Social Security Act of 1935 was born. Unlike Von Bismarck’s giveaway program, however, employees in the U.S. pay into the Social Security system during their working years and collect the benefits upon retirement.

Apparently the whole retirement gig took a little getting used to. After all, that first generation of retirees had grown up figuring they’d work until they were unfit to do so, just as their parents had. But suddenly they had time—a whole lot of time—on their hands. Fortunately, golf courses sprung up in record numbers, movie theaters began featuring afternoon matinees, and five o’clock dinners became the norm. Sounds boring, right? Just remember, it didn’t last that long.

The landscape of aging changed gradually; by 2003 male life expectancy reached 74 and females hit 80. Less than 15 years later, most of us know quite a few people in their nineties and at least a handful who’ve lived to a 100 or more. If life were a football game, at age 65 we’d hear a buzzer signaling the start of the fourth quarter—and a significant number of us will make it into overtime.

Barcalounger and Lazy Boy are still in business, and there are still golf courses aplenty to amuse us Baby Boomers. But what once looked pretty appealing for a five-year stint has now stretched to thirty and thirty-five years. Working at play gets old—in fact, based on recent research working at play probably makes us old.

Almost all of us Boomers agree that we’re younger than our parents were at our current ages. Better nutrition, medical advances, and education all play a role in that. In my mother’s day, the bad hip I had replaced last year would have made that recliner a good option. Today, I hike and walk three-plus miles daily, a fourth-quarter activity I expect to keep up for decades to come.

Which brings up another point: hardly a day goes by that we don’t see something about how to keep our minds sharp. Neuroscientists tell us that crossword puzzles (completed while sitting in our recliners) and computer games like those touted by Lumosity are not the ticket to maintaining brain function. What revs up our brains is learning new and challenging activities—the key words being new and challenging. Findings suggest that digital photography scores high, as do learning to play an instrument and dancing. Volunteering or public service of some kind also seems to help, mainly because we’re engaged with others in the wider world.

So what’s a retired Boomer to do for the next thirty or forty years? There are almost as many answers as there are of us, and that’s saying something. According to the National Institutes on Aging, the 85-and-over population is projected to increase 351 percent between 2010 and 2050. That increase is almost unimaginable, and it’s certainly uncharted waters as far as humanity is concerned. It also presents those of us in that category with a scary question: will our money run out before all the sand falls through the hourglass?

Many of us—my husband and I included—have decided we can’t afford and don’t want to quit working. But neither do we want to keep running on the same wheel we’ve been on for the last forty years. We’ve stepped off into a new world, one we knew nothing about five years ago (more about that next month). And as we look around at our peers, it seems obvious that the old notion of retirement as lots of golf and leisurely lunches no longer fits. It’s time for a retirement reboot.

Got Grit?

Raise your hand if you’ve seen Eddie the Eagle, the movie chronicling the story of Michael “Eddie” Edwards, the ski jumper who represented Great Britain in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. If you haven’t watched it, next time your spirits need a lift cue this one up. Eddie was the first British ski jumper to compete in the Olympics since 1929, and while the movie embellishes bits of his story, the creativity and determination it took for him to reach Calgary is still staggering. Perhaps even more staggering—especially to those who believe winning is everything—Eddie came in dead last in both the 70 and 90 meter jump competitions. And yet Eddie is clear that he considered himself a winner, regardless of how he placed in competition.

Eddie Edwards was one of the least talented and least likely individuals to make it to the Olympics in any sport, winter or summer. He never expected to make the podium in Calgary; for him it was all about setting a goal and achieving it. He persevered despite opposition from his father, British Olympic officials, and his teammates. What kept him climbing those stairs, flying off the ramp, and, frequently, crashing onto the snow? In a word: persistence, that critical combination of positive attitude and strong motivation. I’ve written about it before, in terms of academic performance, here: .

We know intuitively that persistence—or perseverance—matters. If you don’t stick with something obviously you can’t succeed at it. But why does one student, soldier, athlete, or entrepreneur persevere when another doesn’t? That’s the question that psychologist and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Angela Duckworth has been researching for almost fifteen years. Duckworth’s research has shown that it’s not just perseverance that matters, but the combination of perseverance and passion for very long-term goals. She labels that combination “grit.”

In 2004, Duckworth began working with military psychologist Mike Matthews at West Point. Her assignment: trying to predict more accurately which entering cadets would stick and which would bail. At the time, one in five West Point cadets dropped out before graduation, many of them during their initial seven-week training program. As a group, the entering cadets were the best of the best; they ranked at the top of the admissions pool on the Whole Candidate Score, and they met every indicator for potential success. And yet, in significant numbers, they dropped out.

Matthews was looking for a better measure of potential success, and the Grit Scale developed by Angela Duckworth looked like it could be the answer. The questions that make up the Grit Scale focus equally on perseverance and passion, and it turned out that grit was a far better predictor of West Point success than the Whole Candidate Score. Even more interesting, there was no correlation between aptitude, or talent, as measured by the Whole Candidate Score, and how well cadets did on the Grit Scale. According to Duckworth’s research, what determines whether you stay or bail at West Point doesn’t depend on your SAT scores, your high school rank, your leadership experience, or your athletic ability. What matters, she writes, is grit.

Duckworth has interviewed hundreds of teachers, coaches, corporate CEOs, and others who are leaders in their fields in her work on grit. One of her most interesting ideas involves the concept of passion as it relates to perseverance and grit. The kind of passion that breeds success, according to Duckworth, is not intense emotion but consistency over time. Passion, she writes, is “a compass—that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be.” Eddie the Eagle’s passion, his compass, was competing in the Olympics, and that’s what kept him climbing those stairs and flying off the ramp. His passion, in other words, guided and shaped his perseverance.

Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is chock full of groundbreaking ideas and research. She believes that we can build grit in ourselves and others, and in the final chapters of the book she explores studies that aim to determine what kinds of activities might increase the grit quotient. There are no long-term studies with definitive answers yet, but, she writes, short-term studies show that “doing hard (versus easy) things teaches a person to do other hard things.”

Duckworth’s best advice about getting grittier? Adhere to the Hard Thing rule: Do one thing regularly that’s hard for you and work to improve at it. Maybe it’s playing the piano or writing or ski jumping—it doesn’t really matter. Odds are you won’t become Mozart or Margaret Atwood or Eddie the Eagle, but you may be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Watch Angela Duckworth’s TED talk here: Or visit her website: And if you need further inspiration, here’s a trailer for Eddie the Eagle:

Winter’s Discipline

FullSizeRender(5)The snow crunches under my shoes and the poles squeak as I plant them one after the other. Each exhale produces a plume that drifts upward and disappears. The dog races madly through ribbons of light and shadow, occasionally stopping to sniff or leave his mark. In summer, the trails we travel are part of a public campground; in winter, the Forest Service grooms a series of loops for walking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. Some days we have company, but today the forest and the blanket of snow that sparkles under the morning sun form our personal paradise.

It’s been a hard winter here in the Eastern Sierra. After five years of drought, of dying trees and dry stream beds, massive amounts of snow and rain have fallen since the beginning of the year. No one wants to call it too much of a good thing after the drought years, but it would definitely be better if it came in more measured doses. Our snow shovels and snow blowers—and our backs—have gotten a real workout.

Writer, teacher, and activist Parker Palmer, who lives in Wisconsin, writes: “Winter here is a demanding season—and not everyone appreciates the discipline.” That’s true in the Eastern Sierra as well. In January we received more than 200 inches of snow, an all-time record, and we’re set to break the record for February as well. Dealing with that kind of snowfall day in and day out does indeed take discipline. If more than six inches of snow has fallen overnight, the schedule for the day changes immediately. Snow removal goes to the top of the to-do list, and everything else gets shuffled around accordingly. The bigger the storm, the bigger the job, and we’ve had some doozies this season.

Those of us who live here do so because we love the mountains, the outdoors in general, and yes, the snow. We’re outside almost every day, unless we’re experiencing blizzard conditions and it’s too dangerous. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking, snowshoeing, or cross country skiing a few miles, usually with a dog or three since that, too, is part of the lifestyle. There are several hundred miles of groomed snowmobile trails through amazing terrain. Sledding, ice skating, fat biking on the snow, downhill skiing—you name it, people are outside doing it.

I’ve learned to accept and even appreciate winter’s discipline. I make the most of bluebird days and hunker down, preparations in place, when yet another “atmospheric river” of moisture slams into us. Outsiders who come to play in the snow often chafe at that discipline. “How can the road be closed?” they ask. Even better: “My car will be fine without chains.” Mother Nature teaches tough lessons.

On our snowy outings among the trees, the lists, the anxieties large and small, even time itself slips away, and there is only the trail, the dog, and me. When we finally head back, we’re both better off: Harley has burned up some of his abundant energy, and I’ve found clarity and balance again.

October Surprise

We inhabit an insignificant planet orbiting a small star in an unremarkable galaxy that’s gc-night-skypart of a vast universe. And, in case you missed the October surprise (no, not that one), our insignificance just increased. Astronomers studying images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 have concluded that there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of two trillion galaxies in the universe—at least 10 times more than has been assumed for the past 20 years.

Two trillion galaxies. Carl Sagan once termed Earth a “pixel,” but based on this new information, that’s probably stretching it. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively low light pollution, on a clear night you can see the Milky Way spilling across the sky like twinkling diamonds scattered by a careless hand. It’s a sight at once humbling and awe-inspiring—yet what we see represents only the tiniest fraction of what’s out there.

There’s a whirlpool of negativity swirling around these days, but this news about our increased insignificance actually brightened my outlook, paradoxical as that may seem. How? By changing my perspective. Carl Sagan again:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless              cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

“Momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” That puts us in our place, doesn’t it? It brings to mind the old Hasidic saying: “Everyone must have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words, ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in the left, ‘I am dust and ashes.’” Holding those two very different ideas in tension is akin to standing on one foot while juggling three balls. All of us have days when we lose our balance or let a ball (or two) hit the ground. Our egos tug and pull, telling us how important, how unique we are individually and collectively. After all, the world was created for us. And yet, we are dust and ashes, here and then gone, not even a blip on the cosmic scale of things.

Back to those two trillion galaxies: In 2018 NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will allow scientists to explore galaxies they can’t study with the Hubble. Whatever they find, it’s likely to further diminish our standing in the cosmos. Or, to reframe, we’ll be part of something bigger still—a part that matters, regardless of our size relative to the rest of the universe. A closing quote from Carl Sagan, this one with echoes of that Hasidic proverb: “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us.”

Photo credit: Trevor Mendel – Night Sky in the Grand Canyon.

Hip-hop History

1453816741bg_300x415-hamiltonNot an empty seat in the house, and many of them were filled with kids—tweens and teens of both sexes. It could have been a screening of Marvel’s latest installment in the Captain America or X-Men series, but it wasn’t. It was “Hamilton,” Lin Manuel-Miranda’s story about the life of Alexander Hamilton set to hip-hop music.

Reviews by the dozens have been written about “Hamilton.” It’s been called a “game changer,” “vibrantly democratic,” audaciously ambitious,” and, my personal favorite, “a story about a revolution that is itself a revolution.” It’s all of those things and more. If you aren’t one of the two million people who’ve already viewed it, here’s a clip from a performance at the White House that gives you a taste of what it’s all about.

As this amazing production unfolded on the stage, it was not the theatergoer in me who was spellbound, but the history teacher. This, I thought, this could save history in the classroom, could help us find compelling new ways to tell the stories that form the foundation of who we are as a people, as a nation. The music itself obviously drew the kids in, but the story is told so well through the lyrics that they will remember more than the catchy tunes.

From a teacher’s standpoint, Miranda succeeds in doing what most of us struggle with: he breathes life into Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Burr and all the others who fought to free the colonies from the British, and then fought each other about how best to unite those colonies into a nation. Again, music opens the door, but what keeps the audience enthralled is Miranda’s ability to show us people—real people—with flaws and failings not unlike our own. Hamilton cheated on his beloved wife (creating the nation’s first sex scandal), threw a tantrum when Washington wouldn’t give him a combat assignment, and was so driven that he often neglected his family. Miranda gives us that Hamilton, as well as the young genius who envisioned the nation’s entire financial and economic system, and the father who became almost unhinged when his son died in a dual.

“Hamilton” is a story with everything—love, death, sex, war, greed, you name it—told in way that pulls you in and refuses to let go. It’s a historical tour de force that feels like it has arrived just in the nick of time because our knowledge about the American story has reached an all time low. A 2008 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which surveyed more than 2,500 adults, found that only half of those surveyed could name the three branches of government. In 2014, a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 18 percent of eighth graders were proficient or above in U.S. History and only 23 percent in Civics.

This profound lack of knowledge about the basics of our history and government isn’t merely a deficit of memory about dates and dead people, it threatens the common frame of reference that makes us Americans and not merely a conglomeration of tribes sharing space on this continent. As John Dewey wrote in 1916: “Knowledge of the past is the key to understanding the present.” He goes on: “The lives of great men, of heroes and leaders, make concrete and vital historic episodes otherwise abstract and incomprehensible.” As the curtain came down on “Hamilton,” I pictured John Dewey cheering and whistling with everyone else, for surely the lives of great men were never more “concrete and vital” than on the stage that night.

Miranda’s story of “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father” is based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s book was made possible by the remarkable work of Harold C. Syrett and his team at Columbia University Press who, between 1961 and 1987, edited and published twenty-seven volumes of Hamilton’s personal and political papers. Yes, that’s twenty-seven volumes, many of them containing material never before mined for historical content and context. Chernow’s book is almost as compelling as Miranda’s musical version, which is saying a great deal.

A final thought. “Hamilton” ends with a number that asks a profoundly philosophical question about history itself. The song is called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” and it draws on the fact that Alexander Hamilton was just forty-nine years old when Aaron Burr shot and killed him. Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries—Burr, Madison, Jefferson—disliked him intensely while he was alive, and after his death they ignored his considerable achievements and vilified his name. They told his story, in other words, and they left out the best parts. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t gloss over the negatives about Hamilton, but he shines a spotlight on this remarkable man and in doing so, restores him to his rightful place in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers.

You can find the original cast recording of “Hamilton” here, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s story about how the musical evolved here. Look for Chernow’s Hamilton biography at your local library or on Amazon.

About Grandmothers

My paternal grandmother was not the warm and doting sort. I’m pretty sure my brother and I wore out our welcome about fifteen minutes after we arrived at her house. It wasn’t like we were hooligans, but she definitely ascribed to the old maxim that children should be seen and not heard. She wasn’t mean, she just didn’t really engage with us.

At holiday meals in her elegant dining room, my brother and I were swathed in plastic sheets to protect the chairs and the rug. My husband thought I was exaggerating about that until I showed him an old photo of Christmas dinner. Then there was the staircase issue. The sweeping stairs in the living room were reserved for company, and small children didn’t qualify. My grandmother promised us a nickel if we’d use the back stairs instead of the fancy ones. Mostly we did as she asked, but every so often we’d sneak up the front stairs, all the more appealing because we weren’t supposed to use them.

By contrast, my maternal grandmother was a soft, round woman who always had Cheerios for us, a treat not found in our pantry for some reason. Although we didn’t spend a lot of time with her, we knew she loved us and enjoyed having us in her home. She had raised nine children in that house, and it felt like a place where people were definitely more important than things.

My mother-in-law died when my sons were very small, so my mother was the only grandmother they ever knew. Nana played board games and Go Fish, read countless books, and went swimming in the lake with them. She baked their favorite cookies and piled up leaves for a bonfire at Thanksgiving. When my husband and I had travel plans, she came and stayed for a week or so at a time. Most of the house rules probably went unheeded, but no one was worse for the wear. My sons were adults by the time Nana died in 2009, but losing her was very difficult for them.

And now, as a friend said, I’ve joined the “grandmother club” myself. I hadn’t been jonesing for the role—I figured it would happen when our sons and daughter-in-laws were ready. Like most Millennials, they lead crazy busy lives, and timing children and careers is even trickier than it used to be. Since Ethan Abbott Mendel joined the family on May 26, I check for new photos first thing every morning, and our Skype sessions are definitely the highlight of the week. At odd moments I find myself thinking about things I hope to do with him—hike in Yosemite, sit around a campfire, ski down the mountain—and I’ve begun collecting books I can’t wait to read to him.

I want the world to be perfect for Ethan and the other grandchildren to come, but of course it won’t be. Whatever happens out there, I hope our house will always be an oasis of love and good times for all of them. Maybe that’s perfect enough.