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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Bedside Reading

Hubby remains in ICU, but Patrick doesn't pay me to write about my personal problems, so here's something about my hospital bedside reading.  I said several weeks ago that I was enjoying Rex Stout as clever escapism.  He was a popular mystery writer in the middle of the twentieth century, and I do like his work.  Yet his plots and especially his characters and settings – usually upper-class people in prewar Manhattan – get predictable.  And because mysteries almost axiomatically means murder, I decided this wasn't exactly cheering me.


So then I read all of the PG Wodehouse books that we have on the shelf – about eight, I think, although he wrote more.  He sometimes sets a plot in Manhattan, where his protagonist, young Bertram Wooster, sometimes flees from his domineering Aunt Agatha.  Most of the time, though, Bertie habituates his London club, the Drones, or goes to some English estate to help a friend – usually a friend trying to extricate himself from a woman. 


The most manipulative of these women is Honore Glossop, and his male friends also have wonderful names – Stilton Cheeswright, Bingo Little, and PSmith, for example.  Bertie's valet, the incomparable Jeeves, apparently has no first name, but he is a genius who unravels every knot these lovable but stupid aristocrats create for themselves.  Set in the Roaring Twenties, no plot ever alludes to poverty or any unfortunate situation -- except the occasional need for bail money and fare to New York. 




Finished with Wodehouse books, I switched to Florida's own Dave Barry.  Actually, Hubby and I have been fans for decades, when Dave still lived in Pennsylvania and wrote a piece for Popular Mechanics called "How to Make a Board."  One of the necessary items was a handgun, to be wielded by the demented vocational ed teacher.  (Yes, Hubby does read Popular Mechanics, as did my father.  I have the November issue of the magazine in his personal belongings bag at the hospital, waiting for him to be well enough to look at it.)


So far, I've done these cheerfully titled books:  Stay Fit and Healthy til You're Dead; Dave Barry's Guide to Marriage And/Or Sex; Claw Your Way to the Top: How to Become the Head of a Major Corporation in Roughly a Week; and The Taming of the Screw (about home repair).  I'm working on his History of the Millennium (So Far).  Reading his news summaries following the 2000 election has led me to more serious thoughts, especially about journalism's herd mentality and lack of follow up. 


I especially thought about that during an afternoon when NPR's One-A was on the car radio.  Its host asked the three reporters he was interviewing for insightful stories – and they all repeated each other with commentary about was is trending now:  the Middle East and the presidential primaries.  There wasn't an original thought or a genuine insight between them, much less any recognition that old stories need to be picked up and followed through to their current situation. 


If I were running such a show, I'd make it a rule to go back to the news of six months ago, six years ago, and even more.  For instance, I'd follow up on headlines that were so important earlier in 2019 and find out if Mexican kids still are being held in cages – and if not, where are they?  And what about that vainglorious wall?  Is any construction going on at all, and if not, is this an unacknowledged victory for Nancy Pelosi? 


I'd go back even further and invite Condi Rice and Colin Powell to comment on the foreign policy of their fellow Republican who now occupies the White House, and whether or not they have regrets about their own foreign policies.  What ever happened to those weapons of mass destruction, btw?  And what are Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger doing now?  Is the dimmed star of these guys, elected by a presumably crazed electorate, perhaps a sign that Donald Trump is headed for a similar fate?




Because I haven't been sleeping well, I decided to choose what looked like the most boring things in the house for bedtime reading.  This would be the set of books called The Annals of America, which a friend left on my front porch a few years back as she sneaked off to retirement in North Carolina.  They have been sitting out of sight ever since, and I decided this would be the perfect reason to pick up Volume One.  The annals are collections of primary documents on American history, arranged chronology.  The first volume is 549 pages of fairly dense type, running from 1493 to 1754.


Once you accept the fact that this was published in 1968, before women were invented, it can be instructive.  Of the 52 authors in this volume, just one is a woman:  Anne Bradstreet, the Boston poet whose 1650 book was the first published by an American.  Like most women, she was too self-effacing to ever have considered publication, but without her knowledge, her brother-in-law took her poems to London and returned with America's first book.


Not surprisingly, the first document in the 16-volume set is from Columbus' well-kept diaries.  The editors, however, did not follow up with any other work by early Spanish writers.  There could have been some good documents, as colonial Spain was even more bureaucratic than modern America.  For example, I would have included an official complaint to the government in Mexico City from Simona de Bejar.  She was part of the 1598 expedition that settled Santa Fe, and she reported that the leader was not only padding his muster list, but also cheating widows out of their share of government goods.


Instead of such interesting items, the book is almost exclusively writing by white men from the Northeast, many of them sermons from Puritan preachers.  Some men are included more than once:  although there are just 52 authors, the list of documents run to 114 – with Benjamin Franklin having six.  I was surprised at the illiberalism of some of his thoughts, especially re American Indians.  More on that in a later column, but first the first. 


I've read a lot about Columbus and his four voyages, but I nonetheless learned some things from this diary excerpt.  First, the island that soon became known as Cuba, he originally named "Juana."  The editors don't explain it, but she was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and she would be a co-equal monarch with her father when the great Spanish queen died.


Columbus mentioned, too, that Caribbean natives already were acquainted with cotton.  Given that we know cotton was in Egypt many centuries prior to that, I wondered (and still do) how it traveled between hemispheres.  I googled the subject and found that the first evidence of cotton dates to about 6000 BC, in India and Pakistan.  If you find its path to the Caribbean, please let me know.




This narrative is from Columbus' second voyage, when he expanded from three ships to seventeen.  Again, the editors don't say so – and probably didn't know – but because I have researched this for earlier books, I can tell you that Columbus stopped at Gomera, the smallest of the Canary Islands.  Those islands are close to Spain and so he did not need re-supplying, and docking was difficult in Gomera's tiny harbor.  The reason, according to a contemporaneous Italian man, was because Columbus was in love with the woman who governed that island.  The great explorer mentions Gomera in his first paragraph, but to my disappointment, did not say anything about Donna Ines. 


When he reached what we call Santo Domingo, which he named Espanola, he wrote:  "The inhabitants of both sexes in this island, and in all the others which I have seen…go always naked as they were born, with the exception of some of the women, who use the cover of a leaf or small bough or an apron of cotton which they have prepared for that purpose.  None are possessed of any iron, neither have they weapons… They have fled in haste at the approach of our men… This timidity did not arise from any loss or injury they had received from us… They are naturally timid and fearful.

         "As soon, however, as they see that they are safe, they are very simple and honest and exceeding liberal with anything they possess.  They exhibit great love for all others…  As far as I have learned, every man…is united with one wife, with the exception of the kings and princes, who are allowed to have twenty.  The women seem to work more than the men."


Columbus was merely the first to make that observation.  As Europeans settled the continent throughout the next centuries, almost every male explorer of every ethnicity wrote that women worked harder than men.  I wonder, though, if these men ever really understood the amount of work done by women back home?  Their own wives and mothers probably were upper class, and I suspect the men never realized the magnitude of female labor all around them -- ranging from wet nurses and child nurses to milkmaids to chambermaids to cooks, seamstresses, and more.  Native American men indeed might have been lazy compared with women, but the same also could be said of European gentlemen. 



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