Magic-Loop Mittens, Knit Without Fear


Ready in time for the 3-5″ of snow predicted for Tuesday.

I promise, I will not turn this site into a knitting blog. I actually have at least half a dozen other posts in rough draft form—book reviews! photographs! China stuff!—and need to clean those up and publish them. But first, one last post (for now) about knitting.

My favorite knitting blogger is Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, known by the nom de knit Yarn Harlot. Steph (I’ll pretend we’re on a first-name basis) is wonderfully reassuring in her advice about knitting; in both her blog posts and books, she speaks with calm authority. Her basic message is: knitting is not brain surgery. Sure, there are some tricky parts and you may mess them up a time or ten, but just rip your work back and try again. It’s not a big deal. Steph posts about the mistakes she’s made, just to prove that even someone who has been knitting for four-plus decades is capable of screwing up—regularly, and on an occasionally epic scale.

The thing is, although I have read Steph’s blog and books for nearly a decade now, I haven’t really taken this message to heart. I’ve been a very cautious knitter. I learned a ton of stuff really quickly, got reasonably good at it, and then stopped trying new things. I learned to knit cuff-down socks, so I’ve never attempted a pair of toe-up. I’ve knit probably a dozen sweaters, but every single one has been a seamless raglan so I wouldn’t have to sew anything together. I’ve never done colorwork, even though I love the look of classic Norwegian knits and would like a star hat. Whenever I look through patterns on Ravelry, I immediately toss out the ones that involve techniques I haven’t learned, regardless of how much I like the finished objects.

I’m trying to get better at knitting fearlessly, as the Yarn Harlot advocates, and what better place to start than with a project she inspired me to do? I saw these fingerless mitts on her blog in December and ordered the yarn right away. But then I delayed casting on, because as much as I wanted those mitts, I knew I was going to have to Magic Loop them—and that meant I was going to have to learn how to Magic Loop.

Quick explanation: the basic way to knit small-circumference circular things is to use a set of double-pointed needles (DPNs), which form a triangle or square (depending on the number of needles in play). This is how I learned to knit in the round. But a lot of knitters are very fond of a newer technique called the Magic Loop, which employs one long circular needle to accomplish the same result.

(That’s a very poor explanation of something you really have to see to understand. Sorry.)

Because the yarn for the mitts is a super-bulky weight, it would require #11 or 13 DPNs, neither of which I own. They’re kind of an odd size, so I’d have to order them online; depending on what brand and source I chose, I’d probably wind up paying $10-15 for the needles and shipping. And I wasn’t sure if I’d need size 11 or 13, so it would be safest to buy both.

Or I could suck it up, pull out one of the many circular needles I already own, and learn to Magic Loop.

So rather than spend $30 on more DPNs, I decided to try Magic Looping. Last Sunday afternoon, I sat down with my yarn and needles and a cup of coffee and watched a couple of tutorials on YouTube. I cast on and started knitting and realized about ten stitches in that I’d messed up. I found more tutorials online and eventually stumbled over one that clicked and made Magic Looping seem obvious and easy. In between work and phone calls and laundry, I knit the entire first mitt before the end of Sunday, and then I knocked out the second one in a couple of post-dinner knitting sessions during the week. By the time I finished, it was like I’d been Magic Looping since childhood.

Knitting isn’t brain surgery, in either its complexity or stakes. I need to remember that more often.

Posted in Knitting | 2 Comments

Gone Grant: UC Pacific Rim Research Program Ends

In the reading room at Shanghai’s Bibliotheca Zikawei, on the afternoon I finished and submitted my dissertation.

In the reading room at Shanghai’s Bibliotheca Zikawei, on the afternoon I finished and submitted my dissertation.

I have a very clear memory of finding out that I’d been awarded a UC Pacific Rim Research Grant, because I thought I’d been rejected.

I was kind of on a break from grad school in the spring of 2012, working on ChinaFile at the Asia Society and living in Princeton. As I rode the train home from New York one evening, my BlackBerry buzzed with an email—the results of the PacRim application I’d submitted earlier that year. The email didn’t look good; the message said something like “Thank you for your interest in the Pacific Rim grant. The results of your application are attached.” That seemed ominous. But when I clicked on the PDF attachment, for some reason my phone wouldn’t download it. I spent the rest of the trip home mentally preparing myself for the moment when I would open the attachment on my computer and see “We are sorry to inform you that …”

I had already received two letters like that (though I’d also been awarded two small grants by professional organizations), and I’d decided that if the PacRim didn’t go my way, I was done with graduate school. In some ways, I would have to be done: I couldn’t self-fund a yearlong research trip to China, and I couldn’t write my dissertation and finish the PhD without that trip. But I was also feeling done in a broader sense: if none of the major grant organizations I had applied to thought my research was worth funding, I would take that as a sign that academia was not the place for me. I already had a pretty strong hunch that might be the case.

So I walked into my apartment and took my time getting settled—changing out of my work clothes, unpacking my briefcase, fixing a snack. I finally opened my email and clicked on that attachment, seeing with great surprise that the first sentence read, “I write with happy news.” I had money to fund my research year.

Future UC students won’t get that happy news, because the Pacific Rim grant has just been ended. (Apparently that information was posted on January 1, but the announcement just made its way into my social media networks.) The program had been gutted a couple of years ago, when the full-scale grants like the one I received were suspended and only mini-grants were available (something I wrote about for the LA Review of Books at the time). But now the UC Office of the President has declined to renew the PacRim funding, and the program is over.

I find this incredibly frustrating—and I’m standing at a distance. I can’t imagine how it feels for the second- and third-year grad students who are looking ahead at the next couple of years and seeing that another major funding source has dried up. Well, there’s still the Fulbright-Hays … if you’re a U.S. citizen, and if the program isn’t suddenly suspended (that’s already almost happened once, which I wrote about for China Beat back in 2011). Many other grants, such as those offered by the Luce/ACLS China Studies Program, are for pre-dissertation summer fieldwork, or they’re like the ones I received from the Association for Asian Studies and the Children’s Literature Association—small grants of $1500 or $2000. Those grants are useful and important, but not enough for a long research trip.

I regularly talk to prospective grad students who are interested in studying at UC Irvine and want answers to their questions. I’m still enthusiastic about UCI and its Chinese history program, but I’m also honest with those applicants: the biggest funding challenge they’ll face isn’t as PhD students in California, since UCI History now guarantees a certain level of funding for everyone entering the program. Instead, they’ll face a problem when it comes time to do research overseas, because there just aren’t that many places offering money right now. Too many people are applying for too few dollars.

Receiving the PacRim kept me in graduate school for an additional two years—the years I needed to research and write my dissertation. Getting that grant was also, to be honest, an incredible boost of confidence at a time when I felt very little in my academic skills. It signaled to me that someone beyond my advisors and professors at UCI thought I had good ideas that were worth pursuing. I took the research conducted with PacRim support and turned it first into a dissertation and then into a book proposal that’s now under contract with Oxford University Press. So even though I didn’t wind up with a traditional tenure-track academic job, I’d like to think that the PacRim administrators would look at me today and see money spent wisely.

Even if someone thinks the funds weren’t put to good use in my particular case, there are more than 800 other projects that the PacRim has supported since it began in 1986. Those projects cover academic fields ranging from history to public health and investigate countries all around the Pacific Rim. The PacRim program was broad, both geographically and disciplinarily, and resulted in enhanced understanding of an enormous region. Why, I have to ask, is that not worth continuing?

Posted in China, Dissertation, Higher Education | 1 Comment

Knitters Take Manhattan: Vogue Knitting Live! NYC

IMG_1998(Random side note: although I loved both of my apartments in Shanghai, one thing neither ever offered was quiet, primarily due to the incessant renovations other residents were always undertaking. It just struck me how wonderful it is to sit down with my coffee and laptop early on a Sunday morning and write without the rattle of the despised hammer-drills distracting me. Ten points in Jersey City’s column.)

I changed my mind half a dozen times about whether or not I would go to Vogue Knitting Live! in New York this weekend. I didn’t learn about the show until last week, so almost all of the classes were already filled to capacity, and the few remaining didn’t appeal to me. If I went, my participation was going to be limited to buying a $20 Marketplace ticket and wandering around a big sales hall of yarn that I shouldn’t buy at a time when there are other outlets for my money. (I have plenty of yarn. I do not, however, have a sofa.) Twenty dollars to window shop and talk myself out of impulse purchases didn’t seem like a responsible use of funds.

And yet …

I wanted to go. I wanted to see what a knitting show was all about, as I’d never been to one before. I wanted to check out new patterns and get inspired, because I seem to be stuck in a scarf rut. I wanted to see interesting yarns in person and make mental notes about what I should buy when I have more(/any) disposable income. And spending a few hours at a knitting show seemed infinitely more appealing than unpacking the last of my kitchen boxes. (Which I will do today, it’s on the list, I swear. I hate moving.)

Saturday morning, I made the final decision as I was eating breakfast: I was going. I accessorized my outfit with some favorite hand-knits, as I had a suspicion that one wants to show off one’s best creations at a knitting show, and made my way up to the Marriott at Times Square. Twenty dollars handed over at the ticket booth and I was sporting a hot-pink wristband allowing me entry to the two-floor Marketplace.

Inside the Vogue Knitting Live! Marketplace

Inside the Vogue Knitting Live! Marketplace

I realized about 30 seconds after walking into the Marketplace that there was actually very little danger that I would walk out with a bag stuffed full of yarn. The hall was so packed with people that we could barely move through the aisles; making my way into the tiny and crowded booths to inspect yarn up close seemed an exercise in futility, and making [responsible] purchasing decisions practically impossible. It’s a good thing that knitters tend to be a friendly and understanding group of people, because everyone kept bumping into each other as they inched through the Marketplace. This provided many opportunities for conversations about the hand-knits people were wearing—as I’d expected, nearly everyone had donned at least one of their finished objects. I heard a lot of exclamations of “That is so beautiful! Which yarn is that?” and “Don’t tell me you made up that pattern yourself!” (One guy asked me which pattern I’d used to make the scarf I was wearing, which satisfied the desire of my knitter’s ego for recognition.)

I did one slow circuit of the room, ducking into less crowded booths to check things out whenever I could. There were quite a few yarn producers exhibiting their wares, as well as many knitting stores selling various luxury yarns, plus every knitting accessory you can imagine: shawl pins, stitch markers, fancy needles, yarn bowls, “knit one, sip two” wine glasses, pillows that massage your lower back to prevent pain while sitting and knitting.

“I just like to pet the silk,” one shop owner told me, and while this statement might seem bizarre to non-knitters, I completely understood. I can’t stand scratchy yarn; tweedy Irish wool might look nice, but it’s hell to wear. When I’m yarn-shopping (or browsing), soft wins. Merino wool, silk, cashmere, bison, qiviut … oh, qiviut. One shop had some beautiful qiviut for $220 a skein—a little outside my price range.


$220 qiviut (the two larger skeins on the left)

When I needed a break from the Marketplace after an hour, I went out into the gathering area and found the “Seven Wonders of the Yarn World,” an exhibit of models created from yarn and different knitting techniques.

Granny-square Great Wall of China

Granny-square Great Wall of China

I ate the lunch I’d brought (and noticed many others at nearby tables also eating brown-bag style; knitters tend to be a thrifty bunch, except when it comes to buying yarn) and pulled out the scarf I’ve been working on to get in a little knitting time. All the tables around me were filled with women doing the same,* often sharing advice and trading knitting war stories or pulling out their phones to show off pictures of projects. (I heard more than a few “my husband’s gonna freak out if I come home with one more skein of yarn” jokes, too.) I mostly prefer knitting alone—it clears my mind and gives me something to do while I watch TV—but there’s something pleasant and companionable about being surrounded by a knitting community, too.


Eventually, I put my scarf away and headed up to the second floor of the Marketplace, which was even more crowded than the first. The second floor had a lot of big booths and some of the superstar vendors, as well as the main stage, where fashion shows were taking place. It. Was. Insane.

Without a doubt, my favorite element was the “knitting as art” exhibit outside the second floor of the Marketplace, where people who take knitting to another level were showing off their work. I saw wearable knitted animal-head masks and knitted glass, knitted toys and dolls and close-up photographs of knitted work. The exhibitor who really takes the cake (pun intended), though, was “Madame Tricot,” who knits sculptures of food. She had a sweets table


And a well-stocked fridge.


Perhaps predictably, I did not attain my goal of leaving Vogue Knitting Live! without buying anything. But I also didn’t leave VKL with much. I bought a pattern (for the Grus cowl; $6) and one skein of a hand-dyed lace-weight yarn from a farm in New York ($16). Plus, I saw a lot of cool knitted stuff, added half a dozen patterns to my Ravelry queue (now 436 project long; I might need to quit my job and knit full-time), and decided that yes, Vogue Knitting Live! is more than worth the price of admission. Sign me up for next year.

* Knitting is overwhelmingly a women’s hobby; I saw a few men at the show, but they probably composed under 10% of vendors and attendees combined. Several were clearly bag-men brought along by their wives to carry the woman’s purchases and leave her hands free to pet the yarn.

Posted in Knitting, New York | Tagged | 1 Comment

A Longwood Christmas


Remember how I swore I was in for the winter and had no plans to go anywhere as long as the mid-Atlantic region was doing its North Pole imitation?

Well, as Mary Poppins would say, that was a piecrust promise (“easily made, easily broken”), because my mother, brother, and I decided to go to Longwood Gardens on Saturday to see their Christmas display before it ended.

Longwood Gardens is one of my absolute favorite places. It started out as the estate of Pierre du Pont, an industrial magnate whose true passion was horticulture and landscape design. In 1906, du Pont purchased a farm in Kennett Square, PA and quickly began designing gardens for the grounds. By 1921, du Pont’s vision had increased in scale: he oversaw the construction of the “Conservatory,” a stunning greenhouse that eventually also featured the world’s largest pipe organ in a private residence. Additionally, du Pont was fascinated by fountains and designed elaborate landscapes around them. After his death in 1954, Longwood was turned into a public attraction—one of the best things to do in the Philadelphia area (though it’s about an hour’s drive from the city).

Mom, Bren, and I have a long tradition of going to Longwood, in both summer and winter. I kind of prefer it during the summer, because there’s more to see and my favorite water features are all closed during the winter, but that’s certainly not to say that a cold-weather visit is a waste of time! The Longwood Christmas display is always something special.

Saturday was cold—we’d all dressed as warmly as possible, but still made a beeline for the Conservatory as soon as we entered the gardens, walking quickly past the decorated outdoor trees. We wanted to be indoors.

Every year, the Christmas design team picks a theme for the decorations; this year’s was birds.

As Mom pointed out in several places, the designers create impressive displays using some very basic materials—things often look more complicated than they actually are. Like this pinecone penguin, for example:


Not to say that most of us would come up with the initial idea for making an ornament like this, but it wouldn’t be that difficult to replicate it. Right? (Famous last words.)

We walked around and around the Conservatory—you have to look at everything twice. There are so many subtle details to the displays that you always miss something the first time.

IMG_1946Plus, pretty flowers to look at and smell!

After a while, we race-walked from the Conservatory to the restaurant for soup and sandwiches, then practically ran back to the Conservatory as the sun was beginning to set and the air, unbelievably, got even colder.

We found seats in the Music Room and waited for an organ concert to begin. Last year we went to the gardens closer to Christmas and the concert was a sing-along of holiday songs. But this year we just sat and listened as the organist played.

By the time the concert ended, it was truly dark and all the lights were on, both inside …


.. and out.

IMG_1975Arctic weather aside, the trip was totally worth it—Longwood never disappoints.

Now, back to hibernation!

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Winter Hibernation

I am so ready for this.

Weather forecast
Temperatures in New York have plunged this week, and I’m ready to hibernate. Between travel for work and the holidays, I don’t think I’ve spent a full week in my apartment since I moved here over Thanksgiving weekend. But now, I’m looking at my calendar and don’t see any time away from New York on it until the first weekend in March (to warm and sunny Florida, woo hoo!). I’m ready to hole up and settle in for the winter.

I have books. I have a TV and Netflix.

I have yarn and knitting projects and coffee.


I have slippers.


(Those are the L.L. Bean Wicked Good Moccasins and yes, I paid $69 for slippers. No, I can’t believe I paid $69 for slippers. But they’re worth every penny! My feet have never been this warm.)

So hit me with your best shot, January, because I am so ready for this.

I’m just trying to figure out how to teleport myself to and from work so I don’t actually have to go outside.

Posted in Books, Knitting, New York | 1 Comment

Notes from #AHA2015

IMG_1853The annual meeting of the American Historical Association was held in New York this past weekend. Admittedly, I didn’t have a specific reason to go—I wasn’t on a panel or interviewing for a job or trying to sell a book manuscript—but it seemed odd not to attend when the largest meeting of my (sort-of) profession was being held in my own backyard.

I had intended to work Friday morning, then head to the conference in the afternoon and be there through the weekend (the meeting didn’t end until this afternoon, but I had to work today). However, some extenuating circumstances kept me in Philadelphia for an extra day, so I didn’t make it to the AHA until late Saturday morning (and missed the bloggers/#twitterstorians gathering on Friday night, my only regret about my delayed arrival).

So what do you do at an AHA when you’re no longer an academic? (I guess that’s the way to describe me … still working on figuring that out.) Well, you spend a lot of time explaining to people what your job is, watching as confusion passes over their faces until you utter the magic words “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” and they finally have something to grab onto. Aside from that, my weekend was mostly about buying books and meeting/catching up with people.

I did go to two panels—one on education overseas, one on the future of the book review—but I’ve long felt that panels are the weakest part of conferences. Some are good; most are formulaic at best. I usually wind up feeling that my time could be better spent elsewhere.

IMG_1859Therefore, after arriving and getting my meeting badge on Saturday morning, I made a beeline for the book exhibit. After my first pass through, I actually didn’t think I would buy that much. I got a lot of books at last year’s AHA and still haven’t read most of them; why would I add to my pile of unread volumes? But the trade publishers who take booths at the conference know how to get me—paperbacks $3-5, hardcovers $10—and by Sunday afternoon, I had acquired ten new books to be read (two of which were free!). The knowledge that I would have to carry everything home on the subway definitely kept my purchasing in check.

The AHA is huge—the sessions were split across two hotels in Midtown—and there were still lots of New Year’s tourists hanging around the hotels, too. In other words, you couldn’t count on running into people you hoped to see. If I’d planned better ahead of time, I would have emailed people and set up meetings, but … that didn’t happen, for the most part. Twitter actually turned out to be my main medium for connecting with others at the conference: in a couple of cases, I realized from reading tweets that I was sitting in the same panel as someone I wanted to say hi to, and in other cases, I used Twitter direct messages to make plans with people whose email addresses and phone numbers I didn’t have on hand. The American Historical Association itself uses social media and technology more effectively than most other professional organizations, and that emphasis on connectivity can really enhance the conference in ways that I don’t think people always realize.

Overall, I’d say I just dipped my toe in the AHA this year. Only being there for parts of two days meant that it was difficult to get fully engaged in what was going on, and I definitely didn’t do a good enough job ahead of time arranging to meet with people. I also found that having the conference in your home city is not the greatest: rather than spending full days at the meeting and then heading upstairs to collapse in my hotel room and watch HGTV at night, I was acutely conscious of all the stuff I had to do at home (laundry, dishes, work) and made relatively early exits on both days. An intermittent weekend subway/PATH train schedule made the trip between Jersey City and 53rd Street about an hour long each way, which ate up time as well (though I got to read a lot!). Spending money on the conference hotel when I have an apartment a few miles away goes against my nature, but if I had been more involved in the conference, or more interested in being involved, staying onsite would have probably made sense. Though it was pretty nice to come home at the end of the day and fall asleep in my own bed … even without HGTV to amuse me.

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Out with the Old, In with the New (Eventually)

I achieved my final resolution of 2014 and early on New Year’s Eve finished the dishrag I started knitting over the weekend.

Now my mother has one in reserve for the day when my previous creation (c. 2009) truly bites the dust. It’s seen better days, but still has some life left in it.


This morning I was catching up on the Yarn Harlot’s blog posts and saw some appealing photos of cozy, squishy fingerless mitts she knitted as Christmas gifts. Two minutes later, I’d ordered a hank of Usha Suya in Glen of Pines colorway … so when that arrives, 2015 knitting will be underway.

Happy New Year!

(FYI, that’s the Ballband Dishcloth by Mason-Dixon Knitting, pattern available free at the Peaches & Creme website.)

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A Project I Can Handle


2014 has been a hell of a year.

I don’t mean that the year has been bad, but it has been very full. Full of planes and trains, hotel rooms, conference panels, deadlines (more often missed than met, unfortunately), packing and unpacking, writing as much as I could as fast as I could, and a general sense that I was always running a day late and a dollar short. My goal for 2015 is to not be in triage mode all the time.

What 2014 was not full of was knitting. I tried. I started off strong with a pair of mittens in early January, but then put down the needles until late in the spring, when I cast on a Windward scarf and then quickly knit up a baby sweater as a shower gift as well. I worked on Windward into early July, knitting row after row during breaks from dissertation writing in an attempt to relax. But by the time I finished the scarf, I could no longer ignore the fact that I had knit and typed myself into a painful case of carpal tunnel syndrome. Since UC Irvine wasn’t going to give me a PhD in knitting, I abandoned that hobby in favor of binge-watching Friends during my dissertation breaks instead.

Even after I finished the dissertation, though, I didn’t pull out my yarn stash and pick a new project. My hands/wrists didn’t ache anymore, but my brain felt exhausted—too tired to select a yarn, decide on a pattern, and follow the instructions. I continued reading knitting blogs and perusing patterns on Ravelry throughout the fall, but my interest in actually knitting anything was zero.

My knitting motivation suddenly returned about two weeks ago, when I was at a conference where a couple of other participants were knitting during the sessions. I kept looking at their yarn and needles and at one point wondered if it would seem completely bizarre if I offered to take over from them for a few rows.

(I restrained myself from asking.)

But although my fingers were itching to knit and purl again, I still wasn’t really interested in embarking on anything big or complicated. I wanted to make something easy. Something fast. Something that would fit no matter what the size. Something I could complete before the end of the year, that I wouldn’t get bogged down in and carry over into 2015.

So as 2014 draws to a close, I’m making a dishrag. Really, that’s about all the knitting center in my brain can handle right now … but I have sock-making hopes for 2015.

P.S. As I uploaded the photo of the dishrag, I realized it rather appropriately resembles a brick wall—the perfect way to end a year in which I felt like I repeatedly ran into them.

Posted in Knitting | 2 Comments

Bookshelf: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

lepore_wonder_woman_cover“Why would a distinguished Harvard professor write about a comic book character?”

Heaven forbid a distinguished Harvard professor write about something so common as a comic book character!

But as I heard the distinguished Free Library of Philadelphia donor who introduced Harvard historian Jill Lepore at the library last night voice the question he had before reading her latest book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, I thought to myself that I had a similar query of my own. It wasn’t about fame or institutional affiliation, but rather: “Why would Jill Lepore write a book about a comic book character?”

Lepore, I hasten to say, is one of my favorite historians. She has a wonderful knack for storytelling, bolstered by a commitment to intensive archival research. Somewhere in the depths of my Twitter archive is a tweet reading, “I want to be Jill Lepore when I grow up.” I am unquestionably geeky when it comes to my admiration for her.

But Lepore’s speciality has always been early America—she’s written books about slavery in New York, King Philip’s War, and Ben Franklin’s sister. How in the world did she wander into the twentieth century and write a book about Wonder Woman?

IMG_1735The answer, she revealed in a lively and hilarious talk (Lepore turned out to have excellent comic timing and mile-a-minute energy, despite suffering from a bad cold), is that she stumbled onto the Wonder Woman story while researching an article on Planned Parenthood for the New Yorker, where she’s a staff writer. William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, had a somewhat unconventional domestic arrangement that involved both his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his mistress, Olive Byrne, living together with him and their combined four children (Marston had two with each woman). Byrne’s aunt was Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and, Lepore argues, one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman.

Lepore suggests that Marston found other inspirations for Wonder Woman—who fought for “peace, justice, and equal rights for women”—in the suffragist and feminist movements of the 1910s. Using an impressive array of visual evidence in her presentation, she demonstrated how the images of those political and social movements later appeared in the pages of Wonder Woman comics. Suffragists chained to the railings at 10 Downing Street; Wonder Woman in chains. Margaret Sanger with a gag tied over her mouth as she protested her inability to speak publicly about birth control; Wonder Woman silenced in similar fashion. Marston was strident in his desire to push equal rights for women and infused these messages into his comic works. A Harvard-trained psychologist (he also invented the lie-detector test), Marston explicitly referred to Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda” meant to promote feminism.

That feminist message is the source of Lepore’s interest in Wonder Woman; she admitted that as a writer on comics, she suffers from a “lack of cred,” having never read Wonder Woman as a child nor watched the 1970s TV show when she was growing up. Her goal in this book is to demonstrate that Wonder Woman serves as a link between First Wave feminism in the early twentieth century and Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, when Wonder Woman was taken up by activists as one of the symbols of the movement (the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine featured Wonder Woman on the cover). I’m not sure I buy Lepore’s argument that we shouldn’t be talking about “waves” of feminism, but rather “a continuous history of women fighting for their rights” (is Wonder Woman [created by a man, albeit a feminist] enough to hang that thesis on?), but I’m only about 50 pages into her book, so I have plenty of time to be convinced (or not).

And whether I ultimately find that particular thesis solid, Lepore has picked up on a fascinating story, one that might seem miles away from her previous work but does share some connections with it. During the Q&A portion of her talk, I asked Lepore to discuss how she got from Ben Franklin’s sister to Wonder Woman. She replied that both projects involved taking a familiar figure and burrowing in to find an unknown angle on their stories. That sense of discovery and delight in the unexpected is, I think, what drives her work, and the joy she takes in storytelling is what makes her books so compelling to me. Whenever people ask me how I got interested in history, my answer is that I’ve always loved reading good historical writing that brings huge events down to a human scale. Jill Lepore is a master at that, whether she’s discussing a war in the seventeenth century or a comic book character in the twentieth.

IMG_1740(Side note: I stood in line at the library after Lepore’s talk to get my book signed and was so worried that I would come off as a geeky historian-stalker by gushing about how much I like her work that I went 180 degrees in the other direction and merely stuttered out a fractured thanks for giving such a great talk in spite of being sick. Sigh. Maybe I’ll get another chance to not be awkward someday.)

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Postcard from Washington, D.C.


I was in Washington, D.C. for work two weeks ago and snapped this photo of the Washington Monument while waiting in a security line. When I saw the shot appear on my phone, I suddenly remembered another photo I took of the Washington Monument, back in the summer of 1998. I spent a week in D.C. that June as part of a program that introduced high-school students to how the government works and tried to interest them in government careers. At one point, we were walking around the Tidal Basin right after a rainstorm, and I looked up and saw that the monument was still partially encircled by rainclouds, but other parts of the sky had cleared to a soft pink. I grabbed my camera and took one shot.

It was days, not seconds, before I saw how that photo turned out—I had to wait for the film to be developed!—but I knew as soon as I hit the shutter button that it was a good photo, maybe the first truly good photo I’d ever taken. When I got the prints, I shuffled through them until I found that one and saw that it had come out just as I’d imagined it would. I brought the negative back to the ShopRite photo lab and ordered an 8”x10” enlargement. That enlargement, in a plastic box frame, sits somewhere in one of the boxes scattered across my living room floor, waiting to be unpacked. I think there’s a spot on the wall next to my front door where it will just fit.

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