Having been an expert in your field for decades doesn’t make you adept at the technology to teach online. Broadly speaking, with exceptions of course, those at highest risk from coronavirus by age are the ones least accustomed to electronic communications. Daughters and sons home from school help their faculty parents figure out how to teach in the era of social distancing.
The rest of us have been learning new technologies, too. My sympathies to everyone working from home for the first time, expected to keep up a normal pace of productivity in these abnormal times.
Remote communications also challenge community volunteers, support groups, religious leaders and worshipers, teachers of guitar and yoga. Zoom and its online cousins are expanding my skill set. We can’t visit museums or travel just now, but each day brings unsolicited opportunities to learn and explore.
I didn’t live in Wisconsin yet when then-Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the suggestion for the first Earth Day, which took place fifty years ago this Wednesday (April 22). Even after I moved here and took frequent walks in Governor Nelson State Park, it took a while to make the connection.
Two societal changes of the late 1960s gave Nelson the idea. One was increasing environmental awareness, heightened by the Cuyahoga River fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill. The other was student anti-war protests, which showed the power of demonstrations to influence public policy.
I walked at Governor Nelson a couple of weeks ago, before our state parks had to close because crowding undercut social distancing. We can’t take our out-of-doors for granted. Hope you can find a place with six-foot-wide trails to pass other walkers safely, where you can still enjoy the spring and celebrate half a century of Earth Day.
In December 1973, amid gasoline shortages and global recession, Wisconsin Congressman Harold Froelich warned, “The U.S. may face a shortage of toilet paper within a few months. . . . It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.” After Tonight Show host Johnny Carson mentioned it in a joke, panicked shoppers stocked up. The shelves stood empty for weeks.
Of course people haven’t always had TP. They used whatever was at hand: leaves, moss, rags. Later pages from old newspapers, the Sears Roebuck catalog, or the Old Farmer’s Almanac served the purpose. Mass production of a medicated product began in the 1850s, and Scott introduced perforated rolls in 1890. But who wanted to buy a novelty to replace what they’d been using for free?
What made TP indispensable was indoor plumbing with flush toilets. The age-old remedies would clog the pipes.
Brian Gersten, whose 11-minute documentary The Great Toilet Paper Scare premiered at the Big Sky Film Festival in February, writes his initial goal “was simply to make a film about a bizarre and forgotten piece of history that people would ideally find funny and entertaining. I think my goal now is for people to use the film as a mirror of sorts. A fun-house mirror perhaps.”
Among the season’s many cancellations was a friend’s planned family vacation at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Before their intended departure, I misunderstood him to say they would sleep in the only surviving wigwam east of the Mississippi.
Huh? The small bark winter houses of the eastern and midwestern woodlands weren’t exactly durable. Wisconsin has several replicas. If an authentic original survived, I can’t imagine tourists being allowed to sleep there. West of the Mississippi, tepees, hogans, and pueblos were more common.
Kentucky’s mis-named Wigwam Motel* is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are its two surviving siblings in Arizona and California. They’re remnants of 1930s and ’40s pseudo-Indian kitsch, akin to cigar-store Indians and now-controversial sports team names and mascots.
Preserve traces of our imperfect past, or expunge it out of respect? Souvenir war bonnets, Confederate statues, anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, gendered adventures in Peter Pan: There’s no one easy answer. Museums, classrooms, and historical parks hold thoughtful spaces to preserve and respect. I hope the Wigwam Motel stays in business, with a conspicuous historical marker near the entrance to put the kitsch in context.
* Image: The "wigwams" look more like tepees.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.