History was never my favorite subject in school. In my experience, history was just about memorizing facts – names of notable people, dates of important battles and treaties, costs of certain large purchases of land. At least, that’s all one really needed to know about history to get an ‘A’ in class … which is the entire goal of school, right? I digress.
As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate history so much more. This isn’t because any of the facts have changed; rather, its the way that the facts are presented. Turns out, presenting history like the name itself suggests – as an actual story – makes it SO.MUCH.MORE.INTERESTING! Seriously. I figured this out a while back when I was browsing Netflix (as I oft do to decompress after a rough (ok, really any) day at work) and had an internal struggle – do I start to binge watch the entire series of 30 Rock for the 4th (!) time, or do I try to find something new to watch? While I love me some Liz Lemon, I decided to test the old idiom ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, and chose to spend the weekend away from Tina Fey.
Browsing through streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video (yes, I have subscriptions to all three!) can sometimes be a bit infuriating. The sheer number and variety of choices can make it overwhelming to venture out from the known and try something new.
I don’t know what it was that drew me to checking out a documentary … just kidding, I know. It was an image of a martini glass that adorns the ‘cover’ of the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition that drew me in. I started watching and I was hooked on history (especially if all history was about booze!)
The first episode I watched was the documentary “The Lobotomist”, which chronicled the development of the procedure, as well as its rise to, and fall from, grace. It was an absolutely fascinating character study that delved into the singularly-focused ambitions of the physician that championed its use – Dr. Walter Freeman. Dr. Freeman so strongly believed in the therapeutic value of this treatment that he spent the remainder of his life following up with patients he had performed lobotomies on as a way to prove (to himself?) that his work had a positive impact. As a scientist, it was particularly interesting to see a treatment developed in a time with far fewer regulations than today. It also served as a cautionary tale about holding too strongly to one’s scientific ideas/beliefs/convictions when there is increasing evidence to the contrary. (Bonus points: it also had some seriously cringe-worth images of the procedure being performed – a documentary and horror all in one!)
Following The Lobotomist, I watched two more science-y episodes – “The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and “The Polio Crusade”. The Polio Crusade was a fascinating romp through the public relations campaign, driven by March of Dimes founder , as well as the race to develop a polio vaccine. Here again, I was blown away by the ability of researchers to conduct human trials with so few regulations … and the consequences (both ethical and physical) of a lack in regulations and quality control.
I also took a stroll “Into the Deep” and learned more about the whaling industry in America. The tale was a brilliantly woven braid of the ties between whaling and the growth of the American colonies, Herman Melville, and a survival story of whalers on the Ship Essex, who survived three months being lost at sea after their boat was attacked by a sperm whale.
The overall winner of my weekend American Experience binge, however was the episode that provided me with a new role model – Dolley Madison. This woman was amazing in so many ways. She leveraged her incredible ability to forge personal relationships and navigate the social landscape to wield some truly significant political power. Her personal design and fashion helped mold the symbols and appearance of the fledgling American Republic, many of which are still utilized today. She created the blueprint for the role of the first lady. Plus, as her letters and letters about her suggest, she had a kick ass personality and sense of humor. Also, she had some serious strong opinions about the decorations in the White House, and wasn’t afraid to put the designer in his place (heck yes red velvet curtains!). I’d like to think that Dolley and I would’ve made a pretty amazing pair of friends!*
Congratulations, American Experience, for being my first ever Favorite Find on Livi’s Loves … despite the fact that you are celebrating your own 25th anniversary!**
*Don’t worry, Tina Fey. You’re still my #1 imaginary bestie!
**Hey, I never promised that I was gonna discover brand new things all the time … it’s new to me, and that’s all that really matters (for this blog, anyway)