January 12, 2010

Emotional Design III: From Civil War Letters to Email

This is a postcard photo of my grandmother Eulah Maxwell (tallest on the right), her sister, Margaret and her two cousins, Margaret and Nellie Barr. Circa 1910, Fairgrove, Michigan.

Why an antique postcard? Well, lately, I have been thinking about mail and the ways people preserve their connection to one another. For the longest time, people took pen to paper and attentively scribed their words in ink. They then handed their thoughtful words over to the postman who sent it on to a yearning loved-one. The journey took weeks if not months to complete. If a person didn’t have time to write a letter, a postcard might suffice. Maybe they would send a small gift, but the idea was the same...to maintain an emotional connection.

As you know, we have come a long way since the Pony Express. Today, not only can we churn out a flurry of correspondence before our 10:00am coffee break, but we can spam hundreds of our friends on Facebook with the latest full length video of our beach vacation or our kid’s crazy birthday party. Our friends can...and will do the same... ;-)

I think this is great. :-) We are all so far away yet we can stay tightly connected. We can easily keep up with endeavors of our peer group on a daily basis. This is, of course, a human need. We all feel the need to stay connected...at least most of the time...

...But somehow, I think something is missing in the equation. I am not sure why...maybe it’s due to the ephemeral nature of today’s correspondence or our seemingly transparent, but opaque digital personae. It is so easy and instant to connect with one another that the very connection seems disposable...

Civil War letter envelope. Peter Maxwell to Elizabeth Maxwell. 1862-1865

So let’s look at the past...The above envelope is from a letter sent by my great, great grandfather Peter Maxwell. He was my grandmother Eulah Maxwell’s grandfather. It is from a collection of correspondence Peter sent to his wife, Elizabeth, during the Civil War. It is over 145 years old...

The envelope is uniquely beautiful...notice the emblem...the handwriting...the loop in the capital Ms, the lower case z, and the ink from a quill. It is definitely something to be cherished...and shared...so, I will share with you two of his letters...

A little background...Peter Maxwell enlisted in Company F of the 20th Michigan Infantry in the Union Army on July 24, 1862. He was 34 years old...an old man for the army. I have no idea what he was thinking because he had two young children, Francis and Frankie. He and his wife had already lost three children...and would end up losing little Francis and Frankie by the end of that terrible war...

...and it was terrible...over 600,000 soldiers killed...America’s bloodiest war ever...more killed than all of America’s wars combined to date... The US only had a population of 31 million at that time.

Peter Maxwell did not have to go. Most of the men (boys) in Peter’s regiment were in their late teens and early 20’s. I’m not sure how he kept up with them, but he did.

I am sure he enlisted out of honor and duty to country.

Union soldiers cooking. Photo via Library of Congress

I understand Peter started out as the company cook. I figure he knew how to cook better than the most of the teenagers in the ranks. An army marches on its stomach. —Napoleon Bonaparte ;-)

As fate would have it, Peter ended up with a gun in his hand because his company sustained heavy losses and he was one of he last men still standing.

Peter Maxwell, Company F, 20th Michigan Infantry

The following letter is dated May 16, 1864. At which point, Peter had been at war for nearly 2 years...he had lost his little girl, Francis...and son Frankie to sickness, whom he laments over at the end of the letter. I cannot imagine the hardships and emotions he and his wife endured.

Notice the embossing at the top of the letter...and the 19th century handwriting...

Have a read...

The above is a depiction by Kurz & Allison.

Notice Peter mentioned the heavy losses at the Battle of the Wilderness. That battle occurred May 6th, 1864. Fortunately, he was a cook at the time......But Peter eventually had to take up arms and was wounded in the Second Battle of Petersburg between June 15th and 18th, 1864. The letter below was just before the battle on June 15th, 1864...he would not be able to finish it...

Notice the different hand writing at the end...Peter was not able finish the it because he was wounded...Brayton Webster from his company finished the letter for him on June 18th. I have transcribed the closing since it too difficult to read...

June 18th, 1864
Mrs. Maxwell,

As Peter is hurt in his right hand and wishes you to hear from him I will finish it [the letter]. He is not hurt seriously and I think that he will get a chance to come home as soon as he gets to Washington. He is shot through his right hand, but there are no bones broken so you need not be alarmed about this and he says that he is quite comfortable. None for which we may all be very thankful.

Very respectfully yours,

Most Obl. Servant

B. G. Webster

Co. F
20th Mich

I remember my grandmother, Eulah, speaking of his crippled right hand. Yes, she remembered him and often told me of his life. That is why I tracked down the letters...

Photo from a newspaper clipping of Peter and Elizabeth’s golden (50 year) wedding anniversary in 1904.
Peter’s story does not end with the Civil War...upon his return, he and Elizabeth picked up the pieces of their lives and managed to build a new family of 3 sons and 3 daughters. They thrived on a 40 acre farm in Fairgrove, Michigan where they remained married for over 50 years.

Peter was not a hero or a historical figure. He was just an ordinary man in extraordinary times. There will be no novels published or history books written about him...though his story should be remembered...

...And nothing I have encountered seems as difficult when I think of what was endured so long ago...I would not know this, if the letters had not been saved...

I am always inspired knowing that I exist because Peter and Elizabeth endured.

Today there are also meaningful stories...but I feel society risks losing their impact amidst the deluge of digital content that bombards all of us...

...Think back to my grandmother’s postcard...it had been saved in a shoe box for 100 years. Among other mementos, my mother framed a letter with a beautiful silk scarf sent by my grandmother’s suitor stationed in Paris during World War I.

Why save them? Because they embody the spirit and emotions of the person who penned them...and by keeping them, we keep that person alive.

Will emails one day become treasured memories? Can we save our Skype calls? Would we want to? How will we pass on our life’s stories to future generations? How will we curate them? With so much content constantly being created, the task seems too daunting.

Before we can answer these questions, we need to realize what we could be losing through our casual digital communications. Then we can begin to design ways to curate our digital lives in order to preserve what is important on into the next generation.

So, the next time you are about to send that angry email...or upload 200+ vacation photos to Facebook...or Twitter your lunch plans...stop...and take a moment to think about what you’re leaving behind.

Someday, your great great grandchild may need inspiration... ;-)

January 4, 2010

Korean Scrabble...

I have to say that the greatest design and production team I know are my parents, Doug and Mary Wills.

Deciding to come to Korea was a big step for me and my family. Not only have I become immersed in the culture, but I dragged my family along for the ride as well. That meant throwing my kids into challenging situations where they did not know the culture, language or any familiar faces. They managed very well...I can see the increase in their confidence.

From the beginning, I enrolled them in language classes. They had a great teacher, Jin-Kyung Yang. She was a treasure!

When they came back to Kalamazoo, my mother found a Korean church that teaches them on the weekends. Believe me, it is not an easy language to learn. Actually, it is downright impossible! Motivation is a problem...especially for active Wills kids.

FYI...this the alphabet: ㅂㅈㄷㄱ쇼ㅕㅑㅐㅔㅁㄴㅇㄹ호ㅓㅏㅣㅋㅌㅊ퓨ㅜㅡㅃㅉㄸㄲㅆㅒㅖ
You have to combine these letters to make an exponential amount of sounds! Like I said...OMG

So, being a designer at heart, my mother identified the pain points and decided to tackle the problem...and I mean tackle it! She did some brain storming and decided on a game. A game for the kids to play that will be more exciting than the drudgery of straight memorization.

Most people would stop at flash cards...maybe buy a DVD or a computer game...but my mom decides to design and develop a Korean scrabble game...argh! The game is hard enough in English!

When she tackles a design project, she enlists her go-to engineer and production artist, my father. He is equipped with a man cave that has all the high tech tools needed for the task. ;-)

My dad spent over 5 hours cutting and sanding all of the scrabble blocks! Then my mom had all of the kids write their own letters on the blocks. Each family member has their own color set of scrabble blocks...

It took another 5 hours to create the board. Of course, it had to be varnished with molding and a custom hand painted color coated grid!

There is also a set of flash cards for inspiration and added dimension. You get to use a dictionary to settle disputes...and knowing the Wills family...there will be disputes!

So, the other day, I got a chance to play and test the fun factor. It was challenging and to my surprise, it was actually fun...maybe because I won. ;-)

Yes, my mom is still in the testing phase. Above are a few notes she took during the inaugural game... Cheating is allowed? hmmm... as long as you don’t get caught... well it is Korean scrabble.

All in all, I think it is a great way to help the kids learn Korean...

...But most of all, I am so impressed with my parents’ motivation, creativity and teamwork. Not to mention their devotion to the kids.

We are truly, a family blessed.

January 1, 2010

Eclectic Entertainment

New Year’s Eve was nice. I got to spend quality time with the Wills kids in Kalamazoo. The city has a great tradition of patronizing the arts. Every New Year’s Eve in Bronson park, the churches that surround the quad play host to a wide range of entertainment from Christian rock bands, a “big band’, comedians, a cowboy with a bull whip, Christian rappers, an Elvis impersonator and the coup de grâce...a Kiss cover band call the Kings...

Well, the night was not quite as refined as the Gilmore Prize, of which Kalamazoo prides itself, but it was all in good fun and great for families on New Years Eve. They even dropped a ball like their cousins in the Big Apple. ;-)

We started out with the timeless sounds of The Kalamazoo Big Band. I must say...they had loads of talent. A great group of amateurs who are passionate about their music. In fact, that was the theme of the night...passion. All the artists were passionate...regardless of what any one else thought...

And the Kings (Kiss?) were no exception...for a brief moment they got to be their childhood heroes...how could you not be passionate when you are playing your heroes on stage? It was kind of like karaoke on steroids...

Well, maybe not steroids...but you get the idea. I wish my friend Mike Gorgo could have been there. He is a Kiss fanatic.

However, the Wills kids were appalled even though 40 plus crowd seem to love them...So, we did not stick around for the pyrotechnics or I might have more of a story to tell...I could just picture some fifty something rocker running around the cathedral with his hair on fire... ;-)

Still, I was struck with the irony of it all. Here was a band that was so vilified by parents in the ’70s and was now playing (covered) to an over capacity crowd in a Episcopal Cathedral for a bunch of gray haired baby boomers...

...while the clean-cut Christian rock band was relegated to a cold tent in the park. Irony? The times, they are a changin’ ;-) The Christian rock band was great, but the drum kit needed a plexiglass shield due to the small tent size...I think I would have enjoyed them most, but we had to leave because our ears started bleeding from the drums.

The next church we popped into startled us with a bull-whip toting comedian cowboy. While telling jokes in a southern drawl, he proceeded to snap a daisy out of his mouth with his 6 foot whip. Ouch! I hope he is not married. ;-) Then a Christian rapper took the stage next...he got the crowd hopping, but he didn’t quite connect with the Wills kids...so we decided to call it a night.

We had a great time...I try to cherish these small moments and appreciate the passion of all the artists we encountered. It’s all about sharing...you can take it or leave it, but there is no denying everyone had passion to share...