Historians, like any another profession, often fail to share pedagogical philosophies. Some scholars adhere to a strict evidential based theory. These researchers look for whatever answer is best supported by clear evidence. Other scholars, like myself, take a more liberal approach to evidence and enjoy connecting seemingly unrelated events. For us, history is an ongoing game of Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon. Winning that game requires imagination. This “history is about IMAGINATION” theory normally works to my advantage. Case in point, writing creative and original comprehensive exam answers was cake. Yet, I'll admit, my Imagination Based History does lead to certain logistical problems with interpreting historical events. The thing is, in my mind, writing United States history is equivalent to playing with GI Joes. If you don’t like Sargent Slaughter, no worries. Center your narrative around the Cobra Commandos. Spin doctor to the rescue! Yet as an academic, I do bear a burden which demands I attempt to be unbiased in my interpretation of historical phenomenon. That albatross around my neck often kills my good time. To most observers, my inner innovator and outer conformist are always at war, but the truth is: It's all an act. Screw the Ivory Tower! I have a list of my favorite American Action Heroes and, in my mind, they are ALWAYS the winners. Who is at the top of that list?: The Great Compromiser: Henry Clay.
Why is Old Henry awesome wrapped in cool? Allow me to offer some evidence. At the tender of age of 20, Clay, who studied law with George Wythe, the mentor of Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, moved to Kentucky, established his own legal practice, and then used his oratorical and social skills (i.e., Our Main Man indulged in drinking, gambling, and horse racing) to earn a spot first in the Kentucky state legislature and later in Congress. What's so special about serving in Congress you ask? Nothing, unless you happen to change the course of US politics and Henry did. Here are two reasons why Clay Rocks it Like a Hurricane: Number one, Henry, as politicians go, was a good listener. He remained opened minded, indulged both sides of an argument, and then negotiated for the best deal whenever possible. In fact, Clay is known as the Great Compromiser. (Notably, he crafted the Missouri Compromise of 1850 which was intended to ease southern and northern tensions over the slavery issue. Obviously, that did not work out) I like to think, Henry would be great fun at a bar. Hold on now! You think I admire him because he was a waffler? Wrong. Look to reason number two: Henry Fucking Clay was a player. Case in point, when, in 1811, Clay became Speaker of the House of Representatives that position was weak sauce. No one wanted it. But did Henry piss and moan? No, he did not. Instead, he transformed the role of Speaker into one of power by appointing his allies as key committee chairmen and sending important legislation their way to be handled as he saw fit. In other words, Henry stacked the deck in his favor and then proceeded to control the game board. That’s called innovation my friends. After transforming his worthless job into an enviable one, he stayed Speaker of the House until 1820, longer than anyone else in history (other than Sam Rayburn). In my opinion, that’s a Real American Hero. Thus, I aspire to be Henry, to take whatever shitty job is thrown my way, mold it into something awesome, wrap my persona in cool, and make my enemies eat dirt! Again, it’s about imagination.
So where am I going with this? Well, in times of uncertainty I like to ask myself: What Would Henry Do? Last night offered me an occasion to ponder that particular question. A bit of my personal history is necessary to comprehend my dilemma. Life along the Wabash River socialized me to be a strange and wondrous mix of Southern Belle and Baptist church lady. Thus, my general education meant fast tracking from Barbies to Push Up Bras. Despite the gold stars I earned in Eye Shadow Application and General Judgmental Tones, with time I found I lacked the steely determination to become a Stepford Wife. Gawd, I tried to like it all. Really, I gave it solid 24 years before I accepted my psyche could not adhere to the standards prescribed by that role. If I ever marry, I’ll need to tweak the wife position Henry Clay style. After admitting living my life by Stepford rules would kill me, I started asking which innovations in my worldview would make me most happy. The results have been shocking. My taste in men, literature, hobbies, and friends have all been altered for the better, I think. Now when I approach a new person, situation, job, or pastime, I look to Henry’s ideas on Compromise. Give it fair shake before you toss it aside.
Thus, last night when I was asked: “Would you be willing to play the 'Legends of Drizzt' board game with us?” I paused and considered the matter. (In case this is unclear, as it was to me last night, Drizzt is a Dungeons and Dragons board game. Personally, I thought Drizzt was a German word and perhaps the game was similar to Speicherstadt. I was wrong.) Could I dismiss something I’ve yet to try? Henry wouldn’t. HE would play and WIN so I acquiesced to their request and told myself: “Fine. I’ll do it once. Win like Henry and mark this off my list. Immmaaaaagianation."
Here is what I learned: Legends of Drizzt is about getting raped by monster: Continuous rape and eventual death. (Now the other players assured me that what happened last night was not typical, but this is all I have to go on) First, my brother helped me pick a character and then he chose my powers, handed me a twenty sided die, and told me to roll. Next his friend Andrew began reading us a story. Not gonna lie here. At first, I floated between stifling giggles and disbelief at my willingness to play along. Then the game began and all hell broke loose.
Andrew: “First we must attack the fissures.” (Took me a minute to figure out what those were.) Okay, well, that doesn't sound too hard. Just bits of rock. Right?
Jake and Andrew: “We'll tank. You guys keep a distance. Let’s split up and knock this out. We’re all gonna die.” And we did. We all split up and we all died.
Every single, mother-fucking turn, the fissures vomited up another monster. There were Feral Trolls, Drow Wizards, and Cutting Goblins (who I assume wear long sleeve shirts to cover the marks on their arms) When monsters weren't chomping down on our asses, we drew “Experience” Cards. I quickly understood that NO EXPERIENCE in Drizzt is pleasant. I wasn't going to experience a new crossbow or long life or anything remotely good. Instead it’s all: Get electrocuted, Experience a Hunting Party, Punch Yourself in the Face. While I’m still unsure about how I calculate my armor, I am sure about how to kill a monster and get treasure. It was unfair. We never progressed. I killed a Flippin' Cave Troll. Where is the pay off? Imagination my ASS!
As the game drug on at painful pace with each player experiencing a slow death, I fought the urge to say: “Riddle Me This Dungeon Master: How the HELL do all those monsters fit down in those tiny fissures? And even if they do, why aren’t they attacking each other? Why just us? Answer that dungeon MASTER.”
Two and a half hours later, at 1a.m, my character Catti Brie, finally loses all her Hit Points and dies. Game Over. It was a relief. I went home, went to bed, and had a nightmare about dice and monsters. I woke up muttering: “Does a 17 mean I take damage again?”
This morning, I sat down and digested my first D&D experience. Here are my conclusions: First and foremost, if Henry Clay, himself, had played that game, he’d have lost and then lit those damned monster cards on fire. This was NOT my fault. I refuse blame. Second, obviously, my wild imagination is frightened of monsters so I’m praying that evil twenty-sided die does not invade dreams again tonight. Listen, I rather dislike the idea my fate is controlled by the roll of the die. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the thought isn't good for my psyche. Last question that needs answering: Would I play again? Well, yes, and here’s why: I LOST! In terms of gaming style (and life philosophy), I’m quickly developing into a Spike/Johnny. I hate losing and I when it comes to winning I prefer to do so egregiously and in an innovative manner. I feel Henry would approve of my attitude. Henry Clay would never hang out with a Timmy. Sad little Timmy who doesn’t care if he wins. Timmy who is just there for the experience. To hell with that. Innovators face the twenty-sided die, change the game, win the competition, and then hold their as position as champion until they retire. It’s all about imagination.