I had another post written for tonight, but in light of the great fire sweeping Notre Dame cathedral those words fade to less than insignificant.
With its cornerstone laid in 1163, Notre Dame saw nearly the entire rise of Western civilization in its shadow over the last 855 years. It saw Paris grow and expand into one of the world’s handful of indisputably great cities.
As a young 18 year old American in Paris, I was fortunate to pass through the cathedral over 20 years ago. Honestly I don’t remember many details of that trip now, but I remember standing in the nave of Notre Dame and being awestruck – exactly the effect that it’s long ago designers and builders had hoped to achieve.
I’m not religious in any significant way… but Notre Dame wasn’t about just being Catholic, or even being Christian. Yes, the great structure was raised to the glory of God, but it was also about celebrating great art, and architecture, and an undeniable knowledge that there is, and there should be, something larger than ourselves. You couldn’t stand before the great rose windows and feel anything other than humble.
Tonight I grieve for the people of Paris, and France, and the world at the loss of such a treasure trove of our collective history. This world is poorer and darker for its loss.
1. Energy. It’s the stuff which lets us stay awake after dinner instead of falling asleep on the couch with a book in our hands. My level has never been high enough to run the risk of becoming a distance runner, but at a bare minimum I could usually stay awake until my already geriatric bed time rolled around. For the last few weeks, though, mine has been missing entirely. It’s a small thing, yes, but it’s altogether frustrating and I need it to stop right the fuck now.
2. It’s never been worse. Three separate times this week I’ve heard either a talking head on television or someone in real life say that “our country has never been more divided” or “It’s never been worse.” One of the main problems with the laughably short human lifespan is that only being around for a few score decades and a lustrum or two means most people who don’t study it have no sense of history. You see way back in 1814 a foreign army burned the nation’s capital to the gound. I’d say that could be considered objectively “worse” than where we stand in 2019. Fifty years after the burning of Washington our country conducted a viscous, bloody, and protracted civil war. Now I’m not an expert, but that seems significantly more divided that we are just now.
3. Waiting. There’s never been a doubt in my mind that I would eventually get back to being a two dog household. I planned for a reasonable period of adjustment. I also wanted wanted to wait for the winter weather gave way to spring because housebreaking in the winter sounded infinitely more awful then doing it when it’s temperate. There’s also the fact that March and April constitute my “busy season” at the office. Thanks to one of my distinguished colleagues, though, I’m currently obsessing over any one of four English mastiff mix puppies up for adoption through a rescue outside of Baltimore… and trying to come up with a way to make jettisoning the plan sound at least passingly logical and not at all like something that would be a batshit crazy idea.
1. Breaking my word. I swore a strong oath many years ago when paywalls erupted across internet news sites. It would be a cold day in Hell before I started paying for something that was available for free. I could get along just fine with Drudge and Google News and the devil could have the rest. Of course it helped that the Washington Post, political rag though it may be, remained free to those punching in from a government IP address. After years of getting by, though, I’m going to admit here before God, the internet, and everyone that I’ve gone back on my word and conceded that based on my evolving news consumption habits a subscription was inevitable and probably past due. So, now that I’m an oathbreaker anyway, at least I’m free to enjoy the full Sunday edition of The Times of London without running into their ridiculous 2 article a week limit. In retrospect £5.00 a month doesn’t feel completely usurious even if does still feel just a little bit wrong. And so my transition to a curmudgeonly old Englishman continues apace.
2. Logistics. It turns out one of the big logistics companies (I’m looking at you here UPS) is currently having a challenging time differentiating between 03 and 13 and delivering what seems to be half of what my neighbor is ordering for Christmas to my front door. I’m friendly enough with my neighbors that I make sure theirs ends up in the right place, but it feels like something the average person really shouldn’t need to do if they’re paying for shipping to their home versus paying to have something shipped vaguely into their neighborhood. The internet is full of apologists urging everyone to remember that this is a very busy time of year for shippers and that “hey, mistakes happen.” I’m sure they do, but the same one should rarely happen more than once. Of course I’m a simple old subject matter expert in distribution logistics, supply, and transportation so what the hell could I possibly know on the subject anyway.
3. Things are worse now. The talking heads of the media and the man on the street both seem equally willing to jump into a discussion that “<insert any topic here> is worse now that its ever been before.” It may be true of an individual issue or two, but overall I just find that the sentiment shows an overall lack of academic rigor and a woeful knowledge of basic history. The Civil War, the Spanish Flu of 1918, pretty much the entire decade of the 1970s, an global total war from 1939-1945, and Members of Congress physically fighting each other on the House floor are all things that happened in the not particularly distant past. Today, what “things are worse now,” mostly seems to focus on the fact that someone may have said something mean to somebody else. In the great sweep of human history asserting now that we’re living now in the worst of all possible times makes you sound like an idiot.
A few weeks ago the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s hosted it’s annual dinner. The only reason anyone outside of New Hampshire payed attention to it is because Alec Baldwin was the keynote speaker and offered up a firebrand soundbite that said in part, “we need to overthrow the government.” I’m utterly indifferent to Alec Baldwin and his speech isn’t what really caught my attention in the article from the Union Leader.
The thing I found interesting was the trouble New Hampshire Democrats seem to have at leaving the “name” of their dinner alone. Once upon a time it was known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.” Of course the Democratic Party no longer celebrates Jefferson or Jackson, despite their being lions of the young Democratic Party. In 2016 it became the Kennedy-Clinton Dinner. By 2018 throwing over Jefferson and Jackson for two of the 20th century’s noted philanderer presidents suddenly felt like a bad idea too. So this year they settled on hosting their first annual Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner. She’s at least a (mostly) non-controversial figure in Democratic circles.
I only note this because I’ve been watching the great upswell over the last several years that tells us we’re supposed to be embarrassed by our history – that we should hide it, hide from it, and only dare speak of it in hushed tones. Well, I suppose Democrats in New Hampshire are free to be embarrassed by whatever ruffles their garters. If men like Jefferson and Jackson are no longer welcome in their pantheon of heroes, they’re surely welcome to find a home in mine.
Last week I finished reading a book, The Gentle Madness, that outlined the lives of some of the great book collectors and personal libraries assembled over the last five hundred years. It also covered how many of those libraries were broken up over time – sold off in toto or in part, lost to fire, stolen, gifted to public institutions, or released back into the wild through glittering auctions. These were the “important” libraries of history – the first printed books, manuscripts on velum, hand-copied tracts carefully illuminated by monks in the Middle Ages – the incredibly rare and the magnificently expensive. These were the libraries of royal dukes and titans of the industrial age.
It makes me extraordinarily happy that such collectors and such libraries even exist. Even so, I walk away from that read feeling just a little bit sad – mostly because, unless there’s a multi-state lottery jackpot in my future I’ll never be able to possess books like that. I’ll never have the opportunity to walk into a room filled with five hundred year old volumes and revel in their smell and feel and the sheer joy of knowing that for just a short slice of history I am custodian of such rarities.
I love books. I love being surrounded by them. If I had but the funds, I’d like nothing more than to assemble a first rate, proper library – old classics well made and maintained dating back from the dawn of printing and beyond. Given the reality of not having fabulous mountains of wealth, mine is a simple working collection of books. It’s hardly worthy to be considered a library at this point – just 500 or so volumes of history mixed with fiction, some government and politics, and a few outliers straying into sociology. Hardly a blip when compared to some of the lions of book collecting, whose personal libraries swelled to hundreds of thousands of books.
I read what interests me at the moment, acknowledging that it would be impossible to dive down every rabbit hole – or even one tenth of the rabbit holes given the limitations of time. Sure there are a few modern first editions living in places of honor on my shelf. There are a few well worn favorites that I keep coming back to time and again. If nothing else, I can at least claim that every book that ends up on one of my shelves is one that I’ve read. Nothing earns its spot there simply for decoration or adornment.
I could save a shitload of money if I were just able to borrow books from the public library like a normal person. I’m touched lightly by that gentle madness, though. The books possess me at least as much as I possess them… and I don’t mind it even a little bit.
I’ve spent the last year living with the ghost of George C. Marshall in the form of Forrest Pogue’s 4 four-part biography. I’ve read a lot of dense history on a host of obscure topics over the years, but this was likely some of the hardest reading I’ve done since diving into the rich esoterica of imperial Russian history about 20 years ago when I thought history was going to be a legitimate way to make a living. There are a dozen respectable biographies of Marshall that would have been far more accessible, but Pogue’s was a master class that truly offered a “one over the world” view.
Weighing in at 1,882 pages taking up a third of a shelf, I don’t supposed you dive in to this biography unless you have more than a casual interest. I picked it up, set it down, let weeks pass between volumes, and faced names, places, and events that sent me down dozes of separate rabbit holes of additional research and reading. I should be happy that I managed to get through it in 1/24th the time it took Pogue to write and publish the set in the first place. The thing really is a monument to the historian’s art.
I walked away from my experience with the general a little sad that he’s been so constatly overshadowed in popular memory of the war years by more glamorous subordinates – Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur even now 70 years later are names recognized by the average household. Outside of those who study the Army, a few professional historians and soldiers, Marshall fades into the background. It’s a shame, though it strikes me as what the man himself would have probably wanted.
So what am I left with after spending a year with General Marshall? Aside from a really great looking bookshelf trophy, I’m left with the determined opinion that George C. Marshall was only the second truly indispensable man in the history of the republic.
I remember growing up hearing stories about where people in my parent’s generation were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparent’s generation could tell you where they were on a Sunday in December when news broke of a sneak attack on America’s fleet in the Pacific. To me, those dates and names were pages in a history book. I was too young then to appreciate that these events weren’t dusty history to the men and women who lived through them. They were visceral, living parts of their life’s narrative.
As each year we’re further removed from the shock and disbelief of a September morning. For more and more of our citizens, September 11th is just one more of those dates that mark an historical reference point rather than a life experience. For those of us who lived through it and the days that followed, though, I have an increasing suspicion that the day will always feel a bit like current events – a recent memory, still very much alive and tangible.
The stories of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with will probably always be seared into our individual and collective memories for as long as one of us remains to tell it. The confusion at first report, the wide mouthed disbelief at seeing the second plan burrowing in, the continuous loop of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and two buildings that crumbled in front of us are were a clarion call to arms, to unity, and to remind us that our long experiment in democracy was and remains surrounded by those who would snuff it out.
Seventeen years on, it’s a punch to the gut I can feel just as strongly today as I did all those years ago. Over all the long years from then to now, we sought justice and rough vengeance, we rebuilt, thousands of families found the internal fortitude to go on living and endure, but most important, on this day and always, we remember.