As we all know by now I’m a devoted creature of habit. Some of them are so well worn in that I’m not sure I’d know who I am without them. Others are more malleable based on circumstances. Contrary to opinion popular in some quarters, I’m not completely inflexible on all points – though I am on a few of them to be sure.
The real trouble comes when, of necessity, one of those more ingrained habits must change. Since unwelcome change in all its myriad forms is something that must be resisted at almost any cost, migrating one of these habits towards something new and different is rarely a course of action I’ll embark on willingly. I don’t like spending that much time with a warning klaxon rattling around my head that something isn’t right. The whole idea mostly just serves to remind me of a sign a friend of mine kept in his dorm room lo those many years ago. Perched above his desk, the sign gave off the constant reminder that “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.”
That seems to have become my unofficial motto across several fronts lately. My reading of history informs me of all manner of destruction/creation cycles and their near-inevitability. Mythology is filled with tales of the old giving way for the new to rise. It’s all very inspirational, of course… But that damned interregnum between one habit dying and the next taking hold tends to throw my whole neatly ordered universe temporarily out of kilter and that just sucks.
Certain marks in history are so important that men and women still talk about them thousands of years after the fact. The Ides of March, remembered now in no small part due to Shakespeare’s treatment of the subject, are still recalled even by those who have no more than a passing interest in the politics of dying Roman Republic. The year 1066, when Norman Duke William lead his army across the Channel and conquered. The story is as familiar as an old family friend to anyone who has studied English history at all. June 6, 1944 is another one of those marked dates in our story – when we committed to spend every ounce of blood and treasure of the English speaking peoples if need be to throw back the rising tide of darkness. I have little doubt that 1000 years from now, historians will view Eisenhower little different than William before him.
There are dates, though, that most people don’t remember. Most people don’t think about them at all, really. That last day before the Big Thing happened. The day before the Ides. The day before the Battle of Hastings. The day before Overlord.
It’s easy to think of our history as a foregone conclusion, that because it’s the way it happened that it’s the way it had to happen. Nothing is further from the truth, of course. The day before the Big Thing, is the day of uncertainty and of questioning whether all is ready or if anything else can be done. It’s a day where history hangs in the balance. I’m not bold enough to suggest that preparation has nothing to do with it, but I’ve also been around long enough to know that random chance has an oversized role to plan in all of our efforts.
Today is June 5th – the anniversary of Eisenhower’s great day of uncertainty. The day before he was the head of vast army sweeping its way across Fortress Europe. It’s a day that the vagaries of weather nearly halted the invasion that we now think of as inevitable. Studying what happens on these days before the Big Things in history is the real case study in determination, courage, and leadership.
I think I’m beginning now to understand why old people always seem vaguely angry. The world I knew, the one of my youth, the one I was infinitely comfortable with, isn’t the world. The leaders have all gone. The stars are going. Even the countries aren’t the same and the maps have been remade. It’s disconcerting to realize that nation-states and their seeming permeance are anything but.
Society is far more open and tolerant than it was “where I come from.” I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In most things social, I’m mostly happy enough to let peopled do their own thing so long as they aren’t troubling anyone else. Activities and lifestyles that weren’t even mentioned, or only mentioned in whispers in early 80s are not just tolerated now but celebrated. In half a human lifetime I already find myself looking agog at the way the world has changed.
I’m enough of a student of history to know that the change is inevitable. People and institutions adapt… and those who refuse to adapt are swallowed up by the vast sweep of time. As those dark scientists in economic say, “in the long run we’re all dead.”
If you stick around long enough maybe you get to see everything you knew as true eventually turn out to be something else entirely. That would probably be the real curse of eternal life. The time and place I’m from didn’t get it all right, but it wasn’t all wrong either. New and different doesn’t necessarily mean better, but neither does old and tested. There’s a balance to be struck, but if I’m any judge of human behavior we’ll inevitable swing the pendulum too far in both directions simultaneously.
I heard a statistic this morning that 25% of the people living in the United States weren’t yet born on the morning of September 11, 2001. I don’t know how accurate that number is, but fifteen years is a pretty long time and there do seem to be an awful lot of young people wandering around these days. To them, today’s date is something from a history book – about as tangible as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the burning of Washington. For those of us who lived through that gut wrenching September day long ago, though, it’s not so much history as it is something we carry with us every day.
If I were to walk into Great Mills High School today I could show you exactly where I was standing in the lobby when someone passed by and told me about an explosion at the World Trade Center. I commented wondering why they were running old footage of the bombing back in ’93. No, that wasn’t it, they assured me, dragging me down the hall to the library where a dozen people stood gape-mouthed around a television cart.
Bells ring. Class changes. I’m due back in my own room. Walk me into that room today and I can show you exactly where I was standing, elbows propped on my lectern, when we saw the first shaky images of the Pentagon burning and then when the towers fell. A lot of these students were military kids and maybe they “got it” more than some others. It might have been the first and only time in my brief teaching career I experienced a room of quiet searching, of contemplation, and of understanding that fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters would soon be going in harms way. There was no use trying to “teach” anything at that point. The best I could manage in that moment was just talking, individual conversations about what happened, about terrorism, and about what came next.
In my head the details of that morning are still every bit as vivid as that damned bright blue sky. I don’t expect that will ever change. Time flies, they say, but there are some moments, no matter how far past that stay with you forever.
About six days a week I drive past a little shop on Main Street that specializes in providing whole coffee beans and tea leaves to the more discerning hot beverage enthusiasts in the surrounding area. About once a month I stop in and pick up a pound of really good beans and sample of whatever brew they’re serving up that day. It’s the kind of shop I like to think I’d own if I had any interest in being a shop owner or working with the public in any way.
One of the charming features of this shop in particular is that they’ve blown out a wall to open their space into the neighboring building that does business as part antique shop / part used book store. There’s something in the scent combination of several hundred pounds of coffee and tea mixed with old objects and aging paper that just appeals to me. For whatever reason, I enjoy it and the shop owners seem to enjoy taking my money so it’s a win-win for all involved.
Sometimes I find a few things worth adding to the shelf, other times not, but until my last visit it’s always been a happy experience either way. On my last stop for coffee and a good rummage through the shelves, a youngish human, female type, injected herself into my personal space and struck up a conversation – mostly about the shop, the books, and general pleasantries. It’s not the kind of activity I usually encourage, but she was brunette and pleasing to look at and didn’t “like” or “you know” her way through the English language. She showed me a few of the books cradled in her arms and then asked what I was reading.
Right there, you see, is where I should have read the question as a danger sign. Instead of offering up something blandly inoffensive or popular or even one of the old classics, I had to open my mouth and gush about the intriguing book I was currently reading about the 6th ship in the Royal Navy to carry the name HMS Warspite and its service from Jutland to the end of World War II. I clearly missed the part where her eyes glazed over, but the “uh, that’s… uh, nice” as she suddenly found renewed interest in the stacks was unmistakable. I can’t help but remark on the grand irony of being torpedoed because of my great love of British naval history.
So that’s the story of beans and books and possibly squandered because I wasn’t smart enough to disengage half my brain and approach with caution. Next time I’m just going to say I’m reading Harry Potter for the 3rd time and try to avoid any topic that might hint that I’m anything more than a redneck in a golf shirt. Go ahead and file that under lessons learned.
Back on the 4th I asked someone, if they were intent on spending the holiday among the throng, to do me a personal favor and keep their head on a swivel. They seemed surprised at the request and asked if there was a particular reason they should. As the assassination of five police officers in Dallas has shown, I hope none of my friends are any longer in doubt of why I ask them to be aware of their surroundings as they walk into a crowded environment – like a protest or fireworks display or shopping mall.
Our police officers are incredibly dedicated. They’re over worked, under paid, and utterly under respected by their elected leadership and so often by the very citizens they serve. If they can be drawn into an ambush like this you’d damned well better believe the average civilian can too. So yeah, if you ever wonder why I do my level best to avoid large groups of people and why I encourage those I love to do the same, sadly now you know. None of us can have perfect situational awareness, but we owe it to ourselves when we’re part of the crowd to be as aware as possible – of entrances, exits, avenues of advance and retreat, locations for cover or concealment, and of what’s occupying the high ground. Your life – and the life of those to your left and right – could very well depend on it.
Terrorism doesn’t come in just Muslim or Christian flavors. It also comes in the form of political extremists who blow up federal buildings with truck bombs or who shoot up peaceful protests with rifles. Terrorism has been with us far longer than most want to believe – ask an Englishman about “the troubles” or do a little research into the events that triggered the First World War. We can’t eradicate the impulse in some sick bastards to inflict grave harm on society, but we should damned well prepare ourselves to take action when those inevitable bad days come.
1. Hurry up (and wait). Hurry up and wait is an idiom that I personally suspect is at least as old as the first band of hunter gatherers who went to war to protect their wildlife and berries from a neighboring tribe. If there’s anything I’ve found consistent over the last decade and a half it’s that the preponderance of things that need doing arrive on my desk with some designation as “hot rocks” or “mission critical” or “for immediate action.” Setting aside the fact that almost none of these issues have ever dealt with actual life or death situation, it becomes a simple matter of people simply expecting things should be done in the double quick. It’s been my experience that you can do analysis well or you can do it quickly. You can even find a middle ground of acceptability between the two, but you cannot under any normal circumstance have both simultaneously. In reality no matter how “hot” the issue, you’re going to find yourself waiting for further guidance, waiting for questions to be answered by others, or waiting for your own chain of command to get around to feeling any actual sense of urgency. Until those things happen, it’s fine to hurry up, but you’d better be sure to have some entertaining apps loaded so the wait is tolerable.
2. Social history. The great man theory of history was out of fashion for at least a century before I picked up my formal study of the craft. Contemporary popular historians busy themselves crafting social history narratives that feel more like professional pandering to racial, gender, or whatever current cause célèbre group has captured the spotlight temporarily and then judging the deeds of long dead actors against whatever utopian dream they’ve concocted. Give me great men and heroic actions any day over that kind of tripe. Call me old fashioned, but I like my historical deeds to be set within the context of their times, rather than measured by whatever half assed yard stick someone just developed so everyone can feel included and not get their feelings hurt. Context is king, which is why judging historical figures as if they just suddenly walked out of the local galleria with a chi tea and $500 sunglasses makes absolutely no sense to me at all.
3. Landscaping. In my pursuit of domestic tranquility I’ve lain my head in all manner of places. From an efficiency apartment, to a condo, through a succession of apartments, to a new-built house, to a rental house, and finally, now, to what I consider a more permanent Fortress Jeff. What most of those places have in common is that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time concerned with landscaping. The condo and apartments obviously took care of themselves. The rental house could be serviced by a regular cut and trim of the yard. The landscaping around the Memphis house was so new that it mostly took care of itself. Now at Fortress Jeff, I’ve inherited a mature landscape in place when I arrived – and one that hadn’t received much attention in at least several growing seasons. In the last year I’ve taken down four full grown trees, sliced out half a dozen shrubs and plants that didn’t fit my “artistic vision,” raised parts of the back yard by almost two feet and set new grass to grow on it. This spring I launched into what I hope will be a mid-term solution for controlling run-off in the front yard and improving drainage. I’ve added the first cubic yard of mulch and have two or three more to go. A former flower bed next to the driveway needs prepped and sodded and then it’s time to tackle the challenge of a bare dirt bank where it seems nothing can take root. All of that’s on the list before I turn my eyes again to the back yard – where the list of want-to-dos is at least as long. Fortunately, I like tinkering with these kinds of projects. The hell of it is, they all take time and cost money and need to be laid in along with all the other tasks and chores that keep the homestead running… so now that spring has arrived, please forgive whatever messes pile up indoors. I’ll be getting back to them when the weather again drives me under cover.