No one wants to read anything sad, so, well, I’ll put a happy gloss on it: Daughter is no longer sleeping with the iron bar of the sofa bed working her kidneys every night! No more slumbering with the spiders. That’s great! But jeez, the emptiness of the house is just glum, and we’re all glum - and I suppose that’s good, because it meant there was joy here, even if it’s gone. It would be worse to feel relieved.
Up and out early with four bags that suggested she had drugged and smuggled every dog from every host family she’d had. A year’s worth of stuff, I guess - winter coats included. Turned out the flight was noon, not 10:30 - so we wrangled a couple of gate passes from a kind American Airlines desk clerk who was not the unkind one who said “one per party” and left it at that and exuded this sort of atmospheric stone that said NO. GO.
There are few things as odd these days as an airport, and to be wandering around the quiet place knowing you’re not actually going anywhere is odd. Everyone masked except for two jerks in black shirts with aggressive FU slogans, crossed pistols under a skull, that sort of thing. One sneezed as he walked past.
“Dude, the Corona,” said his friend. Jackwipes.
We had coffee, wandered, had a delicious McDonald’s breakfast, wander to the gate, sat, chatted, then it was goodbye and weeping.
Looking back as we turned the corner, one last wave.
As I said to Daughter on the way home: now you know what it’s like when a child leaves the house. For you, it’s always been the start of an adventure - Brazil! College! And that’s fine! That’s how it’s meant to be. But now you know what it’s like to stay and go home to a quiet place, a house that’s just the same, but seemed to have been drained of some elemental force. And she got it.
Rotaria’s parents want to come next year, and that would be great. I know Borch will be amazed: you - YOU! YOU!
Ding! a text a while later on WhatsApp, because now she has a Spanish sim card, and we can chat there. Just a hello from Chicago, about to get on the plane to London, missing us all already.
I finished a column, had a desultory Zoom meeting for work, did some set up for some Fair videos I’m going to do Thursday, and took a long, deep nap. It did not have any dreams, which was good. When I woke this morning
I was talking a week or so ago about mystery notels set in Rome.There are several authors who do this. The “Gordianus, the Finder” series is sober and serious and packed with detail, although I grew a bit weary of the character’s ability to find himself inserted into all the major events of the end of the Republic. It’s understandable - you can’t avoid taking your own swing at the characters of the era, and bending them to your preferred conception.
This is the SPQR series, which I enjoy more than any others, simply for its breezy, amused tone, its narrator’s casual Roman chauvinism and acceptance of his society’s flaws, as well as its unquestioned stature as the society best constituted to run things. The reader leans into the familiar elements that bind the Roman world to our own, and we enjoy the similarities. The commerce, the politics, the religious squabbles, the upper class’ excesses, the libraries and historians, the sense of a settled place.
But of course it wasn’t settled, was it? The SPQR series, like the Gordianus books, spans the period that’s catnip to students of history, because the stakes are so high, the personalities outsized, the creaking of the wheel of history so loud and tortured you cannot help but see a schism between the Good (the Republic) and the Bad (the rise of the Emperors.) It’s a bit simplistic. The Republic had been rotted for decades, and had its share of dictators. But you like to think you’d be on the side of Cato, unwavering in his defense of the Old Ways, or Cicero, a Man of Honor and Principle . . . except Cato would have been a stinking bore, a mule in a contest that requires a swift horse, and Cicero, while admirable, was a bit more . . . conveniently malleable and situationally timid than some of the hagiographies suggest. (Robert Harris gets him right, I think, but how would I know.)
Every civilization that found inspiration or guidelines in Roman history, or twinned their own imperial ambitions - however they were gussied up - has looked for the echo of the decline of the Republic in their own times. The old ways, stern and true, are replaced by empty gestures and platitudinous orations on the virtues of yore, and meanwhile some Caesar trots up to the banks of the Rubicon. Eventually some line is crossed, and things change - but it takes preparation in the minds of the citizens to make it possible, or at least make it less likely to oppose.
The SPQR book I read takes place right before Caesar heads into Rome, and civil war breaks out. None of that happens in the book, which concerns some evildoing in a vacation town. (Pompey makes an appearance, though, and he’s the tubby blowhard past his prime we’ve come to expect.) The narrator describes how the south of Italy is thrumming with expectation that something is going to happen, and in a way you envy the clarity: it will be this, or it will be that. This fellow, or that one. Fear of the unknown eventually turns into impatience for a resolution: let’s just get it over with and move to what comes next.
I don’t mean to suggest we’re there; as Caesar once said, “not every journey down a road at night is Flight CXIII.” Jeff Bezos is not riding off to subjugate Parthia. But the last three or four years have seemed extraordinarily unsettled, in an odd way, because things were pretty good. Not perfect, not pretty good for all; no time ever spreads its butter on the bread without a lump or a bald patch. But really: prosperity increasing, no new wars of note
It did not result in cultural confidence. It didn’t result in a sense of optimism and redoubled effort to make things even better, at least among the opinion-makers. To them, the last three or four years have been an unparalleled catastrophe whose crises are utterly unique to our history.
This was been at odds with the daily experience of, oh, just about everyone. But the meta narratives were unrelentingly negative, and when the crunch came in the form of plague and unrest, it was like carving the magic letters on the forehead of the Golem, and all the bile they'd produced filled its veins. The fact that things are bad now is proof that things were never good before. There is nothing to be saved, since everything in the past brought us to this.
You'd like to think that a thousand years from now, people would read the American story as a possible mirror to thier own times of troubles . . . and take heart. But that depends on who writes the histories. Which of course depends on who wins, who does the stenography, and whether access to the past is restricted because it contained facts that contradicted what the right-thinking people are so convinced must be true.
I read an assertion the other day that objectivity reinforces racist constructs, which is odd, because that's not a subjective assertion. Square the two in your head and make them merge, though, and you're on your way to mental health.
Another squirt of juniper in your gin?
Sorry, I know I was talking about Rome, not MCMLXXXIV. The curse of too many convenient analogies.
It would be nice if fewer applied.
It’s 1970. You can just see the whole crap-ton of bad future events warming up in the wings.
You have to admit, Fear Hussein would be an awesome name for a ME leader:
Caesar would approve:
As a member of the Hashemite dynasty, the royal family of Jordan since 1921, Hussein claimed to be a 40th-generation direct descendant of Muhammad.
Alexander Kerensky, star of the Duma, top dog in the Provisional Government, and the obligatory man who rides the chaos only to be unseated by more ruthless elements.
Who could've seen that coming?
Kerensky and the other political leaders continued Russia's involvement in World War I, thinking that nothing but a glorious victory was the only road forward, and fearing that the economy, already under huge stress from the war effort, might become increasingly unstable if vital supplies from France and from the United Kingdom ceased flowing. The dilemma of whether to withdraw was a great one, and Kerensky's inconsistent and impractical policies further destabilised the army and the country at large.
Furthermore, Kerensky adopted a policy that isolated the right-wing conservatives, both democratic and monarchist-oriented. His philosophy of "no enemies to the left" greatly empowered the Bolsheviks and gave them a free hand, allowing them to take over the military arm or "voyenka" of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets.
But he made it out.
Kerensky eventually settled in New York City, living on the Upper East Side on 91st Street near Central Park but spent much of his time at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, where he both used and contributed to the Institution's huge archive on Russian history, and where he taught graduate courses. He wrote and broadcast extensively on Russian politics and history.
No enemies on the left, but good thing there were friends on the right.
Horrible crime, and a horrible person.
Well, that’s all depressing news; at least you can open the window on a summer day, and -
You'll note that the best option was still pretty bad.
Quick, whip up a cartoon:
Here's the news at the time.
Man on the street! As for the author:
Jemail attended Brown University, where he played halfback for the football team. He played in the 1916 Rose Bowl (originally the "Tournament East-West Football Game"). After serving in the U.S. Navy, in 1921, he went to the New York Daily News.
Initially hired as a Sunday watchman, he was assigned as the "Inquiring Fotographer," where he asked strangers on the street questions from readers and take photo portraits of the interviewees. He continued with the column for over 52 years and retired from the Daily News in 1973.