On the dust tossed away by the sweep of history

On the dust tossed away by the sweep of history

During a period in my life that I refer to as my Second Lost Period (like most sequels, it was longer, more expensive, and less interesting that the sweet and almost romantic First Lost Period), I spent a few long nights-and-into-the-early-mornings reading Trotsky’s autobiography, which some helpful Communists had posted online in its entirety.

(As an aside, last year I accidentally dove down an Internet rabbit hole of conspiracy theories from the 1950s and 60s, and for the next two weeks the ads in my browser seemed tailored to a budding domestic terrorist, which was a bit frightening. My insomniac dabbling in Trotskyism was done in a comparatively more innocent time. But I digress.)

All these years later I can remember clearly lying on my bed and reading off the screen and thinking to myself, “Nobody will ever want to read a book on a computer screen,” but of the text itself I can only remember one very minor anecdote tucked away near the end of the book. More than any of his screeds against the oppressor or nostalgia for the excitement of birthing a new world order, this short aside struck me and stuck with me.

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‘Were you cruelly treated?’

‘Were you cruelly treated?’

The Scottish Presbyterian minister Reverend David Macrae, who sometimes engaged in theological discussions with Charles Dickens and who much later in life was deposed for heresy, visited the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War and wrote of his experiences in a two-volume study he called “The Americans at Home: Pen and Ink Sketches of American Men, Manners, and Institutions.” In it he wrote of his long journey from one end of the battered republic to the other, where he met with doctors, servants, academics, religious leaders, politicians, veterans, and various grade-A American nutjobs of both the good and bad sort. Along the way he also apparently ate a lot of pie. “I have strong convictions on this subject of pie,” he wrote. “I don’t see how they can reconcile it with their notions of what is due to the laws of nature, to live to the age they do, considering the amount of pie they eat, and the rapidity with which they generally eat it.”

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A better Tut

A better Tut

Some years ago I had to teach a unit on Ancient Egypt to a class of third graders, and naturally most of the lesson revolved around King Tut. In order to prepare–I knew nothing of Ancient Egypt at the time–I read the course materials and looked at the worksheets and activities provided in the syllabus. The lesson boiled down to this: Tutankhamun was crowned as a boy, died a few years later, and did nothing in between that matters. Because of his insignificance, his grave was obscure and remained untouched until some Englishmen dug it up in the 1930s. End of story, now let’s mummify an apple.

But I knew my students would ask questions, so to protect myself I dug a little deeper–not even much deeper, mind you–and ended up with my mind blown. The lesson was entirely rewritten, and a three-day unit ballooned into a two week long meditation on one of the most dramatic and difficult episodes in human history, peopled with fascinating characters and lingering mysteries.

With full apologies to proper Egyptologists, any sort of historian, and all elementary school teachers, here is the gist of my version of the Tutankhamun story, minimally researched and approved by nobody before being presented to unsuspecting children:

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Waiting for the end of the world

Waiting for the end of the world

Gibbon doesn’t specify that it was raining the day that Odoacer entered Rome, so I don’t know where that image comes from. I imagine the great city battered by the centuries of instability and still bearing fresh scars from Riciner’s sacking. The walls of Rome are dark and gray, not the gleaming white of Marcus Aurelius’ capital, but with dirt accumulated after long periods of violence and neglect. The sky overhead is dark and mean, and the Tiber has long ago become a vein of pollution. Despite its wounds, though, the city still wears its majesty. It is no longer the capital of anything: Constantinople commands the greater portion of the Empire; of the two competing Emperors of the West, one, Romulus Augustulus, lives in Ravenna, and the other, Julius Nepos, is in exile in Dalmatia.

Make no mistake, though: Rome has stood as the light of the west for a thousand years, and even in degradation it is proud. I imagine then this beleaguered city under a a thick layer of dark clouds, surrounded on all sides by the enormous and terrifying army of Odoacer. Romulus has been deposed, and the barbarians await their leader to enter and proclaim himself King of Italy, and the end of the Western Roman Empire.

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Where exactly did it all go wrong?

Where exactly did it all go wrong?

I read once that when Genghis Khan entered Khwarezm he was deeply offended by the sight of its canals and ordered them all torn up. Rivers, he felt, should always be free.

I could take a few moments to verify this with an Internet search or, even better but more time-consuming, going downstairs and looking through my library–I’m sure I still have that book, since I generally don’t throw books away and I don’t typically borrow books (because then I have to give them back, and I want to keep them on my shelf for those rare but vital occasions when I need them again). But that is irrelevant for the sake of this thought exercise. Let’s assume he did just that and go from there.

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The Snakes and History

The Snakes and History

During the height of the Mayan era a group of people who called themselves Snakes briefly overran the cities of the Yucatan and formed a powerful imperial state. Where they came from has been lost to history. How they built their empire, and how they lost it, is almost as much guessing as it is scholarship. Until the 1960s, actually, the fact that they had ever existed was mostly unknown.

When the Snakes fell, their rivals did their best to erase them from memory, and nearly succeeded. But today we can find what little remains of their monuments scattered throughout the Yucatan, identified by their imperial symbol, a stylized snake with an eerie grin. Archaeologists have pieced together a sketchy timeline for their rule, and shown how their society was organized.

Their cities, judging from the remnants that have survived, were amazing, and what we have learned of their history suggests that this may have been one of the most dazzling places on earth in the seventh century.

I imagine a young man growing up in the Snake capital, learning to walk along those streets, running his hands over stone buildings that, as far as he knew, had always been there, and would always be there. The myriad daily encounters that make up the bulk of life: cooking, shopping, meeting with friends, going to work. Love, children. Various worries that kept him up at night, the life-consuming tragedies that scarred him but left no imprint on the greater world.

I look at the towers of my own city, the ribbons of pavement that grid the ground beneath me, the long-term projects that take up all my time and energy, and the forgettable tasks and thoughts, innumerable as the stars. I understand that of the billions of us who walk the earth, very few are ever remembered beyond their own lifetimes. We are like grains of sand, not valuable in and of ourselves but in aggregate a wonder to behold. I personally will be forgotten but my time, my civilization, my world that I know will echo through the centuries.

I’m sure the Snake people felt the same way. How would it feel if by some accident one of them should step through time and find himself in his city today, overgrown with jungle and picked over with scholars? Would he point to places in a desperate effort to show that this field was where his children played, that this low wall had once been a house, that the people inside it were kind and generous and deserved to be remembered? Would he simply go mad? Or would he just stand there, unable to comprehend that his world that was all that there was could vanish so completely?

The Bet

The Bet

This visitor, at least, looked normal, and wore with loose comfort a good education and reasonable affluence.

“How might I help you, sir?” the Congressman asked.

The visitor introduced himself with a professional-quality handshake and an affable smile. “John Brunn, from Denver.” He handed over his business card. He spoke with the flat accent of the successful. If he was originally from Denver there was no way to tell. “So I’m not from your district but I hope you don’t mind my meeting you here. I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”

He did, actually, but social grace forbade him from saying so.

“I love Colorado,” the Congressman answered. “Vacationed there a few times with the family. Please, have a seat. Are you at least Republican?”

“Independent, sir,” Mr. Brunn answered forthrightly, still smiling warmly. “Actually I’m not very political at all.”

The conversation, then, would be quick and informal. The visitor’s entire demeanor put him at ease and the Congressman relaxed into his leather chair. The visitor took the sofa. It was comfortable. The Congressman slept there sometimes.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me. I feel this a bit unfair: I know why I’m here and you definitely don’t. Let me start by saying that, for whatever it’s worth, I’m not here to give you a hard time about anything.” He laughed at this. “And if I’m keeping you from something you can say so, I won’t be offended. But,” and here he hesitated, “just hear me out. I’ll be quick.”

The Congressman was curious but not alarmed. When Mr. Brunn said he wasn’t here to give a hard time, the Congressman believed him.

Mr. Brunn opened his suitcase and pulled out a small stack of papers that he separated into two piles. He didn’t hand them over, not yet.

“We’ve never met, you and I, right?” he asked.

“Correct,” The Congressman answered.

“These are genealogical records, for both your family and mine.” He slid one stack over. “They aren’t exhaustive, but they don’t need to be. Just enough to establish bloodlines and draw connections. Again, please just hear me out. I understand that this is unusual but I’ll explain it all in a minute.”

The Congressman picked up the papers and read. It was a photocopy. The papers themselves were handwritten. He saw his own name, and his parents, his sister, and his brother, with the annotation that the brother was deceased. The family tree flowed up through his father to his grandparents, and then up through his grandmother to his great-grandparents, noting some but not all of their children. He realized it only noted those who had had children of their own. Small annotations indicated on which pages he’d find those branches of the family tree.

“A few months ago my father passed,” Mr. Brunn began, “and left me these records. These are photocopies; the originals are held in a vault that I don’t have access to, at least not easily. That’s his handwriting on this page. If you flip through you’ll see other handwriting. The records are quite extensive.”

He flipped through and read. His great-grandparents, whose names he had heard. Great-great-grandparents. He’d seen their names once on the register at Ellis Island once. Their parents. The handwriting on later pages became less modern, with swirls and hooks, like from the Constitution. Birth and death dates from the nineteenth  century. He skipped an inch worth of pages and read names from the seventeenth century, all carefully annotated as on the first page. He flipped a large section. The handwriting was very different, probably in a different language, and the dates indicated the twelfth century.

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