The other day I get this shrill alarm sounding on my headphones, and the screen of my phone lit up with the message that “based on my sound history” I had exceeded the recommended volume recommendations for the past week, and advised that I back off the headphones for a bit.
Those of you who know me will understand how I reacted: I shook my head, chuckled sheepishly and turned down the volume in accordance with their advice.
Actually that’s not completely true. Rather, I flew into a psychotic rage and vowed that every e-nanny warning must die.
Most of my life is spent shouting at inanimate objects, so I felt compelled to tell the phone not to worry about my sound history, because if I could hear, I wouldn’t have had the volume up so loud in the first place.
Before you laugh, I have won these battles before. I clicked so obsessively on a “report this ad” link on the Washington Post website that I am no longer tormented by intrusive ads across the bottom of the screen.
This is why, today, I tip my hat in respect to Gareth Wild, ”a 39-year-old production director who assiduously took up space, in one spot after another at the local Sainsbury’s of his London suburb, until he had used 211 parking spots over six years,” the New York Times reported.
Now that’s an obsession to be proud of. And it proves that if you do something kind of stupid and sort of pointless no one will care — but there exists a line of banality that, if crossed, will turn you from weirdo to celebrity, even in the eyes of America’s Newspaper of Record.
“If you do anything small, or a little thing over a long period of time, it doesn’t feel like too much,” Wild told the Times. “Then you put it together and suddenly you’re being interviewed by people for your car parking exploits.”
Remember that kids. Stupidity is cumulative. You do it enough and a diamond is created out of coal.
First, Wild plotted out the parking lot on Google Earth. Then he created a spreadsheet, and every week when he went to the grocery he looked for a spot he hadn’t parked in before. He divided the lot into lettered and numbered color-coded sections. “I quickly identified the ones that were in high demand,” he said, and planned to seek those out first. “The ones that were never being used, I wanted to save those for last so I wasn’t bottlenecking my approach.”
Well obviously. If you want to get a project of this urgency wrapped up in a tidy 72 months you can’t be wasting your time in a bottleneck.
And a minor quibble perhaps — you can do it Wild’s way, but that’s not the cowboy way. Most guys I know are entirely capable of doing something this pointless, but they would have added a speed element.
And I’m guessing they will. It’s just the way guys think (or more accurately, the way they don’t think). Not that 211 has been done, it’s going to be “Who's the fastest to 211?” It would involve endless orbits of the lot, waiting for the needed space to come open. And, in a perfect world, it would somehow involve explosives.
I do give Wild credit for this: He chose to start a family because he needed access to the space reserved for shoppers with small children. You wonder how that conversation went.
Wife: Darling, I’ve been giving much thought to procreation, and while I hesitate to bring new life into a world so fraught, I do believe that humanity is a vessel through which each new soul is deserving of a chance to mold the societal clay. What do you think?
Husband: Well, it would help me get the family space down at Sainsbury’s.
Move over Bill and Melinda Gates.
We introverts have been pretty bold over the past year, saying things like “We’d love to come to see your new baby just as soon as all this pandemic is over,” and “Once things get back to normal, we’re going to have a biiiggg party.”
Now that things are approaching normal, we have a confession to make: We didn’t mean a word of it.
We were just pretending we wanted to be around people, when in fact the pandemic was social Teflon that gave us superhuman powers to avoid human contact. Now, a return to what the rest of you call “normalcy” is, to us, like Scotty taking down the shields. We feel painfully exposed.
What, we have to go back to the office? Are you kidding? Haven’t we just established over the past year that people are more productive when they don’t have to wear pants?
You don’t even have to be an introvert to despise chamber mixers and art gallery openings and even happy hours. My hearing — and I know I’m not alone — is such that for at least the last 20 years, in a crowded restaurant or a room full of chatter, I cannot make out what the person standing right next to me is saying.
So I watch people’s lips move and act like they’re the most interesting people on Earth when, in fact, I have to clue what they’re saying. I have learned how to fake interest and interspace small “hmm, that’s food for thought” nods with larger, “whoa, I never thought of it THAT way” nods, and I don’t know what I’m agreeing with.
They could be saying that former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie is going to rise from the dead and reclaim his title of Dejazmatch of Gara Mulatta, and I’d be fine with that. At one time or another, I probably agreed with someone professing Ringo to be the most talented Beatle.
And because people always think what they have to say is fascinating and insightful, no one ever seemed to twig to the fact that they might as well have been talking to a lamppost.
Matter of fact, for an introvert, the only thing worse than not being able to hear people is being able to hear people. For us, small talk causes a reaction similar to a mental form of poison ivy, running the scale from a mild irritant to a full-blown psychotic eye gouging.
If you are a normal person, you have no idea how eternally blissful it is to go through an entire year without hearing the words, “Hot enough for ya?”
“Think this rain will ever stop?”
“Well, it always has.”
If you want to walk up to us on the street and ask our level of concern over China’s dominance of the market for rare-earth metals, we’re fine with that. Just don’t be like the guy with the Progressive insurance sign who says, “Mondays, right?” He’s lucky the guy across the table just shakes his head and says “What about ’em?” before taking a pull on his coffee. Most of us would have thrown the coffee in the other guy’s grill.
While other people are gleefully posting photos of their vaccination cards on Facebook, we are hiding ours. We do not want people to know we are fit for human interaction. In fact, if asked, we are quite liable to lie about it.
Sure we’ve been vaccinated, but we’re not going to tell you, because you’re going to want us to come to your wedding, or stop by for tea or meet your new personal trainer. It’s not that we don’t like people, it’s just that we want contact to be meaningful and limited, not frivolous and constant.
And if to attain that we have to fashion ourselves as Fauci-hating anti-vaxxers? You don’t know how far we’ll go.
Herald Mail Media
Facebook wants to take over the world monetary system. What could go wrong?
That’s right, the same company that is famous for videos of cats being scared by a zucchini, for allowing the Russians to take over our politics and for passing out your private data like Halloween candy has formed a company that has been secretly working for the past year on a currency named “Libra,” the Greek word for “internet scam.”
The plan, according to The New York Times, would “create an alternative financial system that relies on a cryptocurrency” that would make it faster, easier and less complicated for Facebook to take your money.
The Times writes that, “If the project, which Facebook hopes to begin next year with 100 partners, should come together, it would be the most far-reaching attempt by a mainstream company to jump into the world of cryptocurrencies, which is best known for speculative investments through digital tokens like Bitcoin and outside-the-law e-commerce like buying drugs online.”
OK, but that’s not my fear. I’m not worried that a bunch of 85-year-old Facebook users are suddenly going to start ordering crank.
What I do worry about is that — how do I put this nicely? — if I were looking around for a group to trust my money with, Facebook would rank about 3,738th on the list, right between the Gambino crime family and a group of third-graders holding a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
Facebook has spent the past decade doing everything it possibly could to not earn our trust. And now it wants our cash? Oh, all right, just let me finish filling out this waiver stating that if Facebook manages to lose my money it’s my own fault, and that I will pay them for the inconvenience of having to show up at congressional hearings.
Because you know this is where it’s going. Mark Zuckerberg sitting before the panel saying, “We didn’t mean to lose everyone’s money, it won’t happen again,” and a bunch of clueless old white male senators sternly saying, “Well, young man, see that it doesn’t.”
Because a data breach is one thing. People get their data stolen all the time and nothing ever seems to come of it, no matter how horrible we are told it is by companies trying to sell us data-protection services.
And privacy? I’m over it. I sort of appreciate that Facebook sells my personal information to companies, because I would rather see ads for mountain bikes than for Maalox.
But money is different. If Facebook screws that up, it’s not the same as a bad guy getting ahold of your account number at Macy’s. And forget idle hands: Money without accountability is the real devil’s plaything. Which the government knows. In fact, the Times says, “Financial regulators in the United States and other countries could stop Libra before it is even released if there are concerns that the technology will enable money laundering or other types of crime that have become common with Bitcoin.”
Good for the United States. You should only get to launder money if you’re the president.
I suppose I need to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that the big banks haven’t done such a great job of handling our money either. Every decade, like clockwork, they go off on some harebrained scheme that ends with a massive taxpayer bailout.
So who do you go with — Facebook or Wells Fargo? One loses your data, the other assigns you fictional data that doesn’t exist. I guess I’m old school. If I know I’m going to get hosed, I’d feel better about being hosed by an established financial institution. But all those old goats who used to bury their money in Mason jars aren’t looking so dumb after all.
Herald Mail Media
I never had much use for the United Nations until now. Because, according to this esteemed organization, I am not old. Yet.
According to Steven Petrow, writing in The Washington Post, the United Nations defines old age as beginning at 60. The difficulty, Petrow notes, is that the United Nations assigns the designation of old age based on how many years you have lived, not how many you have to go. So if you’re 60, you are considered old whether your life expectancy is 65 or 165. Therefore, he says, 60 is not a very good gauge.
Makes sense. Although frankly, that sounds like an argument an old man would make.
“I will soon turn 62,” he writes. “What does that actually tell you? Not very much, which is why, like many of my sexagenarian friends, I’m apt to claim, ‘Yes, age is just a number.’”
Actually, that’s how you tell if you’re old. If you start throwing around phrases like “age is just a number,” “you’re only as old as you feel” or “60 is the new 40,” a buzzer should go off and your forehead should start flashing OLD OLD OLD.
I really hate that last one, it’s so stupid. What did they say in the Middle Ages, “26 is ye new 12?”
I acknowledge that there are people age 60 who are a wreck, and people 10 years older who could leave people half their age in the dust. But that’s the product of good genes. It’s not because of a mathematical mind game.
Overall, I don’t understand what the problem is with admitting you are old. There are certain cruelties of old age — by the time you are old enough to afford a sports car, you are too old to get in and out of it — but there are also benefits.
Over the weekend, a young woman at the garden center carried a bag of potting soil to the car for me. That didn’t make me feel old. What made me feel old was that I let her.
The U.S. women’s soccer team makes me feel old in kind of an odd way. It’s not so much that I didn’t grow up with soccer and find it boring. It’s not that they run up the score or celebrate each goal as if they’ve just been released after 40 years in a Turkish prison.
When I was younger, any one of the three would fire some sort of passion one way or another. Today, none of it seems to matter. It’s the James McMurtry line: “I’m forty-some years old now and man I don’t care/all I want now is just a comfortable chair.”
Petrow quotes experts as calculating that old age begins “when your specific life expectancy is 15 years or less. That is when most people will start to exhibit the signs of aging, which is to say when quality of life takes a turn for the worse.”
So it’s like when they assign you your own parking space at the podiatrist. And it’s when the number of pills you take each day exceeds your average mph as you’re driving to the podiatrist.
Speaking of which, there’s an equally insidious and depressing way of knowing when you’re old that has nothing to do with the United Nations: It’s when the television shows you watch are sponsored wall-to-wall by medications and the makers of back braces.
It does explain something though. I saw an ad for a drug whose potential side effects included a “fatal brain infection.” I didn’t catch what it was this medicine was supposed to be able to cure, but I’d have to be pretty miserable before I risked my dome filling up with pus.
But if you’re in the red zone of your life, what’s a little brain infection as long as you’re regular?
Herald Mail Media
Most guys no longer go as far as W.C. Fields, who said he liked children “so long as they are properly cooked.” So, too, have guys grudgingly changed their preference for celebrating the birth of their child in the bar across the street from the hospital.
Yes, we are incrementally giving up our caveman tendencies. This happens when you make small concessions. Pretty soon, the union has taken over your whole shop.
That’s happening in Brazil, where C-section births are becoming not just a family affair, but a special event with a gaggle of people watching.
According to The Washington Post, “The phenomenon is inspiring a new industry of party planners, makeup artists and caterers, focused on turning these highly orchestrated operations into wedding-like spectacles, produced for an audience.”
Look, I’m as enlightened as the next guy. Actually, that’s not completely true. Thirty years ago, I was just as enlightened as the next guy. Today, it’s not just that I want people to get off of my lawn — I don’t want the lawn. I want it paved so I don’t have to mow.
Isn’t this supposed to be a blessed event, intensely quiet and personal time in the innermost sanctum of the nuclear family? Why in the name of Pele would you want the whole fraternity house, getting drunk, cheering on your spouse and urinating into the potted plant?
This is probably her idea, not his. According to the Post, “At the Sao Luiz private hospital in Sao Paulo, a mother-to-be can get her hair and makeup done in her hospital room. For 2,000 reals per day — about $500 — her family can rent out the presidential suite, with a living room and bathroom for guests, a balcony and minibar. Mothers can request their favorite flowers and magazines, and even change the furniture if it clashes with their planned decorations. A 22-story maternity ward now under construction will include a wine cellar and ballroom.”
For all this extravagance, $500 a day seems cheap. An American hospital would charge you — well, your first born child. Really, what can you get in an American hospital for $500 besides an Ace bandage?
I am aware that Europeans do things differently, with their nude laundromats and their weird breakfasts and their invasion of your personal space, but sheesh. It’s a matter of time before copycat Americans, who think it makes them look suave, latch on to this radical idea, which makes Elizabeth Warren’s look like the Coolidge administration. (I am also aware that Brazil isn’t in Europe, but in today’s politics, a foreigner is a foreigner, right?)
The French thought Marie Antoinette was a snob because she refused to give birth in public, but at least they had a reason — they wanted to make sure the heir to the throne was actually a live birth and not some changeling.
But face it, we’re not all giving birth to the dauphin. And to that point, doesn’t this put a lot of pressure on the child? What if you throw this big celebration and then he turns out to be a cheese-fries-eating Uber driver?
My fear is that this won’t stop at child births. Especially if profit-minded American medicine gets hold of it. I can see the day when they rent out the operating room for pet parties where everyone gets to spay their own cat.
You know how women are with events. It’s just a matter of time before she pops a surprise colonoscopy party on you. You’re just about to go under and she says, “Look, honey, I invited all your friends!”
You’re going to need that wine cellar.
On moving to the North Country for good a couple of years ago, I kept seeing all these “Redemption Centers,” and I thought to myself: I had no idea the Adirondacks had this many Baptists. And I certainly didn’t know they drank that much Bud Light.
Of course as it turned out, Redemption Centers up here are places where you go, not to be saved, but return your empty bottles and cans for a nickel apiece.
Because my brother lives here and considers bottle-deposit revenue to be his ice cream money, I was aware of the concept and I knew better than to toss out the bottles — but I couldn’t bring myself to turn them in, either. I was disinclined to go to one of the bottle-swallowing machines outside the grocery store, with the gaping maw that looks disturbingly like one of those inflatable sex dolls that you’d see advertised in the classifieds of filthy magazines ca. 1975.
No, I take that back, I did try at least, but the first time I lugged a bag up to the vestibule there was a guy in front of me with the alacrity of a coral reef, and somehow I felt ashamed to be waiting there in public with a bag full of garbage. I’m a man, not a raccoon.
The second time, the very first bottle I inserted into the machine was spit back out at me with the e-message that this particular brand of water was not sold by this particular store. Ergo, no nickel for you, bottle boy. I didn’t like the machines to begin with, and I don’t handle rejection well, so that was that.
But the redemption centers were scarcely better. Most of them seemed to be built out of wood pallets and aluminum foil, and made the refugee camps on the southern border look like Bolton Landing.
So the months went by, and the bottles piled up, and the garage reached the point where the car would no longer fit. Finally, I swallowed my pride, loaded about 12 lawn and leaf bags full of bottles into the truck and drove to the nearest redemption center. It was closed. It was open, the hand-painted sign said, Mondays 9 am til noon, closed Tuesdays, open Wednesdays noon til 4 pm, open the second and fourth Thursdays 9 am to noon and first and third Thursdays 2 pm til 4 pm, and so on, and then the capper to it all, “hour’s suBject to chAngE.”
So I decided to let the bottles take up permanent, legal residence in the bed of the truck, where they would stay until I chanced to drive by a redemption center at some point that happened to be open. Maybe two weeks later, I passed a redemption center with a guy sitting out front with no other apparent obligations, so I put on my brakes and pulled into the lot.
I off-loaded the cargo, and his first question was, “Did you count ’em?” To my mind, this was like asking if I’d counted the number of bones at a perch-fry prior to throwing the plate into the Dumpster. He was a good man though, and he said he’d count them himself. Somehow, and I learned this is a skill peculiar to all redemption centerists, he was able to count and talk at the same time.
He was chock full of fascinating information. He said you can tell what Adirondack neighborhood you’re in just by looking at the discarded cans and bottles. His was a Pepsi/Bud Light community, but one valley over it is Coors Light and Coke. Closer to the Peaks, another proprietor told me, it’s craft beer, particularly in the summer, and water tends to be more popular than soft drinks.
It is interesting to me that they bag the cans by brand, so there will be big clear sacks of nothing but Budweiser cans or Diet Coke cans. A guy near E-town said the state makes them do it that way, but when they take them over to be processed in Burlington, they’re all dumped on the floor together in one big, nonstorted pile.
I don’t know how accurate any of this information is, and Lord knows don’t feel like researching it. Some redemption-center guys (a century ago, they would have been sitting around the general store’s wood stove playing checkers) have that look, as if they’ve been waiting these yea-how-many years for a mark to come along and start asking them questions so they could spin their wildly inflated yarns. But many stories have that ring of truth.
For example, they say that people who bring in large quantities of alcoholic-beverage containers always feel the need to explain themselves. Like they just had a party, or they’re “collecting for the neighborhood.” At a redemption center in Lewis, one guy came in with 2,000 beer cans, explaining it was the byproduct of a hunting camp. But he must have done some quick mental math and determined that even this sounded a bit excessive, so he added that the pile had been accumulating for a number of years.
But my favorite story was that of a disheveled wino who pulled up in a battered pickup and asked the redemption-center proprietor, “Can I have the full ones?”
The owner said he was new to the business, and that the ne’er-do-well knew something he didn’t: That of all the beer cans that are thrown into the recycling, there is a certain percentage that are unopened. It’s not a high percentage, but based on volume it was enough to keep the man comfortably numb in perpetuity.
It just goes to show — you should never judge an industry until you have checked it out on your own. Because now I pop in to the once-dreaded redemption centers and listen to their stories even when I don’t have any cans.
True story: Maybe eight or 10 years ago, we were acting as Trail Angels for an Alabama judge who was hiking the Appalachian Trail. When he reached our neck of the woods in Maryland, we picked him up, brought him into town for a shower and took him to lunch in Sharpsburg, Md., scene of the famed Battle of Antietam.
At that time, I was still young enough that I would, like guys do, reflexively choose the biggest slab of meat on the menu, saving me any intellectual deliberation. On this day, the restaurant had a burger they called the Howitzer, which fit the bill, so after ordering we went on chatting about the judge’s hike, and the state of affairs back in the South.
He was a man of considerable esteem, so I didn’t say much, conscious, I suppose, that he was a man considerably above my pay grade.
It was after the lunch that we noticed two waitresses and a young man from the kitchen shimmering out of the background, obviously anxious for a word. They asked somewhat nervously if they could take my picture.
I’d published a few books and was a columnist for the paper, so I was something of a known commodity in the community, and this would happen from time to time. I have to admit I was secretly elated at their request, because I could now hold my head up high in the presence of the judge as a man of consequence.
I chuckled something to him about “the price of fame,” and then graciously asked the kids if they wanted me to sign anything. They exchanged puzzled looks. “Really, it’s OK, book, newspaper, I don’t mind.”
Well, long story short, they had no clue who I was. Instead, I had failed to read the fine print on the menu concerning the Howitzer. It turned out that if you were capable of consuming the entire culinary monstrosity in 60 minutes, along with the bushel basket of fries that came with it, you would get your picture up on the wall with a half-dozen other slobs who had performed the same feat.
Actually that’s not even true. There must have been about 50 people on the wall, the Howitzer being no particular match for this region of the country — which is the point of this story. Because the area I come from is not what you would call athletic, unless by athletic you mean being able to hoist yourself from the couch three times an an afternoon for a fresh bag of Cheese Doodles.
Not to be selfish about it, but this was a godsend for the egos of semi-fit people such as myself, who would never have to worry about being passed on a trail or by another bicyclist. I know we’re not supposed to worry about stuff like that in this enlightened age, but we all do. And I took some degree of pride in overtaking fellow outdoors enthusiasts while climbing mountains and ridges where others feared to tread.
And then I moved to the Adirondacks.
Here, where people engage in Ironman competitions, where they run a marathon, bike 200 miles and swim a couple laps around the Atlantic Ocean. And I don’t know what they do in the afternoon.
For all I thought I knew about fitness, I am being crushed. Guys 70 years older than I are flying past me on their bikes, as if I’m towing a couple of glacial erratics. Women, children, dogs, they all make me feel as if I should just go home and leave the outdoor sporting activities to the professionals. I am, very simply, not accustomed to living in a community of athletes, and it is leaving me slightly nonplussed.
I am self-conscious about my bicycle, which has those flat handlebars that in the cycling world are code for “assisted living.” My wheels have uncool spokes and do not look as if they have been cut out of cookie dough. My water bottle is Schwepps Diet Tonic, because in my old stomping grounds you never knew when someone was going to be pouring a splash of bourbon. I don’t have those water-bottle three packs that look like the auxiliary battery power on an intergalactic space vessel, nor do I have flashing running lights or a computerized dash.
And my attire? Forget it. I can’t bring myself to spend $120 for a shirt (although I would accept one as a Christmas present, ahem) so I went to Tractor Supply and got a couple of those neon highway-worker T’s that at 200 yards could be mistaken for something a serious biker would wear. I’m scared of cleated shoes, because I envision myself coming to a stop at a light and toppling over because I can’t free my feet from the pedals. And tight black shorts are not my friend, enough said.
I want to stress that I am no way bitter about it. This is pure, honest jealousy. So I look at this year as my athletic apprenticeship. Maybe by next summer I will have hardened off my calves and tightened my abs to the point where I can be seen along the Adirondack byways with all the other dazzling athletes, maintaining a similar pace in a blaze of glowing Lycra.
Or maybe I’ll just go back to Stewart’s for another half gallon of Brownie Cookie Sundae.
I know the Trump administration is supposed to be wealthy upper-crust and all, but when you turn on the news, do you ever feel like you’re watching an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” minus only Jed’s homespun wisdom?
Billy Bob Bannon is keying Uncle Donnie’s pickup truck, so Donnie got back at him by stuffing Billy Bob’s cat in a mailbox. Kellyanne and Sarah Lou, dripping in sarcasm and mascara, are holding up freshly uprooted swatches of the media’s hair. String Bean Stevie’s taking out a peace order on Mooch, who keeps trying to sneak back into the doublewide with a pair of bolt cutters. The cousins over in Congress are getting a little too friendly with the girl help and sometimes, the boy help, but we don’t talk about that. Paulie Clotheshorse and Mikie are in trouble with the law again and who would have thought it, but old Grandpa Newtie is still hanging in there, upstairs in his room cackling away and pounding his cane on the floor, even though the doctors have told him that if he keeps eating Zagnut bars like that, they’s gonna have to take his foot.
It’s like the whole trailer park has moved into Washington, and they’re throwing plates at each other and poisoning each other’s dogs.
Here, we’ve spent 18 months puzzling over why people in Appalachia identify with a jet-setter like the Donald. Well, isn’t it obvious? Deep down, he’s one of them. He’s Donald the Cable Guy. If his daddy hadn’t made a mint in real estate, he’d be sitting around a kerosene heater right now with a long-neck and a handful of scratch-off tickets.
It’s almost exactly like the Golden Globes, where an inbred subset of fabulously wealthy Americans gather a couple of times a year to rend their garments over being so popular — because, you know, if they weren’t busy acting, they would be JFK. “God help us, we are all creeps — and that’s why we should be the ones to lead this country! Or something like that!” (Thunderous applause.)
And I love Donald and I love Oprah as entertainers, but maybe it’s time we step back and take a deep breath and consider that the system of political/military establishment — you know, “government” — that brought us FDR and Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Reagan and Bush 41 wasn’t quite as bad as we thought.
The thing that is striking is that for the past quarter-century, people have been ranting and raving about “professional politicians.” But look at some of the people who are lining up to run for president next time around, and a professional politician doesn’t seem all that bad.
They might not be warm and fuzzy or even someone you would want to have dinner with, but political pros do have some marginal idea of how to do the job. It’s like the fan of an Ivy League school watching the team step off the plane for a game with a school from the SEC. One after the other, they file past the newsstand, picking up copies of the New York Times, or the Economist, or the Wall Street Journal. Finally, a defensive lineman comes along and picks up a comic book and the fan says: “Thank heaven, we have a chance.”
Today, we have an entire generation of people in government who say that the problem with America is the government. Guys who have been in office for 30 years look straight into the camera and, with zero sense of irony, say: “The problem with government is these career politicians.”
So next time around, don’t give me a rapper, or the owner of a basketball team or any other rookie. Give me Hubert Humphrey. And please tell me I didn’t just say that.
Where history is concerned, I'm a jack of all trades and master of none. My specialty in college was the French Revolution, but sadly that era hasn't been marketable since Les Miz. And since I'm more of a story teller than historian, I prowl for interesting subject matter, regardless of the time period, and then learn as I go.
Which is how I found myself in the War of 1812 as it relates to an upcoming book, Strange and Obscure Stories of Washington, D.C. This, of course, involves the burning Washington by the British, after they brushed aside American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg.
Historians differ on the American performance at Bladensburg. Harry Ammon called it “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms,” while in the opinion of J.C.A. Stagg, it was “the most humiliating episode in American history.” The truth is probably somewhere in between.
But be that as it may, the British were able to focus on the Americans largely because of the surrender of Napoleon, who had been occupying most of the Brits' attention on the Continent. So the opening to my chapter went like so:
On the morning of June 18, 1815, a Sunday, Napoleon Bonaparte took his breakfast on a fine set of silver outside the town of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium. To his assembled officers, he dismissed the talents of his opponent in battle that day, the Duke of Wellington, saying that beating him in the field should be of no more trouble than—eating breakfast. The great general might have simply been trying to boost his officers’ confidence, but of course it was a statement that came back to haunt him.
Four thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., it was unlikely that residents, when they eventually received the news, would have seen any potential cause and effect between Napoleon’s surrender and their own pursuit of happiness. Wiser American statesmen, however, might have understood the implications. Britain had been fighting an epic war on the Continent, affording it few resources to allocate to the United States, where the pesky little brother was at it again. And with reason. The United States had won the Revolution, but to the newly minted Americans it seemed as if Britain hadn’t gotten the message.
One problem. By the time of Waterloo, the War of 1812 had been over for four months. So what happened? The premise was still good—the surrender of Napoleon facilitated British attacks on America. But of course Napoleon capitulated twice, once at Waterloo, and once a year earlier after a disastrous winter campaign in Russia. It was the first surrender I needed to be referencing, not the second. Luckily it dawned on the at some point that 1815 came after 1814, and a great crisis, or at least a great embarrassment, was avoided.
Two essays out of Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City deal with two sides of a common superstition in the 1800s: that if you traveled at speeds in excess of 60 mph you would die.
One story involved daredevils jumping off of high places, specifically in this case, the Brooklyn Bridge. A climber who conquers a mighty mountain says he does it “because it’s there.” In much the same way, men took to jumping off the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge in the late 1800s. As in came to pass, however, jumping from a platform nearly a football field above the water was not dependably survivable. But, curiously, people argued over the reasons for the high death rate that these aggressive jumps produced.
The second story involved rudimentary attempts at mass transit, in which people were seated in a pneumatic tube, essentially extra-large versions of the familiar canister that transfers transactions at the local branch bank from car window to teller.
Inventors, again in the late 1800s, used enormous fans to pump the air out a sealed tunnel, creating a vacuum that powered the tube and, in theory at least, would whoosh the passengers to their destination at tremendous speed. (Elon Musk’s Hyperloop works on much the same principle.)
The similarity is that both involved human beings traveling at speeds that many people at the time — accustomed to traveling no faster than foot or hoof would allow — assumed it would be fatal. Trains by this time were rumbling along in excess of 50 mph, but much more velocity than that, people assumed, would create enough g-forces to smush one’s internal organs.
So people believed that both pneumatic tubes and daredevil jumps would achieve speeds — 60 or 70 mph — that would cause death. The first man to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, Robert Odlum, did not live, and many figured he was dead before he hit the water (In fact, the key to surviving the jump was hitting the water perpendicularly, something that wasn’t easy in the buffeting winds.)
Pneumatic tubes for human transit never reached their theoretical speeds, at least as a practical measure. But plenty of people wanted no part of such a fast and risky business even if it were possible.
So it wasn’t really until the end of the 1800s that advances in railroad technology and speed proved once and for all that high-speed travel wouldn’t kill you. At least not as a general thing.