For the last two weeks, I have avoided all posting to Twitter other than links, replies, and retweets. That leaves out the sort of offhand “microblogging” that has described the bulk of my Twitter use over the last dozen years. I don’t expect I’ll continue this reduced-use pattern indefinitely, but for the time being I feel comfortable with it.
I wish to minimize my own voice on Twitter, for now.
I didn’t plan on starting this change in behavior, but it resulted naturally from a harrowing few days that kicked off two weeks ago, involving two very different instances of mob violence. One you certainly know about; the other you’d have seen only if “extremely online”, at least to a certain degree. Both were fueled at least in part by Twitter, and both appalled me so much as to make me feel quite shy about continuing to use the platform unrestricted.
You already know that one is the deadly white-supremacist, anti-democratic mob attack on the U.S. Capitol—a still-developing story that, as I write this, has no name for the history books yet. I don’t need to describe it here (and it’d feel premature anyway). It’s the later-occurring of the events that scared me off Twitter, as well, so let’s come back to it.
The earlier event, unrelated to that awful attack and preceding it by about three days, was the internet-wide excoriation of the musician and podcaster John Roderick after he posted some bad tweets. I don’t know Mr. Roderick personally, but I do feel a very personal and emotional connection to his work. Watching a vast online mob assemble within hours to destroy the source of this work shocked and disturbed me deeply.
I will neither document nor defend Roderick’s tweets here. I will link to his apology for them, which includes a recognition for the ways that his words hurt people, however unintentionally. Two weeks ago I saw friends feel compelled to share painful stories about their childhoods, triggered into unwanted recollection by Roderick’s ill-told story. To that extent, I understand and sympathize with the response—especially in the initial hours of the web-wide reaction, before the outraged and arguably justified mockery of Roderick’s tweets had metastasized into a focused effort to isolate and ruin him personally.
I can also share my own truth that, through his podcasts, Roderick’s voice has for many years accompanied my daily chores and travels more days than not: an ongoing source of raconteurish humor, comfort, and wisdom. More profoundly, he wrote and recorded the song I associate with my middle brother’s death, which happened one year ago this month. It’s become the theme for Pete’s tragically sudden departure; to this day I cannot describe the song to someone without my emotions overwhelming me.
I’ve been on the internet a long time. I have absolutely cheered on, popcorn emoji in hand, entertaining dogpile-takedowns of hapless nobodies I’d never heard of the day before. This was the first time I had felt connected with the prey. The event has permanently changed my relationship with social media.
It feels unfair to say that it hurt me to see so many friends on Twitter and elsewhere spend the better part of a day gleefully banding together to tear apart a complete stranger to them, just because I value this person’s work. I feel like I should reserve “hurt” for those friends that Roderick’s words did wound. I can only relate how upsetting it felt to see people I know and respect, prompted by the irresistible energy of a rising rage-chorus, choose to make this particular activity one of their first creative endeavors of the new year.
Various people invited me to join in the festivities throughout the day, culminating in a friend posting a public “call-out” that tagged me and others as people who followed the reprehensible Roderick’s Twitter account. At that moment, I logged out of Twitter, and everything else consumed with the topic: Slack, IRC, and even more obscure chat systems. After Roderick posted his apology, I returned, but in the quieter mode I described earlier, and a mode I have remained in since.
The date of that apology letter, January 5, may induce a wince: it stands out as the day before the Capitol insurrection, yet another “before-time”, the last day of a lost world.
One aspect of the next two days stood out to me, still disturbed by the unrelated events of earlier that week. I watched glumly as much of my Twitter feed wasted no time at all accusing the Capitol and DC police forces of working with the insurrectionists. People held up rapidly traded evidence like snatches of recorded conversation, selfies taken with rioters, or the fact that the cops made few on-site arrests. All undeniable, all inviting infuriating comparison to the brutal police presence at last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and all as entirely resistant to the most basic contextual consideration as anything else Twitter’s group-mind latches its talons into.
The truth, as now revealed in longer-form news stories that have begun to arrive in the days since the attack, presents a simpler story, one lacking the thrill of conspiracy. Surprised and vastly outnumbered by an armed mob with murder in their throats, the police had to tactically improvise in order to fulfill their mission of protecting the Capitol’s legislators and staff first and foremost, and then minimizing civilian casualties. That means de-escalation, and sometimes—these days—that means selfies.
It also means self-sacrifice: dozens of police were injured, one fatally. And it means lasting mental trauma and anguish suffered by the people who very literally stepped in to take the brunt of the unprecedented, unbelievable assault perpetrated on the seat of American government by thousands of American citizens bent on destroying democracy. At least one officer has taken his own life in the aftermath.
Social media isn’t interested in any of that, very much, at least not in the heat of the moment. It sees a wrong, and it demands a target. I’ve been complicit in this for years, but the John Roderick incident of two weeks ago helped open my eyes to how harmful it all is, fueling cynicism and misdirected rage, again and again, when there exist so many other things for us to more fruitfully direct our group anger towards.
And so, for now, I lower my voice. I cannot fix this aspect of such-as-it-is social media. I don’t know that it is fixable. So long as I feel compelled to continue participating in it, I will—but I will also minimize my exposed surface while doing so.
This article was also posted to the “social_media” section of Indieweb.xyz.
Under cover of my birthday, I indulge in some personal news. Later this month I will join Hydrolix, a tiny startup with a very specific database product, as a full-time technical writer. This fulfills the career pivot I began to ponder 18 months ago, and represents both my first new job as a New Yorker and my first salaried job in over 15 years.
I am excited to start. While I expect that I will not have much to say about the job per se in public channels like this one, I also anticipate that returning to stable employment will juice up my creative and personal-toolmaking work. After my last freelance contract ended in March, I did use my pandemic-context “vacation” on projects like Whim and the still-unreleased chat thing—and all that energy petered out right around the six-month mark. I look forward to its return.
Of course, 2021 has gotten off to a wild start for all of us! I see so much hope pushing up through all the shudderingly literal death and chaos that has suffocated us for so long, and I can’t help but see this new employment as a very personal facet of that hope.
By god, we’ve fought and won ourselves a shot at building a viable future, just when it seemed like any reason for optimism had vanished forever. Let’s get to work.
A few evenings ago, charged to pick up some groceries but awake beyond the closing time of the supermarket across the street, I strolled to a store about a twenty-minute walk from my home in West Harlem. My return walk through unfamiliar New York streets, heavy bags slowing my stride, made my wind mander to thoughts of—what else?—Spider-Man.
First, I remembered a tweet someone had made earlier in the pandemic, noting the bizarre ease with which they’d come to think of slipping on a mask before heading out as something normal. “Who do I think I am, Spider-Man?”
Then I recalled that I had built on that person’s work with a tweet of my own, reframing the observation as a personal timeline. I just now dug it up, and I am sorry to report that I didn’t offer any attribution to the original tweet, so I can’t link to that. But here’s mine anyway:
Age 0-17: Thought regularly and intensely about Spider-Man— Jason McIntosh 🍦 (@JmacDotOrg) July 3, 2020
Age 18-40: Did not think about Spider-Man very much
Age 41-45: Mellow enjoyment seeing others redefining & rediscovering Spider-Man
Age 46: Unsolicited but intimate identification with Spider-Man every damn day 😷🗽
I meant what I wrote, though, and the recollection during my walk made me once again think warmly about how the Spider-Man mythos has grown and diversified since my own prime comics-reading time. This is most obvious in the introduction of Miles Morales, who—like most people, I imagine—I know mainly from Into the Spider-Verse, as well as the latest Spider-Man video game.
I haven’t played the games, but Amy has, ridding New York of one super-powered menace after another on our living-room TV. Spider Man: Miles Morales is well-written enough that I followed along with the major plot beats over the few calendar-days it took for Amy-as-Miles to vanquish its villains.
I especially enjoyed the fun way it frames a particular facet of career growth in this vision of Miles. The game’s first few missions feature a running gag where New Yorkers in trouble express relief at seeing Spidey swoop in, then disappointment that it’s “Spidey #2”, Peter Parker’s scrawny protege in his off-brand super-suit. A cranky bodega owner, upset about his lost cat, doesn’t think anything of asking poor Miles where the “real” Spider-Man is. (He’s on vacation.)
But, of course, Miles does good, and the game ends with that same bodega guy proudly telling a news crew “That’s our Spider-Man!”—by which he means, Harlem’s, the neighborhood where Miles lives and where most of the game’s story unfolds.
Thinking about this during my walk brought me to a very satisfying realization, tying something in from deep Spidey lore. From the very start of the character’s history, reaching all the way back to his introduction in the early 1960s, Peter Parker liked to call himself “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”—a casual absurdity to deflect his own freakishness with a smile, referring to himself as a a local public figure as comforting and commonplace as a mail carrier.
But Miles’s debut meant that New York now has two Spider-Mans (at least in the video game’s continuity), and that meant that Miles can turn Peter’s offhand joke into a Spider-Man vision statement, something he can make literally true—at least for one neighborhood!
What a marvelously subtle new twist on a sixty-year-old superhero’s catchphrase, made apparent to me only as I wound through real-life uptown streets on my way home from Food Town. I love it.
Things I demand from my federal government in 2021:
Control of the pandemic. Use laws and spend money to bring us to the tread-water place we should have arrived at six months ago, had federal leadership with any care or competence existed.
At the same time, set up and execute a federal plan to get those vaccines into every American arm, paired with a public information program, safely and efficiently.
And then leave all that new infrastructure in place to prepare for future pandemics, and to minimize their impact. Global warming guarantees that global disease is part of our shared human future, now.
But, in the shorter term: let us all breathe freely again by Christmas.
Accountability for sedition. From Trump himself, to cronies who sought to undo unfavorable election results, to the selfie-posting MAGA chuds in Wednesday’s horrifying photographs: let none who so flagrantly tried to steer American democracy into the rocks get away with it.
Whether motivated by greed, cowardice, or mass delusion, those who broke laws for Trump’s sake during his presidency must be apprehended and tried fairly, and those who used their positions of power to merely skirt the law must instead pay an appropriate political price.
Make every one into an example, relevant for generations to come.
Security of the election system. Whether by DC statehood, federal holidays for election days, or new laws mandating ballot access or forbidding gerrymandering: we must both repair the nation’s frayed and battered election system, and harden it against further tampering from anti-democratic forces both foreign and domestic.
And, yes: one way to do that, in the shorter term, is to significantly expand the political power of the Democratic party, the sole viable and demonstrably pro-democracy political party in America at present. A broken situation that must change, but we must apply this patch until the poisoned but tenacious Republican party permanently loses its grip on power.
That’s it. Get those three things done, this year.
There’s so much else to work on, problems of worldwide importance that the United States must help solve. Our government is large, and our people are smart and versatile; I’m sure that we will in fact make progress on these problems as well.
But until we take care of the above three priorities, we leave the fence open for political regressives to waltz in and wreck all that progress just a few years down the road.
I intend to not repeat 2009 in 2021. While I might generally approve of the newly empowered party’s platform, I will absolutely not assume that its members will just do the right thing without the vigilant attention of their constituents.
With a new kind of grim hope, I look forward to trying this again.
Image credit: AP
This article was also posted to the “politics” section of Indieweb.xyz.
One for the brag sheet:
I finished the documentation project I’d alluded to last October. Several weeks ater setting out to draft some initial standards for Perl’s core documentation, I returned with a proposed style guide and a set of research notes.
After several more weeks of discussion with many smart people, I can proudly report that the language’s maintainers accepted a revised and improved version of the document into Perl’s main version-control branch. Starting with the next release of Perl—that’ll be version 5.34, by my clock—you’ll be able to type
man perldocstyle on your command line and see my writing. (And in the meantime, you can preview it on Perl’s documentation website.) Not bad!
Next comes the hard part. I included among my research notes the recommendation that Perl launch its own documentation sub-project, led by its own small team, in the pattern of every other language or FOSS project that I studied for this work. Over the holidays, I’ve been in touch with Perl’s maintenance team as well as Perl’s brand-new steering council with a proposal for such a body.
Obviously, this conversation is only just beginning, but I’ve reason to feel encouraged already. In the interim, I send my love and respect to the Rust, Python, Raku, and Linux Kernel documentation teams, all of whom unwittingly contributed to this ongoing project through their respectively excellent and open work. And, of course, my gratitude goes out to The Perl Foundation for funding this work in the first place.
This article was also posted to the “programming” section of Indieweb.xyz.
I’ve read about half of Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside, a weird-SF novel that my friend Marc backhandedly recommended after I complained of feeling mortally terrified by some Donald Judd sculptures. While I may have had my fill of this story for now, I have enjoyed my time with it so far.
It posits a far-distant future where humans have colonized the galaxy, but at the cost of overt subjugation by their own AIs. For all that, though, we still enjoy a pretty good deal: the main character is an ingenious young engineer whose autism plays a central role in her career, within a society that puts its neurodivergent citizens to work in fields that play to their strengths while supporting their special needs. Not bad, for a trade-off of having a city or space station reduced to its constituent atoms now and again when a scientist accidentally makes a “heretical” discovery in the eyes of their AI overlords.
This character is written so thoroughly that I very quickly caught a strong Philip K. Dick current from the novel, along an axis that PKD pastiches rarely explore. Dick liked to center his own work around protagonists with mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia, and built entire science-fictional worlds around the topic. The Outside clearly wishes to explore similar possibilities through SF, with an authorial voice displaying at least as much empathy for mental disability as Dick ever had.
Following a hunch before I wrote this post, I confirmed with The Outside’s about-the-author page that Hoffmann identifies as a person with autism. I don’t know how much Dick carried similar identifications, but he wrote about schizophrenia in his novels with not just interest but a startling level of empathic understanding, often to the point of letting this understanding (as much as possible in the 1960s) drive his stories’ plots and settings. My brother Ricky, who has lived with schizophrenia for most of his life, recognizes a certain genuineness in Dick’s novels, and treasures them for it. I see and appreciate a rare and similar genuineness in Hoffmann’s work.
But much as I liked these central, autistic characters in Hoffmann’s novel, the other people it presents all hit rather dully. The secondary protagonist, introduced as an intimidating super-genius cyborg, has POV scenes reducing him to mainly capricious decisions and unforced errors. He’s primarily motivated by fear of his boss, a wincingly cartoonish villain given to make You will not fail me a second time! speeches to trembling lackeys. I found it quite hard to feel any connection with the cyborg’s struggles, and actively dreaded the next scene involving his superior—and not for the right reasons.
Between the friction I continuously felt against the writing style and the impending deadline to finish it—this being a library-loaned ebook, and quite a lengthy one—I think I need to call it good at around the halfway mark.
Still, as a Providence expat I always like to see fresh attempts to remix ol’ Lovecraft, our own homegrown problematic fave, by discarding his uglier hangups and decanting his core themes into stories with modern social awareness by a diverse authorship. This particular story mixes good old mind-blasting cosmic horrors with the unusual mental perspective of its protagonist, and that’s such a fantastic concept that I feel utterly doomed to keep turning the pages of this one until the unknowable and uncaring force powering the library loan on my Amazon Kindle rips it screaming out of my hands about 18 hours. So, that feels only appropriate.
This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.
Among the changes of personal perception I’ve picked up from my ongoing reading of Alan Watts is a remedy against my natural inclination to feel jealousy or resentment at most anyone else’s success or popularity. When these feelings bubble up now, I can usually massage them away with an easy and quick mental shift, like the subtle adjustment of the eyes that changes a Magic Eye picture from an angry fuzz into a meaningful image.
The trick stems from Watts’s core lesson that a person is something larger than a solitary ego, wrapped up in “a bag of skin” that provides an impermeable barrier against the external world. Watts generally offers two ways to arrive at this conclusion: one embracing eastern religious traditions, and the other more pragmatic one that still arrives at the same end of seeing oneself as an expression of a system.
In Watts’s Buddhist/Hindu syncretism, every person, animal, and object in existence is literally an iteration of a single divine being, putting on a cosmic play with every role assigned to itself. As an ultimate exercise in method acting, it always blasts itself with amnesia before taking the stage—in large part because it’s more fun that way. This is the basis of contemplative-but-playful works like Everything.
For folks like myself, who can appreciate the beauty of mystical cosmologies without necessarily feeling called to participate, Watts offers a more general and secular alternative. Accept, first of all, that you are not some sort of intruder into the world, but a product of it. You can take this literally: as a human being, your body is optimized to live on planet Earth, and evolution has constructed your brain to thrive on connections with both your fellow humans and other aspects of your environment. From there, let yourself slide down a chain of linked and-therefores, which land you at an inside-out version of the starting point: you are, in fact, an expression of the world. And so’s everyone else!
One can make this philosophy even drier by replacing “the world” in these squishy equations with “human civilization” or even just “society”, and it works no worse. Even at this remove, Watts encourages us to see individuals as a conspiracy of the society that birthed, shaped, and never stops shaping them. Indra’s Net again: every node reflecting every other, a Celtic knot of beautiful strange loops, all intertwined in every direction.
I can’t hold this infinitely self-folding perspective in my mind for very long, but I find that I can steal glances at it, now and again. And this is precisely what I do when I feel a pang of negativity about some accomplishment by one of my fellow humans—whether simple envy, or a more complex distress at my own lack of activity in comparison. I can convince myself, just for a twinkling flash, that I have contributed to the same human society that has enabled the other person’s success, and my sourness instantly flips to pride, and even delight.
Don’t mistake this for solipsism! I don’t dig down to the level of “Wow, I did that!” Credit remains a concept at the individual level. When my right hand reaches out to stroke the soft fur of a housecat, it is only the nerve-endings on my right hand that get to fire; my left foot can claim no role. But just as hand and foot belong to a larger project whose totality can appreciate the pleasure of petting the cat, so does an easily accessible sense of connection to a larger society make it much easier to feel sympathetic joy in the accomplishments of any one of my fellow humans.
I may well have primed myself for this way of thinking via my day spent as an election worker last month, a 16-hour immersion in community that, when it was all over, felt like a kind of civic baptism. I emerged from it raw and glowing with an awareness of connection to my neighborhood of an intensity I have rarely felt before. And perhaps that, in turn, could only happen after eight months of pandemic-induced societal privation.
I hope that 2021 brings the healing we all need, so desperately. It will come through the efforts of amazing people who are not me. I am ready to make way for them, singing, and folding the joy of their accomplishments into continuing to do whatever it is I do.
The New York Times has since the 1970s run a weekly feature called Metropolitan Diary, comprising very short and personal vignettes of city life submitted by the newspaper’s readership. I became aware of the section during my first day as a New Yorker, one year ago. I think this early encounter made me much more receptive to the idea of “New York stories” from the get-go, encouraging me to view any atypical experience through this lens.
Two such stories from the past year have “Metropolitan Diary nature”, involving brief encounters between myself and another person who, for a moment, served as an Aspect of New York. I today write these up for submission to the newspaper, trying my best to keep to that feature’s distinctive style. I share them both here as well.
A couple of months after moving to New York in late 2019, an interesting talk at Brooklyn’s NYU campus gave me my first compelling reason to visit a borough other than my new home of Manhattan.
As I got my bearings at the unfamiliar Jay Street subway station, a stranger approached me. “Is this Brooklyn?” he asked.
I felt a strange thrill at being quizzed like this upon my very first jaunt over the river, leavened with sudden doubt that I had even done it correctly. “Yes, it is!” I said, deciding upon the projected confidence of a long-time local.
“Ah, I got on the wrong train!” he exclaimed.
“Oh no!!” I offered.
He scurried back to the tracks, and I resumed my hunt for the correct street exit.
On a hot summer day well into the pandemic, unpleasant news had put me into an especially foul mood, and so I took a walk through the familiar northern extents of Riverside Park near my home.
After spending some time stewing on a bench, I noticed that another man had quietly joined me, several seats away. He sat in quiet contemplation, gazing over the Hudson and taking periodic drags on a cigarette. He wore a complete basketball uniform, and a full-sized sombrero.
Observing him out of the corner of my eye, I marveled at the practicality of his dress on a hot, sunny day. Nobody else in the park wore an ensemble that combined ventilation and shade quite like this man. While I did not know his thoughts as he smoked and meditated upon the New Jersey skyline, and he likely paid me no attention at all, I nonetheless soaked in the quiet majesty of his presence.
Holding this avatar of stoicism close to my heart, I eventually rose to walk back home, calm and ready to rejoin our wounded society.
I played quite a lot of David O’Reilly’s Everything in early 2017, shortly after its publication, on the recommendation of a dear friend with a wider philosophical exposure than me. It served as my introduction to Alan Watts’s lectures—a body of work whose written underpinnings I have only very recently started to explore, to my great pleasure. I suspect I find these books all the more meaningful due to concepts this strange video game exposed me to, however oblique I found them at the time.
During the weeks I played it intensively, I enjoyed Everything at its surface level, one that I’d recommend most anyone. The game presents a self-paced scavenger hunt that challenges you in the gentlest terms to tag every object, creature, sub-atomic particle and cosmic superstructure that defines its multi-layered universe. You tag things by embodying them: generally, if you can see a discrete object, you can shift your focus to it and then control it for a time: a rolling pebble, a tumbling ibex, an oscillating superstring. You can zoom in or out of the observed scale, summon objects you’ve inhabited before, “sing” and “dance”, and perform other curious actions.
The universe of Everything talks back to you, too. The objects, creatures, and entities you come across sometimes display icons indicating its “thoughts”. On request, these might resolve into small textual koans, aphorisms, or non-sequiturs—or they might cue up a minute or two of an Alan Watts lecture, just long enough to express a single point. The latter happens with no especial setup or context, and the snippets arrive in an apparently random (but, I am told, subtly sequential) order. The universe of Everything simply hums in resonance with Watts’s voice, and playing the game attentively means bathing in that voice as well.
These lectures, presenting an intentionally jumbled-order gloss of certain Hindu and Zen Buddhist philosophies (and tailored for a mid-century Western audience) entertained and intrigued me enough that I sought and easily found more in the form of the Alan Watts podcast, whose short episodes slice up Watts’s speech almost as finely as the video game does. I remain a subscriber, and so still receive these pleasant and mildly illuminating audio dispatches on the regular. But it took until this month for me to try reading (or listening to) entire, linear books by Watts. Perhaps I made myself more receptive to their message through years of exposure to lecture-clips, but in any event the longer works have rolled me into a new appreciation for the greater point Everything tries to make, and its invitation that the player reflect this point into the real world.
I suddenly understand, for example, that the game’s geometric icon depicts an abstracted Indra’s net, a visual metaphor for not just the interconnectedness but the infinitely recursive mutual reflectiveness of all things. Three years after the fact, I have a much greater appreciation for the resolution of Everything’s story mode, which shows you how to collect all the “thoughts” you encounter, arranging them into a catalogue of contemplation—and then traps you in a sort of limbo-world until you deliberately erase them all. And I understand the game’s above-all mantra of “You are…” (“You are an arctic fox”, “You are a spiral galaxy”), displayed every time you shift focus. It represents the universal and divine Self, the One that is Everything, and the concept that Watts seemed the most eager to express in his lectures.
So far—and based entirely on availability via my library cards—I have listened to an audiobook of 1961’s Psychotherapy East and West, and read 2000’s What is Zen? The former speaks from its time, a culture just beginning to embrace therapy as a thing that “normal” people might wish to engage in, and so examines Buddhist practice through that lens. The thin and approachable latter book, published 27 years ater Watts’s death, was put together by his son Mark (and I get the impression that many books with Watts’s name on the cover fit this description). Just like the game and the podcast, it compiles edited bits of Watts’s lectures, but I very much valued their arrangement into printed, smoothly flowing chapters instead of bite-sized audio clips.
I won’t attempt any detail here about how this deeper reading has affected my life, in how it’s adjusted my knowledge of active meditation or personal identity. This delayed revelation about a weird video game, the second shoe whose dropping took me nearly four years to hear, leaves me with some processing to do! Right now, I feel it enough to appreciate the insights primed by the game and catalyzed by the books, all of which point to a way to look at the world and one’s place in it as novel and relevant to my culture today as it was 60 years ago.
This article was also posted to the “games” section of Indieweb.xyz.
On a friend’s recommendation, I read and enjoyed You Never Forget Your First, Alexis Coe’s short and punchy biography of George Washington. It seems a little uncertain about its own thesis, and ends up a sort of collection of founding-father marginalia, written and published from a 2020 vantage point. But I didn’t know any of it before, and I found myself surprised again and again from all I did learn, so I had a pretty great time.
Coe’s introduction sets the mood by dragging the entire Washington-biography oeuvre — noting with raised eyebrow the obsession that its near-universally male authorship holds with the general’s manly physique, calling the whole bunch “thigh guys”. She found that the women in Washington’s life, meanwhile, tend to get short shrift from biographers — especially his often-demonized mother Mary — and the uncomfortable truth about all the people his family held as slaves gets papered over, except from those books that make it their sole topic.
This made me expect something like a biographical version of Emily Wilson’s Odyssey translation. This, too, overtly set about to retell an objectively unchanging story by casting more light onto the supporting characters — the women, in particular — letting them blossom into as much color and detail as the original text allows. In her introduction, Coe states her intent to let this approach have a rising-tide effect, defining everyone better to the shared benefit of the central male figure.
I am not sure this book hits that target. While clearly the work of an energetic writer and historian eager to share the fruits of her research, it never really presents a core thesis after its introduction — except, perhaps, in the way it unapologetically elides all the stuff that the “thigh guy” books drool over. All the glorious (and often losing) battles of Washington’s Revolutionary career get reduced into a single table of locations and outcomes, with the author far more interested in their personal effect on the general, his colleagues, and his family.
You Never Forget does, however, bring deep detail to one confrontation, early in its subject’s life. At the Battle of Jumonville Glen, a hotheaded young Lt. Col. Washington led a group of his fellow British soliders and allied Native Americans to ambush and massacre a French encampment, despite having orders to merely assess and communicate. Coe portrays it as a fiasco, while Wikipedia’s sources (I see in a skim) feel less certain about its intent-versus-outcome. Either way, the attack directly sparked the French and Indian War, a fact I had no inkling of prior to reading this book.
One gets the impression that Listen to this! I had no idea, did you? is, in fact, the book’s operating principle, as it presents in a series of short chapters — with frequent breaks Buzzfeed-ready bullet-lists — chronologically ordered facts about (and, frequently, letter-excerpts from) Washington’s life that exist outside the realm of popular history or national myth. We see the forces, even lightly sketched, that transformed Washington from an impulsive warfighter to a more subtly ambitious family man. The love of Martha and her children (he never fathered any himself; I had no idea, did you?) helped temper him into a more reserved general, and finally a president extremely aware that every action he took would set precedents, and who acted accordingly.
The most provocative of these normally unlit historical threads, and one woven through You Never Forget, involves the hundreds of enslaved people who lived on Washington’s farms. It’s hard to hear and easy to wave away, to one who grew up with a typical 20th century American education. Coe’s book isn’t about these slaves, but the author nonetheless keeps their presence known throughout. Named and given voice as much as records allow, they step on-stage from time to time, quietly but consistently making their existence undeniable. Eventually, the reader stops denying it. The book ends with a lingering shot of modern historians examining the slave quarters’ unmarked mass grave behind Mount Vernon, withholding an American creation myth with a morally clean finish.
This led me down many contemplative paths I still tread, days after finishing this book, and that’s all I could ask from such a slim volume.
This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.
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