Life n Times

My husband has been forcing me to stay up until 11:00 because he believes it will help with my middle-of-the-night insomnia. For the past week, when I start fading around 9:30 or 10:00 he starts his boot camp. “HONEY IT’S ONLY 9:30 IT’S NOT BEDTIME. HONEY TALK TO ME TELL ME A STORY.” I sit on the couch wrapped in a blanket nodding off again and again while he talks and prods me. Last night we passed the time by having a fight about the social responsibilities incumbent on documentary filmmakers. The moment the clock strikes eleven I am instantly in bed and asleep.

And guess what? IT’S WORKING. I’ve been sleeping through the night, like a little child innocent of guilt or worry. I’ve been sleeping from 11:00 to 5:30 or 6:00 like a NORMAL PERSON. It feels so good.

Actually while I give great credit to my old man for improving my lifestyle I must also say that this sleeping normally thing has coincided with me taking cannabis oil before bed, so possibly it is a combination of the two. Maybe tonight I will try just staying up til eleven and see which is the more powerful drug.

I have never been a night person, even in high school and college when everyone wants to rage all night. I have always been the person who goes to bed early and misses everything and then can’t find anyone to go to breakfast with her the next morning at 7:45 a.m. I sincerely believe sleep needs are deeply encoded into our souls; I know I could never be a night person. If I had a nighttime job I would have to become a drug addict, and I would just accept that.

But as the years have passed, it’s gotten so extreme. Around 9 p.m. (which is VERY EARLY) I start physically and mentally crumbling. I can only describe it as “shutting down,” like a robot running out of batteries in a movie, the voice getting slower and lower until it fades into silence. My eyes can’t stay open. My head droops. My body feels completely enervated, like every tiny spark of life has been sucked out of it. It feels like my blood is barely able to make it through a cycle of my veins. I just feel absolutely sapped. It feels totally non-negotiable, my exhaustion, it feels out of my control. Is this normal? Do I have a mineral deficiency or is this just middle age? Also, is this how nighttime people feel when they have to get up early??? Awful. I pop out of bed like a damn jack in the box, no matter the hour

It’s true and unfair that our culture privileges morning people and not nighttime people. I respect that fact.

We are having a strange spring here, where it just keeps snowing. It’ll snow, immediately melt, the next day you’ll go out without a coat and sniff some daffodils, then it snows again that night. Culturally, it’s a real “once is funny, twice is silly, three times is a spanking” situation; yesterday yet again it started snowing during a meeting and someone looked out the window and went “oh what the HELL.” They aren’t big snows, just dustings—nothing like the famous April Fool’s Day blizzard of 1997 where abruptly 3 feet of snow plopped out of the sky and the power was out for days and society basically ground to a halt—but still. Maybe this means the summer won’t be so disgustingly hot? My fantasy weather predictions.

The weather guy in our local paper is so cool. He writes a weekly column about what to expect from the weather in the near future, but it’s pretty unhelpful, literally he’ll be like “will it snow? Don’t ask me!” or he’ll say “the National Weather Service says it’s going to rain tonight but I call that fishy! I bet it’ll all stay out on the Cape” Then when it does rain, in his next column he’s like “well that was a big ‘mea culpa’ for old yours truly last Tuesday, boy what a soaking we got!” Half his column is usually devoted to a stream-of-consciousness ramble through various topics, often the famous April Fool’s Day blizzard of 1997, but other times just stuff that pops into his head, like if we have an unusually warm day he’ll talk about a new grill he bought and then he’ll start reminisicing about summer barbecues of his youth. He loves warm weather and hates the winter and all precipitation, so his column also assumes a certain perspective on behalf of his reader; according to him, we all are longing for 90 degree days so we can sit by the pool with a cold lite beer. He rules.

Our local paper is a source of joy. It’s locally owned and has been continuously operated since 1792, when it was called The Impartial Intelligencer. It’s still locally-owned and edited, and comes out DAILY, such an increasing rarity these days! It doesn’t even run that much AP stuff, it’s mostly local reporting. It’s awesome. And the front page photo is always something like “look at these horses standing out in the fog, isn’t it nice” or like “here’s a local baby eating an ice cream cone.” 90% of front page photos involve local dogs. Anyway if you live in a smallish town that has a locally- or at least regionally-owned newspaper, subscribe to it! We’ve learned so much about our community and gone to so many weird events we’d never have heard of otherwise. It’s so fun to follow the town council meetings and learn about the specific issues the town is dealing with. These epic conflicts that go on for months and are so incredibly local. The controversy over the state releasing a bunch of endangered rattlesnakes onto an island where people like to go hiking; what to do with the old Northfield school once it closes; intense reporting on the maple syrupping season and how it’s being affected by climate change. What to do with turnips. Sometimes we see the columnists around town and it’s like seeing a celebrity. The copy editing is very bad but that’s what you get.

There are also all these local characters who write letters to the editor constantly—based on how many get published, I can not even imagine the number these people must actually write—sniping at each other and playing their established roles. Some of them are Upstanding Citizens writing to support the nurses’ strike or chastise the community for letting the very shitty bookstore go out of business. Some of them are Liberal Educators who write in with carefully sourced explanations of why it matters that the nuclear power plant be closed properly or how immigrants boost the economy and that’s why we should support them. There is one Gentle Weirdo who writes in regularly, and his letters are almost exclusively about obeying traffic laws. All his letters open with epic statements like “The U.S.A. began in 1776” but then somehow the entire letter is really about stop signs. But my favorite letter-writers are the Local Maniacs, who submit the classic rambling rants that somehow touch on gun control, communism, China, Kim Kardashian, the Scripture, hippies, rap music, Elon Musk, our town council vice president, and some totally obscure federal ruling from 1996 that you’ve never heard of but that is probably something Fox News is shrieking about right now. There’s one particular Local Maniac who is my favorite, his name is Noel, and over the course of the past year I have half-jokingly started worrying about him, because he was one of those triumphalist Trump guys, always writing in like DONALD TRUMP IS DRAINING THE SWAMP, but then he got really pissed about Trump’s immigration policies (!) and also specifically was shocked and devastated by Trump’s refusal to help the people of Puerto Rico after the hurricane. And so now his letters vacillate between his old chest-puffing routine and these sort of sad, tentative letters that are like “I don’t know what is happening. I don’t know what to think anymore.” Like in the letters you see this sort of shuffling creeping toward some sort of realization, like he actually does care about his fellow community members but doesn’t understand how capitalism and structural racism and all that impacts people’s lives but he kind of sometimes can sort of see it and it concerns and bothers him because he knows the Democrats suck, which to be fair is largely true, and he knows he loves Trump, but then sometimes what Trump says and does doesn’t seem to match his supposed greatness and this bothers him; lately he just seems so sad and confused, and aware that he’s confused. Which I feel is a pretty legitimate stance these days, lord knows I feel that way a lot of the time too. And also it’s so interesting to think of using the local paper’s letters to the editor section to work out your personal feelings about geopolitics. We’ve developed a theory that he lives in this house we drive past every day on our commute, which is a super depressing prefab unit right on the highway that always has a wide array of “crazy right wing” signifiers in front, and they rotate constantly, sometimes it’s an enormous hand-made wooden sign about Trump, but then for long periods the sign will be replaced by a row of full-size flags on poles, consisting of the flags of countries that are currently allies of America and one lone Don’t Tread on Me flag. I’ve decided this is Noel’s house and we talk about him every time we pass it. At one point all the flags and signs were replaced by a big sign saying “ROOM FOR RENT,” can you imagine. And now the house is FOR SALE, and there are no signs at all out front! NOEL! ARE YOU OKAY. He hasn’t mentioned moving in any of his recent letters so maybe this isn’t his house after all.

Sometimes the paper also runs “Corrections” to mistakes made in previous stories. One time the correction read: “Catholicism was predated by other world religions. Saturday’s editorial incorrectly stated otherwise.”

This suddenly reminds me of when I was TAing a class on sacred music and one of the midterm questions was “which religion was created in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky” and a student non-sarcastically wrote “Catholicism.” God bless

I have still not finished any of the books I mentioned a few entries ago, and instead have additionally read a totally different book, INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s greatest author. I can not recommend it highly enough. Actually I think one of you people recommended it to me in the first place—whoever you are, thank you, I did love it so much. More book recommendations please.

Four weeks of school left. Very excited to start my summer work, which includes a lot of article revisions but also things like pickling and canning. Here are some of my plans:
-can 20 quarts of tomatoes
-can 4 quarts of dilly beans and 2 quarts of asparagus
-more pickles
-few cans of peaches: labor intensive but pretty worth it come January
-make some blueberry jam with berries from our bush, why haven’t I been doing this
-freeze 20 cubes of basic and 10 of pesto
-make my own tomato paste and freeze it
-can twice as much salsa as last year (10 pints)
-freeze twice as many pot pies and a couple whole peach pies
-freeze corn on the cob (has anyone done this? Can you cook it and eat it off the cob and it tastes okay?)
-freeze green beans without blanching them because someone on the internet says you can do it this way
-another round of cider (I keep forgetting we have cider in the basement, which we’ll bottle probably in August), this time remember to bring carbuoy to the orchard instead of buying all the raw cider in fucking plastic jugs, you piece of shit idiot (me)
-dry tomatoes and apples

I also want to re-organize the pantry, which turns into a hideous junk room no matter what I do. Oddly enough this is my husband’s fault, whereas anything junky in the rest of the house is usually my fault. He persists in keeping weird old dirty plastic tubs and work gloves and dead batteries and old twists of wire and bags of birdseed in there. WE HAVE A SHED. Also want to clean off our back porch which is very junky. And defrost the chest freezer. And repot all the houseplants. And this year I swear to myself that I will wash the windows again; it’s a huge job but you’re so glad you did it. I also HAVE to wash the storm windows in the fall, this was a big regret this year. Staring through the filth of my laziness all winter. And I want to go camping, and go to Cape Cod, and exercise more, and write a bestselling novel that gets optioned by Universal for a million dollars, and become fluent in French, and figure out what to do with my hair.

Posted in Opinion | 3 Comments

Insomnia, Cancer, and Burr Updates

What evil insomnia I have struggled with since I started my career! I’ve never been the world’s greatest sleeper—the slightest noise wakes me up and I require absolute darkness—but in recent years it’s gotten wild. I have the kind where you wake up in the middle of the night, not the kind where you can’t fall asleep in the first place. I don’t know which is harder to manage. I’ve learned some tricks for managing mine, e.g., do not just keep lying there staring into the blackness! Get up and go into the living room and turn on a light and read a book. For me a lot of the sleepnessness is tied to anxiety which rises and rises until I’m lying there quivering and sick. The dead of the night feels so raw, it feels like the normal barrier between reality and fantasy is dissolved and things that in the light of day would not seem that bad come to loom over you horribly. Also things that in daytime you’d be like “well that’s probably not the case” come in the dark of night to seem not only likely but inevitable. My anxiety seeps out of me and creeps around in all possible directions, searching for new things to incorporate into itself. I will go from thinking about tenure to thinking about every single shameful or embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, every single hurtful or neglectful act, every person I wish I could apologize to, stretching back years and years, and it gets so unbearable, and then that turns into thinking the weird pain in my side or my elbow is probably cancer. It doesn’t help that seemingly 50% of the people I know currently have cancer or have died of cancer in the past two years. What the fuck is going on out there

Speaking of it (cancer), my dad has a huge invasive surgery today to remove a malignant tumor in his jaw and also to see if they can find from whence the cancer originated—somehow they don’t know that information. So it’s literally a surgery where they go in and just wildly slice you up, hoping to find something. It sounds awful. He’ll be in the ICU for days after, with a feeding tube. So obviously there is anxiety around this as well. I should be there for it, I should be there to help, but I’m not. My brother and I went last week to visit them and it was great but I wish the surgery had been scheduled for when we were there. While we were visiting, we hung out with two different friends of my brother who both have siblings currently dying of terminal cancer.

I asked my mom if, when she was 40, she suddenly knew a ton of people with cancer, and she said no. I think this is just one aspect of our cool new reality as a species undergoing slow extinction at our own damn hands. Hopefully soon Uber’s self-driving cars will attain sentience and put us out of our misery (by killing us all).

Oooh maybe I should not write blog entries at 4:45 a.m. after being up all night!!!!!! HOT STUFF

So my point is though that tonight–last night, I guess, although it feels like I’m still in it–was unusually bad, such that I fell soundly asleep at 10:30 and bolted awake at…midnight. No! It can’t be true, I thought tragically as I fumbled around to look at the clock. But lo, ‘twas true indeed. Midnight is still just the previous evening, it’s not even the dead of the night! I had thought there could be no worse experience than being wide awake in the dead of the night but I was wrong, because being wide awake in what you THINK is the dead of the night but turns out to just be fairly early evening is much worse. You can’t get up and make coffee at midnight! I woke up before a lot of people had even gone to damn sleep in the first place. Lord have mercy. I got up and went out into the living room and dutifully read my book but this time no second sleep ever found me. I just lay there fretting. At 4:00 I liked one of Jae’s pictures on instagram and she immediately texted me asking why I wasn’t asleep (being on West Coast time, she hadn’t gone to bed yet, which also made me feel horrifying). She suggested taking a hit of my cool new CBD oil I got for menstrual cramps but I said at this point I have to get up in 2.5 hours anyway so it’s not worth it. She said “you should have been a new englander by birth.” It’s true I can be pretty unforgiving and brutally pragmatic when it comes to certain things.

What a damn joke. I’m sure we are all in the same boat, though. I saw my colleague the other day who just had a baby and I was like “how’s he sleeping?” and he said the baby sleeps through big chunks of the night, adding “the baby sleeps much more than I do.” Rough stuff!

One weird effect of being up all night is I still feel like I am just living yesterday’s day. I taught last night until 7:30, got home at 8:15, got dinner, and went to bed, then immediately got up. It feels like I just popped home from work to take a nap before going back. Which technically is, I guess, what every night is. I’m teaching punk rock tomorrow. I mean, today. AKA yesterday


The newest thing I’ve read in Burr that has generated questions is he writes several journal entries about how he’s experimenting with drinking “white coffee” before bed. So apparently he likes to drink tea or coffee before bed, but this keeps him up all night, which he hates. A friend of his who is interested in science says that white coffee, “due to not being burned,” doesn’t have the same properties that make you jittery (AKA caffeine I guess? I don’t think they know caffeine yet). He says he has just drunk two large cups and though the taste is unbearable, he has high hopes that the experiment will work out: he’ll report back. The next day he says the white coffee lives up to its reputation, for he slept like a log.


– What is white coffee? In one entry he describes how he makes it—he roasts it in an iron oven like the kind one uses for normal coffee (??) but he doesn’t let it burn; instead it turns paler and paler, until it’s the shade of cinnamon. Is he talking whole beans here? So he’s roasting them gently instead of burning them. In some sort of coffee oven apparently everyone has in their house

– Why does it taste so different from regular coffee? I guess if we assume that when he says “burnt” he really means “burnt,” and if burnt coffee was what you were used to, then mildly roasted coffee might taste weird. He says his friends refuse to drink it but he’s persevering because it works so well

– But wait, what is the point of all this in the first place? Why is he so hell bent on drinking coffee right before bed?? Just drink nice normal burnt coffee in the morning!

There’s also a weird part where he describes what sounds like the government trying to take one kind of currency out of circulation and introduce a new kind. But it’s just the King of France being like “from now on, these coins are worthless” and everyone freaks out and it is very hard on the “very poor.” Burr says he’s in favor of it because the new money is prettier.

TOOTH UPDATE: Now he’s in Paris and apparently working with a famous dentist to get fitted for some sort of dentures. He says this dentist is a genius and an artist and that he thinks the contraption is going to work wonders; not a moment too soon, for his jaws have been plaguing him for two days and nights.

He is legally not allowed to leave Paris because they’ve confiscated his passport. No one will tell him when or how he can get his passport back. So he spends a good portion of each day traveling all over the city from institution to institution—the Duke’s house, the King, the military base where they regulate travel, his friend who knows somebody who knows the Duke—trying to get somebody to help him or at least give him some info. Everybody he talks to is like “ah yes, your passport is ready, go see such-and-such tomorrow” but when he shows up at such-and-such’s they are like “I have never heard of you in my life” and he has to start all over. He’s always going to various members of the monarchy, like attending their public reception hours, and trying to grab them and hector them into helping him, but they are too skilled at politely evading direct questions. It legitimately sounds maddening. At one of these public receptions he overhears somebody talking about him, not realizing he’s standing right there. They’re saying what a pitiful old man he is. He thinks this is funny.

The birds are chirping; verily, it is morn. Now to listen to The Ramones

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Ye Olden Toothache

I’m reading the diaries of Aaron Burr, on the recommendation of Freddy, who sent me a truly amazing excerpt I’ll get to in a bit. I’m reading them very casually, kind of letting them wash over me, and it’s been a weirdly interesting and relaxing experience. I can hardly follow anything that happens because a lot of it is cascades of names he never bothers to explain; also a lot of the included correspondence is in code, because he wrote it at a time when he was sort of fleeing America incognito after being apprehended in a plan to conquer Mexico and become its emperor (????). There also are so many holes in my ability to picture what he’s describing, because of the classic phenomenon where we don’t write down that which does not need to be said. Somebody told me once this is why the discipline of history exists—because of all the stuff nobody thought to write down; that’s what we’re trying to recover or understand. My classic example of this is that no one ever bothered writing down anything about going to the bathroom—how did it work, e.g. at the Paris Opera in 1830, where were all those hundreds of champagne-swilling people taking shits? Was there a room filled with chamber pots? What about the ladies’ elaborate gowns and such, how did they manage it all? Even just at private homes, how did it work? If you were at a dinner party at someone’s house, where and how did you go to the bathroom—was there a room set aside for that purpose or did you go into someone’s bedroom or what? So far as I know, no one at the time bothered to sit down and really explain all this in detail, so we’re stuck with our imaginations. As always, if anyone reading this has a sourced answer to my question please do not hesitate to let me know.

Anyway, Burr’s diary is filled with such moments of questioning. Much more so than Samuel Pepys’s diary—because Pepys really just relates DATA; he’s less interested in cultural stuff. When he does relate cultural or personal stuff it’s obviously riveting—e.g. the famous time he sat on his own balls; his belief that a lucky rabbit’s foot cures his farts; his conviction that sitting with his back to a drafty hallway gave him kidney stones; the fact that every year on the anniversary of his successful kidney stone surgery he throws a “stones party” for all his friends; when the Great Fire of London happens and he’s primarily worried about his wheel of parmesan cheese, which he buries in the yard and thus saves. But really the vast majority of Pepys is just balance sheets and notes about purchases and beating his servants. Burr however is a great student of culture, he finds it all fascinating, and he records all kinds of interesting observations about the cultures he travels through. The problem is that his own culture is so opaque to me that I can’t always tell what he’s marveling at or why. Sometimes what he describes sounds so bizarre I think I must be misunderstanding him. For example he describes the way upper class Swedes eat dinner: first, everyone stands around the table in silence for a full minute, thanking God privately for the food. Then they eat, which sounds pretty normal, but then at the end of the meal, everyone stands up simultaneously, picks up their own chair but without turning their back to the table, and elegantly scoots the chair all the way back against the wall. Then they go have brandy in the sitting room. That sounds so weird to me—and it’s clearly weird to Burr, too, because he’s writing it down like “look at this crazy thing they do here.” Here’s another one, also in Sweden:

Do remind me to give you a dissertation on locking doors. Every person, of every sex and grade, comes in without knocking. Plump into your bedroom. They do not seem at all embarrassed, nor think of apologizing at finding you in bed, or dressing, or doing—no matter what, but go right on and tell their story as if all were right. If the door be locked and the key outside (they use altogether spring-locks here), no matter; they unlock the door, and in they come. It is vain to desire them to knock; they do not comprehend you, and, if they do, pay no manner of attention to it…Notwithstanding all my caution, I have been almost every day disturbed in this way, and once last week was surprised in the most awkward situation imaginable. So, madam, when you come to Svenska, remember to lock the door and take the key inside.

I wonder what “the most awkward situation imaginable” was. Was he shitting? Or having sex. Those seem the two likeliest possibilities; both indeed seem awkward.

Burr was a radical weirdo, and had this great daughter, Theodosia (she’s the “madam” he refers to in that journal entry). He was really into Mary Wollestonecraft, and raised Theodosia according to radical child-rearing principles—he also raised her exactly as he would have raised a son; he thought there should be no difference between the sexes when it came to education. So she learned a bunch of languages and science and politics, and he spoke frankly to her about everything, not just political stuff but also his own life—his love life! His various amorous pursuits! They were best friends. When he flees to England (when the diaries start) he’s psychotically worried about her health and keeps writing her these hysterical letters about which doctor to trust and how she should not under any circumstances travel to North Carolina. And in between these fatherly missives are all these weird letters about political subterfuge written in code, or letters where they are pretending to be other people. And then sometimes a letter from Theodosia being like “you must be neater when you write in cipher; I could not read the last letter at all.”

He takes with him on his journey an actual giant painting of Theodosia, which he unrolls, re-frames, and hangs up at each new place he moves to. He’s constantly fretting about the painting, worrying that it’s been damaged in a move or worrying that it seems to be fading. He’ll move to a new town, and immediately seek out a painter to do restoration work on it, then he writes her letters about how many compliments the painter paid to her image. He shows her to Jeremy Bentham and is gratified by Bentham’s approval—what a good, smart girl! Bentham wants her to translate his book into French, what an honor, you must set to work on it at once, also please send Bentham several handfuls of good American nuts he will find interesting.

The diaries are written for Theodosia, with the intention of her reading them later, once he’s returned from this long trip abroad. It’s really cute, because for long stretches they’ll just be a normal journal but then suddenly he’ll slip into saying “you,” like “you would have laughed to see it, dear madam,” and you realize the whole time he’s writing in this journal he’s thinking of her, thinking of the details that would interest or amuse her.

The diaries are also a harrowing and wonderful window into early nineteenth-century life, which sounds both relaxing and hair-raising depending on which aspect you’re thinking about. Relaxing honestly just because of the lack of cell phones and internet; everyone reads SO MUCH and there’s a lot of just sitting around. But also stressful: there’s a part where he takes a coach somewhere and a trip that’s supposed to take three hours takes ten because the coachmen are both drunk and have both brought their girlfriends, and they stop at every single inn to party even though Burr is cursing them roundly the whole time. There’s another part where he takes a ferry at 10 at night, and at the ferry house on the other side there’s no fire, bed, couch, or food, so he just settles into a wooden chair and gets some sleep. Just a normal day! He acknowledges that it wasn’t great, but it’s also clear that this situation is nowhere near as dire/unacceptable as it would be to, say, me for example. I want to cry just thinking about it. Arriving somewhere at eleven at night after a freezing long-ass journey and then just sitting in a cold dark room, in a wooden chair, crossing my arms and trying to get some z’s, no snack, no glass of beer, no blanket?? Good lord. There’s another part where he takes a boat somewhere and they get lost and it starts pouring rain so all the passengers just lie down in this open boat and go to sleep in the rain. Again, he’s like “I never passed a more wretched night” but I feel like if this happened to me I would never stop talking about it, the most absurdly hideous night of my life. For him it’s way more normal.

In one very weird entry he describes the hassle caused by him not understanding the culture of Hamburg, where apparently you have to pay money every time you leave or come back through one of several town gates. He can’t figure it out:

After five you pay four sch. for passing the Hamburgh gate. Did not dare to walk very far for fear of egarèing. Forgot that I should want money to get back. Stopped at the gate and obliged to pawn my pencil. Home to get money, which borrowed of mademoiselle. Back to redeem my pencil, and then walked again about Hamburgh. Home at nine, and now was stopped at the Altona gate, an exigence for which I had made no provision. Obliged again to pawn the pencil.

I truly can’t imagine what pawning the pencil is all about. Pencils must have been cool and fancy? What were pencils in 1808 like?

Reading this stuff is also really bringing home to me for the first time what correspondence must have actually felt like back then. When you read the collected letters of some historical person, you’re reading them all at once, so there’s an immediacy to the correspondence that would not have been the way it felt in real life. But the way the editor has arranged this edition, the letters are peppered throughout the journal, and you get more of a feel for how the time passes between them. Think about it—Aaron Burr writes an agonized letter to Theodosia about the state of her health. He says you must come to England immediately, the climate is better for you here, and I’ve secured a great doctor who is convinced he can cure you. Here’s how you get the money to pay for the trip; here is who to talk to about the journey; here are all these details about what to do when you arrive, I’ve left word with such-and-suches all up and down the coast so wherever you end up disembarking you’ll have someone to help you. Write me at once with whatever details you settle on. Then Burr seals up the letter and starts looking for someone trustworthy to deliver it, and waiting for a ship that’s happening to sail to America—not something that happens every day! Once he finds a gentleman who is not only planning on taking the next boat to America but is further planning to travel afterward to someplace reasonably close to where Theodosia is, he entrusts the letter to him, then goes about his business and hopes for the best. Now what happens? MONTHS PASS. The boat takes a month or two just to cross the ocean. The boat may sink or be captured—this happens once with a boat carrying a very precious bust of Jeremy Bentham that Burr wants Theodosia to have, and they both bemoan its loss incessantly. If it arrives safely, then the gentleman makes his way to wherever Theodosia is, and she gets her letter. Sometimes these letter-bearing people end up carting the letter all over hill and dale because the recipient has moved, or their own travel plans change and they aren’t able to make it to the recipient as soon as they’d thought. Theodosia finally gets her letter (think of it—one day you’re sitting there, wondering if your dad is dead or alive, and there’s a knock on the door and a stranger is like “my compliments madam” and hands you a battered-ass piece of paper he’s been carrying in his trunk for two months), she reads it, writes back answering all his questions and posing more questions of her own, and then the same thing happens on her end—she has to wait for a boat sailing to England, and a trustworthy gentleman who is taking the boat and reasonably sure he might be traveling to wherever Burr is. And Burr himself is moving around wildly this whole time—from London to Germany to Sweden, leaving word wherever he goes about where letters should be sent. These vast networks of people with all kinds of information about where various people may be found, if a letter comes for them. Letters passed from person to person to person—oh, you’re going to Hamburgh? Wait, I have a letter here for Aaron Burr, do you know him? Would you mind carrying it to him? I think he’s in Hamburgh still—and in this fashion perhaps another month or two passes. So by the time Burr gets Theodosia’s response to his agonized letter, maybe as much as four months have passed!!!!! And when it finally arrives, her letter literally just says “I’m actually feeling better; I’m not coming to England, that’s crazy.” Meanwhile he’s spent four months telling everyone she’s coming, finding a house for her to live in, securing servants, finding a tutor for her son. SO WILD.

Also wild is that during those four months, they are both still writing additional letters! Every time you discovered a boat that was going to America or England, you’d be like damn, I have to get a letter on there! So, after he sends off the agonized letter, he receives several letters from her, that have been written in the interim between him sending the letter and her receiving it; he’s also continuing to write letters to HER, that are just normal updates about what’s going on since the agonized letter. So it gets very confusing, keeping track of the conversations that are all happening on different delayed timelines. You read the agonized letter, then you read two placid letters from Theodosia about what’s going on back home, where she doesn’t mention his agonized letter, and it’s so weird until you remember, oh yeah, she hasn’t gotten it yet.

This has made me finally understand why they all kept copies of all their letters, including the ones they themselves wrote. You need to have a vast file in order to keep track of your correspondence! This is also why they’re all very diligent about saying at the top of the letter which letter they’re responding to. “I have just received your letter of 1 September.” So then you go over to your file and flip through it and find the copy of your own letter from months ago, and re-read it, so you can remind yourself of all the questions you asked, so that you can understand this letter you’ve just gotten.

It’s all very stressful. I don’t think I really ever REALLY FELT how unbelievably transformative the telegraph must have been. Because also think of it—the news itself could only travel as fast as the harrowingly slow journey I narrated above! So, has England declared war on us? We don’t know—have to wait a month or two until somebody from over there finally makes it over here and tells us. Or the British navy suddenly shows up and attacks us. In the meantime, lets ramp up our navy just in case, and should we take some of these British merchant ships prisoner? If England HASN’T declared war, then that would be a very bad and stupid thing to do; if she has, however, we would be glad later that we’d done it now. Hmmmmm we must have a meeting of Congress.

Similarly, the simple act of coordinating normal social life was very different. You’re sitting at home eating boiled eggs, and then a servant comes in who has been sent by somebody to see if you’re home. You say yes, I’m home, so the servant leaves again and in a little while the person who sent the servant comes over and you hang out for awhile. Or maybe you’re eating the eggs and the person themselves comes in. Oh, you’re home! Great, can I join you in those eggs? By all means my dear sir. Sometimes someone pops by and you’re still in bed so they leave word they’ll come back later. Are you supposed to wait for them? Or what?? When is “later?” None of this seems to trouble them. People constantly all day long are popping in and out of each other’s houses: I came by but you were out, I’ll come by later; oh I came by because I missed you earlier, but you were out, and when I came home I found I’d just missed you. Multiple times he gets invited to a dinner party, gets all dressed up, makes his way to the house, only to find it locked up and no one there; the party was canceled but no one found him in time to tell him. All of this is no big deal, absolutely just part of a normal day. They also socialized A LOT, a lot more than I feel like we do. He almost never eats any meal alone, and there are gatherings and parties every night. Just the whole milieu seems so different—none of these people (upper class americans/europeans) had jobs to speak of, not the way we have jobs, so they have lots of free time and also aren’t sick to death of each other by the end of the day. They also stay up fantastically late—Burr goes to sleep at two or three in the morning, and a regular dinner party with women and children present will go til midnight.

There’s a hilarious part where he’s dressing, the door opens, a beautiful young woman comes in who he’s never seen before, and starts trying to talk to him. She asks him if he speaks Swedish, German, Dutch, or Spanish; he says no. He asks her if she speaks French or English; she says no. So using gestures she conveys that she’ll come back later with someone to translate. He never mentions this woman again. Who the fuck was she????

There are also of course the requisite appalling details about personal health, hygiene, and medicine. There’s an unbearable journal entry where he casually reports that in the night he awoke being eaten to death by bugs; he gets up, lights a candle, and sees that “the bed was alive.” So he goes to sleep on the couch but the bugs wake him up there too, so instead he just reads all night. Ho-hum. Also the tale of the toothache—he gets a toothache one day (which he ascribes to having worn a flannel waistcoat the previous day; although I BELIEVE this is a joke) and at first I was reading it like, yeah, I bet you have a toothache, you disgusting eighteenth-century man. But it got so much worse than what I was expecting. First, he tells Theodosia that “because it is an under-tooth, and hollow,” he packs it with “camphor and opium” and goes to sleep. Excuse me what??? What’s an under-tooth, and why/how is it hollow?? Anyway this treatment backfires because in his sleep he swallows all the opium and it makes him “sick and stupid.” He says he’s hesitant to have the tooth pulled, because “it’s the most important of the ones I have left.” UGHHH it is so stressful to think about teeth in this era. Anyway he can’t find the first dentist that gets recommended to him, so he asks around for another dentist. When he arrives, he finds that the dentist is a WOMAN! Burr of course is very liberal-minded so this doesn’t bother him, he merely comments on it being unusual. She yanks out his tooth (“I submitted, and she drew the tooth very quick and perfectly well. Paid one ducat”). Says he arrived home in ten times as much pain as when he went out. His landlady brings him relief by packing the bloody hole with “figs boiled in milk.”

I also don’t understand how they all drank so much. He details every meal he eats and with whom, because it’s interesting and he’s also interested in how much stuff costs—he wants to paint a picture for Theodosia when he gets back (he’s also desperately broke all the time). And I’m serious, these people drank like fishes! They drank multiple bottles of wine WITH BREAKFAST. Then also with lunch and dinner and after dinner. And yet they all seem very industrious and active. I can’t figure it out. Was wine like 1% alcohol back then?

I’m telling you only the interesting parts; the vast majority of the diary is just lists of people he sees and updates on info I don’t understand. There’s something really relaxing about it. I’ve been sick for a week, and reading these long lists of details about numbers of bottles of wine drunk and whether the bed was stuffed with feathers or straw is soothing somehow. I’m almost through volume one, and there has so far been NOTHING to equal the amazing excerpt that enticed me to read the diaries in the first place, check this out:

I did go to bed at 10, promising myself a rich sleep. Lay two hours vigil; that cursed one single dish of tea! Note: My bed had undergone a thorough ablution and there were no bugs or insects [this was the night after “the bed was alive”]. Got up and attempted to light candle, but in vain; had flint and matches but only some shreds of punk which would not catch. Recollected a gun which I had on my late journey; filled the pan with powder and was just going to flash it when it occurred that though I had not loaded it someone else might; tried and found in it a very heavy charge! What a fine alarm it would have made if I had fired! Then poured out some powder on a piece of paper, put the shreds of punk with it and after fifty essays succeeded in firing the powder; but it being dark, had put more powder than intended; my shirt caught fire, the papers on my table caught fire, burnt my fingers to a blister (the left hand, fortunately); it seemed like a general conflagration. Succeeded, however, in lighting my candle and passed the night till 5 this morning in smoking, reading, and writing this.

And also this amazing gem, from his travels in Germany:

As I was writing the concluding line of the preceding page last evening (about 1 o’clock) an ill-looking fellow opened my door without knocking, and muttering in German something which I did not comprehend, bid me put out my candle. Being in no very placid humor at the moment, as you see, I cursed him and sent him to hell in French and English. He advanced and was going to seize the candle. My umbrella, which had a dirk in the handle, being near me, I seized it, drew the dirk, and drove him out of the room.

!!!! But then he realizes that he’s in a foreign country, and furthermore a country under some sort of military law (I forget what war they would have been involved in at this time), and reflects that maybe they have laws regarding lights at night that he’s unaware of. At that point he hears soldiers in the street, and he’s like, oh shit, that guy must have gone to get soldiers, I really can not afford to be arrested right now (he’s constantly being harrassed by police wherever he goes, being somewhat of a persona non grata both at home and abroad due to the whole treasonous emperor of Mexico plan). He blows out the candle and hunches over in his room, peeking out the window, but it turns out it’s just a normal patrol of soldiers, unrelated to him, and they continue past the inn. So that’s a relief—but then you remember, wait a minute, then who was the guy who came in muttering in German?? Who Burr then drove out at knifepoint??? No explanation ever arrives.

Anyway it’s been fun but I need to finish it (there’s a whole second volume!) and also I need to finish the other books I’m reading. My attention is being spread too thinly and it is leading to slovenly reading habits and poor retention rates. Currently reading:
– Geoff Mann, Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism
– Diaries of Aaron Burr (two vols.)
– Richard Holmes’s bio of Percy Shelley
– This bell hooks/Cornell West book of conversations I keep reading the first page of
– Mary Beard’s history of Ancient Rome
– Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class

All of them are fascinating. I’ve made it the furthest in the Mann book because that stuff feels more acutely important to my life/work than the others. Sidenote, my old man has been reading books about how the foundation of the State (and thus a lot of our problems, though not all of them surely) is totally based on CEREAL, the cultivation of cereal grains. Literally, these are books about how BREAD is the origin of state power. Is there nothing holy in this life?? Beautiful bread????

Things I Have Learned So Far From Those Books
– the main things Adam Smith wasn’t able to anticipate that led to his theories not working out (namely, that people would hoard money, an idea that to him would have made no sense)
– the later ideas that transformed Smith’s fairly communal/holistic theory into the brutal abstract individualistic one we’re stuck with today
– what “mercantilist” means; more nuanced understanding of the labor theory of value; some stuff about Gramsci
– In addition to all that info on Swedes and nineteenth-century dentistry and mail delivery and pencil-pawning, I have learned that Arron Burr met Mary Shelley when she was 15, on a visit to her famous father; he describes her as clever
– Percy Shelley was both worse than I had been picturing him and also much better
– Oxford in the eighteenth century was garbage and not run by intellectuals at all
– bell hooks and Cornell West are really good friends who laugh and make jokes together and then talk about their faith
– Thorstein Veblen was hilarious and a great failure and his failure was part of his political statement
– The Ancient Romans argued about their own ancient history; e.g. there were arguments thousands of years ago, amongst historians—themselves trying to get a handle on even more ancient history—regarding whether or not Romulus and Remus were really suckled by a wolf or whether the word wolf in the legend somehow represents a mistranslation of the word “prostitute”
– Ancient Romans were stressed out by all the raping and violence in their own ancient history, and were always trying to come to terms with it, and prove that for example the rape of the Sabine women wasn’t really a rape but was much more of a gentlemanly exchange situation
– Ancient Romans SELF-IDENTIFIED as “mongrels,” as a nation made up of immigrants, because their founding legend is that Romulus or Remus (whichever one killed the other, I can’t remember, seems like it must be Romulus) set up a military camp and then put out a call all across the land, being like “hey, criminals and castoffs and weirdos, come build a city with us,” and so all the misfits came and founded Rome together. This identification of Roman-ness with a melting-pot sensibility never left them
– The worst thing you could accuse a ruler of in Ancient Rome was wanting to be a king. Instant career-killer. They hated kings!!! Even though later they had emperors, which went against their whole culture
– They had domesticated cats

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