not in our stars, but in ourselves
1. I finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. Real good stuff: extensively researched, clearly and evocatively written, and dripping with all kinds of juicy information about your favorite founding fathers. (For example: George Washington was a mountain of a man, with enormously powerful thighs and an eye for his friends’ pretty young wives.) In all seriousness, though, it’s a great look at the events that launched the American Revolution, the background, and the reasons things happened as they did. The short (ish) version is that Puritans left England for a life of freedom and autonomy, and found it (after several bloody wars with various Native American tribes) in the New World. While most New Englanders continued to revere their king, they grew increasingly annoyed with having to pay taxes and obey laws from which they considered themselves exempt. It wasn’t so much a principled stand as a child’s attitude: I want my allowance, but I don’t want to do my chores. England was going broke trying to govern the Colonies, so it began introducing even more taxes and laws – all of which went over like a pregnant pole vaulter. Tensions kept rising, and after a disorganized series of skirmishes that became the Battle at Lexington-Concord on April 19, 1775, it became clear that things weren’t going to calm down any time soon. In a fairly dunderheaded move, a few of the patriot militia officers opted to take Charlestown (which is sort of north and west of Boston). Rather than build their fort at Bunker Hill, which was bigger and out of the range of British warships, the patriots built most of their fortifications at Breed’s Hill, which was smaller and much closer to the waterfront. On June 17, 1775, a bloody battle ensued, with both sides amassing huge numbers of casualties. It was at approximately this point that Washington came storming in, with dreams of building up an army of patriots as well-regulated and trained as the British regulars. He wanted to take Boston by force and drive the British out; but between his rag-tag gang of soldiers (mostly farmers from East Bumfuck and environs) and opposition from the Continental Congress, he was obliged to wait. Finally, the Americans did succeed in scaring away the British and most loyalists – on March 17th, 1776, a day we call Evacuation Day here in Boston – and then the focus of the fight for independence shifted elsewhere.
What I found interesting about Bunker Hill was the deep roots of the Masshole character. We have always been unwelcoming, stubborn, suspicious of strangers, and hostile to outside interference. Of course, this is a generalization, but not without its basis in reality. Back in the eighteenth century, we tarred and feathered loyalists or stole cannons from the English (even if we didn’t have enough gunpowder – or understanding of how they worked – to shoot the damn things); nowadays, we protect our mob-boss friends by pretending they’re criminal informants or close ranks around our local church when it becomes clear that at least one of the priests therein is a sexual predator. (This article from The A.V. Club explains how Massachusetts has ever been thus.) I don’t know why this aggressiveness is so hard-wired into our nature – but you just have to try driving around our infamously winding roads to experience it firsthand.
Less philosophical but still fun: I loved looking at all the old maps. For those of you who don’t know, present-day Boston is quite different from the way it looked in 1775. The location of my apartment building was, when the Puritans arrived in 1630, underwater: not until the mid-nineteenth century did the Back Bay get filled in, and then built upon. Check this out:
Anyway, it’s a great book. If you like properly detailed American history (something that may be declared unconstitutional, if certain right-wing candidates somehow con their way into the presidency), please do check it out.
2. In more current Boston news, there was a momentous election on Tuesday. Well, okay, it wasn’t that momentous. A couple of long-time city councilors were given the boot in favor of some fresh (female!) blood, so we’ll see how things shake out when the new term starts in January. The really momentous thing, though, was that I got to vote for the first time as a real, honest-to-god resident of Boston! Before August, I lived in another town nearby, and I worked in Boston, but I am now – really and truly – a Bostonian. I was very proud of myself, I must say. There were no other voters at my polling place when I voted – immediately after work, sometime around 5:15 or so – and that was sort of a bummer: turnout was 13.6%. Pretty pisspoor. I understand cynicism. I really do. I’m intensely cynical myself. The larger electoral and political system in the U.S. is FUBAR. But to those who think city council elections don’t matter: they don’t, if you let them remain meaningless. If you get out there and vote, however, you really can make a difference at the local level; and maybe those local politicians will have some sway with some slightly higher-up politicians; and up along the chain of command. You may say I’m a dreamer, but etc.
3. Boston Magazine is holding an online poll to determine the best Bostonians. Some of them are, without a doubt, hugely important figures in the City of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the United States of America. Some of them are, uh, less so. And some have tenuous connections to Boston, at best. I mean, yeah, Martin Luther King, Jr., studied at Boston University. Was he a Bostonian? I don’t think so. Happy he was here, hope he enjoyed himself, but he’s no more a Bostonian than I am a Melburnian. Right now, the rankings are pretty wild, but maybe they’ll sort themselves out soon. Or maybe I’ll be elected best Bostonian. High time, I tell you.
4. It’s November and it’s 70 degrees out. I am pessimistic about what this unseasonable weather means for the rest of the winter.