The Inbox Variations, Feb 2021
At least once a week, I think about different careers for myself. Being a writer is great, awesome, a dream come true, etc., buuuut there are other dreams. One I entertain quite a bit is: history teacher. Well, less the “teacher” part, but I don’t think full-time history buff is a career.
History is one of several interests I only developed after going through a recovery process for codependence (which only left room for obsessing about other people and what they thought of me) and also leaving religion (which provided a pre-made lens through which I saw the world for most of my adult development).
Few things make me happier than having a whole afternoon to go down history wormholes online, collecting knowledge, making connections, and pondering the consistency of human behavior (it’s generally not good!) over huge swaths of time. I love good biographies and topical nonfiction. I’m skeptical of historical fiction. I can watch shows like The American Experience all day long.
Some of the things I’ve been thinking about with regards to history this month:
Black history: Imagine there being entire laws against your ancestors learning how to read and write, and then in a short span of history your people create a robust literary tradition anyway, that continues to flourish in spite of a publishing industry that is historically hostile. Imagine these anti-literacy laws being used by the white church to make sure enslaved people couldn’t read the parts of the Bible that might make them call white Christians to account for holding slaves. Imagine those parts of the Bible being redacted when enslaved people learned to read anyway. Imagine it fully, because it all happened.
Family history. Over President’s Day weekend, the archives at newspapers.com were open and free. I took the chance to do some family research about my father’s side of the tree. History can be one of the big losses of a broken family, especially if you combine divorce with geographic separation and other factors. If the one link to a side of the family is an addict who doesn’t like to talk about his past, everyone on that part of the tree is lost to you.
So I plugged in those names that I know are in my tree, and because of how much community news was in small papers over the decades, I learned quite a bit about my great-grandparents on one side. They seemed to be active in their immigrant Polish community. Job changes, moves, baptisms, weddings were all a matter of newspaper record. Even something as seemingly mundane as a seventh birthday party ((in this case, of one of my great aunts) warranted a couple inches of newspaper space.
“Back in my day…”: It’s the little things. I never foresaw the time in my life when I would start sentences with “When I was a kid,” but I do it a lot lately. Not as a way to say things were better or worse, but to say they were just different, and things we take for granted as normal now weren’t always. And, you know, it’s fun. I get why old men like to sit around in donut shops talking about how things were. Because it can feel like a marvel, a wonder, that things were ever different than they are now.
Cars didn’t have cup-holders, because why would you be driving around with a cup of coffee or bottle of water? Always having a beverage on your person was not the norm. Were we always undercaffeinated and dehydrated? Maybe. But we didn’t know it.
Banks and credit were regulated and you only had charge cards if you were comfortably middle class. If you didn’t have the money to get something big that you wanted, you could buy it on layaway, or rent-to-own, try to find it used somewhere, or go without. Then cheap credit came along and boom, almost anyone could have anything. Was cheap credit the great equalizer, or has it ruined our financial security along with our planet? Perhaps both.
Even if you lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world, if you had any kind of job—part time, low-paying, whatever—you and your friends could rent a house. You could rent a room. The cost of housing was proportionate to a wider range of incomes. There was no downside to this, and it’s how it should be.
I really did walk uphill to school. Also downhill. But not in the snow.
Personal history: I always want to understand myself and my life more fully. It can get tiring when you’re really doing deep dives, so I take breaks. Sometimes my breaks last years. But I did finally start that newsletter specifically to get into the whole “growing up in an alcoholic family” thing. (Yes, more newsletters! When will they end? Never. If you subscribe to a lot of Substacks, you might check out their reader, currently in beta, and maybe one day the emails can end and you’ll be back in 2008 with your Flipboard.) Oh, anyway, the new newsletter is http://adultchild.substack.com.
Back to my career dreams…
If I recall correctly, the history teacher always had to do something else. Like driver’s ed, or health class, or football coaching. So maybe that’s not for me and I guess I’ll stick with writing. I’m doing final edits on my next book now—more about that soon!