People complain. The future, they say, is not what it used to be. No moon base, no flying cars. We were promised jetpacks. Sure, we have pocket computers with more power than NASA had in 1969, but we hate them. They’re irritating and we mainly use them to see how much worse the world is than it was when we got up. Which it always is. We’ve got a cyberpunk dystopia on layaway, and it’s boring.
I wasn’t sold on Tomorrowland, though. I don’t miss the first futurism, so much — it could imagine soaring spires and space colonies, but not that a little girl might want to be more than a stewardess. What I do miss is hope — hope expressed in the scope of the world. There is, it appears, someone out there that has that hope. He is not an American.
Dahir Semenov is, so far as I can determine, a Russo-Turkish engineer with an eponymous company, Dahir Insaat. Its Youtube videos have delighted and puzzled the internet for some time now. Does Dahir Insaat produce prototypes? Buildings? Anything? What it does produce, for certain, are reams of CGI proposals for remaking the world.
The ideas are not what you would call, by and large, good ideas. The turnkey city plans are in the grand style of Le Corbusier, which is as much as to say that they would become hideous unlovable projects within three months. The buildings and public transportation systems defy everything we know about how people like to move and to live. And the quadcopters are … well, I have to admit, the quadcopters own pretty hard. I mean you can’t pick off every plane at an airbase this easy, you just can’t, but it’s amazing to see someone try.
What remains with me about this future that Dahir Insaat imagines is not merely that it is unapologetic, it is that it is not American. Although the videos are dubbed in English, they are mostly released in Russian and Arabic, and it is not hard to see that the Russian army is the triumphant one in the war scenarios. Never mind that the scenarios have the plausibility of the backyard setups in ‘80s toy commercials — these too are commercials, and even when commercials sell something that does not exist, the desire for it is real. Whether Dahir Insaat could ever begin to deliver on its promises, one thing is certain: these are dreams, and they are not for us, but they still are. In the black of the ocean at night, it is still a fine thing to see lights in the distance.
When I was five or so, I was watching some movie for grownups, which mostly bored me. But my ears pricked up when someone was talking about getting married, and saying that they could go get the blood test right away.
Blood test? You had to get a thumb stick to get married? I turned to my mother, and she solemnly informed me that this was so. I was distinctly disappointed. I hated blood tests. I’d had enough already. If I was going to get blood drawn I just was not going to get married. But then, I thought, I guess that was the test: grownups don’t mind blood tests, and if you’re not grown up enough to get blood drawn you’re not old enough to get married.
It has come to my attention that people no longer remember that this was once a small tradition in American marriage. According to this site, only Montana now requires it. The blood test, although invasive and faintly eugenic, was well intended. Before the advent of antibiotics, syphilis might percolate quietly, asymptomatically inside someone for years. Before the advent of the sexual revolution, when young ladies were forbidden to speak frankly or listen to frankness, men might go out to visit women who were not young ladies and bring home a case of syphilis to their innocent brides, resulting in illness and death for mother and child.
This is the sort of narrative that would tug the heartstrings of early 20th-century legislators. In a time before American women had much power or authority in sexual matters, perhaps the laws did save a few of them. But by and large, the test was not cost-effective; it found very few positive results. Syphilis itself could be cured by antibiotic treatments after World War II, and no longer had the same power to destroy lives.
STD testing and genetic testing are certainly a good idea for couples, but state law has mainly lost interest in mandating these things. You no longer have to be grown up enough to get stuck with a needle in order to get married.
When I was looking at microfilm in the Boston Public Library, I noticed a man off to my right, standing and waiting for something, possibly my viewing station. I wasn’t looking directly at him, but I had a fair impression of him: a bony, tallish, scowling fellow in a dark polo shirt and khakis, like a middle school teacher from a white-flight academy. Eventually, I looked up at him to see if there was something he wanted from me, at which point he turned out not to exist. Where I had seen this man, I saw instead the arm of a lamp and the edge of another computer screen, crossing each other like bars.
That, I thought, was a pretty remarkable optical illusion, like the time in a college seminar when I thought somebody else’s butt was an oscillating stand fan.* Once I had noticed it, I couldn’t make myself see the man again, so I put it out of mind and went on. I didn’t think of it again until later, when I joked about my bad eyesight to my mother. She grew briefly quiet, and said: I think you might have seen a ghost.
Boston Public Library is certainly the sort of beautiful, storied building that you would suppose had a ghost or two to its name, but this does not seem to be strictly true. The old Kirstein Business Branch building was said to be haunted by the ghost of the donor, Louis Kirstein, because he never liked the final design of the branch that he funded. But that branch has been folded into the current library building, and since it is largely the same magnificent old building that Kirstein would have known, it is hard to imagine that he would still be displeased. Besides, Kirstein looked nothing like the man that I saw, and even if he had, I doubt that a dignified community leader who died in 1942 would opt for casual wear developed in the early ‘80s.
I do not believe in ghosts, but then, every day I am forced to see things that I do not believe in. Ghosts are quite the easiest to deal with. For all I know, the gentleman passed away in a chair waiting his turn for a microfilm screener. What can we do, except to be courteous?
*To be honest, this was more along the lines of a hallucination. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep that term.
When I was a girl, I was always a little mystified by books and stories where other little girls would just cut their hair off, put on some pants, and run away disguised as boys. How could it possibly be that easy? My own body betrayed me pretty early on this front. This is not a humblebrag. I was a soft round child, poor at sports and dancing, hardly able to pass for a normal girl, let alone a boy.
You have to wonder what it was to be Elsie Wilson. In the summer of 1919, she cut her hair, passed herself off as a coal passer, and worked her passage from the port of Southampton to New York City. This was one of the fiercest, hottest jobs on a ship, and apparently Elsie did it well enough that no one tumbled to the fact that she was a woman — or if they did, they were satisfied enough with the work to keep their suspicions to themselves. Wilson was picked up in Hoboken, New Jersey, as a “disorderly person,” a charge that might have covered any number of offenses. She pled with the judge to have mercy; she would get five years, she said, if she went back to the United Kingdom. The magistrate was implacable. And thus she disappears from the shallows of the historical record.
How many Elsie Wilsons kept their heads down and trudged through the world, bending their gender by sheer strength, not for any revolutions but for sheer survival?
People tend not to pay attention to much along State Street. If you’re a tourist, you’re there on your way to the waterfront or Quincy Market; if you’re a resident, you’re there on your way to or from your job in the Financial District. I worked there for years, and I never noticed this.
The Cunard Building was where, at the turn of the twentieth century, you could buy transatlantic passage, and depart from the wharves just down the street. The building has been preserved, although the facade looks so sturdy that I am not sure it needed much preserving, and serves as commercial space today.
Boston still hosts many transatlantic departures, but they are at the airport now, across the water, and that is where the noise, mess and traffic have gone. Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 still makes regular transatlantic crossings, but she departs from New York.
Lately, I have been quietly unable to put down the idea of making a transatlantic crossing. There’s no way to justify the cost or the time, of course, and it’s unlikely I could wring an article out of it. I could say that I want to retrace my ancestors’ experience on their crossing, but my ancestors, so far as we can determine, came over no later than the 18th century. Their transatlantic experience involved vomiting, praying, and watching people die. They probably did not sit on the fo’c’sle with a drink in the evenings.
Nonetheless, I am fond of watching things heave naturally into view, of traveling without the shield of a window and an engineered metal wall. I love to see a destination appear. Before the end of all things, I should like to see a continent appear.
Passed through the North End on Saturday. It is one of the few areas in Boston in which you can see the original colonial layout and architecture of the town, in the form of the Paul Revere House and some very narrow streets. That’s good. It is better to have a thriving city that’s a palimpsest of generations than a lacquered Historical District with a few millionaire’s homes, and a rebuilt International Style wasteland outside of it.
On my way away, I found this protest — unexpectedly, though I might have expected it, if I had stopped to think.
This is Christopher Columbus Park at the North End. The crowd was small but energized, and the cops who stood by had little to do. No one was interested in an argument; a few tourists gawked (including me, I suppose) but most people reacted by sitting on the grass and eating sandwiches.
Nonetheless, it is a gutsy place to hold a protest. Boston’s North End is an extremely Italian neighborhood, not just for the purpose of restaurants and tourism but in real, everyday life and character. I used to go to a doctor’s office there — the restrooms were labeled in Italian. It’s spoken in the streets as much as English. Why should this matter?
Columbus mattered very much to the Italian communities of the early 20th century. He was established as a kind of proto-Founding Father after the Revolution, although even at the time everyone knew his claim was weak — he never came to the continent, for one thing; he never even recognized the continent. And, of course, there was the genocide. And the enslavement. But the important thing was that he was not British or Spanish. Plus, his Latinized name looks good on a street sign, or feminized into Columbia.
Italian-Americans at the turn of the century had a more immediate concern. They were considered an ethnic rabble by Anglo-Americans, the subject of prejudice and fear, the easy suspect for murders and crime. What they needed was a famous Italian who was key to the heart of the country, someone whose contributions could not be denied. And in Christopher Columbus, they found it. Establishing formal Columbus Day celebrations was a way to establish respectability for Italian-Americans — that is, a way to establish that they, too, were white Europeans.
I wish luck to these protestors, and I hope for a day when Columbus is acknowledged, but no longer celebrated. I also know that there are people who will feel genuine pain and anger if that happens, for genuine reasons. To this, I have no solution; I am always and only just passing through.
I went looking for something in 1919 today. I didn’t find it, but I found this instead.
This appeared in the Boston American, but as “The Real Love Story of Joseph and the Fair Egyptian” was a syndicated article, you’ll find it easier to read here. The story is, of course, not true, but I am always delighted and interested to find out something untrue that I hadn’t heard before.
There is no reference to the biblical Joseph in Tell el-Amarna. Although I cannot pinpoint its location, the line drawing above is an unmistakable depiction of two members of the royal family of Pharaoh Akhenaten, their faces and names obliterated by the damnatio memoriae that wiped them from history. The Amarna art style was so delicate and androgynous that it isn’t quite possible to tell the characters from here — Akhenaten? Nefertiti? The princess Meritaten? The prince Smenkhara?
None of them, however, are Joseph. The story related here is from the apocryphal tale of Joseph and Aseneth, known from Greek manuscripts many hundreds of years younger than the city at Tell el-Amarna. How the stories have been conflated just here I do not know, but a rummage around the internet will show you that inserting prominent biblical characters into exciting points of ancient Egyptian history is a profitable and widespread hobby. Some claim that Akhenaten’s grandfather, the nobleman Yuya, was the biblical Joseph, since it is possible that he was from Canaan, but the archaeological establishment has received this claim with a strained smile and a polite “no.”
The author of this newspaper article is hard to identify from his clipped byline, but I believe he may be the Rabbi Clifton Harby Levy (1867-1962). Rabbi Levy, best known as an influential member of the Reform rabbinate in New York and as a founder of the Center for Jewish Science, also wrote on biblical art and archaeology. If so, he would not be the first or the last erudite man to write an unintentionally misleading article on popular science.
I went to visit a couple of old friends on Sunday, both of whom I’ve known since high school. One of them is dead.
At age fourteen, I went to boarding school outside of Boston. When my parents and I came to visit Boston, we went to the Central Burying Ground. That is where I happened upon Mrs. Sally Morse for the first time. The inscription on her slate tombstone reads:
In memory of Mrs. Sally Morse
(Mr. Samuel Morse)
who died July 25th 1799
of the Cramp in her Stomach
after about one hours Illness
Aged 26 Years & 2 Months
At the time I could not read the bottom, but a good look at the photo reveals a further epitaph, carefully squeezed in:
Compleat she shone through every scene of Life
The tender Parent and Indulgent wife
When you are a teenager, twenty-six seems like old age. And yet, when I saw the grave of Sally Morse in the mid-nineties, it suddenly was no age at all. It was my age. By modern standards, I have had no major physical illnesses, and yet I would have died twice over in Sally Morse’s time. I knew it then and I know it now. I have always had a morbid fear of the inside of my abdomen, of the chance of appendicitis or of ectopic pregnancy. Either of these could have killed Sally Morse. I lay in my narrow dorm-room bed and thought it over.
I was, as I have said before and will say again, the kind of girl who would, “with her disposition, be having a better time in the graveyard.” When I was younger, I had no frame of reference for what Sally Morse’s life would have been like, except for a few dark interstices — vague ideas pulled from Johnny Tremain, from the claustrophobic antebellum houses I had visited. It would have been a hard life and a small one, compared to ours. Sally herself may well have been hard and small. All the tombstone tells us — besides what it says, of course — is that Sally mattered, and Sally’s death mattered. It mattered either to one person with money to spend, or several who could at least put together the money to buy her this tombstone, and to have it carved to order. The suddenness of it left them aghast, and they wanted to tell the world, perhaps to warn them that the Lord was at hand. What else can we know?
If Sally Morse was twenty-six when she died, she was born in 1773. That means she was ten in 1783, when peace was concluded between the armies of Great Britain and the United States of America. It must have been a strange and exciting time to be a child, frightening and hopeful — even for the Loyalists, who fled to Canada, and eventually brought their descendants peace and universal health care. And if my rough research has come to anything, it also means that Sally knew that her father was safe.
The names Sally (Sarah), Samuel, and Morse are very common in colonial New England, so it is not quite possible, without a heavy investment, to confirm her. Still, it appears to me, from Ancestry.com, that Sally Morse was born Sally Dix, the daughter of John and Mary Dix, in Reading. A Reading birth record names such a child, who would have been twenty-six years and three months old at the gravestone’s death date (take that as you will). One John Dix of Reading, according to an application for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution, was a commissioned officer in the Continental Army, who resigned in 1779.
A marriage record shows that Samuel Morse of Boston and Sally Dix of Newtown (sic) married in March of 1794. What became of the children to whom she was a “tender Parent,” I cannot tell from here. If my guess is correct, her husband did not have an easy time of it in death himself. One Samuel Morse, roughly three years older than Sally Morse, died in Boston on January 7, 1826, of “gravel.” By that, the recordkeeper meant kidney stones. Being “cut for the stone” (PDF) was such an arduous, humiliating experience, even by the standards of premodern medicine, that Samuel may have chosen to avoid treatment. Whether he chose to do it or not, he must have suffered greatly.
Across the way from the Central Burying Ground is the Public Garden. Until I passed through the other day, I had never yet noticed the Ether Monument. Anesthesia as we know it was first demonstrated in Cambridge in 1846. Ether would have greatly alleviated the pain of Samuel Morse, and perhaps made a successful treatment possible. Although anesthesia could not have saved Sally Morse, its availability made abdominal surgeries conceivable as a regular practice, rather than as a desperate measure, and laid the groundwork for the surgeries that might have saved her.
(For a story about quite another woman who noticed the Morse tombstone and was shocked, see here: “Indelicate and Unladylike.”)
People were brought here to hang; and a gate stretched across, and the city was locked.
I think a lot about the Boston Neck, the narrow entryway into what used to be the Shawmut Peninsula, the actual land on which the city was built before it built the rest of the land for itself. Like many major cities before the modern period, Boston had a gate that was locked at night. Nothing remains of it now. It is one intersection among many. This part of Boston, once a key to its peace and war, disappeared so gradually that there is nothing left to mark it, except a nearby restaurant called The Gallows. For an excellent short read on the Neck’s grim history, see here.
I’m not a native of Boston; I have no family roots here. The long dull story as to why I keep moving back here has nothing to do with my fascination with the land itself. In fact, I hated it when I was young, just coming from the low warm alluvial plains where almost everything was laid out in a grid. Boston was cold and hard and the buildings crowded like crooked teeth. What I did not understand was how Boston has been written on and written over so many times, like a European city, and, like European cities, has written on the towns all around it.