I think almost everything in life is better with context — the proper mood, the right story — which is why I always try to match my reading material to my trip. The Gulf coast? The Awakening. House hunting in NYC? Let the Great World Spin. But never have I matched my literature to my travels so well as I did at the end of last month, when Jeff and I took and impromptu but long anticipated trip to Boston to visit our friend, Jessica, who moved there to finish her degree at Harvard the same week Jeff and I moved to NYC. After a lengthy search on Audible (I can’t read on a bus), I finally settled on 1776, a history text I associate with middle-aged white men in airports.
The whole time we were making our way to Boston, Washington and his men were camped just outside of town. After several days in Boston, we made our way back to New York while Washington and his men did the very same in audio-book time. Several days later, on the 4th of July, Ellie and I walked down to Prospect Park and spent a while lying on a blanket in the grass while I listened in as the newly-minted United States Amy (this being August, 1776) fought the Red Coats in the corn fields and backroads of Brooklyn, namedropping places I know today as subway stops and hipster neighborhoods. It just so happens that we live on Battle Hill, right under Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, who commemorates the Battle of Brooklyn and its place as both the first and largest battle of the Revolutionary War.
All of this really got me thinking:
1) 1776 is a fine book to listen to if you are captive on a bus for eight hours, but I don’t think I could have brought myself to actually read it. Among other things, it unfolded like a sequel, assuming I already know the ins and outs of little things like Bunker Hill, when in fact I would have liked a short reminder about what, exactly, got the colonists so upset in the first place. But instead of asking Mr. McCullough to write 1775, I supose we could all just pay more attention in 3rd grade.
[He does have other books, including a biography of John Adams that would have filled in the details if I had another eight hours to spare.]
2) Aside from the perils of forgetting 3rd grade, I really think learning history should be a life-long pursuit, as the context we bring to the story changes as we age and the word around us evolves.
3) For example, after the uprisings of the Arab Spring, I was fascinated to revisit the concept of the colonists as rebels, and I’m more amazed than ever that rebellions ever succeed given the massive, entrenched — sometimes even enthroned — forces they face. In the run-up to the Battle of Brooklyn, no fewer than 130 British ships (the Romulan battle cruisers of their day) dropped anchor in the waters surrounding the city.
4) Speaking of ships, while we were in Boston, Jessica and I took a ride on this Duck Boat, an amphibious school bus sort of thing that toured the city by land and sea. I still can’t tell you a damned thing about Bunker Hill, but I CAN tell you that our driver got married on the 4th of July and had his reception at Fenway Park. He is a semi-retired policeman who likes to spend winters with his mom in Florida, his wife won’t let him eat ice cream, and it would appear he has a low regard for women in general. Had I boarded the Duck Boat to meet the locals, I would have been ecstatic, but I was still pretty darn pleased considering I was on an amphibious vehicle with amazing views of Boston. All was not lost. We even got to see the fireworks barges moving into position on the river. I immediately imagined myself telling people later that I got to “see the fireworks in Boston,” but I think that was just the Duck Boat captain wearing off on me.
Boston wasn’t all Duck Boat tours and revolutionary audio books. More than anything, I was impressed by the prevalence of green space in the city — there were parks around every corner, and I spotted two community gardens without trying. We got a little tipsy on the Harpoon brewery tour, and we had some really good food: sangria, tapas, ceviche, and Portuguese cream of wheat. Looking at that list, I’m not sure that my food choices contributed very much to the “context” of Boston, but there will be other days for cream pie and baked beans. That’s the beauty of the whole thing.