Lately people have been asking me about the private, pro bono, client-centered histories I sometimes provide for people who have been subject to medical trauma. Providing these histories to individuals -- work that remains almost completely invisible to the outside world -- has been the most consistently satisfying aspect of my professional life. I would love to scale up this work.
on doing history
Around the time our son was born, our city switched over from conventional garbage trucks to the EZ-Cart system. Under the conventional approach, two sanitation workers would work the truck. One would drive, and one would get out of the truck, lift our cans, and empty the contents into the back of the truck. Under the newer EZ-Cart system, a single sanitation worker stays in her truck’s cab and uses a remote control—sort of a joystick—to direct two large arms out from the side of the truck.
Now I know I have won. I no longer have to say to my friends, “Either I will finish this book, or it will finish me.”
My son, who is now in fourth grade, has been studying the Civil War. He asked me the other day, as I paused from struggling with the dex bomb to help him with his homework, “Was Lincoln a freed black?”
And I thought to myself, what a position of privilege such a postmodern stance is. What a sign of a working democracy and a stable middle class, that one can make such an argument--that evidence is just cute and naive. This was obviously not a man who had been accused of murder, as Chagnon has been.
Whatever else I can’t know about why that newspaper from 1938 ended up in the wall of my bathroom, what I can know, better than ever, is that our house has been inhabited before by people like us: people who read the New York Times; people who grow flowers to give to neighbors; people who establish powerful local relationships over shared indulgences downtown; people who probably, like most people, hurt when meaning to help.
It’s really fascinating to me, then, that a lot of interviewees don’t change very much of what I give back to them. I think they are often a bit surprised by that snapshot of their thinking, their memories, at that moment, and treat it as more sacred than I do. In any case, it’s a system that leaves me as close to peace as I can be when I’m asking people difficult questions about uncomfortable times.
I did finally find the chicken. In fact, I just now looked in my dissertation and verified that. It was a Leghorn fowl.
A dream: maybe, one day, I’ll just write, because there won’t be anything left to do.
I’m pretty sure the humanities would taste better in a pie, and the sciences would taste better in soup.