Since arriving at adulthood – it took me longer than most – I have made some kind of New Year’s resolution based on acquiring new knowledge or behavior. The only constraint was that it be at least slightly outside my comfort zone.
My first resolve was to learn to ice skate. I had grown up in the sub-tropical South; until I arrived in New England, I’d never met a snowflake in person. I remember being awed by watching my very first snow fall, and seeing the white stuff pile up in Christmas card- carved drifts. I stood at the front door for a long time, caught up in the wonder of it all. Eventually, my father-in-law and one of his sons came out into the hall where I stood in amazement, caught up in the marvel of the growing piles of snow.
The two men were dressed in heavy coats and hats and clumped into the hall in large rubber boots, pulling on thick gloves. Of course I shared with them my enthusiastic astonishment – in fact, I shared it at length, while they exchanged glances with one another. Finally, they’d had enough of my naïve chatter: moving quickly, they flung open the Victorian double doors…and then picked me up and put me down in the middle of all the loveliness. I sank down into an icy hole while they picked up shovels and began the arduous task of clearing the walks and stairs for the second time that evening.
Such was my introduction to the joys and sorrows of living in a cold climate. A few years later, we had moved to a house outside Boston and the kids quickly discovered a small pond nearby. A perfect, kid-sized pond for investigating in the summer and skating on in the winter. Watching them, I decided to learn to ice skate, too.
Easier said than done. After falling onto my gluteus maximus once too often, I retreated from the ice and considered my options. My inclination was to retire gracefully to the hearth and wait for Spring – if and when it arrived. Since my idea of heavy exercise is to haul the Oxford Dictionary across the room, this was an easy choice. I would limit my exertions to making hot chocolate for the skaters when they came home, red-nosed and c-c-coooold.
When January 1st rolled around someone asked if I’d made any resolutions for the coming year. The image of the pond came to mind and I found myself saying, “yes, I’ve decided to learn to ice skate.” Evidently this idea had been forming off-stage once I learned there was an indoor rink within walking distance and they offered lessons for adults on week-day mornings.
In the beginning, my lessons mainly consisted of me holding onto the railing – why didn’t that pond have a railing?- and carefully moving my feet while I held onto safety with one hand…
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…Eventually I got brave enough to let go and push off with one foot, gliding through that initial move. Getting my left foot to agree to push off was another matter entirely, though it gave in as I got braver and more assured of my footing. I finally understood: the idea was to leave a slight liquid groove with the push of each foot, which allowed me to stay upright and moving. It helped if I crouched a little…
In due time, I was out on the ice at the pond – but only when no one else was around. The pearled, pastel morning light of winter in New England made the effort worth it. I had indeed become an ice skater.
I had also become a resolution-maker. Each year I would rummage through my bag of ignorance till I came upon something that looked worth attempting.
That first resolution took only a few months to accomplish. The one for 2008 will go on all year: I’m going to devise and work my way through a history-reading course.
I believe the idea was planted when I read Killing the Celt. I had no idea that Julius Caesar had attempted to annihilate the Gauls. He was so brutally murderous that back in Rome they considered prosecuting him for war crimes. Of course as the author, Tomas Runmhar, points out the Gauls were their own worst enemy. As has been true throughout their history, Celtic tribes don’t cooperate with one another. It’s more fun to fight than negotiate. Something in the Celtic blood appears to be addicted to adrenalin rushes.
Then I read my Christmas gift from the Baron: “Endgame: 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II” by David Stafford. Here’s a description by one reader:
This is as close to a perfect book as I have recently read on WWII history, particularly on the infrequently covered closing days of the European war.
Seldom do historians write about the immediate repercussions and events that ran concurrent with the disintegration of the Third Reich.
…David Stafford carefully chronicles these events through the eyes of various personalities involved. Their anecdotes complete an image of Europe in such disarray that paint a picture of near hopelessness.
Stafford captures the emotion of the allied race to Berlin, the ominous possibility of a Nazi Alpine Redoubt and the anticlimactic sigh the war weary world breathed before the loose ends were truly tied off.
Reading this book, one realizes how unfortunate it is that those lessons and tales of World War II so often go forgotten…
Not having read much history about the time between VE Day and the start of the Korean “Conflict,” I was enthralled. That was quickly followed by “Don’t Tread On Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, from Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting,” by H.W. Crocker.
Now I’ve turned to Paul Johnson’s “A History of the American People.” It’s been sitting on the bookshelf since 1998…better late than never.
That ought to keep me busy through February. After that, I’m not sure where to go. Can any of our readers suggest some titles? I’d be interested in political, religious and cultural history from any period and any place. I emailed Wretchard to ask him to recommend a book on the Philippines. If there is an era or a place which you’ve studied and think others might find enlightening, please send the titles my way.
Needless to say, the books have to be in English. I can slowly make my way through some French, but it’s too laborious to be enjoyable. Like most Americans, I am limited to high school and college requirements for a foreign language but my Latin is by now far too rusty from disuse to be of any help except for etymologies.
2008 will be the Year of History-Reading. Much easier than ice-skating.