There are some things that I know are true about myself. I know that I have patience issues. I know that I could be more frugal. I know I'm a nerd. And I know I could not live a life without certain "basic" luxuries we take for granted.
This last truth was driven home over the course of this week as I decided to honor the birth of our nation by watching HBO's brilliant mini-series John Adams. First of all, I want to re-iterate that this mini-series is brilliant. The performances given particularly by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are a thing of beauty. I felt as if I was completely in the palm of their hand as they moved through their parts with such nuance and grace. Truly inspiring stuff!
Because Giamatti and Linney imbued their parts with such pitch-perfect realism, it allowed me to become just as engaged in what was the reality of John and Abigail Adams. At one point, I even thought to myself, "How on earth did people LIVE like this?" This was a time when your best bet for communicating with someone who was away was to hope you ran into a mutual friend who happened to be heading there. Abigail Adams entrusts letters to her husband with George Washington, knowing he will deliver them safely and that her words of chastely beautiful love won't fall into the hands of the British who would use them to mock Adams. For a lengthy stretch in their fifty-four year marriage, Adams was in Europe working to acquire much-needed allies and funding for the infant nation and his wife was home in Massachusetts raising their four children, tending their farm, and feeling very much abandoned by her husband who never wrote. Today, of course, the Adamses would have shot lengthy emails or spent late nights on Skype or even engaged in some randy sexting. How much easier would those years have been on Abigail and her children if they had had the ready access to communication that we have today?
Once Adams returned to the States, there were even more little glimpses of how I would never survive in post-Revolutionary America. To move from place to place, the only means of transportation available were riding horseback or riding in what looked to be a hideously uncomfortable carriage. Remember, too, that this was before such a thing as paved roads. Watching John Adams wedged in between the clearly unwashed masses in a crowded carriage as he left the White House for the last time, I could imagine the smell and discomfort and thanked the stars for my Chrysler Sebring and vowed to stop complaining about all of its faults (which are principally that I have not yet paid it off and it is not a Toyota Prius).
Of course, I have yet to hit on the medical advances I take for granted -- like anesthesia and toothpaste. As the Adamses aged, their teeth showed the ravages of time, becoming progressively black and gnarly looking. Even worse were the scenes where the Adamses daughter Nabby was diagnosed with breast cancer. Initially, I was a bit shocked that doctors in the early 1800's knew what cancer was. For some reason, I thought it was one of those 20th century "discoveries." Slowly, though, the horror of Nabby's diagnosis settled in when the doctor announced that the young woman's breast would have to be removed to fight the cancer -- and I realized that this surgery would take place with no anesthesia, nothing to dull the horrific pain outside of a stick wrapped in cloth for her to bite down on when the pain was overwhelming. Nabby Adams Smith went through a mastectomy wide awake to the pain and horror of it. It was like a Saw movie brought to life and who knows how many women endured such torture for years before medicine advanced enough to at least knock them out for the surgery.
Of course, in the absence of all these things we take for granted, I also couldn't help but once again marvel in the miracle that was the birth of this nation. Perhaps one of the most moving scenes for me came in the moments following the Continental Congress's vote to declare independence from England. I imagined a scene of whooping and rejoicing -- a complete embodiment of the revolutionary spirit. Instead, the men sat there in silence with this look on their faces that basically said, "Good Lord, what have we just done?" The weight of their vote clearly sat heavy on their shoulders as they came to terms with just what their vote meant -- the death, the sacrifice, and the danger that was ahead for them and all they held dear.
And they did it all without Facebook and toothpaste. Miraculous!