The Perils of Chelsea

Interesting Timing

Interesting Timing

I find it amusing that Bradley (a.k.a. Chelsea) Manning has changed his/her gender preference right around the time he/she received a 35-year prison sentence. Now that raises several interesting possibilities. If he (I will continue with the masculine gender for now, only because it’s just too cumbersome handling the pronouns otherwise) were going to spend his time in San Quentin or one of the other California prisons, it would very likely mean that he wants to be on the receiving end of some rough trade. I don’t know what the situation is at Leavenworth and other Federal penitentiaries, but I suspect that the sexual scene is relatively more sedate.

If I were an indie filmmaker, I can picture half a dozen scenarios of what happens from this point on; but I have no intention of going into detail in this blog.

At the back of my mind, I suspect that the former Bradley Manning’s release of information to WikiLeaks was at least somewhat motivated by his frustrations serving in the U.S. military given his gender orientation.

But why reveal that information now?



Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Yeah, Let’s Clean It Up and Rid Ourselves of More American Fighting Men and Women

Yeah, Let’s Clean It Up and Rid Ourselves of More American Fighting Men and Women!

Even at this late date, we can find Neocons and Universal Hawks like John McCain advocating that we intervene militarily in Syria. After all, it worked so well for us in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Now first of all, whom do we support? The cruel Baathist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, or the Islamofascists of Al-Qaida? Come on, quick! It’s one or the other. Or maybe we can just kill everyone and turn the country into a parking lot for future wars.

I am beginning to think that one characteristic of Americans is that they do not have the ability to learn from experience. Do you suppose it could be all that Oxycontin, or maybe there’s something in that bad beer that most Yanquis drink while watching (un)reality shows on the idiot box? In any case, as soon as the opportunity for another war in a country that we don’t understand (and—really—do we understand any of them?) presents itself, there’s a large contingent all gung ho for getting G.I. boots on the ground.

Let me look in my crystal ball: If we intervene on behalf of Bashar, we will be treated with contempt the world over. If we intervene on behalf of the rebels, we will be allying ourselves with Al-Qaida—and we will be treated with contempt the world over. If we don’t intervene at all, we will be treated with contempt the world over … but we wouldn’t have to bury the charred, exploded remains of thousands of young American men and women. I don’t know, but number three is looking mighty good to me.

The Arab Spring has shown us that the Middle Eastern man in the street wants to live in a democracy like Americans, but they have absolutely no idea of how to get there. The only people who are well organized are either the Islamofascists or the tyrants and their stooges. There are maybe a handful of others, but they are constantly disheartened by the actions of their coreligionists.

I think that the best thing we can do is not rely on the Middle East for anything and just let the people kill one another. Sure, we can send them Band Aids and antiseptics and such, but no weapons and none of our military personnel.

What I Will Remember Most

Under Attack by Arctic Terns

Under Attack by Arctic Terns

Now that I’ve been back from Iceland for six weeks now, what do I remember most about that remote and somewhat wild island? The place that keeps coming back to me are the West Fjords. Only some seven thousand people live on a large peninsula punctuated by basaltic ridges and broad fjords. It is quite possibly one of the most isolated parts of Europe, even though one can reach it from Reykjavík by bus in about eight hours.

Above is our little guide Thelma (which she pronounces as Talma) walking with a tourist surrounded by an angry cloud of arctic terns who are aggressively defending their nearby nests. I can understand them, in a way. It’s been a bad year for Icelandic birds, what with the puffins of Vestmannæyjar being unable to produce a bumper crop of little pufflings, and arctic terns likewise having problems due to global warming.

The Little Town of Isafjörður

The Little Town of Isafjörður

Not that I felt particularly warm in the West Fjords “capital” of Isafjörður” (shown above) which has only some two thousand inhabitants. It’s on a little sandy spit of one of Iceland’s largest fjords, and it is fully about ten degrees Fahrenheit colder than any other part of Iceland that I visited, with the exception of the glacier Vatnajökull.

Why does the image of the West Fjords stick with me so much? And not only with me, but with other travelers as well. Most of them go to backpacking to Hornstandir, a desolate peninsula with spectacular views jutting out into the Denmark Straits that separate Iceland from Greenland. I myself did not go there, but most of the European kids who stayed at the youth hostel made that their number one destination. I’d like to see it some time, but I doubt I am up for a multi-day trek with tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, and food.

No, I will remember the long bus rides on gravel roads past spectacular waterfalls and cute little villages like Thingeyri and Patreksfjörður. I will remember the bird cliffs at Latrabjarg, where a gale-force wind was trying to blow me to my death on the rocks several hundred feet below. I will remember the island of Vigur (top photo), where a single family ekes out a living gathering eider down and welcoming summer tourists with coffee, tea, and homemade cakes.

These places are all etched in my memory. The beauty will remain with me forever.

Act Like It’s a Victory

Schematic of the Battle of Cold Harbor

Schematic of the Battle of Cold Harbor

I think I am coming to the end of my Civil War enthusiasm. But then, it can suddenly be revived at a moment’s notice—so don’t count too much on it.

My chief interest has been Ulysses S. Grant, who finally figured out how to win the Civil War for Lincoln. There had been so many failures in the leadership of the Army of the Potomac. A noxious pattern was established, which consisted of rampant braggadocio followed by condign defeat followed by a retreat to lick their wounds.

Look at that schematic of the Battle of Cold Harbor. Like all the victories of Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign, it was by no means a rout. It could even be viewed as a defeat. The Army of the Potomac suffered more casualties than the Army of Northern Virginia—except for one key difference. Grant stayed put and prepared for the next battle, and Lee inexorably backed toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. (This is exactly the opposite of Lee vs. previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac, who always backed toward Washington in case they had to defend it.)

Between the Battle of the Wilderness and the Siege of Petersburg, Grant kept applying the pressure, and Lee kept responding. Casualties almost didn’t matter. If Lee lost a man, he had great difficulty replacing him. For Grant, there was a pool of two and a half million men of military age who had not yet served (though it was difficult at times getting them to enlist).

By acting as if the battle were a victory and getting ready for the next one, Grant guaranteed a Northern victory.


Two Role Models

General Winfield Scott (1786-1866)

General Winfield Scott (1786-1866)

While he was a cadet a West Point, Ulysses S. Grant admired the spit and polish of General Winfield Scott, under whom he was to fight in the Mexican War that followed. For a while, Grant emulated him, but changed his mind when the local rubes would make fun of him for looking like a toy soldier.

Then, when the Mexican War began with Grant as a brevet lieutenant, he saw an entirely different kind of general. According to Bruce Catton in his book U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition:

[Zachary] Taylor was a natural. A professional soldier but not a West Pointer, he had fought in the War of 1812 and subsequently in many a campaign against the Indians. He had an ostentatious and wholly sincere dislike for military formality. By custom, he wore blue jeans, a long linen duster and a floppy straw hat, and he would lounge around headquarters like a seedy backwoods farmer. On the parade ground, when he sat on his horse to review troops or to watch drill or maneuvers, he was as likely as not to sit sidesaddle, chewing tobacco and behaving like a man who casually watches the field hands harvest a crop.

General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850)

General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850)

Both Scott and Taylor wir first-rate generals. When Fort Sumter was fired on in 1861, Winfield Scott was in charge of the Federal Army, but he was too ridden with dropsy and gout—not to mention obesity—to be able to mount a horse, so he offered his command to Robert E. Lee. Of course, when Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee went over to the Rebs, and Irvin McDowell got the nod to head the Army of the Potomac.

Interestingly, Winfield Scott’s master plan for starving the Confederacy into submission was the so-called “Anaconda Plan,” which called for a naval blockade and the capture of the Mississippi. He may have been called “Old Fuss and Feathers” toward the end of his life, but Scott knew what he was doing; and Grant copied his Western strategy from him.

Grant had two excellent role models, which he needed, because the array of timid military ignoramuses who headed the Army of the Potomac before him did not have much to offer their successors other than a long string of defeats.

The Joys of Friendship

Mona and Wilder

Mona and Wilder

This evening, I got together with old friend Mona, with whom I used to work more than ten years ago. At the time, her little son Wilder was still an infant. No more, it seems. (It must be those Wheaties.)

Although my friends and I are all growing older, it is good to see their children thriving.

Because I lack a pituitary gland, I could never have children of my own. (And no, I was never very positive in my replies to people who said I could “just adopt,” as if all I had to do was put in a deposit at the neighborhood baby store.) So I take particular pleasure in seeing the children of my friends.

Martine was unable to join us, because her back was hurting her; so she was lying flat on her back wearing a brace when I returned from the Marina after seeing Mona.


Lobster Town

Lobster Restaurant in Höfn

Lobster Restaurant in Höfn

They’re not lobsters as we think of them in the United States or Canada, but the langoustine or Nephrops norvegicus (Norwegian Lobster) of Iceland is every bit as good. The Maine Lobster is a giant, but the langoustine fits the same great flavor into a smaller package.

The lobster capital of Iceland is the town of Höfn, which is pronounced very much like a hiccup. Let’s take it slowly: HOEP, with the oe sounding like the oe in French oeil, “eye.” And where did that “p” sound come from? It seems that, in Icelandic, certain diphthongs change the pronunciation of the first consonant. Just like the name of Iceland’s International Airport. It looks as if it should be pronounced KEFF-lah-vick, but it’s actually KEP-lah-vick or KEB-lah-vick, with the “f” sounded halfway between a “p” and a “b.” And if that confuses you, don’t bother going to Hafnarfjörður, or the elves will do evil things to your vocal chords.

Getting back to lobster, Höfn is a relatively recent town that owes its growth to its location midway between East Iceland and the towns of the Southwest, including Reykjavík and Selfoss. In addition, it has one of the better harbors in the Southeast, if a little treacherous because of shifting shoals. But it is spectacular to wake up in the shadow of Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull.

Also, for some reason, the langoustines are especially plentiful and tasty around Höfn. If you visit the place, as you should when coming to Iceland, be sure to try the langoustines. They are especially good at the Humarhöfnin Restaurant pictured above. And please don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Favorite Films: Gettysburg (1993)

Probably the Greatest Ever Movie Made for Television

Probably the Greatest Ever Movie Made for Television

Since reading the second volume of Shelby Foote’s magnificent The Civil War: A Narrative, I have decided to read some more histories during the heat of the summer. But first, I thought it was a good time to see the Turner movie of Gettysburg directed by Ronald F. Maxwell.

The film is a real labor of love, with excellent performances by Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee (he was too short for the role, but was most convincing), Tom Berenger as General James Longstreet, Sam Elliott as General John Buford, and Jeff Daniels as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. What is so remarkable is that so many of the minor roles were acted with so much passion that they stick in the mind even after twenty years. I am thinking particularly of Richard Jordan as General “Lo” Armistead; Patrick Gorman as General John Bell Hood; and Brian Mallon as General Winfield Scott Hancock.

The use of Civil War re-enactors on both sides made a big difference. This was literally a cast of thousands—thousands of enthusiastic volunteers who had their own uniforms and were accoutered with all the authentic accessories. The only disadvantage to using re-enactors is that so many of them are stout and in late middle age, but one can overlook that.

Also significant was that the script was based on Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, which focussed on several key parts of the battle, namely the charge on Little Round Top and Pickett’s suicidal charge on the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. There were other actions that never quite make it to the forefront in histories, not to speak of this movie: I am thinking of Ewell’s assaults on Cemetery Hill (not to be confused with the Ridge) and Culp’s Hill. Without that focus, the battle, like many Civil War battles, tends to be too diffuse. (The classic example of a diffuse battle was Chickamauga fought near Chattanooga later that year.)

As good as Gettysburg the movie is, the same director tried to make a prequel ten years later: Gods and Generals (2003) was a rather flaccid failure. Jeff Daniels plays the same role, but he had gained quite a few pounds while he was at Chancellorsville a scant few months earlier.


Decussation and the Mind of God

A Quincunctial Lattice

A Quincunctial Lattice

Back in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). A reader named Kevin Faulkner took me to task for essentially taking the easy way out and not coming to terms with the work of the 17th century scientist, divine, and mystic. He recommended that I read the companion piece Browne published in the same year, entitled The Garden of Cyrus, or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered with Sundry Observations.

This week, I finally got around to reading The Garden of Cyrus. When confronting such a powerful mind as Browne’s, with his phenomenal erudition, recall, and powers of observation, I must confess to feeling unworthy. Never before has prose risen to such poetic heights, with a level of difficulty that approaches Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The following comes early in the first chapter:

Wherein the decussis is made within a longilaterall square, with opposite angles, acute and obtuse at the intersection; and so upon progression making a Rhombus or lozenge configuration, which seemeth very agreeable unto the originall figure; Answerable whereunto we observe the decussated characters in many consulary Coynes, even even those of Constantine and his Sons, which pretend their character in the Sky; the crucigerous Ensigne carried this figure, not transversely or rectangularly intersected, but in a decussation, after the form of an Andrean or Burgundian cross, which answereth this description.

Now this is in no wise to be considered as light reading. Yet there is a Greco-Roman sense of majesty in which Browne takes the simple shape illustrated above, inspired by the tree planting pattern of Cyrus in ancient Persia, as one of the basic patterns in nature and art. And ultimately in the mind of God.

Browne goes far beyond the lattice-work in nature and botany to a mystical consideration of the shape and of the number five, which it suggests in the Quincunx pattern, with a tree in the center and one at each of the four points in a lozenge-shape surrounding the central tree. As Browne says in his conclusion in Chapter Five (the last chapter, appropriately): “All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven.”

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne is not a writer one can read once over lightly. Each of his powerful essays, including his Religio Medici, begs to be accepted as a vade mecum to which the reader will return again and again.

And what does the reader gain? Actually, the erudition and complex latinate vocabulary by itself is not the reason for a further acquaintance: Rather, it is the way in which the towering speculations of the author are in the humble service of his God. For Browne, there is no conflict between science and Christianity. They complement each other at every turn.

Somehow, I feel as if my dreams tonight will be of rhombuses and quincunxes extending into the heavens, from the smallest parts of creation even unto the stars.

If you are even moderately interested in a difficult and rewarding author, I suggest you read his essays, and also look of Kevin Faulkner’s excellent website entitled The Aquarium of Vulcan, which deals rather more substantially with Browne than I am able to at this time.

“I Killed Seven With One Blow”

What a Valiant Little Tailor!

What a Valiant Little Tailor!

The tale comes from the Brothers Grimm: It is the story of a little tailor who kills seven flies with one blow of his swatter. Then, to make sure the world knows what a valiant little tailor he was, he makes inscribes the line “I killed seven with one blow” on his belt and goes out into the world to—what else?—make his fortune. Of course, everyone misunderstands the saying on the belt and thinks the tailor killed seven men with one blow.

I felt much the same way when I read an interview with Gore Vidal in The Paris Review in which he states “But then I’m typically American. We weren’t brought up with theater like the English or the Germans. On the other hand, I saw every movie I could in my youth. I once saw four movies in one day when I was fourteen. That was the happiest day of my life.”

What, only four? I think I have had at least ten days in my time when I have seen five or even six movies in one day. I remember two days at the University of Southern California (USC) when I saw five Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and another when I saw not only five films by John Ford, but John Ford himself showed up. I don’t count the day I saw five films directed by Hitchcock—but only because the 35mm nitrate print of Rope (1948) exploded into flames in the projection booth.

Then there were all the days I spent at the Cinecon show in Hollywood watching early silent and sound films, one after the other, with breaks only for lunch and dinner.

For the first time in nearly a decade, I don’t think I’ll be attending the Cinecon show this time, for reasons I hinted at in a post I wrote a year ago. Of course, I could still change my mind; and Martine is interested in attending at least one day of the screenings. We’ll see.