Friday, July 31, 2015

Summer Reading Update

I’ve not been doing a good job reviewing books that I’ve read so I decided to chat up some with “mini-reviews” of several books that I’ve enjoyed this summer.  I still need to finish up with at least one more post on my nine days in NYC and hopefully write about a few more things going on in my life other than drowning in sweat after having finished mowing the lawn.  Anyway, here are mini reviews of a few of the books I’ve been reading this summer:

Pat Conroy, South of Broad (2009).  I listened to this book on Audible, which is a task as it is quite long and there were sections that I went back and listened to a second time.  It is the story of Leo King and his friends, who were all thrown together during desegregation in Charleston in the late 1960s.  When we meet Leo, we realize he is a fragile high school student who will be a senior.  His older brother has committed suicide, which has haunted Leo (and we don’t learn of the reason until late in the book).  The first part of the book tells about the meeting up of this group of friends that include people from the Charleston gentry to African-Americans, to orphans and poor-abused whites (Sheba becomes a movie star and Trevor a musician and both are haunted by an estranged father that keeps in the shadows).  The second part of the book is 20 years in the future, where the movie star comes back to Charleston to seek the help of her friends to find her gay brother who has disappeared.  They all head to San Francisco and find Shela’s brother who is dying of AIDS and bring him back to Charleston.  The book then jumps back to 1969 and high school football, before jumping back to the present in Charleston with Sheba and Trevor’s crazy father and a city that endures the fury of Hurricane Hugo.   This book deals with a lot of sensitive topics: child abuse, ecclesiastical abuse (by a priest), the struggle with race and class in the American South, AIDS, and local issues like Hugo’s destruction.  Like all his writings, Conroy gives us wonderful descriptions of South Carolina’s Low Country while weaving wonderful stories. 

Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), 474 pages.  My daughter gave me this book for Father’s Day…  Although skeptical at first, thinking that since it came out a few years after “How the Irish Save Civilization,” those of us with Scottish blood and hubris would naturally think we’d have a hand in creating civilization.  The book rose above hubris, showing how Scotland rose above the warlord era of the Clans to become a modern nation and then (mainly through immigration and education), shared such a vision with the rest of the world.   A lot of this book goes into politics, especially around the Jacobite rebellion in 1845, an attempt to place a Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charles) back on the throne for Great Britain.  The attempt failed.  Unlike a lot of mythology that shows the era of the clans (the chiefs were essentially warlords) to be glamorous, Herman dispels this myth and also dispels the idea that all the Highland Clans supported the Jacobite efforts (the MacKenzies, my main clan, were divided).  Instead of this being a Scottish rebellion, Herman suggests it was more of a civil war.  After 1745, Scotland began to value education and attempted to provide public schools for all children.  The Scottish Universities begin to rival Cambridge and Oxford and at times were even better.  The Scottish Enlightenment and its aftermath were felt throughout the Western world (David Humes, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, etc).  Although I would have liked to have seen more treatment of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, Herman does admit its influence into the Declaration of Independence. Another area in which the Scots excelled was trade and Scottish companies were the leaders in fostering trade throughout the British Empire and around the globe.  After discussing the Scottish Enlightenment, the growth of Scottish Industry (for a century, Glasgow led the world in tonnage of ships built) and trade, he discussed the role various Scots played around the world.  He ends the book discussing the economic downturn in Scotland as industries moved elsewhere and what its future might be.  Herman also discusses the rise of Scottish pride (thanks to the pens of folks like Sir. Walter Scott) and how the how “tartan” thing became accepted and reinterpreted in Scotland and throughout the world.  Although the book was written more than a decade before the Scottish failed vote for independence, Herman makes the case that Scotland has long been tied to Great Britain and would suffer if such ties were severed. 

William Zissner, editor, Extraordinary Lives; The Art and Craft of American Biography (New York: American Heritage, 1985), 252 pages.  Zissner, best known for his book On Writing, has been a favorite author on writing for me.  He died a few months ago.  Upon his death, I decided to see what I haven’t yet read of his and came across this book which he edited.  In the mid-80s, he brought together six major biographers to lecture on their craft at the New York City library.  Zissner edited the lectures and wrote the introductory chapter and published this book.  What excites me about this book is that I have read extensively the work of two of the biographers (David McCullough, and Robert Caro).  At the time of the lecture, they both had done a major work and was working on others, but they were still new at their craft.  McCollough had not yet published his major work on John Adams (he had published his work on Theodore Roosevelt and was working on his biography of Harry Truman) and Caro had just published his first book on Lyndon Johnson’s early life (he has since published three more and hasn’t yet gotten to Johnson’s presidency).   Other biographers included are Paul Nagel (The Adam’s women), Richard Sewall (Emily Dickerson), Ronald Steel (Walter Lippmann), and Jean Strouse (J. Pierpont Morgan and the family of Harry and Henry James).  There is some good stuff in this old book, especially if one is considering the task of writing a biography. 

Quote:  "In fact, the coexistence of these two biographies (Morris' and McCullough's biographies on T. Roosevelt) illustrate an important point, which is that there is not just one true story about any of these lives; there are instead versions of the past..."  (Strouse, p. 166)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

An evening hike in the Sandhills of North Carolina

Ive been gone for the past weeka nice break as I stayed at my grandmas empty home (its between tenants) for a week doing some writing and planning and a lot of reading.  I also had a chance to sees cousins and to reacquaint myself with the Sandhills of North Carolina from where Im from even though we left there when I was six.   One evening, I decided to check out WeymouthWoods.  I havent been there since I was probably twenty.  It was a good walk, about 4 miles, as the shadows of evening grew. 

I set out on the Lighter Stump Trail at 6:30 PM.  It's still hot, in the low nineties, but thankfully there is a light breeze.  The trail runs slightly south of the ridge of sandy soil, though an area that has been recently burned.  Longleaf pines, which cover the flanks of the ridge, thrive on fire and the preserve regularly burns the underbrush.  The burn areas are still black and gray but already plants are sprouting up through the ash.  When I leave the burnt area, the growth underneath the pine's thin canopy include wire grass along with sassafras, blackjack oaks (some with leaves almost as big as a catcher's mitt), huckleberries, sumac (not the poison variety) and in one place, a healthy stand of poison oak with fresh green berries.  My ankles itch just thinking about stepping amongst them, but I stay to the sandy path.  Sure enough, after a quarter mile or so, I pass a number of old "lighter stumps."  These once supported stately longleaf pines that were cut down years ago.  The "lighter wood" in the stumps contains so much pitch that theyll burn like kerosene, giving off a quick hot smoky flame.  Growing up in these parts, finding lighter wood was always a priority when camping, especially when it was raining.  You wouldn't want to use this wood for cooking (as it didn't make good coals), but it helped dry out damp wood and to start a fire in rainy weather. 

In a half mile, the trail follows the ridge line as it drops down into a lowland swamp.  Here the long leafs give way to loblolly and other shortleaf varieties, along with a variety of hardwoods: gum, bay, hickory, oak and popular.  There's also a few cedars and American holly and a variety of thick brush that close in the landscape.  Along the edge of the wetlands are dogwoods and persimmons (it is sad to go to my grandma's house and there not to be any persimmon pudding).  As I walk across the boardwalk,  I no longer feel a cooling breeze.  The air is still, moist and warm and my shirt is soaked with sweat.  A few mosquitoes buzz around along with a sole deerfly that annoys me to no end.  I cross a tributary to James Creek and am startled by a squirrel jumping between trees.  A hundred yards later, I cross the creek itself.  Standing on a wooden bridge, I pause to look down into the shallow water.  Where it flows fast, it is clear with a sandy white bottom, but in places where a fallen log acts as a dam and slows the water, decaying leaves gather on the bottom and the water appears dark.  I imagine there are some crawfish and salamanders in these waters, and maybe even a small jack in some of the deeper pools. 

Climbing up out of the bottom land, I take the Pine Island Trail over to the Holly Road trail and head northwest, making a big loop.  At the far end of the preserve, I look at the clock on my cell phone and realize it is now 7:15 PM.  I step up my pace and take the Gum Swamp Trail over to the Pine Barrens Trail that runs higher on the ridge from the Lighter Stump Trail.  The sun is dropping lower in the sky and the insects are singing loudly in anticipation of nightfall.  I make it back to parking lot five minutes before the gates are scheduled to close (at 8 PM).  

After stopping for dinner, I am driving back to where I am staying and notice the new moon on the Western horizon.  Just below it, there are flashes of lightning from over the horizon, promising a storm to cool the earth.  

Monday, July 13, 2015

On Baseball and Harper Lee

It was a full weekend and I came home yesterday evening and crashed before the TV, staying up way too late, watching the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second night in a row beat the Cardinals in extra innings.  It was an exciting game as the Cards scored two runs in the top of the 10th.  The first batter in the bottom of the ten got on base.  Then, with two outs, the Pirates got hot.  Five straight hits.  They tied the game and then went ahead for a 6-5 win.  As they go into the All Star break, the Pirates are playing over .600 ball and are only 2.5 games behind the Cardinals who have the best record in the National League.  I’m glad I stayed and watched the ending of the game!

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is being released this week.  I wasn’t offered an advance copy, so what I know about the book is only what others have reported.  There appears to be as an uproar over the fact that Atticus Finch is seen in the new novel which is set in the 1950s as a segregationist.   Some readers are disappointed.  But I wonder if maybe the new novel will flesh out his character more and make him like the rest of us.  No one is perfect.  We certainly have seen many idols shattered.  Think of Bill Cosby, or Bill Clinton (or those who led his impeachment who were later discovered to have skeletons in their own closets).  People who are put on pedestals are often knocked off because none of us can live up to the hype.  Pride goes before the fall, the Good Book tells us…  The Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity plays out as true over and over again.  Even religious leaders who had done great things for their communities are often discovered to have clay feet.  John Calvin did incredible things for those who were refugees in the 16th Century, but did not intervene to save Servetus from the stake.  Martin Luther, who helped kick off the Reformation, was also anti-Semitic, especially in his later writings.   Martin Luther King, Jr, who helped bring needed change to America also had his struggles with infidelity.   Getting back to Atticus, maybe the question to ponder is why he did what is right in To Kill a Mockingbird while harboring racist sentiments.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Paul writes, yet as individuals, despite our failures, we can do some amazing and wonderful things.  And that’s to be celebrated! 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Fun with Nautical Terms

Sailing in the Wilmington River
A few days before heading to NYC, I attended a lecture in Savannah on “Sailor Speak.”  The presenter was a retired rear admiral and his purpose was to enlighten us on how nautical terms came into the common usage.  I thought I would share some of the terms and his explanations.   On other notes, it is very hot here again.  But I'm spending time on the water.  The photo to the left is from Wednesday evening.   

He started out with the tale of a Savannah native, Josiah Tattnall (born 1812).  He became an American Commodore.  In 1859, he broke US neutrality in China to aid the British fleet.  When he was asked to explain his decision, he responded, referring to our kinship with the British, “Blood is thicker than water.”  Variations of this term had been around for years, but this brought it into American conversations.

It appears all things “Jack” came from the British, whose sailors were known as “Jack” in the same manner as our soldiers were often called “Joe.”  Jacktar came from a set of clothes embedded with tar to make them waterproof.  “Hijack” came from a come-on line (Hi Jack) used by a prostitute who would lure a  unsuspecting sailor into her “den” where others waited to bound him and to impress him into service upon their ships.  If the ship was bound to China, he was “Shanghaied” 

Limely was another name used for British sailors as lime juice was used to help prevent scurvy.  In time the name was applied to all Brits.
Hunkey Dory, meaning everything is good, came from a street in Japan (Hunkidori) where you could get anything you wanted. 

Posh is another term that comes from Britain.  Wealthy passengers on long journeys to Indian in the days before air conditioning would demand a “POSH” stateroom (port outbound, starboard homebound) in order to avoid the morning sun heating up their stateroom.  Today, post refers to elegant. 

HMS Blazer is from where we get the term “Blazer” which implies a jacket with buttons on the sleeves.

A blind eye” comes from Horatio Nelson, the British sea hero who had lost an eye in a battle.  At the Battle with the French in 1801, he refused to call off the attack when ordered and won a great victory.  It was said that he had turned his blind eye to the telescope and didn’t see the flag calling for the fleet to retreat. 

Several terms came from forms of discipline at sea.  “Over the barrel” referred to being bent over a barrel while flogged.  “Room to swing a cat” referred to having enough room to lash someone with a cat of nine-tails.   ‘Get the point" comes from British court-martial...  if the sword points toward the one charged, he knew he was found guilty. 
Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea” came from the caulking of the ship, the last seam to be caulked before going overboard. 

Under the weather” referring to being sick came from sick bays being on the quarter deck, under the weather deck, of sailing ships

Skuttlebutt:  A keg to store fresh water in which sailors gathered around to share rumors.    

Romans put figure of their gods (puppi) on the back of ship, this reference led to the term “poop deck” 

Knows the Ropes” was a derogatory term for a sailor which implied it was “all he knew”

Put through the hoops”:   Hammocks in which seamen slept were to be rolled tight enough that they could fit through a hoop and then stored along the side of the ship (as an additional barrier to shot coming at the ship).  The tight roll provided protection. 

“Sewed up” as “it is finished” came from putting a deceased sailor in his hammock with a cannon ball and sewing the hammock up before dropping the body overboard. 

A “clean slate” comes from the notes made on a slate with caulk during a watch.  When the watch was over, the slate would be cleared for the next watch. 

“A cup of Joe.”   Joe as a name for coffee came from the American navy who, during Presidents Wilson’s term, prohibited serving alcohol on ships (a ration is still supplied on British ships).  Joe refers to Josephus Daniels who was the Secretary of the Navy, from where the order was sent.  A “cup of joe” referred to coffee as a dig at the Secretary of the Navy who cut the booze. 

Mind your p's' and q's originally referred to pints and quarts of booze 

“At Loose Ends” comes from attempts to keep a sailor busy such as whipping the ends of a rope. 

“Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”  Many things on a ship were referred to as a monkey including the rack used to hold cannon balls in place.  On the quarter deck, these frames were often brass (for show) and the bottom set of balls would be inside the frame, then the balls would be mounted upwards.  When the temperature dropped significantly, the brass could contract causing the stacked balls to fall. 

Monday, July 06, 2015

Lunch on Staten Island

The Statue of Liberty
(of course, I really had my eye on the ship under sail)
This is another post from my New York City trip.  I have a couple more post to write, but I feel as if I'm running out of steam.  There is so much that I haven't covered:  two days in museums, a Broadway musical, eating, and an evening with the philharmonic...  

On the local front, things are getting back to normal.  It was a rainy fourth.  There were able to get the fireworks off between storms, but unfortunately the show fizzled.  It was supposed to be 17 minutes long and ended up being less than 10 minutes in length.  I image the rain had something to do with it. I sailed yesterday.  We got in three races and my boat did okay with one second and two thirds.  In our last race, we were watching lightning strikes on the mainland as we sailed downwind.  We rushed to get the boats into the marina, but the storm seemed to dissipate.  But an hour later, another storm struck but by then I was home and taking a nap before watching the World's Cup.  

Brooklyn from the Staten Island Ferry
Panorama shot of ferry
from lunch site
If you go to New York, the Staten Island Ferry is a must!  The ferry is free and from it you can feast your eyes on wonderful views of the New York from the water.  For the ride over, I hung out on the port side and had a great view of Brooklyn.  Looking back, I could see the financial district in lower Manhattan and ahead the V Narrow's bridge that links Brooklyn to Staten Island.  It was a pleasant ride with enough wind to keep me cool on a warm day.  After arriving on Staten Island, we enjoyed a late lunch outside on a patio that overlooked the harbor and Manhattan in the distance.  Staten Island is mostly residential.  I had been interested in seeing the National Lighthouse Museum, but it was closed on Monday, the day we were on the island.  We asked a local police officer what to see or do and his best suggestion was a huge mall across the island on the subway. I hadn't traveled this far to shop, so we took the ferry back across the water and then the subway to Brooklyn and spent the rest of the afternoon walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.  On the trip back, I stayed on the port side (left) and was treated with views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Newark as well as watch sailboats gracefully sail in the harbor.  The ferry ride to Staten Island makes my "must do" list for NYC.
Manhattan from Staten Island
Have you ever been to Staten Island?  What do you  think about the USA Women's Soccer Team?

Thursday, July 02, 2015

New York City Hideouts

Even with the hordes of people, there are still some places in New York where one can enjoy quietness and a break of people.  These two are both nice spots that I discovered last week.

FDR's Four Freedom Park on Roosevelt Island

iPhone panorama shot from south point of island

The United Nations from Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island is a long narrow island in the East River between Manhattan and Long Island.  The north end of the island consists of apartment buildings, but the south end is mostly a park.  It is also the site of the ruins of the city's old smallpox hospital and on the point is a small park/monument dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" which overlooks the United Nations.  I decided to check out this island in order to get a good look at the place where my daughter was spending the week as an intern, and was pleasantly surprised by how pleasant of a place this was to hang out.  Sitting by the point, I watched barges and boats make their way up and down the East River and helicopters whirl back and forth, yet felt totally isolated.  Although the island can be accessed by a subway (F line) I would recommend the tram.  The tram leaves from Second Avenue and 60th Street (just west of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge) and provides great views up and down the East River. 

Tram to Roosevelt Island
This stop, which few seem to know about (I even had one friend who grew up in NYC say she'd never been on Roosevelt Island), is another must see site in the city.  It is also cheap as you can use your MTA card to take the tram.  A $31 seven day unlimited MTA card is well worth the investment. Warning, the Four Freedom monument doesnt open until 9 AM, but if you get there early, there are places you can wait around the ruins of old small pox hospital.  There is also an indoor tennis center on the north end of the island.

Tudor City Greens
Just a block south of the UN and running between 40th and 43rd Street is a neat garden park with benches and lots of old trees with shade and various shrubbery and flowers.  It is a private park, ran by a non-profit board.  The park is clean and well maintained and since my daughter was doing an internship in the UN, it was a great place to hang out in the morning and read while waiting for museums to open as well as to wait in the evening.  One evening there was even a concert in the lower section of the park.  But most of the time there was only a handful of people in the park, mostly reading and waiting.

Do the crowds ever get to you and you find yourself wanting a break?  If you have been to NYC, do you have a favorite Hideaway?