Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I Am in Love with Ulysses S. Grant

The Man
I realize this infatuation may only be a passing fancy, but I have begun reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. It is a two-volume set, consisting of 552 pages (although I’m reading it on a Kindle which results in never having a true feel for where you are in a book.) In any event, I’ve set out on a journey to plumb this man’s soul. It’s nice to have a long read to look forward to. 

Grant wrote these memoirs at the very end of his life, as he was dying of throat cancer. Seems to me a meaningful vantage point from which to ponder one’s place in history. A man of humble beginnings, Grant had enormous successes and enormous failures. Some of these would alter the fate of a nation; others the fate of a people. Some brought him shame and financial ruin.

Grant Booster
Mark Twain characterized Grant’s account as “a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece,” a war memoir comparable in stature to Julius Caesar’s.  (There’s hyperbole for you, to be expected since Twain was involved in publishing and selling the book.) Fifty years later, holding court underneath her Picasso’s, Gertrude Stein claimed Grant’s book to be one of the greatest written by an American. Walt Whitman said of Grant, “In all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast." (I cannot resist also including this quote from Whitman, just because it makes me smile: "I do not value literature as a profession. I feel about literature what Grant did about war. He hated war. I hate literature.")

Of course not everyone was a fan of the man. Henry James sniffed that Grant’s prose was “hard and dry as sandpaper.” Matthew Arnold held that Grant’s use of English was “without charm and without high breeding.” But let them say what they like. Dying and nearly destitute, Grant clung to life and churned out up to fifty pages a day so that profits from the book might provide for his family. He finished the manuscript and died five days later.

A curious man. I am in love with his voice. It was anti-Victorian, not flowery and verbose but spare, direct, even acerbic. Yet not cynical, at least not by modern standards. The amusement and wit is gentler, forgiving, and always demonstrating a clarity and intelligence that I admire. 

At his best?
They say Grant had great courage and coolness under fire. It certainly showed during the Battle of Fort Donelson. It was while researching the performance of Gideon Pillow (perhaps the worst general in the Civil War) in that battle that I first ran across Grant’s wry recollections. It was no doubt what set me on a course, six months later, to delve into his memoirs.

My question at the moment: how does an aware, intelligent man of his caliber, a great strategist and imperturbable tactician (unruffled by bolting horses or bullets flying  overhead), make such astonishing, bonehead errors of judgment? His presidency was one of the most corrupt on record, and some of the worst excesses of the Reconstruction happened on his watch. He went on to end his life in financial ruin due to lax oversight and further poor judgment. And yet he says this about the Mexican-American War (with which I am in complete agreement):

“I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

I cannot but believe Grant was a moral man. Moral in, I suppose, my complex, rather torturous definition of the term. (You have to see all the complexities, the good and the bad, the dark and the light, and all the murky grey areas in between where things are never clear and people try and fail, and maybe don’t try so hard and fail but have to be forgiven anyway because, in the end, kindness is the only true religion. And with all this, knowing the tragedies and the pettiness and the failures and the sadness, knowing your own failures and the reefs you’ve foundered on, you still most days attempt the right thing, that which will cause the least suffering and most well-being for all. You strive for what your conscience can best live with, because there is, in the end, no other choice. And if you can do all this without bitterness, with even a sense of humor, by god, you’re a saint.)

(I have not often managed to live up to this definition.)

I wish Lincoln had lived to write his autobiography. He could be hysterically funny and I’m sure such a book would be a rollicking good time (not unlike Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography which is a hoot.) I’m also a fan of Robert E Lee and wish he’d written memoirs so I could hear his voice without all the mythologizing and interpreters, though in his writing Lee is invariably such a gentleman and so circumspect that perhaps little of his inner personality might have shown through.

But what is left to posterity, mostly due to a pressing need for cash, is the account of a man who, as a West Point cadet, just wanted to become a math professor and who probably would’ve been happier, when all was said and done, had that happened. But his soul, his demons, his moral center? Does the arc of the universe indeed bend towards justice, kindness, redemption? Ah, that’s why I read. And why I write. To find out.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Watch Out for Peaks Ahead

They can be pretty from afar
We are at an interesting crossroads in history where a perfect storm of crises is going to create significant, rapid change. Many commonplace parts of modern society will hit their peak and then not instantly disappear, but undergo a decline. How slow or swift the decline will be depend on the circumstances as well as various levels of corruption and/or government intervention (assuming the two aren’t synonymous.) Sometimes the peak may be a temporary one, if we can manage to reorganize ourselves and our resources in a sensible manner.  Some of the descents, however, are permanent or at least will last for several generations.

The financial crisis is all around us and will last at least another five years, if not ten. World Peak Oil already happened in 2005 (U.S. Peak Oil was in 1971), and world crude oil production is in gentle decline hidden by demand drop due to the recession. The oil crunch will strongly hit in 2013 (or sooner, if anyone decides to airstrike Iran.) And then there’s climate change, the ultimate humdinger that’s awfully hard to predict anything about except that it will likely cause drought, famine, flooding, forced migrations, massive species extinction and a lot of death. But given its uncertainty and longer timeframe (ooh, maybe fifteen or twenty years before the real onslaught of effects) let’s not worry about that one just yet.
Let’s get back to our immediate Peaks—Finance and Oil—and the other Peaks related to them that have appeared or are soon to appear on the near horizon.  Now perhaps you believe Peak Oil is a hoax made up by oil companies and/or environmentalists. Perhaps you think the financial crisis is on the way to recovery and another happy finance bubble is around the corner. Even so, just as an intellectual exercise, let’s pretend there’s less oil and financial wealth ahead for the vast majority of the human race. What would be the result?

Less liquidity, less energy, for starters. Which will lead to:
*Peak Credit, which will lead to
US Consumer Debt Levels
*Peak Consumer Debt
*Peak GDP
*Peak Housing
*Peak College,
*Peak Exotic Vacations,
*Peak Vegas
and *Peak Stuff. 
(Basically, any activity or item financed by home equity loans for the past decade will shrink.) This will lead to
*Peak Self-Storage,
*Peak Housing Square Footage
*Peak Lawns and Peak Yards
Which leads to *Peak Lawn Gnomes, *Peak Pink Flamingos, *Peak Lawn Mowers and *Peak Lawn Pesticides
It doesn’t necessarily lead to Peak Remodeling. Nor Peak Housing Density. Nor Peak Urban Infill. Nor Peak Family Camping. Nor Peak Knowledge, Peak Community College, or Peak Internet Connectivity. Anything that can be transferred digitally—data, news, movies, video games, magazines, books, music, etc.--probably will not peak soon, though its hard copy form probably already has. This is not to say there will be much profit in any digital media, however.

As the rate of oil pumped out of the earth slows below demand, all oil-importing countries are going to see some significant shifts. They will include:
*Peak Plastics, (which will lead to Peak Product Packaging, Peak Recycling, and Peak Cheap Plastic #@$% from China)
*Peak Paved Roads and Peak Asphalt
*Peak Internal Combustion Engines
*Peak Cars (which will lead to Peak Home Garages, Peak Auto Mechanics, Peak Gas Stations)
*Peak Commute Distance and Vehicle Miles Traveled
US Vehicle Miles Traveled
*Peak Auto Weight
*Peak Trucking Freight
*Peak Bottled Water
*Peak Soda Pop
*Peak Human Body Fat
*Peak Suburbia, Strip Malls and Parking Lots
*Peak Blueberries in February from South America
*Peak Chain Restaurants
*Peak Resorts
*Peak Downhill Skiing
*Peak Gasoline-powered toys (jetskis, speed boats, snowmobiles, etc. except where they provide actual economic benefit.)
*Peak RVs
*Peak Air Conditioning
*Peak Airports, Planes and Air Travel
But not peak rail, bicycle, boat travel or freight.  Not Peak Public Transit. Not peak energy efficiency. Not peak alternative energy. Not peak vegetable gardens, chicken and goat raising, or beekeeping. Not Peak Food, Water, or Energy Prices. Not Peak Ceiling Fans, Peak Attic Insulation, Peak Solar Hot Water Systems. Not Peak Resiliency or Peak Self-Sufficiency by any means.

US Health Costs compared to rest of world
As people and governments grow poorer we will soon experience
*Peak Healthcare
*Peak Pharmaceuticals
*Peak Lifespan in the US
*Peak ADD and ADHD
*Peak tranquilizers and anti-depressants
*Peak Prisons
*Peak Medicare, Social Security and Welfare
*Peak Washington D.C.
But not Peak Food Stamps (otherwise too much social unrest). Probably not Peak Lottery as it’s a way for people to gamble cheaply. Not Peak Retirement Age (for a while). And not Peak Family, Peak Community, Peak Relationships. These will be on the increase. Unfortunately, not Peak Homeless, Peak Crime, or Peak Disease. Sadly, probably not Peak World Population until Peak Famine hits first. Does Peak Energy lead to Peak Fertilizer which very quickly leads to Peak Food, even here in the U.S.? Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Long term, Peak Arable Land due to climate change is going to be bad enough.

As I said above, many of these peaks don’t have to be permanent.  They could be temporary downslopes creating local peaks until we retrench, reorganize in a way that makes sense given our resources, and then we can go forward again. Some of these Peaks in my view are beneficial; some are going to cause a lot of suffering that is doubly sad due to the fact that, with some foresight, we could have avoided them. In general with this list I’m not saying what should happen, just what is likely to happen as I gaze into the Peak Crystal Ball.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Great Beaufort "Skedaddle"

They were at church when the word came. In the pews of Saint Helena’s in Beaufort, South Carolina, master and slave alike heard that an enormous Yankee fleet was massing off Point Royal Sound a mere ten miles away. If Confederate defenses didn’t hold, the town would have to evacuate in a matter of hours. It was time to pack and to pray.

View of Beaufort, Dec 1861
In 1861, Beaufort was one of the wealthiest, most cultured cities in America. The town boasted not only a library of three thousand volumes but also some of the most erudite, educated men in the South. Having built their elegant Greek Revival mansions with ballrooms, chandeliers and two-story piazzas, planter families gathered here each summer to escape the heat and ague of their Sea Island plantations, as well as socialize and talk politics.  Secession politics. For more than a dozen years cries for secession had risen from Beaufort, much of them led by its native son, rabble-rousing, fire-eater Robert Barnwell Rhett, remembered as the “Father of Secession.”

The Confederacy knew full well that Port Royal might be a target for a Northern base, but they couldn’t be sure other sites weren’t also in the running and so were somewhat lackadaisical in establishing defenses for Port Royal Sound. During the summer of 1861, local plantations reluctantly provided slaves to begin construction of two forts to guard the Sound’s entrance: Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island. But not only were the forts still incomplete by November, the artillery installed fell far short of what was originally proposed and even farther short of what was needed when the Yankees came calling.

Plans had been underway in the North to take a Southern port since early summer, with Lincoln himself involved in the selection. After all, to implement the “Anaconda Plan”—a tight blockade of the Southern coastline intended to cripple the Confederate economy—U.S. Navy warships needed a place to refuel with the coal that gave them power. Port Royal was one of the choicest deepwater ports on the Southern coast. That a massive Northern fleet was poised to sail was common knowledge to anyone who could read a newspaper once The New York Times published the details in the article, “The Great Naval Expedition,” on October 26th. The only unknown was the destination, a secret that, remarkably, was successfully kept.  It wasn’t until they were at sea that the captain of each vessel opened a sealed envelope telling him where his ship was headed.

The Great Naval Expedition en route
The fleet that set out on Oct 29th would prove to be the largest U.S. naval and amphibious expedition in the entire nineteenth century.  It included 17 warships, 25 colliers, 33 transports, 12,000 infantry, 600 marines, and 157 big guns. Port Royal, with its two cobbled-together forts supplied with only 2500 men, 4 gunboats, and 39 guns between them, didn’t stand a chance.

Bombardment of Port Royal
Nature came to the South’s aid in the form of a storm that sank some of the Northern fleet along the way, and then rough water delayed the day of the final attack. But when November 7th dawned clear and calm, the water so still it was glassy, enough of the North’s warships were available to commence battle. Union ships concentrated their enfilade on Fort Walker. To the soldiers inside, the sound of artillery was deafening. By noon, only three of Fort Walker’s water battery guns were still operational; by 2:30 p.m., all powder was gone. The time had come to abandon the fort. The command at Fort Beauregard, concerned about being trapped on Phillips Island with no line of retreat, quickly followed suit. Thankfully, casualties on both sides were light. Accounts vary, but the Confederates finished the day with between 11 and 59 killed and an equivalent number wounded or missing, while the Union fleet saw 8 dead and 23 wounded.

Even with the enormous attacking naval force, Sea Island planters had been so confident in the defending forts manned with recruits from their very own Beaufort Volunteer Artillery that many watched the battle from shore on nearby Saint Helena Island. But when Confederate cannons grew silent and cheers reverberated from the Northern ships, they knew something had gone dreadfully wrong. They hurried home to evacuate, no doubt pained to leave bolls of valuable Sea Island cotton still unpicked in the fields.

When news of the battle’s outcome reached Beaufort, a kind of panic ensued. Facing an invading army of Yankees was too dreadful to contemplate; flight was of the essence. But what to take, what to leave behind? The daguerreotypes? The silver? Of course the family bible must be packed. Some loaded up carriages, hoping to stay ahead of the Yankees on the long overland route to safety. But Beaufort was lucky that day—there was a steamer anchored in the river that could take hundreds swiftly to Charleston. However, it had only so much room. Furniture, clothing, horses, and the vast majority of their most valuable property—slaves—would have to be left behind. In the tumult, even food and dinner dishes were abandoned on dining room tables, testament to the haste involved. That evening the steamer departed overflowing with Beaufort’s white citizenry along with every jewel and sentimental item they could squeeze on board. Legend has it that when Yankee forces arrived two days later to occupy the town, they found just one white man remaining in Beaufort, and he was dead drunk.

What must the deserted slaves, who spoke Gullah, their own Sea Island patois, have thought as the laden steamer chugged away from Beaufort’s dock? Did they realize that history had unexpectedly turned a corner right in front of them, and that now, after centuries of captivity as a people, they were suddenly free? Perhaps the political ramifications didn’t sink in that night, but before the first Yankees arrived, clothing and other finery had been looted (liberated?) from the grand homes, and food and liquor thoroughly consumed in an understandable celebration of events. 

Five generations now free (1862)
It is estimated 8-10,000 slaves were left behind in the Sea Islands when the white population fled. They were soon joined by thousands of others who escaped to the region once they realized that Northern occupation meant freedom.  They all needed food and shelter, and since the Emancipation Proclamation had yet to happen, their legal status, beyond being “contraband,” was unclear. The Army asked for help and received it in the form of the Port Royal Experiment. Financed and organized by Northern abolitionist charities, the Experiment worked as a test case to create self-sufficiency among the former slaves. Its success points to what Reconstruction might have been if less corruption and more competence had been at its helm.  Northern missionaries and teachers flocked to the Sea Islands to create schools and aid societies. Former slaves were allowed to farm the confiscated plantations and were paid $1 per 400 lbs of cotton they were able to harvest.  The Penn School on St. Helena Island was one of the earliest schools established for freed slaves and can be visited as part of the Penn Center today.

Yankees at home on a Beaufort piazza (1862)
The Union Army found Beaufort a pleasant setting for officer’s quarters, administrative offices and hospitals.  Because the Army occupied Beaufort until the end of the war, the fine mansions, while suffering damage, were not burned to the ground like so many other Southern towns and surrounding Sea Island plantations. To this day Beaufort’s centuries-old live oaks and antebellum charm remain. Port Royal turned out to be as advantageous a harbor as the Union had hoped and did much to strengthen the potency of the blockade. After the war, most planter families—their sons dead, their plantations burnt, their Beaufort homes sold in government auctions for back taxes (often without their knowledge)—never returned. The civilization that was antebellum Beaufort vanished into the night with that last steamer.

It is rare that the wheel of fortune spins as violently as it did on November 7, 1861. The town that had advocated so fiercely for secession was the first to feel the brunt of an occupying army. A people remarkable for their wealth lost almost everything in a matter of hours. A region that so defiantly insisted that its way of life—slavery—was non-negotiable ended up being the first to have a colony of former slaves experiment with what it meant to be free. The Great Skedaddle indeed.

Photos above are from (in order):  Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Harper's Weekly 11/9/1861, Harper's Weekly 11/30/1861, Library of Congress, Library of Congress. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Civil War--A Rough Beast Slouches

In 1849 things were good in Beaufort, South Carolina and about to get better. Over the next decade Britain’s demand for Sea Island cotton would go through the roof with prices to suit.  From 1850 – 1860 a great many of Beaufort’s grand houses were built as the money flowed in. Though friction with the North was increasing and inflammatory talk about secession was escalating, they were adamant  that their way of life was not negotiable. What was just around the corner for the white population of Beaufort—collapse, calamity and ruin--no one saw coming.

The seeds for the Civil War were sown long before 1861.  Even our founding fathers knew they’d embedded a desperate conundrum into the Constitution with its express protection of both human rights and slavery in the same document.  Benjamin Franklin foresaw much when he said, "Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils."  Thomas Jefferson knew trouble lay ahead when he said about slavery, “We have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding on or letting him loose.”  Patrick Henry wrote, "I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery."

The Triumvirate at Work
Pity their descendants as they might, the problem that was too thorny for these great men to solve was left for a future generation to suffer through. Two economic systems fought for dominance—the South’s agricultural economy made possible by slave labor and the North’s industrial economy with its denser population and huge influx of immigrants.  Both wanted to expand into the western territories, the South to preserve the delicate balance of power in Congress, the North to populate the vast plains and the west with their burgeoning population. The entire first half of the 19th century was spent in compromise to prevent these two forces from tearing the country apart.  The great triumvirate of Webster, Clay and Calhoun plied their wiles in the Senate year after year to preserve the young nation. But in the end the internal contradictions of the competing ideologies and economic systems were too much. The center could not hold. As Yeats notes so often happens with war, “a blood-dimmed tide” was loosed upon the world. 

The Wages of Rhetoric
Did antebellum Beaufort have no inkling as events began to spin in an ever-widening gyre? Could they not see that the rhetoric they cheered would turn into fields of blood and mud? Perhaps no one, Northerner or Southerner, could have anticipated half a million lives would be lost. Indeed both sides expected the conflict to end in a matter of months. Perhaps Jefferson was right that  both holding on to slavery or letting go involved disaster. But could the South have transitioned away from a slave economy in a way less catastrophic and destructive? Could they have avoided the rough beast slouching towards them? This is what Beaufort 1849 explores.  

Those who believe their way of life is not negotiable may find, indeed, that history does not negotiate.

THE SECOND COMING (William Butler Yeats)
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Beaufort Angel Oak

According to Beaufort sources, any oak tree that has grown until its limbs touch the ground is an angel oak. Here is a very fine Beaufort specimen obviously cherished and accommodated by the people who are its custodians.  (I won't say owners. Owners of the house come and go.  The oak remains.)

The granddaddy of all angel oaks is the one that deserves capital letters, Angel Oak, and it lives on Johns Island near Charleston. (It is thought to be 1500 years old and one of the oldest living organisms east of the Mississippi River.)

These oaks have weathered hurricanes and floods, witnessed centuries of human cares and concerns, the generations passing beneath their limbs.  All trees have their own energy, personality, if you will. These trees have wisdom.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Beaufort 1849 Now Available on Apple iBooks

Find Beaufort 1849 on Apple iBooks, available through the iBooks app or the iTunes Bookstore.  Available in six countries--Australia, Canada, France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States. Can be downloaded to the iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch.

Just out of curiosity, do you use an e-reader?  Which one? (Leave a comment!) I've been using a Kindle lately, though I do still peruse regular books.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Eternal Jane Eyre

I recently watched again the new film version of Jane Eyre directed by Cary Fukunaga. Is it the quintessential Jane Eyre for all time? Hard to say, but it is very fine on a number of fronts. The casting for Jane and Rochester are quite good (Jane is young, small, and plain, but not homely); the cinematography, especially of the moors, is marvelous; they’ve portrayed the brooding gothic manor of Thornfield perfectly; and the costuming is impeccable. The gypsy fortune teller scene is left out (how is this possible?) but the River’s part of the story is interesting and woven in well with the rest, an uncommon achievement. Of the five or so versions of Jane Eyre that I’ve seen, I’d say this is my favorite. Two thumbs up from me.

When this movie came out in March, The New York Times had a nice piece on how Jane Eyre had been filmed at least 18 times for cinema and another 9 times for television. Holy cow. It may be one of the most filmed books ever. Obviously, Jane Eyre has a quality that makes us revisit her again and again, with Janes and Rochesters of all sorts trotting across both the screens of our culture and the mental screens of our minds.

Just wrong for the part
There have been gothic Janes (1943), happy Janes (1934), old Janes (1970), musical stage Janes (2000—I saw it! I liked it!) and even a Katherine Hepburn stage Jane (1937). (Evidently she was awful. The playwright who wrote the stage adaptation demanded she be removed from the cast.) And let’s not forget Zombie Jane (I Walked With a Zombie, 1943, infused with voodoo, supposedly inspired by Jane Eyre. I’ve got to see this. Wonder if it’s on Netflix?)

Happy Jane
The happy Jane version of 1934 (available in bits and pieces on Youtube) bears only a passing resemblance to what Brontë wrote, but it has its amusements. Jane is a buxom, platinum blonde who could double for Jean Harlow. Rochester is an affable English gentleman with intense, longing stares. Thornfield Hall is Georgian palace downstairs and Eastlake Victorian upstairs. And the costuming! No corsets for this Jane, her high-waisted dresses no doubt made her look fashionable in the 1930’s but are entirely wrong for the 1840’s. After spending many hours pouring over fashion plates in Godey’s Lady’s magazine, I confess I admire period flicks that pay attention to detail. In the new Jane Eyre, Rochester wears spiffy silk waistcoasts, (I’d love to see them come back in fashion!) although they could be even bolder in color. And Jane’s dresses hit the mark beautifully. Corsets may be a nasty business, but worn correctly they convey the constrained female reality of the time.

Jane meets Rochester
Over the years, some versions of Jane Eyre have emphasized the gothic horror of the novel, some the tormented Rochester, some the romance, some the proto-feminism, some the perfidy of the aristocratic class, some the oppression of the servants (with new servant characters created!) Each generation accentuated the theme that resonated most with the prevailing sensibility. Or perhaps each generation projected on Jane the meaning it wished. Like all great art, Jane Eyre has a thousand facets in which to see one’s reflection.

Though it might come as a surprise, Jane Eyre was controversial when first published by “Currer Bell,” as can be seen in the pages of Beaufort 1849. It is passages such as this that were startling in 1847:
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (Ch 12)

In Beaufort 1849 Aunt Winnie sniffs this theme out in Jane Eyre before her fingers even touch the book, so of course she doesn’t want her self-willed niece to read it. The last thing Cara needs is encouragement to exercise her faculties or escape from confinement. That she will receive exactly such encouragement from Jasper Wainwright is part of what makes Winnie instinctually dubious about him from the beginning.

Elizabeth Rigby--no fan of Jane
Aunt Winnie’s misgivings reflect a wider strain of criticism of the time. Shortly after Jane Eyre appeared, Elizabeth Rigby, British author and art critic, laid into our poor Jane with a vengeance. “The impression she [the character, Jane] leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman--one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess.”

Ouch. And it gets worse. She accuses little Jane of being unworthy, uninteresting, pedantic, affected and unlovable. She calls her “an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit.” And the very worst accusation: Jane Eyre is anti-Christian, fomenting class warfare and even revolution. “There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment--there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence--there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact, has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.”

And so Elizabeth Rigby has put her finger on the element that endears the book most to me: Jane’s assertion that she—small, plain and poor as she is—still has a right to be the center of her life, the heroine of her own story. She has the right not only to be “discontented” but to express the truth and object to what is unjust even if that means “murmuring against God’s appointment.” From childhood on, Jane demands to be treated with the consideration and respect due every single person on earth. That this was viewed as heretical, unchristian and subversive doesn’t surprise me. “A proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man” echoes the opening of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and I’m sure this wasn’t a document Elizabeth Rigby was fond of either.

Here is Jane with Rochester, her conventional superior in every way (age, size, wealth, power, position, sex): “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! . . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal — as we are!” (Ch 23)

Jane is profoundly egalitarian in a society that was profoundly elitist. She asserts a worldview that was diametrically opposed to the power structure circumscribing her life. And yet it is her determined voice that echoes unwavering and insistent across a century and a half, while the armada of other, less vulgar books published at the time have sunk into obscurity. It’s no wonder Charlotte Brontë’s creation made Elizabeth Rigby uncomfortable: Jane Eyre challenged the very cornerstone of her civilization. I would say writing it was an act of great courage, although Brontë might not have considered it so. She might have just thought it necessary. She wrote in one of her letters: “Imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised . . . When she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?”

Charlotte Brontë
By the end of Brontë’s short life (she died at thirty-eight) even though Jane Eyre was quite popular, she could have had no indication that her small, plain heroine had made any difference to class structure, political thought, or the course of history. Today British aristocratic privilege is almost eradicated from the earth, its power eviscerated through war and the impossibility of profiting indefinitely from endless empire. Elizabeth Rigby, while she rates an entry in Wikipedia, is remembered primarily for her criticism of Jane Eyre as an acute example of critical judgment blinded by cultural bias.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” I hope this is true but I can’t be certain. Clearly, however, history bends towards irony of an acerbic nature. I expect subversive Jane will keep popping up on our screens and stages (this outspoken orphan who will not flinch from the truth) as long as we pretend charity but offer little, as long as we create hierarchies of wealth and power that preclude human worth and dignity, as long as we hide our monsters in the attic and pretend they’re not there. And we won’t even know why Jane, in whatever guise—Gothic or feminist, Harlow or mouse—keeps materializing with her fierce indignation before us.

Perhaps justice is a dish best served poetic.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Congrats to Beaufort, South Carolina on Their New Bicycle Amenities!

I just read in the Beaufort Gazette (doesn’t everyone peruse their website daily?) that the town of Beaufort is in the process of adding sharrows to some of their busier streets. In addition, they’ve recently installed ten bike racks at various places around town. Says Mayor Billy Keyserling:

"Our goal is to make it comfortable and safe for people to move throughout Beaufort, whether they're on foot, in a car, on a bike, in a wheelchair, on a bus or riding a horse-drawn carriage. Roads need to be more than just thoroughfares for cars and trucks."

What an enlightened view.

Though the downtown and historic districts are wonderful for walking, Beaufort is even more fabulous for bicycling.  It’s flat, and, except for a few roads, the traffic is calm and leisurely.  (The horse-drawn carriages certainly help with this.  You want to calm your town’s traffic?  Sprinkle a few carriages here and there and traffic drops to a nineteenth century pace before you can say Edgar Allan Poe.)

I can’t say I’m a big fan of sharrows, painted arrows on the road indicating that the lane is meant to be shared between cars and bicycles. On any road with a speed limit above 25mph, bike lanes are much better.  That way bikes have their space, cars have theirs, and far less conflict is to be had by all.  But at least sharrows remind drivers that bicycles may be present, and in that respect they are better than nothing.

Here in San Francisco I’ve been a hardy urban bicyclist for the last three years.  I bike or walk half my trips, including grocery shopping.  I’d do even more if I weren’t constantly shuttling teens around in carpools.  But bicycling in San Francisco, while enjoyable and rewarding, is rarely a tranquil experience.  Beaufort, on other hand, as one glides under moss hanging from oaks in the sleepy afternoon heat, offers a timeless, limpid serenity. Lovely.  Though I have to admit I’d rather experience this serenity this in temperatures under 90 degrees than over.

Charleston is another great bicycling town with its own brand of bicycle chic, and Hilton Head offers some of the best physically-separated bicycle infrastructure in the country.  They deserve their silver medal as one of the nation’s top bicycle-friendly communities!

Bicycles are one of the most efficient machines human ingenuity has ever devised.  If it weren’t for the fact that they didn’t appear in America until after the Civil War  (although reports of something called a velocipede popped up in Scotland as early as 1839) and also for the fact that Beaufort’s antebellum roads consisted mostly of sand lined with oyster shells--not the best bicycling surface before rubber tires came on the scene, although very pleasant for horses, I imagine--I might have tried to slip one into Beaufort 1849.  Instead, the characters ride on horseback or in carriages, or, when they’re in need of a constitutional, they walk.  As proper antebellum characters should. Ah well.  I can bicycle in Beaufort now.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Beaufort 1849 Now Available on Kobo Books

Beaufort 1849 is now available as an ebook on Kobo Books. Kobo ebooks can be read on a Smartphone, desktop computer or tablet, or on a Kobo eReader.

Beaufort 1849 on Kobo Books

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Publishers Weekly Review of Beaufort 1849

Beaufort 1849
Karen Lynn Allen
Cabbages and Kings Press (www.cabbage-king.com), $13.95 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-0-9671784-1-7

In this lively historical novel, set in Beaufort, S.C., at the apex of the town's antebellum period, prodigal son Jasper Wainwright returns to his family plantation after 12 years abroad to educate his kin about the evils of slavery. When he left Beaufort for Harvard University and world travel, Jasper was known as a hellion, savage drinker, and frequent duelist. Returning now—with an education and in the company of emancipated slave Spit Jim—to visit his cousin, Henry, at the lovely Villa D'Este, Jasper is stunned that Henry's niece, Cara Randall, is no longer the child he remembers, but a poised, intelligent, self-taught young woman keen to expand her mind and horizons. Having rejected numerous local suitors, Cara has no intention of marrying, and Jasper—widowed after a disastrous marriage—vows never to make the same mistake again. But both will be proven wrong, if the matchmaking Henry has his way. Cara is a singular, independent female in a culture of aristocratic entitlement, and she and Jasper aim to change the town's brutal system of slavery and bigotry in their own, converging ways. Charged with subtle period detail and boasting fully developed characters, Allen's work is sharp, smart, and well focused.

(Note: Beaufort 1849 can be found online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Apple iBooks, or it can be ordered from any bookstore)

Link to Publisher's Weekly Review of Beaufort 1849  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Spitting in the Wind, Past and Present

To spit in the wind is to attempt the impossible, a waste of one’s time and energy, even if for a good reason or cause. In Beaufort 1849, Spit Jim accuses Jasper of this when, after reading an enlightened letter to the editor in the Charleston Courier, Jasper perceives a faint chance that the South might voluntarily transition away from a slave economy. Jim, justifiably antsy to leave the South, doesn’t believe it for a second. “No one gives away wealth and power just because someone writes something sensible in a newspaper once in a while,” he tells Jasper caustically and urges him to leave both the South and this futile hope behind as soon as possible.

But Jasper sees the tragedy that lies ahead if the South doubles down to defend its way of life. At the dawn of what is now known as the Second Industrial Revolution, he’s aware that not only is public sentiment in the North and in Europe growing against slavery, but that the wealth and power of the world is beginning to swing heavily towards mechanization, industrialization, and energy supplied by coal. Try as it might, there will be no way for an agricultural South to maintain its economic and political parity with an industrialized North. Flush with immigrants and a growing middle class, the North is already vying for its economic system to prevail in the new territories and states as the nation expands. Further, as cries for secession mount in Beaufort, Jasper foresees the sheer impossibility of the North letting the South become a separate, hostile, militarily-powerful country stretching along its entire southern border, competing to annex land and resources. Because the South will be on the wrong side of economic (not to mention moral) history, Jasper realizes that in the coming fight for dominance the South is likely not only to lose the battle but to have its entire civilization crushed in the process.

Jim, born and raised a slave, is just fine with the prospect of the South’s destruction. Jasper, however, argues that given the suffering that will likely result, they should try to head off the brewing violence by advocating for reform. And so he begins his impossible task of convincing Southern planters to voluntarily give up a portion of their wealth and control, turn slaves into citizens and willing participants in the economy, begin mechanized farming, and industrialize by creating mills to manufacture cotton into cloth for local markets. (The South will eventually do some approximation of all of this, but not until enduring great suffering, death and hardship, and even then the collapse of the Southern economy and widespread poverty will endure several generations.)

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Jasper does not succeed in preventing the Civil War. Was he a fool even to try? Indeed, what are the odds that any one man could change the mind of an entire civilization? The reader of Beaufort 1849 knows Jasper is spitting in the wind from his very first attempt.

But if Jasper foresees disaster for the people he loves, isn’t he morally obliged to do what he can to avert it? How hard should he persevere, how much should he sacrifice?

Imagine if you were to visit a beloved cousin you hadn’t seen for a number of years. When you arrive, though he and his family appear quite prosperous, it soon becomes evident that the family is living beyond their means and that their prosperity is fueled by debt—credit cards, home equity withdrawls, no interest balloon payment loans, etc. As you hear about their recent Caribbean cruise, admire their remodeled kitchen, see the four new cars parked in the driveway, your feeling of impending doom for these people you love grows heavier and heavier. What do you do? Perhaps have a quiet talk with your cousin. And what will be the outcome? Most likely denial and perhaps a testy, “Mind your own business, everything’s under control.”

And what if your cousin lives in an entire town of people relying on ever-growing amounts of debt to maintain their lifestyle? What would your obligation be to change their behavior that is bound to make them poor, angry, unhappy and even desperate in the long run? If we like arguments, perhaps we might get into a few heated ones at a BBQ and make ourselves none too popular. For a subtler approach, we might offer hints that fall upon deaf ears. Perhaps we will be told that this way of life poses no problem, and how can we argue because, after all, it’s worked up until now? Perhaps we are indeed Cassandra’s, doomsters who want to frighten everyone into being miserable and giving up the good life because we can’t stand to see others enjoying themselves.

Upton Sinclair once wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Now what if your cousin made his living strip mining coal or marketing cigarettes? What if your cousin lived in early Nazi Germany and didn’t seem troubled by the murders and disappearances because his mercantile trade was finally booming again? What if your cousin imported goods from Asia made by children and young teens for wages that barely kept them fed? Or what if your cousin lived in a slave economy, all his friends and neighbors owned slaves, and he used slaves to farm his fields?

I first saw the phrase, “Denial is not a river in Egypt,” on a button worn by a NA (Narcotics Anonymous) member out with a bunch of compatriots on a day trip to Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. The support and camaraderie that this group (who had likely been through hell) were giving each other was important, but so was the acknowledgement that change only occurs when one is willing and open to it. After one has identified and admitted the problem. People who don’t believe they have a problem are unlikely to change. And people whose wealth and ease depend on a particular way of life are likely to defend that way of life rather than perceive problems with it. In fact, they are most likely to perceive problems with the person criticizing it.

Now, what if the town living an unsustainable way of life (along whichever measure you wish—economic, moral, environmental, resource consumption, etc.) is not your cousin’s but your own? What if it is not your town that is on a dangerous path, but your entire country? Your planet? Jasper has the option of leaving the South, and due to his struggles with alcoholism and commitments he’s made to Jim, he knows he can’t linger in Beaufort for long. In contrast, though most of us could probably change towns, countries would be difficult, and the planet impossible. Is pressing for change then more imperative even if deaf ears and anger seem to be the only result? Or is it wiser to hunker down, accept that the worst may indeed come, and put our energies towards preparing our families and those we love as best we can? As Dmitry Orlov observes, “Big changes happen slowly at first, then all at once.” There may be less time to prepare than we think.

But what if “the worst” means the suffering and death of millions if not billions through drought and famine? What if “the worst” means our children will have available only a fraction of the energy and natural resources we currently enjoy? What if “the worst” means that half of all species currently on the planet will be driven to extinction? How bad does the future have to be to make inaction unbearable? Or is it all too clear that any attempt is simply spitting in the wind. A waste of time and energy. Pointless.

I don’t have an answer to this quandary. Anyone who understands compound interest, can interpret charts and graphs, and has a basic understanding of science will have to weigh their ethical obligations against the practical realities of their lives. I have no doubt that each of us will feel called to different actions depending on our temperaments and life situations.

All stories involve problems. In comedies, through courage, ingenuity, cooperation, dramatic epiphany or perhaps plain luck, people manage to overcome their predicaments. In tragedies, they fail. The antebellum South was a tragedy. Rather than adapt to the demands of the time, the white populace risked everything to preserve an unsustainable way of life. The result was economic ruin and the collapse of their civilization.

Which are we living right now, comedy or tragedy? Do we need pluck, gumption and courage to heroically prevail against impossible odds? Or should we cultivate our ability to accept and adapt to the inescapable forces that history is already winding up to throw at us, however dreadful and harrowing they may be?  I just don’t know.

(A note on the first cartoon above: when occupying New Orleans in April of 1862, Major General Benjamin F. Butler issued a proclamation indicating that any woman who harassed a northern soldier by any show of contempt would be arrested as a prostitute. This didn’t make him very popular in New Orleans, but it did cut down on the spitting.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Gideon Pillow: Coward, Liar and Scoundrel for the Ages (But, Oh, What a Name!)

The Glory of a Great Name
In the movie Shakespeare in Love, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are discussing Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter when Marlowe suggests the character Mercutio.  Later, Viola outlines the idea of Twelfth Night with a Duke Orsino.  “Good name,” Shakespeare says both times with admiration and a little envy, and I can entirely relate. As a writer, a good name can fill me with admiration, elation, and downright covetousness.  And so it was when, researching the Civil War, I stumbled across the perfidious Gideon Pillow.

As I pondered the near perfection of the moniker I could only sigh deeply. Since the real Pillow could not be incorporated into Beaufort 1849, and since naming a fictional character after a real person alive at the time could cause confusion, there was no way to include the glorious name in my book. I had to be satisfied with calling one of my characters Gideon Pickens, a weak echo at best. But there is more to Mr. Gideon Pillow than just his name! As Henry Birch says in Beaufort 1849, “My, my. We have a complete bounder on our hands.”

Born in Tennessee in 1806, Gideon Pillow practiced law in his home state as the partner of future president, James K Polk. Through his connections with Polk, he served as Brigadier General of the Tennessee Militia. Ten years later, when the Mexican-American War started up, Pillow deftly used political patronage to join the U.S. Army as a brigadier general. And then in 1847 President Polk promoted him to major general!  Lesson learned: make friends with those who will ascend to high places.

So far, so good. At the age of 41, Pillow appeared to be a rising star in the military. But then he made the mistake of crossing General Winfield Scott, commander of American forces in Mexico.  Now, “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott is considered by many historians to be one of the ablest generals in American military history. (He was also responsible for at least a portion of the terrible human toll during the Cherokee removal from Georgia, but that’s another story.) After the major action of the war--action during which Pillow had altogether shown a great deal more incompetence than competence--Pillow felt he hadn’t received enough recognition and glory. So under the pseudonym “Leonidas,” he sent letters to the New Orleans Daily Delta and Picayune newspapers, as well the American Star and the Pittsburgh Post, crediting himself for recent American victories at Contreras and Churubusco. (Interesting to see that even in that day and age people worked the news media spin.)

Can't beat the caption above
Scott, however, knew very well that Pillow had done next to nothing to achieve those victories and that others deserved the credit.  When the dastardly letters were exposed as Pillow’s handiwork, Scott arranged for a court of inquiry into the matter.  Believing Scott’s actions politically motivated, President Polk came to the defense of his former law partner and recalled Scott to Washington. During the court of inquiry investigation, Pillow persuaded Major Archibald Burns to claim authorship of the letters and publicly take the fall for him. It was not widely believed however, and Pillow was discharged from the army all the same.

Said Scott in his memoirs, Pillow was "amiable and possessed of some acuteness, but the only person I have ever known who was wholly indifferent in the choice between truth and falsehood, honesty and dishonesty:—ever as ready to attain an end by the one as the other, and habitually boastful of acts of cleverness at the total sacrifice of moral character.”

Always ambitious, Pillow went on to try for the nomination for vice president but failed twice, in 1852 and again in 1856.  His next shot for public glory would be the Civil War. 

When the war began, Pillow joined the Confederate army as a brigadier general in the Western Theater.  He is best remembered for two battles, the first being the Battle of Fort Donelson.  Fort Donelson was a Confederate stronghold in Tennessee that protected the vital manufacturing and arsenal city of Nashville.  The battle turned out to be Ulysses S. Grant’s first big success, and indeed was a vital victory for the North at a time when the Union army was showing little progress at all.

Now Fort Donelson was under the command of Brigadier General John B. Floyd, a political appointee who, although he had been Secretary for War for the United States right up until nearly the Secession, had no actual experience in conducting war.  Second-in-command was our friend, Gideon Pillow, who in theory had experience in the Mexico, but as we know was really a fraud who tended to talk big and do little.

Confederate troops at Fort Donelson numbered 18,000, whereas Grant had about 25,000 Union troops at his disposal.  To capture a fortified position generally took a three to one advantage in numbers, so you can see Grant had almost no business even considering attacking Fort Donelson.  But fresh from his victory over nearby Fort Henry (mostly due to the badly-engineered Fort Henry conveniently flooding the Confederates out) Grant was confident of success at Fort Donelson as well.  It turns out this confidence was largely due to his knowledge that Gideon Pillow was in command inside that fort.  Said Grant in his memoirs:
Pillow deflator
“I had known General Pillow in Mexico, and judged that with any force, no matter how small, I could march up to within gunshot of any intrenchments he was given to hold. I said this to the officers of my staff at the time. I knew that Floyd was in command, but he was no soldier, and I judged that he would yield to Pillow’s pretensions.”

And Pillow did not disappoint! And yet to be fair, Pillow did actually achieve success in battle before he managed to completely screw it up.  With the fort surrounded in large part by Union troops, the Confederate officers knew things looked bad for them, so at dawn Pillow directed an assault of 10,000 men into the unprotected right flank of the Union line in an attempt to open up an escape route.  This way they would cede the fort but not lose the men.

Surprisingly, luck went with him. Pillow had a massive force filled with talented men, among them Nathan Bedford Forrest, and he had the advantage of surprise. Not expecting the Confederates to take action that morning, Grant was away consulting with a gunboat officer too wounded to come and make a report to him.  Other than telling his underlings to stand their ground, he didn’t leave much in the way of instructions, so when Pillow’s forces attacked, they found unorganized resistance, brigadier generals unwilling to help each other without explicit orders from Grant, and troops who were curiously clueless about how to resupply themselves with ammunition even when there was plenty lying about in boxes on the ground. 

After a few hours of heavy fighting, the Confederates pushed through and the escape route was clear!  The Confederate troops fought with backpacks of three days provisions on their backs.  They were ready to head to south to safety.

The heat of battle
It was right about then that Grant returned from his visit to his wounded officer.  Much to his surprise he found a battle going on, a battle in which his side was being routed. Wounded and demoralized men were everywhere; noise, smoke and chaos abounded.  Characteristic of Grant, he didn’t freak out.  (No matter how bad things were, Grant never freaked out, a good quality in a general.)  He quickly figured out that the Confederates were pressing for escape not a combat victory, he determined where they would be weakest, and he started giving orders.  From his memoirs:
 “I directed Colonel Webster to ride with me and call out to the men as we passed: ‘Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so.’  This acted like a charm.  The men only wanted some one to give them a command.”

He had one general attack the enemy's west side, the other the enemy’s east.  And then Grant had his turn of luck in the expected form of Pillow’s bad judgment.  Just when the Confederates had created their escape route, and indeed, were halfway to leaving, for some incomprehensible reason Pillow decided to regroup and resupply his troops before pushing forward.  To the amazement of all he ordered his troops back into their trenches, and all advantages gained by the Confederates that morning were lost. Grant quickly exploited the opening given to him, and by the end of the day the Union army was poised to take the fort.

That night was a bad one for the Confederate leadership.  General Floyd was edgy. Having committed what amounted to treason as U.S. Secretary of War (shipping arms from northern armories to southern ones to better position the South when Secession came was just one example of why the North might like to hang him), he decided to skedaddle out while the going was good and offered the command of the 18,000 troops to his second-in-command, Gideon Pillow.  But Pillow then decided that it was also too dangerous for him to be captured for reasons known only to himself.  So he handed the command to third-in-command, Brigadier General Simon P. Buckner who accepted responsibility for the welfare of the troops, and Floyd and Pillow fled in the dark of night.  Nathan Bedford Forrest, furious at the general level of incompetence and stupidity, said, “I did not come here to surrender my command,” and stormed out.  He also left during the night, escaping with his cavalry of 700 by mucking through swamps and fording swollen creeks to the south.

Though the next morning Grant would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender from Bruckner, he and Bruckner were old buddies from West Point and the Mexican war.  They discussed Pillow’s flight the previous night, and how Pillow had expressed concern that his capture would be a disaster for the Southern cause.

"He thought you'd rather get hold of him than any other man in the Southern Confederacy," Buckner told Grant.
"Oh," replied Grant, "if I had got him, I'd let him go again. He will do us more good commanding you fellows."

The fall of Fort Donelson and the loss of so many men was difficult for Pillow to spin, though he did try.  But his next battle, the Battle of Stones River, where Major General Breckinridge found Pillow cowering behind a tree and had to order him forward, spelled the end for Pillow’s combat assignments.  Though he went on to administrative positions in the Confederate army (where he could do less damage), he had successfully earned for all time the distinction of being one of the worst generals in American history.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Five Simple Technologies to Improve Your Family's Resiliency

With this post I’m switching to another subject that, when I’m not writing fiction, I spend time researching and thinking about: energy and its sources and uses. Since there are many connections between energy and water (energy is used to pump and transport water, and in the case of hydroelectricity, water is used to make energy), when I'm energy blogging I’ll sometimes talk about water was well.

Whether it’s due to peak oil or a hurricane, war in the Middle East or a heat wave, there are many factors that could create spot shortages in energy, could cause prices to rise sharply in the short term, or could gradually but inexorably inflate energy costs in the long term.  Although different energy forms are not completely interchangeable (for example, electricity cannot easily substitute for oil in the US without major upgrades in our electrical grid and transportation infrastructure) they are fungible enough that a shortage of any one of them will cause prices to rise for all.  Even without natural disasters or wars, I expect short term we will see gasoline prices increase (unless the economy tanks sharply, pulling commodity prices down with it), and longer term we will see electricity prices rise significantly for peak hour use (i.e. periods of max air conditioning).

So, to make your family resilient either in the face of a temporary shortage or a longer-term escalation in price, here are some simple, highly cost effective technologies you can employ.  Though some may seem laughably obvious, the majority of Americans employ only one or two, and often even those ineffectively. 
1)   Attic sealing and insulation.  Very simple, fairly cheap, and yet not nearly as widely used as it should be.  It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between movement of heat and movement of air.  Insulation prevents movement of heat but if there are gaps, holes, etc, between the lower floor and the attic, it won’t prevent air movement.  At any temperature, air moving across the skin makes us feel cooler than we otherwise would, so sealing up these holes and gaps is a good idea.  If you already have some amount of insulation, someone may need to go into your attic, pull back that insulation, look for gaps and then seal them with caulk, expanding foam, or rigid foam board insulation.  Then you (or a service) can add insulation until it’s about knee deep.  If your house is now drafty and poorly insulated, you can save as much as ½ to 1/3 of your monthly winter heating costs. Remember also that heat wants to rise more than it wants to travel horizontally, so insulating your attic is more important than replacing single pane windows unless they’re very leaky and drafty.

2)   Ceiling fans.  As stated before, at any temperature, movement of air across the skin makes us feel cooler than we otherwise would.  So in the summer months, ceiling fans are a great way to combat heat using far, far less energy than air conditioning units.  In South Carolina I noticed many houses and shops use both air conditioning and ceiling fans so that the air conditioning can be set at a much higher level—say 80 degrees—and still be quite comfortable.  A ceiling fan can save you as much as 40% of your summer cooling costs.  Ceiling fans are more energy efficient than floor fans, but they are also more work to install properly.

3)   Programmable thermostats.  Don’t heat or cool your house when you’re not there to benefit!  And at night use a blanket or a ceiling fan to help warm or cool you to a comfortable temperature.  Programmable thermostats cost about $35. They are not all that difficult to install or program, though, sadly, 40% of Americans who have programmable thermostats never actually program them.  (Ouch!)  During the winter, take advantage of this simple technology to a.) automatically turn down the heat when you’re gone to 55 degrees, (most pets can do ok with 61 degrees), b.) turn the heat down at night to whatever temperature keeps you comfortable under a couple blankets, and c.) turn on the heat an hour before you get up so the house is pleasant again.  You can experiment with the settings that work best for you, but heating the house up to 70 degrees 24/7 costs you way more than you need.  In the winter, our house generally varies between 55 degrees at night and 63 degrees during the day, but I’m willing to wear lots of wool. (I also encourage my kids to use those other little technologies called sweaters and slippers.) In the summer, leave the air conditioning off until an hour before you’re going to return home. Or you could leave your blinds closed during the day and when you come home, open up the house to the cooler evening temperatures and use a whole house fan to push the hot air out and pull the cool air in.  Another low tech tip—plant deciduous trees on the south side of your house that will shade the house in the summer and let in warming sunlight in the winter.
4)   Bicycles, racks, and panniers.  The bicycle is one of the most efficient machines mankind has ever devised.  It takes less energy per mile to go by bicycle than by any other mode of transport, including walking.  For most terrains it’s easy to cover a mile by bicycle in six or seven minutes.  For distances under two miles, when you factor in time to walk and park your car, it’s generally as fast to bicycle as drive.  And you don’t need to be Lance Armstrong kitted out in Lycra!  You can wear regular clothes, ride an upright bicycle at a leisurely pace and be no sweatier or tired than if you’d spent the minutes strolling your neighborhood.  To make your bicycle useful for errands, get a rack with panniers.  This will allow you to carry two grocery bags full of stuff with ease—the load will be on your bicycle, not on your back!  If, like me, you live in an area with hills, consider an electric bicycle.  These are substantially more expensive but they essentially make the hills flat and can be an excellent car substitute if an oil shortage arises.

5)   Water Filters.  Why pay for bottled water if you can filter water from your tap that tastes as good for a fraction of the cost?  Having a good filter on hand also means you can tap many sources of water in case of an emergency (say an earthquake, hurricane or tornado) that shuts down the water supply system.  There are many filters on the market--one I like is the Big Berkey water filter.  From their website:
This system removes pathogenic bacteria, cysts and parasites entirely and extracts harmful chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, VOCs, organic solvents, radon 222 and trihalomethanes. It also reduces nitrates, nitrites and unhealthy minerals such as lead and mercury. This system is so powerful it can remove food coloring from water without removing the beneficial minerals your body needs.
Even if you don’t use a filter to reduce chemicals in your normal drinking water, in a crisis it might be handy to turn water from a rain barrel, creek or pond into safe drinking water. For some reason, Berkey doesn’t ship to California or Iowa. (I think it has to do with these state’s laws.) Remember, as gasoline prices go up, any liquid shipped by truck is bound to increase in price as the shipping weight involved is substantial.  If you really like carbonated beverages, you can get a home carbonator like this for around $100.

So five simple, inexpensive technologies that can vastly improve your family’s ability to weather an emergency or save you nearly their upfront cost the first year by reducing your energy (or bottled water) bills. I hope you'll give them a try.