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.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Cruelties of Gilligan's Island, Hamlet and Chopin

All boats carry Hamlet costumes in case of shipwreck
My introduction to both Hamlet and the opera, Carmen, was through a Gilligan’s Island episode--you know, the one where a movie producer crash lands his plane on the island with them. He sends out a distress call, so it looks like at last help is on the way--hurrah! But, before the rescue, Ginger wants to convince the producer to cast her in one of his movies. So our intrepid castaways come up with the brilliant (at least brilliant to all future pop culture) idea to stage Hamlet set to tunes from Carmen. (And also, it turns out, from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, but I just learned that.) The producer is impressed, so impressed that he slinks away to be rescued without them so he can produce Hamlet, The Musical as his own original idea. Poor islanders, foiled again.

My childhood speaks
Gilligan’s Island ran from 1964 to 1967. This astonishes me because it means that during the 70’s, when I saw it, I only ever viewed it in reruns. (In between Bewitched and I Love Lucy episodes. Oh that Desi.) And, boy, did I view it. Gilligan’s Island was a staple of my childhood. I must have seen every episode at least three times, especially during the long rainy Seattle summer afternoons when only reruns filled the airwaves. Television had enormous power and influence on me during those years. To say it was my window on the world is a vast understatement. What an astonishing use of my time and childhood.

Matches the shag
I grew up in a classic, brand new subdivision rife with young families and children where every house was decorated in Harvest Gold or Avocado Green. Your choice of color would determine the shade of your shag carpet, appliances and panel of hideous frosted glass located next to your front door. I’m sorry to remind you that this is how many of us lived in the 70’s, I truly am. I just spent five minutes looking at photos of ugly 70’s kitchens, and it is more depressing than I can say.

In this classic, hastily-built subdivision there were three choices of floor plan—rambler, tri-level or split level. Every friend’s home you went into you knew where to find the bathroom because you’d already been in three other houses exactly (and I mean exactly) like it. Even as a child I knew this was wrong, that I was living in an architectural wasteland. My subdivision was named “Wellington.” I assume this was after the Duke of Wellington, defeater of Napoleon, victor of Waterloo. I could weep.

For the rambling man
My house was of the rambler variety. Three bedrooms, two baths. It looked something like the photo to the right, except it was brownish-olive-brown in color. Brown was very seventies. People wore brown, decorated with brown, and had lots and lots of brown hair. Men had brown moustaches and sported brown sideburns. People began to eat brown bread and macramé brown hanging plant holders with brown jute that would hold brown plants once the poor things died.

No mowing
My father didn’t want to mow grass (he had allergies), so he covered our front yard in rocks. It looked a little like the photo to the left, except, well, less attractive. But I do admire his willingness to experiment.  Every other yard in the entire 80-house subdivision had a freaking lawn. We were the strange ones.

Though I didn’t read Hamlet until my freshman year of college, it must’ve been sometime during the purgatory just this side of hell known as junior high that it dawned on me that the play in the Gilligan’s Island episode was a highly abridged version of one of the greatest works in the English language. The source of most of the episode’s tunes probably didn’t occur to me until I studied opera during my junior year abroad and saw Carmen for the first time in Florence.

Now, though I love Carmen, I’m not a huge fan of Hamlet; he’s too petty and indecisive for me. (He was the son of the king, for crying out loud. His rightful throne was usurped. Why the heck didn’t he get some nobles together and chase his uncle out of Denmark?) Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice and The Tempest are my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve got a soft spot for Romeo and Juliet. But Gilligan will forever whisper in my ear (to the melody of the Habenera aria), “To fight or flee, to fight or flee. I ask myself to be or not to be?"

So two of the heavyweights of the Western canon were introduced to me by the likes of Lovey and Thurston Howell the Third. Faux, ersatz, a parody before I had any idea of what was being parodied. Did my culture value me so little or the works so little that I was fed the spoof rather than the real thing? I guess it could’ve been worse. No doubt children these days miss nary a classic via The Simpsons.

But Chopin—Chopin was different.  He didn’t come through the back door. He was introduced to me as he ought to have been--whole, genuine, the real thing--straight into my soul via the ephemeral elegance of ballet.

Trapped in my seventies subdivision, attending a school that mostly bored me to tears, my one saving grace, besides reading a book a day, was ballet lessons. I took ballet at first twice a week, then three times, then pretty much most of Saturday added as well. And Chopin was the music of the barre, of the center floor, of the porte de bras. Yes, his tempo was often altered slightly so my teacher, Mrs. Bruce, could sternly count, “And one, and two, and three, and four,” but it was still him directly responsible for the rippling notes.

A young girl's heroin
Ballet! Not only did I get introduced to Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Les Sylphides, but also art, because one Christmas Mrs. Bruce gave us all posters of dancers by Impressionists (Degas! Renoir!) as gifts.  Mine was this beauty on the right. She was on my bedroom wall until I went away to college. And classical music! Tchaikovsky, of course; but also Ravel, Liszt, Saint-Saens, and a host of others. (But not Beethoven. I became acquainted with him later.) It was rapture, euphoria, cultural heroin. Like having two hundred years of European civilization injected straight into my veins. I was hooked, a junkie for life. No wonder I loved ballet fiercely for five years even though I didn’t have the body for it. (I had no turn out, my legs and feet just wouldn’t do 180 degrees, and classical ballet is cruel, cruel, cruel. You have the body or you don’t. After the body, then comes talent, determination, lyricism, and effort. But the body comes first.)

Eventually I gave up on ballet after glimpsing that this rarefied, mysterious world wonderfully far from shag rugs and television laugh tracks might also be accessible through literature and college. Chopin’s music still beckoned, so enigmatic and sublime. Life would be a glorious wonder if only entry into his universe could be obtained.

Suburban soul food
There are cruelties and there are cruelties. Ballet is merciless. It knows its enchantment and demands everything of you that can be given. It is so heartless it can turn away emaciated orphans from its door without a twinge of regret. Gilligan’s Island in comparison was a TV dinner cook. Its intentions were no doubt benign enough, but when I was literally starved for culture, it fed me Twinkies and Cheez-Whiz.

But Chopin, it turns out, was the cruelest of all. Yes, he fed my soul when I had little else to sustain me, and yes, I still hear traces of that magic world (secret garden?) as I play his notes on my piano. But there is never a final passageway to enter, no key to turn in the last lock. Yes, the floating preludes, the hushed nocturnes, the soaring waltzes limn the mysteries of the human experience. They allude (so delicately!) to the vast, lost chambers in our souls we long for but never visit because we’ve forgotten how or never knew the path. But his music promises what might be, not what is. And it’s not a promise that it keeps.

Did he promise a rose garden?
Perhaps this isn’t Chopin’s fault. Perhaps he just glimpsed these worlds, too, and the best he could do was communicate potential, not define how to achieve it. Perhaps, indeed, sensing a plane of consciousness askew to our own, one just out of reach, that we catch sight of only from the corner of our eye or in a fleeting run of notes, is an immutable part of being human (transcended by a few lamas and saints.) We get the moments, the glimpses, and must bear it best we can. Even if it means we live out a Gilligan’s Island version of Hamlet.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ulysses S. Grant--Out of Love But Still Very Fond

The Man
This a sequel to my previous post, I Am In Love With Ulysses S. Grant, written just as I began the perusal of his memoirs.

Ah, Ulysses. Hiram Ulysses, actually. During his appointment to West Point, his middle name got mixed up as his first, and when he got to the Academy, he didn’t argue about it. Sign of a good solider, I suppose, take what comes. Put up and shut up. Except Grant’s genius was that during the Civil War, “do what you’re told” was not what he did.

Grant was a math guy. In the Mexican-American War he was a quartermaster—the officer in charge of supplies, rations, clothing, and shelter.  Though I still don’t understand how someone good at supplying an army (and later commanding an army) could be so hideously bad at running a small business as Grant, his memoirs show that logistics was indeed a key strength. He was always considering how to get supplies to his army or cut them off from the enemy, either by choking off supply routes or destroying the supplies themselves. (Sometimes the enemy’s supplies were still in the fields and smokehouses of the Confederate citizenry. As Grant saw it, this was what Sherman’s march to the sea was all about.) Looking at the state of Lee’s army at Appomattox, this strategy appears to have worked, though the terrible casualties, the noose of Grant’s forces preventing escape, and the desertions due to low morale no doubt contributed as well.

Raring to vanquish
Grant’s other great strength was his tremendous impatience, almost fury, to trounce his opponents. While out west, often cut off from communication with Washington and his higher ups, Grant took the initiative and attacked when and where he thought he could win. (When your superiors are terrified to act for fear of blame, doing first and informing later is an effective tactic as long as the result is a success that your superiors can take credit for.) He rose through the ranks through sheer nerve and competence when such qualities were scarce.

Go-Getter Sheridan
Once Grant was promoted to general-in-chief of all the Federal forces and had to operate out of the east, you could palpably feel his frustration with the idiotic interference of Stanton and Halleck (be cautious! be defensive!) who would change Grant’s direct orders without his knowledge. And you can understand his vexation when his subordinates failed to follow orders or followed them too late to be of use. Grant loved Sherman and Sheridan because they could get their men marching off before most other commanders could put one leg out of bed.

Reading the memoirs I was amazed at how often the Federal troops made very early morning (3:30 am!) or all night marches. In the west, Grant was often able to use his predilection for early movement to surprise his opponent. It worked less well with Lee because Lee started doing it, too.  Perhaps Lee heard about Grant’s tactics in the western battles and adjusted accordingly?

Hasty military bridge--Chickahominy, Virginia
Cut those supply lines
Another aspect of the war that astounded me was how often railroads were ripped up and then laid right back down. To disrupt the other side’s supply lines and troop transport, each army had a small army constantly burning ties and twisting rails into curlicues. Then when the other side gained back control of the area, they would put down new ties and unbend the steel. Bridges were also constantly destroyed and rebuilt, although Grant’s army did often carry around pontoons with them to get over rivers in a pinch. And all this was done incredibly rapidly, without backhoes, chainsaws or cranes.

Though I still admire Grant, I have to say my infatuation has faded, as infatuations are wont to do. He was more of a black-and-white guy than I like, though I realize seeing the grey in things does not a good general make. In a war, there are only two sides: yours and the enemy’s. Grant was clear why he was fighting, what needed to be done, and what sacrifices were worth making. Though he didn’t like his men dying, he accepted the deaths and maiming as the cost of winning. He acknowledged the valor and tenacity of the Confederates but believed them wrong, wrong, wrong. He respected Lee, admired Lincoln (though pooh-poohed him when he put his pretty civilian head towards military strategy) and despised the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.

In the first half of Grant’s accounts, before he became commander-in-chief of the Northern army, I got more of a sense of thoughtfulness, more wry acknowledgement of the twists and turns that fate throws us mortals. Perhaps in the second half Grant became more cut and dried because he was growing very ill and felt the need to make the case for his version of history before his time was up. He seemed defensive that people claimed Lee was the better general, he didn’t really acknowledge the terrible destruction done to the South by Sherman and other Northern forces or later during the Reconstruction. (He doesn’t go much into his presidency at all.) He sincerely believed slavery was wrong but didn’t mention that both he and his wife owned slaves for a time. He didn’t believe in social equality between blacks and whites.

The Surrender

Grant was a great general who rose through the ranks of the Northern army because no one else could or would do the job in an even halfway effective fashion. Since he wasn’t a political appointee or career military, he had little to lose in terms of salary or position and so was willing to take risks. Poor, poor Lincoln to have such miserable, pathetic generals who refused to do much of anything. Grant was so young, only 41, when he became commander-in-chief. This in itself is a measure of how desperate Lincoln was. There is a hysterical telegram from Lincoln (in Washington) to Grant (on the battlefields) that beautifully sums up what Lincoln was going through:

"The Peacemakers"--Sherman, Grant, Lincoln, Porter
“I have seen your despatch in which you say ‘I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself South of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.’ This I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move. But please look over the despatches you may have received from here, even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here, of ‘putting our army South of the enemy’ or of following him ‘to the death’ in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.”

Basically Lincoln is flat out telling Grant that everyone associated with the war in Washington was a useless, incompetent viper and that he himself couldn't do much about it.

What might he have done?
Grant wasn’t a man who had the patience or finesse for politics, and he was inclined to assume people would follow orders correctly rather than suspect they would screw up (which happened with disheartening frequency.) He seemed to feel that since Southerners caused the war they deserved a certain amount of retribution—especially South Carolina. He indicated that President Johnson’s accommodations of the South immediately after the war were what prompted the drastic measures of the Reconstruction. From everything he writes of Lincoln, it is indeed a great tragedy that Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln was the one man who would've had the patience, compassion, political skill, and credibility to knit North and South back together with an even hand. Reconstruction certainly made advances for African Americans and gave them a brief spot in the sun in terms of political power, but all those advances were soon washed away and replaced by a heavy hand for over a hundred years. Less retribution, more healing, and a firm commitment to education, economic opportunity, and enfranchisement of African Americans over the long haul would have been so much better.

Are Grant’s memoirs a literary masterpiece? Well, they have immense value and are, by and large, highly readable. They’re more oriented towards military history than I had expected (though he does spend time on his childhood and cadet years) and my eyes did glaze over from time to time as each creek, swamp and bayou crossed was discussed in detail. Even so I got a lot out of the work. Grant’s voice speaks to us from another place and time with a freshness that is remarkable. Though I don’t know if he was always honest with himself (he never mentions his drinking), he does write with a candor and integrity I have rarely found in memoirs. I got a great sense of what it was like to be him, in his shoes, directing troops, fretting about an enemy’s retreat or how to feed the army's horses before the grass is growing again in the spring. I love how after a week of battle he found a borrowed change of clean underwear extremely pleasant; I wonder at how he only mentions in passing that his son nearly died of illness while he was holding Vicksburg under siege.

Was he a great man? I believe so, though some of this was due entirely to his unique response to a unique demand of history. Was he moral? I would say close, but since I have a few reservations he doesn’t quite win the cigar for that in my estimation. Do I know all his demons, did I plumb his soul? Unfortunately, no. The memoirs don’t go that far, and I can’t say I blame Grant for his reticence. Who wants their soul plumbed a hundred and thirty years after they’ve left the earth? But he left us his voice, his intelligence, and his understanding of his place in history, and I am glad to know the man and my country better because of it.