Thursday Review: The Civil War: A Narrative Volume 1 By Shelby Foote

The Civil War: A Narrative Volume 1 — Ft. Sumter to Perryville

I remember about a dozen years or so ago, I watched competing Civil War series on History and TLC (back when TLC was interesting and not the faux celebrity trainwreck it is now). While one of the shows tried to inject a little drama into its discussion of the various battles, the technologies, and the personalities involved, both shows ultimately reduced this deadliest of American wars to a bunch of dry dates and casualty lists. Oh, and Lincoln and Davis were presidents. In case you forgot.

Around the same time, I first read this classic Civil War text by historian Shelby Foote, who attempts to bring the era to life. Men like Lee and Grant, Lincoln and Davis are more than statues or frozen Matthew Brady photos. We get to see the foibles and ideals that clashed and made the Civil War inevitable. The two men you feel sorriest for in all this are Lincoln and Davis, presidents of the Union and Confederacy respectively. Lincoln, while a shrewd politician who skillfully secured the Republican nomination for himself, found himself in the unenviable position of not only rescuing the Union, but unifying the fractious remaining states, dealing with hot-headed demagogues who edited the newspapers of the day, and mollifying both wings of the Republican Party in the war’s prosecution. Davis? He didn’t even want the job, wanting to go into the field where his real talents lie. Instead, he was drafted to head the provisional Confederate government and then elected (without really declaring his candidacy) president under the new constitution.

This book covers the Civil War from its prelude to late 1862, when both sides kept telling themselves this would be a short war. (Hey! That sounds like 2004!) A lot is made of McClellan’s timidity and his successor Pope’s arrogance, but in them, Foote demonstrates a human side of these men. Pope simply had no social skills to speak of, the Sheldon Cooper of Union generals. McClellan could unite and inspire the troops, and if he ordered them into certain suicide, his men likely would charge before he finished giving the order. But McClellan had such an overwhelming fear of failure that it ultimately crippled him. Nonetheless, for all McClellan’s inertia, Robert E. Lee would later say he was the most capable general he faced in the Civil War.

This phase of the war is dominated by several generals with Napoleon complexes. Pope is a notable case, having to be relieved when his hubris nearly cost him his army at Second Manassas. John Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” squandered resources and personnel in taking Missouri from the Confederates, living in luxury and keeping a large number of troops for his personal protection. Fremont would not only get a second chance, but he would find his military career abruptly ended by an increasingly impatient Lincoln. In the South, early gains were reversed by PGT Beauregard’s own Napoleonic complex. At one point, the Creole general ditched his command for a few days R&R only to find it taken away from him. Like Fremont, Beauregard would burn up his own president’s patience. Like Fremont, he would get a second chance. Unlike Fremont, he would remain in the army until the end of the war.

Perhaps most telling in this volume is the depiction of the war’s most famous generals, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Lee is not seen as the dashing, fatherly figure most people see him as today, nor does anyone in 1861 seem to anticipate Lee’s role in reconciling the two sides after the war. Grant is not only seen as a failure – no doubt an image fostered by his spectacular business ineptitude – but is constantly fighting rumors of drunkenness and dereliction of duty. By October of 1862, Grant replaces his former commander, new General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, but many in Washington still see Grant as worse than the pompous glory hogs he now commands or has replaced (most notably, Don Carlos Buell.) Yet Lincoln notices that, even when he fails, he does something generals on both sides seem to have trouble doing. “He fights,” says Lincoln.

Perhaps the most frightening man on either side of the war is Stonewall Jackson. A religious zealot with a mercurial personality, Jackson is perfectly content to send as many of the enemy to their graves as possible and gets upset when someone expresses admiration or sympathy for the fallen blue coats after a battle. He strikes me as the prototype for the mad, blood thirsty general so common in modern fiction. You could easily see Jackson strolling through the jungles of Vietnam during battle and saying, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” This is not a man I would want in a position of civilian power.

The Civil War: A Narrative describes the war in human terms. Foote depicts Yankees and Rebels alternately taunting each other, often in anger, and using the truce to swap news of the other side. The sight of dead and wounded sickens many of the generals, particularly Lee and Ambrose Burnside. Foote shows the war was not a cold list of battle sites, casualty lists, and dates. It’s an epic about human beings who find themselves thrust into a confusing and tragic conflict that bewilders even the leaders of both sides.

Big Bang Theory

If you’ve ever loved comic books, if you’ve been a Trekkie to the point where you donned the rubber Spock ears or the entire guise of a Klingon warrior, if you seethe with anger when others get the details of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or, what the hell, Firefly wrong, this show is for you. If you find such people confusing and want to understand them better, this show is for you.

I speak, of course, of The Big Bang Theory, the CBS comedy about four brilliant scientists and their friends. The show centers mainly on roommates Dr. Leonard Hofstatder and Dr. Sheldon Cooper, both nuclear physicists. Of the two, Leonard has some semblance of social skills and has had more girlfriends – casual and serious – than the other central cast members. Leonard is an experimental physicist. Sheldon is a theoretical physicist and so obsessive compulsive that he makes Adrian Monk look like a germ-oblivious slob. Leonard just wants to be liked and often has to shepherd Sheldon through that most mysterious of the universe’s functions: human interaction. Sheldon feels put upon because only a handful of the rest of the world is almost as smart as he is. He even tries to correct Stephen Hawking’s math. (Hawking snapped him back good in that episode in a hilarious cameo.) Much of the comedy centers around either Sheldon’s attempts to master social skills or his tyranny in trying to control every single aspect of his environment to the point of opposing activities based on the most unlikely scenarios.

Leonard and Sheldon work at Cal Tech with two other scientists, Dr. Rajesh Koothrapali and Howard Wolowitz. Raj is a native of India and often speaks of the poverty of his homeland in eliciting sympathy. (They only had two servants, and his father had to lease his Mercedes.) Raj is pathologically unable to speak to women unless he has alcohol in his system. After a couple of drinks, Raj is witty, charming, and irresistible to women. Get a few more in him, and it’s amazing he hasn’t been sued for sexual harassment. Howard looks like the lost Monkee, lives with his loud and obnoxious (and unseen) mother, and fancies himself a ladies man. Only Howard couldn’t get a date to save his life without help from Leonard and Penny. (More on her in a moment.) Ironically, Howard is the first character to get married.

Rounding out the main cast is Penny, an aspiring actress from Nebraska who works at the Cheesecake Factory.  Penny is a working girl with an IQ that is closer to average. She is the boys’ anchor to the rest of the world we must navigate. She’s also the voice of the audience, often expressing the bewilderment we all feel whenever one of them, usually Sheldon or Howard, cross a line of social etiquette.  Through most of the show’s run, she has an on-again, off-again relationship with Leonard.

Particularly good are the scenes between Penny and Sheldon. Sheldon is bewildered by Penny’s blazé and improvised approach to life while Penny often has to find ways to deal with Sheldon’s controlling, rigidly managed lifestyle. One of the show’s gems is whenever Sheldon needs to approach Penny for something, doing The Knock:  Knock knock Penny? Knock knock Penny? Knock knock Penny?  Penny’s responses, never what Sheldon can anticipate, always throw him off balance.

The show uses these four uber-nerds to depict the life of the average hardcore SF and Fantasy fan trying to fit into a world where they are looked upon as walking punchlines. Howard, earlier in the series, even has fantasy sex with Starbuck from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, only to have the hallucinatory Katee Sackhoff criticize him for not going out to get a real woman. In a later episode, Sackhoff and George Takei, still in hallucination, try to guide Howard through a date. “How would you know?” Sackhoff snaps at a comment by Takei. Takei, the coolest gay man in America, sniffs, “I read.”

Many of us with a nerdy side have had moments where we’ve been one of the four central characters. We all wish we were Leonard, who usually can function in society without too much embarrassment, but we’ve really been Raj – unable to talk to women or approach them, Howard – embarrassingly bad in dealing with women and completely oblivious to it, or Sheldon – the control freak. At the same time, I can often look at this show the way many people see SF and comic book geeks from the outside. Once upon a time, I was a hardcore Trekkie. (And most people who’ve known me for a while are going, “Well, duh!”) But I got burned out on it when fandom’s demands on time and attention got to be more than someone wanting to go to school and get a better job could handle. So I left. And I do remember dealing with people who fluently spoke Klingon and even a guy who was two years older than me (I quit around my thirtieth birthday.) still living in his mother’s basement constantly yelling at her because one of his models was moved. So I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

The closest I’ve seen to Big Bang‘s treatment of this community was the Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest. It struck the right balance of absurdity and respect. But Big Bang goes one step further. Leonard and Penny get closer with each renewal of their relationship while remaining friends whenever they breakup. Sheldon now has a girlfriend, the equally over-rational Amy Farrah Fowler. Amy is as socially inept as Sheldon, but unlike Sheldon, dives headlong into trying to learn And she’s going to drag Sheldon along with her whether he likes it or not. He seems to like it. That disturbs him. Howard has finally married Penny’s friend (and newly minted doctor of microbiology) Bernadette Rostenkowski, who turns him on whenever she loses her temper and sounds like his mother. And Raj keeps trying to overcome his inability to talk to women, though recent seasons have had him voicing his alarm that, out of the four friends, he is the only one alone. (“Sheldon Cooper got a girlfriend before me!”)

It’s an extremely well-done show from producer Chuck Lorre, and every time I watch, I think of his other show, Two and a Half Men. I don’t compare the shows. I just wonder why the hell Charlie Sheen thinks Lorre needs him.

Nita Ritas!

This weekend is Memorial Day, the cultural start of summer in these United States. And it wouldn’t be summer without a proper summer cocktail. So here again is the recipe for Nita Ritas, as invented by my lovely bride, Nita.

(Note: If this looks different from last year, hey, it’s our drink. We’re just letting you make one for yourself.)

Three parts Cuervo Tequila Mix

Two parts Cuervo Gold

One part secret ingredient. What’s the secret ingredient? Depends on the Nita Rita you want:

  • Jamaican Nita Rita: Captain Morgan Spiced Rum
  • Kentucky Nita Rita: Jim Beam Red Stag
  • Tennessee Nita Rita: Jack Daniels
  • Irish Nita Rita: Jameson
  • Canadian Nita Rita: Crown Royal
  • Russian Nita Rita: Vodka, preferably Gordons or Grey Goose
  • Jaeger Nita Rita: Now that’s just asking for trouble

Drink responsibly. The Nita Rita, created by my wife, the incomparable Nita.

Eighteen

That’s AJ to the left there, looking large and in charge with his percussion group from high school. Who is AJ, you ask? He’s my stepson, and today he turns 18. He’s also the main reason why I was allowed to marry his mother.

When I first found myself single again, I knew most of the women I’d go out with would have children. This was a plus, actually. I’d always wanted to be a parent, so if things worked out with a single mom, I’d be more than happy to be, at the very least, That Dude Mom Married.

I’ve talked a lot of times here about dating Nita and how rapid our romance blossomed. Nita told me on our first date that any man she dated had to meet with AJ’s approval. Since her divorce, when he was ten years old, he had stepped up to be the man of the house. I admired that. So on our second date, she introduced us. She later told me about the lead up to our first date.

AJ would be turning 14 that year, and Nita had just gotten comfortable leaving him by himself for extended periods – never overnight but for an evening or a few hours during the day. As our date approached, she worried AJ might resent her not spending time with him. He told her to go, that he had not seen her that happy in a long time. So we were already getting off to a good start, and I hadn’t even left to meet her yet.

As I started to spend more and more time at Nita’s house, one of my rituals was to spend about half an hour playing on the Wii with AJ. His father wasn’t much of a video game player, so this was new for him. Well, not really. A couple of Nita’s more serious boyfriends would play, and I absolutely sucked at it. I think he enjoyed kicking my ass. The three of us also played Rock Band together a lot. I did vocals most of the time. AJ did drums. One day, I noticed he wasn’t playing to rock band when I walked in. He had music blaring on his computer and was playing to that instead. Little did I know he would soon be playing drums in his high school marching band.

The night I proposed to his mother, it just sort of overtook us in the span of about five minutes, starting with Nita asking me to come to Gatlinburg with her and AJ for an already planned vacation and ending with me dropping to one knee and asking her to marry me. Only, I didn’t ask one person for her hand in marriage.

We called AJ into the room and told him what we planned. He ran into his room, and we were panicking. Did we scare him? Would I have to leave? We followed him into his room to make sure we hadn’t upset him. I pleaded with him to let me marry his mother and was fairly blubbering like an idiot. AJ just looked at me with that thousand-yard stare of his that can be a bit unsettling at times and slowly gave me a double thumbs-up.

AJ is a very smart kid. Like a lot of kids that smart, he knows it, which occasionally gets him into trouble. But isn’t that what being a teen all about? Nonetheless, even though I’ve only been in his life for four years now, I’m still very proud of him. AJ was an object lesson too many people who marry into families never learn: You don’t claim the title of stepparent. You have to earn it.

I’m very pleased AJ has let me be his stepdad instead of just Dude Mom Married. I can’t wait to see what he makes of his life now that he’s reached the starting line.

Favorite Bands: Pink Floyd

Remember when you were young? You were probably listening to Floyd back then. And chances are, it was Dark Side of the Moon. If you’re my age, you were just entering high school or finishing middle school when they released their anti-establishment anthem “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Who among us since 1980 didn’t go tramping through the halls of our school singing “We don’t need no education…” If you had Mr. Rickel’s advanced math class, maybe one of us should have shouted “Hey! Teacher! Leave that kid alone!”

Such was Pink Floyd, they of the long, meandering concept albums. As I grew into adulthood, they formed a major part of my personal soundtrack. A friend of mine once told me that you never really get sick of Dark Side of the Moon, and he was right. At least for him and me. I go long periods of time without hearing it, yet it’s always a new experience when I come back to it.

Floyd had four distinct periods. The first was their formative years when the band centered around the mad genius that was Syd Barrett. Barrett had an amazing gift for lyrical turns that made him the face of this new psychedelic band. Charismatic, mysterious, and just a bit scary, Barrett personally turned Pink Floyd from a London club curiosity to a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, though, bad habits combined with Barrett’s odd mind – even his sister isn’t really sure if Barrett was insane or just different – to send him spiraling out of control. The band brought in Barrett’s childhood friend David Gilmour to shore things up when Barrett would go catatonic or wander off stage. Then they ousted Barrett.

For Barrett, it was just as well. When the money originally ran out, he left London for Cambridge and settled down to a quiet and, by all reliable accounts, a rather normal life, annoyed mainly by the odd journalist and his inability to master home improvement. The band made sure money came to him, and Syd was able to devote his time to bad carpentry, great art, and listening to jazz.

Which brings us to the band’s second phase. After flailing about for a couple of years, they settled into a routine where Roger Waters handled all the lyrics, and the band was a tight unit with three vocalists. It is from this era their greatest work emerges. You see the beginnings of it on 1971’s Meddle, with their long and meandering “Echoes,” a vocal tour de force for keyboardist Rick Wright. But it’s the twin threat of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here (about Syd Barrett, no less) that cements Floyd’s legacy. If they only recorded these two albums and broke up, their status as rock gods would be sealed. What makes this era so special is the band is a true band here. Waters is a very provocative lyricist (“The lunatics are in my head/You raise the blade/And make the change/You rearrange me ’til I’m sane,” “The band is just fantastic/That is really what I think/Oh, by the way/Which one’s Pink?”) He’s also a helluva bass player. No one puts more Gilmour than Gilmour through the guitar, which is why, to this day, he remains my favorite rock guitarist of all time. Both Gilmour and Wright supplied soulful vocal counterpoints to Waters dramatic voice. As for drums, Nick Mason was and is more style than thunder. If you listen to the early Floyd, you know he’s more than capable of giving Keith Moon a run for his money, but it’s that swing style, tempered for Floyd’s music, that really glues the whole works together.

After 1977’s Animals, though, we move into the angry Roger Waters Reign o’ Terror. Waters was a man driven. He would stop at nothing to make The Wall, even firing Wright and putting him on salary for the subsequent tour. (Wright, ironically, was the only member of Floyd to turn a profit during The Wall tour.) Waters left nothing to subtlety: He was an admitted ass, as portrayed in the character of Pink; he hates capitalists, the British education system, any and all wars, and probably you, too. Waters tight control over Pink Floyd was so rigid that the band barely existed by the time they released 1983’s The Final Cut, a long, bitter antiwar rant that is more Waters solo album than Pink Floyd.

Several arguments and a few lawsuits later, Wright returned to a Water-less Floyd as it entered its final era under David Gilmour’s leadership. It’s on A Momentary Lapse of Reason where Pink Floyd starts sounding like Pink Floyd again. Yes, there’s something missing with Waters no longer writing or performing with Floyd (and off on his own throwing rocks at the band for not disbanding without him.) But Momentary, more a Gilmour solo album than a Floyd album, was written with Wright and Mason in mind. I saw them perform in 1988, and it was great to have Wright singing and providing his unique keyboard style to the band again. While Floyd is not the happiest band to listen to, after two really dark Waters epics, it was good not to hear them so heavy handed. In 1994, they did The Division Bell, a more solid effort featuring work by all three remaining members. It kicks off with “What Do You Want From Me.” If it sounds like “Have a Cigar,” lyrically it’s the bookend to the previous song. I’ve always wanted to hear them splice the two songs together. It would be a very dramatic mashup. But it’s “High Hopes,” with its elegiac, almost regretful tone that signals the end of the band.

Waters eventually patched things up with his bandmates and occasionally performs with them. But with Barrett emphatically out of music (and besides, he passed away in 2006), and Rick Wright no longer with us, it’s very unlikely we’ll hear anything from Floyd again. Gilmour says he can’t handle the massive touring machine such a reunion would require, and Waters is content to stage his elaborate epics, including much-improved live versions of The Wall. Mason, for his part, is more of a motor sports enthusiast these days than a drummer, owning a racing team and writing for a number of racing publications in Britain.

In way, it’s too bad, because The Division Bell seemed to leave the band’s canon unfinished. Then again, like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin before them, it’s probably best they bowed out when they did. They left almost twenty hours of studio work, more than most bands at that level (the Stones, even with a slower output in recent years, are a notable exception.)

And damn, but you haven’t lived until you’ve listened to Dark Side of the Moon during a lunar eclipse.