On the downside, Trump will still be president in October

Had to smile at this news from The Washington Post this morning:

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Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October? No.

If all goes according to wild conjecture, planet Earth and the planet Nibiru are set to collide in the autumn, twin cosmic shooters in a game of apocalyptic marbles. Nibiru is playing for keeps, bringing sinkholes, fire storms and the general annihilation of life as we know it. As with many conspiracy theories, though, this one has a fatal factual flaw. The closest thing Nibiru has had to an existence was a cameo in a 2013 Star Trek film. There is not, in reality, a planet called Nibiru boldly zooming through our solar frontier….

Here was this thing I had not worried about a bit, because I had never heard about it. (It’s one of those things like “the world’s gonna end in 2012” — remember that one?) And now they were telling me not to worry about it.

But don’t bother to celebrate our deliverance. Scientists also predict that, on the downside, Donald Trump will be president of the United States in October 2017.

They give with one hand, and take away with the other…

Ladies who lunch: Real-life Rosie the Riveter and friends

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Women employed as wipers in the roundhouse eat their lunch in the break room of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in Clinton, Iowa, in April 1943. (Jack Delano/Library of Congress/Courtesy of Taschen)

As you know, some of the more creative ways FDR tried to get the economy going again were pretty cool.

We’re all familiar with at least some of the work done by photographers under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration, such as Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.”

Well, there were color photos, too, and they’re all stored at the Library of Congress.

The Washington Post brought some of them to our attention this morning, with this explanation:

A new book by Peter Walther, called “New Deal Photography. USA 1935-1943 (Taschen, 2016) brings together a comprehensive survey of the work done by the FSA, including that more rarely seen color work. From street scenes to pictures of field laborers and train yards, these images show us what the United States looked like in a bygone era, one rife with economic struggle. Here are a few of the incredible images produced by photographers Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, John Vachon, Fenno Jacobs and Russell Lee.

Be sure to go check them out.

The “Rosie the Riveter” photo above was to me the most striking of the lot. It’s just so perfect — the women’s work clothes being right out of a poster — it seems staged. But I don’t think it was…

‘Sherlock’ jumped the shark some time back

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The series started out promisingly enough.

In the first season, I found “Sherlock” fun, clever and refreshing.

Normally, I look askance at efforts to “update” perfectly good stories, unless they are exceedingly well done. For instance, give me Franco Zeffirelli’s temporally faithful 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” with the perfect casting of Olivia Hussey as Juliet (a girl actually almost young enough for the part — and what young Romeo would not have fallen for her?), not the execrable (right down to the title) “Romeo + Juliet” of 1996.

On the other hand, give me Ethan Hawke’s brooding young updated “Hamlet,” with his usurping uncle being the head of “Denmark Corporation,” over the versions with the absurdly ancient Kenneth Branagh (36) or Mel Gibson (34) in the title role. OK, Hawke was 30, but didn’t look it. And his characters’ obsession with shooting avant-garde video of himself and the other characters worked perfectly with Hamlet’s introspection.

Despite what I say about Branagh and Gibson, I can even overlook demographically creative casting, such as the Nigerian-Jewish Sophie Okonedo in the recent “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses”… when they pull it off. I thought she was scary good as Margaret of Anjou.

But enough Shakespeare; back to my topic… At the outset, I thought the “Sherlock” update worked. The folks who made it did fun things with Sherlock’s use of his smartphone and Watson’s blog, and the Guy-Ritchie-style cinematographic gimmicks were more fun than distracting.

The early episodes, from “A Study in Pink” through “A Scandal in Belgravia,” are true to the essence of the Holmes canon (and sometimes even to the letter — I was startled, when I went back and read “A Study in Scarlet,” that the original Watson actually was an Army doctor trying to get over his experiences in Afghanistan), while introducing 21st-century elements that work, and freshen up the formula. And as the story wore on, I was delighted with the wonderfully idiosyncratic Moriarty created by Andrew Scott.

But then… the writers of the show started running out of legitimate ideas. This was fully evident in the first episode of the third season, with the explanation of how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock wasn’t really dead. Something was just… off about it.

This offness really went over the Reichenbach Falls when we learned Mary Morstan’s big secret. That, as much as anything, was the moment when the shark looked up and saw the Fonz’s motorcycle flying over the tank.

This was insulting to the plot, to the characters and to viewers’ intelligence for a number of reasons, such as:

  • The basis of Watson’s relationship with her — and therefore the explanation of her role in the protagonists’ lives — was that he had fallen for the person she had seemed to be. And now she was an entirely other person — an unrealistically sinister person. And yet the relationships continue on their merry way.
  • This was a fantasy character, and not in the Sherlock Holmes mode of fantasy (a cerebral sort of fantasy, in which we pretend we believe that an eccentric genius actually could deduce those facts from such thin, subtle clues without erring), a sort of fantasy that works in a Victorian/Edwardian drawing room. This character sought to out-Bond James Bond, and folks, there is no such person out there as James Bond to begin with — or Jason Bourne, either. What real spies do is George Smiley boring. (At least, boring to adolescents. I find Smiley fascinating.)
  • She’s not some super-athlete, but a middle-aged woman, who is just barely young enough to have a baby. Nothing about the actress or the character speaks to “superhero.”

Yeah, I realize I’m running up against the feminist imperative here. The original Mary Morstan, in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was a realistic young woman of her era, a former governess, a damsel in distress very much in need of our heroes’ aid. And feminists hate that kind of character, which means the entertainment industry hates that kind of character. So she becomes a superwoman. And ta-da!, the men are no longer driving the action.

Fine. But make it semi-believable. Make the next Luke Skywalker a girl rather than a boy, but make it work (all things are possible with the Force). Sell it to me. I fully believed in the deadliness of the original “La Femme Nikita.” That worked. But stop and think a bit before you do it. I wouldn’t believe Watson as some sort of super double-naught spy/assassin. So why do you think it works with his wife?

But this wildly unbelievable Mary Morstan isn’t the problem — she’s just a dramatic illustration of the problem.

The problem is perfectly seen in the moment, in the new episode aired Sunday after months of hype, when a group of super-assassins dressed like ninjas (one of them being Mary, by the way, although that’s not important to my point), come rappelling down from the rafters into a hostage situation, spraying automatic-rifle fire in all directions.

Yes, there was violence in the original Holmes stories. This sort of violence: As they hastily left the flat on Baker Street in response to the game being afoot, Holmes would suggest Watson slip his ancient revolver into the pocket of his mac, just in case — a revolver Watson would produce and train on the villain in the denouement, causing the baddie to become completely passive while Holmes explains how he figured it all out.

The “action” was civilized and human-scale. It was about what went on in Holmes’ head, not “Fast and Furious”-style whizbang.

In other words, more Smiley than Bond.

The makers of “Sherlock” seemed to understand that at first. Then they lost their way…

Please, Sherlock -- lose the ninjas.

Please, Sherlock — lose the ninjas.

Yo, this is the news we GOT, so quit yer bellyachin’…

Increasingly, folks from various walks of life — but particularly those in various areas of media and communications — feel a need to apologize or at least commiserate with their audiences, to do what they can to soften the pain of living in the post-Nov. 8 world.

So a certain tone has crept into the unlikeliest places. Check this, from an email message seeking entries for a photographic retrospective on 2016:

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Basically, We acknowledge your trauma (your “trepidation and uncertainty”), but do us a favor and see it you can pull it together long enough to send us some content, however unpleasant the subject matter

But that wasn’t nearly as blunt or to the point as an ad I got on my iPad recently, promoting a Reuters TV app. See below. (Hey, we know this news sucks, but it’s what we got. We wish he had better but we don’t, so quit yer bellyachin’, sit still and watch it…)

Hey, folks, don’t worry. Donald Trump is a really smart guy, and is already telling our intelligence experts things they were clueless about… oh, wait — that wasn’t actual news. That was The Onion

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Belated Top Five List: Best Christmas toys ever

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Technically, this list is not late, as this is the ninth day of Christmas. In any case, I didn’t see the inspiration for it until today. Also, it’s a slow news day.

My fellow former Cosmic Ha-Ha Dave Moniz posted the above photo on Facebook last week, with this caption:

Patrick and Monica somehow found this vintage “electric baseball” set. What a lovely Christmas gift. Unlike its first cousin, “electric football’ this actually works without little plastic men running in hideous circles or clumping in immovable scrums.

My first thought was, I’d like to try that game out. My second was, I hated to see him run down electric football, which frankly, I liked better than real football. Any of y’all remember those? You’d put your little plastic players on the line of scrimmage, with one of them holding the little felt football, and hit the switch, and the whole stadium started vibrating like mad, causing the men — whose bases were perched up on thin, flexible blades of clear plastic, would start moving independently, one hoped toward the goal line. But really, they went wherever they wanted — which quite frequently was backward.

It was a pretty wild toy, both in concept and execution.

Actually, here I am describing it like something from the distant past, and apparently they still sell these things! Which was a surprise to me. But if you’ve never seen one of these in action, here’s video of a fancy modern version.

Bottom line, I loved my electric football game.

Which got me to thinking: What would be my Top Five Toys Ever, with an emphasis on those received from Santa. Here’s a hastily assembled list, which I may amend as we proceed:

  1. My BB gun — To be specific like the kid in the movie, my Daisy Model 1894 authentic saddle gun. This was probably the greatest surprise of my childhood, as my mother had always assured me I would never get one because — and she actually used this line — I would put my eye out. This was a beautiful rifle, the metal parts a nicely blued steel, with the stock rendered in plastic that at least looked like wood from a distance. The moment I found it under the tree was special: Santa had laid out my new sleeping bag that I was expecting, and the rifle was slipped inside it. This, of course, proved the existence of Santa, because I got it when we were living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and I don’t think there was a store on the entire continent of South America where my parents could have bought this. I had a lot of fun with it, and never did put my eye out.
  2. Any Official Boy Scout gear — All through my Cub and Boy Scout years, nothing could top any gift that had an official Scout logo on it. These were items that a guy had to have to make his way in the world, to Be Prepared (I had never heard of the Zombie Apocalypse, but I instinctively sensed that every boy should be prepared for it), and the Scout emblem, to my mind at least, spoke unfailingly of quality. I received a bunch of stuff from this category over the years. Some items that stand out are my official Cub Scout pocketknife, and my official Boy Scout mess kit and canteen (which I think I got the same Christmas as the BB gun and sleeping bag, so I cleaned up that year).
  3. Tabletop hockey — As I worked on the list, I thought of something I liked better than electric football. That was the non-electric hockey game my brother and I had — this kind, which had the metal rods that you’d move in and out to move the players across the “ice,” and which you would spin to make them shoot the puck. We had some pretty furious, active games with this, which we would play for hours. I still remember with shame how petulant I got the first time my brother — who is six years younger — beat me at this. But mostly, it was fun.
  4. Cowboy six-shooters — This is a whole category because I had a lot of them in the ’50s and ’60s, but I’m going to zero in on one particular product. Do you remember the Mattel Shootin’ Shell system? The Shootin’ Shell was a three-part piece of ammunition. It had a brass shell with a spring inside, a gray plastic slug that you’d push into the shell until it clicked, and a little round paper cap that you’d stick on the back of the brass shell. When the gun’s hammer hit the back of the shell, the shock would cause the spring to eject the little gray slug out the barrel of the gun, and the cap would go off to provide a semi-realistic sound. Here’s video. Anyway, at one point Mattel released a mechanical adversary with which to have gunfights. He was this villainous-looking little mannequin who, when you pulled a string, would start to draw. If he fired before you, you were “dead.” If you managed to draw, fire and hit him with your Shootin’ Shell slug before his arm got to a certain point, his arm would stop. No, I am not making this up. I was able to shoot from the hip and stop him. And yes, boys of my generation were really into violent toys…
  5. The see-through submarine — This was another one that we got when we lived in Ecuador, which speaks to extra exertions by my parents — they no doubt arranged to get these things from the Base Exchange up in the Panama Canal Zone, via the monthly C-47 that brought nonperishable groceries down to U.S. personnel. Anyway, this was an impressive toy. I had forgotten the name of it, but Google has identified it as the Remco Barracuda Atomic Sub. It was about three feet long, and had a motor that moved it on discreet wheels along the floor (water would have destroyed it), while it automatically fired torpedoes out of the bow. The coolest part, though, was that it had a transparent top deck that you could remove, and move around the little blue plastic crewmen inside. For whatever reason, I seem to recall you could also rearrange the bulkheads — which made it more like a Napoleonic-era warship than an actual sub. A friend of mine, also a Navy brat, had a huge toy aircraft carrier made by the same company. It had a pretty powerful catapult for launching aircraft, but that’s not what we used it for. This kid also had a construction set for building skyscrapers. We’d build a skyscraper, and then launch leftover plastic girders at the building from about six feet away to knock it down. A lot of trouble, but eminently worth the effort.

Honorable mention: Hot Wheels. These came along a little late for me, but I had an awesome time playing with my brother’s Hot Wheels — and my sons’, and my grandson’s (every time I go into Walmart today, I have to fight against the temptation to buy him another — they’re only 94 cents apiece, and they’re awesome!). I had grown up on Matchbox cars and thought they were pretty cool, but Hot Wheels just blew them away. Matchbox would later ape the fast-wheel technology, but they were just playing catch-up from then on.

Yep… guns and war toys and fast cars. But I was an actual kid, not a hypothetical one, and that’s what I liked, and I was lucky enough to come up before these things were thoroughly frowned upon. So there.

Now… what are the vintage toys that make you wax nostalgic?

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Apparently, I did NOT use Hans Delbrück’s brain in building the new president

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I began my day, my year, crying out in protest against a headline on The Fix:

I am as dismayed as Froderick Frahnkensteen at learning that apparently, at some point during this awful past year, I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide — but small-handed — gorilla.

But don’t blame me! Eyegor let me down. I had intended our new POTUS to have Hans Delbrück’s brain, you see…

Weak links in the family tree: The problem of Betty Crowley

OK, here’s another post in which I’m indulging private obsessions, what with this being a slow news week. Most of you will likely be uninterested, but I’m hoping Lynn Teague or someone else — preferably someone as besotted by genealogy as I currently am — will have useful advice, or at least be able to commiserate.

In recent months, I’ve made some pretty exciting (to me) breakthroughs in researching the family tree, some of which I’ve mentioned here. Most branches on the tree peter out when you get back to the Old Country, if you can get even that far. For instance, I can get back to the last Warthen — or as it was spelled then, Wathen — to live and die in England. He was Sir Charles Wathen, my 9th-great grandfather, who died in Bristol in about 1658.

There the line ends, which is anomalous. Most of my family tree, like everyone’s, is pretty common. But if I can get back to a Sir So-and-So or a Lady Whatever, I usually start a streak that can in some cases go back at least a few centuries. Which is fun. As I race through the centuries on one of those, I feel a rush that I suppose gamblers feel on a lucky streak in Vegas.

By the way, I don’t see having lords and ladies in my background as any reason to put on airs (although pictures of their castles on Wikipedia might make me slightly wistful). Pretty much anyone of European extraction will get there if they have the diligence and luck to go back far enough. For instance, I was excited when I first traced a line back to Charlemagne (38th-great grandfather, calculated one way). Then I read that, if you’re European, you’re definitely descended from Charlemagne, and through multiple lines:

If you’re vaguely of European extraction, you are also the fruits of Charlemagne’s prodigious loins. A fecund ruler, he sired at least 18 children by motley wives and concubines, including Charles the Younger, Pippin the Hunchback, Drogo of Metz, Hruodrud, Ruodhaid, and not forgetting Hugh.

This is merely a numbers game. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. If it were, your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbour more than a billion ancestors – more people than were alive then. What this means is that pedigrees begin to fold in on themselves a few generations back, and become less arboreal, and more web-like. In 2013, geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop showed that all Europeans are descended from exactly the same people. Basically, everyone alive in the ninth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, Drogo, Pippin and Hugh. Quel dommage….

So I decided that if all Europeans are descended from Charlemagne (and from pretty much everyone else alive at the time), the point of the genealogy game was to figure out how. And I did, so I win. My next great accomplishment was to discover double, triple, and more grandparents. You see, if you get back that far, you are descended from some people several ways, because if you keep exponentially increasing ancestors — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, and so on — after a few centuries you have more ancestors than there were people on the planet. So your branches start intertwining, collapsing onto one another; the same people keep popping up.

I was excited when I found my first double ancestor. Now, it’s routine. I think I’m now descended from Charlemagne about eight ways — just as you probably are.

So I know I’m not special, but I get a kick out of making the connections. The thing is… if you’re a commoner like me, you have to get back to the people who were prominent enough in history to have their own Wikipedia pages. And that almost always entails getting through some people who did not leave such definite tracks in history. That means there is almost always at least one weak link you can never be sure of.

An example: A couple of weeks back, I got on yet another exciting streak. I made a couple of breakthroughs on the Benton line. My great-great grandfather, Nathan Benton Warthen, got his middle name from his mother’s family. Once I’d gotten the Bentons back to the first generation in this country, I made a leap that got me to such fun discoveries as:

  • De Clare coat of arms

    De Clare coat of arms

    Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, (1130–1176). I wrote something about this 24th-great grandfather last week. He was the first of the Normans who would conquer Ireland, which means he caused a lot of trouble that has reached to our own generation. He did so with the help of one of the Irish kings, Diarmait of Leinster — known by the dubious sobriquet “Diarmait of the Foreigners” for his ignoble role in helping start the English domination of his country — whose daughter he married, making Diarmait my ancestor as well. My wife is descended from the Irish chieftains Strongbow defeated to take Waterford, so this caused some awkwardness at my house.

  • FitzWarin coat of arms

    FitzWarin coat of arms

    Sir Fulk FitzWarin III, Marcher Lord of Whittington and Alveston — This 24th great-grandfather rebelled against King John and was forced to become an outlaw. Who does that sound like? Yep, his story seems to be one of the possible sources of the Robin Hood legend — or at least, a parallel story. Interestingly, he and John had grown up together, after Fulk was sent to King Henry II’s court as a boy. But they fell out over a childhood game of chess and never reconciled, indicating that one of them was probably a very sore loser. At least, that’s the account in the “romance” written after his death, called Fouke le Fitz Waryn.

  • Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle, MP, Baron Cobham — This one’s not a direct ancestor — his sister Alice was my 18-great grandmother — but he was a fun discovery anyway. Apparently, Uncle John was originally the inspiration for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, there is evidence that he was even called by his true name in early versions of the plays, but Shakespeare had to change the name because Oldcastle had prominent descendants who had pull at the Elizabethan court, while John Fastolf did not. He’s actually a more serious character than the sometimes buffoonish Falstaff — he was a prominent practitioner of Lollardy, a pre-Reformation dissenting religious movement. Eventually he was burned for heresy and insurrection — which made him a hero in Protestant Elizabeth’s reign.

Fun stuff, huh? And it was particularly exciting because all my previous forays into the Middle Ages had been through my great-great grandmother Jane Hearst Chiles Bradley, a very well connected lady. All of my paths to Charlemagne — as well as to interesting contemporaries such as my 5th cousin once removed Patty Hearst — start with her. This was a whole other branch, virgin territory, and that made it special. New vistas opened before me.

But… these enchanting Medieval romances are built upon a rickety foundation. I refer to the problem of Betty Crowley.

According to my researches of various online databases, I am about as certain as one can be about such things that one Joseph Benton (1684-1752), was my 6th-great grandfather. I only have one source for this, WikiTree, but the particulars add up logically. WikiTree tells me that his parents were John Benton and Betty Crowley.

Betty is the ancestress who gets me to all of the aforementioned romantic figures of the 1200s. Once I get to her father, Sir Ambrose Crowley III — an ironmonger who appears to have played a significant role in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution — it’s pretty smooth sailing back to the Middle Ages, with multiple sources for each generation, and lots of specifics.

For instance, I can read about Sir Ambrose himself here and here and here and here and here. So he is the kind of ancestor I love to find, because it means I’ve hit another hot streak.

But here’s the problem, or one of the problems: Only one of those five sources — again, WikiTree — acknowledges that he had a daughter named Betty. Geni.com lists a daughter named Elizabeth, so one naturally thinks, “There she is!” But this Elizabeth married John, 11th Baron St. John of Bletso, and I see no indication that she ever left England.

Worse, WikiTree shows Ambrose and wife Mary Owen as having both a daughter named Elizabeth, and our Betty. Which seems highly unlikely. I doubt these folks were illiterate, and I just can’t see them not knowing that “Betty” was a diminutive for “Elizabeth,” or deliberately giving two daughters — both of whom grew to adulthood — the same name. Maddening.

My third and final source of worry: WikiTree shows both Betty and her husband John Benton dying in Reno County, Kansas, in 1718. This is the kind of error that just makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I don’t see how anyone could have in seriousness entered such a bogus “fact” without realizing it had to be wrong. This is almost a century before the Louisiana Purchase. There were to my knowledge basically no white people in Kansas in 1718, much less a married couple from New England. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had passed through in 1541, but he hadn’t stuck around.

So, Betty Crowley presents a problem. But there’s always a problem like Betty, when you try to go back so far.

On the one hand, what does it matter? Whether I’m actually related to all of these people way back when or not, I’m having fun, and I’m learning so much more about history from studying the contexts in which they lived. And besides, even if I had in hand birth and death and marriage and baptism certificates on every one of them, there’s always the chance that one or another was a bastard and it was hushed up. People were not necessarily paragons of virtue in the past (Sir Thomas More may have been writing of my 19th great-aunt Lady Eleanor Talbot Butler, who apparently had an irregular connection with King Edward the IV after the death of her husband, when he referred to “the holiest harlot in the realm,” because she was always in church when she wasn’t in bed with the king. Or if he wasn’t referring to her, it may have been to my cousin Elizabeth Woodville, whose second husband was that same King Edward IV. It’s good to be the king…)

Still, I hate loose ends, and it would be cool to tidy them up. So if anyone has any hints on how to solve the problem of Betty, I’d love to hear them…

Who was the bigger star? Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds?

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I had this rough impression over the past day that, while the death of Debbie Reynolds got pretty good play in the news, it was mostly because she died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. And while this may be an erroneous impression, it seemed that the play on Debbie was front-pagish, but the passing of Carrie got centerpiece treatment on the news sites I saw.

Perhaps this is a generational thing, but back in her day, it seems to me that Debbie Reynolds was by far the bigger star. Look at the starring roles she’s known for: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “How the West was Won,” “The Singing Nun,” to mention the most obvious. All pretty much boffo at the box office. And her performance of “Tammy” topped the pop charts in September of 1957.

Some of those things were a bit early for me. “Singin’ in the Rain” was released the year before I was born, and I thought of it as an oldie that occasionally appeared on TV. But I remember the later ones, and I grew up thinking of Debbie Reynolds as a big, established movie star, like, I don’t know… say, the woman who stole her husband away, Elizabeth Taylor. (And what did she have going for her, that a kid would have seen, besides “National Velvet?” She was better known for her tabloid lifestyle with Richard Burton, who stole her away from Debbie’s husband.)

Whereas Carrie is, let’s face it, Princess Leia. But to my kids, and people younger, that’s as big as it gets — maybe bigger than being Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” back in my parents’ day. It made her an icon. My elder son invited a girl from school over to play when he was about 6 purely in the hope that he might persuade her to do her long hair up in those braided side buns. She didn’t go for it, so that was a bust. The fascination never left him, or any of us, I suppose.

To me, “Star Wars” was wonderful — I actually reviewed the movie in The Jackson Sun when it came out, and the review was enthusiastic. I remember it grabbed me so that when I was driving home afterward in my orange Chevy Vega, I had to keep shaking off the feeling that I was flying an X-Wing, trying to get into position to blow up the Death Star.

And I was, more or less, a grownup. So I can see how irresistible the pull was for kids. And we all enjoyed seeing her back in “The Force Awakens.”

The accolades for her went on about how in later years she had become an accomplished author, etc. And feminists said things like how much more they liked her as the mature “General Morgana” rather than the enticingly nubile princess. But let’s face it, folks. We cared because she was Princess Leia, period. And I doubt that that’s just true of us boys.

Oh we enjoyed seeing her play a supporting role in “When Harry Met Sally,” and we emitted delighted cries of recognition at her cameos in “The Blues Brothers” and “Austin Powers.” But even then, John Belushi and Mike Myers totally stole those scenes.

As a movie star, as one who got leading roles, she was Princess Leia, period. And don’t get me wrong — I honor her for it.

And maybe that’s enough to overshadow her mother, even though to musical fans, “Singin’ in the Rain” is pretty iconic. Interesting that both of them made the films for which they’d most be remembered when they were 19…

Anyway, I found the comparison interesting, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from either of them. Rest in Peace, ladies…

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

Anton Lesser would (almost) be perfect as Stephen Maturin

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OK, so he’s showing a little too much age. But the face, and its expressions, are perfect.

WARNING: Only about two of my regular readers will find this interesting, but it really interests me and it’s my blog, so…

Awhile back, Bryan brought my attention to something in The Atlantic saying what I’ve said many times myself: One could not find better fodder for a high-quality television series than Patrick O’Brian’s series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars:

The Next Great TV Show (If Someone Will Make It)

The case for Aubrey & Maturin

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) of Downton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen….

Absolutely. Each of the novels could fill a full season with riveting television, and we wouldn’t face running out of material for two decades, since there are 20 novels. This would be bliss.

These books qualify, collectively, as the greatest work of historical fiction ever. Not just the action, or the amazingly detailed description of everyday life at sea and on land in the early 19th century. O’Brian truly makes you feel like you are there. You know how, when you’re wondering whether you’re dreaming, you might reach out and touch something to persuade yourself of the reality of the experience? O’Brian’s novels pass the test, as you touch aspects of a life alien to the 21st century, but completely familiar to you after the first few pages.

But the greatest thing is the way the books hold up as literature, period — never mind the history or the adventure. The relationship between Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, physician/naturalist Stephen Maturin, has been compared to Holmes and Watson, but it goes far deeper than that, and is much more perceptively nuanced. The relationships among all the characters offer insights into the richness of human experience seldom rivaled in anything I’ve ever read.

The trick, of course, is casting.

The film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” was well done and enjoyable. It got a few things wrong. For instance, it showed officers and midshipmen dressed in full uniform, as though for an admiral’s inspection, on ordinary days at sea. Which anyone who’s read the books knows is unrealistic.

Here and there, the casting and performances were inspired. David Threlfall was wonderful — he was Preserved Killick (although the bit where he was whining about saving grog for Saluting Day was off — wine would have been more believable). James D’Arcy made a creditable Tom Pullings, with just the right mix of diffidence and command competence. And as small as the part was, I could believe the hulking John DeSantis as Padeen, the loblolly boy.

Others were wildly off. Billy Boyd (you know, Pippin from “Lord of the Rings”) didn’t work at all as Barrett Bonden. Bonden was a big, strapping man, a fleet boxing champion and the very model of the perfect fighting sailor — not a hobbit. He tried, but he just didn’t have the right presence.

But what really mattered, of course, was the two leads — Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Everything depends on them.

I thought Russell Crowe did a good, workmanlike job as Lucky Jack. But Jack Aubrey is a complex character, with two very different poles to his personality. There’s the kind, openly friendly, jovial, seemingly none too bright, corpulent English gentleman who so thoroughly enjoys bad puns that his face turns red and his blue eyes turn to slits as he laughs, and who is completely helpless on land, an easy mark for con men looking to relieve him of his prize money.

Then there is Captain Aubrey at sea, an imposing, confident, godlike creature who causes subordinates and adversaries to quail when they behold his countenance. As Maturin observes of his friend as he prepares to go into action:

‘Dear me,’ thought Stephen as Captain Aubrey came on deck, buckling this same sword, ‘he has added a cubit to his stature.’ It was quite true: The prospect of decisive action seemed to make Jack grow in height and breadth; and it certainly gave him a different expression, more detached, remote, and self-contained. He was a big man in any case… and with this increase in moral size he became a more imposing figure by far, even to those who knew him intimately well as a mild, amiable, not always very wise companion….

You’d think the latter persona would be harder to play, but it’s easy for Crowe — that’s his type. He has more trouble with the friendly, seemingly harmless, side of Jack. There are a couple of scenes when he bravely attempts it — when he springs a pun on Stephen, and when he plays the fool after a good bit of wine at dinner with his officers. But he never seems quite as harmless, as endearing, as my good friend, the character in the books. Crowe’s just way better at being intimidating.

But Crowe is perfect casting compared to Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin. The doctor is Jack’s opposite — a perfect lubber at sea, but a genius at every other aspect of life. And Mr. Bettany, of whom I am normally a fan, does well at portraying him as a bookish man of science who is indignant that he is part of a purely martial expedition that won’t stop to let him study the zoological wonders of the Galapagos.

SPOILER ALERT, in case you haven’t read the books: But Maturin is something other than a brilliant physician, naturalist, gifted linguist (the foremast hands, and Jack himself for that matter, marvel at his ability to rattle away, “talking foreign twenty to the dozen”) and lover of music. He’s also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, unpaid in that capacity because he does it entirely out of indignant hatred of Napoleon. He is often described as having a cold, “reptilian” look in his eye that puts people who see it on their guard, which he generally hides by wearing colored spectacles. And when violence is called for, he acts with a calm efficiency that is as different as night from day from the joie de combat that seizes Jack when he’s on an enemy’s deck with sword in hand.

But except for a brief moment at the end of the film, when Bettany picks up a sword and joins in the fighting against the French enemy — something for which the filmmakers have in no way prepared you — you’d think he was a pacifist, one who conscientiously objects to doing battle with the French or anyone else.

So, ever since I’ve first thought of how wonderful the Aubrey/Maturin books would be as a TV series, I’ve wondered who could play Stephen. And I think I’ve settled on someone, if the makeup people can make him look a decade or two younger.

He’s Anton Lesser, a British actor whom you see everywhere, but may not know by name, since he so effectively buries himself in his characters. He’s Qyburn on “Game of Thrones,” Chief Superintendent Bright on “Endeavour,” Thomas More in “Wolf Hall,” and most recently, Exeter in “The Hollow Crown,” that collection of Shakespeare’s history plays that I enjoyed so much on PBS.

Like Stephen, Lesser's characters often can't be bothered to shave.

Like Stephen, Lesser’s characters often can’t be bothered to shave.

Every time I see his face, I think, “There’s Stephen!” His face, his expressions, his physicality, just embody the character. He could don Maturin like a well-worn suit.

If only he’d been born about 20 years later. Maturin, fortunately, is sort of an ageless, crotchety, wizened character, who from the beginning, I gather from the books, looked older than he was, and acted older still. In fact, in some ways Lesser’s maturity adds to his resemblance to the character. But I admit, that loose skin in Lesser’s neck would look out of place on the young, penniless physician who meets Jack Aubrey in Port Mahon in the first book. (Yet, if he filled out to tighten his skin, he wouldn’t look like the nine-stone Maturin.)

Maybe he has a son who looks just like him and is also a gifted actor. Or maybe, as I said before, the makeup people can do wonders. But I have seldom ever found such a perfect match of type between an actor and a beloved character in fiction.

See, I told you you wouldn’t be interested. But I was sufficiently pleased at my discovery that I thought I’d share it with the one or two who might appreciate it…

As Thomas More in "Wolf Hall." There's the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

As Thomas More in “Wolf Hall.” There’s the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

Open Thread for Tuesday, December 27, 2016

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pause for a moment of silence following a wreath laying at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 27, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pause for a moment of silence following a wreath laying at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 27, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Sorry, I hadn’t posted the last day or two. I got a cold or something that hit me like a ton of bricks Christmas night, and just started feeling noticeably better today. Since I’m off from work this week, I’ve just been kicking back in sickbay mode.

But here are some things to discuss:

  1. Shinzo Abe visits Pearl Harbor in what Barack Obama calls ‘historic gesture’ — I wonder if Burl was there. After all, the Arizona Memorial is only a couple of hundred yards from his workplace. Anything to report, Burl?
  2. Israel intensifies battle with U.S. over U.N. resolution on settlements — The conflict we discussed at length on Friday continues.
  3. White House prepares covert action, sanctions to punish Russia for election hacking — Yeah, OK, but I have a question: Can we get this done before Putin’s biggest fanboy takes over the White House?
  4. Russian Sports Officials Admit to Systematic Doping Effort — On top of everything else, the Russians have to cheat at sports, too.
  5. U.S. Accuses Three Chinese Traders of Hacking Law Firms — Reminding us that the Rooskies aren’t the only bad actors we have to deal with.
  6. Aiken legislator charged with felony domestic violence of his wife — The only real news on the local front today, from what I’ve seen. Sorry it’s not happier…
  7. Carrie Fisher, Actress Beloved For Playing Princess Leia, Dies At 60 — This was the shock of the day for me. First Han Solo dies on screen, now this. Particularly shocking since I think of her as the Lolita-like character she played in “Shampoo,” two years before “Star Wars.”

 

Carrie Fisher as provocative teen in "Shampoo," in 1975.

Carrie Fisher as provocative teen in “Shampoo,” in 1975.

On this, Trump may be right and Obama may be wrong

Image from NBC file footage of Netanyahu speaking at the U.N.

Image from NBC file footage of Netanyahu speaking at the U.N.

Like a stopped clock, Donald Trump will sometimes be right — and this might be one of those times.

Today, the outgoing Obama administration got this shot across its bow:

An Israeli official on Friday accused President Barack Obama of colluding with the Palestinians in a “shameful move against Israel at the U.N.” after learning the White House did not intend to veto a Security Council resolution condemning settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem the day before.

“President Obama and Secretary Kerry are behind this shameful move against Israel at the U.N.,” the official said. “The U.S administration secretly cooked up with the Palestinians an extreme anti-Israeli resolution behind Israel’s back which would be a tail wind for terror and boycotts and effectively make the Western Wall occupied Palestinian territory,” he said calling it “an abandonment of Israel which breaks decades of US policy of protecting Israel at the UN.”

Earlier he said Israel’s prime minister turned to President-elect Donald Trump to help head off the critical U.N. resolution….

And Trump obliged:

JERUSALEM — President­-elect Donald J. Trump thrust himself into one of the world’s most polarizing debates on Thursday by pressuring President Obama to veto a United Nations resolution critical of Israel, the newly elected leader’s most direct intervention in foreign policy during his transition to power. Mr. Trump spoke out after Israeli officials contacted his team for help in blocking the draft resolution condemning settlement construction even as they lobbied its sponsor, Egypt. Within a couple of hours, Egypt withdrew the resolution, at least temporarily, and its president, Abdel Fattah el­Sisi, called Mr. Trump to discuss how “to establish true peace in the Middle East,” according to an aide to the president-­elect….

Of course, if you don’t like Trump’s current position, wait five minutes. But for now, I think he’s calling for the right response.

Look, folks: I think to a great extent those settlements are problematic, a provocation. But this is no way for Israel’s adversaries to try to cram through a resolution on the subject — two days before Christmas and in the midst of a uniquely unsettling presidential transition in this country. Note that I’m talking here about the United States. Why? Because I think a move like this is meant to take advantage of this country as much as it is meant to strike out at Israel.

First the Russians try, and one might even say succeed (if one isn’t too discriminating in discerning causes and effects), in throwing this country into disarray. Now this.

Oh, and while I’m talking foreign interference, let me say that I don’t particularly appreciate our friend Israel reaching out to Trump this way. But President Obama could certainly have avoided that desperation move by assuring Israel that he had its back.

I hope he did, in fact. I certainly hope the Israeli allegation is wrong, and that President Obama intended to veto this resolution at this time.

You know what would be nice? A clear statement from the administration to that effect. That would do much to pour oil on the waters. If anyone’s seen anything like that, let me know. I’ve been hunting for something, ANYTHING from the White House on this, and failing to find it. I’ll keep looking. (I’ve found speculation that maybe Samantha Power is quietly working to solve the problem, and perhaps that’s right. If so, ignore everything I’ve said.)

By the way, before I sign off, here’s what Lindsey Graham has to say about the situation. His release, in fact, is what alerted me to the fact that this matter, which I thought was averted yesterday, may not be over:

Statement by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham on Resolution Involving Israeli Settlements:

“This provocative action by the United Nations is an outrage and must be dealt with sternly and forcefully.

“As the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I oversee the United States assistance to the United Nations.  The United States is currently responsible for approximately 22 percent of the United Nations total budget.

“If the United Nations moves forward with the ill-conceived resolution, I will work to form a bipartisan coalition to suspend or significantly reduce United States assistance to the United Nations.

“In addition, any nation which backs this resolution and receives assistance from the United States will put that assistance in jeopardy.

“There is a reason the United States has long opposed these type efforts directed at Israel — the only way to achieve a lasting peace by the parties negotiating directly and not using the United Nations as a blunt instrument against Israel.  This was President Obama’s position in 2011 and it should be his position today.”

#####

The Not-So-Great Man Theory

'GREAT:' Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: 'Confusion to Boney!'

‘GREAT:’ Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: ‘Confusion to Boney!’

The Washington Post has this item today, headlined “How James Comey and Loretta Lynch made Donald Trump the president of the United States.” Seems a bit of an overstatement, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The beginning is provocative:

This morning Sari Horwitz has what may be the most comprehensive account yet of what happened behind the scenes as FBI Director James Comey decided to essentially hand the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. It’s an extraordinary story, one that provides an important lesson that goes beyond this one election: Political events with sweeping consequences are determined by individual human beings and the decisions they make. That may not sound surprising, but it’s a profound truth that we often forget when we look for explanations in broad conditions and trends (which are still important) or theories about dark and complicated conspiracies that don’t exist….

So basically, Paul Waldman — who wrote this opinion piece — is coming down fairly firmly on the side of the Great Man Theory, as opposed to explaining events in sweeping cultural or social terms.

Or in this case, since the man in question is Comey and a lot of us are really ticked at him, the Not-So-Great Man Theory…

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey

 

Winter is Coming

The State House -- indeed, all of Columbia -- was completely invisible this morning from the 25th floor.

The State House — indeed, all of Columbia — was completely invisible this morning from the 25th floor. All you can see out this window are pale reflections of me and a few other things in the room. The clearest thing is the mirror behind the bar.

Scout wrote yesterday:

Is the cider named for your Great Grandfather? Let’s all drink lots of it because I hear Winter is coming (technically tomorrow, but I suspect it will really set in around Jan. 20).

And indeed I’d not have been surprised to see White Walkers coming out of that phenomenal fog this morning. Weirdly, there was practically none where I live, just a block from the Saluda River. But all the way into Columbia, it got thicker and thicker, and even more so after I crossed the river and climbed away from it toward the center of downtown.

From above, you couldn’t even see the city, as you can tell in the photo I took from the Capital City Club, atop South Carolina’s tallest building.

Can y’all remember a thicker one in these parts?

While we can, let’s have a laugh at the idea that Winter is Coming…

Perhaps it’s just as well the electors stayed ‘faithful’

Benedict Cumbatch as Richard III in "The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses."

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses.”

When I was editorial page editor at The State, I would from time to time go in to work of a morning all fired up to do something really out there, something that, to a less caffeinated person, might seem terribly imprudent, something that would not be good for the newspaper and its credibility in the long run.

And my colleagues — a smart, sober, sensible crew if ever there was one — would talk me down in the morning meeting. They’d grab ‘hold of my coattails and pull, steadily and relentlessly, until they’d dragged me back from the precipice. They were all like, Put the idea down and step back, slowly…

I sort of counted on them to do that. Because ultimately I’m a conservative sort of guy, even though I’d get these wild impulses from time to time.

I don’t have them to do that for me any more. But I have y’all.

If you’ll recall, I came in all charged up on the morning of Dec. 7 (an infamous date for following ill-considered impulses — just ask Admiral Yamamoto), and wrote “Electors, your nation needs you to be ‘unfaithful’.”

Filling the roles of editorial board members, y’all immediately started calmly talking me down. As Phillip wrote in soothing tones, “As much as I fear the coming Trump Presidency, though, this would be a terrible idea,” and went on to explain why. Dave Crockett, saying, “I have to side with Phillip on this one,” poured additional oil on the troubled waters.

And I immediately realized they were right, admitting, “Everything you say makes perfect practical sense.” And I thanked them, in my way.

In any case, off the blog (you’re either on the blog or you’re off the blog), out there in Meat World, the electors met yesterday and were meek and mild, and everything Alexander Hamilton did not intend them to be. In any case, no revolution. And it’s probably just as well, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment.

But to be clear, I wasn’t being a revolutionary. I was being, if anything, reactionary. I wanted to go back to the original spirit (since the original letter is no longer operative) of the Electoral College, in which the electors served as a guarantee that no gross incompetent under the sway of a foreign potentate — ahem — would become our president. I was invoking Hamilton’s sort of conservatism, extolling his mechanism for preventing something imprudent from happening. (I’m so much that way that, as I’ve confessed here in the past, while I fervently embrace the corniest, most cliched sort of patriotism, I often worry that had I been alive in 1775, I might, just might, have been, well… a Tory. I would have had a strong aversion against taking up arms against the duly constituted authority, especially over something as absurd as taxes. Shooting at my lord the King’s soldiers would have seemed to me to be tearing at the fundamental fabric of civilization. I’m talking about before the Declaration. After that, I might have been OK with it — Take that, jolly lobster!)

Anyway, though, y’all were right and I was wrong, and it’s just as well that most of the electors yesterday were too timid to do the right thing — I mean, to cause trouble.

And I’m more certain of that now than when y’all talked me down a couple of weeks ago. That’s because of two things I’ve spent a lot of time on recently — watching TV and working on my family tree.

First, there’s the TV watching… I’ve been enjoying “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” on PBS. It’s a three-part production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” parts I and II, and “Richard III.” And it’s pretty great so far (still awaiting that third part).

But boy, does it make you glad you didn’t live in those parlous times. Just to give you an idea of the political instability and its murderous consequences, so far:

  • King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, an unstable weakling (but a gentle soul), is trying in his own feckless way to hang onto the crown that his father — the “Band of Brothers” speech guy (see how all my posts connect up?) — left him when he was only 9 months old. He marries the French noblewoman Margaret, which looks like a good match but isn’t.
  • The Duke of York — father of, among others, Richard III — asserts that he should be king, and a lot of nobles decide he’s right and line up behind him. After all, he is a Plantagenet, and they held the crown much longer than these upstart Lancastrians.
  • There’s a terrible battle in which Somerset’s head is cut off by the York faction, which is just as well because he was fooling around with Margaret behind the King’s back. (He’s played by the guy who played the guy who was fooling around with Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” so I guess he’s typecast.) York and his posse have a great time tossing the head around and cracking jokes.
  • The followers of York rush to Westminster, where the King later arrives to find York literally sitting on his throne. The King is like, “Get off my chair!” and York is like “Make me!”
  • At this moment, Exeter, who’s always been one of the King’s main guys, says You know what? Maybe York does have a greater claim to the throne. And the King’s like, “What?”
  • The King offers a deal: If they’ll let him remain king while he lives, he’ll give up the crown on behalf of his descendants, letting York and his sons succeed him.
  • Some of the nobles tell the King he’s a loser and march off to tell Queen Margaret.
  • Margaret, who has a young son she was counting on being king, essentially reacts like, WTF!
  • She goes out and leads her own army against York, and cuts his head off, and puts it on a pike.
  • Then things swing back the other way, and… well, suffice to say York’s is not the last head to be used as a decoration.

Anyway, that’s Henry VI. The first two parts anyway, and part of the third. (I didn’t finish part 3 until after writing this.)

Then there’s the genealogy thing…

Over the weekend, I learned that I’m possibly descended from Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke — the guy who pretty much started the Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. (And even if I’m not related to him at all, the moral of this story still stands.)

This caused some Henry-and-Margaret-style tension at my house, for this reason: My wife’s maiden name is Phelan. The original Gaelic name is Ó Fialáin. The Ó Fialáins were the head honchos in County Waterford until a certain Norman lord came along and conquered and trashed their city.

The particular Norman lord who did that was, you guessed it, my great-granddaddy “Strongbow.” If he is my great-granddaddy — and even it he’s not, he’s the guy.

Yeah… awkward.

Strongbow was driven to this by circumstances. He had inherited the Pembroke earldom and lands from his father Gilbert, also called “Strongbow.” But Henry II — one of those Plantagenets — took them away from him because my ancestor had sided with King Stephen of England in a bloody dispute — a war, not to put too fine a point on it — against Henry’s mother, the Empress Matilda, over who would be monarch of England.

Thus dispossessed, Strongbow went over and did a deal with the Irish King of Leinster, who was having problems of his own, to go together and take Waterford. Which they did. Henry II, eager that these new Irish properties become the crown’s, did a deal with Strongbow in which he got his old title and property back. Which was good for him, but not so great for my wife’s folks in Waterford.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

For so much of human history, no one had much of a sense of loyalty to a country, much less to a system of laws. They couldn’t even be relied on to be loyal to a certain lord for long. Everybody was always looking for the main chance, ready to kill to gain advantage even temporarily.

Our 240-year history, our country of laws and not of men, is a blessed hiatus from all that. We may descend into barbarism yet — and yes, the election of a man who shows little respect for the rule of law is not a good omen — but so far the Constitution has held.

So maybe it’s safest not to tear at the fabric, even a little — even if, like Exeter, we can say maybe the law is on our side. Seeing York’s point of view and encouraging him in his claim did no one, including York, any good. Getting all legalistic in invoking Hamilton’s original intent could have wreaked a great deal of havoc as well…

The earldom of Pembroke came with this cool castle, so you can see why Strongbow wanted it back.

The earldom of Pembroke came with this cool castle, so you can see why Strongbow wanted it back.

Great images of Lynn’s Mama back during the war

Says Lynn: "Here is my mother (2nd from right) dressed in a way that would have suited General Patton."

Says Lynn: “Here is my mother (2nd from right) dressed in a way that would have suited General Patton.”

This is certainly the most awesome thing you’ll see on this blog this week.

Back on Friday when I took note of the 72nd anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge, mentioning my late father-in-law’s experience then and there (being deployed on the front line at the very center of the overwhelming German assault, he would be captured and spend the rest of the war in a POW camp), Lynn mentioned her mother’s experience thusly:

My mother was a nurse with the 95th General Hospital during the Battle of the Bulge, and was a member of Veterans of the B of the B until her death. She had some very sad stories, among them soldiers with terrible injuries from frostbite, along with the other wounds of war. She managed to be personally chewed out by Patton twice. Once was for not wearing a helmet, apparently a common event. The other was for being among the unit officers after they managed to get lost behind German lines for three days. I can’t imagine that anyone trusted my mother with a map. Very bright woman, hopeless with a map.

We were all glad that she shared that, and I asked her for pictures. Today, she obliged. Here’s her narration, slightly edited:

Lt. Tommie Dukes

Lt. Tommie Dukes

Just caught up with the blog and saw your request for photos. I have a few photos of my mother during the war… One [right] is a regular portrait photo that I’m pretty sure was made soon after she became an Army nurse. [Below] is one of my personal favorites — Mama and two of her friends on the Champs-Élysées the day of the parade for the liberation of Paris. A French shopkeeper came out and suggested that she might want to try on some frivolous things after all her time in uniform, and this is the result. As you can see, it is in uniform, plus. She had leave, but wasn’t actually supposed to be in Paris. She and her two friends couldn’t stand not being in the city for the big event and hitched a ride from the hospital. They tried to be inconspicuous, but a French general saw them and pushed them into the parade, so they ended up marching down the Champs-Élysées in front of the tanks.

What great stories, and even greater pictures!

Y’all know how I feel I was born in the wrong time, having missed the titanic events that shaped the world I grew up in. So now I’m jealous of Lynn’s Mom, who was There When It All Happened. (And yes, ere my antiwar friends tell me that these fun pictures are not what the war was about, I know that. I just wish I’d had the chance to Do My Bit when it truly mattered — I feel like a freeloader not having done so.)

Envious as I am, I wish I could have met her and thanked her for her service…

lt-tommie-dukes-2

 

Some of the TV shows that keep me from reading books

"Vikings:" Meet Ragnar Lodbrok, my 38th-great grandfather -- maybe.

“Vikings:” Meet Ragnar Lodbrok, my 38th-great grandfather — maybe.

This started as a comment, but I’ve turned it into a separate post.

Over the weekend, I confessed that I just haven’t been reading books the way I once did. One of the reasons, I’m humiliated to admit, is that there is so much compelling television these days. Some of the TV shows that have distracted me over the last year or so:

  • Boardwalk Empire – I’ve finished the first season and am taking a break before plunging into the second. I really like the way this is actually based on historical figures. And I never realized before what a slimeball Warren Harding was.
  • Vikings — I’m in the second season. This is tied to my genealogy obsession. Ragnar Lodbrok, the star character, is a direct ancestor of mine — if he existed. His sons are considered historical, and I’m apparently descended from one, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. But whether they were all brothers and Ragnar was their father seems less certain — he’s a figure in Norse folklore. Sigurd’s mom, Aslaug, may also be a fable.
  • The Last Kingdom — This is related, although fictional. It’s sort of a real-life alternative to Game of Thrones. It’s about the Viking conquest of all of England except Alfred the Great’s Wessex — the titular Last Kingdom. The hero is fictional, but historical figures a prominent characters, such as the aforementioned Alfred and Ubbe, the brother of Sigurd.
  • The Crown — We’ve watched all of that; look forward to another series. My hero is the stuffy Tommy, the senior aide who tries to keep everybody straight and make sure these silly royals do their ruddy duty — except Her Majesty, of course, who always tries to do what’s right.
  • Orphan Black — Taking a break from it after watching the first season. It was getting a little intense.
  • Mr. Robot — I’ve seen all of what’s available on Amazon for free, waiting for more. Rather silly in a political sense — full of anarchist ravings — but engaging. A plus is that the star is Rami Malek, who was so weirdly good as “Snafu” in “The Pacific.”
  • Fortitude — This offbeat murder mystery started off pretty good, but got downright weird. Oh, and don’t make the mistake of thinking you know who the hero is.
  • Okkupert, or Occupied — Speaking of series set in Norway, this one is actually in Norwegian. It was an engaging what-if about what happens after a relatively bloodless invasion of Norway by Russia.
  • River — This is a really good weird one. It’s about a British detective (actually, he’s a cop in Britain, but for some reason is originally Scandinavian) who talks to dead people — in the most calm, matter-of-fact way. But they’re not always terribly informative; he still has to figure out who killed them.
  • Longmire — Why’d they have to get an Australian actor to play a modern Western sheriff? I don’t know, but it works.
  • The Walking Dead — I haven’t watched the latest season to appear on Netflix, which means I’m two years behind the people who watch it the old-fashioned way, as it appears on broadcast TV.
  • The Night Manager — I’m a HUGE fan of the novel and ran out and BOUGHT the series as soon as it appeared — only to have it show up on Amazon Prime for free, so I feel stupid. It was good, although there were changes. One GOOD change was changing the hero’s case officer to a pregnant woman, which really worked. The BAD change was the ending, in which… well, I won’t give it away.
  • House of Cards — I have NOT been able to get into the most recent season. I watched one episode and turned away.
  • Grantchester, Endeavour, Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War — Just to toss some of my fave British murder mysteries into one item. I’m sure I’m forgetting some.
  • Poldark — Watched the first season, but just haven’t gotten into the second. This guy just keeps having the same tiresome problems.
  • The Man in the High Castle — I haven’t even made it through three episodes of the FIRST season. I was expecting something awesome like Len Deighton’s SS-GB (another book I’ve read obsessively over the years), but no dice.
  • The Wire — Loved it, but it kind of slowed down for me after about three seasons. The first two were awesome, though.
  • Wolf Hall — This may not count; it may have been more than a year ago. I should watch it again, though, because since then I’ve discovered that a bunch of the characters are apparently related to me. And let me say in my defense that I read both of Hilary Mantel’s books before watching this.
  • The Tudors — I try and try to get into this and fail. I like that the first character addressed by name in the very first episode is an ancestor of mine (diplomat Richard Pace), and I love Maria Doyle Kennedy (a Commitmentette!), but the soft-core porn approach is rather silly. And am I really supposed to believe that everyone in the court was in their 20s and looked like models?

OK, I’m tired of making this list, so I’m not going to get into “The Americans,” “Justified” and others. Additional shows keep popping into my head. Suffice it to say that I find TV very distracting these days…

"The Wire"

“The Wire”

Apparently, Franklin Graham thinks God hates America

As if this were not a bad enough time for America, the son of an evangelist I’ve always respected seems to believe the Almighty is out to get us:

Franklin Graham: It wasn’t Russians who intervened in election, ‘it was God’

Evangelist Franklin Graham doesn’t believe it was the Russians who intervened in this year’s controversial presidential election.

It was God, he declared Saturday in Mobile, Ala., during President-elect Donald Trump’s final public rally before the Electoral College vote Monday.

“Since the election there’s been a lot of discussion as to how Donald Trump won the election,” AL.com reported Graham as saying. “I believe it was God. God showed up. He answered the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people across this land that have been praying for this country.”…

Really? REALLY?

I don’t care what your politics might be: What sort of prayer could Donald Trump be the answer to? He wasn’t even what most Republicans wanted (he received about 13.3 million votes in the primaries, while more than 16 million cast votes for someone else), much less an answer to their prayers. Settling for a deeply flawed candidate isn’t exactly an occasion for hallelujahs.

Let’s unpack this a bit. A large number of evangelicals were prepared to vote for whoever opposed Hillary Clinton because like me, they oppose abortion. And I can almost, but not quite, understand their holding their noses and choosing Trump as the one person in position to stop a woman they regarded for whatever reasons as the Devil herself. (Just as I was willing to vote for her as the only person in position to stop Trump.)

But note that I said “almost, but not quite.” That’s because the only possible justification would be that they were single-issue voters, which I find it hard to imagine being. And even if I were, on the life-and-death issue of abortion, I would find it very difficult to see Donald Trump as an ally, since his commitment to the pro-life position is so transparently a stance of convenience. He obviously has practically no understanding of the issue, and could drop the position as conveniently as he dropped his previous one — something we’ve seen him do time and time again. If you don’t like a position taken by this guy, wait a few minutes.

So what is there that a man of God, or one who sees himself as a man of God, would see as worth celebrating here?

It just floors me.

But let’s look at what unites us. I can join him in this prayer at least:

What am I, if I’m not a reader of books?

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

Back when we were first married, my wife gave me a coffee mug that I deeply appreciated, to the extent that I never drank out of it, wanting to preserve it. It had a picture on it of a young boy sitting with his back against a tree and his nose in a book, with the caption, “The sky above and a book to love.”

That really described me as a kid, which I was touched by because she hadn’t known me then — she could just tell. That’s who I was.

But lately… I feel like I’m less myself.

Recently, I Tweeted out (with unintentional irony) an essay in the WSJ about how we all need badly to turn back to reading books:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions….

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page….

This brought to the fore one of the many perpetual guilt trips I live with: All the wonderful books I already possess — as a result of telling people I wanted them as gifts, and my loved ones acting upon that stated desire — and have not read.

Recently, I confessed that I still hadn’t read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — although I’d had it ever since Fritz Hollings insisted I must read it 12 years ago, and I put it on my wish list and received it soon after, and put it on the shelf.

Well, I’ve started it now, and have been reading it for several weeks, and it has all the ingredients of the kind of book I love — I keep stopping to read aloud good bits to my wife — and I’m all the way up to… Chapter 5. Hamilton has just joined Washington’s staff in the midst of the revolution.

Obviously, as fascinating as it is, I can put it down.

Awhile back — more than 18 months ago, I see — I confessed to y’all that while the First World War is one of those areas I really, really feel that I should learn more about, and I had started on it several months earlier and written about how awesome it was (especially that first chapter, which sets the scene), I still hadn’t finished The Guns of August.

Well, I still haven’t. I bogged down somewhere around the time that it shifted to the Eastern front (although I read enough of that to conclude that Tsar Nicholas’ government was too incompetent to run a lemonade stand, much less such a vast country).

When I mentioned that and several other things I needed to read more about at the time, some of y’all very kindly suggested some books to check out. And I was grateful, but at the back of my mind was this awful, nagging doubt that I’ll have the discipline to get around to reading them. The shelves of unread books that I really, really wanted and already possessed groaned with the combined weight of the books themselves… and my guilt.

And I was right. I still haven’t read them.

Sitting around my house and on my iPad, begun but not finished, are the Hamilton book and The Guns of August; The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of M16 — Life and Death In the British Secret Service, by Gordon Corera; The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough; The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, by Roy Adkins; Trotsky: Downfall Of A Revolutionary, by Bertrand M. Patenaude; A Tale of Two Cities; The Grapes of Wrath; and Moby Dick. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

All of them, with the possible exception of the Trotsky book (I’ve officially given up on that one), started with great promise.

It’s not that I don’t read. I read — or at least skim and dig into the stories that interest me — at least three newspapers a day, plus all the many items that social media draw me to. I suspect I read more news and commentary each day than at any time during my long newspaper career — because so much is immediately available.

And it’s not that I don’t read books. I obsessively reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, and occasionally some of my favorites by Nick Hornby, John le Carre (his early stuff, from The Night Manager back), Martin Cruz Smith and, yes, Tom Clancy. I can pass a pleasant moment with them and put them down, because I know that happens next. Ditto with faddish stuff from my youth, such as Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land.

And I occasionally finish a new book, the most recent being, let’s see… Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. Months and months ago, I now realize.

Why can’t I seem to commit to a new book, and see it through? I suspect it’s because of a number of factors, starting with all that time spent with ephemeral stuff via iPad.

It’s other things, too. I’ve gotten so obsessed with genealogy that I actually spend huge amounts of time on the weekends building my family tree. Several months ago, I had fewer than 1,000 people on it, now I’ve more than 2,600. And just this weekend, I’ve made some surprising discoveries: For instance, one of my apparent ancestors — who rebelled against King John and was declared an outlaw — may have been one of the inspirations for the Robin Hood legend. Really. So I find it hard to tear myself away from that stuff. I’ve learned a lot about dim corners of history I did not know before, just reading context on ancestors. But that reading, so far, has seldom gone deeper than Wikipedia.

The most humiliating reason of all is that, well, there is so much compelling television these days, sucking up my leisure hours. That is something I thought I would never write, especially as a reason for neglecting books, my lifelong love. But while broadcast television (with the exception of ETV and PBS) is a more wasteful wasteland than ever (with some exceptions — I enjoy “Bluebloods,” and don’t forget “The West Wing” was on broadcast), Netflix and Amazon Prime have almost enough offerings to occupy my evenings completely. And I just can’t seem to get around to canceling HBO NOW, despite my best intentions.

Still, I’m almost sure I watch less than most people. Nielsen reported a few months ago that the average adult American consumes media — using tablets, smartphones, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs — a total of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day.

Read that figure again, and think about it. It’s not a typo.

This is embarrassing. It’s actually worse than that. It’s an identity crisis. Who AM I, if I’m not reading books? Maybe the Internet has retrained my brain, making it less patient. For whatever reason, an occasional long-form magazine piece, in The New Yorker or some similar venue, is about as long as I go. And most of what I read is no longer than a newspaper column.

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But it’s disorienting. And I need to do something about it…

Some of the books I've lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

Some of the books I’ve lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

German attack in the Ardennes started 72 years ago today

on-the-way-to-the-bulge-12-2016

Bryan sent me the above photo a couple of days ago, with the comment, “Check out the heavy fog. It’s pea soup. It looks pretty darn cold, too.”

Yep, it was extremely cold in that time and place. According to Wikipedia, this is what the photo shows: “American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944.”

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

Four days earlier, the Germans had attacked the center of the American line with 20 divisions we didn’t know they had, much less that they were in that area. What followed would be the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in the Second World War, popularly called the Battle of the Bulge.  (Those 20 German divisions — 13 infantry, 7 armored — attacked a mere 8 Allied divisions, mostly American. By the end of the battle, the Germans would have 24 divisions in the fight, to our 30. Back then, a division usually included between 10,000 and 20,000 men. So, more than a million men were involved.)

The center, in the Ardennes forest in Belgium, was a quiet area. The American line there was manned by green American troops. It was a place to put them where they could get used to being in a combat area, living in foxholes under rough weather conditions, without being tested by heavy fighting of the sort that was going on to the north and south.

My father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan Jr., was one of those green troops. He had been thrown into the new 106 Infantry Division at the last minute before being sent up on the line.

The 106th was occupying the position where the very tip of the German spear struck on Dec. 16, and rolled right over the Americans. My father-in-law, plus novelist Kurt Vonnegut and thousands of other soldiers of the 106th, were captured and spent the rest of the war freezing and starving in German Stalags. Like the guys in the photo taken by the Germans, below.

This is how the war ended for thousands of Americans. The photo above shows the beginning of the American counterattack, which led to victory over the next month, and the breaking of the Siegfried Line.

When I get home tonight I’m going to hunt for his written account of Mr. Phelan’s experience, and scan it and post it…

ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45 Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anfänglichen Erfolgen müssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zurückziehen. Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten. (Büschel) 125-45

Dylann Roof found guilty

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… which in a way isn’t news, since it was a foregone conclusion. But it’s a tribute to the fact that we still live under a system of laws and not of men — innocent until proven guilty, etc. — which is reassuring in this post-election world in which so much that our Founders bequeathed us seems threatened.

Of the seven news outlets I just glanced at, five led with it, including both British outlets I looked at:

  1. The State — Dylann Roof found guilty
  2. NPR — Jury Finds Dylann Roof Guilty In S.C. Church Shooting
  3. BBC — Supremacist guilty of US church killings
  4. The Washington Post — Dylann Roof found guilty of all charges in Charleston church massacre
  5. The Guardian — Dylann Roof found guilty in Charleston church shooting

Only The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times led with other things. The Journal, true to its calling went with an item about the dollar hitting new heights, while the Times touted the latest in its series about the Russians tampering with our election.

In other South Carolina news, Steve Benjamin — of all people — had a meeting with Donald Trump. He says he thinks it went well. Sure — that’s what people say just before Trump gives them the Mitt Romney treatment…