Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Great Fourths

Note: This is the fourth in a monthly series reviewing my list of the greatest symphonies in western classical music.

Johannes Brahms’ brilliant life as a composer yielded only four symphonies among a host of other great orchestral and chamber works. All of his symphonies are noteworthy but, for me, the Brahms Symphony No. 4 ranks as his personal best and the greatest of a competitive field of Great Fourths.

The Brahms Fourth was one of the first pieces of classical music I bought on vinyl back when I started my classical music collection around 1980. When I hear it my mind drifts back to earlier times that somehow resonate in memory, vague recollections of listening satisfaction in various life situations.

The first movement is my favorite. It is an impassioned effort, beautifully orchestrated. The strings slightly dominate, but there are several moments when the horns and, particularly, the winds are prominent. The overall experience is a sense of easy confidence. It is optimistic without being too sweet. (Though Wagner disliked Brahms for his supposed light-weight sweetness and thinly layered style.) The first movement is very balanced and dramatic.

The next movement is also strong, though much more somber and relaxed. Unlike his other symphonies, which took longer periods to complete, Brahms finished his Great Fourth after about a year of composition. It premiered in 1885 and was immediately popular. It has never lost its favor.

The third movement features a theme from a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is a memorable part of the symphony. The final movement holds up well with the rest of the work, giving it a strong, emotionally complex finish. The work is very heavily influenced by Beethoven. At no point more so than about two-thirds of the way through the finale and from there pretty much to the finish. In some respects the Brahms symphonies are what Beethoven himself might have done with a larger orchestra and a more sophisticated audience.

Anton Bruckner wrote a Great Fourth that compares very favorably with the Brahms. His “Romantic” Symphony is a rich, sophisticated, emotionally satisfying large piece lasting some 70 minutes. The symphony begins lightly, in growing strength, rising triumphantly about two minutes in with an inspiring crescendo. Buckner’s orchestration is much more layered than Brahms, but none of his themes are quite as catchy. Still, what an incredible work.

This symphony was part of a noteworthy moment of history. The Berlin Philharmonic performed it April 13, 1945 under the direction of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler while the overwhelming Soviet army was poised only 30 miles away. It was the final performance under Nazi influence and was broadcast over the nation. Hitler would be dead in about two weeks. The concert hall was packed despite the danger of Russian air strikes around Berlin. Afterwards, the audience was offered complimentary cyanide tablets as patrons filed out of the performance.

The second movement is both complex and stately, a generally slow pace. The third movement is a theme based on the call of a hunter’s horn. My favorite movement is the finale. This movement is so vast, lasting over 22 minutes, that it would require a post by itself to describe. Suffice it to say that it is a richly orchestrated, multi-themed, triumphant progression to a magnificent yet surprisingly subtle climax. Very satisfying. Though composed in 1874, the Bruckner Fourth was constantly revised until 1888.

The Great Fourth from Tchaikovsky is an entertaining wonder. Like my experience with most of Tchaikovsky’s work, it has a certain seasonal quality about it that is difficult to describe. Tchaikovsky is winter to me. I feel airy in this work, light but serious, rational yet essentially joyful and free. It begins with a bold horn fanfare but that quickly gives way to what is more typical in this symphony, a lyrical theme handled delicately, altered by moments of boldness with the orchestra. The second movement is probably my favorite of all movements of all other Great Fourths mentioned in this post. It is so great that it outshines the rest of the symphony. Afterwards, the symphony is finished off by a brief third and quick fourth movement which really can’t match the brilliance of the first two movements. To that extent the symphony is a bit unbalanced but the strength of its first two movements more than compensates.

The symphony was met with great criticism in its time. It was labeled “semi-barbaric” when it premièred in New York City. Today it is considered part of the standard repertoire. Tchaikovsky was at his best when he composed symphonic (more so than chamber) works including his concertos and serenades. With his Fourth he shows us a varied tapestry of at times forceful, at times gentle, at times intense musical themes that, on the whole, captures your attention and immerses you in itself.

Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony is a superb example of a classic, romantic symphony. In this regard it makes a great companion with Schumann’s Third. Both are measured and romantically constructed classics. Mendelssohn’s Fourth is comparatively brief, technically challenging with a great deal of catchy themes to hook the listener. There is no better example of this that with the symphony’s opening movement which is very pleasant to enjoy. This happy movement is part-march, part-celebration. This is followed by a reverent movement based upon a religious ceremony Mendelssohn had witnessed in Italy (which is part of the reason for the title of this Great Fourth). The symphony is very balanced between sections of the orchestra. The third movement richly features all orchestral sections. The brisk fourth movement slowly builds to a mild urgency, almost racing at a gallop near the conclusion. This is another symphony which, like the Brahms, caught my ear early on in my musical appreciation and of which I have repeatedly enjoyed listening to for most of my life.

The Mahler Fourth makes the list. It is his most accessible work and where everyone unfamiliar with Mahler should began their appreciation of him as a symphonic genius. It is also, perhaps, my least favorite Mahler symphony precisely because when I listen to Mahler I expect an emotional spectrum and a multiplicity of overlapping themes that is not sentimental. This symphony is his most sentimental work. This Fourth is actually an appendage of sorts to Mahler’s massive Great Third. The final movement of Mahler’s Fourth was a work for soprano that ended up being discarded from the Third. Mahler spent the summers between 1899 and 1901 composing the first three movements that setup the fourth.

The first movement makes me think of Christmas time for various reasons. The second movement can serve as nice background music to some occasion fitting its soft expression. The third movement, weighing in at almost 22 minutes, is pleasant to listen and is at times very sweet. It is the highlight of the work and worth listening to by itself. The soprano movement is marked Sehr behaglich (Very comfortably) and is a song narrating a child’s impressions of heaven, the lyrics as naïve and innocent as the rest of the work. If you consider how Mahler labels the other three movements you get a sense of how this symphony is meant to be experienced. The first movement being Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Moderately, not rushed), the second In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste), and the third is Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly). In ending with a song, the symphony simply fades in the finale and concludes quietly.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Down on the Farm

Kyle Rose is one of the few highlights so far this season for the Rome Braves. He is about to connect with that blur of a ball for a base hit in this pic. I like the old-fashioned way he wears his socks. I'm very conservative about all things baseball.

Each year there are a handful of things I try to do in order to fully validate my life. One of them is to have a couple of hot dogs and a couple of beers at a baseball game.

Got my ticket punched on that one last night when my family had the pleasure of watching the Rome Braves (Atlanta's Class A farm club) get pummeled by the Kannapolis Intimidators (White Sox team) 9 – 3.

In many ways I enjoy minor league ball more than major league ball, especially since the 1994 player’s strike and the beginning of the Steroid Era of baseball. The guys down here play with a lot of hope and sheer joy for the game. They are hungry because they haven’t made it yet. The financial aspect of the game hasn’t ruined everything yet. They all look like “normal” guys, not the bulked up uberplayers that you see on many major league teams. Class A ball comes closer to the purity of the sport because it is still considered a sport at this level, not “entertainment” like games in the Show. If baseball is entertainment then I am just a consumer. But, if it is still a sport then I can be a fan.

I’d rather be a fan.

Anyway, you can’t beat fun at the old ball park and last night was no exception, even if the game was a blow-out after the third inning. This year’s Rome team so far has shown little in the way of hitting and even less pitching. We got to experience the full range of their mediocrity last night. Starting pitcher David Hale has a long way to go if he’s ever going to make it to the majors. Six earned runs in five innings work was not impressive.

A wannabe. This may be the only pitch you will ever see David Hale deliver.

Even less impressive (but more noteworthy due to the extent of the ruin) was the first (and possibly the last) minor league appearance of middle reliever Andrew Wilson. His line of two-thirds of an inning with a strikeout, a walk, a base hit allowed and two earned runs doesn’t fully reflect what we witnessed. I’ve never seen a pitcher hit three batters in one inning (one guy in the head) before manage Randy Ingle grabbed his hook and got the wild guy out of there before he killed someone.

The highlight was getting to see Rome left fielder Kyle Rose play. Rose came into the game hitting .396, the only Rome player batting over .300. He looks very comfortable out there and made some good plays in the field. Almost every year there is some player on the field in Rome that has a decent chance of making to the majors. I have watched Brian McCann and Martin Prado play in Rome in past seasons. Jason Heyward did it in 2008. Right now, Rose looks like the best Rome has got this season.

Rome has a first-class stadium and state-of-the-art scoreboard and facilities. 20 ounce draft beers are $4.25. Every staff member and attendant is highly professional. There is no difference facility-wise and concession-wise between going to a game in Rome and going to a game in Atlanta, except the prices are lower and everything is smaller, more intimate.

There were other moments of note. It is always zany between innings at minor league games with various promotions and silly shenanigans. Bouncing giant beach balls through the crowd with lotto numbers on them. When the music stops you grab the ball and if that number is pulled out of the hat you win…I forget what exactly. Watching selected crowd member perform stupid acts on the big screen. Like guessing where the baseball is amongst three thoroughly shuffled ball caps on the big animated board. Jennifer got her picture taken with Romey, the Braves mascot. My daughter took her boyfriend (gulp!) and they were featured between an inning on the “kiss-cam”. It was just a peck, not a smooch. Good girl.

We had great seats. Four rows back between home plate and the Braves dugout.

All-in-all, even though the game itself was a rather dull experience, the atmosphere was a lot of fun. Even going to a bad ball game is better than no ball game at all. And I enjoyed those hot dogs, so to speak, long after we’d arrived back home.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

For Earth Day...the Sun

Happy Earth Day.

Judging from the behavior of some of my neocon colleagues, today is a great day to poke fun at the global environmental movement, make crude jokes, and (once again) tell me
how global warming is all fiction.

Sometimes it is all I can do just to smile and hold my tongue. But, we non-neocons have
our environmental humor too.

And Earth Day is not without its element of consumerism as well (a sure sign that it is starting to become part of mainstream consciousness).
Wal-Mart is suddenly big on Earth Day. The release of the Blu-Ray/DVD of Avatar was purposely scheduled for today. (I'm not going to purchase it, however, because even though I think the film is visually stunning this release has no bonus features - which means a "collector's edition" might be out by Christmas.)

The idea of celebrating the natural world and our efforts to preserve it in spite of humanity's long history of exploitation and disruption of the air we breathe and the water we drink and every other conceivable resource on the planet seems worthy to me. Almost sacred. But, to others it is just another example of
weak-minded liberal intrusion on our God-given right of "dominion over the earth." One of the stupidest aspects of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

The neocon perspective seems to be, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, pollution in the defense of domination is no vice. Idiots.

At any rate, on this day when people like me pause to reflect upon their respect for the natural world, on the writings of Thoreau and
Rachel Carson and others, I find that my thoughts extend beyond the earthly realm to our neighboring star.

Yesterday, NASA released
some extraordinary images of the Sun taken from a new telescope, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. This sort of stuff fascinates me. In both video and still photo imagery, we now see our Sun in ways no one ever has before. I feel fortunate to be around to witness it.

Some 93 million miles away,
our Sun is so distant that we can't even see it as it is in this present moment. We only see it and feel its life-giving warmth as it was 8 minutes ago. This distance provides us with a basic measuring unit for astronomy...1 AU.

Distances like that have always contained some sort of inspiration for me. Obviously, not because of how infinitesimal the vastness of space makes our own lives and planet. If anything, within the human realm space must be judged in the context of the rather essential prejudice that human beings and our environment are important.

The inspiration I find in the distances of space, rather, comes from simply being able to know them and to experience them as a great openness to which we are, however small, directly connected (we are all made of stardust) and can somehow intimately share. For me, space is not something abstract and cold and gigantic so much as it is a cherished experience of who I am as a person.

The new imagery of our Sun is something I appreciate not as something apart from me, though it clearly is rationally something that is happening without the least relation to me or, indeed, to our Earth as a whole. Rather, I am appreciative of these images strictly for selfish reasons. They enhance my joy of being alive and of knowing and learning.

To that extent, seeing our Sun in this new light touches the perpetual youthful qualities of my Being. That is likely an alien experience for the typical citizen of the American mall crowd. But, I won't be too critical of that today. It's
Earth Day, after all. And time for the neocons to make the stupid jokes.

Monday, April 19, 2010

OOTP: The Art of Believable Possibility

Last Tuesday I downloaded the latest version of Out of the Park Baseball and started playing it. I posted last summer (see July 13, 2009) about how I buy the new version of OOTP every baseball season. Then I can simulate managing any baseball club from any season in baseball history…or play out the current season complete with actual minor league rosters and accurate players on the disabled list on opening day of 2010.

OOTP allows you to control a baseball team at any level. You can be the General Manager and make trades, work the financials, sign players - or you can be the Head Coach and manage each player position, manage games, set the batting orders, arrange your pitching rotation and bullpen. You can also be both GM and Coach. You can even manage a team in the minor leagues if you want.

Once into a season, OOTP spits out literally hundreds of unique news stories covering the action throughout the league. This helps create the feeling that you are part of a "real" baseball season. Once started, a season evolves (as you are managing a team) by the rules of a fairly realistic text-based computer model. Your players are assigned ratings for everything from level of greed to injury proneness to hitting left-right splits, bunting ability, arm strength, etc. Pitchers are rated for their stuff, movement, and control in addition to dozens of other ratings.

The game engine then simulates a realistically random baseball universe. It becomes almost a role-playing game. You can fully employ your knowledge of baseball on a variety of levels and control decisions in a simulation that feels like an actual baseball game.

Because it is ratings-based rather than statistically-based, the randomization can slowly change baseball history. Although each historic player can be imported into the game with very accurate ratings for their actual career stats, within the OOTP game engine there are so many different kinds of ratings and so many different in-game randomizations (though all perfectly within the realm of possibility – an injury here, a bad outing there, a strong hitting streak, etc.) can affect the ratings.

In other words, OOTP is not tied to stats. It is not about replicating the stats of all the players over a given season. Although, even this is an option by selecting a checkbox that forces the game to recalculate all player ratings based on each season's stats rather than through the OOTP development model. I don't play with that option. I prefer to start with historic stats and then allow the random nature of the game to unfold. This allows the game to play out much less predictably than other stat-based games like, say, Diamond Mind or APBA Baseball.

The ratings for each player start changing the moment you begin simulating in OOTP. Odds are they will stay within reason around the historic abilities of the actual ratings (Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds both have extraordinarily high potential power ratings, Sandy Koufax and Tom Glavine have really great movement potential, for example). But, if an injury occurs, it affects the ratings negatively based on the nature of the injury (yes, the game model is intelligent enough to distinguish that an arm injury will harm a pitcher more than a pulled hamstring, for example). If a pitcher wins a bunch of games in a row, pitching deep into games, then that pitcher’s stamina rating will bump up and his individual pitch ratings will rise a bit as well. Or, that player might be traded to another team or become a free-agent and go for more money on a team that they never played on in real life.

Everything is in flux for each player in the OOTP game engine. This makes "real" baseball simulate more or less as it might play out...with slight differences. Over the course of a season it is possible that that difference will allow a team that historically finished, say, third to actually win the division in simulation. Over the course of many seasons (OOTP even allows you to sit back and watch it simulate baseball history from 1901 season by season if you want) these differences start of add up to an alternate but believable baseball universe.

The historic baseball heroes are usually the heroes in OOTP. But some heroes might be missing over time. And a few guys that were just mediocre in real life will rise to the status of hero. OOTP allows this to happen and over long periods of time (say two decades) it can lead to some interesting twists on history. It is the same within a given season. A player who had a great season might simulate as so-so while some guy that was on bench to begin with might end up as a starter late in the season a turn out to have very hot bat with a great glove too. It is not that unbelievable. Generally speaking, every baseball season has stories like that. It is just with OOTP you can't predict what those specific stories will be in any given simulation.

And it is this believeable randomization combined with the suspension of disbelief in the context of a universe of simulated details that makes OOTP a satisfying experience. A bottom of the ninth play at the plate for the win makes you just as excited when you get into managing a season as it would in real life. Deciding whether to walk this batter and face the next one is just as complicated for you as it would be in a real game situation. Pesky, extended losing streaks are no less irritating.

To acquaint myself with the 2010 season, I simmed it several times while kinda roaming around in the game and spotting how things have changed or what new features had been added to OOTP 11. Of course, I always manage the Atlanta Braves. In my first sim the Braves finished 82-80 a dozen or so games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. My second sim the Braves finished one game behind the division winning Florida Marlins. In that sim the Phillies got off to horrible start and never recovered. A believable possibility. In a third sim of 2010, the Braves gave the Phillies a run for their money but came up a couple of games short. They won the Wild Card race, however, and were eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the play-offs.

Jason Heyward performed great in all three sims, hitting over .290 each year. Of the Braves starting rotation Tommy Hanson won at least 15 games each season, the most consistent Brave starter. Billy Wagner, once one of the game’s best closers, had one good season with 32 saves, he was injured and missed most of another season (which hurt the Braves), and he blew a bunch of save opportunities in the third sim, two against the Phillies themselves which made the season more difficult. I guess it is reasonable to assume that any of those results could be likely.

The 2010 Braves have a strong starting rotation, but they have very little depth. They cannot afford any major slumps or injuries if they are going to seriously contend. That’s pretty much on the mark with the reality of things and you can see it in the game.

At the “tactical” level the Braves have a decent pitching staff and pretty good hitting. They have the potential to be very competitive. Comparing them with the uberwealthy elite New York Yankees you can see that the Yanks, as usual, have a few more good players. All the Yankee pitchers have high stuff ratings. They will get a lot of strikeouts.

Screen overlaps of the opening day 2010 pitchers for the Yankees and the Braves as seen in OOTP. These are ratings based on historical statistics. The higher the number, the better the rating. Duh. From a color-coded perspective, blue is a "star" talent rating, green is excellent, yellow is good, orange is average, and red is of questionable worth. You can sort these screens by any column, in this case the players are in order by their overall value rating as a pitcher.

Meanwhile, the Braves are actually deeper in terms of contact hitting, even though the Yanks have more star-caliber hitters.

The same ratings scheme for the hitters. These are arranged in order by Contact Rating, the ability to put the ball in play. You will notice other ratings for Gap Power, Power, ability to avoid strikeouts, L/R splits, Speed, Steal ability, etc. The game tracks an enormous amount of data and individual player traits, including their personalities.

Being able to play out the season over and over like this is a great way for me to familiarize myself with the talent each major league ball club has this year. I will be playing this game a lot over the next few weeks.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jason Heyward and All Our Hopes

Jason Heyward had a big time hit for the Atlanta Braves today and turned a loss into a win. It is little things like this that add up over the course of 162 games. I hope Heyward can keep it up. Big things are certainly expected of him.

The Braves have a really good pitching rotation and decent team-wide hitting. Can
Billy Wagner be the closer he used to be? Can Chipper Jones stay healthy and play great hot corner? Can Yunel Escobar become a leading NL short stop? Can Martin Prado be a leader? Can Brian McCann remain consistent? Can Lowe and Hudson carry the load? Can Jurrjens and Hanson live up to their potential?

So many questions in April. Nothing's happened yet and yet it is all unfolding in front of our eyes. What will be the story of 2010? Will the Braves be part of it? Game by game. Take it game by game.

This is
Bobby Cox's last season. I like Bobby Cox. He's a fighter. And he's smart. I think he is one of baseball's great managers. But, others would disagree. Plenty of Braves fans don't care for Cox. Fourth winningest coach of all-time. Go figure. Bobby's got a good team this year. Without major injuries this team could compete. I wouldn't count the Braves as a play-off contender right now at the start of the season.

But, I wouldn't count them out either. They aren't the Washington Nationals, after all.

Because there are players like Heyward. Rookies. New to the Show. Feeling the rush for the first time. That can be contagious. So it makes me hopeful. Maybe Heyward is for real and, even better, he's contagious. I'm a baseball fan, after all. And it is April. Hope springs eternal.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Our Lady Banks Rose

We planeted this rose bush about ten years ago. It has become very invasive in a beautiful luscious kind of way. It crowns a couple of our hollies and the privet where they meet. An explosion of thousands of tiny creamy yellow rose pedals stretching several yards across and up to about 20 feet high.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Venus and Mercury are Alright Tonight

Venus and Mercury off my front porch tonight about 9 p.m. Mercury is the dimmer object located about 4 o'clock from the much brighter (though more distant) Venus.

Last night Jennifer and I spent a long time after the sunset watching the stars slowly come out as the orange glow dissipated into the dark, clear night. I knew Venus was the brightest object in our view to the west. I also knew the constellations Taurus and Perseus were out there too. I noticed a star that didn't seem to belong. Perhaps it was from a constellation I didn't know about. So, I checked the internet.

To my surprise, the star I was looking at near Venus was, in fact, the planet Mercury, which I have only consciously seen a few times my whole life. Mercury is usually low to the horizon and only visible for a few moments around sunset. You rarely get a good chance to see it.

But, three days ago Mercury reached its greatest point of elongation in the night sky. It is now partnered with Venus for the next couple of weeks. Mercury is roughly 80 million miles away tonight. Venus is about 140 million miles away. These distances vary, of course, depending on where the planets are in their respective orbits.

The feeling of these distances as a living experience rather than as just abstract numbers is something I've always connected with and is part of my fundamental attraction to astronomy. I see these planets with my naked eye as clearly as I would see a bird in flight or an oak tree on a distant ridge. The vastness of our solar system is a source of wonder to me.

So, tonight I took advantage of yet another clear twilight and snapped my first pic of Mercury.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Theft of Southern Symbolism

Well, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell stepped in it with both feet. Another in a recent string of GOP miscues. Plenty of people around to blast him for having the audacity to proclaim Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery.

"Confederate" and "slavery" are synonymous, you know. But, I've posted on this misguided contention before. Blacks are hurt by the attempt to commemorate southern honor, thus
the present debate. The democrat's politics of inclusion is often as misguided and distorted as the republican's politics of fear.

I voted for President Obama. I do not consider myself racist. Last weekend, in anticipation of the "
Fort Sumter Day", I placed my Confederate flag on display from my front porch. This would be my freedom of speech, if nothing else. It will remain there until July 4th to be replaced then by the Stars & Stripes.

Among the many articles and blogs
assaulting Gov. McDonnell (of whom I am no great fan, he's a neocon after all), a staff editor for The Atlantic (a magazine to which I subscribe and highly admire) made the statement: "Revisionists like to pretend that slavery didn't cause the Civil War..."

On the contrary, the academic "revisionists" of the last three decades have steadily argued that slavery was the primary and, generally speaking, only cause of the Civil War. An equally untrue assertion.

But, more to the point of this controversy, the contention that Confederate History Month
must inherently include slavery, disunion, and the ultimate destruction of the south is symptomatic of the slow, continual theft of southern symbolism. It is, simply put, just another form of prejudice to state that the significant military aspects of the War Between the States, specifically the military accomplishments of, for example, the Army of Northern Virginia cannot be discussed or recognized or honored or appreciated in any way without being linked directly to the evils of slavery. To imply instrinsic worth and value to the Confederacy as a "grand military revolutionary attempt" is "unacceptable."

It should be pointed out that Confederate History Month is overwhelmingly a military recognition. It is meant to highlight the south's military efforts that brought it so close to victory before yielding to the Union's military prowess that eventually lead to southern defeat.

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago...." -
William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

To suggest that the Confederacy cannot be honored militarily, that, say, Pickett's Charge cannot be remembered without being tied to the enslavement of a people strikes me as myopically absurd. This is particularly absurd when it is well-known among historians that the vast majority of southern soldiers and commanders did not own slaves nor were they primarily motivated to fight by the institution of slavery. The insistance upon linking all things Confederate with slavery is clearly a form of prejudice in itself, as exhibited by President Obama's sense of self-rightoueness. Let us have a dialog on race in this country. But, only when everyone is willing to admit that none are without their prejudices. None.

The mass of humanity is perhaps most equal in their individual prejudices.

The symbols of the Confederacy, for generations following the conflict, were defined by former Confederates as symbols of honor. Southern culture at the time was dominated by a distinctive, perhaps even neurotic,
sense of individual and collective honor. There were more duels fought in the south than in the north, for example. Just as dueling seems incomprehensible to us today, so does the sense of honor that lead to the cultural behavior.

Southerners wishing to recognize that sense of honor and its extensions to the conflict, to the fact that 2% of the southern white male population died in the war, to the fact that around 25% of the surviving male population was wounded in the conflict (
see "Casualties of the War" here), feel completely threatened now by the "revisionist" attitude that all symbols of this culture at this time cannot be interpreted in this light any longer. They must be interpreted as symbols of bigotry and racism. This would not set well with any people or culture. But, especially for southerners who still wish to uphold this rather antiquated sense of honor, being forced to redefine cultural symbols results in a reactionary mentality that is no less powerful today than it was in 1860.

(At the risk of sounding incendiary, perhaps Black History Month should include a dialog on inner-city violence, children out of wedlock, and pervasive blue-collar crime. Let's make all "celebrations" more "truthful". Surely, if you can't separate Confederate history from slavery and disunion, you can't separate Black history from the urban jungle and specific disfunctional family concerns. That's equality isn't it?)

But, that's traditionally not the intent of such activities. Unless you are a southerner, apparently. Southern Pride is inherently evil and shallow compared with Black History Month, Women's History Month, American Indian Hertiage Month, Hispanic Hertiage History Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Family History Month, etc. ad nauseum...

The great differentiator here is Nietzsche's classic
master and slave morality. These other celebrations are largely in recognition of victims obtaining a measure of dignity (while reserving the right to perpetually define themselves as victims, of course). Whereas, the Confederacy was about a culture striving to maintain its pre-existing identity in the face of national change.

It is inevitable that the honorable basis for Confederate History Month and other such occasions fade with the passage of time. Symbols invariably become just signs in the Jungian sense and eventually lose their original, intended meaning. History is littered with such instances.

At the heart of this controversy, just as in the conflict itself, slavery is a flashpoint, a medium of convenience for reducing the true complexity of the events. The real controversy is the on-going struggle by white southerners to be respectful to their heritage and to place honor above slavery, above the feudal revolt against industrialized society, above romantic agrarian values opposing the materialistic rationalism rising in the more educated north. All of these issues and more caused the original conflict. But today's conflict, the war about the war (as it were), is over who gets to say what remembrance is all about and whether or not the creators of certain symbols are allowed to define what those symbols mean...or do others get to reinterpret all meaning and call it "acceptable."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Out of Horus and Eostre

He was born of a virgin, begotten by the supreme God. His mother was Meri-Mariam-Mary. His earthy "father" was Seph or Joseph, who was of royal descent. He was born in a lowly place after having been announced to his mother by an angel. His birth was heralded by a bright star and more angels, near the winter solstice, witnessed by shepards and visited by three wise or profound beings.

The ruler of the land tried to have him murdered in his infancy. He received a rite of passage at age 12. He only lived about 30 years. He was baptized by a holy man who was later beheaded. He was tempted by the devil upon a mountain top, but he resisted the temptation. He later assembled a small band of disciples and preformed such miracles as walking on water, casting out demons, healing the sick and making blind men see. His key sermon was held upon a mountain top.

Later, he was crucified along with two thieves and laid to rest in a tomb. After three days, he was resurrected from the dead, this miracle was discovered by women caring for the tomb. His role is the savior of men, part-human, part-God. He is commonly depicted as an infant in the arms of a virgin and is known as "the anointed one."

His name is Horus.

Most Christians are unaware that "Easter" is a word derived from a pagan fertility goddess. Easter comes to us on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. It is a lunar-based festival. It is highly likely that the timing of Easter after the equinox was due so as to allow European pagans (particularly large Germanic tribes) to hold their traditional fertility rituals while still attending Christian Easter festivities held at the end of the fertility celebrations.

The Judeo-Christian heritage is very much history-based. I do not doubt that a man such as Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. But, virtually all of the teaching and traditional wisdom of the ancient Near East, though history-based, was recorded and communicated inside acceptable mythical traditions that were many centuries old. To say the Hebrew bible is a history book outside of the mythical traditions of the entire region in which it was conceived strikes me as rather shallow.

Everyone can believe whatever they wish or need to believe, of course. That is their individual freedom. The individuality of the freedom of religion perhaps makes it our best example of why freedoms are individual and not collective.

Personally, I have discovered during the course of my life that the desire to believe something does not make it true. And just because you have a thought or feeling that you later find validated through a source unknown to you at the time of your original experience doesn't make that experience any more or less "true" or "meaningful" or "insightful". It is just a coincidence. My own belief is that even coincidences are karmic in nature. But, that's just me.

Was the Jesus story based upon the myth of Horus? Probably not directly. But, the history of the region was always wrapped in rather common myths of the region. Significantly, nothing was written about Jesus as Christ until two or three decades after his crucifixion. This is not conjectural, it is historic fact. The initial transfer of teaching took place in an oral tradition. Apparently multiple traditions even at this time.

Cultures borrowed from one another that way and the Jewish culture was no exception to outside cultural influences. Nor was the Greek culture that later served as the catalyst for the rise of Christianity.

I think it is more accurate to postulate that there is some Horus in the Jesus story. And the timing of easter was originally just another way for the church to attract pagans with the greatest fertility story of all...the rather child-like promise of life after death granted by a god who became human for awhile.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Touring the River of Death

The Second Minnesota Monument on Snodgrass Hill.

Yesterday, I took Jennifer’s dad to the Chickamauga Battlefield National Park. Over the years, I have visited there several times and I have read extensively about the battle. But, in the last decade I had not been there and had given it little thought. It was nice to delve into the battle again.

Located less than an hour from my home,
Chickamauga was the second bloodiest battle of the War Between the States – after Gettysburg. Out of roughly a total of 125,000 troops engaged in the vicious fighting about 35,000 were killed, wounded, or ended up missing. Far more casualties than Americans suffered on D-Day.

Popular history has it that Chickamauga means "river of death" in Cherokee. Jennifer’s dad had never been to the battlefield so I thought it would be a nice treat for him as part of his birthday. We have a shared interest in military history.

He seemed to genuinely enjoy the trip. We spent about two and a half hours on the battlefield. We took
the basic driving tour and I talked about everything I could remember about what was happening on which day as we ventured through the battlefield.

Although there was heavy fighting on September 19, the driving tour really focuses on the more decisive second day of the battle. On that day Union
General William Rosecrans made a mental blunder just as General James Longstreet attacked the hole conveniently placed in the Union line by Rosecrans ordering Thomas J. Wood’s Division out of line to patch another part of the Union line that was, in fact, solid. Though Longstreet planned his attack well, the fact he hit the hole in the Union line was pure coincidence.

We stopped to see the part of the Union line where the mix-up occurred. All the monuments helped us get a feel for where everyone was and how the fighting and movements took place. Early spring is a great time to go to Chickamauga because you can still see through the woods to monuments that will be hidden in foliage in a few more weeks.

Chickamauga is also
one of the first Civil War National Park’s. There are many, many monuments on the battlefield, some placed their by the actual participants in their old age. The locations are very exact and the Park Service has kept the woods and fields basically covering the same area as they did at the time of the battle. Chickamauga is an excellent preservation of a bloody American historical event. If you know the story you can see with your mind’s eye how it unfolded.

We went over to the extreme Union right flank which was protected by
John Wilder’s Cavalry Brigade. This was the only brigade-sized unit to be fully armed with Spencer repeating rifles in the US Army in 1863. There were many regiments with repeating guns in the northern ranks. But, Wilder was the first brigade. In 1864, it became common for the US to arm cavalry brigades with repeaters, particularly in the Army of the Potomac.

To stop for a moment and get really geeky in a hawkish sense...The standard was for every fourth man to hold the horses of the other three in a dismounted cavalry attack. What Wilder did on the afternoon of September 20, 1863 was to attack a Arthur Manigault's Brigade. Seeing the breakthrough of the Union line, Wilder attacked the charging Confederates by riding a distance of about 1,000 yards. He then dismounted his 2,000 men, put rifles into 1,500 while the other 500 held the horses and fired seven rounds rapidly into the Confederate line before most of the Rebels got two shots back at them. They attacked like yellow jackets, causing great casualties while receiving few. Wilder then remounted and rode back to the height and reloaded. There was no secondary attack. Wilder had inflicted enough chaos into Longstreet's men that they could no longer catch the retreating Yankees in the open field.

We climbed up the
85-foot Wilder Memorial tower and got a scenic overview of where much of the fighting took place. Wilder was positioned on a rise behind a small ravine overlooking Glenn Field, a very large open area where a lot of back and forth fighting took place. I acknowledged this on a beautiful sunny, clear spring day. It was about 11 AM at that time, temperature was in the high seventies headed to the mid-eighties. Felt great.

Then we headed over to
Snodgrass Hill where General George Thomas cobbled together a steady line that held off late day Confederate assaults and protected the part-rout, part-retreat of the beaten Union Army. Along the way I was telling Jennifer’s dad about General John Bell Hood being wounded in the arm at Gettysburg and then in the leg less than three months later at Chickamauga. I tried to recall where Hood was wounded on the battlefield but we missed it driving through. We decided to ask a ranger later about it. Along the way to Snodgrass we saw the South Carolina monument overlooking Dyer Field.

On Snodgrass we hiked a short distance over to a nice looking monument which turned out to be the
2nd Minnesota Regiment. The hill is filled with markers and monuments. There are even some markers showing specifically where some regiments ended and other began through the Union side of the line. The Confederate line lies in the woods and is dotted with small monuments marking the “high-tide” for specific regiments in the southern attack for the day.

I was disappointed we had missed where
Hood was wounded. So, having completed the driving tour, we headed back to the visitor’s center and asked a very helpful young ranger to direct us to the location on the field. Turns out it was where I thought it was, back at the markers for Hood’s headquarters and Longstreet’s attack on the edge of Dyer Field. I was paying more attention at the time to the South Carolina monument in the distance.

Anyway, we also inquired about the number of
acorns we saw in the various Union 14th Corps markers and monuments. It was an influence from Union troops transferred west from the Virginia theater. The Army of the Potomac had adopted the policy in 1862 of designating each corps within it not only numerically but symbolically through various signs. The 14th Corps adopted an oak acorn. They did not rout from the field. They retreated in good order at the end of the day, again thanks to Thomas’ stand against Longstreet on Snodgrass Hill.

We backtracked to the southeast edge of Dyer Field. The distracting but commanding South Carolina monument is positioned in the northwest corner in the distance on the height. Here was the location of Hood’s Division headquarters. The initial Confederate attack on Snodgrass was repulsed and disintegrated into disorder. Hood was rallying and reorganizing his men on horseback when he was hit in the leg and removed from the line. The leg would later be amputated. Literally, John Bell Hood gave an arm and a leg in 1863 for the
Lost Cause.

Jennifer’s dad was a bit tired and hungry at this point so he didn’t make the hike with me. He read interpretive markers along the roadside. The sign directing tour participants toward the marker about 200 yards into the woods is missing. The pole is there, but no sign. Anyway, there is a trail, easy to walk. I stood there on the edge of the woods for awhile. Looking out into the field and the bright clear sky on the edge of the treeline. There was no breeze.

We had a nice lunch in which I enjoyed a couple of strawberry ice teas then headed back home. I had to pick up some groceries and mow the yard yet. While mowing your mind drifts from thought to thought until, after awhile, you realize you weren’t thinking about anything at all for a moment there. No different from meditation. But, before I got to that moment when I wasn’t thinking about anything, I was thinking about the day and about Chickamauga.

It is wonderful to live in a nation that has some appreciation for special places. I didn’t watch the Ken Burns series on it, but I think our National Park system is a wonderful idea. Public lands to preserve natural beauty and/or historic significance is America's best idea.

I was thinking of all the different times I’ve gone to Chickamauga at all my different ages. From my teens I’ve visited there 4 or 5 times, just not much recently. It is a serene space today, punctuated with icy cold historical and military interpretation. You can think about the battle in detail or you can let your eyes drift through the distance on top of Wilder’s tower, wondering what that peak is to the south and if that high plateau in the distance to the west is Lookout Mountain.

Note: I forgot to take my freakin' camera.