Monday, September 16, 2019

Review: Jeff Shaara's Civil War Battlefields: Discovering America's Hallowed Ground

Learning about the US Civil War is tricky business. Zoom too far out, and you end up with collection of names, dates and themes that lack meaning. Zoom too far in, and you become overwhelmed by minutia. Finding a balance between brevity and detail is one of the primary reasons Jeff Shaar's Civil War Battlefields is such a remarkable book.

Shaar's text is written for those who plan to visit one or more of the major Civil War Battlefields. While I don't have these plans, his book still caught my eye while searching through my library's audio book collection. Because it was a library book, I figured there was no harm in giving it a listen. Man, did I discover a gem!

Shaar answers three questions for each battlefield: what happened, why this matters and what you should see. I skipped the last section of each chapter, as I wasn't at the battlefield. The what happened and why does it matter sections, however, are delightfully written and bring both the battle and war itself to life. During the what happened section I found myself alternately cringing and cheering as both military genius and ineptitude were on display. The why this matters section put the various battles in context.

One of the best features of the book is how Shaar's narrative ties the battles together. From the shocking carnage of Shilo, to the defeat at Petersburg that seals the fate of the confederacy, he uses 10 battles to traverse the 4 year arc that is the Civil War.

Shaar steers clear of glorifying either the Union or Confederacy. He highlights stories of bravery and ingenuity on both sides, and doesn't shy away from noting atrocities and missteps that each army carries out. His writing brings the events to life, and made for an audio book I couldn't put down.

I especially enjoyed using my new found knowledge to better understand Civil War events I was familiar with. Take Pickett's Charge. I've been to Gettysburg a number of times and I've walked the sacred ground that was the site of this infamous attack. On the surface, a 3/4 mile frontal assault of high ground seems absurd. Of course it's going to result in a bloody defeat, how could the Confederate attackers expect any other outcome?

Once I understood the battles that preceded Gettysburg, however, Picket's Charge seemed less insane. The Rebel soldiers through skill, Union General incompetence and good old fashion luck had managed to pull off a number of unlikely victories. In that context, to depend on these same forces again seems somewhat reasonable. However, this time the crazy military maneuver was just that, crazy.

If you're looking for a fun and approachable way to understanding the events of the Civil War, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Monday, September 09, 2019

2019 Backpacking Mini Reviews

At the end of last July Shira and I did a delightful backpacking trip in West Virginia. Here's some thoughts on new gear we experimented with; hopefully this can serve as useful intel.

Kelty Trailogic TN4 Tent

Verdict: Returned to REI

Shira enjoys backpacking and generally puts up with my crazy trail experiments. But one area where she puts her foot down is shelter. While I may ogle the ultralight 2 man tents at REI, or try selling her on the joy of tarps, she's adamant: a 4 man tent (or larger) is a requirement. Given how little space a 2 man, or even 3 man shelter gives, her request isn't that unreasonable. More importantly, year after year we enjoy having the extra space. Our gold standard for tents is the Euerka Timberline 4 Man Tent. It's the same tent I've been using since Scouts and it has more than proven itself. While I love the Timberline, every year I go on a quest to find a lighter, more backpacking friendly relacement. This year I discovered the Kelty Traillogic TN4 and convinced Shira to use it for our weekend adventure.

On paper the Trailogic is just about perfect. It's a few pounds lighter than our Timberline, stows more compactly and has a novel fly configuration that easily switches from full rain protection to full ventilation. Oh, and it was on clearance at REI.

Alas, a weekend using the Trailogic revealed it just wasn't going to make the cut. The main problem was getting into and out of the tent. The zippers kept snagging, and the lowered height combined with the rain fly placement meant that every entry and exit was a mini ordeal.

I so wanted to love this tent, but it didn't pass the weekend test. So back it went to REI and my search for the elusive lightweight 4 person tent continues.

Sawyer Mini Water Filter

Verdict: Feh. Probably not switching to a filter any time soon.

Since my days as a Scout I've relied on chemical treatment for water purification (back in the day it was iodine, these days it's Aquatabs). Thanks to an Amazon deal, I finally gave a water filter a try.

In the three days that we were on trail I went through the entire range of emotions with the Sawyer Squeeze Mini.

An hour into the hike I tried using the Squeeze for the first time. I scooped water into the bag, attached the filter and squeezed. Moments later pristine water was produced and our group rejoiced! This was magic! Tasty water, nearly instantly--what more could you possibly ask for?! I immediately started making plans: next year, each person would get their own filter.

As the trip proceeded, however, my love affair with the filter started to dim. By the next day, the filtration rate noticeably slowed. Did I need to backflush? That sort of, kind of, but not quite helped. Did I need to squeeze harder? When I applied even more force water started leaking from the sides of the filter. Then I noticed a gasket had come loose. I put it back, but wondered if'd broken something.

While this was going on, I purified a bunch of water with Aquatabs. The nasty chemical taste I expected never appeared.

By the end of the trip, I was so over the Sawyer Mini. I wasn't entirely sure it was working, and it took significant effort to use.

I know from various online discussions that the Sawyer Mini is plagued with issues and is not recommended. With that in mind, it may be worth trying another filter. But mostly I continue to love the elegance of chemical treatment. Who wants to fuss with potentially delicate hardware when a pill can solve the problem?

Sea to Summit X-Pot & X-Kettle

Verdict: These pots are awesome!

Between the larger group we were trekking with, my frustration with our new non-stick backpacking pot and a $20 credit we had at SeaToSummitUSA.com, Shira convinced me to buy the extravagant X-Set 33. These are two pots that thanks to clever use of silicone walls, neatly nest within each other.

In short, the pots are awesome. They were stable, gripped well to our stove and were convenient to use. I'm sure they aren't the lightest option for backcountry cookware, but they are almost certainly the most compact. Shira loved the flexibility of being able to heat up water in two different pots. So much of what we do involves boiling water and pouring it into containers, so having a kettle designed for this task was ideal.

The pots aren't cheap, but as luxury items go, they deliver on all they promise.

Opinel #6

Verdict: Love it.

I've tried a variety of knives for use with younger / newbie campers. The Opinel #6 is currently the winner. The ring locking mechanism is far safer than types that require you put your finger in the path of the blade or don't have a lock at all. And after having tried the Opinel #7 and #8, I know that the #6 is the ideal size. Throw in the tremendous quality to cost ratio and you have a knife that's hard to beat.

Various Freeze Dried Meals

Verdict: Some hit, some miss.

To spice things up this year, we tried a number of REI bought meals for our second night's dinner. (First night is and will always be hot dogs roasted over a campfire). Backpacker's Pantry Fettuccini Alfredo and Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce were both winners. Mountain House Chili Mac was rated as good, but apparently was too cheesy (who knew this was possible?!). GOOD TO-GO Indian Vegetable Korma had a fine flavor, but didn't properly rehydrate. The result was a soupy mess. The same thing happened for the Backpacker's Pantry Mango Sticky Rice. We had such high hopes for this desert, yet it was a dud.

Store-bought meals are definitely pricey, but they were tons of fun. It was eye opening to see that some of the meals could be such flops. Still, we'll learn from the ones that didn't work and will try again in the future.

Hoosier Hill Farm Big Daddy Mac Mix

While the rest of the group ate store bought meals, I decided to experiment with cold soaking my dinner. I combined Minute Rice and TVP with equal amounts of water. After 45 minutes, the mixture was full rehydrated. I then mixed in my secret ingredient: 2 tablespoons of cheddar cheese powder. I didn't bother adding more liquid or olive oil. Once mixed together I had a premium tasting meal. It was a cold soaked success! This stuff is a keeper.

RovyVon A5 Keychain Light

The RovyVon A5 is a sort of Swiss Army knife of flashlights: it's ridiculously compact, contains a primary light, two side LEDs, a multitude of lighting modes, and a glow in the dark handle. One has to wonder if it's a pinnacle of engineering, or a gimmicky mess. After using it on the trip and having it on my keychain in general, I've decided it falls more towards the pinnacle of engineering side of the spectrum.

The main light has a solid selection of brightness choices. The sidelight is useful as a red-light-blinker when I find myself walking on dark roads or trails. Even the glow in the dark handle is useful, as the faint glow was helpful for finding the flashlight in a dark tent. The light comes with a clip that let's me attach the flashlight to the brim of my hat. I've even had success using the light and clip as a pocket dangler.

The main issue with the light: run time. I was surprised that after a 45 minute run the light was struggling to stay alive. Given the small size of the light, I suppose this isn't a surprise. Something's going to give. Still, it's a truly useful light and for keychain duty it's ideal.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (the play)

Last week, before we entered full Tennis Fan Mode, we spent the day playing New York City Tourist. We took a delightful stroll hike through NY's Central Park, marveling at the shear diversity of the place. We ate astoundingly good cake pops from William Greenberg Deserts and of course, took in a Broadway Show.

The show was To Kill a Mockingbird and it was quite good.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in High School and have vague memories of enjoying it. In fact, one its quotes has stuck with me all these years:

“Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don't already know the answer to, was a tenet I absorbed with my baby-food.”

Most of the plot, however, has long since been lost to me. This meant that I went into the play expectation free.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame was responsible for adapting the book to a play, and you could see his fingerprints all over the production. For one thing, the quick and witty dialog felt right out of a West Wing episode. Between the actors' accents, the quick pace of the play and the inability to pause and rewind the scene, I found myself literally on the edge of my seat trying to follow along. Every time the audience erupted in laughter I'd mentally scold them for making it harder to follow the dialog.

Sorkin also deployed another device that I enjoyed from the West Wing: he had the characters openly discuss some key bit of information in a way that makes you, the viewer, think you're supposed to understand it. And yet, you don't--at least not completely. Ultimately, the explanation is delivered to you as the story closes out. For a period of time the viewer is left in mental limbo. While it seems strange to praise a writer for creating confusion, I think it demonstrates a degree of trust in the audience. It also makes for an ending that gratifyingly snaps together.

As for the content of the play, when the first act closed out, all I could think is: Wow, this is so a commentary on the era of Trump. Though I wasn't exactly sure why that was. As the play finished and I attempted to process what I'd just experienced I found this same thought coming back to me again and again.

I'm sure Harper Lee wanted me to wrestle with questions about the need to "crawl around in someone's skin" before we can understand him or her; or how our past conflicts can continue to haunt us; or how can we make a just and equitable society from one so unjust. Yet, I kept coming back to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

I think the connection boils down to this statement uttered by Atticus in the play. I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

Surely the people of this town wouldn't sentence a black man to die for a crime he obviously couldn't commit... Would they?

And of course, they do. Given perjured testimony and a healthy does of bigotry, the jury is all too willing to ignore facts and send an obviously innocent man to his death. It's exactly this lying and favoring what feels right over facts that's a hallmark of the Trump administration.

We saw this when Trump claimed a caravan of migrants was a dangerous invasion. We saw this when Trump claimed an investigation into Russian election interference was a hoax. We saw this when Trump claimed millions of people voted illegally. And we've seen it countless other times as the president continues to repeat lie after lie.

In this context, To Kill a Mockingbird is a less about wrestling with a racist past, and more a cautionary tale of what happens when lies and wishful thinking replace facts and reason. Like the book 1984, its plot has become all too prescient.

Politics aside, the play really was well done. If you have the chance to catch it, you should.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

US Open 2019: French Fries, Pastries and Also Great Tennis

This past weekend we made our annual trip to the US Open Tennis Tournament. While Friday's matches were good, Saturday's were great.

On Friday, we saw Federer, Djokovic and Serena all dominate their opponents. We watched Kei Nishikori take on Alex de Minaur. And while we had high hopes for a Kei comeback, Alex never really let him get control of the match. In short, it was solid tennis but nothing extravagant.

This changed on Saturday when we watched Taylor Townsend take on Sorana Cirstea. Townsend has a reputation for playing serve and volley tennis, a style of tennis that commentators will frequently remind you is distinctly old school. Townsend won her first set in the most difficult way possible: she kept losing games and then breaking back to recover. While her rushing the net strategy wasn't working for most of the first set, she stuck with it. By the second set she had tuned her strategy, and was crushing it. It was a thing of beauty to watch.

It's not just Townsend's on-court strategy that I loved; she has great between sets schtick as well. For one, she busts out a journal to review, a move that implies everything is going to plan. But that's nothing compared to her other move: jumping rope. While her opponent was seated between sets, she grabbed a jump rope and went to town. Her message: Who's tired? You're tired? I'm not tired. Nope, I've got energy to burn.

After that match, we made our way to Ashe to watch Andreescu beat Wozniacki, another unlikely victory.

We closed out the day by watching Monfils take on Shapovalov. This was exactly the kind of 5 set battlefest one hopes for. While it looked like Monfils would take it in 4, Shapovalov pushed it to 5 sets and kept fighting all the way. Monfils, for his part, never lost hope and took the longer match in stride. After Monfils prevailed we heard him speak at the post match interview. Monfils has a reputation for being a showman, which at times has made commentators suggest he doesn't take the game as seriously as others. So I was a bit surprised when this veteran gave such a humble, authentic and entitlement-free interview. I've always been a fan of Monfils, but now I'm even more so.

Overall, it was two great days at the Open. Other highlights include: walking past the massive crowds at the East Gate to enter without waiting in line at the South Gate. Stopping by Iris Tea & Bakery to pick up delicious baked goods to nosh on throughout the day. Savoring waffle, Korean and Vietnamese style french fries. Scoring a free cooling towel that was perfect for keeping the sun from baking my legs. And taking Amtrak instead of driving to NY for a less-stress and more-leg-room travel option. Good times!

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