Sunday, May 27, 2007

Why read military history?

I have not read a book in two months. That is extremely rare for me, but not unprecedented; for example, in the fall of 2005 I went four months without reading one. But yesterday I purchased two books at Barnes & Noble, one of which, in particular, is an excellent choice for interrupting my hiatus from reading. The book in question is The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, by James D. Hornfischer, an intense, gripping, page-turning account of the Battle of Samar in October, 1944, which was part of the overall Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of history's most decisive naval engagements. When I take the bus to downtown Phoenix to return to work on Tuesday morning, after the Memorial Day weekend, this volume will accompany me -- along with the other book I purchased that day, which is titled Picture Yourself Dancing. The juxtaposition of a work on military history with one about dancing will probably amuse a few people, although that is not my intent; but as I have grown older, my range of interests has constantly expanded, a fact illustrated by this double purchase.

Nobody who knows me reasonably well has ever accused me of being a warmonger, and in fact my personality and temperament more closely resemble Gandhi's than Patton's, although the tough, volatile, and profane general was my favorite hero for many years. But while I am not a warmonger, I am also not a pacifist in the generally understood sense of the word -- I fervently believe, for example, that America, with its freedoms and its way of life, is worth fighting and even dying for if the occasion requires it, which most certainly was the case during World War II in particular. I have always been able to relate well to veterans of that conflict, perhaps in part because I am a bit of an anachronism myself and have a mindset more like theirs than that of my own generation.

With that as background, I know that over the years some people have been puzzled by my fascination with military history. But last week, Rich Lowry of National Review courteously took upon himself the task of explaning it for me, and he did it much more effectively than I have ever been able to. Read his column here.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bopping to a New Beat

Two weeks from today I will celebrate my 54th birthday. I came of age during the 1970s, but I have always been a late bloomer, which perhaps will explain this: Two nights ago -- Thursday, May 24 -- I danced to disco music for the very first time in my life, even though disco has been passe for 25-plus years and is now regarded as a bit of an oddity. The occasion was the regular Thursday-night practice party at the Fred Astaire studio here in Chandler. The staff had designated this particular evening as Disco Night, and part of the festivities involved all of the attendees learning a line-dance variation of the hustle. The following evening I was back at the studio for another reason, and asked one of the instructors to help me remember all the steps to this dance; and thus it was that I spent a few minutes in the studio's reception area, practicing the hustle with a young instructor who could not have been older than 25, and thus not even born during the heyday of disco. It was fun, but alas, this doesn't come naturally to me, and I have to work very hard at it.

In connection with the foregoing, I stopped at Fry's supermarket on my way home from the bus stop yesterday and spent a few minutes browsing through their magazine section. In the current (May 28) issue of Time I found this "classic letter" to the editor, published in that magazine on September 8, 1975. The author was none other than one Ginger Rogers, a resident of Eagle Point, Oregon:

"If the Hustle, the dance with partners, is a sign of things to come, I embrace it. Dancing with a partner is prettier and friendlier than just standing opposite someone thinking your own thoughts, doing your own thing. It is a social grace, nicer than saying hello and it is fun to exchange bons mots while dancing with an old friend or someone you have just met.

"Above all there is something joyous about dancing. There is a sense of taking part and a sense of accomplishment as one fits the steps to the music. It is too bad that the name of the new dance is not more romantic, but then I guess the young people would not like it."

A few months ago, I might have read this and moved on to something else without giving the letter another thought, much less taken the time to post it on my blog. But as I have learned during the past four months or so, as I have been taking lessons both individually and with my wife, truer words have never been spoken.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This is worth looking at!

I uploaded this picture to Convivio earlier today, and I recommend it to one and all. It reveals a lot about the people involved in the photograph, as well as the culture of Islamic countries -- specifically Iran, where it was taken.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A sign of the times -- for me, at least

I bought a CD about a week ago. This one was the soundtrack to the movie "Pearl Harbor," which was released six years ago this month. At that time, I took Colin to see it on the big screen. We both agreed afterward that the movie wasn't all that good, and that it certainly did not deserve the hype it had been given. "Pearl Harbor" centered around the Japanese attack -- an event which has always fascinated me -- but woven into the historical drama was a three-way romance involving two Army pilots, played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, and an Army nurse, played by Kate Beckinsale. The film's essential flaw was that the disaster-cum-romance formula that had been so successful in "Titanic" just didn't work for "Pearl Harbor."

But to get to the point: I buy a lot of movie soundtracks, and while "Pearl Harbor's" score, written by Hans Zimmer, was okay, I never included it among my favorites. Why, then, did I buy it now, six years after seeing the movie? Well, it was because not long ago I started taking dance lessons with my wife -- and there is some halfway decent waltz music on the "Pearl Harbor" soundtrack. Seriously, that was the one and only reason I made this purchase, although I have since discovered that Vanessa really likes the Faith Hill song on that CD.

Speaking of Vanessa, there is an unusual development in her life as well, although I'm going to wait and see if it becomes permanent. She has never displayed any interest in history until very recently, but last night I took her to Border's, where she actually spent part of the time browsing among the history titles. She told me she wants to read some history this summer, I suppose because she recognizes her almost total ignorance of the subject and, to her credit, wants to do something about it. Vanessa showed particular interest in two books; one was the diary of Anne Frank, and the other was a heavy tome about the occupation of France from 1940 to 1944, titled something like The Dark Years. That's the kind of book I might read myself, but I thought it was too heavy for Vanessa at this point in her life, and she agreed. I do think she should read Anne Frank, however, and I told her so.

With all of that as background, an interesting discussion ensued. She had seen a copy of Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, and asked me about the connection between the book and the motion picture of the same title. We spent most of the next half-hour talking about the Battle of Iwo Jima, at first while we sipped Italian sodas at a table as I drew a map of the island on a piece of scratch paper, complete with Mount Suribachi at one end and the three vital airfields south of Suribachi, on the wider part of the island. I told her it was a small, barren, ugly place, nearly devoid of vegetation, that smelled like rotten eggs and was only about as long as the distance from Border's to Schlotzsky's restaurant -- a comparison she could obviously relate to, as these are two of our frequent hangouts. I described how the island was defended by some 22,000 solidly-entrenched and well-prepared Japanese, nearly all of whom were killed during the battle, along with more than 6000 U. S. Marines. I told her about the flag-raising, and the fates of the six men who participated in it and appeared in the famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal. We then went to another part of the store, where I found a recently-published coffee-table book about the battle, lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, most of which I assume had never been published before. It contained several maps and aerial photos of the entire island, and Vanessa saw enough of those that, regardless of how little she might know today about geography, I think she will always be able to recognize Iwo Jima and identify its most prominent landmark.

We went home soon afterward, and Vanessa told her mother what we had discussed. And it sort of amuses me now to think that I actually spent a half-hour or so talking about the Battle of Iwo Jima with my 13-year-old daughter, who until now had probably displayed even less interest in history than I have in the weekday-afternoon TV soap-operas. I'm not sure what sparked her interest, but I am certainly not complaining, and I hope it continues and grows. I've told Vanessa that she doesn't need to become a history enthusiast like her dad if that just isn't her thing, but that I do believe one should have a basic knowledge of the subject in order merely to be a good citizen. Perhaps she has taken some of that advice to heart.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Girl dancing

Girl dancing
Originally uploaded by gwilmore.
I took this picture Wednesday night at a dance performance at the junior high school Vanessa attends, and was tickled to learn a short while ago that it had made the Explore page on Flickr. Of the 150 or so pictures I took that evening, this one was by far my favorite.