About That Obelisk . . .

During our recent trip out west, I had the great pleasure of devouring a new book on a fascinating topic imminently and instantly familiar to anybody even vaguely associated with my alma mater: the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition by Rear Adm. James McNeal, SC, USN (Ret.) and Scott Tomasheski (Naval Institute Press, 2020) provides the first in-depth exploration into how a nondescript looking 21-foot-tall obelisk at the heart of the Academy campus (“The Yard,” as we know it) has come to carry such an immense significance to countless midshipmen that it takes only the utterance of a single, simple word to instantly evoke an intensely complex set of emotions related to their shared Navy experiences.

That word is Herndon. It’s the name of a monument honoring a 19th Century captain who went down with his ship, which is special and memorable, of course, though the Yard has many other monuments of greater visual grandeur, and honoring equally admirable heroes. What separates Herndon from all of the other iconic statues, buildings, relics and markers about the Academy is the fact that 1,000ish plebes (freshmen) swarm and climb it each and every May, formally marking the end of their physically, psychologically and emotionally grueling first year in Annapolis. That task is greatly complicated by the fact that the monument is thoroughly, disgustingly greased with various unsavory unguents before the climb, top to bottom, and by the fact that the plebes have to remove a “dixie cup” sailors cap from its apex (which is typically glued and/or taped in place), and replace it with an officer’s combination cap, while being hosed down by upper-class midshipmen, ostensibly to cool the scrum, but, you know, not really.

It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Sure it does. Most great traditions are. But let me tell you: it’s an amazing thing to see, a whole lot harder than it sounds, and it serves as an unparalleled portal of transformation for those who experience it, “Plebes No More” once that combo cover rests upon Herndon’s peak. The emotional heft associated with seeing a class collectively celebrating the end of a truly brutal year of insanely rigorous intellectual and physical training is infectious and intoxicating, a messy explosion of joy, relief and gratitude unlike anything most folks are likely to see or experience elsewhere. It was thrilling to go through at the end of my own plebe year, of course, but also thrilling every year after that to watch subsequent classes tackle and achieve the long-awaited goal that linked them inexorably with those who had passed through the greasy crucible before them. It’s also popular with those who were never plebes themselves, a truly unique spectator event that brings out locals and travelers year after year to share in that magic, muddy moment of transformation and release.

Admiral Jim McNeal and Scott Tomasheski have done a superb job in researching, organizing and writing Herndon’s tale, tapping historic documents and contemporary written accounts, and conducting extensive interviews about all facets of the climb experience and its evolution over the past century. As plebes, we were all required to know an immense collection of “rates” (arcane factoids about everything Navy), and to spout them on command when prompted, usually just as we had put big pieces of food into our mouths at our squad’s dinner tables, or while we were hurrying to avoid being late for class, or formation, or for any of the other obligatory commitments that filled our days. So, ostensibly, I should have a lot of information at my disposal about the Herndon Monument and Climb, but McNeal and Tomasheski’s book made it screamingly, fascinatingly clear how little I (and likely most other midshipmen and Navy alumni) really did know about such a significant part of our psychological lives and experiences. For example:

  • Just who was Commander William Lewis Herndon, and why does he have a monument at the Naval Academy?
  • How in the world did climbing that particular monument become the rite of passage required to end plebe year? And when did it happen?
  • Tradition says that the midshipman who removes the dixie cup and replaces it with the combo cover will become the class’ first Admiral. Has that really happened, and if so, how often?
  • Every class has completed the climb, but the times to do so vary widely. Which class did it fastest, and how? And which class took the most time, and why?
  • What, exactly, is that thing greased with?

The Herndon Climb also makes for compelling reading in its organization and construction, with a skillfully-crafted, multi-part account of what Climb Day feels like for its participants, interspersed with a variety of explorations into specific climbs and climbers, or specific themes associated with the climb over time. To their credit, the authors don’t shy away from some of the more problematic issues associated with the tradition, e.g. Commander Herndon was a great explorer and sailor with some deeply problematic beliefs, women have often been treated exceptionally poorly during the climb, and it’s certainly a dangerous undertaking for little-to-no discernible operational benefit to the Academy and its charges. On the flip side, McNeal and Tomasheski have uncovered some truly glorious and inspirational stories about the ways that certain classes and certain plebes embodied the very best and purest aspects of Navy culture on Herndon Day, honoring the institution, its fallen members, their colleagues and community alike.

A personal note related to the book: Admiral McNeal was a classmate of mine at the Naval Academy, and then at Naval Supply Corps School after we graduated. We’re both Marine Corps brats, but took different paths into Annapolis, different paths in our post-Supply School careers, and different approaches to Herndon Day itself: Jim was at the base of the pyramid, a key player in the successful ascent, while I (accurately) recognized that I was neither big nor strong enough to be at the bottom of the pile, nor tall, slender, light nor nimble enough to be a top-tier scaler, so I just did my part in the masses around the monument. Those differences notwithstanding, Jim and I both feel highly bound to the Academy and to our classmates by our shared experiences, and both of us went on to work on behalf of the class in leadership and reunion roles after we left Annapolis in 1986.

The Herndon Climb also documents the story of one plebe who achieved the cap swap in honor of his father, a fallen aviator from the class of 1985 who was a company-mate of mine, as well as a perceptive interview with the ’86 classmate who completed our most arduous day together. Having seen and cheered Midshipman Kevin “K.J.” Delamer getting the job done for our class in May of 1983, a week before my 18th birthday, it was very interesting to read his thoughts and reflections about the experience all these years on, especially his frank admission of not being exactly the most squared away plebe in our class, a trait I certainly shared, and then some. (Spoiler Alert: K.J. did not become the first Admiral in our class).

Those personal connections add a layer of richness to the narrative for me, but even without them, this is a wonderfully readable book for both those who have experienced Herndon and those who have not . . . yet. I suspect that anyone who reads this book without having seen the event in person will make a point of doing so in the years ahead, perhaps more than once. It certainly made me want to return for another Herndon Day, and I consider that effective, if unstated, call to action to be a core sign of a great book, one that has stuck with me since I finished it, giving me plenty to think about and remember.

I heartily recommend The Herndon Climb to all Naval Academy alumni, parents and friends, as well as those who are curious about and interested in the ways that rituals and traditions evolve to embody the cultures that birth them. It is a fascinating case study, teasing universal truths and tales with ethnographic skill from an ostensibly arcane and highly localized event. Kudos to the authors for a job most well and effectively done, and to the Naval Institute Press for bringing their work to market. (You can click the cover image below to acquire your own copy. You won’t be disappointed!)

Little Grotesques: B. Catling’s “Only The Lowly” and “Earwig” (2019)

Earlier this year, I posted one of my occasional Five By Five Books articles about The Vorrh Trilogy (2015 to 2018), by B. Catling. In my review of that immense series, I described the collective feel of the books thusly: “Big, audacious, immersive, surreal, grotesque, written in gloriously florid language, and screamingly unique in just about every way imaginable.” Right up my alley, in other words.

Catling has followed that sweeping epic of the strange with two unrelated novellas: Only The Lowly (released in March 2019 by Storr, a small, independent publishing house) and Earwig (published in September 2019 by Coronet, a “major” marque, which handled The Vorrh series as well). I was able to get these newest Catling books in their American editions (Lowly on Kindle, Earwig in paperback) over the past couple of months, devouring both of them quickly and eagerly upon receipt. I’d describe the pair exactly as I did The Vorrh Trilogy above, just substituting the word “Little” for “Big” at the beginning of the quote. I’d also focus specific attention on the key word “grotesque,” which is defined thusly:

Noun Usage: A style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.

Adjective Usage: Fanciful, bizarre, absurdly incongruous, departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical.

Per those descriptors, Earwig and Only The Lowly are grotesque, and grotesques, indeed, works of art within which the borders between the human, the supernatural, and the bestial are blurred, where physical and moral caricatures caper and prance, where ugliness of word, deed, visage and intention abound, and where deliberate narrative incongruities and unexpected plot eruptions make it impossible to establish any sense of comfort or contextual certainty throughout the books’ queasy runs. They’re wonderfully wobbly little bites of curdled literary cream, sauced with sticky drizzles of sweet and savory and possibly hallucinogenic unguents and spices, then fermented in dark broths of bubbling unease and discomfort. Both books are more than capable of causing strong revulsion upon first sample, but once a reader has acquired a tolerance for their uncanny and unnatural tastes, they become deeply desirable and most memorable, indeed.

While the emotional, intellectual and psychological experiences of reading Earwig and Only The Lowly may be similar, the books do present their pleasures (?) in very different ways. Earwig is set in Belgium and France in the years after World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic, and its plot is linear, for the most part, laid out from the view of an omniscient third-person narrator. It tells the story of a hateful caretaker and his strange ward, and if the very concept of “mouth horror” evokes a shudder of revulsion in you, then Aalbert and Mia’s tale should have you wriggling most uncomfortably in its unrelenting and graphic obsessions with oral disasters. Only The Lowly, on the other hand, knits together ten short, interconnected, first-person narratives by Bertie (most chapters) and Cara, a lumpen married couple living in a biologically and culturally bizarre beach city, perhaps of our world, perhaps after our world, perhaps neither or both. Like Earwig, it’s rife with squishy discomfort and disgust-inducing depictions of strange social, sexual and sensory happenings, delivered in a post-English patois somewhat akin to that deployed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, were it to be processed through an Edward Lear absurdity filter.

Neither of these little books are comfort reading, needless to say. But they’re far richer for that, pushing emotional buttons you didn’t know you had, forcing consideration of the inconceivable, and using the tools and techniques unique to great writers to lift readers into flights of deliciously noisome fancy. Great, grotesque miniatures from a writer who has emerged in recent years as a personal favorite, at bottom line. I recommend you read them both, if you dare . . .

The Madness Of “With Which I Am Well Pleased” III

With so many things to be stressed, obsessed and/or depressed about in recent months, those little escapes, thrills and distractions that can brighten the hours and days are to be cherished, without doubt or question.

First and foremost in our family’s case, of course, is that none of us have had any medical emergencies to contend with during this our anno virum. Marcia and I were additionally pleased when Katelin called us earlier this week to tell us that she had received a very nice work promotion, demonstrating that her chosen work-remote situation in Nevada is clearly acceptable and sustainable to her employer, atop the satisfaction that she and John are feeling with their new Western lifestyle. We gave ourselves Six Parenting Gold Stars for that one. Very pleasing.

Marcia and I continue to have our own work opportunities to keep the mental juices and financial benefits flowing, I continue to find things to enjoyably think and write about, and we both continue to prioritize daily woodland and countryside walks of five-miles-plus to keep the body tuned along with the brain.  (I’m also cycling when I can to further that physical component, with ~650 miles covered over ~15 rides since May). We will be heading back up to Minnesota next week to see family in socially safe circumstances, so another change of scenery in Marcia’s beloved home state will feel good, for sure. Keeping on with keeping on, at bottom line. As one does.

Beyond those macro existential things, there are lots of smaller thrills that have delivered me the joy juice of late as well, so it seems fitting to provide a third installment to my “With Which I Am Pleased” series, building on this one and that one. As with the earlier posts, I feature 15 items in various categories, and commend and recommend them for your attention and (maybe) enjoyment as well. May they distract you from distress, alleviate your duress, and/or prepare you to safely impress your social (distant) circles with hot fresh content. Got recommendations for me in return? That’s what the comment button is for. Hit it!

FILMS

MUSIC

WEBSITES

Going Medieval

Daily Abstract Thoughts

The Diversity of Classic Rock

BOOKS

Five by Five Books #11: “The Maze of Transparencies” (2019) by Karen An-hwei Lee

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? The Maze of Transparencies is set in a (near?)-future agrarian barter economy civilization, the denizens of which live in a foggy state of highly-localized, wholly-disconnected disorientation that has emerged following the collapse of the world’s data networks, and hence perhaps the world itself. The slim novel is narrated by Penny (short for “Penelope the Predictive Panoply of People’s Data”), a sentient, orphaned data cloud, who closely orbits Yang, the human who developed her, even though the two can no longer communicate outside the sphere of Yang’s dreams and memories. Yang is a gardener, a thinker, and a cook, and he possesses a black bento box of algorithms that was left behind by the Nine Muses of the Junta, who ruled Uberasia until it and they vanished in the aftermath of the data collapse. The box of algorithms describes seven harbingers of happiness, each embodied by an individual human deemed by the Muses to be catalysts for an antidote to the dysthymia that eats at the collective data-saturated soul of the species. Yang seeks to better understand each of the harbingers, visiting and interviewing each human manifestation of their virtues, with Penny as  witness and chorus to his journeys.

Who wrote it? Karen An-hwei Lee is a poet, critic, novelist and translator with an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and a PhD in British and American Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, who is currently serving as an administrator at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. Lee has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment of the Arts, the MacDowell Colony for the Arts, the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Yoshiko Uchida Foundation, and the Beinecke Foundation, among others. She has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, and was the recipient of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, again among many other honors. Lee’s published works include two novels, three collections of poetry, a book of literary criticism, and she has appeared in numerous literary and popular periodicals and anthologies. She also served as translator for Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao, the first English collection spanning the full creative spectrum of the 12th Century Song Dynasty poet-essayist’s works.

When and where did I read it? I just finished The Maze of Transparencies this week, devouring it over a couple of days in our apartment in Des Moines. It is the first book since Christopher Priest’s The Islanders (which I read in 2014) that felt so unique, enjoyable and thought-provoking to me that it merited immediate inclusion in this evolving list of the most memorable novels across my lifetime of reading, most of which have had to marinate for a much longer period of time before being so enshrined in my personal pantheon. I learned of Lee’s novel via a web feature called Seven Books About Cyberspace by Women Writers on the Electric Lit website, my eyes drawn first by its evocative Ernst Haeckel cover art, my mind then equally engaged by the description of its contents. My daughter works in data analytics, and she, my wife and I have had numerous conversations about her explorations into the philosophical underpinnings of her professional activities over the years, so this slim tome seemed like it would be of shared interest to us all. Having long since shifted (alas) to consuming books on a Kindle, I was surprised to discover that The Maze of Transparencies was not available in digital formats, though in retrospect, having to order a print copy actually enhanced my overall reading experience, the mostly-lost tactile contact between flesh and page fitting perfectly with the post-technological themes of the work.

Why do I like it? Lee’s skills and accomplishments as a poet shine most clearly throughout her deeply unique The Maze of Transparencies, in both the prose components of the book, and in Penny’s and Yang’s recurring flights of poetic fancy and reflection, which are knit together perfectly, creating a luminous tapestry of transcendent language beyond language. The creative world within which Penny and Yang seek their respective happinesses is believable and inhabitable, with a fine compositional balance between that-which-is-explained and that-which-remains-mysterious that allows readers to experience the novel’s little details and overarching narratives much in the way we do our “real world” day-to-day lives. It’s not “Hard SF” by any stretch of the imagination, but the macro technological, scientific, psychological, philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of the story (considerately explained in the book’s end notes) are robust, internally-consistent, and highly thought-provoking, while at the micro end of the narrative spectrum, Lee gloriously details the simple graces of Yang’s worldly existence and experience, with an especially fine focus on foodstuffs that reminded me of another book in this series, Günter Grass’ The Flounder. Penny’s hopeful and helpful non-corporeal spirit made me think of similar elements in John Crowley’s haunting Engine Summer (#1 in this series), while Lee’s deft blend of poetry and prose in service of place sense and perspective further evoked The Flounder for me, along with poet-painter-polymath Mervyn Peake’s paired masterpieces Titus Groan and Gormenghast (#4 in my Five By Five Books collection). Those overlaps with earlier installments on my list perhaps best demonstrate why this new (to me) book pushed so many of my preferred literary buttons.

A five sentence sample text: “. . . what cruel message would blooming floribundas and grandifloras portray in a season of mass underground vanishings — nay, let’s name it, dear reader — of genocide? Or did the nine muses themselves shapeshift into bots, a virtual feat of zoomorphism, then obliterate all traces of their own existence, and if so, why? Were the bots a figment of our collective anima or animus, the hazy archetypes of empiricsm, female and male digerati of molecular amphoterism or hermaphroditic binarism? Why do questions about a bygone technocracy of fiefdoms matter when no one controls the biomasses clouding the biosphere anymore? (And while we mull over these mysteries, the maze of transparencies in the noosphere trembles ever so slightly with unmoored clouds like me, i.e. a hodgepodge of information without answers, or data set adrift without meaningfulness).”

Click the image to order your own (print) copy.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

Thoughts on Thoughts

I’ve raved here for years about my favorite contemporary writer, the deeply anonymous, Florida-based creative genius behind Thoughts On The Dead. He’s been cranking out the words and pictures since 2012, hewing (on a macro basis) to an initial premise he framed thusly: “My thesis is that the Grateful Dead were the Silliest Band in the World. I will attempt to prove this through misquotes, malicious lies, and just plumb crazy talk; everything in these pages is, of course, satire.”

Good satire is really, really hard to write, a point made screamingly clear by subjecting yourself to any of the piss-poor popular examples of the form that the web has belched forth indiscriminately since its inception. But Mr TotD is a true master of the genre, building a complex and complete creative universe around the core essence of the Grateful Dead’s members and their various fellow travelers, spinning and pivoting in exciting directions while (mostly) keeping one foot anchored in the real stories, personalities, experiences and foibles of the protagonists. He dubs the resultant product “semi-fictionality,” which in meta-meta-meta fashion has become an ongoing topic of conversation between various characters within the semi-fictional story arcs, most typically involving those new players confused by their unexpected first entries into the brilliantly perverse TotD universe.

Mr Thoughts is also blindingly prolific, putting my own obsessive writing impulses and productivity levels to shame, and then some. I’ve quite literally started almost every day for many years reading his work and words with my morning coffee, routinely marveling at the quality and quantity of entertainment that he offers me (and many others) with righteous, rigorous regularity. In my various year-end reports of the best things life has set before me in the prior twelve months (e.g. 2019: Year in Review), it’s just a given that he’s going to be featured there, because I have a hard time imagining finding many, if any, things online than I enjoy more than his website.

While the Grateful Dead provide the hub around which the whole semi-fictional thing spins, the hairy daddies (and Mrs Donna Jean) don’t necessarily feature directly in some of the best work done on the TotD site. There have been a pair of brilliant novels serialized there (with a third in progress), for starters, and I’d still claim TotD’s A Book With No Title as one of the finest reads I’ve experienced in the 21st Century. The novels and related stories are set in the fictional west coast city of Little Aleppo, and the histories, characters, and happenings documented within their (virtual) pages are hilarious, heart-breaking, and hair-raising in equal measure. I’ve had to pinch myself at times to remember that some of the people I’m reading about there aren’t real, because I feel like I know and understand them as well as, if not better than, I do some folks in my real life, famous or otherwise.

TotD also occasionally offers deep dives into the careers of other influential creative types, and I’d cite his long-form pieces on Queen and Van Halen as among the very best of many articles and books I’ve read about those fascinating artists. His political work is top notch too, with his tales of late-night calls from various GOP creeps to Maggie Haberman, and his tone-perfect Cadet Bonespurs Tinyhands monologues eliciting both giggles and groans in their willingness to take situations that are already painfully absurd and escalating their essences into the satirical stratosphere.  He’s the complete package as a writer, at bottom line, and he continues to carry my strongest, most heart-felt endorsement as the owner and operator of a site that will reward regular reads like few others, anywhere, by anybody.

All of that being said (again) here, I’m actually thinking Thoughts On Thoughts today for a different reason, related to a typically creative and reaction-inducing recent post of his which, alas, is set in the very real world in which we live, and not the semi-fictional one Mr TotD normally documents with alacrity: Thoughts On Cancer. Oof. Ouch. And no no no no NO. Mr Thoughts reported this morning that he’s beginning his first chemo sessions today, so I hope you’ll join me in pointing whatever good juju, karma, prayers or magick you’ve got in your quiver straight at him through the tough times he’ll be facing in the days and months ahead. You could even hit the Donate Button in the right sidebar of his site and send some dosh his way to buy ice cream, edibles and panaceas to ease the process and smooth the path before him. I’m sure he’d appreciate that.

Mr Thoughts is a creative treasure, and I selfishly want to keep him that way, since he freely and readily provides so much enjoyment to so many people, me among them, with bells on. From a less selfish perspective, he’s just a good dude who I have come to count as a good friend in virtual space, and I don’t want him to suffer or hurt any more than he absolutely must to kick this thing to the curb quickly and get on with the getting on. Keep an eye on his site, please, and offer the encouragement you’re able, in your heart or in public, as is your wont. Thanks.

Don’t call him WALLY . . .

With Which I Am Well Pleased (Redux)

While our State of residence is opening up prematurely and irresponsibly, Marcia and I are still doing our part to protect ourselves and others through smart adherence to science-based guidance on social distancing and personal protection. So that means we’re spending a lot of time at home, still, even as we have diligently worked through our dire local climate to get good, healthy walks in every day, usually way out in the countryside away from the selfish, oblivious idiots who are bumbling around our neighborhood as though COVID-19 were a thing of the past already. We’re not exactly experiencing the sabbatical year that we had planned for 2020, but we have our health and we have each other and we have a variety of things, both mundane and meaningful, that are filling the hours and satisfying our souls. At the risk of repeating a titular heresy, I revisit my earlier With Which I Am Well Pleased post for a peek at 15 other specific things that have been keeping me entertained over the past month or so. Maybe you’ll be easily amused by them too.

TELEVISION SHOWS

MOVIES

MUSIC

BOOKS

OTHER