Brazil Part 2

Last week, in Brazil Part 1, I left you off at the epic cliffhanger of finally, after a plane ride, a boat ride, and then a kinda long actually overland journey, arriving at our riverboat home for the next week or so. It was a pretty neat boat! Here is a more holistic picture of it:

This was a pretty typical boat style in the Amazon. Throughout our week of cruising around, we would pass a number of other boats that were very much like ours, except with different cabin configurations and the like. I would have liked to have figured out where they were building them, and I spent a good chunk of time fantasizing about buying one in retirement and just cruising around the Amazon (provided it’s still there). When we eventually got back to Manaus, it was clear that there were tons and tons of these types of boats:

What I was delighted to learn when we actually arrived is that we had come to the Amazon at more or less the perfect time, at just the tail end of the rainy season and beginning of the dry season. I was stunned to discover just how significantly the river flooded during the rainy season, with the water level being maybe 20 feet or more higher than where it is during the dry season. That meant that our river boat could go all over the place, cruising through wide river channels that in the dry season would be tiny little streams at the bottom of narrow valleys. At night, we would tie up to the very tippy-tops of trees just barely sticking out of the water. Since it was the end of the rainy season, the weather was mostly absolutely gorgeous, with nice breezes keeping us cool as we cruised through some of the world’s densest biodiversity. We did get a few rain showers, but safely ensconced on the boat those were fairly pleasant affairs:

As you’ve probably caught glimpses of, and of which you shall catch more glimpses, don’t you worry, along on the trip with us were three German women. They were very pleasant company to have on the trip, though I remember being very disappointed that they weren’t more impressed with my super cool Actual Naval Officer status due to my being a newly-minted Ensign (“And what do you do?” “Oh, I’m an Ensign.” [here I showed off my Naval Academy ring] “And… what is an Ensign?”). They were backpacking around South America I think, on a very impressive trip, and had opted to “rough” it by sleeping at night in the upper deck in hammocks. That was the option I was initially going to sign dad and myself up for, but at the last minute back in Maryland, unsure of exactly what I was willing and able to put up with in the world, I opted to get us a cabin. This is that cabin:

I took this picture towards the end of the week, and the cabin at this point bears witness to the debris of our many adventures. Since I had paid for the trip, I claimed the bottom, larger bed, relegating dad to the top bunk. The biggest drawback of the cabin, despite it being advertised as its best feature, was actually the air conditioner. This is probably because we had no real idea how to actually operate the thing. When it was running, it was VERY effective, and rendered the cabin freezing cold. We actually asked our hosts for a blanket (there had only been a sheet), a request to which they responded by looking at us confused and then bringing us an additional sheet. Horrible problems to have, I know.

One of the things I remember most fondly about this whole trip was the food. I promise, I have never had so much good food and so consistently as I did aboard that tiny little boat in the Amazon. The cook I remember as being a tiny, old, wrinkly, hobbled indigenous woman, and I swear I contemplated marrying her so I could bring her home to the states with me. Above is a typical breakfast spread, with fresh fruit and fried eggs and local cheese and stunningly good coffee and my absolute favorite, fried plantains. I would eat plantains every chance I got until I was ready burst. Lunches and dinners were also stunning, usually featuring fish just plucked out of the river, along with sausages and rice and of course more fresh fruit and toasted manioc powder to sprinkle over everything. To this day the best chicken I have ever had is a free-range one that our guide had purchased from a riverside homestead that morning and then cooked on a stick over an open fire in the jungle that night.

But that’s just the boat and the lifestyle. Next week, we’ll discuss…. adventures!

Brazil Part 1

As I mentioned somewhat in passing in my last post, back in 2011 I went to Brazil. To set the scene: I was a young, newly minted Ensign, having graduated from the Naval Academy like a month before. I was granted about 30 days of basket! (the exclamation mark is because I couldn’t remember that it was called “basket leave” until just now) leave, and wanted to spend it in some dramatic way. I chose to go to Brazil! Specifically, Manaus! The reasons for this were several-fold: 1) I had for some time wanted to see the Teatro Amazonas. I forget how I first came across the Teatro there, it was potentially on Atlas Obscura, but once I got it in my head I wanted to go that was that. I’m not even like, an opera fan. Next, 2) I wanted to see the Amazon rain forest before it all disappeared. The sense of urgency was probably prompted by both like, reality, and also a memorable display at the National Aquarium which showed in a series of LEDs the whole Amazon disappearing. I figured I should look at it before the illuminated prediction came true. And probably 3), people who go to Brazil go to Rio or something like that, and I gotta be hipster and different!

I had been planning this trip for a bit, but, lemme tell ya, not too well. I convinced my dad to come by offering to buy his plane ticket, which I thought would be relatively cheap for me because I had a voucher due to a disastrous series of events that went down in the American Virgin Islands just months before, but in a fit of Spring Cleaning I think I threw it out. That’s pretty irrelevant to the story, actually. I figured it would be nice to bring dad because I dunno, he’s my dad, and also because he spent several years in Brazil as a youth and I thought his familiarity with the terrain (not that familiar, he had never been to Manaus) would be handy. Bringing Dad along came even more in handy than I thought it would, because this being my first big international trip that I had planned I was pretty dumb (hence my “not planning it too well” comment from the beginning of the paragraph). I had been out of the country before, but other people had planned those things, and I just followed instructions. It was Dad that brought up unsavory topics such as “have you applied for a visa” to which my answer was “what’s a visa.” American privilege at work!

Because by this point we were pretty late in the process, getting the visa was another harrowing series of events involving an impromptu trip to the Brazilian embassy, beseeching mom’s lawyer cousin to act as our legal representative in picking up those visas, and then mailing them overnight to an at-that-point-unidentified motel in Florida where we stayed while watching the Shuttle launch. But it all worked perfectly! I was pretty stunned. If I was by myself this would have been a very short trip, involving me flying to Brazil probably and then flying right on back, if I even made it that far. As it was, travelling there went great, and the only downside was a pretty long layover in Panama which was boring. The only other solid preparations I had made in conjunction with this trip was buying some shirts and pants I thought would be rainforest-appropriate, and trying to study Portuguese only to never make it much farther than “Não falo português.”

The trip itself was to be split into two parts. The second part was going to be a weekend in Manaus, looking at all the sights. The first part was to be a very exciting week-long river cruise along the Amazon! Very cool I know! I was looking forward to this because I like the concept of boats! Dad as well! Awesome. I don’t remember exactly how I found the company, I think on Yelp or somesuch, but I had contacted them via email and I think had to provide a down-payment via international money order or something else terribly straightforward. This was 2011, I guess they might have had a website, but it couldn’t have been great. Nevertheless, I had sent the company my flight information, and we were expecting to be met at the airport by one of their representatives who would take us to suitable lodgings for the night.

And they did! Again it worked perfectly. Dad and I landed in Manaus and got through customs and a very nice lady met us there and between dad, myself, and this lady, we cobbled together enough Portuguese and English to confirm we were the people they were expecting and that we should get into the van. After getting into the van, we proceeded to drive into Manaus. She drove us to a part of town that now, in my worldy and cosmopolitan post-Peace Corps days I would probably find very very lovely, but back then in my cloistered youth seemed suspicious. We arrived at a corner that appeared to hold an office, and she turned around and asked us for the relatively large amount of money our trip had cost, an amount we had on us in cash (as we knew would be required), but which was a fact we were loathe to admit to here in the dark. Dad and I looked at each other, and then dad suggested to our host we pay after actually seeing the river boat, which apparently was amenable to all parties. She then drove us to a hotel and we checked in.

We awoke in the morning to discover that we had already achieved the end-goal of this whole trip, in that the hotel room had a lovely view of both some electrical infrastructure and also the Teatro Amazonas! Looking back at the pictures I had actually identified this the night before, but that makes for a less dramatic reveal. We had an amazing breakfast, and before long our friend was back to pick us up and carry us off to an adventure of a lifetime!

Here a lot of my geographic sense is going to break down. The whole time we were on the riverboat I knew we were like, on the Amazon, or near it at any rate, but I never had a solid clue of our exact coordinates. I only bring that up to say that it was quite the journey to the river boat from downtown Manaus. The first thing we did was see one of the sights of Manaus, which was the riverside fish market. I think the point of this part of the journey was to demonstrate some of the huge diversity of ichthyic fauna. There were a lot of fishes, let me tell ya! None interesting enough that I thought them picture-worthy, apparently, but I didn’t have a way to charge my camera the whole time I was in Brazil so I was worried about conserving battery life.

The next thing we did was to hop on a ferry to take us across the mighty Amazon river. This was super cool, because, as you’ve picked up by now, I like being on boats. Being on this boat gave us an excellent view of the economy of the river. Manaus is where it is because it is about as far up as sea-going vessels can travel on the Amazon. It’s kinda crazy to see cargo ships like the ones I captured above this far essentially inland. Pretty neat!

The big attraction in the middle of the river, however, is the Meeting of the Rivers. At this spot, the dark-colored Rio Negro meets the light-colored Rio Solimões to form I think the Amazon proper. Because of the different characteristics of the rivers, they meet but don’t immediately mix, allowing enthusiastic tour guides to park their boat right on the border of the rivers and provide ample opportunity for neat pictures. If I recall correctly, legend says the two rivers never really mix. So that is cool. After gazing at this, we had more river to traverse, and I remember admiring various ranches with cattle and other animals abutting the river and getting my first glimpse of something jungle-like. After a while we finally disembarked, and then there was a very long (it felt like) land journey in jeeps (or jeep-like things). To break up that part of the trip we saw several more sights, including very large lily pads:

And a cashew in its natural habitat:

Until finally, have a long and perilous journey, we arrived at…

The boat!!!!!!!!!

Aaaaaaand that’s where I’ll leave you for this week. Return next week, same time, same place, for the interestingly-named, Brazil Part 2!

The Last Shuttle Launch

If it wasn’t clear, I didn’t take this picture.

Reading this week:

  • The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

I saw the last launch of the Space Shuttle! Not recently of course. Avid fans of space will know that the last time a Space Shuttle was launched was back in 2011. Astute readers of this blog will also know that I have been in New Haven recently because of grad school, and haven’t gone anywhere at all because we’re not supposed to leave New Haven. That has left me with a dearth of things to write about (my super amazing girlfriend (hi!) suggested I write about cats, a suggestion I callously tossed to the wayside, though maybe I could have combined these topics), so I think I will dig through the unpublished annals of my personal history to come up with some things to write about. Thus, today, I am talking about the last Shuttle launch.

To set the scene, it was way back in the halcyon days of 2011. I had, just that May, graduated from the Naval Academy. Upon graduating the Naval Academy, the Navy guarantees you, after your four years of hard work, 30 days of leave. This is nice! There was some special name for it. Guaranteed leave or comp time or something. The name is bugging me. Some people, like the very eager newly-minted Marine 2nd LTs, decided to forgo this leave and jump right into training. Not I! No siree, I took that leave. Plus Nuke School didn’t start until like September anyways. I spent some of that summer in a stash job (the Navy needs to justify your paycheck or whatever, so they “stash” you in a job somewhere) at an officer recruiting office which was both low-stress and illuminating, but for my big vacation I decided to uh, go big. Specifically, I decided to go to Brazil so I could see the Amazon rainforest before it all disappeared.

I did not watch the last launch of the Space Shuttle from Brazil. I watched it from the Kennedy Space Center, which is where they launched Space Shuttles from, but you see it was all part of the same trip, which is why I bring it up, and also some foreshadowing that the next couple of weeks probably will be about Brazil, or what I can glean from the pictures, at any rate. Anyways! I think this was my grandma’s idea (she lives in Florida), or else my aunt and uncle’s idea, who are the kinds of hip and cool people that would come up with the sort of idea to go see the last launch of the Space Shuttle. I was rather excited at the prospect of seeing a Space Shuttle launch. I, being at times uncreative in my youthful interests, used to be a big fan of space, and had even gone to Space Camp when I was younger. And since this was gonna be the last chance to see one, it seemed like a cool thing to do.

I had nothing to do with the planning of this portion of the trip, and was therefore carried along somewhat bewildered at it all, the same way I imagine the various animals they’ve sent to space must feel. The crowd for the launch included my grandma, my dad (who was coming to Brazil with me), my aunt (the three people just mentioned are pictured above), my uncle, and myself (neither of us pictured above). Apparently, to see a Space Shuttle launch, you show up very early, which is why it is dark in the above picture, which depicts us showing up very early. We set up chairs and a blanket to claim our spot on the lawn of the Kennedy Space Center, and fell asleep again.

By later in the day it had become much more crowded. To justify the ticket price, I suppose, NASA put on a whole morning of events for us to watch. They hauled out some astronauts that weren’t flying that day to talk to us about like, space and stuff, and a jumbotron that displayed interesting facts and stuff. One thing I remember being particularly perplexed about was them droning on and on about how impressive the commander of the Shuttle mission, Christopher Ferguson, was, specifically due to all the time he had spent in space (if I’m doing some math right from his Wikipedia profile, 27 days). Meanwhile, they were like, oh yeah and Sandra Magnus is flying too. This is perplexing because Dr. Magnus there, due to a stint on the International Space Station, had spent (again if I am doing some math right) 143 days in space!!!!! A friend of mine tried to argue that ISS time was less impressive than Space Shuttle time, but I’m Team Magnus all the way.

There was some tension that morning because there was a chance that the Shuttle might not go to space that day, which I suppose is always a chance when it comes to these things. Those coy people at NASA also like to amp up the suspense by pausing the countdown at various intervals. But eventually, the Space Shuttle launched! That was really cool! It looked like this:

Please admire the guy closest to the camera, who is my dad, praising the Space Shuttle as the super cool thing it is (as an aside, during nuke school, they tried to emphasize how smart and stuff we were by saying that nuclear submarines were the most complicated machines on the planet, except, they admit in a touch of modesty, the Space Shuttle). I know that picture isn’t very illuminating, so I prepared a closeup:

So that was super neat! As you have gleaned from the pictures, we weren’t particularly close, so the noise wasn’t particularly Earth-shattering or anything, but it was pretty cool! And now I can say I saw it. Having been at the Kennedy Space Center since the wee hours of the morning, at this point we went and saw the rest of it. I had been before (both during Space Camp and like, other times), but rockets are always cool, and especially cool that day was an exhibit they had on Star Trek (the original/best series), which included several sets you could take pictures with. I am a particular fan of the below picture, because it looks like I am in charge of the Enterprise, but my crew has all been turned into children, a fate I was spared from by being on an opportune vacation:

So that was seeing the last launch of the Space Shuttle! Highly recommend, though that’s not a very useful recommendation. Please come back next week, when I will (probably) write about going to Brazil!

Zoom U

Be forewarned! Today’s post is largely me whining. I think there may be a point to my whining, but that is largely irrelevant; I gotta get a post out and this is the only thing I’ve been really thinking about. What am I whining about? I am whining that the world has not heeded all the wonderfully amazing advice I gave in my post Zoom Pedagogy.

As you are probably well aware, unless you are from the future and haven’t learned about it in school yet (or I guess a time traveler from the past just getting their bearings and for some reason using my blog to do it), there is a pandemic on and that has forced many schools, including the one I am currently going to (Yale, nbd) to shift to largely or entirely to remote classes. I am not fundamentally particularly upset about this. I would prefer that classes be in-person and that we could all jostle together and discuss deep thoughts while huddled around tables (or whatever it is we used to do here at Yale, it all seems so long ago now), but it’s vastly better we take measures so that we don’t all die and/or suffer the long-term consequences of COVID. And also while this isn’t the Yale experience I was expecting, I didn’t actually know what to expect anyways before I came to Yale, and I am taking it all in stride as an experience that isn’t necessarily better or worse, but just different. I’ve also gotten very used to not having to run around campus to get to my classes and can instead just open up a new browser tab to get to my next class and being remote makes it much easier to play Pokémon during class. This is not really the point I am trying to make!

What I am here to whine about is the fact that we are somehow not all phenomenal at teaching online. Here at Yale, we have recently begun the spring semester. It will be my second-and-a-half semester of taking online classes (half of the Spring 2020 semester, all of Fall 2020 semester, and now Spring 2021 semester), and I gotta say, we don’t seem to have gotten any better at this. When all of our classes suddenly went online over Spring Break last year, I was very sympathetic to teachers that were struggling to make the transition to online. Teaching online is a very different beast than teaching in a classroom, and it was a hurdle that they were not expecting and is not easy to overcome anyways. But I feel that whatever consensus method we had achieved by about late April last year is just what we’ve been doing ever since.

And lemme tell ya it is not great! That last sentence lacks nuance, so let me put some in. There is a lot of variability in the quality of classes, which comes down to both the fact that some classes lend themselves to the format more, and also a difference in ability between teachers. But as far as I can tell there does not seem to have been any concerted effort to figure out the best way to teach an online class and disseminate that among all the professors. Given that literally every professor here at Yale is taking a stab at the online thing, you’d think it would be a great opportunity to very quickly identify the best practices and the ideas that work and make sure literally everyone knows about them. I don’t seen any evidence of that happening.

I’m getting increasingly frustrated at the little things. I actually have one “hybrid” class, where I am attending in-person (masks, testing, social distancing, all that), but some people are online. The first day of class, the professor was somewhat flummoxed because he had intended to use a white board to keep notes but hadn’t figured out an elegant way to let the online students see the board as well. Then, he wound up walking around holding a desktop microphone because the online students couldn’t hear him. These are little things, and my condemnation here might be a bit harsh, but on the other hand, how do we not have something like a standard package for all of this? That is, as soon as a professor decides they’re gonna teach a hybrid class, why does Yale not have myriad resources that tell them exactly how to do it? “Ah, hybrid class I see. Here is your lapel mic! Were you planning on using a white board? Excellent, here is what we have found is the best way to go about doing that. You’re going to be splitting the students up into groups occasionally? Yes, that is a great learning tool, other professors have found a lot of success using this method…” Why do we have every professor reinventing the wheel for themselves?

There are larger problems as well. My most frustrating experience this semester has been my Spanish class. Again, here I have a lot of sympathy. I struggle to imagine how you could do a really effective online language class with 15 people in it, like we have. If there is a way, however, the Yale Spanish department has not figured it out. One of my biggest frustrations is their decision to go from five days a week to three days a week. When we were in-person, and then last spring when we suddenly went online, we had class for 50 minutes five days a week. Then, in the fall, and now again this spring, they have decided to teach only three days a week for reasons that are mysterious to me. This hasn’t been an unpopular move; it’s kinda nice to free up that block of time on Tuesday and Thursday. However, they still expect the students to do the same amount of work to the same standard. This seems ridiculous to me. If you operate under the belief that teachers add something to a class, then having less time with a teacher is going to make that class less effective. I have to imagine this is especially true in a language course. But instead of cutting out 40% of the work to go along with cutting out 40% of the teaching time, the students are just supposed to do the lessons on their own twice a week. I have found it difficult to teach myself Spanish, which is not surprising, because I do not speak Spanish.

Last Spring, when we all suddenly went to online classes, the school made a huge effort to acknowledge that it was a difficult transition. I realize they were also responding to the pandemic in general, but students were given a lot of leeway in how they managed to achieve the requirements of the course. Professors were told to be very generous with extensions and allowing for Temporary Incompletes with the classes. Every student could change their classes to pass/fail with no questions asked up until the very last day of class. As soon as fall semester hit, however, I guess it was decided that This Is Just What We Do Now, and all that extra leeway was taken away. I understand the need to keep a rigorous standard when it comes to student work, but on the other hand I don’t see that same rigor being applied from above to make sure the classes are effective in the online format. I am floored that a year into online school we all aren’t phenomenal at it, because I feel like we could have been. Where are the numerous online thinkpieces about effective online teaching? Where are the Wikis to cover every conceivable online teaching scenario? Where are the virtual conferences about Zoom pedagogy? Am I just missing them? My super amazing girlfriend, who has thought deeply about education for years, figures that the answer is research universities like Yale just don’t actually care about teaching quality. Let’s hope she’s wrong.

Batik

Reading this week:

  • Blockchain Chicken Farm by Xiaowei Wang (beautiful)
  • In the Waves by Rachel Lance

Look. A couple of things. First, I continue to be impressed with the success of my blog post Joe Biden’s Ties (a success not shared by its short update, Joe Biden’s Ties Update). According to WordPress stats, it got like, slightly over two dozen views the other day. Two dozen! This has made me drunk with fame. Expect a biopic shortly. Second, there is a pandemic going on, which has severely restricted the amount of places I can go and then dryly describe for my myriad followers. This has left me pondering if I could maybe even creep up into three dozen viewers on any given day if I dedicate myself entirely to fashion commentary. At the very least, it would save us from being a Chronicle blog. This has made me decide to dedicate this week’s blog in an ode to the greatest fashion in the world, batik.

First off, I apologize; I’m not going to do batik justice here, either in regards to its rich history or to my deep and abiding love for it. I first discovered batik in the usual way: my grandfather died. He was not Indonesian, nor am I entirely sure he ever went to Indonesia, but nonetheless a shirt made of batik wound up in his closet. My dad was too fat for it (that’s not a dig at dad, I’m also too fat for it now, but I used to work out [because the Navy made me]), so I wound up with it. What a revelation! To back up a bit. In case you didn’t follow the link to Wikipedia the first time I wrote batik, what I’m referring to is cloth that has been colored with a wax-resist dyeing technique. If you’re using batik in that general sense, there are a whole lot of types of batik from over large swaths of the world. Given that other parts of the world use other words for it, batik therefore refers more specifically to cloth produced with the technique from Indonesia. It comes in a variety of colorful designs, and people make all sorts of cool clothing out of it, but in my case I exclusively wear batik that has been crafted into shirts.

And I do wear a lot of ’em. Or at least used to. There’s a pandemic on and I can’t stand to muster anything more than a t-shirt for an online class. The picture at the top is a small portion of my total batik collection; I have stowed a large chunk of it away because as I have just complained about there is a pandemic on and I never go anywhere anymore. I wear them for a few reasons. Probably the biggest reason is that they are bold and loud. I remember one day (before my forays into fashion) that I looked at my t-shirt collection and realized they were all blue. And nearly the same shade of blue. This isn’t just a personal fashion choice; look at men (in America at least), any man, and I am willing to bet that he is probably wearing blue. I don’t know what part of that is blue being a flattering color to wear, men being desperately uncreative, or mass-produced fashion having to cater to the lowest common denominator, but men all tend to wear the same boring stuff. There’s no reason to! We can wear whatever we want! We don’t have to wear blue! So batik for me was in large part a major antidote to uninspired dressing.

Another huge reason I like to plug batik is that at some point I decided that it was worth it to look presentable to the world. Batik shirts are a great way to do that. I made this realization at some point with the help of a PutThisOn article I don’t think is up any longer. That article was talking about Aloha/Hawaiian shirts (when I wear batik, it’s usually mistaken for an Aloha shirt, which I also very much love), but made the point that those shirts are actually kinda dressy. Look, I (probably) wouldn’t wear one to a funeral, but the batik shirts I wear (and Aloha shirts) are button-down and have collars. That certainly puts them a step above the t-shirts that my stereotypical blue-clad men wear. And if I come across another man in a batik shirt or an Aloha shirt, I can tell that man has probably put a lot more thought into what he is wearing than somebody dressed in a t-shirt, and out of sheer favoritism I am also going to put him above the polo-shirt clad crowd. And what is the point of formal dress besides an indication that you’ve thought about what you’re wearing and how it applies to the situation in which you will wear it? Also, I meant to point this out earlier, batik is formalwear in Indonesia anyways, so it’s not sorta-kinda formal, it is formal.

The most difficult part of my passion for batik is that it is hard to get. I have bought nearly the entirety of my batik collection on ebay. At some point, I think I was (I might still be) the exclusive buyer of size-17 batik keris (my preferred brand) shirts on ebay. I have an alert set up. In good times, I get an email nearly every morning. I think the pandemic must have significantly slowed the flow of batik into the United States because pickings have been sadly slim. There have been a limited number of other ways I have been able to obtain batik. At one point, a buddy of mine had long been suffering under a deluge of batik, actually. I was jealous of his lifestyle, which involved having an uncle that sent him boxes of batik shirts unsolicited. Both my buddy and his uncle were Indonesian, as way of explanation. While we were in closer proximity, he would pass his surplus to me. This was amazing.

At only one time in my life have I been able to buy batik shirts directly from a store. This was in Singapore. I did not know I was going to go to Singapore when I set out on this particular trip (it was on a submarine, and things are hush-hush on submarines, and also sometimes disorganized), but as soon as I heard we were headed there I felt my batik dreams were destined to come quickly true. I was crushed to not find every street lined with batik stores, but when I finally found one I ran across the street to shop there. At the time I was under the impression you could be caned in Singapore for jaywalking, but such was my dedication to bright and colorful patterns that I was willing to risk physical injury for it. Based on the reaction of the erstwhile shopkeeper, I am willing to say I was the most enthusiastic buyer of batik he had seen in quite some time. Maybe just the least canny. At any rate, it was heaven.

So, uh, yeah. That’s what I got to say about batik. It’s bold. It’s beautiful. It’s a step up from whatever you’re likely wearing (my super amazing girlfriend disagrees [hi!]). Give it a go! Just not in size 17 from ebay. That’s for me.

James Hemans

Reading this week:

  • Ted Hood: Through Hand and Eye: An Autobiography by Ted Hood and Michael Levitt

One of my current pet projects is going through the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society and transcribing all of their articles relevant to the Central African mission. I realize that this blog is becoming more and more “interesting things I found in the Chronicle” (saving us, at the very least, from becoming exclusively a 3D-printing blog), but I think this project has a purpose. All the back issues of the Chronicle are in various places on the internet, and if you search the right terms various things will pop up on Google Books, but they aren’t really accessible to a casual internet search. This is especially true of the pictures, and I think it is important to put that stuff out there.

While that project is progressing (it’s gonna take a long time), I wanted to put some stuff out there about James Hemans and his wife, Maria. I have mentioned Mr. Hemans before, noting that I should do a deeper dive into that. This is draft #1 of that deeper dive. I went through all the issues of the Chronicle from 1887, when the Hemans are recorded as arriving in England from Jamaica, until 1908, when the Chronicle reported his death. This version is crude; I just did a search for “Hemans” in the PDFs, a technique that fails to capture each and every mention of them. This is why I’m doing the longer project and scrolling through all the issues by hand, to try to capture every mention and put ’em in a more easily searchable document.

Anyways, some background. James Hemans and his wife are notable for being Black missionaries sent to the Central African mission of the London Missionary Society. There is a short biography of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans here, which notes that they were not well treated by their fellow missionaries. The most significant chunk of biographical information on Mr. Hemans in the Chronicle (women in the Chronicle are largely ignored except as the wives of their husbands) comes from the June 1901 issue, which noted that he was “a son of West Indian negro slaves, and a child of the Society’s mission in Jamaica” (I want to make an aside to note I’m not endorsing the language or views of any of the quotes I present). The book Jamaica Congregational Churches provides some more background:

In September of the same year [1887] Mr. J.H.E. Hemans and Mrs. Hemans sailed from England on their way to Central Africa, Mr. Hemans having been appointed a missionary schoolmaster in connection with the L.M.S. mission on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Mr. Hemans from early youth had a strong desire to go to Africa to labor for the salvation and enlightenment of his own race in its fatherland, but his way did not open until he had been trained and has served for several years as a teacher. This training and experience proved to be the best preparation for the important and successful work which, by the blessing of God, Mr. and Mrs. Hemans have done in Africa. Mr. Hemans was brought up in connection with the Davyton Church, and Mrs. Hemans with Four Paths, and they were married while Mr. Hemans was teacher at Porus, where he labored for four years previous to going to Africa. Our friends had a well-earned furlough in 1896, a few months of which they spent in Jamaica visiting the churches and telling the story of their life and work in the Dark Continent. They spent some time in England on their way back, and when Mr. Hemans wrote to our late beloved Queen and told her that he and his wife were children of slaves, whom Her Majesty had emancipated in Jamaica at the commencement of her reign, and that they were now engaged in mission-work among the natives of the extreme part of Her Majesty’s dominion in Central Africa, the good Queen could not refuse their request for an interview. She received them very graciously, and presented them with a large framed portrait of herself to take to Africa with them.

Jamaica Congregational Churches, pgs 14-15

A later passage from the same book notes:

For a long time Mr. Hemans had felt a strong desire to be a missionary in the African fatherland, and Providence opened the way for the realization of this longing. In the year 1887, the L.M.S. having communicated to our Union the willingness to accept one of our Jamaica colored young men for the post of missionary teacher in Central Africa, the Union felt no hesitation in selecting Mr. Hemans – the more so as Mrs. Hemans was a woman in every way likely to be helpful to her husband in this great work. They accordingly proceeded to England, followed by the earnest prayers of our churches. They were cordially received by the directors, and after a few months’ special training in educational methods were sent to the Dark Continent. We are glad to record that their career has been one of great usefulness and success. They are still laboring at Niamkolo, Lake Tanganyika, and it is our hope that they may spend many years of happy and successful toil. Would that more from our churches would arise to follow in their steps.

Jamaica Congregational Churches, pgs 82-83

There’s clearly a lot more to be learned about the Hemans if we dive into the Jamaica records, but that is far outside my wheelhouse, so I’ll have to leave that to others. Let’s dive into what the Chronicle has to say about the Hemans:

The first mention of the Hemans that I found was in November 1887 (pg 495), noting “Mr. J.H.E. Hemans, and Mrs. Hemans, from Jamaica, per steamer Don, at Southampton, October 15th.” Then, in May 1888, Mr. Hemans attended a prayer meeting. Finally, the first substantial chunk of info on them comes in the July 1888 issue (pg 341), where “welcomes and valedictions” were noted during a board meeting of the Society:

The Central Africa party was a strong one… special interest was attached to the departure of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, negroes from Jamaica, who have volunteered for the work. They go out, having, it is hoped, as African by descent and constitution, special qualifications for the field. They will fill a responsible position, and upon the success or otherwise of the experiment thus tried much will depend. The Directors will follow them with great interest, not a little anxiety, and with much prayerfulness, and trust that the new departure will prove a wise and successful step…

They departed with the rest of the Central Africa-bound missionaries on the steamer Goorkha on June 2nd of that year. Mr. Hemans would have been 31. The next news, from the March 1889 issue (pg 83), relays the story of the group’s overland crossing to the lake, with a brief mention of Mrs. Hemans:

A letter from the Rev. T.F. Shaw tells of his safe arrival at Urambo on November 2nd. Mr. Draper and himself were in excellent health. Mrs. Shaw, during the latter part of the journey, had suffered much, but on reaching their destination at once began to improve. Mr. A.J. Swann also reports that on October 18th, he, and the party he had conducted from the coast, had reached Ujiji in health and peace. Dr. Mather, though still far from strong, was very much better. The journey was accomplished in three months and two days, and without the loss of a single package. The chairs for Mrs. Swann and Mrs. Hemans answered admirably, and proved an economical mode of transport. Both the ladies were as well as when they left the coast. The Arabs were glad to see him back again. No news of Stanley had reached them. The party were to cross to Kavala Island in the Alfigiri. Mr. Carson and Mr. Wright both send cheering news from Kavala Island. They were well, and, by medical work, teaching, and public services, were trying to commend the Gospel to the natives.

An update in June 1889 noted that the Hemans were bound for the Mission at Fwambo, and that “On the new station (Fwambo) Mr. Jones has carried on worship with his men, and has sought to make known the Gospel to the people of the neighboring towns. After the arrival of Mr. Hemans the erection of a school-house was at once begun.” In July it was noted (pg 234) that “The party of missionaries at Fwambo, the new station in the highlands, were all in excellent health. Mr. and Mrs. Hemans were delighted with the invigorating, yet balmy, air which, they say, resembles their native air of Jamaica.”

The Hemans’ aren’t pictured, but I think he might have helped build this house.

Having settled in, it seems to me that Mr. and Mrs. Hemans quickly became the most successful missionaries that the Central Africa Mission would see for some time. James seemed especially industrious, doing in his early days a whole lot of building, especially I think of schoolhouses, being a schoolteacher and all. Reading through the various reports, they were extremely popular and well-liked among the people the Mission was trying to convert, and their pupils were by far the best. The two would wind up in Africa for 18 years or so, a remarkable feat in and of itself when most of their Missionary fellows lasted a few years at most. In light of that, it makes it all the sadder that they were apparently poorly treated by the other missionaries. Strikes me as jealousy through and through.

At any rate, part of a letter from Mr. Hemans was published in the January 1892 edition (pg 12):

“In February, 1890,” says Mr. Hemans, of Fwambo, “I planted four quarts of wheat, which yielded about a bushel. The whole was again sown last February. The field was reaped two weeks ago, and we have got about 7 cwts. of clean wheat ready for use. Should a mill be sent out for the use of this station, the missionaries would, I believe, have no need of ordering flour. In fact the two stations could, without any difficulty, be supplied with the required quantity of flour. Wheat and potatoes thrive remarkably. Here, they seem to be in their element.”

I think that Kawimbi and Fwambo are the same place, though there is reason to doubt that.

By 1892, the Hemans had been transferred to Niamkolo, as part of a consolidation of missionary activities towards the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. A lengthy report in the October edition of that year (pg 228) mentions the work of Mr. Hemans a few times:

Niamkolo is of course on the borders of the lake. Some sixty miles south of the lake, on the highlands of the interior, is our newest Central African station. This is called Fwambo, or, since the permanent site of the Mission has been selected, Kawimbi. There again, in consequence of the shifting of the station a few miles to a more commodious site, the work has been to some extent checked, and building necessities have overridden everything else, but the missionaries have secured what bids fair to become a strong center. The Rev. D.P. Jones, who is in charge of the station, reports as follows:-

“The outdoor work of the station has been carried on chiefly by Mr. Hemans. We have done extensive building during the year, and I think I may venture to say that, both in strength and appearance, they are rather superior to any buildings put up by us hitherto, excepting, of course, as such as have been made of brick or stone.

“Including cattle sheds, outhouses, etc, as many as seven blocks have been erectred since January, each block of dimensions not less than 40 feet by 12 feet.

“Wheat-growing was also undertaken by us on a small scale, and with perfect success.”

Some particular praise for the work of Mr. Hemans, from the January 1893 issue (pg 15):

At Fwambo, the Rev. D.P. Jones has been examining his school, and found that only one scholar was able to give intelligent answers to Scripture questions, all the rest having a confused idea that the first man was made of a bone and found by the daughter of Pharaoh in the reeds, and that when he was a youth he killed a giant with a stone.

School work at Niamkolo, under the care of Mr. Hemans, is very encouraging. All the boys in the village are attending the school, and are now having three hours’ teaching every day instead of one hour only as formerly. On August 10th, Mr. Jones examined the school, and was exceedingly pleased with the result. The scholars gave ample proof that learning had become a pleasure to them.

In July a Sunday-school was started for “all comers,” and more than 150 put in an appearance. One night three lads called on Mr. Hemans and told him “that they found out that they were sitting down as fools, notwithstanding that they had been hearing of the love of Jesus; but they have decided to be so no longer, and wish to make known publicly that they are followers of Jesus.”

In November of 1894 (pg 264), there is a report about the missionaries’ attempts to make inroads with the Bemba people (here spelled “Awemba). A famine had struck, and the missionaries were hoping that an offer of aid would open up diplomatic relations. It didn’t go quite as planned, but the presence of Black missionaries intrigued Chief Ponde:

Under the dispensation of famine in the Aemba country, the missionaries at Niamkolo have been seeking entrance through a hitherto closed door. The Rev. W. Thomas and Mr. Hemans agreed to send relief and a promise of abundance of food if the people would send for it. The principal natives at Niamkolo entered eagerly into the proposal, and early in June a number of men started for Luemba with food. In going to Kitimkuru’s they would first have to propitiate his nephew, Ponde. The messengers returned just before the end of the month, accompanied by twelve of Ponde’s men, including his son and his headman or minister of war. The messengers reported that they had been very warmly received and kindly treated by Ponde and his people. He would not, however, allow them to go on to his uncle, on the ground that he had not been well pleased with the white men, though he went himself to show his uncle the presents he had received, to tell him about the missionaries, and of their desire to visit him. He was highly pleased to hear that two of the mission band (Mr. and Mrs. Hemans) were colored people like himself, and sent a direct invitation to them. The Rev. W. Thomas was absent on a visit to Ponde when Mr. Hemans wrote, and we trust he has had a successful journey.

In March of 1895 (pg 78), the Chronicle reports that the Hemans were transferred back to Fwambo as part of a shuffling of missionaries, but that his schooling efforts were going as well as ever:

The removal of Mr. Nutt to the new station has necessitated the transference of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans from Niamkolo to Fwambo. Mr. Hemans opened a school at Fwambo’s village with ninety-three children in attendance, and the number has daily increased, as has also been the case with the school at the head station. Upon the day on which he wrote (November 2nd) there had been 287 children at the former school and 153 (boys only) at the latter.

Also in 1895, the Hemans returned to England for a well-deserved furlough, arriving per steamer Tartar, at Southampton, October 16th. They were welcomed back at a board meeting on November 12th (December issue, pg 324), where “The Directors welcomed the Rev. E.S. Oakley, from Almora; Mr. and Mrs. J.H.E. Hemans, from Lake Tanganyika (accepting at the same time some of the first copy-books used in the Mission, and specimens of needlework).” Also that month, the Chronicle published a letter that had been addressed to the Foreign Secretary (pg 330):

“A Letter from Tanganyika School Boys”

When Mr. and Mrs. Hemans (whose reception by the Board is referred to on page 324) were about to leave their station the scholars at Kawimbe were greatly troubled. These colored missionaries had completely won their affection and confidence, and very earnestly did the lads plead that a substitute might soon be sent. In reply to their request Mr. Hemans suggested that they should write down what they wanted to say and address it to the Foreign Secretary of the London Missionary Society. At once they accepted the suggestion, and, retiring to the end of the school-house drew up the following petition, which we give in facsimile with a translation appended. Evidently Young Central Africa is getting on!

“Kawimbe, 5th January, 1895

“Master, – We want a person who knows to teach well like Hemans. We love Hemans because he generally tells good things to people and teaches well. We want a cheerful, loving, and faithful person. In days past we were in darkness alone, but now we are greatly thanking God, who has brought him, and in our hearts we are rejoicing.

“We are not angry with anyone – we love all; but we want a person who should come from Jamaica, like Hemans.

“We write these words on behalf of all the school children.”

(Signed) Kipapa. Ngolwe. Mwamba. Mauluki. Ndalambo. Mutale. Makiende. Kisimba. Kimvyamuti. Kisama. Kilalu. Musatwe. Kombe. Manyika. Kito. Simbwa. Mulinda. Kamimbi. Maliwanda. Tungo. Kizyemu. Swepa.

The Hemans were busy during their furlough, participating in various London Missionary Society events. They participated in a “Children’s Demonstration” (June 1896 issue, pg 126):

Favored by the sunniest Sunday for many weeks past, the Children’s Demonstration at Exeter Hall, on the afternoon of May 9th, was a record gathering in point of attendance. The large hall began to fill soon after three, and the young people waited patiently for the arrival of “notabilities,” just before four o’clock. A warm welcome was accorded the gaily-dressed missionaries, representative of nearly all parts of the Society’s field of operations; and the missionaries’ children, similarly arrayed, were voted prettier than ever. Very conspicuous and popular also were our friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, from Lake Tanganyika. The huge map used at the September Convention was suspended from the roof, near the organ.

They also got to spend some time in Jamaica, where they did numerous fund-raising events (March 1897, pg 65):

It may be remembered that Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, who have done good service as school master and mistress at Fwambo, left England for Jamaica last May, to spend part of their furlough in their native land. While there they have been hard at work amongst the churches, not having indeed one free Sunday during their visit, which terminated at Christmas. Mr. and Mrs. Hemans have given numerous lectures on their work in Central Africa, illustrated by lantern slides, the proceeds of which have resulted in the sum of £22 7s. 2d. for the funds of the Society. Much interest and enthusiasm have been evoked by the visit of our friends, and they have been the recipients of several addresses, both of welcome and farewell. One of these from the Old Scholars of Whitefield School, Porus, with some forty signatures, stated, amidst many other sympathetic and congratulatory words, that “while England is proud of her Moffat and her Livingstone, Jamaica is proud of her Hemans.”

During that trip, Mr. Hemans got to visit his father, who unfortunately died three months afterwards. Also in 1897 (June, pg 137) was published an article about a Young Men’s meeting where the Hemans are mentioned. It says “Dr. Parker referred to Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, who were seated on the platform, as living illustrations of what the Gospel can do for the world, and added a humorous reference to their audience with the Queen two days before.” I just wanted to say that sounds like Dr. Parker was a bit of a dick to the Hemans right in front of everybody, with at the very least a backhanded compliment.

By May of 1897 they were getting ready to head home. A report of a May 25th board meeting published in July (pg 148) notes “Mr. J.H.E. and Mrs. Hemans, who are returning to Central Africa to resume school work, which they have already done so thoroughly well.” During their second stay in Central Africa, the Hemans’ garnered less mentions (that I found) in the pages of the Chronicle, though it does note some nice things. After mentioning in the 1898 issue (February, pg 46) that the latest batch of missionaries had arrived safely, another newly arrived missionary was making a favorable note in the February 1901 issue (pg 41):

Mr. Draper and Mr. MacKendrick reached Kawimbi on September 22nd, and received a very hearty welcome. At the Sunday morning service, conducted by Mr. Hemans, there were over six hundred natives present. Mr. MacKendrick was appointed to work at Niamkolo. After being there for more than a week, he writes: “The more I see of Niamkolo the surer I am that good and lasting work can be done here. I have been much impressed with the work of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans. Indeed, so far as my experience goes, I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best mission station I have visited since coming to Africa. The school is attended by about 120 children at present, and some of the work I have seen would be no disgrace to any of our English schools up to the third or fourth standard. On the first Sunday, although the people were packed like herrings in a box inside the church, there were over two hundred left outside. The following Sunday it was just the same. In the afternoon I baptized four women, and there are others waiting for baptism.”

The final substantial note came later that same year in the June issue (pg 131), with the mention (partially quoted in the beginning):

Mr. Thompson went on to say that the Directors regarded the development of industries as a matter of very great importance among such people. It had, therefore, been a very great satisfaction to get from men quite unconnected with the mission most kindly expressions of satisfaction with their efforts in this direction, and to find that a number of native youths were already useful and profitably employed as carpenters, sawyers, bricklayers, etc. Mr. Hemans, a son of West Indian negro slaves, and a child of the Society’s mission in Jamaica, had given special attention to agriculture, and had rendered great service to the community at large by introducing improved and new varieties of vegetables and fruit. The Foreign Secretary stated that on the previous Friday he had received from Mr. Hemans an excellent sample of raw sugar produced by the mission. “I hope we have heard that last of giving up the Central African Mission. The new century has begun under the shadow of death, but the prospects of the work are brighter than they have ever been.”

In 1906 (April, Pg 96), the Chronicle notes under its departure announcements: “Mr. J.H.E. Hemans and Mrs. Hemans, returning to Jamaica, on their retirement from work in Central Africa, embarked at Bristol, per steamer Port Kingston, February 23rd.” Then, in 1908 (October, Pg 200), again under announcements: “Deaths – Hemans. -At Hampton, Jamaica, James H.E. Hemans, late of Central African Mission, in his 52nd year. (By cable dated September 4th.)”

That marked the end of the mentions of Mr. and Mrs. J.H.E. Hemans that I could find in the Chronicle. As I go through my project of transcribing the Chronicle, I’ll find more, and I skipped a lot of mentions of regular monetary contributions that the Hemans’ made to the Society. They were really dedicated to their work, and remarkably effective, spending over a third of their lives in Africa. As reflected back in my Mama Meli update, they seem kind and beloved by the people they worked with. If their colleagues mistreated them, that is a helluva stain on their record. Maybe some of this information is useful to other researchers trying to tell their story. Thanks!

Joe Biden’s Ties Update

In a move that has surprised me, my post Joe Biden’s Ties is far and away my most popular post ever, getting sometimes into even double-digit views on a given day. Pretty exciting I know! Given the immense popularity, I feel obliged to my loyal reader(s) to provide a quick mid-week update on potentially our most fashionable president (I know JFK exists). I was tipped off by an Al Jazeera article, but, as you can guess from the photo up top, Joe Biden at least once wore a tie with little sharks on it!!! Very exciting!!! The above photo was taken in 2015, when the sartorially adventures then-Vice President met Xi Jinping as the Chinese president arrived for a state visit. Here’s the full photo:

New Bedford

Reading this week:

  • The Mind of the African Strongman by Herman J. Cohen
  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop
  • US Policy Toward Africa by Herman J. Cohen

This past week my super amazing girlfriend and I went to New Bedford. We went there because we both wanted to get away for a bit, she likes Massachusetts, and I like boats, and conveniently New Bedford catered to all of these interests. We drove up there on a chilly winter morning, leaving New Haven to pass through Old Saybrook and Old Lyme before waving at New London and New-port until we finally arrived at New Bedford. That last sentence was meant to make fun of all the things in New England named uncreatively for other places, but at one point we were contemplating visiting a 12th-century castle in Taunton, so maybe the naming convention makes sense. Still, if I was a pilgrim everything in New England would be named Patville and Patricktown and Patford.

Upon arrival in New Bedford, we immediately got lunch. Then, having fortified ourselves, we proceeded quickly to Fort Rodman to enjoy the view. There’s a military museum that we wanted to visit, but it was mysteriously closed. Luckily, though, the views were nice, as you can see from the samples above. I enjoyed looking at the lighthouse and also the fort, and the trawlers that were motoring on by. We saw many dogs and a man playing rugby by himself. On the note of views, I can’t believe that anyone thinks that windmills are an eyesore. They are so cool. They spin and stuff and then make electricity. Maybe they could come in more creative paint schemes, like flame decals or something. The same goes with solar panels. I wouldn’t advocate cutting down trees to install ’em, but fields and fields of solar panels is an enticing view to me. Everyone should get on board.

Next, because Fort Rodman hadn’t killed quite enough time and we couldn’t check into our AirBnB until 4, we went on the New Bedford Harbor Walk. That’s not the only reason we went, we also went because we like walking places together and enjoying each other’s company, and the walk provides lovely views of the harbor. I was somewhat disappointed to discover you weren’t supposed to walk out on the very nice path shown in the above photo, but mollified to discover the feat of engineering this wall was. They also have these big ole gates that normally let cars through, but make it possible to just like, cut off the lower peninsula of the city, which I think gave the whole affair some Game of Thrones vibes. It was also very cold while we were walking, and as we set out a lady warned us about the dangers of tearing up and getting frostbite on our cheeks, so that was on our mind. We eventually hustled off the wall and managed to park at our AirBnB shortly before a brief but furious snowstorm hit. We settled in and had a lovely night after getting some seafood takeout.

The next morning we set out bright and early (well, like 9:45) for our full day of New Bedford adventuring. The first stop was the Seaflower sculpture, because of course we support public art. Also, importantly, it let me check off a thing on Atlas Obscura, which is almost as important. This was a fairly good trip for checking things off on Atlas Obscura, as our next stop was an oozing whale skeleton:

I’m on the left.

The whale skeleton was housed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which was really good! We spent a few hours there looking at stuff. They had the first gallery with the whale skeletons, which was neat (and another one later on), and then an art gallery with a bunch of art, only most of which was whaling-related, and then of course a bunch of galleries that showed you a bunch of stuff about whaling. They had clothing and boats and harpoons and stuff like that. I recommend it. One of their major claims to fame is what they bill as the “World’s Largest Ship Model:”

I guess this counts as a model instead of just like, a ship, because it is half the size of the ship they modelled it after. The overall impression is a ship for children. You can see me on the above right steering it from one end of the hall to the other. We didn’t quite make it, but maybe someday.

Man I uploaded more pictures of the place than I thought. One of the more interesting wings of the exhibit, at least as far as my super amazing girlfriend and I’s interests go, was their wing dedicated to the interactions between the whaling fleets as Asia. They had some super cool examples of Japanese whaling stuff, including a wide range of prints, which I was disappointed to find that the gift shop contained exactly zero reproductions of. They were very neat. The museum also of course boasts of the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw, which I have a particular fondness for out of an effort to make myself presidential. My super amazing girlfriend was very impressed by the swifts.

After leaving the museum and getting some lovely lunch, there wasn’t a whole lot else to actually do in New Bedford. This is largely the fault of COVID. But we spent the rest of a very lovely afternoon walking around and admiring the town, reading the various very informative signs and admiring the boats in the harbor. In the evening we had an expansive takeout dinner and then settled in for the night. That left us with our final morning in New Bedford. It dawned bright and clear and we took advantage of it by being lazy and hanging out until we had to check out of the AirBnB. Then we paid our respects to the Joshua Slocum memorial, which was important because Sailing Alone Around the World is a very good book and he was a cool guy (the memorial park is a lovely spot, too, you should check it out), oh and also for Atlas Obscura. Priorities.

Update: The museum tweeted me. I’ve never achieved this level of fame:

Last Resort

Don’t yell at me Amazon for stealing your photo, I’m trying to drive you traffic.

Reading this week:

  • The Democracy Advantage by Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael M. Weinstein
  • Civil Wars by David Armitage

In my habit of defending media products that everyone else thinks is bad, and also because it is slow here and I can’t think of anything else to write about (well, I can, but does anyone really want my analysis of why the people getting vapors about Parler getting kicked off of Amazon are dumb?), I want to tell you this week that the TV show Last Resort is the greatest TV show about submarines ever made.

First off, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of competition. I could find two other shows in the general category after some quick Googling. Submarines seem to be made for movies instead. Second off, though, it’s amazing. By which I mean it is absolutely dumb. Exactly zero parts of it make any sense at all. I mean, that photo up top is presented without a hint of irony in the materials for the show. On the cover of the complete series on DVD which of course I bought, in the background there is also a submarine surrounded by explosions and a destroyer also surrounded by explosions and also F-14s coming from behind to do a fly-over. It’s fantastic.

The premise is that a US nuclear missile submarine is attacked by other US Navy ships for mysterious reasons, and the natural response of the captain is to take over a fictional French island in the Indian Ocean that is somehow very well-stocked with lots of supplies but few French people. The submarine tells everyone to stay away lest they start nuking people, which they demonstrate by nuking a patch of ocean off the Eastern seaboard which they claim in the show wouldn’t have any people in it at all, a bit of the story I took personal offense to because I have literally myself been in those very waters they hypothetically nuked. There’s also a drug kingpin on the island. It’s a whole thing. Hijinks ensue.

She is a fully qualified submariner! She would not be naïve! She has seen some shit! Thank you!

Submariners hate the show. At least they think they do. In their defense, everyone else hated the show as well; it was cancelled after 13 episodes. I don’t know when they figured out they were cancelled (I suspect at about the same time they dreamed up this series), but the final few episodes rush towards a conclusion with increasingly bad green-screen acting and the finale is a gigantic explosion. Honestly, not the peak of artform, I’m going to admit that. I have to keep myself from just detailing all the dumb stuff. Like the female lieutenant, who is the star of the show (Daisy Betts as Lieutenant Grace Shepard), who is a longtime friend of the captain and a qualified submariner who also somehow doesn’t know the most obvious things about submarines. Or the fact that somehow the submarine can just pull into and out of port willy-nilly without shore power or reactor startups or tugboats. Or the fact that no one ever seems to do any maintenance on the thing. These are just the things I can remember easily, I haven’t actually watched this show in like 7 years.

Back to my submariners only think they hate it comment. Like I said three paragraphs ago I bought the complete series on DVD and would make sure to bring it underway. Then, I would play it underway in the wardroom. Lemme tell ya what happens. People walk in. They’re like “what is this?” I tell them “It is Last Resort, the greatest submarine TV show ever made.” They would be like “ugh, that show is terrible,” but they would be transfixed. They would watch for about 10 minutes or so, standing up, like they just wandered in for a second, they’re about to leave, really, they just want to see how dumb it is. But after 10 minutes they sit down. Then, when the episode ends and I queue up the next one, they stay for that too. And the next. This can’t go on for too long, there are only 13 episodes, but everyone watches. You know why? Because they love it.

It is a huge mistake to take the show seriously. You have to watch it like a sci-fi show. When you watch Star Trek, it’s loosely based around the concept of a military-type ship, but no yeah Scotty fixes everything pretty much by himself, the bridge crew are naturally the ones that explore dangerous alien planets, and the warp core breaks or fixes at convenient times for the story. We get it. Same with this show. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s absolutely the greatest, which I have said many times now. The show is absolutely bonkers. They blow stuff up all the time. I think there are Russian paratroopers in only like the second episode which the bad-boy SEAL team leader manages to dispatch at the last second after the hot girl tells him he should, saving LT Shepard who was taking on the Russian paratroopers herself. The real star of the show is the COB, who is acerbic and witty and during most of the show trying to overthrow the captain while also keeping junior sailors in line, and is honestly the most accurate part of the whole production. I love him. The show has better people in it than it deserves, like Andre Braugher, who at no point lets on that he is in anything other than an absolute masterpiece.

Our SEAL friend and his hot conscience. You are too good for him Dichen!

Look, a quick review of the Wikipedia page has made me learn that despite being what I can almost certainly state is this show’s #1 fan, even I don’t recall all the crazy stuff they wrote into the script. Episode 6 includes the entire island being dosed with a hallucinogen; maybe the writers were just putting their own lived experience on the small screen. You gotta struggle past the first episode, but watch this show, and you’ll agree with me that it is the greatest submarine show that has ever existed. I’m not going to say it even deserved all the 13 episodes it got, but I think we are all better for them having existed.

COB says watch it!!!

Inauguration 2009

WASHINGTON (Jan. 20, 2009) Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy marches down Pennsylvania Avenue during the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington. More than 5,000 men and women in uniform are providing military ceremonial support to the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, a tradition dating back to George Washington’s 1789 Inauguration. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Kingston/Released)

Reading this week:

  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
  • The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly (I don’t disagree with the premise, but I don’t think he makes a very cogent argument)
  • Stealth of Nations by Robert Neuwirth
  • You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

I don’t have a lot of fun and unique thoughts about like, the attempted insurrection or riot or what have you that happened last Wednesday, and for a lack of much else to write about (I have just been trying to read as many books as possible while I have the time in order to reduce my backlog), I thought I would write about marching in the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Back in January 2009 I was a Youngster at the Naval Academy. The inauguration was coming up, and, as you may have gleaned from the caption in the photo above, the Naval Academy marches in the parade. If I recall correctly, each company got to send three or so people to march in the parade, and I remember them sending out an email asking if anyone wanted to do it. I decided that marching in the inauguration of America’s first black president would be a cool thing to be a part of, so I volunteered. There were enough volunteers that my company held a little tryout. I had to remember how to march (I think I even practiced a little?) because I was a Youngster and therefore actively trying to shed all my last vestiges of professionalism. I think I got the gig because I remembered what some particular drill term meant and executed it correctly. So that was cool!

I think we must have practiced once or twice as a whole group before setting off the morning of the inauguration to DC. They bussed us to the Mall, where there were some staging tents, and I remember driving past the crowds and whatnot. That was cool. The parade is very long, and we were towards the back, so the plan was for us to be in the tents for a bit, and then when it was about time for us to go (long after the parade had already started) to hustle out and form up and start marching.

What I remember most about the day is being very, very cold. I have just looked it up; it seems to have averaged about 24F that day. Furthermore, the dress uniform isn’t great for keeping you warm. You’re walking around in leather shoes and there are only so many layers you can stuff underneath that overcoat. No matter though; the plan was to bust out of our warm, heated tent and then just march march march through DC, past the President, and then onto the busses. This did not happen.

Ground-eye view.

After some time in the tent, we were hustled out and formed up. I think we started marching pretty quick. I forget who was in front of us but for some reason behind us they put the US Navy Ceremonial Guard. Maybe this was to make them look extra-good, but they didn’t need it. You see, those guys are professionals at marching, unlike us, who were just a bunch of schmucks. They should have been in front of us, or maybe far from us so we didn’t tarnish their reputation. I spent a lot of time that day looking at them. You see, despite our quick start, the parade was slow. Very very very slow. I don’t know what the holdup was, because I was so far in the back, you see, but it is simply the nature of long parades that towards the back they don’t go so smoothly and we were feeling it. We started off standing at attention for all this time that we weren’t moving, but before long, as we stopped and started our way through DC, we transitioned to parade rest during the stops and then at ease and finally we were just lolligagging about whenever there was a stop in the parade. The Ceremonial guard, however, I think on purpose always stayed just one step above us. If we were at parade rest, they were at attention. If we were at ease they were at parade rest. And so on. They looked great.

But like I said it was very very cold. My primary motivation for wanting the parade to move was so I could finally get to that long-forgotten place that was warmth. I was pretty sure I was starting to get frost-bit on my toes. I came to the conclusion that if I was ever President I probably just wouldn’t have a parade to spare people standing around in the cold so much.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

But finally! Finally we marched past the President. The above photo I got from NASA, which you can tell from the astronauts, but that is about what the stands looked like when we finally marched past too. It was long since dark, and there was almost nobody left in the stands. As a good little marcher, I should have kept my head straight ahead, but I decided to swivel a bit to get a glimpse of the newly-minted President. Much like in the above picture, he looked warm in the reviewing stand, and was very cheerfully waving at us with a huge smile. So that was really neat! I got to be there and be a part of history or whatever! After we walked past him I think it wasn’t far to the busses and I was glad to have made it through with all my toes intact. So that’s my story of marching in Obama’s first inauguration. I hope you liked it.