Near Windigo Ranger Station, Isle Royale National Park

Near Windigo Ranger Station, Isle Royale National Park

Welcome to a potpourri of book reviews, dreams, photography, poems, ruminations, and stories. Scroll down, explore, ponder, and share if you like.

Book review: A War Like No Other

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House. 2006. 416 pages.

In my 50+ years on Earth, I’ve lived through the middle and end of the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and wars waged from the depths of tropical forests and the expanse of deserts using everything from automatic weapons to automated drones. While the war veterans of 1782 and 1865 wouldn’t recognize much of today’s weaponry or some of the new tactics, “War is hell,” as it has always been.

In A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson outlines the cause, means, and results of the Peloponnesian War and how the strategies, tactics, and technologies evolved as the war dragged on, changing how the Greek world approached fighting and the military even as classical Greece tore itself apart. Hanson organizes his history by the war’s essential elements, such as fear, fire, disease, terror, armor, walls, horses, and ships.

This may sound discombobulating if, like me, you’re not familiar with the classical Greek era. By taking this approach, Hanson brings into relief the critical points and factors in the war’s agonizing progress and evolution, for example, the insufficiency of ravaging, the growing reliance on lightly armed troops, the need for horse troop support, the increasing desperation on both sides of sieges, and the inclination of democracy to make awful decisions and punish the leadership that carries out those decisions.

While aw is a survey, rich details draw the reader into the horrors of the war and its political background — the confusion and noise of the hoplite battle at Delium, where in the chaos Athenians kill Athenians, and the desperation at Syracuse, where men stranded on Sicily hundreds of miles from home are hunted down and slaughtered even as they drink the water of bloodied rivers. Later in the war, sailors are “speared like fish” as their triremes are destroyed.

At the beginning of the war, the expectation is that some land, mainly in Attica, will be ravaged; some cities may be besieged; some triremes may be sunk; and some hoplites will be killed honorably in a few decisive battles. As the war drags on, the rules are ignored, then forgotten. The war, which could have been a series of decisive battle and events, becomes a chronic, progressive disease with no cure but the destruction of one host or the other. Even when it’s in remission, such as during the Peace of Nicias, it’s festering within the Greek body.

By the time Athens is finally defeated, left to watch its vaunted Long Walls torn down, thousands of Athenians, Spartans, allies, and bystanders have died, hundreds of triremes have been rammed and sunk, and the Athenian treasury has been depleted, yet no clear victor has emerged. Athens and her aspirations have been reined in, but Sparta is weaker, while its enemies are not. In the meantime, war, once waged ostensibly according to conventions and rules (even if often broken) has turned into a nursery for ideas and technologies aimed at killing the most people most efficiently.

Why should you care about a war fought thousands of years ago over fear of an empire that faded soon after? Throughout Hanson refers to many wars that have happened since — Ottoman, the American Civil War, the first and second world wars, Vietnam, and Iraq. In some ways the Peloponnesian War set a precedent for why and how modern conflicts are fought, who participates, and how conflicts are marketed and perceived during their up- and downswings.

As Hanson recounts critical miscalculations made by the leaders, peoples, and combatants on both sides, it’s hard to forget that future historians and peoples will look back and marvel at our own errors and blunders and wonder how we could be so oblivious to so much that is obvious. After all the years, money, and lives lost, perhaps the Peloponnesian War’s clearest legacy was helping to make future conflicts easier to sell to people who want to be winners and ever more coldly and efficiently deadly — at which point, no one wins.

Perking up old-school style with the coffee percolator

I can’t count the times Garrison Keillor has worked the Lutheran compulsion to ply guests with coffee into A Prairie Home Companion. My parents weren’t Lutheran, but the moment they saw a car that looked like it might pull up in front of or next to the trailer, out came the coffee and any cookies that had escaped my foraging on the sly. It was an invariable ritual, almost as certain as death or taxes.

The first coffeepot I remember was a percolator. Although I haven’t seen one since those times, I remember that coffee percolating was a rich sensory experience — the aroma of the coffee as it percolated, the sight of the liquid shooting up against the inside of the clear lid handle, and the bubbly sound that inspired an unforgettable series of percussive notes that still evokes vintage Maxwell House coffee advertising.

I recall the parts as well — the pot, the basket, the lid, and the hollow stem through the basket, as well as the filters with the hole for the stem. For my parents, the brew of choice was Eight O’Clock coffee, bought at Loblaw’s and ground (coarse) on the spot in the store’s big grinder.

Percolators fell out of fashion in the 1970s when drip coffeemakers became popular thanks to Joe DiMaggio in ubiquitous Mr. Coffee commercials. My parents (most likely my dad, as he did the shopping) succumbed to the hype and bought a drip coffeemaker, which then took over a spot on the counter.

The once-simple world of American coffee has evolved into one my parents wouldn’t recognize — the latte grande, the espresso machines, the syrups and shots, the French presses, the “pound” of coffee sold in 11-ounce cans, the Keurig cups, and fussiness of it all. If you camp like a cowboy on a cattle drive (like Keillor’s Dusty and Lefty), you may still use a percolator because all you need is a fire to get a pot going (although these days Dusty and Lefty mostly find themselves in new-fangled cafés, complete with very noisy espresso machines).

Electric and stove top percolators are still sold. The most frequent comments on Amazon seem to be, “I would get one if I knew how to use it” and “Are there instructions?” Maybe it’s a sign of how in the 21st century we’ve become so used to our electronics doing the work and keeping the time that operating a simple coffee percolator seems not only different, but daunting.

Relics: Dictators among us

At a time when the cell phone had become popular but not ubiquitous and the smart phone was still a toy for the affluent, one day I heard someone on the street ask me a question. While thinking, “Are you talking to me?” I asked, “Pardon me?” because I hadn’t caught what she’d said. The young woman sharply shot back, “Not you!” while pointing to her phone. Apparently, I’d intruded into her world.

Even before the mobile phone, some people talked aloud while walking alone. These weren’t young folks planning hookups, or mothers tracking down wayward offspring, or couples checking in with each other. These were Very Important People with Very Important Thoughts whose Very Important Time couldn’t be wasted during their commutes. They were using Dictaphones or similar devices to record letters, memos, minutes, notes, and anything else they needed to get out of their heads and into the record. At the office, a secretary might don a headset and type the recorded words. As Dave Barry might say, there are two kinds of people: Those who dictate, and those who take/transcribe dictation. You want to be the kind who dictates.

Dictation devices weren’t new in the 1980s and 90s — they have a long history beginning in the 19th century, and they evolved throughout the 20th. According to this article, a Dictaphone plays an important role as Fred MacMurray’s inanimate confidante and eavesdropper in the 1944 film classic Double Indemnity. While Walter Neff’s thoughts were strictly private, public Dictaphone use bloomed among yuppies in 1980s and 90s Chicago, or maybe that’s when I noticed it.

Today using a Dictaphone on the street might be as jarring and quaint as getting out a Sony Walkman, although if you prefer an old school approach with new technology, you can still buy a handheld dictation device. You don’t need dedicated hardware to dictate or a secretary or administrative assistant to transcribe your thoughts, however. Just fire up an app such as Dictaphone or Dragon Dictation or the functionality built into apps such as Evernote. You can talk to your device anywhere, anytime, and it will do the hard work of deciphering what you’re trying to say. (It’s still up to you to proofread.)

If, however, you’re plotting a murder like Walter Neff, you’ll want to put both the dictation device and the phone down. Even better, set aside the dame. She ain’t worth it, kid.

Graue Mill and Museum on Salt Creek, Oak Brook, Illinois

J. wanted to take his camera and lenses to a store in La Grange to be sent out for cleaning and let me tag along to take advantage of the sunny if nippy, windy day (March 21).

After leaving the camera shop around 4 p.m., we headed west to Graue Mill and Museum on Salt Creek in Oak Brook, which I’d discovered online when looking for nearby forest preserves or walking trails. Opened in 1852, Graue Mill served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Although the mill and museum weren’t open yet (the building opens for the season in mid-April), we could still photograph the mill exterior, its wooden wheel, and Salt Creek, which has wide trails along its banks — something to check out in warmer weather. Near the mill, at the point where Salt Creek narrows before passing under York Road, a wide swathe of water rushes over a dam that’s as attractive as a dam can be. Here in Illinois, you take waterfalls in any form you can find. The trails near Graue Mill appears to be popular with families.

On the way back down York Road, I noticed ostentatious houses, both finished and under construction. I saw them only in passing, but they looked like something developed at Disney — a cartoonish 21st century contortion of poorly conceived fictional, flat medieval architecture. A man’s home is his castle indeed. I’d rather spend the money on less house and more land. And an architect.

Our next stop was at the Drake in Oak Brook, where the door was locked but opened for us by a woman with a mobile phone glued to her ear. From the bathroom, I heard J. talking to a man in the strangely quiet hallway off the strangely unpopulated lobby. It turns out that the Drake had undergone remodeling and wasn’t open to the public (including us) yet. That explained the mysterious and eerie dearth of people.

Finally, we returned to the city and Julius Meinl, where my gulaschsuppe was followed by gulasch, because I was in that kind of hearty mood. Bon appetit.

Relics: The push reel lawn mower

Like other men, my dad participated in the ritual of mowing the lawn a couple of times a week. For a family living in a trailer, we had a fair amount of lawn to cover, later reduced by the installation of a shed in the middle of the side yard. Our extra lawn and garden came about when our landlord, Frank, allowed us the use of the portion of field next to our trailer, which was at the end of the row.

Push reel lawn mower

Push reel lawn mower

My dad, ever economy minded, cut his grass using a push reel mower propelled only by the engine of his body. Consisting of an axle and blades between two wheels attached to a handle, the push reel mower could be operated with little effort over grass that had not turned into tall grass prairie or hay, and that wasn’t too full of lumps or sticks and twigs. I’d not be surprised if he had picked up his mower at the same junkyard that was the source of my first bicycle.

Push reel mowers are so easy and safe to operate that even a child of a certain age and over can do it (8+?). At a certain point, preferring outdoor chores to indoor ones like washing dishes, I began to help with the task of mowing the lawn, or at least part of it. I doubt my dad was patient enough to let me finish every time because, as he often said, “We haven’t got all day!”

The push reel mower offers many advantages:

  1. It requires little storage space. Many models can even be hung on the wall in the garage or shed.
  2. It requires little maintenance. On rare occasions, my dad took ours to a friend to get the blades sharpened.
  3. To get started, simply take it off the wall, set on grass, adjust height if necessary, and push. There’s no filling up with gas, pulling cords, plugging in cords, or starting.
  4. According to what I’ve read, slicing grass with a push reel mower is better for your lawn’s health and leaves it looking better.
  5. As noted above, it’s safer around children (and pets). I won’t transform rocks into missiles, it’s unlikely to amputate limbs or kill anyone, and it can be stopped as quickly and easily as you can stop in your tracks.
  6. It’s quiet. You can mow your grass at any time without waking the neighbors or causing yourself hearing loss. The only sound you’ll hear from the mower is the satisfying snk snk snk of grass being cut and work being done. It’s so quiet that you probably won’t even disturb any cottontails that are looking on unless you get too close.
  7. With no fuel needed except your most recent meal, no exhaust fumes except your own (ahem), and no waste, it’s an environmentally friendly way to keep your grass trimmed to homeowners association standards. Don’t worry about collecting the clipped grass tops — they smell great and are good for the lawn. If you’re set on collecting clippings, you can get a bag for some models.
  8. You’ll get some much-needed exercise. The obesity epidemic is a result (in part) of not having enough work to do, forcing Americans to go to the gym. Why do fake work when you can enjoy the satisfaction of the real thing and see its results in real time?

As for disadvantages, unless your lawn is enormous, lumpy, weedy, or overgrown, or sports a variety of tough grass, or you have a heart or other medical condition that makes a miniature workout complete with sweat risky, I can’t think of any. Just be sure to wear sunblock, insect repellent, and a hat as you would for any outdoor activity.

In addition to following my dad or pushing the mower myself, creating those neat rows of cropped grass, I have another fond but bittersweet memory associated with our old mower. The friend who sharpened the blades had a son, Billy, who was about my age. We chased each other and rough housed with abandon. I always looked forward to any chance to see Billy.

We didn’t visit Billy and his dad often, but one day we set out with the mower in the back of the van. I may have been between 10 and 12 and was eager to see my playmate again. Alas, it was not to be. When we arrived, we learned that Billy was afflicted with a some childhood disease (measles, I think) and was quarantined in his bedroom. All Billy and I could do was wave sadly to each other, he from his window, I from the gravel road. The wooded area around the house was part of the attraction of visiting Billy. It felt like a magical place.

As it would turn out, I would see Billy only one more time, when he and his dad stopped by several years later. Although I knew we’d no longer be playmates in the same carefree way, I was still looking forward to their arrival. Sadly, in the intervening years, Billy (now Bill, I’m sure) had morphed into a shaggy, sullen, awkward, and dull teenager who didn’t seem to remember me. He ignored me for the duration. In my unformed and moralistic mind, he’d been transformed from the happy, wholesome hero of a Scholastic Books mystery into a future hoodlum if not serial killer. Or decadent rock star. I never saw him again, and now I can’t remember his last name to see what became of him or if he outgrew that nasty teenage phase. It may seem a small thing, but I felt disenchanted with growing up and the changes wrought by the process.

As my dad aged, he let his garden go and to my horror replaced the push reel mower with an electric model. It wasn’t as noisy as a gas mower, but it was too newfangled for my taste. I wasn’t allowed to use it as my dad was convinced I’d run over the cord — to me, the constant fighting with the long, inconvenient cord looked more difficult than pushing the old mower!

One summer after I’d graduated, my aunt (his youngest sister) from Washington, D.C., and I visited him at the same time, perhaps after one of his health events. He decided to mow the grass after supper one day. No, no, no, my aunt signaled to me with her eyes. “Diane, why don’t you mow the grass?” No, no, no. On the one side, my dad, still didn’t trust me not to run over the cord. On the other stubborn side, my aunt didn’t want him to do any work in his condition. For my part, I didn’t want to use the mower because I knew he didn’t want me to and I knew how he’d react if I did. My aunt assumed I was being my legendarily lazy self and glared at me. I wasn’t going to win, and my dad wasn’t going to be happy.

As my dad hovered and fretted, I got the mower out, plugged it in, started it, and got to work, mindful at all times of the cord and thinking how much easier it would have been to mow with the old push reel mower. As I walked back and forth, my dad followed, haranguing me and nearly working himself into another apoplexy. There were some things I couldn’t do right, and this was one of them. My feelings ranged from resentment (toward my aunt) to bemusement to amusement. After I finished and had put the darn thing away, she said quietly, “I’m so sorry.” And she meant it.

Remember, push reel mowers can be operated by even the most mechanically inept teenager or overgrown adult you happen to have around the house. In the popular spirit of DIY, use one today!