Book Review: Heading Out: A History of American Camping

Camp site near Acadia National Park

Camping has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From before I can remember, my parents took us RV camping: in a VW microbus and then later in a borrowed Winnebago. Eventually we got a trailer camper. As I got older, I became a Boy Scout and camped with them and into my adulthood, camped with friends and family and now have introduced camping to my own family.

So, when I heard the interview with Terence Young, author of “Heading Out: A History of American Camping,” on the Art of Manliness podcast, I was intrigued to find out more about this activity that seems such a part of my life and of the American landscape. Young begins by noting that recreational camping, as such, is a somewhat uniquely American activity that has it origins in the post-Civil War 19th century due to several streams that coincided then.

First, there was the Romantic movement that in America idealized nature and natural landscapes, creating a spiritual connection to the land that was unlike what existed before. Thoreau and Emerson are prime examples of this in writing, along with Thomas Cole and the Hudson River school in painting. You also had the rapid urbanization of America, as what had once been a predominantly rural and agricultural society began streaming into the mechanized and industrialized cities where there was more wealth and opportunity, but also less privacy, beauty, and nature. There was the closing of the American frontier along with the Centennial of American Independence that recalled the once rugged character of the pioneers and frontiersmen that many people thought was being lost in modern urban hustle and bustle. Finally, there was a critical mass of Civil War veterans who all experience with roughing it in the outdoors who could act as guides and who enjoyed the outdoors themselves.

There was also a religious element to the rise of camping as well. For centuries, Catholics in Europe had headed out in spiritual pilgrimages, especially the Camino Santiago de Compestela, in which they walked hundreds of miles in a journey to bring them closer to God. Protestants, meanwhile, did not engage in such a Catholic activity, laced as it was with popish “saint-worship”. But there was still a felt need to make a spiritual connection by getting away from every day life. This coincided with Romanticism to create a new kind of spiritual pilgrimage, a communing with God with took place in nature, away from cities.

Into this mix walked a Boston Protestant minister by the name of William Henry Harrison Murray, who published a book in 1869, Adventures in the Wilderness, that described camping in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state in such colorful and accessible terms that it was a huge hit. If it were today, it would by a NY Times bestseller and an Oprah book pick. And because it also described the hows and whys—where to go, what to bring, who to hire as a guide—it ignited a massive rush of people into the woods that continued for years.

As National Parks were set aside those also became destinations, as people traveled West by train from the Atlantic states to spend weeks in Yosemite and other places they read about in magazines and newspapers and books.

That was followed some decades later by the next big leap in camping provided by the automobile. Once the car could transport people to all manner of destinations, auto camping became a big push. You could load a full set of gear onto the car or even attach a trailer and set off in relative comfort. No riding a train and then a horse-drawn wagon provided by a guide. Instead, you traveled on your own, by your own itinerary. By the late 1930s, camping had become a huge national pastime, all impelled by the desire to get out of the urban rat race and into the tranquility and authenticity of nature for a spiritual reconnection with the true American spirit, at least that which people thought was true. Read More and Comment

Review: Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization

The thesis of Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization is that the whole structure of Western civilization, every major institution, all of its intellectual, entrepreneurial, and cultural accomplishments can be traced to the work of innumerable priests over the past 2,000 years, both famous and faceless.

I have to admit that Fr. William Slattery provides a compelling case that the history of the West, in ways both surprising and unsurprising, owes nearly everything to the Church. But that’s my small quibble. In almost every example given, while the contributions of the ordained clergy of the Church was vital, the contribution of laypeople was just as vital.

Fr. Slattery does acknowledge this early on:

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

[…]

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

I don’t disagree with a bit of that, but I don’t think this book necessarily builds the case for it either. On the other hand, whatever the book’s subtitle or thesis, what it does do is provide a look at the remarkable contribution of the Church in the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance to building a better world that we continue to benefit from today.

What Heroism and Genius does best is to strip away the accumulated cruft of centuries of “black legends” concocted by the Protestant reformers as well as Hollywood inventions that collectively created this image of the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and Martin Luther’s 95 theses as an unrelieved slog through the muck and mire of superstition that left 95% of the populace as virtual slaves serving privileged and backward-thinking robed masters. In fact, as presented by Fr. Slattery, the Church—in her priests, bishops and laypeople—advanced the cause of humanity in great leaps.

Read More and Comment

A Night Out with Alton Brown’s Eat Your Science Tour

I’ve watched every episode of Good Eats, both seasons of Feasting on Asphalt, and the one season of Feasting on Waves. I’ve got the cookbooks. I listen to the Alton Browncast. I even pepper my everyday conversation with references to unitaskers and refer to stuff that isn’t fit for eating with “That is not good eats.”

I am an Alton Brown fan.

So when I heard six months ago that the current leg of his touring show “Eat Your Science” would be coming through Boston this weekend, I knew what I wanted for my birthday. So I picked up a couple of tickets, put the date on my calendar and waited.

It was a rough week this past week. On Tuesday, I got to sit with a dying friend for what is probably the last time. On Thursday, I had a very long day working a banquet for my day job, spent all day Friday editing audio, video, and photos from the event, and then had a board meeting on Saturday morning. I was wiped. But by Saturday afternoon I was energized and excited for the show.

Leaving the kids with grandma, Melanie and I headed into the city for dinner and the show. We were going to get sushi at this trendy new place, but it was packed so we headed across the street to one of the best known Vietnamese places in Boston, Pho Pasteur. That was indeed good eats.

For the show itself, the entry lines were long and nearly every one of the 3,000 seats was filled. We had a small glitch going through security as I had forgotten to leave my Leatherman multitool at home1. I thought I was going to have to choose to lose the tool to get into the show or potentially miss the beginning to run back to the car. Luckily, the head of security had pity on me. After all, it’s an Alton Brown show and I was carrying a multitasker.

The show itself was a lot of great laughs. It’s not a cooking demonstration show. Alton is the first to admit he’s not a chef. Think of it more like a cross between a stand-up routine, a magic show, and an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

The first part of the show featured a bit exploring what Brown would do if he were the god of food, including ending the reign of Sriracha as a trendy food with a song called “Sriracha” sung to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story. He also started an interactive bit in which he would make all the rats in the world taste like bacon that was supposed to include participation from an audience member, but the woman acted all weird and he ended up having to abort. There was also a very funny story involving breaking tortilla chips, a late-night visit to the refrigerator and an old blind dog.

Next was another audience interaction in which a woman was brought up from the seats to pick a terrible cocktail recipe at random, which would then be improved by the application of science and liquid nitrogen. This one worked out much better.

After intermission, most of the time was talking about popcorn, including one of Alton’s signature mega-cooking constructions, in this case a massive rocket-shaped hot air popper. This also included an audience member and was very funny. Finally, there was a Q-and-A featuring questions gleaned from audience members over Twitter.

All in all, it was a great show with lots of fun and lots of laugh, showcasing Alton’s showmanship, his rapport with his audience, and his great improv skills.

It was also a great night out for me and Melanie, with just a few downsides. The Wang Center’s seats have about 16 inches for your knees, which was torture on Melanie, plus the seats were about 16 inches wide, which was torture on me. And up where we were sitting it was crazy hot and humid, especially since we dressed for late October, not midsummer. Getting home also took forever, probably because of everybody going out for Halloween weekend, but that wasn’t terrible since we got to have good uninterrupted conversation in the car.

On the whole, however, it was all worth it to see Alton Brown, who I’ve watched and followed for years and admire for his approach to food, but also to how to live like a gentleman. The next time he’s on tour, I hope we can see him again. Next time we’ll spring for better seats though.

  1. It is, after all, part of my daily carry.

Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too): A Book Review

There are lots of books that outline all the reasons one should give up atheism or other religions and become Catholic and with good reason: Because the path to the Catholic faith has its origins in many places and wends its way through a myriad of obstacles, challenges, and objections.

Brandon Vogt—one of the smartest, engaging, and energetic young Catholics out there—has written a new book, “Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too),” that offers his own take on why one should consider the Catholic faith, a take that is aimed directly at the “nones”, the large and growing percentage of mostly young Americans today who tell pollsters that they have no religious preference, and does so in a way that should appeal to a younger audience, characterizing becoming Catholic as a way of “joining the Rebellion”, rather than giving into a massive institution.

I’ll admit it’s a weird decision. It goes against the grain. It’s radical. It is, in a word, rebellious.

In this concise, yet compelling book, Brandon outlines the reasons why anyone seeking the truth should become Catholic, using arguments both old and new. Brandon is an engineer by training and a philosopher by avocation so it’s no surprise that the book and its arguments are laid out in a logical progression, from whether God exists, to the necessity of religion vs. pure spirituality, to the supremacy of Christianity over other religions, to the Catholic Church. Read More and Comment

Why Did Leia Seek Out Obiwan Kenobi Now?

As I was falling asleep last night, after having watched a Star Wars Rebels, I had a sudden thought: Why now? The new movie Rogue One will end where Star Wars: A New Hope begins, with the delivery of the Death Star plans.

But my question is this: Why was Princess Leia delivering the plans to Obiwan Kenobi. From the trailer for Rogue One, it’s very clear that it is the Rebellion, lead by Mon Mothma, who sends Jyn Erso and her team to retrieve the Death Star plans. So why aren’t the plans delivered back to Mon Mothma? At the beginning of A New Hope, Leia’s ship—which was presumably at the battle where the plans were stolen—is racing back to Alderaan. As the opening crawl writes:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

So, intercepted by the Imperial Star Destroyer, Leia instead makes for Tatooine. Why? In her hologram, she tells Obiwan that she was sent by Bail Organa to get him to help in the Rebellion.

General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed. I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

And thus my question:

Why now?

Update: Having watched Rogue One after writing this, my question has been answered to some degree, but not completely.

Read More and Comment

Tolkien: The Movie

New Line Cinema has announced it will be making a new J.R.R. Tolkien movie. No, not one based on his books, but based on the author. It will be a biography.

Middle Earth is described as following Tolkien’s "early life and love affair with Edith Bratt," as well as his service to the British Army during the First World War. The film, to be written by Angus Fletcher, is reportedly based on years of archival research on Tolkien’s life.

I don’t know Fletcher, but I know that if they don’t treat his deep Catholic faith with respect, this won’t be worth watching at all. His faith animated him through the mot important moments of his life.

A Review of Designated Survivor

“The biggest terrorist attack since 9/11.” That’s how the new ABC show Designated Survivor describes the attack that sets up the premise of the show and it’s illustrative of the weaknesses of the show.

(There are only minor spoilers in this review, but read at your own discretion.)

First, I want to make it clear that I do want to like this show. Melanie and I always have one show at least that we watch together and now that Person of Interest is over we’ve picked DS.1 As for that line? In this fictional attack, a bomb in the Capitol Building during the State of the Union kills the President, the Cabinet, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Joint Chiefs in one fell swoop… except the designated survivors of Sutherland’s character, Kirkman, who was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a congresswoman. They say in the show that about 1,000 people died, which in absolute numbers is smaller than 9/11’s 3,000, but we’re talking about the decapitation of the governments of the world’s hyperpower. I think that qualifies as bigger.

This sort of small thinking is endemic to the show. An FBI agent says they have 50 agents working through the rubble of the Capitol looking for clues. Fifty? In reality there would hundreds, maybe even thousands. Everything they have the president doing and dealing with sometimes feels like he’s a small town mayor, not leader of the free world. Meanwhile, there’s one general who seems to speak for the entire military, who is himself a caricature of a hawk who is demanding Kirkman nuke everyone in sight, conveniently shifting from one bogeyman to the next. Last week, he was demanding Kirkman nuke Iran, until Kirkman found out they weren’t involved, and rather than act chastened, General Fire-up-his-butt shifts to some made-up al Quaeda analog the next week.

And then there’s the plainly unrealistic stuff. Kirkman’s family includes his wife, his grammar school age daughter, and the requisite long-haired and rebellious teenage son, who it turns out was dealing drugs on the side. In the midst of this national crisis in which an unknown enemy is targeting the leaders of our nation, the First Son, Emo Boy, apparently has the run of Washington, DC, wandering around the city with a couple of Secret Service bodyguards. Yeah, no, in reality he’d be locked down in the White House.

That’s the other thing. We know that this incredibly tragic and scary event that may signal a new World War has just happened in the last couple of days, but everyone is acting as if things are just a little unsettled. The new “fish-out-of-water” president feels regretful he missed dinner at 6:30 with his family, never mind he was dealing with the biggest crisis in history. The deputy chief of staff and Kirkman’s old assistant from HUD jockey for position so each one can become the new chief of staff.

In the second episode, we’re already holding the memorial service for the dead president, but what’s the hurry? It’s been a couple of days. Maybe we should wait until the dust settles and we’ve started to rebuild the government before we begin the state funerals. And then more unreality. After the service, the president and first lady wander out the front doors to their waiting cars in the midst of the crowd of other people leaving, having casual conversations with them along the way. In reality, everyone stays put at the end of the service while the first couple are whisked outside to waiting vehicles and the motorcade rushes off with the sirens blaring. Only then is the crowd released.

Plus what’s your hurry? This is a series that will presumably unfold over a few years. Why not let it do so slowly? It feels like the creators wanted to do a show along the lines of: “What about a guy who isn’t a politician and is essentially a good guy suddenly finds himself president and in control of recreating the government?2 Okay, now how do we do that? A terrorist attack!”

I guess this all sounds like I don’t like the show. That’s not true. I haven’t made up my mind yet and the six-episode rule is in effect.3 I do like Kiefer Sutherland’s president and I do like the basic question of how does the country rebuild after such a loss (if only they can stay away from the cheesy primetime drama plot lines). I can suspend my disbelief for some of the rest of the laughable devices and tropes for the next four episodes. Here’s hoping they improve by then.

  1. She was a West Wing fan and Chris Jackson at the Secret Service agent appeals to Hamilton fandom. As for me, well, it’s Kiefer Sutherland.
  2. We’ve seen this movie starring Kevin Kline.
  3. If I’m interested in a new show I will give it six episodes for the writers and actors to get their feet under them and gel together. This rule began with Star Trek The Next Generation and had its most relevant application with Fringe.

Prince of Outcasts

This is a book review for those who have read the previous 12 books of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series of apocalyptic fiction, but haven’t read the 13th book in the series, The Prince of Outcasts. If you have not read the series, stop right now and go buy the first novel Dies the Fire or better yet, go buy the 11-volume bundle and get the discount now. You’ll end up reading the whole thing anyway.

As for the current book, we pick up where The Desert and the Blade left off, on the coast of southern California, a great storm suddenly sweeping one of our protagonists off to the West, leaving our other protagonist on shore, trying to figure out what she’s going to tell their Mother.

Like the fourth through 12th novels of the series, this 13th installment isn’t a single contained story. The first three books of the Emberverse were a trilogy, telling a complete story about the first generation of those who survived the Change. The next three told a classic “beginning/middle/end” quest story of the next generation, but they’re not the whole of that story.

The next four after that continue the tale of the second generation, but the pacing and plot shift. No longer are we moving forward in quest-style story, but we’re jumping around in time and place, back and forth across the continent. The pace of the action slows to a crawl. And that’s the sticking point for some fans. They’re so used to a different pace that this feels too slow. In fact, one of the books feels like it’s all about just a single battle!

Finally in the 10th book, the enemy that has been the focus of the previous six is confronted. What’s next?
Read More and Comment

What’s Old Is New (and Unoriginal) Again on TV This Fall

It’s a cliché to say that Hollywood is bereft of new ideas, but I don’t think it’s ever been more true than in this Fall’s TV season. Here are all the shows that are either spinoffs or reboots or “modern, reimaginings” of old shows or movies:

  • 24: Legacy is 24 with a new Jack Bauer.
  • The Blacklist: Redemption is a spinoff of The Blacklist with one regular character and a new one introduced last season. But without James Spader, The Blacklist wouldn’t be any good and so I don’t this one to be.
  • Chicago Justice is a spinoff of the whole Chicago franchise, after Fire, PD, and DPW, I think.
  • Emerald City is a “modern re-imagining” or reboot of The Wizard of Oz, as in changing everything about the original story except the barest framework.
  • The Exorcist is a reboot of the movie. I wonder if the titular exorcists are even priests any more.
  • Frequency is a reboot of the 2000 movie that starred Jim Caviezel.
  • Lethal Weapon is a reboot of the Mel Gibson movie although the starting premise sounds completely different.
  • MacGyver is a reboot of the 80s series, complete with the bad hair.
  • Prison Break isn’t exactly a reboot, so much as it’s a restart from where it left off in 2009, with the same stars playing the same roles.
  • Archie is a live-action “modern, reimagining” or reboot of the “Archie” comic books. Yes, really. And in all the modern, reimagining shows, they mean taking what was originally hopeful and pure and making it gritty and depressing and “real”.
  • Taken is a prequel to the movies, in which Brian Mills isn’t a vengeful dad, but a young CIA agent. But confusingly set today. And without the Irish accent.
  • Time After Time is a “modern, reimagining” of Jack the Ripper.
  • Training Day is a reboot of the 2001 movie.

And that doesn’t count all the other new shows that are just new versions of old concepts. Network TV is a vast wasteland. Yes, there a few good nuggets, but really, the innovative stuff is now on certain cable channels and streaming.

So what am I interested in this season? I might try an episode of 24: Legacy and see if it captures the old 24 glory days. Speaking of Jack Bauer, I am interested in the new Kiefer Sutherland series Designated Survivor. The previews for the new sitcoms The Great Indoors and Kevin Can Wait were funny and worth a try. Plus, the handful of old shows I watch that are coming back.

Next Page →