Hannibal and Me?

14 Feb

I’m an unlikely reader for a book about history’s greatest military strategist.

When I read War and Peace, I thought about skipping whole chapters.  Life is short, and military history doesn’t interest me.  Even without the war chapters, that novel is long enough.

For example, you might have caught me passing over Book 2, Chapter 14.  It begins:

Prince Bagration, having reached the highest point of our right flank, began riding downhill to where the roll of musketry was heard….

Bagration, flank, and musketry…I might not even finish the sentence.

So, I had a hunch that I was the wrong audience for Andreas Kluth’s book Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us about Success and Failure. 

Mr. Kluth’s book has a natural audience.  I’ve seen it. My son’s face lit up at the mere mention of Hannibal, and the bright orange book in my lap instantly started a conversation with the man sitting next to me on the plane last week.  (There’s a tip for single women in all of this.)

For me, though, Hannibal is just Bagration on an elephant.

But a wonderful thing happened when I read Book 2, Chapter 14 of War and Peace.  (I didn’t skip it; I just thought about it.)  At some point after Bagration famously rides down the hill, a human story replaces History.   Young Nikolai Rostov is knocked off his horse.  He sees French soldiers running toward him and he wonders what they could want from him.  Could they be coming to kill me?, he thinks incredulously.  Me, whom everybody loves?

I like that bit.  At that moment, I understood Nikolai Rostov, or, rather, Tolstoy understood me, and chapter 14 of Book 2 might have been called Nikolai and Me. 

So, maybe there’s a future for Hannibal and me.

About 100 pages into Hannibal and Me, in a chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, Mr. Kluth imagines a conversation between Hannibal and his Greek tutor, Sosylus.  Sosylus is prodding Hannibal to recognize that his winning tactics might not be in the service of a clearly defined strategy.  Hannibal struggles to identify what he wants out of the war with Rome.  We struggle to believe that Hannibal (Hannibal, whom everybody loves?) might have screwed something up.

The next part  got Mr. Crotchety’s attention.   Mine, too.  (I should be any less discerning than Mr. C?) Sosylus suggests that in order to defeat Rome, Hannibal might need to think about where its center of gravity lies:

I have a friend in Syracuse, Archimedes, the best mathematician among the Greeks. He showed me once how to move any object, no matter how large, by identifying its center of gravity and then shifting it by use of a lever.

OK, Mr. Crotchety is right: it’s a cool idea, this center of gravity.  But for me, the idea of an imagined conversation is even cooler.

It’s all made up, this exchange between hero and tutor.  Pure fancy.  And it was the turning point in the book for me.  This is where footnotes stopped distracting me and I settled in to read a story about people.  Hannibal, you might say, having reached the highest point of our right flank…and so on…became human.  He outgrew Bagration and was as real as the fictional Nikolai Rostov.

There’s a lot of talk in Hannibal and Me about how we construct stories about our lives.  We demand stories.  We’ve got to have them.  It’s sort of a reader’s center of gravity.  Writers who recognize it move us and conquer.

For my mother, on her birthday

23 Jan

My mother gave me a collection of poems the day I graduated from high school.

That might not sound like such a big deal, but this particular anthology was inscribed to her by the Kansas City, Missouri branch of the American Association of University Women “For Highest Scholastic Achievement,” and given to her the day she received her diploma as valedictorian of the class of 1957.

It’s a little piece of my mother’s past that my sisters and brother would also have been very happy to receive.  It’s mine.

On the flip side of the page occupied by the University Women (whoever they were), my mom wrote out for me, in her own hand, a familiar poem featuring my name.  A sweet gesture, especially considering that she chose the name herself.

But, aside from that, who doesn’t like receiving a poem?  And who doesn’t like hearing her own name?

Since that day, I have been placing myself strategically in a chair next to the door, ready to meet all who enter.  Some perceptive folk have remarked that there is something studied about the way I jump up and greet newcomers with a kiss.

I have my reasons.

And yet, despite all my efforts and all the years that have passed, my mother remains the only person ever to present me with that poem. It’s discouraging.

But I still have the book.  A thousand pages of poems.  One in my mother’s handwriting.

Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!

Hannibal and Me and me

17 Jan

[MR. CROTCHETY, our guest expert on the power of books, reviews Hannibal and Me by Andreas Kluth.  No sweat.  Pure sprezzatura.]

We are reminded, in a recent book published by Riverhead, of a (disputed) quote by Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people. The smallest minds discuss themselves.”

I became familiar with Hannibal and Me after sending a pithy letter to The Economist. My letter didn’t get printed, which is odd because it was brilliant. But Mr. Andreas Kluth, writer for The Economist, sent me an e-mail. Desperate for followers, Mr. Kluth pointed me to his Hannibal Blog. (This was Mr. Crotchety’s coming out almost four years ago.)

Loyal followers of the Hannibal Blog have waited a long time for Hannibal and Me. Recently, we have suffered the rave reviews of complete strangers. Those professionals will never love it or hate it the way We do.

Fair to my calling, I offer something shallow and negative.

I would like to see more maps in the next edition.

I dog-eared two places:

  • One place was at the description of Jung’s symptoms of midlife crisis. What do I know about Jung? (you laugh) But I suddenly see a dear friend as a midlife train wreck. (It’s not Mr. Crotchety. Really.)
  • The other place is the metaphorical center of gravity. I’ll be ruminating on that. You should too. There’s a whole other book. Right there.

The description of Wang Guangmei was just plain tragic. Don’t be Chinese circa 1966.

If I had not been anticipating this book, I might have put it down without finishing. Amy Tan is a badass, but introducing her at the early stages made me impatient. The first appearance of a list nearly scared me off. But, I gathered my wits, massaged myself with oil, and soldiered on. (You’ll understand after you read the book.)

I prefer a tedious read. H&M is breezy. I’m the sort who could sit in a meat locker and read The Pickwick Papers. I can spend days mining for something interesting. H&M has a nugget on every page. A lesser man could read H&M at the beach and return to the boardroom as an agile negotiator and a scholar of Roman history. No book club required. No embarrassing self-help books hiding on the Kindle.

It seems a shame to eat in minutes a feast that took days to prepare, just as it took only a few sittings to read a book that took years to publish. The good news is that Hannibal and Me offers a lifetime of sustenance.

By the way, I wrote this using only my left pinky.

Funny, She Doesn’t Look Bilingual

8 Jan

Last night, during the Republican debate, Jon Huntsman addressed Mitt Romney in Chinese.

Romney, grinning, threw his hands in the air: “I’m lost.”

He had good reason to grin.  Romney came off as your average guy.  Just one of us.

Huntsman sounded like a show-off.  I felt sorry for him.

At the end of my junior year, Meadville High School Student Council sent a few us (next year’s officers) to a leadership camp.  I think we got out of a day of school for it. The idea was to bring newly-elected student leaders from all over Northwestern Pennsylvania together for a day to network and, maybe, learn from each other.

I was our Student Council’s Lieutenant-Governor, second-in-command to a boy named Tim.  A smart and likeable football player with a full-on Animal House persona.  We represented Meadville that day.

Leadership training began with a break-the-ice game.  Introduce yourself: Tell us your name and an adjective that describes you.  Easy enough for the first person, but each subsequent player had to recite the blurbs about everyone who came before him.  Introductions and a test of memory, all in one amiable activity.

That was the year that I was in love with all things French (just before I fell in love with all things Russian) and because I was the only student in Advanced Placement French, I figured I could get away with stretching the truth to make myself more interesting:

“Hi, I’m Jenny and I’m bilingual.”

(I was not even remotely bilingual in French.  Not even close.  The most I can say in defense of my empty boasting is that I sounded (even then!) much better in French than Mitt Romney does.)

Next, it was my classmate Tim’s turn to introduce himself.  With a Mitt Romney grin, he said something forgettable about himself and then:

“. . . and this is Jenny, and she’s . . . what did you say you were, Jenny?  Oh, yeah, she’s bisexual.”

Remember, it’s high school.  This was a winning bit of wit and it stuck.  All the way down the line.  If it was funny the first time, it was freaking hilarious the fifteenth time.

In some happy retelling of this story, I am cosmopolitan beyond my years, and I grab the upperhand, by winking sassily at each repetition:

Yeah, that’s right, I’m Jenny, and I like boys and girls.  Got your interest?

But that is not a believable version for 1980, in the heart of Rick Santorum country, where there was nothing titillating to teenagers about lesbianism.

I was humiliated.  Flushed, on the verge of tears.  It’s the only thing I remember about that day.  The only thing I learned about leadership.

Back to last night’s debate.  A few things have changed since 1980.  Now, even Republican presidential candidates talk about the rights of homosexuals to form lasting relationships.  Nobody froths at the mouth.

Still, Huntsman’s Chinese went over about as well as my efforts to impress.  Americans still don’t like too much learning.  Or, maybe they just don’t like show-offs.  Or possibly both.

My day of leadership training (mercifully) did not end with a question about what I would rather be doing that day.  Watching football is always the right answer, but I would have flubbed that one too.

Christmas Eve Morning

24 Dec


This morning at Caribou Coffee, Lance, the store manager from Walmart, bought me a cup of coffee.

I’ve never met him.


I take a seat next to the cash register.  I can barely see faces from this spot, but I hear every reaction to unexpected Christmas generosity.

“Lance, the store manager at Walmart, is buying your coffee this morning.”

“Really?  Wow.  Thanks.”

“Lance, the store manager at Walmart, is buying your coffee this morning.”

“Who? Why would he do that?  Well, thanks.  Merry Christmas!”

“Lance, the store manager at Walmart, is buying your coffee this morning.”

“What a nice guy.  How long has he been manager over there?  Cool.”

Just ordinary words, right?  But, really, what can you say when a stranger picks up your tab?

It’s good enough.  We’re all in a holiday humor.


No particular day.  Oberlin College mail room. Box 425.  A letter from my father.  A twenty dollar bill wrapped in a single sheet of paper: “For pizza with friends.”

No particular day fifteen years later. Salt Lake City.  A letter from my father.  A twenty dollar bill wrapped in a single sheet of paper: “For pizza with the kids.”


Why is he is Lance, the store manager at Walmart?

Couldn’t we leave Walmart out of this?  When Lance buys my coffee, it’s Christmas.

If Walmart buys my coffee, it’s more like customer relations.

Back to familiar melancholy.


“No.  Put your money away.  Lance, the store manager at Walmart, is buying this morning.”

“Really?  Awesome. Hey, could you ring up a handful of those caramels separately.”

“Something sweet with your coffee, huh?”

“Put them in a bag.  Give them to Lance next time he comes in.”

Being Margaret Thatcher (with one Hitch)

16 Dec

I want to be Margaret Thatcher.  Just for a few minutes.

I want to be the head of the conservative party.  I want to be the first woman Prime Minister of Britain.  And let it happen in my fifties.  I want people to call me the Iron Lady and mean it.  I want to get tough with the Soviets and pal around with the Reagans.  I want to fight a little war in the Falklands.

I don’t have to agree with all of Mrs. Thatcher’s politics to appreciate her.  Here’s a woman who played an enormous role in public life.  Smart, accomplished, tough.

Just let me have a few short minutes as Mrs. Thatcher.  A few carefully chosen minutes:

Someone introduces me to a writer.

I recognize his name: he’s that cheeky fellow who quipped in the New Statesman, in an off-hand way, that he finds Mrs. Thatcher surprisingly sexy.

Everyone was outraged. Everyone was amused.

Pleased with himself, isn’t he?

And now here he is, picking a fight with me about Rhodesia?  I fight back, and eventually, he concedes the point with a slight bow. A bow that says: I concede, but I still know I’m right.

“Bow lower,” I say.  And he does.

“No,” I say, “much lower.”  And he does.

And I swat him on the behind with the parliamentary order paper, rolled in a cylinder behind my back.

Then, with a slight roll of the hip (or so Mr. Hitchens will have it in his version of the story), I turn and walk away.

Did I mouth the words “Naughty boy!” over my shoulder?

It makes a nice story.  If he wants to tell it that way, why not?

That’s it. That’s all I want out of a being-Margaret-Thatcher fantasy:

A little banter with Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011).

Next to You in the Taxi

20 Nov

The chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln wrote an essay about a cab ride.  But he couldn’t get through it without choking up, so he asked the Theater Department to recommend a reader.  Someone who will understand it.  Someone who will connect with the audience.

Who better than our new assistant professor?  He’s also a Jew.  Also with a dramatic European past.

So it was my husband who first presented this story to the public in 1994.  That’s why I remember it.

An administrator at a midwestern university grabs a cab with a young couple from Germany and strikes up a conversation with seeming strangers:

I asked if they knew of a small town named Bunde, thinking quietly to myself about this horrid little place where my father’s uncle Willie had been hanged in a storefront window and set afire. Why yes, they lived there! Incredible, I thought, someone from the small town where my family lived for generations.

“My family is from Bunde,” I said. “Is there by any chance a cigar factory that is still there?”

“Yes,” he exclaimed with amazement, “it is our factory!”

I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I experienced in the span of a few moments more emotions than I knew were possible to feel in so short a time. I was stunned by the coincidence, incredibly excited by the opportunity to be able to find answers to a hundred questions that clamored in my mind. I also experienced horror thinking that I was inches away from the person who inherited from his grandfather the very house and business that Hitler had taken from my grandfather.

I suffered a silent rage as I contrasted the affluence of this young couple, who I learned were on a 10-city vacation-of-a-lifetime first-class tour of the U.S., with the poverty my father inherited, and I experienced, spending my first eight years in a working class neighborhood of immigrants on the South Side of Chicago. My father died an unhappy man, never seeming to transcend the reality of his lot, always aspiring to the affluence he might have had but never did.

This young man in the taxi was friendly enough, and I reminded myself that he, too, was a post-war baby. It was not his fault that he owned my family’s factory, I reasoned charitably.

“My grandfather built that factory,” I said with a mixture of revelation and tact. “His name was Gustav Spanier. He left there in 1941.”

“I know the name! Yes, I know that he was the founder.”

He was now a sticky kind of pale, and I felt the very same way. I learned that the factory came to his family immediately after my grandfather was forced to leave it. I learned that it employs 1500 people, and is still the major employer in the region.

. . . .

As the cab arrived at the hotel, I had asked only ten or twelve of my hundred questions. I wanted to know so much more. What did he personally know of the circumstances leading to his family’s acquisition of the company? What was his grandfather’s connection to the Nazis? How did he feel about this twisted injustice?

My husband (who left Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s) understood the story.  He read it, and connected with the audience.

Later that year, we left Lincoln for the University of Utah.

The chancellor, Graham Spanier, left around the same time.  He took up the presidency at Penn State.  And he flourished in that job. Until recently.

There’s a lot of twisted injustice in the world.  Let’s try not to add to it.

Let’s reason charitably: I don’t yet know what happened on the Penn State football team or what Mr. Spanier personally knew about it.  Perhaps his affluence at football-rich Penn State (reportedly over $800,000 in annual income) was deserved and had no bearing on his relationship to the football program. 

Maybe you sense my skepticism. But, I will say that back in 1994, my husband found him to be friendly enough and rather liked him.

For now, I think of Graham Spanier, sitting on the other side of the cab. Facing the silent rage and the horror that many will feel at being inches away from…what? Something.  Anticipating the hundreds of questions we want to ask.

Turning (again) a sticky kind of pale.

So Sweet and So Cold

31 Oct

Don’t tell me This is Just to Say was a note that William Carlos Williams jotted off and left on the kitchen table for his wife:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Did she–Mrs. Williams (or Mrs. Carlos Williams)–read it and laugh?  As she headed back out to the grocery, did she scribble her answer in the margin?

I have spoofed
the poem
that you wrote
about plums

and which
you were probably
for serious readers

Forgive me
it was beautiful
so sweet
and so cold

Pink Tights and the New Black Woman

11 Sep

I have no interest in reading about fashion. But an article called A Man’s Guide to a Woman’s Wardrobe isn’t really going to be about fashion, is it?

And I spotted it in More Intelligent Life, so it’s sure to be smart and well-written. Perfect with my chai latte at Starbucks after Zumba.

Forget about fashion, I liked the article as a piece of writing.  And one paragraph made me laugh out loud:

If the maxi dress is a practical way of enjoying a fashion fantasy, brightly coloured tights are a sign either of total self-confidence, or disturbing self-delusion. For although they channel kookiness, they demand incredibly good legs to pull off with any aplomb. The wearer is probably either a supermodel, a fantasist or a potter.

If my Zumba friends ever read my blog (and they don’t), or if anyone who reads my blog came along with me to Zumba (and you won’t), I wouldn’t now have to describe how I am transformed every day after work into a totally self-confident, disturbingly self-deluded kook with chartreuse or majenta legs.

(Kooks, by the way, do many things with no aplomb, and it disturbs them not at all. Same goes for fantasists.)

I like to write, but I think my best genre is the humble and derivative blog comment; and, here, circumstances were ripe for my favorite variety of comment: short, light and a little flirty, making a tiny bit of fun of the author, but mostly making fun of myself. So I wrote to Mr. Luke Leitch, the author (and anyone else who will read):

Here I sit, in my hot pink tights, reading, and thinking that a man who writes about women’s clothes either has total self-confidence or is disturbingly self-deluded.

I applaud the author’s kookiness and imagine that he has great legs.

I finished my chai and packed up my laptop, feeling comfortable in my kooky skin. And kooky tights.

Then, later in the day,  The New Black Woman leaves poor Mr. Leitch a scathing comment, complaining of many things, including:

…the author only had a desire to analyze women from the upper crust–rich white women–as if their sense of fashion was only worth exploring and analyzing. Were the fashion statements of poor white women, women of color, disabled, transgender and GLBTQ women worth not exploring and analyzing for your article?

If I rolled my eyes the first time I read The New Black Woman‘s comment, it was a self-conscious eye-roll.

This New Black Woman, I learn from her blog, is fed up with the degradation and subjugation that black women face. She says it’s time for a revolution. Her current post is about confronting privilege.

I compared her comment to mine; her blog to mine; and I felt confused, and then a little guilty and then just weary.  Tired, as Dylan says, of myself and all of my creations. My winking, chai-infused kookiness in pink part of “the wall of privilege, denial and diversionary tactics” new black women lament?

So far, this weekend, my comment on Mr. Leitch’s post has 20 likes;  New Black Woman has 16.

And I don’t know how to cast my vote.

Just Another WordPress Post About Travel: Malta

17 Aug

It’s August, and I’ve been stuck at home in the Illinois all summer.  Stuck here and dying to see something new.

It doesn’t help that the blogosphere is brimming with posts about travel.   Everybody’s having an adventure (and documenting it).
Why, oh then why, can’t I?

So, it was a desperate decision, this last-minute trip.   I knew nothing about Malta before I went.  I didn’t even know where it was, to tell the truth.

I’m betting you don’t know where Malta is either.  Don’t be embarrassed if you have to consult a map for this post.

Now, let’s get this travelogue on the road.

My Trip to Malta

Agriculture is big in Malta.  Lots and lots of corn.  And soybeans.

But city life thrives too!

I ate lunch here!  All authentic Maltese cuisine!

And you can’t beat Malta’s manageable size. You can take it all in, even on a short visit.

But you’ll want to come back anyway.

Next summer, I think I’ll go to Genoa.