Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Wrapup of our Prague, 1999, Adventure

My last post a couple of days ago was a reprint of our travelogue of Prague during our European trip in 1999.  It included the story of Janis's billfold being stolen by pickpockets.  Here's how that adventure turned out.

CHAPTER 22        PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
                Wednesday, November 3


The day after Janis's billfold was stolen, we were discussing the event with our landlord.  She said that we should go report it to the police because sometimes the pickpockets just wanted cash, and would dump the ID cards and rest of the billfold.  Later, American Express said that they would need a copy of the police report if we were going to claim the replacement cost of the billfold (Louis Vuitton and very $$$, so we damned well were going to claim it).  So after we took care of business with American Express and other places, we hoofed it over to the polizei to do our duty.

Oh, how naive!  You must remember, these are Soviet-trained officials we're talking about.  The words "courteous, quick, friendly, and efficient customer service" do not exist in their universe.  The police station was the most run-down building on a run-down block.  The anteroom was built about 150 years ago, and evidently the last time it was painted (or even cleaned) was to welcome the Russians after WW II.  There's no reception desk, only a window cleverly placed about waist-high so that you have to bow down to them in order to carry on any kind of conversation.  Which, of course, you can't, because none of them deign to have anything to do with the English language.  They simply aren't interested in anything you have to say in English, and they aren't much more interested if you speak Czech.  Eventually, the one and only English interpreter on the entire Prague police force (no kidding) arrived and we made our report.  She made it clear that if we wanted to report Janis's billfold as "missing", why, she'd be happy to help.  However, if we wanted to report it as "stolen", oh, now that is much more complicated, and would require much filling out of forms.

By this time, we had our dander up, and forms or no forms, these police were going to have to deal with the fact that three guys had ripped off Janis's - Janis's - one and only billfold.  So the interpreter rolled her eyes and put us in the "waiting room" while she sorted out the details with the duty staff. 

Now there is nothing more depressing than a Communist-era waiting room.  It was really a short hallway that was painted a putrid institutional green, with several mysterious doorways leading off it.  One of the "doorways" was a heavy metal barred jail cell door.  One wall had a Rube Goldberg electrical contraption mounted high up featuring a transformer the size of my suitcase and wires leading into a room behind one of the mysterious doors.  Electro-shock therapy, perhaps?   The same wall had two large electrical fuse boxes tastefully decorated with pornographic ads.  There were no chairs, only one long wooden bench, on which were sitting three people who had clearly been there quite a while and were still waiting when we left.  No reading material, of course, except for the pornographic ads, and to keep ourselves entertained, we tried to figure out what the electrical contraption was, and also what was behind Doors #1, #2, and #3.  We were kept in the room for about half an hour.  Then the interpreter burst back in and gave us a police report - in Czech, of course - which she claimed was a summary of everything we'd told her and would we please sign it?  It could've said that we were the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for all we knew, but by that time we weren't at all interested in finding out what was behind Door #3, so we signed it and said goodbye to our cheerless waiting-room companions. 

As for American Express, well, they wanted a police report and that's what they're getting.  They didn't say it had to be in English.  If they want to know what it says, then they can find their own damn interpreter.

So ends our experiences in the Czech Republic.  We had a good time here, all things considered.  This is a beautiful city with superb food, great art and music, low prices, friendly people (most of 'em), and fabulous weather.  The only drawback was our run-in with the pickpockets (which the interpreter said were "all Rumanian and Bulgarian, definitely not Czech" ..... sure, lady).  Whatever.  We won't be back, but I still think it's a great place to visit.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Adventures in Prague, 1999

Time for another one of our "greatest hits from the goldie oldie '90's" ... in this case a discussion of our experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during our European trip in 1999.  So without further ado ...

CHAPTER 21        PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
                Tuesday, November 2

Our big news is that Janis had her billfold lifted by pickpockets last night.  These guys were pros.  We were in a big crowd of people getting onto a tram.  The three pickpockets got in between Janis and me and blocked her way.  When she pushed through them, they unzipped her purse and lifted the billfold.  It had all her credit cards, driver's license, military ID, checks, the whole works.  There was no cash at all in her billfold, and her passport was back in the room.  Fortunately, she noticed it pretty quickly (too late to catch the guys, who had already gotten off), and we canceled the credit cards and checks within 30 minutes of the heist.  One of the credit card people reported that the thieves had already tried to use at least one of the cards in an ATM but couldn't guess the PIN. 

True to their advertisements, American Express is issuing her a new card today.  My card and Janis’s card had different numbers, so mine is still good.  Visa and MasterCard will be more of a pain.  We now have no valid Visa/MasterCards with us, which will put a crimp on our spending ability.  Unlike American Express, they have no offices that will issue new cards on the spot.  Instead, they send new cards to our "home" address (one of Janis's friends in San Diego, who is a saint) in seven to ten days.  Then we have to get the cards express mailed from San Diego to wherever we are in Europe.  The whole process will take two to three weeks.

Our landlord told us that pickpockets are, unfortunately, very common here, but they're not too sophisticated.  Most of the time they just want the cash, and won’t mess with stolen credit cards because they’re a bit of a hassle.  So it looks like this theft may just be a pain in the ass and not a disaster.

In the spirit of "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”, here are the rest of our adventures before we met up with the pickpockets. 

We drove up to the town of Terezin to visit Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi concentration camp.  The camp is inside an old brick fortification built in the mid-1700's that was pretty much abandoned by the time the Nazis rolled in.  The place is largely unchanged since the end of the war.  It has not been restored and there has not been much money for upkeep, either.  Consequently, what you see is what was there during the war: the original wooden sleeping racks (no mattresses, of course), original sinks, original toilets (one each to serve 100 people), original barbed wire hanging from dilapidated posts ... "Chilling" is the best word to describe it.  I walked around a corner and saw the entry gate with the Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes You Free") painted over it, and my blood ran cold.  They have a museum and quite a number of displays such as prison clothes, drawings, tools, utensils, and other everyday items (all original of course), as well as photos of camp officials and many prisoners, which put a very human face to it all.  Theresienstadt was primarily a transportation waystation and not an extermination camp like Dachau or Auschwitz; still, over 150,000 people went through there in four years and several thousand died.  The town of Terezin is a very short walk away from the fortress grounds.  During the war, the Nazis emptied the town of its regular inhabitants, crammed it full of Jewish prisoners, threw a quick coat of paint on everything, and fooled the Red Cross into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model "retirement" community.  Once the Red Cross left, the Nazis went right back to loading the prisoners onto trains bound for the gas chambers.  We left Theresienstadt with a new appreciation of what people can do to people.  (I wrote this before the pickpockets, so now we've got still another new appreciation of what people can do to people).

Eating out in Prague is bliss.  The other night we each had a salmon steak, with salad, delicate potato croquettes, fresh bread, wine (Janis) and beer (me), and two crepes the size of dinner plates with ice cream, fruit, thick whipped cream (the real stuff, not Cool Whip), and chocolate topping.  Total cost for everything, including tip: $15.  Eating here is cheap and almost all the restaurants we've found are excellent.

Janis wrote some observations prior to the pickpockets:

Okay, so I know I have to live with some inconveniences like no TV, no radio, and no phone in the room, but these towels are ridiculous.  What this penzion gives us for bath towels, I would call “kitchen” towels, and very old, worn-out ones at that.  I guess you could say they have a two-fold purpose: they dry you (sort of), and they exfoliate your skin. 

I’ve gotten used to having to pay to use the toilet (however, better have the right change or you're "piss" out of luck), but I hate paying for recycled toilet paper that also exfoliates!  Thanks but no thanks.  Prague’s buses are relics but, hey, they work and they are pretty much on time.  Trams, for the most part, have single rows of seats; after that you stand and you best hold tight as they aren't known for a smooth ride.  The BEST thing about the tram is that the seats are heated.  It helps heal the raw skin on your bottom from all that exfoliating, and I ask you, could you want anything more for thirty cents than to ride for an hour and a half to anywhere the bus, tram, or underground goes to?  (Skip's note: Well, you might want to have your own bodyguard).

The Czechs have discovered hair coloring in a big way, and the women dress and use makeup in a very up to date way.  I mean, in ten years they go from Communism to Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, and Hermes.  Really, they’ve grown leaps and bounds in a very short period of time.  The guy that owns the internet place we've been using was born here in Prague and then lived in South Africa.  After the fall of communism he returned (as according to him SoAfrica is "going down the tubes"; well, he's white so you can figure why he feels that way) to open this business.  He says most of the changes in the Czech Republic are cosmetic only and the bureaucracy is as bad as ever, but who knows.

Hey, they even have ice here, unlike some of the other "first world" places we've visited.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Studio Update

For the past month, two things have been going on in the studio.  One, I've been working on a wedding painting of a really lovely couple.  And two, I've been struggling through a non-productive patch with my life sessions.  Spoiler alert: both of these things have come to a good conclusion, but getting there wasn't easy.

The painting, for some reason, has wanted to fight me since Day 1.  The couple wanted the painting to be of the walk back down the aisle as a newly-married couple.  That means a balanced, almost T-shaped composition, with the couple in the middle foreground, the key members of the groom's family and friends on the right, and the key members of the bride's family on the left.  And then there's the decision of what to do with the audience.  In this case, I initially started painting them in.  But that gives some undesirable results.  They're sitting with their backs to the viewer, so you see the backs of their heads.  There's no clear pattern to the figures, so it's just a mishmash of colors and shapes.  And they cover up the parents and much of the wedding party.  So, after wrestling with them, I pulled out my #10 brush and (virtually) assassinated them all.  That let me simplify the composition, develop the wedding party and parents, and really focus attention on the couple.

But no, you can't see it right now, because it's still out to the couple for their initial comments and approval.  Once they give it the thumbs-up, I'll post it here.

The other issue was getting something decent to come out of my weekly life drawing and painting sessions.  My efforts were almost totally unsatisfactory to me.  One was an oil sketch that I wiped out at the end of the night, while the next was a charcoal and pastel portrait that I reworked quite a bit the next day before giving up and tearing it to pieces.  A third was an oil sketch that I didn't really care for, but the model liked it, so I gave it to her.  But that's life as an artist: sometimes you go through a stretch where you can't get the mojo going.  The only way to get through it is to keep plugging away, because sooner or later, things will start happening again.

And that happened last night.  We had a male model who was a great portrait subject.  I worked in charcoal and pastel.  After the first half hour, I wasn't happy with the way it was going, so wiped it out and started over again.  This time, I had the faint structure left over from the first effort, so I took a slightly different approach to developing the image, and it immediately worked pretty well.  So here's the final image:

George #1

I didn't mean to decapitate the poor guy, but  every time I tried to draw in his shoulders, it just seemed wrong.  So I erased everything except the head.  But it's a good likeness of him, so I'm happy.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Studio Slog and a Travelogue

I've been having a hard time in the studio for the past several weeks.  I've got a wedding painting on the easel that's been kicking my butt.  It took two weeks of try/fail, try/fail, try/fail, before things started happening in a positive way.  I think one more week and I'll be ready to send an image to the clients, but for now, working on this painting is a wrestling match.

My regular life sessions haven't been any better.  The last four in a row haven't been up to snuff.  Don't know what the issue is, but it's annoying.  It will pass, though. Soon, please.

Since there's not a lot to report from the studio, here's another post from our European trip.  Twenty years ago today, here's what we were doing:

CHAPTER 17        WIESBADEN, GERMANY
                Monday, October 25, 1999

On Sunday, we took a trip down to Heidelberg.  It was a gray, drizzly day.  We drove down and parked near the city center, then just went wandering.  Heidelberg is another typically beautiful old German city.  Many of the buildings in the center are centuries old.  Some are very baroque, others simpler, some are painted stucco and others brick or stone.  Many, if not most, buildings have iron railings outside the windows, and/or window boxes with tons of flowers.  We saw one apothecary that's been in the same building since 1783.  A long stretch of the city center is closed to vehicular traffic (we've seen that in a number of places and it appears to be quite common).  Heidelberg has a wonderful old castle ruin on the hill above the town.  It was quite a formidable presence until the French blew it up about two hundred years ago. Now parts have been rebuilt/restored and other parts are still ruined.  Incredibly spectacular.

There were thousands of people in downtown Heidelberg along with us.  We were all walking along, watching each other, and window-shopping.  That's all we could do.  It was Sunday, and everything in Heidelberg was closed.  I mean EVERYthing!  Well, okay, so I exaggerate.  Pizza Hut, a noodle shop, a couple of cafes, and two Christmas stores were open.  That was it.  Which raises two questions:
1.  Why were all the people wandering around if there was nothing to do?
2.  Since all the people were there anyway, why were all the stores closed??
Boggles the mind.

Driving on the autobahn is an experience.  They really observe the rules here.  You stay to the right unless (a) you want to pass, in which case you do it as quickly as possible, or unless (b) you're in a BMW/Mercedes/Porsche/equivalent and really romping, in which case you turn your lights on to warn everyone ahead of you.  No matter what, you watch your mirror about as much as you watch the road in front, because somebody could easily be doing 100 miles an hour more than you and on your rear bumper in no time at all.  Janis has christened our Range Rover the "QE3", because it feels about as big and stately as an ocean liner.  And you just don't see ocean liners in the left lane of the autobahn.

While wandering around Wiesbaden, I noticed that there was evidently one long street that wound its way all over the city.  I kept seeing its name everywhere.  Then I found out that "Einbahnstrasse" wasn't the name of a road, it meant "one-way street"!  Yeah, buddy .... "I live at 17 Einbahnstrasse". 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Traveling Around Europe Like It's 1999

As I noted in an earlier post, exactly 20 years ago, Janis and I were traveling around Europe on our Grand Adventure.  In this pre-blogosphere, pre-Facebook era, we sent emails back to our friends and family with stories of our shenanigans.  I'm occasionally sharing some of those stories, and here's what we were doing 20 years ago today ...


CHAPTER 15        HERPEDUIN, THE NETHERLANDS
                Monday, October 18

We made it to Holland and are now safely settled into our newest temporary home.  It's a "vacation park", which is a property with a bunch of small bungalows, a restaurant and bar, laundromat, and small store.  We're in the woods near a couple of small villages.  In all, it’s a pretty nice place to stay for a while.

We left London early last Wednesday and drove to Dover.  We took a ferry across to Ostend, Belgium.  The ferry was pretty neat.  It's a catamaran with two vehicle decks and two people decks.  It moved out pretty good, too.  The trip took three hours and the seas were flat calm.  Immediately upon arrival, they dumped us off the boat and onto Ostend’s streets.  Ostend's signs leave a lot to be desired, both in quantity and it accuracy.  At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.  We first took a rather creative way out of town but quickly found the right road .... at least, we found one that went in the direction we wanted to go.  Unfortunately, we wound up traversing Antwerp right at rush hour.  Somehow we got back onto the freeway (don't know what they call it here yet), then the last 50 km (36 miles) to our park took us two hours because traffic was awful.  There weren’t any accidents, there were just too dang many cars on the roads.  We now hear that's true all over the Netherlands.

Our bungalow is small and cute.  The whole thing is about 20 feet square.  It has a small kitchen, living room, and bathroom.  There isn't a bedroom per se.  You open up what looks like a cabinet in the wall (with little heart-shaped holes cut into the doors, no less) and find a queen-size bed tucked away in there, along with a window looking outside.  The whole thing is comfortably furnished.  It has Dutch TV, which means a bunch of stuff in a language we can't understand, but it also means CNN.  Yes!  Real news!!  No more BBC!!!  On the outside, our bungalow has stucco walls painted white and a real thatched roof.  It's set in a wooded area and cars are parked in an area out near the front of the facility.  It’s very quiet and very nice.  We have enjoyed our stay here.

The only drawbacks are that there was no phone in the bungalow and we've not been able to find any internet access.  This has been a bit frustrating, but I guess that's life.

We have explored a couple of towns near here.  The Netherlands is very different from England.  The Dutch go to great extremes to make sure that their houses, streets, villages, yards, and towns are attractively designed, clean, neat, and well presented.  Things here are immaculate.  Houses are usually brick and have flower boxes in the windows.  Most yards are small but extremely well landscaped.  We've seen a number of people out washing their windows ... now how often do you see that in the States?  Stores are very attractive and look well stocked.  There is little, if any, outdoor advertising.  Most streets in the villages and towns are brick, and the bricks are laid in attractive patterns.  Roads are often bordered with trees set equidistant apart (many with their bark ripped off by errant automobiles).  The Dutch are big into plants: we've seen tree farms everywhere, and there were more nurseries and garden shops in the village than there were grocery stores. 

Village life seems to be a bit slower than in England.  Everybody rides bicycles, much like in Japan, only here they ride a variety of different types of bikes.  We had a wonderful lunch in a restaurant in Oss, and I noticed that there was a group of businessmen in there spending the afternoon playing cards, while another group was having a very loooonng lunch.  We even found a good art gallery in Oss, which surprised the heck out of me since finding a good gallery in London (a major art market) was so difficult.  Nobody seems to be in a hurry unless they're driving, at which time they're all trying out for the Ferrari Formula 1 team.  (Our Range Rover is outclassed: it has all the responsive handling and acceleration of a Chevy Suburban, so we can often be found leading a long train of impatient cars).  Drivers aside, the Netherlands is a classy, civilized, and friendly country.  All this comes with a price: land and houses are expensive, apparently starting at around $200,000 and going up. 

Dutch is an interesting language.  It sounds like a cross between German and Swedish, and you'd be surprised at how much you can understand once you get the hang of it.  "Huis" means house, for example; and "eet huis" is .... well, you figure it out.  Most Dutch speak excellent English, and we have had no problem with language barriers.

If people in the Netherlands speak Dutch, and people in France speak French, does that mean that the people in Belgium speak Belch?  Just a thought.

We spent two days wandering around Amsterdam.  We took the train there and back.  Trains run on time and are pretty well equipped.  Amsterdam itself is a great city.  The old town and city center are easy to get around in.  It's laid out in a rough semicircular fashion with roads and canals running everywhere.  Many buildings are old, up to 400 years, and there are ancient buildings side by side with new ones ... which more or less are in harmony with their older brethren.  There are no skyscrapers in downtown as there seems to be an upper limit of about five or six stories in height (more for church towers and domes).  Amsterdam is essentially built on landfill and over the years many of the old buildings have settled in rather odd ways, so many of them lean forwards or backwards, and there are even whole blocks where they all lean sideways.  Maybe that's why Amsterdam is so lenient on drugs: their whole city is a bit wonky, so maybe the drugs help straighten it up? 

Streets in the old section are narrow.  Many are in use by trams.  There were surprisingly few cars in town; most people get around by public transportation or by bicycle.  (Trivia: there are 700,00 people living in Amsterdam and there are 600,000 registered bicycles).  Tour boats make up most of the traffic in the canals, but canals are also used by regular people for daily comings and goings.  Houseboats are everywhere.  These got their start after WWII when there was a shortage of housing.  Now people live on everything from old canal boats to modern-style houses built on barges to what looks like a West Virginia tar shack on floats. 

We spent one day just wandering around sightseeing, and another day visiting the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums.  The Van Gogh museum was outstanding: well laid out, well lit, with over 200 of his paintings on display at any one time.  I could've spent all day there.  The Rembrandt museum wasn't as good.  They had restored his house to the way it might have looked when he lived there.  They didn't have very many of his paintings, etchings, or drawings there, and the displays were poorly lit and difficult to look at.  Janis visited the diamond museum while I was looking at Van Gogh's - she said it was pretty good.

Amsterdam's tourist industry is huge, and two big draws are drugs and sex.  Marijuana and associated cannabis drugs are legally available in cafes and other places.  We wandered into a number of places where the smoke raised our blood THC levels a couple of notches just by breathing the air.  We don't know whether this "let it be" approach is keeping other drug problems under control.

But the most interesting thing about Amsterdam was the people.  You could spend all day sitting on a bench watching the people go by, and it would be a day well spent.  The most entertaining ones were the druggies. 
- We walked by a cafe/cannabis bar where a couple of wasted dopeheads were having great difficulty rolling another joint.  Right then an even more wasted waitress stumbled out and said something like "yeeaahooomogalaaaagumdum" to them (they didn't appear to understand it, either) and then she turned around and stumbled back into the cafe.
- We found a nice little place with a deck on a canal to have lunch in.  The waitress was a very pretty girl who's smoked one too many funny cigarettes.  Nice girl, just a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  The name of the place was the Grasshopper .... duh, don't you think we should've had a clue?
- Our tour boat guide was multi-lingual.  He had to say everything four times: once each in Dutch, English, French, and German.  He couldn't really pass along too much information since it took forever to say it!
- We walked through part of the red-light district and it really does have red lights.  It also has some hideous practitioners.  They might be attractive if you (a) hadn't had any in the past six years and (b) were blind.  Woof!
- Amsterdam has the same street mimes that Edinburgh and London had.  Come to think of it, they have the same Peruvian bands on the street, too.

Tomorrow we’re going to take the train in to Brussels.  Then on Wednesday, we’re going to leave for Germany.  We’ll stay at an American military hotel in Wiesbaden for a week. After that, we'll head to Prague in the Czech Republic. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

An Experiment

I'm forever trying new experiments in creating artworks.  Sometimes they play out pretty well.  For the past three years, I've been doing a series of charcoal and pastel portraits and figures.  That started with an experiment and is still going on.  Other experiments are outright failures.  And that's fine, because then I learn about something that doesn't work, at least for me, and I can take that knowledge and move on.

Lots of artists work in a very intuitive way.  They start with some little nugget of an idea, it gets put on canvas, and then other ideas pop up and are incorporated, or deleted, or changed, until the artist is satisfied with what's there.  They could not have told you, at the beginning, what was going to happen.  They had no idea.

I don't work that way.  I'm pretty deliberate: the painting has to have an end goal in mind with a plan for how to get there.  Then it's a matter of executing the plan.  Yes, there are adaptations along the way as new ideas pop up, or something doesn't look right, or whatever, but the end result is pretty much along the lines of my initial goal.  "Intuitive" is not a way of working that I'm comfortable with.  I've done it before, usually as a class assignment, and have never been happy with the results.

So I thought it might be time to try it again.  The idea was to start with a figure, since I'm a figurative artist, and then see where it would go.  And here's what happened (click on it to see a larger version):

Siren on the Styx
Oil on panel, 16x20

Is it a success?  I don't know.  I have no idea if this painting means anything.  It just developed.  I started with the figure - it came from a photo session with one of my regular studio models.  Then she had to be in some sort of environment, and a river or lake came to mind.  At first, she was on a grassy slope with a blue sky above, but that didn't feel right.  Maybe a threatening storm would counterbalance the liveliness of the dance.  But then the green grassy slope went away and turned into rocks in the foreground.  The trees on the far side of the lake/river were too green, so I changed the lighting and grayed them down.  That meant the trees on the left had to be toned down, too.  The composition needed something on the right, something that she might be looking at.  Her drapery gave me the idea of a sailboat, specifically a gaff-rigged sloop, a style that was obsolete 150 years ago.  Then the left side needed something else, since the green slope was just kinda blah.  So now there's a promontory with a castle tower overlooking the lake/river.  Then it was a matter of going around, cleaning things up, and tying them together.

So this is a question for you.  What do you think of it?  Success?  Fail?  What works and what doesn't?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Ulysses S. Grant

I just finished reading the Autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.  When I was growing up, the common knowledge was that Grant was a brutal but effective general, a drunkard, corrupt, and one of the worst Presidents we've ever had.  My own research into my family history, which includes two great-great-grandfathers who fought on the Confederate side, had shown me some indications that this common knowledge may not have been accurate.  So I picked up a copy of his memoirs to learn a bit more.

What I found was a very different man.  Grant was a good writer.  His Autobiography turned out to be surprisingly readable, giving an easy-to-follow first-person narrative of the world from his single perspective.  He was also very honest, owning up to his own limitations and failures as well as successes.  And rather than being personally corrupt, he came across as having high moral and ethical standards.  He did not appear to be a drunkard at all.

Grant's military style is still the gold standard today.  He clearly saw the strategic battlefield, far beyond the geographic limitations of his particular unit, even when that "unit" was the entire Union Army.  And he was very aggressive.  "Move fast, hit hard, move fast again, and keep your enemies off balance" seemed to be a mantra.  That's the same mantra that our most effective military leaders use today, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Speaking of which, my experience in both those countries gave me a much better understanding of his treatment of local civilian people, even those who sympathized with the Confederates.  Grant prohibited looting, stealing, and pillaging.  Yes, his soldiers took what they needed, but it was within the norms of the day.  He demanded that his soldiers treat civilians with respect, and to a great extent, they did.

The descriptions of several battles were really interesting for me.  Shiloh, for example.  I grew up largely in Memphis and we went to the battlefield park many times when I was a kid.  My sister, cousins, and I never really understood what it was all about, we just wanted to climb on the cannon and memorials.  Much later, I discovered personal connections.  One of my great-great-uncles had fought there.  My mother's family was from Corinth, Mississippi, which was a major Confederate rail transshipment center and the goal of Grant's advance through Tennessee.  So reading Grant's thoughts and activities leading up to the battle, during the fight, and the subsequent advance on Corinth, was fascinating.  I had already been in the places he described. 

The Autobiography ended at the close of the Civil War.  I had hoped it would cover his Presidency, but no.  Additional research showed that he had a very progressive agenda, even for today.  His weakness was in selecting his administration's officials as way too many of them turned out to be corrupt.  The "drunkard" bit that was common knowledge turned out to have been fake news.

One of the things I've found while reading this and other books on history, as well as listening to several podcasts on history, and while researching my own family history, is that a lot of the things going on today have been seen before.  Some of the things contributing to the rise and also the fall of Rome are true today.  Many of the things that Grant had to deal with as an Army leader are applicable today as well.  I never realized this as a young high school and college student, but yes, you really can learn from the past.