Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Take a walk


Today is the last day of a short month.  I will write a short post.

The baseball powers-that-be have decided to allow a team to walk a batter without throwing four balls at him.  To speed up the game, they say.  By an average game time of four minutes, apparently.  What will we do with all that time?  Probably squeeze a couple more commercials onto TV.

I don't know how this will work, but someone no doubt has thought it out.  Either the manager or the pitcher will clear his throat, point to the batter, and shout loudly, "I walk thee.  Take thee hence to First Base and trouble us no longer."  And the batter will take his base.

Lots of sports writers agree that it makes sense.  Just like throwing away the "flat iron" or the "thimble" piece in Monopoly.  Or eliminating the center jump after each basket in basketball.

Or, one might say, like hypothetically eliminating the extra point in football.  In pro ball, at least, a successful conversion became virtually automatic.  But they didn't eliminate it.  First they gave the scoring team an option to go for two points.  And now they have moved the ball back another 13 yards from the goal line if it's kicked.  They didn't eliminate a traditional part of the game; they just increased the odds against success.

I've always hoped to see a batter jump out of the batter's box, swing at a ball thrown as part of an intentional walk, and knock it out of the park.  I gather that's considered "bad form," but it shouldn't be.  (Yankee Gary Sanchez came close in September, driving in a run and coming within a hair of a three-run homer.)  I would require an intentional ball to be not only outside the batter's strike zone, but within some other measurable distance -- close enough to make a hit unlikely, but not impossible.  If the ball was outside this arbitrary range, it would result in a multi-base walk. 

Call me old-fashioned.  I just don't like seeing a special rule created for moving a man to first without a pitch being thrown.

If the object is really to shorten the game, I'd limit the number of times a pitcher can yank on the bill of his cap, or scratch under his arms, or spit tobacco, before each pitch.  Or I'd legislate a free stolen base if the pitcher threw to an occupied base twice on the same pitch, trying without success to pick off the runner.

Yeah.   That's what I'd do.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fowl play in the Andes


Denny and I enjoying
post-trek pizza in Lima
(non-poultry)
I risk straining my readers' patience by publishing here yet another writing from my past.  This little essay commemorates a chicken-related incident that occurred in 1996, while hiking with my nephew Denny in the Andes.  The essay was available for reading for a period of time on the website maintained by the trekking company that had organized the hike. 

--------------------------------------------
You are what you eat, they say, and at 16,000 feet neither Denny, my 19-year-old nephew, nor I wanted to be called chicken.  And so it was that one night's dinner turned out instead to be "Lucky."

Dawn breaks over Lima's airport.  Nine sleepy trekkers cautiously look each other over.  Sergio, our bearded guide from Mexico, has guided one of our group to the summit of Aconcagua.  The rest of us are impressed, a little nervous -- we suspect Aconcagua isn't in our own future.

Northbound by bus to Huaraz, a small Peruvian valley town in the shadow of 22,000 foot Huascaran.  Two nights in Huaraz at a small, attractive hotel whose trim alpine lines betray its Swiss ownership.  A day hike to 15,000 feet.  A good climb, fun.  Growing, pleased awareness that we all share an intense curiosity about the world around  us -- joined with that ability to laugh at ourselves and our problems that makes for excellent traveling companions.

After this short acclimatization, to the altitude and to each other, we're off for the mountains where we are to begin our nine day trek through the Cordillera Blanca.  Our bus climbs to the continental divide, a thousand feet higher than the summit of Mt. Rainier.  We're made giddy, both by the rarified atmosphere and by the panorama of some of the most spectacular peaks of snow and ice to be seen on earth.

Our first camp, over 12,000 feet.  An army of attendants appears, its members introduced to us.  Cook staff.  Burro tenders.  A man on a horse which would serve as our ambulance, should the need arise.  (It doesn't.)  Sixty-year-old Cerilo, whose shrill "Buenos dias! wakes us each morning as he brings hot tea to our tents -- and who out-hikes us all with amazing nonchalance, as we struggle over each day's high-altitude pass. 

We speak no Quechua.  We speak, at best, only high school Spanish.  But we develop real fondness for these friendly, smiling helpers as the days pass.  And we feel affection also for our non-human camp followers.  A herd of friendly, patient, hard-working burros.  A horse or two.  A flock of chickens.

Chickens?

You bet, a flock of plump white hens.  They are a tight knit group, clucking and fussing in a matronly manner among themselves.  They seem pleased to be included on the outing.  We trekkers admire their insouciance -- but we are, well, concerned about their future.  We're not sons and daughters of the soil, you understand.  "Chicken" to us, in the sense of "food," comes from Safeway in a shrink-wrapped package.

Each day we cross a pass of 15 or 16 thousand feet.  Each night we make camp at 12 or 13 thousand feet.  The hiking is, as Mountain Travel promised, strenuous.  But our exertions bear sweet fruit! -- the Andean  peaks, the crystalline lakes, the waterfalls, the occasional lush green meadow, the sense of achievement and exhilaration that flow from awareness of our growing physical endurance. 

We work hard.  We burn a lot of calories.  We look forward to every meal.  And we are not disappointed.  Each night, the workers set up the dining tent.  We drift toward it from our own tents, one by one, as dinner's prepared.  The boxes which the burros so faithfully lug each day up the trail obviously contain many culinary treasures.  The meals are impressive and the food is plentiful.  The meals include meat.  Even ... chicken.

The chickens continue to huddle together each night, usually on the leeward side of the cooking tent where it presumably is warmer.  They meet and, it seems, they discuss the trip.  Their soft background clucking becomes white noise, soothing and familiar.  But it is not a noise that increases in volume as the days pass by.

Like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, in fact, the flock seems to dwindle daily, hen by hen.  Nothing unseemly ever happens in our presence, you understand.  There is no obvious smoking gun -- or, for that matter, bloody hatchet.  But "pollo" keeps appearing on our table, and the hens' conversations seem to us -- anthropomorphic city folks that we are -- to take on a tone increasingly edgy and concerned.

In the final days of any doomed civilization, there will be a few alert individuals who, sensing which way the wind is blowing, act decisively to shield themselves from the coming storm.  In 1789, I suspect that the nobility of France had certain astute members who found it prudent to speak up for the Rights of Man.  And so with us -- one perceptive chicken is seen to be wasting less and less time in gossip with her old companions.  This hen strikes out on her own, seeking human friends and allies -- networking, if you will.  Spying two or three of us trekkers standing at the fringe of camp, admiring the views and exaggerating our prior adventures, she strolls over as though to join the conversation.  She follow trekkers around in a flattering manner.  She stands at our feet, looking philosophical and unconcerned.  She laughs, I sometimes feel, at our most feeble attempts at humor.

In short, she's got our number.  We soon notice her, of course.  We start watching her.  We begin to look for her, to discuss her, to enjoy her company.  In time, we become concerned about her apparently limited future.

This hen's a survivor.  After her sisters disappear one by one -- providing us our daily bread, as it were -- only she remains.  And at this point, a philosophical cleavage appears among us trekkers, we who until now have seemed monolithic in our unity.  Three or four days before we're to emerge from the wild mountains at Hualcayan, where the road back to civilization begins, a debate flares up in the dining tent.  We are divided, it appears, into those the Brits would call "wets," who plead for the survivor's life, and those who view the world from a more Hobbesian perspective, as a place bloody red in claw and fang, and in this case redolent of fried chicken grease.  The debate begins at breakfast, and continues at dinner.  Emotions are intense, the issue touches on life and death, but decorum prevails.  A vote.  We decide, by a cliffhanger margin of one, to spare the fowl and eat veggies for dinner.

She's a lucky hen, and, indeed, we name her Lucky.  Lucky no longer rides -- now alone -- in a black box on the back of a burro.  She now is carried personally by one of the burro tenders.  She is, and she feels herself to be, royalty.

You may laugh, you may scorn, but this is no dumb cluck -- this chicken knows she has played for major stakes and won.  She is suitably grateful.  Some of us sit cross legged on the ground before dinner each evening and play hearts.  Lucky now sits with us and studies the game.  She cocks her head back and forth, following the play of cards.  I think she dreams of being a cat, she so obviously tries to purr.  She allows us -- almost implores us -- to pet her, to pat her head, to stroke her back feathers.

The last night, camped at Hualcayan, Lucky makes the final leap from potential "pollo arrosto" to human companion.  For one final time, we gather after dinner to gaze at the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri, and the Clouds of Magellan -- starry wonders certainly not viewable in Seattle skies.  When Denny and I return to our tent, I find Lucky nesting coquettishly on my sleeping bag.  Here I regretfully draw the line, and evict her.  Later, however, I awake, puzzled for a moment, in the middle of the night.  She is sleeping contentedly, snuggled (again, like a cat) against my side for warmth.  She has squeezed her way back into the tent through a gap in the zipper.

But the best of friends must part.  A final group photo, with Chris, my chief ally in the battle for Lucky's life, holding her under his arm.  A promise from the chief cook -- surely sincere? -- that Lucky will retire to his farm, where her duties for the rest of her natural life will involve only the laying of eggs.  A final farewell to our friendly fowl, and we clamber into the bus which soon makes its way gradually back down a twisting road to the valley, passing through beautifully tended fields and picturesque villages.

Peru will never be forgotten.  The purity of the Andes touches the soul, and the blinding white image of the Alpamayo pyramid could serve as a mystical, ethereal logo for the entire trip.  Denny and I stay in touch with most of our fellow trekkers through e-mail, companions for two weeks who became friends.  But for many of us the trek in the Cordillera Blanca will, years from now, be recalled most vividly as "the time we saved that crazy chicken's life."
--------------------------
Copyright © 1996, 2017 All rights reserved.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo


Willie Lincoln, age 11, died of typhoid in 1862, while his father was president and in the midst of waging the Civil War.  His parents were devastated.  His father is known to have become more religious after Willie's death, and to have wondered why God should have wanted such a brutal war to determine the fate of the Union.

In his best-selling novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders presents a picture of life in America in 1862, and of the Lincoln presidency.  He does so by imagining the first days following Willie's death, a period of time when Willie's spirit lingered in the cemetery, uncertain that he was dead or of what lay ahead, and awaiting instructions from his father.

The novel is an odd pastiche of excerpts from contemporary writers (real and fictional), and a study of the thoughts and actions of a wide selection of cemetery "residents" -- a cross section of all American socio-economic, sexual, and racial groupings -- a study that gives insight into how the common man viewed life and war in the mid-nineteenth century.

What I have said leaves the impression that the novel is somewhat conventional.  It isn't.  The actual plot is extremely simple -- Willie is interred in his tomb, and his spirit lingers in the cemetery. President Lincoln comes to visit his child's body a couple of times, not realizing that Willie was beside him but unable to communicate with him.  By "stepping into" his father, Willie eventually becomes able to learn from his father's thoughts that he was indeed dead, not just waiting for his father to take him home.  Thus enlightened, Willie allows himself to "leave" the earth, presumably to face final judgment.

The first half of the book sets up the "rules" governing those in the "bardo" -- that word is never used except in the title -- and introduces us to a large number of the cemetery residents, each of whom has an interesting (often tragic) life to relate.  This in-between or "limbo" existence reminded me immediately of Neal Schusterman's Skinjacker Trilogy, a YA fantasy that I feel was actually more ingenious, and certainly more entertaining, than this first half of Lincoln in the Bardo.

As in the Skinjacker books, most people when they die do not hang around their grave site.  In the YA series, only those who died as children or teenagers and ran into certain problems "getting to where they were going" ended up in "Everlost."  In Lincoln in the Bardo, those stuck in the cemetery are those strongly attached to their lives on earth -- either because of their earthly happiness or because of unresolved problems or hatreds -- and who manage to convince themselves that they are merely "sick"  -- sleeping in "sick-boxes," and awaiting their return to wellness and their normal lives.  Once a resident realizes that he is actually dead, he generally assents to passing on to whatever lies ahead.

The second half of the book is much deeper and certainly darker than the Schusterman trilogy.  One of the three main characters who speaks to us from the cemetery is the Reverend Everly Thomas, perhaps the wisest and most likeable of the major characters.   He is the only resident of the cemetery who has already appeared before the throne of God, been judged, and found fit for damnation.  He manages to escape, unopposed, and ended back at his place of buriel.

The reverend is tormented by his inability to understand what it was about his life that barred him from Heaven.

As I had many times preached, our Lord is a fearsome Lord, and mysterious, and will not be predicted, but judges as He sees fit, and we are but as lambs to Him, whom He regards with neither affection nor malice; some go to the slaughter, while others are released to the meadow, by His whim, according to a standard we are too lowly to discern. ... But, as applied to me, this teaching did not satisfy.

He believes that one's salvation is earned or lost by one's actions during life on earth, that the judgment is final, and that his punishment has been only delayed for reasons he doesn't understand.

I did not kill, steal, abuse, deceive, was not an adulterer, always tried to be charitable and just, believed in God and endeavored, at all times, to the best of my ability, to live according to His will.

And yet he was damned.

Reverend Everly does not, of course, believe in any form of purgatory, where a certain amount of "second chance" might be afforded.  And he has never heard of the Tibetan Buddhist "bardo," the transitional state between incarnations, which inspired the title of the book.

For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth.

--Wikipedia

Most of the cemetery residents hold "free will" in low esteem.  They are convinced that the wrongs they committed during life were predestined by the weaknesses of character they received at birth.  They willingly go on to judgment as soon as they accept the fact that they have died. 
We hope for the best for our good, but justifiably terrified, minister.  At one point, he wonders to himself in passing:

Perhaps, I thought, this is faith: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention."

This thought provides us, the readers, some wiggle room, some grounds for hope that Rev. Everly's subsequent actions, inspired by his concern for Willie, might merit a re-opening of the case against him. 

Willie subsequently learns of his death, escapes the cemetery, and goes off to face his Maker.

Abraham Lincoln was affected by his night in the cemetery, and by his unknowing confrontation with the shades of its inhabitants.  History shows that the war began going better for the Union after Willie's death.  The president agonizingly but firmly sent thousands of young men to their deaths, in the hope that it was the will of Providence that the Union be saved, whatever the human cost. 

Maybe he was right. 

Lincoln in the Bardo is a quick read, if you're in a hurry, but contains a lot of meat to digest.  Worth taking some time to read slowly and think about.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Flying apart



The New York Times today provided an admirably brief and somewhat clear explanation of a raging scientific controversy.  After reading the article, I will try to condense the information even further, providing only that information you need to know for polite cocktail party conversation with other non-scientists.

Dropping the information contained in any one of these bullet points will impress your audience. If you're pressed for more details, just smile, waggle your eyebrows, and wander off in search of another drink.


  • The universe is expanding, and the farther away a star or galaxy is from us, the faster it appears to be moving away from us.

  • Hubble's constant is a measurement of how quickly the universe is expanding. 

  • Hubble's constant is a ratio between two numbers: the difference in distances from earth of two objects and the difference in speeds away from earth at which those two objects are traveling.

  • Since 2001, Hubble's constant has been calculated at various figures between 67 and 72.  This means that for every parsec farther away from earth one looks, objects appear to be traveling somewhere between 67 to 72 km/sec faster.  (A parsec is an astronomical measurement equal to about 3.3 million light years.)

  • These varying values for Hubble's constant have been calculated in different ways, from differing data.

  • Until recently, these measurements of Hubble's constant all fell within the margins of error for each..

  • Now, they don't. The precision of measurements has improved. The discrepancy may seem small, but after a few billion years of increasingly rapid expansion, it makes a difference.

  • To explain the discrepancy, it may be necessary to amend the cosmological "standard model" of the universe.  Either by assuming the existence of a new, fourth form of neutrinos, or by replacing the mysterious "black energy" of the standard model with a more powerful "phantom energy."

  • If the universe does, in fact, contain the so-called phantom energy, it would imply that the universe will eventually be expanding so fast that individual atoms themselves will be ripped apart by the expansion.  This spectacular event, called the "Big Rip," would occur several billion years from now.

  • Physicists have felt recently that cosmology was getting boring.  Now they're excited.

I think this is pretty interesting, as well.  However, even if we have more forms of neutrino than hitherto suspected, or even if we see the "Big Rip" coming down the pike, it's safe to conclude that these revelations will not affect the stock market, the next presidential election, or the amount of money in your 401k plan.

So, enjoy thinking about the Hubble constant, or not.  Unless you're a physicist, it's all a matter of personal taste.


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Photo taken from New York Times article.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Impressions of Portlandia


One of many bays of books
in Powell's

Until I left home for college, I'd spent my entire life living about fifty miles north of Portland, on the Washington side of the Columbia River.  Portland, to me, was the big city.  Like Manhattan must seem to a kid living on the Jersey shore.

My family would drive into Portland several times a year.  Even before the interstate was built, the distance wasn't so far as be daunting --  but the time the drive took on a two-lane road was enough that we occasionally stayed overnight in a hotel.  We kids trailed my mother around as she did her customary circuit of her favorite large department stores -- Lipman-Wolfe, Olds & King, and -- the true Mecca of shopping, with lunch in the tea room on the tenth floor -- Meier & Frank.  

When we could tear our mother away from shopping, we'd sometimes see a movie in one of the many big marquee theaters that lined both sides of Broadway.  My brother and I occasionally were allowed to avoid the ordeal of shopping by spending a few hours at a strange little theater, at about 4th and Morrison, as I recall, that showed triple features -- the Blue Mouse.

Since finishing law school, I've rarely spent time in downtown Portland.  My last visit for a day was probably in about 2009.

But I'd been feeling restless.  And so, yesterday, I boarded the Coast Starlight at King Street Station, here in Seattle, and took the four-hour train ride down to Portland.  The point wasn't really to tour Portland.  I just felt like riding the rails -- but in a comfortable coach, this time, not in a cold box car.

Lounge car on
Coast Starlight

The train arrived at Portland's Union Station about 1½ hours late -- not a good start for a train on its way to Los Angeles -- which left me barely four hours in Portland before I'd return on one of the regional Amtrak Cascades.  But that was enough time to form some first-impressions about the city.

They weren't all good, but let me give you a couple of the good ones first.  I brag in these posts about Seattle's growing light rail system, but Portland's is amazing.  It seems amazing in part, of course, because it's all above ground, not hidden in a tunnel like Seattle's.  But -- walking around during rush hour on a Friday -- I felt as though I were surrounded by two-unit trains coming at me from every direction. Trains that appeared to be a hybrid between an old fashioned streetcar and Seattle's light rail trains.  And the rail cars were packed with commuters.

Another huge improvement since my childhood days is the development of the waterfront along the  Willamette river.  What was formerly an industrial and warehouse area is now a beautiful walkway and park, fully used by parents and children, tourists, and joggers..  

My primary bad impression was of the street life.  Union Station itself is next to the Greyhound depot, which seems to attract a lot of homeless people and vagrants.  But once past that problem, I still felt a vague discomfort.  Not a sense of danger, just a puzzlement of what people were doing.  I've grown used to downtown Seattle where -- aside from our own homeless panhandlers -- the sidewalks seem bursting with eager young people talking excitedly to each other about Amazon type stuff or advanced computer coding.  They lend a feeling of life and meaningfulness that is contagious, an electricity that is picked up even by an aimless pedestrian like myself. 

In Portland, even in the "nicest" parts of town, where the sidewalks are lined by chic bars and restaurants and expensive hotels,  I was constantly stepping around people, both young and old, who seemed to be simply using the sidewalk as a place to hang out and meet each other.  In Rome, this type of street life is colorful.  In Portland, I found it confusing and slightly irritating.  It gave the city the feel of being a bit run down and derelict.

Olds & King closed in 1960, and Lipman-Wolfe in 1979.  Closed or bought out by chains, which gave them new names.  But the last time I visited, Meier & Frank still presided grandly in its beautiful full-block building in the heart of downtown -- although, even then it was no longer occupying the entire building.  Since then, apparently, Meier & Frank has been bought out by Macy's, and as Macy's comes, Macy's goes.  The polished white, classical building now bears garish "going out of business" signs.  Everything must go, they proclaim -- not just inventory, but furnishings as well. 

Macy's -- the graveyard of great local department stores, including Marshall Field in Chicago and the Bon Marché in Seattle.

Light rail tracks on
cobblestone streets

I saw no remaining place in downtown Portland that would have enticed my mother during her shopping years.  But I found a place -- non-existent in my youth -- in which I could happily shop for hours today.  I refer, of course, to Powell's Books -- a bookstore occupying a full block about three blocks up Burnside from the main part of town.  The store moved to its present location in about 1980, and greatly expanded in 1999.  Although Wikipedia reports that the store has seen some decrease in sales in recent years, it is nevertheless a paradise for book lovers, with books -- new and used commingled -- located in a number of rooms on several levels, each room identified by a different color.

I spent at least half of my short time in Portland wandering about the Powell's maze, finding books I might read some day and having coffee at the small café, located in one corner of the building.  Finding Powell's makes up, in some small degree, for the loss of the beautiful Barnes & Noble in Seattle's University Village a few years ago.

Facebook friends were surprised and appalled that I'd never been to Powell's before.  That's ok.  I'm not ashamed to admit my shortcomings.

My short Portland visit came quickly to an end, and I walked the ten minutes or so from Powell's back to Union Station.  I'll return soon for a more in-depth study of the city.  The Manhattan of my childhood deserves that much from me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quo vadis?


Cobb Building

 Walking downtown earlier today, I stood at the corner of Fourth and University, waiting for the light to change, when my eye was caught by the sight of the Cobb Building on the opposite corner.  Nothing unusual about it -- I've passed it a million times.  But I took the time to photograph it.

The Cobb Building is the last remnant of a number of similarly designed buildings on Fourth Avenue, all built on property owned by the University of Washington -- the University's original downtown campus.  The Cobb was completed in 1910.  The White and Henry Buildings, on the opposite side of Fourth, were completed in 1909, and a third building -- the Stuart -- completed that side of Fourth between University and Union Streets in 1915.  The three buildings were generally considered a single building -- the White-Henry-Stuart Building.


White-Henry Stuart Building
From corner of Union and Fourth

As the Cobb suggests, even today, the façade of the WHS Building was impressive, solid, and seriously conservative.  It demonstrated that Seattle was no longer a frontier town, but a well-established business community.
I remember the WHS well, because my first office as an attorney was in the much more modern Washington Building, adjacent to the Cobb Building, and my office looked out across Fourth to the brown, monolithic exterior of the WHS.  I liked it.  It told me I was working in an important downtown community -- not in an office in a strip mall.

The WHS was torn down in 1977 to make way for Rainier Square and, facing Fifth Avenue, the 41-story Rainier Bank Building (sometimes described as a sharpened pencil balanced on its  lead end).  As the building's occupants were moving out, a sign appeared, facing my office.  "Quo Vadis, Seattle?"  Latin.  "Where are you going, Seattle?"  I also wondered that, as I watched each day from my window as the austerely beautiful office buildings were pulled apart, razed, and leveled.

Rainier Square, which replaced the WHS Building, was a nicely finished, very modern, two-story building.  In its center was an enclosed atrium surrounded by retail establishments.  The atrium had a grand piano that someone often played during lunch hour.  A tunnel led from the bottom floor of Rainier Square underneath Fifth Avenue to the Fifth Avenue Theater (also on University property); the tunnel was lined with interesting photos of Seattle's early history.  In this paragraph, I've told you everything that was -- to me -- worth knowing about the new mall.  And that's what Rainier Square was -- a covered mall.

Rainier Square always seemed a bit empty.  My feeling was, and is, that it never quite jelled.

Planned Rainier
Square Building.
Rainier Tower to its
left.

What goes around, comes around.  Rainier Square will soon be demolished.  The pencil-shaped Rainier Tower will remain.  The rest of the block will be totally redeveloped.  On Fourth Avenue there will be a 12-story hotel.  Between Fourth and Fifth, facing Union Street, developers plan to build an oddly shaped, 58-story "Rainier Square Tower," on top of something similar to the existing low-rise mall. 
The two new buildings together will occupy the ground where the White-Henry-Stuart Building once stood.

The developer quite correctly observes that the building's shape will call to mind a ski jump.  Quo vadis, Seattle?

In the years leading up to the beginning of my law career, Seattle had hungered for respectability.  Now, the city's eager for excitement.  A building that resembles a ski jump may help satisfy that eagerness.  Maybe.  Or it may just look exciting in the same sense as the Shanghai skyline looks exciting, or as the Las Vegas strip strikes some as exciting.

But I keep an open mind.  Seattle has done a lot of things that caused me to raise my eyebrows, many of which I've learned to like.  If I'd been old enough to be crotchety, I probably would have complained about the Space Needle!

But, still,  it's nice to have the Cobb Building to remind us of a different Seattle, the post-pioneer Seattle that once was.  New York itself probably wishes it still had a small remnant of Penn Station left to admire.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Calais to Nice


Le train bleu (the Blue Train), one of the world's great luxury overnight trains, had its origins in a route begun in 1886.  The train ran between Calais, where it connected with the Channel ferry from England, and Nice on the Riviera coast.  Service was suspended during World War I, and resumed in 1920.

Although the train, in one form or another, operated with a steadily declining reputation after World War II until 2003, it was after World War I that it was first called the "Blue Train" (from the color of its sleepers), and it was between the world wars that it enjoyed the height of its fame as a totally deluxe, totally first class train, carrying the cream of British society south to the Riviera for sun and fun.

And it was in 1928, at that same height of its reputation, that Agatha Christie wrote her murder mystery, The Mystery of the Blue Train.  I'm not addicted to murder mysteries or detective stories.  And yet, just two or three months ago I read (or re-read, actually) another Agatha Christie thriller, Murder on the Orient Express.  From those titles, one might surmise that I'm more addicted to railway stories than I am to murder mysteries.  And one would surmise correctly. 

From its title (and from watching the well done 1974 film), you would suppose that the Orient Express novel would be highly atmospheric in its recreation of life on another of the great European trains.  Unfortunately, perhaps because train travel in sleepers was so common when she was writing, Christie really provided very little descriptive detail of the train -- just enough information about the layout of the sleeper compartments and of the diner to advance the plot, together with some information of its route from Istanbul through the Balkans. 

Similarly with the Blue Train. 

The complexities of the Blue Train's plot are (or seemed to me) greater than those of Christie's later Orient Express.  We have the murder itself, committed at some point between Paris and Lyon, as the train headed south.  And we have a surfeit of suspects.  We have both the murdered woman's former and present lover, and her present, soon-to-be divorced husband, riding on the same train with her.  The victim is carrying with her a fortune in rubies, which disappear at the same time as the murder.  We have the victim's maid, who left the train for unknown reasons in Paris, and we have the trusted secretary of the victim's multi-millionaire American father. 

And we have a highly likeable young woman, who meets the victim on the train and somehow remains above the conflicting suspicions of the police.  A likeable young woman who has recently inherited a fortune -- and for comic relief is beset by her conniving distant relatives.

And of course -- as in Orient Express -- we have Hercule Poirot, a French private detective.  Hercule Poirot, a small man with his egg-shaped head and highly waxed mustache who genially claims that "I am probably the greatest detective in the world."

While -- as I understand it -- great murder mysteries provide the reader all the information he needs in order to solve the murder before or at the same time as the detective, in this case a solution would be impossible without an amazing piece of information that M. Poirot reveals only near the denouement.  Never mind.  It's a clever story and fun to read.  Or to re-read, because I've had to go back and discover how the nearly forgotten events in the first half of the story provided elements of the information used by Poirot in the second half.  But it's a fast re-read when one's searching for clues.

So it's an enjoyable mystery.  As is the better known Orient Express.  But neither's the fountain of railway lore from the glory days of the great luxury trains for which the reader -- or at least this reader -- might have hoped.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Containment


George Kennan, at about
the time of the long telegram 

In 1946, while serving as a diplomat in the Soviet Union, George Kennan wrote his famous "long telegram" to the Secretary of State, proposing what would become known as the "containment policy."

Kennan argued that it was a mistake, at that time, to continue efforts to appease the Soviets.  He suggested that Stalin needed a hostile world in order to legitimize the brutality of his dictatorship at home, and that the basis "of the Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity."

Kennan predicted that Stalin would continue efforts to expand his nation's influence, a tendency suggested not so much by Communist ideology as by Russia's own nationalistic history of expansionism.  America and the West should act resolutely to oppose any aggressive expansion  Unable to expand, the Soviets' own domestic problems, with no threat of foreign attack to divert attention from those problems, would eventually cause the regime's collapse.

Which is what happened, ultimately.

I recall all of this as I keep my eye on President Trump.  Here is a man with a "neurotic view" of not only world affairs, but of his own relationship with virtually everyone in his own country other than his immediate family.  He is a man beset by insecurity.  His having received fewer votes than Hillary Clinton obviously disturbs him greatly.  He fears, and thus hates, the press, the courts, those states in which Democrats are the majority -- and even the traditional leaders of his own party.

Like Stalin, Trump is an insecure and neurotic man, and one who is ruling a country filled with institutions, officials, and an aroused electoral majority that he fears and cannot control.  Like Stalin, we can expect him to lash out -- as he has done frequently in his first three weeks -- and to make every attempt to arouse the country to fear and hatred of "the other" -- whether that "other" is other nations, foreign terrorists, "disgraceful" courts, or "un-American" opposition leaders here at home.  Like many dictators, including notably Stalin, he will rely on that fear and hatred to unite the country behind his own authoritarian leadership.

Mr. Trump is legitimately the president, pursuant to our constitutional rules.  We will have no military coups.  Unless something unforeseen develops, the Republican Congress will not impeach him.  But, as did America under the Kennan containment doctrine, we can "contain" Mr. Trump.  We can oppose with all our might every attempt he makes to expand his power beyond that traditionally granted to American presidents.  We may still be forced to live with many policies we abhor.  We may see good laws repealed and bad laws adopted.  But those are the expected consequences of losing an election.

But with respect to his grasping for more power, we can contain him.  And that is why the Temporary Restraining Order issued by Seattle's Judge Robart was so  important.  And why the Ninth Circuit's refusal to stay the TRO was even more critical -- more critical, because the Ninth Circuit's per curiam opinion was far more comprehensive than it needed to be, and because it specifically rejected Trump's arguments one after another. 

Trump has, for the moment, in this one small area, been contained.  A small containment, but it's been an important containment, and one that has elicited fury from the president.  Just as assistance to the Greeks against the Soviet-backed rebellion -- our first action pursuant to the containment doctrine -- no doubt enraged Stalin.  We now need to match every future attempt to expand presidential power with an equally strong resistance.  Resistance that will have the effect -- not to be disrespectful -- similar to that of slapping a rolled-up newspaper loudly to the ground every time a dog misbehaves.

Luckily, unlike Kennan and post-war America, we don't need to hope that such containment will cause Mr. Trump to implode or collapse of his own internal contradictions.  (Although such a terminal breakdown at times appears not impossible.)  We merely need to continue the pressure for the next four years.

Four more years.  We must hope that the Democrats then select a more popular nominee in 2020 than they did last year, and that the American people will be so fed up with the oddities and incompetence of the present administration that they will overwhelmingly remove Trump from power.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The mad emperor


Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus , known to us by his childhood nickname "Caligula" (meaning "tiny boot"), was emperor of Rome from 37-41 A.D.

As emperor, Caligula began a large number of construction projects, improving infrastructure such as roads, harbors, aqueducts, city walls, and palaces.  He also used public money to build projects for himself, however, apparently unable to distinguish between the empire's welfare and his own..  His spending exhausted the treasury, built up by his predecessor, and the country was seized by a famine.

The young emperor engaged in violent disputes with the Senate.  He "fired" and replaced the sitting consul, and had several senators put to death for treason.  He uncovered more and more conspiracies against his rule, with resulting executions.

Caligula eventually injected religion into his role as emperor.  According to Wikipedia:

Caligula began appearing in public dressed as various gods and demigods such as Hercules, Mercury, Venus and Apollo.   Reportedly, he began referring to himself as a god when meeting with politicians and he was referred to as "Jupiter" on occasion in public documents.

He was the first emperor to claim divinity for himself while still alive.  He asked to be worshipped as Helios Neos, the "New Sun."

Today, we might suggest that he was something of a narcissist.

Contemporary writers described Caligula

as an insane emperor who was self-absorbed, angry, killed on a whim, and indulged in too much spending and sex.  He is accused of sleeping with other men's wives and bragging about it,  killing for mere amusement, deliberately wasting money on his bridge, causing starvation,  and wanting a statue of himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem for his worship.

Caligula planned to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul.  He died before carrying out this plan, but he actually did appoint Incitatus as a priest.

The contemporary philosopher and writer Seneca

states that Caligula became arrogant, angry and insulting once becoming emperor and [Seneca] uses his personality flaws as examples his readers can learn from.

After nearly four years as emperor, he was assassinated by a number of senators who had seen enough.

At the time of his reign, Twitter had not yet been invented.  Fortunately, perhaps, for the people of Rome, Caligula was unable to tweet.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Rainier or bust!


Not all of my posts will appeal to the general public, and this is one of those that may not.  But it will jog the memories of eight of my family members who joined me in a climb of Mt. Rainier in 1996.  I composed this little piece of doggerel about a year before the climb, encouraging and egging on my fellow climbers.

Its meter, rhyme scheme, and certain allusions (e.g., repeating it thrice!) derive from Lewis Carroll's comic epic poem, "The Hunting of the Snark."

-------------------------

Nine Characters in Search of a Mountain
 
They attacked it with crampons, they scaled it with ropes,
     They pursued it with a laugh and a frown.
They charged towards its summit with feverish hopes,
     They'd reach it before they came down.
 
They'd planned it for fortnights, they'd been packed for days,
     They'd succeeded in dreams, and ne'er failed.
The peak beckoned above, through the Alpenglow's haze --
     They'd climb if it snowed or it hailed.
 
They came from Seattle, and from sunny Umatilla,
     From Sonoma, and the City of the Stars.
They came to do battle, on a most monstrous hill-a,
     They arrived driving rickshaws and cars.
 
Their leader was ancient, their leader was old,
     His years had reached fifty-five.
His eyes were all rheumy, but his countenance bold,
     He vowed he'd bring 'em back down alive.
 
"I've conquered Mt. Adams (as have many Sirs and Madams),
     Kilimanjaro has fallen prey to my skills,
You joined me on Whitney, but why continue this litany?
     I'm quite familiar with climbing on hills."
 
"We will hoist a friendly beer, on the summit of Mount Rainier!"
     (They welcomed with joy his sage advice.)
"You and I will give a cheer, as we toast atop Rainier,
     (This forecast I've now offered to you twice.)"
 
"We'll be awash in suds and foam, on good old Rainier's dome,
     I know it's true, I'm not just casting dice.
The certainty of my prediction, is a function of my predilection,
     For restating all my wisdom at least thrice."
 
But the days for idle boasting, and verbal riposting,
     Reached an end as such days always must.
The sun shone hot and high, the month was now July,
     They knew it now was "Mountain Top or Bust!"
 
They climbed to Camp Muir, behind their old, demented Führer,
     O'er endless snowfields, with forty-pound packs.
Like dumb and panting mules, loaded down with climbing tools,
     In camp, at last, they fell dead into their sacks.
 
But the tempus still will fugit, awake or asleep,
     Not all your prayers will persuade it to slow.
So at Midnight's appearance, they felt their stomachs leap,
     When they heard, "All right, guys, let's get up and go!"
 
They tightened their crampons, clipped "beeners" to ropes,
     They set out with a sigh and a yawn,
But with eyes turned to summit, each soul surged with hopes,
     As he vowed, "I'll dance there by dawn!"
 
*    *    *
 
You can call it Tahoma, you can call it Rainier,
     You can salute it with prayers or a curse,
But until you have climbed it, and seen the summit draw near,
     You can experience it only through verse.
 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Let it snow!


My iPhone has a built-in app that provides information about the weather.  The app is aptly named "Weather."  After you tell it where you live, it gives you the current temperature and state of precipitation. 

"Weather" also provides a forecast for each hour during the next 24 hours and for every day for the next nine days.  Its report of the current weather is usually fairly accurate.  Its forecast of future conditions tends to be abysmal.  And yet, I constantly rely on "Weather" to decide when and whether to go running or walking.  "The triumph of hope over experience," was how Samuel Johnson described "remarriage."  It applies to my reliance on my "Weather" app as well.

What precipitated (sic) these remarks, you may ask?  Right now, "Weather" tells me that it is snowing outside, has been snowing since 7 p.m., and will continue snowing for the next 24 hours.  (To be fair to my hapless app, the Seattle Times also predicts snow with an accumulation of three to six inches.

And yet, here it is past 9 p.m., and when I look outside, all I see is rain.  [pause for new inspection]  Well, the rain maybe now looks slightly "fatter" than our usual rain.  It doesn't look like snow, but maybe it looks like rain considering the possibility of someday becoming snow.  It looks like something that provides at least a glimmer of hope that snow, real snow, might possibly fall before morning.  But it could also be feeling deceptive.

I'll just have to wait until I wake up after a sound night's sleep, run to the window in my footie pajamas with bunny ears, and check it out. 

Let's face it.  Snow or no snow is merely a curiosity for me now, in my old age.  But I look back on days when a nighttime snowfall, with snow that (hooray!) "stuck," opened up awesome possibilities of -- yes, "no school!"  My brother and I would arise earlier than usual so we could listen to the "school closing" reports on the local radio.  We continuously eyed the quality and quantity of on-going snowfall, and measured the snow -- if there was actually enough to be measurable -- on the ground with a ruler.  We would even -- I blush to admit it -- engage in frenzied "snow dances" in the living room, in the hopes of persuading the snow gods to shower ever increasing loads of snow upon our local school district.

Snow!  O glorious snow!  Its importance to our lives was almost existential.  All our hopes and dreams rode upon it.  Especially, of course, if we had a paper due or an exam scheduled for which we were not totally prepared.

But all that was in my schoolboy past.  Then there were a number of years when I had to at least pretend to be irritated at snow because it made it difficult getting to work.  Secretly, I still loved it, of course.  But one was expected to act adult.  Outwardly, around real adults, despite how one really felt. 

Now?  Now neither the intense joy of youth nor the ersatz irritation of irritable middle age remains.  Life is more equable.  Snow?  It simply gives me pleasure to look out upon a snowy landscape; to crunch along a sidewalk covered with snow; to spot the tracks of dogs, cats and birds; to rejoice in the muffled silence that snow imposes; to return to my house, change into dry clothes and enjoy a hot cup of coffee.

Just snow, damn it!  Tonight!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A cluttered life


While attending three years of law school, I lived in an unfinished basement of a rather squalid house on Brooklyn Avenue, in Seattle's University District.  A friend and I shared the basement the first year.  Without really thinking about what I was doing, I helped demarcate my territory from our common areas by piling each day's newspapers in such a way as to increase my privacy.

After three years, the stacks of newspapers had become enormous.  Moving out required more labor than it did for most university students. 

But this episode in my life was remarkable only for its extremity.  Throughout childhood, I saved all my school papers in dresser drawers.  I remember, as a high school student, looking back with pleasure on my spelling grades from second grade.  My basement today is full of debris, although a significant weeding out occurred in 2009, when my house was taken over for use as a movie set, and again in 2014, when my brother "helped with" (did) some major renovations.

Just visiting my house, you'd never guess I was a hoarder if you didn't see the basement, perhaps.  Perhaps, but -- suspiciously -- all my walls are lined with books, books from every period of my life.  I've occasionally thrown out a guide book or two that was thirty years out of date.  It hurt. 

And let's not even talk about my desk top during my many years in legal practice.  Luckily, I had a series of highly organized secretaries who tried to impose some order on my disorderliness.

All of this came to mind as I read Jan Morris's Manhattan '45, an account and collection of remembrances of what life was like in New York at the conclusion of World War II. 

Morris briefly describes the remarkable Victorian home on Fifth Avenue, near 128th Street, of two brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer.  They had lived in their home in Harlem since 1909, back when it was a fashionable area of town.  Homer had been an admiralty attorney with a degree from Columbia, but had been paralyzed since 1932; he was cared for by his brother Langley, a concert pianist who had performed at Carnegie Hall.

Their story reveals what might have been my fate if I'd continued to live for decades in my Brooklyn Avenue basement.  They gradually filled their home with, well, with debris.  A New York Times story in 2003 states that the house was filled with hundreds of thousands of newspapers.  Morris says that every passage through the house was barricaded with miscellaneous rubbish, with tunnels burrowed through the rubbish through which one had to crawl.  One hundred eighty tons of debris. 

Booby traps had been installed throughout the passages. 

The house had no gas, electric, water, or sewer connections.  But it had fourteen grand pianos and it had an excellent library, specializing in mechanics and the sea.

Homer finally died in 1947.  It took the police two hours to break into the house using axes and crow bars.  No one had any idea what had happened to Langley.  His body was discovered three weeks later, caught in one of his own booby traps, buried under debris, and partially eaten by rats.

Langley was not only paralyzed, but blind.  His brother had saved the newspapers for him to read when he recovered his sight.  The other garbage?  Who knows.  The Times quoted a writer as saying that eccentrics are not necessarily illogical.  They may have their own "very pure" logic.  It's just different.

The Times writer had heard the Collyer story as a child.

To my 7-year-old ears, the cruel twist was deliciously gruesome: Homer and Langley had been killed by the very bulwarks they had raised to keep the world out of their lives.

A cautionary tale, indeed.  And metaphorical.  A story to recall and ponder in these days when our leaders seem obsessed with the desire to build national bulwarks to keep the outside world outside.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Spring cleaning


Just a few more hours (Seattle time) until January comes to an end.  January.  Named after the Latin word ianua, or gate.  But popularly thought to have been named after the god of gates, Janus.

Nasty two-faced Janus.  One face looking backward, in 2017, to a year of political turmoil -- but also a year of stable and competent government.  The other, looking forward to something new under the American sun.  To a "New Political Order" as Stephen Bannon, our new de facto ruler, has declared.  Who knows what it means?  We can only wait and see what the unkempt gentleman has in store for us.

Tomorrow is February.  From the Latin word februum, meaning purification.  Named after the Februa, the Roman rite of purification, held mid-way through the month.  A festival appropriated by the Catholic Church as the Feast of the Purification of the B.V.M., celebrated on America's Groundhog Day, February 2.

The Februa was essentially a two or three day period of spring cleaning.  Apparently everything washable or cleanable was washed and cleaned.  The Romans washed tangible objects.  This year, we need to wash our minds, our dispositions, our souls.  This year, we need a lot of purification.  Unlike the Romans, we do have detergent and chlorine bleach to aid us in our striving for purification.

Originally, the Romans had no January or February.  Those months were yet unformed -- a vast winter wasteland at the end of the year, a stretch of time not yet dignified with names.  You just worked your way through that period each year until you saw March -- the beginning of the Roman year -- hovering ahead of you on the horizon.  The wasteland was subdivided and short platted, if you will, in 713 B.C., with January and February becoming the last two months of the year.  Even then, February was the 97-pound-weakling of the months, a month that sort of petered out at 28 days.  (Except when an "intercalary month" was interposed between Februrary and March, but you don't want to know about all that.)

In about 450 B.C, it became the second month of the year, as it has remained ever more.  Then adoption of the Julian calendar in 45 B.C. offered us the fun idea of leap years.

In non-Latin countries, like old England, the month had other names -- the Old English words for "mud month" or sometimes "cabbage month."  But let's remember it as purification month.  We're in need of purification -- not at all of mud or cabbage.  And we'd better get to work purifying fast.

This isn't a leap year.  We have only 28 days to wash the slime of January from our nation's collective body. And psyche.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Two presidents


'

'I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.''
--Lyndon B. Johnson, March 31, 1968


According to a 1988 article in the New York Times, written by LBJ's chief of staff, Johnson had been considering plans to refuse re-election as early as September 1967.  But before his final speech, he commissioned a poll that indicated that he would likely win re-election, thus persuading him that he was not quitting out of fear of failure.

But President Johnson had strong misgivings about the war he was conducting in Vietnam, and about America's chance of conclusively winning that war.  Like President Trump, he felt that the New York Times was "working for the enemy" -- either that, or that the facts provided by U.S. intelligence had been misleading him.  And I suspect he was affected by the massive student demonstrations against the war, which  peaked with the Tet Offensive in early 1968.

Johnson was always in close contact with the military.  He had highly qualified cabinet members heading State and Defense.  He himself had been the Democratic leader in the Senate from 1953 until becoming vice president.  He knew senators of both parties -- how to do them favors and how to call in favors from them.  Whatever one thinks of his presidency, he was a consummate political leader.

Johnson had his fingers on the pulse of the nation, and an instinctive feel for the concerns of Congress.  He heard the cries, "Hey, hey, LBJ.  How many kids have you killed today?"  He sensed that he himself, his personality as well as his decisions, were dividing the nation sharply on the issue of Vietnam.  And so he stood aside.

I remember Johnson as I see the photos of the massive demonstrations against a Trump reign that is only a week old.  I read, and participate in, howls of outrage on social media (admitting that my media contacts largely occupy a liberal, urban bubble).  I read about the ACLU's initial successes in combatting Trump's hastily imposed travel bans.  These events are all encouraging.

But what will they accomplish?  Vietnam demonstrations helped persuade LBJ to resign, because he felt the forces moving the nation.  Trump may have a feeling for one narrow portion of the American public -- what has been described as a rural, mid-continental tribal grouping for whom "America First" is a cry that comes naturally.  But he ignores the rest of the country, or believes, perhaps, that they represent a tiny minority.  He hates the NY Times, but unlike LBJ never wonders if his own sources of information might be faulty.  He acts quickly, bragging about his quickness, and consequently acts sloppily.

And now he has surrounded himself with a cabinet, a national defense team, and a presidential staff who virtually all share some of the most backward thinking in today's America.  And in Congress, he enjoys a Republican majority whose leaders (with a couple of notable exceptions) bend over backwards in their attempts to be obsequious.

In short, we can demonstrate, write letters, and holler on the internet all we want.  We aren't confronting an LBJ, a president in occasional Hamlet mode.  A president who listens and worries.  We are facing a president who knows what he knows and has no interest in knowing anything else.  He is surrounded by white, old men -- mostly incredibly wealthy -- who are determined to buck him up if he shows any signs of faltering.  Trump's not going to resign.  He's not going to back down.  He's not going to learn.

Unless the Republican leadership finally revolts, we're in store for at least four years that will leave us a far different country.  Not the sort of country that LBJ would have wanted.  Not the sort of country that soldiers fought two world wars to preserve.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Enigma Variations


Elgar's "Enigma Variations" is a suite of 14 orchestral variations on an initial theme.  The variations are reflections on aspects of fourteen individuals who were important in the composer's life.

In his new novel, Enigma Variations, André Aciman has concocted something similar.  The novel is divided into five chapters.  In the first, and longest, chapter, the narrator describes an intense emotional and physical attraction to an older man back when he was a 12-year-old boy.  In the later chapters, he discusses his attempts to achieve romantic relationships with a number of potential partners as an adult, and in the process shows how true is the aphorism: "The child is father to the man."

Paolo and his parents spend their summers in their large summer house on the fictitious island of San Giustiniano, off the coast of Sicily.  A local carpenter and cabinet maker, Giovanni ("Nanni"), a young man in his late 20s, does various odd jobs for them.  The summer Paolo was 12, Nanni was engaged in an exquisitely difficult refinishing of an old desk. 

In something of a reprise of Elio's teenaged infatuation with an older graduate student in Aciman's first novel, Call Me By Your Name, ( see my discussion here), Paolo develops an intense crush on Nanni.  For a long time, Paolo can hardly even look openly at Nanni, or speak an entire sentence to him.  The romance occurs entirely within his secret thoughts; he can conceal his passion for Nanni only by speaking vaguely disparagingly of him to his parents, and by seeming to ignore Nanni's visits to his house.  Eventually, he opens up slightly, and begins spending more and more time at Nanni's shop, "helping" him with his carpentry work.

Eventually, Nanni catches Paolo staring at him with longing eyes, and gently tells the boy that it would be better if he not spend so much time visiting the shop.  Paolo runs off to the ruins of a Norman chapel, where he has often spent time lost in thought, sometimes alone, sometimes chatting with his father.  Following the rejection by Nanni, the abandoned chapel

had seen me suffer and cry as I'd never wept before.  I knew every one of its exposed stones, every inch, every weed, every crawling lizard, down to the feel of the chipped stones and pebbles under my bare feet.  I belonged here the way I belonged to this planet and its people, but on one condition: alone, always alone.

Paolo tells us of these events as he returns for a visit  for the first time to San Giustiniano, ten years later.  As a 22-year-old, he finally learns from villagers something that he should have suspected as a 12-year-old:  Nanni and his father had been secret lovers for many years -- not a secret that could be forever hidden in a small town.  The villagers had been tolerant of the highly educated and respected father, but had become openly hostile toward Nanni.  Nanni had left the island and disappeared;  Paolo never saw him in person again.

The remaining four chapters, occupying seventy percent of the book, take place in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Paolo, now "Paul," has attended college in a small New England school, and holds an important job in the publishing industry.  The four chapters are sequential, but jump from time period to time period, with no real indication of the length of the gaps.  In the second chapter, Paul seems to be in his 20s.  By the last chapter, he is middle aged.

Paul plays tennis for recreation, at least in the second chapter.  Otherwise, he tells us little about his work or his interests.  He has friends, he is invited to parties, he is considered cheerful and open by his peers.  But his entire interior life is centered on a search for a satisfying relationship.  A search for a new Nanni, the Nanni he never had, never could have had, could only dream about with a 12-year-old's imagination.  A dream object who all along belonged to his own father.

We first see him as an adult, involved in a romantic relationship, perhaps already fading, with a woman named Maud.  But the second chapter is all about his infatuation with a man named Manfred, a German who plays tennis at the same Upper West Side courts as himself.  For two years, he is obsessed with the thought of Manfred, but allows himself to do no more than glance at him, to say no more than "good morning."  As an adult, his ability to meet Manfred in any meaningful way is no better developed than it had been as a child with Nanni.  Ultimately, somewhat unbelievably, the two actually do become lovers for a time and then, by the third chapter, close friends -- Manfred emails Paul from Germany, often on a daily basis, trying to help him meet future partners.

Future partners who are all women.  In the third chapter, he is intensely jealous of his then girlfriend's suspected affair with an attractive client -- a jealousy that proves unwarranted when she laughs, after the client has finished his business relationship, that it was Paul, not her, who the client found attractive.  Meanwhile, Paul has spent the third chapter dying a million deaths, imagining the conversations and interactions between the two.  And feeling a secret thrill of attraction for the client.

As Manfred -- the sane voice of reason -- points out by email in later chapters, Paul lives his life in his mind.  He arranges date after date, each of which he imagines beforehand as ending up with his spending a night in the woman's apartment.  We see his date giving every sign of willingness.  Paul sees the same thing we see, but can never believe what he sees -- there must be some secret agenda he knows nothing about, her willingness to bed with him must be merely politeness, a desire not to hurt his feelings, a sign that actually she is bored and wants to go home -- home without Paul.  He has ended up in bed with many women and -- we suspect -- many men, but only in physical relationships.  With the partner he could love -- the adult version of Nanni, the person to whom he could entrust his entire soul without hesitation -- he is too tongue-tied to show her what he wants.

History repeats itself in the final chapter, and with the most obviously attractive candidate for the position as Paul's soul mate.  Manfred sends frantic emails.  "This woman is real.  You are real."   So Paul prepares his lines.  His script.  They have drinks, dinner together.  And then, at the last moment, Paul pulls back, the moment passes.

I tried to find a way to pry open the block between us.  But the more I realized how much I wanted her, the more the idea of her new beau [probably imaginary] began to muddy my thinking, the more her blandishing dearests began to irk me.  Everything I liked about her, everything she wrote and said had the ring of hollow appeasements thrown around to prevent me from drawing closer ... I became guarded and oblique.

  They say goodby on the sidewalk in front of her apartment house.  She walks sadly away.

And then, to confuse matters, in the final pages of the novel, Paul reveals to us that he's already married.  Married to a woman we met in chapter 2.  Married, but not apparently to a soulmate, not to a reincarnation of the never-forgotten Nanni.  Marriage to a woman for whom he'd never expressed much interest.

As in all his novels, Aciman writes of men who live their lives in their imaginations, who cannot step outside themselves at critical times, cannot step into life.  "This woman is real.  You are real."  The woman had been real, as were the happy hours Paul had spent talking with her in small cafes, but she, and those good times he's spent with her, "belonged to another life, a live unlived, a life I knew had turned its back to me and was being nailed to the wall."  This regret for opportunities lost because of hesitation to act or speak at the critical moment is similar to the regret Aciman had the adult Elio express so vividly at the end of his first novel.

As Paul himself at one point tells friends at a dinner party:

We're torn between regret, which is the price to pay for things not done, and remorse, which is the cost for having done them.  Between one and the other, time plays all its cozy little tricks.

Yes, of course, Aciman might say.  But sometimes one simply does what feels right, and worries about the balance between regret and remorse afterwards.