Friday, June 22, 2018

Equality and excellence

Stuyvesant High School

The tension between the pursuit of excellence and the search for equality is one theme in Mary Renault's novel, The Last of the Wine, set in fifth century B.C. Athens.  She has one of her characters ask whether fervent proponents of the latter will demand that every beautiful child have her face slightly disfigured, preventing her from beginning life with an undeserved advantage over her less favored peers.

This struggle between objectives is one that confronts any society that calls itself "democratic."  It is playing out at present in New York City. 

New York has eight public high schools with rigorous curricula that admit applicants on a competitive basis, one criterion being high scores on the "Specialized High Schools Admissions Test."  Another school, the LaGuardia  High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, offers admission based on auditions.  These schools offer an excellent education, often the equivalent of that provided by expensive private schools.  The opportunity for talented and academically oriented students to attend such schools induces many better-off parents to keep their children within the public school system. 

They also have student bodies that are heavily white or Asian, and upper middle class.  Aye, there's the rub.

The city's mayor has suggested that twenty percent of the admissions to each special school should be awarded to students who are low-income, and who fall just below the minimum acceptable test score for that school.  The objective would be to integrate the schools to some degree by social class and, not so incidentally, by race.

I find it impossible to think about this issue without feeling completely ambivalent.  First of all, I question the effectiveness of the mayor's proposal.  I look at magnet schools in Seattle, notably Garfield, which include both lower income students from the neighborhood and talented students in various disciplines drawn from across the city, and see schools where the students quickly re-segregate themselves from within.  Not out of racial or class hostility, I gather, but simply out of the desire to hang out with friends who have similar interests and aspirations.

On the other hand, if we are not to be a polarized society, we have to begin somewhere.  I suspect that rubbing shoulders with people unlike ourselves -- whether at school, at work, or in other activities -- increases understanding and acceptance of each other, even where that contact tends to be superficial.

The issue is often discussed in terms of fairness to the low-income students who need to escape low-expectation schools versus fairness to the well-off kids who want a superior education.  And that's an important balance to make.  But I also am concerned about the national welfare -- don't we want to produce the brightest, best educated young people we can?  Kids who can create the scientific and technological advances we''ll need in the future, as well as the writers and students of the humanities that the nation will need to govern itself?  Every country that wants to be a leader in the future is finding ways to give its brightest kids the most intense education possible.  Certainly China is.

On the other hand -- again -- the national welfare will not be served by allowing creation of a vast underclass of poor and poorly educated citizens.  America enjoyed its best years economically after World War II, when universal education gave all students as much education as then seemed required -- a high school diploma -- which in turn created a population with a smaller gap between the highest and lowest paid than known at any time before or since.

One problem with the creation of schools limited to gifted students is that those become the schools that the best teachers naturally vie to teach in.  But -- to a certain degree -- the smartest and best motivated kids have the ability to teach themselves.  It is the poor learners, the kids from homes that have not motivated their kids to study and learn, who need the best teachers.  Regardless of whether we segregate or integrate our good students from our more problematic students, maybe we should be focusing on higher incentives for good teachers to teach the more difficult children.

This has been a rambling post, as I knew it would be.  It rambles, because I have no solutions to suggest.  If I did, I'd write a book.  I merely see the problems.  I hope the political and educational leaders in New York City have the background and experience that I don't have -- as well as the wisdom and concern for all elements of the community -- that will enable them to make the wisest decisions for their schools, and for their diverse student bodies.

New York's problems aren't limited to New York.  School districts all over the country will be watching.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Great Glen Way

Loch Ness
"Your country consists of two things, stone and water. There is, indeed, a little earth above the stone in some places, but a very little; and the stone is always appearing. It is like a man in rags; the naked skin is still peeping out."

--Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (quoting Samuel Johnson's taunts about Scotland)

Remember, to begin with, that the Great Glen Way runs in roughly the same latitudes as a route from Sitka, Alaska, to Juneau.  June nights do get dark, but not totally for much more than a couple of hours.  Remember, also, that the Great Glen Way runs from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, both seas being the source of a heck of a lot of moisture, even in summer. 

We enjoyed the long hours of daylight, and escaped almost entirely the expected precipitation.  Locals spoke in wonder of the local "drought" -- eleven days without rain.

The Great Glen itself is a geologic fault between what was at one time the continent of Europe to the south and the continent of North America to the north.  Like other faults, such as the San Andreas fault south of San Francisco, it reveals itself as a depression in the earth which has been filled with a series of long, narrow lakes.  Because of slippage along the fault line, the geology and flora is different on opposite sides of each lake ("loch").

Samuel Johnson, in his inimitable fashion, was describing the highland portions of Scotland, areas whose top soil had been stripped off by the last glaciers.  The area of the lochs along the Great Glen, however, supports beautiful forests and other lush vegetation.

And so we prepared for our six days of hiking.

After four of us had climbed Ben Nevis (prior post), our other four hikers arrived from Edinburgh -- Jim's brother John and sister Anne, and their respective spouses Ann and Tony.  We spent a pre-hike day together, hiring a ride to the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, and exploring it by vehicle.  We drove from the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh by a fairly recent bridge, viewed Eilean Donan castle, drove north as far as Portree (Skye's largest town), returned south, and re-crossed to the mainland at Mallaig by ferry.  Skye's scenery was striking, almost Alaskan in its mountains and open plains.

By then, my toe (injured descending from Ben Nevis) was much better, and we were all eager to begin walking.

The Great Glen Way feels like two distinct hikes, joined at Fort Augustus, where we stayed an extra day.  The first three days follow the flat banks of the Caledonia Canal, which extends from Fort William all the way to Inverness.  The canal joins a series of lochs of slightly varying elevations, with locks permitting passage of boats, mainly pleasure vessels, between the lochs.  ("The locks between the lochs," as I joked perhaps once too often.)  The first day took us to the shore of Loch Lochy; the second day, we hiked the length of Lochy; and the third day we walked the length of Loch Oich and on to Fort Augustus on the southern end of Loch Ness.

Our day of leisure in Fort Augustus had as a highlight an 8 p.m. cruise of the near end of Lake Ness.  The boat's guide was well educated and articulate in his lecture.  The boat also provided a means by which we were able to photograph "Nessie" -- the Lake Ness monster.  Far be it from me to pass up the opportunity, which I believe everyone else in our group was happy to do.

The second three days provided very different hiking experience.  Rather than hike the tow paths along the canal or the lakeshore along the lochs, each day we climbed high above Loch Ness, through dense forest into expansive high country moorland.  And the hikes were longer.  The second to the last day, from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit was 14 miles, and the final leg into Inverness (from which three of our group opted out, taking a local bus instead) was 18 miles.  The hikes were tiring, but the scenery -- of Loch Ness below and of the mountains and moorlands above -- was striking.

We had a final dinner together in Inverness, with everyone but Jim, Dorothy, and me leaving early the next morning.  We three took an afternoon train, spending the morning on a visit to the Battlefield of Culloden, some five miles from Inverness.  Culloden was the battle, in 1746, where the English finally defeated the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The battle effectively ended -- until recently -- Scotland's efforts to obtain independence.  The English forces of the Duke of Cumberland refused quarter, killing all Scottish soldiers who were injured or captured.  For years following the battle, the English launched punitive expeditions into Scottish villages suspected of Jacobite sympathies,  slaughtering all inhabitants.

Following that rather grim look at history, we took the train back to Glasgow, a final dinner, and flights home.  An enjoyable hike with excellent company.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Climbing Ben Nevis

Waving my hands in triumph
at the summit

Climbing the highest point in the British Isles wasn't our primary motive for traveling to Scotland.  It wasn't even an original motive -- more an afterthought.  We came to do the Great Glen Way walk.

But summiting Ben Nevis certainly became a major highlight of the trip, for those of us who did it.

After a night's recuperation in Glasgow from my Icelandic Airlines flight, I joined Jim and Dorothy on the four hour train ride north to Fort William.  Jim has been a close friend since we met as students at the University of Washington, and Dorothy is his Scottish-born-and-reared (but now American) wife.  Jim first introduced me to the art of wilderness backpacking in the Olympics and Cascades, back when we were at an age when carrying a heavy pack for several days was still a matter of pride rather than an intolerable burden!

We had allotted four days to explore the region of Fort William, before beginning the Great Glen Way.  I wasn't all that enthused about attempting the Ben Nevis climb our first full day in Fort William, but the weather was excellent, and there were forecasts of less favorable weather in the days ahead.

Jim and Dorothy

And so June 1st was, in fact, selected for the date of the climb.

The eve of the climb, we ambitiously walked the three miles from our Fort William bed and breakfast to the visitor center at the start of the route up the mountain, making sure we wouldn't get lost while still wandering about on paved roads.  The walk was very pleasant, but long enough to persuade us to take a taxi to the visitor center the following morning.

Ben Nevis is only some 4400 feet in elevation.  The climb, vertically, is about the same as Mount Si near Seattle, which I climb every year in less than two hours.  And yet, British guidebooks warn that the average climber takes 3½ to 5 hours to make the climb, and another couple of hours to come back down.  "Those Scots," I thought to myself.  "All that haggis and "black pudding" has softened their muscles, if not their minds."

The trail certainly began easily enough, and for the first half of the way up we climbed on rough stone steps.  "What next?  Escalators?" I snarked to myself.  Not quite half way up the mountain, the steps lead to a beautiful (and welcome) plateau, on which is snuggled scenic Loch Meall ("Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe"). 

A short time after passing the loch -- which is visible below the ascending trail for a considerable distance -- the steps disappear and we found ourselves hiking on a rough path.  Guidebooks said we would be hiking on scree, which suggests something different to those of us used to the volcanic mountains of the Northwest Corner, where scree means two steps up, and one step slipping back down.  Here, we were still on hard, well-defined trails, but the trails were covered with a sort of loose gravel (well, scree) that often prevented us from getting a firm footing -- particularly on the descent.  Also, the underlying trail increasingly consisted of rocks and boulders of varying sizes rather than firm soil.  In other words, the footing was often difficult.

Eventually we reached what the guidebook called the "zigzags," or switchbacks.  I didn't realize we had reached that point when we did, because I was looking for tighter, more obvious switchbacks.  These were long switchbacks, where the trail continued in one direction for considerable distances. 

The trail, especially after leaving the Loch Meall plateau, was steep, and I was breathing hard.  Tough guy that I am, however, I never faltered or stopped for breaks -- primarily because I was keeping my eyes on Jim's back as he sauntered along ahead of me.  (He complained later about the difficulty of the trail, but this is the sort of "complaint" that one makes to express humility before your fellow climbers.)

Kid at true summit

Finally, the  relentless climb became easier, as we approached the summit.  The summit itself is quite large and flat.  The absolute highest point is marked by a "trig point," or surveyors mark, which in this case took the form of an elevated pillar atop a small rocky mound on which you could stand, gloating, for your photograph.  (One boy wasn't satisfied with this rocky pedestal, and ascended the pillar itself -- a true summiteer.) Aside from this trig point, there were a number of abandoned stone buildings in ruins, including a one-time weather observatory.  The summit was also covered by a large number of fellow climbers, reminding me that my accomplishment didn't make me Sir Edmund Hillary.       

It was Jim and I who were planning to make the climb.  Dorothy came along to the base, she said, just to see us off.  Somehow, however, she forgot to stop walking, and shared our glory at the summit.  Score one for gender equality.

The scariest part of the climb is said to be finding the trail down from the summit in foggy (not unusual) weather.  We were equipped with compasses and instructions on bearings and distances.  Missing the trail can take you over a precipice that I found truly impressive (and scary for us acrophobes) to gaze upon.  But in bright sunlight -- and wearing t-shirts -- the way down was obvious.

Descending a snow field, the
only snow we encountered

I won't describe the descent, which can be inferred from what I've said about the climb.  Except that it was a nightmare.  My boots, which I'd worn for years, somehow crowded my toes on the descent, costing me a toenail and a great deal of pain.  Our climb was a respectable 4½ hours, but our descent took another unexpectedly long four hours. 

Ben Nevis ain't no Mount Si!

We arrived at the bottom, and staggered a few hundred feet from the bottom of the trail to the "Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse ("A wee Inn at the foot of the Ben" as it calls itself).  We had burgers and beer.  I nearly fell asleep in my beer.

The next day, Jim's neighbor Fred arrived in Fort William, determined to make his own climb alone.  He was the youngest guy in our group, a happy extrovert, and he charged the mountain with a certain amount of good-natured swagger.  I wished him well, but was secretly pleased to see him return with sore feet and a haunted look on his face. 

I'm glad we did the climb when we did.  The second day after we climbed Ben Nevis, the area was drenched with rain.  And I needed the three days before the Great Glen Way walk began to regain full use of my legs and feet.

I bought a t-shirt, of course.  "I climbed Ben Nevis, Scotland's highest mountain," the shirt reads.  The claim fits.  The shirt really doesn't.
I'll describe the Great Glen Way walk in a subsequent post.

Friday, May 25, 2018

I'll take the high road ...

Ben Nevis

I fly to Glasgow on Tuesday, via Reykjavik, on the first stage of my traipse across the north of Scotland, via the geologic fault called the Great Glen, a depression that includes several lakes -- notably Loch Ness, of monster fame.

Jim, who I know from university days, and his wife Dorothy will have arrived a day earlier, and will meet me and others at the airport.  The others include Jim's brother and his wife, his sister and her husband, and an unrelated next door neighbor.  The day after arrival, we take a train ride of just under four hours from Glasgow to Fort William in the north -- a train ride paralleling the West Highland Way which I hiked back in 2011.

On arrival in Fort William, we will have four days to acclimate, explore the area, visit perhaps some of the neighboring Hebrides, and avoid eating haggis.  Jim and I -- and possibly others -- also plan to attempt a climb of Ben Nevis, assuming decent weather.

Ben Nevis is the Everest of the United Kingdom, I say jokingly.  Yes, it is the highest point of that kingdom, but at 4,411 feet, it's not exactly large by Himalayan, or even Rocky Mountain, standards.  The elevation gain is about the same as climbing Mt. Si, near Seattle, which I do in under two hours.

On the other hand, the weather is unpredictable in northern Scotland, and it can easily snow in June.  There is a humorous essay on-line written by a fellow who climbed Ben Nevis in June 2015, and encountered rain, fog, sunshine, and snow on the way up.  He ran into a hapless couple about one hour into the hike.

It’s raining with a slight headwind and for once I’m wearing the right gear, equating to comfort and safety.  In front are a young couple. He’s soaked, his jeans hanging low in the style of some hip hop rapper type dude. The showerproof kagool offering him little protection as the rain has already broke through. She’s in a worse state. Her footwear is open toed sandals, no jacket, instead she’s wearing a cotton or light wool smock, with neither a hood or back pack in sight.

The writer could hardly believe his eyes, but met them still ascending on his way back down.  When he told them that there was snow ahead, the woman exploded.  A relationship appeared to be unraveling and coming to a messy end.

Jim and I are both well familiar with hiking at any elevation in the Pacific Northwest, and won't be caught unaware sartorially by the weather.  On the other hand, the weather can be pleasant, or it can make for a difficult and even dangerous climb.  Many climbers have been caught in fog at the summit, and have started down the wrong way, with unfortunate consequences. 

We will have compasses.  And knowledge of the bearing we need to get off the summit.

But, as Bobby Burns reminds us, “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men  gang aft a-gley”  If, as we climb, we run into problems that are causing us to gang a-gley, we'll scurry back down to the bottom and to the hotel, where we'll have us some nice single malt whisky and bowls of porridge as we regale others about our misadventure. 

After all, we're going over for the walk, not for a climb.  Still -- fun to stand on the highest point of the United Kingdom, eh?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Eight Mountains

Paolo Cognetti

I spent my "junior year abroad" (six months, actually) in Florence.  We were given frequent periods of free time to explore post-war Italy on our own.  During the first free period, most of us went to Rome, some to other cities.  But a kid named Fred ("Federico" to our Italian language teacher) went to a place most of us had never heard of -- the Val d'Aosta. 

Aosta is an Alpine valley in the far northwest corner of Italy, hugging the southern slopes of Monte Rosa -- opposite Zermatt which is on the Swiss side of the mountain.  This was 1961, before the outdoors and backpacking craze had hit American youth.  Aosta seemed like an odd  place to visit, at least for a kid's first experience in Italy, but Fred was a quiet, friendly, clear-eyed, and patently decent young man.  If anyone in our group was meant for a remote Alpine valley, it was he.*

Paolo Cognetti writes about a small fictitious Aosta village, Grana, in his novel, The Eight Mountains -- the first of his writings to be translated from Italian to English.  It has won awards across Europe.  As have its English translators, who have given us a translation that is in itself a work of art.

Eleven-year-old Pietro, his chemist father, and his health worker mother live in Milan.  His mother is outgoing and cheerful, his father is precise, strict, and introverted.  Pietro, shy and sensitive, combines their personalities.

In 1984, they rent and rehabilitate a derelict summer home in Grana.  Pietro encounters Bruno, a boy his age and equally silent, who works tending cows on the neighboring property.  Pietro's mother brings the two taciturn lads together, and without making a fuss about it they become best friends -- a friendship that continues throughout their adult lives.

Pietro's father and mother both love the mountains.  The mother loves the quiet pleasures of woodlands and pastures, but the father is obsessively devoted to climbing summits far above the tree line.  Pietro feels his father cares little for the scenery -- only achieving the summit matters. 

The father takes the son with him on some of these expeditions.  The son is proud of his developing abilities, but he is prone to altitude sickness and secretly dreads each climb.  Achieving the summit doesn't mean to Pietro what it does to his father.

It was more of a relief than a cause for elation.  There was no reward awaiting us up there; apart from the fact that we could climb no further, there was nothing really special about the summit.

They take Bruno with them, and Pietro is both happy and a bit jealous that Bruno seems a more likely son to Pietro's father than does Pietro himself.

Cognetti's novel is a story of a boy's fraught relationship with his father, and a story of a friendship between two boys that survives despite great differences in their background and in their experiences as adolescents and young men.

The novel features yet another character, a critical character -- the mountain itself.  The novel revolves around the father's obsession with the mountain, around Pietro's love of the lower slopes -- the lakes, the woods, the streams, the paths and slopes, the sunbaked scree -- and around Bruno's intimate knowledge of his very small world of mountain and pasture, and his successful efforts to initiate Pietro into his world.  The mountain above Grana is the fulcrum on which the lives of both Pietro and his father balance -- while spending their early summers at Grana, and long afterwards when Pietro has moved far away, seeking fulfillment in the Himalayas of Nepal.  It is the tie that holds Pietro and Bruno together, and the obstacle that pushes Pietro and his father apart.

Pietro's father in his commitment to his work and to climbing the mountains has lost -- or perhaps never had -- the ability to listen to the people close to him, to understand that their needs were different from his own.  Pietro has inherited to a lesser degree this aloof quality.  As a young man, he is unable to commit for any period of time to any one woman.  He watches happily as the girlfriend  closest to him finally gives up, joins Bruno and has Bruno's daughter.

Like his father, Pietro hates any change in the Grana region.  Grana -- like the Westmorland of Jane Gardam's The Hollow Land -- was a once-prosperous and well-populated area that had lost most of its population as farming and mining stopped being economically viable.  The land  was littered with ruined farm buildings and huts, tunnels and bits of mining equipment.  The region was enjoying in places a bit of a revival from tourism and winter skiing -- but a revival that Pietro, like his father, hated.

Cognetti's writing is a hymn to nature, both to the lower mountain slopes, and especially to the mountain heights.  He describes the smallest details of climbing, the pains, the difficulties, the joys, the  terrain, and the trees and plants, as only a person who is intimately familiar with climbing can do.  For mountain hikers, the novel revives happy memories; for someone who hasn't hiked or climbed, it may encourage some eager experimentation.

Pietro's father dies of an unexpected heart attack at age 62.  Pietro then learns of the tragedy in his father's past -- in his twenties, Pietro's father had led his less-experienced best friend  Piero on a poorly equipped and poorly planned expedition across melting snow fields.  There was an avalanche, and Piero was killed.  His father never recovered emotionally from the death, especially when everyone -- including his friend's family -- blamed him for his negligence.

While in Nepal, Pietro learns from a local Nepali of a favorite subject of mandala designs -- the secret mountain Sumeru which exists in the center of the earth and is surrounded by the eight mountains and seas which constitute our visible world.  The Nepali continued

We ask who has learned the most, the one who has been to all eight mountains, or the one who has reached the summit of Sumeru?

Pietro, always contemplative, decides that the mountain at Grana was his own Sumeru.  His mountain brings him back repeatedly to Grana and to Bruno.  Bruno and Pietro spend a summer together building a hut high on the slopes above Grana, a place selected by his father before he died.  Bruno has no interest in finding a life in Milan or Turin, a city life away from his mountains.  He considers himself fit only for mountain life, and chooses to live in their hut summer and winter.

Then, the winter Pietro and Bruno were forty, an avalanche hits the house.  Bruno is killed.

From my father I had learnt, long after I had stopped following him along the paths, that in certain lives there are mountains to which we may never return.  That in lives like his and mine you cannot go back to the mountain that is in the center of all the rest, and at the beginning of your own story.  And that wandering around the eight mountains is all that remains for those who, like us, on the first and highest have lost a friend.

Pietro returns to the Himalayas.  A beautiful and beautifully written story.
*Fred has nothing further to do with this post. He was simply the occasion of my first hearing of the Val d"Aosta.

Sunday, May 20, 2018


"Good day to you," one would say.  "The boy sure can run, no?"
"He sets the pace," my father would reply.  "I just follow."
"What I'd give to have legs like his."
"That's right.  But we did have once."
"Oh sure.  Decades ago maybe.  Are you going right to the top?"
"If we can make it."
"Good luck," one of them would say, and with that the exchange was concluded."

This trail-side banter, between one hiking group being overtaken by another, rings true with anyone who hikes.  Here, it is reported by eleven-year-old Pietro, hiking with his father to the summit of a lesser mountain to the south of Monte Rosa in Italy.

In a few lines, the conversation suggests the camaraderie between mountain hiking groups, the edge of competitiveness between them, the envy of youth, the regret of advancing age, a father's pride in his son, and the optimism by climbers already tired that they would reach a distant summit.

I've experienced them all.  And, most notably, I now experience the frustration with declining ability both to climb long distances and to function efficiently at high altitudes.  The frustration is made tolerable only by the memories of climbs done when younger.  On the other hand, it is intensified by the thoughts of climbs left unclimbed, hikes left unhiked, views left unviewed.

Like the Ancient Mariner, therefore, I wag a bony finger at the young and urge them never to put off climbs and hikes until a more convenient time.  It will never be easier than now, and when you're older there will be other, possibly more insistent, demands upon your time.

These thoughts are inspired by, and my initial quotation drawn from, a novel I've just begun reading -- The Eight Mountains, by Paolo Cognetti.  The book was reviewed in this morning's New York Times.  It reads so beautifully, and so truly, that I hate to finish it too quickly.

I suspect a review will be forthcoming on this blog.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Keeping cool

"Don't let him see that you're upset," Peggy warned me.  "Cats sense when you're upset, and get upset themselves."

I was a bit embarrassed, because I didn't think I was really upset.  Or if I was, that it was evident to the casual observer.  Peggy is our neighborhood "pet woman."  Mainly dogs.  Every day you run into her out walking dogs along the sidewalk, standing in for neighbors who dearly love their dogs, but apparently don't have time for them. 

Peggy will also be my cat person, looking in twice a day on my surviving feline Muldoon whilst I'm off wandering around the Highlands of Scotland.  I say "whilst" just in preparation for Britain.

If not "upset," I do confess to being a bit concerned.  Muldoon has been diagnosed with a benign thyroid tumor, a common problem, apparently, in cats.  The tumor causes the thyroid to produce T3 and T4 hormones (don't ask, I'm not a doctor) in large quantities.  I take Muldoon into a specialist tomorrow who will inject him with radioactive iodine.  The iodine is immediately absorbed by the thyroid gland, where it will kill off the tumor without bothering the healthy tissue.

This, at least, is the plan.  Muldoon's tumor is a bit more advanced than average, and the chance of the procedure being a complete success is only 70 percent.  If in the unlucky 30 percent, he'll either need a second procedure to complete the job, or -- if the dosage overshot the problem -- he'll have to be given thyroid pills for the rest of his life.

But my concern really isn't about the procedure.  I'm just aware that Muldoon is not the most easy-going sort of cat.  Unlike his recently deceased step-brother, he doesn't take change in stride.  And in a short period of time, he's had to adjust to being the sole cat in the household, and then wander the empty house alone for four days while I was back in Washington D.C.  Now he faces a trip to the vet, impoundment at the hospital for up to six days until he stops giving off radiation in excess of what the government allows, and limited hugs and contact with me for another week or so, even after he comes home.  And then, the final straw, I'm abandoning him again in favor of the Scottish moors.

It's enough to make a cat question the humanity of his human.

I was holding up well, nonetheless, or so I thought, until Peggy warned me that my anxious demeanor might somehow freak out poor Muldoon.  So now I march about the house, under Muldoon's suspicious eye, looking incredibly -- and unbelievably -- blithe and unconcerned. 

"Tut-tut, it looks like rain," I keep repeating loudly, imitating the inimitable Christopher Robin in a vaguely similar context.  Muldoon stares impassively at the blue sky.

I'm hopeless.  Sooner or later, I'll break down, burst out crying, and give him a huge bear hug.  Muldoon will regard me with some concern, but will make every effort not to show it. 

He hates to upset me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Cloudy skies over the Nation's capital

A worried Lincoln

Washington may be one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, unless we include capitals -- like Rome -- that are adorned with picturesque ruins as well as with buildings still in use as buildings. 

During my visit over the past four days, the shiny, white marble of Washington's classical edifices was often highlighted against skies dark with gathering storm clouds, and illuminated by flashes of lightning at twilight.  What could a partisan (such as I), with a mind inclined to obvious metaphors, conclude but that the darkness was a Trumpian darkness, a malignant darkness dimming the beauty of the American Republic.

Washington Monument
under stormy clouds

Except, the darkness and the clouds were actually quite lovely in their own way.  As Trump's personal darkness decidedly is not.

I did the usual.  Museums.  Buildings.  Parks.  Riding Metro, back and forth from my hotel near National Airport.  And walking -- I covered over 25 miles during just the two complete days I spent in the city. Rather than describe further the city, often shining -- whether under bright sun or under lowering clouds -- I'll just let you look at some of my photos.

Bikers in front of the
Smithsonian "castle" 

Gen. Lafayette on horseback
Eisenhower office building

Press in front of Supreme Court
National Airport

Lincoln Memorial

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Off to Washington (the other one)

He went off to Congress an' served a spell
Fixin' up the Government an' laws as well
Took over Washington so I've heared tell
An' patched up a crack in the Liberty Bell.

Where is Davy when we need him? 

I'm off to Washington myself tomorrow.  I'd love fix up the government (and laws as well).  And the problem of the crack in the Liberty Bell sounds quaint when one considers the many cracks (and crackpots) which today find a home in our nation's Capital.  But I never kilt myself a bar when I was only three, and while the pen may be mightier than the sword, I don't feel capable of using my pen to kill bears -- or to defeat people acting worse than bears.

So, no.  I'm off to Washington for a few days, but as a simple tourist.  I expect to wear off a little shoe leather and put a few miles on my phone's pedometer.  I was just reminded that the Mall, alone, is two miles from one end to the other.

It's a great town, politics aside, with lots to see, monuments to gaze upon, free museums in which to hang out, and lots of fellow tourists to rub shoulders with.  And many miles to walk.

I return late Monday night, and -- if past visits to D.C. suggest anything -- I'll have comments to make when I return.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Moot court

I served on a three-judge panel, representing the entire nine-judge U.S. Supreme Court, at a law school moot court proceeding Monday night.

I've done this many times before, and have commented occasionally on this blog how impressed I've been with the students' performance.  Let me say so again.

Unlike most of the moot court proceedings over which I've presided, or joined with others in presiding, this was a moot court for first year law students only.  It was the first moot court in which any of the participants had participated.  Moot courts were less common and less frequent when I was in law school.  But all first year students were required to participate once as part of our legal writing class.  I enjoyed the writing; I was terrified at the prospect of defending my opinions before three practicing attorneys.

I vowed that, once graduated, I'd become some sort of scrivener, surrounded by books in the back room of a law firm, writing briefs with a quill pen for others to argue.  Instead I became a trial attorney, with considerable experience in appellate practice.  Such are the little surprises that life springs on us.

But, although some seemed a bit more nervous than others, no one appeared terrified last night.  Arguing before us were four first-year students, two arguing that the lower court's ruling should be overturned (counsel for the petitioners), and two arguing that the lower court's ruling should be affirmed (counsel for the respondents).  They argued complex constitutional issues regarding freedom of speech and due process of law -- not the sort of issues that most students encounter during their first year of law school. 

Both sides did an excellent job of analyzing these issues.  All four students appeared poised and articulate.  All four did a good job of responding to the judges' questions.  I have argued a fair number of cases in the state court of appeals and the state supreme court.  I would have considered any one of these four students a competent adversary. 
Part of our job as moot court judges was awarding points for various qualities of argumentation and, finally, choosing one of the two teams the winner.  (Moot court judges do not judge the issues argued on the merits -- we judge the quality of argumentation.)   The losing party was not eliminated from the first round -- they were to face each other again last night, changing sides as to whether they represented petitioners or respondents.

I was pleased with the experience and pleased with the students.  I'm pleased that my law school is both admitting and educating superior future attorneys.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

War-war more fun than jaw-jaw

So America today trashed the agreement with Iran that has prevented that country from proceeding with its nuclear program in exchange for the West's lifting of crippling sanctions.  Or rather one individual, Mr. Trump, has trashed the agreement after eliminating one by one every adviser who had advised otherwise, and after dismissing with disdain the united opposition of our European allies.

Did he do it because of his pathological hatred of Obama, who has been credited with negotiating the treaty?

Maybe.  Or maybe it's just one of those gut feelings on which he has based all aspects of his life, a gut feeling predating his election.  As Trump said, trashing the Iran deal was one of his campaign promises, and by golly Mr. Trump is a man who keeps his promises.

So we further alienate a major country in the Middle East, one whose middle classes have traditionally been friendly to the United States.  We make it more difficult for moderates to prevail, and make it easier for the radical fundamentalists to keep a chokehold on Iran's foreign policy.

While alienating Iran, whose nuclear program at least purported to be aimed at providing nuclear energy, Trump falls all over himself in seeking to reach an accommodation with North Korea -- a country led by a far more unstable Supreme Leader, a guy who has threatened repeatedly to involve the world in a nuclear conflagration, and a country of far less importance to the world economically and geopolitically.

If I felt that Trump had made his incomprehensible decision based on some skillfully developed strategic plan, in coordination with the best political and military minds our nation offers, I might be more cautious in my criticism.  But Trump is a man whose lack of curiosity about other nations and inability to focus on any matter more than five minutes is one of the wonders of our time.  At some point, something about Iran irritated him.  He probably doesn't even remember what set him off; but he does remembers that, boy, he sure doesn't like Iran.

Or Obama.

Who knows, maybe everything will work out.  Even dead clocks are right twice a day.  Trump feels that yelling and blustering and being the bully that he is by nature is prompting North Korea to consider a peace treaty.  He thus concludes that he has a technique that will work everywhere.  All that Peace on Earth has been waiting for is the advent of some streetwise real estate dealer from New York who will straighten things out. 

"You got a real nice town here, this Tehran.  It would be a shame if something happened to it."

Bullying may work in New York.  It may even work in Korea, although that's far from certain at this point.  I don't think it will work against the proud descendants of the Persian Empire, a people who, with patience, have repeatedly come back from adversity throughout their some 2,600-year history.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Tattooed Man

In 2016, I wrote of my rediscovery of Howard Pease, the author of many boys' adventure books I read when I was about 12 and 13.  I had forgotten both the names of the books and the name of the author, until a friend happened to mention Pease's name in a way that caused the pieces to fall into place.

And so I wrote my review of Thunderbolt House in September 2016.  But Thunderbolt House, a story of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, was not a typical Pease adventure.  Pease is famous as a writer of sea adventures, especially the "Tod Moran series."   Pease was born in 1894 in Stockton, California, and graduated from college at Stanford.  He interrupted his education to serve in World War I, and spent two of his summers while at the university working in the engine room of cargo ships.

He published 22 novels during his career, most of them about life at sea.  He often criticized the "soft" stories that children's literature offered boys.  His books emphasized the value of hard physical labor, courage, and a sense of adventure -- in addition to intelligence and sensitivity.  As well as writing books, Pease was also a high school English teacher, and became principal of Los Altos high school, just south of Palo Alto.

All of his works have been out of print for some time.  His first published work -- and introduction to the Tod Moran stories -- was The Tattooed Man (pub. 1926), a copy of which I purchased this week.  The book went through a number of printings, but I purchased a paperback edition printed in 1948.  The 1961 paperback reprinting of Thunderbolt House, which I purchased second hand, showed a cover price of 35 cents.  My copy of The Tattooed Man, printed 14 years earlier in a similar format, probably sold for 20 or 25 cents.  I bought it used, with yellowing, somewhat fragile pages, but otherwise in reasonably good shape, for only $35 through Amazon. 

Needless to say, Pease's books aren't available on Kindle.

The Tattooed Man introduces us to 17-year-old Tod Moran as he walks out of San Francisco's Ferry Building, onto the Embarcadero, looking for Pier 43.  His older brother, Neil, had served for a couple of years as a purser on a cargo ship, sending post cards and letters home from romantic locations to a starry-eyed younger brother.  Then, the cards and letters suddenly stopped coming.  Tod plans to visit the shipping company at Pier 43, and find out what happened.

Something mysterious is afoot, and he ends up signing on as mess boy on the company's almost-derelict cargo ship, the Araby, bound for Marseilles via the Panama Canal.   By the end of the first day at sea, all of Tod's romantic images of life at sea, derived from excessive reading of boys' literature, have been dashed.  The life of a crewman, as opposed to an officer, is a life hard and brutish.

But also instructive, both to Tod and to us as readers.  Although the plot is a bit melodramatic, with skullduggery and insurance fraud afoot, the descriptions of how a ship worked -- at least in the 1920s -- and how it was manned are informative and fascinating.  And not just for "young adults."  Without trying to outline the plot, we follow Tod and the Araby through a California coastal storm and Tod's first seasickness, through the Canal, across the Atlantic, and into port in Marseilles.  Tod's adventures then continue ashore, mostly afoot, from Marseilles to Antibes, near Cannes. 

Tod is a resourceful young man, who -- despite being considered a rich "toff" -- learns to survive, living and working shoulder to shoulder with overworked, bitter, and definitely non-genteel crewmen.  He is lured into a boxing  match with a vicious, tough, and muscular engine room worker, and wins because of his high school boxing lessons and sharper wit.  Although everyone, including Tod, throws around language that we consider offensive today -- "Chink," "wop," "nigger" are examples -- and although we are assured that all the men and officers swear obscenely and grotesquely, the oaths we hear are such as "Sufferin' catfish," and "drat," and "golly." 

Needless to say, Tod does find his brother, and the forces of evil are averted.  He arrives back in San Francisco, glad to be on dry land once more.  Would he ever sail again?  He isn't certain. The book concludes:

The Araby's upper decks lay deserted.  Her funnel and foremast towered black against the blazing sky.  Gulls swooped and wheeled about them, settled upon the bridge rails, upon the lifeboats, peering with curious eyes down at the galley.  A departing cargo liner went by toward the headlands, and the gulls, with raucous cries, rose in circles and winged their way to sea.

What do you think?  Even forgetting that this was only the first book of the Tod Moran series! 

Pease based The Tattooed Man on two of his own voyages as a crew member, and on a walking trip he took as a student from Marseilles into Italy.

These were books that strongly attracted young teenage boys in the 1950s.  The fact that they have gone out of print suggests that kids now find them too dated to be interesting.  Most young adult literature is now written by women for, primarily, girls.  Those books that are intended more for boys tend to show boys how to understand their feelings and how to handle their social relationships with others.  Without disparaging that kind of story, I'd like to believe that books that encourage adventure and physical courage can still find a teenage audience -- and, in today's world, with girls as well as with boys.

Friday, April 27, 2018


"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

British writer Daphne du Maurier is well known, but I've never read any of her stories.  Last night, however, I watched Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, the sixth in the current Seattle Art Museum's Hitchcock film series.

According to a Variety review at the time, the film was "too tragic and deeply psychological to hit the fancy of wide audience appeal." But the film received eleven Academy Award nominations, and was awarded Oscars for Best Picture and Best Black and White Cinematography.  In the current SAM series, Rebecca is the earliest Hitchcock film to be produced by an American studio, although it retains a British setting in Cornwall.

I have no idea whether the shift from a British to an American studio accounts for the difference, but the production values are vastly more sophisticated than in the earlier films in the series.  For those unfamiliar with the film, or the 1997 TV adaptation of the novel, aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) meets a naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) in Monte Carlo, sweeps her off her feet, marries her on the spot, and takes her to his home ("Manderley") in Cornwall.   The house -- both exterior and interior -- is breathtaking -- a neo-Gothic take on Brideshead.   Typical American film-making -- no expense appears to have been spared.

The young woman -- referred to only as the "second Mrs. de Winter" -- is intimidated, both by the house and by its enormous staff, as well might she be.  She quickly learns that Rebecca -- the first Mrs. de Winter -- was a famous beauty highly respected by all.  She encounters the frigid hostility of the housekeeper -- Mrs. Danvers -- who apparently not only was devoted to Rebecca, but had somewhat deeper feelings for her, as well.  (Hitchcock made several adjustments to the script to get the movie past the censors, but managed to supply the lesbian overtones through Mrs. Danvers's acting, facial expressions, and voice.)

How did Rebecca die?  She may or may not have been murdered, may or may not have committed suicide.  Or something else.  The last third of the movie becomes a whodunit, made unnecessarily complicated, again, because of the censors' objections to elements of the plot as written by du Maurier.  The inquest scenes are interesting, even if the plot's resolution seems to come somewhat out of the blue.

All quibbles are forgiven, however, upon viewing the magnificent final scene, as Mrs. Danvers wanders about the house, setting it on fire -- it made me think of Lucia di Lammermoor without the singing -- and the entire Gothic pile, fully engulfed in flames, comes crashing down upon her.

It's ok.  No one really liked her. Pity about the house, however.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Traveling musically

I always tell myself that I don't much care for "impressionism" in music (usually described as a style of music written between about 1890 and 1925).  And I guess I don't.  I don't hate it.  I just don't go out of my way to listen to it.

But I love travel to foreign countries.  And travel evoked by impressionism was what the Seattle Symphony's concert last night was all about.

The concert began with Jacques Ibert's haunting Escales (or Ports of Call), offering flavors ("impressions," if you will) of Palermo, north Africa, and Valencia.  The sounds of northern Africa were especially romantic, with the wailing of the oboe suggesting a stereotype of "Oriental" music, and the Valencia movement was filled with Spanish themes.

Respighi's well-known Fountains of Rome suggested the sounds of four famous Roman fountains at various times of day.  And to travel among these Mediterranean ports, one best travels by sea -- hence, the major work of the evening, the changing moods of Debussy's La Mer.

But the number that appealed most to me -- and, judging from the applause, to most of the audience -- was a piece not even on the scheduled program, a piece untouched by impressionism. Because of the illness of the scheduled pianist, the performance of Alexander Scriabin's early-career piano concerto was scratched, and was replaced by Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23.  The pianist, Inon Barnatan, hypnotized me and the entire audience with his smooth, buttery, almost liquid playing of the Adagio movement, and, even more notably, of the two fast movements. 

Looking back, I realize that I enjoyed the opening Ibert number the best of the three impressionist compositions.  By the time we reached La Mer, the concluding work, the rambling style of impressionism, apparently lacking in structure -- the program notes did emphasize that La Mer does have structure, and could almost be considered a symphony, but I was having none of it -- had begun to bore me, and I was checking my watch.

It was the Mozart concerto, and the brilliant playing of Barnatan, that really made the evening worthwhile for me.  If I ever again attend a performance of La Mer, I hope it's performed nearer the beginning of the program before my mind has begun to drift.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Abington is a small suburb of Philadelphia.  Its sole high school is named -- logically -- Abington high school.  Or, rather, was.

According to the New York Times, a Wall Street billionaire has generously donated $25 million to the school for renovation purposes.  But he has imposed a few small conditions -- (1) the school would be renamed after him; (2) his portrait would be displayed prominently in the building; (3) various areas of the school would be named after his twin brothers; and (4) he would have final approval of the school's new logo.

The school board accepted the conditions.  And the money.  A community's explosion of outrage has ensued.

I'm tempted to laugh, but "people who live in glass houses," etc."   My own high school was named after its lumber baron founder.  But then, so was the town itself.  Both town and high school, along with most of the public buildings in town, were the inspiration -- and beneficiaries -- of the founder.  The nexus between founder and high school was at least organic.

The Times article made me wonder.  What goes through the mind of a person who demands that the institution benefitting from his generosity be named after him?  (For that matter, what goes through the mind of a man who names every hotel and resort he owns after himself?) 

I suppose in part it's just a way of bragging about one's success, like driving around in an overpriced car.  But for many, I suspect -- especially those who seek to put their names on schools or opera houses or other institutions that will survive long into the future -- it's a hankering after immortality.  "Years from now," the philanthropist tells himself, "the public will remember me and my well-lived life as the cause of their great good fortune."

Hey, even I like to read published appellate decisions that have my name affixed to them as counsel!  I dream of law students two centuries from now pondering in their minds -- who was this brilliant lawyer who triumphed in this important case regarding a car's failure to stop at a red light?

It's all illusory, of course.  Even if the philanthropist's name isn't replaced after his death by the name of someone with even more money -- remember poor Avery Fisher and his hall at Lincoln Center? -- his pre-death hopes and dreams will still eventually join his body as dust.

Percy Shelley wrote his famous sonnet Ozymandias about a great Egyptian pharaoh who built a huge statue of himself in order to remind the future of his power and greatness.  A leader to be reckoned with.  A household word.  And today -- nothing left but an inscription half covered by the desert's shifting sands.

I hope the Wall Street billionaire's true motivation is to improve Abington high school.  He can buy that for $25 million.  Immortality is much more expensive.  In fact, priceless.