Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Back to the slopes

Next week, my middle nephew, Denny, turns 40 -- a hair-raising fact for his eldest uncle, if no one else, to contemplate.  But to ease the sense of horror that perhaps many of us older relatives feel, the entire clan is getting together for a birthday celebration at Donner Lake, near the north end of Lake Tahoe, this weekend.

The event is being hosted by the Birthday Boy himself.  We're gathering at a cabin he's rented for the occasion.  Weather permitting -- and it looks like the weather will be quite favorable -- many of us will head for the ski slopes on Saturday.

I throw this plan off casually, as though skiing occupies most my winter weekends.  Actually -- and I'm astounded to realize this -- I haven't been skiing since 2008, when I posted a description of my family's ski weekend at South Lake Tahoe. 

Do I dare?

It's not that I've forgotten how to ski.  Skiing's like riding a bike.  Once you've learned, your body knows what to do.  My muscles will know exactly what to do -- the question is whether they'll be able to do it.

During the prior nine years, I've done plenty of walking and hiking, much of it up and down hill.  That's a good thing, but the muscles used for skiing aren't exactly the same as those used for hiking.  Have they atrophied?  Have they aged?  Have all my leg muscles, aside from those used for walking, become a disgusting and squishy mass of gelatin?

The answer is -- we shall soon find out.  I'm confident that, even if I do just fine, I won't be skiing all day.  There's a reason that ski areas often let seniors ski for reduced prices -- we get off the slopes early.  There are warming huts awaiting us, with hot coffee and hot buttered rum.  There will be a lodge at the bottom, filled with beautiful people dressed in the latest ski gear on whose heads, mysteriously, not a strand of hair will be misplaced.  There will be giant burgers and plates of nachos available, and various IPAs served with a smile.

There are thus many ways to spend a day "skiing."  At different phases of my life, I've enjoyed many of them.  I'll report back on this particular trip -- even if (especially if) I end up breaking a leg.  After all, I'm part Norwegian -- it's all good.

Let's hit the slopes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Happy whatever

I still have a few relatives and acquaintances for whom exchanging Christmas cards has not yet become a charming but anachronistic custom of our historic past, a practice long since replaced by tweets and posts.  And so, about this time of year, I start casting about for suitable Christmas cards to send to these hardy old timers.

For many years, I ordered fairly arty cards by mail from museums, especially the Metropolitan in New York, and the Art Institute in Chicago.  But, as I've steadily pared names from my list, I've finally ended up simply buying a box of twenty or so cards at a local bookstore.  (Speaking of dying institutions, but let's try to stay on topic.)

And so today, I dropped by the University Bookstore on "the Ave," walking distance from my house.  Sure enough, they already had a large number of cards on display, an encouraging sign -- I thought -- that Christmas cards had not yet gone the way of calling cards and spats.

Now, maybe the Christmas card offerings of the UW bookstore are not fairly representative of card sales across America.  College crowd, liberal bubble, and all that.  But I was amazed at how much the appearance of cards had changed in the last few years.

When I first started buying my own Christmas cards, as an undergrad, about half the designs were religious in nature.  Some were rather embarrassingly literal and saccharine, but many were nicely artistic -- somewhat abstract and symbolic, as well as beautiful.  But -- being the observant lad that I am -- I realize that the demand for religious themes has been steadily declining over the decades.  But, in their place, I expected to see -- as I've seen so often in the past -- cards with Santa Claus and his elves, warm family scenes, sleigh rides across the country, presumably en route to grandmother's house, and perhaps quasi-religious scenes of deer and birds out in the woods gathering around a manger-like object with sun bursts shining about them.

But no.  I saw very little of any of this.  Nor did I see much "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."  Nor, even more surprising, much "Happy Holidays."  What I did see was lots of scenes, often snowy, of nature, with no holiday references whatsoever.  As though we were celebrating the Winter Solstice (which at least one card expressly stated).  And I saw lots of rather attractive woodcuts of interesting objects and places, with little reference, again, to the Christmas holiday, or even to winter.  You just send one of these, I guess, and hope the recipient takes it in whatever spirit makes him least unhappy.

Even as a kid, I saw and was appalled by cards showing Santa pouring himself a whiskey and soda or otherwise disporting himself in a disgraceful manner, so I'm no longer all that easily shocked.  But now many cards, regardless of art work, come with clever and ironic captions.  I saw very little that suggested that any person was expressing a sincere hope that the card's recipient's life would be happy or joyful -- other than those expressing something of the sort in a highly ironic context ("Happy and Merry and Stuff Like That, or Whatever"). 

I guess one interpretation might be that we are now too disillusioned and/or sophisticated to hope for our own, let alone anyone else's, true happiness.   But I also think the whole issue of Christmas in America has become fraught with tension.  We know that many (most) of our friends aren't Christian -- we've always known that.  But what's new is that we now feel that raising the subject of Christmas even as a secular holiday -- "hope Santa brings you good things" -- is a form of cultural imperialism.  We're imposing Western concepts -- Santa --on non-Western citizens.  Even best wishes for the winter solstice can be tricky.  Best not to include any poignant photos of harp seals or spotted owls -- someone might take political offense.  And any attempt to make our greetings more catholic by gracing the card with Buddhist or Hindu images might be deemed a micro-aggression, an attempt at cultural appropriation.

Maybe -- except in the bosom of our nuclear families -- we should all just sit around a plain pole and exchange ironic witticisms.  Or did Seinfeld beat me to it?   Happy Festivus?

Or maybe the entire nation can coalesce around a December festival in honor of Momus, the Greek god of irony, sarcasm, and ridicule.  The last god that educated Americans have in common.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Late to the party

As we all know, in 1621, our Pilgrim fathers, thankful for a good harvest, threw a party for themselves and for neighboring Indians (who, we assume, happily attended and enjoyed the company of their new and generous neighbors, with whom they hoped to forge eternal bonds of friendship and equal partnership).  The Puritan tradition, which the pilgrims brought with them from England, often observed special days of thanksgiving -- observed by fasting. 

But the pilgrims were already Americans, and Americans don't do fasting.  God loves a full stomach, we choose to believe.  Bring on the stuffed turkey, the pilgrims might have said, although they probably actually ate mainly corn and squash.

Jumping ahead 150 years or so -- most of which were unpleasantly nonfestive, as a quick reading of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter will suggest -- we see George Washington proclaiming November 26, 1789, as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.  The holiday was still somewhat embryonic -- the president made no mention of 18-pound turkeys with all the trimmings, followed by the celebrants' rolling around in pain on the floor, suffering the after-effects of their gluttony and barely able to attack the forthcoming mince and pumpkin pies..

Nor was any mention yet made of Black Friday sales commencing on Thursday evening.

In fact, no mention was made of Thursdays.  But, Wikipedia assures me, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, most states did observe the Thanksgiving celebration -- be it fast, feast, or exercise in gourmandism -- on the last Thursday of November.  Abe Lincoln made it official, nationally, in 1863, although the South -- as is its wont -- was a bit slow to go along.

By the twentieth century, the day after Thanksgiving had become the de facto start of the national Christmas gift-buying orgy.  Merchants were devastated whenever November had five Thursdays, meaning that the commercial bonanza couldn't begin until November 30 at the earliest.  Congress came to their rescue, and in 1943 FDR signed a resolution ensuring that the holiday would begin always on the fourth Thursday in November.

As must be apparent, the date on which Thanksgiving is celebrated is quite arbitrary.  It doesn't have the same logical basis in hallowed history as, say, Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Christ on the date of the Roman revelries of the Saturnalia, or of Easter, which celebrates the Resurrection on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox.

Having noted this lack of historical basis, therefore, my family feels free to celebrate this year's Thanksgiving on the last Saturday of November.  Casting the iron bonds of tradition aside and fearlessly creating our own holiday date.  Even choosing, if we so choose, a faux turkey created out of soy and wheat protein.

We do not so choose, of course.  And our break with the traditional holiday date results not from a frenzied sense of bohemian anarchy, but from logistical difficulties experienced by some of our family in reaching Sonoma, California, where the turkey -- once an actual living bird with hopes and dreams of its own, all too unfortunately ended in an untimely fashion -- will be gleefully consumed.

Next year, however, we will rejoin the rest of the United States.  Fourth Thursday in November it shall be.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Post-election blues

Whether by coincidence or by some subconscious craving for understanding, at the same time that Trump has been doing whatever it is he's doing -- does he really know? -- I've been reading a highly readable history of the Roman republic.1  

The world has changed mightily from the first century B.C. to the 21st century A.D.  But the urges that often motivate humans -- avarice, fear, ambition -- have changed little.  I see more parallels between the final year of the Roman republic and today's America than I find comfortable.

Forty-two years ago, my graduation from law school coincided with another event involving avarice, fear, and ambition -- Watergate and the ultimate resignation of Richard M. Nixon from the presidency.  I wrote an "epilogue" to the year's final issue of my school's law review, finding another parallel between America and Rome, this time Imperial Rome.  I at least professed optimism, in this excerpt from the epilogue:

[O]ur civilization happily retains a measure of vitality.  It was said of Rome that, even while the state remained militarily potent:
The greatest political events passed over the heads of the people like black or golden clouds.  Later it was to watch even the ruin of the Empire and the coming of the barbarians with indifference.  it was a worn-out body whose fibres no longer reacted to any stimulus.2
That Americans still are capable of outrage, still avidly debate the issues of the day, demonstrates that the fibers of our civilization remain healthy.  But the shocks which have buffeted us in the decade since President Kennedy's assassination undoubtedly have exerted a dulling impact on our ability to recognize and respond to moral problems.
49 Wash.L.Rev. 1199 (1974).

The epilogue was dated August 9, 1974 -- a red-letter date in American history. 

I believed, guardedly, with the hopeful optimism of youth, that Watergate was a shock that would knock some sense into America, that politicians of both parties would lean over backward to avoid another convulsion that might further weaken Americans' confidence in their leaders, in themselves, and, indeed, in their nation itself.  And for a while, my optimism seemed justified.

Then -- just as in the days of the Roman republic, about which I'm now reading -- politicians belonging to one of the political parties apparently felt that America was drifting away from their own rigid ideology.  They apparently saw no way to persuade the voters -- in the long run, at least -- to return to their fold.  And thus began a couple of decades of political tactics that would have been unthinkable during, say, the Eisenhower years -- impeachment without constitutional basis, use of the Supreme Court to halt recounts of votes, dark claims that a sitting president was not eligible by birth for his position, that he was a secret Muslim, that he was not "one of us."  We heard a Congressman shouting "liar" during the president's State of the Union address.  And more.  We all know the sad history of the past eight years.

And then Trump comes along.  He has suggested some odd policy promises, but that's normal politics.  More troubling has been his apparent lack of serious interest in the less spectacular but more critical demands of the office.  His language has been crude and uncivil. He has threatened to jail his opponent.  He has insulted -- not criticized but insulted -- the sitting president.  He has appeared intellectually lazy and ignorant, and he seems to trust that the voters would find laziness and ignorance attractive. Proof that he was "one of us."

But he won the election, having mobilized a winning 49 percent of the voters by promises he knew were impossible to keep, and that he had no intention of keeping.  By lying without batting an eye, while calling his opponent a liar.  By -- in other words -- sheer demagoguery, by playing on emotions and deflecting attention from facts.

We've had demagogues before.  I suppose William Jennings Bryan qualified.  But we have not had true demagogues run for president since the United States became a superpower, a nation whose every move is watched worldwide, whose every move may make the difference between nuclear war and peace.

Are we still capable of outrage?  Obviously, the losing Democrats are outraged.  But approximately one half of the country voted for a demagogue, with full knowledge of every point I've made above.  Unlike Nixon and Watergate, Mr. Trump has not hidden behind masked men working in the dead of night.  His outrages have been right out in the open, for all to see.  But the voters saw, and they weren't outraged.

I don't know what the country will be like four years from now.  But the history of the Roman republic suggests that you can strain the bounds of decency and custom only so many times before those bounds no longer bind.  We may be reaching that point.  We may have reached and passed that point.

I read again what I wrote in 1974, and I'm touched by my optimism.  I wish could still share it.

1 T. Holland, Rubicon, The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (2003)

2 F. Lot, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginning of the Middle Ages (Harper paperback ed. 1961) at p. 181.

Roll up your sleeve

I dropped by my local Safeway early this morning, planning to get my annual flu shot.  I was too early, in fact, as the pharmacy counter hadn't yet opened.  But I'll get it tomorrow.

Getting a flu shot seems so routine now -- a lot of the time I'm thinking about my next chore, rather than the needle that's being inserted in my arm.  The pain is minimal, of course.  I'd far rather receive a routine inoculation in my arm than a shot of novocaine in my gum from my friendly dentist. 

And yet facing similar shots was so traumatic in my childhood.  And we seemed to receive them so frequently.  Our school teacher would drop the bombshell on us -- at such and such time, we would be lining up and filing down to the nurse's office where we would be receiving shots of one kind or another.  She might as well have announced that the boxcars bound for Auschwitz were awaiting us. Terror swept the classroom.  The faces of half the class would be ashen.  Boys would begin nervously giggling and warning each other of the humongous size of the needles with which we were to be jabbed.  By the time we had reached the nurse's office and were lined up for our shots, a few kids would be crying -- their cries adding to the rapidly increasing stress and horror all the rest of us felt.

I hardly remember the actual pain of those many shots I received in childhood -- only the stress and fear experienced in the hours and minutes preceding them.  If smarter, I would have seen in this fact an allegory for much of life itself.

Monday, November 14, 2016


Loki and Muldoon
Quickly adapting to a new home 

It's hard to believe, but it was twelve years ago this month that I adopted my two cats.  Time passes quickly when you're cleaning up hair balls.

It was a day or two after Thanksgiving.  My brother and sister and their families were visiting for the holidays, as well as Pascal, a family friend and hiking companion who was attending U.B.C. in Vancouver at the time.  They persuaded me that I had grieved long enough for my two earlier cats, the latest of whom had passed on to Catnip Heaven 18 months earlier.  Duly persuaded, I descended, joined by all my guests, on the Seattle Animal Shelter.

I understand how the admissions office at Harvard feels. So many worthy candidates, but a limited number of places to fill.  I finally settled on a perky all-black kitten, and a quieter adolescent -- both males.  Loki and Muldoon, respectively.  Loki had been picked up on the street -- one of Seattle's many homeless and hungry.  Muldoon, several months older, had been surrendered following the death of his short-time owner, a victim of cancer -- and something about that experience had left Muldoon timid and chronically anxious.

Twelve years later, they have created frequent headaches, but have proved more than worth every cranial pain I've suffeed.  Loki is still kittenish, although now more cuddly.  Muldoon, after many years, has learned to both crave and demand the affection that he at first resisted with panic.  They are well into middle age, but who knows how many years they still have left?  My last two cats had long lives:  Lyta lived well past her 19th birthday; Theseus disappeared early one morning at the age of 16, shortly after being diagnosed with a possibly operable tumor.

No one is immortal, not even those of us with nine lives, and parting with a pet is always painful.  Some people avoid the pain of a pet's death by refusing to accept the joys of a pet's life.  Carried to its logical extreme, one would wish that he himself had never been born.

Happy anniversary, Loki and Muldoon.  Hey!  I've told you NOT to scratch your claws on that chair!

Friday, November 11, 2016

To be a writer

Donald Trump, President of the United States of America.  What a surprise!  What an unexpected and unpleasant surprise! 

How did it happen?  Political scientists will be arguing about it for years, but certainly there were factors of racism, misogyny, class rivalries, and dwindling job opportunities that played a factor.  But, above all and tying many of the above together -- in my estimation -- was nostalgia for a mythical past.  A past somewhere between the end of World War II and the height of the Vietnam conflict, a period some consider the Golden Age of America.

I've been considering this Golden Age, because, purely by coincidence, I've been reading Robert R. McCammon's best selling novel of small town Alabama in 1964, Boy's Life.  A lengthy novel, apparently heavily autobiographical, narrated by 12-year-old Cory Mackenson, describing life in fictional Zephyr, Alabama, a wide place in the road southeast of Birmingham.  McCammon is known for his writing of horror stories, and there certainly are fantasy/paranormal aspects to the events related in Boy's Life.  But, in general, McCammon lovingly recreates the actual world of his boyhood, describing it in exquisite detail.

I found myself constantly exclaiming to myself, "yes, I remember that, it was like that exactly," even up here in the Northwest Corner.   And I also was reminded of a little book that I'd picked up one day in my college bookstore for reading during spring break -- Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.  Another book, less dark, about the joys and terrors of being a 12-year-old boy in small town America, a book that also had some mystical aspects but ones that simply enhanced the magical quality of the story.  I wasn't surprised when McCammon listed Bradbury, in his acknowledgments at the end of the book, as one of many influences on his life and writing.

But Cory lived in Alabama, not the Illinois of Dandelion Wine, and in 1964, not 1927.  The relationship between the races isn't the focus of the book, but it's always prominently in the background.  A strong, black woman in her 90s, something of a town shaman, tells Cory:

My great granddaddy pulled a plow by the strength of his back.  He worked from sunup to sundown, heat and cold.  ...  Worked hard, and was sometimes whipped hard.  Sweated blood and kept goin', when he wanted to drop.  Took the brand and answered Yes, massa, when his heart was breakin' and his pride was belly-down..

Cory listens with his heart in his throat.  The blacks were segregated in Zephyr, and often derided, but Cory was a compassionate kid, and his folks were kind and respectful to blacks, within the context of their time and place.

The plot begins with a murder, a vicious killing by an unknown person, of an unknown man who had been severely beaten and who had quickly sunk with his car into the depths of the town's deep lake.  It ends with a solving of the murder, a twist involving international affairs, affairs that feel unlikely -- but not impossible -- to have ended up playing themselves out in a tiny town in Alabama. Between the murder and its resolution, Cory learns about kindness and irrational cruelty, about corruption and bravery, about tolerance and hatred and terrorism.  He learns that even a small town milkman -- like his father -- has it within himself to be a hero. 

This is all a lot for a 12-year-old kid to learn in a summer.  But, as I mentioned, McCammon writes horror stories, and this is a coming of age story, but a coming of age story in the Southern Gothic tradition.  When an author writes horror stories, he asks his readers to suspend disbelief.  And when he does it successfully, they do.  

I did. I was too mesmerized to do otherwise.

Corey also meets a young woman far from town, out in the country, whom he not only develops a crush on, but whom he worships.  Only later does he learn that she works at the local whorehouse.  He learns from this, too.  He learns not to judge others, because he has no way of looking into their hearts and seeing what makes them who they are.

Like Gordie Lachance in the movie Stand By Me, Cory has three close friends with diverse personalities, kids with whom he is inseparable.  Unlike Gordie, Cory learns the sorrow, the incomprehensible sorrow, of losing one of those friends in an accident --  the boy who was perhaps the kindest and most gentle of his friends.  He sits beside the grave, telling his friend about how life up on the surface has been going.  His friend doesn't reply, but Cory never expected him to.

I remember hearing this somewhere: when an old man dies, a library burns down.

As he recalls his friend, and compares his memories with the dry obituary of his friend in the local newspaper, he realizes that it's not only "old men" who are "libraries."  He ponders the hundreds of stories represented by the tombstones in the cemetary.

I wished there was a place you could go, and sit in a room like a movie theater and look through a catalogue of a zillion names and then you could press a button and a face would appear on the screen to tell you about the life that it had been.

Near the beginning of the book, his dad asks him if he wants to be a milkman like his father -- "The world'll always need milkmen," his dad reminds him.  Maybe, Cory replies.

I'd like to be everybody in the world," I said.  "I'd like to live a million times."

Later, his favorite teacher --a teacher who was dying, unknown to him -- gives him her advice:

I have seen plenty of boys grow into men, Cory, and I want to say one word to you.  Remember."
"Remember?  Remember what?"
"Everything," she said.  "And anything.  Don't you go through a day without remembering something of it, and tucking that memory away like a treasure.  Because it is.  And memories are sweet doors, Cory.  They're teachers and friends and disciplinarians.  When you look at something, don't just look.  See it.  Really, really see it.  See it so when you write it down, somebody else can see it, too.  ...  You can live a thousand lifetimes if you want to.  You can talk to people you'll never set eyes on, in lands you'll never visit."  She nodded, watching my face.  "And if you're good and you're lucky and you have something worth saying, then you might have the chance to live on long after --"  she paused, measuring her words.  "Long after," she finished.

We realize, early in the book, that McCammon is showing us not only the world of his boyhood, but the early signs of his vocation as a writer.

We are all nostalgic, nostalgic for our youth.  Nostalgia can be good or bad.  Trump has evoked a nostalgia twisted by a longing for a time when men were men, when blacks lived apart from whites, and when to be a white man was to rule.  McCammon shows us a true picture of that Golden Age in the Alabama of 1964. But he also shows us, through Cory's narration, that -- even in the Alabama of the 1960s -- not everyone surrendered to racial bigotry and hatred. He also shows us that far from all hatred and cruelty in the South was racial in nature.  

Robert McCammon shows us Cory -- he shows us himself, as he remembers himself through the filter of time -- struggling to understand the world he lives in, to know and to appreciate townspeople of all classes and races, to be brave when it would have been easy to run, to be curious and to follow through on that curiosity when it would have been simpler and safer to "leave well enough alone." 

Cory at 12 was already, in other words, developing those traits that led him -- and his alter ego, his creator -- to a journalism degree at the University of Alabama, and later to becoming a best selling author.  And the nostalgia that Boy's Life evokes is the simple nostalgia we all feel for the age when life was new and every day was exciting -- not nostalgia for a time when some folks had unlimited power over others.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

World champs

Wrigley Field, Chicago.  Where I saw my first major league baseball game.  I was still just a boy, barely in my teens, visiting a friend in the north Chicago suburb of Wilmette. 

As I recall, we two kids went to the game on our own, by rapid transit.  Back when kids did things like that.  Before parents managed their children's daily lives, even their college lives, and ventured on campus to debate their offsprings' low grades with their professors.

But I digress.

The Cubs played the Giants that afternoon.  The Giants, then calling the New York Polo Grounds their home, won.  Of course.  They went on to win the pennant, and to sweep the World Series.  Against whom?  Against the Cleveland Indians.

The Cubs hadn't won a World Series in 46 years.  They were already considered lovable losers.  I bought a Cubs pennant on a stick that I flew at half mast whenever the Cubs lost.  It was usually at half mast.  But I doubt that even Chicago pessimists realized that another 62 years would pass before the Cubs redeemed themselves.  Young men of 25, attending that game with my friend and me, lamenting the past 46 years of futility, would become feeble elders of 87 before their team was once more crowned World Champions. 

Last night the Cubs won -- against Cleveland -- despite themselves and despite a couple of questionable pitching changes.  I had already composed the announcement "Cubs Coug It" for my Facebook page.  But the Cubbies ultimately pulled through.  Only in the tenth inning, and only by one run, but none of that matters now. 

My early enthusiasm for the Cubs faded, especially after the Giants became the San Francisco Giants.  It was miraculous to have major league baseball -- always an eastern phenomenon -- anywhere on the West Coast.  The Northwest Corner -- home to no major league team, and still considered Indian-infested wilderness by the rest of the nation -- happily adopted the Giants as their own.  Until the Mariners came to town.

The Mariners.  While they can't compete with the pre-2016 Cubs in the antiquity of their futility, they perhaps approach the Cubs in its intensity.  But hey, give us another hundred years, and who knows what may happen?

But somewhere deep inside, like much of the nation, I've always retained a soft spot in my heart for the Cubbies. Congratulations, Chicago!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Dead teacher's advice to a 12-year-old

Sometimes you read something simple and true, but so simple and so true that you wouldn't know how to begin saying it as well yourself.


"I have seen many boys come and go," she said.  "I've seen some grow up and set roots, and some grow up and move away.  The years of a boy's life pass so fast, Cory."  She smiled faintly.  "Boys want to hurry up and be men, and then comes a day they wish they could be boys again.  But I'll tell you a secret, Cory.  Want to hear it?"

I nodded.

"No one," Mrs. Neville whispered, "ever grows up."

I frowned.  What kind of secret was that?  ...

"They may look grown-up," she continued, "but it's a disguise.  It's just the clay of time.  Men and women are still children deep in their hearts.  They still would like to jump and play, but that heavy clay won't let them.  They'd like to shake off every chain the world's put on them, take off their watches and neckties and Sunday shoes and return naked to the swimming hole, if just for one day.  They'd like to feel free, and know that there's a momma and daddy at home who'll take care of things and love them no matter what.  Even behind the face of the meanest man in the world is a scared little boy trying to wedge himself into a corner where he can't be hurt."  She put aside the papers and folded her hands on the desk.  "I have seen plenty of boys grow into men, Cory, and I want to say one word to you.  Remember."

"Remember?  Remember what?"

"Everything," she said.  "And anything.  Don't you go through a day without remembering something of it, and tucking that memory away like a treasure.  Because it is.  And memories are sweet doors, Cory.  They're teachers and friends and disciplinarians.  When you look at something, don't just look.  See it.  See it so when you write it down, somebody else can see it, too.  It's easy to walk through life deaf, dumb, and blind, Cory.  Most everybody you know or ever meet will.  They'll walk through a parade of wonders, and they'll never hear a peep of it.  But you can live a thousand lifetimes if you want to.  You can talk to people you'll never set eyes on, in lands you'll never visit."  She nodded, watching my face.  "And if you're good and you're lucky and you have something worth saying, then you might have the chance to live on long after --"  She paused, measuring her words.  "Long after," she finished.

--Robert R. McCammon, Boy's Life (1983)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Riding the rails

I'm gonna grab me a freight train and ride all night long
Yes, I'm gonna catch me a freight train and ride all night long
And tomorrow mornin' I'll be a long ways from home.

--Jimmy Witherspoon

An article in the business section of today's New York Times, discussing the advantages accruing over time to those who take a "gap year" before or during university study, cites as one example the experiences of Ted Connor.

Connor, the author of the popular and well-received Rolling Nowhere (1984), took time off from Amherst to hop freights and travel about the country as a hobo.

You get to define the terms of the risk.  Could I hop a train?  Handle police?  Defend myself?  Deal with a blizzard in October or a rainstorm while out in the open?  All kinds of things had never been asked of me, and I thought that the time was right to ask myself, to test myself.

Parents, who feel somewhat queasy at the thought of their child helping to build homes in Honduras, or traveling around the world on the cheap, or simply working at a McDonald's, probably would have a heart attack if their child -- once safely ensconced in a genteel liberal arts college -- then decided to quit school for a year and give being a hobo a go.

The NYT article discusses studies that support the value of the gap year.  Connor's experience lies at an extreme, perhaps, on the risk scale.  But I can see the appeal.

In the years immediately before law school, I had a friend Dave who took advantage of every opportunity to hop freights.  He had traveled over pretty much the entire United States, viewing the scenery from the partly opened doors of box cars.  He was no hippie, although this was during the hippie era.  He was a young-looking, nicely groomed, well-spoken, and polite young man.  The proverbial kid next door.  But he was the kind of guy who, once he discovers a pleasurable past time, reacts as do many skiers or surfers -- for a time at least, his passion defines his life.

He begged me on several occasions to join him on a trip.  He finally persuaded me that I should at least dip my toe in the water.  On a pleasant summer day, we wandered down to the Interbay freight yards in Seattle.  I forget how he figured out which freight was going where, but we climbed aboard a train headed north to Bellingham, just this side of the Canadian border.  Not that long a trip.  Nothing that was apt to result in my being attacked by either fellow hobos or train dicks.  So at least I hoped.

The trip was fun -- certainly more fun than driving -- and scenic.  Rather than a box car, we sat on the more open and exposed -- and exhilarating -- top of a flat car.  I don't recall meeting any "fellow hobos."  Or a railway detective, the sort portrayed in old narratives who were not satisfied to just toss you off a moving train -- they needed to work you over a few times first.

We were, however, spotted by a railway employee at a stop along the way.   He kind of rolled his eyes at us, and told us that, for the love of Mike, to at least sit at the forward end of the car, facing backward.  Then, in case the train stopped suddenly, we wouldn't be launched into space.  Pretty decent guy.

We ended up in Bellingham and kind of milled around the freight yard.  The law detained us briefly, the law in this case being the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  The agent wasn't interested in how we were traveling, he just wanted to make sure we weren't illegal refugees from the totalitarian Canadian government.

The trip was fun.  It was novel.  I've never regretted doing it.  I never did it again. 

Dave kept on hopping freights for several years.  He kept notes of his experiences, and was always planning to write a book about them.  He never did. A decade later I guess he was scooped by an Amherst kid named Ted Connor.

How did we get back to Seattle from Bellingham?  Oh.  Not by freight.  By Greyhound bus, of course.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Everything went black

Last night, at about 7:15 p.m. -- as I sat in the living room, a cat on my lap, peaceably reading a book -- everything went black.  And silent.  As though death had caught me unaware, leaving my spirit to ponder the meaning of the situation.

I quickly realized, of course, that the power had gone off.  Not unexpectedly.  The news media had been full of stories about an impending storm that had been gradually working its way across the Pacific from the neighborhood of the Philippines, and had the potential of hitting Seattle with force seen only once in a decade. Winds up to 150 mph had been projected for the Pacific coast.

But within the past few hours, the weather reports had become gradually more sanguine.  There were suspicions that the brunt of the storm was heading more toward Canada.  Outside my house, it had been raining all day, but the winds hadn't been exceptional.

So the blackout caught me by surprise.

I prepare for emergencies by having a number of prayers at hand, suitable for all purposes.  And a flashlight.  I groped my way into the kitchen and got the flashlight.  I returned to my chair, and resumed sitting there in the dark, hopefully, while my cats -- I suspect -- studied my face quizzically.  I waited for a fast return to power.  I posted my neighborhood's plight on Facebook.  No one else on-line seemed affected.  They were babbling on about the political campaign, the Huskies, and the Seahawks. 

It's hard to confront an environmental crisis in the middle of a bustling city, while everyone else goes about their normal business.

By about 8 o'clock I was getting bored.  I wouldn't have done well, spending nights in the Underground during the London Blitz.  I did have my iPhone, but I worried about using up all my juice before first responders could arrive to rescue me from my blackness.  Finally, I gave up.  To my cats' consternation -- they have a fine sense of time, and the appropriate time for different activities -- I went to bed.

I woke up to the dawn, sunlight flooding the room.  Oh -- that isn't sunlight.  I had thought to turn the light switch "on" in the adjoining room, before turning in.  I was thus awakened by light at about 11 p.m. 

I got up, had a late dinner (at an appropriate hour for Barcelona, perhaps), read for an hour or two, and went to bed for the second time that night.

This morning, the Seattle paper congratulated Seattle on having escaped a disaster of epic proportions.  Seattle City Light reported that only 708 customers, citywide, had lost power because of the storm.  Wow!  I feel so special.  As though I'd won the lottery.

Life is back to normal.  The entire affair was de minimis, as we say in law.  Hardly bloggable.  Sorry about that.  Maybe next time I can report on a major earthquake.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Hiking in Crete

Summit of Mt. Gigilos
The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.1 

Chania, where my plane from Athens landed, is a town on the north coast of Crete.  It lies in the far western portion of the island, far from Knossos and the Minoan sites about it, far from the island's capital at Iraklion (or Heraklion), far from most of the major events of the British resistance during the war, and far from the more frenzied portions of the tourist traffic.

But Chania is Crete's second largest city, and a sprawling town, whose sprawl is not immediately obvious to the newly-arrived visitor -- he finds his fascination focused on the compact and labyrinthine  "Old Town," clustered about the harbor in front of it, a harbor that sports an unbroken line of cafés and watering holes.  After three days in Athens, Chania gave me a pleasurable taste of the Greek isles, although Crete is by far the largest of those isles.

I had but a night's sleep and a few hours for exploration before meeting up with my hiking group back at the Chania airport -- there were 14 of us, all but me from England.  Our guide, a French native who spoke accent-free English, gathered us together.  We were herded into vans and driven a couple of hours due south into the mountains, to the rural "village" -- just several small hotels -- of Omalos. 

I had told friends repeatedly that I was going on a "Samaria Gorge" hiking vacation in Crete.  But the hiking organization labeled the trip as "The White Mountains of Crete," which was much more accurate.  The gorge walk -- one of those activities like climbing Kilimanjaro that end up on some people's "bucket lists" -- occupied only one day.  The trek as a whole introduced us to the entire White Mountains area of Crete, of which Samaria was but one dramatic feature.

The morning after arriving in Omalos, we began the climb of Mt. Gigilos, a good introduction to the White Mountains -- which are indeed constructed of white limestone -- and the most difficult day of the trek.  All the trails on Crete consist of loose stone.  My hiking boots lost so much tread by the end of the trip that they are now unusable.  We walked up steep, rocky paths -- greeted as we climbed by domestic goats which range free all over the countryside, obediently returning to their homes at the proper time -- and scrambled over carved limestone formations.  By the time we had returned to the trailhead, we knew we had signed up for a trek designed for serious hikers.

The next day, we departed from Omalos for good and began the descent into Samaria Gorge.  The descent was steep, but we were shielded from the sun by lovely evergreen forests.  We stopped for lunch at Samaria village -- a ghost town whose inhabitants had been evicted when the park was created -- where we discovered one of the hazards of hiking Crete in autumn:  hungry hornets.  The hornets were far more interested in our lunches than in us, but we moved on to windier areas where we could eat in greater peace.

After the village, we entered the gorge itself -- certainly beautiful and dramatic, but maybe not that much more dramatic than the similar but shorter and less deep "Narrows" gorge in Zion National Park.  At this time of year, the hike was entirely on dry land, but the creek clearly expands to fill the gorge in wetter seasons.  After ten miles of hiking, we reached the south coast at the small town of Agia Roumeli.  Agia Roumeli has no real history -- it exists to serve tourists.  Its streets and cafés gradually fill to bursting with hikers emerging from the Gorge, until about 5 p.m. when two ferries arrive to haul everyone off to either of two road heads for their return to Chania.  The town's entire character changes once the "day people" have disappeared.  Great views of the sea to the south and the White Mountains to the north.

After a rest day in Agia Roumeli, we headed eastward on a coastal path to the Finix peninsula, where we stayed at a tiny beach hotel just west of, and around the peninsula from, the thriving fishing town, cum hotels and many restaurants, of Loutro.  We stayed three nights at the Finix hotel (named, appropriately, "The Old Phoenix"), from which we climbed Pachnes, the second highest mountain on Crete.  En route, we visited a small chapel, marking the location on the south coast where some believe that St. Paul's ship was blown ashore during a storm while he was being taken to Rome pursuant to his "appeal to Caesar.".

Despite Pachnes's height, it was a far easier climb than Gigilos.  We were loaded into seated pick-up trucks -- similar to "tuk-tuks" in Southeast Asia -- and driven two hours up into the mountains.  We began the drive in heat and humidity, but long before we arrived we had added layers of clothes and even gloves.  From the road head, we hiked about two hours to the summit -- on a far more regular and gentle path than that ascending Gigilos.  Everything within view of the summit was brown, arid, and desolate.  The view has been accurately described as a "moonscape," and certainly had a haunting, other-worldly appearance.

At the summit, about half the group accepted the guide's invitation to wander about and find a more interesting way down.  We more sensible hikers were happy to return the way we had ascended, a decision justified by the grumbling and rolling of eyes by the others as they arrived back at the trucks an hour or so after us.

Finally, we were picked up by a motor launch from our very pleasant harbor hotel and carried about a half hour to a major highway back to Chania.  We there boarded a luxurious bus that seemed like an intruder from an alternative universe.  The rest of the group was taken directly to Chania airport for flights back to the UK, but I had a late flight back to Athens, and time for wandering and lunching at the Old Town's harbor. 

The trek was a fascinating introduction to Crete, and certainly whetted my appetite for more.  Knossos and all things Minoan still await my exploration!

1This Saki quote has no relevance whatsoever to anything presented in my post, other than its dealing with Crete.  I just liked it. 

For those interested, here is a link that will let you view my Facebook photos of the trip. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Getting prepared

Descending Gingilos

I planned to bounce out of bed this morning, drive 45 minutes east, and climb the 3,500 feet up Mt. Si for an unprecedented third time this season.  But I didn't bounce.  I fixed coffee, thought of other things I might do (things that seemed of trivial importance last night), and now find myself at my accustomed spot in front of my computer monitor.

I leave Seattle on Monday for my trek on Crete.  But before reaching Crete, I spend several days wandering about in Athens.  My first day of actual physical activity won't be until Sunday, October 2.  My last exertion of any note was my hike to Colchuck Lake, ten days ago.  I need a little booster shot of exercise hormones about now to keep myself conditioned for October 2.

October 2 will be a climb of Mt. Gingilos, near the start of the walk through Samaria Gorge.  After studying whatever I could find out about Gingilos on-line, I conclude that our group will be climbing approximately 2,500 feet -- similar to other hikes I've done this summer.  But the climb is rocky, and the temperatures will be hotter than the near-perfect in all ways temperatures of the Northwest Corner.  Part of the climb will be on scree -- loose gravelly stuff that increases the effort required significantly -- and a small part of it will be a scramble over boulders requiring use of hands.

Have they begun the trek with this obstacle course for the express purpose of weeding out old codgers like me?  Unanswerable.  In any event, the next day is the red letter day of the trek -- the ten-mile descent through world-famous Samaria Gorge, over a trail composed of rocks, until we finally drag our bodies into the village of Agia Roumeli on the island's south coast.  The following day is a free day, with optional hikes to "ancient Turkish forts," and the day after that is a walk along the coast.

On October 6, we drive part way up the mountain called Pachmes, and then hike to the top.  Again, perusing the internet, this seems to be an easier, although higher elevation, climb than was Gingilos.  And again, about a 2,500 foot climb.

So, this is nowhere near as rigorous -- or long -- a trek as my high elevation walks in the Chinese Pamirs last year, or in the Fann Mountains of Tajikistan in 2013.  But it also means we jump right into it with no easy warm up days, as are usually planned for longer treks. 

I'll be surrounded by Brits, and therefore need to uphold America's reputation, if any, for pluck and determination.

And so -- although I'm not climbing Mt. Si today, I almost certainly will be tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ghost Medicine

Troy, Gabe, and Tom are three teenaged friends, living in ranch country, somewhere in California, probably.  Some place where open pastures have been carved out of redwood forests.

Tom, the joker, the trickster, the coyote.  Gabe, the shy, sensitive boy, the kind one, the saintly one.  And Troy, the silent narrator, the brooding philosopher.

Troy's dad and Gabe's dad had been best friends as kids.  As adults, they still called themselves close friends, but, as Troy tells us, they are polite with each other like "members of the same stamp club or something."

[B]oth of those men just seemed to me like they never wanted to show how things really affected them, and it always made me wonder about the cost of growing up.

Andrew Smith's earliest novel, Ghost Medicine, is about many things.  It's about the silence of the open spaces and of the people who live and ranch there.  It's about friendship.  It's about caring for the horse who is both friend and transportation, about protecting cattle and goats from predators, about the way the sun reflects from nearby granite peaks at a certain time of day.  It's about Troy's theory that what happens, happens; that you can look back and sometimes see how you caused events to happen, but can never know in advance how an act will "ripple like the surface of a pond once a rock has been skipped," disturbing everything it touches.

But it's also about the "cost of growing up."

Troy, Gabe, and Tom have very different personalities.  They aren't given to rambling conversations with each other.  They tease.  They speak by staying silent, by joking, by spitting tobacco, by changing the subject.  Several women or girls, commenting on the novel on Goodreads, denounce the story as just one more irritating example of guys who never even talk to each other, and just go through life oblivious.  But these three guys know each other, and each other's moods, and each other's feelings better than they'll ever know anyone again in their lives.  They don't need to speak in complete sentences to communicate their ideas or their emotions.

Troy falls in love with Luz, Gabe's older sister.  Their mutual love is another central theme of the book, but it never overwhelms the story as it might in too many young adult novels.  Luz, too, is from the ranch community, and they understand each other.

As the novel moves into its second half, its mood darkens.  Small incidents, especially conflicts with the thuggish son of the local sheriff, "ripple" outward, threatening the quiet lives of Troy and his friends.  The boys make decisions -- which, in retrospect, prove to be poor decisions.  They ride together up into the hills, chasing the sheriff's son and his equally thuggish friend. 

We had been warned of disaster from the very beginning, and disaster has been foreshadowed throughout the novel.  Not everyone comes back down alive.  And those who do return are no longer the same boys.

But all three boys had been changing throughout the novel, changing as they reacted to their experiences.  They had been losing their boyhoods, becoming -- for better or for worse -- men.  Much earlier, Troy had spun a theory that every animal had a form of "medicine," and that the blood from a cougar they had just killed provided them with "ghost medicine" -- medicine that made you invisible to the eyes of others.  Much later, he muses --

I told Gabriel that ghost medicine was everything we could ever want; that it was more powerful than we knew, more than we could reckon with.  And in the end, I guess, it did make us disappear.  But it wasn't like a cheap illusion in a magic show, because we didn't realize that it took us in pieces, not all at once, and others could see those bits vanish away and I, we, could only feel them in ourselves, thinking all the time This is what I want, this is what I want, until those lost pieces revisit us in dreams and make us thrash and grab for them only to swish our sweaty, empty hands in the air.

The fears, the guilt, and the desires of the surviving boys cost them the innocence of their childhood, leaving them as adults. Adults, kind of like their dads.

Troy, Gabe, and Tom are three kids with -- compared to suburban kids -- an enormous amount of independence, self-sufficiency, and competence.  They cuss, they drink, they chew tobacco.  They have easy access to guns -- an access that is necessary for people on a ranch, but an access that invites tragedy.  During summer, when the novel takes place, they are largely on their own -- they have no "helicopter parents."

And they happen to be three of the most decent, kind, and "good" kids that you're apt to read about in today's literature.  Which is why so much of what happens hurts so much.

Three boys rode up there.
Not one of them came back.
Maybe all boys die like that.

Many young readers found the pace of the novel too slow, the descriptions too detailed.  They are used to more "action."  For those with the ability to savor the slow, quiet pace of outdoors life, I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ill Met by Moonlight

With my visit to Crete looming in less that two weeks, I just completed a quick re-reading of W. Stanley Moss's 1950 memoir, Ill Met by Moonlight -- his blow by blow account of how he and Patrick Leigh Fermor, as members  of the British Special Operations Executive ("SOE"), successfully kidnapped the general in charge of the German occupation of Crete in 1944.

The "memoir" is more accurately the belated publication of Moss's actual day by day journal, written beautifully under the most dangerous and uncomfortable of conditions.  Moss wrote in 1950 that he had deliberately refrained from revising his journal -- aside from clarifying information, printed in italic font -- preferring to let the freshness and youthfulness of his emotions at the time be revealed through his actual words, rather than tidied up at leisure under more comfortable conditions.  All the more amazing the detail and length of his daily entries:  The observations of his natural surroundings.  His reactions to the many persons -- Cretan, British, Italian, Russian, and German -- with whom he came in contact during the 48 days of his adventure.  His reading of classical literature while bored.  His contemplations of philosophical questions while staring at the starry skies. 

How atypical of war zones appear some of his journal entries.

Paddy and I spent the morning reading short stories aloud to each other -- this, because we have only one book left between the two of us.  Stevenson's Markheim, King Arthur and the Green Knight, Saki's wonderful The Interlopers ... it was all rather fun.  Then Paddy recited snippets from Shakespeare in German, at which he is adept; and we talked of mythology and lore and wondered if General Kreipe would look anything like Erich von Stroheim.  Minotaurs, bull-men, nymphs of Ariadne, kings of Minos, and German generals -- a splendid cocktail!

All this while hiding in a dry riverbed, within a day of the actual abduction -- the failure of which would most likely result in their own deaths.

"Paddy" Leigh Fermor, who was in charge, left it to Moss to describe the details of their operation.  Leigh Fermor's own favorite story was of trading memorized Latin quotations from Horace with the captured general -- while they were on the lam from the Germans deep in the Cretan mountains -- in what must have been one of the more civilized exchanges between friend and foe during the second world war.

Moss points out that General Kreipe, once captured, was well-behaved.  He agreed on his honor not to make any effort to prevent his evacuation to British-held Cairo in exchange for good -- almost fraternal -- treatment by his abductors.  Although an "old man" -- Moss estimated he must have been 45 to 50! -- he did his best to keep up with the their long nightly marches, at times riding a mule because of exhaustion.  He shared their uncomfortable days in wet caves, and their near-starvation at times, with only minimal complaining but with major lamentations about his humiliation and his accidental loss of one of his Iron Cross medals.  The general observed -- with perhaps some surprise -- how willing the Cretan mountain residents were to aid and assist the British, despite routine murderous reprisals by the Germans.

Upon eventual evacuation by small launch from a southern beach rendezvous point, the general, along with Leigh Fermor, Moss, and a few others, were taken to Cairo.  General Kreipe was greeted by the commanding British brigadier general with salutes and full recognition of his rank.  Moss notes that Kreipe and his British counterpart talked long into the night, with much drinking and loud laughter. 

At least in those days, war was a game for the generals, and a true sport always respects his worthy opponent.

On the other hand, the successful removal of the general to Cairo was not met back in Crete with the same sense of sportsmanship.  The German High Command issued the following order:

From now on all enemies on so-called Commando missions in Europe or Africa, challenged by German troops, even if they are to all appearances soldiers in uniform or demolition troops, whether armed or unarmed, in battle or in flight, are to be slaughtered to the last man. ... Even if these individuals, when found, should apparently be prepared to give  themselves up, no pardon is to be granted them on principle.  ...   [I]t must be made clear to the adversary that all sabotage troops will be exterminated, without exception, to the last man.

After considering this barbarity, it is pleasant to realize that both Moss and Leigh Fermor were men of civilization, curiosity, and advanced liberal education, and that both possessed lively senses of humor. 

After the war, Patrick (Paddy) Leigh Fermor published a number of travel books, still eagerly read, and a novel.  He also translated Greek works to English.  He died four years ago, at the age of 96, and was the subject of many news stories about his life.  W. (Billy) Stanley Moss unfortunately died at the age of 44, but nevertheless had time to write two non-fiction books about his wartime adventures, including Ill Met by Moonlight, and three novels.  He crammed a large number of adventures into his short post-war life.

While I'm not a fan of war stories, Moss's book reads as a boys' adventure -- lots of excitement with the necessary killings taking place largely off-stage.  Moss and Leigh Fermor were the kind of soldiers who make you feel there is hope for humanity, even in the midst of sordid warfare.

I left the book, also, with the realization that a short seventy years ago, the British Empire still ruled the world.  The battle for Crete was an all-British affair, and Cairo was under total British dominance.  The Empire and its representatives, despite cracks beginning to show between the two world wars, still showed the confidence and self-complacency that America and Americans show to the world today.

Makes you think.