Thursday, August 25, 2016

Balkan Express

A modern photo of refugees
on a Macedonian train -- but
it shows how we felt!

After publication of my last blog entry, two days ago, crazed fans have been begging me to expand on my reference to my 1961 trip, via "Balkan Express," from Belgrade to Athens.

By "crazed fans," I refer to my sister.  I thought she would know all about the experience, just from absorbing our family's oral traditions.  But I'll refresh her recollection.  Memories do fade over 55 years, however, especially when not reinforced by any written letters or journal entries that I can locate.

As I mentioned earlier, three friends and I, left to our own devices in Belgrade, decided to take the train to Athens.  In those days, few people bothered with reservations.  You simply bought a ticket and hopped on the next train.  Like riding the subway, and -- as with the subway -- if there weren't enough seats by the time you scrambled aboard, you stood.

We stood.

At the time, all European passenger cars consisted of a series of compartments, each seating eight passengers (in second class), with a corridor running along one side of the car.  When there were no seats, you stood in the corridor.  The train stopped frequently.  The passengers were not, for the most part, Western tourists -- they were Yugoslavian country folk and poor workers.  Tito's Yugoslavia was no doubt a socialist paradise, but not quite yet a developed country.

The train reached Skopje, in present day Macedonia, and stopped.  A train today covers the route from Belgrade to Skopje in ten hours.  It was certainly longer in 1961.  Our train not only stopped in Skopje, but stayed stopped.  No explanations were given.  No encouraging words were provided.  The train's toilet facilities were not available while stopped in the station, for reasons left to your imagination.  The station WC consisted of a room with a large concrete floor.  At the far side of the room was a hole in the floor.  Many, many people had used the facility.  Few of them had bothered to make it to the hole.

We still had no seats.  When not using the WC, we stood in the coach aisle or, most of the time, sat on the aisle's filthy floor with our knees tucked under our chins.  We four were not, by any means, the only occupants of the aisle.

We remained stopped in Skopje for at least twelve hours, anywhere up to 24 hours as I recall.  My subconscious has repressed some of the details.  But eventually, the fabled Orient Express pulled into Skopje, and we were transferred to that train.  The Orient Express had sadly declined since its fabled days of Agatha Christie fame.  But it had seats -- every one of us had his very own seat.  Padded seats.  And the only repulsive odors in the cars of the Orient Express were the ones we brought with us on our own clothing.

The Orient Express proceeded to Thessaloniki, across the Greek border, whence the majority of the carriages continued east to Istanbul, and the rest of them -- we students included -- went by separate engine to Athens.  I don't even recall crossing into Greece -- I think I slept most of the way to Athens, where we arrived early in the morning.  How many mornings after leaving Belgrade?  I have no idea. 

On arrival, we quickly found a cheap hotel and then immediately headed on foot to the Acropolis.  As I noted in a letter home, it's great to be young.

Train fans may be interested to know that  a modern "Balkan Express" operates today between Belgrade and Istanbul, with sleeping facilities and dining car.  This train follows a route through Bulgaria, stopping in Sofia, rather than south through Skopje.  From the on-line photos, any resemblance between it and the Balkan Nightmare Express of my memories is limited to the fact that both operated on rails.  There is also a Belgrade to Athens route -- temporarily suspended for track maintenance -- that requires a change of trains in Thessaloniki.

And finally -- a marvel undreamed of in 1961 -- within the next two years, a high speed train running at 200 km/h (125 mph) will begin service from Thessaloniki to Athens.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Before meeting up with my trekking group on Crete on October 1, I'll spend three nights on my own in Athens, reacquainting myself with a favorite city that I haven't visited for 37 years.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this will be my fourth visit to Athens.  I first visited it in 1961, as an overseas college student.  Our school had completed a field trip to Belgrade, after which we were free to do whatever we wanted for several days before classes resumed in Florence.  Kids headed in all directions -- Vienna, which still had a Graham Greene-esque Cold War appeal, seemed a favorite destination.  But three classmates and I chose to hop the Balkan Express to Athens.  The Balkan "Express."  The horror, the horror!  But that's a story for another time ...

In 1961, most Americans really didn't visit Europe unless bundled together on an American Express tour bus -- and then only to the "safe" precincts of Western Europe.  So much the better for us.  Back then. the Acropolis was just a hill covered with ruins.  You wandered up, climbed all over the Parthenon, took  photos of each other leaning against the columns, stayed as long as you liked.  Now, I understand, it's an "attraction" for which you -- along with huge crowds of fellow tourists -- pay a hefty admission fee. And it's "look, don't touch."

In any event, we were in Athens for only a day or so.  But in 1970 -- older, presumably wiser, certainly scruffier in appearance -- I returned with a backpack for a stay of several weeks in Greece.  About a week of that time was spent in Athens. 

If I had been somewhat aimless in my sightseeing while a college student, nine years later I was much more definite in my interests.  I had developed, I thought, a good feeling for the history of ancient Greece, and of ancient Athens in particular.

Why?  Well, I'd taken undergrad courses in Greek history. But mainly because I had read and re-read, like a bible, what may well be the best fictionalization of the Greek classical period ever written -- The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault.  Ms. Renault is perhaps most famous for a trilogy of historical novels reconstructing the career of Alexander the Great.  She also wrote two novels -- discussed in posts I wrote last winter -- attempting to ground the legend of Theseus in some form of historical reality.

In her Alexander novels, she dealt with an historical figure about whom much is known.  In the Theseus novels, she constructed an entire pseudo-historical reality based on shadowy and often inconsistent legends.  In The Last of the Wine, she was less interested in interpreting the life of a person -- real or legendary -- than in helping the reader understand a city and civilization, its politics and religious beliefs and culture, and its people.  She succeeded masterfully: If the Athens portrayed in her book isn't a perfect portrayal of the actual fifth century Athens, it's probably as close as anyone could come, in popular rather than scholarly form, given the historical record available to us.

The book is narrated by a fictional young Athenian in the late fifth century B.C., from his first memories near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War to the defeat of the Thirty Tyrants about thirty years later -- the period during which many of the most famous Athenians were alive and kicking -- Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Alcibiades, Kritias.  To me, as a tourist, my reading of The Last of the Wine -- which I carried in paperback in my backpack, along with my trusty Greece on $5 a Day -- was my introduction to ancient Greece, and my inspiration for the places I planned to visit.

Fascinating places I would never have thought of visiting -- like the hill of Lycabettas -- became my destinations because of their place in Mary Renault's story.  I was the proverbial country hick, wandering around a big city, starry-eyed because he was seeing all the places he had read about in books.  And I loved it.

So, many years later, I'll return to Athens.  My small hotel is in the Plaka, in the shadow of the Acropolis.  Swooning less this time, no doubt, but still filled with an eagerness to gain, so far as possible in the two or three days I have available, a better understanding of Athens -- both the city as it is today, and the city that provided so much of the foundation of our Western civilization.  

(And I still have that dog-eared Mary Renault paperback. I'll be reading it again before I leave.)

I've been to the Acropolis three times -- each time at sunset when it was balmy and golden. The second was my tour-book visit. The others were just for mood and daydreaming. I think I could visit it indefinitely and never tire of it. The last time, I walked down to the Areopagus after they chased us off the Acropolis, and watched the light fade and the lights come on all over the city -- and the Son et Lumiere light up the Rock. Everyone around me was French, and their voices were like music in the warm late twilight. The Areopagus is a gathering spot for young people -- some with guitars. I've walked by it at 11 p.m. and seen its silhouette serrated with heads staring off across the city.
--Journal, July 27, 1970

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Little Men

Tony in acting class

When the evening temperature in Seattle hovers at an uncomfortable 90 degrees, there's nothing like a 7 p.m. movie in an air conditioned movie theater to improve one's mood.  Especially when the movie's shown in a luxury class Sundance theater.

And so, after reading rave reviews, I went to see Ira Sach's film Little Men.  Read the reviews yourself.  The New York Times, the New Yorker -- and a 96 percent favorable critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I'll just add my cheers.

Briefly, the story takes place in a gentrifying area of Brooklyn, where Brian (a "not that successful" actor) and Kathy (a psychologist) have inherited a building with a residence upstairs and a business downstairs.  The downstairs is occupied by a dress shop run by a friendly, hardworking, but taciturn seamstress and proprietor, an immigrant from Chile, played absolutely magnificently by Pauline García.  Brian discovers that his father had been renting the shop to her for years at a rent far below market.  He and his family move to the Brooklyn building from Manhattan.  They intend to put the rental back on a rational business footing.

The couple have a son, Jake, and the renter has a son Tony.  Both boys are 13.  Jake is an introverted aspiring artist; Tony is an extraverted aspiring actor.  They bond almost instantly into a touchingly close friendship.  The actors playing the boys are also outstanding -- playing their parts with a high degree of early adolescent energy, with humor, with deep sincerity, and ultimately with pathos. 

They dream of starting high school together at La Guardia high school, a highly selective public school near Lincoln Center specializing in the visual and performing arts.  After several halcyon weeks together, however, zooming around Brooklyn on scooter and skates, their parents begin trying to pull them apart as relations over a new lease quickly become strained.

All the adults act reasonably from their own points of view.  The parents of both boys are loving and proud parents.  But the devastating effect of their business quarrel on the two boys is low on their set of concerns, certainly far lower than their concern over the amount of rent. 

The end is predictable.  We see Jake, a year older, alone, painting at La Guardia.  Tony has disappeared, presumably slipping with his mother into a poorer neighborhood with less demanding rents.  Jake's eyes light up for a moment in an art museum when he thinks he has spotted Tony.

He's mistaken.

Ira Sach's direction is perfect.  The acting by all actors blew me away.  The photography of the adults, of the kids, of Brooklyn, is beautiful and striking.  Brian acts in a Chekhov play within the movie, and the movie itself has been described as "Chekhovian." I hope the subtlety of the script and of the acting doesn't doom it with today's public.

I left the theater pensive, sad, but pleased with my investment of a couple of cool hours in overheated Seattle.

(8-26-16) The film was shown in Seattle for seven days at one theater. It then disappeared, most likely to reappear eventually in the world of Netflix. My hopes for its popularity have been apparently dashed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

No longer a "society"

Folio Society's Beowulf
Everything changes and nothing stands still.

All things do come to an end.  I suppose it only seems like it's usually the "good things" that we lose.

I received an email today informing me that my membership in the Folio Society would come to an end on September 1.  In fact, everyone's membership would end on that date.  The organization will simply publish books and market them to the general public after that date.

I had been a member since 1980.

What is/was the Folio Society?  In simplest terms, I suppose, it was a British book club.  But to me, and probably to most American members, it seemed more like a small, fraternal organization for the promotion and enjoyment of fine books -- "fine" in terms of both literary excellence and physical attributes.  Joining as I did, just out of law school, it seemed to provide a link between me and all those imagined virtues of educated Englishmen, virtues that attract an American Anglophile as flames attract moths.

The Folio Society was born in 1947.  It was thus 33 years old when I joined it for the 1981 calendar year.  I have thus been a member for more than half of the Society's life in post-war Britain. 

In August of each year, the Society sent out a prospectus listing planned publications for the following year.  At the time I joined, and for many years thereafter, one book was published each month.  You were required to order in advance at least four books each year to maintain your membership.  As a member, you also received a quarterly literary journal containing articles about forthcoming publications, and various publication bonuses for maintaining your membership.

What was unusual were both the titles published, and the format of the books.  Let me give you as an example a list of the titles I selected for my first year:

Evelyn Waugh, Black Mischief
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That
Guy de Maupassant, Une Vie
Greville's England
Thomas Bewick, My Life
The Pastons, a family in the Wars of the Roses
The Poems of Catullus

With the possible exception of the Waugh novel, I suggest these are not selections that you would have found offered by Book of the Month Club or the Literary Guild, here in America.

Similarly, the prospectus emphasized the printing and binding of each volume.  For many years, the Society pledged to use letterpress printing, rather than offset or more modern methods, wherever possible -- like a record club vowing to provide recordings on vinyl, rather than CD.  The bindings were beautiful, and, in years before my arrival, often odd to the point of amusing even the Society's stolid fans.  But the books overall were of the highest quality, and made excellent additions to my library.

Gradually, however, the modern world intruded on this paradise.  The books remained -- and still remain -- excellent in every respect.  But they became increasingly less idiosyncratic, and -- in appearance -- obviously far more the result of modern mass production.  Books were no longer published once a month; the prospectus began listing larger and larger numbers of books per year.  In recent years, a prospectus came out several times a year, with ever larger numbers of books being offered.  And the titles were no longer limited to fairly obscure works of British and classical history and literature -- they now include everything from sci fi and fantasy to science and contemporary American fiction.

So what, you ask?  Sounds like great books and lots of variety.  And you're right.  The Folio Society continues publishing excellent books, and I've continued buying them.  But today's notice that "membership" will be abandoned because the concept of membership interferes with sales to the mass reading public destroys my all-too-elitest reason for joining the club in 1980, and for looking forward each summer to receiving the next prospectus -- the sense that I was participating in a small society devoted to production and purchase of books not readily available to, or read by, the mass market.

Today, of course, everything is available to the mass market.  We no longer live in 1947, when paper was first becoming available again for such frivolities as the publication of books with no military use.  It must have seemed almost deliciously sinful to use paper for books as frivolous as the three books published during Folio's first year:

Tolstoy, Tales
George du Maurier, Trilby
Aucassin and Nicolette

And so it goes.  Nothing is certain but change.  Best wishes to the Folio Society, as it now publishes as a normal book publisher.  I'll still be buying its books, whatever its incarnation -- just not with the same quiver of excitement as in the days when I could claim "membership."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Grouchy about the Olympics

Am I excited that, as of yesterday, the USA had won 52 times as many medals as had Estonia?  Not really.

If I were the World Dictator of Sports, competitors in the Olympics would compete solely on their own behalf, not as representatives of their home country.  ("Their home country" is a fairly fluid concept nowadays, in any event, in our global society where athletes have a number of possible residences.)  We would see no grand procession of athletes carrying national flags during opening ceremonies.

If a runner sets a new record, that's his own achievement -- as the award of Olympics medals to individuals already recognizes.  As Americans, we may be proud that one of our own has won a medal.  But I see no reason for us to total up the number of medals awarded to athletes of each nation, and publish a daily list of "who's ahead" -- surprise, it's us again!  (Our newspapers used to total men's and women's awards separately, when that worked to our advantage.)  The fact that the gold medal winner was born in Colorado rather than Manitoba or Shanghai is an accident of geography -- not a reason for national self-congratulation.

I make an exception for team sports, although I regret the fervent nationalism aroused even there.  Off hand, I see no better way to identify a team than by the nation from which its players originate.  But I cringe -- probably even more than I do with individual sports -- when the USA, with a team filled with highly-paid professional basketball players, defeats a small country, and our fans yell "USA, USA" as though they had witnessed a mighty national accomplishment.

And don't even get me started on the issue -- now forgotten -- of amateur vs. professional athletes in the Olympics. 

I have more to say on the subject, much more, but won't.  I've discussed my thoughts with others too many times, and my thoughts have been greeted by -- at the very kindest -- rolled eyes.  I just don't understand athletics, I'm told.

Funny.  I thought I did.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What are those buggers up to?

One proposed form
of Dyson swarm.
We learned efficient use of stellar energy because they blacked out this planet.  In fact, that's how we discovered them.  In a period of three days, Eros gradually disappeared from telescopes.  We sent a tug to  find out why.
--Ender's Game

Life sometimes imitates fiction.

In Orson Scott Card's popular 1985 science fiction novel, Ender's Game, Earth is threatened by a race of intelligent aliens, insect-like in appearance, who are seeking new worlds to colonize.  As the quote above suggests, the presence of the "buggers" was first evidenced by the sudden fading from view of the asteroid Eros.  We discovered that Eros had been surrounded by material that absorbed all of the sun's normally-reflected radiant energy, allowing the buggers to use that energy to power their activities on and inside the asteroid.  Eros appeared as black as starless Space as the Earth spaceships approached it.

Eros's fate came to mind as I read a brief article from Popular Mechanics about the strange behavior of "Tabby's Star," more formally known as  KIC 8462852, a star within our own Milky Way galaxy.  The star shows variations in brightness that are inexplicable under any known scientific theories.  The star was discovered in the 1890s, but has been intensely studied for the past four years by use of the Kepler space telescope.

According to a more in-depth article in Wikipedia, the star showed a dip in brightness of 15 percent in 2011 and of 22 percent in 2013.  Its overall average luminosity has dimmed by 20 percent since its discovery in 1890.

In the absence of other compelling explanations, some scientists have suggested that the dimming may result from an artificial structure or collection of satellites (a "Dyson shell" or "Dyson bubble" or "Dyson swarm") that an alien civilization may be constructing around the star, constructing it with the intent of intercepting a large amount of the star's radiant energy and using it for their own ends.  Such a project may be theoretically feasible, but far beyond our present engineering skills.

If our observations of Tabby's Star do reflect, therefore, a Dyson whatever, we would be observing the activities of a civilization far more advanced scientifically and technically than our own. 

Would such an advanced civilization be peaceful, or would it be human-like and aggressive.  Who knows?  The star is 1,480 light years from Earth.  That gives us more than 1,480 years to prepare for the encounter, in the unlikely event that our neighbors are able to travel near the speed of light, and that our puny civilization should attract their interest.

The buggers in Ender's Game, of course, had both the ability and the interest. 

It was only after Earth had totally destroyed the buggers' civilization in the greatest genocide of all time that we discovered that the buggers had mistakenly believed we were insensate animals, incapable of intelligent thought and consciousness.  They were actually far less savage killers, subjectively, than we were when we cleared the prairies of bison. 

Have fun, future generations.  No one ever said that life in the next millennia was going to be simpler than in the past.    

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Hiking in Crete

Having recovered physically from my Yorkshire hike -- although, obviously, my mind has still not recovered enough to write regular blog posts -- I am looking forward to my next foreign hiking opportunity. 

In late September, I'll be traveling to Crete for a small-group hiking tour organized by the same British company with which I traveled to Tajikistan in 2013.  The trip begins with my arrival in Chania, on the northern coast of the island, whence we will be carted down to Omalos, at the head of the famed Samaria gorge.  The gorge is some ten miles long, and only about three yards wide in places -- the walls towering over 1,600 feet above the gorge where we will be hiking.  Samaria is one of the most famous canyon walks in the world.

The hike through the gorge will take just one day.  Before that climactic day, we will climb a mountain north of the gorge, and after the gorge hike we will do a number of day hikes -- examining old Turkish forts, walking along the south Cretan coast, visiting small villages, and climbing another mountain just to prove we can still do it.

Before meeting up with my group in Chania, I plan to spend three days in Athens, revisiting beloved ancient sites recalled from youthful travels and from my reading of history.  It will be my fourth visit to Athens, but my first since shortly after graduating from law school -- many years ago! 

In the past, I've always managed to visit Greece at the peak of the tourist season, and during the peak of the summer temperatures.  I hope to enjoy both cooler temperatures and fewer fellow tourists this time.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hikers' march to the sea

Angry voters take Britain out of the European union.  Scotland threatens to secede.  The Economist urges Parliament to eliminate the park-like Green Belt surrounding the Greater London area, in order to permit construction of new housing.  The London skyline itself is littered with skyscrapers, designed in appalling taste, revealing no attempt to conform them with their surroundings ( St. Paul's, the Tower of London) in either size or architectural style.

Britain seems like a mess.

But behind the headlines and outside the large cities lies a country little changed over the centuries.  I returned from this magical country last Tuesday (and have since been nursing my jet lag before attempting to share my impressions).

Kathy, Clinton and I defied predictions of daily rain (didn't happen), lack of physical preparation (by some of us), and the depredations of advanced old age (well, I exaggerate) -- and walked 109 miles from Kirkby Stephen in eastern Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea.  We also took a bus from Robin Hood's Bay six miles north to Whitby to see the abbey ruins, and walked back along the coast line.  We did great, we enjoyed it greatly, we'd do it again gladly, and we recommend that viewers give it a whirl as well.

But aside from the statistics and the bragging, walking in rural northern England is an experience with time travel.  Although we occasionally had to walk along a paved back road, for the most part we walked on paths and gravel tracks that have been in place for centuries.  We stayed in small villages and in isolated inns.   When we entered Richmond (population 8,413), where we laid over for a day, we felt -- as Yorkshiremen no doubt felt in centuries past -- that we had entered a major city.  A city dominated by the ruins of Richmond Castle -- parts of which date back to the twelfth century.

The hike encompassed three main phases -- the crossing of the Pennine range, the descent of the Swale river valley ("Swaledale") in Yorkshire Dales National Park, and the march to the sea across the high moors of North Yorkshire Moors National Park. 

Although diverse in topography, the hike throughout all regions gave a sense of how well the English have preserved the rural countryside, even while permitting its use for grazing and some cultivation.  We stayed at picturesque bed and breakfasts, and dined in centuries-old pubs.  We were greeted cautiously by thousands of sheep, and sleepily by almost as many cows.  We ended each day tired and hungry, and began each morning with enthusiasm.

We felt it our duty to sample the varying ales of Yorkshire, and we did our duty.

We were surprised at the conclusion of the trip by the charms (and pubs) of Robin Hood's Bay, a village built on steep and winding roads that work their way down to the sea, a village where we mingled with fellow hikers and with less ambitious folks who arrived by more modern means for their holiday, walking their children with pails and shovels down to the seashore.

Not one person mentioned "Brexit" to us.  We were circumspect, and avoided the topic ourselves.

It's hard to believe that a week ago, I was still living in an Anglophile's paradise.  I'll be back.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Coast to coast

At 5 p.m. PDT tomorrow afternoon, the lights in the editorial offices of Confused Ideas will blink off, the staff will be sent home, the banks of servers will whirr to a stop, a key will be turned in the lock, and ... your Chief Correspondent and Editor in Chief will head out the door.

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I'll be returning to the small, picturesque town of Kirkby Stephen, in the shadow of the Pennines of northern England -- the point where I ended my hike eastward across England from the Irish Sea at its half-way point a year ago.  I will resume the hike, completing the eastern half of the Coast to Coast path, crossing Yorkshire, and ending up at the North Sea ten days later.

I can then brag that I've crossed England twice on foot -- from east to west following Hadrian's Wall near the Scottish border in 2010, and from west to east farther south -- where England is much "fatter," some 190 miles by trail -- in 2015-16.

I will return home on July 26, my legs sturdier, my breath surer, my vowels more clipped, and licking a last few drops of English ale off my lips.  Confused Ideas from the Northwest Corner will resume publication shortly thereafter.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Chamber music

Jeewon Park, pianist
last night playing the
Mozart sonata, K.305 

Last night was the opening night of the Seattle Chamber Music Society's 35th Summer Festival.

Nine years ago, almost to the day, I wrote an ecstatic post about attending the festival, which was then held on the bucolic campus of the Lakeside School, near Seattle's northern city limits.  I frankly admitted that I was as enchanted by the campus as by the music itself.  A large number of non-paying attendees sat on the grass outside St. Nicholas Hall, eating picnics and listening to the concert from within on speakers that the festival thoughtfully provided.

Alas, since 2010, Lakeside has needed the venue for its own purposes.  The concerts are now held in the small performance auditorium in Benaroya Hall, in the heart of downtown.  Not so bucolic, not so relaxed, but significantly better acoustics.  And light rail conveys me from the UW station directly to the interior of Benaroya, a nice benefit in these days of crowded streets and expensive parking.

By the time I decided to get a ticket -- over a month ago -- there were only about three seats available for this opening performance.  One of them, fortunately, was in the third row from the stage.  The musicians were practically in my lap, their every move and expression available for my study.  (Except for the pianist, who -- because I was on the right side of the auditorium -- was hidden behind the piano.)

The festival started with a bang.  Just as the violinist in the first number (a Mozart sonata for piano and violin) put his bow to the strings, the phone of some forgetful member of the audience began ringing.  The phone's owner took an impressively long time to kill the phone -- which was probably deep in the guilty party's purse -- while the musicians paused with bemused smiles on their faces and the audience tittered nervously.

That was the one and only missed note of the evening.

Besides the opening Mozart sonata, the other numbers were a Schumann quartet for piano and strings, and one of the later Beethoven string quartets (No. 15).  All were beautifully and movingly performed, and I really couldn't have asked for a better seat. 

My only (small) complaint is that the tiny lobby space becomes extremely crowded, both before the performance and at the intermission.  Not like those days of yore, when we poured out into the summer twilight.  But that's a drawback I can live with.

The festival continues with eleven more concerts between now and the end of July.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Fourth!

It's 4 p.m. on the Fourth of July.  Somewhere in the distance, I heard a firecracker explode.  It's the first sound of the Fourth to reach my ears on a gray, chilly Fourth of July in Seattle.

I wonder when I made the transition from a kid who went crazy in his eagerness to get his hands on fireworks, legal or illegal, to a guy with two cats who worries whether an occasional explosion might frighten them into neuroses?

When I was growing up, the battle by adults over fireworks went on year after year, the battle lines moving back and forth erratically.  For us kids, the arguments roiled above our heads, sounding like distant thunder.  We worried only about concrete impacts on our ability to initiate explosions. 

My earliest memories are of seeing fireworks stands everywhere, inside and outside city limits, and drooling at the displays.

My brother and I enjoyed and tolerated the "pretty" fireworks.  They were cool, and added variety to the celebration.  They kept our parents happy.  But what we really wanted was noise and mayhem, as much as possible. 

We lit fuses and threw firecrackers and cherry bombs, delightedly aware that poorly standardized fuses endangered our fingers if we didn't throw them fast enough. We of course threw them at each other. We dropped them into ant hills, becoming ourselves the monsters we secretly feared meeting. We tied fuses together, setting off three or four together. (We occasionally lit a full string, but usually abhorred the waste doing so entailed.)  We even got creative and hid firecrackers under our toy tanks and soldiers, miniature landmines that wrecked havoc on the orderly marching of our troops -- we joyously relived the horrors of World War II and the Korean War in our own back yards, at the beach, on family picnics.

Then there were a couple of years when all fireworks, statewide I suppose, were banned absolutely.  A pall of silence fell over the land. My brother and I went in desperation to the dime store and bought rolls of "caps" -- those paper tapes with small amounts of explosives that you threaded through toy cowboy cap guns --and exploded them all at once by placing the roll on the ground and lowering a baseball bat on it full force.

There were years of county option, when fireworks were illegal in my county but, as you followed the Columbia river downstream, were legal in the adjoining county.  My brother and I, together with other kids in the neighborhood, bicycled en masse the ten or fifteen miles to the county line -- the sales booths began precisely at the line -- and loaded up on contraband to haul back home.

At present, fireworks sales and "discharge" are heavily regulated by the state, with sales and use permitted only on certain dates around the Fourth and again at New Year's.  (RCW 70.77.)  Every jurisdiction in the state may, at its option, enact stricter rules.  My old county -- hurrah! -- has no such additional restrictions.  King County, which includes Seattle, sadly bans both sales and discharge entirely, at all times.

But, of course, Washington is riddled by territories controlled by sovereign Indian tribes, each of  which is fully aware of the commercial advantages inhering in seasonal sales.  Some reservations seem little larger than the fireworks stands that stand upon them.  If you can't get it at some reservation somewhere, it probably no longer is manufactured.

Which suggests that the present complex state of the law creates a dream world for young pyrotechnicians -- it's almost as easy to find a place to buy fireworks in Washington today as it was to find a drink during prohibition. 

And yet -- I've heard one small explosion all day long, as dinner approaches.  I suppose we're more a spectator society today.  There will be beautiful formal fireworks displays this evening, including a mammoth show over Lake Union -- even if it rains.  These displays are well attended by well-behaved crowds.

As the fireworks, in dazzling and colorful splendor, break out across the entire sky, and as stirring music pours forth from the sound system, the kids sit quietly beside their parents, rapidly dismembering mythical monsters and other enemies on their iPhones.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Approaching Discworld with trepidation

Back in the primeval days of the internet, a guy with whom I was chatting in a chatroom (chatroom!  do they even still exist?) asked if I was a fan of the Discworld books.  "The what?" I asked.  Consumed with pity, he insisted that I read one that he recommended, which I did although I don't recall its title.

I'm not sure what I was expecting.  Some sort of science fiction or fantasy, obviously, but of what sort?  I was amazed and amused -- but not totally converted into the sort of fan who would insist that strangers read the books.  As I recall, Pratchett's world is not a somber world of great events, such as that conceived and written by Tolkien.   It is more like the hilariously confusing muddle of Douglas Adams's novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

After reading the recommended book, I then more or less forgot about Discworld, until a month or so ago.  I've belonged for decades to a British book club that brings out books of every sort -- mainly English classics -- in fine (but not lavish) editions.  Their most recent prospectus included an edition of Mort, one of the Discworld books.  I read the blurb, and decided it was worth a try.  The book arrived yesterday.

Discworld was the creation of recently-deceased author Terry Pratchett.  By Wikipedia's count, there are 41 books in the series.  The books are not sequential, as I understand it; each is a separate story but each is set in the same Discworld of Pratchett's imagination.

Discworld is a flatland fantasy.  Being flat, not spherical, the world has borders.  I think it gives you a flavor of the series if I say that the flat disc is balanced on the back of four elephants, which in turn stand upon a giant turtle.  I suspect -- but do not recall for a fact -- that the elephants and turtle have a sort of metaphysical, quasi-Hindu reality, but are not involved in the lives of Discworld inhabitants, human beings who are confined to the surface of the disc itself.*

Anyway, Mort arrived today, and I read the introduction.  The book is a story about Death, the human personification of death represented as a skeleton with a scythe.  But having been brought into physical existence by the human imagination, Death goes beyond his grisly duties and has hopes, interests, and dreams of his own.

The binding is beautiful, as is the somewhat macabre artwork designed especially for this edition.  But in my present state of awareness, I feel unworthy to tackle its reading.  Instead, I plan to broaden my background by downloading onto Kindle the earliest-written of the Discworld books -- The Colour of Magic.  Having first mastered what presumably were Pratchett's earliest thoughts concerning his newly-crafted world, I may feel competent to leap ahead to Mort (the fourth of the series).

Further reports as events warrant.

*(7-2-16) Actually, after reading the Prologue to The Colour of Magic, I learn that resourceful investigators in the Discworld kingdom of Krull at one time built "a gantry and pulley arrangement" over the edge of Discworld's rim. (In some ways, I imagine, similar to the platform that entrepreneurs have built out over the rim of the Grand Canyon.) They were able, like scientists who send probes to Jupiter and Saturn, "to bring back much information about the shape and nature of A'Tuin [the turtle] and the elephants."
(7-4-16) To my embarrassment, I find that not only are the elephants and turtle real and physical -- neither metaphysical nor mythical -- but that the last fourth of The Colour of Magic , the very first book of the saga, leads to the protagonist's plunging off the rim of Discworld, past the aforesaid all-too-real creatures and into the unfathomable void of space/time. The moral -- never pretend to understand a story before you read it.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Rule of irrationality

Let me just wrap up this amazing month of June in the year of Our Lord 2016 -- not by an essay or even a legitimate argument -- but by a cry of frustration about the times in which we live.

As usual, given the above, I first turn to Facebook.  Someone today posted a bitter complaint about the government's refusal to call the Orlando shootings a "terrorist act" perpetrated by "Islamic terrorists."  He insisted that the administration was caught up in "political correctness" -- apparently, out of a misplaced desire not to offend Muslims.

My own belief -- which I didn't bother expressing -- is that the perpetrator was a confused and probably mentally unbalanced young man, who may well have been overcome by some sort of homophobic panic.-- but who had also expressed sympathies with ISIS.  If he were still alive, I doubt that anyone, including a psychiatrist, could easily have untangled the various emotional, subconscious, and intellectual bases for his vicious attack. 

But American intelligence has failed to uncover any evidence that ISIS or other terrorist organizations were directing the attack or had any advance notice of his plans.  Therefore, in my humble opinion, his killings may have been influenced by his knowledge of similar terrorist attacks, and/or by sympathy with ISIS, but were not part of an organized terrorist strategy.

But my humble opinion is not the point of this post.  A comment to the gentleman's Facebook post reads as follows:

Here's the other thing, just because they cannot officially link that degenerate Florida terrorist to a SPECIFIC terrorist group DOES NOT MATTER. What, we are recognizing ISIS as ISIL now? Conceding that region of the world is a nation? And they are what, issuing passports and social numbers to people of "their nation" and ONLY CARD CARRYING "ISIL Residents "can be considered terrorists? NO. NO. NO. A terrorist is a terrorist. I don't care who he forwards email humour to, or who he sends a congrats on the birth of your 49th son to your 8th wife to.

That's not how it works. Hello? That's not how ANY of this works.

Semantics are going to be the downfall of the nation.

This writer is not illiterate.  Her words form sentences.  And yet, she makes no sense.  This month's Atlantic fortuitously arrived just after I puzzled over this woman's diatribe.  The cover article is entitled, How American Politics Went Insane: It didn't start with Trump.  It's going to get worse.  Is there a cure? 

The author, Jonathan Rauch, makes a number of excellent points.  The critical one is the total breakdown of trust by a large portion of the electorate in the American political system .  Beyond that, in my opinion, is the total breakdown of their trust in experts in any field, not just politicians.  Why believe national experts who say that vaccinations do not cause autism, when "I read somewhere on the internet that they do?"

I offer no solutions. We may be subject to a new form of mob rule for a few years or decades -- not crowds howling through the streets, but crowds howling on the internet, each demanding obedience to his or her own idiosyncratic view of "reality."

We now blunder our way into July.  And national conventions.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mount Si, revisited

At base of Haystack rock fall. 
Mt. Rainier in background 

Five years ago this month, I posted a description of the highly popular (in the Seattle area) climb of Mt. Si.  Not only is the climb popular, but that post itself has remained one of the more popular items on this blog -- it receives hits regularly, year after year, and especially summer after summer.

I mentioned in my 2011 post that I had made the climb in one hour, 40 minutes.  Since then, as sort of a diary of decline, I've added a comment each time I've repeated the climb, giving the time of ascent.

Between 2011 and 2014, I climbed Mt. Si five times, and my times kind of bounced around, not changing enough to be -- as they say -- statistically significant.  Then, last year, it rose to one hour, 49 minutes.  I treated that as a fluke, and blamed it on "congestion" on the trail.  Today, my time rose to one hour, 54 minutes.

Something is happening here, but for now I'll ignore it.  Maybe gravity in the Seattle area is increasing, because of the inward migration of so many workers and construction of so many buildings.  Maybe the earth's rotation is speeding up, and my watch shows a longer time because of relativistic effects.


Let's just say that the view from the summit -- or, from the base of the "haystack," where you emerge from the forest -- is stunning.  And the gathering of hikers of all ages, sitting precariously on boulders, eating lunches, taking photos, and admiring the world spread out before them -- makes for wholesome and inspiring people-watching.  (Today, the show at the top was especially amusing, as camp robbers dive bombed hikers' exposed lunches.  They were even landing on outstretched hands and fearlessly eating whatever goodies were offered them.)

The hike would be well worth a four hour climb, if -- God forbid -- it should come to that.  I plan to continue climbing Mt. Si at least once a year, regardless of how much time is required, as long as I can still walk.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The moors of boyhood

I struggled through the dense fog.  All sounds were muffled.  I could see but a few feet of path ahead of me.

Suddenly, to my right an enormous skeletal figure loomed.  A huge tree, its branches bare, reached out its arms.  "So cool," I thought.  "I love hiking across the endless, fogbound moors of England."

When we're young, and have had few exciting experiences, we rely on our imaginations for our adventures.  I knew I wasn't in England.  I was trudging along a city sidewalk, on my way to junior high.  I was passing a large park-like space in front of the senior high school that was adjacent to my own destination.  The fog had rolled in off the Columbia River, not the Irish Sea.  The tree that loomed above me was  perhaps twenty yards away.  It was a tree I walked past every day -- beautifully leafy in summer, forlornly leafless in winter.  But it was only a tree, a rather unexceptional tree.

But fog changed all perceptions.  Nothing was visible but the sidewalk on which I walked -- and the mysterious tree.  Sure, maybe I was merely in the home town in which I'd been born and reared.  But I might be in Yorkshire, or on Dartmoor, or creeping across the Scottish highlands.  And for a few moments -- as the shadowy tree became visible and then vanished back into the fog -- I found myself half a world away from my tedious life as a schoolboy in the Northwest Corner.

About the same year, I first read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.  I read it with shivers running deliciously down my spine.  Now my wanderings across the moors were not merely atmospheric, not merely a search in the fog for familiar landmarks -- but wanderings replete with danger.  What savage creature, eyes burning with fire, might come bounding out of the swirling mirk?  What escaped convict, desperate for his freedom, tensely awaited my approach -- knife in hand?

In a couple of weeks, I'll be hiking across the moors of northern Yorkshire.  In past summers, I've hiked across the lonely expanses of Rannoch Moor in Scotland, and on stretches of smaller moors in Westmorland.  I've loved experiencing the beauties of real, honest-to-goodness moors -- although so far they've always been sunny, never foggy.

But the real moors I've hiked as an adult have never seemed as real, as mysterious, as "English," as "moorish," or as goosebump-provoking, as those densely-fogged moors I constructed out of my imagination in junior high school.  The best stories in life are often those we make up and tell ourselves.