Thursday, January 29, 2015

Into the Pamirs

January is the month when I look back over the prior year's travel -- gazing longingly at my photographs -- and, pulling myself together, resolutely turn my thoughts to the year ahead.

About a year ago, I advised you, my readers, that I was planning a trip to Xinjiang -- a northwestern province of China, home of the Uighurs, and the scene of some on-going separatist unrest.  It was to be a somewhat relaxed, non-strenuous tour of cities and villages throughout the region.  But, the press carried word of several terrorist events and -- to my chagrin -- I turned out to be the only person to sign up.  The trip was canceled.  I traveled elsewhere.

Once again, I'm looking at that part of the world.  But this time, a bit farther to the west, into the lower Pamir ranges bordering Tajikistan (where I hiked in 2013) and Kyrgyzstan.  We would be mixing with both the Uighurs, especially down on the plateau before and after the actual trek, and, in the mountains, with Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and other ethnic groups of Central Asia. 

We would be engaged in actual trekking for about seven days, with our highest overnight stay being at 16,700 feet elevation.  We would be sleeping some nights in our own tents, and other nights in village huts, hosted by the local people.  Unlike my trek to Tajikistan, our cargo transport on this trip would be by Bactrian camels, rather than by donkey. 

If we go, we will spend a couple of nights before and a couple after the trek in Kashgar -- an ancient market town (grown considerably, I understand, in recent years) on the old Silk Road.  A stay in Kashgar would have been a feature of last years aborted trip, as well.

I've been planning to do the trip with a seventeen-year-old niece -- the same young woman with whom I hiked England's Lake District in 2012 -- and I still hope to do so.  Unfortunately, she managed to fall from a climbing wall in November, and tear her ACL.  She is due for surgery on Tuesday.  Her surgeon feels that she will be fully capable of making this trip -- but I am awaiting his post-op evaluation before signing us up.

Maya, my niece, assures me that she is "a seasoned hiker/trekker," and that trekking will not subject her knee to the same kind of risks of re-injury that activities like soccer might.  Actually, assuming her doctor gives her the go-ahead, I'll be less concerned about her abilities than my own.  My muscle strength and wind below 10,000 feet are as good as ever (I keep checking up on myself!), but over the past few years, I've noticed myself slowing down at higher elevations.  As long as no one gets upset with my arriving at destinations five or ten minutes after the rest of the group, I should do fine.

The excellent news about this proposed hike is that the trekking company already had six customers signed up several weeks ago, and it needs only a minimum of four (maximum of 14).  So -- whether or not Maya and I are aboard -- this trip is a go.

So.  Get those camels rounded up.  I'm eager to head into the Pamirs, come July!

Saturday, January 24, 2015


I grew up in a small town, up here in the Northwest Corner.  The fathers of most of my classmates worked at union labor in mills -- in mills producing lumber, paper, or aluminum. 

Many of my high school classmates -- especially those who remained in my home town -- have led lives that seem, to me, somewhat narrow and unadventurous.  And yet, as I read their own accounts every five years in reunion class books, I realize that they themselves find their lives to have been happy, satisfying, and warmly family-oriented.  Their self-respect is obvious.

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, arrived in high school nineteen years after me.  He also was born and reared in the Northwest Corner, in Yamhill, Oregon (only about 80 miles across the Columbia river from my own home town).  His column tomorrow is a tribute to one of his own classmates, Kevin Green, who died this month at the age of 54.

Nicholas served as his high school's student body president and newspaper editor, en route to a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa career, followed by a law degree from Magdalen College, Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.  Kevin, like his dad, stayed in Yamhill, working at blue collar jobs. 

But, as is usually the case in small towns, the two boys knew each other well in high school.  They took vocational courses together.  They both belonged to Future Farmers of America.  And -- as shown in the photo -- they were teammates, running cross country together.

Unlike most of the guys from similar backgrounds who I knew in high school, things didn't go well for Kevin after graduation.  Those nineteen years had made a radical difference in small town life in the Northwest.  The union  labor jobs that ensured middle class lives for my classmates were drying up.  Kevin went from job to job, on a downward spiral, as one business after another closed, in and around Yamhill.  He became injured and was laid off.  His girl friend left him, taking their two sons with her.  His health deteriorated.

Some of his problems were exacerbated by his own poor decisions.  But most of us make our share of poor decisions.  Reading Kevin's story, it's obvious that the root cause was the changing economy of the  Northwest Corner -- and of the nation in general. 

It could have been worse.  Because of his physical disabilities, federal and state government provided various forms of financial assistance.  But government couldn't provide Kevin with self-respect.

Kristof's column essentially laments the lack of empathy by the well-off for the lives and problems faced by those left behind -- and that is a point well worth making, especially because it affects profoundly our nation's political decisions.  

But there's another problem I see, one that is systemic rather than personal.

Go to India.  Go to rural Africa.  Or South America.  You will find far more poverty, as we understand it, than you will in America.  And more poor health.  But -- and I don't mean to exaggerate --  among the poor who have at least enough to eat and a roof over their heads, you will find many people leading happier lives than you might, perhaps, find in Yamhill, Oregon.  And I think the reason is self-respect.

Because of our own history and, perhaps, our lingering Calvinist philosophy, Americans have done a wonderful job of making poverty a moral failing.  In our efforts to build an economy by laissez-faire economics, we have not been satisfied to reward "success" with money.  We have found it necessary also to punish those who can't, or won't, succeed financially by heaping scorn and shame upon them.  By denying them self-respect.  Maybe we don't even realize what we're doing, but we have countless little ways of humiliating those to whom we feel financially -- and thus morally -- superior.

And I don't know the answer.  Government programs can take the edge off poverty.  Jobs programs, if they worked as intended, would give back some self-respect to those who benefitted.  But I don't know how the government can help change the mindset of those of us who look down on fellow citizens -- and that's a change that needs somehow to be made.

Kevin died of various ailments, problems that stemmed back from his inability to work.  And his eventual inability to get even poor paying jobs stemmed from his various ailments.  And his sense of shame fed into both his inability to work and his failure to manage properly his own health.  He was caught up in a vicious circle, a vicious circle that is all too familiar to too many, in most parts of the country.

I have trouble diagnosing just what went wrong in that odyssey from sleek distance runner to his death at 54, but the lack of good jobs was central to it. Sure, Kevin made mistakes, but his dad had opportunities for good jobs that Kevin never had.

If Kevin's life were an isolated tragedy, it would be tragedy enough.  But it's not.  His life ended up as a life of desperation -- one that's repeated innumerable times across the face of one of the wealthiest nations on Earth.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Opinions from the La-Z-Boy Recliner

These people are not my heroes. They've done nothing but a feat of athleticism. What good does it do, ultimately? Can we not have any priorities?
--Letter to editor, New York Times

Caldwell and Jorgenson's climb of El Capitan's Dawn Wall has drawn gasps of admiration and hearty congratulations from around the world.  It has also drawn the predictable negativism.

At this point, the New York Times alone has published 343 reader comments on the accomplishment, comments presenting all possible points of view in a generally more literate manner than comments found on, say, Yahoo News.  I won't try to analyze the competing arguments.

Except to say that if "what good does it do?" is the decisive question, we toss away many of the more exciting moments of life, and sneer at many of our humanity's finest aspirational instincts -- our instincts as a species, if not necessarily those possessed by each individual. 

Why fly to the Moon or to Mars?  Why climb Everest?  Why run a marathon, or a 10k?  Why swim the Channel?  Why sail solo from America to Tahiti? 

Maybe the complaints are less about the activity itself than about the barrage of publicity given the climbers' success?  "Let them have their fun, but why should anyone else be expected to applaud?"

As one NYT correspondent commented, a funny argument to hear coming from a people so totally focused at present on the NFL play-offs.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Faux spring

Today is January 14.  Just two weeks ago we celebrated New Year's Eve.  More than half of January's normally dreary month still lies before us, threatening the Northwest Corner with snow storms, constant rain, days both dark and short, and that sense of general malaise that sends those with time and money south to brighter climes for the duration.

And yet, for the past three or four days, we've enjoyed beautiful, sunny days.  Not warm -- in the 40s during the day, the 30s at night -- but sunny.  The shade's been chilly, but the sun's felt warm and comforting.  The sky, deep blue.  The snowy mountains have shone sharp and crisp, both to the west and to the east.  Mount Rainier looms to the south, its ridges and couloirs sharpened by long shadows, as the sun rides low on the horizon.

It's January, and yet pleasure boats  pass back and forth between Lake Washington and the Sound.  Not sailboats, not yet, but power boats with warm, cozy cabins.  As I cross the University campus, I see varied sartorial approaches to the winter sun.  Most students are dressed like me -- a parka, or at least a warm fleece jacket or hoody.  But many others wear shorts.  Some -- probably not California transplants -- even sport cotton t-shirts.

I suspect those wearing shorts or t-shirts of magical thinking.  "If I dress as though it were spring, spring shall appear."  And yet Mother Nature does indeed offer hints that -- January or no -- spring does indeed lie dead ahead.  My secret flowering tree, just outside the Mechanical Engineering Building, serves annually as my own, private Climatic Oracle -- it's the first bloom I sight each year, the harbinger of Spring.  Yep, a tiny bud bursting into flower foretells the future, to my eyes, with less ambiguity than any sooth telling at Delphi.

And on Monday, two days ago, incredibly early, its first bud burst into bloom.

And so, I can't help it.  Ground Hog Day still lies almost three weeks in the future, and yet my thoughts already lightly turn to thoughts of Spring.  If this be Global Warming (I rejoice), let Los Angeles or Miami suffer its ravages.  In Seattle, I for one welcome Spring in mid-January.

Recklessly joyful, I turn to the weather report.  Oh.  Rain tomorrow!  Rain through the weekend!  Temperatures in the forties, day and night. 

Silly me.  Should have known better.

Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.  Proverbs 37:1.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Hollow Land

Eight-year-old Bell Teesdale watches with wonder when a family of Londoners -- "talking South" -- arrive to rent his parents' farm house.  "There's not owt for 'em here.  What's use of a farm to them?  Just for sitting in.  Never a thing going on." 

The visitors get off to a rocky start with their summer landlords -- the older visitors do, that is, but not their 5 or 6-year-old son Harry.  When the Batemans are about to cancel their vacation because they find the sounds of haying too noisy, Bell watches the younger boy.

I sees this little lad, Harry, looking out of his bedroom window and I catches his eye.  And somehow I know he's all right, this one, London boy or not.  I know he understands how we have to make all this racket to see hay cut ahead of rain.

The boys become fast friends, the Batemans end up staying -- and returning year after year -- and the ensuing stories revolve about the boys' friendship and adventures, as they age year by year, into their early teens.

Diligent followers of my blog will recall that, in 2012, my niece and I hiked some 70 miles through England's Lake District.  We climbed fells, jumped over becks, walked beside tarns, crossed meadows, and enjoyed the rain.  We talked to other hikers; we exchanged pleasantries with innkeepers.  What we didn't do is talk to the folks who lived in the Lake District and who made their living from pursuits other than tourism.

Maybe in the Lake District, everyone makes his living from tourism?  I don't know. 

But I now know something of how folks live in Westmoreland, the former county (now absorbed into Cumbria) immediately to the east of the Lake District.  After reading a laudatory review in the New York Times book section, I purchased and have just finished reading Jane Gardam's achingly beautiful collection of stories entitled The Hollow Land, published in 1981 in England and now published in America.

Most of the stories have the shadow of a plot -- being trapped in a mine (the title refers to how the village and the Teesdales' farmland, rising up into the fells to the east, are built over a honeycomb of abandoned silver mines); visiting a scary old woman who sells eggs (the "Egg-Witch"); listening with a combination of scepticism and fear to local ghost stories, while outside the English rains beat down without mercy; a long bike ride and hike through bitter cold, at Bell's urgent insistence, to behold a wondrous display of icicles, icicles that raise philosophical questions in the youngsters' minds; a run-in with gypsies, who prove scarier by reputation than they are in person. 

But these plotlines serve primarily as devices for the author to describe with intensity and in detail the awe-inspiring beauty and the eccentric characters of the inhabitants of this corner of Westmoreland.  She shows, without editorializing, how city dwellers -- including the Batemans, until they become acclimated -- zoom through life in a daze, failing to observe the wonders about them that are so obvious to the shepherds and farmers of the countryside.  Not even professed lovers of nature -- trail hikers -- are exempt from Bell's boyish scorn:

They walk in clumps -- great fat orange folk with long red noses and maps in plastic cases flapping across their stomachs.  Transisters going sometimes too, and looking at nowt before them but their own two feet. 

I  think back over my own hikes in Britain.  I can only hope I seemed different!

But it's not just the beauty of nature that Londoners ignore, and it's not only how the land serves harmoniously to raise crops and graze sheep and cows.  What is equally important to the families who live here -- and whose ancestors have lived here from time immemorial -- is the history they have inherited.  And if the history at times includes questionable horrors and terrifying ghosts -- the combination of history and legend and folk tale is a force that binds them to the soil and to each other.  

Mrs. Teesdale and Mrs. Bateman set out for the antique shop about half past two.  It was only a few miles over Stainmore, over the wonderful old road the Greeks and Celts and Romans and Vikings, Angles, Saxons, and the odd Jute had used before them more adventurously.  Ghost upon ghost haunts this road from Greta Bridge, where a spirit got caught under a stone and twice they've had to put her back; to the blue ghost you can see sometimes on bright sunny afternoons near Bowes, the wife of a Saxon lord still wearing her Saxon dress, but without her head; to the white ghost near the old mines who walks quietly in her apron.

Londoners may have their transistors and their holidays on Spanish beaches; what they have lost is the richness of a life unself-consciously enmeshed in history and in nature.

The final chapter jumps ahead twenty years to 1999, when Bell and Harry have become adults, and when the flow of petroleum has for unstated reasons dried up.  Horses, railroads, and steam engines are again of critical importance.  But the paradise of the Teesdales' world is threatened by a figure who represents all that endangers the family's happiness and their orderly world  -- selfishness, rapacity, and an unthinking hunger for mineral wealth that gladly and willingly sacrifices both history and nature.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Decision by rationalization

Why in heaven's name would I need an iPhone?

As I'd often remarked to whomever would listen, watching eyes glaze over: --"I have a perfectly good clamshell cell phone.  At home, I have a good PC, with wide screen and printer.  I'm in the house most of the time, within steps of my PC.  I often forget to take my cell phone with me when I do step out, because I make so few calls and receive so few calls.  If I do receive any calls that aren't solicitations, they'll leave a voice mail and I'll call them back within a few hours of their call.  And if I can't be bothered to carry a small cell phone in my pocket, what am I going to do with a humongous iPhone?"

And I had watched relatives who had once scorned the idea of a smart phone become addicted as soon as they got their hands on one.  All conversations then became subject to immediate interruption the moment a new email or text message arrived.  That image itself was enough -- almost -- to settle the matter in my own mind.

How would an iPhone improve my life?  Especially when it would cost so much more? 

Then, on my trip to New York in November, I managed to lose my cell phone.  One piece of my carefully constructed argument was missing.  What now?  Should I replace my antique cell phone?  "Why not replace it with a crank phone and just ring up Central to place your calls?" an evil voice in my ear whispered?  Or should I, to use AT&T's honeyed phrase, "upgrade"?

I'm being rational, I told everyone.  I'm sticking with my good old Nokia.  I laughingly explained my situation to my vast audience of Facebook friends.  Am I not right, I asked rhetorically.  "No," they shouted back, non-rhetorically.  "Get the iPhone!"

I went back to the AT&T webpage (no way would I subject myself to a salesperson at a store).  I compared prices.  I'd be doubling my monthly phone charges.  But I'd get a huge discount on the purchase price of the phone itself if I committed myself to a two-year contract.  (As if I'd ever take the initiative to change phone plans within two years in any event!)

I caved in.  With one click on-line, I signed up.  Within three days, my iPhone arrived in the mail.

I activated it.  It's sleek, black, and devilishly handsome.  The images are amazingly sharp and the color is excellent.  While the quality of photos I take with it doesn't match those I take with my SLR camera, it works well enough for on-the-spot snapshots when I'm not carrying a camera. 

I haven't added any apps.  I can do nothing to date that I couldn't do before.  Was it worth the cost?  Maybe.  Spontaneous photos are cool, and I can upload them immediately to Facebook or email them.  Constant access to Facebook and emails is sort of a silly benefit, for a guy in my situation, but it's fun.  I can reply to texts quite easily; it was a painstaking process with my old phone.  These are all fairly marginal benefits, at a somewhat significant price.

But it does actually slip into my pocket just as easily as did my old cell phone.

Maybe the real justification is one that's embarrassing to admit.  I've evaded, for the moment, the quiet, unnerving suspicion that I wasn't "keeping up."  That new technology and its lingo were racing past me.  That I was becoming the old codger who crank-started his Model T after everyone else had automatic transmissions and power steering, shouting, "Why pay all that money for a new car when old Betsy works just fine?"

And now another little voice, the one named "Buyer's Remorse," whispers in my ear, now that it's too late, "Maybe that old codger was on to something!"

Friday, January 2, 2015

The trumpet sounded forth

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
--Battle Hymn of the Republic

On April 9, 1865,  General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.  The North had won, and the Confederacy had been defeated.

Since then, the Confederacy has more or less taken over Abraham Lincoln's Republican party, forced its values on the federal government, and defined itself as the True Voice of Christianity.

And established its universities as bastions of football glory.  Its coaches bragged, and the media agreed, that Southern teams were different -- faster, stronger, more clever.  Invincible.  Until yesterday.

By defeating Alabama, Ohio State yesterday ended a series of nine straight years during which at least one Southeastern Conference (SEC) school played for the national championship.  Oregon destroyed and humiliated Florida State, a southern school from a different conference.  Michigan State beat Baylor, from Texas, with the MSU band, in the background, playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  And down in Tampa, Wisconsin defeated Auburn, Alabama's cross-state SEC rival.

On New Year's Day, 2015, Southern football fortresses fell one after another -- defeated by northern and western teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12.  It was glorious!  Hallelujah!

The South will rise again, of course.  It seemingly always does. But for one perfect day, its teams were forced to beat their swords into ploughshares, and surrender once again to those damn Yankees.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another year

So 2014 drags itself to a pathetic close. What kind of year was it?  Not much to write home about.

Not as bad, perhaps, as 1814, when the British burned the White House.  The Republicans never quite achieved that level of  malevolence.  Nor as bad as 1914, when the combined stupidity of the "civilized nations" managed to result in a war that ended civilization for the middle class as it had until then existed.

But it wasn't a great year.  Climate change and increased volatility of weather.  Vladimir Putin -- the leader of a nuclear power whose judgment, if not mental stability, seems more and more in question.  Ever increasing partisanship and gridlock here at home.  Ever increasing chaos and hatred overseas, especially in the Middle East.  Terrorism, no longer just an extreme statement of deeply felt political beliefs, but a pursuit that some individuals seem to enjoy for its own sake.  Airline crashes and other disasters, natural or accidental.

I can't see any trends of improvement as I look forward to 2015 -- but then I'm not sure things will be worse, either. 

At least the Seahawks are in the NFL playoffs, and, of course, that's really all that matters, right?

While the world seemed in bad shape in 2014, my own life was very enjoyable.  Trips to Africa and to Hawaii with family.  A visit to Laos to visit my great niece and her mom.  Excellent health (knock on wood!).  A piano to play, books to read, and a blog to write. 

The disconnect between personal happiness and world dysfunction is disturbing, when I think about it.  How many Roman citizens were leading happy, rewarding lives while the barbarians -- largely ignored -- were at the gate?  How many Virginians worried about the success of the tobacco crop while the British were burning Washington?  How many bright English kids were excited about starting university studies at Oxford and Cambridge as the war began that would send them all to their deaths in the trenches?

Worth thinking about, but there's nothing wrong in looking forward with a dash of optimism, as well.  Let's hope 2015 will see the world as a happier place than we anticipate on its Eve. 

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"When I Was a Dynamiter"

Me at 14, visiting Lee in Wilmette.
Oddly, I can't find a photo
of Lee himself. 
I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?
--"Stand By Me" (narrator)

If we're lucky -- whether boy or girl, rich or poor -- we had one or two friends as kids with whom we were so close that we took our friendship for granted.  Sometimes we keep these friends for a lifetime.  More often, however, we move apart or drift apart as years go by.  Years later, we look back and wonder whatever happened to good old so-and-so.

If in your declining years, your childhood friend writes a memoir that reawakens distant memories, you're doubly lucky. And even luckier if the memoir illuminates not only your friend's personal life, but also the life of his entire generation and of his country.

My friend's name was Lee Quarnstrom, and his memoir, available from Amazon, is entitled When I Was a Dynamiter.  To briefly summarize, Lee was an early member of Ken Kesey's "Merry Pranksters," a friend and confidant of beatniks such as Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, a tramp, a wanderer, an editor of Hustler magazine, a buddy of Hustler owner Larry Flynt and of journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  And, in later years, a reporter, a columnist, and an editor for the San Jose Mercury News.

Lee's book is described in fuller detail on the Amazon website, and in readers' enthusiastic reviews on that website (including my own).  If you have any interest in America in the 1960s, and/or in the fascinating folks who lived during that era -- I urge you to buy the book, or download it on Kindle.

As I did myself, in part for those very reasons.  But reading the book also brought back happy memories of my own childhood. 

Lee and I met in kindergarten, and shared the same classroom every year through fourth grade, after which he transferred to a newly-opened parochial school.  Because we lived just a few blocks from each other, however, we continued to see each other almost daily.  In sixth grade, his family moved to Bethesda, Maryland, and later to Wilmette, Illinois.  They returned to his home town each summer, however, and Lee and I spent much of each summer hanging out together.  When we were 14, I traveled to Wilmette and spent three weeks with his family, a dramatic episode in my own life that reinforced my already strong inclinations toward becoming a compulsive traveler. 

We took each other's family for granted.  We were in and out of each other's house, ate each other's food (I don't recall his mother's being the cook from hell described in his book), and treated each other's parents as the pleasant but vaguely irrelevant individuals that they were.  His dad was city editor of our local newspaper, county coroner, and two-time unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress.  I was fully aware of all this, but not impressed.  He was just Lee's father, a guy with an inexplicable fascination for heavy-weight boxing matches.

We visited for the last time as kids at the age of 15, the summer following ninth grade, when he spent a couple of weeks at my house, before and after attending Y Camp at the base of then-still-intact Mt. St. Helens.  I enjoyed our visit, but as I look back I can see the first intimations of diverging lives -- the first time it had occurred to me that he was an extravert and an adventurer, while I was an introvert with a much more cautious personality.

But nothing of that troubled our friendship between 5 and 15.  The wonder of childhood is the ability to spend hours happily without -- as you look back -- being able to recall what you'd been doing.  We were both excellent students -- top two kids in our class -- and we were both obsessively verbal.  And so we talked -- a lot.  We played endless games of Monopoly, with innovative rules of our own devising.  We traded with each other, as his memoir reminds me, from our vast collections of comics ("funny books"). We developed stamp collections that we treated as competing empires, but empires that maintained trade relations with each other . 

Neither of us had any interest in team sports, a lack of interest that by fourth grade or so would have thrust us both out of boyhood society, but for our redeeming qualities.  Such as -- of course -- our mutually outlandish senses of humor.

Lee spent our older years together trying to convert me to his own religious faith, while at the same time -- I now learn from his memoir -- he was already drifting away into indifference at best.  But as Scott Fitzgerald reminds us: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  Ironically, he may have planted the religious seeds that took root in my own mind several years later.

We wrote each other, occasionally, following that fifteenth summer.  At the end of our junior year, we learned, to our surprise, that we had both been selected chief editor of our respective high school newspapers.  Journalism ultimately became Lee's career.  I eventually became an attorney, but journalism probably had a lasting effect on the way I think and -- sometimes -- the way I write.  I saw him once while in college, and received a few letters from him over the years.  He once sent me a column he had published in the Mercury News, re-publishing a column his dad had allowed him to write in third grade for the Longview Daily News.  The column included his youthful observations of my own third grade peculiarities. He named names.

Lee and I met in person for the first time in years about six years ago.  We've kept in touch virtually every week -- the wonders of email!  -- ever since.  He's still smart; he's still funny; he's still nuts.  I had good taste as a kid in my choice of friends.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Memories of seventh grade past

Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo
'Cause tonight I'm gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun we'll have big fun on the bayou.

I've just emerged from the shower, and am in the midst of preparing for my Christmas trip to Southern California, where I'll get together with my brother's family, including my niece and 4-year-old great niece. 

But while showering, I found the melody and some of the words to "Jambalaya" going through my brain, and then, as often happens in the shower, on my lips.  It took me back to seventh grade, when "Jambalaya" was one of the first "pop tunes" to which I recall really listening.  I had been only vaguely conscious of popular songs in sixth grade, and by eighth grade my interest was already fading.

But in seventh grade, in a new school surrounded by a different socio-economic mix of classmates, I felt -- probably for the first time -- the need to "fit in," the force of peer pressure.  I insisted that I needed to own more sweaters, in the then-popular pastel colors.  And they had to be "Columbia Knit" sweaters -- the only acceptable brand name -- because other guys greeted you by grabbing the back of the sweater and flipping it over to check out the manufacturer. 

Similarly, I listened obsessively to the radio, because all the talk every Monday was of the latest line-up of the Top Ten tunes of the week.  The official listing -- as eagerly anticipated as today's AP rankings of college football teams -- was announced to the nation on "Lucky Lager Dance Time" -- which could be received in the isolated Northwest Corner only by carefully dialing in powerful KFBK in Sacramento.

Your mother was crying
Your father was crying
And I was crying too ...

And I was close to crying myself, listening to Patti Page sing "I Went to Your Wedding."  At my first seventh grade dance, boys and girls who already knew what was what were dancing a bouncy swing dance called the shag to a modern rendition of "Glow Worm" -- probably unaware that their grandparents had courted to the same song.  I, on the other hand, was still falling all over myself trying to master a slow two-step.

Don't let the stars get in your eyes
Don't let the moon break your heart
Love blooms at night
In daylight, it dies.

By eighth grade, the "typical teenager" stars in my firmament were fading.  My stolid Scandinavian confidence in my own geeky interests and pursuits was becoming re-established, and by the dawn of ninth grade my craving to conform -- although never completely dead -- was clearly moribund.  It was fun to have a short experience of being a true teenager, or at least appearing as one, as "true teenagers" were then viewed.  Luckily, it was a phase I passed through quickly.

Vaya con dios, my darling
Vaya con dios, my love.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lift up your voices

Until about my fifteenth birthday, I could sing soprano.

I suppose it's not so amazing that I could sing soprano as it is that I could sing.  In my first year or so of piano lessons, I was required to count as I played -- "one-and two-and three-it-is-a four-and."  I couldn't keep myself from singing the count, at a very high pitch, along with the music.  My teacher looked pained, as though he had a splitting headache.  He warned me that I would ruin my voice.

He was right.  But not until I turned 15.

Within a few months, not only did my voice deepen, but my range dropped to about half an octave.  Where it has remained to this very day.  Now, when forced into group singing, I chant the words in a monotone, as softly as possible, hoping to annoy my neighbors as little as possible.

I so ruminate over the sad history of my voice, because I've been recalling how much I enjoyed singing at school concerts at this time of year when I was in fifth and sixth grades.  We were divided, as I recall, into soprano, second soprano, and alto.  Participation in these concerts was nothing we auditioned for.  We all sang, our entire class, canaries and crows alike, both in school assemblies and in a public performance for the entertainment and joy of our proud parents. 

I enjoyed every song we sang, and I don't recall ever worrying about staying in tune.  (What I felt and what the chorus director might have felt may have differed, of course.)  By seventh grade, however, "chorus" was a separate class composed of kids with a special talent for -- or at least interest in -- singing, and my days of public warbling were over.  We non-chorus and non-orchestra dolts continued to have "general music" classes through eighth grade, in which we sang together for our own amusement, but we were not allowed to threaten outside audiences with our efforts.

Our fifth and sixth grade Christmas concerts included both secular and sacred seasonal songs.  By "sacred," I certainly don't mean Bach and Handel, but traditional carols, of a sort familiar even in a logging town.  And by secular, I mean "Rudolph" and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas."  No one ever distinguished between the two categories.  We kids certainly didn't.  The songs were all just "Christmas music." 

Now, of course, I doubt whether public schools are permitted to offer explicitly "Christmas" concerts.  A quick Yahoo search doesn't result in any such concerts, at least as presented to the general public, by the Seattle public schools.  The far greater religious diversity of today's population probably makes the offering of any such concert problematic.

But Christmas choral music by kids lives on, at a very high quality, in the Northwest Boys Choir, which offers a "Festival of Carols and Lessons" each year at this time.  Performances are given at a number of area churches, leading up to a couple of performances at St. Mark's Cathedral, and, finally, at Benaroya Hall downtown.  I haven't attended this year, but have occasionally in years past.  The experience is breathtaking, and only faintly similar to my fondest memories of our fifth and sixth grade concerts.

The "Festival" is based on Anglican services at King's College, Cambridge.  Boys alternate giving seasonal readings from scripture, and singing traditional English carols.  As I recall, the service takes place in a darkened church or auditorium, lit by candles.  Attending the performance is an excellent way to get into the "Christmas spirit," and I can't understand why I haven't gone this year.

Most of us will never possess as adults the purity of tone and range of pitch we had when we were 12 or 13, but the "Festival" gives us a chance to relive that experience vicariously, as well as to appreciate listening, as adults, to beautiful seasonal music sung to very high standards.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rage against the machine

"Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." (Orange Catholic Bible)
--Frank Herbert, "Dune"

The interconnectedness of events is often surprising.  Last month, I wrote a post ("A bad idea abandoned") about the removal of the final reminders of a "bad idea" -- the once-proposed R. H. Thompson freeway.  The freeway was to have paralleled I-5 on the east side of Seattle. For the past month, construction workers have been removing access ramps between east-west State Route 520 and a freeway that was never built.

Today, I read a disconcerting article in the New York Times discussing the manner in which automation results, and will continue to result, in ever-increasing unemployment, unemployment that appears structural, not cyclical.  Fewer and fewer jobs exist that can't now be, or won't soon be, handled as well or better by a computer.  For the first time in modern history, technological advances may create a permanent, rather than temporary, decrease in the number of human workers required by society. 

How will we handle a world in which wealth is increasing, but a smaller and smaller percentage of the population are wage earners?

Interesting and important questions, but where did I find an "interconnectedness"?

Science fiction writer Frank Herbert presented, in his Dune series of books, a civilization that had adapted to a form of Luddite revolution -- the "Butlerian jihad" -- thousands of years earlier.  A religion had evolved out of that jihad, based largely on the commandment barring artificial intelligence quoted above. 

Frank Herbert -- one of our own Northwest Corner writers, residing in Port Townsend, Washington -- named the jihad after a fictional historical character in his story.  But he adopted the name "Butler" after one of his own real life buddies, an attorney from Stanwood named Frank Butler. 

And what did attorney Butler do that inspired Herbert to use his name?  Correct!  Before becoming an attorney, Butler was a community organizer who  helped set in motion the popular revolt that eventually led to the cancellation, in 1970, of the R. H. Thompson freeway.

Frank Butler is still very much alive according to Bar Association records, and still practicing law in Stanwood.  He thus has a dual claim to the attention of history -- (1) a moving force in prevention of a freeway that would have marred a large portion of residential Seattle, and (2) as a consequence, the inspiration for Dune's eponymous "Butlerian jihad." 

Well done, Mr. Butler.

Caution:  In researching this post, I have been unable to find any reference to Butler's campaign efforts against the R. H. Thompson, aside from a Wikipedia cite to an article in the Everett Herald in 2000.

Friday, December 12, 2014

All good doggies go to heaven

Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.
--Pope Francis

Pope Francis is learning the same sad lesson that American politicians have learned:  In an internet world, nothing is "off the record."  Words of consolation to a grieving child have stirred up world-wide theological controversy.  A lengthy article analyzing those eight (in English translation) words is at present the most e-mailed story out of the New York Times.

Animal lovers square off against theological conservatives, as well as against lovers of logic and just plain skeptics.  So if Rover goes to heaven, many ask, what about mosquitoes?  What about Ebola viruses?  Plants?  Do we all need to be vegetarians?  What if plants have souls, too -- must we starve to death?

Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, historically has displayed an irrepressible urge to pronounce on matters that have not been revealed in revelation and that are not necessary for salvation -- based solely (no pun intended) on what, in the applicable century, was at that time considered sound logic.  (Check with Galileo on this topic.)

I hope this issue won't result in another such pronouncement.

Why does it matter whether dogs, cats, or protons go to heaven?  It matters no more -- and is less interesting -- than the question of whether intelligent life in a distant galaxy will end up there.  As for those NYT correspondents who say they don't want to go to heaven if they can't have their cat join them, as well as those who claim that heaven would be hell because of their allergy to cat hair -- just relax, ok?

Things are going to be different in heaven.  Assuming we meet the admission requirements, so will we.  Radically different.  My pastor once addressed an analogous question -- I think it was how a woman could put up with being married to more than one guy in heaven, when she had remarried after being widowed -- by saying, essentially: "Don't be an idiot.  No one knows what the afterlife will be like.  We will be living in a totally different plane of reality."  Christians simply have been advised that they'll like it.

Everyone who upsets himself on either side of the "dog in heaven" controversy should read science fiction.  Not because science fiction will give you any answers, but as a way of limbering up your imagination and helping you realize that the nature of ultimate reality -- to paraphrase a famous physicist -- may be not only stranger than you imagine, but stranger than you can imagine.

So, don't sweat it.  I'm convinced that all will work out for the best, whatever the "best" might be -- not just for us humans, but for dogs, mosquitoes, redwood trees, and viruses.

Even Ebola viruses. Assuming they've been good Ebola viruses.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The cranes are flying

In Seattle, today, not all is well behind the glossy surface. The shops are crowded with shoppers, but actual sales are reported to be unnervingly poor. Towering buildings are being erected by mobs of hard-hatted construction workers -- but, if you notice, no new construction has begun within the past six months, maybe even a year. The streets at lunch hour are packed with office workers, but each day the newspaper carries stories announcing new lay offs.
--Confused Ideas from the Northwest Corner (Dec. 8, 2008)

Yes, it was just six years ago tomorrow that I looked about me and contemplated the likelihood that we were entering a deflationary spiral, one that had already been anticipated by the virtual cessation of all downtown Seattle construction.  The lights, I felt, paraphrasing Sir Edward Grey, were going out all over Seattle.

By 2008, I should have fully internalized the lesson that I first formulated in my small brain back in college -- the lesson that things are rarely either as good or as bad as they seem at any given moment.

As I look around Seattle today -- and this has been true for the past year or two -- I see a virtual forest of building cranes.  The commercial building boom is most noticeable in the South Lake Union district, immediately north of the traditional downtown, but is evident throughout the entire downtown area, and up onto the heights of Capitol Hill.  South Lake Union's dynamism has been spurred largely by Amazon's continued expansion, with three entire blocks adjacent to the retail core being developed for the behemoth's world headquarters. 

But skyscrapers are springing up elsewhere, everywhere -- office buildings, hotels, condominium and apartment buildings.  Moreover, we are witnessing an impressive increase in retail stores and restaurants, opened by businessmen eager to support present and future workers, guests, and residents in these new buildings.

The New York Times published a full page travel article on Seattle last month, offering enthusiastic recommendations for restaurants that didn't exist a year or so ago.

I need to keep my mantra in mind -- it's never as good, as well as bad, as it seems.  Seattle and the Puget Sound area are booming, but much of Washington away from the Sound still suffers from a permanent loss of its traditional logging, fishing, and shipping industries.  And the nation as a whole still suffers from massive unemployment -- with many of the unemployed educationally unprepared for new jobs in the new technological economy.

But life is looking good for most of us in Seattle.  Caution about the future is always important, but so is enjoyment of life at the present. 

The lights have come back on, all over Seattle.  Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Visitors from afar

One drawback to life in the Northwest Corner -- I suppose that some of you might instead consider it an advantage -- is that we do in fact live in a corner, and thus off the mainstream routes of American intercity travel.  No one drops by for a visit, as he passes through Seattle on his way to somewhere else.

Visiting Seattle or Portland requires an element of real determination, in some folks' mind -- like travel to Africa.  Or, at least, England.

For Californians, coming north across the Siskiyous into Oregon and beyond represents travel into a great, unknown, empty, green and moldy wetness.  For Easterners, even those who no longer fear sudden Indian raids, it's a heck of a long trip across the prairies.  Even flying over the prairies.

So, I was happy to have three members of my family up for Thanksgiving.  My sister, like me, was born and raised in the Northwest, and so lacks some of the fear and trembling that apparently seizes non-natives.  Clinton and their adult son are Californians through and through but, over the years, have grown accustomed to brief forays into our local fishing villages and lumbering towns, our potlatches and bar brawls.

So the three drove up, and arrived on Tuesday.  We celebrated mother and son birthdays that night at a downtown steak house (now-Californian Kathy has retained certain atavistic cravings from her less sophisticated childhood).  We did some in-town hiking under gray and threatening skies at Seward Park -- a large and still forested Seattle city park.  My guests cheerfully (fully aware of my inept cooking abilities) took on the responsibility of preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, large enough to feed most the city's homeless, for the four of us.

And, on Friday, we had a light dinner downtown, and then took the monorail out to McCaw Hall in the Seattle Center where we watched Pacific Northwest Ballet's first 2014 performance of the Nutcracker

In 1983, PNB commissioned Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) to design new sets for a complete re-working of the familiar Christmas ballet, and has presented that production annually ever since.  It was Sendak's and the PNB's artistic director's decision to return to the ballet's roots in the original story by E. T. A. Hoffman.  Sendak felt that the oft-repeated ballet had become boring and predictable, and he hoped to re-emphasize the more unsettling aspects of the story.  He has written that, as usually performed, the ballet

is smoothed out, bland, and utterly devoid not only of difficulties but of the weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece. 

Unfortunately, this year will be the last in which the Sendak sets and the associated choreography will be presented.  Next year, PNB will perform the more traditional 1954 Balanchine production.

We had seen PNB's Nutcracker exactly ten years ago, and loved it then.  I liked it even more Friday night, maybe because I knew I'd never see it performed this way again.  The sets were, of course, dramatic.  The battles between toy soldiers and sword-bearing mice were exciting enough to keep the kids -- of whom there were many in the audience -- wide awake.  Drosselmeyer -- the young heroine's god father and a local magician -- was one-eyed, strange in appearance and behavior, and interested insistently enough in all the small children on-stage to create a feeling of unease in the adult members of the audience. 

Overall, the production was often funny, always beautiful, and well-danced by both adult and child members of the cast -- all without losing that sense of the weird, the dark, and the eerie that Sendak and PNB's art direction had hoped to achieve.

The ballet was a highly successful conclusion to a very welcome visit by my relatives.  I was sorry to see them leave town and return to the lotus-eating pleasures of their California lifestyle.