Friday, February 23, 2018

The Virgin Spring

"Hvad ska' vi nu göra för syndamehn?"
"Vi ska' bygga en kyrka af kalk å sten.
Den kyrkan skall heta Kerna
Den skall vi bygga upp så gerna."
"What shall we do for our sins?"
"We shall build a church of lime and stone.
That church will be named Kerna,
                                                      And we will willingly build it."

I viewed The Virgin Spring last night, the sixth in the Seattle Art Museum's current Ingmar Bergman series.  It's a harsh movie of a harsh time -- widely acclaimed when it was released in 1960, but also criticized by some.  Fort Worth, Texas, banned it as "obscene," which by today's standards seems absurd. 

The film is based on an ancient, thirteenth-century ballad, "Töres döttrar i Wänge" ("Töre's daughters in Vänge"), and appears set in that century.  Several characters appear to be still pagan, followers of Odin, and the movie contains elements of both paganism and Christianity. 

Christianity became established in Sweden in the 12th century.  Pat M., with whom I've been seeing this series, suggested after the conclusion that he suspected the ballad had been essentially pagan, with a Christian overlay to satisfy the relatively new religion.   This certainly seems plausible, or the ballad may have originated at a time when both pagan and Christian ideas floated about together and were confused in many people's minds.

The film's plot deviates in important respects from the ballad, but it was the film -- Bergman's own vision -- that we watched last night.  As in the 14th century Swedish world that Bergman portrayed in The Seventh Seal, life was fragile, starvation was always just around the corner, and for those not blessed with minimal security, passion was something you grabbed any time the opportunity presented itself.

Töre and Märeta are a devoutly Christian married couple who lived in what, for the times, passed as a secure life as landed farmers.  Their only surviving child is a beautiful, sweet, but excessively spoiled daughter, Karin.  Karin is sent out to carry newly formed candles to their parish church, a rather lengthy horseback ride through the forest.  Being vain, she insists on wearing her most expensive clothes.

On the way, she has the misfortune of meeting three brothers, goatherds, who lure her off her horse and into conversation.  One brother is sweet-talking and crafty, another is unable to speak -- both are scary in appearance and clearly up to no good.  The third is a boy, about 12 or 13, who only witnesses the events that follow.

After sharing her food with the brothers, Karis is brutally raped by both older brothers and then killed with a blow to the head.  The two elder brothers strip her and put her fine clothes into their bags, telling the boy to keep an eye on the goats until they get back.  Stunned by what he's witnessed, the boy finally approaches Karin's body and tosses several ritual handfuls of dirt over her.

Karin's family members are worried sick when she does not return from her errand, but they extend hospitality to the three brothers when they unwittingly appear, starving, at the home of the girl they've just murdered.  The eldest brother shows the mother the expensive, but bloody and torn, cloak of her daughter, offering to sell it.  She shows great control and says she needs to discuss it with her husband.  She quietly bars the exit to their quarters as she leaves the guest house.

When Töre sees the garment, and hears a confirmation of his daughter's murder from her frightened pagan servant, he methodically goes to the sauna, beats himself with birch branches, washes, and puts on his war clothes.  He enters the brothers' room, stabs the speechless brother, and chokes the eldest to death.  Approaching the terrified boy, who had been unable to eat dinner out of shock and had been beaten at bedtime by his brothers, he hesitates only slightly and then lifts the lad over his head and smashes him lifeless into the wall.

The family and their servants later visit the scene of the murder.  Each feels guilty.  Each feels that actions or failures to act on his or her part had caused God to cause of allow Karin's death.  The pagan servant is overcome by remorse, because she had been jealous of the beautiful daughter and had prayed to Odin for the girl to somehow die.  The father fears that he had harbored incestuous feelings toward his own daughter, and realizes that his vengeance against the brothers, and especially the boy, were sins without justification. 

Töre walks away from the family, who are grieving over the girl's body, and asks God where he was hiding, why he allowed such horrors to occur.  But, he sobs in prayer, he has no other way of making sense of life but to seek God's forgiveness.  As a penance, he promises to build at the site of the murder a new church with his own bare hands.  Not a wooden church, as were most in Sweden, but a church of "lime and stone," as he know existed in more civilized parts of Europe.

He picks up Karin's body, and as he does so a miraculous spring bursts forth from the earth, a sign of God's forgiveness.

A disturbing film, a beautifully photographed film, and a story that stays with you after you leave the auditorium.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

City at night

I wanted this walk never to end.  The silent and deserted alley was altogether murky and its ancient, pockmarked cobblestones glistened in the damp air, as though an ancient carrier had spilled the viscous contents of his amphora before disappearing underground in the ancient city.  Everyone had left Rome.  And the emptied city, which had seen too many and seen them all, now belonged to us alone and to the poet who had cast it, if only for one night, in his own image. 
As we ambled down an emptied labyrinth of sparely lit streets, I began to wonder what all this talk of San Clemente had to do with us -- how we move  through time, how time moves through us, how we change and keep changing and come back to the same.  One could even grow old and not learn a thing but this.

--André Aciman, Call Me By Your Name

My nephew Denny's friend Jay had just graduated from Columbia University, and we'd agreed to join him for dinner shortly after we arrived in New York.  Dinner turned out to be a loud and raucous feed on pizza and other Italian fare, joining a large number of Jay's classmates at a student hang-out on the Upper West Side.  The restaurant was so loud -- music and other patrons -- that no one could hear what anyone else was saying. 

No one cared.  It wasn't that kind of dinner.  Everyone had thoughts to express.  He did so freely and loudly, ignoring other thoughts being expressed by others at the same time.  The joy of talking far exceeded the desire to listen.

After dinner, we took the subway up to Columbia.  We wandered around the campus.  The term was over, but someone still had the key to his dorm.  We climbed to the very roof of the dorm on a precarious ladder-like staircase, toting ample supplies of beer.  The lights of all of Manhattan and the shores of the Hudson stretched out before us, dazzling my eyes.  We talked. We talked for hours, and now we listened as well as talked. I have no recollection of what we talked about, but it all seemed fascinating at the time.  After years of conversing with fellow attorneys, and downtrodden clients, a chat with freshly-graduated college students about even the weather would have stricken me as profoundly philosophical.

No one knew me.  No one knew Denny, for that matter, aside from Jay.  No one cared who we were -- I'm not sure they all knew each other.  We were just a bunch of over-educated individuals who happened to find ourselves in the same place at the same time.  At one point, a young woman sat next to me, and very tactfully and hesitantly suggested that I did seem slightly older than the rest of the group.  She wondered who I might be. 

By that time, I'd had consumed enough beer to have forgotten that I was not a 22-year-old myself, but I certainly wasn't offended by being reminded.  Everything and everyone seemed funny and relaxed and beautiful and magical.  (No, nothing other than beer.)   

Elio's statement in the Aciman novel, "I wanted this walk never to end," has brought back memories of that night in Manhattan -- a Manhattan with which I was then much less familiar than I am today.  "In a month or so from now, when I'd revisit Rome, being here tonight ... would seem totally unreal, as though it had happened to an entirely different me."  And so it's proved with New York

I've returned to Manhattan many times since.  I've walked through the Columbia campus.  I've even tried to locate the dormitory building on whose roof we perched.  Futile.  It's as though, as in the Broadway musical, I had discovered Brigadoon and enjoyed one day of magic, but found only heather-clad Scottish moors when I next returned.

I tottered unsteadily down the ladder-like stairway as dawn began breaking -- tipsy with alcohol but exultant.  Denny and I grabbed a burger at a McDonald's near our hotel -- even the grubbily pedestrian burger franchise-- occupied by a few survivors of the night before and a few early risers -- was touched in my eyes with the last fading shimmers of magic. 

The beer had been good, the company better, the view magnificent -- but best of all was a one-night return to my life as an undergraduate.  It occurred to me, as it had to a far younger Elio, "how we move  through time, how time moves through us, how we change and keep changing and come back to the same. 

"One could even grow old and not learn a thing but this."

Monday, February 19, 2018

Giving, devising, and bequeathing

I'm re-writing my will.

In old movies, you would see me escorted into the august presence of a famed probate attorney in an intimidatingly beautiful office, a white-haired sage who would remove his glasses, clean them on a handkerchief, and ask his secretary to "bring some coffee for this gentleman."  Since I'm an attorney myself, however, although not specifically a probate attorney, some of the glamor and mystique is lost from the process.

Instead of entrusting my fortune to the skills of an avuncular expert, I find myself drafting the document at home, sitting at my computer, coffee in an old mug beside me, and occasionally brushing a cat out of the way.. 

My last "Last Will and Testament" was prepared and executed almost exactly 13 years ago.  Time has passed, but  I'm making no dramatic changes -- merely bringing it up to date.  Since all of my heirs are now as adult and responsible as they're ever going to be, I'm able to eliminate trust provisions from my will, provisions that occupied a large portion of the former document. 

It's tempting to do something dramatic.  Courses in law school reveal examples of how elderly tycoons attempt to continue in power after their death by imposing bizarre requirements on their heirs --  and the ways the desires of makers of wills have been carried out or thwarted, by courts and by the avarice of beneficiaries or would-be beneficiaries. .

Days in law school were spent mastering, or attempting to master, the twists and turns of the common law "Rule Against Perpetuities" -- an arcane but important rule that limits the extent to which you can control what happens to your property once you kick the bucket.  You may be able to prohibit your heirs from selling the family mansion for a generation or two, but not for centuries into the future as you had always hoped. 

Most of the complexities of the law of wills and trusts arose originally out of ancient disputes over great fortunes.  Having no family mansion, let alone a great fortune to accompany it, the temptation to entangle my heirs in legal disputes that would cost a fortune to resolve is less insistent.  My temptations run more along the line of wanting to leave a large amount in trust for the perpetual benefit of orphaned cats.  Or, less grandiosely, to maintain my own cats in the manner to which they have become accustomed for the rest of their allotted nine lives.

It's pleasant to consider first the shock, then the incredulity, then the horror, and then the despair on my beneficiaries' faces as the meaning of the conditions I've imposed by my will sink in.  But I'm a reasonable guy, even as I shuck off  these mortal coils. And I'm fortunate in having reasonable and compassionate heirs, all of whom will (without being asked) happily care for my cats, my books, my second grade spelling papers, and other precious markers of my life.

Beyond the legal complexities of a will's contents, the psychological stress involved in drafting a will is more interesting than the dry questions posed to us by our Wills and Trusts professors.  I am somehow forced to concede -- else why write a will? -- that the world will continue to exist after my demise, that my younger relatives will continue to live lives that are as important to them as my own life has been to me.  Rationally, I've always known this, of course, but emotionally I've always suspected that at the instant of death, the play will be over.  The sets will be stricken, the props put in storage, and my family members will take off their costumes and gather back in central casting for a final cast party before looking for new jobs.

Too much thought along these lines leads to madness, of course, so I'll return to the physical chore of drafting my revised will.  As I suggested earlier, the new will is going to be simpler than the old will, because of the elimination of trust provisions.  Therefore, all I have to do is tinker with a few percentages and numbers, make sure I still like the same charities as I did in 2005, clean up the language, and do a tedious bit of typing.

And then locate two witnesses and a notary, and gather them all in the same room with me for the imposing "Execution of the Last Will and Testament."  Voilà.  That should take care of me for another 13 years. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Hearts and ashes

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you!

Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.

For the first time since 1945, Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same date.  This convergence has produced some humorous comments, as well as some confusion among those who hope to do both observances justice.

Ash Wednesday, of course, marks the first day of the Christian Lent -- the 40 days and nights (excluding Sundays) before Easter, commemorating Jesus's forty-day fast and temptations in the desert.  The rigors of Lent have been toned down considerably over the years, so that now it's really just a ritual reminder that we are mortal -- a daub of ashes on the forehead -- and a hopeful looking-forward to Easter -- not a demand that we embrace genuine starvation.

Valentine's Day is a little more complicated.  St. Valentine was supposedly a bishop who was beheaded outside Rome on February 14, 269 for refusing to deny his faith.  The history is confusing; there may have been several martyrs with the same or similar names.  So little is known of his life that the Catholic church removed St. Valentine from his February location on the official church calendar in 1969.  Unlike the mythological St. Christopher, however, he is still recognized as having been a real person and a saint.

How this shadowy bishop got tied into hearts and cupids is somewhat shadowy itself.  Wikipedia points out that the celebration of "courtly love" flowered in the fourteenth century, and that Geoffrey Chaucer -- he of the long, chatty walk to Canterbury -- seems to have been instrumental in the association of the saint and the pangs of romantic love.  In  those days, apparently, folks believed that birds mated in mid-February, which tied nicely into the observance of St. Valentine's martyrdom on February 14.

In modern times, Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday generally pass each other like ships in the night, untouched by each other's waves.  Having them pop up on the same day seems to have bothered some earnest folks, judging from comments on the internet -- "Does Valentine's Day override the obligation to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday?"  "Ha, surely you jest!"  Several American bishops have noted that the last pre-Lenten fling called Mardi Gras occurs on the day before Ash Wednesday, and that this would be a highly appropriate date on which to send valentines, eat chocolate hearts, and pledge to one another undying love.

The following day, then, we could move right along from romantic love to the Greater Love of which romantic love is only a pale -- but hopeful -- reflection on Earth.  For romantics, those whose feet remain planted in the fourteenth century and its concept of romantic love, rather than in the more au courant Playboy Philosophy or whatever horrors have succeeded it, this is a satisfying solution.  God's love for mankind is reflected on Earth in love between humans, and love of one human for the "pilgrim's soul" in another ideally reminds us of God's love for the souls of men (and women, too, of course).

 How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

I can think of nothing further, nothing more cosmic, nothing more breath-taking to suggest.  The coincidence of the two observances falling on the same date does not suggest that the Second Coming is impending, or that the world is soon to be destroyed by a Great Deluge.  The last time it happened -- in 1945 -- was also the last Valentine's Day before the end of World War II, and the beginning of a period of great prosperity.  So there's that.

On the other hand, nowadays we have the internet and fake news.  So all bets are off.  But as I pen this screed, there are only 3½ hours left until the Thursday After Ash Wednesday, when things presumably return to normal.  So just hold your breath.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Mellow fish

You don't have to be stupid to fall victim to conspiracy theories.  Many of my fellow college students, living in boys' dorms, spoke darkly of rumors that the university added saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to our dorm meals -- supposedly a sure-fire means to suppress distracting hormonal urges in 18-22 year old boys.

I doubt that many of us actually believed that the FDA would allow the university to so adulterate our food, but it made a good story.  If the cranky old fogeys who ran the school didn't actually do it, they sure wished they could.

Something analogous now seems to be occurring -- without any obvious criminal intent -- in the Great Lakes.  And the victims -- so far, at least -- aren't sexually crazed boys, but lake fish.

According to the Economist, all those extra, unused Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa tablets that get flushed down the toilet end up in the lakes, their molecules slipping right through sewage treatment plant filters.  But surely there aren't enough pills being flushed to cause problems?  Well, I don't know.  They go through fish gills, and end up concentrated in their brains.  Concentrations of twenty times that found in the lake water have been detected in fish brains.

Fish react to antidepressants just as we do.  They relax.  "They are less risk-adverse and, it appears, happier.  That seems to make them more likely to be eaten."  (Something for you executives to think about when popping a couple of pills before going to that critical board meeting.)   When the little fishies start zoning out, their resulting demise changes the ecology of the lake.  And not for the better.

The Economist article assures us that we humans are not directly endangered by the fishes' uptake of antidepressants, because we rarely eat fish brains.  Well, maybe.  But you might want to monitor your subjective sense of post-prandial well-being after you next dine on Great Lakes fish.

And, of course, wouldn't it be interesting if those damn Democrats were feeding fish brains in some form to the people of certain states bordering the Great Lakes?  States where voters have shown a tendency to be edgy and upset recently?  Like Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania?

I know nothing.  I allege nothing.  I'm just a humble blogger.  So don't quote me.  But if the powers-that-be have no compunction about feeding saltpeter to innocent boys, why not slip antidepressants to out-of-control Trump voters?

Remember. You read it somewhere on the internet. It must be true.

Friday, February 9, 2018


Britannia est insula.  Italia non est insula.  Italia paene est insula.  Italia paeninsula est.

So read the first lines from the very first lesson in my ninth grade Latin text, Latin for Americans.  I've talked to others in my generation who also studied Latin in high school.  They can all recite the above lines from memory.  Something about Latin sticks with you, more than many other subjects.

This past week, I've been re-reading odd bits of Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, which I reviewed in September.  Mendelsohn recalls his father's lament that, after studying Latin for four years, he (the father) declined to take a fifth and final year in high school, a year in which he would have read Virgil's Aeneid.  Although he became a highly successful scientist and mathematician by profession, the father felt that he had turned away, for no good reason, from an experience that would have capped his otherwise successful high school Latin coursework.  His regrets continued until his death, in his eighties.  (His son Daniel, himself a classical scholar, tended to rub salt in his father's wounds by often pointing out to "Daddy" how exceptional and difficult was Virgil's Latin.)

I took only two years of Latin, because my high school offered only two.  Mendelsohn's book made me wonder whether -- with so many cuts in so many areas outside the Three Rs -- schools still taught a subject with no immediate vocational use. 

I checked on-line, and discovered that only eight public high schools in Washington teach Latin today.  Two of those -- Roosevelt and Garfield -- are here in Seattle.  By contrast, 89 schools statewide still teach German -- a language that is being eliminated from many schools' curricula.  Seven of Seattle's eleven traditional high schools teach Japanese; five teach Chinese.  Every traditional high school in Seattle teaches Spanish, which in today's world is hardly surprising.

I had a discussion on my Facebook page today about Latin, and was asked the value of studying the language.  I'm not competent to discuss Latin's pros and cons as they may apply to the entire high school population.  But I can tell you how Latin affected me.

First, I admit that I have no confidence that I could today translate anything but the simplest Latin inscription or other writing (any more than I could today prove one of Euclid's theorems!).  But at various times, in high school and college, I've taken courses in Spanish, Italian, and French.  Obtaining a limited reading knowledge of those languages was made vastly easier and faster because of my knowledge of Latin vocabulary and sentence structure.

Second, I have a good sense today of English grammar.  Without disparaging English composition classes, I have to say that most of what I know -- beyond simple definitions of noun, verb, etc. -- was learned in Latin.  I could, and probably would, have learned much of it later in advanced English classes, or through self-study and writing, but -- in my case -- I learned it in a way that stuck back in ninth grade.

Third, Latin teaches word derivations. The very first chapter of my first year Latin book contained a simple passage -- a part of which I quoted above.  The fact that "paene" and "insula" -- "almost" and "island" -- combined to form the English word "peninsula" was a revelation that delighted me.  I've been a fan of etymology ever since.

Fourth, Latin is a rigorous subject, like mathematics.  You can't really BS your way through it.  You either puzzle out a translation the night before class -- taking whatever time it takes -- or it becomes clear that you didn't do it.  I was a lazy, if curious, student.  I needed course work that forced me to work.  Latin, like math, did the trick.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

Fifth, you don't study Latin without learning a sizable chunk of Roman history -- even if you're working so hard on the translation that you fail to realize that you're absorbing history at the same time.  Much of second year Latin is devoted to translating portions of Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, the first sentence of which informs us that all of Gaul was divided into three parts -- that occupied by the Belgians, that occupied by the Aquitanis, and that portion of Italy occupied by the Gauls (who called themselves Celts) .  That's a lot of interesting historical information in just one sentence.

It got worse, at times, of course.  Caesar's battles against various barbarian groups go on and on, and he is constantly "breaking camp" -- "camp having been broken" as the "ablative absolute" construction literally (and frequently) words it -- and moving on to battle another tribe.  The details get lost by the end of the term -- you're being tested on the language, after all, not the content -- but an idea of what life was like on the Roman frontier in the final years of the Republic sticks with you.

I think it's a shame that classical Greek isn't offered in some high schools, at least.  And it will be a shame if the few schools still offering Latin decide to drop it, along with art and music.  Learning -- and the ability to learn -- comes in many forms, not all of them easily subject to annual testing.

The study of Latin ties a number of fields -- history, grammar, vocabulary, military tactics, political rhetoric, classical drama and literature -- together with a rigor that few other teaching approaches provide.  It doesn't replace the function served by AP courses in specific subjects, but it enhances those courses and reveals interrelations.

Let's keep the study of Latin available to those who want it and can benefit by it.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Disappearing readers

Whither my readers?

Next month, we celebrate the eleventh anniversary of the Founding of this blog.  For the first couple of years, so far as I could tell, few people knew of its existence aside from friends and family.  But in 2010, my readership -- as revealed by Google's statistics -- began steadily increasing.

In May and December of 2012, I had over 2,300 hits for each month.  That works out to about 75 hits per day.  I jauntily became used to such popularity, viewing it as the new normal and an important step toward world domination.  Although it did seem odd that so few of my visitors ever bothered leaving comments.  Other bloggers, writing on such topics as how to get coffee stains out of fabrics, seemed deluged with reader comments agreeing, disagreeing, ridiculing, or praising each post.

December 2012 was my apex, with 2,379 hits, 77 per day.  From that point, my fan base hit a gentle but steady decline.  By January 2015, I was down to 40 hits a day.  By January 2017, it was 21 hits per day.  And during 2018, I have seen day after day with 3, 4, or 5 hits per day.

Confusing, but not obscuring, these statistics was a day this past December when I had over 6,000 hits within a 24 hour period from someone (or some THING) in Russia.  This Russian entity systematically hit, multiple times, every essay I'd ever posted -- statistically about six times per essay.  Was someone printing out my entire blog for use in English classes?  A text on how not to write in English?  Who knows.

Am I down-hearted?  Hardly.  When I began writing this blog, I intended it -- aside from mutual entertainment between myself and another guy who had just started a blog of his own -- as an activity for my own amusement.  Over the years, I've discovered that its primary value is not, actually, practice in writing good English and organizing a good essay.  Although writing the blog has certainly proven useful for those purposes.

No.  What I didn't appreciate ahead of time was what a great value it would be for me to write out my reactions to magazine articles, movies, books, current events, and random thoughts that pop into my head.  The exercise forces me to organize my thoughts in some reasonably coherent fashion.  It also helps me to remember a book, say, or a movie, and my reaction to it, so that reading becomes more than a way to pass (waste) time.   To be pretentious, it hones my critical faculties.

I'd love to have more real readers, of course, as opposed to the robots whom I suspect constitute much of my reported audience.  But there are proven ways to develop a regular following, ways that I fully understand but am not interested in pursuing.  For example, writing regularly about a narrowly-focused subject, one that will draw the same readers back, week after week, hoping to learn more about that subject.  Instead of Confused Thoughts, I might title my blog dy/dx and All That: Fun and Games with Differential Equations.  I'm sure it would be an interesting blog, but that's not what I'm interested in doing.

So expect no changes.  I'll continue writing about anything that comes to mind.  And many things come to my mind.  If you don't like today's post, you may like next week's.  Or not.  As the man in the fable who carried his donkey across the bridge on his back discovered -- you can't please everybody.  And sometimes, you can't please anybody!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The City of Your Final Destination

You work long and hard, with single-minded determination, to achieve a goal.  Then, just as it's within your grasp, you realize you're no longer interested.  With luck, something more attractive has taken its place. 

A not uncommon experience of youth -- dispiriting, but educational as well.

Such is the moral, if there a moral, to Peter Cameron's 2002 novel, The City of Your Final Destination: A Novel.

Omar Razaghi, an Iranian immigrant, is an English doctoral student at the University of Kansas.  His thesis on the work -- a single novel, The Gondola -- by the (fictitious) Uruguayan writer Jules Gund has won an award and a fellowship enabling him to expand the thesis into a biography to be published by the University of Kansas Press.

The award is conditioned on the biography's having been authorized by the deceased writer's estate. 

The estate, it turns out, has three executors -- Adam Gund, the author's brother; Caroline Gund, the author's wife; and the younger Arden Langdon, the author's long-time mistress.  They politely respond in a joint letter, refusing to grant the requested authorization.

Omar is 28, a bookish sort, vague and passive, and a bit of a naïf.  He had assured the grant committee that he already had the authorization, because he saw no reason that it would be denied.  He now is depressed and miserable.    He shows signs of giving up, but his girl friend Deirdre is made of sterner stuff.  Go to Uruguay, she insists.  Persuade them in person. Your entire future depends on it!

In something of a daze, Omar flies to Montevideo, discovers that "Ochos Rios," where the executors live, is merely a house located in the middle of nowhere, and somehow muddles his way from the capital to their doorstep.  His arrival is quite a surprise.

Arden and Caroline both live in the Gund family home, avoiding each other as far as possible.  Caroline lives in a tower, among the mediocre paintings that she has now given up painting.  Arden, younger and more assertive, more or less runs the house.  Adam, elderly and gay, witty and literate, and given the funniest lines by Mr. Cameron, lives in a Millhouse within lengthy walking distance with his young friend Peter.

Don't worry overly much about the plot.  This is something of a novel of manners, not an exciting race to a denouement.  No villains.  Everyone is a bit confused and confusing, and years of life isolated in the Uruguayan back country has lent the characters a certain nineteenth century charm and sense of leisure.  Omar arrives from the 21st century, hoping to talk charmingly, make friends rapidly, get signatures on the dotted line, and fly back to Lawrence, Kansas.

Instead, he finds himself sucked into the leisurely life of his hosts, where every act and every comment has decades of back story.  Jules Gund had written a letter expressing his desire that his biography never be written.  Or had he?  Jules had committed suicide?  Or had he?  Peter is happy, both with living with a much older man and with life in the sticks.  Or is he?  Arden is a no-nonsense sort who has no interest in further romance.  Or is she?

Omar flounders,  All three executors must agree to the authorization, and positions keep changing.  But the land is beautiful, the food is simple but good, the conversation is genteel but intelligent.  And, in a moment of weakness, Arden kisses him.

Omar's nearly fatal reaction to a bee sting brings Deirdre flying down to Ochos Rios.  She is eager to take charge and make decisions.  Omar is no longer so sure he wants to entrust his life to her ambitions.  Nevertheless, all three executors, for greatly varying reasons, finally consent at the same time to sign the authorization.  Omar and Deidre fly back to snowy Kansas.

Spoiler Alert!  Omar and Arden marry happily and have kids, living their lives in Ochos Rios.  Omar drops out of the doctoral program and never writes the Gund biography.  Caroline ends up, to her own surprise, living in New York.  Deirdre becomes a professor at Bucknell, and does just fine, thank you.  

In 2007, I wrote a review for Cameron's later novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, a very funny and moving first person narrative about a brilliant 18-year-old New York City boy with a serious personality disorder.  I decided this past week to see what else Cameron had written.  The stories couldn't be more different.  But both display Cameron's beautiful sense for language, his sense for the humor that persists in the midst of difficulty, and his sympathy for -- and ability to understand -- people who are a bit different.
The book was adapted as a movie, to mixed reviews, in 2009. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Wild Strawberries

Who doesn't wish he could revisit his childhood home, seeing it not as it is now in the 21st century but as it was then -- watching himself and his family living their daily lives as they once did?  Or at least wishes that in his youth he had taken more home movies of himself and his family?

Or would it simply be too sad to do so?  To see yourself and your family as you once were -- all still living and still young, arguing, teasing, fighting, but also showing, without self-consciousness, your affection for each other?  To see yourself as a kid, filled with eagerness to be older, to be free?  Alive with the belief that not only your life but your energy would last forever?

In Wild Strawberries, the fourth Bergman film in the current Seattle Art Museum series, Isak Borg -- a 78-year-old physician and university professor -- finds himself forced to contemplate his past life.  A grouchy, somewhat pompous and pedantic old man in failing health, he is being honored by his alma mater in Lund, Sweden, on the fiftieth anniversary of having received his doctorate.  Most of the film takes place during the 375-mile drive from his home in Stockholm south to the ceremony in Lund.

Isak has only one surviving child, his son Evald, whose marriage is on the rocks.  The wife is pregnant; Evald demands an abortion; his wife refuses. Evald's wife -- who tells Isak quite candidly, but not harshly, that she finds him, Isak, unlikeable -- drives his car while Isak sits beside her, sleeping and daydreaming.

In his first dream, he finds himself in a deserted city.  He discovers that none of the clocks, including his own watch, has hands.  He approaches the one and only visible person from the back, who turns toward him, revealing a faceless face, collapsing and liquefying at Isak's touch.  The dream clearly suggests to Isak that death approaches.

Another dream sequence finds him returning to his childhood home, where he sees his parents and his siblings, most of whom have since died.  He watches as his girlfriend Sara flirts with one of his brothers.  Sara laments later, while he observes but is unobservable, that she feels terrible about betraying Isak who is totally admirable -- brilliant, highly moral, devoted to uplifting conversations about philosophy and theology.  Isak is far above her in his intelligence, in character, in everything.  But the brother -- coarse and aggressive as he is -- is more ... well,  fun.  (I recall Eliza Doolittle's lament in My Fair Lady --- "Words!  Words!  Words!  I'm so sick of words!  ...  Is that all you blighters can do?")

Ultimately, we learn, Sara did marry the brother, and Isak ended up in an unhappy marriage with a different woman. 

As they drive south, they stop and visit Isak's mother, now a very well preserved 97.  She proves as aloof, demanding, self-centered, and formal in her speech as is her only surviving son.  But they understand each other, say little of consequence to each other, and bid each other a friendly goodbye. 

Evald's wife observes, in so many words, that the apple didn't fall very far from the tree.

They pick up a group of three college-age kids, two boys and a girl, who manage to transcend all gloomy Swedish stereotypes.  They are lively, funny, outgoing, and kind to Isak -- even as they squabble constantly among themselves.  The girl's name is Sara, and she strongly reminds Isak of his own Sara from long ago.  

They almost collide with a car occupied by a middle-aged couple, driving it into a ditch, and offer them a ride to get help.   The couple are engaged in a continuing battle between themselves, and become so disagreeable that they are finally asked to leave the car.  Isak is sadly reminded of his own unhappy marriage.

The celebration in Lund is extremely formal.  (They didn't fire cannons or pin medals when I retired!)  The ceremony  may have been meaningful to many of those in attendance --  Isak's housekeeper tells him it was the greatest day of her life -- but Isak himself appears tired and bored by the lengthy ceremony. 

By this point, I was ready to judge Isak a professional success, with a personal life that was an unmitigated disaster.

But Isak and his daughter-in-law get along well with their three young passengers, and Isak amuses them at dinner with various anecdotes from his life.  The trio hold a private celebration of their own for Isak.  And when they part company -- traveling on to Italy -- they shower him with affection  Especially affectionate is Sara, who begs him to remember her.  Isak smiles and looks after her -- so much like his own Sara, the one who got away.

Also, as they stop for gas at a filling station in the rural area in which Isak had first practiced medicine as a general practitioner, just out of medical school, the attendant still recognizes him, decades later, as his family's own doctor.  He and his wife refuse to allow Isak to pay for gas, their eyes practically brimming with tears as they remind him of the help he had given them as a young doctor.

At home, finally, Isak goes to bed, looking old, weary, but with a slight smile.  His life hasn't been perfect, but no one's is.  He did what he could with the personality that he had inherited.  He has gone out of his way to be kind to Evald and his wife, enabling the haughty son to admit that he desperately loves his wife.  He realizes that he has gone through life surrounded by an aura of aloofness, but that he has also managed, in his own quiet way, when he could, to be of help to others.

He is content.  At least, as content as any Scandinavian can expect to be.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Lonely as a cloud

This has been a typical winter, so far, in the Northwest Corner.  A winter with one or more street-clogging, school-closing, kids-rejoicing snowfalls is common, but not typical.  A winter with so little precipitation that we worry about taking baths in August is somewhat common, but not typical.  But 2018 has been typical -- some frost, some wind, a few clear days, but, for the most part, one rainy day after another.

This past week has been both windy and rainy, and the forecast for the next week is more of the same.  Today, however -- January 30 -- has been a tiny oasis.  Sunny, bright blue skies, moderate temperatures (meaning in the upper 40s, which is moderate by definition for January days in Seattle).

It's been the sort of day when I can walk my usual four miles with a smile on my face, observing at leisure people and the natural world about me -- rather than grimly leaning into the wind and rain. 

And I'm surprised.  It's still January, but Spring is already sneaking up on us.  Sneaking up on us at a date that should be -- at least by childhood memory -- still in the deepest bowels of Winter.  Green shoots poking up in everyone's yard.  New leaves coming out on hydrangea bushes.  Buds everywhere, each displaying an eagerness to burst into bloom at the slightest provocation.  Crocuses -- yes, violet crocuses, and some white -- not only blooming in gardens but even popping out through neighbors' front lawns.  And student oarsmen, members of the UW crew, sculling their swift shells through the Montlake cut.

And in my own "garden" -- which consists of whatever my predecessor planted some thirty years ago -- the first two or three primroses are already in full bloom. 

What a blissful sight this is for rain-drenched eyes and brain, as I wander about Montlake and the University campus.  I try not to think about the National Geographic article I read last night, an exposé pointing out the extent to which we -- all of us -- are under constant surveillance by everything from CCTV cameras to satellites in orbit.  Few places on earth, apparently, are beyond the all-seeing eye of governments and private industry.  Many of the cameras merely capture and file away our images for future reference, in case they should prove useful.  Others provide images that are being monitored continuously by human observers.

As I say, I try to forget these facts.  I wander about, naively thinking myself lonely as a cloud, as though a private world of nature, untainted by urban concerns, still existed.  I try not to envision the conversations in progress in some darkened room:

"Look, now he's leaning over and taking a photo of a primrose?  What the hell's he up to?  Is "primrose" a code a some sort?"

"Dunno, better keep an eye on him.  Maybe we should pick him up for questioning.  What's he saying now?"

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

"Nah, he's no spy. 'Bliss of solitude'? Just a weirdo. Report him to Social Services."

Monday, January 29, 2018


Proust's novel is about a man who looks back to a time when all he did was look forward to better times.  To rephrase this somewhat: he looks back to a time when what he looked forward to was perhaps nothing more than sitting down and writing ... and therefore looking back.

--André Aciman, "Temporizing," Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere

This quotation from Aciman -- a Proustian scholar and enthusiast -- summing up Proust's magnum opus, may explain why I am still only 40 percent of the way through the first of the seven volumes that make up À la recherche du temps perdu.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Seventh Seal

And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; ...
5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast [it] into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake

--Revelation 8:1-3, 5

Ingman Bergman's The Seventh Seal, shown last night at the Seattle Art Museum, was the third of nine Bergman films to be shown in the current series.  It was the first of the director's four most famous "metaphysical" films, films released in the 1950s, shortly before and during my undergraduate years: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring. .  

It's hard to think of any director who would now have the same impact on audiences.  The films were black and white; the dialogue was in Swedish with English subtitles; and those four films dealt with ultimate issues of human life and destiny.  Something very different from the usual movies of that era, films specializing in heart-warming American families, cowboys, or gangsters.

For fairly unsophisticated college-aged kids with pretensions of sophistication, the films -- even more than the earlier neo-realism films from Italy -- showed us that movies could be an art form, not just entertainment.

The Seventh Seal has been re-released a number of times, and is a favorite at "art film" series.  According to Wikipedia, it is considered "one of the greatest movies of all time."  Although the film deals with a hero who questions the existence and/or beneficence of God, and leaves the question bleakly unanswered at the end, the Vatican in 1995 listed the film as one of its 45 "Great Films."

Antonius Block is a Crusader knight who has returned home to Sweden after ten disillusioning years in the Holy Land.  He is accompanied by his squire Jöns, a cynical sort who seems more modern than medieval in his thought and speech, and who provides a pessimistic commentary on the action. The Black Plague is sweeping across Sweden.

The movie begins with Block playing chess alone on a silent ocean beach, a setting that exemplifies much of the cinematography of Bergman's films -- lonely, dimly lit with the northern sun low in the sky, an unending twilight as the waves beat in upon the shore, one after another.  Block is joined by a mysterious man in a hood -- a personification of Death -- who advises Block that his time has now come.  Block, having heard that Death is partial to chess, suggests first a game.  If Death loses, he will allow Block a longer time on Earth.

The game progresses over several days, a few moves per visit.  Death asks Block what this slight delay will gain him -- he replies that he would like to perform one "memorable deed" before he dies.  He ultimately loses, although Death has to cheat to win.  But before he loses, he befriends a young juggler and his wife, and their infant son.  Before he makes his final chess move, unable to avoid a loss, he "accidentally" knocks the chess pieces off the board, diverting Death's attention while the three young people escape. 

The pieces are replaced, Death checkmates Block, and reminds him that when they next meet he will take Block and whomever is with him.  The sky is black with storm clouds -- flashing lightning and roaring thunder.  Block joins others taking refuge in his castle, where he hopes they will be safe. 

But Death enters. 

Antonius Block returned from the Crusades doubting the very existence of God and God's love for humanity.  Many terrible deeds occur during the movie that would support those doubts.  Throughout the film, Block repeatedly begs God to show himself in some way, to confirm his faith, to show him that life is not meaningless.  Death admits that he himself knows "nothing" -- he is able to tell Block nothing about what, if anything, occurs after death. 

But Block accepts death in the end, satisfied that in saving the lives of the young family, his own life has not been meaningless.  Block's satisfaction is of no more concern to Death than were his doubts.  Whatever the meaning or absence of meaning to human life, Death always wins the game. 

Maybe.  After the horrors of the night's storm, the juggler and his wife wake to a beautiful sunny morning.  The infant child is playing happily.  The couple smile at each other.  Life looks good.

In the final, iconic scene, the young juggler -- who sees images no one else can see, including Death sitting at the chessboard with Block -- looks off in the distance and sees Death leading Antonius Block and his ensemble away, silhouetted against the dimly lit Scandinavian sky. The seventh seal has been opened, and for them, judgment awaits.

Or, Bergman contemplates, perhaps nothing awaits.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What's your book club reading?

Four years ago, the New York Times carried a feature article entitled, "Really?  You're Not in a Book Club?"

Book clubs are everywhere.  As the writer, James Atlas, pointed out, you can ask an acquaintance, "What book is your book club reading?" with a fair assurance that he or she actually is reading a book with a book club.  Book clubs even work their way into the comics: the current story line in "Crankshaft" is the disconcerting effect on a rather casual book club, composed of middle-aged or older women, when joined by two eager young high school students.

Most book clubs involve neighbors sitting around a living room, talking about books and looking forward to the refreshments.  Women seem more enthralled by the idea than men, often because of the social aspect, but that varies from place to place. 

Atlas points out the attraction of book clubs, aside from desserts and coffee:

Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.

The benefits of book clubs -- but not the desserts -- are increasingly enjoyed on-line.  In fact -- and this is the point of my little blurb -- my college alumni association has been sponsoring an on-line book club for many years.

The selection for the spring academic quarter is The Grapes of Wrath.  Steinbeck's novel  is one of the classics of American literature.  It would be a shame for any reasonably literate person to go through life having never read it, but I've been on that path for far too long! 

But the alumni notice has impelled me to action.  I've signed up for enrollment and for receipt of further information.  And -- rather than wait until the last minute like the college student I once was -- I've already downloaded a copy of the book from Amazon for $6.99.

Obviously, with a large number of readers on-line, the conversational intimacy of Sally Jones's living room will be somehow lost.  But the discussion groups are interactive.  One can contribute to the conversation either on-line or by email.  And, of course, one can simply read the book, and let himself be educated by the brilliant critique and literary observations of his supposed intellectual superiors. 

(Dude, you all went to college together!)

Either way, I expect to understand and appreciate The Grapes of Wrath far more deeply as a result of the book club experience than I would if I had simply read it on my own for entertainment.  Or maybe I won't, but I will have at least given it a whirl.  Bring it on!

Monday, January 22, 2018

"King" County

William Rufus King

One week ago today was Martin Luther King Day.  The following day, Tuesday, I attended another in a series of lectures by a UW professor dealing with the political peculiarities of today's America.  In passing, and apropos to nothing in particular, he reminded us that King County -- which includes Seattle -- is the only county in America named after Dr. King.

This startled me at first, since my memory of King County goes back further than my memory of Dr. King, and I was sure it had been so named for decades before my time.  But then, I quickly remembered that in 2005, the state legislature finally granted a petition from the King County Council, one then pending for some twenty years, to name the county after the civil rights leader.

Since King County was already named King County, the only real effect observable to most of us was that the county logo was changed from a stylized king's crown to a profile of Dr. King.

But where had the pre-2005 name come from?  Surely, we were never a Royal Province?  No.  Back when we were part of Oregon Territory, the territorial legislature carved King County and Pierce County out of the pre-existing Thurston County to the south.  Pierce County was named after the newly elected president, and King County after William Rufus King, the newly elected vice president.  The following year, Washington Territory was itself carved out of Oregon, and the new territory kept the existing counties intact.

So.  Was there an enormous howl of public outrage that William Rufus King was being dishonored when the county turned its 21st century face to Martin Luthur King instead?  Not really.

King's political résumé was short and uninspiring.  He had served in the Senate from 1819 to 1852 (back when senators were chosen by state legislatures), except for a four-year absence to serve as American minister to France.  He was caught up in the pre-Civil War political battle over the Compromise of 1850.  As Wikipedia summarizes his position:

During the conflicts leading up to the Compromise of 1850, King supported the Senate's gag rule against debate on antislavery petitions and opposed proposals to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, which was administered by Congress.  King supported a conservative, pro-slavery position, arguing that the Constitution protected the institution of slavery in both the Southern states and the federal territories. He opposed both the abolitionists' efforts to abolish slavery in the territories as well as the "Fire-Eaters" calls for Southern secession.

Not the sort of career that Dr. King would have applauded.

Originally from North Carolina, he owned a cotton plantation in Alabama, worked by some 500 slaves.  He was the co-founder of Selma, Alabama.

Wikipedia seems to be especially interested in the probably-romantic relationship between William Rufus King and his long-time roommate, the next U.S. President, James Buchanan, but that issue was never a factor in the decision to leave William in King County's etymological lurch.

Most significant, probably, in addition to his embarrassingly pro-Southern political stance, was the fact that he died of tuberculosis after only 45 days in office as vice president, after being inaugurated in Cuba because he was too ill to return to Washington. The shortest term for any vice president, aside from those who left the office vacant to become president upon the president's death.

Pierce County remains named after the other half of the Pierce-King administration.  Here in King County, we were forced to ask ourselves -- "What did Vice President King ever do for us?  Are we proud of the dude?"  Note that unlike Dr. King, Vice President King's image never appeared on the county's logo or seal.  A king's crown?  At least people knew what a crown was.  I suspect that 99 county residents out of a hundred could never identify William Rufus King as their county's namesake. 

And yet, in his day, he must have been proud to have been elected to the second highest office in the Nation.  Such is the fleeting nature of fame.  He remains honored in Selma, Alabama, where his body has rested since 1882.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Great Glen Way

If you take a look at the map of Scotland, you see that the northwestern corner of the country is almost an island, almost cut off from the mainland by the Great Glen Fault, a geological fault that divides the Northwest Highlands from the Grampian Mountains to the southeast.

The glen is occupied primarily by a series of lochs (or lakes), the largest being Loch Lochy and Loch Ness.  At the southwest end of the fault is Fort William, and at the opposite end to the northeast is Inverness.

Why do I explain this?  Because I plan to hike from Fort William to Inverness, 73 miles, at the beginning of June.

I will join Jim B., a good friend from my pre-law days in graduate school, his wife, and his brother and sister, together with their own spouses.  Our band of seven will walk for six days, an average of 12 miles per day, although the final day will be a lengthy 18 miles.  We will take a one day rest break at Fort Augustus, at the point where we first encounter Loch Ness.  I suppose I should bring large nets and other paraphernalia to capture the Monster, should he appear -- but maybe a quick photo over my shoulder on my phone while running away will suffice.

The hike ends in Inverness, the de facto capital of the Highlands, with a population of about 45,000.  Inverness is at roughly the same latitude as Sitka, Alaska.  The climate is moderated by the Gulf Stream, but the hours of daylight should be of Alaskan length as we near the summer solstice.

The hike will be fairly easy, with not many ups and downs.  Most of the time, we will be hiking along the shores of the lochs -- although I've discovered that such "easy" shore walks often end up requiring some extensive climbs up and over hills adjoining the lakes.

Before the trek begins, we plan to spend several days in Fort William, with one or more day trips over to the nearby Inner Hebrides.  Diligent readers will recall that in 2011, I hiked the West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort William.  I had hoped to climb Ben Nevis* -- the highest peak in Scotland (4,411 ft.) -- at the end of the hike.  The weather didn't permit it.  Jim and I hope to make the climb this year, warming ourselves up by a strenuous climb for the days of hiking that follow.

I bought my round trip tickets from Seattle to Glasgow last night.   I'm ready to go!

*"Ben Nevis" is an Anglicization of the Gaelic words Beinn Nibheis, usually translated as "Venomous (or Malicious) Mountain."