Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Longview man in Damascus"

Syria has been a problem internationally for the past few years.  Before the current rebellion, it was a frequently touristed country, a country from which forays could be made into a more problematic Lebanon.  But going back even further, the relative status of the two countries was once more reversed.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lebanon was, in large part, a tourist's paradise. Syria, on the other hand, was a revolutionary, socialist state, and a thorn in the side of American diplomacy.  As with Iran today, from 1967 to 1974, we had no diplomatic relations with Syria. Syrian visas had to be obtained through the Pakistan consulate.

While going through some old boxes, I've just discovered a yellowed copy of my hometown newspaper, The Daily News.  The paper contains an article that I well remember scribbling out in long hand, while sweating in the sultry heat of the Beirut YMCA.  I mailed the article back home to the Daily News, where someone forced himself to read my scribbles, and decided to print it. 

Having nothing more interesting to write about today, I've decided to preserve the 44-year-old article in my blog.  I'm typing it verbatim from the newspaper.  I'm making no attempt to "improve" my then-journalistic writing style, or my use of language and punctuation.

The article was published on August 29, 1970.

BEIRUT -- Damascus isn't host to many American tourists this year.

At first sight this may seem strange.  The road from Beirut to Damascus is good, the fare by shared taxi is only the equivalent of $1.65 and my visa was issued swiftly and with no difficulty.

But there are few takers.

This was emphasized to me by a friendly group of students, somewhere in the twisted labyrinth of streets that make up old Damascus.  I had been wandering along rubbernecking, camera in hand.  In my blue jeans and shaggy mane, I no doubt appeared as exotic to the natives as they to me.

Suddenly I found myself sitting on a chair in the little dirt street, surrounded by a throng of young people.  One, who could speak English, handed me a bottle of orange pop and began asking questions.

"My friend, where are you from?"

"From America."

"America!  But there have been no Americans in Damascus for many, many years!  Why have you come?

"Oh, curiosity, I guess.  I wanted to see what your city is like," I said.

"Curiosity, yes."  And then sadly.  "There are few visitors here any more.  But there are many visitors in Beirut, yes?"

"Yes, many," I said.  "They may be afraid to come here.  (They nod agreement.)  But your government has been very kind to me."

After taking a group picture of them and promising to send them a copy (I still have my friend's address printed out in  careful Arabic), they smilingly bid me farewell.

This condensed exchange is just one of many examples I experienced of the warmth and curiosity of the Syrians, especially the young, toward foreign visitors.

Unfortunately, just a few moments later I tasted official Syria in the form of a rather Kafka-esque experience.  Fear of such incidents no doubt discourages many from visiting Syria.

I had been followed by three grubby, appealing urchins for several blocks.  They begged to have their pictures taken.  So, finally, while we grinned at each other, I posed them swiftly, clicked the shot, and started to move on.

Suddenly I was surrounded by a group of Syria's ubiquitous soldiers.

"My friend, you should not take pictures of these boys in the street," one said.  "They are bad pictures."

I wasn't prepared to argue.  I apologized profusely for whatever I had done.  I vowed not to do it again.

But justice obviously demanded more than nice talk.  One soldier took my camera in one hand, firmly held my hand in his other, and moved off to the police station with me.

The young desk officer examined both me and my passport with awe.  This case was obviously too big for him to handle.  He led me to his superior, a large, jovial mustached fellow with a disturbing resemblance to a World War II photo of Stalin.

"Stalin" obviously wanted to forget he had ever seen me, but by now he had a large crowd of underlings about him, awaiting his decision.  I recalled that revolutionary countries occasionally resort to summary executions.  But even revolutionary bureaucrats are adept at passing the buck.

Joking with our now considerable retinue, Stalin led us to his superior, an ascetic SS type who wearily glanced at me, my passport, the incriminating camera, and finally at the mob.  My God, I thought.  Pontius Pilate!

With an air of resignation, he picked up his vintage 1930 phone and put through a call to -- who knows?  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Through it all, I was given repeated assurances that they definitely wanted visitors to take lots of photos.  But of their beautiful girls and handsome men, their fine buildings.  Not pictures of street children, pictures which would bring shame on Syria among my American friends.  This was told me in voices full of both fatherly warning and comradely friendship.

The call to the Ultimate Authority finally was returned.  My camera was gravely handed me.  The crowd was hushed.

"You will, please, open the camera."

"But that will ruin all my pictures!" I said.

"Yes, please."

I felt like Alice confronted by a courtroom full of playing cards.  I should be able to blow them all away and wake up.

I opened the camera.

"Please give to me the film."

I watched helplessly as my pictures of mosques, narrow streets, fezes, veiled women, robed sheiks -- and my student friends -- were exposed to the light.  I watched as some 20 frames of film were pulled from the cartridge and senselessly aborted.  Incongruous with my emotions, they were all laughing happily at this triumph of socialist decency over decadent Western realism.

My camera and passport were politely returned.  They were still chuckling together as I walked down the hall.  The soldier who first "arrested" me came up.  "My brother," he said, "do not hold this against me."  He was just doing his job, he said.  He sincerely hoped I would enjoy my stay in Damascus.

In that moment, hearing the combination of friendship and national pride in his voice, and recalling America's image in Syrian eyes, my film seemed rather unimportant.  We smiled as we parted.

No, not many American will visit Damascus this year.  And I can understand why.  But it is too bad, for both our countries.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When the rains came

I haven't paid much attention to Hollywood's biblical blockbusters since I turned about 20.  For the most part, they seemed both bad theology and bad aesthetics.

But the release of Darren Aronofsky's Noah may draw me back to the theater, just out of morbid curiosity. 

The story of Noah and the Ark is known to all.  Kids have (or used to have) as toys small wooden boats that they could march their little lions and giraffes into -- two by two.  As the story was told to us in Sunday School, God did seem a bit excessive in his irritation with mankind, but then we weren't sure exactly what mankind had been up to, back in those antediluvian days.  But, it all ended well for our heroes -- the dove, the olive branch, God's covenant embodied in a rainbow.

James Baldwin added a bit of uncertainty to the denouement, it's true, by alluding to the ambiguously hopeful language of a Negro spiritual:  "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time".  But that was later -- no one told me anything in Sunday School about any "fire next time."

The reviews in publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker make it clear, however, that Aronofsky has presented us with no Sunday School pageant.  He reads the story in the Bible as revealing to us -- or at least to him -- an appalling world, an appalling God, and a frighteningly appalling Noah.

As both child and adult, I've always read the story in Genesis as describing a world much like our own, where humans just like ourselves had been increasingly acting out, as we humans are apt to do, until a somewhat anthropomorphic Deity finally felt he'd had enough.  Modern society hadn't yet invented "time out, go to your room" or "you're grounded" as punishments for wayward kids; under the circumstances, only mass drownings seemed appropriate.

But Aronofsky proposes that in the brief three chapters of Genesis since Eden, the world had gone downhill -- physically and morally -- in a big way, rendering our present-day fears of global warming and criminal conduct somewhat laughable by comparison.  Fallen angels still hung around earth, now embodied as 16-foot high "Watchers" who, although fallen and frankly plug-ugly, were friendly and helpful to Noah and family as they built their ark (more a floating box than a boat), all without the assistance of Home Depot.

Humans back in the day tended to live many hundreds of years; Noah himself was about 500 years old when he got the chilling word from God.  We might be getting a bit irritable at that age ourselves, and can sympathize with the irritation and intolerance that Aronofsky's Noah apparently displays toward everyone, including his own family, and ultimately toward God himself.

So does Aronofsky get it right?  My own version of the Bible explains the events leading up to the Flood fairly succinctly as follows:

When men began to multiply on the earth, and had daughters born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair, and they took wives for themselves, as many as they wished.  Then the Lord said, "My spirit shall not remain in man forever, since he is flesh.  His lifetime shall be one hundred and twenty years."

There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God had relations with the daughters of men, who bore children to them.  These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

When the Lord saw that the wickedness of man on the earth was great, and that man's every thought and all the inclination of his heart were only evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth and was grieved to the heart.

Genesis 6:1-6.

  My edition of the Bible seems somewhat frantic in offering an unusual number of reassuring annotations to these verses, annotations that don't entirely alleviate the peculiarity of their imagery. 

Who were the "sons of God"?  From the reviews I've read, I'm not sure that Aronofsky deals with that issue, but some writers have suggested that embodied angels had been dallying with fair human women.  Sort of a "Leda and the Swan" myth.  My Bible's annotation insists that the sons of God were the descendants of Seth and Enos, while the "daughters of men" may well have been wicked offspring of Cain.  An interesting, but not surprising, inclination to blame the women for any resulting improprieties. 

But it's of course the "giants on the earth" who really grab our attention, as they did Aronofsky's.  To him, the giants were huge angels embodied in stonelike bodies.  To the annotator, they were merely "men who were noted for their strength and cruelty."   

Genesis says nothing about the post-Edenic earth's having fallen into environmental crisis, or having been ravaged by constant warfare between brutal contending forces (although, a few verses later, it is proclaimed that the earth was "corrupt" and "filled with violence.")  But, on the other hand, neither does Genesis claim, as I gathered from Sunday School, that men like us lived peaceably if wickedly together, happily tilling the soil of the Fertile Crescent and raising cheerful but corrupt families.  It just doesn't say much of anything on the subject.

A brief textual description of an astonishing and powerful event presents great advantages to the dramatist.  He can interpret the event in any of a number of wildly differing fashions, none of which do harm to the underlying text.  He can bring his own hopes, fears, and obsessions to the story he tells.  Ancient Greek dramatists famously made such use of their civilization's own myths and legends.

It sounds to me that Darren Aronofsky has done exactly that.  And I'm afraid I can't resist going to watch it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Secrets of the East

When I was a boy with my nose in a comic book, only one image was needed to call to mind the vast subcontinent of India -- a "fakir" sitting cross-legged on the ground, playing a "flute" (actually, a "pungi"), a basket resting on the ground immediately before him.  And out of the basket -- a seemingly hypnotized cobra, weaving its body to and fro.

It was the persistent image that one was apt to see in American comedy movies -- if Abbot and Costello never encountered a snake charmer, they should have.  But it was those comic books that really imprinted the image -- a snake charmer said all you needed to know about India, or about the mysterious Orient in general.

Closely related to this image, in my mind, was the Indian rope trick -- same fakir, same pungi, but in place of a snake, a rope was weaving its way, snake-like, into the air.  The rope trick often was used interchangeably with the snake charmer by the popular media to evoke "exoticism."  But it was the cobra that fascinated me as a kid; I wasn't really sure exactly what was going on with the rope trick.

Nor have I given the matter much thought since.  One can only focus on so many mysteries in a short lifetime.

But today I encountered a discussion of the rope trick, at least at second hand, that fired my imagination.1  A soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Frank Richards,2 recalled a conversation with one of his batallion cooks who claimed to have witnessed the trick.

When he [the cook] had counted out thirty rupees he [the fakir] produced a coil of rope from his basket and uncoiling part of it threw it in the air.  The coils straightened out and the rope, which was about thirty or forty feet in length, hung in the air with one end of it about two feet above the ground.  The fakir now told a small native boy who was with him to climb the rope.  After he had climbed to the top of it he pulled the remainder of the rope up with him.  The fakir made a few passes with his hands and boy and rope vanished in the air.  Then he told the onlookers to look towards some bushes about fifty yards away, out of which sprang the native boy who had climbed the rope.  ...  There were many natives attached to the battalion who were spectators of the performance.  They said that fakirs of his class were only seen once during a man's lifetime, and that the men who had witnessed his performance would never see him again, once he had left the camp.

A couple of Richards's fellow soldiers told similar stories of encounters with different fakirs.  Richards offered several possible explanations, including various mechanical techniques for getting the rope to rise in the air, or, more marvelously, the fakir's use of mass hypnosis on his audience.

[Reportedly,] once somebody took a camera snap of the fakir performing the trick, and neither boy nor rope appeared on the finished photograph --only the fakir gesticulating and the audience with a glassy look in its eyes.

A number of websites attempt to explain the rope trick.  Sometimes they describe successful exposure of a specific performance -- usually one performed on stage -- as merely "a clever piece of deception," using wires and smoking chemicals.  I'm not sure anyone has clearly revealed the secret behind the trick as performed by religious fakirs, outdoors, where there has been no obvious access to mechanical or chemical enhancements.

The little boy in me -- the Tintin, if you will -- wants to believe that mysteries still remain to be discovered in the East.  Lamont Cranston's "power to cloud men's minds."  Chandu the Magician.  The hypnotic gestures of Mandrake the Magician.  The trained scientist in me, of course, says "Absurd."  But those infantile connections in the brain, formed in earliest childhood, murmur: "But wouldn't it be cool!?"

1The Raj: An Eyewitness History of the British in India, ed. Roger Hudson (1999).

2 Frank Richards not only wrote a book describing his years serving in India (Old Soldier Sahib, 1936), from which the quotations in this post were taken, but also wrote what has been praised as "perhaps the finest memoir of the Great War to be written by a ranker." (Old Soldiers Never Die, 1933)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Deferred maintenance

If a man's house were a reflection of his physical condition, then I'd be hooked up to tubes in a nursing home.  I took possession of my present habitation yea, these many years ago.  For the most part, aside from re-roofing and replacemen of gutters, I've relied on its original good condition ever since. 

But like teeth that are never brushed, the problems of a house that receives minimal maintenance can eventually no longer be concealed. 

So what do you do when you're essentially an idle dreamer, with little interest in caring for your own possessions?  Easy answer -- you call upon the services of your experienced, energetic, do-it-yourself-er brother!

And so, my brother and his wife have trekked northward from southern California for a week, and have been sizing up what needs to be done.  He has leapt into the role of a general contractor -- lining up subs for some of the more specialized work, while planning (along with his wife) on doing some of the more basic work himself.

When the project has been completed -- sometime in mid-summer -- I'll have new insulation, newly finished floors, new bathroom fixtures and kitchen appliances, and a renovated back deck.  I'll also have the minimum seismic retrofitting necessary to obtain earthquake insurance -- in preparation (financially, if not physically or emotionally) for the Big One for which Seattle is said to be overdue.

Left to my own devices, my home would gradually crumble into ruins about me.  My brother's enthusiasm is catching, however, and the battle against Deferred Maintenance will soon be under way.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


March 20, 2007.  Aye, it was a cold and blustery day, winter turning to spring, as I sat myself  at my desk, took quill in hand, and began writing the first pages of this journal.

Actually, I have no idea what kind of day it was, and I was sitting at my computer.  I hardly knew what a "blog" was, and I recall spending quite a bit of time setting up the format that has remained unchanged since that first day.  I chose my "boy on a haystack" photo for my first illustration.  And I do recall skiing with relatives shortly thereafter, and receiving a certain amount of kidding (and a few congratulations) about my new avocation as a blogger.

I hardly knew what a blog was when I started, as I say, and I certainly didn't know what I wanted to talk about, or what tone or writing style I should adopt.  When I read back over my first couple of years, I see a lot of posts that I would have written differently today, or not written at all.  Not that they were necessarily bad posts, just different in style and subject matter from posts I would be interested in writing now. 

If you care to read them all, you'll find 659 little essays of varying lengths.  This past year has been less productive than average, with some slow months in the fall and early winter.  No idea why that was.  Some odd fluctuations in my brain's biorhythms, perhaps.  Temporary, I hope.

So, with the first day of spring, I pull down from the shelf a brand new volume of blank pages, sharpen my quill, refill my inkpot, and begin another year of enjoyable writing. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Long ago and far away

The infinite and the infinitesimal.  It's not often that a front page news story touches upon both concepts.

But on St. Patrick's Day, newspapers across the country carried the news that gravitational waves (or particles, or gravitons,  or, as the New York Times accurately described them, "ripples in the fabric of space-time") from the first instant of creation had been detected.

I'll leave the precise nature of the observations, and their implications for physicists, to the news accounts.  (The New York Times story, at least, was unusually well-done, as news stories on abstruse scientific topics go.)

But what caught my immediate attention was our growing need not only to conceptualize, but increasingly to measure, the Very Big and the Very Small.

The Very Small first:  Physicists are now concerned with events as they developed during the first one trillionth of one trillionth of one trillionth of a second following the Big Bang.  That's one over a denominator containing a "one" followed by 36 zeros.  Or, in scientific notation that's 10 to the minus 36th (10-36) of a second. 

A second is a short period of time.  Movies are shot at 24 frames per second -- that's so fast that the eye can't detect individual frames.  Good cameras have shutter speeds of a thousandth (1/1000 or 10-3) of a second.  A period of time of ten to the minus 36th second is impossible for the human mind to grasp.  One millionth (10-6) of a second is impossible for me to grasp!

So that boggles our minds.  Then, there is the Very Big:

When we talk about space travel, we're usually still talking about visiting other planets of our own sun.  But our sun is a smallish star near the edge of the Milky Way galaxy.  The Milky Way is a small galaxy of about four billion stars.   We know there are other galaxies in our universe, ranging in size from ten million stars to 100 trillion stars each.  How many other galaxies?  There are an estimated 170 billion galaxies in the "observable universe" -- i.e., galaxies not so far away that their light has not yet reached us.

So that's our universe, and that's Very Big.  But that's the kind of Very Big we've known about for years. 

The models being used to predict and explain the most recent observations suggest that the Big Bang was not the beginning of Cosmic Reality -- just of the Reality of our own Universe.

Walk along an ocean beach some day and watch the waves churning in.  See how the foam consists of uncountable bubbles forming and then blowing away or popping?

Theoretical physicists suggest that that the Big Bang might be analogized to a bubble forming and rapidly expanding in the froth of an ocean.

  Most of the hundred or so models resulting from Dr. Guth’s original vision suggest that inflation, once started, is eternal. Even as our own universe settled down to a comfortable homey expansion, the rest of the cosmos will continue blowing up, spinning off other bubbles endlessly, a concept known as the multiverse.

The evolution of our universe from the instant of the Big Bang until it one day perhaps dissipates into eternal coldness and blackness may -- in the Great Scheme of Things -- seem as significant as one, tiny, evanescent bubble you observed during your ocean walk.  A bubble that may have seemed important to itself, but not to you, and certainly not to the limitless ocean from which it emerged.

Billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars.  Just a single bubble.  >Pop!<

Planets, stars, galaxies, universes ... and the Great Unknowable Ocean of Ultimate Realty.  Seconds, millionths of a second.  Billionths of a second.  Trillionths of a second.   A single second divided into 1036 parts.

Whether you look at the Very Big or the Very Small -- approaching the infinite or the infinitesimal -- the exercise places in a different perspective the questions we spend our lives worrying about.  Like whether the Crimea should belong to Russia or to Ukraine.  Too bad we can't sit back at times and quietly mull over the relative importance of such matters, on our small planet of a smallish star in a small galaxy in a universe that's really just a tiny bubble of foam -- a bubble in which we play an infinitesimal role.  Don't you think?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bear that walks like a man

I don't pretend to understand the mind of Vladimir Putin.  I've read conflicting analyses; I'm not at all sure what his motives are. 

I understand that the Crimea has historically (since 1783) been part of Russia, and I can appreciate the desire of Russians in Russia, as well as ethnic Russians in Ukraine, to see its return.  But why now?  And why is Putin so willing to sacrifice the good will Russia developed at such great expense in Sochi, as well as its economic ties with the rest of the world, in order to obtain an objective that gives Russia so little in return?

And why does Putin act so pugnacious and offensive in doing so?  Has he never heard that it's easier to attact bees with honey than with vinegar?

Senator McCain was insulting and inaccurate when he declared this week that Russia is a gas station masquerading as a nation.  Russia, whatever its political leadership, represents a great civilization.  But the insult contains a kernal of truth -- Russia's solvency, at present, is essentially that of a third-world nation.  Russia sells its natural resources.  It designs or manufactures little that the rest of the world wishes to buy.

In today's world, national greatness rests on a nation's economic strength.  And aside from "national greatness," whatever that means, a nation's natural primary objective should be the health and prosperity of its own people.  I've never visited Russia.  Admittedly, I might be pleasantly surprised by the health and prosperity of the Russians I would meet.  But, based on reliable statistics that I read, I suspect not.

Rationally, therefore, President Putin should be focusing his attention on building Russia's economy, perhaps looking to China as an inspiring example of how a once impoverished nation can swiftly improve the welfare of its people.  He is not.

Vladimir Putin reminds me of "great men" of past centuries -- Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Bismarck, and -- yes -- Hitler and Mussolini.  Men who had little interest in the welfare of the masses of their subjects, but much interest in the "glory" of their nation.  They saw themselves not as great law-givers, or business leaders, but as players at a great international game of chess.  Whether by warfare or by diplomacy, these leaders sought always to enhance their nation's power -- regardless of whether those enhancements of power paid off in any real benefit to the great majority of the taxpayers who paid for it.

Putin may have more subtle motives.  Leaders often do.  He may be diverting his people's attention from his own failures in domestic policy, adopting the time-honored method of cooking up an international crisis.  The Crimea may be Russia's Falkland Island diversion.  Or seizure of the Crimea, though of little real importance to the average Russian, may be of great importance -- for one reason or another -- to certain members of the oligarchy on whom Putin depends, to some extent, for support.

Or maybe the answer lies, at least in part, in Putin's own psychological needs.  A man of his high levels of testosterone -- judo practioner, hockey player, Formula-1 race driver, skier, Harley-Davidson owner, fisherman, eager homophobe -- needs an outlet for his manly aggression.  His role is not to offer a hand to the downtrodden.  He is a man of action!  (We recall our own Teddy Roosevelt, although Teddy's zeal extended to national reform, as well!)

And what better action for a national leader than to lead an attack against his country's enemies, real or imaginary?  English children are still taught to revere Henry V:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; 

Putin may see himself as Russia's Henry V, a king whose ringing phrases never touched on the daily lives of the average Englishman, the common folks who,"now a-bed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here."

Or as a Frenchman, Georges Clemenceau put the traditional "great leader" case less poetically:

My home policy: I wage war. My foreign policy: I wage war. All the time I wage war.

Secretary of State Kerry describes Putin's actions in the Crimea: “It’s really nineteenth century behavior in the twenty-first century.”  He's right.  Unfortunately, Putin doesn't care about being au courant.  Or even "grown up," as the world now defines national leadership that is adult.  He doesn't mind throwing a tantrum now and then. 

Russia and its leaders will eventually reach the twenty-first century, but until they decide that domestic peace, prosperity and happiness are more desirable than the joys of grabbing real estate, the rest of the world needs to figure out how to avoid the threat Russia presents to international rules of conduct and how to minimize the dangers it presents to world peace.

Monday, March 10, 2014

All I want for Christmas ...

As I sat in the dentist's chair at 9 o'clock this morning, the moral of the story I'm about to relate once more ran through my mind:

When hopping from rock to rock on a cold, rainy day, take the time to pull your gloves out of your backpack.  Don't keep your hands warm by thrusting them through the pocket openings of your rain pants and down into the pockets of your jeans.

The discerning reader already sees all too well where this story is going, and really needs to read no further.

But that's too short an entry for a blog post.  So let me pad it a bit.

You see, gentle reader, the coefficient of friction between boot sole and said rocks, under conditions of great wetness, is significantly reduced -- so that your feet tend to slip out from under you.  And, should you be leaning forward, ever eager to increase your hiking speed, you will tend to fall forward.

Now, it's quite possible to remove your hands from your pockets, extend your arms in front of you, and break your fall, suffering nothing more than a few scratches on the palms of your hands.  The problem, however, is the relative times required (1) to remove your hands through two layers of pockets and (2) to fall on your face.  I lost the race.  I mangled my face, driving various crumbled portions of my front teeth deep into my lower lip, whence they emerged, bit by bit, over the coming months.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  This event happened nearly thirty years ago, in mid-"summer," deep in the frigid, sodden center of the Norwegian mountains.  I was force-marched -- carefully, there being some concern about a concussion -- to the nearest dentist in the nearest village, a kindly fellow who practiced dentistry in his home, while his wife cooked dinner in the adjoining kitchen.  My mouth was unavoidably a mess -- only about half way into the hike -- which I resumed, nauseating my fellow hikers, the following day -- but he did a beautiful job of rebuilding my front teeth.  He said that his repair was temporary, but would be good enough to get me back to the States, where my dentist could do something permanent.

Back home, my dentist saw no reason to disturb the fellow's Norwegian workmanship.  Huzzah for Norway, I say, especially since their "socialized" medicine footed the bill.  Makes me proud of my partial Viking ancestry.

But not even Norwegian craftsmanship lasts forever, and repairs have become necessary during the past several years.  Around Christmas, a hunk of artificial tooth fell off (somehow, sometime -- I never noticed it happening) from the right central incisor, giving me a raffish appearance, a look perhaps inconsistent with my otherwise mild and bookish demeanor.  My dentist did a nifty repair job. Which lasted about a month.

Embarrassed, he did a re-repair job on his own dime. Then, last week, the tooth fell apart again.

Thus I found myself in his chair once more this morning, where he attempted to anchor the superstructure (he calls it a "filling," but it's not really "filling" anything) more firmly to the tooth stub.   He worked fast, the job was painless, and the results appear quite nifty.  He actually made my "two front teeth" more symmetrical in size and shape, which will encourage me to flash a toothy smile at everyone for a few days until I forget the whole matter.  Or until my tooth falls apart once again.

Modern dentristry is wonderful.  A generation or so ago, I'd have been doomed to a gold cap for the rest of my life.  Or, more likely, to a gaping gap in my front teeth.  But, even so -- far, far better to have kept my original teeth, in their entireties.

Which is why, I guess, old folks always used to nag us to stand up straight and "keep your hands out of your pockets."  Especially in Norway.  When it's raining.  And you find yourself hopping from rock to rock.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Merely a conventional sign"

"What's the good of Mercator's North     Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the    crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!"

--Lewis Carroll (Hunting of the Snark)

And indeed, as our modern Bellman -- Vladimir Putin -- would declare:

What's the good of national boundaries? It's just a line on a map. The Crimea used to be Russian.  Lots of ethnic Russians live in the Crimea.  They have been "oppressed," forced to speak the barbaric Ukrainian language.  Russia is powerful; Ukraine is weak.  We want the Crimea.  I want the Crimea.  Ergo, the Crimea is now part of Russia.


I fully understand.  And President Putin's reasoning seems fully applicable to a matter long dear to my heart, and closer at hand.  I refer, of course, to the oppressive rule of the Canadian government over our neighbors, cousins, families and close friends in "British" Columbia.

"British" Columbia was rightfully claimed by the United States, as part of our Oregon Territory.  "Fifty-four forty or Fight!" was our vow, demanding full American sovereignty up to the southern boundary of what was then Russian America.  Because of American dithering over a simultaneous war with Mexico, our weakling, Gorbachev-esque President Polk and his effete secretary of state, James Buchanan, sold out American sovereignty.  They signed the treasonous "Oregon Treaty," bisecting the Oregon country at the present-day Forty-ninth Parallel.

Many Americans live in British Columbia.  Vast numbers of Americans streamed north during the Vietnam years, claiming certain temporary advantages under Canadian rule.  Our citizens subsidize by their presence ski resorts at Whistler, hotels in Vancouver, and faux-British tea service in Victoria.  But although these American expats, and their children, may love the scenery and ambience of "B."C., they detest the oppression of Canadian rule.

They are forced to live under a Socialistic Regime that imposes "free" medical care on them, for which they pay onerous taxes.  Their schools force them to learn a foreign and distasteful French language, a language that daily assaults their eyes on federal highway signs.  Their province is ruled under an incomprehensible "parliamentary" system, designed to confuse and disenfranchise them.  They must bow down, kneel, and pay homage as subjects to a Foreign Potentate, a "Queen" who lacks even the willingness to live in the realm over which she rules.

So who are the true people of "British" Columbia?  They are Americans, that's who!  They live in a land that's historically part of America!  They are daily oppressed by rulers speaking an arcane form of French that even a Parisian finds uncouth!  They live subject to the whims of a Sovereign whose family we long ago declared to have imposed on freedom loving Americans "a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object [which] evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism."

America is more powerful than Canada!  And, just as Vladimir, Czar of all the Russias, feels about the Crimea -- we also feel about our long-lost lands to the North. We want British Columbia back!  We can take British Columbia back! 

We shall have her back!

To hell with the Artificial 49th Parallel of Latitude!  As the Bellman (and Putin) would cry (and we would reply), "It's merely a conventional sign."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Deconstructing Kashgar

Someday, the entire world will be a uniform strip mall.  Except for a few areas, designated as historical theme parks, preserved (or created) for the benefit of the tourist trade.  The Disneyfication of Planet Earth.

In a post last fall, I expessed my disappointment with my visits to Samarkand and Tashkent.  "Disappointment" is a bit of an exaggeration.  I was in a foreign country, immersed in a foreign culture, which was fascinating.  But I was disappointed to some extent with the physical aspect of the two cities.

As I described in my post, these two historic Silk Road cities have been heavily modernized under Soviet -- and then, even more, under Uzbek --  city planning.  The historic mosques, madrassas, and squares are dazzling in their beauty -- but they have been heavily reconstructed and renovated within the past few decades.   More disturbing still, the cities surrounding the landmark buildings are no longer the warrens of small streets and crowded markets of the Silk Road past.  They have been modernized physically to the point that a Southern Californian would feel quite at home strolling their streets.

In an effort to experience the Silk Road before it's been completely modernized into a "Polyester Road," I've signed up for a trip through China's Xinjiang province in August.  Xinjiang is historically a Muslim region, home of the Uighur people and allied culturally to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, nations lying just on the other side of the Tian Shan mountain range.  My trip will end up in Kashgar, the capital of Xinjiang, and the western-most Chinese city.

Wikipedia describes Kashgar as "the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia," but notes that "it is currently being largely razed by the authorities to make way for 'modern development'."

I'm not even sure my visit in August will be early enough to see much of the Old City, other than rubble.  In a story today, the New York Times reports on the on-going devastation, and notes that:

What remains of the Old City is rapidly being turned into an ethnic theme park, with a $5 admission charge.

The remnants are being marketed as a "living Uighur folk museum."

Right.  Not that we can complain, without displaying some hypocrisy.  Gentrification of our own American cities often has an unstated -- at times, perhaps unconscious -- political motive.  We all recall the sarcastic slogan: "Urban renewal means Negro removal."

Similarly, China is fighting strong Uighur separatist feelings.  As in Tibet, members of the Han majority have been encouraged to move to Xinjiang province, and now constitute approximately half the residents of Kashgar.  Destruction of the Old City is just one more step in that campaign.

For many Uighurs, the demolition of Kashgar's Old City is a physical symbol of the Chinese govenment's efforts to destroy their cultural identity.

Yes, the new buildings are cleaner, and better equipped with modern utilities.  Yes, they are designed to look superficially "old."  Yes, the Old City is now becoming occupied by the "right sort" of people, folks with money -- Han Chinese and prosperous Uighurs who aren't apt to rock the political boat.  Every large housing block in every city in the world has resulted in better housing for those who lived in it.

But such improvements come at a large, if less tangible, cost.

As the New York Times article describes at the beginning:

Visitors walking through the mud-brick rubble and yawning craters where close-packed houses and bazaars once stood could be forgiven for thinking that the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar had been irrevocably lost to the wrecking ball.

I hope some parts of the city won't yet have met that wrecking ball when I arrive in August.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

--T. S. Eliot

Old Blue

A year ago, you read my tribute to REI, the Seattle-based outdoor equipment cooperative.  Not only do I approve of REI's co-op form of ownership, but it offers both equipment and customer service that are excellent.

Today, REI posted on Facebook a photo of a pair of 1980s ski mittens, which their young publicity writer apparently considered relics from a distant and unknown past, and invited readers to share photos of any of their own "classics."

I was happy to respond with the hastily-snapped photo that I now attach to this post.  This, my fellow outdoorsmen, is a sleeping bag I purchased from REI in 1967.  Back in those days, REI (or "the co-op," as we then called it in Seattle) often manufactured its own equipment which it sold under its own name, in addition to -- if not in preference to -- whichever brand name items it retailed.

At any rate, my photo illustrates a backpacking sleeping bag, stuffed with 2½ pounds of goose down fill, that I was then able to purchase for $55.  (In today's dollars, that's $385, but my purchase seemed cheap even at the time, compared with comparable sleeping bags from other manufacturers.)

Since 1967, the sleeping bag has been in continual use.  Backpacking in the Cascades, Olympics, and Sierras, while trying to keep the rain and drizzle off it (the effect of wetness on its insulation qualities is the one drawback to down fill) .  Sleeping in countless youth hostels in Europe, on the grass in city parks, on the banks of rivers, and on ferry decks between Greek islands.  Thrown on the floor when visiting friends who were out of extra beds.  Trekking in odd areas of the world -- most recently in Morocco (2012) and Tajikistan (2013).

One morning, four years ago in Nepal, I threw "Old Blue" over the top of my tent, letting it air out in the sun while I had breakfast, unaware that I was thus exposing my poor old friend to the ridicule of my younger fellow hikers.  My GOD!, they exclaimed.  What kind of antique is that?  I'd never thought much about its age, but I now realized that they all had sleeker, more snazzily colored (not to mention, cleaner!) sleeping bags.  Mine did look kind of tired and old-fashioned, by comparison.  Just like its owner, I suppose.

After the first cold night at high altitude, however, they were complaining about how coldly they'd slept. 

Not me.  I'd been warm as toast.

So, sure.  It's old.  It's a bit grimy.  I use a much newer sleeping bag with artificial fill, designed for warmer ambient temperatures, when I don't have to worry about either extreme cold or its carrying weight or the amount of space it occupies when stuffed (down can be compacted much more radically than artificial fill). But when it comes to the uses for which I purchased it -- I couldn't be happier.  We live in a throw-away culture, but I'd never throw Old Blue away.  We've been through a lot together. 

And we're staying in it together, right to the end!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fall of Rome

The paperback edition
I read in college.

The Roman Empire became old and tired, corrupt and decadent.  Eventually, it could no longer defend its borders.  The Germanic barbarian tribes poured in, and by the late fifth century, the Western half of the Empire was dead, to be replaced by a new feudal economy led by Germanic peoples like the Franks .  The death of the Empire was a tragedy, but in the long run the infusion of vigorous Germanic blood created a new, more vigorous Europe.

This was the version of history I picked up in school, and is essentially the story told by Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It wasn't until college -- where, in one of my many academic incarnations, I was a medieval history student -- that I ran into what was (and is) known as "the Pirenne thesis."  That was long ago, and I had more or less forgotten Pirenne and his historical studies until a couple of months ago.  Out of curiosity and nostalgia, I ordered from a book club a freshly formatted and nicely bound version of Henri Pirenne's seminal work, Mohammed and Charlemagne.

The gist of Pirenne's thesis, based on his study of all the social and economic evidence available to him at the time, was that the Germanic tribes entering the late Empire -- while causing a certain amount of local havoc, mayhem, and destruction -- actually had little effect on the on-going Roman economy.  The Empire, east and west, was a Mediterranean civilization, and its economy was based on Mediterranean shipping back and forth among Italy, North Africa, Greece, Egypt, and the Levant.  The barbarian invasions did not disrupt this shipping, Pirenne believed, and the Germanic tribes eventually, at different times in different areas, settled down and became assimilated into the Empire's social life and economy.

In 600 the physiognomy of the world was not different in quality from that which it had revealed in 400.

It wasn't until Islam unexpectedly sprang out of the Arabian peninsula, spreading its armies across North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, seizing control of the seas, that the Mediterranean unity was broken, and that the western Empire was severed from the eastern half controlled from Constantinople.  No longer having access to the Mediterranean, the Western Empire's trade ceased, the West's economy was devastated and each small region was forced to become self-sufficient -- a process lasting from about A.D. 650-750, ultimately leading to the far more primitive feudal economy. 

Mohammed and Charlemagne was published posthumously in 1937, but its basic ideas were developed by Pirenne while, as a Belgian, he was held captive by the Germans during the first world war.  By the time I first learned of the Pirenne thesis, it had been highly controversial for several decades, with national prides at stake.  Emerging German nationalism had taken comfort in the concept of a vigorous Germanic wind blowing away -- in an act of "creative destruction," if you will -- the worn-out remnants of the ancient civilization.  The concept of Germans (and other ethnic barbarians) being co-opted for two hundred years by the Roman world they had conquered, until finally the old world was blown away by a vigorous Muslim wind blowing out of Arabia, was considerably less congenial.

In her preface to my recently-purchased volume, Oxford historian Averil Cameron assures us that issues raised by Pirenne are as controversial today as they were before I first learned of them.  Many of the data relied on by Pirenne have been questioned or their importance has been superseded by newly discovered data.  I gather that there is now a tendency to conclude that the "true" version of late Roman history is an admixture of Gibbon's original description and Pirenne's attack on that position.

Dr. Cameron reminds us that history is always subjective.  Historians examine the limited evidence available, and from that evidence draw sweeping generalizations.  She reminds us that

Pirenne's questions about West versus East, antiquity versus the Middle Ages, the origins and definition of Europe, and the role of economic factors in history are issues which historians have been addressing for centuries and which are still among the great issues of today.

Why Roman civilization declined and fell, and why it was succeeded by the feudal structures of the early Middle Ages, fascinated me as a student, just as it has fascinated centuries of historians and generations of ordinary people.  We'll never have a complete answer, but as historians acquire an ever-increasing amount of data -- economic and archeological, not just literary -- their conclusions gradually inspire more confidence. 

Synthesizers like Henri Pirenne add excitement to the study of history, and prompt ever new questioning. 

Now, I really need to read the book I hold in my hand -- Pirenne's actual text, not just his concluding chapters and Dr. Cameron's preface!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle

When I write a book review on this blog, I also cut and paste it onto the Goodreads web site.  For books that I find interesting, but not so interesting as to write a blog review, I often write a short blurb directly to Goodreads, but ignore it here on my blog.

Today, I began writing such a short blurb for Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith -- a book I read because of a very favorable review in Sunday's New York Times.  The blurb kept expanding, as I thought of aspects of the book that I liked, to the point that I've decided to reverse my usual modus operandi, and copy and paste it from Goodreads to here.

I'm not really sure yet that the book -- or the review -- is fully blog-worthy, but what the heck.

Austin Szerba is a 16-year-old, small town, Iowa boy. Through a complex series of events, he triggers the creation of a genetically designed race of six-foot tall praying mantises, with exo-skeletons as strong as those of a Naval vessel, bugs who live only to eat and to mate, both of which they do ravenously. While he observes over a period of time virtually all his neighbors being slurped up alive, Austin finds himself worrying primarily about the fact that he's deeply in love, simultaneously, with both his girlfriend Shann and his gay best friend Robby. World cataclysm can't change the fact that he's sixteen and slave to his hormones.

This summary of the plot doesn't sound promising. But a NY Times book review compared the book favorably to the best of Kurt Vonnegut. For the most part, I agree.

While dealing with teenage love and the war against the "Unstoppable Soldiers," as the kids call the mutants, Austin speaks learnedly of historiography, causation, free will versus determinism, the history of Poland and of his own Polish ancestry, the life of St. Kazimierz, the cave drawings at Lescaux, rock music, Iowa sociology, Xanax, Lutheranism, and corporate greed. He also talks a lot about the science of the giant bugs, but you shouldn't take that seriously. He talks even more about his own sexual fantasies, but they are the sort that probably would be unexceptional for a very bright -- but sexually very confused -- Iowa boy.

We learn in the epilogue that Austin is writing his book, based on his exhaustive teenage diaries, at the age of 21 from the safety of an underground bunker, where he lives with Shann and Robby, Shann's parents, Robby's mother and her boyfriend, and Austin's own four-year-old son. So far as he can determine, the other 7 billion human beings have all become dinner for bugs. The Unstoppable Soldiers still roam the earth, seeking out whomever they can devour.

Austin wonders if humans had ever really learned anything essential, from generation to generation. How do we differ from our cave man ancestors? And how do we and those cave men differ from the Unstoppable Soldiers, obsessed only with eating and sex, other than the fact that we occasionally draw pictures on the walls of our caves in an attempt to make sense of it all? This book is Austin's attempt at cave drawing.

The book's subject is grim, but the treatment is humorous.

When he came out of the bathrooom, Grant Wallace [now transformed into an Unstoppable Soldier] ate his two younger brothers, his mother, and the family's Yorkshire terrier, which was named Butterfly.

That gives you a sense of the tone. Book is recommended for young adults, 14 and older. Most teenagers, and many adults, will love it. But I suspect that many parents of teenagers may think twice before suggesting it to their kids.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Happy William Henry Harrison Day

Happy Presidents Day.

'Twas not always thus.  Back when I was in school, we celebrated the birthdays of only two presidents:  Washington (February 22) and Lincoln (February 12).  Washington's Birthday was a national holiday.  Lincoln's Birthday was a holiday, but not (as I recall) the kind of holiday that permitted workers to stay home from work and (more to the point) students to stay home from school.

Both holidays called for the usual use of colored construction paper and crayons.  Washington's Birthday involved designing axes used for chopping down cherry trees ("I cannot tell a lie"), and (I suppose) dollar coins (for throwing across the Potomac).  Lincoln's Birthday involved log cabins (in which he was born).  We didn't draw black slaves -- whether as owned (Washington) or freed (Lincoln).

So yes, we learned a prettified and mythological rendition of the lives of both presidents.  And that's fine with me.  We were kids.  Kids need uplifting stories.  The stories we learned about Washington and Lincoln were myths; as with all myths, they expressed deeper truths through fictional or fictionalized events. 

Whether Washington really ever chopped down a cherry tree, and owned up to it with his father, wasn't important.  Learning to acknowledge one's mistakes and faults was -- as was learning to tell the truth -- without trying to absolve oneself by seeking counseling.  Whether Lincoln was really raised in a rustic cabin, and loved books so much that he damaged a borrowed book by wedging it between two of the logs may or may not have been true.  What was clearly true was the fact that many great men in our history were born in humble settings and worked hard, both physically and mentally, from earliest childhood in order to succeed.

Washington and Lincoln were -- maybe for today's children, still are -- our Ulysses, our Aeneas, our King Henry V.

Then, in 1968, Congress decreed that Washington's Birthday would thenceforth occur on the third Monday of February.  The bill originally changed the name of the holiday to Presidents' Day, but that change was not ultimately approved.  Nevertheless, the new statute cut the direct relationship between Washington's date of birth and the federal holiday celebrating it, and various states enacted laws that called the new holiday by various names -- most frequently as "Presidents' Day", with the apostrophe either before or after the "s," or eliminated entirely. 

In Washington, ironically, a state statute ignores the president of whom we're the namesake, declaring the holiday to be "President's Day."

Presidents Day (regardless of apostrophic placement) suggests a civil adoration of all U.S. Presidents, an exaltation of the executive office, rather than a celebration of any specific president -- the sort of holiday that I doubt would have left either Washington or Lincoln feeling comfortable.  So today, I suppose, we must honor not only Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln -- but also Buchanan, Arthur, Harding, Nixon, and Bush (père et fils). 

Actually, of course, we celebrate primarily the American retail industry, whose Presidents Day Sales dominate our newspapers to the exclusion of any individual president.

On the University of Washington campus, one finds a statue of the eponymous George Washington.  For generations, each Washington's Birthday someone -- during the dark of night -- would slosh the statue with green paint.  "Keep Washington Green," was the pun intended.

I walked by the statue this morning.  It stood oxidized bronze and decidedly un-green in the falling rain.  No one had bothered making a connection between the statue and the holiday. No one at all was around.  All the students had probably gone off skiing for the day.  I doubt if George Washington ever wore a pair of skis.  With the sort of bindings they had back in those days, it's just as well that he didn't.

Happy Whatever Day!