Thursday, April 23, 2015

A dome with a view


In the early hours of Easter Sunday, just a week after my 21st birthday, I arrived in Florence with forty or so of my college classmates -- beginning a six-month study-abroad program. 

After a couple of hours sleep, a number of us walked from our suburban residence -- alongside the road to Fiesole -- into the center of town.  There, for the first time, appeared before me the towering brick dome of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral -- known simply as "the Duomo" ("the Cathedral").  I  was awestruck.

I've returned many times to Florence -- never again, alas, as a 21-year-old -- and I've never ceased to be awestruck. 

A couple of weeks after that first arrival, I climbed to the top of the Duomo -- the equivalent of climbing a 40-story building -- muttering in my novice's Italian frequent "scusi's" and "permesso, signore's" as I squeezed past other visitors (at a time when visitors were primarily Italians themselves.)  At the top of the dome, at the base of the lantern, is a balcony from which one views the entire city, and much of Tuscany beyond.  That view is almost an obligatory tourist attraction -- and if the reader has ever visited Florence, he probably has shared my appreciation.

From the garden of the "villa" in which we lived and studied, one could glance up from his books each day and stare at the Duomo in the distance, glistening in the Tuscan sunlight.

Rather than continuing to wax nostalgic, I should say that these memories have been revived by my reading of Brunelleschi's Dome, Ross King's account of how the present cathedral was constructed in the mid-fifteenth century and, in particular, how the challenges inherent in the design and construction of the cathedral's dome were met by the first of the great Renaissance architects, Filippo Brunelleschi.  As King points out, not only was this dome the most ambitious project of its kind since the height of the Roman Empire, but it remains today the world's largest masonry dome -- larger than those of St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, and the Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

And it was built without modern technology, by a civilization just beginning its revival from the technological torpor of the Middle Ages.

King's book is interesting from both an historical and an engineering perspective.  He sets forth in clear language the technical problems that Brunelleschi needed to overcome in constructing such an edifice, and his daring decision to build the dome without the use of any interior, supporting, wooden scaffolding -- relying on gravity and mortar alone to hold the rising dome together as it was built.  He describes the engineering difficulties encountered in building a dome of such large dimensions -- and a pointed rather than circular dome -- with none of the visible exterior buttressing that French and German builders used in constructing the pointed arches of Gothic churches.

The author describes the ingenious tools that Brunelleschi designed and built in order to raise and position mammoth blocks of sandstone to unprecedented heights.  He describes the perils of the workmen, as they lay bricks while hanging over the abyss below.

At a less technical -- and more human -- level, he relates the political, artistic, and personal infighting between Brunelleschi and competing architects -- especially his chief rival,  Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose gilded bronze doors on the neighboring Baptistery are one of Florence's artistic wonders.  Although Brunelleschi and Ghiberti built and designed like angels, they squabbled and fought like adolescents. 

The book is a short read, containing a wealth of architectural and engineering information, a story of technological triumph immersed in a sea of political in-fighting, military history, social and economic background, and Tuscan landscapes. 

For anyone who has ever visited Florence, there will be "ah ha" moments, where one thinks "yes!  I remember seeing that!"  In reading how Brunelleschi constructed both an interior and an exterior dome, I remembered my first climb to the top -- how I found myself leaning farther and farther inward, to avoid the slanting roof over my head.  I realized at the time that I was in some sort of space between two shells -- but after reading King's book I have a much cleared picture of just where I had been climbing.  The reader will find many similar enjoyable revelations.

Florence can be enjoyed on many levels.  But Brunelleschi's Dome, by showing the genius and hard work that produced the city's most memorable building, adds greatly to that enjoyment. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Alex Crow


On his fourteenth birthday, Ariel played Pierrot the clown in a school play.  He stayed dressed in his clown suit after the play, because one of his classmates had hidden his clothes as a joke. 

Later the same day, the rebel soldiers came to town.  They abducted some of his friends as involuntary conscripts; they killed the others.  Ariel hid in a walk-in refrigerator while the rest of the town was gassed to death.  Only Ariel survived.  For the next few months, Ariel wandered about, struggling for survival -- an orphan and a refugee -- dressed in the clothes on his back -- those of Pierrot the clown.

A year ago, I reviewed Andrew Smith's funny, revolting, and preposterous YA novel, Grasshopper Jungle.  Yesterday, I ran across the New York Times's review of Smith's latest novel, The Alex Crow.

I had to read it.  And I have.

But for a jammed rebel rifle, Ariel would have died on his fourteenth birthday.  He escapes one harrowing experience after another, including forcible rape by older boys in a UN refugee camp, until, just before he turns 15, he bumps into an American officer at the camp.  The officer -- Major Knott --befriends him, brings him back to America, and places him with the family of a friend and co-worker in West Virginia.

We never learn the location of Ariel's homeland, except that it's in the eastern hemisphere.  But, as Major Knott learns, Ariel has accomplishments beyond those of a survivor.  He is fluent in both English and French ("I like languages").  He knows immediately that West Virginia is "in the eastern United States, between Virginia and Ohio."  He is intelligent, and he is observant.

In West Virginia, he meets his adopted family, including a brother Max, just sixteen days his senior.  Max and Ariel are sent to a summer camp for six weeks.  A major portion of the novel relates their adventures at camp (extremely funny at times), the growing if strained friendship between the two brothers, and Ariel's gradual discovery of the reason Major Knott was so generous with his time and energy, and so willing to bring Ariel to the United States.

All bullying involves the bully's desire to exercise control over another.  But not all those who long to control others are obvious bullies -- they aren't necessarily tough "big kids" in school, or violent rebel soldiers, or teen rapists, or insecure camp counselors.  Nor even overly-inquisitive psychologists.  Sometimes control freaks come to us under the guise of friends, as good people who wish to "make the world exactly the way we want it to be.  All for the best, of course."

After reading the review -- a favorable review -- in the Times, I was expecting a book full of horrors, a book every bit as bizarre as Grasshopper Jungle.  A book that, as the review put it, "left me uncomfortable and emotional and  wondering what exactly would make someone write a book like this."  But no.  Aside from a bit of science fiction, that isn't what I read.  I found Ariel's life to be amazing and unusual and frightening and sad, but not unbelievable. (Although there were a couple of bizarre side plots, involving other characters.) And very touching.

And the aspects of science fiction?  In another five or ten years they may seem prescient.  To those of us in 2015 who know of drones, drones used both for observation and for targeted killings; of omnipresent surveillance cameras; of warrantless monitoring of communications; of unchallengeable "no fly" orders; of the exponential increase in the computing power of chips -- none of the disturbing and intrusive science in The Alex Crow seems preposterous.  Just not fully developed, as of yet.

So far as we know.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Electrifying


Tree exploded in Arboretum by
lightning bolt.
Photo:  Seattle Times

Lightning is rare in the Northwest Corner.

We get it several times a year, but generally it's what we call "heat lightning" -- where the sky lights up from some storm beyond the horizon, often so far away we can't even hear the thunder.  As kids, with closer strikes, we would count the seconds until we heard the thunder, and divide by five to calculate how far away (in miles) the electrical discharge occurred.  Six or seven miles was fairly common.

But sometimes we see real, honest bolts of lightning, up close, zig-zagging down from the sky,  just like we see in movies (or like I've seen flying into cities like Miami).  Not often, but sometimes.  Just like sometimes we have a heavy snow during the winter.

A little over an hour ago, as I sat at this very same computer, with no warning at all, the room lit up with lightning.  Before I could begin counting "one one thousand, two one thousand," a bomb seemingly exploded.  The entire house shook.  The roar of thunder -- after the first sharp explosion -- rolled on for five or ten seconds.

I wasn't terrified.  It wasn't like being hit with an earthquake.  But it was startling, and it was close. Very close. The Seattle Times reports that about 500 houses are without power because of lightning strikes.  Not me.  The lights didn't even dim, as they frequently do during tree-downing wind storms.

But it reminds me once again -- an obsession of mine -- of how tenuous is our hold on life.  That was one loud blast, and it was close.  I don't know what it struck, but something -- a tree, a chimney, someone holding an umbrella -- served as a conduit between ground and sky for a fierce discharge of amperage.  It could have been my roof.  It could have been me out in the yard.

Nature's amazing, and -- as the cliché has it -- capricious.  I mentioned in a recent post that a meteorite could strike us at any time -- but we learn to disregard that fact.  A meteorite, an asteroid, a killer earthquake -- or a simple lightning bolt.

Both my cats have been under my bed upstairs ever since the bolt hit.  They may not share our human ruminations on mortality and fatalism.  But they know something damn scary when they hear it.

I'll go calm them down, uttering soothing platitudes that I don't really believe myself.  "Come on you guys -- it was just a little thunder.  Nothing to worry about!"

Nothing at all.

---------------------------------------

8:30 p.m. -- "Lightning struck a large tree at the Washington State Arboretum, causing it to shatter." --Seattle Times
The Arboretum is across the street from my house. No wonder it sounded close.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"I got in!"




In the movie Billy Elliot, young Billy's dance teacher has persuaded him to apply to the school of the Royal Ballet in London.  Following an apparently disastrous audition, he waits nervously to hear the verdict, pretending to everyone that he couldn't care less.

One day he walks into the house and sees "the letter" waiting for him on the table, surrounded by his father, brother and grandmother.  He picks it up, looks around with a look of panic, and retreats to his bedroom behind a closed door.  Finally, his family can stand the suspense no longer.  They burst into his room.  He's sitting on the bed, holding the opened letter with tears in his eyes.  They stare at each other.

"I got in!" he croaks.

This is the time of year when college admission decisions are being mailed out, and scenes similar to Billy's are being re-enacted around the country.  When I saw Billy Elliot, I recalled my similar response when I received "the letter" from the only university to which I'd applied (the University of Washington, my safe "back-up," had a much later deadline).  My brother was standing beside me as I retrieved the letter from the mailbox. 

I couldn't do it.  I couldn't open it in front of my brother, letting him (or anyone else) watch me at that moment of extreme vulnerability.  I walked into another room and closed the door.  I, too, "got in."  My joy was explosive.

This all comes to mind because, yesterday, Maya -- my great niece -- received notice that her application to the University of California, Berkeley ("Cal" to most of us) had been accepted.  Maya is probably better mentally balanced and certainly more self-confident than either Billy or I were, so she may well have received her letter with total composure.  But when she relayed the news to her relatives, there was no denying her excitement and happiness.

She now has to decide between Berkeley and another UC school.  I'm lobbying strongly for Berkeley, a university experience that I think will be helpful to her in many ways -- in ways beyond mere preparation for her chosen field of environmental studies.

But however she decides, I'm confident that she is a young woman who will make the most of her time in college.

Congratulations, Maya!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Trust


I drive for hours in the dark on a two-lane highway, squinting to avoid being blinded by on-coming headlights. 

I stand near the tracks of the New York subway, watching my train roar into the station.  Having a headache, I borrow some ibuprofen from a friend's medicine cabinet.  I trek in remote areas of foreign lands, whose language I don't know and about whose dangers I know little, relying on the expertise and good will of guides whose poverty and beliefs contrast sharply with my own Western lifestyle.

These kinds of conduct may seem a bit risky, but for the most part we take our response to risk for granted.

We assume that the guy standing next to us on the subway platform won't -- on sudden impulse -- shove us onto the track as the train approaches.  But we know it's happened.

We assume the ibuprofen is pure and has not been tampered with.  But we know of cases where unknown persons for unknown reasons have contaminated ibuprofen with deadly amounts of cyanide.

We trust our trekking guides. But we know of cases where guides have, at best, been thieves, or, worse, have betrayed hikers to terrorists. 

These thoughts are prompted, of course, by what now appears to be the suicidal crash of the Germanwings flight in southern France.  The co-pilot apparently had no reservations about taking 150 passengers' lives with him when he died, anymore than the suicidal automobile driver cares about the lives of those in the on-coming vehicle.

We know that these criminal acts occur, and that they are largely unpreventable.  We can sometimes minimize the risks slightly -- stand away from the subway platform edge, choose guides carefully, examine pills for signs of tampering -- but we can't guarantee our own safety.

And so we base our lives on trust.  We know rationally that bad things can happen; but we also know that these bad things happen relatively rarely.  And so we choose to assume they will not happen, and act accordingly.

Some people cannot trust.  They cannot trust other people; they cannot trust the law of averages; they cannot trust themselves.  In extreme cases, they lock themselves in their homes and rarely venture out.  They don't enjoy travel, it goes without saying.  Their inability to trust often extends to other areas of life; in effect, they spend their lives merely existing.  They don't live, for fear of dying.

I suspect that there will be a drop in the number of people flying in the next few months.  I suspect that Germanwings, especially, will suffer from cancellations.  But most of us will shudder at the fate of all the passengers, young and old, who died; then we'll shrug it off, push the incident from our minds, and continue to fly.  We will continue to trust that our pilots and crew value their own lives, as well as the lives of their passengers.

A meteor (or piece of a satellite, or a falling safe) dropping from the sky and hitting us would be every bit as fatal as an airline crash or a head-on collision.  We don't live from day to day in terror of meteors or other falling objects. 

That's the way our minds work.  That's the psychological defense mechanism that allows us to live interesting and productive lives.   It works for me, and I'm glad it does.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Skydiving


A year ago, I reprinted a travel article I had written in my youth, one that had been published in my home town newspaper.  Readership of that post was high, somewhat to my surprise.

I'll tempt fate and now offer another product of my younger years, written the same summer for the same newspaper -- a summer when I was contemplating what to do with the rest of my life.  Newsprint yellows and crumbles with age.  If nothing else, adding these two articles to my blog may ensure their survival for a few more decades.


Anyone who has been skydiving for the first time recently will recognize that techniques have changed over the past 45 years.  Landings today are gentler.  First dives are made in tandem with an instructor, and are made from much higher altitudes -- providing a much longer experience of free-fall.

As with my prior "blast from the past," I reprint this story exactly as it appeared in the newspaper.  Outdated slang and unfortunately chauvinistic attitudes or language have been left intact.  The article was published in the Longview Daily News on July 4, 1970.

-----------------------------------------

"Once you're in that plane, you're going to make the jump.  No one comes back down with the plane."

You sit crouched on the floor of a stripped-down Cessna 170 and recall your instructor's warning earlier in the day.  Your decision is irrevocable.  You go to your first sky dive.

Early on this fair Saturday, after months of thought and conversation, you and a friend walked bravely into the office of Seattle Sky Sports, a non-profit outfit in Issaquah.  You forked over $35 each, signed liability waivers with some trepidation, and were enrolled in a 10:30 a.m ground school class.

Although students from 16 to 60 are welcome, your classmates, 11 men and two girls, all appeared to be in their twenties.  The instructor, a lithe, sharp-looking blonde named Gloria, was personable, articulate ("I teach high school when I can spare the time from jumping") and possessed of a subtle, ironical sense of humor.

After a couple of movies illustrating the beauties of the art, Gloria did her classroom bit.  She painstakingly outlined steps for each procedure, the essential theoretical background, and courses of action to be taken in any emergency.  She reassuringly detailed her company's safety record.  She stiffened your determination.  "None of my pupils has ever backed out of his jump after going through ground school."  ("There are many paths to distinction," your companion muttered.)  A final slap on the back before lunch.  "Even if you screw up everything, you'll live to tell about it, but the idea is to do it right."

In the afternoon, she put you through a series of physical exercises designed to simulate different aspects of the jump.  For example, you repeatedly did a jump and roll from a four-foot platform, an impact equivalent to that of the actual landing.

You completed a short written test on the morning's lecture (grades are strictly pass-fail, and everyone passed).  Dressed in white coveralls and helmets, you and your classmates were grouped by threes into planeloads.

You stumbled aboard the plane, encumbered by the heavy parachute pack on your back and the reserve chute and ground-to-air radio on your chest.  The static line, which on a first jump will automatically open your chute, was fastened with care to the pilot's seat. 

Why are you doing this?  Maybe you fear heights and want to face that fear.  Maybe you fear death and want to cheat it   Maybe you fear a purely mental and abstract life, devoid of physical challenges and dangers.  Or maybe you simply seek a groovy feeling.  Whatever your motivation,you find yourself now aboard a tiny plane which taxis across the field and lurches into the sky. 

For some reason, you are strangely calm.  Mt. Rainier towers reassuringly familiar to the south, and you note with interest how Interstate 90 blazes through the center of the green Snoqualmie valley.

The plane climbs.  At 2,000 feet the door is opened, and your new instructor hurls out a yellow streamer to check wind patterns.  He watches intently as it falls to earth.

Far below you see the air field and the small circle which you know is your gravel landing target.

At 2,800 feet, the door again is opened.  Your buddy goes first.  He creeps out and suddenly, alarmingly, is gone.  The plane circles while the instructor watches.

"Real good," he says.

You look down and see his chute far below.

Your instructor searches your face.

"Scared?"

"Yeah."

"Good.  Then you'll make a good jump."

The door is still open.  The air rushes by.

"Okeh.  Sit in the door."  You throw your legs over the edge, eying the ground between them.  Although far below, it looks like an aerial photo stretched out at your feet.  The illusion is too compelling to permit fear.  You've actually felt more panic standing on a 10-foot stepladder.

"Okeh.  Get out there."  Your feet rest on a rod jutting out from the cockpit.  You stand up, grabbing the wing strut.  You edge out to the very end of the rod, standing on one leg, raise the other into the air.  You await the order.

"Go."

He slaps your leg.  At some mental level below that of rational thought, you respond by pushing off from your only link with the rest of the world.

Rush of air.  No spatial orientation.   Train of thought impossible.  "Man's not made for this."  A two dimensional creature thrust suddenly into a 3-D world.  "Forgot ... suppose to arch back ... gotta try to do it."

Within five seconds, your chute is open.  Utter confusion is transformed into utter joy.  You forgot to count, forgot to hold your arms and legs correctly, forgot to check that your chute was opening.  And yet you are overwhelmingly happy.

You are scared of heights, but you feel not the slightest fear.  A world of serene beauty surrounds you, your great orange and white canopy shelters you.  You  are enveloped by a soft silence, a feeling of great peace.

Suggestions for steering your way down crackle over the radio.  You obey almost automatically, almost annoyed at the intrusion.  Not even apprehension about the landing can disturb your euphoria.

But the ground nears and rushes up, and you see figures moving about as you zero in on the target circle.  You press your legs together and remember to look away to the horizon, avoiding an otherwise inevitable misjudgment of the impact time.

You hit and roll instinctively, and easily to the ground, then stand to help the ground crew fold the parachute.  You are, perhaps, suffering rather pleasantly from mild mental shock.

"Hey, this is a first-timer.  Landed right on the target.  What's this world coming to?"

You know that you should give full credit to the expert radio guidance, but you just stand there with a big, silly, happy grin on your face.

You've been sky-diving, and the world is yours.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Thanks to NBC


I was just a skinny kid.  A skinny kid who knew all about the planets, who liked thinking about rocket ships and outer space.  Who knew the future was bound to be far more exciting, even bizarre, than the dull life of his small, peaceful town in the Northwest Corner.

I was just a skinny kid with my ear pressed to the speaker of our radio console, a large combination radio-phonograph, disguised as mahogany furniture, that sat in the place where -- a few years later -- one would expect to find a television set.

Because I was a skinny kid back in the days before -- well, not the days before television existed, but the days before my family owned one.  Before TV signals could actually be received in my home town's remote corner of the then very remote Northwest Corner.

I was scrunched up on the floor, ear to the speaker, listening to a strange story.  A story of men who traveled to Mars in a rocket ship, and who discovered not the sandy desert revealed by today's unmanned Mars landers, but something far more wonderful.  They discovered their own small towns, just as those small  towns had appeared when they were children, in about 1926.  And they discovered their long-deceased relatives -- mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents -- welcoming them with love and joy, just as the men recalled them from the past.

They had found Heaven, and Heaven was apparently only a few months distant by rocket ship from Earth.

But things are never as they seem, apparently.  Especially on Mars.  Martians, it appears, are skilled at telepathy and at mass hypnosis.  They could read the fondest dreams and wishes of the crew members of the expedition.  They could create the world the Earthlings dreamed of.  They could make them extraordinarily happy -- and unsuspecting.  Then, while they were all asleep ...

But one crew member lay in bed and began to have doubts --

Carefully he lifted the covers, rolled them back.  He slipped from bed and was walking softly across the room when his brother's voice said, 'Where are you going?'
'What?'
His brother's voice was quite cold.  "I said, where do you think you're going?'
'For a drink of water.'
'But you're not thirsty.'
'Yes, yes, I am.'
'No, you're not.'
Captain John Black broke and ran across the room.  He screamed.  He screamed twice.
He never reached the door.

Heady stuff, for a small town, skinny kid.  I've never forgotten the story.
A decade later, while idle on a rainy day in San Sebastian, Spain, poking around a bookstore, I found an American paperback of science fiction stories.  The cover read:  The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.  I read for the first time the name of one of the great, if idiosyncratic, writers of science fiction.  And spent that rainy day reading one of the landmark books in sci fi literature -- a collection of short stories, published in 1950, describing the exploration and settlement of Mars from 1999 to 2026 (we were more optimistic, in those days!).  

The stories, unlike much sci fi literature, used Mars as a vehicle to focus on our own problems as human beings, and on the devastation and ruin we bring with us like a plague, wherever we venture. 

The radio program I remembered so well was an adaptation of the sixth chapter in the book -- entitled "The Third Expedition," but had been republished from a sci fi magazine where it had appeared in 1948 as "Mars is Heaven!"

Nowadays, I belong to a British book club that releases classics from all ages in carefully printed and bound volumes.  Today I received my bound copy of The Martian Chronicles.  On thumbing through the book, I immediately recalled the radio program, and wondered if there was any present record of that early broadcast.  Thanks to the internet, I learn that there is indeed, and moreover  that I can now date the program to which I listened with wide-eyed excitement as a child.

From April 1950 to September 1951, NBC radio carried a science fiction series called "Dimension X."  The program presented 50 dramatizations of science fiction stories during that period, including stories by such masters as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Lefferts; numerous stories by Bradbury -- and even one by L. Ron Hubbard. 

Dimension X broadcast its adaptation of "Mars is Heaven!" on July 7, 1950, and rebroadcast it on January 7, 1951.  For either broadcast, I would have been ten years old -- just about the age I would have estimated.  I'm delighted to discover what literate programing NBC was able to offer in the mid-twentieth century, and I'm happy to recognize how lucky I was -- as a small, skinny, ten-year-old kid, living in Podunk, WA -- to be introduced to one of the most enjoyable of science fiction authors.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Octennial


And thus ends my eighth year of churning out posts for this blog.

The churning has been more subdued this year.  But, of course, quantity isn't everything.  How has my quality been?

A difficult question to answer, since "quality" is so subjective.  As far as popularity goes, my most read posts have been book reviews.  In fact, the most popular review of the year discussed only a small portion of a book -- something from India about a fakir's "Indian rope trip."  The second most popular was a review of The Maltese Falcon

My third most popular post, oddly enough, was a reprint of a newspaper article I had written 44 years earlier, recounting an eventful visit to Damascus.

Other popular topics were my visit to southern Africa, my terror of bears in Glacier National Park, and my satisfaction at reading studies that seemed to show that -- as we suspected all along -- more brawn means fewer brains.

But these statistics merely show which topics lured readers to the page.   They say nothing about the degree of satisfaction those readers experienced, having completed their reading.

We can't know everything, and sometimes ignorance is a good thing.  If we knew how everyone we met really saw us, we might well be paralyzed into inaction.  I might find myself walking around with a bag over my head.  Similarly, a writer -- especially a novice writer -- may be better off ignoring hostile reviews. 

So I will continue writing posts for another year, hoping they are readable, hoping they are worth reading, hoping they somehow, in some small way, improve a tiny corner of the universe.  Hearing nothing to the contrary, I'll blithely take my writing's quality for granted.

But certainly focus on improving quantity.

Monday, March 16, 2015

I once was lost


... but now am found.  Not once, but twice!  Twice lost.  Twice found.

I refer, of course, to my wallet. 

On Thursday, while running my four-mile loop -- part of it through the UW campus -- my wallet somehow took leave of me.  I didn't discover its disapperance until I walked in the front door.  Although, until that moment, I thought I'd exhausted every ounce of energy, I immediately began retracing my steps on foot.  Walking, of course, not running. 

About half way through this patently hopeless task, a guy called telling me he had found my wallet.  He wanted to get it back to me.  He didn't live around here -- in fact, he was visiting from Boston.  He suggested we meet in front of a Wells Fargo bank near the University at 6 p.m.  I agreed.  After some concerns -- which I mulled over publicly on Facebook -- that a scoundrel was setting me up to drain my Wells Fargo account, I met him as planned.  He cheerfully handed me the wallet, and resolutely refused to accept my offer of a "finder's fee."

Well, I certainly had learned my lesson, right?  Apparently not.  This morning, I discovered -- again on campus -- that my wallet had again taken flight.  Déjà vu all over again!  I retraced all my steps -- magical thinking -- including a mile walk back to the café where I'd had breakfast.  Nada.  As a last resort, I tried the library lost and found.  My wallet! There it was!  I suspect it slipped out of my pocket while I was using the rest room facilities.

So what's the deal?  Is my rear end changing its configuration, allowing my wallet to make a break for it more easily?  I really have no idea.  I have to take some action to keep this from happening again -- tie the damn thing around my neck?

(I'm not even talking about how I lost my wallet last October in Laos -- while bouncing along, my back to the open air, in a tuk-tuk.  Never heard from that wallet again -- it's probably now a prize icon of the Mysterious West, displayed in some rice farmer's front room.  You'd be surprised at how many items you carry in your wallet that need to be canceled and replaced.  I certainly was.)

I want to publicly thank Oleg of Boston, Massachusetts, the lost and found department at the UW's Allen Library, and the unknown student who turned in my wallet this morning.  You've saved me a vast amount of difficulty over the past week.

When I was a kid, my mom told me -- on many, many occasions -- "Honey, you'd leave your head somewhere if it wasn't attached to your neck."  But we both felt that losing stuff was something I would grow out of.  Sorry, Mother -- it just didn't work out that way. 

As Wordsworth noted, the child is father of the man. But I think he meant it as an expression of optimism.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Crossing the hollow land on foot



It's strictly a coincidence.  Really.  The book didn't make that big an impression on me.  But in late May, I'll be hiking over the fells and through the dales of Westmorland, the locale of  the young adult novel, The Hollow Land, which I praised a couple of months ago.

My hike will actually be the western half of the celebrated "Coast-to-Coast" route, beginning on the beach of the Irish Sea at St. Bees, and ending up at Kirkby Stephen, just before the pathway crosses into Yorkshire.  I will thus be crossing the Lake District from west to east, before passing into Westmorland on the third day..  At some point a bit south of Keswick, I will cross the route my niece and I followed three years ago, as we hiked from south to north.

The hike will cross the historic counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, counties that were combined for bureaucratic purposes into the new county of "Cumbria" in 1972 under Mrs. Thatcher.

I will be hiking for seven days, at a leisurely average of 12 miles per day.  But the hiking will be through mountainous areas for most of the route.

I'm doing this hike not only because I loved the Lake District when we hiked there in 2012, but in order to help prepare for my trek in the Pamirs in July.  I'll have about six weeks between the end of the England hike and the beginning of the trek in China, which should allow plenty of time for my body to recover from any wear and tear it may have sustained, without significantly losing its improved conditioning.

The month of May is rumored to be the least rainy month of the year in the area I'll be visiting.  Based on life in the Northwest Corner, that's hard to believe.  But we shall see. 

And maybe I'll meet one of the ancient ghosts -- Roman or Celt or Viking or Saxon -- that haunted the imaginations of the two boys in The Hollow Land.  Now, that would be an adventure.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Through China on the iron rooster


Paul Theroux never much likes what he sees -- especially the people he runs into, or places crowded with such people.  But, given that limitation, if indeed it's a limitation, he writes wonderfully illuminating, factually detailed, and often very funny books about his travels.

My nephew Denny, his step-daughter Maya, and I are heading for "China" in July.  I throw the quotation marks around "China," because we will be trekking on the far western edge of Xinjiang province -- a large province that is de jure Chinese, but geographically and ethnically Central Asian, a province whose population is Muslim and that was historically considered part of the vague geographic area called "Turkestan."

In his 1988 book, Riding the Iron Rooster, Theroux writes about his train travels from London to China, and then throughout China, just about everywhere he could reach by rail.  Our trekking in July will be west of Kashgar, in the portion of the Pamir mountains that separate China from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  Theroux did visit Xinjiang, but ventured no farther than Urumchi, the capital of the province, about 830 miles by highway to the northeast.  The railroad connecting Xinjiang to the rest of China halts at Urumchi -- or at least it did when Theroux visited.  

Although Theroux didn't reach Kashgar, all of Xinjiang is dominated by the culture and language of the Muslim Uighurs -- a Turkic people in constant conflict with China's dominant Han majority.  Therefore,  I was interested in his impressions of that portion of Xinjiang he was able to observe.

Theroux points out throughout his book that -- for the vast majority of Chinese -- the "real" China never reaches all that far beyond the east coast, the area of high population density and intense cultivation that we in the West mentally picture as "Chinese."  Those Chinese regard Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang as barbaric regions, historically serving to buffer the civilized Middle Kingdom from hostile tribes and peoples beyond.   Just west of Lanzhou -- which on the map appears to lie in the middle of the country, Theroux found his train

passing a point the Chinese had once called The Gate of Demons because beyond it was the howling wind and wasteland of which they had an acute terror.

The rails led westward into a region of desert, often surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

At Wuwei, the desert is broken briefly by a pleasant region well-watered by mountain run-off.  Theroux found himself -- not to the reader's surprise -- delighted by the sparse population of this attractive area. 

I was beginning to understand that the empty parts of China are the most beautiful, and some of them -- like these valleys -- very fertile.  ...  Its utter emptiness was so rare in China that it seemed startling to me, and where there were gardens and trees it was almost lush.  Large herds of sheep grazed along the stonier stretches, nibbling at hanks of grass; and there were mules and crows and mud-walled towns.  In one place I saw six camels, big and small, placidly watching the train go by.

He liked the Uighurs, many of whom he met aboard his train. 

They were a Turkic-speaking people, the remote descendants of nomads whose kingdom existed here 1200 years ago, and many of them looked like Italian peasants.  It was no wonder that Marco Polo found them a friendly and fun-loving people.

The Chinese Hans have not found the  Uighurs so congenial, and they have resisted assimilation.

Their world was entirely separate: it was Allah, and the Central Asian steppes, a culture of donkey carts and dancing girls.  They ate mutton and bread.  They were people of the bazaar, who -- familiar with outlandish travelers -- were travelers themselves.

In the town of Turfan, approaching Urumchi by train, he observed that

it was straight out of the Bible, with donkeys and grape arbors and mosques, and people who looked Lebanese, with brown faces and gray eyes.

Theroux hinted at his feelings toward most of China:

I liked the town [Turfan].  It was the least Chinese place I had seen so far, and it was one of the smallest and prettiest.

Theroux confirms that Denny, Maya and I will be visiting not China -- the "real" China -- but Central Asia, just as I visited Central Asia two years ago when I trekked in Tajikistan.  In fact, except when visiting Kashgar, we will be spending our days and nights with nomadic Tajiks and Kyrgyz, far more than we will with even Uighurs, let alone Han Chinese.

And Kashgar -- our home base -- is even more remote from Beijing than Urumchi.  Although not as irascible as Paul Theroux, I perhaps share (if to a lesser degree) his nervousness with being surrounded day after day by strangers physically crowding up next to me.  I'm looking forward to trekking in a part of China where one finds relative solitude, and hospitality from the people one does meet. 

Theroux finishes his book with a visit to Tibet -- a non-Han region at least as remote as Xinjiang.  He loves Tibet -- its people and its mountains and its religion.

I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet, and then I realized that I liked wilderness much more.

He loved its supposed inaccessibility.

But the main reason Tibet is so undeveloped and un-Chinese -- and so thoroughly old-fangled and pleasant -- is that it is the one great place in China that the railway has not reached.  The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa. 

Theroux wrote that prediction in 1988.  He was mistaken.  Eighteen years later, in 2006, the determined Chinese connected Lhasa to the rest of China by rail.

I hoped Kashgar had escaped this fate (although I knew we would be arriving by air).  Travel articles, however, reveal that Kashgar is now a 23½ hour train ride from Urumchi.  The world is fast running out of "inaccessible places".

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Grass always greener


For millions of years, the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate has been burrowing like a mole under the North American plate.  At present, it's crawling eastward at only about a half inch per year, but over millions of years, those half-inches do add up.

The result -- in addition to many earthquakes -- has been the Cascade Range with its series of volcanic outbursts.

Last week I flew down to Santa Rosa to meet up with family.  Clouds covered the route over  Washington and Oregon.  But the clouds were high clouds and my plane -- a turbo-prop -- was flying at a much lower elevation than would a jet.  The clouds were above us, and the scenery was below.

The scenery was the Cascade Range, in all its February glory.  I was sitting at a window on the right side of the plane, and watched as one by one the volcanic peaks marched by -- brilliant snow cones and crags, rising out of forested hills.  First, of course, right out of Seattle, was Rainier.  Then Mt. Adams.  Then St. Helens, the mountain that served as the beacon of my childhood -- now, shrunken and devastated, a giant snow-lined crater scooped out of its once symmetrical cone. 

As we crossed the Columbia river into Oregon, the sharp peak of Mt. Hood (photo above) came into view.  Then Mt. Jefferson, and finally the complex of peaks known as the Sisters.

I gazed out my airplane window, realizing that, if I lived anywhere else in the world, I'd be willing to pay a heap of money to come visit this snow-peaked paradise.  And yet, there it lies all about me and -- for most days, most of the year -- I take it all for granted. 

Back in Seattle, I'll glance at Rainier out of the corner of my eye and shrug as I stroll along, daydreaming of walking through Central Park in New York.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A girl's life


Mary McCarthy, whose novel, Birds of America, I discussed last week, was a leading American author and intellectual, with deep roots in Seattle.  In my prior post, I indicated having earlier read her autobiographical Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.  I've since discovered that I "misremembered" (as the word currently in vogue expresses it) having done so.  At most, I merely skimmed portions of it that interested me at the time.

McCarthy, born in 1912, was the granddaughter of Harold Preston, co-founder of the Seattle law firm that later claimed William Gates -- father of Microsoft's Bill Gates -- as a named partner.  Preston's wife was Jewish, at a time when being Jewish was a matter of some social importance.  Her father's family was Irish.

As she recounts in her Memories, both parents died of influenza within days of each other in 1918, while on a family visit to Minnesota leaving McCarthy, age six, and her three brothers orphans.  Her Minneapolis relatives, on the McCarthy side, farmed the kids out to an aunt and uncle who "cared for them" in scenes of Dickensian cruelty and neglect.  When she was eleven years old, grandfather Preston got wind of what was going on, and brought Mary back to Seattle.

While her early years are unsettling to read, her personality as a girl rather than a victim began to bloom during her years at Seattle's Forest Ridge school (since moved across the lake to Bellevue), under the tutelage of strict but caring nuns, the "Ladies of the Sacred Heart."  It was while at Forest Ridge that she "lost her faith" -- not because of mistreatment or intellectual ferment, but almost by accident: she craved more attention from nuns and fellow students, and decided that a spiritual crisis might secure it.  In trying to prove to a skeptical priest the reality of her overnight conversion to atheism, she actually succeeded in talking herself into believing that which she thought she'd been only pretending to believe.

After eighth grade, Mary attended Garfield high school -- my own neighborhood public high school -- for her freshman year, with disastrous consequences academically.  Being in daily contact with boys made algebra and composition seem tedious by comparison.  Her grandparents whisked her off to Annie Wright's -- an Episcopalian girls' school in Tacoma -- for the remainder of high school.

Mary McCarthy is a fine narrative writer -- humorous, detailed, and unexpectedly compassionate to the people who surrounded her in her youth.  She was clearly a brilliant child, with an underlying rebellious streak.  Although popular at times, she was something of a loner.  She feels she must have possessed some qualities, something odd, unknown to herself, that prevented both faculty and fellow students from ever quite accepting her as one of themselves.  She recalls specific students and teachers with both fondness and contempt -- but always with care.

She brings to life long-forgotten eras of education.  Memorably described was the play -- written by her stern Scottish-born teacher -- based on the Roman struggle between Cicero and Catiline.  Presented to Annie Wright's students and their parents, it featured a female Cicero presenting, from memory, Cicero's first Cataline oration:

"How far, at length, O Catiline, will you abuse our patience?  To what ends does your audacious boldness boastfully display itself?"

How far, at length, Miss Gowrie, [interposes McCarthy], could you abuse their patience?  Cicero's oration lasted thirty-one minutes by Miss Gowrie's watch.

And the play had barely begun.  Mary played Catiline.  As she recalls the performance, her interpretation of Catiline's response, which she decided upon on the spot, was a tour de force -- one that brought the audience to its feet, in "thunderous applause."  Well, maybe, Ms. McCarthy.

McCarthy, despite her life-long atheism, avoids the common habit of blaming her Catholic upbringing for any adult woes or inhibitions.  Instead, she is pleased with the strong academic foundation it provided, and she recalls "with gratitude ... the sense of mystery and wonder" she absorbed.  Because of both the decade in which she lived her youth -- the 1920s -- and the other-worldly ambience, foreign to today's readers, of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, McCarthy's Memories call to life an alien, and yet oddly alluring, world.

As though in anticipation of this week's clamor over "misremembering," my edition also includes McCarthy' lengthy post-publication discussion following each chapter, analyzing the points about which her memory may have been mistaken, where she had deliberately reshuffled events for narrative purposes, and where she had presented possibilities or probabilities as certainties.  Taken together with the original text, the result is a book the combines the best of both documented history and historical fiction.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Nature is dead, mein kind.


Peter Levi is a tall, awkward, strongly introverted, nineteen-year-old.  He is the son of divorced parents: a college professor and a concert pianist. 

Peter lives within his own head, while yet trying to understand the world in which he lives in 1964 -- his story told against a background of the civil rights movement, increasing homogenization of American daily life, a "junior year abroad" in France and Italy, and the gradually intensifying war in Vietnam. 

Throughout, he endeavors to live his life according to Kant's "categorical imperative" -- "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." 

Peter can be obstinate, frustratingly single-minded, painfully self-conscious, strangely innocent, and often irritating.  He is also eminently loveable, a boy you'd be pleased to have as a son or nephew.

He is the creation of Mary McCarthy in her 1965 novel, Birds of America -- a book I read soon after it was first published, and just finished re-reading today.  My acquaintance with Ms. McCarthy goes back to undergraduate days, when her essays on Florence, published over time in the New Yorker, were assigned reading in a class on Renaissance history.1  I later read her memoirs of her childhood in Seattle.2  But by 1971, McCarthy was best known as the author of The Group, a scandalous (at the time) best-seller that followed eight young women after graduation from Vassar.      

From a scholarly painting of Renaissance life to a controversial sex novel -- Mary McCarthy's interests and talents were diverse.  In Birds of America, she contemplates -- through her hero's bewildered adolescent eyes -- the tension between democracy and elitism, between mass culture and the life of the individual, between the conflicting demands of humanity and nature.

The book has no plot, as such.  In the early chapters, Peter and his mother move back to Rocky Port, a coastal village in Massachusetts, as a sort of closing chapter of their unusually close, almost Oedipal relationship. Peter eagerly awaits his return to Rocky Port, and has flashbacks to his earlier stay in the village, back in "the old days" (when he was 15!), a time when life was recalled as wonderful -- especially the birdlife and other natural aspects of the coast. 

Now, however, four years later, everything seems degraded.  A beloved owl has disappeared, as have some favorite cormorants.  A highway has been cut through.  His mother, a prototype of today's amateur cooks, finds everyone eating canned and frozen food.

Except in the field of civil rights, he was opposed to progress in any direction, including backwards, ... and wanted everything in the sensuous world to be the same as it had been when he was younger.

The later chapters examine Peter's experiences while a student in Paris at the Sorbonne.  Anyone who visited France in the 1960s will recognize Peter's problems with the peculiarities of French bourgeois culture, food, and customs.

He sat hunched in his corner -- Peter Levi, noted misanthrope.

Peter, at least, is able to speak fluent French. 

Like many of us back then, he finds the French almost impossible to meet, and falls back on American expatriate life -- and finds his fellow Americans appalling.  (His Thanksgiving, as the guest of a NATO-based American general, is wickedly funny -- especially the host's belligerent insistence that one of his wife's guests -- a vegetarian student -- dig into a plate heaped high with a real American turkey dinner, with all the fixin's. And her passive-aggressive efforts to withstand his bullying.)

I recall once telling a fellow undergraduate that I was fascinated by Europe during the Middle Ages, when only the rare adventurer ventured much beyond his own village -- when no one knew quite what you'd find only a few miles down a winding road.  He was appalled at my "romanticism."  But Peter would have understood.

So arriving in a strange town by yourself with just your guidebook for a compass is the nearest equivalent we can find to being alone with Nature, the way travelers used to be in the Age of Discovery.

"Nature" is thus conflated with aloneness, with discovery, with thinking and feeling, and is contrasted with mobs of people, with mass civilization.  Peter later attempts to explain to an unsympathetic academic adviser he unfortuately ran into in the Sistine Chapel that art can only be understood and loved in solitude -- not while being led about by a group guide.  He suggests limiting admission to overcrowded museums by a combination of competitive art examinations and lottery.  His adviser denounces his opinions as undemocratic and elitist.

When I say that the novel has no real plot, I'm also suggesting that Peter's interior thoughts, a lengthy letter to his mother, his discussions with peers and adults, all present at some length what I assume to be Mary McCarthy's own thoughts on a number of subjects.  This in no way indicates that the book presents an ideological diatribe, however.  Mary McCarthy is not a liberal Ayn Rand.  Peter's personality would not permit him to be made use of in that manner.  Although he is stubborn and persistent, he is also subject to continual self-doubt.  He not only encounters well-presented arguments against his positions from others, his own mind is in constant ferment as it develops and presents its own counter-arguments to Peter's own deepest and most cherished beliefs.

Birds of America is a novel of ideas discussed less with an intent to persuade than with a love of playing with them for the sake of playing.  It is also a humorous study of a boy who's an unusual young "bird" himself and -- for us today -- it's a nostalgic reminder of what life was like in the simpler and more innocent mid-twentieth century.

Peter Levi -- boy philosopher -- receives his most profound and devastating insight not from his teachers, his friends, or his own conscious reasoning.  At the novel's conclusion, while delirious from an infection, Peter receives a visitor.   His hero, Immanuel Kant, appears at his bedside, bearing an unsettling message for Peter:  "Listen carefully and remember.  ...  Perhaps you have guessed it.  Nature is dead, mein kind."
-----------------------------
1Collected in book form and published as The Stones of Florence (1956)
2Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Petrified


Last night, it happened again.

I woke up about 4 a.m., noticing both my cats noisily jumping off the bed and dashing elsewhere.  I lay there for a while, thinking various thoughts about various subjects.  Finally, I decided to get up, get a drink of water, and see what the cats were up to.  But I couldn't.

I felt entirely weighted down by my light electric blanket, as though I were covered by a pile of heavy quilts.  I could make only slight movements of my legs.  Try as I might, I couldn't swing my legs over to the side of the bed and stand up.

"Sleep paralysis."  I quickly realized exactly what was happening.  As I lay in bed helplessly, I even knew the term for it.  But, as is the case so often in life, understanding the problem didn't solve it.

As a kid, I often had the same experience, often accompanied by nightmarish sensations that someone -- a burglar, perhaps -- was in the room with me.   I was petrified, unable to defend myself.  Those youthful experiences are very common, according to Wikipedia.  Folklore in virtually every culture is full of stories of nightly terrors, a sleeper awaking paralyzed and in the presence of a ghost, a hag, a demon, a witch, a djinn.  Or, in modern American folklore, an alien intruder.  The intruder is often pictured as sitting on the sleeper's chest, or in some other manner preventing him from moving or escaping.

Fortunately, although I still occasionally experience sleep paralysis, it's now rarely accompanied by nightmares.  Even in my paralytic state, I understand the cause.  I'm more frustrated and irritated than frightened.

Sleep paralysis is believed to occur when a sleeper passes from a period of REM sleep -- during which he dreams and his body is prevented from moving so as to avoid acting out the dreams -- and a waking state.  Usually this transition is managed in an orderly fashion, but sometimes the REM paralysis continues for a time after the sleeper becomes conscious of his surroundings.

I usually try to fight my way out of my predicament by struggling to move my legs over the side of the bed and stand up.  Sometimes, after heroic efforts, I succeed; sometimes I instead drift back into sleep.  Last night, I seemed to struggle endlessly.  Finally, I felt I had succeeded.  I walked out into the hall looking for the cats, still worried that they were chasing around after mice or other tiny intruders downstairs.  But when I walked into the hall, I discovered both cats sleeping peacefully, side by side, like two young children, bundled up warmly in what appeared to be small sleeping bags.  I decided that all was well.

I awoke some time later.  I am able now to conclude, quite reasonably, that -- despite what I believed at the time -- I had definitely returned to sleep and to renewed dreams.

Whether scary, irritating, or merely a bit humorous, awaking while paralyzed is a peculiar and confusing experience -- regardless of how many times one's gone through the experience in the past.  I recently read an account of a boy who had, for unknown reasons, lay in a coma for ten years.  During most of that time, he was fully conscious of everything that was going on and being said about him.  But he could make only the tiniest movements with his muscles, movements too slight to be detected until he was finally examined closely by a trained professional.

The boy spent ten years in a state of frustration and despair.  I totally sympathize.  Five minutes of "sleep paralysis" is sufficient to give me a glimmering of what he went through.