Friday, July 8, 2016

Coast to coast

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Chamber music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Fourth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 1, 2016

Approaching Discworld with trepidation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reports as events warrant.

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Rule of irrationality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semantics are going to be the downfall of the nation.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mount Si, revisited

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, June 24, 2016

The moors of boyhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016


As I write this, it appears clear that British voters have voted to leave the European Union.   Or rather, English and Welsh voters have so voted.  Scottish and Northern Irish voters appear to have voted strongly to remain in the EU.

I know.  I'm an American.  This isn't my battle. 

But I have opinions about everything under the sun.  And my opinion is that this has been a tragic decision for Britain, and to a lesser degree for Europe.

Those voters who have longed for a "Little England" -- and their grandparents were longing for it way back in the days of the British Empire -- will get their wish.  Maybe more "little" than they hoped for or wished.  Scots voters, who almost voted for independence in 2014, voted to remain in the EU, where their economic interests lie.  Northern Ireland, struggling to recover from years of violent unrest, will now find immigration and customs barriers erected between itself and the Irish Republic, its leading trading partner.

I can't see any real advantage to the English -- especially if the United Kingdom breaks up -- other than the psychic pleasure of feeling totally sovereign and in full control of their own destiny. 

But in today's world, that may be a specious sense of control.  We are a global and inter-dependent world -- a fact that segments of our own American public find hard to accept.. 

Britannia no longer rules any waves -- either literally or figuratively.  England plus Wales is the lower, highly populated portion of a small island, surrounded by members of the EU.  It will confront tariffs it hasn't had to worry about for many years.  It hopes to tie its fortunes to the English-speaking nations, including the United States, but may find that those nations aren't all that eager to ease the path of their former colonial ruler, and are no easier to get along with than were its partners on the continent. 

Who knows?  Things may work out.  England prides itself on muddling through.  But it has taken a big step tonight toward creating its own muddle.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Going batty

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.

--Lewis Carroll

A tea tray indeed!  I awoke last night about 1 a.m. to the sound of dashing and scurrying about the room.  I have two cats and, of course, such a disturbance is hardly unusual. 

Sometimes they've dragged a mouse or small bird in from outside to convince me of their cleverness.  But as I listened in the dark, I noticed sounds indicating a certain amount of leaping,   This sound generally suggests that they're in pursuit of nothing more exciting than a moth.

The commotion continued.  I turned on the lights.

 Great guns!  It's a giant moth, a pterodactyl among moths.

On closer inspection -- not easy, as the flying object was darting about the room at great speed -- it clearly showed itself to be a small bat.  Two thoughts instantly occurred to me -- first, I don't want it anywhere near me; and second, I've got to get rid of it.

The cats themselves were certainly not helping the situation, and the bat appeared disturbed and somewhat hyper.  I went downstairs to get a glass of water, as I formed my strategy.  The bat followed me, at a safe distance, with the cats in hot pursuit. 

Now a bird is stupid.  Once it gets inside the house it goes crazy and then withdraws into a corner behind the sofa.  But a bat is a fellow mammal.  Intelligent.  And, I reasoned, bats are good at finding their way into caves -- and out again.  What was my house, to a bat, but a giant cave?  I opened the door to the back deck, walked back upstairs, firmly closed my bedroom door, and went to sleep. 

About an hour later, I awoke again and decided to check things  out.  I opened the bedroom door, and was faced by two cats who stared accusingly at me, scandalized that I had shut them out of my room. 

The bat was gone.  As I suspected, he had recognized a cave exit when he "saw" (echolocated) my open door.  He got out of Dodge.

How did he get in?  I doubt he allowed a cat to pluck him out of the air and drag him in through the cat door.  He seemed to be a fellow who was a bit more forceful in handling his affairs than that.  But I do have a small window that swings open in my bedroom.  The night being fairly warm, I had left it open, as I often do in summer.  First time in all my years that a bat was curious enough to enter.

First time, in fact, that I realized my neighborhood even had bats.  But as a Facebook "friend" commented, everyone always knew I had bats in my belfry.  I can't argue.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nostalgic India

I had never heard of the novel The Room on the Roof, by Ruskin Bond, until this past week, when I saw it listed as a "want to read" by a Goodreads friend.  In fact, I'd never heard of Ruskin Bond.

But Bond is a fairly well-known Indian writer, now in his 80s, who has written novels, ghost stories, children's fiction, and poetry.  The Room on the Roof was written, based on the author's own journal, in about 1951 when he was seventeen.  In his "Introduction" to my Kindle edition, he makes it clear that much of the novel is autobiographical, and was written at a time, just after graduation from secondary school, when he was living in London and "feeling very homesick for India."

The hero, and first-person narrator, is a sixteen-year-old, Anglo-Indian boy named "Rusty,"  As the novel opens, Rusty lives in the European quarter of Dehra ("Dehra Dun" on most maps), a city located in the low Himalayan foothills about 150 miles north of Delhi.  Dehra has a population of about a half million now, but the story, told in 1951, suggests a town of closer to about 25,000.*  Rusty's parents are deceased, and he lives under the supervision of a tyrannical and snobbish guardian who has made every effort to raise Rusty as a British child, concealing the fact that the boy -- blue eyed and with blond hair -- is half Indian.

Despite being 16, Rusty must seem to us today as closer to 12 or 13 in his thoughts, interests, and occupations.  I thought at first that this seeming retardation was a result of his stern upbringing.  But Rusty's frustration -- and eventual fury -- with his sheltered life (a life where he is friendless and has little to occupy his days) finally causes him to escape from his house and his guardian, and meet other boys his age in the "native" section of Dehra.  These boys, although their lives are much more adventurous and undisciplined than Rusty's, all belong to India's middle class.  They are not the destitute of India, by any means.  And they seem equally childlike by today's standards.

Bond paints an attractive picture of Indian life in and around Dehra (even today, a city of above average income and educational standards), and of the scenery and wildlife in the surrounding jungle.  He also paints a moving picture of adolescent loneliness -- Rusty's loneliness, especially, but also the underlying loneliness of the Indian friends that he meets. 

Friendship is a central theme for Bond, and the intensity of friendship customary among young Indians is shown vividly.  Rusty finds a job tutoring Kishen, a slightly younger boy, in English, employment for which he receives room and board.  Rusty and Kishen form bonds of brotherhood: "He loved Rusty, but without knowing or thinking or saying it, and that is the love of a brother."  Rusty meets another boy his own age, a Sikh, who soon is calling him "my best favourite friend."

Rusty had abandoned the stuffy and repressive world of British post-colonial life, and -- with his new Indian friends -- feels, for the first time ever, truly alive.  He even manages to fall in love with Kishen's beautiful young mother -- an affection that she (married to the much older father) certainly returns and that may or may not -- depending on how one reads the story -- have resulted in an affair.

Then Rusty's entire new world falls apart.  His "best, favourite friend" moves away.  Kishen's mother is killed in an auto accident, and Kishen is taken to another city to live with relatives.  Rusty once more finds himself alone and isolated.  After a long period of despair, he decides to emigrate to Britain, if possible.  But en route to Delhi, he runs into Kishen, who has escaped the clutches of his relatives and is living by his wits (and lack of scruples) in another city.  Kishen talks Rusty into giving up thoughts of emigration, and returning with him to Dehra.  The two "brothers" will make a new attempt at living life in India.  Kishen tries to assure his "brother" that all will be well, as the novel ends:

Kishen laughed.
"One day you'll be great, Rusty.  A writer or an actor or a prime minister or something.  Maybe a poet!  Why not a poet, Rusty?"
Rusty smiled.  He knew he was smiling, because he was smiling at himself.
"Yes," he said, "why not a poet?"
So they began to walk.
Ahead of them lay forest and silence -- and what was left of time.

The Room on the Roof is written in simple, but eloquent language -- eloquent especially considering the age of its author.  Bond at 17 tends to favor short, simple, declarative sentences, but with use of a sophisticated vocabulary.  (In dialogue, especially, he falls back occasionally on Hindi slang or idioms -- only some of which are defined in my Kindle dictionary, but the meaning of which are clear from the context.)

In his "Introduction," the elderly Bond -- looking back fondly on his first published work -- notes that it received generally favorable reviews (including a number of literary prizes), but that one reviewer had complained that he wrote in "babu English."  Meaning, I suppose, simple English as written by a native Indian.  If so, I'm all for use of "babu English," especially in the context of this Indian novel.

The book is also a romanticized recollection of middle class Indian life, by a boy who had all too recently torn himself away from that life and found himself living in a very different, very cold, and very alien land and culture..  I'm not opposed to a little romanticism, at times, either.
*(6-23-16) World Book Encyclopedia in 1955 gave its population as 116,404, but it "feels" much smaller in the story.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Commuting by sea

Seattle from the stern of my water taxi

New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio has electrified commuters by proposing ferry services to help his city's workers make their way around the city's five boroughs.  Initial ferry routes from Brooklyn and Queens would begin service by the end of next year.  The mayor may be dissatisfied with the progress of the Second Avenue subway -- first proposed in 1919, and under sporadic construction since 1972. 

If you can't travel under the streets, he may be thinking, maybe you can head out to sea and travel around them.

New York compares its plans to develop ferry service with commuter ferries already operating in San Francisco and Sydney.  Interestingly enough, the article made no mention of the many routes operated by Washington State Ferries on Puget Sound, which include routes heavily used by commuters to Seattle from Bremerton, Vashon Island, and Bainbridge Island.

New York officials may feel that Washington's ferry system isn't sufficiently similar to that which they contemplate for the Big Apple.  Our ferries are part of the state highway system, and are designed primarily to carry automobile and truck traffic.  Nevertheless, the auto ferries have been carrying increasingly large numbers of pedestrians -- especially on the commuter routes mentioned above.

New York ferries would be exclusively pedestrian. 

But we do have the King County Water Taxi system, which operates exclusively pedestrian ferries. In 2007, King County (Seattle) took over operation of two small pedestrian ferry routes -- between Seattle and West Seattle near Alki Point, and between Seattle and Vashon Island.  They appear to have been operated quite successfully.

All of which leads up to my mentioning that I had my first experience today riding one of those water taxis, an adventure precipitated by my reading earlier today about Mayor de Blasio's big New York plans.  Checking the water taxi website, I was encouraged to discover that the "Orca" card one uses to pay the fare on light rail and buses is also valid on the water taxis.  Therefore, casting hesitation aside, I took light rail downtown to the University Street station, and walked a few blocks to the waterfront. 

The waterfront is badly torn up at present, as rotting wooden piers are being replaced, but a pedestrian walkway leads one safely through the chaos.  I had ascertained that the water taxis departed from Pier 50 -- it was merely a matter of figuring out where Pier 50 might be.  When I reached the ferry terminal -- for Washington State Ferries -- I discovered I was at Pier 52.  I continued south for maybe another quarter mile, and reached my destination -- a rather long pier sticking into the Sound, unmanned but with a vending machine for those needing single tickets.

The ship itself is a catamaran with two passenger decks -- comfortable seats inside, and deck chairs on a small aft deck outside.  The taxis run every half hour during rush hours, and about every hour at other times.  The ride from Seattle to West Seattle ran about 15 minutes going over, and a faster ten minutes coming back.  The views of the Seattle waterfront and skyline were spectacular. 

I had no plans to entertain myself whilst in West Seattle.  I returned immediately to downtown on the same ferry.

The fare, using an Orca card, was $4.50 one way.  Because my light rail and ferry passages were all completed within two hours, under Orca rules regarding transfers the entire expedition cost me just that single $4.50 fare.  Not the most amazing adventure of my life, but certainly one of the most economical.

But I suspect Seattle has little to offer New York by way of its ferry experiences.  These two routes, to West Seattle and  to Vashon Island, as useful as they are for those commuters who depend on them, don't quite compare with the scale of operations being proposed by and for our eastern Big Brother.

Alki Point, near where the water taxi lands in West Seattle, derives its name from the words supposedly spoken by the first Seattle settlers -- "New York alki" -- Chinook jargon meaning "New York, by and by." 

Yes, but not quite yet.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hot weekend in D.C.

Objectively, of course, the most important event of the past weekend, during my visit to Washington, D.C., was the Orlando killings.  You have no idea how many flags fly in Washington until you see them all at half-mast.  And you merely suspect what a disastrous presidential candidate the GOP has in Donald Trump until you hear his embarrassing "thoughts" on the killings blaring in the background on coffee shop TVs.

But, subjectively, the big event of my weekend was the heat.  The heat bowled me over when I stepped out of National Airport to await my hotel shuttle.  The next day -- Saturday -- it reached 95.  And -- by Seattle standards, at least -- that was a humid 95.  Sunday was slightly better; I think the high was 92.  On both days, I understood (and followed) the southern European custom of going home for a mid-day siesta in the afternoon.

As I predicted, I spent much of the day wandering about the National Gallery of Art --which offers a nice, uncrowded café for lunches -- and the various branches of the Smithsonian.  I spent a lot of time in the National Air and Space Museum and in the National Museum of Natural History.  In both, I tried to time my visits early in the morning, before the arrival of school groups had their full impact.  The kids were fine -- excited and fascinated by the exhibits -- but there were just a lot of them, making it difficult to move from place to place.

The other museums were far more laid back -- especially the National Gallery -- and were comfortable and pleasant to visit at any point during each super-heated day.

But the real fun, for me, came after about 5 or 6 p.m.  The air remained in the 90s, but that temperature was far more tolerable without the sun blazing overhead.  On both Saturday and Sunday, I walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, and then around the Tidal Basin to and on past the Jefferson Memorial.  Those evening walks were incredibly beautiful, and the monuments shone in the setting sun. 

I kept wandering around the Potomac riverside, the various monuments, and the Mall each night until about 10 p.m.; by which time it was dark and the buildings were lit by artificial light -- equally beautiful, but with different shades of light.  At 10 p.m., when I began working my way back to my Metro stop at L'Enfant Square for the ride back to my Alexandria hotel, mobs of tourists still surrounded the monuments, enjoying the evening.

I did a lot of walking, as I had planned (27 miles total on Saturday and Sunday alone), but  -- solely because of the daytime heat -- not as much as I did on my last visit.  No strolls to Georgetown and across the Potomac bridge to Arlington, this time.  But I'm reminded again what a beautiful capital we have, and how impressive is its history. 

As with Boston a few weeks ago, I can only say -- I'll be back.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Took over Washington, so I heard tell

I'll be spending the next four days in Washington, D.C.

Gonna knock some heads together.  Get the Supreme Court numbers back up to nine.  Give Bernie a little straight talk about the difference between the "desirable" and the "possible."  Do a little log jam breaking in the House (I do come from a town of lumberjacks).  Remind Senators that "Senator" and "senile" have the same Latin root, and that all too many Americans have begun to notice.

Ain't gonna be no harangues from the White House portico, with millions of supporters chanting "Sieg Heil" from the Mall during the next four years, not by the time I get through.

Put a smile back on Abe's face.  He doesn't look happy with the party he founded.

Gonna fix up the government and laws as well.  I may even patch up the crack in the Liberty Bell.  (Guess I gotta detour to Philly for that.)

Or, maybe, I'll just look at art and anthropology in the Smithsonian, eat a little ice cream, and do a lot of walking.

Monday, June 6, 2016


The ancient Greeks exposed their unwanted babies to the elements. 

In Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine, the narrator -- a young man at the time of the Peloponnesian Wars -- tells of the starvation and desperation experienced by the Athenian people during the Spartan encirclement and blockade of their city.  He makes the heartbreaking decision to expose his baby brother among the rocks at the foot of the Acropolis.

"If the gods had not forbidden it, my brother, I would put you to sleep before I left you, for night comes on; this is an empty place, and the clouds look dark upon the mountains.  But the blood of kindred is not to be washed away, ....  So forgive me, and suffer what must be.  The clouds are heavy; if the gods love you, before morning there will be snow."  It was dark already.  For a long time as I walked away I could hear him crying....

I was reminded of this depressing passage a few minutes ago, walking through my neighborhood.  In the unmowed grass of a neighbor's parking strip, I saw a small microwave unit.  It looked as good as new.

Taped to its top was a sign: "Free."

It seems to be a common custom among my neighbors to dispose of unwanted items this way.  Rather than hold a garage sale, or offer the item on e-Bay, or -- as I do -- add it to the clutter in the basement, they put it outside with a sign that -- however worded -- in effect says "No One Loves Me; Take Me."

Not just microwaves, but bookcases, sofas, chairs, stacks of books -- all free for the asking.  And in nice weather, as we're having this week, I suppose this is an efficient way to find someone to give a good home to an unneeded item.  But this is Seattle.  We have rain, we have dew.  Even our sun, after a time, damages many items.  It hurts to see a perfectly good sofa become wet with rain, and then redolent of mildew.

I tend to anthropomorphize absurdly, I realize.  "The poor lonely microwave," I think.  Like the abandoned Christmas tree in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.  Like the abandoned baby in the Renault story, exposed to the elements, for whom we can only hope that the snow and cold reach out and touch him before the wolves do.   I do anthropomorphize, admittedly.  But still -- there must be a better way.

I can almost hear that microwave, crying now in the distance. I hope someone rescues it before the rains come.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Thanks for the memories

"Is lying about one's life precisely what memoirs are all about, a way of giving one's life a shape and a logic, a coherence it wouldn't have except on paper ... ?" 
--André Aciman

I've only known, personally -- to my knowledge -- one guy who ever wrote a memoir -- that "Merry Prankster" childhood buddy I  wrote about a year or so ago.  In writing about his childhood -- the period of his life when I was around to keep an eye on him -- he never lied, as far as I can tell.  (Unless grossly under-reporting the importance I played in his early life is a lie of omission.)

I've always viewed memoirs as a subspecies of history -- the history of one's own life.  I've assumed a memoir relates the truth so far as the author's memory makes possible, aided by whatever written materials and interviews with others are available.  Readers can rely on a memoir, as on a history, to determine what actually happened.  But in an essay, "Rue Delta," in his 2011 collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, André Aciman argues otherwise.

In Aciman's memoir, Out of Egypt, he tells how, when he was 14, his Jewish family was expelled from Egypt, uprooting him from the Alexandria in which he had been born and raised.  He tells how on his last night, he left his family's Passover celebration and walked alone to the Corniche, staring out at the Mediterranean and enjoying one last time the sights and smells of Alexandria.  It's a moving description of the uprooting of a young boy, as it was obviously intended to be.

Aciman notes, however, that knowledgeable readers realized that the chapter in question had been published in a magazine five years earlier.  In that magazine article, he had been accompanied on his walk by his younger brother.  In "Rue Delta," he observes that he himself hated going for walks.

It was my younger brother, by far the more daring and enterprising of us two, who was more likely to have come up with the idea of taking such a walk on our last night in Egypt.  ...  My brother had a bold impish side to him.  People used to say that he loved things, and that he knew how to go after them.  ...  I was never sure I loved anything, much less how to go after it.  I envied him.

Why the change in the memoir?  Aciman tells us that after the magazine article, his brother teased him about his rampant nostalgia, and so Aciman decided his brother had to go.

Removing my brother from the evening walk turned out to be embarrassingly easy -- almost as though getting rid of him had been a lifelong phantasy.

In the published book, Out of Egypt, Aciman admitted in a postscript that he had  "revised" the earlier story to eliminate his brother.

In "Rue Delta," he further admits that his lyrical passage in Out of Egypt, lamenting his departure from Alexandria, actually described his brother's feelings.  Aciman had never liked Alexandria himself.  He felt he had been reared in a second-rate imitation of Europe.  He could hardly wait leave and to move to the real thing.

But wait, there's more.  He then confesses that his motivation for eliminating his brother -- whatever it was -- is actually beside the point.  The very walk itself along the Corniche was totally fictional -- he never walked along the coast road his final night, either alone or with his brother.  But -- he claims -- it was a fiction that expressed a truth.

This, to use Aristotle's word, is how I should have felt had I taken a last, momentous walk that night.

By the time he returned as a tourist to Alexandria, decades later, he "remembered" vividly the original scene he had made up and written, the scene of his brother and himself sitting on a stone wall, looking out at the Mediterranean.  He could picture his brother, wearing shorts and carrying a sweater, as they walked along the shore road together. 

And now?  Now when he tries to remember rue Delta, that part of Alexandria where his family lived, he remembers his much later visit as a tourist, that visit when he recalled the fictional story of the last walk that he and his brother took along the Corniche.  But even that memory is fading.

What I certainly can't remember is the real rue Delta, the rue Delta as I envisioned it before writing Out of Egypt.  That rue Delta is forever lost.

As I mentioned in my last post, Aciman is an expert on the writings of Proust.  I've never read anyone who describes so vividly the tricks memory plays on us, and the tricks we play on our memories. 

Psychologists tell us that every time we remember an event, we "download" it into our conscious minds, savor it, make unintentional changes to it, and "upload" the revised memory again to our long-term memory, erasing the original.  Over a lifetime, those tiny changes add up, leading us at times to be amazed and/or embarrassed by the discrepancy between what we feel we vividly remember and documentary evidence to the contrary.  Aciman embraces these re-workings of memory.  He not only embraces them, but admits that, in his writings, they are sometimes intentional.

Many writers would argue that a memoir is a work of art -- like a novel --rather than a strictly scientific account of factual occurrences.  They will admit that they shuffle facts around a bit, to make the story more coherent, as Aciman describes in his opening quotation above.  But Aciman carries the process one step further -- describing events that represent emotions that he never himself actually felt.  Describing emotions that would merely seem to have been appropriate under the circumstances, emotions that are now -- despite his knowledge of their falsity -- the only ones he can "remember" experiencing.

He's candid, if a bit unnerving.  I think I'll re-read portions of my friend's memoir.