Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A teacher in Siam

When I was a boy, world was better spot
What was so was so, what was not was not
Now, I am a man, world have changed a lot
Some things nearly so, others nearly not.
--Oscar Hammerstein II

I saw the movie of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, The King and I, as a teenager, and soon after acquired an LP with the songs from the Broadway production.  I liked the songs, of course, but I was also attracted by the supposed exoticism of far-off Siam.  The story of Anna, a British teacher, hired by the King of Siam to teach his children, a teacher who ended up teaching the king himself a thing or two, was perfectly designed to appeal to 1950s America -- a nation confident that it had a thing or two to teach the world.

The story was based loosely on actual events that occurred in the court of Siamese King Mongkut in the 1860s.  I'm not sure that I realized -- or that all American viewers realized -- that the story dealt with the distant past, rather than the recent past.  I knew enough to doubt that the King of Siam -- many  maps still called Thailand "Siam" -- actually strutted around manfully like Yul Brynner, but I had no doubt that the king, whenever he ruled, had been an absolute monarch, had a childlike fascination with the "advanced" culture of the West, spoke in fluent but pigeon English, and devoted much of his time to his many wives. 

That was the nature of foreign potentates.

Even the name "Siam" sounded wonderfully strange and exotic.  Some day, I perhaps dreamed, I might board a steamer in San Francisco and make a port of call at mysterious Bangkok.  A once in a lifetime visit that would be the wonder of the folks back home.

I never dreamed that by the time I had reached retirement age, my passports would bear any number of stamps from Thailand.  Or that "Thailand" is what everyone would be calling Siam.

Or -- and this is what really prompts this post -- that one of my very own nephews would have just moved to "Siam." Denny moved this past month to Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, where he will begin teaching sixth grade in the fall at the same international school attended by his third grade daughter.  This past week, he sent us "farangs" back home an email bursting with excitement about the colleagues and neighbors he's already met, the school at which he'll be teaching, and the house he's leasing.

Knowing Denny's excellent reputation as a teacher in California, I have no doubt that his sixth graders will be well taught in the coming years.  And Denny will learn as much about Thailand from his students as he will from reading the local papers and talking to his neighbors.  For as Anna herself told her pupils in The King and I:

It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught.

Denny and I traveled together to Chiang Mai a decade ago.  It's a beautiful town, with exotic tropical vegetation and exciting outdoor markets.  It's certainly different from America.  It's not the mysterious Orient, however, that I would have expected from watching Yul Brynner cavorting about the stage.   It's a real world filled with real people -- people like everyone else in some ways, but uniquely Thai as well.  Denny will learn a lot, and --whenever he returns to America -- he will have a wonderful background in another culture.

And I intend to learn a lot from his adventure, as well.  For me, as well as for the King: "World has changed a lot."  And my passport has room for many more stamps.  Stamps from Thailand. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Swallows and Amazons

Kids learn by playing.  By playing as children, we learn skills and practice adult roles.  The more imaginative the play, the better we prepare for an imaginative and creative life.

My brother and I spent a number of years repeatedly devising and playing versions of a game that required use of the entire second floor of our house.  Army men and equipment, spacemen, cowboys and Indians -- even, during certain decadent stages, marbles -- were personnel in our game.  My brother loved military life and warfare; I loved politics and diplomacy.  We joined our interests in a complex and ever-evolving game that kept us fascinated until we were embarrassingly far into our teens.

While in England's Lake District this past month, I learned of a book about kids who were at least equally imaginative, but who operated on a far vaster scale than the second floor of a house.  The book was Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons (1930), which, as I now discover, was but the first of a twelve book series involving the same group of children.*  The story takes place on an idyllic lake in the Lakes (inspired by a combination of Lake Windermere and Coniston Water), where the Walkers spend their summer holidays.

The four Walker children -- John, Susan, Titty, and Roger -- are a cohesive group of siblings who spend every free moment alone together.  Roger, the youngest, is seven years old.  The others' ages aren't given, but I'd guess that John, the oldest is twelve to fourteen.   They are imaginative in the extreme, and fanatically knowledgeable about sailing (their father is a naval officer serving in the Far East).   The book begins with Roger, trying to run home as quickly as possible, finding it necessary to tack back and forth against the wind while running up the lawn.

The mother is wonderfully tolerant of her children's independence, and wonderfully whimsical by nature.  As the kids invent words in "native" languages, she willingly uses those words in her conversations with them.  The kids have been lobbying for permission to spend the last week or so of their holiday on an uninhabited island in the middle of the lake.  Their mother requires her husband's consent.  He responds -- himself obviously no stranger to whimsy -- with a telegram:  "Better Drowned than Duffers.  If not Duffers Won't Drown."  This telegram is accepted as a somewhat conditional consent.

The plot is simple.  Kids sail alone to the island in a family boat, the "Swallow,"and set up camp.  They meet and engage in mock warfare with a couple of equally creative girls who call themselves the Amazons.  They have some simple adventures, a wonderful week, and leave with a parental promise that they will return the following summer.

The children reinterpret every observation in terms of their imaginary game -- they are explorers, the two girls are pirates, all other people on and around the lake are untrustworthy and possibly dangerous "natives."  The small island itself has been discovered only now by themselves.  Their mother -- sometimes Queen Elizabeth, sometimes"the female native" -- makes occasional visits in another boat to bring extra food and convince herself that her brood is still alive; she is welcomed as a benevolent member of a foreign tribe.

These are the kind of kids who, even before the story begins, have named a prominent hill near their house from which the lake can be viewed "Darien" -- because it was from Darien in Panama that Balboa first spotted the Pacific Ocean.

What's unique about the book is the kids' intricate knowledge of sailing, and the author's willingness to describe every action, every move, the young sailors take while sailing -- as well as the details of setting up camp, and of their wildlife observations while camping and exploring.  Much of this knowledge was taught to them by their father, much also is self-taught, inspired by their idolization and emulation of the distant Naval officer.  The author trusts us to be equally conversant.

"These little boats often do without stays at all.  Is there a cleat under the thwart where the mast is stepped?"

"Two," said John, feeling.  The mast fitted in a hole in the forward thwart, the seat near the bows of the boat.  It had a square foot, which rested in a slot cut to fit it in the kelson.

What's also unique is the author's confidence that his young readers will avidly follow all the nautical details that he offers them.  I certainly was impressed.  Call me ignorant, but I never knew that rowing a sailboat from the stern was called "sculling" -- a necessary maneuver with sails down in tight places or when the wind was still.  To the Walker kids, knowing how and when to scull was like my own knowing how, as a child, to patch a flat tire on a bike.

Children in any period are imaginative and creative.  In today's world, I suspect that most of this creativity is devoted to digital games.  There's something to be said, however, for a world where the same imagination and creativity are expressed in ways that bring children into the outdoors, teaching them to sail a boat under all weather conditions, to set up camp, to survive a storm, to cook over a fire, to explore rough terrain.  All without the constant supervision and guidance of adults, and all before the teen years really begin.

As the mother remarked good-naturedly at one point:

We are going home at the end of the week.  It would be a pity if two or three of you were to get drowned first.

Ransome may have idealized the Walker children, but Swallows and Amazons was written for kids who could easily imagine themselves in the Walkers' position if they only had a lake, a boat, and a little training at their disposal.  I'm not sure how a child would react to the book today.  Perhaps he'd be bored.

Not all changes in our world have been "Progress."

*Two British films of the book have been released, in 1974 and 2016.  The BBC also produced a television series based on the book in 1963.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cows may safely graze

England is laced with public right of ways.  As you amble through the countryside, you rarely encounter a fenced field that doesn't have a gate or stile through which you, a member of the public, have a right to enter the field, emerging at a similar exit on the other side.  For your part, you don't trample growing crops and you don't annoy the animals.

But what if the animals choose to annoy you?

This week, an elderly, retired professor from Magdalen College, Oxford, was out for a walk in Essex -- the sort of daily walk he probably has taken most of his life.  The sort of walk I took through Westmorland these past couple of weeks.

According to a British newspaper, there were cows grazing in the field.  The cows "became agitated and charged at him."  The professor was heard screaming for help.  He was trampled to death before help could arrive.

A tragic and puzzling story.  Agitated cows?  Charging?  I would hardly have believed it, but for my own experience the first day of my hike, while still in northern Westmorland.  Like the professor, I entered a large field, climbing over a stile.  Cows were scattered about in widely separated groups. My route took me within a hundred feet of one such group.

I've walked past many cows in my life.  Cows either stare at me blankly, or continue grazing, or move slightly away.  But these cows were curious.  They began slowly moving toward me.  I didn't stop to interact and, at this point, hardly noticed them.  I had located the stile on the far fence, and was aiming toward it.  But the cows were aiming at me.  They weren't running; they didn't appear "agitated."  But they were closing in on me. I thought it was a bit funny, in both senses of the word, but still wasn't concerned.

Then I noticed cows farther afield.  They were beginning to move in paths that would intercept my own.  Not hastily.  But deliberately.  The cows behind were now close behind.  The cows afield were joining those behind.  I was walking faster.  So were the cows.  They were breathing just behind my ears.  The original five or six cows had swelled to a much larger number.

I felt like the Pied Piper of Westmorland.  But the "children" I was leading seemed less than innocent.

I reached the stile with hot cow breath on my neck.  I skipped up and over the ladder and looked back.  The cows had come as far as they could.  They were clustered around the stile, staring at me.  I took the photo above.  The photo doesn't do justice to the number of cows outside its frame.  The cows didn't look malicious.  Or murderous.  They didn't look much of anything.  They didn't really seem cow-like.

As Bucky Katt said in one of his incisive observations, the cows appeared to be staring at me, "thinking stupid cow thoughts."  No doubt the cows that trampled the Magdalen professor emeritus looked equally stupid and placid, thinking cow thoughts, while walking back and forth over his body. 

I wasn't scared.  My heart wasn't pounding, although maybe it should have been.  I just felt unnerved.  I felt relieved that I'd had no problem crossing the stile.   

Monday, June 12, 2017

Gazing upon Oxford's "dreaming spires"

And that sweet City with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,

--Matthew Arnold

A life without regrets is a life not worth living.  No matter how "successful" the world may judge you, deep in your heart you know that you have failed to climb to what computer gamers would call "the next level."

For me, I suppose, that next level -- perhaps several levels above -- would have been a degree from Oxford.  I'm not sure when my infatuation with Oxford began, but it was certainly reinforced by reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and watching the TV series based on that novel.  But Waugh's Oxford was an atavistic experience of social connections, friendships, and traditions.  That picture, especially when accompanied by the series' theme music, was immensely attractive.

But I wanted to be an Oxford scholar.  I saw myself -- realistically -- as the young man who sat preparing for the next day's tutorial while others were out getting drunk.

Thus the appeal that's led me back to visit Oxford on several occasions -- always frustrated by the knowledge that I am seeing only a glimpse of the surface, while the reality of Oxford life is shared by only the elect few.  Nevertheless, last Thursday, my last full day in England, I took an early morning train to Oxford for one more brief visit. 

I wandered the hallowed streets -- somewhat less dreamy now, than when Matthew Arnold rhapsodized upon them -- and paid a few pounds for admission to two of the larger and more architecturally striking colleges -- Christ Church and Magdalen.  Christ Church has created a path marked by arrows for visitors to follow, and before you know it you're back out on the street.  Magdalen, however, is more generous.  Once past the turnstile, you're pretty much on your own.  You can go everywhere you want, except the rooms of students and dons, and the dining halls. 

Magdalen's a beautiful school, and I could see myself happily ensconced within -- the same emotion of being where I belonged that I acknowledged feeling, a few posts ago, while studying in the old law school facilities at the University of Washington. I gazed with envy at kids walking down the street, wearing the vest-like mini-gowns that told the world they were Oxford undergraduates.

But would I really have enjoyed it?  Back in Seattle, I perused message boards on the topic of admission to Oxford and the Oxford student experience.  Those writers posting were all current or past Oxford students.  Nearly all agreed that, regardless of whatever misgivings they may have originally felt about how they would fit in at Oxford, it had been a life-changing experience and one they wouldn't have missed.

The fact that they had all been brilliant enough to have been admitted, however, certainly skewed the results.  Admission of British students requires extremely high A-level exam scores following the sixth form -- what we would call the last two years of high school -- with an early concentration on one or two fields that the student intends to pursue at the university level.  Selection for interviews is based entirely on the A-levels, and the interviews themselves are an intensive investigation into the applicant's academic and personal suitability for Oxford studies.

For applicants from foreign countries, Oxford tries to accommodate the different preparatory programs those countries use.  Thus, with American high school students, the university looks to AP and IB scores (but not SATs) as the closest analogue to British A-levels.  But it's difficult, because the two testing systems aren't strictly equivalent.  As a result, although Oxford has a fairly large number of American graduate students, the proportion of American undergraduates is small.

That would have been disheartening to me -- especially having gone to high school in the Paleozoic era, before Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs had been invented.  And considering the lack of specialization in American high schools, in the absence of AP or IB classes, I would have been totally unprepared academically for consideration by Oxford.

Also, several former students observed that Oxford is a good choice for a certain type of personality -- students who enjoy thinking out loud and arguing their conclusions with some conviction.  Most teaching is done in tutorials -- individual or very small group settings with "tutors."  If a student hasn't kept up with his studies, it becomes all too apparent at the weekly tutorials.  Students who are equally intelligent but who excel more obviously in writing, some said, would do better at more conventional universities. 

I try to remember myself as an 18-year-old.  I was outspoken in high school classes, but that was no great accomplishment where I went to school.  I was shy socially, but not so shy academically.  At my university, all freshmen took a course called "History of Western Civilization."  All students attended a weekly lecture, and then, three times a week, attended small class groups of about twenty, each led by a professor who guided discussions based on extensive reading.  Grades were heavily dependent on participation in class discussions.

I enjoyed taking part in the discussions.  Maybe, then, I would have enjoyed Oxford's tutorial system.  On the other hand, I have no doubt that I've always performed better in writing than in speaking.  Even as a trial attorney, my oral presentations required careful preparation -- I didn't speak well  off the cuff, unless absorbed in a heated argument.

So, I don't know.  Reading the student comments did make the Oxford experience -- both the admissions process and the day to day academic life -- seem intimidating.  On the other hand, our minds and personalities are flexible when we're 18.  And stepping outside our comfort zone is an excellent path to growth.  Or, if too far out of our comfort zone, disaster!

But, as we say, it's all academic.  An Oxford education exists only in my fantasies -- and probably would have been nothing but fantasy under the best of circumstances.  And at my present age, even post-graduate education is out of the question.  All universities -- not just Oxford and Cambridge -- insist on investing their limited resources in students who possess a few more years life expectancy than I can offer.

Ah well.  I can still walk the streets of Oxford's "dreaming spires," and dream my own silent dreams.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Walking a small county

Churchyard in Beetham

I returned from England on Friday.  Eight days hiking in Westmorland, with a couple of days in London beforehand, and one in Oxford thrown in for dessert.  Six days beneath the half cloudy, half sunny skies of England -- weather a Seattle hiker can relate to -- and two days of rain. 

But even a day of torrential rain -- as one of those days happened to be -- can be fun when the temperature is moderate, the scenery is attractive, and a dry room and convenient pub await one at the end of the day.

I hiked from the tidy, former county town of Appleby in the north, eastward to the Lake District, south through Patterdale and Grasmere and Troutbeck, and finally -- leaving the Lakes behind -- south to the Irish Sea coast through Westmorland's largest town, Kendal.

Over the pass between the
Grasmere and Patterdale

I felt akin to Frodo and his companions, walking through strange and foreign lands.  Walking across the pastures and pleasant small towns of northern Westmorland, up and over the eastern fells of the Lakes, along the shores of Ullswater and Grasmere and Windermere, and finally southward through the prosperous rural and suburban precincts of the old Barony of Kendal (one of the few constituencies to vote Liberal Democratic in Thursday's election), all the way to the sea at Arnside. 

I thus visited a wondrous and varied world on foot.  And yet, a little research when I returned home revealed that the entire former county of Westmorland is only slightly larger than Thurston County in Washington -- a smallish county in which our state capital of Olympia is situated. 

Hiking across pastures

Perceived distance depends on how one travels.  When I reached Kendal, near the end of my trek, and saw posters advertising a concert in Appleby, my first impression was -- "who would go that far away just for a concert?"  But if you have a car, who wouldn't drive "from one end of Thurston county to the other"?  Traveling on foot lets you feel how distances were understood during the great majority of England's history.  For most people -- and not just serfs -- a county was one's entire world.  In fact, one's town or village was, for the most part, one's entire world. 

Roman road

We are so accustomed to crossing counties in a matter of minutes by car or train that much of history before the steam engine makes little sense to us.  Having to walk from town to town reminds us of just how long a mile actually is.  It shows us how residents of two towns, ten miles apart, might well speak in different dialects or accents.  Or even in totally different languages, rooted in Norse or Germanic or Celtic -- as my review of Rory Stewart's The Marches discussed last December.

In some ways, the world -- especially a world so full of history as England -- seems more "real" when one walks it.  When you stroll past trees and stone buildings that have existed for centuries.  When you follow a path that was actually a Roman road built so that Roman legions could march from one military camp to the next.  I walked a couple of miles along one long, narrow lane, lined on both sides with dense hedgerows.  Scientists have studied the composition of plants within those hedgerows and determined they were planted in about 1100 A.D.  Who would notice or care if he swept by in a car at 50 mph?

All very well, of course -- but my craving for authenticity of experience goes only so far.  I deigned to fly by jet to and from England.  I didn't insist on sailing around the Horn.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Raccoon returns

It's been five years since I last complained about neighborhood raccoons.  For a period back then, it had become a nightly problem -- how to let the cats leave the house without inviting non-resident cats and other small mammals (i.e., raccoons) in.  Then, the problem seemed to solve itself and go away.

One outraged raccoon was caught in a cage-trap set for an opossum that had been loitering around my roofline.  The coon barely fit into the small cage.  The pest control man came and hauled him away -- I think his plan was to release the raccoon into the wild.  When last seen, while being carried out to the truck, the raccoon was screaming imprecations at me and making obscene gestures.

Since then, a long period of peace.  Deceptive peace, it turns out.

Tuesday morning, I discovered signs in my kitchen that a raccoon had been checking things out.  There was nothing to eat -- I move the cat's food dish to my upstairs bedroom at night -- but the water dish had been drained, leaving a muddy residue left in the bottom. Suspicious raccoon-shaped footprints covered my kitchen shelves.

Last night, I was awakened about 1 a.m. by growls from my cat and the sound of food being chewed rapidly.  The raccoon was in my bedroom, chowing down at high speed.  I chased him downstairs and out the door.  My cats -- who used to work themselves into a fury over such incursions -- have become more mellow in their later years, more accepting of the oddities life throws at them.  I read for a half hour to make sure all remained calm, and then turned the lights out again.  I had just drifted off when the sound of food being consumed less genteelly than is my cats' wont woke me up again. 

I sealed the cat door for the rest of the night.

The average raccoon lives only two or three years in the wild, so I doubt it was the same raccoon that was trapped earlier,  returning for vengeance.  But he seemed to know exactly where to find food waiting for him.

Unfortunately, I leave tomorrow for two weeks in England.  My cat-care person comes by only once a day.  I presumably will have to leave the cats locked inside, 24 hours a day.  I'll tell the care provider to wait a few days and then re-open the cat door and see whether the masked marauder has moved on to greener pastures.  As it were.  Or more accessible chow.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Learning the law

Old Condon Hall
You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.
--The Paper Chase (1973) (lecture by Prof. Kingsfield)

I recently judged yet another moot court competition at the University of Washington Law School.  The competition was held in William H. Gates Hall -- named after Bill Gates's father, and the home of the law school since it was constructed in 2003.

Gates is a large, modern, efficient-feeling building.  Well designed for turning out modern, efficient attorneys for tomorrow's world.  It wasn't the building where I attended law school.  It isn't my kind of law school building.

My law school class was the last to attend all three years (with the exception of the final quarter) in the original Condon Hall -- named after the first law school dean -- part of the Upper Campus quadrangle complex.  Nothing was efficient or modern about Condon.  Its College Tudor exterior matched the well-worn, wood-paneled rooms within.  Its library stacks, accessible only to students and faculty, covered many floors, and -- in the basement -- burrowed their way beneath the history department's adjoining Smith Hall.

I loved the library from my first day in law school -- a large rectangular reading room, all walls lined with wood cabinet bookcases, filled with the volumes of the West Reporter System, all volumes in matching bindings, containing every reported appellate decision ever handed down in the United States.  I lived in that reading room and, once on the law review staff in my second year, I lived in the stacks as well.  On some weekend evenings, I was the only person using the library -- the room darkened except for the table on which I was working.

Law school today prepares students to be practicing attorneys.  Such practical knowledge was not totally ignored when I was in law school, but law school  prepared students primarily to understand and feel themselves a part of the Anglo-American legal system and traditions, handed down and developing for centuries, dating back to the Norman Conquest.

How to practice law -- how to find the courthouse, as we joked -- was something we would learn after graduation.  It would be taught to us by our benevolent law firm employers, at our employers' expense.  Or it would be learned through trial and error as solo practitioners, at our clients' expense.  In either case, our humiliation in the courtroom would be part of the learning process.

I became a trial attorney -- a fairly decent one, in my humble opinion -- but while in law school I was immersed in the dusty but glorious world of ancient legal theories and the ever-growing accretion of judicial precedents.  I had found my dream world, even if my future work as an attorney relied mainly on the thought processes learned in law school -- how to think and approach factual problems, "thinking like a lawyer" -- and not so much on the substantive knowledge taught in class.

Old Condon Hall provided the ideal ambience for learning the hoary traditions of the past and how to work within them.  New Gates Hall better motivates -- I suppose -- today's students to begin active participation in legal practice while still in law school.

The two approaches overlap to a considerable degree, and both were and are important.  But I loved and will never regret learning the law under the ancient Gothic arches -- both physical and metaphorical -- of old Condon Hall.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Something new

Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
--Alexander Pope

"What in %$@! is this?"  First Loki, and then Muldoon, stare at the appalling structure, glancing at me briefly out of the corner of their eyes.  "Why would the old fool drag this piece of junk into our home?" exclaim my loving felines.

I flush with embarrassment.  Yet another small gift, another attempt to ingratiate myself -- another effort gone horribly awry.

Friday, I leave for two weeks of hiking in England.  So far as I know, the cats are not yet aware of my plans, although they have an uncanny ability to read my mind.  But I know that they'll be outraged at being left alone, with only a daily visit from a paid care provider.  Or -- if not outraged -- even worse, they will feel abandoned and forlorn.  So ... I thought I'd provide them something with which to amuse themselves while I was gone.  A kitty toy.  A play thing.

I consulted a pet store.  I ordered it specially made.  When I found, after it was constructed, that it was too big to bring home in my car, I even rented a van to transport it to my house.  I dragged it into a back room -- the very room from which I pen this report -- and positioned it as best I could.  It stands there now, off to one side.

I waited.

The cats drift in, separate but equal in their behavior.  They freeze.  "Something new!"  They look appalled.  They scan my eager face in an attempt to grasp the significance of this bizarre intrusion.  They drift quietly back out of the room.

Oh, they've come back several times since, because they like to keep track of my inscrutable behavior.  But they haven't given my gift another glance.  They tactfully tip toe past it, as though it weren't there, as though it weren't awkwardly defiling the austere interior design of the room.  Hoping I'll ignore their rejection, and will decide on my own to remove it from the house in the dead of the night.  "We'll just pretend this little incident never occurred, doesn't that sound best?"

They don't fool me.  If not tonight, tomorrow night.  I'll awake and hear hilarity downstairs -- cat-like shrieks and the sound of cat bodies bounding to the floor.  I won't even bother getting out of bed to see what's going on.  I'll know.  They'll be bouncing around on my gift like a couple of school boys on their mother's sofa.

But the next morning they'll be prim and circumspect.   They'll never confess to liking it. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

If they don't win, it's a shame

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.

The Seattle Mariners completed a delightful four-game sweep -- i.e., they were swept -- against a mediocre Toronto team yesterday, and this evening they come home to face Oakland here at Safeco Field.  


I'll be there watching them, along with Pat, a friend from law school days.  Seattle is now nine games behind AL West division leader Houston.  Second from the bottom place in the division.  The only consolation being that Oakland is smack dab at the bottom, and a half game behind the Mariners.  That positioning may well change by the time I leave the ball park this evening.


Predicted temperature of 50 degrees, 50 percent chance of rain. Lovely.

A friend buys a couple of season tickets every year, chooses the games she wants to see, and then sells the rest of them to Facebook friends.  Pat and I have bought tickets for three or four games each season for years now.  "The triumph of hope over experience."  It's been a long time since the Ken Griffey era, and since Seattle won 116 games in 2001.    


Nevertheless, the Seattle Times greets every loss with stunned amazement, and every win as auguring a bright new era of post-season triumph and joy.


I don't really care.  I just enjoy the game.  Our seats are always in the same great location -- third deck immediately behind home plate.  We can call the balls and strikes better than the umpire can.  And we often do. 


But mostly, of course, I go to catch up on Pat's life -- recently retired, he and his wife just returned from a cruise from Australia, through Indonesia, and on to Malaysia.  And, of course, to indulge in "peanuts and Cracker Jack" -- or in my case, hot dogs and beer.

Go M's! 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Telling your story

I was at the post office, about to mail in my college application, when I remembered that I hadn't filled in my essay response to the question asking why I wanted to attend that university.  I walked over to the stand, picked up a pen secured against theft by a chain, and wrote something off the top of my head. 

Those days are long gone.  Today, the college essay is an art form.  College hopefuls pay large fees for seminars advising them how to compose the essay.  The less scrupulous hire ghost writers.

The New York Times each year asks for essays submitted as part of college applications that addressed "money, work, or social class."  Today's issue printed four of those essays, essays which I'm sure the newspaper ensured had actually been written by their student authors.  I am impressed not only by the formal excellence of their writing, but by the seriousness and sensitivity of the personal histories discussed, and each writer's self-awareness of how those histories have impacted their own lives and ambitions.  I would happily have read a much longer autobiographical article by each writer, expanding on his short application essay.

Zoë writes about what it was like to attend prep school at Andover on a full scholarship, after she had attended an ordinary public middle school.  She uses the contrast between the cheap laptop she was provided and the top-of-the line devices used by her much wealthier classmates as a symbol of the many class differences she encountered.  She sees how straddling both worlds has made her a person better able to function in varied environments.  "Maybe I'm culturally ambidextrous, as comfortable introducing a speaker on the stage of Andover's century-old chapel as getting my nose pierced in a tattoo parlor in New Haven."

Jonathan is the son of immigrants from Moldova.  He grew up accompanying his mother while she cleaned and vacuumed for a university professor.  He longed for the life led by the unseen professor's family: "the lightly crinkled New York Times sprawled on the kitchen table, the overturned, half-opened books in their overflowing personal library, the TV consistently left on the National Geographic channel."  He came to realize, enjoying their house while his mother worked, that one could work with one's mind as well as with one's body.  He is grateful for his mother's support: "It's her blue Hoover vacuums that hold up the framework of my life.  Someday, I hope my diploma can  hold up the framework of hers."

Caitlin's parents ran a bed and breakfast, and she became well aware that some guests were kind and others were unreasonable and demanding.  She admired her parents' ability to remain calm and gracious under great pressure, "capable of tolerating any type of cruelty with a smile."  She concludes,  based on her observations of her parents' relations with their paid guests, that "learning to serve people looks a lot like learning to trust them."

And Tillena split her time growing up between a mother who lived in a prosperous Flagstaff neighborhood and a father who lived on the Navajo reservation.  "I straddle the innocence of my youth and the mystery of my adult life.  That, too, is a precipice.  I know I must leap into adulthood and leave the balancing act of Flagstaff life behind.  Still, I belong at the place where opposites merge in a lumpy heap of beautiful contradictions.  I crave the experiences only found at the edge."

When I finally reached the university (to which I'd applied so cavalierly), I was assigned to honors English -- not on the basis of my scribbled application essay, certainly, but based on my SAT verbal score.  To my shock, I received a C minus on each of my first two English papers.  In part, I now realize, this was boot camp shock treatment for overconfident freshman.  But in part it was also because of something that my instructor carefully explained in writing on one of my papers.

He told me that my writing style was fine -- "felicitous," was his adjective -- but that I consistently fell back on vague and useless abstractions.  Write about what you really know, from your own experience, he told me.  Don't write about half-baked ideas you've picked up from reading books.

Each of the four students whose essays appeared in the Times clearly understood the importance of writing from your heart about those matters that have touched your heart.  Each told us about experiences that shaped his childhood, and each made a serious effort to draw conclusions about the future from those experiences.  As a result, their essays made favorable impacts on college admission officials.  As Barnard's dean of enrollment told the Times, "I wanted to have a conversation with her about it.  And I love leaving an essay like that, where you want to say, 'Let's keep talking.'"

When I wrote those first couple of English essays -- earning my C minus grades -- I'm sure I felt I simply had nothing interesting to say.  I wasn't the child of immigrants, I'd never lived on a reservation, I certainly had never attended a prep school.  I'd grown up in a very boring logging town in the Northwest Corner -- and my dad wasn't even a logger!  I'd gotten good grades.  I'd stayed out of trouble.  Nothing much exciting had ever happened to me.

I guess I felt I really didn't have a story to tell. But everyone has a story to tell.  Writing is an exercise in making that story as interesting to others as it is -- secretly, perhaps -- to yourself.  My mom, like Jonathan's, also vacuumed.  It just took me a while to appreciate that even such simple activities -- when seen as having had an impact on your emotions and on your life -- can be made interesting.

My later English papers got higher grades than C minus.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The dog in the night

And they sang 'You're asleep! There is no board-fence,
And never a Goblin with green-glass eyes!--
'Tis only a vision the mind invents
After a supper of cold mince-pies"
--James Whitcomb Riley

I woke up last night, in the wee hours of the morning.  The cats were stirring and rearranging themselves on my bed.  My cats and I have negotiated certain agreements -- they have agreed to lie wherever they choose on my bed and I, on my part, will attempt to lie in such a way as not to disturb them.

I gradually realized, however, that not just the cats and I were in the darkened room.  And no, it wasn't the somewhat usual mouse.  Nor was it -- as related in an earlier post -- a bat.  There was a large mammal in the inky background -- it seemed like a St. Bernard dog, but more formless, almost like a small bear.

The room was very dark, with just a little filtered light from the exterior, so all I could see was the vague shape of the animal.  It wasn't threatening me.  It was making no noise.  It was just moving around in the background, some distance from the bed.  I wasn't exactly frightened -- I was more puzzled.  The cats remained restless, but not freaked out -- and my cats generally freak out at anything new that's as large as a moth.  The monster kept moving around the bed. 

Suddenly, it leaped over the bed, from one side to the other.  Soundlessly.  Gracefully, or as gracefully as a bear-like dog could comport itself.  Far enough toward the foot of the bed that it didn't come close to touching me.

Well, that was weird.  And then my vision of cats and dog alike was blotted out by a fog-like cloud of feathers or dust or odd particles that swooshed and swirled across my vision, moving as though somehow alive.  It died out after a few seconds, and the cats and dog were again barely detectable.

I honestly couldn't figure out what was going on, but I decided to get to the bottom of it.  The switch for the overhead light was just a few steps from my bed.  I'd just get up and ....  But I couldn't move, or at least I couldn't move enough.  I was weighted down, as though I were covered by a huge number of blankets.  But I wasn't.  I could clearly feel that I was covered only by the single blanket I had gone to bed with.

The mysterious black cloud swirled about me one or two more times, its intentions -- and it seemed to have conscious intent -- unknown.

The dog was edging toward the door.  That made me furious.  "I'm going to miss out seeing this dog in the light, just because I'm too weak or too lazy to get up and flip the switch."  That's what I told myself, in pretty much exactly those words.  I was struggling with every ounce of my strength. 

The dog was out in the hall by now, and I heard him go down the stairs.  Finally, my legs began functioning, and I was able to reach the light switch.  The cats were gone.  My struggles with the blanket had apparently been too irritating for my faithless felines.  And of course there was no huge hound to be seen.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post in this blog entitled "Petrified."  I explained the phenomenon of "sleep paralysis." The victim awakes, finding himself caught in a state between the awareness of being awake and the muscular paralysis of REM sleep.  It can be terrifying, or humorous, or -- as it usually is with me -- just immensely exhausting and frustrating. 

Even after I finally got the blasted light turned on and I was fully awake, it took a moment or two to convince myself that there had been no giant dog, no animated, swirling mass of black feathers.  It was all the result of yet another encounter between my wakened vision and my still dreaming brain.

I'd still like to see that dog. The cats suggest they would just as soon not.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Sáenz, is a young adult novel about two middle class Mexican-American teenagers living in El Paso, Texas.  It has won numerous awards, and is on the reading lists of many high schools.  The book is well written, its extensive use of dialogue (both spoken and interior) believable and realistic. It is a moving story about growing up in the 1980s, and, especially, about the saving power of friendship.

Ari is 15 years old, the son of a kind but silent father who suffers from PTSD resulting from his active service in Vietnam, and a mother who teaches high school.  Ari lives inside his own head.  He speaks only when necessary.  He is bright, but he acts tough and street-wise.  He avoids others.  He has no real enemies, but he also has no friends. 

He is at a community pool -- alone, of course, and floating, because he can't swim --when another boy his age, Dante, approaches and tells him "I can teach you how to swim."  Dante's father is an English professor.  Dante is as open and optimistic as Ari is gloomy and closed off. He loves to read, to write -- and to talk.  About anything and everything.  The boys gradually become friends, despite every warning signal in Ari's brain telling him never to trust or open himself up to any human being outside his own family.

A year later, Dante has been hospitalized after being brutally assaulted by strangers.  Dante's folks -- who by now consider Ari part of their own family -- talk to Ari at the hospital, hoping that Ari will continue to stand by Dante, will continue to be his friend.  Ari tries to open up a bit with his friend's folks:

I looked at Mrs. Quintana and I looked at Sam.  "Dante's my friend."  I wanted to tell them that I'd never had a friend, not ever, not a real one.  Until Dante.  I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren't meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys.  I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever.  And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around.  I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me.  I wanted to tell them so  many things and yet I didn't have the words.  So I just stupidly repeated myself.  "Dante's my friend."

Everyone -- especially teenagers -- needs a friend. How their friendship affects the lives of both boys makes a story worth reading.

From all accounts, this book is highly popular among young people -- at least among those who read books.  I suggest that adults -- especially parents -- might also want to give it a read.

Benjamin Sáenz was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado, where he received a BA degree in humanities and philosophy in 1977. He studied theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order.

In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an MA degree in creative writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American literature. A year later, he was awarded a Stegner Fellowship. While at Stanford University under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. He entered the PhD program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his PhD, he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Allegorical sun and rain

Green Lake Park today
(before the storm)

Rainiest winter in Seattle since 1895 (when someone first started keeping records).  It was a cold, wet fall.  A cold, wet winter.  And it's been a cold, wet spring. 

Not Arctic cold.  Not a Minnesota winter.  Just cold.  And wet.

And then yesterday, the air miraculously warmed to near-70.  Thoughts of spring hiking danced in my head.  I woke, half-planning to do my annual climb of Mount Si -- my traditional warm-up for the hiking season.  I had breakfast, and studied carefully the weather app on my phone.  Temperatures in the low to mid 70s, it said.  But rain beginning in mid-afternoon, and rain tomorrow.

I could do it.  I could get an early start, drive to North Bend (above which Mt. Si towers), and be up the trail and down again before the rain arrived.  Maybe.  Or maybe not.  I hesitated.  I hesitated too long. 

Maybe next week, I told myself. 

As penance for my laziness, I determined to do at least a long walk.  Longer than my daily four-mile loop around the University campus.  I donned shorts (first time this season!), and a t-shirt (ditto!) and walked out the door.

I reached the campus, continued north through Frat Row to Ravenna, and headed west to Green Lake.  By the time I reached Green Lake, I was feeling great.  After a quick latte (hey, I never claimed to be Daniel Boone!), I wandered through a neighborhood north of the lake, looking for a house that I almost once bought.  (I think I found it.)  Then, back to the lake.

When Seattle wants to be beautiful -- when it fully embraces Springtime -- when the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming and the leaves are nearly all out -- when all goes well, you wonder why you ever bother traveling anywhere else.  And so it was today.

I began circling Green Lake at about 2 p.m. -- wondering, as I always do, why all these young people were out and able to disport themselves with such obvious pleasure during normal working hours.  This was a question that used to worry me considerably while I was part of the working force.  Now?  Meh.  I just accept it as a given, part of the background scenery -- no more to be questioned than to ask why ducks paddle so aimlessly around the lake.

The walk around the lake -- roughly three miles -- couldn't have been more beautiful, or the temperature and zephyr-like breezes more beguiling.  (Or my writing more cliché-ridden.)  The sun was warm, the air was comfortable, the human wildlife was, as always, varied and astounding.  I finished my loop, and noted that -- for once -- my phone's weather app probably was correct.  It was clouding up. 

By the time I made it back to the University District (after ten miles of hoofing it), the first drops were falling.  By the time a bus reached the nearest bus stop, the rain was falling in torrents.  The weather gods held off briefly to allow me to reach my house relatively drily from my bus stop, and then -- Donder und Blitzen!  The rain fell, the thunder roared, the cats cowered, the electric lights flickered, all pretense of the Birth of Springtime was cast aside.

And then it dawned on me.  Someone or something was angry.  Angry on behalf of millions of Americans whose health care Congressmen had blithely ignored today -- Congressmen less interested in the hardships of their constituents than in dotting the i's and crossing the t's of their nineteenth century ideologies, or in simply complying with the angry desires of their Accidental President.

Springtime is over in America, the weather gods hinted.  We gave you a taste of it, but storm clouds and angry deities lie ahead. 

Well, that's how it felt in the Northwest Corner, at least.  Where you live, the weather today may have been perfectly calm. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Seeking Zanzibar

An email from a childhood friend, who has an excellent memory but also a tendency to fantasize, recently accused me of having gloated, in my childhood, over my collection of Zanzibar triangle-shaped postage stamps.  After a frantic search -- was my old stamp album lost? had it been stolen? -- I finally located it in an unexpected upstairs bookcase. 

The old stamp album!  When I was ten, my mother returned from a trip to Chicago, bearing this album and an envelope of 500 or so mixed postage stamps as a peace offering.  I spent days sorting out those hundreds of stamps from all nations, trying to figure out which country they were from.  Deutsch Post, Magyar kir Posta, Ceskoslovensko, Helvetia, Poczta Polska.  I hardly even knew where Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and Poland were on the map -- let alone their names for themselves.  But I matched stamps with the blurry photographs in my album.

I learned a lot of geography, a lot of foreign currency denominations, and even some foreign language expressions before my eleventh birthday.

Looking back at that album today, copyright 1950, I see spaces for stamps from a lot of entities that had been almost forgotten even then.  Pre-unification German states.  British colonies.  "Italian East Africa."  Danzig.  Cyrenaica.  Angra. (?) Aguera. (??)  And one country -- Central Lithuania -- that merited a full page for quite a variety of stamps.  That last one stumped me even today, and I had to resort to Wikipedia.  Central Lithuania existed -- unrecognized by most countries and the League of Nations, but prolifically churning out postage stamps, between 1920 and 1922 -- as a sort of buffer between resurgent Poland and resurgent Lithuania. 

It's all there in my album.  The powerful and the weak, the nations that have lasted centuries and those that lasted but a few months (who but a kid who collected stamps remembers Tannu Tuva?).  The series of stamps with Hitler and the far more beautiful series with Pope Pius XII.  Stamp collecting was insidious, the way it educated young minds without their being aware of it -- sneakily inducing them to learn while loving it, without even recognizing that they were learning.

But Zanzibar?  Nope.  I never added a stamp to my album's Zanzibar section, never owned a Zanzibar stamp.  And Zanzibar doesn't seem to have been one of those progressive states that printed multi-colored stamps in odd shapes and sizes as enticements to young collectors.  (Such as San Marino?  Costa Rica?  French Somali Coast?  Even the Vatican?)  Zanzibar's stamps -- at least as illustrated in my album --all had bearded, grumpy-appearing heads, topped by fezes.  Zanzibar's sultans may already have suspected that the day was coming when they would be the subject of an acquisition and merger by enormous Tanganyika across the straits.

Never been to Zanzibar.  Never even seen any of its stamps.  But I'd jump at the chance to visit.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

By rail in Britain

British London-Glasgow train
at station in Carlisle.

One month from today, I fly to London in preparation for my eight-day hike through Westmorland.  The hike begins in Appleby, in north central Westmorland, and ends 95 miles later in Arnside, Westmorland's one small exposure to the sea at the far southern end of the county.*

The hike will be fun -- an adventure -- but also fun will be my travel between London and the beginning and end points of the hike.

To get to Appleby, I will take a mainline train from London's King's Cross station to Leeds.  At Leeds, I transfer to the storied Settle-Carlisle line -- a line barely saved from discontinuation in the 1980s -- and follow its scenic route (14 tunnels and 22 viaducts) to Appleby.  I took this same route last summer as far as Kirkby Stephen, one stop before Appleby.

Returning from Arnside, I take the Furness line -- which skirts the Lake District along the coast of the Irish Sea -- to Lancaster, an 18 minute ride.  Then from Lancaster, I connect with the Glasgow-London train to London's Euston Station.

In booking these trains, I was filled with envy.  Virgin Trains alone -- operating the London to Glascow route -- has nine trains per hour leaving Euston, one of which each hour is bound for Glasgow.  And Virgin is only one of a number of train companies operating within Britain. 

Trains on the mainlines -- e.g., London-Edinburgh, London-Glascow -- operate at 125 mph.

Here, in the United States, Amtrak operates one train per day from Seattle to Los Angeles, one train per day from Seattle to Chicago.  Admittedly, these routes involve longer distances than those between London and cities in Scotland.  Because they operate on old track owned by private freight companies, Amtrak's passenger trains rarely operate above 70 mph.  They are subject to delays when encountering freight trains competing for use of the same track.

Nevertheless, Amtrak provides train service that is pleasant and scenic, and provides very satisfactory sleeper and diner service on major routes.  It does so despite being routinely underfunded by Congress.  This underfunding is, in part, a reflection of tight budgets.  It also, however, is a result of political opposition -- more ideological than rational -- by many Republican members of Congress to virtually all forms of rail travel (including rapid transit in cities).  For some reason, neither air travel nor auto travel face this same visceral hatred.

We may not have to make comparisons between Europe's passenger trains and those of Amtrak much longer, however.  President Trump's proposed budget kills all of Amtrak's routes except those traveling in the congested Boston-Washington corridor. 

Instead of killing passenger train service, we should be developing a system that approaches the level of competence and convenience provided by Europe.  But I guess we're committed to the belief that Europe has nothing that we Americans -- in our unique exceptionalism -- will ever want to emulate. 

* Yes, I know that Westmorland hasn't been a legal county since 1974, having been combined with Cumberland into today's Cumbria. But it lives on as an identity -- culturally, and in my own heart!