Sunday, October 15, 2017

I'm leaving, on a jet plane ...

Chiang Mai street scene

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon at the Northwest Corner blog offices.  The staff has been given three-week leaves, the "Closed, but Still Awesome" sign has been hung on the front door.  The mighty printing presses have been shut down and will be maintained during down time.

Only your editor and publisher remains on the premises, brooding over the Decline and Fall of Virtually Everything, and wondering how to make a clever story out of the Apocalypse.  His luggage has been dragged out, piles of clothes strewn about his desk, a not-uncommon look of confusion flickering across his face.

The blog cats suspect and fear the worse, and follow their befuddled editor as he darts from room to room, howling with outrage. The cats howling, that is; not the editor.

So, yes.  As his earlier posts have suggested, "Confused Thoughts from the Northwest Corner" will be shut down -- in fact, with this post, is henceforth shut down -- until his return from Southeast Asia on November 8.  God willing, fire and eruptions permitting, and connecting flights through Seoul still being possible.

Have a Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Happy blazing birthday!

Denny, teaching his sixth grade
class in Chiang Mai 

Fireworks!  That's the kind of celebration my sister Kathy has always loved.  So naturally, when a major birthday comes along, she isn't going to mark it with a mega-candled cake at your local Applebee's.

And so, as mentioned in earlier posts, our plan has been that as many as can do it will go first to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where Kathy's son Denny is teaching sixth grade at an international school, and then -- for the actual celebration -- we (including Denny and his young daughter) will fly to Bali where others, with less free time, will join us for a week long family frolic in the sun, ocean, and jungle.  Returning from Bali to Chiang Mai, some of us will also stop en route for a couple of days in Cambodia, to explore the ruins at Angkor Wat.

That was the general plan.  Pretty exciting, but apparently a little tame for Kathy.  So she managed to dial up the seismic activity on Bali, causing a large area around the volcano Agung to be evacuated in expectation of an imminent eruption.  And then she waved her wand, causing northern California to burst into flame -- a wave of the wand that was a bit too exuberant, as her own house burned to the ground.

But losing your hearth and home is no reason to change plans.  She flew off to Chiang Mai on Tuesday.  I -- my head reeling -- will be departing Seattle in three days, on  Monday, to join her, Denny, and other celebrants.  As the schedule of coming events now stands, everyone will all show up on Bali on October 22, where we will remain for a week, barring some eruptive disaster, in a rented beachside home.

Although Kathy lost her home in Sonoma, I'm happy to relate that her Sonoma area friends mostly seem to have fared better, and that the fire danger -- although still worrisome -- has improved.  And Agung on Bali, still muttering to itself, has so far refrained from erupting, or even from showing increased signs of eruption.

Always the optimist, I'm eagerly awaiting the trip.  It will be fun to talk to Denny and find out how he likes teaching at a Thai school (indications are that he loves it), and it will be fun to toast Kathy's birthday as the ground quakes beneath us, smoke rises on the horizon, and lava threatens to burst forth at any moment. 

As they say, no one on his death bed ever wished that he had spent more birthdays eating cake at Applebee's.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

I left my heart

Bay and latte, from
the Ferry Building

I was in San Francisco for a few hours yesterday -- no, my visit had been planned long before the recent fires.  My reason for my brief visit is too embarrassing to explain in detail  -- let's just say that the care and feeding of my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan was involved.

So what did I do in my few hours?  It's not as though I never visit San Francisco, but usually when I'm there I'm meeting people, visiting homes, eating meals, re-visiting "sights" -- even occasionally going sailing.  All with other people, mainly relatives.  But, being alone yesterday with no one expecting my arrival, I did what I do best -- I wandered alone and indulged in nostalgia.

When I was 29, with a brand-new M.S. degree in hand and with some thoughts of teaching in a junior college (I thank God now that I was unsuccessful in my job search), I lived for about four months in "The City" during that period in limbo.  Yesterday, I decided to hoof it around town and re-visit places I recalled from that odd period of my life.

After several days apartment-searching, while living in a YMCA located in the Tenderloin, I finally ended up renting a small studio apartment in a large apartment complex.  At that time -- and now -- it was called "The Imperial," located on Sutter Street between Gough and Octavia.  It had been built during World War II as officers' housing for -- I believe -- the Navy.  The rent was about $200 per month -- which seemed quite steep at the time -- but then, as now, after all, I was living in San Francisco! 

Every morning I caught a trolley bus heading east on Sutter -- carefully depositing my 15 cent fare -- and rode to the end of the line at Market, where I transferred to a bus that took me down to somewhere in the general area of today's AT&T Park.  It was an industrial area, and I worked at a short-term job running chemical analyses for a testing laboratory.  The job was tedious, but life in San Francisco was interesting.

St. Benedict's

So after leaving BART at Powell yesterday, I walked up Sutter to find my old home.  It was still there, still looking the same -- although as I looked in the front window I'd guess that it now looks more elegant than I had recalled.  The parking lot next door is now another apartment house.  I walked two blocks up Octavia, and found, although one block away from where I expected it, St. Benedict's Church, the church I attended each Sunday, at an age and in a time and place when church attendance was somewhat unusual. 

Several more blocks uphill led me to Lafayette Park, where I'd sometimes come on a weekend to lie in the sun and read.  The park seems more developed than I recall it -- tennis courts, a large off-leash dog area -- but the same great views of the Golden Gate, and the same grassy patch where I once stretched out on the lawn.

Golden Gate from
Lafayette Park

I then walked eastward on Bush, trying to locate the fictional Nob Hill mansion "Thunderbolt House" that I had read about as a child (and discussed here in a post in September 2016).  I knew it was on Bush, but didn't remember the cross street (according to the book, it was at Bush and Mason).  At any rate, the entire stretch of Bush along the southern slope of Nob Hill -- including Thunderbolt House -- was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, and Bush itself today is pleasant and low-key, but not particularly interesting architecturally.

I ended up at the Ferry Building, which looks better every time I see it.  The elevated Embarcadero Freeway, which shut off the Ferry Building and the waterfront from the rest of the city, was heavily damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and was torn down in 1991.  It's an ill wind that blows no good, I guess, which may be news to folks today in Sonoma and Napa..  Seattle will be doing something similar -- but more voluntarily -- with the Alaska Way Viaduct along its own waterfront -- as soon as the tunnel replacing it is completed.


When the Embarcadero was first torn down, the area seemed a bit vacant, but has since been planted in palm trees, and the area is alive with streetcar lines.  And tourists. 

If I had had time to visit all the highlights of my short residency in San Francisco, I would have walked up Market -- torn to pieces at the time, while BART was being constructed -- from the Ferry Building to the Civic Center.  And there I would have re-visited the public library -- one of my former favorite haunts.  But my time already was drawing to a close.  I walked up Market as far as Powell, jumped aboard BART, and returned to the Oakland airport.

San Francisco was an edgier place when I lived there, although probably less edgy than in the noir-ish, pre-war years described in the detective novels of author Dashiell Hammett.  When a city has gentrified to the point where property is virtually impossible for the average guy to rent, let alone buy, it's bound to change. 

Gentrification has both its good and bad aspects, both socially and from the point of urban planning.  It's a subject beyond the scope of my brief visit and this brief essay.  I'll just say that it's a very attractive city today, and a place well worth an extended visit.  For a tourist, at least, today's San Francisco combines the best aspects of New York and Boston, and avoids some of the weaknesses of both.  Which, from me, is a high compliment.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Sonoma tragedy

My sister's home, consumed by flames

Even as we eyed Bali nervously (see prior post), disaster struck last night, closer to home.

My sister, whose birthday we will be celebrating in Bali, lives just outside Sonoma, California.  She has a close friend who owns a ranch and bed and breakfast, with plenty of acreage for both their horses.  My sister arranged with her friend -- somewhat unorthodoxly (and perhaps extra-legally) -- to construct an inconspicuous home for herself on the property by joining two shipping containers.

Actually, there are websites about how to build your house from a shipping container.

The idea may sound unpromising, but the containers were brought into place, our brother did a lot of the construction and electrical work, my sister did the interior design -- and the result was both beautiful and comfortable.  And -- from the side where outsiders could view it -- it appeared to be nothing more than a large tool shed.

Yesterday, brush fires fanned by freakish high winds, hit all over northern California.  News reports indicate that at least 1,500 homes have been destroyed to date.  Much of Sonoma county, outside the towns, has been evacuated.

I received an email from my sister last night at 2 a.m., telling me that her home had been totally destroyed, together with all its contents:  a large library of books, family mementos and photographs, furniture, oddities that she has collected over the decades.  Fortunately, the friend's bed and breakfast -- closer to the road -- was not damaged, and the horses were not injured.

Her heartbreaking story is being repeated over and over throughout California today.  Added to hurricanes and floods, the year 2017 is becoming a year to remember.  Not with affection. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Tempting the gods

There was a roar and a great confusion of noise.  Fires leaped up and licked the roof.  The throbbing grew to a great tumult, and the Mountain shook. ... And there upon the dark threshold of the Sammath Naur, high above the plains of Mordor, such wonder and terror came on him that he stood still forgetting all else, and gazed as one turned to stone.

--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Mount Agung, a volcano in eastern Bali, killed between 1,100 and 1,700 people in 1963, when it exploded in two major eruptions.  It then remained quiescent until last month, when alarming sesismic activity -- 844 earthquakes on September 26 alone -- seemed to presage another major eruption.  Over a hundred thousand residents of Bali have been evacuated from a twelve-mile exclusionary zone around the mountain.

Tourists have been assured that they are safe in Bali's famed resort areas, but the threat of eruption has caused cancelation of plans by some.  The threat of eruption remains serious, but the immediate eruption that was feared a couple of weeks ago has not yet occurred.

In the midst of all this concern, two days ago a French citizen posted photos (copy of one appears above) and videos of his ascent to the crater's edge.  Facebook and the internet was filled with expressions of disgust that this guy risked his own life in a dangerous situation in exchange for a little publicity, not to mention showing  callous disregard for Balinese culture or for the sensitivities of the Balinese who had been evacuated from their homes.

Agung is regarded by local Hindus as a replica or fragment of mystical Mt. Meru -- the central axis of the universe -- and is the location of sacred temples.  The government has had problems dealing with Hindu priests returning to the slopes to pray that the mountain not erupt.  The climber entered the exclusionary zone,  not to pray on behalf of the people who lived there, but simply as a publicity stunt.  As one writer posted, angrily, on the climber's Facebook page:

This man is a self serving arrogant jerk. Has he not learned anything about the Balinese culture while living in Bali obviously not because he's only interested in himself. I cannot believe some people are making him out to be some kind of hero. The heroes are those locals and expats helping the evacuees who have had to leave their homes on the slopes of their sacred mountain. He has no credibility because of his lack of respect.

I don't mean to sound flippant when I say that if we do make it to Bali on October 22, as planned, my family and I will certainly give the active volcano all the respect it deserves.

We have been advised by the owner of the villa we are leasing that, at 28 km. from the volcano, and protected by an intervening range of hills, we will be perfectly safe in the event of any eruption.  The only concern would be that the airport at Denpasar might be closed should there be too much ash in the air.  But in that event, flights with Bali as a destination would land on Lompok island, immediately to the east, and we would ferry across the channel to Bali.

So.  That's where our Bali visit stands at present.  Before we fly to Bali, we will be visiting my nephew and his daughter in Thailand.  We will make a final decision on how to proceed once we are in Thailand.

None of us is Hindu, but we all, with great respect, implore Agung to hold off any violent activity, at least until November.  

Friday, October 6, 2017

Cosmopolitan cities

Alexandria!  I can't get that city -- or that idea of a city -- out of my mind.

It all started years ago, when I read Durrell's Alexandria Quartet -- a Proustian story set in a partially fantasized Alexandria.  Then I discovered André Aciman -- that Jewish refugee from Alexandria, whose memoir and essays on memory and nostalgia hearken, over and over, to his Alexandrian boyhood.  E. M. Forster, and his 1922 history and guide of Alexandria.  Bits of the poetry of C. P. Cadafy. 

A city of world importance, from its founding by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.  But what is it that haunts my own imagination?  I think it's the fascination of a "cosmopolitan" city, a city shared by many ethnic groups, many religions, many languages -- all living together, not always comfortably, but reasonably peaceably.  A city where a child or an old man can see much of the world by simply walking down one of its streets.

I feel the same way about Istanbul -- or rather about Constantinople, when the city was the capital of the Ottoman Empire.  Filled with not only the ruling Turks, but with Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Serbs, Syrians, Arabs, Egyptians.  And I feel the same about -- although I know less about -- Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Filled not only with the ruling German-speaking Austrians, but with Bohemians, Slovakians, Jews, Slovenes, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Rumanians, and -- of course -- Hungarians.

Constantinople and Vienna were exciting cities in which to live, but their cosmopolitan nature was each based on the incorporation of many nations within a single empire.  Alexandria was somewhat different.  It was a city within the Ottoman Empire, but it was not a capital city.  And it drew nationalities from outside Ottoman territory.  People were attracted to it for many reasons, including the very fact of its cosmopolitanism.  British and French, left over from colonial adventures in Egypt.  Jews, fleeing persecution in other countries.  Armenians fleeing violent oppression by the Ottomans, and later, by Turkey.  Many Greeks, who settled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.  Syrians.  Albanians.  Italians.  Coptic Christians.  Non-Egyptian Arabs.  And, of course, Muslim Egyptians.

One by one, it seems, the great cosmopolitan cities of the world have collapsed.  Vienna is now the capital of a small German-speaking country, not always welcoming to immigrants.  The post-war Turkish Republic moved its capital to Ankara, and -- to a large extent -- welcomed only Turks as citizens.

Alexandria remained a fading but fascinatingly cosmopolitan city until 1954 and the Suez war.  Aciman, in his writings, recalls how -- as a result of that war -- first the British and French, and then the Jews, were expelled from Egypt.  (The Jewish population dropped from 50,000 to about 50 today.)  He doesn't describe the fate of other nationalities -- Alexandrians whose ancestral countries weren't belligerents in the Suez hostilities -- such as the large Greek minority.  But Wikipedia notes that Nasser's nationalization of private property, which reached its zenith in 1961, led almost all non-Egyptians to flee the city. 

Alexandria's cosmopolitanism, and the death of that cosmopolitanism, brings contemporary America to mind.  When the president rails against "globalization," and shouts loudly in favor of "America First" and "America for Americans," he is generally perceived as worrying that American jobs are migrating overseas.  When he decries immigration, and expresses dislike of treaties (Iran, Cuba, NATO, NAFTA), he is seen as worrying about immigrants who take jobs that citizens could be handling, and about agreements that help other nations while harming America.

And to some extent, these perceptions of his intentions are correct.  But at a deeper level, he is appealing to nativism, to nationalism, to tribalism.  Insofar as possible at this late date, he wants to limit foreign influence on what he and his followers see as "true" American culture and nationality.  He wants to make America white, or at least white in its culture and values. 

Trump doesn't get along with many foreign leaders.  Who does he get along with?  The leaders of Turkey, of Saudi Arabia, of Israel, of the Philippines, of Poland, of Hungary.  Of Russia, sometimes. Of supporters of Brexit in Britain, and of those wishing to weaken the European Union in Europe.  His every instinct is to prevent and reverse a mixing of races, religions, and cultures.  He would have understood fully Gamal Nasser's drive to make Egypt a nation filled only with Egyptians; he would have supported Nasser's successful efforts to drive the Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and Albanians out of Alexandria.

If you look at voters in "blue" states, and compare then with voters in "red" states, one way to distinguish the two is the extent to which residents in each group of states enjoy living in communities that are "cosmopolitan": the extent to which they see value in rubbing shoulders with people different from themselves.  That distinction has become one of the fault lines in American culture and politics.  It explains a number of other fault lines, and any number of disputes over public policy.

I suspect that anyone who reads about Alexandria before World War II with a sense of nostalgia is the sort of person who feels most comfortable living in a blue state.

Like those states in the Northwest Corner.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

John Wayne Pioneer trail

October 5, and weather in the Northwest Corner remains beautiful.  Seattle's official high was 68, but in the bright sun it seemed warmer.

Jim B. was in town, arriving last night for a visit with me and with members of his family scattered about the State of Washington.   Jim grew up on Mercer Island, and attended the University of Washington, where I met him.  But he has spent decades as an engineering professor at Purdue in Indiana.  So he returned not as a tourist, but as a Northwesterner revisiting his roots.

To remind him of how we spend time in these parts, we went on a reasonably long but easy hike on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.  The John Wayne trail begins from a point near North Bend, Washington, and runs some 300 miles eastward to the Idaho border.  It uses the former right of way of the Milwaukee Road ("Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad"), a legendary transcontinental railroad that ran from Chicago to the Northwest (with 2¼ miles burrowing under the summit of the Cascades)  from 1909 to 1980. In 1980, the portions of track through Washington, Idaho, and Montana were abandoned, following bankruptcy.  

The elite passenger streamliner, the Olympian Hiawatha, which competed on the Chicago to Seattle run with the Great Northern's Empire Builder and the Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited, had already been dropped from service by 1961.

What remains -- with track removed -- is the graded route, complete with trestles and tunnels.  It makes excellent biking and hiking.

Jim and I drove to Interstate 90's exit 47, where we parked at the trailhead for Annette Lake.  We hiked on the narrow, winding, and often steep Annette Lake trail for about 0.7 miles, at which point we intersected the John Wayne.  We headed westward through tunnels of forest, past views of alpine peaks and colorful fall foliage, through a snow shed, and over a steampunk-esque iron trestle, aiming for the McClellan Butte trail that intersected the John Wayne as it came up from I-90's exit 42.

The hike was easy but long, and the shadows were growing longer when we decided to turn back shortly before reaching our destination.  My phone's pedometer showed we still had about a half a mile to go, but we found a sunny spot along the trail, ate candy bars and drank water, and declared victory.  By the time we returned to the Annette Lake trail once more, that heavily-shaded approach trail was dark and gloomy.

We logged a total of 12.2 miles by the time we returned to our car.

We were tired, but hardly gloomy.  The John Wayne is a great trail for walking and catching up with a friend whom one rarely has a chance to see.  It would also be a great place to introduce hiking novices to the pleasures of walking -- but perhaps for a shorter walk as their first-time experience.

I understand the right of way was accepted by the legislature with a provision for reversion, should the route ever be needed again for rail service.  Maybe a new generation of Hiawathas will one day roar out of the Cascade tunnel and down the slope to Puget Sound.  Meanwhile -- a real boon to hikers.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Pleasure deferred

I'm not particularly crazy about candy -- but once upon a time, as a child, I certainly was. 

In our Christmas stockings, and as birthday gifts, my brother and I would be blessed at times with boxes of candy.  Really good candy.  I remember especially long boxes of chocolate mints, like Girl Scout mints but better, and square "Sampler" type boxes of chocolate cherries.  As I say, I'm no longer so crazy about candy, but if I still were, chocolate mints and chocolate cherries would be right up there at the top of my cravings.

My brother and I were equally crazy about such candy -- but whereas his entire box would be devoured within a few days, mine would still be largely intact months later.  I'm "Saving for the Future," I would tell him primly, smugly aware of my own virtue.  He would roll  his eyes and remind me of all the times I had finally got around to eating the last of my goodies, and had found them stale and nearly inedible.

And he was right.

If I had been a bit older, I could have justified my self-satisfaction by throwing around the term "delayed gratification" -- a miserly approach to candy that arguably augurs well for the future of the child who displays it.  As this week's Economist relates, Stanford researchers in the 1960s devised a cognitive experiment often called "the marshmallow test."  Essentially they put a marshmallow in front of a young child and told him that he could eat it any time he wanted, but if he waited a certain period of time, he would get two marshmallows (think 401k plans).  Data show that the older the child, the longer he's willing to wait for the bonus.  But if you take two children of the same age, the one who waits longer is more apt as a teenager and an adult to defer other forms of gratification -- and to reap the rewards.

Everyone assumes that kids have become increasingly self-indulgent over the past fifty years.  But a researcher at UC Santa Barbara has examined reams of testing data and has discovered that there has been a steady increase, decade by decade, in the amount of time kids are willing to wait for that second marshmallow -- and that this is true of all kids, "good" and "bad."

No one knows why the increase. 

But think twice before you tell your child or grandchild that kids back in the day were thriftier, or better disciplined, or more apt to "save for the future."  Unless, of course, you're like me.  And have some old bars of Snickers in the back of a cupboard that have solidified to the point that you can no longer bite into them.  Or bottles of wine -- long-ago gifts from friends who didn't don't know my habits -- that have turned to vinegar.

I wonder ... I wonder if they still make chocolate cherries?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Blowing its top

Mount Agung is a 9,944 foot volcano on the Indonesian island of Bali.  It is an active volcano.  It last erupted in 1963, killing over 1,100. 

Experts say another eruption is imminent -- perhaps within hours as I write this.  Three days ago, the government declared a 12-kilometer exclusion zone around the volcano.  Nearly 100,000 refugees have moved to other parts of the island, or to neighboring Java.  The volcano experienced 844 earthquakes on Monday, and a proportionately similar number by mid-day yesterday. A decision hasn't yet been made whether to close the two airports.

I find this situation particularly interesting, because my family and I have arranged to be relaxing on Bali from October 22 to 29.  On the east coast.  Twenty-eight kilometers (about 18 miles) from the volcano.

Back in 1980, my family lived 36 miles from Mt. St. Helens.  That was fun.  We seem to have a genetic affinity for eruptions.  If we had lived back in Roman days, our home would have been located in beautiful downtown Pompeii.

Will we still go to Bali?  If so, will we return?  Stay tuned.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Wizard

Big week coming up for our nation.  And for Mr. Trump:

1. Repeal of Obamacare scheduled for a vote.  Last chance for the Republicans to avoid a filibuster.  As I write this, repeal appears doomed to defeat, as at least four Republican senators will vote "no."  Trump has pushed big for repeal, and it looks like Trump will lose.

2.  Republican primary election in Alabama between two survivors from the nineteenth century.  Against the desires of most of his supporters, Trump has put his prestige on the line in favor of the least insane of the two.  He admits committing his prestige may have been a mistake.  Looks like he will lose.

3.  Trump has hurled repeated insults at the hyper-sensitive head of North Korea, in effect double-dog-daring him to attack the United States.  Threatening him with the total obliteration of his nation in a rain of fiery hell.  China is nervous.  Japan is nervous.  South Korea is very nervous.  Most countries in the world are incredulous ... and nervous.  There now appears no way Trump can avoid, without looking weak, keeping his promise to unleash a nuclear attack on North Korea in the near future.  Trump would rather see millions die than look weak.  Whether he attacks or backs down, he will lose.  As will America.

4.  When the Senate completes work, one way or the other, on Obamacare, it will face the next critical issue on Trump's agenda -- tax reform.  The Republican party is highly divided.  It seems unlikely they can agree on anything except cosmetic changes to existing law.  Trump will lose.

5.  Special Counsel Mueller is clearly closing in on matters that will result in indictments.  Maybe not for Trump personally, but for many members of his administration.  Or -- maybe for Trump personally, as well.  When the indictments are announced, Trump loses.

How has Trump responded?  He has spent the week attacking the NFL, the NBA, the officers of the conferences, the players (mainly but not exclusively black players), and the teams and their coaches themselves.  He has "demanded" a boycott of NFL games.  He wants dissenting players to be fired.  He has tweeted 18 times on the subject since Saturday.  He has thus attacked one of the most popular institutions in America -- professional sports.  Trump says that red-blooded Americans will watch -- in person or on TV -- only real American sports like golf and NASCAR racing.  White folks' sports.  A poll shows that 61 percent of Americans oppose his demands.  He loses.

But maybe he doesn't lose.  While 61 percent of Americans oppose his attacks on the NFL, 65 percent of Republicans support him.  His Base.  His Hallowed Base.  "Hey fellow Republicans!  Keep your eyes on the shells -- which one is the NFL bean hiding under?  Ignore the other small matters bothering my administration, ignore those mushroom clouds -- I'm going to save you and the flag and the National Anthem from being despoiled by the Evil Ones."

I am the Great Trump and I bring you Greatness.  Pay no attention to that scared, weak, insecure little man behind the curtain

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Oxford commas

As the Economist discusses this week, proper use of the comma is a contentious subject.  The magazine (or "newspaper," as it prefers to call itself) notes that American writers use commas more liberally than do British writers.

Well, we're a wealthier country, I guess.  We can afford to squander commas.

The Economist claims that commas were originally used not for grammatical purposes, but as indications of places where the oral reader could pause to take a breath.  Therefore, their use should be considered stylistic and optional.

Well, maybe.  Without conceding the "pause for breath" hypothesis, I agree that their use in a given context is often optional, not bound by fast, never-to-be broken rules.

The exception is the "Oxford comma" -- sometimes called the "serial comma" -- that comma following the penultimate item of a series.  For example, "He enjoyed doing w, x, y, and z."  That comma after y.  Got it? 

I maintain that the Oxford comma is mandatory -- even though I have a hunch that my elementary school teachers discouraged its use.  In fact, if you find it omitted in any of my blog posts, it was omitted in violation of my own (unwritten) style sheet, and probably because of lazy comma habits instilled in me by those same elementary school teachers.

The Economist begins its article with an anecdote about the proper construction of a Maine labor statute that excluded a series of activities from a requirement that the company offer overtime pay.  The statute was completely ambiguous if one assumed that the drafter of the statute had considered insertion of an Oxford comma to be unnecessary.  The company argued that the court should find that an absent Oxford comma was implied; the court disagreed and applied the statute exactly as written -- with the two items following the final comma joined together as one item.

Despite this evidence of possible ambiguity when the Oxford comma is omitted, the Economist brazenly refuses to consider its use mandatory.  It urges instead that copy editors should read copy carefully, and take steps to eliminate ambiguity when it actually exists.

Not all of us have editors, least of all British editors with the infinite time and exquisite patience to test the ambiguity or lack thereof in sentences containing series.  And there's no downside to tossing in one more comma. We therefore insist in imposing an absolute rule on ourselves.

The Oxford comma is mandatory.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sailing to Ithaca

Father and son:
Odysseus and Telemachus
Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

--C. P. Cavafy* (1863-1933)

The second of Homer's two great epics is, of course, the Odyssey -- the story of how the hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) struggles to return to his island of Ithaca after the conclusion of the Trojan War. 

Because Odysseus gets on the bad side of Poseidon, it takes him ten years to return, losing all of his warriors during the process.  His son Telemachus, an infant when Odysseus left for battle, is now an adult seeking to learn if his father is still alive, or dead.  "Suitors" have descended on Ithaca, seeking the hand of Penelope -- Odysseus's wife -- and essentially being terrible guests.  Telemachus -- Odysseus's heir -- doesn't know how to handle the insult the Suitors pose to Penelope, to Odysseus, and to Ithaca.

One theme of the Odyssey is (or may be) the relationship between father and son -- a son who feels inadequate and inexperienced compared with his heroic father, a father he never had a chance to know.  The son seeks his father, and the father looks forward to seeing the son he last saw as an infant.

Daniel Mendelsohn is a professor of humanities at Bard College in New York, where he specializes in Greek studies.  He has written a memoir of his experiences teaching a one-term seminar on the Odyssey, meeting with a small group of freshman students once a week for two hours around a seminar table.  His book, The Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, is a week by week, chapter by chapter, study of the Odyssey by an expert in classical Greek and of Greek literature. 

But because the author's own 81-year-old father asked to audit the seminar -- and ended up participating at length and with strong opinions in class discussions -- it is also a memoir of a father's relationship to his son -- an often fraught relationship in this case, between a stern, impatient parent and a son who had always felt inadequate and unloved.

The two themes mesh amazingly well in Mendelsohn's book -- Telemachus's search for his father, their eventual meeting, their learning to appreciate each other, and an analogous development in the relationship between Mendelsohn and his own father.

The Odyssey is full of stories, many of which are known by many children -- the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, etc. -- but the epic itself is complex in its development.  As Mendelsohn points out, it is written as story-tellers often tell stories -- with long digressions to other periods of time to explain the event that was originally being described.  Mendelsohn adopts an identical "circular" approach to his own memoir -- a mention of something his father has said, for example, may lead to a long digressive recounting of events decades earlier that explain the father's comment. 

These digressions are neither frustrating nor unpleasant.  They seem very natural, as did the digressions in Homer's epic to his own listeners.  After all, we have a full book to discuss the 24 "books" of the Odyssey.  There's no rush to hurry to the end, anymore than ancient Greeks were in any hurry to "get to the end" of an epic.  We can wander leisurely through the Odyssey, through Mendelsohn's recounting of how he taught the semester seminar and of his discussions with his students, and through the gradual revelation of the history of tensions between the Mendelsohns, father and son.

This is a wonderful book, and a painless way not only to learn the "plot" of the Odyssey, but to experience a classical expert's analysis and interpretation of the many themes in the epic that might well pass over the head of the casual reader. 

Mendelsohn also, obviously, loves the Greek language, and he repeatedly explains how a Greek term was used in the Greek original of the epic, and how English words have derived from the original Greek.  In the very first chapter he identifies the term arkhe kakon -- the "beginning of bad things" -- as describing how Helen of Troy's abduction initiated the entire Trojan tragedy.  We should know the words, he suggests -- from arkhe, we get the "arche-" words like archetype; from kakon, we get cacophony.

If etymology isn't your idea of cool (it is mine!), that's ok.  The etymological passages are frequent, but brief.  Feel free to read right past them!

The book ends, after the seminar concludes and after the author and his father go on an "Odyssey Cruise" in the Mediterranean, with the death shortly thereafter of Mendelsohn Senior.  The son's account of his last days with his father, and of the increased understanding and appreciation they had developed for each other's very different characters, is intensely moving, one of the most moving descriptions of a father's death I've ever read.

A man -- track his tale for me, Muse, the twisty one who
wandered widely, once he'd sacked Troy's holy citadel;
he saw the cities of many men and knew their minds.

Estimated reading time is six hours.  This book is well worth the investment of six hours.
* "Ithaca," translated from Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Send it C.O.D.

C.O.D. --  Collect on Delivery.

When I was a child, Amazon did not exist.  Nor did credit cards.

You shopped in stores on Main Street, and paid cash.  But those stores didn't carry everything that a child -- or an adult -- might want.

Magazine ads were full of dreams, dreams you couldn't satisfy wandering through the Five & Ten.  You ordered by mail.  Not by going on-line.  Not by dialing an 800 number.  But by cutting a coupon or order form out of the magazine, filling it out with your name and address, copying the address given on the coupon onto an envelope, sticking on a 3-cent stamp, and mailing it.

How did you pay for your order.  Coupons generally had three boxes for you to choose from.  One was "cash."  One was "check or money order." And the third was "C.O.D."

I never used C.O.D.  Nor did anyone in my family.  In fact, I've never talked to anyone who ever used C.O.D.  What was it?  It was the closest available method to ordering on credit, to using a credit card.

The advertiser filled the order and mailed the purchase to you.  The postman collected the purchase price from you before handing over the merchandise, and sent the amount back to the seller.  C.O.D. bought you a little additional time to get the money together to pay for the order.  Maybe it also reassured suspicious purchasers that they would actually receive something in exchange for their payment.

Now we order on-line.  Or by 800 number.  And we pay by credit card.  Who needs C.O.D.?  I was thinking about this while stalled in traffic this morning.  I wondered when it was that the postman stopped acting as a financial middle man between the buyer and the seller.  On reflection, it sounded like an odd task for a government postal worker to undertake.

But lo and behold: To my surprise, the USPS still offers C.O.D. service.  Or did, as of the end of last year.  News services reported at that time that the postal service was planning to phase out C.O.D. home deliveries, although you would still be able to pick up a C.O.D. parcel at the post office and pay for it there.  But no more convenient home deliveries.

If the Postal Service has its way, a service that has been around for over one hundred years will come to an end.

I was surprised that there was still any demand for this service, but there were 346,000 C.O.D. deliveries in 2015.  The change is expected to have the most impact on low income customers living in rural areas.  Many such customers either prefer to make purchases using this method, or do not have the credit necessary to purchase by credit card.

The change will have no impact on me.  I assumed the service had died off long ago.  Its survival illustrates how diverse our population is, and how many folks still feel most comfortable using methods of commerce that they learned to use in their childhood.

I guess companies must still provide coupons or order forms with a C.O.D. box waiting to be checked.  I never see them anymore, but I find their continued existence to be oddly comforting.

If this post has piqued your interest in the use of C.O.D., the USPS has a full page of instructions on its use posted on its website.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

When the going was good

Lake Tanganyika

Commercial travel by jet planes put a final end to the concept of travel as "exploration" or "adventure."  We romanticists often look back on the days before Lonely Planet guidebooks, hotel reservations by internet, and instantaneous sharing of experiences on social media as the good old days of adventure travel, "when the going was good."

Such, of course, is the title of a well-known 1946 travel book by Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh is best known today as the author of Brideshead Revisited, a novel that had been published a year earlier, in 1945.  Both Brideshead Revisited and When the Going Was Good are, in a sense, studies in nostalgia for pre-war life -- for the culture of the British class system in Brideshead, and for the freedom to travel the world in When the Going Was Good.

Early in his career, Waugh wrote often of his travel experiences.  Between 1928 and 1937, he published four books that were already out of print by 1946.  In his Preface to When the Going Was Good, Waugh finds these early books to have been, for the most part, "pedestrian" and boring, filled with "commonplace commentary" and "callow comments."  He notes with satisfaction that they were out of print, and that they would remains so. 

Each did contain certain passages that he found worth preserving, however, and -- in the awful post-war world of 1946, when tourism seemed dead for the near future -- serving as a nostalgic reminder of what travel was like "when the going was good."  He therefore collected his edited travel writings from the four books under that title.

Going Was Good contains five chapters, in chronological order -- (1) travels by sea throughout the eastern Mediterranean; (2) a humorous and condescending account of an impulsive visit to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) to witness the coronation of the new emperor, Haile Selassie; (3) travels in Aden and East Africa, concluding with a frustrating crossing of the Belgian Congo as a "shortcut" back to England; (4) travels through British Guiana (Guayana) and Brazil; and (5) a return to Abyssinia in 1935 as a "war correspondent' in response to the war with Mussolini's Italy.  (His misadventures as a correspondent also formed the basis for his comic 1938 satiric novel Scoop.

Having read (several times) Brideshead, as well as several of his satirical novels -- as well as interviews with him in his later years -- I had a fairly consistent image of Mr. Waugh.  Somewhere between "Bridey" in Brideshead Revisited and Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows.  A rather stuffy, pompous man, immaculately dressed, and casting a sour eye on whichever of several eras he was living through at the time.  A man who was once asked how a Catholic convert could be so unpleasant toward other people, and who responded, "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic.

In Going Was Good, Waugh certainly displays his wicked sense of humor at the expense of others, and shares his compatriots' condescension toward the backwardness of "the natives" -- as well as his own interest in the cluelessness of the British Empire's bureaucrats.  But what surprised me was his eager seeking after physical adventures, enduring great hardships out of curiosity about the exotic places he visited, and displaying a willingness (not always without complaint) not only to get his hands dirty, but to live for weeks in conditions of total filth and deprivation.  He actually sounded (in his youth) like someone whose company I would have enjoyed (in my youth).

Some of his passages tend to focus on trivia of the sort that he was attempting to edit out, but more often his accounts are fascinating.  Subjectively, I liked best his Chapter Three, "Globe-Trotting in 1930-31," extracted from a book entitled Remote People (1931), (published in the U.S. as They Were Still Dancing).  On his way to the "glamour and rich beauty" he hoped to find on Zanzibar, he ended up -- without explanation in his edited account -- spending some time at the British crown colony and refueling port of Aden (now part of Yemen). 

Waugh enjoyed Aden, to his surprise, far more than he enjoyed Zanzibar.  He accepted the hospitality of many people -- both colonial authorities and local sultans.  He notes the initiative taken to organize the local children in a rational, English way -- by forming a scout troop.  He observed boys being tested for their Tenderfoot badge:

"What does "clean" mean?"
"Clin min?"
"You said just now a scout is clean in thought, word, and deed."
"Yis, scoot iss clin."
"Well, what do you mean by that?"
"I min tought worden deed."
"Yes, well, what do you mean by clean."
Both parties in this dialogue seemed to be losing confidence in the other's intelligence.
"I min the tenth scoot law."
"All right, Abdul.  That'll do."
"Pass, sahib?"
"Yes, yes."
An enormous smile broke across his small face ....
"Of course, it isn't quite like dealing with English boys," said the scoutmaster again.

This bit of reporting is typical of Waugh.  He doesn't point out a moral for the benefit of his readers.  He reports what he saw, and lets us draw our own conclusions.  Or, more accurately, he lets us think we're drawing our own conclusions. 

As he does in discussing local politics.

The Haushabi Sultan was an important young man, finely dressed, and very far from sane.  He sat in a corner giggling with embarrassment, and furtively popping little twigs of khat into his mouth.

After Aden, Waugh eventually shipped out to Zanzibar, whose heat he found intolerable and to which he gave short shift.  He sailed on to Kenya, where he took the train from Mombasa, on the coast, inland to the higher and much more salubrious climate of Nairobi.  He seems to have enjoyed colonial life in Kenya -- often seen at the time as a Little England in the tropics.

By this time, Waugh was eager to return to England.  Rather than sail again back through the Suez Canal, he thought it might be faster to cross the Belgian Congo to the Atlantic coast.  He had been assured by a Belgian Congo agent in Tanganyika, while en route to Kenya, that an air service flew from Albertville (now Kalemie) on Lake Tanganyika's west coast to Boma on the Atlantic: "The fare was negligible, the convenience extreme."  Waugh therefore crossed by rail into Uganda and took a rickety steamer, through a frightening overnight storm, to Albertville.  He quickly learned that the alleged air service had never existed.  He was enticed into taking a train westward to Kabalo, then a tiny village on the upper Congo, where he was assured that air service did exist.  Arriving in Kabalo, everyone "giggled" when he asked when the next flight would be leaving.

He again was persuaded to plunge deeper into the jungle, sailing up the Congo for four days to Bukama, where a train purportedly would take him to the coast.  "I thought I had touched bottom at Kabalo, but Bukama has it heavily beaten."    Waugh doesn't mention having read Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  If he had never read it, perhaps it was just as well.

The rail from Bukama to the coast was "out of service." From Bukama, Waugh took a long train ride to Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi), on the border of what is now Zambia.  From there, he took a number of trains to Cape Town, South Africa, and thence -- finally -- home.  Quite a short cut.

The day after arriving back in London, Waugh was taken to the "in" nightclub of the moment.  He found himself in a "rowdy cellar, hotter than Zanzibar, noisier than the market at Harar, more reckless of the decencies of hospitality than the taverns of Kabalo or Tabora."  He marveled that the colonists back in Africa would have envied his ability to "enjoy" the experience of London civilization. 

As always, Waugh never seemed quite comfortable -- whether at home or abroad.

Friday, September 15, 2017

En route to the inferno

“What is different about this approach is: we’re out of time, right?” [National Security adviser H.R.] McMaster said on Friday. “We have been kicking the can down the road and we’re out of road. For those who have been commenting about the lack of a military option – there is a military option.
--The Guardian (9-15-17)

I'm flying to Thailand next month for a family gathering.  I change planes at ... at Seoul, South Korea.  Seoul is 35 miles from the border with North Korea. 

As I noted in this blog last month, The Economist has predicted that if the United States should win a war with North Korea, successfully fighting off all attempted strikes against American territory, Seoul itself would nevertheless be the target of a nuclear attack with an immediate loss of 300,000 civilian lives, and with others dying later of radiation poisoning.  The South Korean armed forces would sustain additional hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Somehow, I don't think that commercial jets would be flying in and out of Seoul-Incheon International Airport anytime soon thereafter.

And once I make it successfully to Thailand, I still have to worry about returning -- again through Seoul -- three weeks later.

Mulling all of this over makes me think of all the American tourists who had been happily planning to visit Europe in the fall of 1939.  Hitler's attack on Poland must have caused some reflection on the wisdom of such a vacation, although I read reports that many tourists continued risking the five day transatlantic voyage (or for the very rich, a transatlantic flight) during the so-called phoney war, the period of relative calm between the attack on Poland and the attack on France eight months later. 

Germany continued to invite tourism with one hand -- while planning war with the other -- right up until their tanks rolled across the Polish border.  At least war was waged at a somewhat slower pace in those days, allowing would-be tourists to cancel plans and head for Mexico instead.  In today's world, President Trump may order a strike on Pyongyang after my plane lifts off from Seattle, and Seoul would have been destroyed in retaliation before my plane had crossed the International Date Line.

But -- like tourists in 1939 -- I'll just hope for the best and plan on having a great trip -- which I most likely will -- but I'll realize in a tiny, secluded part of my brain that the world as we now know it may go up in a mushroom cloud before my plane runs out of fuel.

Bon Voyage! (And kick that can a bit farther down the road, Mr. McMaster.)