Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mount Si, revisited


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

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

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

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

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

Whatever. 

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

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

Friday, June 24, 2016

The moors of boyhood


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Brexit


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Going batty


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

--Lewis Carroll

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

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

The commotion continued.  I turned on the lights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nostalgic India


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Commuting by sea



Seattle from the stern of my water taxi


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

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

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

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

New York ferries would be exclusively pedestrian. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, but not quite yet.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hot weekend in D.C.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Took over Washington, so I heard tell


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 6, 2016

Exposure


The ancient Greeks exposed their unwanted babies to the elements. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Thanks for the memories


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 3, 2016

Harvard Square


As I walked across campus this morning, I observed a lot of tense students with frowns on their faces.  This week has been the last week before finals.  I don't think the week has any particular name at the University of Washington, but at my school we called it "Dead Week."  At Harvard, apparently, it's called "Reading Week."

Dead Week is the week during which you try to learn all the things you should have studied earlier while, at the same time, mentally organizing and recalling to mind everything that you actually had studied.  For perhaps ninety percent of the students, it's a time of panic, self-recrimination, insomnia, and unhealthful consumption of caffeine.  We're all a little crazy.

I remember it well.  Decades later, it still occasionally disturbs my dreams.

Now imagine a Dead Week that lasts a year.  That soul-deadening concept provides the background for André Aciman's 2013 novel, Harvard Square

The narrator, like Aciman himself, is a French-speaking, Jewish native of Alexandria who -- with his family -- was expelled by the nationalist Egyptian government.  Like Aciman, he is doing his graduate work at Harvard.  Like Aciman, he has failed his "comprehensives" -- an exam that must be passed before one takes his orals for his Ph.D. -- and has only one more chance to get it right.

The novel opens on a hot muggy day in early July 1977.  The narrator's comprehensives, second try, loom ahead in January.  He is trying to read two or three books per day, trying to cover everything he can in his field of seventeenth century European literature.  He is impoverished, teaching courses as a T.A. and tutoring in Italian to keep his rent current and some food on the table.  He feels very foreign, very un-American, very un-Waspish, very un-patrician.  He doubts his ability.  He suspects he neither fits into Harvard's culture, nor is welcomed by its -- in the 1970s, at least -- preppy, upper class faculty and students.

I had the sinking feeling that ... I'd flunk my comprehensives again, and they'd find out what they probably suspected all along: that I was a fraud, that I was never cut out to be a teacher, much less a scholar; that I had been a bad investment from the get-go; that I was the black sheep, the rotten apple, the bad seed; that I'd be known as the imposter who'd hustled his way into Harvard and was let go in the nick of time.

Moreover, troubling his ability to focus on Pascal and Cervantes, he is desperate for women, and he longs for a mythical Mediterranean world, for a lost Alexandria to which he can never return.

Harvard Square is a small square and a district immediately adjacent to the university.  The narrator tells us that in the 1970s, it was a grittier and much less touristy area than it is now.  He begins escaping his tiny apartment and doing his reading in tiny cafés in the area.  It's in the Café Algiers that he meets his soul-mate -- the man they call Kalishnikov, a Tunisian cab driver who spits out French like an automatic rifle, and whose name his friends shorten to "Kalaj."

The two men -- the Harvard graduate student of seventeenth century literature and the Tunisian cab driver who lacks a green card -- hit it off.  Kalaj berates his friend for his passivity, his overthinking every social situation, his inability to live in the present and go with the flow.  They share a love of their Mediterranean homelands, and of their adopted French culture.  Kalaj helps his friend learn to live, to make friends, to enjoy -- however tentatively -- life.  The narrator also learns from Kalaj how to waste precious time.

Aciman, of course, is a Proust scholar.  All his stories and essays deal, in one way or another, with our memories and with with the manner in which those memories shape our lives.  In Harvard Square, both men are deeply drawn by nostalgia for past worlds that never really existed, or never existed as now recalled. 

The novel offers many themes, and can be understood on many levels.  The narrator gradually realizes that he has never allowed himself to open up -- not to the various women he has slept with, not to his few friends.  For whatever reason, he puts up walls, he loses interest, he becomes uncomfortable when a relationship or friendship becomes too demanding.  Kalaj was his opposite:

I was shifty, he was up-front.  I never raised my voice; he was the loudest man on Harvard Square.  I was cramped, cautious, diffident; he was reckless and brutal, a tinder box.  He spoke his mind.  Mine was a vault.  He was in-your-face; I waited till your back was turned.  He stood for nothing, took no prisoners, lambasted everyone.  I tolerated everybody without loving a single one. ... He was new to the States but had manage to speak to almost everyone in Cambridge; I'd been a graduate student for four years at Harvard but went entire days that summer without a soul to turn to.

He eventually realizes that he needs to choose -- the jovial, Mediterranean, live-for-the-minute world of his friend Kalaj, the world he recalls from his Alexandria youth and a world in which he now feels, at times, alive -- or the glittering world Harvard offers him.   Fully understanding what he's doing, he betrays Kalaj as he has betrayed each of his girlfriends -- silently and passively.  He pulls back.  He stops hanging out.  He stops being home when Kalaj comes around.  Kalaj understands all too well; others have treated him the same way.  But Kalaj had come to believe that his shy Harvard friend was different, a true friend. 

Immigration catches up, finally, with Kalaj, and he is deported.  The narrator can't tolerate the emotions that would be involved in bidding Kalaj goodbye.  He avoids Kalaj's attempt to see him one last time, knowing that his behavior is something for which he'll never forgive himself.

"Dead Week" makes us all a little crazy.

He never hears from Kalaj again.  He passes his comprehensives.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud


"At least you're feeling something. I never made you feel that way."
"You wouldn't have enjoyed it."

Last night was the final offering of the Seattle Art Museum's spring film series, "Cinéma de Paris" -- Claude Sautet's 1995 film, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (final offering other than a make-up showing of another, earlier-scheduled Sautet film in June).  I left the theater more optimistic about humanity's potential for civilized behavior, if perhaps with less optimism for humans' ability to find lasting happiness with one other.

M. Arnaud is a retired judge and businessman, now probably in his sixties.  Nelly is a young married woman, employed part-time and burdened with a husband who has been unemployed for a year and who spends his days watching TV.  (He reports, one day, that a guy came by selling encyclopedias, and that talking to him was pretty exciting.)

Arnaud meets Nelly through a mutual friend, is obviously attracted to her, pays off her overdue rent, and hires her to edit and type his memoirs.  Nelly is fascinated by his intelligence, his restraint, his humor, and his erudition.  Maybe by his wealth, as well, although this point isn't emphasized.  She divorces her husband, who accepts her decision with regret, but placidly.  Placidity seems to be his defining characteristic.

The movie is a love affair between Nelly and M. Arnaud, a love affair that gives no hint of any overtly physical relationship.  Early in the movie, Arnaud assures her that she needn't feel threatened.  Nelly replies with deadpan humor that she sees no reason why she would be.  She has an affair with Arnaud's publisher -- a man who appears a perfect match for her -- but ultimately breaks it off because of her confused feelings for Arnaud.  Both -- elderly man and young woman -- love each other.  Neither can hide that fact, but neither seems able to make it explicit -- even verbally.

This is a movie of quiet conversations --  often humorous, often perceptive, always intelligent.  No car crashes, gun play, or thrashing around beneath the covers.  But the film is never dull, never boring.  It engaged my attention, my sense of humor, and my sense of the tragic -- and apparently those of the entire audience -- from beginning to end.

Eventually, as the relationship between Nelly and Arnaud seems to have reached an uncomfortable stasis, Arnaud's former wife -- twenty years after the divorce -- appears on the scene as a deus (dea?) ex machina.  Arnaud announces to Nelly -- hours before departure -- that he and his ex will attempt a reconciliation, in the form of a months-long trip around the world.  He will continue paying Nelly as she finishes work on his memoirs.  She will have full access to his Paris apartment.  She smiles and wishes them well.  He looks uncomfortable.

Nelly sits in the empty apartment -- all the emptier for the fact that  throughout the film, Arnaud had been selling off the enormous book collection that had lined the walls, apparently attempting to turn over a new page in  his life.  Nelly's ex-husband has remarried.  The publisher -- who had not reacted well to her breaking off with him -- refuses to see or talk to her. 

Nelly is left all alone, having sacrificed, one way or another, at least three potential romantic relationships.  When last seen, at the airport, Arnaud's former wife appears jubilant -- Arnaud himself, far less so.  As my viewing companion remarked, things didn't bode well for Arnaud's renewed marriage.

But this is the way life goes, Sautet shows us.  At least we can be civilized about it, and avoid deceiving ourselves.  We can enjoy what we have, while we have it -- realizing that it may be all too transient. 

Two thumbs up from this cinematically-uneducated viewer.

PS -- The high point in the film -- for this audience in the Northwest Corner -- came when Arnaud tells Nelly sadly that his grown son has disappeared to the ends of the earth -- he's off in Seattle, working for Microsoft.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Contested conventions?


Both Republican and Democratic party leaders seem upset by the chaos that's surrounded their nominating process this year, according to the New York Times.  They wring their hands, trying to figure out how to make everything go more smoothly in 2020.

Chaotic?  Not really, not by historical standards.  In 1924, the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis -- a candidate no one really wanted and that few recall now.  He lost in November to a more vibrant and dynamic Republican candidate, Calvin Coolidge.

That convention was an extreme, but until very recently every convention was a contested convention.  Few states held primaries, and many state delegations arrived pledged to their governor or senior senator -- usually a holding pattern designed to give the state some  leverage in the ultimate decision. 

Today's politicians -- and public -- shudder at such "smoke-filled rooms" and behind the scenes horse-trading.  Maybe they're right.  But it's doubtful that a Donald Trump would have been nominated by party regulars negotiating over shots of whiskey.

Today's system doesn't really make sense from a theoretical perspective.  A political party is a private political organization of members with similar political briefs who supposedly place candidates reflecting their views before the electorate.  Primary elections transfer the choice of delegates from party activists to everybody willing to call himself a party member, at least for a day.  And -- as the Republicans note with concern -- in many states, the primary voter need not even register as a party member.  Independents, and even Democrats, are entitled to vote in those Republican primaries.

(In Washington and California, in all elections except presidential, political parties no longer have any official standing in elections.  Elections are, in effect, non-partisan.  The two candidates for each position with the highest number of votes -- regardless of party -- run against each other in the general election.)

The Times observes that politicians could go either way, four years from now -- give the general public even greater say in choosing convention delegates, in order to stoke enthusiasm; or, give choice of delegates back to party officials, at least to some extent, and allow those delegates to choose the candidate at the convention itself.  This latter approach restores to the party some control over its own destiny.

I lean toward the latter, primarily because an organization formed to promote certain political beliefs should be able to choose the candidates who accomplish that objective.  When political conventions were still meaningful, both parties still included members with a variety of competing policy approaches, but more or less unified by the party's overall political direction (i.e., conservative or liberal).  But the successful candidate represented -- usually -- the majority of the politically active members of the party.

The primaries may have been "exciting" this year, but the Republican party was captured by a non-politician whose proposed platform (insofar as any existed) poorly represented the rank and file of the party, and the Democrats came close to nominating a candidate who had never before called himself a Democrat.  Assuming without deciding that party government is good and useful, I can't believe that what we have seen this year has been a desirable approach to party government.

And you just want "excitement"?  Conventions of both parties never lacked for excitement -- even as recently as the 1960s.  If the networks have archived footage of the events of some of those conventions, they would make interesting and enjoyable viewing today.
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"Mr. Chairman, I move to postpone indefinitely enforcement of the vows and promises made in the preceding blog post."

"Without objection, it is so ordered."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Just shut up


I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.
--Blaise Pascal

Every writer needs an editor.  My last three essays were each intended to be a quick comment on a quirky thought.  Each turned out to be endless in length, turgid in style, and inconclusive in conclusion.  Having no editor to clip my wings, I resolve to clip 'em myself.

From now on, I'll make my point, and then stop.

Like this.*
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*(But we both know I'm lying.)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Deciding to do the inevitable



Should you go to law school or medical school?  Do want to go to Paris or to Madrid for vacation?  Do you want pie or cake for dessert?  These are the kinds of decisions we make daily, the routine (and not so routine) decisions that guide the direction of our lives.

But neuroscientists, studying our brains, have discovered something disconcerting.  The electrical activity in the brain representing, say, a trip to Madrid fires immediately before you make the conscious, supposedly reasoned decision to go to Madrid.  As an article by Stephen Cave in this month's Atlantic puts it:

The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.

These neuroscientific findings are but the latest justification for abandoning our traditional belief in free will, and accepting our scary role as part of a deterministic universe.  Everybody's life, according to determinism, is predetermined by the structure and physiology of his brain -- every decision, minute to minute, proceeding according to cause and effect. 

And since each person's actions are pre-determined reactions to his environment, including the actions of other persons, we must assume that all of human history has followed the same rules of physical cause and effect as do the events of geology and physics.  Human activity is thus of the same character as the orbits of asteroids and the erosion of creek beds.

Dr. Cave, a writer and philosopher who received his Ph.D. from Cambridge, devotes most of his Atlantic article to showing how, although we live in a deterministic world, it's better that we ignore that fact.  Or at least that people who are not professional philosophers should ignore it.  People behave better in many contexts, is one unsurprising conclusion, if they believe they are acting with free will. 

But if our lives are pre-determined, aren't we indulging in a free will fallacy by worrying that people will make bad decisions because they don't believe in free will?  It's long been the joke that philosophers don't believe in free will, but spending their lives writing and teaching as though they do

Which, of course, is exactly what Dr. Cave recommends -- let's pretend we do have free will. 

Some philosophers, Cave observes, such as Dr. Sam Harris, try to work around this paradox by claiming a distinction between "determinism" and "fatalism." 

When  people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference.  But this is a mistake.  People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives.

I'm not a philosopher, and I don't grasp the distinction.  To me, it appears that if every human being's life is pre-determined, their effect on each other is also pre-determined.  From the first instant of the Big Bang, the glory of Athens, the Terror of the French Revolution, the style of Donald Trump's hair-do, and my writing of this blog were completely predictable, given full knowledge of the initial conditions.  To me, "fatalism" just sounds like a more emotion-charged version of the term "determinism."  But, as I say, I am not a philosopher.

Christianity has brooded over the same issue, in theological terms, for two thousand years.  God must have had full knowledge of his entire creation when he created it, including which humans would ultimately be saved and which would be damned.  Therefore, why should we strive earnestly for salvation?  John Calvin had one extreme answer; modern Protestants have a far more optimistic answer (if they even contemplate the issue).

The Catholic Church, steering a middle road, generally holds that predestination is a necessary result of God's infinite knowledge, but that prayer and striving for salvation are duties imposed on us by Christ's teaching.  It's a mystery, we are told.  Don't try to second-guess God, or imagine how his mind works.  Just do your best to follow the teachings of Christ.

Which -- come to think about it -- is essentially what Dr. Cave is suggesting to us in a secular, rather than theological, context.