Sunday, April 22, 2018

Traveling musically

I always tell myself that I don't much care for "impressionism" in music (usually described as a style of music written between about 1890 and 1925).  And I guess I don't.  I don't hate it.  I just don't go out of my way to listen to it.

But I love travel to foreign countries.  And travel evoked by impressionism was what the Seattle Symphony's concert last night was all about.

The concert began with Jacques Ibert's haunting Escales (or Ports of Call), offering flavors ("impressions," if you will) of Palermo, north Africa, and Valencia.  The sounds of northern Africa were especially romantic, with the wailing of the oboe suggesting a stereotype of "Oriental" music, and the Valencia movement was filled with Spanish themes.

Respighi's well-known Fountains of Rome suggested the sounds of four famous Roman fountains at various times of day.  And to travel among these Mediterranean ports, one best travels by sea -- hence, the major work of the evening, the changing moods of Debussy's La Mer.

But the number that appealed most to me -- and, judging from the applause, to most of the audience -- was a piece not even on the scheduled program, a piece untouched by impressionism. Because of the illness of the scheduled pianist, the performance of Alexander Scriabin's early-career piano concerto was scratched, and was replaced by Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23.  The pianist, Inon Barnatan, hypnotized me and the entire audience with his smooth, buttery, almost liquid playing of the Adagio movement, and, even more notably, of the two fast movements. 

Looking back, I realize that I enjoyed the opening Ibert number the best of the three impressionist compositions.  By the time we reached La Mer, the concluding work, the rambling style of impressionism, apparently lacking in structure -- the program notes did emphasize that La Mer does have structure, and could almost be considered a symphony, but I was having none of it -- had begun to bore me, and I was checking my watch.

It was the Mozart concerto, and the brilliant playing of Barnatan, that really made the evening worthwhile for me.  If I ever again attend a performance of La Mer, I hope it's performed nearer the beginning of the program before my mind has begun to drift.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Abington is a small suburb of Philadelphia.  Its sole high school is named -- logically -- Abington high school.  Or, rather, was.

According to the New York Times, a Wall Street billionaire has generously donated $25 million to the school for renovation purposes.  But he has imposed a few small conditions -- (1) the school would be renamed after him; (2) his portrait would be displayed prominently in the building; (3) various areas of the school would be named after his twin brothers; and (4) he would have final approval of the school's new logo.

The school board accepted the conditions.  And the money.  A community's explosion of outrage has ensued.

I'm tempted to laugh, but "people who live in glass houses," etc."   My own high school was named after its lumber baron founder.  But then, so was the town itself.  Both town and high school, along with most of the public buildings in town, were the inspiration -- and beneficiaries -- of the founder.  The nexus between founder and high school was at least organic.

The Times article made me wonder.  What goes through the mind of a person who demands that the institution benefitting from his generosity be named after him?  (For that matter, what goes through the mind of a man who names every hotel and resort he owns after himself?) 

I suppose in part it's just a way of bragging about one's success, like driving around in an overpriced car.  But for many, I suspect -- especially those who seek to put their names on schools or opera houses or other institutions that will survive long into the future -- it's a hankering after immortality.  "Years from now," the philanthropist tells himself, "the public will remember me and my well-lived life as the cause of their great good fortune."

Hey, even I like to read published appellate decisions that have my name affixed to them as counsel!  I dream of law students two centuries from now pondering in their minds -- who was this brilliant lawyer who triumphed in this important case regarding a car's failure to stop at a red light?

It's all illusory, of course.  Even if the philanthropist's name isn't replaced after his death by the name of someone with even more money -- remember poor Avery Fisher and his hall at Lincoln Center? -- his pre-death hopes and dreams will still eventually join his body as dust.

Percy Shelley wrote his famous sonnet Ozymandias about a great Egyptian pharaoh who built a huge statue of himself in order to remind the future of his power and greatness.  A leader to be reckoned with.  A household word.  And today -- nothing left but an inscription half covered by the desert's shifting sands.

I hope the Wall Street billionaire's true motivation is to improve Abington high school.  He can buy that for $25 million.  Immortality is much more expensive.  In fact, priceless.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

In memoriam

“Feline Extraordinaire”
"Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Friday, April 6, 2018

Gooood eeeevening ....

After the Seattle Art Museum's presentation of nine Ingmar Bergman films last quarter -- all cerebral, all leaving lingering questions that tormented my mind and agitated my blog -- it's something of a change to move into SAM's spring series.  Nine films from the early, British-oriented period of director Alfred Hitchcock's career.

Those of us of a certain age recall the TV program, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," a weekly Sunday night tale of the often humorously macabre.  The unforgettable introduction featured a sketched profile of the director, into which Hitchcock himself walked.  He then offered a short introduction to the night's story, often humorous even when the story itself was somewhat ghastly. 

The introductory theme was Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," which anyone who was a kid at the time could always hum at appropriate times the following day.

Unfortunately, I missed the first two films -- The Man Who Knew Too Much and Sabotage.  Last night, however, I jumped into the series for the first time, with the 1935 production of The 39 Steps

The film is considered something of a masterpiece of British escapist fare, but hardly requires the focused concentration  -- in the theater or in this blog -- of a Bergman film.  Man bumps into a woman in London who tells him of a secret spy conspiracy that plans to turn over British military secrets to an unnamed foe, woman murdered in his hotel room (with giant knife protruding from her back), enemies attempt to do him in as well, while Scotland Yard seeks to arrest him for the murder.

Man heads for a small Scots village circled on a map found on the murdered woman's person, zooming off to Edinburgh on a beautiful 1930s Flying Scotsman train.  Man wanders through black and white Scottish scenery in search of the village, only to discover that he's walked into the headquarters of the enemy.  He escapes, is captured by police and handcuffed to a lovely but hostile woman, escapes again still handcuffed, and improbably evades both enemies and police for most of the film. 

Spoiler alert -- police finally nab the spy, man is vindicated, and handcuffed girl looks up at him adoringly.

The plot isn't much on paper, but Hitchcock's direction is great, the photography of Scotland is stunning, and humor is injected into virtually every scene.  You leave the theater grinning, which is more than I could say for Bergman's Persona!

Six more films in the series, concluding with Dial M for Murder.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Depressive states

Loki on the prowl
April 3, 2018
My birthday dinner at Café Lago,
right here in the Montlake

Yeah, I know.  It's been nine days since my last posting.  You know I haven't been on vacation, because I always brag about my vacations long in advance.

Ok, two things.  First, my sister, her middle son Denny, and Denny's girlfriend Jessie were visiting the better part of four days.  That's a decent excuse.  The other problem you don't want to hear about -- the protracted death of my cat Loki.  Which, incidentally, is still a work in progress.

Bloedel Preserve on Bainbridge

Situational depression.  That's like clinical depression, but with an obvious cause and of limited duration.  That's my basic trouble right now, I suspect.  Embarrassing, because I have confronted many problems in my life with a certain insouciance, or at least appearance of insouciance, and it seems odd that now -- in my dotage, if you must -- I would be laid low by the impending death of a cat. 

Hiking in Interlaken Park,
a couple of blocks from
my house. 

But such is the case, and I've talked about it too much already.  Loki himself is being far more mature and circumspect about the matter -- he isn't making Traviata out of it, lying in bed with one forearm over his eyes, singing interminable arias.  So I will attempt adulthood, and trouble you no more about the matter.

Ferry ride to Bainbridge Island

The visit by relatives was very enjoyable.  Rather than bore you with what was really just a family affair, I'll throw in a few photos (plus one of Loki as he was today) and call it a blog post.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Loki agonistes

"I want everything to be like it was!"

Those were the heartbreaking words my mother spoke to me shortly after being persuaded to move from her apartment to an assisted care facility.  It was a beautiful facility, but it was not her home.  She understandably longed for her days of being independent and in control of her  own life.

I'm reminded of those words by my cat, Loki, who is dying from an incurable colon tumor.  According to the veterinarian, he has about two weeks to live; I suspect it may be less.

Loki boarded at the veterinary hospital while I was in the Southwest, and while he was there he received the ultrasound testing that confirmed the diagnosis.  When I picked him up Thursday morning, he was overjoyed to come home. He spent the rest of the day cuddling with me, expressing his gratitude for rescuing him.  He was all over me, and objected to even short periods of separation.  He was like his old self, but twice as affectionate.

Now, three days later, he is more quiet, more reserved, less outwardly affectionate.  He's still alert when awake, although he is napping for much longer periods.  He still likes to go outside and investigate the yard.  He's still curious.  He still sits next to me and stares at me.  He doesn't seem to be in pain, but I suspect he isn't entirely comfortable.  He doesn't feel like the cat he was in the past.  He's happy to be near me, but he isn't all that happy with life.

I know I'm being anthropomorphic. But when he stares at me, he seems to be saying, "I want everything to be like it was."

And that's one of the great human laments, isn't it -- why do things have to change?  Even when we're young and the changes are exciting and evidence of growth, part of us resists.  Moving from one house to another made me nostalgic for the old house.  Going to college made me nostalgic for life back home.  And it only gets worse, much worse, later -- when the changes are for the worse.  When you wish you could still climb a mountain, literally or figuratively.  When you wish your joints weren't stiff when you jumped out of bed in the morning.  When you wish you didn't have to take medication to avoid unfortunate health problems.

And even later, recalling when taking medication was still enough to avoid unfortunate health problems.

Helping your pet die peacefully leads -- as you can see -- to morbid thoughts about your own life.  At least a cat lives -- so far as we know -- only in the present.  He doesn't brood over the loss of past happiness; he doesn't fear the future.  He only knows that at this moment he is not feeling as well as he feels he should. 

It will be enough for Loki that I can keep him from experiencing pain, even if some discomfort may be unavoidable.  I can do that. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Road to El Paso

It's 44 degrees in Seattle, and raining.  In Tucson, it's 82.  And sunny.

Today I'm in Seattle.  Yesterday, I was wandering amongst saguaro cactuses in Tucson.  Such are the vagaries of life.

Back in January, I accurately forecast that by mid-March, I'd be needing a weather break.  A short one, perhaps.  But one where I'd see things I don't usually see.  Often, when feeling cold and wet, I plan a hike somewhere in the southland, but this time I decided to cover more miles and make it a road trip.

So Sunday, I flew down to Tucson.  Monday, I drove I-10 to El Paso.  But while still in Tucson, I received an email from Jim B. -- a biking aficionado with whom I'll be hiking in Scotland in a couple of months.  He wrote from Silver City, New Mexico, knowing nothing of my own travels.  He was with a biking group, and would arrive in El Paso on Thursday.  Today.  The coincidence was amazing.  (They plan to end their biking in St. Augustine, Florida, in early May!)

I actually made a bit of a detour off I-10 to Silver City, having never heard of the town before, to see what the attraction was.  And also to see if I might bump into his biking gang.

The answers were "not much" and "no."

I stayed Monday night in El Paso, checked out UTEP -- a beautiful university campus -- to see where this Sun Bowl was located: the bowl where my favorite football teams so often end up in post-season play.  I then returned to Tucson, not by I-10 but by a highway that skirts the Mexican border, under varying highway numbers in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, from El Paso to Bisbee.

Bisbee is the site of an enormous open pit copper mine, and the highway from El Paso follows the discontinued route of a railway built specifically to ship ore from Bisbee to El Paso.  The route is bleakly beautiful and oddly divorced from the 21st century.  In the few ranching hamlets where you do see men walking about, they look like extras in a 1930s Western movie.

Bisbee is also a well-preserved mining town, where one has no trouble finding Italian gelati and artisanal coffees.

A final night back in Tucson, and a morning spent hiking around in Tucson Mountain Park, and Gates Pass.  Wild West country, saguaro cactuses and all.

It was a relaxing -- despite the long drives -- and enjoyable four days.  Sadly ended at the Tucson airport by an email received from my veterinarian.

My cat Loki -- discussed in a recent posting -- has been diagnosed with a colon tumor which almost certainly is untreatable.  I'm waiting for a call from the doctor to discuss further.

A reminder, I suppose, that for cats as well as humans, life is short and should be appreciated.  Carpe diem.  Hey, even the Seattle rain in your face can be enjoyable if you want it to be!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Today, of course, is the eleventh anniversary of the first publication of this blog.

When I published my first entry in 2007, I announced to a nonexistent readership that I had finally managed to format my blog in a way that felt esthetically pleasing.  But I also admitted that I really had no idea what I would be writing about.  Blogs were still in their relative infancy.

But chatting with strangers in chatrooms had grown boring. MySpace -- which I sometimes looked in on but never joined -- was a mess and  moribund. And while I knew that Facebook existed, it was an entity whose nature and uses weren't yet quite clear to me.

But I had read about blogs.  And I knew how to write essays.  And a young guy with whom I'd chatted had just started up his own blog, right here on Blogger.  So I decided to give it a try.  And the rest is history.  Last month, I achieved something -- I say "achieved" after groping for a more accurate word -- that I never expected to achieve back in 2007.  I posted my one thousandth post. 

That's a lot of essays, even conceding a variation in quality.

Since 2007, quality has improved in my estimation, and quantity -- after a bit of a slump -- has rebounded.  I wrote 108 posts in 2017, just one post off my record from 2008, when excitement over the Obama-Hillary primaries and the general election encouraged me to convert my fevered partisanship into frenzied essays.

Despite a lot of writing this past year, readership is -- as I've complained -- drastically down.  But since much of my "readership" back in the "Golden Age" of, say, 2012 and 2013 was, I suspect, robot-fueled, I probably haven't really lost all that many human readers.  In any event, during this past year, whatever the overall hard numbers, the statistics again show certain posts as having drawn a larger number of readers than others.

The winner is -- the envelope please -- my November post describing my travels in Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia.  Interest may have been piqued by my advance warning that I would be living for a week at the base of Agung volcano, a volcano that was expected to erupt momentarily.   (We're still waiting.)

Crowding it, however, and coming up fast is my September review ("Sailing to Ithaca")  of a memoir by Daniel Mendelsohn, in which he describes what it was like to teach a seminar on Homer's Odyssey to college freshman, while his elderly and irascible father sat at the seminar table throwing in his own querulous two bits. 

Other posts with better than average readership were my remarks on a visit to Manhattan last March; a discussion of a classic British book for kids about lake sailing in the Lake District; memories of my childhood stamp collection; a remembrance of a two-week bike trip my brother and I took as teens; a discussion of  teenage bullying; reflections on why studying Latin is worthwhile; and -- more recently but already showing impressive popularity -- my discussion of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film based on a medieval ballad, The Virgin Spring.  (Some readers may have found my discussion of seven of the nine Bergman movies I saw this winter tedious and boring.  But they serve one purpose of this blog -- to help me myself to remember certain experiences and how I reacted to them at the time.)

As always, the year brought forth a lot of book and movie reviews, some expressions of amazement at scientific developments, some memories of childhood joys and pains, plus descriptions of my travels and/or hikes wherever possible and appropriate.

Surprisingly reduced output on politics.  If I were blogging in Nero's time, I would similarly have been unable to adequately capture the emperor's antics in writing, and I would have been depressed past measure to watch my homeland, the Roman Empire, sinking into the mire because of malfeasance at the top and apathy below.

But enough of that.  Onward into my twelfth year of blogging.
(Posted from El Paso, Texas)

Friday, March 16, 2018


"Today I feel that in Persona — and later in Cries and Whispers — I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover."
--Ingmar Bergman

The Seattle Art Museum's Bergman series ended with a bang last night -- Persona (1966), claimed to be one of the greatest movies ever filmed, and -- after Citizen Kane -- the film having received the most critical analysis.   The organizer of SAM's film series reminded us that we had seen only nine of Bergman's 45 or so films; another series is planned for next winter.

I'm at a loss as how to analyze this film, or even how to describe its confusing plot.  Or, most basically, what it all means.   I'll just describe some of the impressions that watching it made on me.

The movie begins with a surreal series of bizarre images flashed on the screen, accompanied by screeching, atonal music.  This prologue alone is enough to unnerve the viewer.  The opening credits play over a portion of this prologue.

Next we see a young adolescent boy -- played by the same Jörgen Lindström who played the boy in last week's The Silence, but by now three years older.  He wakes up in a bed (or is it a slab in a morgue?), tosses around, and ultimately discovers a large unfocused screen with a woman's face on it, a woman who turns out to be his mother.  He runs his hands over the screen, attempting to feel, to caress the face.

Then the primary narrative begins, with a doctor explaining to a nurse (Alma, played by Bergman favorite Bibi Andersson) that she has been chosen to help care for a patient (Elisabet, played by Liv Ullmann). Elisabet is a famous actress who stopped in the middle of a performance, and now refuses to speak.  Tests show that she is both physically and mentally normal; she simply prefers to remain silent.

Alma and Elisabet retire to the doctor's country house on Faro island, and become close companions.  Alma talks, Elisabet listens.  Alma -- in a particularly intense scene -- tells of a beach orgy she and a woman friend had with two very young teenage boys, an experience which gave her great pleasure and left her with strong feelings of shame and guilt.  Liv Ullmanm-- who, having no lines, was free to interpret her part as it occurred to her -- reacts with a highly expressive face showing a play of a number of emotions, most of them ambiguous.

Eventually, Alma seems to lose track of who she is -- which part she's playing -- her role as a nurse, or Elisabet herself.  She somehow perceives experiences from Elisabet's past that Elisabet has not described to her.  She knows that Elisabet has a son -- the boy we saw at the outset -- whom she had tried to abort and whom she has hated and found disgusting ever since his birth.  A son who, oddly, loves his mother with an intensity that she also hates.

Because of a letter by Elisabet that Alma has read, Alma feels that her confidences have been betrayed; her newly arounsed hatred for Elisabet now overlays her simultaneously intense love for her. She feels that she and Elisabet are two aspects of the same person.  The actresses have said that they had agreed to play their parts as though they were, in fact, two sides of the same personality and that the personality of which they were two sides was that of Bergman himself. 

The intense relationship between the two women apparently causes Alma to panic, and she walks away from her employment. As she leaves the beach house, we see a film crew -- apparently Bergman's film crew -- filming her departure.

Bergman, characteristically, has refused to interpret the film, preferring that each viewer find in it what he will.

The film ends with the boy once more watching the screen, once more reaching for his absent mother.

Everything one says about Persona may be contradicted; the opposite will also be true.
--Peter Cowie, film historian.

And, I suppose, that is one aspect of one sort of  "great film."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cat mortality

Loki, one year ago

Many years ago, a co-worker showed me around his house.  He was sharing his house with two or three attractive cats.   As I admired them, he reminded me that, among their many talents, cats teach us the meaning of mortality.

Since then, I've had three cats of my own "pass away."  One was 19 and died of kidney failure.  One was 16 and simply disappeared within a week or so of being diagnosed with a tumor.  The third died at the age of 7 under mysterious circumstances -- possibly internal injuries from being hit by an automobile.  By now, I should be learning that cats, while having nine lives, do run through them rather quickly.

At present, I have two cats, both 13, both adopted in infancy.  One still seems robustly healthy.  The other, not so much.

Loki is a black, medium-haired cat who weighed about 14 pounds when he reached his full growth.  Because of the fluffiness of his fur, he always felt lighter than expected when picked up.  Loki has always been the adventurer, the social animal, the cat who would see me coming from several houses away and dash at me like a dog.  His brother, a few months older, has always been the shy, retiring sort -- the guy who disappeared upstairs when a stranger came in the door.

Both cats gradually lost weight as they aged.  A common phenomenon, although my other cats had tended toward increased obesity.  But muscles of lazy house cats atrophy and lose weight, even as they do with us humans, and the appetites of these two cats became less hearty with less exercise.

But by January, Loki's weight had dropped under 12 pounds, and I took  him to the veterinarian.  The vet ran some tests on him (all normal), gave him an appetite enhancing drug, and gave me a supply of antibiotics to force down his gullet (because of suspicions that his gut was harboring a parasite).  This approach seemed to work.  He didn't gain much weight, but he stopped losing it.

Then a week or so ago, I discovered that his weight had dropped below 11 pounds.  This week, he has been tired and apathetic, but with intervals of energy.  I weighed him today, and he was down to 9.6 pounds.  I called the vet.

The veterinarian made room for an appointment tomorrow, an "evaluation of quality of life" appointment.  This is the euphemism for an evaluation of whether to euthanize the animal.  I take hope in the fact that, at this point, the vet knows nothing about Loki's health other than the weight loss.  But I'm emotionally preparing for the worst.

Those of you who don't live with a pet, or whose pet is on the periphery of your daily life, won't grasp how emotionally taxing the decision to end a cat's life can be.  I'm hoping for the best.  I'm going to be out of town Sunday through Wednesday, and I'm hoping that Loki can be pepped up well enough to survive my absence in good health. 

Thirteen is only 64 in cat years.  The Beetles may have sung about "when I'm 64," as though it represented old age.  In today's world, it does not.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Like a bridge over friendly waters

Bike lane, looking east,
with rest stop

Walking across the lake is kind of a kick, even if you have to use a bridge to do it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the near-completion of the new State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington, a bridge replacing the prior floating bridge constructed over a half century earlier.  Much of the bridge hadn't yet been opened to traffic -- the new and the old bridges ran side, with traffic moving from one to the other at one point.  Nevertheless, the Department of Transportation had thrown a gala celebration of the bridge's near-completion, and invited the public to walk across.

Which we did, in large numbers. 

The new bridge has been fully functional for some time, now -- and the old bridge removed -- but the bike lane opened only recently.  Today was our warmest day of the year so far, and I decided that now was the time to give it a  try -- not by bicycle, but by foot.  I'm pleased to report that the walk is scenic and fun.

On the west end of the bridge, the lane begins at 24th Avenue N.E., a few yards from the site once occupied by the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) -- torn down to make way for the widening of SR 520 but with the museum relocated in splendid facilities at the southern end of Lake Union.  The bike lane -- separated from vehicular traffic, and as wide as a traffic lane -- continues alongside the length of lengthy Foster Island (I never realized how long and narrow the island was when hiking it), and then into open waters and across Lake Washington.  I'm not sure where the bike lane qua bike lane actually ends on the east side, but I stopped at a nicely landscaped lid over the SR520 freeway, just west of the cameras that scan your car for toll collection purposes.

Mt. Rainier and Lake Washington
from bridge

The bike lane has a number of rest stops with benches and informative displays describing the history and geology of the area, as well as the engineering of the new bridge.  I would say that three-fourths, at least, of the bike lane users were actually riding bikes -- often quite fast.  Hikers like me were a minority, even when you include runners.  But there's plenty of room for all.

From start to the landscaped lid was about 2.6 miles, according to my phone's pedometer.  That made it a 5.2 round trip, with another 1.6 miles getting to the trail from my house and back again.  If you do the hike from west to east, as I did, I'm happy to let you in on a secret -- if you're exhausted after reaching your eastside destination, there's an elevator from the landscaped lid down to transit lanes on SR520, where you can quickly catch a bus back to Seattle.

But not for me.  Not today.  Sun was bright, the air was warm, and the walking was good.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Silence

Last night's eighth film in the Seattle Art Museum's current Bergman film series, The Silence, the most enigmatic film of the series so far, was perhaps the film that has received the most searching analysis and critical attention.

"Silence" itself becomes almost a major member of the cast.  The first two-thirds of the film contains only fragmentary dialogue, leaving the viewer to interpret on his own the striking visual images and fevered interactions between the three principal members of the cast.   Even after hearing the increased dialogue toward the end of the film that helped explain the "plot,"  I was left with conflicting ideas about what Bergman intended.

The Silence was released in 1963.  Despite its opaqueness, it was highly rated by critics and received an impressive box office in the United States.  Its popularity with the public was undoubtedly helped by several sex scenes -- scenes that are not graphic and that do not seem shocking by today's standards, but that were not something one would find in American movies at that time.

Bergman has said that he experimented with using a musical rather than typical dramatic structure for the movie.  He turned especially to Béla Bartók for inspiration: a "dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion."

The plot, such as it is, deals with two sisters (Ester and Anna) traveling together by train through a fictitious eastern or central European country, accompanied by Anna's ten-year-old son Johan.  They are returning from a vacation that all had hoped to enjoy; it apparently had not gone well.  The country appears on a war footing, or maybe actually involved in a war.  The train passes long lines of tanks, planes fly overhead, soldiers are in the streets, explosions occur.  The war is never explained.  Neither sister pays any attention to the war.  Only Johan looks on wide-eyed.

Ester, the older sister, is formidably intellectual and scholarly; she is also approaching death from a serious lung disease.  Anna is hot-headed, emotional, angry, impulsive.  The two sisters attempt for some time to act correctly in each other's presence.  But the hostility between them crackles like electricity.

Anna tells Ester, near the end of the film, that she had once idolized her older sister, impressed by her achievements and by her rigid moral code.  Now, she is disgusted by Ester's pretensions, and by her own former submissiveness.  Ester acts cool and rational.  Until she doesn't.  It appears that she has long relied for self-esteem on Anna's affection and respect.  An incestuous lesbian relationship is hinted at, but nothing is made specific.

Because of Ester's acute illness, they interrupt their train journey home, to rest at an impressive nineteenth century hotel in the war torn country.  Anna has cabin fever.  She goes out onto the streets and picks up a waiter.  Ester feels betrayed and abandoned.  She says she feels "humiliated." Until the final scenes, their hostility is played out almost silently, by gesture and intonation.

Johan is the go-between, loving both his mother and his aunt.  If we put aside the possible existential and theological allegories that the story somehow suggests to many -- and look on the movie as a simple story about real human beings -- it is Johan one cares about, not either of the angry sisters.  Johan is a silent spectator.  He sees everything, but understands only in part.  His mother, affectionate but neglectful, leaves him alone as much as she can, as she wanders the streets and cafes.  Even when she's in the hotel, she and her sister argue behind closed doors.

Johan wanders the halls -- reminiscent of the endless halls in The Shining -- all alone.  An ancient hall porter befriends him.  A squad of dwarfs -- yes, Fellini-esque dwarfs -- wander about, amazing him and playing with him.  The sounds of war echo outside the windows.  Johan's a lost boy, curious but lonely.

Ester appears near death, experiencing one frightening coughing seizure after another.  She's terrified of dying alone, far from home.  She hates the life she's led, a life of attempted pure rationality and principled morality, but a life that avoided connection with others.  "We try out attitude, and find them all worthless.  The forces are too strong.  I mean the forces ... the horrible forces."  Anna and Johan come in to say goodbye.  They're taking the next train home, leaving Ester in the hotel.  Johan hugs Ester, and Ester gives him a letter she's been trying to write to him throughout the film.

In the final scene, on the train, Johan quietly pulls out the letter to read.  He seems silently happy.  The letter's contents aren't disclosed.  The movie ends abruptly.

It's been suggested that Ester represents the certainties of traditional European civilization, and that Anna represents the chaos and disorganization of the post-war generation.  Anna seems to have won, but the letter from Ester provides hope: She has passed her values onto the future, represented by the young boy.

Maybe.  Why not?  It's as good a theory as any that I could think up myself.  It's a confusing movie, but it was one worth watching,  if for no other reason but that I can't get it out of my mind.

The Silence is often considered the final film of a trilogy, along with Through a Glass Darkly (shown last week) and Winter Light.  Bergman has said that the three films did form a sort of trilogy, but he sensed the relation between them only in retrospect. 

The boy Jotun was played by 12-year-old Jörgen Lindbloom, who also played a role three years later in Persona, to be shown next week as the final film of this SAM series.  According to Wikipedia, he would now be 66 but no one knows where he is or anything of his later life.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Life with father

Fishing in the Northwest -- when the fishing was still good

It's hard to believe, but today would have been my father's 106th birthday.  He died just one week before turning 70.  His life was far shorter than it should have been, but a life well led.

He was an excellent tennis and handball player, a very good basketball player, and a tolerable softball player. (He hated that my main memory of the latter was of watching him kick a ground ball four or five times across the outfield trying to field it, while runs were scoring.)

He had two unathletic sons, whose idea of sports was playing laid-back games of HORSE in the driveway, and a daughter who loved horses. From reading novels and memoirs of guys with similar fathers, you'd expect to hear that he made our lives miserable, attempting to change us into competitive young versions of himself.  But he didn't.  He gave us an introduction to each sport, and let us decide whether we wanted to become proficient at it.  We didn't.  Now, looking back, I suspect it would have been worthwhile to have picked one fairly congenial sport and to have devoted the time and effort required to become at least reasonably competent at it.

Whatever his private thoughts, however, he never expressed disappointment.  He knew we had other interests, which he respected.  I think he may have found each of us baffling at times, but he was proud of each of us for all the right reasons.

As a newspaper boy

His life was the sort of life that's no longer possible in America.  He was born in Chehalis, Washington, but lived in many areas of the Northwest Corner, both in cities and out in the sticks.  His father was a gyppo logger at times, an established sawmill operator and real estate investor at others.  His mother was highly social.  He was a good student -- his mother would have seen to that -- and headed off to college at Oregon State following high school.

His timing was bad.  He graduated from high school just as the Great Depression hit the country.  After only one year at Oregon State, the family's business collapsed and he had to leave school.  For much of the next decade, his main daily concern was finding part-time labor and getting enough to eat.

About the time he married my mom, he became employed as a simple laboratory assistant at an aluminum plant in my home town. He taught himself chemistry, and ended up as the plant's Chief Chemist, with a number of patents to his name. His expertise in certain aspects of aluminum production was in demand across the country, and he visited other plants owned by the company, sharing his thoughts and discoveries. He helped his company open a new aluminum plant in northeast Scotland.

With my brother and me

He was a man straddling a cultural divide in America -- with one foot in the rural logging economy of the early 20th century, and the other foot in the more sophisticated and increasingly technological economy of the 1950s and 60s.  He told great stories of his adventures as a child and young man -- which to me felt like adventures from the early years of the American Republic.  But he also appreciated the revolutionary changes taking place in American life following World War II, and understood  -- and strongly impressed on his kids -- the growing importance of an excellent education for our generation.   

The varied interests and personalities of his offspring both bewildered and delighted him.

His own interests derived partly from the more open years of his childhood -- he was a devoted fly fisherman until the streams became the playground of modern families in campers -- and partly from his own social and athletic interests.  He was the kind of guy who could spend an evening playing poker at the Elks or handball at the YMCA, and then come home, stretch out on the bed with his young sons, and keep them wide-eyed with stories from Greek and Roman history that he remembered from his own school days.

I wish now I'd told him more often how proud we all were of him. But I suspect he knew.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Flunking Economics 101

One of the many pleasures of viewing the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off was watching Ben Stein lecture his somnolent high school class on the Hawley Smoot tariff bill of 1930 -- a raising of high tariff barriers that resulted in reciprocal barriers around the world and probably was a major factor in greatly prolonging and aggravating the Great Depression.

Tariffs have been a dirty word in economic and political circles ever since.  But Donald Trump must have been one of those glassy-eyed, half-asleep students in the film.  He didn't get the message.

"Hey gang, I've got a cool idea," he shouts to all his friends.  Well, to his dog.  Well, to Barron.  "Why don't we raise tariffs?  That will show all those clever foreigners that I'm making America great again, and Uncle Sam isn't their dupe no more."  And so it happened.  He announced over the weekend -- in a tweet, of course -- that he planned to impose a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum.  Even Barron looked shocked.  "But dad, NOBODY has tariffs anymore!  They went out with spats!  Didn't you ever watch Ferris Bueller on one of your many TVs?  Oh, sorry, Dad, no offense."

The nation was shocked.  Our allies were shocked.  Even his own party was shocked.  House Speaker Paul Ryan actually suggested that perhaps His Excellency had not considered all the implications?  Perhaps he should talk to his economic adviser, Gary Cohn, for a little background on why tariffs in general are a bad idea, and why these particular tariffs at this particular point in the economic cycle are a very bad idea?  Trump looked startled that the once talkative but recently subdued Mr. Ryan had actually spoken out, but refused to back off.

As for economic adviser Gary Cohn, well, he's out of there.   Resigned.  Giving up on trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear; or an educated president out of a block of obsidion.  Goldman Sachs is looking mighty good, I suspect he's thinking.

Stock market wavered around a bit today, as rumors were floated that the President might be changing his mind.  Probably not.  He thought this out carefully at 3 a.m. a few nights ago, and, by gum, he knows what he's doing.  Expect the Dow to fall.  Expect retaliatory tariffs.  Expect to pay more for everything. 

Enjoy your (possibly) lower taxes next year.  You'll need the additional money to keep up with rising prices.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Through a Glass Darkly


For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

 I Corinthians 13:12-13 (KJV)

Another Ingmar Bergman movie set in the bleak beauty of the Swedish coast -- this one on Faro Island where Bergman himself lived for several years.  Through a Glass Darkly, shown last night, was the seventh in the current series of Bergman films by the Seattle Art Museum.

After watching a number of Bergman films set in the Middle Ages or at least in past centuries, it was interesting to view a film set in the present (released in America in 1962).  The black and white cinematography -- like that in The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring -- was as impressive as the story.  As in those two earlier film, the camera caught a haunting silence and solitude, with human figures and faces frequently set against a screen filled with Scandinavian sky, clouds gathered in disturbing patterns.  Darkness is rare -- the skies are white with filtered light when characters awake in the early morning and when they go to bed late at night.

Living on the island, fishing daily, were Karin, her physician husband David, and her 17-year-brother Minus.   As the movie begins, Karin's and Minus's father Martin had just returned from Switzerland, where he had been working on a novel.  We quickly learn that Martin is a commercially successful author, but has not achieved his goal of acceptance as a literary writer.  Although he assures the family that his latest novel is going well, we soon learn he is suffering from writer's block.

The four family members seem exuberantly happy as they dine al fresco and put on a clever stage show for the father.  Minus, it appears, is not only a high school student but a young writer himself.  Unfortunately, the theme of his play is the distinction between enjoying the status of calling oneself an artist and the ability to actually create art.  The father takes the play bravely, but personally. He is hurt.

Minus is a nice boy, and young for his age. He loves his father. He is horrified that Martin believes Minus intended his play to be a means of ridiculing his father.  He laments that his father has been so detached from his family -- and especially from Minus -- that the boy and his father have never really had a serious talk together.

Karin is not the happy young Swedish wife that she first appears.  She has been hospitalized for schizophrenia, and is in remission under the watchful eye of her husband.  David is intensely devoted to Karin, despite her occasional oddities and her recent lack of any apparent romantic interest in her husband.

Karin does show "romantic" interest in her brother, however, much to the shy boy's discomfort.  Eventually, while the two adult men are out fishing, Karin's psychosis flares up again.  She returns repeatedly to a wall in a vacant room of the house, a wall covered with an oddly patterned wallpaper.  She hears voices behind the wall.  She believes there is a secret room on the other side of the wall which she is able to enter on occasion.  The room is full of joyous people, awaiting the arrival of God.

At one point, she reacts in terror to some hallucination.  When Minus tries to comfort her, she seduces him.

Minus is deeply ashamed and afraid to face his father, when Karin reveals what has happened, although neither Martin nor David expresses anger toward him -- they are too busy being concerned for Karin, who is swiftly falling apart.  She returns again to the wall, and asks her husband to join her in kneeling in front of it as they await the imminent arrival of God.  

Karin either sees or hallucinates a spider emerge through a door, which she interprets as the appearance of God.  Rather than being a loving deity, she claims, the spider was without emotion, and stared at her with implacable coldness as it attempted to force itself upon her.

Karin is left devastated and afraid, and is guilty about what she had done to "poor little Minus.".  Help has been called, with Karin's consent.  She says she can't balance life in both the "real" world and the world of her visions.  She felt better while institutionalized, where the two worlds were not in constant conflict, and wants to return. 

The helicopter departs, with Karin on-board.  The island is silent again.  Minus approaches his father.  He confesses his shame about what he did with Karin, and tells his father that he himself feels like he is losing control over his own life.  He needs something to hang on to.  Martin tells him he has to hang on to God.  But who and where is God, Minus asks?  Martin says that, having belatedly learned to love his family, he is finally learning that God is love and love is God.

This revelation of Martin's faith seems to come out of nowhere, so far as the movie audience can tell, but Minus considers it seriously.  After he leaves his father's presence, he glows with happiness -- not so much because of what his father told him, but because "Daddy talked to me!"

In the brief program notes we were given, Bergman is quoted as saying that, "The terrible thing about the film is that it offers a horrendously revealing portrait of its creator and the condition he was in at the start of the film."  I suppose that's the "danger" of self-revelation that any writer -- as well as any director -- faces in producing a work of art.

Apparently Karin's disturbing image of God-as-spider is carried forth into the next two films that Bergman directed: Winter Light and The SilenceThe Silence will be shown next week as the eighth film in SAM's series.