Wednesday, April 26, 2017

By rail in Britain


British London-Glasgow train
at station in Carlisle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Cousins


Hayden (left) and Maury

J. S. Bach had twenty children by his first wife, and thirteen more by his second wife.  I ran across this dazzling fact yesterday, and, bemused, reported it on my Facebook page.  I wondered if Johann and his two Frauen were able to think up names for 33 kids.  Or whether he simply had them catalogued, along with his one thousand plus musical compositions, with BWV numbers.

Bach was, in all respects, prolific.  My family, like many families nowadays, is not.  Nor has it been for several generations.  Sure, we do have aunts and uncles and cousins.  But we don't have many of them.  When I was a kid, we never had holidays where the house was full of relatives whom we hardly knew.  We knew 'em all.  Well.  Which was nice, in its own way -- substituting quality for quantity.

Which brings me to the point of this little discussion.  Tomorrow -- late Easter afternoon -- I'm flying down to Sonoma to enjoy the company of most of my small group of relatives -- my sister, my niece and three nephews, and the generation after that.  "The generation after that" would be my two great nieces.  We have entrusted the family name and fortune to just two young ladies, and -- barring some surprises -- I suspect there will be no more.

But again -- quality trumps quantity.  Those two great nieces -- Hayden, age 6, and Maury, age 7 -- have all the intelligence, cuteness, sense of humor, and general delightfulness that the average uncle might hope to find combined in eight or ten great nephews and/or nieces. 

I was with Hayden at Christmas.  She lives in Glendale, California, where she attends kindergarten at a local parochial school  Maury, on the other hand, I haven't seen for over a year.  Maury lives with her mother in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she is a second grader in an international school.  She and her mom have been in California over her spring break -- and the two cousins have been hanging out together in Southern California.

Both girls are traveling north to the Bay Area during the next day or so, with their respective families, and I'm eagerly looking forward to admiring them in person.  On their small shoulders rests the family's future!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Another little bit of my past


The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young.


The Seattle Center Arena -- rebranded as the "Mercer Arena" in more recent years -- came crashing down yesterday.  Built in 1927, the Arena had seen the 1962 World's Fair blossom about it, and had remained as part of the Seattle Center which evolved from the fair. 

The Arena sat next door to what was once the Civic Auditorium, built in 1928.  For the World's Fair, the Civic Auditorium was transformed into the Seattle Opera House, which it remained until it was radically remodeled as McCaw Hall in 2003 -- where it now hosts both the opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.  Siblings, born in the 20s, and still looking good. 

One sibling yesterday gobbled up the other, however -- McCaw is annexing the space from which the Seattle Center Arena has been eradicated, and the Seattle Opera will move administrative offices, storage, and other non-performance functions into a new four-story building.

The Arena -- not to be confused with Key Arena, former home of the fugitive SuperSonics, by the way -- was perhaps the least known building at the modern Seattle Center.  It was built originally as an ice arena, and had at times hosted professional ice hockey teams.  It ultimately became a "multi-purpose venue."

For me, however, the Arena has a more personal connection.  It was in that building that I spent three long days in 1974, sweating over the Washington State Bar Exam.  My baptism by fire, from which I emerged unscathed, a spanking-new attorney, still wet behind the ears.

And so my heart jumped when I saw the photograph of its on-going demolition on the front page of the local newspaper.  It wasn't a beautiful building, or even a particularly useful building.  But it had seen me through an exhausting experience.  To me, in 1974, it had seemed a timeless part of the Seattle scene. 

Nothing is permanent.  "Nothing in life is certain but change," as the man said.  All things pass away.  I just wish they didn't pass away quite so frequently.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Old Patagonian Express


Soon after publication of his now-classic work of railway travel, The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux conceived the idea of a trip entirely by rail, so far as possible, from his home in Medford, Massachusetts to Esquel, Argentina -- the point farthest south the rail system could carry him. 

The result of this adventure -- and adventure it was -- was The Old Patagonian Express, published in 1979.  Criticisms of the book have been many and varied -- the trip was contrived, Theroux just wanted something to write about, he hated everything he saw, he hated everyone he talked to, it was all about him, it was all about his personal dislike of the countries and scenery. 

I understand the criticisms -- Theroux isn't to everyone's taste in travel writing -- but I think they misunderstand what Theroux was attempting. 

The book begins right at the beginning -- on a cold, February day, Theroux takes a commuter train from Medford to Boston's South Station.  He then takes the Lake Shore Limited (still running) to Chicago and the Lone Star (now defunct) to Laredo, Texas.  (He must have transferred to the (now defunct) Inter-American at San Antonio, although he does not mention that change of trains.)   He discusses people and places along the American railways with the same careful scrutiny and occasionally caustic criticism that he was to bring to his experiences south of the border.

As Theroux makes clear, he found the quality of trains -- in general -- to decline steadily from Amtrak's service, to that of the still generally acceptable Aztec Eagle (now defunct) from Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City,  to the discomforts and horrors of nameless trains whose horrors increased the farther south he rode -- with no real relief in sight until he crossed into the promised land of Argentina. 

From Mexico City he traveled to Veracruz on the Gulf coast, and then through Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, arriving at Argentina's Buenos Aires.  After a short stay in Buenos Aires, he took a final, tiring ride south into Patagonia to the end of the line at Esquel.

This book is not a travel guide for a fun-filled frolic in Latin America.  Theroux wanted to find out how possible it would be -- and what it would be like -- to extend a normal commute ride into Boston as far south as he could go.  Comfort wasn't a consideration.  "The train held only the very poor -- everyone else had taken the bus."  In a sense, it was a stunt -- not a suggestion for vacation travel.  He points out on a number of occasions that tourists were visiting some of the same areas he did, but far more enjoyably and easily.  He didn't think much of those tourists, and the superficiality of their observations and experiences, it's true, but that's beside the point. 

But beyond being a stunt, he shared the belief of many travelers -- especially student travelers of that era -- that you learned more about a country by struggling through it than by being guided from one luxury hotel to another.  Theroux didn't stay in luxury hotels.  I think it's open to argument how well he understood the overall conditions in some of the countries he visited, but that wasn't his objective.  He certainly gives us a feeling for what life was like for the great suffering majority of each country, those who did not belong to that country's elite.  I certainly understand more viscerally after reading his book the social and economic distinctions between the lives of the indigenous Indian population and those of the white population of Spanish descent.

I also have a better understanding of the differences in cultures and standards of living -- at least in the late 1970s -- among the countries through which Theroux passed.  Central America isn't a uniform banana plantation.  As Theroux remarks from relatively prosperous Costa Rica:

Outside that station there is a steam locomotive mounted on blocks for travelers to admire. In El Salvador such an engine would be puffing and blowing up the track to Santa Ana; in Guatemala it would have been melted down and made into antipersonnel bombs for the White Hand.

Theroux sounds negative in his description of many countries, as many reviewers have complained.  But those countries -- at least those portions of those countries through which his trains passed -- had (and still have) many problems.  He set out to be a careful observer, and he carefully observes the poverty and the despair of the people he saw.  Similarly, he carefully observes the geography, the weather, the flora and fauna. 

While his reactions to his surroundings were necessarily subjective and dependent on the slow progress many of his trains made through various regions, not to mention his own somewhat gloomy personality, it is difficult to describe one's surrounding in any meaningful way without telling the reader how you yourself react to it -- that a mountain appears beautiful, or threatening, or boring to an observer tells the reader more than his simply describing its height and color and vegetation.  

Theroux is introspective.  At many points of the trip, he asked himself what on earth he was doing.  He was miserable, he didn't like what he was seeing, he didn't like where he'd just been or where he was going next.  And, at times -- the untold secret of all solo travelers -- he was desperately homesick for Medford and for his family.

I'd love to visit every country described by Theroux, but not on the trains he traveled.  Which is just as well, because beyond Chicago probably not one of those trains still runs.  So Theroux's book is a last farewell to a now-dead railway system, a valediction to an experience we ourselves can never duplicate.  But it also is an intimate view of the side -- a sleazy side -- of many nations that the visitor on a group tour will never see, just as entering an American city by rail reveals aspects of that city that the local Chamber of Commerce doesn't brag about.

And -- once in Esquel, his journey completed -- Theroux admits

I had known all along that I had no intention of writing about being in a place -- that took the skill of a miniaturist.  I was more interested in the going and the getting there, in the poetry of departure.

A final note about Chapter 20.  Once he arrived in Buenos Aires, Theroux was introduced to Jorge Luis Borges, one of South America's most prominent authors, already closing in on 80 years of age.  The young Theroux and the elderly Borges hit if off immediately, and had many meetings and meals together.  Theroux's recounting of their conversations stands alone as a fascinating piece of writing, and in itself justifies reading the book.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Taming of the Mullet


Denny, Kathy and Clinton
Lunch overlooking the Bosporus
Ok, gang.  I've continued poking through my old papers and have come up with the latest, probably the last, and certainly the least significant of my early works.  In 1994, my 17-year-old nephew Denny, his parents Clinton and Kathy, and I vacationed in Turkey -- primarily with a small group on a wooden gulet sailing along the southwest coast, but also a number of days on our own in Istanbul.  Some of us, at least,  heard for the first time the words "mullah" and -- on menus -- "mullet." 

Puns ensued. 

Shortly after we returned home, I sent the ditty below to my relatives as a humorous [sic] commentary on the good times we'd had.  It's based on Lewis Carroll's "'Tis the Voice of the Lobster" from Alice in Wonderland, which in turn was a parody of a now ignored morality poem for children called "The Sluggard." 

We loved Turkey.  We loved the Turkish people.  We loved hearing the calls to prayer, even when they woke us early in the morning.  Nothing in these verses was intended as an insult to Muslims or to Islam.  Nor is my publishing it now, as an example of my own silliness.  It is no more a criticism of Turkey or of Islam than were Lewis Carroll's works an attempt to ridicule the British Crown (red queen and white queen), or the Royal Coat of Arms (lion and unicorn).
------------------------------

'Tis the Voice of the Mullet,
I'm bound to declare,
That awakes us from dreams
And calls us to prayer.

'Tis the Cry of the Mullet,
At noon, I opine,
That halts our sightseeing
And demands that we dine.

'Tis the Wail of the Mullet,
From his tower so steep,
That ends the day's doings
And sends us to sleep.

Our days are divided
Into five easy pieces,
By the Amplified Mullet
Whose howl scarcely ceases.

Kaş, Kalkan or Stamboul,
No matter which city,
The Ubiquitous Mullet
Sings his same horrid ditty.

For Iraq and Iran,
So given to bullets,
Have pity -- they're bonkers,
From listening to Mullets.

But a Mullet, not chanting,
Is merely a Fish,
Glaucous eyes staring upward,
From a cold serving dish.

When found thus, mouth open,
At the Merit Antique,
One Mullet was left breathless
By a kiss on its beak.

'Tis the blush of the Mullet,
Shines forth red like a salmon,
That loud-mouthed old fish
Had been smooched by a gamin.

'Tis the croon of the Mullet,
Who (what power love hath!) is
Singing ballads to the city, like
a Turkish Johnny Mathis.
-------------------------------------

The Merit Antique was our hotel in Istanbul.  The last verses commemorate the dinner when my nephew spied an intact fish on his dinner plate and gave its lips a smooch.

Note that this was written in 1994. "Mullet" as a hair style dates only from 1996. Also note that the call to prayer is actually given by a "muezzin." But we didn't know that.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Go Zags


I just watched Oregon lose by one point to North Carolina in the NCAA semi-finals.  As I've remarked before, sounding maybe suspiciously defensive, I usually have little interest in basketball.  But Gonzaga won earlier in the evening, and -- as an enthusiast of all things Northwest Corner -- I was naturally happy about the idea of an all-Pacific Northwest NCAA finals game.

Of course, as soon as such a line-up had become apparent, the entire nation outside the Northwest would have turned its back on the telecast of the final game, and gone off skateboarding, or Netflix browsing, or playing Parcheesi, or whatever Americans do nowadays when not watching sports.

I know this to be true, because of my experience the last time I paid much attention to basketball.  That would have been some time ago, back when Seattle played the Washington Bullets for the NBA title.  That would have been back when Seattle actually had an NBA team -- the SuperSonics -- a team that was later bought by an irascible and greedy owner who hauled the team -- lock, stock, barrel, and trophy case -- off to Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City!

At any rate, after the Sonics whomped the Bullets, I tactfully brought up the subject of Seattle's shiny new championship with an old law school friend who was then residing in Philadelphia.  "Oh," he said, with a bored expression, "no one's interested in the NBA anymore."  Yeah, right, you idiot.  No one's interested because Seattle -- not a "real basketball city" -- had won the title.  But they were interested last year and they'll be interested again next year.

Despite his having offended me, I stayed on friendly terms with him for a number of years, watching as he became Philly's City Attorney, and ever more embroiled in East Coast affairs and, I presume, locked into East Coast provincialism and prejudices.  The same East Coast which, in its entirety -- I extrapolated from his casual comment -- had scorned the stupid Seattleites and their silly NBA title.

Which is why I now realize that, for the good of college basketball, the TV networks, and the many fine advertisers, it's best that the nation not be confronted with a Gonzaga-Oregon matchup on Monday.  No one would have watched, and advertisers would have lost a lot of money.  It'll be bad enough if Gonzaga wins -- as the Sonics once did -- but at least the nation outside Washington and Oregon will have tuned in under the automatic impression that the Tarheels were about to send the kids from Spokane packing back to Indian country.

As the fox said in Aesop's little story, the grapes will be probably sour, anyway.  But I'm cheering for Gonzaga.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

ETAOIN SHRDLU


It's crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.
--Melvin Cowznofski

Any adult worth knowing -- at least any American adult -- read MAD Magazine as a youth.  And therefore, any adult worth knowing, with the same nationality qualification, remembers the meaningless phrase ETAOIN SHRDLU, found in various odd places in MAD's cartoon panels.  Just as Smokey Stover comics -- the pride of a slightly earlier generation -- were replete with wall decorations containing iconic phrases such as "Foo" and "Notary Sojac."

But those of us with any journalistic leanings quickly came to learn the true meaning of ETAOIN SHRDLU.  For others, yesterday's New York Times provided a refresher course.  Those twelve letters happen to be, in decreasing order, the twelve most frequently used letters in the English language.  And, more to the point, they also happen to be the first twelve letters on a linotype keyboard -- linotypes, for technical reasons I won't go into, because I don't know the reasons, used such a keyboard rather than the "QWERTY" keyboards with which we are familiar from our computers and/or typewriters.

What is a linotype?  Ah, my child.  Great hulking, noisy, moving machines that converted each line that you, the writer, had written into a solid lead line of type (a "slug") from which -- ultimately and indirectly -- a newspaper was printed.  As a sniveling, callow, high school newspaper editor, I hovered nervously every two weeks, ready to veto when necessary, as employees of the local city newspaper -- which served as our school newspaper's printer -- composed each page, fitting slugs into place on a composing table, based on our more or less approximate make-up diagrams.  The linotype machines were grinding away in the background, everywhere about us, and they were awesome!

But the important fact, for our purposes, was that once the operator began typing a line, there was no way to go back and correct it -- the beast was in motion, and the molten lead would be poured.  So, when he made a mistake, he slipped his finger over those first twelve letters.  When an editor ran across ETAOIN SHRDLU, he knew that the line was in error, and he had it pulled off the composing table.

Except, sometimes he didn't -- and the ultimate reader was treated to a line of gibberish, topped off with the puzzling name (the author, he might wonder?) of ETAOIN SHRDLU.  As a versifying journalist, writing for a Wisconsin newspaper, put it in 1903:

Some fiendish printer is my secret foe
  On the top floor.
He has a trick that fills me up with woe
  And oaths galore.
I wrote a sonnet to my lady’s hair
And said that “only with it can compare
etaoin shrdlu cmfwyp vbgkqj xgflflflfl.”
— This made me sore.


Modern technology caught up with the New York Times in July 1978, when it made its last use of linotypes.  And offered a final salute to ETAOIN SHRDLU, a phrase then entrusted to the care and handling of MAD Magazine.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Manhattan in March


Typical post-storm
snow bank
Broadway at 84th
The city after a busy day.  The city on rainy afternoons.  The city when you take a day off, or get up at the wrong hour, or get off at the wrong stop and let yourself wander down unfamiliar streets and suddenly find a movie theater you never thought existed and can't wait to enter.   A writer's city; .... 
--
André Aciman, "New York, Luminous,"
Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere


Most of my visits to New York have been in autumn.  When the sun is warm but the air is cool.   Cool, but not cold.  When the leaves along the streets and in the parks are changing color.  When the oppressive heat and humidity of summer are history, and tourists throng the streets.

I returned home last night from four days in New York -- but this time, New York in March.  Temperatures changing radically, within hours, from mild to cold, from cold to mild.  Rain threatening hourly, but drenching the city only occasionally.  Great piles of snow heaped at every corner, left behind by snowplows a week earlier, when the Northeast was hit by an unseasonable snow storm.  Kids who couldn't figure out how to dress in March, apparently -- some bundled up in parkas and scarves, while their friends wore t-shirts and shorts. 

My first thought, upon arrival Thursday night, was that tourists must abandon or avoid the city in March. But maybe not weekend tourists, I later discovered, and not basketball fans. Hordes poured out onto the streets the following evenings, on Friday and Saturday nights.  Especially in Times Square.  And in the blocks around Madison Square Garden, dressed in school colors, in town for the NCAA playoffs.

What do I do in the city on a short visit?  If I had been with family, hours would have been spent eating, talking about eating, and debating where to eat.  Alone, eating is primarily a rapid exercise in re-fueling.

New 96th Street Station

I had only two pre-planned activities.  One -- to the derision of some friends back home -- was to ride the newly opened first phase of the Second Avenue subway -- a Second Avenue line planned for over a century and opened -- a short stub of it, that is -- just this year.  At present, the three new stations on Second Avenue, between 63rd and 96th, are served by an extension of the Q line.  Attractive stations, and the ride to the end of the line gave me a chance to walk back down to Midtown from E. 96th. A West Side kid (by self-adoption) braving the streets of the East Side!

My other explicit objective was attending the Metropolitan Opera's production of La Traviata.  This production was unusual in that the settings and costumes were more or less contemporary (although the score, of course, was totally traditional -- in Italian, with English subtitles on the back of the seat in front of you).  I always question updates of classic works, although I thought the 1995 motion picture production of Richard III, set in the 1930s, was interesting and well-done.  Unfortunately, the story of a high class prostitute with a golden heart, a fallen woman, surrounded by devoted flocks of partying men, who falls in love with one man for the first time and then sacrifices her romance at the behest of his family -- a story that may seem marginally conceivable in its original nineteenth century setting -- seems ludicrous when staged in a room sparely decorated with 1950s style furniture where the heroine entertains mobs of adoring men dressed in black tie.

But the singing was great, Lincoln Center is always fun, and I defer to the critical reviews that swoon over the production.

The rest of my visit -- like most of my visits around the world, starting with my travels as a 21-year-old student -- was devoted to wandering, looking at people passing by, and absorbing the architectural surroundings.  These pursuits are perhaps more rewarding in Manhattan than they would be in, say, Kansas City.  My hotel was on West 87th, in the heart of my favorite part of the city, where the people and families passing by all look worth knowing, and the ornate brownstone row houses turn me green with envy.

Art imitating art
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Each time I visit New York, I try to get a better feel for the Upper West Side, from Central Park to Riverside, and up to and including the surroundings of Columbia University.  And I get that feel by walking.  My phone's pedometer tells me that I walked a total of 32 miles in three days which -- considering that I also spent a number of hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as eating, and sitting on benches, and riding on subways -- was a fairly impressive total.

As Aciman likes to say, an ideal way to enjoy New York is to "let yourself wander down unfamiliar streets."  In this respect, he sums up that which for me, at least, is much of the joy of travel.  At least, urban travel.  And especially travel within New York City.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Spare change?


He looked like a typical panhandler.  Shabby parka and pants.  Weary, as he watched the cars make U-turns past his location on the center meridian of Montlake Boulevard at Hamlin Street.  Watching them pass by, one after another, without stopping.

And then I noticed the canvases -- four or five -- at his feet.  I was walking at some distance, and was in no position to judge their artistic merits, but they were bright landscapes, done in oils or acrylic, that showed at least a basic understanding of technique.   They weren't the impulsive splashes of someone who merely ran across some art materials in a dumpster. 

I've seen him several times now, in the same location.  I haven't approached him or looked at his work more carefully.  I don't really intend to.  But he makes me think about begging and homelessness in America.

This post isn't the usual call for compassion, although I certainly urge compassion.  Nor for far greater efforts by government to provide a safety net for those in trouble, although I strongly support such a safety net.

Instead, I feel surprised at how surprising it is in today's America to see a panhandler offering paintings.  Or to see anyone -- other than a slumming young artist or musician -- offering any inducements for passers-by to stop and help, for any reason other than pure charity.

Other nations have far more poverty.  And yet -- with the possible exception of India -- you rarely see a beggar simply sitting or standing passively, waiting for a handout.  Instead, as a tourist, you are besieged by offers of many kinds, most perhaps scams.  The guy who offers to guide you, and whom you can't shake.  The guy who starts talking to you about the cathedral you're visiting, and then asks for payment.  The guy who wants to talk with you "to improve my English," and moves the conversation into his need for a little help, or his suggestion that you accompany him to his "brother's" excellent hotel where you will be lodged royally.  Or the young person juggling or singing or playing an instrument or posed as a statue or doing acrobatics.  Or the fast talker who persuades you to make your fortune at a few quick hands of three-card Monte..

The variations are endless, but the common thread is the poor person's active effort to separate you -- the presumably wealthy traveler or local resident -- from some of your money.  These efforts may be more or less admirable, but they all at least involve the swindler's active efforts.  With many of these folks, you feel that with a little capital and a little luck, they could become successfully businessmen -- i.e., swindlers at a level that confers higher status and better meals.

From my folks' stories of the Great Depression, I gather that desperate Americans once made desperate efforts to pay for their next meals -- by hook or by crook.  By honest work when it could be found, but by less exemplary methods when it could not.  The fact that today's panhandlers seem so passive compared with those in foreign countries and with those in Depression-era America may simply be a function of today's American affluence -- no one in America these days has to beg on the streets unless he either enjoys begging or totally lacks ambition and competency. 

Or, I sometimes worry, it may reflect a general tendency of Americans in general, an increased inability to be inventive and assertive in finding ways to survive.  Passive panhandling cannot be particularly lucrative.  And it is far more deadening to one's self-esteem than perpetuating a good healthy scam, taking satisfying advantage of one's "marks."

So I'm happy to see our local artist offer his paintings.  I hope some motorists are inspired to stop and look at them.  Maybe buy one or two.  If nothing else, such a painting might make a good conversation piece.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Decennial


Ten years ago today, I jumped head-first into the wonderful world of blogging -- posting my first words on this blog.  It was a short post, announcing the arrival of my new blog, accompanied by what has now become an annual tradition on this date -- the boy on a haystack.

A very bright teenager from Colorado, on whose blog I had recently commented, left me my first comment.  He suggested that I write something "more profound," something worthy of his youthful critique.  And so my second post compared the waning days of the Bush administration with the rule of Big Brother in Orwell's 1984.

We are often blessed by our inability to see ahead to the horrors of the future.

Anyway, Confused Ideas has flourished, in its own small way, over the decade.  Daily readership reached a peak in 2012 and 2013, and has gradually declined since.  I have no idea why.

Over the past year or so, I've noticed that readers tend to come onto the blog and read a number of posts at the same time, rather than hitting on a particular post by use of a search engine.  Therefore, in looking over the past year, it's difficult to pick dramatic popular favorites.  But some posts did receive more hits than others -- I'll leave it to social scientists to determine their attraction.

And so -- this year's stats.  Over the past twelve months, I published 102 posts, the highest number by far since 2011. 

In absolute terms, the post that received the highest response was a description of my "adventure" taking the passenger ferry from downtown Seattle to Alki Point in West Seattle.   Almost as popular was a post suggesting that Sound Transit install turnstiles on its light rail system, to deter scofflaws from not paying their fares.

Other posts, in no particular order, that seemed to receive an unusually large number of hits compared with others published in the same time frame were -- ones expressing fear of the new Trump administration; reviewing the novel Lincoln in the Bardo; recalling the childhood horror of receiving inoculations at school; describing a hike on Rampart Ridge near Mount Rainier; waxing nostalgic over fireworks; describing my cross-country hike in Yorkshire; denouncing Brexit; regaling readers with a description of waking up with a bat flying around my bedroom; admiring a chamber music performance; and reviewing a novel about life in India written by a teenaged Anglo-Indian (Ruskin Bond).

No real pattern, is there?  This is not a blog with a focus.  A little something for everyone.  Which is one reason (among many) why this blog does not rank high on the best blog lists.  Although it should.

And so, head held high and with no change in policy forthcoming, we storm into our second decade.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The drama of defeat


College athletics is weird.  I usually ignore it.  I'm disturbed by all the resources that are devoted to it, and I'm bothered by the illogic of universities' having, over the years, essentially developed semi-professional teams to play on their behalf for the amusement primarily of non-students.

And yet, at times I've gone crazy supporting a university team.  As an undergraduate, I followed both football and basketball avidly.  As an adult, I can ignore college football when my school's team is mediocre, and become a fanatic in years when it shows promise.  I admit to having -- during those good years -- actually clicked on ESPN repeatedly on a Sunday morning, so eager I've been to get the week's rankings.

Basketball?  Nah.  Not so much.  Not since high school.  My university's never been particularly good at it, and -- in addition -- I've never particularly liked or been knowledgeable about the sport.

But today I was bored in mid-afternoon and noted that the Gonzaga Bulldogs -- a team from the Northwest Corner, albeit the boring "east of the Cascades" side of said Corner -- was playing in the NCAA playoffs.  The Zags nearly always have a decent basketball team, and I thought I'd show a little home-state spirit and watch the last ten minutes or so of the game.

When I tuned in, Gonzaga seemed comfortably ahead of the Northwestern Wildcats, but I kept one eye on the screen.  And then occurred something that -- to the national TV audience -- was more memorable than the ultimate Gonzaga win, or the fact that Northwestern seemed to have been cheated by some seriously bad officiating.

I refer, of course, to "the kid."  There was a skinny blond boy, apparently between 9 and 11 years old, sitting immediately behind the Northwestern bench, a boy on whose face played in extreme caricature every feeling, good or bad but mainly bad, passing through every Northwestern fan's soul throughout the game.  His hands were all over his rubbery face as he portrayed anxiety, horror, disbelief, supplication to the gods, fear, anger, and despair.  His face reddened.  His eyes brimmed with tears.  And when the refs totally missed an interference call on Gonzaga, instead calling a technical foul on the Northwestern coach -- his eyes overflowed as he slowly and distinctly mouthed the easily-read words "OH MY GOD!" 

A career as a great stage actor, perhaps.  But not a poker player.  The plasticity of his face enabled observers to read every thought crossing his mind, every emotion gripping his heart.

The network cameramen couldn't keep their cameras off the kid.  He was more fun than the game itself.  And he wasn't showing off -- he was totally oblivious to the fact that his every emotion was entertaining the entire nation. 

At the end of the game, the network's cameras skimmed quickly over the Zag celebration and the quiet disappointment of the (well-mannered) Northwestern team.   They lingered lovingly on the boy, his entire body drooping as, hope abandoned, he gave way to tears.  

And no one who has ever followed a team will ever laugh at him.  His face projected the deep emotions -- for some of us, somewhat shameful emotions -- of joy or depression that arise unbidden in the course of a game, in the course of a season.  We've all been there.  We may not have displayed our feelings for the entire stadium, let alone the entire TV viewing public, but we've at times felt those feelings every bit as strongly as did that young man.

The young man who, as it turns out, is the son of Northwestern's athletic director.  Wildcat alumni can rest assured that their alma mater's athletic director cares as much about the team's success as they do -- and that goes double, nay triple, for his kids.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Escaping the rez


Homes on Spokane Reservation

Washington contains 29 Indian reservations.  They range in size from the giant (over 2.1 million acres) Colville Indian Reservation in the northeastern corner of the state, down to the 13.49 acre Jamestown S'Klallam Indian Reservation on the Olympic peninsula.

A couple of reservations have, at present, no population -- including the Cowlitz Reservation near my hometown.   

And yet, the average Washington resident may go for years -- or a lifetime -- without ever knowingly entering a reservation.  Except, perhaps, to stop at a roadside stand to buy fireworks. 

These thoughts occur to me because I'm half way through a book* about an Indian teenager -- recommended to me by a Facebook friend -- who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  The semi-autobiographical novel is classified as Young Adult fiction, and the boy's narration is often funny.  But his background is appalling in its poverty -- poverty both in physical amenities and in the mental and emotional lives of his family and of other Indians living "on the Rez."  Alcoholism is almost universal, and the alcohol leads to cruelty, child abuse, fighting, and lethargy. 

The boy, a bit of a misfit from birth, inspired by an elderly teacher's words, tells his parents he wants to leave school on the Rez and attend school in Reardan, a town just off the eastern border of the reservation.  His parents don't object, but he becomes the object of hatred from everyone else.  He has betrayed his tribe.  He's going white.

The kid is obviously smart -- smarter than most of the students at Reardan which is -- in the book and in reality -- an above average high school, especially for a town of only 571 population (the school draws from a wider area than just Reardan itself).  He has the expected problems in finding acceptance from an overwhelmingly white student body.

But what impresses -- and depresses -- me is the other part of his problem.  The rejection, the hatred he faces each night when he travels the some 20 miles back to his home on the reservation.  Life on an Indian reservation -- at least in this book -- is beyond dysfunctional.  It's pathological.  It's a life led without hope, without ambition, without the simple joys of family and friends one usually finds in even poor societies.  It's a life of hating oneself and one's ethnicity, of total belief in one's own inferiority, and a resentment of anyone who dares to stand out.  It's a life where drunkenness is life's only real solace.

I realize this is a work of fiction (although based on the author's own childhood).  And even if based on familiarity with the Spokane reservation, it's about life on only one reservation.  One shouldn't generalize.  And yet, I can't help the suspicion that America's experiment with "managing" its Indian tribes on reservations has been badly mismanaged for generations.
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*Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Change your clocks


"The cows all stay on Standard Time."

Fortunately, in today's non-agrarian age, we nowadays rarely hear that complaint about daylight savings time.  Maybe I'd hear it more if I wandered over to the east side of the Cascades.

But twice a year, I do read continual griping on Facebook and in comments to news stories about the apparently arduous task of changing clocks twice each year. 

Some -- those tending toward libertarianism -- feel that this is just one more governmental interference with the laws of nature.  Why should they have to change their clocks just because the government so dictates?  I suppose a few generations ago, they would have griped about the imposition of standard time within standard time zones.  Why shouldn't my "noon" be three minutes later than the noon perceived by someone a few miles to the east?

More frequently, the complaint is not about DST, but about the switch back to standard time.  Why not stay on daylight savings time all year around?  These people live at lower latitudes, I suspect.  They don't have to contemplate wintertime life in a city where dawn wouldn't break until about 8:30 a.m., especially on the usual cloudy morning. 

Me?  I'm happy changing from PDT to PST in the fall, and back to PDT in March.  I'm just a happy dude, except when I read stupid arguments.

When I was a kid, daylight savings was a perennial ballot topic, Washington being a voter initiative state.  All the time I was growing up, daylight savings time in Washington was local option.  There were a number of years when my city was on daylight savings time, and our adjoining city was on standard time.  You walked across the street, and you changed your watch (at least in theory).  In 1960, the voters finally approved Initiative 210, which mandated statewide daylight savings time from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in September.  The official voters pamphlet provided the following reasons to vote "No":

1. Farming, logging and many other industries would suffer heavy financial lost under Daylight Savings. DO NOT jeopardize jobs in Washington.

2. Children do not get their proper rest under Daylight Saving Time.

3. Seattle has 13 minutes more evening daylight under STANDARD TIME than Los Angeles has on DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME. What more do we need?

4. The State of Washington, in the past five years, has had a record increase in tourists - 20% since 1955 - with Standard Time. Tourists are not interested in time, their time is their own.

5. Washington voters have twice rejected Daylight Saving Time, in 1952 and 1954, by decisive margins. Don't let "The Playboys" wreck the economy of your State . . . VOTE NO on Daylight Saving Time.

Those were "stupid arguments," but had worked for a number of years. To my relief, they finally ran out of steam in 1960.  Washington has remained happy and prosperous under daylight savings time each summer ever since.  (A Washington member of Congress did introduce a bill in 2015 to except Washington from daylight savings, but it went nowhere.)

National daylight savings time, with a couple of states excepted,* was mandated by the Uniform Time Act of 1966.  The dates for daylight savings have been changed several times, including a year in the mid-'70s when -- because of the petroleum crisis -- we stayed on daylight savings time all year around.

We may continue to tinker with those dates in the future, but nationally-mandated daylight savings time is here to stay. 

Unless, of course, Steve Bannom decides it's a crime against nature.
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*Arizona is the most interesting of the states excepted, and remains all year long on standard time (which is the same as California's daylight savings time in the summer).  The huge Navajo reservation within Arizona, however, follows the national change to daylight savings time.  And the smaller Hopi reservation, entirely enclosed by the Navajo reservation, complies with Arizona law and remains on standard time.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

South and West


In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. ... The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas.  In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.

These opening lines of Joan Didion's new book, South and West -- perhaps "proto-book"1 is the better term -- are perhaps the most vividly descriptive lines in the entire volume.  In a few sentences they conjure up images of New Orleans -- which I've never visited -- that are unforgettable, and that also reinforce my preconceptions of that city's appearance and atmosphere. 

I found much of the remaining book -- with a number of excellent exceptions -- to be just what they purport to be:  rough notes written down by the author in 1970 during a road trip from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama.  They are, in general, notes and observations that she hoped eventually to work into a finished book.  She never wrote the book, and it's not entirely clear why she has published them "prehumously," although novelist Nathanial Rich proposes an answer in his Foreword.

 I had never heard of Joan Didion until 1970 when I read an essay published in Life Magazine.2  She recalled a Saturday afternoon in 1953, hanging around after lunch at a friend's fraternity house in Berkeley, while the friend went out to watch a football game.  From this small kernel, her essay blossomed into an expression of her amazed realization of how much university life had changed -- the "silent" generation becoming the "hippie" generation --  during the intervening 17 years.  As a guy who had myself been at college just before the cusp of that change in generations, I was dazzled by both her perceptiveness and her writing style.

Didion still remains a favorite author.  Her writing style is unique, and she often evokes a sense of the uncanny from her observations of the most apparently mundane events and situations.

In South and West, much of what Didion finds unusual and bizarre about the South was not unique to the South.  She seems to be simply unaware of the facts of everyday life in rural and small town America everywhere.  For example, she talks to a past acquaintance at a New Orleans party who has read her essay describing time spent among the hippies in San Francisco.  The man asks her

... why I had been allowed ... to "spend time consorting with a lot of marijuana-smoking hippie trash."
"Who allowed you?" he repeated.
I said that I did not know quite what he meant.
Ben C. only stared at me.
"I mean, who wouldn't have allowed me?"
"You do have a husband?" he said finally.  "This man I've thought was your husband for several years, he is your husband?"

This exchange sounds funny now, but in the small Northwest town in which I grew up it would have seemed totally normal in 1970.
But Joan Didion, who has lived many places, but primarily in fashionable areas on the two coasts, was appalled.  At another point, she reminds herself

It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken.  Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?

I suspect that she would have been overcome by the same anger had she lived in sleepy towns in virtually every state.  An anger shared by many women, certainly by 1970.

During their travels, she and her husband stayed at a variety of motels, most frequently at local franchises of mid-price national chains.  After a day of interviewing local figures, both town leaders and average folks, she felt relief checking into a motel.

Sitting by the pool at six o'clock I felt the euphoria of Interstate America.  I could be in San Bernardino, or Phoenix, or outside Indianapolis.

No doubt she was surrounded by a more cosmopolitan group at a Howard Johnson, say, than she had been at the local courthouse.  But I suspect that much of her relief came from being around people from a somewhat higher socio-economic level, from wherever they came, whose manners and opinions were therefore closer to her own.

I've never been to the Deep South, so my feelings about Didion's observations are entirely conjectural.  I don't doubt that -- aside from the peculiarities found everywhere in small town America -- the South presents its own peculiar differences -- certainly racial differences -- from conditions found in the northern and western states.  I feel this difference, as noted above, most deeply in Didion's observations of New Orleans, and the surrounding areas of Louisiana, an area that is perhaps not typical of the Deep South..

When I think now about New Orleans I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.

These are all preoccupations which, she claims, are antithetical to the preoccupations of the West, of Californians.

In New Orleans they also talk about parties, and about food, their voices rising and falling, never still, as if talking about anything at all could keep the wilderness at bay.  In New Orleans the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent ....

Sounds creepy, just as I suspected.   I'm tempted to visit!

In his Foreword, Rank suggests that Didion's rough notes from 1970 are worth considering today, because she even then realized that America's destiny might not always be to serve the world as the beacon of rationality and progress -- the virtues of California -- that it was assumed to be in 1970.  She sensed that tribalism, small town virtues, ignorance and fear of the unknown -- even of the next county -- had deep roots, not just in the Deep South but in America in general.  That these atavistic fears and impulses were gradually creeping -- like the kudzu she saw climbing over everything in the South -- over the coastal virtues of  rationality and globalism and cosmopolitanism. 

In  other words, Rank claims that Didion foresaw the coming of Trump, or at least the forces that made Trump possible.

I think that interpretation is possible.  At one point she describes her growing sense that

... the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be, the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.  I did not much want to talk about this.

She interviewed the southern novelist Walker Percy, a gracious host who touched on this subject

"The South," he said, "owes a debt to the North ... tore the Union apart once ... and now only the South can save the North."

This theme was certainly present in Didion's notes and contemplations.  I'm not sure it was a major theme. In any event, it wasn't a theme on which Didion cared to dwell.  She expressed her immense relief when she finally boarded a plane back to Los Angeles.

An interesting collection of notes from an earlier stage of Joan Didion's career. I would prefer to have read a finished book in which she had incorporated some of this material in a polished manner.
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1A very short book with an estimated Kindle reading time of two hours.  Priced at $10.99 on Kindle.

2Republished as "On the Morning after the Sixties" in her collection of essays, The White Album.