Saturday, October 25, 2014

Life in Laos


Maury and classmates

I returned home Thursday from an eleven-day visit to Laos.

The ostensible reason for the visit was to celebrate my great-niece's (Maury's) fifth birthday, along with her mother and her grandparents.  Maury's mother took a job in Luang Prabang a few months ago, working for a non-profit organization that helps publicize and market locally woven fabrics.  Maury therefore began school in Laos for the first time this fall.  She's making a fine adjustment.

Maury's Big Five birthday was, as I say, the ostensible reason for my visit.  The underlying reason, of course, was that I never turn down an excuse to travel somewhere.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Maury's father and I visited Laos together seven years ago.  I loved it, and was eager for this wonderful pretext for a return visit.

Getting there isn't necessarily half the fun.  It's a 13-hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, and another eight hours from Seoul to Bangkok.  After arrival in Bangkok at 11 p.m., it was a relief to get a short night's sleep at the airport hotel, before continuing for another two hours to Luang Prabang.  Coming home simply reversed that process, with the addition of an eight-hour layover in Bangkok, and a 13-hour layover in Seoul.  I was exhausted on arrival home, of course -- but in pretty good shape and on adrenaline when I arrived in Laos.

We stayed at a beautiful, small hotel overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.  The view of the small boats passing by from my balcony was always entertaining, as were the views from the outdoor café across the street where the hotel served our breakfast.  The weather was tropically warm, but quite moderate in the early morning and late evening.  Conditions were well nigh idyllic.

The "ancient" section of Luang Prabang is a long peninsula between the two temporarily parallel rivers.  Only four streets run the length of the peninsula, interrupted at one point by Mt. Phousi, a sacred hill with a famous shrine on the summit.  The old city contains about 34 "wats," or temples, but is largely given over otherwise to the needs of tourists.  The commercialism is there, but is always tasteful and never really blatant -- largely, no doubt, because the city is protected as a UNESCO-designated cultural site.  UNESCO imposes strict rules on how each building is used and how, if it all, it can be modified.  Local officials seem somewhat concerned that their city is being held back as a museum, but with tourism the major source of income, their protests are muted.

The entire old city is easily walkable from one end to the other.  When we went beyond this peninsular core, we traveled by tuk tuk -- small trucks used as taxis.  Aside from tuk tuks, virtually all the motorized traffic is by motor scooter.

We hung out with Maury and her mother, and attended birthday parties for Maury at her school and at a hotel outside the central area.  We spent a lot of time walking, drinking in riverside watering holes and eating in riverside cafés, and visiting temples.  Photographic opportunities were everywhere.  We made a couple of excursions out of town -- to the Pak Ou caves, two hours up the Mekong by small water taxi; and the Kuang Si waterfall, about an hour ride by tuk tuk.

I spent only eight nights in Luang Prabang, which is a short visit for such a long journey -- but felt as though I'd been there long enough to have a good acquaintance with the city.  The Lao seem to be a happy people.  The service everywhere was relaxed and friendly -- friendly even beyond the friendliness normally dictated by good customer relationships.

I left Luang Prabang (or LP, as now I familiarly call it) feeling relaxed and pleased with my visit.  I'm quite sure I'll be back.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Expelled from paradise


Tobias Wolff teaches English and creative writing at Stanford University.  I first learned of his writing when I was sent his fictionalized childhood memoir, This Boy's Life, as part of a subscription to works by Stanford faculty.  I liked it, having as yet no inkling that it would ultimately be made into a movie, a star vehicle for a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

In This Boy's Life, Wolff tells of Toby's unhappy and somewhat delinquent childhood in a small town in the North Cascades.  Desperate to escape the narrowness of his life and the cruelty of his stepfather, he falsifies his school grades and invents a new, straight-A, Eagle Scout persona, a persona that expressed his dreams if not his reality ("It was a truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed in the facts arrayed against it."), hoping to transfer to a top East Coast school.  He ends up accepted by the highly selective Hill School in Pennsylvania.  He loves the school, performs abysmally, and, in an epilogue, discloses that he flunks out his senior year.

I did not do well at Hill.  How could I?  I knew nothing.  My ignorance was so profound that entire class periods would pass without my understanding anything that was said.  ...  While the boys around me nodded off during Chapel I prayed like a Moslem, prayed that I would somehow pull myself up again so I could stay in this place that I secretly and deeply loved.

A nice indictment of the secondary education offered by many small town schools.

Failure and dashed hopes at such a young age leave scars.  In Wolff's novel Old School, a bright Seattle native, attending a school similar to the Hill School, desperately seeks admission to the world of the literary elite by winning a prize for his school's best short story.  The annual prize winner enjoys a private meeting with a famous author -- in this term, Hemingway.  The boy suffers from writer's block, he procrastinates, he panics, and he eventually copies a story written by a student in another school's literary journal.  The plagiarism is discovered.  The boy is expelled, devastated.

This year, I glanced at a list of suggested summer readings published by the Archdiocese of Seattle.  Among the usual lives of saints and works of piety, I was surprised to see Wolff's first book of short stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.  Curious, I decided to give it a read. 

Wonderful stories.  Wolff's writing is spare, and the morals of his stories are complex.  The reader is sugar-fed nothing.  He reads the often sad, sometimes amusing, always surprising lives of his protagonists, and ends each story feeling stunned, left to draw his own conclusions.  If any quality unites all the stories in this collection, I'd have to say that it is a frightening sense of how isolated each person's life really is, how little he "connects" with those around him.  Wolff's characters meet, talk, befriend each other, perhaps even marry.  But they have no real understanding of or empathy -- or often even sympathy -- for each other. 

In "Maiden Voyage," for example, a couple is sent on a cruise by their children, in celebration of their golden anniversary.  They "love" each other, each in his own fashion, but lack any awareness of each other's interior lives.  The story ends at a festive costume party, in which the ship's social director points to their marriage as an example for all to emulate.  The couple move (he reluctantly) onto the dance floor, to begin the romantic dance for the others to follow:

Nora moved close to him, pressed her cheek to his. ...  His unpatched [pirate's] eye ached.  Howard turned slowly around to escape Stella's grin, and above it, the winking of her tiara in the moving red light.

End of story.

In the eponymous Garden, a professor who has played it safe during her entire career and, as a result, has accomplished little, is invited by a former friend to apply for a position at a much better school.  She learns, during the interview process, that she has been invited to travel across the country and submit to the interrogation of the faculty merely because state law requires that one woman be so invited for each new position.  Everyone, including her one-time friend, has already agreed on hiring a better qualified applicant. 

Devastated, she stands in front of an audience of faculty and students, delivering a "class" in the final part of the bogus ritual. On the spur of the moment, she deviates from her expected analysis of the Marshall Plan.  Instead, the audience hears her extemporaneous description of bloodthirsty Iroquois torture techniques, and the supposed speech delivered by two Christian missionaries while dying under that torture:

"Mend your lives," she said.  "You have deceived yourselves in the pride of your hearts and the strengths of your arms.  Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord.  Turn from power to love. Be kind.  Do justice.  Walk humbly.

The faculty moderators and her former friend -- representing a school that stood for none of the virtues urged by the dying missionaries upon their heathen tormentors -- are horrified, and try to stop her from continuing.  "But Mary had more to say, much more."  She turns off her hearing aid so she won't be distracted by their cries.

But the story I liked best -- and the one that once more hearkens back to Wolff's unfortunate experience at the Hill School -- is "Smokers."

The unnamed narrator is a freshman boy from a small town in Oregon (a town not really near Portland, but that's how he describes it.  "In those days I naively assumed everyone had heard of Portland.") who's about to start prep school at Choate on a scholarship.  Being on scholarship means -- in the era in which the story takes place -- that he begins prep school with at least one social strike against him.  But he is canny and has prepared well, mastering in advance the clothes, the slang, and the body language that will allow him to fit in.  His ultimate ambition is unremarkable:

I wanted to know boys whose fathers ran banks and held cabinet office and wrote books.  I wanted to be their friend and go home with them on vacation and someday marry one of their sisters.

He meets Eugene on the train ride from New York to Connecticut, an odd-appearing boy who is wearing an alpine hat with a feather.  He quickly decides that Eugene -- himself another scholarship lad -- has none of the upper class qualities that he is seeking in new friends.  He rebuffs Eugene's too eager attempts at friendship.

As the year progresses, the narrator's roommate quits school, leaving him alone in a single room.  Eugene, on the other hand, is randomly assigned to Talbot Nevin, Jr., of Talbot Nevin, Sr., fame -- the father having been one of the school's great benefactors and a race car hobbyist who travels in celebrity circles.  Our hero virtually drools, and eagerly attempts to win Talbot's friendship without becoming entangled in Eugene's somewhat feckless life.

Talbot shows only vague and detached interest in his overtures, however.  In fact, Talbot seems vague and detached in his associations with all of the other students.  But the three boys form a certain casual friendship among themselves, with Talbot drawing his two admirers into his own attitude of reflexive contempt for school rules and requirements.  Talbot invites Eugene home for Christmas, inspiring jealousy and longing on the narrator's part.  But Christmas turns out to be no more a success for Eugene than it was for the narrator while visiting some unpleasant relatives in Baltimore.

Smoking was strictly forbidden at Choate, but -- inspired by Talbot -- all three boys smoke whenever they can, enjoying the danger as much as the nicotine.  But the narrator is cautious:

Because I was not rich my dissatisfaction could not assume a really combative form.  I paddled around on the surface, dabbling in revolt by way of the stories I wrote for ... the school literary journal.

Heeding Talbot's plea, he helps the celebrity kid pass English by staying up nights writing essays for him.  Talbot is pleased with the grades, but not enthusiastically grateful.  When the narrator finally stops helping him, Talbot's not bothered -- he already has received enough good grades on "his" earlier essays to win a C+, which is just fine with him.

Meanwhile, Eugene -- although socially gauche and often ridiculed -- isn't disliked, and has obtained a certain amount of social success through his strength on the swimming team.  Still blissfully unaware of the narrator's disdain, Eugene suggests that they room together the following year, but accepts gracefully the narrator's polite refusal.  All seems to be going well for all three boys.

And  then lightning strikes.  Eugene is caught in the act of smoking, and a search of his room reveals a wealth of Talbot's cigarette butts and other evidence of nicotine use.  Talbot, his roommate, escapes suspicion -- he is "one of us," apparently.  The narrator is even further from the circle of suspicion; his transgressions, like his entire life, have been cautious and calculated.  And so Eugene -- friendly, open, uncalculating -- and slightly bizarre -- is forced to face the music alone. 

A cab is called.  Luggage is brought out of the dorm.  

Then the headmaster and the dean came out of the house with Eugene behind them.  Eugene was wearing his hat.  He shook hands with both of them and then with Big John.  Suddenly he bent over and put his hands up to his face.  The dean reached out and touched his arm.  They stood like that for a long time, the four of them, Eugene's shoulders bucking and heaving. ... When I looked out the window again the cab was gone.  The headmaster and the dean were standing in the shadows, but I could see Big John clearly.  ... [S]omething he said made the headmaster laugh, not really a laugh, more like a giggle.  The only thing I heard was the work "feathers."

Eugene now gone, Talbot asks the narrator to room with him.  The narrator thinks briefly of turning Talbot in for having been the far more active smoker, but that doesn't seem to make much sense.  Besides, the narrator would himself be implicated, as well. 

If you wanted to get technical about it, he [Eugene] was guilty as charged a hundred times over.  It wasn't as if some great injustice had been done.

Once more, Wolff ruminates on the act of expulsion from prep school.  Once more he describes a likable, somewhat naïve transgressor -- technically guilty, but an innocent at heart -- whose life may have been destroyed by a heartless institution whose own ethics, snobberies and inability to make wise and careful judgments about its students calls its own integrity into question.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Instrument of peace


Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

What do Jorge Mario Bergoglio and I have in common?  How about a connection with St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day falls tomorrow, October 4?  I chose "Francis" as my name at Confirmation, and Jorge chose "Francis" as his name upon assuming the papacy.

Great minds think alike.

Unlike many of the saints canonized by the church, St. Francis wasn't a martyr.  He wasn't a great theologian -- a "Doctor of the Church."  He wasn't a Pope, or a diplomat, or a political figure.  He did found a religious order, but its members didn't reside in secluded monasteries, as monks to that date had done; they wandered about the world, sharing the poverty of the people to whom they preached. 

Francis was blessed with a facility with language, and he was one of the earliest writers to use an Italian dialect -- rather than Latin -- in serious writing. 

I've always believed that St. Francis wrote the familiar "Prayer of St. Francis," a portion of which is quoted above.   I learned only today that no recorded copy of the prayer dates back before 1912, when it probably was composed, in French, for a small religious publication.  But if Francis didn't write it, it certainly was written in his spirit.  He would have approved.

"The Prayer of St. Francis" sets forth goals for us all -- not just for Christians.  It describes what it means to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.  The world in 2014 is a good time to re-read and consider how we might apply these aspirations to our own lives. 

But then, any year would be such a year.

Empathy with Shelob


These are bad days for us arachnophobes.  Wherever I venture past my front door, I'm forced to contend with the increasingly gigantic webs of garden spiders.  One web totally blocked the rear door leading to my back deck.  Another was suspended across the walkway from my front porch.  A third spanned my driveway, barring access to my garbage can.

We are told that these same spiders have been around for months.  But only now, as summer ends and fall begins, have they grown large enough to create a serious nuisance.  Only now do I jump as I spot them squatting complacently in the center of their webs, awaiting their prey.  Only now have I begun cringing away from imaginary or not-so-imaginary webs lying in my path each time I leave the house.

But as the word arachnophobia suggests, I merely have an unreasonable and instinctive fear of spiders; I don't hate the eight-legged beasts.  In fact, I rather admire them.  I admire them to the point that I'm loath to disturb their webs, despite the inconvenience those webs present, and the shivers they perhaps induce.

The webs are miracles of engineering, created by small creatures with simple nervous systems, unable to see farther than a few inches in front of their faces (had they faces), and capable (we presume) of acting only by instinct.  They laboriously excrete and send out into the wind silken strands that stick to surrounding branches, often several feet away, and then begin the laborious process of producing their Halloweenish orb webs.  The webs require a lot of protein as building material, and the process of building the webs consumes a lot of energy.  When the web is broken and cannot be quickly repaired, the spider is apt to eat the remaining remnants -- to restore its stock of protein -- before beginning once again.

The spider can live for a surprisingly long time without food, but sooner or later, if the hunting has not been good, she'll die of starvation.  Typical garden spiders -- the ones that concern me at this time of year -- live only one season, and die with the first frost.  Their lives, if not cut short by accident or predation, consist of hatching, spinning, mating ("externally") and then consuming their mate as a post-coital snack, extracting the juices from whatever prey fortuitously brushes up against their web, and then, in the end, dying of hypothermia.

A spider's life, as Thomas Hobbes might have put it, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

So I anthropomorphize the little buggers.  They work harder that I do, or than anyone I know does.  They patiently rebuild their webs over and over, as each web is destroyed by acts of God or of men, a patience that famously inspired Robert Bruce of Scotland.  They have no aspirations.  They ask only to live long enough to produce little spiders -- who in turn will have no greater aspirations of their own -- and then die.  Not for them a quiet cup of coffee, while enjoying their garden.  Not for them the love of happy grandchildren.  Not for them a seeking for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Not for them moments in which to philosophize on the meaning of it all.

It's a hell of a life, a spider's life.  I don't envy them.  And their lives resemble all too closely the lives led by all too many of our fellow humans.  I empathize with spiders, even as a loathe them.

I wouldn't kick a starving peasant out of my path, would I?  Hence the bizarre spectacle I make of myself as I leave the house or take out the garbage -- tip-toeing about, ducking and weaving, trying insofar as possible not to disturb the giant webs that obstruct me.  Avoiding -- except when totally necessary -- the easy option of brushing the web aside with a stick, opening a lane of travel for my own convenience.

Bless you, you ugly little devils.  The quickly-approaching first frost will soon end your sad lives. Enjoy these last sunny days while you can.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Midnight at the Pera Palace



When I first saw the Pera Palace, nearly twenty years ago, you had to have a rather specific reason for being in that section of Istanbul, like getting a lamp rewired or calling on a transgender prostitute. 

So begins Charles King's recent history, Midnight at the Pera Palace.  It is an enticing opening sentence, because family members and I first saw the Pera Palace exactly twenty years ago last month.  We were seeking neither rewiring nor prostitution, transgendered or otherwise. We were seeking the hotel in which Agatha Christie is reputed to have written her masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express

We had drinks at the hotel bar, and wandered around the premises.  I recall feeling slightly disappointed with the overall appearance of the hotel.  If I'd been as good a writer as Mr. King, I would have written in my journal that the hotel

was squat and square, wrapped in dirty, green-plastered marble.  Its faded fin-de-siècle grandeur was out of place amid the seedy mid-rises that had grown up pell-mell in the 1970s and 1980s.  Inside, the red-velvet chairs in the Orient Bar were always empty.

I do remember the bar as being empty and dark -- not dark in a mysterious and thrilling way, but in an abandoned, what's-the-use sort of way.

But King uses the Pera Palace -- much revitalized by new owners in the past twenty years, he notes -- as the central point around which revolves his history of Istanbul from the dying years of the Ottoman Empire to the post-War era.  From the hotel, he expands his narrative to the history of Istanbul, the dramatic transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic, Turkey's difficulty in dealing with its minorities, the emigration of Russians into Istanbul, Turkey's complicated relationship with the Great Powers in both world wars, and the surprising (to me) role of Istanbul in the migration of Europe's Jews to the British Palestine mandate during and after World War II.

The book covers a lot of ground, but it does so by discussing the lives of those who suffered through the period, as well as those who shaped it and who benefitted from it.  And the narrative always returns to the role of the Pera Palace -- a writer's device that at times seems a bit gimmicky, but one which, in general, successfully centers the story, causing complex events to cohere in an understandable manner.

Some of the history -- such as Turkey's treatment of its Armenian and Greek minorities -- I was aware of, to some extent.  But the book provides an excellent and balanced treatment of Kemel Ataturk's program to change the cosmopolitan Ottoman Empire -- with its carefully balanced treatment of the many religions and ethnic groups that it encompassed -- into a nationalistic Turkish state.  This program, to some degree, merely reflected the Empire's loss of all its territories outside Anatolia and the European area around Istanbul -- but Kemel made a virtue of necessity, creating a more cohesive "modern" state, one that was more homogeneous ethnically and completely secular religiously.

He did so, of course, by disrupting or ending the lives of Greeks and other ethnic groups that had lived on "Turkish" soil for centuries.  He paints vivid pictures of the destruction of the Greek community in Smyrna (today's Izmir), and of the disruptive ethnic exchange by which Salonica (today's Thessaloniki), at the time a highly cosmopolitan city in what is now northern Greece, sent its "Greek-ified" Turks back to Turkey (especially to Istanbul), and accepted Greeks from Turkey in exchange. 

King reveals -- a revelation that was certainly a surprise to me -- Istanbul's bohemian lifestyle in the wake of World War I and the subsequent Allied occupation.  I would never have pictured a vibrant jazz club scene in the Istanbul of the 1920s -- a phenomenon that demonstrated the contrast between the modern, "Greek," "European" portions of the city north of the Golden Horn -- the area where we read about student demonstrations today, and where the Pera Palace and other large hotels are located -- and the "Turkish" area south of the Golden Horn where student backpacker hostels, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, and most of the other mosques that give Istanbul its iconic skyline are located.

Before Kemel's revolution, Turks living outside Istanbul were essentially Old World peasants.  Kemel, despite his destruction of much that was admirable in Ottoman society, brought these people into the modern world and gave them a self-respect and sense of unity and national pride they had never before experienced.  King quotes the chant that began each day of class in post-revolution schools -- a chant analogous to our own Pledge of Allegiance:

I am honest.  I am hardworking.  My code is to protect those younger than me, respect my elders, and love my homeland and my nation more than myself.  My quest is to rise higher and go farther.  May my whole life be a gift to Turkishness.

A little collectivist for our tastes, perhaps, but admirable and perhaps preferable to the rather meaningless Pledge our own students recite.

Istanbul was an important conduit for Jewish refugees from Hitler's holocaust on their way to Palestine.  The maddening paperwork required by national bureaucracies allowed all too few to complete the journey, but the way was made easier by the work of the Vatican's Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece, stationed in Istanbul -- an Italian named Angelo Roncalli (later known as John XXIII).  Msgr. Roncalli showed a far greater sense of compassion for the Jewish refugees, and urgency for their rescue, than that shown by Vatican officialdom, not hesitating to go beyond his instructions and beyond official Vatican policy in securing information about Jews trapped in Nazi-dominated states, and finding ways to effect their escape. 

 Midnight at the Pera Palace is a highly readable history that ably covers a large amount of material.  It focuses on the ways in which political, diplomatic, and military forces affected the lives of ordinary people, without failing to explain and investigate the nature and causes of those forces.  It reads almost too well to be a scholarly work, but the text is supported by voluminous footnotes at the end of the book, and by pages of bibliography.

An inspiring survey of an often ignored part of the modern world.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Noir


Three months ago, I discussed my reactions to having read Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.  I explained how a travel article investigating the "noir-ish" qualities of present-day San Francisco had led me to read the book that had later spawned the famous Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name.

I'd seen the movie before, but many years ago.  But last Thursday, I saw it again.  Thanks to the Seattle Art Museum's 37th annual Film Noir series, which a friend and I are attending.  If my reading of the book gave me flashbacks to my earlier viewing of the movie -- especially in my picturing of the various characters in terms of the film's stars -- viewing the film on Thursday gave me continual flashbacks to my reading of the book during the summer.

I often say -- read the book, skip the movie.  This time, however, the film so perfectly brings the book to life, with so little violation to either the letter or the spirit of Hammett's tale, that all I can say is read the book first, then see the movie.  Or vice versa.  It really makes no difference.

The Maltese Falcon is the first of nine movies to be shown in the series.  It's also the only one with which I'm familiar -- obviously my education in noir is only beginning.  The remaining films are:

Out of the Past
He Walked by Night
Abandoned
Shakedown
711 Ocean Drive
The Big Combo
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
House of Games


I look forward to my further initiation into the genre. I'm learning the rules: Trust no one. Especially not the Fat Man. Or the beautiful woman who throws herself into your arms.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Scottish independence


"Declaring that the UK was holding its breath as the people of Scotland make up their minds, Cameron said that voters should understand that their decision will be irreversible."
--The Guardian


Really?

Hey, I'm just a damn Yank, and it's none of my business whether the United Kingdom remains "united," or separates into four units -- England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland -- or even into all its constituent counties.  My love of novelty makes me kind of excited about the concept of Scottish independence.  (And maybe Scottish customs officials would be less rude than their present British counterparts?)  But my love of British history would also make me upset at such a break-up.

In the same way, I hated colonialism, but I also hated to see the Empire break up.  Such are the contradictions of the human heart.  Or at least of Rainier96's heart.

But back to the prime minister.  Is he really saying that Scottish independence would be absolutely irreversible, even if the Scots came to London, hat in hand, and asked to be re-joined?  The way a split atom of uranium 235 can't be tacked back together again?  Even though Mr. Cameron is now pleading with the Scots not to break his heart and go their own way?

 I care hugely about this extraordinary country, this United Kingdom that we have built together. I would be heartbroken if this family of nations we have put together – and we have done such amazing things – was torn apart.

So he says with one breath.  "But," he seems to be saying with the next, personifying Professor Henry Higgins,

I shall NEVER take her back! If she were crawling on her KNEES!
Let her promise to atone,
let her shiver, let her moan,
I'll slam the door and let the hellcat FREEZE!

No currency union with England!  No, sir!  We won't even allow the Scots to use the pound sterling!  No representation in Brussels (I assume).  Will England even vote against Scotland joining the United Nations? 

The British -- certainly the English -- have a worldwide reputation for equanimity.  I suspect they never mean "never" -- even when they say they do.  I hope the United Kingdom remains united.  If not, I hope the Scots thrive as an independent nation, within the Commonwealth and retaining their allegiance to the Queen. 

But if they don't thrive, and if their future leaders should walk quietly into Parliament at Westminster and seek reconciliation, I suspect that -- after an appropriate amount of sputtering and muttering and "I told you so"s -- the English would gladly welcome them back (as did Professor Higgins with Eliza), and re-unite with Scotland.

And they'd all live happily ever after.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Return to Laos


In 2007 -- the year I began writing this blog -- my nephew and I joined a group of about ten travelers for a visit to Laos and Cambodia.  Oddly enough -- as it now seems -- I never posted my post-trip impressions in my newly minted blog.  I did, however, post a number of photos -- and a photo may indeed be worth a thousand words.

We crossed the Mekong river by ferry from Thailand into Laos.  From that point, we visited the usual tourist destinations -- Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos; Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, and  Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia. We also hiked and bicycled through rural areas, visiting many small villages, shops and schools -- all in a setting of great scenic beauty.

Luang Prabang is the ancient royal capital of Laos.  It was a beautiful city, studded with temples and surrounded by forests and waterfalls and hiking trails.  We rented bikes and pedaled out of town to one of the waterfalls, and to a bear reserve.  At the time, I assumed that this was the first and last time I'd ever be in Luang Prabang.  I was wrong.

Next month, I'll be staying in Luang Prabang for ten days, visiting the partner of the same nephew I traveled with in 2007, together with my great niece Maury (who will be celebrating her fifth birthday while I'm there).  Maury's mom, after working for a number of years in Sonoma, has taken on an interesting job in Luang Prabang, working for an organization that promotes local handicrafts, especially textiles.  My nephew, at present taking post-grad classes in California to pick up his teaching credential, will join them at the end of the academic year.

In addition to seeing my relatives in their new environment, I'm looking forward to spending enough time in their beautiful city to pick up a feeling for its lay-out and tempo and daily life, a visit that will contrast with our rushed -- but certainly enjoyable -- visit to its major tourist attractions seven years ago.  Readers can anticipate hearing more about my visit in future posts.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Students playing ball


Over the weekend, two major universities -- Stanford and USC -- vied on national television to determine which could make the most costly errors and hand a football victory to its opponent.  It was close, but Stanford threw the final and determining interception.  The game, and my resulting disgust, are immaterial to the post that follows.  Only my mood has been affected.

The current issue of the Stanford alumni magazine contains a lengthy article entitled "Game Changer?"1  The writers discuss college sports from a number of angles. The article results most directly from the recent ruling by an NLRB regional director that the granting of university scholarships to Northwestern University athletes causes them to be "employees" of the university, entitled to unionization and to collective bargaining for employee benefits.  The ruling has been hailed by many as striking a blow against "exploitation" of college athletes for the financial gain of their school. 

The implications for college sports -- and especially for smaller schools and for the financial ability of colleges to support minor sports at all levels -- could be profound.  The hearing examiner's ruling is under appeal to the full NLRB, and probably will end up in the federal courts.  Athletes at other schools have brought lawsuits directly against their schools that are pending in various federal courts.  (In August, for example, a federal judge ruled in O'Bannon v. NCAA that certain NCAA rules prohibiting compensation to former student athletes for a school's use of their images constitute an anti-trust violation.)

The Stanford Magazine article discusses many of these implications.   The article also discusses a question that has long bothered me -- the relationship between a university and its athletic program.  I have suggested on occasion, more or less facetiously, that colleges should go the logical next step -- contract with professional teams and license their use of the university name and colors.  Alumni could then continue to cheer for their schools -- with the concomitant urge to make annual donations -- and the school could focus on educating its students.  Obviously, Stanford's administration has similar concerns.

Stanford's president, John Hennessy, notes that Stanford sympathizes with the problems faced by many student athletes.  But calling them "employees" is not the solution.

Hennessy says such a result would destroy much of what Stanford values about athletics.  Rather than fielding teams of students who represent fellow students and the university, sports like football would essentially become mercenary enterprises -- a professional minor league.  In that event, he asks, "Why become involved in it?"

My question, exactly.

Stanford has been "going along to get along" with the Pac-12 and the NCAA.  It has accepted compromises -- like adding a twelfth game to the schedule, and adding games on week nights -- with which it feels uncomfortable.  But the school has been walking uncomfortably close to a line it doesn't want to cross.  It sees itself in serious danger of being forced by future events over that line.  Failure to keep athletics subservient to a school's academic program

would likely rupture the currently warm relationship between students who are athletes and those who are not.  "Here we are, Nerd Nation," Hennessy says.  "But not if we're paying the players."

The article warns of possible changes to come, should changes in the balance between schools and their athletics programs continue in their current direction.

It might mean leaving the Pac-12 and throwing in with like-minded schools, probably other highly selective privates.  (Imagine a conference made up of, say, Stanford, Rice, Vanderbilt, Duke, Notre Dame and Northwestern.)  Or the Cardinal could simply play at the Division III level, where athletic scholarships aren't allowed.

Leaving the Pac-12, which in its various mutations has been the Cardinal's conference since the school's earliest days, would be a sad change for its students and alumni, as would the school's decreased ability to compete with Cal in the Big Game. 

But I, for one, would support some such move rather than have Stanford accept a view of the  "student-athlete" (already a euphemism) as a professional, a view that is already increasingly covertly accepted by other large schools across the country. 
--------------------
1Antonucci & Cool, "Game Changer," Stanford Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 2014.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

When the surfing was good


"The 'eighties'," he sighed.  "Hawaii was Hawaii then.  Unspoiled, a land of opera bouffe, with old Kalakaua sitting on his golden throne."  ...  "It's been ruined," he complained sadly.

It is mandatory for anyone who has visited Hawaii more than once to tell everyone within earshot, "It was so much nicer [or "uncrowded" or "romantic" or "authentically Hawaiian"] last time I was here!"

You won't be cured of such comments -- for of such is human nature -- but you may gain a little perspective from reading Earl Derr Biggers's 1925 detective novel, The House without a Key.  The novel, ostensibly about the solving of a Honolulu murder, is interesting to us today primarily for its extensive description of the physical and social world of Honolulu in the 1920s. 

Parenthetically, the novel also introduced to the world that master detective for the Honolulu Police Department, Mr. Charlie Chan.  Detective Chan's role in the novel (and in the following year's movie) was somewhat minimal, but his character spawned a series of five more Charlie Chan novels, a large number of Hollywood films, radio series on four different radio networks, a television series in 1956-57, and several series of comic books.  A cultural icon, obviously, but one largely forgotten today.

Biggers wrote his novel at the Halekulani Hotel on the beach at Waikiki.  The hotel's famous indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar has been named for many years the "House without a Key."  I haven't been able to determine whether it was named after the book -- a best-seller in its day -- or vice versa.  The murder and much of the plot takes place in the Waikiki mansion of a Honolulu businessman, an estate that seems to be located at or near the present location of the Halekulani.  The novel makes a point of the fact that the house -- like almost all Hawaiian houses at the time -- was never locked.

The novel reminds us that the 1920s were an era untouched by today's mass tourism.  Honolulu was reached by a week-long voyage by ship from San Francisco.  Everyone knew the arrival times of the next ships. 

Waikiki was a romantic stretch of beach, occupied by only a few hotels catering to the upper crust of American society -- primarily, in this book, at least, New England society.  Waikiki -- today merely a district of Honolulu -- was separated from the city proper by about three miles of rice paddies and other farmland.  A streetcar connected the two areas, and is frequently used in the book, even by the wealthy who owned their own cars. 

The hero -- John Quincy Winterslip, an impossibly young, strait-laced, and naïve thirty-year-old Boston banker -- has come to the islands to visit his Aunt Minerva, a middle-aged woman who the family fears has stayed too long in Hawaii and has succumbed to its lotus-eating charms.

Her mind strayed back to the Honolulu she had known in Kalakaua's day, to the era when the Islands were so naive, so colorful -- unspoiled.  Ruined now, Dan had said, ruined by a damned mechanical civilization.

Her wistfulness is a theme that runs throughout the book, a longing for a lost Hawaii, a longing that seems so strange to us now, living in an over-crowded era when Honolulu in the 1920s itself represents a long-lost paradise. 

A reporter covering the murder investigation sounds the same theme, discussing the harbor:

"As far as I'm concerned, the harbor of Honolulu has lost its romance.  Once this was the most picturesque water-front in the world, my boy.  And now look a at the damned thing!"  The reporter relighted his pipe.  "Charlie can tell you -- he remembers.  The old ramshackle, low-lying wharves.  Old Naval Row with its sailing ships.  The wooden-hulled steamers with a mast or two -- not too proud to use God's good winds occasionally.  The bright little row-boats, the Aloha, the Manu, the Emma.  Eh, Chan?  ...  oh, well, those days are gone for ever now.  Just like Galveston or Seattle.  Yes, sir, this harbor of Honolulu has lost its romance."

This is a book you can read and enjoy for its atmosphere, and for its sense of history.  You can ignore the rather dull and formulaic "mystery," as well as the controversy over the "racist" portrayal of Charlie Chan's smiling, outward appearance of passivity and his "ah so!" use of the English language.  Enjoy it for its atmosphere, and also for its striking reminder that the golden age always exists a generation or so earlier. 

To Biggers's characters of the 1920s, the golden age of Hawaii was that of the 1880s, just as the golden age of Paris for the young hero in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris was that of the 1920s.  And as a character in that film reminds us:

Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present... the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one's living in.

We know this to be true, as did Earl Derr Biggers in 1925.  But we don't care, because nostalgia for a golden age is so bitter-sweetly satisfying and fulfills so  well an apparent human need to believe that a better world is not only possible but was once, "for one brief shining moment," actually achieved.

Indulge yourself.  Remind yourself of a forgotten Hawaii.  It's a fast read.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Maui no ka 'oi


Watching sun set over Moloka'i
from our front deck

Hawaii.  February or August, Christmas or Memorial Day.  What's not to like?

For a couple of decades, my family -- under the benign matriarchy of my mother -- spent a week every couple of years at the same small condominium at Napili Bay on Maui.  Napili is a small bay north of the mammoth resort at Ka'anapali, and the first bay south of what is now a more restrained,  upscale golf resort at Kapalua.  Napili Bay is 7.5 miles directly across the sea from Moloka'i, the island behind which we watch the tropical sun set each night.  Lana'i is clearly visible just to the left of Moloka'i, as we look out to sea from the decks of our units.

All the "resorts" on Napili Bay are two-story condos, very low key.  The resorts at each headland are considerably larger, and more spread out over acreage, than the ones in between.  The living units in all the condominiums, from one end of the bay to the other, are quite similar, however.  On the north headland is the Sea House, a casual restaurant/bar, with both indoor and outdoor seating -- a short and frequent walk along the sand from our condo, which was located about midway in the curve of the bay's shoreline.

So much for the very pleasant lay-out of Napili Bay -- a lay-out that almost certainly will remain the same for years to come because of restrictive zoning.

My sister, her husband, and I did a reconaissance of Maui in 1978, a day excursion from Waikiki, where the entire family was ensconced at the old Halekulani.  Two years later, the entire family chose Maui over Waikiki -- never to return as a family, because of the Halekulani's "renovation" and "modernization" beyond all recognition.


Nephew Doug (9) and me on Waikiki in 1975

Looking at photos from past Napili vacations is to watch the family grow up.  Our first time there, my nephews and niece were ages 14, 7 and 3, and our daily routines were overseen by "The Bigs" -- my parents and my aunt and uncle.  

This time, earlier this month, the two nephews and niece were working their way into middle age, albeit a quite youngish middle age.  I had a third nephew who was rooming with me, and two new great nieces, now at an age to fully enjoy the beach.  "The Bigs" were no longer with us physically, although their shades haunted our memories and commemorative photos of their past visits adorned our condo walls.

Virtually the entire family -- 14 of us -- swarmed over to Maui on August 2, from up and down the West Coast. We returned, of course, to Napili Bay -- changeless in its charm and splendor.

It had been eleven years since my mother and her twin sister, our aunt, had passed away.  For eleven years, we couldn't bring ourselves to return to the bay where we had spent so many happy days together.  Until this year.  We realized we were now responsible for a new generation.  We wanted them to enjoy the beach we had enjoyed for so many years.  And we wanted to enjoy ourselves their enjoyment.

I suppose folks on the East Coast with a little cabin on Cape Cod or a home on Martha's Vineyard feel the same:  Returning to the same place, year after year, gives a strong awareness of the passage of time, of growth, and of death.  Our feelings were 95 percent positive, however, and even the memories of our departed elders were happy memories.

We missed you, Napili, during those years of our absence.  We'll make it up to you, however.  We'll be back soon!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rockin' and rollin'


Nature has blessed the Northwest Corner with three major earthquakes during my years here. 

The first one struck during lunch hour in third grade.  For reasons unknown, I somehow had my hands wrapped around a classmate's throat and was shaking her, when suddenly the shaking went out of control.  I recall running mindlessly and uncomprehendingly down the stairs, as hunks of plaster fell about me.

The second one began when I was in graduate school, living off-campus in the shadow of a newly constructed freeway.  I heard a large truck coming down the pike, a sound that grew louder and louder until it dawned on me that this was no truck.  It was  Earthquake 2.0 of my lifetime.  I tried to climb under my bed, which was awkward, because the bed was only about six inches off the floor.

The third earthquake, the so-called Nisqually quake of 2001, occurred during the morning while I was sitting in my office, fifteen floors above Fifth Avenue.  I felt suddenly queasy, a queasiness that increased as I watched the Medical-Dental Building across the street pass back and forth across my field of vision.  I spent most of the quake huddled under my desk.  In times of stress, my reactions  as a senior attorney were no more dignified than they had been as a third-grader.

In the years since 2001, scientists have reminded us repeatedly that the traumatic Quake of '01, although a 6.8 tremor, was a subduction earthquake, caused by small movements of tectonic plates some 32 miles below the surface -- as were the two earlier quakes.  We still await the "Big One" --  a sudden release of energy caused by "stuck" portions of the plates when they suddenly rupture and slide.  These ruptures occur in our area on an average of every 480 years (our last was in 1700), with the upper plate moving horizontally 10 to 30 yards in seconds, and built-up pressure on the upper crust being suddenly released, causing the land to sink.

Such a "tremor" could be a 9.2 in magnitude, lasting up to six minutes, with a loss of life of over 10,000.  The odds of such a disaster occurring in the next 50 years is "only" 10 to 15 percent.  But still.    

My predilection is to worry about problems rather than do anything about them.  Therefore, for at least a decade, I've occasionally awakened at 3 a.m. and worried about my house sliding off its foundation and becoming not only worthless, but a costly liability that the city would undoubtedly force me to clean up and remove.

Finally, however, as part of a general spiffing up of my property, I hired a seismic expert to come in and earthquake-proof my house.  (He refuses to use the word "earthquake-proof" -- there are no guarantees, he reminds me.)  After a day and a half of incredible noise in the basement, my foundation has been equipped with a large amount of snazzy-looking hardware, designed to hold the house on its concrete foundation, as well as some mundane-looking plywood designed to reinforce the "cripple wall" at the front of the house.

I feel much better.  The house may still fall apart.  I may still die of a heart attack from fright.  But at least the house will stay put on its damn foundation.  I'm mentally at rest.  I feel smug, in fact, eager to see my less prudent neighbors' houses fall apart should the Big One occur within my remaining years.

The work was completed Friday.  This morning, at about 3 a.m., California suffered a fairly significant earthquake (about 6.1), centered not far from Sonoma, where many of my family members live.  No reports of any damage from any of my relatives, but -- in my anthropomorphic way -- I assume that the Earthquake Gods -- infuriated by my attempts to frustrate them in Seattle -- are taking out their vengeance on my family elsewhere.

It's a nice, sunny day in Seattle.  Enjoy your summer.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Music in the park



Classical music of all kinds nowadays is supposedly elitest.  But chamber music is the elite of the elite, often shunned even by those who may enjoy a Beethoven symphony or a Strauss tone poem.

The Seattle Chamber Music Society performs both a summer and a winter season for those who enjoy "that sort of thing."  Its summer season, concluding this week, consists of twelve chamber concerts, performed over a four week period in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall.  Tickets are $48, considerably more than a movie or a baseball game or other form of entertainment.  Even so, most or all performances are sold out.

But the Society also performs an occasional, free outdoor performance.  Tonight was such a night, and a beautifully warm and balmy night it was.  The concert took place in the outdoor theater area of Volunteer Park.  The area was crowded with viewers -- often barefoot and in shorts, sitting on blankets and camp chairs, sometimes eating picnics while they listened.  They didn't find themselves patronized by small orchestral versions of the William Tell Overture or the Nutcracker Suite.  Two distinct quintets of performers played meatier stuff -- Mozart's Clarinet Quintet and Beethoven's String Quartet in C major.

Because the performance was outdoors, amplification was necessary.  Obviously the sound lacks the quality of an indoor performance in a hall with excellent acoustics.  But the sound quality was quite good under the circumstances.

The crowd was hushed and attentive, even rapt.  Some of the younger children were running around the fringes of the audience, but no one talked, no one laughed, no one (so far as I could tell) texted or emailed, no one even chewed loudly.  It was an excellent audience for two excellent, well-received performances.

So much for "elitism."  Chamber music may not be to everyone's taste, but given the opportunity many will willingly listen and enjoy it, especially in an informal setting.  Thanks to the SCMS for giving us this opportunity.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Looking back


Thomas Cole: "Voyage of Life"

I've held seven American passports in my life.  That's not quite as bad as it sounds; passports used to be valid for shorter periods than they are now.  Still, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since my first passport at the age of 20.

Some author -- I wish I remember who -- wrote that few things are so depressing to an older person as to examine and compare each of his passport photos, studying them in chronological order.  Yup -- been there, done that.  It ain't pretty.

I was reminded of my passport photos -- although as documentation of the process of growing up, rather than breaking down -- when I saw Richard Linklater's film Boyhood this past weekend.  With amazing persistence, he filmed his movie over a twelve year period, while his star, Ellar Coltrane, aged from 6 to 18.  The boy's aging is seamless.  As one scene moves to the next, Ellar gradually grows older.  All his life, Ellar will have that movie as the ultimate in home movies of his childhood -- a more sophisticated evidence of the aging process than is my succession of passport photos.

And -- totally unrelated causally to my viewing of Boyhood on Friday -- I've spent this weekend reviewing decades of my photographic slides, posting representative samples on Facebook.  A week ago, I ordered a scanner to digitalize slides, and it arrived on Friday.  Having a new toy has filled my life with new purpose, you betcha!  At least until I get bored playing with it.

In any event, posting slides taken over the decades -- but mostly during my twenties, thirties and forties -- has given me another form of the Boyhood "passage of years" experience.  Fortunately for my viewers, most of the photos aren't of me.  Many are of friends with whom I've traveled and hiked.  Many also are of relatives as small children, relatives who have since grown up into parents who have their own pages on Facebook.  Many of the photos, sadly, are of relatives who are no longer with us. 

Regardless of each photo's subject matter, the swift passage of time is an obvious, if unintended, subtext to my Facebook gallery.

But I'm not depressed.  I enjoy reviewing my photos, sharing them on Facebook, and reading the comments they elicit.  Other people often see different things in photos from those you, the photographer, see.  And even if the changes to myself and to my friends aren't always encouraging (or flattering), they're certainly always interesting.  If time is a rapidly flowing river, which we navigate as we head for the open sea, it would be a waste to lock ourselves in our stateroom, refusing to observe how the scenery changes as we pass through it.

As any traveler recognizes as he mulls over his travels -- there's no such thing as a "bad trip," even when the destination is disappointing.  All travel is fascinating.  And especially, the great voyage of life itself.

Friday, July 25, 2014

"Horrendous brutality"


The State of Arizona took nearly two hours to kill convicted murderer Joseph Wood by a combination of drugs that were never intended as agents for human extermination.  The "botched" execution, if that's how it can be described, most probably marks but one more step along the path to eventual abolition of the death penalty.

Alex Kozinski, the conservative chief judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a well-publicized dissenting opinion to an order denying a procedural motion, ignored the specific legal issue before the court and delivered a philosophical dissertation on the nature of the death penalty itself:

Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.  [citations omitted]  But executions are, in fact, nothing like that.
They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality.  Nor should it.  If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.
If some states and the federal government wish to continue carrying out the death penalty, they must turn away from this misguided path and return to more primitive—and foolproof—methods of execution.  The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos.  And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps.  The firing squad strikes me as the most promising.  Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time.  There are plenty of people employed by the state who can pull the trigger and have the training to aim true.  The weapons and ammunition are bought by the state in massive quantities for law enforcement purposes, so it would be impossible to interdict the supply.  And nobody can argue that the weapons are put to a purpose for which they were not intended: firearms have no purpose other than destroying their targets.  Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood.  If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.

Judge Kozinski states eloquently the mental processes of those supporting the death penalty. 

The traditional reasons given for criminal punishment, including the death penalty, are:
1.  Retribution
2.  Deterrence
3.  Incapacitation
4.  Rehabilitation
Studies have shown that the death penalty doesn't deter.  It obviously can't rehabilitate.  It certainly does incapacitate, but so does life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  This leaves retribution as the sole objective.

Judge Kozinski may (or may not) be hoping that his vivid description of legal killings -- "the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad" -- will crystalize in the public mind exactly what executions do, and thus lead to public revulsion.

Maybe.  But every time someone is arrested for murder, or even for much lesser offenses, I see an outpouring of on-line sentiment for punishments far more exciting and gruesome than death by firing squad.  "Death is too good for him/her," is the predominant theme.  If the accused is a young male, one commentator after another rejoices over the possibility that the accused will be subjected to repeated rapes once he's inside prison walls.  For sexual offenses, castrations in novel and blood-curdling fashions are strenuously and lovingly recommended.

Punishment by the state was originally designed as a substitute for private "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" reprisals by the victim's family. These reprisals often led to lengthy blood feuds that interfered with the king's desire for a stable civil society.  The only legitimate justification for preserving the death penalty, in my mind, would be an analogous attempt to satisfy the overwhelming desire for revenge represented by these disembodied internet voices, voices that howl for ever more blood and pain and long, lingering deaths.

But I suspect that these internet voices represent a small but noisy subset of the entire population.  I hope so.  I would be nervous if I felt I were rubbing shoulders daily with the shuffling zombies from which these voices seem to emanate.

The death penalty serves no legitimate purpose in a civilized society.  Few countries that we consider "developed" still feel a need for capital punishment.  Even in America, it is only in certain states -- states whose identity you can predict without much thought -- that the death penalty remains popular and frequently used.  We don't need to submit to the peculiar -- in every sense of the word -- tastes of those elements of society.