Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Grass always greener


For millions of years, the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate has been burrowing like a mole under the North American plate.  At present, it's crawling eastward at only about a half inch per year, but over millions of years, those half-inches do add up.

The result -- in addition to many earthquakes -- has been the Cascade Range with its series of volcanic outbursts.

Last week I flew down to Santa Rosa to meet up with family.  Clouds covered the route over  Washington and Oregon.  But the clouds were high clouds and my plane -- a turbo-prop -- was flying at a much lower elevation than would a jet.  The clouds were above us, and the scenery was below.

The scenery was the Cascade Range, in all its February glory.  I was sitting at a window on the right side of the plane, and watched as one by one the volcanic peaks marched by -- brilliant snow cones and crags, rising out of forested hills.  First, of course, right out of Seattle, was Rainier.  Then Mt. Adams.  Then St. Helens, the mountain that served as the beacon of my childhood -- now, shrunken and devastated, a giant snow-lined crater scooped out of its once symmetrical cone. 

As we crossed the Columbia river into Oregon, the sharp peak of Mt. Hood (photo above) came into view.  Then Mt. Jefferson, and finally the complex of peaks known as the Sisters.

I gazed out my airplane window, realizing that, if I lived anywhere else in the world, I'd be willing to pay a heap of money to come visit this snow-peaked paradise.  And yet, there it lies all about me and -- for most days, most of the year -- I take it all for granted. 

Back in Seattle, I'll glance at Rainier out of the corner of my eye and shrug as I stroll along, daydreaming of walking through Central Park in New York.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A girl's life


Mary McCarthy, whose novel, Birds of America, I discussed last week, was a leading American author and intellectual, with deep roots in Seattle.  In my prior post, I indicated having earlier read her autobiographical Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.  I've since discovered that I "misremembered" (as the word currently in vogue expresses it) having done so.  At most, I merely skimmed portions of it that interested me at the time.

McCarthy, born in 1912, was the granddaughter of Harold Preston, co-founder of the Seattle law firm that later claimed William Gates -- father of Microsoft's Bill Gates -- as a named partner.  Preston's wife was Jewish, at a time when being Jewish was a matter of some social importance.  Her father's family was Irish.

As she recounts in her Memories, both parents died of influenza within days of each other in 1918, while on a family visit to Minnesota leaving McCarthy, age six, and her three brothers orphans.  Her Minneapolis relatives, on the McCarthy side, farmed the kids out to an aunt and uncle who "cared for them" in scenes of Dickensian cruelty and neglect.  When she was eleven years old, grandfather Preston got wind of what was going on, and brought Mary back to Seattle.

While her early years are unsettling to read, her personality as a girl rather than a victim began to bloom during her years at Seattle's Forest Ridge school (since moved across the lake to Bellevue), under the tutelage of strict but caring nuns, the "Ladies of the Sacred Heart."  It was while at Forest Ridge that she "lost her faith" -- not because of mistreatment or intellectual ferment, but almost by accident: she craved more attention from nuns and fellow students, and decided that a spiritual crisis might secure it.  In trying to prove to a skeptical priest the reality of her overnight conversion to atheism, she actually succeeded in talking herself into believing that which she thought she'd been only pretending to believe.

After eighth grade, Mary attended Garfield high school -- my own neighborhood public high school -- for her freshman year, with disastrous consequences academically.  Being in daily contact with boys made algebra and composition seem tedious by comparison.  Her grandparents whisked her off to Annie Wright's -- an Episcopalian girls' school in Tacoma -- for the remainder of high school.

Mary McCarthy is a fine narrative writer -- humorous, detailed, and unexpectedly compassionate to the people who surrounded her in her youth.  She was clearly a brilliant child, with an underlying rebellious streak.  Although popular at times, she was something of a loner.  She feels she must have possessed some qualities, something odd, unknown to herself, that prevented both faculty and fellow students from ever quite accepting her as one of themselves.  She recalls specific students and teachers with both fondness and contempt -- but always with care.

She brings to life long-forgotten eras of education.  Memorably described was the play -- written by her stern Scottish-born teacher -- based on the Roman struggle between Cicero and Catiline.  Presented to Annie Wright's students and their parents, it featured a female Cicero presenting, from memory, Cicero's first Cataline oration:

"How far, at length, O Catiline, will you abuse our patience?  To what ends does your audacious boldness boastfully display itself?"

How far, at length, Miss Gowrie, [interposes McCarthy], could you abuse their patience?  Cicero's oration lasted thirty-one minutes by Miss Gowrie's watch.

And the play had barely begun.  Mary played Catiline.  As she recalls the performance, her interpretation of Catiline's response, which she decided upon on the spot, was a tour de force -- one that brought the audience to its feet, in "thunderous applause."  Well, maybe, Ms. McCarthy.

McCarthy, despite her life-long atheism, avoids the common habit of blaming her Catholic upbringing for any adult woes or inhibitions.  Instead, she is pleased with the strong academic foundation it provided, and she recalls "with gratitude ... the sense of mystery and wonder" she absorbed.  Because of both the decade in which she lived her youth -- the 1920s -- and the other-worldly ambience, foreign to today's readers, of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, McCarthy's Memories call to life an alien, and yet oddly alluring, world.

As though in anticipation of this week's clamor over "misremembering," my edition also includes McCarthy' lengthy post-publication discussion following each chapter, analyzing the points about which her memory may have been mistaken, where she had deliberately reshuffled events for narrative purposes, and where she had presented possibilities or probabilities as certainties.  Taken together with the original text, the result is a book the combines the best of both documented history and historical fiction.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Nature is dead, mein kind.


Peter Levi is a tall, awkward, strongly introverted, nineteen-year-old.  He is the son of divorced parents: a college professor and a concert pianist. 

Peter lives within his own head, while yet trying to understand the world in which he lives in 1964 -- his story told against a background of the civil rights movement, increasing homogenization of American daily life, a "junior year abroad" in France and Italy, and the gradually intensifying war in Vietnam. 

Throughout, he endeavors to live his life according to Kant's "categorical imperative" -- "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." 

Peter can be obstinate, frustratingly single-minded, painfully self-conscious, strangely innocent, and often irritating.  He is also eminently loveable, a boy you'd be pleased to have as a son or nephew.

He is the creation of Mary McCarthy in her 1965 novel, Birds of America -- a book I read soon after it was first published, and just finished re-reading today.  My acquaintance with Ms. McCarthy goes back to undergraduate days, when her essays on Florence, published over time in the New Yorker, were assigned reading in a class on Renaissance history.1  I later read her memoirs of her childhood in Seattle.2  But by 1971, McCarthy was best known as the author of The Group, a scandalous (at the time) best-seller that followed eight young women after graduation from Vassar.      

From a scholarly painting of Renaissance life to a controversial sex novel -- Mary McCarthy's interests and talents were diverse.  In Birds of America, she contemplates -- through her hero's bewildered adolescent eyes -- the tension between democracy and elitism, between mass culture and the life of the individual, between the conflicting demands of humanity and nature.

The book has no plot, as such.  In the early chapters, Peter and his mother move back to Rocky Port, a coastal village in Massachusetts, as a sort of closing chapter of their unusually close, almost Oedipal relationship. Peter eagerly awaits his return to Rocky Port, and has flashbacks to his earlier stay in the village, back in "the old days" (when he was 15!), a time when life was recalled as wonderful -- especially the birdlife and other natural aspects of the coast. 

Now, however, four years later, everything seems degraded.  A beloved owl has disappeared, as have some favorite cormorants.  A highway has been cut through.  His mother, a prototype of today's amateur cooks, finds everyone eating canned and frozen food.

Except in the field of civil rights, he was opposed to progress in any direction, including backwards, ... and wanted everything in the sensuous world to be the same as it had been when he was younger.

The later chapters examine Peter's experiences while a student in Paris at the Sorbonne.  Anyone who visited France in the 1960s will recognize Peter's problems with the peculiarities of French bourgeois culture, food, and customs.

He sat hunched in his corner -- Peter Levi, noted misanthrope.

Peter, at least, is able to speak fluent French. 

Like many of us back then, he finds the French almost impossible to meet, and falls back on American expatriate life -- and finds his fellow Americans appalling.  (His Thanksgiving, as the guest of a NATO-based American general, is wickedly funny -- especially the host's belligerent insistence that one of his wife's guests -- a vegetarian student -- dig into a plate heaped high with a real American turkey dinner, with all the fixin's. And her passive-aggressive efforts to withstand his bullying.)

I recall once telling a fellow undergraduate that I was fascinated by Europe during the Middle Ages, when only the rare adventurer ventured much beyond his own village -- when no one knew quite what you'd find only a few miles down a winding road.  He was appalled at my "romanticism."  But Peter would have understood.

So arriving in a strange town by yourself with just your guidebook for a compass is the nearest equivalent we can find to being alone with Nature, the way travelers used to be in the Age of Discovery.

"Nature" is thus conflated with aloneness, with discovery, with thinking and feeling, and is contrasted with mobs of people, with mass civilization.  Peter later attempts to explain to an unsympathetic academic adviser he unfortuately ran into in the Sistine Chapel that art can only be understood and loved in solitude -- not while being led about by a group guide.  He suggests limiting admission to overcrowded museums by a combination of competitive art examinations and lottery.  His adviser denounces his opinions as undemocratic and elitist.

When I say that the novel has no real plot, I'm also suggesting that Peter's interior thoughts, a lengthy letter to his mother, his discussions with peers and adults, all present at some length what I assume to be Mary McCarthy's own thoughts on a number of subjects.  This in no way indicates that the book presents an ideological diatribe, however.  Mary McCarthy is not a liberal Ayn Rand.  Peter's personality would not permit him to be made use of in that manner.  Although he is stubborn and persistent, he is also subject to continual self-doubt.  He not only encounters well-presented arguments against his positions from others, his own mind is in constant ferment as it develops and presents its own counter-arguments to Peter's own deepest and most cherished beliefs.

Birds of America is a novel of ideas discussed less with an intent to persuade than with a love of playing with them for the sake of playing.  It is also a humorous study of a boy who's an unusual young "bird" himself and -- for us today -- it's a nostalgic reminder of what life was like in the simpler and more innocent mid-twentieth century.

Peter Levi -- boy philosopher -- receives his most profound and devastating insight not from his teachers, his friends, or his own conscious reasoning.  At the novel's conclusion, while delirious from an infection, Peter receives a visitor.   His hero, Immanuel Kant, appears at his bedside, bearing an unsettling message for Peter:  "Listen carefully and remember.  ...  Perhaps you have guessed it.  Nature is dead, mein kind."
-----------------------------
1Collected in book form and published as The Stones of Florence (1956)
2Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Petrified


Last night, it happened again.

I woke up about 4 a.m., noticing both my cats noisily jumping off the bed and dashing elsewhere.  I lay there for a while, thinking various thoughts about various subjects.  Finally, I decided to get up, get a drink of water, and see what the cats were up to.  But I couldn't.

I felt entirely weighted down by my light electric blanket, as though I were covered by a pile of heavy quilts.  I could make only slight movements of my legs.  Try as I might, I couldn't swing my legs over to the side of the bed and stand up.

"Sleep paralysis."  I quickly realized exactly what was happening.  As I lay in bed helplessly, I even knew the term for it.  But, as is the case so often in life, understanding the problem didn't solve it.

As a kid, I often had the same experience, often accompanied by nightmarish sensations that someone -- a burglar, perhaps -- was in the room with me.   I was petrified, unable to defend myself.  Those youthful experiences are very common, according to Wikipedia.  Folklore in virtually every culture is full of stories of nightly terrors, a sleeper awaking paralyzed and in the presence of a ghost, a hag, a demon, a witch, a djinn.  Or, in modern American folklore, an alien intruder.  The intruder is often pictured as sitting on the sleeper's chest, or in some other manner preventing him from moving or escaping.

Fortunately, although I still occasionally experience sleep paralysis, it's now rarely accompanied by nightmares.  Even in my paralytic state, I understand the cause.  I'm more frustrated and irritated than frightened.

Sleep paralysis is believed to occur when a sleeper passes from a period of REM sleep -- during which he dreams and his body is prevented from moving so as to avoid acting out the dreams -- and a waking state.  Usually this transition is managed in an orderly fashion, but sometimes the REM paralysis continues for a time after the sleeper becomes conscious of his surroundings.

I usually try to fight my way out of my predicament by struggling to move my legs over the side of the bed and stand up.  Sometimes, after heroic efforts, I succeed; sometimes I instead drift back into sleep.  Last night, I seemed to struggle endlessly.  Finally, I felt I had succeeded.  I walked out into the hall looking for the cats, still worried that they were chasing around after mice or other tiny intruders downstairs.  But when I walked into the hall, I discovered both cats sleeping peacefully, side by side, like two young children, bundled up warmly in what appeared to be small sleeping bags.  I decided that all was well.

I awoke some time later.  I am able now to conclude, quite reasonably, that -- despite what I believed at the time -- I had definitely returned to sleep and to renewed dreams.

Whether scary, irritating, or merely a bit humorous, awaking while paralyzed is a peculiar and confusing experience -- regardless of how many times one's gone through the experience in the past.  I recently read an account of a boy who had, for unknown reasons, lay in a coma for ten years.  During most of that time, he was fully conscious of everything that was going on and being said about him.  But he could make only the tiniest movements with his muscles, movements too slight to be detected until he was finally examined closely by a trained professional.

The boy spent ten years in a state of frustration and despair.  I totally sympathize.  Five minutes of "sleep paralysis" is sufficient to give me a glimmering of what he went through.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Into the Pamirs


January is the month when I look back over the prior year's travel -- gazing longingly at my photographs -- and, pulling myself together, resolutely turn my thoughts to the year ahead.

About a year ago, I advised you, my readers, that I was planning a trip to Xinjiang -- a northwestern province of China, home of the Uighurs, and the scene of some on-going separatist unrest.  It was to be a somewhat relaxed, non-strenuous tour of cities and villages throughout the region.  But, the press carried word of several terrorist events and -- to my chagrin -- I turned out to be the only person to sign up.  The trip was canceled.  I traveled elsewhere.

Once again, I'm looking at that part of the world.  But this time, a bit farther to the west, into the lower Pamir ranges bordering Tajikistan (where I hiked in 2013) and Kyrgyzstan.  We would be mixing with both the Uighurs, especially down on the plateau before and after the actual trek, and, in the mountains, with Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and other ethnic groups of Central Asia. 

We would be engaged in actual trekking for about seven days, with our highest overnight stay being at 16,700 feet elevation.  We would be sleeping some nights in our own tents, and other nights in village huts, hosted by the local people.  Unlike my trek to Tajikistan, our cargo transport on this trip would be by Bactrian camels, rather than by donkey. 

If we go, we will spend a couple of nights before and a couple after the trek in Kashgar -- an ancient market town (grown considerably, I understand, in recent years) on the old Silk Road.  A stay in Kashgar would have been a feature of last years aborted trip, as well.

I've been planning to do the trip with a seventeen-year-old niece -- the same young woman with whom I hiked England's Lake District in 2012 -- and I still hope to do so.  Unfortunately, she managed to fall from a climbing wall in November, and tear her ACL.  She is due for surgery on Tuesday.  Her surgeon feels that she will be fully capable of making this trip -- but I am awaiting his post-op evaluation before signing us up.

Maya, my niece, assures me that she is "a seasoned hiker/trekker," and that trekking will not subject her knee to the same kind of risks of re-injury that activities like soccer might.  Actually, assuming her doctor gives her the go-ahead, I'll be less concerned about her abilities than my own.  My muscle strength and wind below 10,000 feet are as good as ever (I keep checking up on myself!), but over the past few years, I've noticed myself slowing down at higher elevations.  As long as no one gets upset with my arriving at destinations five or ten minutes after the rest of the group, I should do fine.

The excellent news about this proposed hike is that the trekking company already had six customers signed up several weeks ago, and it needs only a minimum of four (maximum of 14).  So -- whether or not Maya and I are aboard -- this trip is a go.

So.  Get those camels rounded up.  I'm eager to head into the Pamirs, come July!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Shame


I grew up in a small town, up here in the Northwest Corner.  The fathers of most of my classmates worked at union labor in mills -- in mills producing lumber, paper, or aluminum. 

Many of my high school classmates -- especially those who remained in my home town -- have led lives that seem, to me, somewhat narrow and unadventurous.  And yet, as I read their own accounts every five years in reunion class books, I realize that they themselves find their lives to have been happy, satisfying, and warmly family-oriented.  Their self-respect is obvious.

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, arrived in high school nineteen years after me.  He also was born and reared in the Northwest Corner, in Yamhill, Oregon (only about 80 miles across the Columbia river from my own home town).  His column tomorrow is a tribute to one of his own classmates, Kevin Green, who died this month at the age of 54.

Nicholas served as his high school's student body president and newspaper editor, en route to a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa career, followed by a law degree from Magdalen College, Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.  Kevin, like his dad, stayed in Yamhill, working at blue collar jobs. 

But, as is usually the case in small towns, the two boys knew each other well in high school.  They took vocational courses together.  They both belonged to Future Farmers of America.  And -- as shown in the photo -- they were teammates, running cross country together.

Unlike most of the guys from similar backgrounds who I knew in high school, things didn't go well for Kevin after graduation.  Those nineteen years had made a radical difference in small town life in the Northwest.  The union  labor jobs that ensured middle class lives for my classmates were drying up.  Kevin went from job to job, on a downward spiral, as one business after another closed, in and around Yamhill.  He became injured and was laid off.  His girl friend left him, taking their two sons with her.  His health deteriorated.

Some of his problems were exacerbated by his own poor decisions.  But most of us make our share of poor decisions.  Reading Kevin's story, it's obvious that the root cause was the changing economy of the  Northwest Corner -- and of the nation in general. 

It could have been worse.  Because of his physical disabilities, federal and state government provided various forms of financial assistance.  But government couldn't provide Kevin with self-respect.

Kristof's column essentially laments the lack of empathy by the well-off for the lives and problems faced by those left behind -- and that is a point well worth making, especially because it affects profoundly our nation's political decisions.  

But there's another problem I see, one that is systemic rather than personal.

Go to India.  Go to rural Africa.  Or South America.  You will find far more poverty, as we understand it, than you will in America.  And more poor health.  But -- and I don't mean to exaggerate --  among the poor who have at least enough to eat and a roof over their heads, you will find many people leading happier lives than you might, perhaps, find in Yamhill, Oregon.  And I think the reason is self-respect.

Because of our own history and, perhaps, our lingering Calvinist philosophy, Americans have done a wonderful job of making poverty a moral failing.  In our efforts to build an economy by laissez-faire economics, we have not been satisfied to reward "success" with money.  We have found it necessary also to punish those who can't, or won't, succeed financially by heaping scorn and shame upon them.  By denying them self-respect.  Maybe we don't even realize what we're doing, but we have countless little ways of humiliating those to whom we feel financially -- and thus morally -- superior.

And I don't know the answer.  Government programs can take the edge off poverty.  Jobs programs, if they worked as intended, would give back some self-respect to those who benefitted.  But I don't know how the government can help change the mindset of those of us who look down on fellow citizens -- and that's a change that needs somehow to be made.

Kevin died of various ailments, problems that stemmed back from his inability to work.  And his eventual inability to get even poor paying jobs stemmed from his various ailments.  And his sense of shame fed into both his inability to work and his failure to manage properly his own health.  He was caught up in a vicious circle, a vicious circle that is all too familiar to too many, in most parts of the country.

I have trouble diagnosing just what went wrong in that odyssey from sleek distance runner to his death at 54, but the lack of good jobs was central to it. Sure, Kevin made mistakes, but his dad had opportunities for good jobs that Kevin never had.

If Kevin's life were an isolated tragedy, it would be tragedy enough.  But it's not.  His life ended up as a life of desperation -- one that's repeated innumerable times across the face of one of the wealthiest nations on Earth.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Opinions from the La-Z-Boy Recliner


These people are not my heroes. They've done nothing but a feat of athleticism. What good does it do, ultimately? Can we not have any priorities?
--Letter to editor, New York Times

Caldwell and Jorgenson's climb of El Capitan's Dawn Wall has drawn gasps of admiration and hearty congratulations from around the world.  It has also drawn the predictable negativism.

At this point, the New York Times alone has published 343 reader comments on the accomplishment, comments presenting all possible points of view in a generally more literate manner than comments found on, say, Yahoo News.  I won't try to analyze the competing arguments.

Except to say that if "what good does it do?" is the decisive question, we toss away many of the more exciting moments of life, and sneer at many of our humanity's finest aspirational instincts -- our instincts as a species, if not necessarily those possessed by each individual. 

Why fly to the Moon or to Mars?  Why climb Everest?  Why run a marathon, or a 10k?  Why swim the Channel?  Why sail solo from America to Tahiti? 

Maybe the complaints are less about the activity itself than about the barrage of publicity given the climbers' success?  "Let them have their fun, but why should anyone else be expected to applaud?"

As one NYT correspondent commented, a funny argument to hear coming from a people so totally focused at present on the NFL play-offs.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Faux spring


Today is January 14.  Just two weeks ago we celebrated New Year's Eve.  More than half of January's normally dreary month still lies before us, threatening the Northwest Corner with snow storms, constant rain, days both dark and short, and that sense of general malaise that sends those with time and money south to brighter climes for the duration.

And yet, for the past three or four days, we've enjoyed beautiful, sunny days.  Not warm -- in the 40s during the day, the 30s at night -- but sunny.  The shade's been chilly, but the sun's felt warm and comforting.  The sky, deep blue.  The snowy mountains have shone sharp and crisp, both to the west and to the east.  Mount Rainier looms to the south, its ridges and couloirs sharpened by long shadows, as the sun rides low on the horizon.

It's January, and yet pleasure boats  pass back and forth between Lake Washington and the Sound.  Not sailboats, not yet, but power boats with warm, cozy cabins.  As I cross the University campus, I see varied sartorial approaches to the winter sun.  Most students are dressed like me -- a parka, or at least a warm fleece jacket or hoody.  But many others wear shorts.  Some -- probably not California transplants -- even sport cotton t-shirts.

I suspect those wearing shorts or t-shirts of magical thinking.  "If I dress as though it were spring, spring shall appear."  And yet Mother Nature does indeed offer hints that -- January or no -- spring does indeed lie dead ahead.  My secret flowering tree, just outside the Mechanical Engineering Building, serves annually as my own, private Climatic Oracle -- it's the first bloom I sight each year, the harbinger of Spring.  Yep, a tiny bud bursting into flower foretells the future, to my eyes, with less ambiguity than any sooth telling at Delphi.

And on Monday, two days ago, incredibly early, its first bud burst into bloom.

And so, I can't help it.  Ground Hog Day still lies almost three weeks in the future, and yet my thoughts already lightly turn to thoughts of Spring.  If this be Global Warming (I rejoice), let Los Angeles or Miami suffer its ravages.  In Seattle, I for one welcome Spring in mid-January.

Recklessly joyful, I turn to the weather report.  Oh.  Rain tomorrow!  Rain through the weekend!  Temperatures in the forties, day and night. 

Silly me.  Should have known better.

Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.  Proverbs 37:1.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Hollow Land


Eight-year-old Bell Teesdale watches with wonder when a family of Londoners -- "talking South" -- arrive to rent his parents' farm house.  "There's not owt for 'em here.  What's use of a farm to them?  Just for sitting in.  Never a thing going on." 

The visitors get off to a rocky start with their summer landlords -- the older visitors do, that is, but not their 5 or 6-year-old son Harry.  When the Batemans are about to cancel their vacation because they find the sounds of haying too noisy, Bell watches the younger boy.

I sees this little lad, Harry, looking out of his bedroom window and I catches his eye.  And somehow I know he's all right, this one, London boy or not.  I know he understands how we have to make all this racket to see hay cut ahead of rain.

The boys become fast friends, the Batemans end up staying -- and returning year after year -- and the ensuing stories revolve about the boys' friendship and adventures, as they age year by year, into their early teens.

Diligent followers of my blog will recall that, in 2012, my niece and I hiked some 70 miles through England's Lake District.  We climbed fells, jumped over becks, walked beside tarns, crossed meadows, and enjoyed the rain.  We talked to other hikers; we exchanged pleasantries with innkeepers.  What we didn't do is talk to the folks who lived in the Lake District and who made their living from pursuits other than tourism.

Maybe in the Lake District, everyone makes his living from tourism?  I don't know. 

But I now know something of how folks live in Westmoreland, the former county (now absorbed into Cumbria) immediately to the east of the Lake District.  After reading a laudatory review in the New York Times book section, I purchased and have just finished reading Jane Gardam's achingly beautiful collection of stories entitled The Hollow Land, published in 1981 in England and now published in America.

Most of the stories have the shadow of a plot -- being trapped in a mine (the title refers to how the village and the Teesdales' farmland, rising up into the fells to the east, are built over a honeycomb of abandoned silver mines); visiting a scary old woman who sells eggs (the "Egg-Witch"); listening with a combination of scepticism and fear to local ghost stories, while outside the English rains beat down without mercy; a long bike ride and hike through bitter cold, at Bell's urgent insistence, to behold a wondrous display of icicles, icicles that raise philosophical questions in the youngsters' minds; a run-in with gypsies, who prove scarier by reputation than they are in person. 

But these plotlines serve primarily as devices for the author to describe with intensity and in detail the awe-inspiring beauty and the eccentric characters of the inhabitants of this corner of Westmoreland.  She shows, without editorializing, how city dwellers -- including the Batemans, until they become acclimated -- zoom through life in a daze, failing to observe the wonders about them that are so obvious to the shepherds and farmers of the countryside.  Not even professed lovers of nature -- trail hikers -- are exempt from Bell's boyish scorn:

They walk in clumps -- great fat orange folk with long red noses and maps in plastic cases flapping across their stomachs.  Transisters going sometimes too, and looking at nowt before them but their own two feet. 

I  think back over my own hikes in Britain.  I can only hope I seemed different!

But it's not just the beauty of nature that Londoners ignore, and it's not only how the land serves harmoniously to raise crops and graze sheep and cows.  What is equally important to the families who live here -- and whose ancestors have lived here from time immemorial -- is the history they have inherited.  And if the history at times includes questionable horrors and terrifying ghosts -- the combination of history and legend and folk tale is a force that binds them to the soil and to each other.  

Mrs. Teesdale and Mrs. Bateman set out for the antique shop about half past two.  It was only a few miles over Stainmore, over the wonderful old road the Greeks and Celts and Romans and Vikings, Angles, Saxons, and the odd Jute had used before them more adventurously.  Ghost upon ghost haunts this road from Greta Bridge, where a spirit got caught under a stone and twice they've had to put her back; to the blue ghost you can see sometimes on bright sunny afternoons near Bowes, the wife of a Saxon lord still wearing her Saxon dress, but without her head; to the white ghost near the old mines who walks quietly in her apron.

Londoners may have their transistors and their holidays on Spanish beaches; what they have lost is the richness of a life unself-consciously enmeshed in history and in nature.

The final chapter jumps ahead twenty years to 1999, when Bell and Harry have become adults, and when the flow of petroleum has for unstated reasons dried up.  Horses, railroads, and steam engines are again of critical importance.  But the paradise of the Teesdales' world is threatened by a figure who represents all that endangers the family's happiness and their orderly world  -- selfishness, rapacity, and an unthinking hunger for mineral wealth that gladly and willingly sacrifices both history and nature.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Decision by rationalization


Why in heaven's name would I need an iPhone?

As I'd often remarked to whomever would listen, watching eyes glaze over: --"I have a perfectly good clamshell cell phone.  At home, I have a good PC, with wide screen and printer.  I'm in the house most of the time, within steps of my PC.  I often forget to take my cell phone with me when I do step out, because I make so few calls and receive so few calls.  If I do receive any calls that aren't solicitations, they'll leave a voice mail and I'll call them back within a few hours of their call.  And if I can't be bothered to carry a small cell phone in my pocket, what am I going to do with a humongous iPhone?"

And I had watched relatives who had once scorned the idea of a smart phone become addicted as soon as they got their hands on one.  All conversations then became subject to immediate interruption the moment a new email or text message arrived.  That image itself was enough -- almost -- to settle the matter in my own mind.

How would an iPhone improve my life?  Especially when it would cost so much more? 

Then, on my trip to New York in November, I managed to lose my cell phone.  One piece of my carefully constructed argument was missing.  What now?  Should I replace my antique cell phone?  "Why not replace it with a crank phone and just ring up Central to place your calls?" an evil voice in my ear whispered?  Or should I, to use AT&T's honeyed phrase, "upgrade"?

I'm being rational, I told everyone.  I'm sticking with my good old Nokia.  I laughingly explained my situation to my vast audience of Facebook friends.  Am I not right, I asked rhetorically.  "No," they shouted back, non-rhetorically.  "Get the iPhone!"

I went back to the AT&T webpage (no way would I subject myself to a salesperson at a store).  I compared prices.  I'd be doubling my monthly phone charges.  But I'd get a huge discount on the purchase price of the phone itself if I committed myself to a two-year contract.  (As if I'd ever take the initiative to change phone plans within two years in any event!)

I caved in.  With one click on-line, I signed up.  Within three days, my iPhone arrived in the mail.

I activated it.  It's sleek, black, and devilishly handsome.  The images are amazingly sharp and the color is excellent.  While the quality of photos I take with it doesn't match those I take with my SLR camera, it works well enough for on-the-spot snapshots when I'm not carrying a camera. 

I haven't added any apps.  I can do nothing to date that I couldn't do before.  Was it worth the cost?  Maybe.  Spontaneous photos are cool, and I can upload them immediately to Facebook or email them.  Constant access to Facebook and emails is sort of a silly benefit, for a guy in my situation, but it's fun.  I can reply to texts quite easily; it was a painstaking process with my old phone.  These are all fairly marginal benefits, at a somewhat significant price.

But it does actually slip into my pocket just as easily as did my old cell phone.

Maybe the real justification is one that's embarrassing to admit.  I've evaded, for the moment, the quiet, unnerving suspicion that I wasn't "keeping up."  That new technology and its lingo were racing past me.  That I was becoming the old codger who crank-started his Model T after everyone else had automatic transmissions and power steering, shouting, "Why pay all that money for a new car when old Betsy works just fine?"

And now another little voice, the one named "Buyer's Remorse," whispers in my ear, now that it's too late, "Maybe that old codger was on to something!"

Friday, January 2, 2015

The trumpet sounded forth


He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
--Battle Hymn of the Republic

On April 9, 1865,  General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.  The North had won, and the Confederacy had been defeated.

Since then, the Confederacy has more or less taken over Abraham Lincoln's Republican party, forced its values on the federal government, and defined itself as the True Voice of Christianity.

And established its universities as bastions of football glory.  Its coaches bragged, and the media agreed, that Southern teams were different -- faster, stronger, more clever.  Invincible.  Until yesterday.

By defeating Alabama, Ohio State yesterday ended a series of nine straight years during which at least one Southeastern Conference (SEC) school played for the national championship.  Oregon destroyed and humiliated Florida State, a southern school from a different conference.  Michigan State beat Baylor, from Texas, with the MSU band, in the background, playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  And down in Tampa, Wisconsin defeated Auburn, Alabama's cross-state SEC rival.

On New Year's Day, 2015, Southern football fortresses fell one after another -- defeated by northern and western teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12.  It was glorious!  Hallelujah!

The South will rise again, of course.  It seemingly always does. But for one perfect day, its teams were forced to beat their swords into ploughshares, and surrender once again to those damn Yankees.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another year


So 2014 drags itself to a pathetic close. What kind of year was it?  Not much to write home about.

Not as bad, perhaps, as 1814, when the British burned the White House.  The Republicans never quite achieved that level of  malevolence.  Nor as bad as 1914, when the combined stupidity of the "civilized nations" managed to result in a war that ended civilization for the middle class as it had until then existed.

But it wasn't a great year.  Climate change and increased volatility of weather.  Vladimir Putin -- the leader of a nuclear power whose judgment, if not mental stability, seems more and more in question.  Ever increasing partisanship and gridlock here at home.  Ever increasing chaos and hatred overseas, especially in the Middle East.  Terrorism, no longer just an extreme statement of deeply felt political beliefs, but a pursuit that some individuals seem to enjoy for its own sake.  Airline crashes and other disasters, natural or accidental.

I can't see any trends of improvement as I look forward to 2015 -- but then I'm not sure things will be worse, either. 

At least the Seahawks are in the NFL playoffs, and, of course, that's really all that matters, right?

While the world seemed in bad shape in 2014, my own life was very enjoyable.  Trips to Africa and to Hawaii with family.  A visit to Laos to visit my great niece and her mom.  Excellent health (knock on wood!).  A piano to play, books to read, and a blog to write. 

The disconnect between personal happiness and world dysfunction is disturbing, when I think about it.  How many Roman citizens were leading happy, rewarding lives while the barbarians -- largely ignored -- were at the gate?  How many Virginians worried about the success of the tobacco crop while the British were burning Washington?  How many bright English kids were excited about starting university studies at Oxford and Cambridge as the war began that would send them all to their deaths in the trenches?

Worth thinking about, but there's nothing wrong in looking forward with a dash of optimism, as well.  Let's hope 2015 will see the world as a happier place than we anticipate on its Eve. 

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"When I Was a Dynamiter"


Me at 14, visiting Lee in Wilmette.
Oddly, I can't find a photo
of Lee himself. 
I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?
--"Stand By Me" (narrator)

If we're lucky -- whether boy or girl, rich or poor -- we had one or two friends as kids with whom we were so close that we took our friendship for granted.  Sometimes we keep these friends for a lifetime.  More often, however, we move apart or drift apart as years go by.  Years later, we look back and wonder whatever happened to good old so-and-so.

If in your declining years, your childhood friend writes a memoir that reawakens distant memories, you're doubly lucky. And even luckier if the memoir illuminates not only your friend's personal life, but also the life of his entire generation and of his country.

My friend's name was Lee Quarnstrom, and his memoir, available from Amazon, is entitled When I Was a Dynamiter.  To briefly summarize, Lee was an early member of Ken Kesey's "Merry Pranksters," a friend and confidant of beatniks such as Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, a tramp, a wanderer, an editor of Hustler magazine, a buddy of Hustler owner Larry Flynt and of journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  And, in later years, a reporter, a columnist, and an editor for the San Jose Mercury News.

Lee's book is described in fuller detail on the Amazon website, and in readers' enthusiastic reviews on that website (including my own).  If you have any interest in America in the 1960s, and/or in the fascinating folks who lived during that era -- I urge you to buy the book, or download it on Kindle.

As I did myself, in part for those very reasons.  But reading the book also brought back happy memories of my own childhood. 

Lee and I met in kindergarten, and shared the same classroom every year through fourth grade, after which he transferred to a newly-opened parochial school.  Because we lived just a few blocks from each other, however, we continued to see each other almost daily.  In sixth grade, his family moved to Bethesda, Maryland, and later to Wilmette, Illinois.  They returned to his home town each summer, however, and Lee and I spent much of each summer hanging out together.  When we were 14, I traveled to Wilmette and spent three weeks with his family, a dramatic episode in my own life that reinforced my already strong inclinations toward becoming a compulsive traveler. 

We took each other's family for granted.  We were in and out of each other's house, ate each other's food (I don't recall his mother's being the cook from hell described in his book), and treated each other's parents as the pleasant but vaguely irrelevant individuals that they were.  His dad was city editor of our local newspaper, county coroner, and two-time unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress.  I was fully aware of all this, but not impressed.  He was just Lee's father, a guy with an inexplicable fascination for heavy-weight boxing matches.

We visited for the last time as kids at the age of 15, the summer following ninth grade, when he spent a couple of weeks at my house, before and after attending Y Camp at the base of then-still-intact Mt. St. Helens.  I enjoyed our visit, but as I look back I can see the first intimations of diverging lives -- the first time it had occurred to me that he was an extravert and an adventurer, while I was an introvert with a much more cautious personality.

But nothing of that troubled our friendship between 5 and 15.  The wonder of childhood is the ability to spend hours happily without -- as you look back -- being able to recall what you'd been doing.  We were both excellent students -- top two kids in our class -- and we were both obsessively verbal.  And so we talked -- a lot.  We played endless games of Monopoly, with innovative rules of our own devising.  We traded with each other, as his memoir reminds me, from our vast collections of comics ("funny books"). We developed stamp collections that we treated as competing empires, but empires that maintained trade relations with each other . 

Neither of us had any interest in team sports, a lack of interest that by fourth grade or so would have thrust us both out of boyhood society, but for our redeeming qualities.  Such as -- of course -- our mutually outlandish senses of humor.

Lee spent our older years together trying to convert me to his own religious faith, while at the same time -- I now learn from his memoir -- he was already drifting away into indifference at best.  But as Scott Fitzgerald reminds us: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  Ironically, he may have planted the religious seeds that took root in my own mind several years later.

We wrote each other, occasionally, following that fifteenth summer.  At the end of our junior year, we learned, to our surprise, that we had both been selected chief editor of our respective high school newspapers.  Journalism ultimately became Lee's career.  I eventually became an attorney, but journalism probably had a lasting effect on the way I think and -- sometimes -- the way I write.  I saw him once while in college, and received a few letters from him over the years.  He once sent me a column he had published in the Mercury News, re-publishing a column his dad had allowed him to write in third grade for the Longview Daily News.  The column included his youthful observations of my own third grade peculiarities. He named names.

Lee and I met in person for the first time in years about six years ago.  We've kept in touch virtually every week -- the wonders of email!  -- ever since.  He's still smart; he's still funny; he's still nuts.  I had good taste as a kid in my choice of friends.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Memories of seventh grade past


Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo
'Cause tonight I'm gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun we'll have big fun on the bayou.


I've just emerged from the shower, and am in the midst of preparing for my Christmas trip to Southern California, where I'll get together with my brother's family, including my niece and 4-year-old great niece. 

But while showering, I found the melody and some of the words to "Jambalaya" going through my brain, and then, as often happens in the shower, on my lips.  It took me back to seventh grade, when "Jambalaya" was one of the first "pop tunes" to which I recall really listening.  I had been only vaguely conscious of popular songs in sixth grade, and by eighth grade my interest was already fading.

But in seventh grade, in a new school surrounded by a different socio-economic mix of classmates, I felt -- probably for the first time -- the need to "fit in," the force of peer pressure.  I insisted that I needed to own more sweaters, in the then-popular pastel colors.  And they had to be "Columbia Knit" sweaters -- the only acceptable brand name -- because other guys greeted you by grabbing the back of the sweater and flipping it over to check out the manufacturer. 

Similarly, I listened obsessively to the radio, because all the talk every Monday was of the latest line-up of the Top Ten tunes of the week.  The official listing -- as eagerly anticipated as today's AP rankings of college football teams -- was announced to the nation on "Lucky Lager Dance Time" -- which could be received in the isolated Northwest Corner only by carefully dialing in powerful KFBK in Sacramento.

Your mother was crying
Your father was crying
And I was crying too ...


And I was close to crying myself, listening to Patti Page sing "I Went to Your Wedding."  At my first seventh grade dance, boys and girls who already knew what was what were dancing a bouncy swing dance called the shag to a modern rendition of "Glow Worm" -- probably unaware that their grandparents had courted to the same song.  I, on the other hand, was still falling all over myself trying to master a slow two-step.

Don't let the stars get in your eyes
Don't let the moon break your heart
Love blooms at night
In daylight, it dies.


By eighth grade, the "typical teenager" stars in my firmament were fading.  My stolid Scandinavian confidence in my own geeky interests and pursuits was becoming re-established, and by the dawn of ninth grade my craving to conform -- although never completely dead -- was clearly moribund.  It was fun to have a short experience of being a true teenager, or at least appearing as one, as "true teenagers" were then viewed.  Luckily, it was a phase I passed through quickly.

Vaya con dios, my darling
Vaya con dios, my love.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lift up your voices


Until about my fifteenth birthday, I could sing soprano.

I suppose it's not so amazing that I could sing soprano as it is that I could sing.  In my first year or so of piano lessons, I was required to count as I played -- "one-and two-and three-it-is-a four-and."  I couldn't keep myself from singing the count, at a very high pitch, along with the music.  My teacher looked pained, as though he had a splitting headache.  He warned me that I would ruin my voice.

He was right.  But not until I turned 15.

Within a few months, not only did my voice deepen, but my range dropped to about half an octave.  Where it has remained to this very day.  Now, when forced into group singing, I chant the words in a monotone, as softly as possible, hoping to annoy my neighbors as little as possible.

I so ruminate over the sad history of my voice, because I've been recalling how much I enjoyed singing at school concerts at this time of year when I was in fifth and sixth grades.  We were divided, as I recall, into soprano, second soprano, and alto.  Participation in these concerts was nothing we auditioned for.  We all sang, our entire class, canaries and crows alike, both in school assemblies and in a public performance for the entertainment and joy of our proud parents. 

I enjoyed every song we sang, and I don't recall ever worrying about staying in tune.  (What I felt and what the chorus director might have felt may have differed, of course.)  By seventh grade, however, "chorus" was a separate class composed of kids with a special talent for -- or at least interest in -- singing, and my days of public warbling were over.  We non-chorus and non-orchestra dolts continued to have "general music" classes through eighth grade, in which we sang together for our own amusement, but we were not allowed to threaten outside audiences with our efforts.

Our fifth and sixth grade Christmas concerts included both secular and sacred seasonal songs.  By "sacred," I certainly don't mean Bach and Handel, but traditional carols, of a sort familiar even in a logging town.  And by secular, I mean "Rudolph" and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas."  No one ever distinguished between the two categories.  We kids certainly didn't.  The songs were all just "Christmas music." 

Now, of course, I doubt whether public schools are permitted to offer explicitly "Christmas" concerts.  A quick Yahoo search doesn't result in any such concerts, at least as presented to the general public, by the Seattle public schools.  The far greater religious diversity of today's population probably makes the offering of any such concert problematic.

But Christmas choral music by kids lives on, at a very high quality, in the Northwest Boys Choir, which offers a "Festival of Carols and Lessons" each year at this time.  Performances are given at a number of area churches, leading up to a couple of performances at St. Mark's Cathedral, and, finally, at Benaroya Hall downtown.  I haven't attended this year, but have occasionally in years past.  The experience is breathtaking, and only faintly similar to my fondest memories of our fifth and sixth grade concerts.

The "Festival" is based on Anglican services at King's College, Cambridge.  Boys alternate giving seasonal readings from scripture, and singing traditional English carols.  As I recall, the service takes place in a darkened church or auditorium, lit by candles.  Attending the performance is an excellent way to get into the "Christmas spirit," and I can't understand why I haven't gone this year.

Most of us will never possess as adults the purity of tone and range of pitch we had when we were 12 or 13, but the "Festival" gives us a chance to relive that experience vicariously, as well as to appreciate listening, as adults, to beautiful seasonal music sung to very high standards.