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 in 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.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rage against the machine

"Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." (Orange Catholic Bible)
--Frank Herbert, "Dune"

The interconnectedness of events is often surprising.  Last month, I wrote a post ("A bad idea abandoned") about the removal of the final reminders of a "bad idea" -- the once-proposed R. H. Thompson freeway.  The freeway was to have paralleled I-5 on the east side of Seattle. For the past month, construction workers have been removing access ramps between east-west State Route 520 and a freeway that was never built.

Today, I read a disconcerting article in the New York Times discussing the manner in which automation results, and will continue to result, in ever-increasing unemployment, unemployment that appears structural, not cyclical.  Fewer and fewer jobs exist that can't now be, or won't soon be, handled as well or better by a computer.  For the first time in modern history, technological advances may create a permanent, rather than temporary, decrease in the number of human workers required by society. 

How will we handle a world in which wealth is increasing, but a smaller and smaller percentage of the population are wage earners?

Interesting and important questions, but where did I find an "interconnectedness"?

Science fiction writer Frank Herbert presented, in his Dune series of books, a civilization that had adapted to a form of Luddite revolution -- the "Butlerian jihad" -- thousands of years earlier.  A religion had evolved out of that jihad, based largely on the commandment barring artificial intelligence quoted above. 

Frank Herbert -- one of our own Northwest Corner writers, residing in Port Townsend, Washington -- named the jihad after a fictional historical character in his story.  But he adopted the name "Butler" after one of his own real life buddies, an attorney from Stanwood named Frank Butler. 

And what did attorney Butler do that inspired Herbert to use his name?  Correct!  Before becoming an attorney, Butler was a community organizer who  helped set in motion the popular revolt that eventually led to the cancellation, in 1970, of the R. H. Thompson freeway.

Frank Butler is still very much alive according to Bar Association records, and still practicing law in Stanwood.  He thus has a dual claim to the attention of history -- (1) a moving force in prevention of a freeway that would have marred a large portion of residential Seattle, and (2) as a consequence, the inspiration for Dune's eponymous "Butlerian jihad." 

Well done, Mr. Butler.

Caution:  In researching this post, I have been unable to find any reference to Butler's campaign efforts against the R. H. Thompson, aside from a Wikipedia cite to an article in the Everett Herald in 2000.

Friday, December 12, 2014

All good doggies go to heaven

Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.
--Pope Francis

Pope Francis is learning the same sad lesson that American politicians have learned:  In an internet world, nothing is "off the record."  Words of consolation to a grieving child have stirred up world-wide theological controversy.  A lengthy article analyzing those eight (in English translation) words is at present the most e-mailed story out of the New York Times.

Animal lovers square off against theological conservatives, as well as against lovers of logic and just plain skeptics.  So if Rover goes to heaven, many ask, what about mosquitoes?  What about Ebola viruses?  Plants?  Do we all need to be vegetarians?  What if plants have souls, too -- must we starve to death?

Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, historically has displayed an irrepressible urge to pronounce on matters that have not been revealed in revelation and that are not necessary for salvation -- based solely (no pun intended) on what, in the applicable century, was at that time considered sound logic.  (Check with Galileo on this topic.)

I hope this issue won't result in another such pronouncement.

Why does it matter whether dogs, cats, or protons go to heaven?  It matters no more -- and is less interesting -- than the question of whether intelligent life in a distant galaxy will end up there.  As for those NYT correspondents who say they don't want to go to heaven if they can't have their cat join them, as well as those who claim that heaven would be hell because of their allergy to cat hair -- just relax, ok?

Things are going to be different in heaven.  Assuming we meet the admission requirements, so will we.  Radically different.  My pastor once addressed an analogous question -- I think it was how a woman could put up with being married to more than one guy in heaven, when she had remarried after being widowed -- by saying, essentially: "Don't be an idiot.  No one knows what the afterlife will be like.  We will be living in a totally different plane of reality."  Christians simply have been advised that they'll like it.

Everyone who upsets himself on either side of the "dog in heaven" controversy should read science fiction.  Not because science fiction will give you any answers, but as a way of limbering up your imagination and helping you realize that the nature of ultimate reality -- to paraphrase a famous physicist -- may be not only stranger than you imagine, but stranger than you can imagine.

So, don't sweat it.  I'm convinced that all will work out for the best, whatever the "best" might be -- not just for us humans, but for dogs, mosquitoes, redwood trees, and viruses.

Even Ebola viruses. Assuming they've been good Ebola viruses.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The cranes are flying

In Seattle, today, not all is well behind the glossy surface. The shops are crowded with shoppers, but actual sales are reported to be unnervingly poor. Towering buildings are being erected by mobs of hard-hatted construction workers -- but, if you notice, no new construction has begun within the past six months, maybe even a year. The streets at lunch hour are packed with office workers, but each day the newspaper carries stories announcing new lay offs.
--Confused Ideas from the Northwest Corner (Dec. 8, 2008)

Yes, it was just six years ago tomorrow that I looked about me and contemplated the likelihood that we were entering a deflationary spiral, one that had already been anticipated by the virtual cessation of all downtown Seattle construction.  The lights, I felt, paraphrasing Sir Edward Grey, were going out all over Seattle.

By 2008, I should have fully internalized the lesson that I first formulated in my small brain back in college -- the lesson that things are rarely either as good or as bad as they seem at any given moment.

As I look around Seattle today -- and this has been true for the past year or two -- I see a virtual forest of building cranes.  The commercial building boom is most noticeable in the South Lake Union district, immediately north of the traditional downtown, but is evident throughout the entire downtown area, and up onto the heights of Capitol Hill.  South Lake Union's dynamism has been spurred largely by Amazon's continued expansion, with three entire blocks adjacent to the retail core being developed for the behemoth's world headquarters. 

But skyscrapers are springing up elsewhere, everywhere -- office buildings, hotels, condominium and apartment buildings.  Moreover, we are witnessing an impressive increase in retail stores and restaurants, opened by businessmen eager to support present and future workers, guests, and residents in these new buildings.

The New York Times published a full page travel article on Seattle last month, offering enthusiastic recommendations for restaurants that didn't exist a year or so ago.

I need to keep my mantra in mind -- it's never as good, as well as bad, as it seems.  Seattle and the Puget Sound area are booming, but much of Washington away from the Sound still suffers from a permanent loss of its traditional logging, fishing, and shipping industries.  And the nation as a whole still suffers from massive unemployment -- with many of the unemployed educationally unprepared for new jobs in the new technological economy.

But life is looking good for most of us in Seattle.  Caution about the future is always important, but so is enjoyment of life at the present. 

The lights have come back on, all over Seattle.  Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Visitors from afar

One drawback to life in the Northwest Corner -- I suppose that some of you might instead consider it an advantage -- is that we do in fact live in a corner, and thus off the mainstream routes of American intercity travel.  No one drops by for a visit, as he passes through Seattle on his way to somewhere else.

Visiting Seattle or Portland requires an element of real determination, in some folks' mind -- like travel to Africa.  Or, at least, England.

For Californians, coming north across the Siskiyous into Oregon and beyond represents travel into a great, unknown, empty, green and moldy wetness.  For Easterners, even those who no longer fear sudden Indian raids, it's a heck of a long trip across the prairies.  Even flying over the prairies.

So, I was happy to have three members of my family up for Thanksgiving.  My sister, like me, was born and raised in the Northwest, and so lacks some of the fear and trembling that apparently seizes non-natives.  Clinton and their adult son are Californians through and through but, over the years, have grown accustomed to brief forays into our local fishing villages and lumbering towns, our potlatches and bar brawls.

So the three drove up, and arrived on Tuesday.  We celebrated mother and son birthdays that night at a downtown steak house (now-Californian Kathy has retained certain atavistic cravings from her less sophisticated childhood).  We did some in-town hiking under gray and threatening skies at Seward Park -- a large and still forested Seattle city park.  My guests cheerfully (fully aware of my inept cooking abilities) took on the responsibility of preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, large enough to feed most the city's homeless, for the four of us.

And, on Friday, we had a light dinner downtown, and then took the monorail out to McCaw Hall in the Seattle Center where we watched Pacific Northwest Ballet's first 2014 performance of the Nutcracker

In 1983, PNB commissioned Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) to design new sets for a complete re-working of the familiar Christmas ballet, and has presented that production annually ever since.  It was Sendak's and the PNB's artistic director's decision to return to the ballet's roots in the original story by E. T. A. Hoffman.  Sendak felt that the oft-repeated ballet had become boring and predictable, and he hoped to re-emphasize the more unsettling aspects of the story.  He has written that, as usually performed, the ballet

is smoothed out, bland, and utterly devoid not only of difficulties but of the weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece. 

Unfortunately, this year will be the last in which the Sendak sets and the associated choreography will be presented.  Next year, PNB will perform the more traditional 1954 Balanchine production.

We had seen PNB's Nutcracker exactly ten years ago, and loved it then.  I liked it even more Friday night, maybe because I knew I'd never see it performed this way again.  The sets were, of course, dramatic.  The battles between toy soldiers and sword-bearing mice were exciting enough to keep the kids -- of whom there were many in the audience -- wide awake.  Drosselmeyer -- the young heroine's god father and a local magician -- was one-eyed, strange in appearance and behavior, and interested insistently enough in all the small children on-stage to create a feeling of unease in the adult members of the audience. 

Overall, the production was often funny, always beautiful, and well-danced by both adult and child members of the cast -- all without losing that sense of the weird, the dark, and the eerie that Sendak and PNB's art direction had hoped to achieve.

The ballet was a highly successful conclusion to a very welcome visit by my relatives.  I was sorry to see them leave town and return to the lotus-eating pleasures of their California lifestyle.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


You're always learning something new.  Sometimes, if you're lucky, something new about yourself.

I'd never heard of "synesthesia" until this past month, while reading a YA novel.  To the narrator, every letter appeared in his mind as having a specific color -- the letters appeared so involuntarily -- and always the same color for each letter.  And because words were spelled with letters, every word had a different coloration.

The whole word takes on the colour of the first letter, really, but the other letters retain some of their own colour too.  In the case of Oxford -- with two terra cottas, a dove grey x, a pale green f, a bright red r, and a dark brown d -- the other letters don't do much to modify the first letter.  But take another word, and the effect is different.  England, for example, is lilac, coral, fuchsia, bright orange, pale yellow, coral, dark brown.  The whole word takes on a lilac tint, but I can still see the orange and yellow and brown.1

A person with this form of synesthesia would obviously have a richer sense of words and (as shown in the novel) of their spelling than do the rest of us.

I thought that was all certainly interesting, but a condition totally foreign to my own colorless existence -- until I did a little on-line research into the phenomenon of "synesthesia."

While synesthesia, when known about at all, is most commonly associated with the color form described above, there is also a "number form" of synesthesia.  According to Wikipedia:

A number form is a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms thinks of numbers. Numbers are mapped into distinct spatial locations and the mapping may be different across individuals.

The article suggests that the condition may result from a cross-activation between the portion of the brain responsible for numbers and that responsible for spatial relationships. 

These number forms can be distinguished from the non-conscious mental number line that we all have by the fact that they are 1) conscious, 2) idiosyncratic (see image) and 3) stable across the lifespan.

The image to which the article refers is that reproduced at the top of this post.

If I had been a cartoon character, a small light bulb would then have appeared above my head.  I was -- I am -- synesthetic!

Since my earliest days as a child, numbers have appeared in my mind as laid out in a complicated set of loops.  They start out from 1 to 12 more or less like the numbers on a clock -- and as in the illustration -- but then continue in circles within circles within circles.  Centuries are laid out in a different manner, and -- as I now realize -- laid out in a vague manner over the map of Europe.  So that 300 B.C. is in Greece, 300 A.D. is in Italy, and the low and high Middle Ages work their way up through France and England.  Days of the week are in a simple circle, counter-clockwise, with Sunday at the "top" of the circle.  Months are laid out in a different circle, clockwise, a circle that seems pitched more "horizontally," while the days of the week are laid out more "vertically."  Letters of the alphabet are arranged in an order that I could draw for you, but that would be difficult to describe.

The spatial lay-out is conscious and automatic, whenever I think of a number.  It's idiosyncratic -- other members of my family have very different mappings.  And it has been the same for me ever since I can recall (with the association of centuries with countries no doubt developing gradually over time as I learned about history.)

Weird, huh?   And yet I've always assumed everyone had similar "maps" in their mind -- mainly because most members of my family do.  It must be a genetic trait.

Some friends, who I now realize are "normal," have listened to my descriptions with some puzzlement, responding that, in their imagination, days and months and years just go on and on in a straight line, one after another.  I always thought this was a little strange, and I couldn't understand how they could organize temporal occurrences in their minds with so boring a spatial layout.  But they do.  Obviously.  And their "straight line" isn't really experienced as a spatial layout in the same sense as mine.

Anyway, so I'm weird and my brain's wired oddly.  But it seems normal to me.  I only wish I had color synesthesia.  Now that really is weird.  And definitely pretty cool!
1Robin Reardon, Educating Simon (2014)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Decline and Fall

To most Americans, Evelyn Waugh is known, if he is known at all, as the author of Brideshead Revisited, a nostalgic look backwards from 1945 to an earlier, idyllic and idealized England as perceived through the lens of Oxford student life and the upper class world of one of the great country homes of England.

As I discussed in a post in 2008, the underlying theme of Brideshead, over which its portrayal of an opulent society was something of a golden gloss, was theological -- in fact, explicitly, Roman Catholic.  This religious aspect was downplayed to some extent by the excellent and popular PBS series and, later, by the less successful Hollywood film.

But before Brideshead, Waugh's reputation was of a rather smart satirist of contemporary life, politics and morals during the 1920s and 1930s.

For no particular reason, I've just finished reading his first novel, Decline and Fall, written in 1928.  Waugh's tone in that book is, I would say, humorously mordant -- and certainly neither nostalgic nor pious.

Decline and Fall is an account of, well, the decline and fall, of the feckless young Paul Pennyfeather.  Briefly, Paul -- a quiet and studious theology student at a fictional Oxford college -- finds himself surrounded one night by a mob of drunken students on campus who, for their own amusement, remove his pants, forcing him to run for cover.  He is apprehended and "sent down" -- expelled -- for public indecency.  Desperate to support himself, he takes a position as an instructor at a small Welsh "college" -- prep school -- of questionable academic reputation.

While there, he falls in love with the glamorous mother of one of his students, who, days before their planned marriage, sends him on a business mission to Marseilles.  Paul discovers all too late that his fiancée's "business" is ownership and management of an international chain of brothels.  He is arrested, and his best friend from Oxford actively prosecutes the case against him.  His story, because of his relationship with his famous and well-loved fiancée becomes a national sensation.  They throw the book at him as an example to others.  He is sentenced to years of hard labor in prison.

Paul's most notable character trait is his mildness.  When asked why he left Oxford, Paul repeatedly states, without amplification, that he was sent down for "indecent behavior."  Fortunately, this charge hardly disqualified him from teaching school.  As he was told during his interview:

Well, I shall not ask for details.  I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal.

When arrested for unknowingly furthering a major prostitution ring, he admits guilt in order to protect his fiancée; when, while in prison, he is advised that the good lady plans to marry another man, he agrees that she is too fine a person to ever survive in prison.  He agrees not to  attempt to secure his own release by implicating her in any way.

In the hands of another writer, this story might conceivably have been presented as a rather shaky tragedy; for Waugh, on the other hand, it is all the grist of farce -- a mere framework on which to display the author's humors and prejudices and witty writing.

For example, look at how the English headmaster of Paul's Welsh prep school portrays the country in which he now finds himself:

From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people.  It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity.  Their sons and daughters mate freely with sheep but not with human kind except their own blood relations. 

The townspeople do nothing to rebut the headmaster's view of them as the British equivalent of stereotypical Kentucky hillbillies:

There was a baying and growling and yapping as of the jungle at moonrise, and presently he [a Welsh musician] came forward again with an obsequious, sidelong shuffle.

"Three pounds you pay us would you said indeed to at the sports play."

But the Welsh are only an incidental target of Waugh's scorn.  It is the English upper classes who are most ridiculed -- effectively if less broadly.  The Oxford "club" members who caused Paul's expulsion are portrayed in a manner that puts to shame the best efforts of American fraternity members on a warm Friday night:

It was a lovely evening.  They broke up Mr. Austen's grand piano, and stamped Lord Rending's cigars into his carpet, and smashed his china, and tore up Mr. Partridge's sheets, and threw the Matisse into his lavatory.  Mr. Sanders had nothing to break except his windows, but they found the manuscript at which he had been working for the Newdigate Prize Poem, and had great fun with that.  Sir Alastair Digby Vaine-Trumpington felt quite ill with excitement, and was supported to bed by Lumsden of Strathdrummond.

Somehow, I suspect I'm giving my readers an impression that Decline and Fall is a thoroughly unpleasant book.  They will have to take my word for it that, in fact, it is a very funny book.  It would be even funnier if we today had a clearer picture of some of the excesses of British society that are being satirized -- but we certainly can catch the general drift.

Waugh, who could with some fairness be described as a reactionary snob, was asked in later years how he -- a Catholic convert -- could reconcile his chronic unpleasantness with his profession of Christianity.  His reply is famous:

You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.

To his credit, Waugh did make some effort in Decline and Fall -- after chronicling poor Paul Pennyfeather's steady decline and freefall throughout the entire novel -- to avoid total nastiness by cobbling together a "happy" ending in the final chapter.  After conveyance of tactfully presented bribes originating with his former fiancée, Paul is surreptitiously whisked out of prison, his death is feigned, and he slips off to Corfu to bide his time.  He returns with a mustache and re-enters Oxford as a freshman.  He doesn't even bother to change his name.

Not even the mustache was really necessary.  Paul Pennyfeather had been a mild student, and as such he returns.  No one much remembers him, or pays attention to his return.  He happily and mildly goes back to his religious studies.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A bad idea abandoned

Weird groaning and scraping noises awoke me and my cats about 3 a.m. Saturday morning.  They continued until dawn, leaving me puzzled and somewhat nervous until I finally fell asleep.  I figured it out once I got up. The noises continued and became even louder, stranger, and more threatening yesterday.

I realized that I'd been listening, through the still night air, to the long-delayed death throes of the R. H. Thompson freeway.

Back in the 1950s, even before I-5 had been built through the downtown, Seattle city planners had decided eventually to build a second north-south freeway, this one through the eastern, residential side of the city.  They planned to name the freeway the "R. H. Thompson," in honor of the early city engineer responsible for leveling Denny Hill -- a pleasant downtown vista, crowned by the ornate, recently-opened "Washington Hotel" -- by use of high-pressure water hoses, leaving behind a flat, uninviting, and undeveloped area of parking lots for the appreciation of generations to come.

The freeway would have come up from Renton, followed Empire Way (now Martin Luther King Way), cut through the cherished Washington Arboretum, connected with then proposed east-west State Highway 520, tunneled under the Montlake Cut to University Village, and continued northward to Lake City.  Voters approved bonds to build the freeway in 1960.

To me -- and, eventually to the majority of city voters -- the most devastating aspect of this proposed route was what it would have done to the long, narrow Arboretum.  The freeway would have cut through the length of the Arboretum, and have passed roughly a hundred feet in front of my house -- although, had it been built, I doubt if I ever would have moved here. 

As noted in a 2001 HistoryLink essay, as the 1960s progressed, city residents observed the enormous disruption to city residences and topography caused by construction of the I-5 and I-90 freeways.  Environmentalists and civic activists protested vigorously.  In 1970, the city council removed the freeway from the city's comprehensive plan.  And in 1972, voters by a 71 percent majority formally terminated the project and revoked the authorization for the still unissued bonds.

That was 42 years ago.  What did all of that have to do with the noises that awoke me in the night?

When State Route 520 from I-5 to the east side of Lake Washington was built in 1963, plans for the R. H. Thompson were still very much alive.  Therefore, shortly before reaching Lake Washington, a network of entrance and exit ramps were built in anticipation of the connection between SR 520 and the RHT.  Those ramps -- the "ramps to nowhere" -- have remained there ever since, serving primarily as illegal diving boards from which kids dive each summer into the waters around Foster Island.

Much to the discomfort of Montlake residents like myself, SR 520 -- about eight blocks north of my house -- is being widened to carry more traffic.  A large number of trees have been cut down from the northern edge of the present freeway.  It does not appear that the widening of the freeway -- unlike the proposed R. H. Thompson -- will require the removal of existing residences, but a number of people living in rather nice homes on the northern side are going to find the woody area behind their houses replaced by the newly-added lanes of SR 520.

As part of the work on SR 520, the vestigial connections to the R. H. Thompson are being removed.  SR 520 was closed over the weekend.  That impressive racket that shocked me awake in the night was the sound of demolition as the overpasses and ramps are dismantled. 

From the looks of things last night, it will take more than this one weekend to complete the job.  I can tolerate the noise.  I can consider it music.  It marks an end to a city "improvement" that thankfully was never undertaken.  Unlike San Francisco, we didn't have to build our own "Embarcadero" before we decided we hated it and tore it down.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Big Apple Revisited

As much as I like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, I'm forced to admit that New York really is the Big Apple.  It's the only city in America that compares with London or Paris as a "big city" --  cosmopolitan, diverse, beautiful, and ... well, huge.

I try to drop by every few years -- not all that easy to do from here in the Northwest Corner -- and remind myself why I like it so much.

And so, I returned last night from a four-day visit.  I often visit in November, and have never been disappointed by that month.  The weather was rather cool the evening I arrived, but became progressively warmer each day.  And the many trees of the city were proudly showing off their fall colors, resplendent in the daily sunshine.

I've long since adopted the Upper West Side as "my" part of town.  Unfortunately, I'm apparently not the only one to do so, as hotels in that neighborhood are increasingly being renovated -- and their rates jacked up accordingly.  So I abandoned my favorite hotel on W. 77th, and stayed for the first time at a hotel on W. 87th,  just off Broadway -- which is as far "uptown," as I've stayed to date.  As I rapturously posted on my Facebook page, I'll never weary of wandering the residential streets of the Upper West Side, and exploring the beauty to the east and west, respectively,  of Central Park and Riverside Park.

The "events" around which I centered my visit were two Broadway plays -- This Is Our Youth and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  The former is essentially an interaction in a one-room apartment between two twenty-something young men, played by Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin.  Cera's character is immature, hyper-active, insecure and submissive.  He is bullied by his "friend," Culkin's character, who is a drug-dealing, brash, overbearing jerk.  As one would expect, as the play progresses, neither character is adequately described by these initial impressions.  Cera' acting, especially, was brilliant -- at 26 years of age, he is capable of looking and behaving ten years younger.

Curious Incident is based on the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon.  It's the moving story of a brilliant, autistic, British teenager, and of his growth and development into a more adequately functioning young man as he goes about trying to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor's dog.  The staging is unique and "digital," with lighting effects that vividly demonstrate the boy's mental reactions to events about him.  (The play co-stars Toby, the white mouse, whose story was told today in an article in the New York Times.)

Those two plays -- and the logistics of getting to and from them -- consumed a substantial chunk of time.  Otherwise, I did  a lot of walking -- not merely around the Upper West Side, but throughout the city. Just to say I did it,  I followed Broadway from my hotel on 87th, all the way through mid-town and lower Manhattan to its termination (or origin) in Battery Park.  I'm sure I've walked every block of that route, at one time or another, but this was the first time I'd walked the entire route in one fell swoop, and it gave me a coherent picture of how various Manhattan neighborhoods are knit together.  We brag about Seattle's Pike Place Market, but the twenty blocks of Broadway from 34th to Union Square is virtually one long open-air market selling produce, meats, clothing, odds and ends and souvenirs. 

I also revisited the High Line.  I posted to this blog in 2009 about the first segment of this elevated walk, one that follows an abandoned freight line along the Hudson.  Two more segments have since been opened, and the High Line now stretches from the far southern reaches of Chelsea to the tracks behind Penn Station, where it bends toward the river, then crosses the  tracks, and ends up on 30th.  Like light rail lines in other cities, the High Line has prompted new development.  The northern third of the route is surrounded by construction sites, and the Penn Station rail lines will be covered over in a few more years by a skyscraper development to be called Hudson Yards.

It was all fun, but I may remember most vividly small moments -- sitting on a rock outcropping in Central Park, looking across one of the park's many lakes at the dense autumn foliage, and at the skyscrapers beyond; coffee and a sandwich in front of  "The Boathouse" in the park, trying to fend off hordes of small birds who wanted to share my food; watching crowds ice skate at the Trump rink in southern Central Park, and at a city rink in Bryant Park (in 60 degree temperatures); staring with awe at the beautiful new 79-story Two World Trade Center building, just completed; and being impressed by the helmeted small children of affluent families pushing scooters around Upper West Side sidewalks -- and mentally contrasting that sight with images from those days when "New York" meant "deadly juvenile delinquent gangs" to folks from other parts of the country.

It's a city we can be proud of, as the hordes of tourists speaking languages other than English will gladly attest.

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 stands 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


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
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.