Monday, November 23, 2015

Aunt Janet

My Aunt Janet died earlier this month at the age of 90.  She was my dad's younger sister, and the last of the generation that we kids called "the Bigs."  She was the most eccentric and most accomplished of my relatives, and her death leaves a vacant spot in the lives of those of us who now step into "Bigdom" ourselves.

Aunt Janet was born in Westport, Washington, and graduated from Washington State College, as it was then known.  She married a classmate, Uncle Carl. The couple immediately fled the chilly Palouse and set off for Southern California, where they spent the rest of their lives.  Uncle Carl was a veterinarian and eventually owned his own pet hospital.  Aunt Janet became a model and a movie and TV actress.  She appeared in the 1958 Western "Fort Bowie," and appeared frequently in the 1950s  television series "Gunsmoke" and "Sea Hunt."

For a time, she was married to a well-known race car driver and designer, before returning to and remarrying her first husband, Uncle Carl.  Her various professional credits appear on her IMDb website.

These were her professional and public accomplishments.  To our family, however, she was our beloved if rather eccentric aunt.  We jokingly -- not to her face -- called her "Auntie Mame."

Aunt Janet always seemed surrounded by an aura of glamor and exoticism -- only partly attributable to her life in glamorous and exotic Los Angeles.  She was our only relative who would have dressed my brother and me in hula skirts that she had constructed out of the colored Sunday comics, pursuing some Hawaiian theme she had in mind.  She -- joined by one of her college friends -- was the only relative who would have obeyed a cartoon's injunction to "follow the bouncing ball," and sing loudly and alone in a crowded movie theater in my small Washington home town (embarrassing her 12-year-old nephew almost to tears).  She was the only adult relative to profess herself fascinated by a primitive neighborhood newspaper that I published, and to buy an advertisement in it. 

When I graduated from high school, and was headed off to an expensive college on extremely limited funds, she sent me a letter of congratulations, together with a sizable check with which to build a wardrobe.  Unfortunately, I now recall little about her letter, other than her strong recommendation that I learn the art of "small talk" -- an art with which she admitted she still struggled.  (I never did, but would have been better off if I had!)  She appeared unexpectedly at my dormitory room one day when I was a sophomore, having used all her natural attributes and acquired skills to appear as though she were still a college student.  My all-male dorm-mates took some time to recover from the shock to their nervous systems.  She decided that I needed a bike to get around campus, and bought one for me on the spot.

She and Uncle Carl took me, at the age of 18, to my first piece of professional theater -- two short plays by Tennessee Williams, performed in Hollywood under the title of Garden District.  

During spring break of my senior year, a group of four friends and I traveled south to Los Angeles.  She greeted our entire motley bunch, insisted that we stay at her home, fed us, and obviously had as much fun with us and we did with her. 

Years later, when I began a new job at a new law firm, Aunt Janet wrote me a moving letter of congratulations, telling me how proud my dad -- who had died shortly before -- would have been.  Even later, she insisted that I send her a copy of every journal I wrote while traveling.  She always made me feel that she found my every thought a matter of great interest.

As Aunt Janet grew older, however, her eccentricities became less endearing and a bit colder.  Her relations with her own children became problematic.  She may have developed some form of mental illness, or she may have simply suffered -- as many do -- from the growing knowledge that she could no longer fully control the world about her, or even (and especially) her own family. 

I talked to her often by phone, and my siblings saw her more often in person.  Although she seemed a bit paranoid, I doubt that she was "crazy."  I think life just became harder and harder for her as she grew older.  She had been an actress and a model, and she had kept herself looking preternaturally young.  At 85, she could easily have passed for a woman thirty or even forty years younger.  But there is no medical procedure that can alter your inner feelings or the pains (physical and mental) of advanced age.

But until maybe five years ago, she remained one of the most interesting, funny, and attractive women I knew.  When she talked to you, you had her entire attention.  She was interested, seemingly fascinated, almost to a scary degree, by your own activities and opinions.  While the conversation continued, you truly felt like a more interesting person.  She may, in fact, despite what she claimed, have mastered her own form of "small talk."

At her own request, there was to be no funeral or memorial service following her death.  I think we, her family, needed such a service. We would have benefitted from an opportunity to discuss, among ourselves, her life and how her life had affected our own.

And I know she deserved a eulogy.

This is mine.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

To be or not to be

Despite the usual teenager's angst and twenties' panic, I never attempted suicide.  Or even considered it, or daydreamed about it.  However miserable I might have felt at any given time, being miserable always seemed preferable to not being.

On the contrary, my aim was always directed toward living to be 120.

But suicide is a problem among certain groups of young people -- especially, according to an article in this month's Atlantic,* among high school students of the upper middle class.  A study of Palo Alto high schools -- especially Henry M. Gunn high school, a school filled with the children of Silicon Valley techies -- show levels of substance abuse and depression equal to those of the most underprivileged kids, with suicide as a frequent culmination.  Palo Alto schools in general have a suicide rate four or five times higher than the national average.  And Palo Alto young people themselves call Gunn "the suicide school."

Why suicide -- in Palo Alto?  The article points out that Gunn's student population is over 40 percent Asian, with the competitive nature of Asian parents adding pressure to their lives.  The kids live in the shadow of Stanford University.  Admission to that school is offered to many Gunn students -- but obviously, despite strong parental pressure, falls just beyond the reach of most of their equally bright and motivated peers.  Another factor, a macabre factor, is the proximity of the CalTrain commuter tracks, with trains whizzing by at high speed several times an hour.  Most of the suicides discussed in the article resulted from students throwing themselves in front of a Caltrain engine.

The author has interviewed students, and sat in on meetings of concerned parents.  Everyone is concerned.  For parents, the difficulty is in finding the right balance between encouraging their kids to "succeed," and pressuring them into unwanted stress.  And the kids themselves have often internalized their parents' goals, resisting efforts to make their lives simpler and less complex.

The question in my own mind -- to which the article alludes briefly in passing -- is why some commit suicide while the vast majority of their equally stressed classmates do not.  Clearly, pressure to get into "the right school" is unusually strong at Gunn.  Most students respond by multiplying AP courses and extracurricular activities to the point of being totally frazzled.  But being totally frazzled during high school -- while undesirable in itself -- generally leads most of them to highly successful and satisfying careers. 

But for a few, it leads to suicide.  The article points out how arbitrary and unpredictable suicide can be.  The death with which the article led off was that of a highly popular, straight-A, Asian-American student.  He was funny and had close friends.  Everyone liked him.  His closest friends saw no signs of depression, or excessive stress, or unhappiness.  And yet, he deliberately stepped into the path of a Caltrain commuter train.

The article offers no solutions, except to suggest that less pressure on kids would statistically result in fewer suicides.  Beyond statistics, however, why a few children find life not worth living remains a mystery.  Two people, unlike two computers, don't react predictably to the input of the same data.

In general, I find that fact reassuring.  But it complicates the task of keeping kids alive throughout their adolescence.
* Hanna Rosin, "The Silicon Valley Suicides," The Atlantic, December 2015.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Liberal bastion

Ohio votes against legalization of medical marijuana.  Not the recreational use of  marijuana, but its medical use.  Houston repeals its anti-discrimination ordinance.  Kentucky continues its gradual conversion to Republicanism by electing a GOP governor. 

Here in Washington, even Federal Way turns conservative as it defeats a Democratic incumbent legislator.

To paraphrase a British prime minister at the start of World War I, the lights are going out all over America.  We may not see them lit again in our lifetime.

Well, maybe I'm exaggerating.  Here in Seattle -- perhaps the only American city with a statue of Lenin displayed in public -- we passed a $930 million public transportation levy, to the displeasure of our civic nanny, the Seattle Times.  We passed an initiative to provide government funding for political campaigns, in return for various commitments from recipient candidates.  We again elected a city council whose ideological split is between the progressives and the even-more-progressives, and re-elected an avowedly socialist councilman.

But the trend nationwide was decidedly conservative -- both in terms of partisan politics and in citizens' voting on issues. 

As I pointed out on Facebook, unless liberals and moderates do a lot of work during the coming year, Seattle will find itself a small blue island of progressive ideals and rational thought, surrounded by a vast sea of red, a sea churned by deep currents of visceral and atavistic emotions.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Oh boy!

I saw a revival of the musical Annie in Hollywood over the weekend, while visiting relatives in Glendale.  My family was celebrating the fifth birthday of my younger great niece Hayden, and observing the sacred rituals of Halloween.

I first saw Annie in Seattle, not long after its first appearance on Broadway in 1977.  That seems like yesterday, but we took my very young niece to that first showing; on Sunday we took her daughter Hayden.  Time flies.

I remember enjoying Annie the first time, and I recalled a few of the songs -- mainly its most famous number, "Tomorrow."  What I didn't remember were the strong political overtones to the musical, a leftist political emphasis almost as pronounced as that in the 2008 Broadway production (2005 in the West End) of Billy Elliot.

The musical is based on the comic strip -- beloved by all of us of a certain age -- "Little Orphan Annie."  As I recall the strip, it was something of an adventure series with Annie rushing around the world, together with her trusty dog Sandy -- and backed up when necessary by the somewhat shadowy figures of Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks and the Sikh bodyguard Punjab. 

According to Wikipedia -- whose entry matches my recollection -- the cartoonist's politics which

seem to have been broadly conservative and libertarian with a decided populist streak, introduced some of his more controversial storylines. He would look into the darker aspects of human nature, such as greed and treachery. The gap between rich and poor was an important theme. His hostility toward labor unions was dramatized in the 1935 story "Tonite". Other targets were the New Deal, communism, and corrupt businessmen.

The musical shows how Annie was first rescued from her Dickensian orphanage and its sadistic manager, and was subsequently adopted by Daddy Warbucks.  Warbucks was a billionaire (back when a billion meant something, to paraphrase the musical), and had the FBI, the police, and virtually everyone else at his beck and call.  Rather than being hostile to FDR, he patronized him as a somewhat ineffectual cripple who just needed to be given a little backbone.

As a result, rather than "targeting" the New Deal -- Daddy Warbucks in the musical  actually originates the New Deal.  He tells Roosevelt, in so many words, to quit sitting around in his wheelchair making fireside speeches, for god's sake, and DO SOMETHING!!  There are bridges to be built -- highways, housing, etc.  Spend some money, hire folks who need jobs, build the country.  Use government spending to make the country prosperous -- not only to make people's lives tolerable, but to make America strong enough to meet the coming war with Germany.

FDR perks up from his depression, and all sing together that we'll have "A New Deal for Christmas":

And all through the land folks are bawling
And filled with despair
'Cause cupboards are bare
 But Santa's got brand new assistants
There's nothing to fear
They're bringing a New Deal for Christmas
This year.

Now that's the kind of Daddy Warbucks I like to see!

Today's Republicans are, bit by bit, detaching themselves from their support of Big Business.  Fine!  Let's see if the Warbucks theory works -- that the interests of business can be made to coincide, or at least overlap in places, with the interests of the common man.  Let's see if the slogan by a "Daddy Warbucks" figure of the 1950s, "What's Good for General Motors is Good for the USA," really might have some validity today. 

And above all, let's stop trembling with fear at the idea of government deficit spending, when that spending is an investment in the capital goods and infrastructure of America, as well as in the economic survival of its workers.

"Leapin' Lizards, Sandy!"


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Have a horrifying Halloween

Halloween.  (Or, as we were taught to spell it in school, Hallowe'en.)  The eve (e'en) of All Hallows Day, or as we now call it -- when we call it at all -- All Saints Day.

A time, traditionally, when bad things came out of the woodwork. Remember "Night on Bald Mountain," as interpreted by Disney's Fantasia?  Disney at least got the tradition right, as the Satanic Halloween orgies expressed through Mussorgsky's music segued with dawn into the purity of Schubert's "Ave Maria."

Halloween in later years became a day for kids to go trick or treating and to scare themselves visiting grave yards and haunted houses.  In our own time, adults also have gotten into the act.  I can't imagine any adult dressing up in a Dracula costume when I was a kid, but, nowadays, grown-up gotta have fun, too.

So what does the well-dressed adult Halloween reveler wear these days?  According to USA Today, the ten most popular costumes for adults are:

1.  Harley Quinn
2.  A character from Star Wars 
3.  A super-hero ("Take your pick and find some Lycra.")
4.  Pirate
5.  Batman (I guess he wasn't a super-hero)
6.  Minnie Mouse (?!)
7.  Witch
8.  Minions
9.  The Joker
10.  Wonder Woman  (see comment to #5)

Well, I have no idea who Numero Uno, Harley Quinn, might be, let alone #8 Minions.  But I dressed up as #7 Batman when I was about ten, so I can see the appeal there. 

But shouldn't there be a greater representation of the supernatural, the spirits that traditionally come out to play once a year?  No ghosts?  No one wants to just throw a sheet over his or her head?  I guess nowadays, everyone would rather be a pop culture figure than Frankenstein's monster or a dancing skeleton.

But #7, the Witch, represents the true spirit of Halloween.  Not the misunderstood and heroic witches of The Boy Who Couldn't Fly Straight, which I reviewed earlier in the month.  But witches as they were perceived by those who lived in fear of them.

I'm talking, for example, of the 19 witches who were hanged in Salem in 1692, as described in an article in this month's Smithsonian magazine.  The colonial prosecution's prime witness alleged that witches flew through the skies at night, and had animal "familiars," including "translucent cats."

She had seen a hog, a great black dog, a red cat, a black cat, a yellow bird and a hairy creature that walked on two legs.  Another animal had turned up too.  She did not know what it was called and found it difficult to describe, but it had "wings and two legs and a head like a woman."  A canary accompanied her visitor.

Now these were true terrors, something that made your skin prickle and your hair stand on end, if you lived in a tiny Massachusetts village surrounded by the howling wilderness.

I suggest to you that Minnie Mouse and the Joker and Luke Skywalker don't embody the true spirit of Halloween, the seeing of things unseen and the fear of Evil with a capital E.

So I was relieved to see that witch costumes were still in vogue.  Until I read the suggestions for appropriate witching dress:

What you need: Anything goes. The witch costume is a classic, in part, for its versatility. Go seamlessly from cleaning to trick-or-treating (carry that broom right out the door!). Go old-school with green face paint or a wart. Go low-maintenance by not plucking that chin hair. Pointy hat and striped socks are a plus.

Gentlemen, you make a farce of witchcraft, and a travesty of the true spirit of Halloween.  May you wander drunkenly by accident into a graveyard at midnight and stub your toe on a tombstone beside an open grave. 

Feel free in that moment of truth to exorcise your fear and horror by irony and whimsical utterances.  If you're still capable of speech. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Leitmotifs in New York

Central Park

As a teenager, when I first began listening to classical music, I far preferred bombast to subtlety. Themes from Wagner were therefore high on my list of preferences, including, of course, the overture to Tannhäuser.  But opera was still an unknown land, and these stirring themes were largely divorced in my mind from the operas for which they were written.

I had the opportunity this past weekend, during a brief visit to New York, to attend the Metropolitan Opera's performance of Tannhäuser. While Wagner might have devised a more compelling illustration of the conflict between sacred and profane love than a minstrel's inability to choose between enjoyment of eternal subterranean orgies with Venus on the one hand, and high-minded and musically uplifting raptures with the Blessed Virgin on the other -- still it was an impressive, memorable, and certainly musically stirring experience. 

The opera's various musical themes, including that of my beloved overture, kept running through my mind for the rest of the weekend.

That evening was topped off, after 4½ hours of musical exaltation, by my discovery that my alma mater's football team was ahead by 17 points at half time on the West Coast.  A more contemporary contrast between the sacred and the profane, perhaps.  But I grab happiness wherever I can find it.

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

I make these quickie jaunts to New York fairly frequently.  I've seen most of the major tourist destinations, but I now enjoy just immersing myself for a few days in a world that is similar to the Northwest Corner's (as opposed to, say, Mumbai), but just different enough to be interesting. 

In a constant quest for affordable housing, I keep seeking hotels ever farther north, but still within my favorite part of the city, the Upper West Side.  I was up to W. 95th this time, an area of the Upper West Side that is only slightly less opulent than that twenty blocks farther downtown.  Same small, interesting shops, same busy sidewalk life, same well-dressed, well-behaved children walking hand-in-hand with a parent on their way to school.  

Brooklyn Bridge
Pedestrian deck

Sunday, I walked from my hotel up to Columbia University.  I wandered around for a while in that attractive Ivy League school, its (for the most part) traditionally-styled architecture sequestered from the urban world about it by a fence with open (but guarded) gates . 

I then re-walked the High Line from the just-opened No. 7 subway stop at Hudson Yards (behind Penn Station) down to 14th Street in Chelsea.  The High Line's landscaping is growing ever more mature and attractive, but the crowds of tourists are becoming ever more oppressive as it becomes a "must-see" destination.  And the on-going construction around the High Line -- in what had been a somewhat derelict post-industrial area of town -- is truly amazing, illustrating how public works of this sort can attract private investment in surrounding residential and office construction.

I spent a couple of hours at the Metropolitan Museum, in the 19th and 20th century paintings area. Later, I did my traditional tramping about and photography in Central Park, and did similar walking and clicking in a return visit to Brooklyn's equally beautiful Prospect Park.  I didn't walk across the Brooklyn bridge this time, but I did stroll out as far as the tower on the Manhattan end of the bridge to take a couple of photos.

In addition to all of this walking, I plowed a substantial amount of money into the MTA subway system, enjoying not only the convenient travel but my observations of my fellow passengers -- "a million stories waiting to be told."  You may recall my review a few years ago of Lowboy, a novel about a schizophrenic teenager who essentially lived on the New York subway, learning all of its moods and secrets intimately.  Hey, I could do that.  You don't have to be crazy to love traveling hither and yon through the subway's labyrinthine tunnels.

I don't think.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Eastern European nationalism

Day by day, heart-breaking images of Syrian refugees appear in the newspapers.  Syrian families pour into Europe, reminding us of those photos of immigrant hordes who once passed through Ellis Island.

Why can't today's Europe make room for them, we ask, just as we once made room for refugees from yesterday's Europe?  We understand, of course, that we had (and still have) enormous empty spaces, compared to Europe's far greater population density.  We also are silenced by the noisy opposition expressed by so many Americans to the relatively lesser inflow of Latin American migrants across our own southern border.

But I suspect that Europe has another reason, besides lack of room, for resisting the entry of large numbers of immigrants, especially immigrants pouring in through southeastern and eastern Europe. 

The United States is a nation founded on certain principles:  first, its geographic separation and its fought-for political independence from Britain, and second, self-governance as a democratic republic.  Even in 1776, we were not ethnically homogeneous.  We didn't see ourselves, at least consciously, as a homeland in the western hemisphere for people of British ancestry.

But European nations are all about ethnicity.  Each country's distinct language, customs, religion and/or "blood" are the reasons each nation exists.  A century ago, eastern and southeastern Europe were governed by two cosmopolitan empires -- the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman.  Each granted varying amounts of autonomy to different nations within its empire, but subject to the ultimate sovereignty of the emperor or sultan. 

Beginning at least with the Greek war of independence in 1821, subject nationalities struggled to govern themselves, free of tribute to an imperial government.  "Nationalism" increasingly became the ascendant ideology throughout the nineteenth century, and led eventually to the assassination of an imperial archduke by a Serbian nationalist -- and the beginning of World War I.  At least five of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points dealt with recognition of national sovereignty along ethnic lines.

Yugoslavia was the last entity in Europe to attempt to bridge ethnicities -- and even its ethnicities were all Slavic.  Yugoslavia's breakup in the early 1990s, along with the independence of the three Baltic states, finally accomplished the goal of nation states of single ethnicity throughout the region.

We may not feel that creation of such states is a particularly admirable goal, but -- especially among the more recently created states -- it is a goal for which they had long strived.  Diluting their ethnically uniform populations now with the influx of a large number of new Syrian residents may seem to undo in part that accomplishment.

It's notable that the European nations most certain of their long-time and well-established ethnic unity and sovereignty -- France and Germany -- have been those most willing to accept new residents from Syria.

I have no solution to the Syrian refugee problem.  No one seems to have a solution.  But a feeling for the history of eastern Europe should help us understand fears and emotions of the region's citizens and rulers.  Eastern Europeans are no less caring or empathetic than we in the West; they don't resist helping the suffering Syrians simply out of cruelty or lack of charity.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Now she is six

When I was One,
I had just begun.

When I was Two,
I was nearly new.

When I was Three,
I was hardly Me.

When I was Four,
I was not much more.

When I was Five,
I was just alive.

But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever,

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever. 

Maury at 2 weeks

My eldest great niece, Maury, turned six this week.  It hardly seems possible that it's been six years since I posted my first greetings to her, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson's greetings to his godchild.  Or that -- in that blink of an eye -- she has covered almost half the distance from birth to teenager.

If I greeted her birth with words from R.L.S., it seems even more fitting to celebrate her Sixth Birthday with Milne's poem, "The End," from his book of children's poetry, Now We Are Six.  The poem marks "the end" of Milne's book, but only the beginning of Maury's exciting life to come.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Golden autumn

Autumn -- in our poetic tradition -- generally symbolizes waning, aging, ending, a premonition of death.

And yet it's so beautiful.  A beauty not always shared by our own waning and aging human bodies.

I mulled over these thoughts this afternoon while making my daily four-mile walk through and around the University of Washington campus.  We've had a warm year, here in the Northwest Corner, and the warmth has continued into the fall.  A day of rain now and then, finally, but the "rainy season," as we know it in these parts, still hasn't begun.

It was sunny, as I left the house shortly after 3 p.m.  Not the blazing sun we have at that time in summer, but a golden sun filtered through additional layers of atmosphere.  But sunny, nonetheless.  The sky was blue, the sun was gold, and the shadows were already lengthening in mid-afternoon.

I wore a t-shirt and a light sweater, because my phone told me it would be in the mid-50s outside.  But the sun was still warm, and when not in shade I felt a bit overdressed.  Some folks on campus were wearing coats and jackets they probably had grabbed before leaving home in the chilly morning; others were wearing shorts and t-shirts.

The light was golden.  Autumn flowers -- I always forget how many flowers bloom in autumn -- colored the landscape.  Horse chestnuts (buckeyes if you're from the wrong part of the country) rolled underfoot, reminding me of childhood wars and battles.  Leaves on some trees were just beginning to change yellow, pink, red.  The air was crisp, even as the sun was warm -- that same peculiar combination of temperatures one experiences at high altitude. 

The campus was crowded with students.  These days, students' faces display seriousness of purpose combined with displays of quiet friendliness among themselves.  Observing them makes me happy, relieved that whatever future lies ahead probably will be in good hands.

As I often do, I stopped at the coffee shop just inside the front door of Suzzallo library, and ordered a coffee and muffin.  Kids packed the room, drinking coffee, talking, and poring over electronic gadgets in what -- back in my day -- was, as I recall, a "reserve book room" where students were granted short-term checkouts for certain books assigned in classes.  Books to be read in a hushed atmosphere.  In those days, I would have found it incredible that coffee drinking would be not only permitted, but enabled -- on the first floor of Suzzallo. 

After a half hour, I resumed my walk, circling through the dormitory areas on the eastern side of campus, looping back to Suzzallo, and then toward home through the recently renovated Rainier Vista. 

The campus has changed much since I first began graduate school -- but in many ways it has remained remarkably the same.  I enjoyed it in the spring time of my life, and enjoy it even more, perhaps, now in the fall.  I arrived home feeling happy with school, happy with the students, happy with myself -- and happy with the beauty of Seattle in Autumn.

Oliver Sacks, a month before his death this past August, recalled the story of a friend who had gone out for a walk one beautiful day with Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright (Waiting for Godot, Krapp's Last Tape, et al.) -- that same cheerful fellow who directed that his tombstone should be "any colour, so long as it's grey."   Sacks's friend casually asked, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?”

Beckett replied, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.” 

I love the story, but I'm totally with Oliver's friend.  Today, I realized, wasn't an autumn day for worrying about waning or aging.  It was an autumn day that made me supremely grateful to be alive. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Flying high

Being manipulated by advertisers to buy something I don't really need is nothing new.  At least for me.

But I'm only now getting used to being so manipulated, knowing exactly how I'm being manipulated, accepting the manipulation -- and enjoying it.

Like most airlines, Alaska Airlines has an "MVP" status for flyers who accumulate a certain number of miles on Alaska and on partner airlines with which Alaska has some sort of treaty arrangements.  In recent years, this has been no problem for me.  I travel overseas at least once a year, which in itself -- together with the domestic flying I have to do just to keep in touch with family members -- has given me the necessary miles without my thinking much about it.

In 2014, for example, I traveled round trip from Seattle to Johannesburg on Air France -- an Alaska partner -- which alone gave me nearly all the miles I needed, and at a surprisingly low cost.

That -- and many trips by others like mine -- may have been the final straw.  The airlines are getting wise.  MVP status was intended as a special anointing for their valued business clients -- not a freebie handed out to moochers who used the internet to find low-cost, high-mileage flights for their once-a-year vacations.

As a result,  most of the major airlines have begun awarding elite status based on amount of cash spent rather than miles flown.  Alaska hasn't done that.  Yet.  But its partner airlines are allowing Alaska mileage plan members  only "partial credit" for flights bought at bargain rates.

This year, I flew to London on British Air, and to Beijing on Delta.  Until this year, those two round trips probably would have pushed me into MVP status easily.  But not this year.  British Air gave me only one-fourth of my actual miles flown, and Delta gave me only one-half.  As a result, as 2015 comes to an end, I'm scrambling around for enough miles to continue MVP status next year.

After adding up all the qualifying miles I've earned this year, and those anticipated for my remaining travel, I discover that I'll still fall 610 miles short.  What to do?  If only I needed a one-way trip between Seattle and Oakland -- a frequent destination of mine -- I told myself -- I'd be over the top.

To make a boring and crazy story short, I've booked a December Amtrak trip down to Oakland, arriving in the morning, and flying home that same evening on Alaska.  That will give me my MVP status, and also fulfill my recent craving for a train trip somewhere, anywhere.

What do I get out of this legendary MVP status for which I work so hard?  Not much, really.  I just like the idea, really.  I do get first crack at a certain desirable section of the cabin reserved for MVP flyers (I choose seat 7A whenever possible).  I get early boarding.  I'm allowed to check two bags without paying a fee.  I occasionally get bumped up, at the last moment, into first class -- an always unexpected treat.  I'm yanked out of the sordid cattle car of the rear section into paradise.  Sort of a secular version of the Rapture, I guess.

It ain't much, but I fly fairly often, and just the early boarding -- together with my TSA Pre-check -- takes a lot of the stress out of the experience.  And even if it didn't?  Well, I guess I just enjoy the quest for MVP, a quest that engages my competitive instincts.  I enjoy it,  even though I know it's ridiculous.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Witches in Seattle

Charlie is 15 years old.  He lives a quiet, almost reclusive life just outside a small town in the California Sierra foothills.  He goes to school, he does his homework, he works hard helping Elizabeth, his young single mother, raise and harvest the vegetables that end up on their dinner table.  His family is poor and his social life is limited, but he feels reasonably happy and content.

Then one day, a large dog appears at the door and demands, in good English, "Give me the boy, Elizabeth."  Elizabeth refuses, a fight ensues, and mother and son flee north to Seattle.

Charlie -- understandably, in a state of shock -- quickly finds himself living with an aunt and uncle in a large, upper middle class home in West Seattle, near Alki point with views of the Sound and of the coming and going of the ferries.  He is enrolled in "Puget Academy," a private (fictitious) West Seattle school, where, although excruciatingly shy, he is quickly befriended by Diego, a popular student leader.

Within the first week or two of his arrival in Seattle, he discovers two upsetting facts about himself.  He may be gay.  And he is definitely a witch.

In The Boy Who Couldn't Fly Straight, Seattle native Jeff Jacobson has written an original and absorbing fantasy novel in a powerfully evoked Pacific Northwest setting.  Charlie learns that "the community" of witches exists everywhere, in every nation, and that he himself is a witch's son.  The community consists mainly of good men and women who simply want to live inconspicuously, keeping their powers to themselves, without bothering or being bothered by others. 

But, as in every group, there are bad apples who use their unusual abilities for evil, and who seek ways to increase their power at the expense of others.

Jacobson's writing is forceful and absorbing.  His main characters are well fleshed out -- not cardboard heroes and villains -- and his descriptions of the natural surroundings in the Northwest are vivid and help carry the plot.  The author himself may well be a "foodie," because meals are described in mouth-watering detail.

Similarities to the Harry Potter books are obvious.  But, to my mind, Jacobson's writing is richer and more sophisticated.  While the Harry Potter saga is a rollicking good adventure, it tends to be a bit cartoonish.  Jacobson's book, on the other hand, entices the reader into almost believing that witches could well exist.  And not only exist, but exist all around us, right here in Seattle -- in West Seattle, Madison Park, Seward Park, Belltown, and the Pike Place Market (all of which serve as locales for the book's action).

Charlie's romance with his school classmate --the relationship between Diego and Charlie teeters for some time between love and friendship -- is serious to the boys, and is treated seriously -- but described lightly and with restraint.  This is more an adventure story than a romance, and Charlie's eventual coming out seems to serve primarily as an occasion for Charlie, a novice witch, to demonstrate his willingness -- despite his shyness -- to be completely honest, honest with others, certainly, but especially honest with himself.

The plot seems to slow a bit around the half-way point, as Charlie is mastering the mumbo jumbo of how to be a witch.  But we do learn with some excitement during these sections how Charlie learns to fly on a broom (yes, despite cell phones, witches aren't entirely creatures of the 21st century). We are told of the aerodynamic qualities of different types of woods, the way in which the "ignition" spell must be recited (not just spoken, but "felt), how to go up and down, steer left and right, and how to handle the occasional air pocket. 

A nighttime training flight by Charlie and his aunt out over Elliot Bay and the Sound, with a quiet broom landing for a picnic on Blake Island, appears breathtakingly idyllic.  I don't recall Harry Potter's quidditch lessons being described as lovingly, or in such realistic detail.

The final quarter of the novel races forward faster and faster, as Charlie and his adult friends within the witch "community" face life and death dangers to themselves, to other witches and their children, and to earth itself.  Charlie is forced to overcome not only his shyness, but his own normal teenage angst, angst that feeds upon and enhances psychic confusion from his encounters with his own newly awakened witchcraft powers and his ability to sense the evil in the minds of his enemies.  The plot reaches a temporary resolution at the novel's conclusion, but the scene has clearly been set for a sequel already being written.

This YA book is appropriate for any kid in middle school or older -- especially for those who find themselves tongue-tied with shyness, or who suspect they might be gay.  Or, of course, for those kids who wonder if they might be witches.  Also appropriate for all you adults who secretly read and loved your children's Harry Potter books whenever the kids were away from the house.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

It's that bloody moon

"And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come."
--Joel 2:30-31

Tonight marks the occurrence of the "Blood Moon" -- a combination of a normal total lunar eclipse and a "supermoon" (i.e., when the moon is at the nearest point to earth in its elliptical orbit).  Pretty cool, although I wasn't able to spot it low on the horizon from where I live, being surrounded by trees, street lights, and other obstacles.  As I write this (at 8:45 p.m., PDT), the moon appears as a crescent, as I view it as it leaves eclipse mode and rises in the eastern sky.

But the excitement, according to some, is yet to come.

Irvin Baxter, well known philosopher and theologian of "Endtime Ministries" of Plano, Texas, notes that tonight's occurrence marks the fourth "blood moon" in the past four years, a coincidence that constitutes a "tetrad."  These tetrads suggest big events in the offing.  Baxter believes this one precedes the signing of a peace agreement between Palestine and Israel.

I don't need to tell you that such a treaty would be a certain indication that only Seven Years remained until Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.  Which would mean the end of the New York Stock Exchange and the World Cup Soccer matches, among other disturbances to our daily lives.

Tetrads are only minimally rare.  We had one in 1982, and will have another in 2033.  In cosmic terms,  or even biblical terms, those are fairly short periods of time.  Although it's true that bad things occasionally happened to the Jewish people at roughly the time of past tetrads -- the Spanish Inquisition, the Six Day War -- that coincidence doesn't sound too amazing, and it leaves a lot of tetrads occurring when not much exciting happened.  That would include, of course, the most recent 1982 tetrad.

NASA assures us that nothing in the natural order seems to threaten life on earth in the next decades.  The Church of Latter Day Saints denies that the current tetrad means anything.  Pope Francis leaves America seeming cheerful and unconcerned.  The Bible itself seems fairly clear that only God knows the hour and the day when Christ returns (Matt. 24:36), and that He will come "unexpectedly as a thief in the night." (I Thess. 5:2)

All this should be reassuring.  Or if not reassuring in the larger sense, at least reassuring with respect to tonight's "blood moon."

But Baxter and others seem to feel that although only God may know the time of the Second Coming, he has slyly inserted a few clues in portions of the Bible for the benefit of canny and crafty scholars like Irvin Baxter.  In other words, God has inscrutably leaked secret information under the guise of "a usually reliable source."

Perhaps the heavens will indeed soon fall.  But I'm not losing any sleep tonight over the prospect.  The heavens will fall for each of us as individuals, I suspect, long before the Final Catastrophe wipes away the old earth on which we live.
P.S. It's now 9:10 p.m., and the moon appears as though a mouse had just taken a small nibble off one side of its round disk of green cheese.  It's bloody days are over, for now, and it shines down upon us mortals with its usual silvery radiance. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Coast to Coast trail -- part 2

Kirkby Stephen is a small, picturesque village in eastern Cumbria (neé Westmorland), snuggled down at the base of the Pennine mountains -- the range that bisects England from north to south.

Perspicacious readers of this blog -- which surely includes you all -- will recall that Kirkby Stephen was the eastern terminus of my hike in May, as I marched resolutely from the Irish Sea, up and down across the high fells of the Lake District, and thence over the rolling hills of Westmorland. 

I'm pleased to announce that I will complete the Coast to Coast hike next July, returning to Kirkby Stephen as our starting point.  Rather than hike alone this time, I'll be joined by five members of my family, including my six-year-old niece Maury.  I completed our bookings yesterday, and all has been confirmed.  The company through which I arrange the hike is -- even as we speak -- booking the ten nights' accommodations that will be required to put up our motley Yankee crew as we traverse the Sceptered Isle..

We will hike a total of 112 miles in nine days of hiking.  I've arranged for us to have a rest day in the market town of Richmond after the third day of hiking, and an extra day once we reach the North Sea, at the picturesque coastal village of Robin Hood's Bay.

Our first day's hike will lead us out of Westmorland ("Cumbria," if you insist), over the Pennines and into Yorkshire.  From that point on, we will be hiking through the Yorkshire Dales and over the North Yorkshire Moors.  All just names to me now, but places that will be fixed indelibly in my mind by the time the hike has been completed.

Actually, Yorkshire will not be totally new to me.  I was a callow lad of 21, off by myself between terms of study in Italy, when I rented a bike in York for a week, and biked a loop around northern Yorkshire.  At one point, I found myself out on the moors -- the same moors we will cross next July -- as night fell, with no accommodations in sight.  I rolled off the road, curled up in a ball, and slept my way fitfully through a rather chilly night.  Luckily, it was June 21, the shortest night of the year.  I eventually made it to the coastal resort town of Scarborough, where I stayed in a youth hostel. (Several shillings a night -- less than a dollar in those uninflated days)

This ancient history is vaguely relevant, because Robin Hood's Bay is a bit north of Scarborough, and -- our trip at an end -- we will need to take a bus to Scarborough where we will find our closest access to the British railway system for our return to London.

How will young Maury hike those 110 miles, you may well ask?  Well, she probably won't.  Her parents plan to take turns each day traveling with her by bus to the next night's lodging or -- if the area is not served by buses -- begging a ride from the van that carries our bags while we hike happily with only a daypack to burden us.  Maury's parents assure me that finding their way will be an adventure, and that neither of them will mind missing certain days of the hike.

July is a long time in the future, but it's fun to make these arrangements now, and ponder the experience far in advance.  If the first half of the Coast to Coast was any indication, it will be a highly enjoyable and memorable experience for us all.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Poltergeists make up the principal type of spontaneous material manifestation.
--"Pup Dog" in Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip  (his only line of dialogue other than "wurf! wurf!")

If my lawn had not grown to scandalous heights, I would never have dreamed of mowing it in September.  But it had, and I did.  Dreamed of mowing it, that is.

As I may have mentioned, in these parts we don't water our lawns in summer.  By July they grow brownish -- let's say beige -- and stop growing.  No growing, no mowing.  Sometimes the rains come late enough in the fall that the lawns turn green, but otherwise put off growing until spring.  But this year, no.  My lawn was definitely getting out of hand.

So yesterday, I dragged the mower out of the garage, filled it with gas, and pulled the cord.  Or tried to.  It wouldn't start.  This wasn't one of those irritating first mows of the year when you repeatedly pull the cord all the way out, and the motor refuses to turn over.  This was something I've never experienced before.  The cord pulled about four inches and then stopped cold.  Nothing I could do would persuade it to pull out farther, whether I coaxed it slowly and gently, or yanked it with all the fury that I was beginning to feel.

I turned the mower upside down to see if the blade was stuck?  No.  I opened any available apertures to check for problems.  Nothing.

I reconciled myself to buying a new mower.  I dragged the infuriating machine back into the garage, changed back into civilian, non-mowing clothes, and watched the Seahawks.

The Seahawks lost, but that's another story.

By the time that the Packer green and gold was dancing for joy all over my TV screen, it was time for bed.  I went upstairs, began getting undressed, unbuckled my belt -- and the belt fell  apart.  The buckle fell off.  On a fairly new and still attractive belt.  Inspection showed that a tiny screw connecting the buckle to a metal plate that covered the end of the belt was severed.  The belt was useless.

Note to self:  Buy new belt.  Wear shorts tomorrow until mission accomplished.

Seconds later, I climbed into bed with a portion of the Sunday paper I hadn't yet read.  I leaned back on my pillow.  The backboard collapsed against the wall.  What the .....!!!!  A tiny screw (you see a common thread here?), connecting the headboard to the upright post, was severed.  It was irreparable, although fortunately the collapse had no effect on my immediate ability to sleep in the bed.

Let's review the bidding.  Within a few hours:

1.  Lawn mower unexpectedly and inexplicably can't be started.

2.  Tiny screw is severed, making belt unusable.

3.  Tiny screw is severed, forcing me to buy a new bed frame.

Odd coincidence, you may say, but of course merely a coincidence.  I hear you chuckle at my paranoia, my superstition even?

Perhaps you recall that, almost exactly three years ago,  I related how my house cleaner quit.  The scheduler working for the service that provided her advised me that she claimed my house was haunted.  I scoffed.  The scheduler laughed with me, nervously, and informed me that another house cleaner had quit a couple of years earlier, also claiming to be alarmed by "paranormal events" happening in my house. 

I hardly took any of this seriously, except for perhaps that first night at about 2 a.m.. when I awoke and lay in bed wondering if -- as the latest cleaning woman had suggested to her employer -- I had never noticed ghostly presences in my house because I wasn't "sensitive" enough, because I simply wasn't paying attention to what was happening under my very nose -- my insensitive nose.  I sincerely hoped, at 2 a.m., that -- should this be true -- I would continue blissfully unaware in my insensitivity.

So.  I claim nothing.  I don't believe in poltergeists.  I don't think I do.  According to someone, presumably an expert, named Gordon Randall Garrrett, "The poltergeist phenomenon is usually spectacular and is nearly always associated with teen-age neurotics."

I'm neither a teenager nor a neurotic.

Shut up!

I've got to buy a new lawn mower.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Take the bus -- leave the driving to us!

Gabriel Campanerio, Seattle Times

Progress!  Yesterday, the demolition crew made short work of Seattle's downtown Greyhound bus depot at 8th and Stewart, clearing an entire block for construction of a new hotel.  The mission-styled depot, with Spanish tiled roof, had stared listlessly at the street, vacant and boarded up, for about a year, awaiting its obvious fate. 

Greyhound has left its downtown location and moved south to a new depot, near the football and baseball stadiums.

I can't say that I have a lot of nostalgic memories centered on the Seattle depot.  While in grad and law school, I did take the bus a number of times south to my home town, but the train service was better and more enjoyable.  The depot -- like Greyhound depots virtually everywhere in recent years (decades) -- was a bit scary.  It was filled with people looking for the cheapest way to travel, and with others who looked as though they had no destination -- in life or in travel -- and had just come in out of the cold. 

Although I won't really miss the Seattle depot, I do have nostalgic memories from undergraduate days of bussing by Greyhound between my home in Southwest Washington and San Francisco.  Again, I probably took the train more often, but the bus was cheaper, and in some ways more interesting.

Because my travel always fell during school breaks, the buses were filled with fellow students also going home for the holidays.  Their company made bus travel more sociable, and certainly more comfortable psychologically.  We stopped for breaks every two or three hours; I have vivid memories of waking up as we pulled into Redding or Medford in the middle of the night.  Medford at about 2 a.m. had a dreamlike quality as we staggered off the bus into a nearly empty station -- a few locals hanging around listlessly, as though waiting for a long-delayed Portland stagecoach to come through.  In fact, most stations had a café called a "Post House," a name that did call to mind earlier forms of horse-drawn transportation, but where you could now buy a less romantic burger and coke.

Maybe because the trip by bus took longer than that by train, it seemed to awaken stronger emotions -- especially when I was still a homesick freshman: a gradually intensifying sense of joy as the palm trees and the flat agricultural lands of the Sacramento valley were left behind and the highway crossed the forested Siskiyous into the green world of Oregon; a feeling of gloom returning the other direction, as the miles between myself and my family increased.

After leaving school, I still took the bus occasionally.  I recall, sometime in my twenties, sitting in the San Francisco bus depot, waiting for some friends I was visiting to pick me up.  I think that was the first time I realized how depressing a bus depot could really be -- not the dull architecture so much as the feelings of hopelessness I could read in the faces of the crowds sitting about me.  When one of my friends finally arrived, cheerful and full of greetings, I perhaps only imagined a sense of resentment in my gloomy fellow depot-mates -- as though a bright angel had descended into hell and assured me, in full view of the damned, that a mistake had been made and that his chariot awaited to carry me off to salvation.

I've been told that Greyhound service has become substantially more upscale in recent years -- actually enjoyable to ride.  I rarely see Greyhound buses anymore, but when I do see them, they appear sleek and comfortable.  I'm tempted to check out the new Seattle bus station, and see how it looks.

I'll be less interested in how modern the building appears than in watching the people waiting in the depot, in seeing whether their eyes still display the hopelessness and despair that I recall from that experience in San Francisco.