Monday, December 11, 2017

Bullying


“Why do they bully? What’s the point of it? Why do you find joy in taking innocent people and finding a way to be mean to them?”

That's the question, isn't it, Keaton?  The video of middle-schooler Keaton Jones, talking to his mother with tears running down his cheeks while she's driving him home from school after lunch, had been viewed 20 million times -- on YouTube alone --by yesterday evening.  It was carried by the New York Times today, and was one of the most viewed articles in today's on-line edition.

Keaton's classmates had poured milk on him and stuffed ham inside his clothes.  This was nothing new.  The bullying had been constant and relentless.

Bullying is nothing new.  I was with more or less the same group of kids in both seventh and eighth grades.  I don't recall any physical bullying -- no fighting, no slamming of kids into their lockers.  No pouring of milk on them at lunch. 

But there was a constant undertone of verbal abuse against certain class members.  Repetitive abuse that continued day after day.  The abuse I recall happened to have been against girls, not boys.

One classmate was a Native American (then called an "Indian") named Diane Bear Paw.  I don't recall her being teased so much because of her ethnicity, although she may have incidentally been called "squaw" on occasion.  She was teased because she was silent, she was stolid, she never smiled, she never cried.  She was not "girl-like."  She was totally impassive, except when pushed too far, when she would show a flash of anger.  I recall no one ever talking to her in a normal manner.  She had no friends.  She sought no friends, and no one approached her except to tease her, to provoke her.

As I look, just now, at my seventh grade class photo, I see Diane with a beautiful smile on her face.  I'm startled.  I don't remember her ever smiling.  I don't recall her being attractive.  But there she is.

I remember a girl named Jean who I had known in earlier grades as well.  She also was silent and impassive.  But she never showed anger.  She was just vague and "absent."  She was noted for having a desk covered with used Kleenexes, and a load of used Kleenexes inside her desk as well.  Her nose seemed to run constantly.  That made her different enough to require ostracism and teasing.

And I remember a girl named Eloise.  A girl with a constant tense frown.  Eloise was a simmering mass of anger with a very short fuse.  Boys, when bored, could have a little excitement by lighting her fuse.  Her explosions were quite satisfying.

What impresses me now about these three girls, and others as well, is the loneliness they must have experienced.  None of them was a good student.  None had any obvious hobbies or interests that would attract envious attention.  None was verbally articulate.  They were all non-entities, as far as the rest of us were concerned, except when they could be used for our amusement.

I happened to be a leader during this phase of my life, and president of our class.  But my leadership was always insecure, always based on my sense of humor, my ability to act a bit crazy as compensation for "being a brain," and my ability to get along with most fellow students. These attributes were definitely less firm bases for popularity than athletic skills or ability to make girls swoon.  I never took part in the general teasing.  It didn't interest me; it seemed stupid.  I felt sorry, in a very casual and offhand way, for the girls being teased.  I wasn't outraged.  I'm sure that sometimes I laughed.

I certainly never told anyone to "knock it off!"  A leader -- especially in seventh grade -- can only lead the mob in directions that the mob already wants to go.  Unless he is far more confident of his role as leader than I was.

True, I certainly could have helped the girls without threatening my precious place in the class ecosystem, without offending my classmates.  I could have said "hi" to Diane when I saw her.  I could have asked her about an assignment.  I could have shown some interest in her life.  I could have, perhaps none too tactfully, even asked her about her Indian background.  It never occurred to me.  If I had approached, if I had tried to talk to her, I might possibly have been kidded about having an "Indian girl friend," but no one would have thought less of me. Of course, she may have ignored me, even resented me -- when you're the butt of jokes, you are suspicious of sudden attempts at kindness.

But it just never occurred to me.  At 12 or 13, my ability to act socially according to plan, rather than just to react, was undeveloped.  I went with the flow, and was satisfied simply to not join in the teasing.

I listen to Keaton's tearful video, and realize now how he feels.  And how those girls in junior high felt.  It's not so much having milk poured on him at lunch, or being the butt of an occasional insult.  It's the feeling that he not only has not one friend on earth, but that no one will even talk to him as a normal casual acquaintance.   He feels totally isolated.  He sounds like a suicide risk.

I have no idea what happened to Diane or Eloise after eighth grade.  I did read a submission from Jean in a reunion class book, years later.  She sounded happy with life.  She apparently had fought her way through all those Kleenexes, and past her social isolation.

I hope the same is true of all those other kids I knew in school.  I hope it will be true for Keaton.  I'm sorry that so many kids suffer so much from bullying and teasing during their young years, years that should be fun and exciting. 

In response to Keaton's video, a number of athletes and actors have contacted him and offered their encouragement.  His mother has thanked everyone for their friendly concern and messages.  But, as she notes, Keaton still has to go to school, still has to face the same kids tomorrow.  Those kids won't be impressed by Keaton's video, by his tears, or by his sudden fame. 

Not much will change.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Taking a short cut


Amtrak will make a rare change to its route between Seattle and Los Angeles on December 18.  The change will eliminate the traditional circuitous routing through Tacoma, around Point Defiance, under the Tacoma Narrows bridge(s), and then inland to cross over I-5 and head south.  Instead, new tracks will enable trains to head directly south from Tacoma, following I-5.

I have taken trains south from Seattle for decades.  Frequent travel by train from Seattle to my home town, just north of Portland, while a graduate and law student.  Vacation travel since then, either to Martinez, where I'd be met by a relative for the drive to Sonoma, or to Burbank, where other relatives lived.

I've always enjoyed the route, following Puget Sound, that is about to be eliminated.  It was familiar, and  I perhaps didn't exclaim at its beauty, as a tourist might.  But I'd look up from my reading and watch, especially as the train went through two shoreline tunnels, and then under the impressive Narrows suspension bridge.

I often wondered why Amtrak chose to follow such an indirect route, even for the short twenty miles that it did.  The reason, as I now understand, is that, until this month with the completion of new tracks, there was no shorter route available.  The new route will take only about ten minutes off the scheduled time -- but because of conflicts with BNSF freight traffic, actual delays from scheduled time were often much longer.  Also, Amtrak will be able to run more frequent Cascades regional service, now that the Tacoma bottleneck will be eliminated.

I'm always happy when Amtrak improves service.  But I'm sorry to lose one of the more scenic segments of the route south.  Amtrak's trains -- both the long distance Coast Starlight and the regional Cascades -- are booking up with travelers who want one last look at the old route.

Unfortunately, my train trip to California on the Coast Starlight is booked for December 22 -- four days after the switch-over.  Or maybe, "fortunately" -- I'll be one of the earlier patrons to travel the new route. 

"I'd rather keep the views and lose the minutes," a Kelso WA passenger commented to a Seattle Times reporter.  I fully understand that reaction, but -- if asked -- I'd vote to approve the new route.     

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lost time


Combray: Proust's home town

À la recherche du temps perdu.  In recent years, this overall title of Proust's series of seven quasi-autobiographical novels has been generally translated as In Search of Lost Time.  Appropriate, I've always felt.  Over the years, my impression has been that this is a masterpiece to be admired, to be quoted, to be the subject of allusion -- but not, God forbid, to be read.  

Lost time.  Life is too short.  My remaining years are now too few; they were too few when I was 35!  Too much time is lost in too many ways, without my reading the never-ending reminiscences of a neurotic man who worries his memories of the past to death, like a dog with a bone.  I never really understood exactly what Proust was attempting to accomplish in his masterpiece -- I still don't, really -- and I wasn't all that interested in finding out.

Then, twenty or so years ago, I spent one early morning after another, before anyone else awoke, sitting on a patio in Maui reading the four books of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.  Beautiful, strange, thought-provoking books.  Somewhere I heard them described as "Proustian."  Hmm.  But I still wasn't tempted.

Later, in 2009, I read André Aciman's earliest novel, Call Me by Your Name (released this month as a movie), and learned that Aciman was a noted scholar of Proust.  His writing style and his obsessions intrigued me, and over the years I've read yet another of Aciman's noveIs, and his memoir of growing up in Egypt, and a couple of collections of his essays.  There's a thread that runs through all his works -- a focus on how we perceive time and how we construct, perceive,and reconstruct memory.  His work is also called Proustian.

Today was the last straw.  I was reading an essay by David Foster Wallace -- whom nobody would ever classify as a Proustian writer -- describing his experiences as a teenager playing tennis in Illinois.  He described the flatness of southern Illinois as one crosses it by automobile thusly:

...you could see any town you were aimed at the very moment it came around the earth's curve, and the only part of Proust that really moved me in college was the early description of the kid's geometric relation to the distant church spire at Combray.

Wallace, not surprisingly, didn't sound like a fan of Proust -- but he was familiar with Proust.  He had read Proust.  He knew Proust well enough to use an episode from Proust to make a point.

Before dinner, I realized I had nothing planned for the evening.  I could fritter away my time on Facebook, or in looking up odd items on-line.  Or I could dip my toe in the Proustian waters.  The first novel in the seven-volume series -- Swann's Way -- was available on Kindle for 99 cents.  I couldn't afford not to buy it, and so I did.

I've now read the first ten percent of Swann's Way -- a novel of over 500 pages.  The adult narrator is describing his memories as a young boy, maybe nine or ten years old -- a boy who, like Proust, is significantly named "Marcel."  What's happened in this first ten percent?  Essentially, Marcel has been distraught because he was put to bed without having a chance to kiss his mother good night.  And because there's a party downstairs, she won't be coming up to his room to kiss him good night in bed.  When I say "distraught," I mean that he is sobbing and on the verge of a total breakdown.  He finally entices her to his room, but is unable to enjoy his triumph because he knows he has irritated and gravely disappointed his mother -- his parents have been trying to get him to "grow up," to stop being such a "mother's boy."

And that's pretty much it. 

A book can be like a hike.  Some hikes have a goal so enticing that you'll endure any hardship to hike all the way to the end.  Other hikes also have a goal, but it's the hike itself you enjoy.  You are sampling the scenery and the trail; if you get bored or short of time, there's no shame in returning home short of the goal.  My decision to sample Proust is closer to the second kind of hiking.  I do hope to read Swann's Way all the way to the end -- but if I get sufficiently bored I won't hesitate to toss it aside and go on to something else.  We'll see.

I suspect that if I do complete Swann's Way, I'll be satisfied.  I won't need to read the six succeeding volumes.  Summiting Mt. Rainier didn't force me to go on to tackle Denali and Everest.  And I didn't.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Manchurian president


Hey, I have no idea.  It's just crazy talk.  And I'm just joking.  That movie was pretty farfetched, right? 

But, would it hurt if someone waved a Queen of Diamonds in his face?  Maybe while he was tweeting?  Just to see what happened?

No, seriously, I'm just joking.  I think?  But just for fun?  Why not?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Gray Lady isn't a cheap date


My first newspaper subscription was as a freshman in college.  I believe it was the San Francisco Examiner.  It was delivered right to the door of my dorm room.  I thought that was very cool, and I felt very adult.  

I grew up in a family that subscribed to both a morning (Portland Oregonian) paper and an evening (Longview Daily News) paper.  I assumed everyone read two newspapers a day; it therefore seemed mandatory for the 18-year-old adult that I'd become to read at least one.  Even so, considering my financial plight, I would have been too money-conscious to have subscribed if the price were more than a nominal amount.

I've been trying to recall what I paid for the Examiner. I paid about $2.98 per year for  Newsweek, a weekly news magazine, but that was a special rate for college students. I wouldn't have subscribed to a newspaper if its price wasn't somewhat proportional.  The per issue cost at a newsstand was five cents, so maybe $1.25 or $1.50 per month.

Why do I continue brooding on this subject?  Because two days ago I received a notice from the New York Times advising me that they were -- again -- raising my subscription price.  I tend to roll my eyes at these notices, and then continue subscribing -- especially since the Times deducts the price from my checking account, sparing me the pain of actually filling out a check.

But I did a little calculating.  According to the notice, I'll be paying $20.25/week for home delivery.  That's $1,053 per year.  Really?  I mean that's a pretty big chunk of money for a newspaper.  Even for an excellent newspaper.  Even in today's inflated dollars. 

Especially when the Times offers an impressive on-line version, which often -- to my irritation -- publishes the best features to be found in the approaching Sunday edition days before Sunday.  The on-line edition is included in my print subscription, but I could subscribe to it alone for just $9.99 per month for the first year, and $15.99 per month thereafter.  We're talking $119.99 for the first year, and $191.88 per year thereafter.

All things considered, I feel like an idiot subscribing to the print edition.  Except for a few considerations.  I like to spread the paper out on the floor while I read it.  I like to take it to a restaurant to read while I have breakfast.  I like fetching it from my front yard, just as I liked opening my dorm room door and finding it as a student.  I'm fixed in my ways.  I'm still the child of my parents, good people who subscribed to two papers per day.  I'm a romanticist.

But I'm not sure how much longer my romanticism will support what has become a very expensive habit.  For now, I guess, I'll let inertia carry me along into the Times's latest subscription price zone. 

At some point, however, I'll have to admit to myself not only that I'm paying a fortune for an outmoded technology, but that I've become a bit of an irritant to a newspaper that really wants to focus on digital content -- not on consuming and distributing vast amounts of newsprint.  They won't be offended -- to the contrary, in fact -- if I go digital.

But I'll be sad.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Nothing could be finer


Three weeks from tomorrow, the Friday before Christmas, I will take the light rail from my home to downtown's King Street Station.  At 9:50 a.m., Amtrak's Coast Starlight will pull out of the station.  Five meals and one night's sleep later, at 7:05 p.m., we will pull into the station in Oxnard, California, where I'll join my family for this year's Christmas celebration. 

I could, of course, fly to nearby Santa Barbara in about two hours, but I won't (although I will fly back).  I won't, because, when trains are involved, getting there is half the fun.  

My longest trip ever by train was in 2008, when I traveled via Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited from Seattle to Boston.  My trip to Oxnard will be a quick jump by comparison.  I often dream of something longer.  Much longer.

My dreams are shared by others.  Two days ago, the New York Times carried an article by a fellow who had traveled 8,980 miles by train in 13 days -- leaving New York City the day after the Trump victory a year ago.  While he clearly loves trains, his primary objective was to meet a cross-section of Americans, to understand their lives and their fears -- to see why they voted the way they did. 

The best place to meet on trains, as every train traveler knows, is the diner.  Unless you're one of a party of four, you will be placed at a table with at least one stranger.  If you're a solo traveler like me, you'll be seated with three strangers who may, or may not, know each other.  Unless you stare out the window or into space, avoiding eye contact, you're bound to become involved in conversation.

For a non-gregarious person like myself, each seating in the diner thus becomes slightly intimidating.  And yet, in few other social contexts is it so easy to start conversations with people you've never met.  Part of the ease, I suppose, comes from the knowledge that it's extremely unlikely you'll ever meet them again.

The NYT writer* observed that in our fast-paced society, insofar as we talk to others at all, we rarely have the time or inclination to understand the people we talk to.  We make quickie judgments about their intelligence, their status, their opinions.  If we talk about something controversial, our own goal is to prove -- to ourselves, at least -- that we are "right" and they are "wrong."

I mourn the decline of complex truth, the ability to hold two sides of an argument in mind, the desire to understand rather than simply to be right. We have, for the most part, retreated into pure binary thinking.

Train travel -- in America, at least -- is slow and inefficient.  You aren't going anywhere fast.  You can't gracefully walk away from people you consider, at first glance, uninteresting or "wrong-headed."  You're stuck with them for a meal.  There's no way to escape; there's nowhere to go .  Meals are slow and leisurely, because we all like not only to talk, but to look out the window at the passing scene, as we eat.

When you're stuck eating with someone, you begin learning trivial things about each other -- things that would never come up during a brief city encounter.

After a few days of the dining car routine I began to wonder if the train might be a salve for our national wound, bringing us into intimate conversation with unlikely interlocutors, and allowing us to see each other as human rather than as mere containers for ideology.  On the train, I slowed down. I thought more deeply. I listened better, and longer.

Even with people whose politics he abhorred, "there was something about the person’s relationship to family, and loyalty to family, that I found deeply moving."

Slowing down, seeing the person in front of you as a fellow human, considering his way of thinking -- none of this will change your own beliefs.  But it prevents you from demonizing those with whom you disagree.  It keeps you civil.  If it caught on, it could preserve us as a nation.

Of course, you can always avoid the diner and eat in your roomette or at your seat, staring contentedly out the window.  At times, even a social scientist may feel the need to be alone in the universe.  Either way, the train's a fine place to spend a day or two.  Or more.
--------------------------------------

*Gabriel Kahane, "How the Amtrak Dining Car Could Heal the Nation," New York Times (Nov. 28, 2017).

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Young adult" fiction


Over the past week -- which included travel time to San Diego, where I spent Thanksgiving, with only my Kindle for reading material --I've found myself re-reading three "young adult" novels by Benjamin Sáenz: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (which I "mini-reviewed" last May); He Forgot to Say Goodbye; and The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.

All three novels feature an introverted teenager, Mexican-American by birth or adoption, who is intelligent, kind, and sensitive, and who has a close relationship to one or both parents, but who nevertheless suffers from low self-esteem and whose instinctive reaction to frustration with others is to use his fists.  I assume I can draw some conclusions about Mr. Sáenz himself.  I assume these characteristics are to some degree autobiographical.

I think it's interesting -- and perhaps worthy of contemplation -- that I often enjoy YA fiction more than I do standard "adult" fiction.  I'm not talking about trashy adult pulp fiction, and I'm not talking about classics like Hemingway, Joyce, or Waugh.  Or Jane Austen, for that matter.  I'm also not talking about certain foreign writers who write in English, and may write about America and Americans from a foreigner's perspective.  Such as André Aciman.

I'm talking about those novels that are published week after week and are good enough to be reviewed by the New York Times, but that probably will never become "classics" that will be studied by future literature classes.

My thoughts are extremely tentative, and I need to think more about it.  But I suspect that an important factor in my mind, an important distinction between adult and YA fiction, is the presence of "hope."

The young people in YA fiction are often badly scarred by poverty, or upbringing, or lack of upbringing.  They may have made bad choices.  They may be overwhelmed in ways they don't understand by their teenage hormones.  But they have the resilience of youth. They have flexibility. And they have time, lots of time, to change course. Things may get better, and the novel may have a happy ending, or at least a bittersweet ending.  Or the novel may have a tragic ending, a warning to us readers that many children face odds that are stacked too heavily to be overcome.

But whether the end is happy or tragic, throughout our reading of the novel we feel hope, we care about the protagonist, we long for him to succeed.

Maybe you feel the same way about adult novels?  I rarely do.  I see protagonists with a long history of making bad decisions, stupid and selfish decisions, or who have already been overwhelmed by adversities beyond their control.  I don't particularly empathize with them, or particularly like them.  Their adult worries or desires seem trivial and uninteresting -- to me if not to themselves   But beyond my sympathy or lack of sympathy, I don't feel "hope."  I don't see any reason why -- at this stage of their lives, with so much polluted water already under the bridge -- their lives will be happier or more successful or more worthwhile or more helpful to others in the future than they have been in the past.

I know enough middle-aged people who have lost all the enthusiasms and dreams of their youth and are now just going through the motions of life that I'm not interested in reading about their fictional equivalents.

Therefore, I can't sustain my interest in most such novels, in the absence of some sensational extraneous feature -- they discover a pot of gold buried in the backyard! -- that makes the story less boringly predictable, if implausible.

I realize of course that the funny, clever, resourceful kid of today, the one who finds a way to attend his dream university despite all the odds against him, may well end up leading one of the tired, middle-aged lives of quiet despair tomorrow.  But that future's not in the YA novel.  I settle for whatever ending the author gives me, and don't try to second-guess the protagonist's future.

I'm not completely satisfied with the distinction I've drawn between YA and adult fiction.  I suspect I could find -- I suspect I've already read -- plenty of NY Times best-sellers that meet the characteristics I've given for good YA fiction, or that offer totally different reasons for me to find the books and their characters enchanting.

So I'll think about the subject some more.  Accept this as merely my "beta version" of contemplation on the subject.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

La Belle Sauvage


I don't like sequels.  Nope.  Never have, unless the "sequel" is a book actually anticipated at the time the original work was written.

Sequels strike me as an afterthought, a way of wringing some additional money out of an unexpectedly well-received original work.  They either change our reaction to the original work so that the conclusion of the original no longer has the impact it once had, or they are parasitical -- weak sisters living off the strength of the original.

Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of a trilogy entitled The Book of Dust, does not on first reading strike me as an exception. Pullman says that his new work is neither a prequel nor a sequel to His Dark Materials, but an "equel" -- a different story set in the same Universe. Whatever. Anyway, I'm willing to wait for the rest of the trilogy before drawing any final conclusions.

The "original work" in this case, of course, is the three books of His Dark Materials.  I've commented on both the books, and the movie based on the first volume, The Golden Compass, at various times in this blog.  His Dark Materials is generally regarded as one of the finest examples of fantasy literature told from the point of view of children -- but whose audience is in no way limited to children -- during the last hundred years or so.

The Golden Compass introduced us to an entirely original universe, a universe very similar and parallel to our own, but one with distinct differences.  We followed a pre-adolescent girl (Lyra) from her home in Oxford through a number of adventures, ending with an almost-literal bang among armored bears in the Far North.  We learned that every human being in Lyra's world had a daemon, an animal corresponding to the human's soul, that accompanied its human through life.  We learned of a Church -- a melding of Catholic and Calvinist traditions with headquarters in Geneva -- that dominated the world both religiously and politically.  We learned of a strange substance called "dust," whose importance remained unclear at the end of the first book.

La Belle Sauvage is different from that first volume of the earlier trilogy.  We already know about daemons and the Church and its Magisterium.  No need for much exposition.  The entire book takes place while Lyra is still a baby, and the hero's task is to keep her from being captured and possibly killed by the Magisterium.

The hero is a new character, Malcolm, a pre-adolescent son of an Oxford-area innkeeper.  Malcolm is an extremely likeable boy, and proves to be brave, intelligent, and resourceful.  When a great flood -- perhaps supernatural in origin -- hits the Thames valley, he and a young girl named Alice escape with the baby Lyra in a canoe, attempting to evade the agents of the Magisterium as they float downstream to London.

The story -- to me at least -- lacks much of the adventure and magic, the philosophical and religious implications, of The Golden Compass.  Lyra's world is already a given, its rules largely known from the original series.  This book reads more as a boy's adventure story -- admittedly, an exciting story -- than as the masterpiece represented by Pullman's first book.  The story's introduction of fairy creatures out of British folklore, during an episode in its second half, seems forced and out of place.

The book was fun to read, but I finished reading it with the feeling that my time might have been better spent elsewhere.  As I said at the beginning, the trilogy awaits publication of two more volumes, and I'll reserve judgment.  But La Belle Sauvage itself did nothing to change my long-held view that few sequels are worth writing.  Or reading.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Civilized gathering place


Hadrian, that most civilized and Greek-loving of Roman emperors, founded the Athenaeum in the second century A.D.  The Athenaeum was a school devoted to literary and scientific studies, and to the sharing of educated views. It was located in the middle of what is now the Piazza Venezia in Rome.

The term has since been used repeatedly, not only for various cultural institutions, but for men's clubs (notably that in London), and even for hotels. 

Not to be out-shone, Seattle has sported its own Athenaeum since January 2016.  The Seattle Athenaeum is primarily a subscription library (a modest $125 per year), located in the downtown YMCA building.  I confess that I was unaware of its existence until my friend Pat suggested that we attend a noon presentation yesterday by local author Robert Berry, discussing the presidency of William McKinley.

We discovered the entrance to the institution through a small, discreet side door in the large Y building.  Within, we discovered rooms with books, rooms for sitting quietly and reading, rooms for lectures, and rooms for study.  The books are primarily donations from members' private libraries.  As non-members, Pat and I paid ten dollars apiece for admission to the lecture, an experience that was well worth the price.

Rather than sitting in a large (or small) auditorium, we were ushered into what resembled a university seminar room -- chairs and tables in a circle, with additional chairs against the wall.  Some 25 or 30 people showed up, enough to fill the room.  Professor Merry was introduced by the personable David Brewster, the founder and editor of the Seattle Weekly, the founder of Seattle's Town Hall, and the founder of the Athenaeum itself.  Mr. Brewster gets around, and is clearly a Seattle asset.

Mr. Merry -- both a scholar and a conservative journalist -- gave an interesting presentation of his basic thesis from his best-selling book (published this year) about McKinley.  (He thinks McKinley has been underrated.)  He was then joined by Tom Cronin, a professor at Colorado College and former president of Whitman College, who discussed McKinley from a liberal point of view.  Both speakers were often in substantial agreement, but Cronin felt that McKinley failed to attain the top rank of American presidents because of his lack of interest in promoting racial and economic equality.

My interest was less in the speakers' competing arguments than in observing their personalities and the courtesy and mutual respect with which they disagreed with each other.  Not surprisingly, both speakers, liberal and conservative, find the Trump presidency both distressing and frightening.

It's nice to know that small groups of intelligent people have forums, like the Athenaeum, in which to gather, hear and discuss matters of interest, and meet each other informally over lunches they've brought with them.  The experience reminded me of happy experiences from my youth -- as well as experiences from Hadrian's time -- and offered some hope that the Trump years will not forever define American life and civilization.

This, too, will pass.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Asian holiday


Sunset from our place on Bali

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill

--Kipling

I lead a charmed life.  Long rides in taxis and "tuk-tuks," through crazy traffic, and never injured.  Lay-overs, going and coming, at Seoul airport, and never nuked.  Hiking under the shadow of Bali's highly active Mt. Agung volcano, and never buried in lava and ash.

Home at last, arriving in Seattle by way of Seoul two afternoons ago, and only now feeling mentally capable of setting down a few thoughts in writing.

It was a great three weeks, both as a travel experience and as a family reunion to celebrate a couple of 70th birthdays.


Volcano Agung seen from temple
site on Lempuyang

I arrived in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, on October 18 -- joining my sister at a cluster of stilted cabins called "The Little Village," a mile or so walk down a narrow country road from my nephew Denny's rented home.  We made frequent treks down that road to visit the very comfortable house he's been renting since last June when he accepted a job teaching sixth grade at the same international school his daughter Maury was attending.  We joined him and a couple of other early arrivals, my first night there, to celebrate our Thai experience by visiting a locally run pizza joint, and spent the next three days hanging out with everyone and hearing about Denny's local experiences.

Unfortunately, the school had just been flooded by the tail-end of the monsoons, giving Maury a vacation and Denny the experience of working with fellow teachers to prepare temporary quarters for the school.  A bit stressful for my nephew, but he handled it all with aplomb.


Sister descending Lempuyang

After three days, four of us flew to Bangkok, where we spent a night, and then on to Denpasar, Bali, getting our first view of newly awakened Agung as we flew over the island.  We joined many of the other members of our 13-person group at the airport. Our rental management provided us transportation to our new homes. We drove northward for an hour, weaving crazily through masses of tuk-tuks and bicycles, drawing ever closer to the threatening volcano.

We were delighted by the accommodations that my sister Kathy had negotiated for us.  She had rented all three houses on a large plot of land, surrounded by lush green lawns, and bordering the sea across a channel from Lombok island. Everything about the place was beautiful -- the detailed interior and exterior woodworking of the houses, the palm trees, the infinity pool overlooking the ocean, the nightly sunsets.  I had to summon all my curiosity to tear myself away and wander out the front gate occasionally, where the world of Bali locals existed along a dirt road that lead eventually into the nearest town of Candi Dasa.


Angkor Wat at dawn

Both the manager and staff of our property, and the staff of an adjoining resort whose outdoor café we visited frequently, were overwhelming in their hospitality.  Although the Candi Dasa area is a major tourist area, the publicity about the supposedly imminent eruption of nearby Agung had virtually eliminated the presence of foreign tourists.  We had the entire region almost to ourselves.

We spent one morning driving even closer to the volcano -- although still remaining outside the 12 kilometer "forbidden zone" -- to climb the sacred mountain of Lempuyang.  Lempuyang's summit is about 5,000 feet, and the path to the top leads past seven Hindu temples or shrines.  The climb is one of the major tourist attractions of northeast Bali.  We saw no other tourists while there -- but we had beautiful, unclouded views of Agung herself.  Four of us ascended to the top temple, and the rest climbed as high as the second.


Temple at Lamphun, near Chiang Mai,
where we attended Loi Krathong, a
Buddhist festival of lights.
 

After a full week on Bali, about half of our group left for home.  The rest of us flew by way of Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  We stayed at a small bed and breakfast in the center of town, our units surrounding a swimming pool.  We explored nearby Angkor Wat, which Denny and I had explored ten years earlier. (Photos from 2007) The ruins are very extensive, stretching far beyond the most famous ruins ("Angkor Wat" proper).  They deserve a return visit, and further exploration.

Kathy and I  caught a 5 a.m. taxi to the ruins one morning to watch the sunrise.  The sun rose, of course, but chose to rise behind a cloud.  Nevertheless, the ruins -- while hardly free of visitors -- were more peaceful and especially attractive in the early light of dawn, and we didn't regret missing a couple of hours of sleep.

After three nights in Siem Reap, we returned to Chiang Mai, spent three more nights at The Little Village, and then moved into the central "old city," a square of about 1¼ mile length on each side, surrounded by a landscaped moat.  We spent three more nights in the old city, concluded by dinner at La Fourchette, an excellent French restaurant owned and managed by a superb chef.  The service was excellent, and I don't mind throwing in a plug for the place.

Then, one by one, we headed for home.  I was the last of our group to leave Chiang Mai.  I won't be the last to return for another visit.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

I'm leaving, on a jet plane ...


Chiang Mai street scene

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon at the Northwest Corner blog offices.  The staff has been given three-week leaves, the "Closed, but Still Awesome" sign has been hung on the front door.  The mighty printing presses have been shut down and will be maintained during down time.

Only your editor and publisher remains on the premises, brooding over the Decline and Fall of Virtually Everything, and wondering how to make a clever story out of the Apocalypse.  His luggage has been dragged out, piles of clothes strewn about his desk, a not-uncommon look of confusion flickering across his face.

The blog cats suspect and fear the worse, and follow their befuddled editor as he darts from room to room, howling with outrage. The cats howling, that is; not the editor.

So, yes.  As his earlier posts have suggested, "Confused Thoughts from the Northwest Corner" will be shut down -- in fact, with this post, is henceforth shut down -- until his return from Southeast Asia on November 8.  God willing, fire and eruptions permitting, and connecting flights through Seoul still being possible.

Have a Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Happy blazing birthday!


Denny, teaching his sixth grade
class in Chiang Mai 

Fireworks!  That's the kind of celebration my sister Kathy has always loved.  So naturally, when a major birthday comes along, she isn't going to mark it with a mega-candled cake at your local Applebee's.

And so, as mentioned in earlier posts, our plan has been that as many as can do it will go first to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where Kathy's son Denny is teaching sixth grade at an international school, and then -- for the actual celebration -- we (including Denny and his young daughter) will fly to Bali where others, with less free time, will join us for a week long family frolic in the sun, ocean, and jungle.  Returning from Bali to Chiang Mai, some of us will also stop en route for a couple of days in Cambodia, to explore the ruins at Angkor Wat.

That was the general plan.  Pretty exciting, but apparently a little tame for Kathy.  So she managed to dial up the seismic activity on Bali, causing a large area around the volcano Agung to be evacuated in expectation of an imminent eruption.  And then she waved her wand, causing northern California to burst into flame -- a wave of the wand that was a bit too exuberant, as her own house burned to the ground.

But losing your hearth and home is no reason to change plans.  She flew off to Chiang Mai on Tuesday.  I -- my head reeling -- will be departing Seattle in three days, on  Monday, to join her, Denny, and other celebrants.  As the schedule of coming events now stands, everyone will all show up on Bali on October 22, where we will remain for a week, barring some eruptive disaster, in a rented beachside home.

Although Kathy lost her home in Sonoma, I'm happy to relate that her Sonoma area friends mostly seem to have fared better, and that the fire danger -- although still worrisome -- has improved.  And Agung on Bali, still muttering to itself, has so far refrained from erupting, or even from showing increased signs of eruption.

Always the optimist, I'm eagerly awaiting the trip.  It will be fun to talk to Denny and find out how he likes teaching at a Thai school (indications are that he loves it), and it will be fun to toast Kathy's birthday as the ground quakes beneath us, smoke rises on the horizon, and lava threatens to burst forth at any moment. 

As they say, no one on his death bed ever wished that he had spent more birthdays eating cake at Applebee's.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

I left my heart


Bay and latte, from
the Ferry Building

I was in San Francisco for a few hours yesterday -- no, my visit had been planned long before the recent fires.  My reason for my brief visit is too embarrassing to explain in detail  -- let's just say that the care and feeding of my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan was involved.

So what did I do in my few hours?  It's not as though I never visit San Francisco, but usually when I'm there I'm meeting people, visiting homes, eating meals, re-visiting "sights" -- even occasionally going sailing.  All with other people, mainly relatives.  But, being alone yesterday with no one expecting my arrival, I did what I do best -- I wandered alone and indulged in nostalgia.

When I was 29, with a brand-new M.S. degree in hand and with some thoughts of teaching in a junior college (I thank God now that I was unsuccessful in my job search), I lived for about four months in "The City" during that period in limbo.  Yesterday, I decided to hoof it around town and re-visit places I recalled from that odd period of my life.

After several days apartment-searching, while living in a YMCA located in the Tenderloin, I finally ended up renting a small studio apartment in a large apartment complex.  At that time -- and now -- it was called "The Imperial," located on Sutter Street between Gough and Octavia.  It had been built during World War II as officers' housing for -- I believe -- the Navy.  The rent was about $200 per month -- which seemed quite steep at the time -- but then, as now, after all, I was living in San Francisco! 

Every morning I caught a trolley bus heading east on Sutter -- carefully depositing my 15 cent fare -- and rode to the end of the line at Market, where I transferred to a bus that took me down to somewhere in the general area of today's AT&T Park.  It was an industrial area, and I worked at a short-term job running chemical analyses for a testing laboratory.  The job was tedious, but life in San Francisco was interesting.

St. Benedict's

So after leaving BART at Powell yesterday, I walked up Sutter to find my old home.  It was still there, still looking the same -- although as I looked in the front window I'd guess that it now looks more elegant than I had recalled.  The parking lot next door is now another apartment house.  I walked two blocks up Octavia, and found, although one block away from where I expected it, St. Benedict's Church, the church I attended each Sunday, at an age and in a time and place when church attendance was somewhat unusual. 

Several more blocks uphill led me to Lafayette Park, where I'd sometimes come on a weekend to lie in the sun and read.  The park seems more developed than I recall it -- tennis courts, a large off-leash dog area -- but the same great views of the Golden Gate, and the same grassy patch where I once stretched out on the lawn.

Golden Gate from
Lafayette Park

I then walked eastward on Bush, trying to locate the fictional Nob Hill mansion "Thunderbolt House" that I had read about as a child (and discussed here in a post in September 2016).  I knew it was on Bush, but didn't remember the cross street (according to the book, it was at Bush and Mason).  At any rate, the entire stretch of Bush along the southern slope of Nob Hill -- including Thunderbolt House -- was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, and Bush itself today is pleasant and low-key, but not particularly interesting architecturally.

I ended up at the Ferry Building, which looks better every time I see it.  The elevated Embarcadero Freeway, which shut off the Ferry Building and the waterfront from the rest of the city, was heavily damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and was torn down in 1991.  It's an ill wind that blows no good, I guess, which may be news to folks today in Sonoma and Napa..  Seattle will be doing something similar -- but more voluntarily -- with the Alaska Way Viaduct along its own waterfront -- as soon as the tunnel replacing it is completed.

Embarcadero

When the Embarcadero was first torn down, the area seemed a bit vacant, but has since been planted in palm trees, and the area is alive with streetcar lines.  And tourists. 

If I had had time to visit all the highlights of my short residency in San Francisco, I would have walked up Market -- torn to pieces at the time, while BART was being constructed -- from the Ferry Building to the Civic Center.  And there I would have re-visited the public library -- one of my former favorite haunts.  But my time already was drawing to a close.  I walked up Market as far as Powell, jumped aboard BART, and returned to the Oakland airport.

San Francisco was an edgier place when I lived there, although probably less edgy than in the noir-ish, pre-war years described in the detective novels of author Dashiell Hammett.  When a city has gentrified to the point where property is virtually impossible for the average guy to rent, let alone buy, it's bound to change. 

Gentrification has both its good and bad aspects, both socially and from the point of urban planning.  It's a subject beyond the scope of my brief visit and this brief essay.  I'll just say that it's a very attractive city today, and a place well worth an extended visit.  For a tourist, at least, today's San Francisco combines the best aspects of New York and Boston, and avoids some of the weaknesses of both.  Which, from me, is a high compliment.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Sonoma tragedy


My sister's home, consumed by flames

Even as we eyed Bali nervously (see prior post), disaster struck last night, closer to home.

My sister, whose birthday we will be celebrating in Bali, lives just outside Sonoma, California.  She has a close friend who owns a ranch and bed and breakfast, with plenty of acreage for both their horses.  My sister arranged with her friend -- somewhat unorthodoxly (and perhaps extra-legally) -- to construct an inconspicuous home for herself on the property by joining two shipping containers.

Actually, there are websites about how to build your house from a shipping container.

The idea may sound unpromising, but the containers were brought into place, our brother did a lot of the construction and electrical work, my sister did the interior design -- and the result was both beautiful and comfortable.  And -- from the side where outsiders could view it -- it appeared to be nothing more than a large tool shed.

Yesterday, brush fires fanned by freakish high winds, hit all over northern California.  News reports indicate that at least 1,500 homes have been destroyed to date.  Much of Sonoma county, outside the towns, has been evacuated.

I received an email from my sister last night at 2 a.m., telling me that her home had been totally destroyed, together with all its contents:  a large library of books, family mementos and photographs, furniture, oddities that she has collected over the decades.  Fortunately, the friend's bed and breakfast -- closer to the road -- was not damaged, and the horses were not injured.

Her heartbreaking story is being repeated over and over throughout California today.  Added to hurricanes and floods, the year 2017 is becoming a year to remember.  Not with affection. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Tempting the gods


There was a roar and a great confusion of noise.  Fires leaped up and licked the roof.  The throbbing grew to a great tumult, and the Mountain shook. ... And there upon the dark threshold of the Sammath Naur, high above the plains of Mordor, such wonder and terror came on him that he stood still forgetting all else, and gazed as one turned to stone.

--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Mount Agung, a volcano in eastern Bali, killed between 1,100 and 1,700 people in 1963, when it exploded in two major eruptions.  It then remained quiescent until last month, when alarming sesismic activity -- 844 earthquakes on September 26 alone -- seemed to presage another major eruption.  Over a hundred thousand residents of Bali have been evacuated from a twelve-mile exclusionary zone around the mountain.

Tourists have been assured that they are safe in Bali's famed resort areas, but the threat of eruption has caused cancelation of plans by some.  The threat of eruption remains serious, but the immediate eruption that was feared a couple of weeks ago has not yet occurred.

In the midst of all this concern, two days ago a French citizen posted photos (copy of one appears above) and videos of his ascent to the crater's edge.  Facebook and the internet was filled with expressions of disgust that this guy risked his own life in a dangerous situation in exchange for a little publicity, not to mention showing  callous disregard for Balinese culture or for the sensitivities of the Balinese who had been evacuated from their homes.

Agung is regarded by local Hindus as a replica or fragment of mystical Mt. Meru -- the central axis of the universe -- and is the location of sacred temples.  The government has had problems dealing with Hindu priests returning to the slopes to pray that the mountain not erupt.  The climber entered the exclusionary zone,  not to pray on behalf of the people who lived there, but simply as a publicity stunt.  As one writer posted, angrily, on the climber's Facebook page:

This man is a self serving arrogant jerk. Has he not learned anything about the Balinese culture while living in Bali obviously not because he's only interested in himself. I cannot believe some people are making him out to be some kind of hero. The heroes are those locals and expats helping the evacuees who have had to leave their homes on the slopes of their sacred mountain. He has no credibility because of his lack of respect.

I don't mean to sound flippant when I say that if we do make it to Bali on October 22, as planned, my family and I will certainly give the active volcano all the respect it deserves.

We have been advised by the owner of the villa we are leasing that, at 28 km. from the volcano, and protected by an intervening range of hills, we will be perfectly safe in the event of any eruption.  The only concern would be that the airport at Denpasar might be closed should there be too much ash in the air.  But in that event, flights with Bali as a destination would land on Lompok island, immediately to the east, and we would ferry across the channel to Bali.

So.  That's where our Bali visit stands at present.  Before we fly to Bali, we will be visiting my nephew and his daughter in Thailand.  We will make a final decision on how to proceed once we are in Thailand.

None of us is Hindu, but we all, with great respect, implore Agung to hold off any violent activity, at least until November.