Friday, May 27, 2016

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud


"At least you're feeling something. I never made you feel that way."
"You wouldn't have enjoyed it."

Last night was the final offering of the Seattle Art Museum's spring film series, "Cinéma de Paris" -- Claude Sautet's 1995 film, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (final offering other than a make-up showing of another, earlier-scheduled Sautet film in June).  I left the theater more optimistic about humanity's potential for civilized behavior, if perhaps with less optimism for humans' ability to find lasting happiness with one other.

M. Arnaud is a retired judge and businessman, now probably in his sixties.  Nelly is a young married woman, employed part-time and burdened with a husband who has been unemployed for a year and who spends his days watching TV.  (He reports, one day, that a guy came by selling encyclopedias, and that talking to him was pretty exciting.)

Arnaud meets Nelly through a mutual friend, is obviously attracted to her, pays off her overdue rent, and hires her to edit and type his memoirs.  Nelly is fascinated by his intelligence, his restraint, his humor, and his erudition.  Maybe by his wealth, as well, although this point isn't emphasized.  She divorces her husband, who accepts her decision with regret, but placidly.  Placidity seems to be his defining characteristic.

The movie is a love affair between Nelly and M. Arnaud, a love affair that gives no hint of any overtly physical relationship.  Early in the movie, Arnaud assures her that she needn't feel threatened.  Nelly replies with deadpan humor that she sees no reason why she would be.  She has an affair with Arnaud's publisher -- a man who appears a perfect match for her -- but ultimately breaks it off because of her confused feelings for Arnaud.  Both -- elderly man and young woman -- love each other.  Neither can hide that fact, but neither seems able to make it explicit -- even verbally.

This is a movie of quiet conversations --  often humorous, often perceptive, always intelligent.  No car crashes, gun play, or thrashing around beneath the covers.  But the film is never dull, never boring.  It engaged my attention, my sense of humor, and my sense of the tragic -- and apparently those of the entire audience -- from beginning to end.

Eventually, as the relationship between Nelly and Arnaud seems to have reached an uncomfortable stasis, Arnaud's former wife -- twenty years after the divorce -- appears on the scene as a deus (dea?) ex machina.  Arnaud announces to Nelly -- hours before departure -- that he and his ex will attempt a reconciliation, in the form of a months-long trip around the world.  He will continue paying Nelly as she finishes work on his memoirs.  She will have full access to his Paris apartment.  She smiles and wishes them well.  He looks uncomfortable.

Nelly sits in the empty apartment -- all the emptier for the fact that  throughout the film, Arnaud had been selling off the enormous book collection that had lined the walls, apparently attempting to turn over a new page in  his life.  Nelly's ex-husband has remarried.  The publisher -- who had not reacted well to her breaking off with him -- refuses to see or talk to her. 

Nelly is left all alone, having sacrificed, one way or another, at least three potential romantic relationships.  When last seen, at the airport, Arnaud's former wife appears jubilant -- Arnaud himself, far less so.  As my viewing companion remarked, things didn't bode well for Arnaud's renewed marriage.

But this is the way life goes, Sautet shows us.  At least we can be civilized about it, and avoid deceiving ourselves.  We can enjoy what we have, while we have it -- realizing that it may be all too transient. 

Two thumbs up from this cinematically-uneducated viewer.

PS -- The high point in the film -- for this audience in the Northwest Corner -- came when Arnaud tells Nelly sadly that his grown son has disappeared to the ends of the earth -- he's off in Seattle, working for Microsoft.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Contested conventions?


Both Republican and Democratic party leaders seem upset by the chaos that's surrounded their nominating process this year, according to the New York Times.  They wring their hands, trying to figure out how to make everything go more smoothly in 2020.

Chaotic?  Not really, not by historical standards.  In 1924, the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis -- a candidate no one really wanted and that few recall now.  He lost in November to a more vibrant and dynamic Republican candidate, Calvin Coolidge.

That convention was an extreme, but until very recently every convention was a contested convention.  Few states held primaries, and many state delegations arrived pledged to their governor or senior senator -- usually a holding pattern designed to give the state some  leverage in the ultimate decision. 

Today's politicians -- and public -- shudder at such "smoke-filled rooms" and behind the scenes horse-trading.  Maybe they're right.  But it's doubtful that a Donald Trump would have been nominated by party regulars negotiating over shots of whiskey.

Today's system doesn't really make sense from a theoretical perspective.  A political party is a private political organization of members with similar political briefs who supposedly place candidates reflecting their views before the electorate.  Primary elections transfer the choice of delegates from party activists to everybody willing to call himself a party member, at least for a day.  And -- as the Republicans note with concern -- in many states, the primary voter need not even register as a party member.  Independents, and even Democrats, are entitled to vote in those Republican primaries.

(In Washington and California, in all elections except presidential, political parties no longer have any official standing in elections.  Elections are, in effect, non-partisan.  The two candidates for each position with the highest number of votes -- regardless of party -- run against each other in the general election.)

The Times observes that politicians could go either way, four years from now -- give the general public even greater say in choosing convention delegates, in order to stoke enthusiasm; or, give choice of delegates back to party officials, at least to some extent, and allow those delegates to choose the candidate at the convention itself.  This latter approach restores to the party some control over its own destiny.

I lean toward the latter, primarily because an organization formed to promote certain political beliefs should be able to choose the candidates who accomplish that objective.  When political conventions were still meaningful, both parties still included members with a variety of competing policy approaches, but more or less unified by the party's overall political direction (i.e., conservative or liberal).  But the successful candidate represented -- usually -- the majority of the politically active members of the party.

The primaries may have been "exciting" this year, but the Republican party was captured by a non-politician whose proposed platform (insofar as any existed) poorly represented the rank and file of the party, and the Democrats came close to nominating a candidate who had never before called himself a Democrat.  Assuming without deciding that party government is good and useful, I can't believe that what we have seen this year has been a desirable approach to party government.

And you just want "excitement"?  Conventions of both parties never lacked for excitement -- even as recently as the 1960s.  If the networks have archived footage of the events of some of those conventions, they would make interesting and enjoyable viewing today.
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"Mr. Chairman, I move to postpone indefinitely enforcement of the vows and promises made in the preceding blog post."

"Without objection, it is so ordered."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Just shut up


I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.
--Blaise Pascal

Every writer needs an editor.  My last three essays were each intended to be a quick comment on a quirky thought.  Each turned out to be endless in length, turgid in style, and inconclusive in conclusion.  Having no editor to clip my wings, I resolve to clip 'em myself.

From now on, I'll make my point, and then stop.

Like this.*
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*(But we both know I'm lying.)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Deciding to do the inevitable



Should you go to law school or medical school?  Do want to go to Paris or to Madrid for vacation?  Do you want pie or cake for dessert?  These are the kinds of decisions we make daily, the routine (and not so routine) decisions that guide the direction of our lives.

But neuroscientists, studying our brains, have discovered something disconcerting.  The electrical activity in the brain representing, say, a trip to Madrid fires immediately before you make the conscious, supposedly reasoned decision to go to Madrid.  As an article by Stephen Cave in this month's Atlantic puts it:

The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.

These neuroscientific findings are but the latest justification for abandoning our traditional belief in free will, and accepting our scary role as part of a deterministic universe.  Everybody's life, according to determinism, is predetermined by the structure and physiology of his brain -- every decision, minute to minute, proceeding according to cause and effect. 

And since each person's actions are pre-determined reactions to his environment, including the actions of other persons, we must assume that all of human history has followed the same rules of physical cause and effect as do the events of geology and physics.  Human activity is thus of the same character as the orbits of asteroids and the erosion of creek beds.

Dr. Cave, a writer and philosopher who received his Ph.D. from Cambridge, devotes most of his Atlantic article to showing how, although we live in a deterministic world, it's better that we ignore that fact.  Or at least that people who are not professional philosophers should ignore it.  People behave better in many contexts, is one unsurprising conclusion, if they believe they are acting with free will. 

But if our lives are pre-determined, aren't we indulging in a free will fallacy by worrying that people will make bad decisions because they don't believe in free will?  It's long been the joke that philosophers don't believe in free will, but spending their lives writing and teaching as though they do

Which, of course, is exactly what Dr. Cave recommends -- let's pretend we do have free will. 

Some philosophers, Cave observes, such as Dr. Sam Harris, try to work around this paradox by claiming a distinction between "determinism" and "fatalism." 

When  people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference.  But this is a mistake.  People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives.

I'm not a philosopher, and I don't grasp the distinction.  To me, it appears that if every human being's life is pre-determined, their effect on each other is also pre-determined.  From the first instant of the Big Bang, the glory of Athens, the Terror of the French Revolution, the style of Donald Trump's hair-do, and my writing of this blog were completely predictable, given full knowledge of the initial conditions.  To me, "fatalism" just sounds like a more emotion-charged version of the term "determinism."  But, as I say, I am not a philosopher.

Christianity has brooded over the same issue, in theological terms, for two thousand years.  God must have had full knowledge of his entire creation when he created it, including which humans would ultimately be saved and which would be damned.  Therefore, why should we strive earnestly for salvation?  John Calvin had one extreme answer; modern Protestants have a far more optimistic answer (if they even contemplate the issue).

The Catholic Church, steering a middle road, generally holds that predestination is a necessary result of God's infinite knowledge, but that prayer and striving for salvation are duties imposed on us by Christ's teaching.  It's a mystery, we are told.  Don't try to second-guess God, or imagine how his mind works.  Just do your best to follow the teachings of Christ.

Which -- come to think about it -- is essentially what Dr. Cave is suggesting to us in a secular, rather than theological, context.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Scientific research by an early adolescent


At the age of 14, in a bookstore in downtown Chicago, I made a purchase, the repercussions of which have echoed throughout my life.  The book was the memorable story of how our planet has been visited throughout human history by residents of other planets.  And of the personal encounter by the author with a tourist from Venus.

Flying Saucers Have Landed, by Desmond Leslie and George Adamski (1953).   The book, its cover somewhat disheveled with time and use, still sits comfortably in my bookcase, a lasting monument to my youthful inquiring mind.

Now just a minute, you guys.  You're laughing before I've even started telling you about this book. 

This is a scholarly work, which reviews ancient manuscripts that -- until this book was published -- no one had realized were actually descriptions of alien visitations to Earth.  The authors quote (in both Latin and English translation) a resident of a Yorkshire abbey who, in 1290 observed "a large round silver thing like a disk [that] flew slowly" overhead and scared the bejesus (sorry!) out of the monks.  Similar sightings became frequent from the seventeenth century forward.   Flying saucers (to use the vulgar popular term) have been around a long time.

Longer ago than medieval England, certainly.   How about the Hindu epic, the Ramayana

"Do thou speedily bring the aerial car for me."  Thereupon arrived the car, adorned all over with gold, having fine upper rooms, banners, jeweled windows, and giving forth a melodious sound, having huge apartments, and excellent seats.

Beholding the car coming by force of will, Rama attained to an excess of astonishment.  And the king (Rama) got in, and the excellent car, at the command of Raghira, rose up into the higher atmosphere.

Clearly, saucers may have been perceived as less sleek and modernistic, and more baroque, or even steampunkish, in those earlier times.  Later chapters discuss learnedly  similar references in the Sanskrit Samarangana Sutradhara, and in Tantric Tibetan works.

These analyses of the ancient texts are indeed scholarly.  They have footnotes.  True, I had difficulty locating the works cited, but what do you expect from a small town library?  I remember trying unsuccessfully to track down an ancient source called Ibid, but I was uncertain whether Ibid was an author or the title of another Hindu text.

But more exciting than this historical research was Adamski's personal account of his encounter with a Venusian at 12:30 p.m. on November 20, 1952, in the California desert.  While driving down the highway, Adamski suddenly felt an overpowering need to drive off onto a side road, because he sensed that someone -- a saucer man -- wanted to meet him.

I cannot tell you why. For those who have an understanding of the subtler workings of mind, no explanation is necessary. For others, an explanation might necessarily be long and difficult.

Well! That pretty much put me in my place, and I worried no more about what conceivable scientific basis might explain mental telepathy.

In any event, Earth and Venus eventually met.  The Venusian was about 5'6", weighed about 135 pounds, and looked pretty much like a Californian except for a high forehead, no beard, and his wearing of pants that looked a bit like ski pants.  Adamski was in a state of shock, I should think, but he nevertheless proves capable of devoting several pages to his observations of the fellow's physical characteristics and clothing.  They chatted.  That is, Adamski spoke in English, and the Venusian replied telepathically, although he picked up a bit of Adamski's English as they went along.

[H]e pointed to the sun; made one orbit, made the second, then touching himself with his left hand, he gestured several times with his right index finger toward the second orbit. 

I took this to mean  that the second planet was his home, so I asked, You mean you came from Venus?"   ... Then he, too, spoke the word "Venus."

For me,  that was the high point.  They then talked about the danger of radiation from nuclear testing.  And deeper subjects.  Luckily, although Venusian bodies die, just like ours, their intelligence goes on evolving out in space somewhere.  They believe in "God," but we earthlings have a pretty naïve understanding of that whole subject.

And don't worry about war with creatures from Venus . 

The presence of this inhabitant of Venus was like the warm embrace of great love and understanding wisdom, and with his departure I felt an absence of this warm embrace.

Of course, if Venusians were going to eat us, they might well choose to make us feel greatly loved in the years leading up to the Great Feed, right?  Like pet sheep or pigs?

I can't tell you more.  A 14-year-old has a limited attention span, and he has much to be concerned about aside from the comings and goings of Venusians.  I went on to other matters.  And later, data from Venus probes describing the climate and temperatures on the surface of the planet -- and indications that the atmospheric pressure on the Venus surface is nearly a hundred times that of Earth's -- made the suavely humanoid features of Adamski's Venusian friend seem vaguely implausible, and caused my mind to wander. 

But who knows?

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


I'm still waiting to hear what really goes on in Area 51. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Overthinking it


In my 2009 essay discussing John Wray's novel, Lowboy, I made the following observation about the schizophrenic teenage protagonist.

But mostly, the novel is an immersion in the mind of a young man who is precociously bright and likeable and in a sense idealistic, but whose perspective on the world is far different from our own -- a kid who thinks deeply and observes much that we would miss, but who overlooks simple meanings and conclusions that we would find obvious.

My observations about schizophrenia may apply equally to the strange mental patterns displayed by conspiracy theorists.  An article in yesterday's New York Times used Hillary Clinton's promise to release documents about the notorious "Area 51," should she become president, as an opportunity to explore the strange world of conspiracy theorists -- folks who have been trying for centuries to make sense of the world by pointing their fingers at mysterious, shadowy groups of insiders:  the Freemasons, the "Illuminati," Rosicrucians, the Knights Templar, the Cathars and ancient Egyptian religious cults. 

Our American conspiracies tend to be less mystical, perhaps, but -- in addition to the government's contacts with aliens (and I don't mean Mexican immigrants!) in Area 51, we have the FBI's or CIA's involvement in JFK's assassination, the Trilateral Commission (whatever that is), the Fed's nefarious activities, the Global Warming liberal scientist conspiracy, the Obama Kenyan birth cover-up, and a myriad of anti-Catholic conspiracy theories (including, of course, Dan Brown's fictional Da Vinci Code!).

The Times writer points out that conspiracy theorists aren't necessarily mouth breathers.

It takes great mental powers to construct these intricacies, no matter how crazy they are. Conspiracy theorists are not stupid people. Given a different turn in life, some might have made good superstring theorists.

“The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent,” Hofstadter wrote in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “In fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.”

Other scholars have found that adherents of one conspiracy theory are likely to believe in others. They are good — maybe too good — at making connections. Maybe the phenomenon is neurological, with synapses packed so densely that the brain is driven to see way more order than can possibly be there.

That makes sense.  To me, folks who are obsessed by conspiracy theories seem to be folks who have a difficult time with ambiguity, with admitting that life and the world are messy and confusing, that reality isn't (and people certainly aren't) always logical and mathematical.  They sit at their desks, spinning their mental wheels year after year, trying -- as would an astronomical physicist -- to fit every known fact into some all-embracing theory that can account for them all. 

But like the fictional schizophrenic depicted in Lowboy, in weaving their webs of complexities, they overlook simple but aesthetically displeasing solutions, based on the randomness and illogic of human behavior.  Sometimes, folks, "stuff" does just happen.

I find this equivalence between schizophrenic and conspiracy theory behaviors comforting and reassuring.  Those guys are just a bunch of nuts (to be non-PC).  On the other hand, I'm not going to make an all-embracing theory out it, and force all known facts into it. 

As the joke goes, even paranoids sometimes have enemies.

And conspirators sometimes actually do form conspiracies.

I can hardly wait to see those Area 51 documents!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Choosing a rest room


As an undergraduate, visiting Paris for the first time, I had occasion to use a public men's room.  To my great surprise, inside I encountered a woman sitting at a table, keeping a close eye on the urinals.   A small bowl rested on her table, filled with a number of small coins. 

I soon grew used to "using the facilities" under the watchful eye of a woman.  After my second or third visit, my concern was not for her gender but for my ability to stave off her fury by having handy a few centimes to drop in her bowl.  The men using the urinals never sexually attacked her, and she never attacked the men using the urinals (except verbally for ignoring her tip jar).

I've been reminded of my initial surprise and quick familiarity with the presence of a W.C. attendant as I've read of the national uproar over requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the washroom of the gender of their "choice," rather than that of their birth.  Here, in Washington, conservatives have been circulating Initiative 1515, which, it is claimed, would be the most radical anti-transgender statute enacted in America.  The Seattle Times has described the initiative as "an utter embarrassment, an economic disaster and an immoral endorsement of blatant discrimination."

Such laws have been proposed as protection for our youth against the dangers that lurk in their school, university, and private company restrooms.  (We have precious few public restrooms of the sort that I gratefully used in Paris.)   

I have a young female relative who lives in a coeducational dormitory.  Men and women share the same bathrooms.  They brush their teeth side by side, which, as I've mentioned in a different context, amazes guys of my generation who rarely got beyond the lobby of a women's dorm.  No problems occur, even among hormonally-charged college-aged students.  

And really, what problems might occur, especially within schools?  Girls use stalls.  Are boys going to break down the doors to get at them?  Boys don't now venture into a girls' restroom, even though the door is open to them.  Will they nevertheless announce to the school that they are girls in boys' bodies just to gain the permissive access that is already physically available to them?    And then what?

How realistic are we being?

I've been reading a novel -- it takes place in a well-described Boston, which was the draw -- about a prep school student who has been assigned to tutor an 11-year-old boy for a spelling bee.  At their first meeting, the youngster whispers to the teenager, "I'm a girl!" -- a terrifying secret he had been keeping from the entire world, including his parents.  He (she) had never heard of "transgender"; he (she) thought he was unique. 

Eventually, the "boy," by now called by her adopted female name, begins planning medical treatment.  But in the meantime, her friends at school -- male and female -- have made life miserable for her whenever she tries to use either gender's bathroom.

The older student writes in his journal:

What was going through my mind, and what I didn't dare say aloud, was to wonder how the hell this could happen to someone.  How could nature have gotten it so screwed up?  Why should anyone have to go through this just to be who they are? ... 

Once again, I tried imagining myself trapped in a female body and just couldn't get there.  ...  My mind refused to let me go there, even in my imagination.  What must this profound disconnect be like for Kay?

It made me want to throttle anyone who would ridicule her, who would make this horrible, horrible situation even worse.*

Precisely.  Whatever misguided fears the proponents of Initiative 1515 may have for the safety of their sons and daughters, how can they overlook the misery and lack of alternatives such a statute would present for their kids' transgender classmates?  Those kids have loving parents, too, parents who suffer along with their kids.

I'm not so naïve, of course, as to believe this initiative, like similar proposed laws across the country, is entirely about child safety.  It is primarily one more attempt to keep the world from turning, to keep life from changing.  "Stop!  No more change!  Let's go back to the world of 'Leave it to Beaver'."  

Beaver led, in retrospect, a pretty idyllic life.  But we ignore the fact that many of his classmates did not.  We can do better today.
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*Robin Reardon, Educating Simon (2014).

Friday, May 13, 2016

Home of the Bean and the Cod


Boston Public Library

Until last week, my short list of American cities (1) that I had never been to at all, or had merely passed through briefly, and (2) that I was anxious to explore in depth, had only two remaining candidates.*  Now, after 3½ days in Boston, the list is down to one.

I had visited Boston briefly a couple of times in the past -- once, a day visit, passing through while driving a rental car, and once overnight, while en route to Maine.  But I had never arrived in Boston, as I might arrive in a European city, with maps in hand and a plan of action.  And yet Boston, with its environs, is one of the iconic cities of American history.    

My visit last week, returning on Saturday, was a total success.

My biggest surprise?  How small and walkable the city is -- at least the prime tourist portions of the city.  I bought an all-day pass on the MBTA (neé MTA, as in Charlie on the MTA) each day for three days.  But, if I hadn't been staying in Cambridge, just off the Harvard campus, I could have avoided the subway entirely, other than the ride in from Logan Airport. 

Marlborough Street
Back Bay

I have read non-fiction and fiction, both historic and contemporary, about Beacon Hill, Charlestown, the North End, Copley Square, the  Back Bay, Boston Common, and, of course, downtown Boston.  I had assumed that these areas were separated from each other by non-descript residential or commercial areas, as might be similar famous neighborhoods in London or New York.  I forgot that Boston has almost exactly the same small population as Seattle, and that, like Seattle, its primary attractions are confined to a fairly small area surrounded by water. 

Only a few steps as a pedestrian  separate the Back Bay from Beacon Hill, and only a street separates Beacon Hill from Boston Common (Beacon Hill actually begins to rise within the Common.)   Only a few steps separate  Beacon Hill from the Downtown in one direction and from the West End in the other.  Boston Common itself, with all its historical baggage, looks like the equivalent of Manhattan's Central Park on a map -- but is obviously little more than a large playing field when viewed in person.

And Boston -- aside from the unfortunate John Hancock Tower -- is a far more low-rise city than the city Seattle has become in the past twenty years or so. 

Museum of Fine Arts 

Despite the small distances, however, my phone's pedometer informed me that I had logged 17 miles my first full day in Boston.  There's a lot to see.

The weather was terrible -- cold and raining hard the evening I arrived -- although it improved gradually during my time there.  But so what?  I'm a Seattleite.  I had been hoping for sunny days in May on the Common, but I was just happy that it didn't snow.

I had booked a room for three nights at a small inn two or three blocks from the Harvard campus.  Tiny single room, shared showers and toilets, but a very satisfactory breakfast included.  I was much happier with its atmosphere, and its location, than I would have been staying at a corporate hotel.  (What the heck, I'll give them a free plug -- "Irving House," on Irving Street just off Cambridge Street.)   The fastest route between my inn and the nearest subway stop took me right through Harvard Yard, so my Boston visit picked up a strong Harvard flavor.

Harvard residential halls

Harvard is one of the few universities I've never attended, so I can say without fear of sounding biased that I really like it.  Meaning, I like its architecture and its ambience -- and I've heard rumors that it's not bad academically either.

As I suppose most of us know, its architecture is uniformly -- with a few exceptions -- Georgian or faux Georgian or quasi-Georgian.  At first I saw only the buildings around Harvard Yard, and the campus seemed small.  But further investigations and excursions took me farther away from this central axis, past partly commercial areas, and eventually down to the rather spectacular residential buildings lined up along the Charles River.

Even if the city were ugly, which it decidedly is not, it would be worth visiting for the fact that virtually every block on every street sports informative signs describing the great events of history that occurred on that spot.  The city is a history lesson waiting to be read, just as the Grand Canyon was a geology lesson.

I looked especially for the Great Elm Tree on Boston Common, where public hangings took place for centuries.  Unfortunately, that is one of the few historical landmarks that has not survived.  It passed away in a storm in 1876, and was much lamented by the population.
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*The remaining city, with some reservations, is New Orleans.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Well met by sunlight -- Crete in autumn


On sudden impulse -- although I'd been mulling it over for several weeks -- I signed up this afternoon for an October one-week trek in Crete.  Nothing real adventurous or daring -- we stay in small, family-run hotels (not tents) at night and eat good Greek (not freeze dried) food.

I'm advised by a friend that it may still be hot in October, but after years of hiking in high-elevation cold, that may be a nice change.  We hike, of course, for one day through Crete's biggest outdoors tourist draw -- a 12½ mile hike through deep, narrow Samaria Gorge.  We climb a couple of peaks -- neither over seven thousand feet in elevation -- at the beginning and at the end of the hike. 

That's the strenuous stuff.  Other days, we swim on deserted beaches, check out an old Turkish fort, walk on forested paths along cliffs above the sea, check out the spot (marked by a small church) where St. Paul is said to have landed during one of his sea voyages, and hike cross country over mountainous terrain, through tiny picturesque villages.  As the itinerary beguilingly puts it, at various points, there will be time for drinks at a simple beach café, before one proceeds to dinner.

Crete to me has always meant Minoan civilization.  And it's also meant the British resistance to the German occupation, described brilliantly in W. Stanley Moss's Ill Met by Moonlight.  Neither preconception will have much bearing on this trek, limited as it is to the less frequented southern portion of the island. 

But it should be an enjoyable week, hiking with a small group of fifteen hikers,  predominantly British.  It will mark a satisfying conclusion to a year filled with numerous travel experiences.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Dormendo al lato del Tevere


As the Tiber river flows through the heart of Rome, it is bordered by high banks.  At the base of those banks are paved walkways, along which one can stroll and admire the scenery.

At least, that's the idea.  Today's New York Times brings to our attention that nowadays the embankments are covered with litter, overgrown vegetation, and "encampments of homeless people."  The city government ignores the problem.  Local volunteer groups are by-passing an ineffectual municipal government, and sponsoring clean-up efforts, art work, and theatrical performances.

The volunteer work sounds great, and long overdue.  The part about "encampments of homeless people" strikes home, however, and reminds us that some problems are worldwide in scope.  But it also rings a special, and happier, bell with me.

In 1970, I was backpacking alone around Europe.  Still in my first week of travel since flying into Amsterdam, I arrived in Rome without (of course) hotel reservations.  I arrived late on a July afternoon, during the year that Newsweek had published a cover article about American kids inundating Europe, and even the tourist office at the railway station was unable to find a place for me to stay. 

So -- with no plan in mind -- I wandered from the station, crossed over the Tiber to Trastevere, and ultimately arrived at the Vatican.  I found myself hanging about aimlessly in the piazza in front of St. Peter's.  Maybe I should just forget about Rome, and take the midnight train south to Bari, I thought. 

There were Italian kids and northern European kids and some American kids, all hanging around the obelisk in the center of the piazza.  The Italians were good naturedly insulting the others.  I began talking to two students from Wayne State in Detroit who shared my plight.  But they, unlike me, had a plan.

"We're going to spend the night in our sleeping bags down by the river," they confided.  Wow!  I had a sleeping bag, for use in youth hostels, but it never occurred to me to sleep in -- essentially -- the street.  Is that even legal, I wondered innocently?  We bought a bottle of Chianti, descended a long flight of steps going down to the embankment about dusk, shared the wine, and sacked out for the night. We weren't far from the looming, cylindrical presence of Hadrian's Tomb above us (shown in the photo).

I was a naïve kid from small town Washington state -- pretty well educated by this time, but in no way street-wise.  As my journal describes the night:

The Chianti didn't work so well as I had hoped, due to intermittent jeers from Italian teenagers who spotted us from the street above.  I had visions of an "Easy Rider"-type denouement to my European odyssey, but I dropped off to sleep and rested in peace.

So, for a night, at least, I too was a homeless waif, encamped on the Tiber embankment.  But with perhaps a few more resources on which to draw than have those who are being hustled away from the Tiber in today's Rome.

My night on the Tiber hardly sounds terribly adventurous, as I recount it today.  But it marked a first for me, a realization that rules -- while not made to be broken -- weren't always rigorously enforced; that it was ok to sleep on the street if nothing else was available; that, in fact, sleeping on the pavement being jeered at from above could be more fun -- and certainly more memorable -- than checking into a hotel with reservations.

It was a lesson that I took fully to heart for the remaining six weeks I spent in Europe, and even more frequently the following year, hitchhiking in Britain.  Today?  No.  I don't often sleep on a sidewalk.  The Tiber banks, as the Times article described them,  do sound kind of dirty and disgusting.  The homeless dwellers probably aren't university students, and Chianti may not be their drug of choice.. 

But the basic lesson -- that even being uncomfortable in a strange place is more fun than being bored in a Marriott -- is a lesson that has stuck with me all these years.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Drowned rat


I don't know why, but rain comes into my head the minute I think of my childhood.
--Dhanush

I-phones come equipped with a handy little app that lets you check the weather.  Despite being frequently disappointed by its forecasts, I check it often.  This morning, I saw that it would remain cloudy in Seattle until about 11 a.m. -- but après cela, le deluge!

So, ever-trusting soul that I am, I set out at 8:45 a.m. for my daily four-mile walk from my house, planning to circle the UW campus before the rains set in.  After about twenty minutes, it began sprinkling, then raining, and then -- by Seattle standards, at least -- a downpour.  Finally, just before crossing the bridge across the Montlake cut, I gave up and turned around.  My shoes were wet, my jeans were sodden, my supposedly waterproof windbreaker was saturated.  I was, I whimpered to myself, soaked to the skin.

About five minutes after I had turned around, the rain eased off a bit (very temporarily).  And I began to wonder at my cowardice.

I recalled a time as an undergraduate, walking from my dorm to the student union building, where I was scheduled to league bowl for my living group (I was quite the college athlete).  It began raining -- a California rain, not all that hard, but blown sideways by the wind.  I found myself hunched over, cowering, muttering imprecations as I hurried myself along.

And my 20-year-old mind drifted back to the olden days of my youth.  Back when we kids played outside for hours, rain or shine.  Back when I enjoyed the feel of rain beating against my young face. I'd end up visiting a friend's house, and his mother would exclaim, "You boys look like drowned rats!  Don't you know enough to come in out of the rain?"  We'd look at each other blankly.  So we were wet?  So what?

Gosh, I thought.  When did I start acting like an old man, all hunched over and miserable, just because it's raining?  Is this what being grown-up entails?

And now, as an "old man," I ask the same question.  I was already wet when I turned around this morning.  I wasn't going to get any wetter. Why didn't I just finish my walk, come back to the house on schedule, change clothes, and have a nice cup of coffee?  Am I the Wicked Witch of the West?  Afraid that I'll dissolve in water?

I had no answer.  I have none now.  All I know is that I cut my walk short, came home, changed clothes, and poured myself the cup of coffee I didn't really deserve.  Neither more nor less drenched than if I'd continued to walk ten miles.

I pride myself on finishing difficult hikes or climbs, despite adversity.  And yet a little urban rain did me in.  I guess I was afraid of becoming a "drowned rat." 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Antoine grows up


Last night, I watched François Truffaut's Stolen Kisses at the Seattle Art Museum, part of its Spring 2016 "Cinema de Paris" film series.  The film, released in 1968, is the third in Truffaut's cycle of five films following the life of Antoine Doinel -- the young protagonist Truffaut had introduced to the world nine years earlier in The 400 Blows.

Antoine, a troubled, adventurous, and somewhat sensitive 12-year-old (played by 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud) in The 400 Blows, is now a troubled, adventurous, and totally feckless young man of 21. 

The same actor -- Jean-Pierre Léaud -- plays the part of Antoine in each of the five films in the series, beginning with The 400 Blows in 1959 and ending with Love on the Run in 1979.  Truffaut's series was thus in some respects an early, abbreviated experiment of the kind done so well by Richard Linklater in his 2014 film Boyhood -- we watch the actor grow and mature in tandem with the character whom he portrays.

Truffaut was a great director, considered the father of the French New Wave cinema, and The 400 Blows is now considered one of the best movies ever made.  Both the director and his films have been reviewed and analyzed to death.  I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to write a review -- just give you my quick impression.

In fact, although I've read allusions to The 400 Blows virtually my entire life, I shamefacedly admit that I had never seen the film.  But I so enjoyed watching Stolen Kisses last night that I watched The 400 Blows this afternoon, streaming it on my computer screen from Amazon (for only $3.99, no compensation received for this plug).

In Blows, Antoine and his best friend are shown "running wild" (the idiomatic meaning of the French title) in a frigid, black and white, mid-winter Paris -- the Paris that I expected to see, and actually did see, when I first visited it in 1961.  Antoine, despite his wildness, seems like a very nice young boy who has been raised by a couple who lack, as we'd now say, parenting skills.  Although reasonably intelligent (the story is somewhat autobiographical, after all!), he performs terribly at school.  He routinely plays hooky, he lies, he steals, and he ends up in a French version of reform school, where he is abandoned and disowned by his parents.  He escapes, runs all the way (in a protracted and beautifully filmed single-camera scene)  to the ocean he had always dreamed of seeing, wades into the water, and in an iconic conclusion turns back and stares at the camera, freeze-framed, with a bewildered expression.  "Fin." 

By the time of Stolen Kisses, Antoine is taller, thinner, still boyish, prone to quick visits to Parisian prostitutes, and seemingly unable to succeed at any career he attempts.  We first see him being dishonorably discharged from the Army for desertion, and quickly introduced to a job as a hotel clerk by his girl friend's father.  He botches that job, and goes on to botch one job after another-- a shoe store clerk, a novice private detective, and a TV repairman.  As his employers generally admit, he works hard and means well, but they haven't the patience to tolerate his mistakes.

Blows, while amusing at times, was black and white, and suffused with preadolescent angst.  Stolen Kisses is filmed in color, is funny throughout, comes close to slapstick at times, and takes full advantage of the humor traditionally found in misunderstandings between lovers.  The 400 Blows ends with Antoine's gazing blankly at the camera -- he sees no future, he is only one step ahead of being found, beaten, and returned to reform school, and he may or may not be considering suicide.  Stolen Kisses ends with the boy getting his girl, and with marriage in the offing -- despite the fact that the question of what he will do with his life and how he will ever support a family is no closer to being answered than at the beginning of the movie.

But the humor is irresistible -- in a Stan Laurel-ish sort of way -- and the background scenes of  modern Paris are striking enough to draw your attention away from the subtitles.  Antoine as an adult is a lovable doofus, and I enjoyed watching his often comic misadventures. 

But it's The 400 Blows that can break your heart.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Geology 101


Sample rock, on the Trail of Time,
from one of the deepest layers
of the Grand Canyon.

Over the years, a quick check suggests, I've posted five times about my trips to the Grand Canyon.  Perhaps I've exhausted the topic.
-- "Confused Ideas," May 6, 2015


Well, maybe, but after two more posts last year, I can now say I've posted seven times about the Big Gulch, and here's number eight. 

I returned last night from another visit to the South Rim in what is becoming something of an annual encounter with nature and another test of my aging endurance.  I had planned to descend the South Kaibab trail to the Tonto Plateau, traverse the plateau for a couple or three miles until it ran into the Bright Angel trail, and then ascend by that now-familiar route.  But the combination of a little mild illness and gusty winds at the canyon led me to rule out the South Kaibab descent -- which is steep and, following a ridge, is exposed to the elements. 

Instead, I once more did the simpler Bright Angel Trail round trip, down to Indian Garden on the plateau -- a 3,000 foot descent and a ten mile round trip.  For those who have never done even this fairly easy descent into the canyon, I do recommend trying it in April rather than May or later.  The ease of the climb back up seems to depend more on the temperature than it does on your level of conditioning.  And Sunday, when I did my excursion, was a pleasantly cool, albeit sunny, day for a hike.  Extremely pleasant, allowing me to return to the rim with leg muscles aware they had been taken on a walk, but not suffering from exhaustion.

For the first time, I had booked accommodations early enough to grab a room at the Bright Angel Lodge (its "Prescott Lodge" annex, actually), so when I arrived back at the rim I was able to immediately collapse right at my doorstep.   Inexpensive, but rooms book early, even for April, before the high season begins.

What do you do at the Grand Canyon?  Assuming you're not force-marched to the rim by a tour conductor, and given one hour to snap your selfies before continuing on to Zion or wherever else you're scheduled?  In order of importance -- (1) let yourself be awestruck by the immensity and beauty of the canyon at different times of the day, camera in hand; (2) test your determination and endurance by trying hikes of various lengths into (or -- at least -- along the rim of) the canyon.

And after you've enjoyed those activities -- maybe on your second or third visit, depending on your interests and enthusiasms -- (3) learn something about the geology and time scale of the canyon.  And -- as I may have enthused in an earlier post -- props to the National Park Service for their excellent presentation of both.  The museums and signage are excellent, and most impressive of all is the "Trail of Time" -- a 2.83 mile portion of the Rim Trail marked so that every meter (yard) walked represents another million years of canyon development that has passed. 

As one walks the entire trail, he gathers an intuitive feel for just what one means when he says that an event happened a "billion years ago" -- that billion years is represented by one kilometer of walking, thank you -- and a sense of humility when he sees what an insignificant period of time homo sapiens has existed on earth.  Moreover, every fifty million years or so, the time marker is accompanied by a large sample of the rock formed during that period of the Grand Canyon's geological formation.  Each rock sample is large, and polished on one side; the observer is invited to feel it and get a sense for its texture.

Together with the rock samples and the time line, signs at various points explain how various rocks and minerals were formed during the area's history -- how the deeper rock of the inner canyon is extremely hard metamorphic rock formed under extreme heat and pressure, and has been eroded in a steep, narrow canyon by the river; how this metamorphic layer is covered by numerous layers of various softer sandstones, formed as lakes and seas covered the metamorphic layer in more "recent" times, eroding away to form wide canyon walls of varying steepness, depending on the hardness of the mineral at each layer.

But, perhaps I bore you? 

But the "Trail of Time" will not, and your first or your twentieth visit to the Grand Canyon will be enhanced by the painless lessons in geology and in the vastness of time that the canyon -- and the National Park Service's narrative -- will offer you.

I, for one, will be back again.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Trust, but verify


As noted in earlier posts, Seattle's fledgling light rail system was extended from downtown to the University of Washington last month, passing through Capitol Hill, another densely populated area, on its way.  Transit authorities underestimated the popularity of the new extension, and trains immediately began running full during much of the day.

It warms my heart to see kids -- most of the new riders are students from the UW or twenty-somethings from Capitol Hill -- either lining up at kiosks to buy tickets or beeping their pre-loaded Orca cards at the proximity detectors.  So far, these new passengers seem to be paying their fares.

But for how long?  As I noted in a post several years ago, I've watched many riders on the original stretch from downtown south to the airport climb on board with neither a ticket nor an Orca "beep."  Once in a while an enforcement officer would come through the car checking whether we had paid our fares, but it was rare and the spot-checks predictably occurred on a few long stretches between distant stations.  The officers were uniformed.  When they boarded at a station, some street-wise riders prudently disembarked, choosing to wait for the next train.

So I wonder how long it will be before canny students and young adults from the north end of town also decide that payment is voluntary, that the fares are sort of like the voluntary admission fee "suggested" by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Maybe I'll be able to tax-deduct the fares I pay as charitable contributions to Sound Transit?

Los Angeles began with the same system, appealing to the better natures of its riders.  Metro gave up in 2013, adopting the turnstiles that most rail transit systems have long used.  The New York Times reported that one reason L.A.'s Metro system had intentionally avoided turnstiles was that supervisors were afraid turnstiles would discourage already transit-averse Angelenos from even trying out the system.  But the rapidly growing system drew massive numbers of riders. 

Seattle's experience has been similar, on a smaller city scale.

One of the Los Angeles transit system's board of supervisors admitted that there had been no incentive for people to pay -- the chances of scofflaws' being caught were "slim to none."  One rider told the Times reporter,

The last time someone wrote me a ticket I looked at the cop and said: ‘You know what, how long have you been on the force? You can write me that ticket but you’re going to stand there and watch me tear it up because I know it’s not going to be enforced.’

I suggest that Seattle not wait for its customers either to laugh at the transit police and mock compliance, as this fellow did, or, alternatively, to feel like idiots whose voluntary payments subsidize those who refuse to pay.  It will cost some money to install the necessary automated turnstiles, but it also costs money when passengers stop paying their fares.  It would also cost money to employ enough enforcement officers to stage massive spot-checks to compel compliance.

And beyond the dollars and cents aspect, running a system where only some users pay their share is demoralizing to everyone.  And demoralization will not encourage voters to finance badly-needed future expansion of the system at the polls in November.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Dribbling across Britain


As you surely recall, last June I hiked the western half of England's Coast to Coast Walk, across the Lake District from St. Bees to Kirkby Stephen.  A fine and beautiful walk.  But walking that walk, while brisk, perhaps, is not exactly a Himalayan accomplishment.

Imagine my pleasure, however, reading how Bill Bryson -- author of A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Small Island -- paints the same hike in heroic terms:

I could only fit in the first three days [of the trek], but that took us right across the Lake District from St. Bees to Patterdale -- 42.4 miles.  It was a murderous slog over craggy hills, but the weather was glorious and I don't think I have ever encountered so much continuous beauty while clutching my heart and begging for mercy.

That quotation is from Bryson's latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island.  Bryson gives his adopted country another examination, twenty years after his original "notes."  He finds many ways in which Britain has declined over those twenty years, but that decline is mirrored by the many ways -- at age 63 -- in which he suspects himself to have declined.  The "murderous slog" of the Coast to Coast walk may well reflect that personal, physical decline.

Bryson begins his book with a confident plan -- to mosey up the entire length of Britain, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north.  He scoffs at the traditional claim that Land's End to John O'Groats is the longest route.  He scoffs at some length but you don't need to understand his scoffing, because once he starts traveling, he essentially ignores either route.  He just gradually ambles in a northerly direction, with some back tracking, and -- according to my Kindle's counter -- devotes only the final seven percent of his book to Scotland.

Bryson has been criticized for this failure to follow his own plan, and for other seeming disappointments.  And if you're looking for a Lonely Planet guide to Britain, or a well organized expeditionary march from the English Channel to the tip of Scotland, you will be disappointed. 

But if you agree that one agreeable way to travel is to putter around, sometimes never getting to a great cathedral because you spent too much time watching a couple of ducks in a village pond, if you feel that an odd name for a village is grounds enough to undergo some hardship to go check it out, if you agree that walking is the best way to see anything, if you like traveling with a friend who worries out loud about what this world is coming to, and what he himself is growing into -- and, essentially, if you've read Bill Bryson's other books and find him a congenial read -- you'll like his latest book just fine.

Bill first visited England when he was twenty, and he's growing a little upset about his now being 63.  And as people getting on in years often insist, the places he once loved aren't getting better as time passes.  Actually, Bryson finds Britain's scenery to be as awe-inspiring as ever -- from the beauties of raw nature to the way that ancient ruins seem to add to rather than detract from the comeliness of the natural world.  But he despairs of humanity.  He observes that Britain is far wealthier today than it was when he visited it as a young man.  And yet the nation then did a far better job of maintaining its treasures and keeping its infrastructure in repair.

If we could afford it then, why not now?  Someone needs to explain to me how it is that the richer Britain gets, the poorer it thinks itself.

Aside from neglect by Britain's government and the carelessness of its people ("the world seems to be filling up with imbeciles"), he repeatedly reminds us of one of the sad features of life, in Britain and elsewhere:

It really doesn't pay to go back and look again at the things that once delighted you, because it's unlikely they will delight you now.

In a word, Bill Bryson has become a bit of a curmudgeon and a bit of an Eeyore -- but we forgive him, because he knows it as well as we do, and because he's funny about it.

In short, Little Dribbling is partly a return to places Bill has loved, which usually aren't as good as they used to be; partly his contemplations on the ever-fascinating topic of growing old (although 63 isn't really ancient); partly a chance to watch a guy wander around, distracted by odd observations of things that most of us wouldn't observe but that prove worth observing; and partly Bill's thoughts about whatever comes to mind, usually triggered by something he sees or something someone says to him.

He's a fairly sensitive guy, but he doesn't take fools lightly (but he usually lambasts them only in his eloquent imagination).  Each day he seems to be looking ahead to the earliest hour he can feel justified in beginning to drink, and an evening of drinking frequently complicates his life and his travels.  He impresses me as a lonely traveler -- although his wife and kids await him at home, not far away, right there in England -- and his personality seems to puzzle or repel the British people with whom he tries to converse, rather than entice them into any more intimate conversations.

I remember how easy it was -- for me, who was far more an introvert than is Bill Bryson -- to meet and hang out with enjoyable people while traveling when I was young.  At 63, for many people, it's no longer so easy.  I think Bryson is one of those people, and he senses it, although he never says so explicitly.  I think this inability to enjoy chatting with others is why he often seems sad, even while being quite funny.  

But Little Dribbling won't be Bill Bryson's last travel book.  Whatever sadness traveling at 63 may induce, it is nothing compared with the sadness of not traveling at 63.  His legs may at times feel ancient, but he certainly still can walk, and he still enjoys walking.  We can look forward to his next bumbling, puzzled, awkward -- but always entertaining -- adventure.