Sunday, January 15, 2017

Requiem for a tradition

But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns
Quick, send in the clowns.

--Stephen Sondheim

In the small town where I grew up -- in the early years, before we had television -- we looked forward to two major entertainments every year.  The Carnival and the Circus.

I remember carnivals best, because we were active and excitable kids, and could hardly wait to climb on all the rides.  The circus was a slower, more contemplative form of entertainment.

Both were touring shows that came to town, setting up shop for a few days on any available piece of empty property, usually close to the center of town.  The carnival was almost always owned by Douglas Greater Shows, which -- in my child's mind -- ran together into a single word: ''douglasgradershows." 

The circus, which is today's topic, was either Ringling Bros., or Barnum & Bailey.  I suspect both companies came to town at various times, but I can't distinguish between the two at present.  I feel confident that at least once, before the circus tents were set up, I saw a circus parade march down the main street -- elephants, tigers in cages, trapeze artists in glittery suits, clowns -- always clowns.  But then I wonder -- do I really remember that, or do I just remember seeing circus parades in books and movies?  Hmmm.  I think I'll go with their actually happening before my dazzled little eyes.

When you went to the circus, the most noticeable structure was the "big tent," of course.  But before the big show, you wandered about the grounds looking at the other sights.  The animals were in cages, or otherwise confined, giving you a zoo-like experience.  But better than a zoo, from a kid's point of view, because these animals, which you made faces at and taunted, were about to perform for your benefit inside the big tent.  There were also a number of concessions -- greasy food and cotton candy, fortune tellers, and a number of "sideshows." Sideshows, in smaller tents of their own, presented such wonders as displays of "freaks" (fat ladies, two-headed cows, tattooed man) and the original "geeks" (guys doing nauseating things like biting a chicken's head off).  Parents tended to divert our attention from some of these more unseemly or disturbing acts.)

But the big show itself was G-rated.  Animal acts (lion tamers, elephant performances, monkeys dressed in uniforms), trapeze and high wire acts, tumblers, jugglers, ladies standing on the backs of galloping horses.  The acts in a good circus, were going on -- often simultaneously -- in three performance "rings" -- hence, a "three-ring circus." 

And clowns.  The clowns were everywhere.  They kept you amused between formal acts.  They diverted you when something went wrong.  They pantomimed commentary on their colleagues' performances.  They had their own acts, as well.  I remember seeing one of those "a thousand clowns" acts, where an impossible number of clowns emerged from an old automobile.   I never thought of circus clowns as being scary --  they were funny, and sometimes sad.  Slightly scary clowns -- because they tended to pounce on you -- came along later, as you sat watching a parade, such as that at Portland's Rose Festival.

Anyway, a circus was a great event.  You came home high-strung, exhausted, and your belly full of junk food.  My brother and I would discuss everything we'd seen for a day or two afterwards.

But no more.  Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (the two great rivals had eventually merged) announced yesterday that the big tent would be stricken for the last time in May, ending a run that began when Ulysses S. Grant was president, 146 years ago.  Kids have other things to amuse themselves with nowadays.  Even when I was an older kid, my dad was far more fascinated by televised circus acts than were any of us kids.  "Hey kids, come look at this!"  "Oh, yeah, amazing. [yawn]."

I haven't been to a circus since I was a teenager.  And now I never will again. 

Send home the clowns.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Walking through Westmorland

Westmorland County.  I guess it must be my favorite English county -- at least I keep returning.  I hiked through it, west to east, two years ago, as I walked the first half of the Coast to Coast path.  Then, last year, I started off in Westmorland, before immediately hiking up over the Pennines and through Yorkshire, ending up at the North Sea.

Before hiking those two segments, I read Jane Gardam's classic story of rural Westmorland life, The Hollow Land, which takes place near Kirkby Stephen -- the town where the first segment of the C2C (as we veterans like to call it) ended, and the second segment began.  As a result of all these exposures, literary and pedestrian, love somehow blossomed.

Not bad for a county that hasn't officially existed since 1974, when Westmorland and Cumberland, and a few odd bits of other adjoining counties, were combined into a rather large Cumbria county.  But Westmorland lives on in literature, and in the hearts and minds of those who love it -- including me.

And so I return at the end of May to walk another hike -- this time entirely within Westmorland county.  Reversing the direction of my other two visits, I'll strike out westward from Appleby, the former "county town" (county seat), located about 12 miles down the Eden river from Kirkby Stephen.  I'll hike westward for three days until I hit the northern end of a long, narrow lake called Ullswater.  Another day's hike will take me to Patterdale, at the south end of the lake.  I stayed overnight in Patterdale two years ago, enjoying the lakeshore, before hiking eastward by a different route.

From Patterdale, I'll hike south to Grasmere (of Wordsworth fame), duplicating (but in the opposite direction) my route of two years ago.  After Grasmere, there will be no further duplication as I hike basically southward for three days, through Windermere, and ending up on an inlet of the Irish Sea.

Once I reach Ullswater, I'll be well into the Lake District.  Although I will not be crossing the high fells as I did in 2015, I anticipate beautiful lakeside scenery and historical interest.

I tell myself that I also anticipate rain -- but I was so lucky with respect to weather in 2015 and 2016 that I'm probably subconsciously too complacent.  But yes, I will take rain gear.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The gathering storm

It's another beautiful, sunny day in Seattle.  Freezing the past few nights, but the temperature works up into the middle or upper 30s by each mid-day.  The air is crisp and cold.  A long walk on such a day, which I'm about to take in an hour, is always a pleasure.

Almost like static or white noise, in the background of daily life, do we hear and read the odd stories from Washington, D.C. and from New York. 

Of scowling old men being appointed to the President's cabinet, to supervise departments they have long advocated abolishing or crippling. 

Of plans to immediately revoke the health care plan that has provided coverage to so many millions of people who otherwise could not afford it -- revoked, because wealthy people don't like seeing their insurance premiums raised. 

Of plans to do away with a wide variety of environmental protections. 

Of an in-coming president who refuses to share his tax returns, who refuses to separate in a meaningful fashion his life as a multi-billionaire businessman from his duties as president, who spends his nighttime hours pouring out petty, childish diatribes against all those who he feels have slighted or offended him.

Of a new kind of president -- unlike the Roosevelts, Eisenhowers, Kennedys, Reagans, and Bushes of our past.  Not to mention Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln.

Of a young, whining adolescent -- a kid who's always had his way -- in an old man's body. A spoiled adolescent who has been chosen as President of the United States, and Leader of the Free World.  

In just eight more days.

Most disturbing are the reports of an on-going campaign to weaken any confidence of the American people in their free and independent press.  A press conference, allegedly called to set forth the new president's agenda, that devolves into a jeremiad against major newspapers and news channels.  A president who sees the Press as a last restriction on his ability to do virtually anything he wants.  A blustering bully completely out of control -- or, alternatively and more frighteningly -- who carefully seems out of control in order to better bully and intimidate the Press.

And yet, the day is beautiful.  Unlike in the movies, impending disaster is not foreshadowed by threatening clouds and wind storms.  I suppose that many of the great tyrannies of history were born on calm, sunny days in summer, while the populace was out swimming and picnicking. 

I'm going for my walk.  With the collar pulled up.  I may shiver, but not all my shivering will be from the cold.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


I've never sailed on a cruise; I've never even yearned for that experience.  By a cruise, you know what I mean.  One of those giant white hotels that head out to sea, filled with people having "fun."  By "cruise," I don't mean sailing along the Turkish coast with 12 or 13 fellow travelers in a "gulet"; I've done that and would joyously do it again.

I do confess to standing on the Elliot Bay dock, staring up at cruise ships that sail between Seattle and Alaska, watching the tourists board, and envying them as they step out onto their little balconies and look down on me -- both literally and metaphorically.  But then I look carefully at their faces, and decide -- nope, not for me.  Maybe when I'm older and more decrepit, and can't get around on my own?

Or maybe if someone (like Harper's magazine) paid all my expenses, and asked me only to write about my experiences.  Which is how David Foster Wallace found  himself boarding the m.v. Zenith (which he re-christens the "Nadir") at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in March 1994.  Did he have fun?  The title of his article was "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," so draw your own conclusions. 

The article -- the essay, as it appears in his collection of essays by the same name, may be an expanded version of the original article -- is Wallace at his satirical and grumpily depressed best.  Who are all these awful people, and are they really enjoying themselves? -- a basic question he asks himself throughout the essay.  The cruise does have its pleasant aspects, but more often (to him) its horrors -- as he makes clear from the first page:

I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue.  I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels.

An experience that is, to many, the high point of their lives, comes to fill him with existential dread:

I have felt as bleak as I've felt since puberty, and have filled almost three Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or just Me.

For seven days, Wallace wanders about the ship, listening in on conversations.  He eats meals in assigned seating.  He stays aboard during shore visits, because, he claims, he suffers from mild agoraphobia.  He uses room service, more and more frequently, to avoid assigned seating at meals.  He measures his room obsessively.  He suspects constant surveillance as the only way maids can clean his room so unobtrusively every time he's briefly absent.  Out of a sense of duty to his publisher, he spends one day participating in a number of organized activities, including skeet shooting and ping pong.  He is not amused.

Wallace is obsessed by the aging nature of -- other than himself -- the guests. 

Most of the exposed bodies to be seen all over the daytime Nadir were in various stages of disintegration.

He sees uninvited coercion in the brochures advertising the cruise, and inescapable coercion in his treatment on board.

The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure, but that you will.  That they'll make certain of it.  That they'll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can [ruin] your fun. ...  The ads promise that you will be able -- finally, for once -- truly to relax and have a good time, because you will have no choice but to have a good time.

This is a long essay, and Wallace has much to say about his day to day activities, discoveries, and avoidance of certain contacts with others.  But at its end, Wallace comes face to face with who he really is, and who he really is proves to be not much different from those about him.  The pampering by the crew, the insistence that he experience pleasure -- at first embarrassing and guilt-inducing -- soon becomes the new norm.  Over-indulgence of his every whim is no longer enough.

[T]he Infantile part of me is insatiable -- in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability.  In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.

By the end of the cruise, he is outraged by the bar's delay in serving him a Mr. Pibb:

and then you have to sign for it right there at the table, and they charge you -- and they don't even have Mr. Pibb; they foist Dr. Pepper on you with a maddeningly unapologetic shrug when any fool knows Dr. Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb, and it's an absolute goddamned travesty, or at any rate extremely dissatisfying indeed.

As we by now appreciate, David Foster Wallace is a very funny writer, as well as an introspective writer, a perceptive writer, and, perhaps, a somewhat disturbed writer.

But we love him, and wish we were traveling with him.

Which is why news of his suicide fourteen years later is upsetting.  But not totally surprising.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Angelic liturgies

I attended one of the Seattle Symphony's three performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony last night at Benaroya Hall.  The Ninth is one of classical music's "Top Hits," obviously, and the Saturday night performance was sold out. 

The "warm-up" act, and its composer, on the other hand, were new to me and I suspect to many in attendance --  the Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine, by Olivier Messiaen.  Messiaen was a French composer who was held as a prisoner of war by the Germans early in World War II, but who continued composing while a prisoner, and for many years following his release.  He was a devout Catholic, and his strong faith was evidenced in the choral libretto of last night's composition.  According to written materials -- which I'm not qualified to discuss intelligently -- his works generally are complex melodically and harmonically.  Certainly, the performance last night didn't contain tunes that one whistled as he walked out to intermission.

The Trois petites liturgies was written for female chorus, orchestra and piano.  The Seattle Symphony's director, Ludovic Morlot, explained in opening remarks that he substituted a boys' choir for the female chorus, because of the "angelic purity" of their voices. The choir was accompanied by piano and a pared down portion of the full orchestra.

Morlot's choice for the singers -- a choice obvious to Seattleites -- was the Northwest Boychoir.  Their performance -- and thus the overall performance of the Messiaen work -- was stunning.  I had attended performances by the Northwest Boychoir a couple of times in the past -- both times for an annual Seattle Christmas event called "Festival of Lessons and Carols," a beautiful seasonal offering typical of Anglican services in large British cathedrals.  Highly enjoyable, but the kind of singing I expect to hear from any well-trained boys chorus.  Nothing prepared me for the performance last night.

The boys, a group of 35 to 40 pre-adolescents -- sang continuously for about 35 minutes.  They sang, not supported by the orchestra so much as in cooperation with it.  The score varied rapidly from moment to moment in both tempo and dynamics.  Unlike the case with hymns or Christmas carols, the singers could not rely on a predictable progression up and down a standard scale -- the score jumped all over the soprano range, and each singer needed to hit unerringly the correct pitch with each sung note.

The poetic lyrics, written by the composer himself, together with their translation filled nearly three full pages of the concert program. The boys sang in French.

Anyone who has tried to get five or more 10 to 12-year-olds to focus on a single task is well aware that the chore is like herding cats.  These kids showed both innate talent and a learned self-discipline that amazed me.

I have no idea how many alumni of Northwest Boychoir go on to professional singing careers.  Most, I suspect, don't.  But Seattle is fortunate to have this source of local talent from which to draw.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Over a month ago, my printer stopped working.  Despite all my shaking of the machine and my shoving of paper into it, the paper still wouldn't thread.

Almost exactly a month ago, my PC's internet connection became partially disabled.  Each time I tried to open a page, the monitor screen told me that my Ethernet was improperly configured with respect to my IP number.  Strangely, I was nevertheless permitted to open certain often-used pages: Facebook, this blog, my Comcast on-line mail, Google, Yahoo (but without photos) and Wikipedia.  Nothing else.

On-line guidance was of no help.  So, while procrastinating about how to handle the situation, I began relying solely on my iPhone.  And stopped printing.

Two weeks ago, I broke my iPhone, and, after its being sent to a laboratory for repairs, was told that it was unrepairable.

Desperate, two days ago I bought a new iPhone.  I spent the evening adding apps for all the websites -- especially those involving banking, credit cards, and investing -- that I could no longer reach on my PC.

Yesterday -- I discovered my PC working perfectly.  Spontaneously.  Without my doing anything.

Within an hour of that dazzling discovery, I made one more attempt to use my printer.  It worked.

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; Blessed be the name of the Lord!
--Job 1:21

Or -- in my case -- in inverse order.  Whether I have been brushed by the hand of an amused Supreme Deity or -- as is more likely -- the hands of the malicious elves of Cyberspace, or even by Lord Bill Gates himself, all I can do is bow my head and offer up thanks. 

And reflect on how small I am, and how great are the inscrutable Powers that direct and guide my tiny life.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

1984 (arriving 33 years late)

Happy New Year! 
That sounds insincere, because we know that 2017's not going to be a very happy new year. But maybe it will be, in our personal lives, at least -- and happiness in our day-to-day personal lives is all we can hope for. I'm sure many Germans in 1933 wished each other a "Glückliches Neues Jahr!" And for them, that year probably turned out happy. If they were white, male, and at least nominally Christian. 
And so: Glückliches Neues Jahr! to all.
--Your editor's Facebook post (12-31-16)

And that's "30" for 2016.

I generally report blog statistics in March, on my blog's anniversary, but I should note proudly that the 102 posts during 2016 represents my highest output since 2011 -- back before 2012-13, the time period journalism schools generally describe as the "glory years" of Confused Ideas from the Northwest Corner, its high point in both readership and, arguably, quality of essays.

As my Facebook entry suggests, I do not view the coming year with equanimity.  But then, we may ask, have I ever?  Let's look at the New Year's post for each year of this blog's lifetime:

2007 -- Neutral.  I've just returned from Christmas in Germany. I thank my hosts, and merely wish everyone a happy new year (in German, of course).

2008 -- No New Year's post.

2009 -- I discuss the all-absorbing issue of whether 2010 marks the beginning of a new decade, or whether we must wait until 2011.

2010 -- I offer a recipe for Tom & Jerry drinks!

2011 -- I admit that the past year has been a mess, but offer an illustration of Stuart Little driving off into the horizon.  I express the hope that, like that optimistic mouse, we too are heading in the "right direction."

2012 -- Everything's getting worse.

2013 -- No New Year's post.

2014 -- I note the disconnect between my personal happiness and "world dysfunction."  I can see nothing ahead to be optimistic about, but let's try anyway.

2015 -- I decide to talk about how great life was 50 years earlier, back in 1965.

The results may be slightly ambiguous, but plotting these years against the Northwest Corner Anhedonia Scale, I find a definite increasing trend of alarm and unhappiness over the nine years encompassed by my blog.

I find nothing in Trump's impending Coronation to add to my optimism and sense of well-being with respect to the coming year of 2017.  Nevertheless, as I've oft-stated in prior New Year's posts, who knows?  Things might not get worse, right?  Let's grit our teeth and, as suggested by Voltaire, each find his happiness in cultivating his own garden.  With that questionable suggestion in mind, I wish you all a

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Tragedy in Glendale

I suspect a heroin addict has a hard time remembering life before each day became a search for the next fix.  Similarly, I had forgotten what life was like -- just two years earlier -- before an iPhone, demanding all my attention, was never far from my trembling hand.

Going cold turkey is always hard -- even when it's only for a few days.  In my case, it's like losing a hand, my sight, and my ability to communicate.  It's like having suffered a stroke and finding it difficult to tell anyone of your plight.

It was a sunny day before Christmas in Glendale, California.  Denying myself use of a car, I had chosen to walk from my niece's home back to my motel.  Only a few blocks -- the walk would "do me good."  How bitter those words --  like darkest bile -- now taste in my mouth.

As usual, I carried my iPhone in the hip pocket of my jeans.  I crossed a street, reached the opposite curb, and bounded onto the sidewalk.  What happened next?  If I'd been skiing, I would say that I must have crossed  my tips.  But I was walking, and I have no idea what happened.  But the result was the same, as my body lunged forward and smashed to the pavement.  Two horrified observers asked if I was ok.  The pain was minimal, the humiliation was great -- I assured them of the first and ignored the latter.  I walked on briskly, pretending that I was a ten-year-old with hips made of  indestructible rubber.

But the real pain wasn't experienced until I reached the hotel, and pulled out my iPhone.  The glass pane on which I receive all the wisdom of the world, and on which my responses to said wisdom are plotted, was covered with spider-like tracks, like a car's windshield when hit by a stray pebble.  But you can still see through such a windshield -- the images on my iPhone, on the other hand, were now a mass of strange lines, curves, and colors.  Only a small portion at the top was untouched, just enough room to advise me that the phone was down to 57 percent of being fully charged.

To make an already long and tedious story shorter, the phone still could ring, still gave warning sounds when emails and texts arrived.  But I couldn't answer the phone or read the emails.  I couldn't control the phone at all through its touch-screen.  I couldn't even turn the phone off.

Back in Seattle today, I took it to a computer store that advertises its ability and willingness to replace cracked screens.  Unfortunately, when being wedged between my bony hip and the hard, cold ground, the body of the phone became slightly warped.  Warped enough that the store can't do the replacement itself.  They've agreed to send it out to be repaired by a more highly skilled laboratory, but it will take at least four days before I see the phone again.  At an expense, to me, of $130. 

Even so, that's a lot cheaper than buying a new phone.  And I won't lose all the contact information, photos, and other data that -- over the two years I've had the phone -- have been saved on the phone and nowhere else.  Which, I suppose, serves as a lesson to us all.  Heed the little warning sign that appears every week or so suggesting that you back up your phone "on the cloud."

The lessons are several, in fact, but won't be discussed further.  I'm simply happy that, unlike the junkie, I can look forward to resuming -- without guilt -- my addictive habits by the time the weekend arrives.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Marches

Hadrian's Wall, from my 2010 hike

Hadrian's Wall, constructed by the Romans from A.D. 122 to about 128, crosses northern England from Newcastle, through Carlisle, to Bowness on the Solway Firth.  In 2010, I followed the wall its entire length on foot. 

In 2011, Rory Stewart walked the same route, together with his 89-year-old father (the father driving far more than walking).  The following year, he walked a more rambling, and much longer, route from the Lake District to his father's home at the foot of the Highland Line in Scotland, exploring the puzzling region between the Wall and the Scottish border, the region called "the marches" in medieval times, and which Stewart likes to call "the Middleland."

Mr. Stewart is best known in America as the author of a best-selling book about his 32-day walk across Afghanistan in 2002, The Places in Between.  A graduate of Eton and Oxford, he has also served as a member of Britain's foreign service, working on issues in Iraq, Montenegro, and East Timor.  At the time of his Hadrian's Wall walk, he had just been elected as a Conservative party Member of Parliament, an office he continues to hold.

He has now published his account of his 2011 and 2012 ramblings, The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland.  But The Marches is far more than a travel document.  Stewart is a keen observer of flora, fauna, geology, archeology, history and pre-history.  Simply reading his account of the Hadrian's Wall walk made me realize how much I had missed, how unobservant I had been, how superficial my understanding of the history of the area had been.

Moreover, Stewart combines his trekking observations with a tribute to his father -- a man who was an amazing example of a certain vigorous type of polymath and adventurer spawned by the British Empire -- and a deeply moving, bittersweet testimonial to the unusually close relationship between father and son.  The book begins with Stewart's memories of his father as a child, and ends with his father's death at 93 in 2015.

The book has a number of themes, including the tribute to his father's remarkable life, and they perhaps do not all mesh easily together in a single volume.  But they mesh as well in writing, probably, as they do in Stewart's own mind.

One predominant theme, intended or not, is Stewart's love of Britain's "lived in" rural landscape.  The small village, the stone fence enclosures, the sheep and cattle, the neighboring farms and farm houses, where everyone knows everyone.   A certain coziness.  After the Norman conquest, the Middleland area was cleared of habitation and reserved as royal forest for the king's hunting.  Stewart looks on forest as a form of desert.

Modern agriculture, tourism, environmentalism, and reforestation are causing a rapid re-desertification, in Stewart's eyes.  Small farms held by families for centuries are being combined into large mechanized agricultural businesses.  The government is reforesting other areas, and environmentalists are undoing the farmers' work of centuries, returning the land to "non-invasive" species.  Among the many undesirable effects, as Stewart sees it, is a significant depopulation: fewer people now live in the "Middleland" than at any time since the middle ages, and deserted farm houses abound.

Another theme is the unique nature of the Middleland.  Stewart had set out on his Hadrian's Wall hike with some thought that the wall marked a separation between Scots and English peoples.  His findings confused him, and he now feels that the people of the "Middleland" -- now defined as stretching from the Humber river to the Highland Line -- make up a distinct third culture, one containing a number of sub-cultures. 

Stewart loves seeking out the etymology of place names, and notes frequently which areas of the Middleland have names deriving from Northumbrian (Germanic) roots, which from Norse roots, and which from Cumbric-Welsh roots.  He points out that what he now calls the Middleland was, before and for some time after the Conquest, shared by a number of kings representing different language and cultural regions.  Some of these distinctions still exist in local language and customs.

The book has an underlying mood of melancholy.  Just as his father -- a fascinating, accomplished, and eccentric gentleman, who still liked to dress up in Black Watch tartans until his death -- gradually weakens and fades throughout the book, so the Middleland is losing its cultural distinctiveness.  Stewart repeatedly finds that residents today -- even in small, isolated communities -- have little real organic connection to their history and traditions.  Local festivals tend to be promoted by community leaders for the enticement of tourists. Matching the cultural loss, the scenic values of the area are dying, as land use changes force a return to a dreary, pre-agricultural uniformity. 

Two states now predominated -- suburban and abandoned -- increasingly at the expense of the alternative, a living countryside.

Stewart frequently contrasts this dying of customary Britain with the vibrant survival of local village customs he encountered during his walk through Afghanistan.  I easily understand how Stewart has chosen the Conservative party.  And yet, his observations and conclusions are never doctrinaire, never set in stone.  He continually observes facts that mitigate against his conclusions.  He continually modifies his conclusions.  The Marches is a travel book and an academic study, never a political tract.

Stewart sums up his father's life, shortly after the old man's death:

It was an attitude to his life, then, and a resilience.  I was only half-conscious of the many ways in which he had modestly concealed how he was better than me -- in singing, in his languages, in his sense of engineering or art, and in his promptitude and energy in work.  In the end, I felt, his legacy was not some grand philosophical or political vision, but playfulness, and a delight in action.

Playful, indeed.

"I prefer," commented my father when I shared this [a Scot's verse, written contemporaneously, about Robert Bruce's battles with Edward I] with him, "Edward's comment on toppling Balliol -- 'bon bosoigne fai qy de merde se deliver' -- isn't it great to push out a turd."

Stewart's evaluation of his father feels entirely justified, but his self-deprecation not so much.  I suspect his father -- who continued to call his son "darling" right up to the end -- was immensely proud of his son's accomplishments, and felt he was leaving his world in good hands.

I doubt if any American Congressman, of either party, displays the same sensitivity, the same curiosity, the same scholarship, the same sense of history.  The same love of lengthy, solitary walking. Or indeed, the same playfulness. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Trump years

I haven't posted much about politics over the past year.  Odd, perhaps, in light of the incredible surprises, and the changes to our country those surprises portend.  I've been more voluble on Facebook, but I'm trying to cut back there, as well.

Why?  Because logical argument generally works only when you're talking to those whose minds are not firmly set.  If anything distinguishes our age, it is that most minds today do appear set.  In concrete.  The famous "independent vote" now appears to be mainly a "don't want to be interviewed or polled" vote, not a swing vote.

A majority of the country voted for Hillary Clinton, but under our rules the voters for Trump prevailed.  I like to feel that Clinton voters, like myself, are somewhat open to opposing arguments, but maybe I'm kidding myself.  But I've become certain that Trump voters are not open to argument, they are not open to re-examining their decisions in light of new facts, they are not swayed by unexpected developments.

The typical Trump attitude seems to be, "We know all that stuff you're telling us, but we don't care.  We don't care if Trump carries out his promised policies or if he completely flips.  We don't care if you think he's an immature, ignorant boor.  We don't care what experts say.  We don't care what newspapers say.  We don't care what professors say.  We certainly don't care what you say.  We're not concerned with the integrity of our democratic institutions, or at least not much. Actually, we just want to break things, to smash things up, and to spit at everyone we consider better off.  Maybe we can't make things better for ourselves, but we can definitely make things worse for you.

"And that's something, right?"

It's going to be a difficult four years.  Logic and facts aren't going to count for much.  And it won't even begin for another month.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Family at Christmas

While ambling about the university campus, I often stop by the library coffee shop for a caffeine pick-up.  While there, I like to peruse the UW Daily.  (It now comes out twice a week, not "daily" -- another sign of a dying civilization.  But let's save that topic for another day.) 

A recent issue devoted a couple of pages to the issue of how to handle Christmas vacation -- specifically one's family, or separation therefrom -- during vacation.  I was amazed at the number of students who found it problematic to be with family at Christmas.  Some, of course, were foreign students who had to face being alone on campus during the holidays.  But many were kids who either stayed away from home -- "my friends are my family" -- or who went home dreading the ordeal.

Nope.  Not me.  Never a problem.  I could hardly wait to get home and resume my role as tyrant and chief tormenter of my younger siblings.  And while I've grown used to spending many holidays apart from family members, I honestly can't recall a time that I didn't share Christmas with at least a few of them.  Without old-timers to reminisce with and newly minted members to get acquainted with, it wouldn't really be Christmas.  For me.

Continuing that thought, I'll be leaving on the 23rd for Glendale, California, where this year I'll be joining my brother's extended family -- hosted by my niece Tawny and her spouse, and with my great niece Hayden (now six) as the star attraction.  It will be a short visit, returning to Seattle on the 26th.

I often joke about being the Christmas grinch, but it's the sort of joke you make to deflect attention from the fact that you're a sentimental Christmas fanatic.  Bah, humbug, and all that, but it's a week before Christmas Day and I've already done all the preparations, aside from gift wrapping (which has to be done, in part, once I arrive).  Gifts chosen and bought?  Check.  Christmas cards mailed?  Check. 

Oh.  That's pretty much it for this year, I guess, but I feel like I've accomplished a lot.  It's been a while since I've hosted Christmas up here in Seattle, but I think we're about due for it.  That's when my eyes begin rolling around in my head.  House decorations, which I don't bother about when I'm going out of town -- tree, lights, tinsel, turkey, stockings, etc.  It's been nearly a decade since I've stage managed the full production.

It's been quite cold -- sub-freezing -- the past few days.  Great weather for Christmas shopping, for walking around the neighborhood observing competitive Christmas lighting and decoration, and just rubbing shoulders with excited people of all ages.  We even had a little snow a week ago, just for atmospheric effect.

But the best part of Christmas, for me, is getting together with relatives -- whether it's been two weeks or a year since I last saw them -- and relaxing with folks who have known me long enough to be neither impressed by my cleverness nor concerned by my peculiarities.
I feel sorry for all those young students who feel differently.

Myself, it's the closest I can come to being an un-self-conscious kid again, and I love it.  "Aw, c'mon, Hayden, let me play with that toy for a while!"

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Reliving childhood

Commerce Aveune: my hometown's main street.
Longview. WA, in the 1920s

You're in your late 70s, let's say.  You live in a fairly nice apartment on the 23rd floor of a tower, somewhere in Seattle.  Family members visit you every couple of weeks, which you enjoy.  But you're tired of television -- which, along with its usual problems, you find confusing and difficult to hear.  You'd love to go out for a walk.

And sometimes you do.  But everything "out there" is confusing.  You sometimes get lost.  You don't understand the products that many of the businesses actually sell.  The cars on the street all look the same, and kind of ugly.  People aren't hostile to you, but they walk by without looking at you, let alone stopping to pass the time of day.  Going downtown is obviously impossible -- you wouldn't know which bus to take, and are afraid to try.  But even in your own neighborhood shopping area, everything seems huge and intimidating.

But what if you could get into a shuttle every week or so and, a few minutes later, arrive in a small town that looks a lot like the town you grew up in.  A town square.  A small library building.  An old time pet store.  A diner where you could order a burger and ice cream soda, while listening to familiar hits from the 1950s on a juke box.  A barber shop -- not a hair stylist.  A small movie theater showing Humphrey Bogart films, where all the patrons are in your age group.  Buick Roadmasters and DeSotos parked along the street.

And no, this would not be a theme park.  It would be -- although you wouldn't have to think about it -- a treatment center for mild to moderate age-related dementia.  "Villagers" staffing the various stores would include non-uniformed nurses.

According to the Atlantic, such an enclosed "small town," with 24 buildings constructed around a village green, is being created in San Diego.  The town is designed to look as a town of similar size would have appeared during the years 1953-61.  The project will implement an approach to dementia known as "reminiscence therapy."  It will appeal to those memories of persons with dementia that are the last to fade -- memories from their childhoods up to their twenties.  These are the memories that are most likely to prompt patients to join in lively conversations with each other.

The Atlantic article doesn't discuss the validity of the therapy in any depth, but says that studies have shown that reminiscence therapy improves both cognitive function and quality of life.  A psychiatry professor at UC San Diego is volunteering as a medical adviser to the project.
The concept sounds a little creepy, perhaps. A vignette out of the Twilight Zone. But, hey -- although I don't think I'm demented (although, of course, I'll be the last to know) -- I wouldn't mind spending a day or so, occasionally, wandering -- physically, not just mentally -- all about the golden world of my childhood. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Mountains exalted and valleys made low

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain.
--Isaiah 40:4

We are about half way through the Advent season, the four-Sunday period which the more liturgical churches set aside as preparation for Christmas.  Many readings during Advent are drawn from the Book of Isaiah, its language made familiar to many of us from our hearing or singing of Handel's Messiah.  Advent readings recapitulate Israel's longing, throughout its centuries of tribulations, for the coming of a savior who would not only leave Israel triumphant over its enemies, but would establish a reign of peace and justice among Israel's people.

This year, we are observing two Advents -- the Christian Advent, and the Advent of the Trump presidency.  We look forward with joy to December 25.  We look forward with fear and trepidation to January 20. 

Isaiah promises that every mountain shall be made low and every valley shall be exalted.  Trump's appointments to his cabinet, on the other hand, have -- one after another -- been the very representatives of great wealth and income inequity against which his campaign railed.  Isaiah pledges that the crooked shall be made straight.  Trump appears determined to add the United States of America as one more income-generating asset to his portfolio. 

Isaiah says the rough ways will be made plain.  But we remember the Trump of the election campaign.

It's the Christmas season.  I don't want to spoil the mood by further impeaching a president who hasn't yet assumed office.  But Isaiah himself was never a soothing prophet.  Only a few of his words were about the lion lying down with the lamb.  He had little interest in comforting the comfortable, or in letting the people of Israel go about their daily lives in peace. 

Once we get past Christmas, we need to begin seriously worrying about our second Advent.  This nation will be confronting major problems -- not just unwise policies but an incompetent, ignorant, and dangerous leader -- over the next four years.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Keeping your eye on the ball

After an unusually mild autumn, temperatures in the Northwest Corner have finally dropped.  It was 39 degrees this afternoon, as I walked home from the University campus.  Not frigid -- and the sun was shining in a cloudless, blue sky -- but cold compared with the warmer weather we've had to date.

Cold enough that I walked with my hat pulled down securely, my coat zipped up to the top, and my hands in my pockets.  But still pleasant enough that I was looking about me, to see what there was to see, and thoroughly enjoying my walk. 

What struck me, as I strolled through my extended neighborhood, was the large number of basketball hoops mounted on backboards to be found in driveways or on portable stands curbside.  Now and then I've noticed kids shooting baskets, of course, but I'd never really thought about the hoops at which they were aiming.

It was about 3 p.m., a bit before children begin returning from school, so the nets were hanging from the hoops quietly, lonely and untended.  But they reminded me of the basketball hoops my family and several neighbors had mounted in our driveways when I was in my teens.  Shooting baskets was something everyone did  -- even an unathletic klutz like me.  Sometimes we were playing horse or two-on-two games, but often we just shot baskets as something to do -- like circling in the street on bikes -- while carrying on conversations.

As I walked today, it felt too cold to be dribbling a basketball, but as a kid the low temperature would have meant nothing.  After an hour or two of messing around in the driveway, I would have wandered into the house with a runny nose and hands reddened with cold.  It would never have occurred to me to complain about, or even mention, the cold.

But if some kindly neighbor had invited me to join in a game today, I would have said "no thanks," without hesitation.  And would thus have missed out on what would have been -- or at least used to be -- a couple of hours of exercise, recreation, and conviviality.  I find this realization saddening -- not because I'm all teared up over basketball, but because shooting baskets in cold weather is simply emblematic of a lot of things I don't do as I get older.  And I don't do them not because they are activities beyond my physical capabilities or because I don't have a basketball hoop and friends to play with, but because I've grown accustomed to saying "no thanks" to many activities that once would have attracted to me.

But why?  As we get older, we seem to become less interested in participating in the world around us, and more given to contemplating our own thoughts.  Or to passive activities like light reading or television.  (Or posting in blogs!)

The author and critic James Wood has observed how we develop with age a growing detachment from the physical world of the senses.  He notes:* 

the fading reality that besets details as they recede from us -- the memories of our childhood, the almost forgotten pungency of flavors, smells, textures; the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention.  By congested habit, or through laziness, lack of curiosity, thin haste, we stop looking at things.

As one grows older, Wood suggests that the

world is one in which the adventure of the ordinary -- the inexhaustibility of the ordinary as a child once experienced it ... -- is steadily retreating, in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness.  In such a world, the writer's task is to rescue  the adventure from this slow retreat ....

How did my mind (and my post) move from basketball hoops to this perceived meaninglessness of advanced age?   Good question.  As kids, a basketball hoop was an exciting invitation to run about, to test our skills, to -- if nothing else -- socialize with our peers.  Now a hoop -- an entire neighborhood of hoops -- is a vaguely noticed feature adorning some of the houses I pass every day.  It is a feature with so little interest that I was surprised today, when I turned my mind to the topic, at how many hoops our neighborhood actually contained.  Basketball hoops certainly no longer offer the "pungency of flavors, smells, textures" that I suggest they did, at least metaphorically, when I was 13 or 14.

Of course, if we were talking only about hoops, my lack of interest in them would be merely a curiosity.  But I see "hoops" as a metaphor for an entire world of objects and activities that, as a child and older, I once found fascinating and deserving of close attention.

Wood suggests that the act of creative writing can slow -- by forcing increased attention to details by both reader and writer -- this drift into unconsciousness, this drift into a kind of mental death that begins long before Death itself arrives.  Maybe.  Maybe that suggests yet another motivation for me to keep writing in my blog.  But I'm not entirely convinced that writing (at least in blogs) has the salutary effect that Wood suggests. 

Game of horse, anyone?
*James Wood, The Nearest Thing to Life (Brandeis Press 2015)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Codger on skis

At summit of Mt. Lincoln (8,383 ft.), highest point at Sugar Bowl ski area

Just to keep the record clear, after that last post -- yes, slopes were skied.  Even by your favorite but aging correspondent.  At Sugar Bowl, looming high above Donner Lake, with expansive views of the Sierras. 

The weather was too bright and sunny, the sky was too blue, the snow was too well-groomed, the company was too congenial -- and I was too cheerfully optimistic -- for me to even consider refusing. 

My sister and I -- the oldest two of our group of six skiers -- skied a half day, almost entirely on intermediate slopes.  We felt by then we had made our point with the youngsters, who stuck it out for another couple of hours.

As claimed and predicted in my prior post, I didn't forget how to ski during my nine years of abstention -- although it took one rather shaky run at the outset to get the feel for it again.  After that, it was like old times.  Except that when I occasionally fell, struggling back up again was more difficult than I recall from the misty past.  But the skiing itself was easy because of the spring-like weather and the way the slopes had been groomed -- almost overly groomed.  We weren't fighting moguls or icy conditions as we came down the fairly steep runs.

So I'd gladly do it again, being no doubt deceived as to my abilities by the excellent conditions.  But then I was similarly deceived, and for the same reasons, innumerable times even in my prime.