Thursday, August 17, 2017

A kind act

Suppose I had given twenty bucks to the tearful man with the beard, the guy I discussed in yesterday's post?  Would it really have helped him?  Beyond buying him a couple of meals?  Or, more cynically, a bottle of booze or some drugs?

Who knows?  The effects of a kind act are unpredictable.

My brother and I were 18 and 15.  We had pitched our tent the night before in the back yard of a willing but somewhat puzzled family, and were now biking toward Centralia, Washington.  We had spent two weeks by ourselves, a final bonding experience before I left for college, biking around southwestern Washington. Biking on two old, beat-up, one-gear bikes that would be curiosities today.  We still had a long way to bike, but if all went well we would be home that night.

We were out of money, but I had phoned our parents when we were back at Lake Quinault, and they had agreed to send a ten dollar check to us, c/o General Delivery, in Centralia.  More than enough money to feed us and get us home.  We arrived in Centralia before noon, and eagerly located the post office.  Oh no! No check from home!  I think I frantically phoned the folks; they said the check should have arrived.

We had eaten no breakfast.  It was now lunch time.  Nevertheless, we decided to see if we could make it home, biking the shoulder of I-5 (it had much less traffic back then!).  We got as far as Chehalis, about 4½ miles south of Centralia, and knew our teenage bodies needed food.  What to do?

We found the Chehalis police station and described our plight.  We were two small, skinny kids -- we both looked about 15.  We hadn't had a bath in two weeks.  We had this wild story that our parents had cheerfully allowed us to bike all by ourselves all over Western Washington.  The desk officer explained patiently that the Chehalis Police Department simply didn't have funds for that sort of "emergency." 

But then he looked at us again.  He rolled his eyes and pulled out his wallet.  "Here's a dollar of my own money; hope it helps.  Pay me back whenever your check arrives." 

We dashed off to the nearest café.  A dollar then was worth about $8.50 in today's money.  We gorged on hamburgers and milkshakes.  Food had never tasted so good!   We then biked back north to Centralia and revisited the post office.  Yes!  The check had arrived!  We cashed it at a bank (how we persuaded a prudent banker to cash a check for us two wild Indians, I don't remember).  Then, back to Chehalis. To the police station, of course. We never considered doing otherwise.

Our desk officer had gone off duty.  I handed a dollar bill to his replacement, and began to explain what it was for.  I hardly said two words before he grinned and said he knew all about it.  The entire police department knew all about it.  There was an office pool as to whether the "sucker" desk officer would ever see his dollar again.  "Oh.  Well, tell him thanks," we said, politely, and bid him farewell.   We still had 40 miles of freeway biking ahead of us.

My dad was incredulous that, first, we would have asked the cops for money, and, second, that they would have given us any (as opposed, I suppose, to locking us up for vagrancy).  Was I equally surprised?  Not really.  They'd always told me that the police were our friends.  My experiences during our two-week travels assured me that most folks were good. Now I knew that cops themselves would help kids who needed help.

Dropping a small pebble in a pool gives off ripples, ripples that spread a long distance. A few years later, my generation was deeply involved in a struggle over the war in Vietnam.  Demonstrators and police were  at each other's throats.  Like most young people, I was strongly opposed to the war and supported the demonstrations. 

Many of my friends hated the cops, and sneeringly called them "the pigs," throwing in an expletive or two.

I never could. I never did.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


He was sitting on a bench as I got off the train at the UW light rail station, three long escalator rides beneath the surface.  He looked a bit older than the mobs of UW students passing around him, maybe 30, and a bit scruffier, but not terribly so.  He had a beard.  I hardly glanced at him, until I heard him crying.

A security guard was bent over him, speaking sternly.  The guy with the beard was sobbing, but he wasn't hysterical.  Not combative.  Not argumentative.  He just looked and sounded like a guy who had worked through all his options and had no idea what to do now.

I had a bit of a line to work through before boarding the escalator, and I kept my eye on the bearded man and the security guard.  Was he traveling without a fare?  Had he simply been sitting too long in one place?  I have no idea.  Strangely, the guard insisted that he enter the train from which I'd just unloaded.  He was entering the door, still crying, as the escalator carried me up and out of sight.

For many of us -- certainly for nearly all of the students hurrying around the bearded man -- life progresses easily.  We may think we have tough decisions to make, but we make the really significant decisions almost automatically.  Decisions like studying hard for grades, applying to college, finding a job.  Keeping our clothes clean and our bodies washed.  Looking people in the eye with at least some degree of confidence, real or feigned, when we speak to them.

We absorb these lessons from our parents and our peers.  But not everyone does -- not, at least, at the time when they would do the most good.  And if you miss one of those steps, you find yourself shunted off the main line track.

"There are no second acts in American lives."   F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong, I think.  America gives more second chances -- and third and fourth chances -- than just about any other developed nation.  But the "second act" is harder to perform than a "first act" would have been.  And the third and fourth acts often become almost impossible.  Especially when all of your enthusiasm and self-confidence have been drained by the consequences of not successfully performing that "first act."

I know nothing about the bearded guy's back story, although I tend to make up stories for people in my head.  But I'd say he was a gentleman who had no further physical or emotional resources available, regardless of what "act" of his life he was contemplating.  I suspect we are surrounded by people like him.  Maybe they still have enough pride not to cry.  In public.  But they want to.

After I reached the surface, adjacent to Husky Stadium where all the lucky kids cheer their school's football team on autumn Saturdays, something occurred to me.  Too late.  How easy it would have been to break away from the line at the escalator for just a second, walk onto the train, hand the guy a $20 bill, smile, and say good luck.  Maybe that one act of kindness -- more than the money itself -- would have kick-started his ability to cope again.  But I didn't.

I try to make up for having done nothing by writing about it.  But, of course, things don't work that way.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sick of it, sick of him

David Brooks -- the New York Times's resident conservative columnist -- has had enough.  He can't read -- let alone write -- another word about the President's latest bizarre tweets or actions.

For the past two years Trump has taken up an amazing amount of my brain space. My brain has apparently decided that it’s not interested in devoting more neurons to that guy. There’s nothing more to be learned about Trump’s mixture of ignorance, insecurity and narcissism. Every second spent on his bluster is more degrading than informative.

Instead, Brooks proposes to conjecture and discuss in writing about what comes after Trump, what America of the future will look like, now that we apparently have exhausted the "moral capital of the past."

I fully sympathize.

This blog of mine used to be a beehive of political comment and speculation.  Jeering and sneering at Bush the Younger.  Analyzing the conflicting merits of Hillary and Obama in 2008.  Cheering Obama on for eight years.  Gasping with amazement at the moral collapse of the Republican establishment in the last political campaign.

But after nearly seven months of the Trump presidency, like Brooks, I'm exhausted.   I'd be happy to debate Republican versus Democratic proposed policies, but that's no longer the issue.  The issue is that we have an ignorant, incurious, crude, barbaric, and self-centered habitual liar roaming about the White House -- when he isn't residing at one of his own many properties, at government expense. 

But it goes even beyond that.  We now have a sizable minority -- at times approaching a majority -- of the American public who profess to love Mr. Trump.  Trump bragged during the campaign that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot people, and that his "Base" would still love him.  He has come close to fully testing that hypothesis.  Although his Base does want him to push his "program" through Congress -- whatever that program may be at any given moment -- they mainly just love him.

They love him apparently because he is tearing down everything that we thought all Americans supported -- representative democracy, judicial independence, courtesy, tradition, a spirit of compromise, acceptance of diversity, a welcome to immigrants.  Some of them may support "white supremacy," but most of them just want to shout down and eliminate all the "elitists" -- meaning educated and/or experienced officials -- who have managed the country for generations. 

This populist urge doesn't lend itself to debate.  It's more a food fight, a rumble, a storming of the Bastille.  When I write, I can slug it out on a gut level for a while, but I've about had it.  Until something comes along that invites a little intelligent discussion, I'll turn my attention to more satisfying topics.

Like the fact that it's getting mighty hard to find a good Sears store anywhere near my neighborhood.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Nuclear war

World War III!  As a young lad, a seventh grader, I read with fascination a prediction of how such a war might occur and be fought, and how it might end.    A war that would result in horrific casualties on all sides, but would end up with the U.S.S.R. under United Nations occupation.  The good guys won, if  -- considering the casualties -- you could call anyone the winner.

The entire October 22, 1952, issue of Collier's Magazine -- a general interest magazine similar to its competitor, the Saturday Evening Post -- was dedicated to describing the war that no one wanted.  The cover showed a redrawn map of Europe, following the war, with the Soviet Union's Eastern European satellites, the Baltic republics, and the Ukraine -- as well as the city of Moscow -- under U.N. occupation.  Always a lover of maps, it is this map on the cover that I remember most about the issue.

This week's issue of The Economist reminds me of that long ago doomsday Collier's issue. The magazine has dedicated much less space (three pages) to a scenario of how, in 2019, we might blunder into a nuclear war in Korea. North Korea is not the Soviet Union -- it is far smaller and less populated.  But relative to its size -- or maybe even in absolute terms -- its nuclear capacity is far greater than the Soviet Union's was in 1952.  Both the Collier's war and the Economist's war were "accidental" -- as always feared, the parties drifted into all-out
war by a series of miscalculations and misunderstandings of each other's intentions and conduct.

In the Collier's war, the United States sustained nuclear attacks, from missiles fired from submarines, against Chicago, New York, Washington and Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Norfolk and other US cities.  America responded by dropping multiple nuclear bombs on Moscow, and sending 10,000 suicide paratroopers into the Urals to destroy Moscow's remaining nuclear stockpile.  The war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1955, after three years of warfare.

In the Economist's scenario, the United States escapes nuclear attack.  After sustaining enormous initial damage, and realizing he and his nation are doomed, Kim Jong Un decides to fire everything he has left, ending the war in as much destruction as possible.  But his last two ICBMs are destroyed on the ground, and American Patriot missiles shoot down North Korean intermediate range missiles aimed at Tokyo and Okinawa before they can reach their targets.

Seoul had been nuked, with 300,000 deaths -- and many more doomed to die from radiation exposure.  Military losses were in the hundreds of thousands.  North Korea was in total chaos, facing starvation.  China was facing a critical Korean refugee problem, together with radioactive fallout crossing the border.

The article ends with China's reaction still unknown.

President Trump tweeted:

Nuke attack on Seoul by evil Kim was BAD!  Had no choice but to nuke him back.  But thanks to my actions, America is safe again.

The world reeled economically, on the brink of a worldwide recession.

In both the Collier's and Economist nuclear war scenarios, war came through miscalculation, and victory was won at an awful price.  Such victories bring to mind King Pyrrus's lament: "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."

In 1952, the Collier's war seemed like a reasonable forecast of the future.  Through common sense by both American and Soviet leaders, it never happened.  Do today's American and North Korean leaders possess similar common sense?

As the Economist likes to end provocative articles, "Only time will tell."

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Prospero's Cell

PBS portrayal of Durrell
family on Corfu (2016)
"This is a supercool place to have a music party," said Simona Dimova, a 27-year-old marketing researcher who attended the festival -- a concert followed by a 16-hour techno party.  "I'm sick and tired of all the mainstream bars and clubs in Sofia, where you meet the same crowd of people.  Sofia needs more underground venues like this one."
--New York Times

I read this morning of techno parties and bars and clubs in Sofia, Bulgaria.  The wild and woolly Balkans.  So much for exoticism.  So much for travel to get away from it all.

'Twas not always thus.  I've just finished reading Lawrence Durrell's Prospero's Cell, a poetic description of places and people, based on Durrell's journal that he kept in 1937 while he lived on Corfu.  Prospero's Cell was the first of Durrell's travel writings.  It was written in 1941-42, after the fall of Greece, while Durrell was stationed in Alexandria.

Corfu (Corcyra, or a number of related Latin spellings, in Greek) is a crescent shaped island in the Ionian Sea, offshore from the point where Greece borders Albania.  Lawrence and his wife Nancy (N. in the book) lived for a time in a "white house" at the northern-most tip of the island, facing Albania across the strait.  Their house was 20 miles from the nearest town, a distance much easier to cover by small boat (caique) than by vehicle.

Lawrence was a poet before he was a travel writer or a novelist, and Propero's Cell is a compilation of poetic descriptions.  As with Reflections on a Marine Venus (an account of his post-war experiences on Rhodes), only more so, his language is lush, repetitive, impressionistic.  Perhaps too much so, but for Durrell, Corfu was an isle of magic, and magic can be expressed only through poetry.

At any rate, for a young poet, one still not much more than a teenager, untroubled by a need or desire for money, an isolated house on beautiful Corfu with a loving wife was heaven.  His bliss was only compounded by the company and friendship of a number of amateur philosophers and other intellectuals, Greek and foreign, who hung about the nearest town.  Long evenings were spent in conversation while the moon rose over the Albanian shoreline and the stars wheeled overhead.  The food was local and simple, and the wine -- although hardly French in quality -- was good. 

Durrell's book tells us far more than we need to know about Corfu's history and geology and crops and festivals and demographics.  Most of what he tells us -- unless we are perhaps already well familiar with Corfu -- will go over our heads and be forgotten.  But these subjects are but a pretext for the poet to exercise his facility with prose, to demonstrate his love of words.  

And the poetry, the prose, reveals to us the delight to be found in an almost total isolation from the "real world," in the immersion in a local culture that had not yet felt the effects of  modern culture and technology.  A culture where the people, including the local clergy, still believed in vampires -- the "Vrikolas" -- as the fate of those who had led exceptionally evil lives.  A culture untouched, as he remarked darkly in a speech* he gave much later, by the leveling effects of television.  A world that could be understood not so much by rational thought as by the senses and the emotions.

If I wrote a book about Corcyra it would not be a history but a poem. 

World of black cherries, sails, dust, arbutus, fishes and letters from home.

And a world yet untouched by tourism. 

In Alexandria, after fleeing the German invasion, he wrote his eulogy for Corfu -- for the villagers who were killed in the invasion, for the "white house" that was bombed to rubble, for his tiny boat that was sunk.  And for Greece itself, and especially for the ageless traditional peasant life that he and his friends had so enjoyed observing and joining.

Before the German disaster, one of his friends described Durrell to his face:

You are the kind of person who would go away and be frightened to return in case you were disappointed, but you would send others and question them eagerly about it.

I sympathize.  I'd be the same sort of fellow.

Lawrence at least had a chance to experience an unspoiled world, a world not yet overwhelmed by mass tourism, by mobs descending from giant cruise ships, a world that required no 16-hour techno parties to avoid boredom.  For the most part, we today have lost that opportunity; it was lost before we even arrived on the scene. 

Lost not just on Corfu, but everywhere on earth.

* L. Durrell, Blue Thirst: Tales of Life Abroad (1975), the transcript of a speech given at Caltech in California.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dog days

First day of August.  A strange month, to my way of thinking.  Still summer, but pointing the way toward fall. 

Sextilis, the Romans called it.  The sixth month in the Roman calendar.  But then Caesar Augustus came along,   He noted that the Senate had honored his non-imperial predecessor, Julius Caesar, by converting Quintilis into July.  What's an emperor to do?  August it had to be, especially since Julius Caesar's Julian calendar had already increased Sextilis's days from 29 to 31, making it a worthy choice for honoring the first emperor. 

Luckily, this re-naming fad didn't continue, or our October would now be known as Caligula.

As a boy, I found that the first day of August inspired both anticipation and alarm.  Anticipation for the next school year, because the joys of a small town summer had already begun to pale; alarm for the same reason, because my relationship with school was one of love-hate.  My brother was far less ambivalent.  I could provoke him into a tantrum merely by pointing out, in early August, that the stores were carrying "Back to School" fashions.

August 1st is well past the summer solstice, and the days are already perceptively shorter.  My bedroom's no longer flooded with sunlight at 5 a.m., and the twilight is deepening by 9 p.m.  And yet, the weather always lags behind the length of days.  August, along with July, is a hot month.

I type this post in early afternoon, as the house is beginning to heat up.  Outside, the temperature will reach a predicted 86 degrees today, 91 tomorrow, and 95 the next two days.  The highs will not dip below 85 for any of the next ten days.  We are told that the temperature this week may reach the three digit mark.  Only three times in the past 120 years -- the period during which records have been kept -- have we reached 100 degrees or higher in Seattle.

So 100 means nothing to you folks in Phoenix or Las Vegas?  Well, bless your fevered little hearts, but we in the Northwest Corner don't live in Phoenix or Vegas -- or aspire to.  But in August?  In August, sometimes, we begin to understand what you feel.  Except we don't have residential air conditioning.

In my home town, it wasn't only the "Back to School" sales that prompted thoughts of waning summer, of school days, of the coming of the autumn rains.  There was also the mint.  Large mint farms lay between our town and the Columbia.  About this time of year, the mint ripened, or whatever mint does when it's ready for harvest.  A breeze off the river brought whiffs of the mint tang into town.  "A hint of mint," we called it.  For my brother, another treasonous harbinger of school days to come.

The dog days of August.  These days now projected to lie ahead -- with temperatures in the 90s or higher -- were the dog days that we envisioned as kids.  Days fit only for lying in the shade, hoping for a breath of a breeze, staggering into the house hoping to find some Kool-Aid to quench our thirsts.  We felt like dogs -- tongues lolling out of our mouths and panting. 

But "dog days" -- however appropriate to describe the heat of August -- actually gets its name from the fact that Sirius, the "dog star" is first seen each year in August rising above the horizon just before dawn.  Sirius is part of the constellation "Canis Majoris" -- the big dog -- which follows Orion the hunter across the sky.

 Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.
--Homer, The Iliad

Surely Augustus knew his Homer, and knew of the "evil portent" of the dog days?  And yet, he recklessly chose Sextilis as his month.  As reckless and unheeding, I suppose, as making a wild call to a New Yorker reporter and assuming nothing bad would come of it. 

For Augustus himself, nothing much bad did come of it.   But it augured poorly for Rome -- his family, by descent or adoption, gave the world Caligula and Nero.

But all that is history.  Today's dog days, uncomfortable as their heat may feel, have little cosmic meaning.  They merely suggest -- especially when combined with a hint of mint -- that school days, while not yet upon us, are peeking, like Sirius the dog star, over the horizon.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


“I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.”
― Woody Allen

Youth enjoys a certain blindness.

If you had asked me at the end of tenth grade where I planned to go to college and what I planned to study, I would have squirmed and looked at you with panic.  Those are such typical grown-up questions, I'd think -- to ask me about what I planned to do so far in advance.  "Maybe Stanford or Georgetown," I would have replied politely.  "Maybe become a teacher or a diplomat."  Yeah, right.  I could have said, just as easily and truthfully, that I planned to go to Ole Miss and become a professional stamp collector.

Two full years until I'd be heading for college.  Two years now is a blink of the eye.  But at the time, college felt like something that would happen in a far-distant mythical future.  Even my senior year of high school seemed remote.

As the time to head off for college drew nearer, college of course played a more prominent role in my mind.  College board exams to take, applications to fill out, letters of recommendation to obtain.  But by the summer following high school graduation, even with college acceptance in hand and deposit paid, "going to college" was a future event that my mind still couldn't grasp.  As I wrote in a book review in this blog in 2007:

As I looked ahead, my summer seemed destined, unlike earlier summers, to end abruptly in a massive wall of dense fog. On the other side of the wall, I knew, would be a move to California, palm trees, the university, dorm life, roommates, a future existence unlike anything I could imagine.

When I look back on that final summer before college, it seems to have lasted as long and as lazily and as uneventfully as any other childhood summer.  My younger brother and I did take off on a two-week bike and camping trip (to the horror of my mother).  And I did go north with my family for a short visit to Vancouver.  Otherwise, the memories of that summer are vague. 

What was critical was my awareness that an enormous change in my life would occur in late September.  What is odd is that this awareness had so little effect on my daily summer existence.  Even a week before freshman orientation began, I was still living the life of an obedient child, minding (for the most part) his parents.  And then, suddenly, I was standing with my dad at the train station, waiting for the southbound train that would whisk me off to California -- separated from home and family far more completely than today's digitally-connected kids can grasp -- until Christmas.

It was exciting and I was eager for the experience.  But it also represented a small death.  My 15-year-old brother reminded me, with awe in his voice, "This is the end of your childhood."  The death of childhood, of dependence on parents, of the life with which I had been familiar for 18 years.

And now, of course, many years later, I have to contemplate a greater death at some point in the future.  Unlike with college, I don't know the scheduled starting date.  I know I'm in remarkably good health for my age.  That suggests that my lifespan will be longer than average -- but I don't know for certain.  I could have a heart attack tomorrow.  (For that matter, like all of us, I could be run over by a bus tomorrow!)  At any rate, whenever it occurs, my death -- sooner now rather than later -- is certain.  Only the exact timing remains to be determined.

The entire summer before college, I "knew" my old life as a child was nearly over.  And yet I "felt" that it would go on forever.  I couldn't visualize life after September, and every instinct told me I should therefore not think that much about it.  I'm surprised how similarly I react now to the approach of death.  I feel a similar sense of denial.  Even if I knew I had only a month to live, I probably would spend most of that month doing the same trivial daily tasks, indulging in the same random daydreams, that I do now -- just as I spent my last summer as a child, unable to imagine and therefore react to the momentous event that lay in store for me.

That final summer before college was an enjoyable summer.  Nothing would have been gained by keeping myself on pins and needles, worrying daily about my future.  My lack of imagination -- that "certain blindness" -- protected me from panic.  It seems to do the same trick now, keeping me focused on those things amenable to my focus -- not pondering excessively the imponderable.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Chinese sun over Iran

Iran's future
Boys walking to school (2011)

In 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Iran for two weeks as part of a group organized by my university alumni association.   We traveled all over the country, from Tehran in the west to Mashad in the east, driving from Kerman in the southern desert, westward through Yazd, continuing to Shiraz, and then north to Esfahan. 

The focus of the visit was on historic, religious, and cultural sites, but much discussion of contemporary politics obviously arose as well.

The people we met were uniformly friendly, talkative, humorous, and good-natured.

Having visited other countries in the region, I was strongly impressed by how modern and efficient Iran appeared.  Its freeways are as good as our own.  Its cities are clean.  There was little obvious poverty, aside from refugees from Afghanistan.  It was one of the few countries outside the West where we had no hesitation in drinking the tap water.

Iran has had, and still has, many economic and political problems. Relative to its neighbors in the Middle East, however, it is a wealthy country -- wealthy not in the sense that it is ruled by a few fabulously wealthy sheikhs, but in terms of the average population.  It has a well educated middle class, although one that is under increasing economic stress.  Iran obviously is -- if one overlooks religious and political differences with its neighbors -- a natural leader for the region.

It's a natural leader, and it would seem to be a country we would do everything possible to befriend, despite the obvious difficulties in dealing with its confusing leadership structure, in confronting its nuclear program, and in overcoming a history of enmity.   But we aren't.  Instead, President Trump has gone out of his way to demonize Iran and to praise Iran's enemies, countries of far less long-term value to the United States.

It makes no sense.  But little that we are now doing in foreign affairs makes sense.  America, at present, essentially has no foreign policy.  All we have are bursts of enmity or of self-deceptive fondness that explode from the psyche of Mr. Trump -- often dependent on the amount of personal adoration other nation's leaders bestow upon him.  We have a Secretary of State who is reportedly on the verge of quitting in despair, a State Department that is demoralized and understaffed, and an incredible number of nations around the world in which there is no permanent American ambassador.

In the New York Times this morning, an article discussed the extensive help that China is giving Iran in developing and updating its railroad system, help that not only increases China's influence throughout the region, but that makes Iran increasingly reliant on China, economically and psychologically.  With a bold foreign policy, and with some empathy for Iran's problems, we could have been in the ascendant position that China is in today. 

Foreign policy is not simply how a nation handles its affairs on a day by day basis.  Properly conducted, foreign policy considers our goals with respect to other countries thirty or forty years from now, and how best to achieve those goals.  As it is, who Mr. Trump will consider our friends -- even six months in the future -- is anyone's guess.

Iran is an excellent example of everything that's wrong with American foreign policy under the current administration.  But it is only one example.  Less obvious examples can be found throughout the world.  By the time 2020 arrives, we will have thrown away much of the good will and political capital that we have accumulated since World War II.  Mr. Trump could not be more harmful to American interests if he were being paid by those who wish us that harm.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Olallie Lake

My friend Pat M. and I took on a popular local area hike yesterday -- easy but not too easy, and a hike with a scenic destination.  Pat is just recovering from a sprained ankle, so we didn't try anything more ambitious.  The weather was great, the weekend crowds were back at the office earning a living, and the hike felt just right.

The approach to the trailhead is on a Forest Service road, exiting one mile west of the Denny Creek exit on I-90.  The road, soon turning to gravel, is about five miles long.  The trailhead is just outside the Alpine Lakes National Wilderness Area.  Both lakes are within the Wilderness, and hikers should register at the trailhead.  ("Should," but we didn't notice the registration box until after we had completed the hike.) 

The trail leads past Talapus Lake at 2 miles -- in itself a beautiful and obvious destination.  Our own objective, however, was Olallie Lake, one mile farther up a trail that after Talapus becomes somewhat steeper.  We had lunch at lakeside -- only a couple of other couples, and a large, energetic white dog, inhabited the lengthy lakeshore -- and then returned the same way we came.

The trail is forested and sheltered from the sun its entire length.  The Forest Service is apparently doing trail work, and at times the trail seems to branch off into several alternative and equally plausible routes.  The proper route is marked with red ribbons, however, and if you keep your eye on the ribbons you won't go astray.  The trail passes at some height above Talapus, but a number of short side trails lead down to picnic spots along the lake.

The trail is well maintained, soft under foot, generally free of rocks, and a pleasure to stroll along.  An excellent hike for novices, and an enjoyable short hike -- 6 miles round trip, 1,300-foot elevation gain -- for hikers of any degree of experience.

NOTE -- This Olallie Lake is in King County, near Snoqualmie Pass. Not to be confused with lakes of the same name in Skamania County, and in Oregon.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

North Rim

The American Southwest is in the throes of a blazing hot summer.  It was 102 degrees in Las Vegas when I arrived about noon on Wednesday.  I was impressed enough to notify my Facebook audience of that fact -- but  it got worse. 

At one point yesterday, as I kept an eye on the thermometer on my rental car's dashboard, I saw it reach 119 degrees.  That's hot for us folks in the Northwest Corner, where a temperature of 85 degrees results in newspaper editorials.

Lucky, then, that my destination was the North Rim of the Grand Canyon -- some 8,000 feet in elevation, where the temperature never got much above 85.

As one can calculate from my musings last year, following a visit to the South Rim, this is my blog's ninth discussion of my varied experiences at the Grand Canyon.  Perhaps the subject has been exhausted.  On the other hand, this is only my second visit to the North Rim, my earlier visit having been back in August 2013. 

Supai Tunnel

The highlight of that earlier visit was a descent some 4.1 miles (as the hiker walks) and three thousand feet (as the rock drops) to Roaring Springs.  The temperatures were hotter this time, my toes were still a bit sore after being abused both in England and on a recent climb of Mt. Si, and -- although I hesitate to mention it -- I'm a bit older.  Whatever the cause, I decided to limit my descent to the Supai Tunnel -- a short tunnel (duh!) blasted out of rock that permits the trail to continue downward.  The hike was just 1.7 miles each way, with a descent of about 1,100 feet.  Although the distance hiked seems insignificant, it is perhaps the steepest part of the North Kaibab Trail, which leads from the North Rim to the Colorado River. 

It was a pleasant walk down, and a hot walk up.

As I've already mentioned to my Facebook audience, while on my way to the  tunnel, I met a woman hiking with two pre-teen granddaughters, all three of them carrying very small packs.  No sleeping bags or tents -- just insulation pads.  They were doing the rim-to-rim hike, and would be camping for four nights.  Two of those nights were to be in the campground adjacent to Phantom Ranch on the river, and they had made reservations to take all their meals at the ranch while there.  This foresight  allowed them to leave a lot of food out of their packs.  Even so, it's an ambitious hike, especially with such young kids.  The grandmother had completed an identical hike, on her own, last September.  

I felt chagrined, of course, to admit the failure of nerve that kept me from hiking farther than 1.7 miles down into the canyon.  Grandma and those young kids would be covering 24 miles, with temperatures only getting hotter as they descended.  Temperatures at the river were being reported as some 115 degrees. 

Wotan's Throne from Cape Royal

My own wussier visit, of course, offered its own consolations.  I drove out to Cape Royal, which I had missed seeing in 2013.  Cape Royal is a narrow, 15-mile promontory that protrudes from the north rim southward into the canyon.  The drive is interesting, and ends at a parking lot from which you hike another mile on a paved trail to the look-out.  Certain features of the canyon that you can identify in the distance  from the South Rim -- such as the happily named Wotan's Throne and Vishnu's Temple -- loom right in front of you from Cape Royal.  The short walk is well worth the effort.

And, of course, for those moments when you feel overcome by the heat and the exercise, sitting on the lodge's terrace overlooking the canyon -- a Grand Canyon IPA in hand -- watching not only nature's work of eons, but your fellow tourists, has restorative value.

North Kaibab Trail

I drove back to my flight in Vegas by way of Zion National Park -- a route that takes you from the eastern end of the park to the Visitor's Center at the southern end.  I was overwhelmed by the spectacular views from my driver's seat -- but I would suggest another time of year to tour Zion.  The temperature was 108 degrees (Zion's elevation is 4,000 feet, half that of the North Rim), the traffic was ungodly, and when I reached the Visitor's Center I discovered that there was no available parking.  I would have to drive out of the Park to the adjacent town of Springdale, find parking there, and wait for a shuttle to take me back into the park.

I preferred to save further exploration of the Park for a March or October visit.

The North Rim offers moderate temperatures in July, and beautiful surroundings forested in pine.  It does lack the variety of trails that can be found at the lower (and hotter) South Rim, but for the intrepid hiker, the hike to the river down the North Kaibab Trail offers all the hiking one can handle.

Next time, I'd love to be that intrepid hiker.  (But not in July.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The wretched strangers

How easy it is to move chess pieces about a board.  Sacrificing your own pieces, killing off your opponents.  The trick is to remember that life is not a chessboard, that in real life both pawns and kings have human feelings.

In this week's New Yorker, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt discusses Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice, looking at it -- and the play's treatment of Shylock -- from his own perspective as a secular Jew. 

Greenblatt's focus is neither a criticism of the treatment of Jews in Elizabethan society, nor a discussion of whether the teaching of the play is a "micro-aggression" in today's touchy academic world.  Instead, he marvels at Shakespeare's ability, almost against his better judgment as a playwright, to feel and express deep empathy for society's outcasts, indeed for the villains of his own plays. Greenblatt suggests, quietly, Shakespeare's relevance to events of our own time.

You'll recall that Shylock was a vindictive old man who wanted -- literally -- his pound of flesh.  In structure, the play is a comedy, with a happy ending, at least for the nominal heroes.  But Shakespeare portrays Shylock in such depth and with such understanding that the viewers feel sorry for him despite themselves, and despite the structure of the plot.  We all remember from high school the dramatic lines:

 I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Shylock's eloquence wins him no sympathy from his adversaries within the play.  He is given a harsh choice -- convert to Christianity or suffer execution.  But his eloquence makes a significant impact on those of us who see or read the play -- those of us in both the sixteenth century and today.  Even while applauding Antonio's escape from Shylock's murderous conniving, we leave the theater feeling uneasy with the unfair societal burdens that have given Shylock his cruel bitterness.  As Greenblatt points out:

What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.

In other words, he helps us to think outside the box of conventional thought.  Shakespeare does not offer solutions to our problems, but he reminds us that human beings are involved on all sides of every issue, that real life -- like Shakespearean plays -- is alive with "moral complexity."

Greenblatt quotes certain haunting lines from a play not included in the Shakespearean canon, but usually attributed to him.  A mob has demanded that Thomas More (Chancellor of England under Henry VIII) expel "foreigners"  from England.  The play has More reply:

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires ...
What had you got?  I'll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail.

You would have set a precedent, More continues, and eventually you yourselves would fall victim to that same precedent. 

Shakespeare offers us no plan for a generous and wise immigration policy in today's world, Greenblatt agrees.  But Shakespeare reminds us of those considerations that we can never ignore.  When expelling the huddled but unwanted masses from our nation, we are not simply killing a few pawns in a chess game.  We must see the realities on the other side as well, the human results of our "desires": "the wretched strangers,/Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,/Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation."

Our leader may never have read Shakespeare.  But we, the people, have.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Summer jobs

Few of us have forgotten the feeling of that last day of school in June.  Dashing out the school door, welcoming the world of seemingly endless summer.  Day after day of doing whatever we wanted, interrupted only occasionally, perhaps, by the need to mow the lawn or weed the flowers.

This annual three-month paradise continued through high school.  True, we occasionally talked ourselves into working in the strawberry fields for a few days, bringing in the harvest for a laughably small amount of compensation.  And one year, I worked in the circulation department of the local newspaper, bundling papers as they came off the press.  That job lasted all summer, but for only two hours a day.

It wasn't until after high school that the nightmare of adult employment dropped on my head.  I found my carefree summers replaced by a life of servitude.  I became an employee, a slave to the corporate world and -- less abstractly -- to the whims of a sarcastic foreman.  Before I realized what was happening, I had joined the laboring classes.

The first summer wasn't so bad, working as an assistant in a laboratory.  But the salary was low and the job non-union.  By the following summer, I needed to bring home more money for my college tuition.  My mother worked in the office of the local paper mill, which -- in those days -- almost guaranteed her son a job that paid union scale (albeit, at the bottom of the scale).  I forget the job "title" -- something like wood handler and clean-up.

Ever visited a large paper mill?  After a lifetime of bucolic summers, the mill struck me as a nightmare, a real-life actualization of Blake's "dark Satanic mills."  I remember looking about me one day and wondering if the builders had been instructed to make the facility as ugly as possible, in an effort to stamp out all higher aspirations in its workers.

My first day, I was taken out to the wood yard.  The mill purchased wood in cut pieces, each -- I would now guess -- about 30 pounds in weight.  They were piled haphazardly in enormous hills.  I was taken to a place at the base of a hill.  A metal wheeled carrier awaited me.  I was to stack pieces of wood neatly in the carrier.  When the carrier was full, it would be taken inside and the wood run through a grinder, on its way to becoming pulp.  I was to do that, carrier after carrier, for eight hours, with a twenty-minute break for lunch.

You who have not stacked wood have no idea how long eight hours can last.  I worked alone.  I wore gloves that wore out quickly, and before they wore out they were pierced by splinters.  I had a target number of carriers to fill, although I wasn't expected to hit that target the first day.  I had only one thought in mind that carried me through those first eight hours -- that this was a huge mistake, that I was an intellectual, that I was not meant for such work, and that I would submit my resignation at the end of the shift.

I explained this to my father later that evening.  He laughed mirthlessly. I worked all summer, changing shifts every seven work days -- "day shift," "swing," "graveyard."  Like the tolling of a bell, those names rang in my mind.

If there had ever been a thought in my head that I didn't need a college education -- actually, there never was, ever -- that summer would have wiped it clean.  The mill was filled with men whose entire lives revolved around those three words -- days, swing, graveyard.  Their faces seemed as gray as the mill in which we worked.

The older men were, in general, friendly to me as a "wet behind the ears" college kid.  Sometimes, perhaps, less friendly than others.  After some goof I'd committed, I do remember a foreman telling me that "well, son, you may be smart in school, but you sure don't have much common sense, do you?"  My face flushed, flushed all the more for my having secretly agreed with him. I'm told that this is a frequent comment made to college kids, any one of whom might one day be the foreman's supervisor.

The following summer, I had a wondrous reprieve.  I was enrolled in a six-month overseas study program in Florence, Italy.  Quite a contrast between Florence and a paper mill.  But the summer after that, I was back at the mill.  That second summer of millwork, however, I worked in what was called the "dry end" -- where the rolls of paper emerged from the papermaking process.  The work was done indoors.  It was lighter work.  I worked with dry paper, not damp splintery wood.  And, maybe most importantly, I worked alongside and together with other workers my age -- both summer help and permanent employees.  It was still a long summer, but not as nightmarish as that first summer had been.

In this week's Economist, the columnist "Lexington" laments the disappearing summer job in America.  He notes that the jobs simply aren't there anymore, for employees of any age.  He also notes that today's teenagers (supported by their parents) prefer to do more career-relevant work as interns or as volunteers in foreign countries.  He laments the loss of opportunity for college students to get their hands dirty and their muscles exhausted.

An elite education counts for little without self-discipline and resilience.  Drudgery can teach humility; when hauling boxes, a brain full of algebra matters less than a teen's muscles.  At best, it can breach the social barriers that harm democracy.  Summer jobs are called all-American for a reason.

After that first day of stacking wood, I would have found myself totally unreceptive to such a high-minded lecture.

From a distance of decades, however, I agree with "Lexington."  Looking back, two summers of millwork made me a better person, in the long run.  Besides, I secretly tell myself, casting narrowed eyes at today's millennials, I had to spend two summers as a young man suffering daily in a paper mill.  Why shouldn't they?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Norse myths

I'm Norwegian.  Well, I'm one-fourth Norwegian, but that one-fourth supplies all the ethnic flavoring to my vanilla background of British ancestry.

What do I know about my cultural background, as an arguable son of Norway?  I'm talking ancient history of the race -- not Ibsen's plays or Grieg's compositions.  I'm talking about gods and heroes, triumphs and defeats, the way a Greek might talk of Theseus and Agamemnon.

Well, let's see:

  • In college, under duress, I read Njal's Saga (in English translation).  Icelandic, not Norwegian, but closely related. 
  • For two consecutive years, I attended the entire Ring Cycle.  Four Wagner operas on four weeknights, while also attempting to practice law.  German, not Norwegian, but dealing with the same gods and heroes, sometimes under somewhat different names.
  • I know the gods after whom four of our weekdays are named.  Old English, by way of Anglo-Saxon, not Norwegian.  But, again, the same gods.
  • So, let's face it.  Like most Americans (and Europeans) I know Greek mythology far better than I know the Norse mythology of my Norwegian forebears.  (I'm ignoring modern graphic stories using Norse gods as superheroes -- these may or may not (I suspect not) convey a feeling for the world created in the ancient myths.)

    And then, a few days ago, I ran into Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman.  Some of you may know of Mr. Gaiman.  As Wikipedia puts it, he is "an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre, and films."  He is the author of a popular fantasy novel, American Gods, whose central premise, again relying on Wikipedia, seems to be that gods and other mythological creatures exist so long as people believe in them.  He has won numerous prizes, including both the Newberry and Carnegie Medals for his children's novel, The Graveyard Book.

    Norse myths, like Icelandic sagas, can be a bit off-putting, because they tend to be written and translated in -- what seems to modern readers -- formal, stylized, and difficult language.  Gaiman sweeps all that aside.  He has re-written some of the most important of the Norse stories in modern English.  Not just in modern English, but in modern popular English.  He is a friend of British comic fantasy writer Terry Pratchett (the Discworld series), and his language and sense of humor show the affinity.

    Gaiman's fifteen stories begin with the Creation of the Universe:

    Before the beginning there was nothing -- no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.  ...  [Between the mist world and the fire world] was a void, an empty place of nothingness, without form.  The rivers of the mist world flowed into the void, which was called Ginnungagap, the "yawning gap."

    Then begin the stories of the great Norse gods -- Odin, Thor, Tyr -- and the half god, half giant Loki the trickster.  There were giants in those days, and elves and dwarfs.  In an empty spot, in the middle of this universe, a place called Midgard, the gods made humans.  And here we are today.

    The stories are written dramatically, with much breaking of skulls and random killings of people or giants or gods who happen to get in the way.  Yes, killings of gods, too, because the gods too can suffer violent death, although they don't age.  The gods aren't particularly inspiring in any modern sense, and they have no interest in being so.  They eat, they drink, they brawl, they bed goddesses, giants, dwarfs, and anyone else who happens to be handy.  They betray each other.  To die bravely in battle is the goal of life, permitting entrance to Valhalla.

    Loki, especially, is without scruple.  Clever, yes.  Beautiful, yes.  Friendly and sociable, often.  But dangerous and without scruple.

    The book ends, appropriately, with the end of time -- Ragnarok, or what the Germans call Götterdämmerung and which we translate as the Twilight of the Gods.  An apocalyptic battle, whose concept might seem familiar to us as we consider our own world.  Everybody's killed.  Everything will be consumed by fire, and the sea will flood over the ashes.

    Some may feel that they are reading literature that is merely a verbalization of those comic books that Gaiman also loves and creates.  But Gaiman notes in his Introduction that, in preparing this work, he had pored over the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda -- the primary sources of Norse legend.  The eddas -- like Greek mythology -- often contain conflicting accounts of the same stories.  Gaiman has picked and chosen and pieced together the versions that he liked best and that would make the best stories for his readers -- just as the ancient tellers of tales no doubt did themselves while whispering around a fire to spellbound villagers.

    I hope I've told these stories honestly, but there was still joy and creation in the telling.

    For me, the stories were a pleasure to read.  I want to read more Norse mythology.  I may also want to read other works by Neil Gaiman.

    Sunday, July 2, 2017

    Dignity and grace

    The President of the United States sits alone in his White House office, still awake in the wee hours of the morning.  Only the Oval Office is lit.  He must be laboring over secret dispatches from our embassies overseas?  Or tweaking the details of his proposed tax reform bill?  Right?

    No.  Like a middle school kid up late at night making funny (?) YouTube submissions, the President is making a little cartoon-esque video showing himself as the hero of a battle against a wicked and unfair CNN.  He tackles CNN, forcing him to the ground.  He smiles to himself.  Oh yes!  This will show them!  He posts it to his Twitter account, and to the world. 

    Somewhere in Moscow, an aide carries this latest word from America's president to V. Putin for his consideration.  In the chancelleries of European capitals, in India and China, in African nations, in the capitals of allies and enemies alike, political leaders try to read these latest tea leaves.

    The President of the United States.  What would Eisenhower have said.  Or Hoover.  Or even Reagan -- himself a creature of the media.  Or even the Bushes, father and son.

    A number of voters once said they voted for George W. Bush because "he was someone I'd enjoy having a beer with at the local tavern."  I suppose that some of today's voters will vote again for President Trump because "he's someone it would have been fun to play video games with when I was 13."

    No wonder that British comedian Stephen Fry gently suggests, in an opinion piece in today's New York Times, that perhaps America needs a monarch, perhaps under a different name.  Perhaps "First American" or "Sovereign Citizen" or even "Uncle Sam."  Recalling stories of Winston Churchill's first stilted conversations with his new sovereign, the young Elizabeth II, and his bowing to her as custom decreed as he walked backward out of her presence, Fry asks,

    Above all, put in your mind the picture of the current president being forced to bow himself backward out of Uncle Sam’s presence. Wouldn’t that just beat the band? And the fireworks, too.


    Tuesday, June 27, 2017

    Coffee revisited

    Gregory (right) and an old friend

    Coffee is a comfortable subject.  Especially comfortable for those of us who live in Seattle, artisan coffee capital of the world.  And maybe it is because coffee is such a comfort food (food?) that an essay I wrote back in January 2013, "Sharing Coffee," has been one of my more popular posts over the years.

    The photo accompanying that essay -- two steaming cups of coffee on a table, presumably accompanied by relaxed conversation -- is enough to make our Northwest Corner brain waves slide into a happy Alpha rhythm.  It may have been that photo rather than my actual topic that attracted readers.

    But "Sharing Coffee" sprang from a meeting over coffee I'd just had with Gregory, a college sophomore and former neighbor I'd known and chatted with occasionally since his early teens, but hadn't seen in person since he'd abandoned Seattle for a university in New York City.  I used our meeting as a vehicle to praise the virtues of inter-generational friendships.

    Whatever happened to Gregory?  Funny you should ask.  I had coffee with him again yesterday, in the University of Washington student union.  He's now a college graduate -- not from his original university in New York, but from Columbia College in Chicago, a school specializing in the performing arts and related disciplines.  A devoted fan of comedy in all forms since childhood, Gregory received his B.A. in Television Writing and Producing.  He's spent the last couple of months with his family in Seattle before heading south next week for an internship with a Hollywood organization.

    I bragged in my 2013 essay about my ability to talk with a college student without talking down to him from the great heights of experience afforded by my advanced years.  The difference now is that he now knows many things about many things that I don't -- our talk yesterday was at least as much a learning experience for me as for him.

    Gregory has completed a pilot screenplay for a 30 minute television series, an example of his writing that he can show future employers.  At my behest, he texted me a copy after our meeting.  It was extremely well written, and wildly funny.  Reading it, and talking to Gregory, reminds me that occupational paths in which I've never shown any particular interest -- and for which I certainly have no talent -- can be fascinating for the right person.

    I'm looking forward to following this guy in his future career.  It will obviously be a career with many twists and turns -- the career paths available in my own profession are generally plodding and unimaginative by comparison.  So, yeah.  I hope to keep my eye on him. 

    And share another cup of coffee in the not too distant future.