Sunday, September 23, 2018

Deconstructing the kneel

I absolutely love this pair of essays by the Washington Post's Elizabeth Bruenig: All Colin Kaepernick ever did was ask and The NFL’s Capitalist Anthem Policy.

there’s something more, something wider and stranger, at the root of all this fury over a few athletes quietly kneeling during their country’s anthem. For one, there’s the straightforward fact that kneeling isn’t a sign of disrespect, and nobody brought up in a country with the faintest hint of Christian culture actually thinks it is. As Luke Bretherton, a professor of theological ethics at Duke University, wrote last year in The Post: “New Testament stories describe people who kneel before Jesus in supplication or lament. With their kneeling, these biblical figures say: Something is desperately wrong, please hear us and use your power to help us. Their act of submission signals their faith that healing will come and their prayers will be answered.”

...

it has to do with the fact that liberalism sort of makes no bones about its contempt for the weak. Simply stating: I’m subjugated, I don’t like it, you’re doing it, and I want you to stop, is met with all kinds of fury because it’s seen as an abdication of agency, which liberal capitalism equates with personhood. This is the weird, loopy way in which those at the bottom of the liberal capitalist hierarchy wind up not only blamed but hated for the situation they’re in.

This is complicated stuff, but I think Bruenig has crystalized it in a beautiful and powerful way.

Up, up, and away

My son, bless his heart, warns me to exercise caution on my lunchtime walks: SF Transit Center park — open barely a month and path already falling apart

already the visitor walkway that encircles the rooftop park is crumbling.

“No one is happy about it,” Transbay center spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

Dozens of spots along the half-mile path have become the walking equivalent of potholes.

Okay, I don't know if that really counts as "falling apart", but hey, headline writers, don't ya know.

The walkway — which affords visitors panoramic views of the surrounding city streets as well as access to the various attractions and botanical displays at the 5.4-acre park — is made of decomposed granite rather than asphalt.

And while permeable, decomposed granite pathways have been used successfully in parks around the country, the mix here has failed to hold up even under normal foot traffic.

Here's a good resource for learning about permeable decomposed granite: Using Decomposed Granite as a Garden Paver.

Whenever gardeners talk about "decomposition", I usually think first of fertilizer, not of pathways. Gotta expand my horizons...

Meanwhile,

A long-term fix has yet to be worked out.

“They don’t know what the problem is right now,” Falvey said.

The good news is that the walkway is under warranty.

Wait, what?

The walkway is under warranty?

Wow, there's a LOT I don't know about building multi-billion dollar downtown transit centers.

I'll try to find time to go take a spin around the pathway sometime in the next few days, and I'll let you know about my hands-on inspection...

The Navigator of New York: a very short review

Is polar exploration a metaphor? This is, among other things, a question that is posed by Wayne Johnston's The Navigator of New York.

I'm a sucker for books about the Great North, an appetite that is often easily fed by hand-me-downs from my parents, who have a particular fondness for Canadian writers.

So I've wandered through a number of such books in recent years, such as The North Water and The Orenda.

The Navigator of New York is certainly a worthy entrant in whatever category this is, although in the end I found I didn't quite know what to do with it. It's historical fiction, re-telling the bizarre-but-intriguing story of the controversy around Robert Peary and Frederick Cook and who discovered the North Pole first.

Part of the problem is that I don't really care who discovered the North Pole first.

Part of the problem is that both Peary and Cook were, apparently, jerks; certainly they are both quite unappealing in The Navigator of New York

There are some very appealing parts of The Navigator of New York, most particularly the early parts of the book, when our "hero", Devlin Stead, is talking about his early life in St. John's Newfoundland.

We lived on the edge of civilization. North of St. John's there were settlements with names, but you could not call them towns. St John's was on the edge of a frontier that had not changed since it was fixed four hundred years ago. I imagined what it looked like from the sea, the last light on the coast as you went north, the last one worth investigating anyway. The forest behind the outlying houses was as dense as the forest in the core. In the woods between neighbourhoods, men set snares for rabbits, hunted birds with rifles within a hundred feet of schoolyards. Not outside the city but at some impossible-to-pinpoint place inside it, civilization left off and wilderness began.

But all too soon, via a plot device that is perhaps crucial but which I found tremendously distracting, Devlin is gone from St. John's, off on a voyage of exploration of his own, to New York City, where he tries to understand how he came to arise from that tremendous melting pot of American growth.

Looking out around the barrier, I saw that steerage passengers were disembarking over several gangplanks onto ferries that bore the name of Ellis Island. Some passengers, who seemed to think that they were being turned away from America, tried to resist, sobbing and protesting as they were dragged along by implacable officials who, I guessed, were well used to such behavior.

I knew that you could be refused admittance to America at Ellis Island if you showed signs of mental instability, an X scrawled in chalk on your shoulder or your back. My mother, had she travelled to America in steerage, might not have been admitted.

But, at odds with the book's title, The Navigator of New York has only a passing interest with New York, and even less of an interest with Newfoundland; it is all about polar exploration, and so we're off, for many hundreds of pages, to Greenland, to Ellesmere Island, to Baffin Bay, and to points beyond.

I guess it's all very well and good if you're really interested in polar exploration, and find it a hoot to imagine an alternate telling of the Peary/Cook story in which Cook is the character of most interest.

Or perhaps it is, as I suggested initially, a metaphor of some sort? (Though what sort of metaphor, I'm not sure. Something Oedipaen, perhaps?)

I can't say the The Navigator of New York is a bad book, but I sure found it odd.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow: a very short review

So it came to be that Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow was sitting on my bedside table, and of course I read it.

What a surprise this book is; what an unexpected experience it is to read A Gentleman in Moscow in 2018!

In all the shrill discord of recent times, it's as though you came home, collapsed onto the couch, picked up the (electronic, nowadays) newspaper, and, instead of reading one vehement and bitter article after another about wars, ecological calamities, and disputes over taxes, religion, and culture, you instead found yourself peacefully at home with something that might have been written by Jane Austen or Henry James.

But, more striking still, as you work your way through A Gentleman in Moscow, what you realize is that this elegant story, full of grace, dignity, and charm, is told against a backdrop as tumultuous, dramatic, and violent as any we are currently experiencing: the Russian Revolution and the creation of the USSR that started in 1917 and continued through the early 1920's.

I'm sure you know the broad strokes of this overall story, whether you learned it in high school, or made your way through Ten Days that Shook the World, or Doctor Zhivago, or Reds.

But you never saw those events from this perspective, I can assure you!

A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat ("recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt ... born in St. Petersburg, 24 October 1889") from Nizhny Novgorod, who finds himself tried and found guilty by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, and is thereby declared a Former Person:

In Russian language and culture, "former people" (Russian: Бывшие люди) are people who lost their social status, an expression somewhat similar to the English one, "has-beens". The expression went into a wide circulation in the Russian Empire after the 1897 short story of Maxim Gorky, Бывшие люди, translated in English as Creatures That Once Were Men, about people fallen from prosperity into an abyss of misery. After the October Revolution the expression referred to people who lost their social status after the revolution: aristocracy, imperial military, bureaucracy, clergy, etc.

In the particular case of Count Rostov, he finds himself sentenced to a sort of eternal confinement to his quarters in the Metropol Hotel.

That may not sound like a promising tableau on which to write a 500 page epic of a novel, but Towles rises to the task, and then above it. A Gentleman in Moscow is full of adventure, romance, heartbreak, mystery, drama, and everything you could possibly want, all of it told in the most elegant and refined manner possible.

As we go, we find ourselves, ever so gently, understanding how it is that Things Change:

Not long ago, the Count recalled, there had been three seamstresses at work in this room, each before an American-made sewing machine. Like the three Fates, together they had spun and measured and cut -- taking in gowns, raising hems, and letting out pants with all of the fateful implications of their predecessors. In the aftermath of the Revolution, all three had been discharged; the silenced sewing machines had, presumably, become the property of the People; and the room? It had been idled like Fatima's flower shop. For those had not been years for the taking in of gowns or the raising of hems any more than they had been for the throwing of bouquets or the sporting of boutonnieres.

Then in 1921, confronted with a backlog of fraying sheets, tattered curtains, and torn napkins -- which no one had any intention of replacing -- the hotel had promoted Marina, and once again a trustworthy seam was being sewn within the walls of the hotel.

"Ah, Marina," said the Count when she opened the door with needle and thread in hand. "How good to find you stitching away in the stitching room."

Marina looked at the Count with a touch of suspicion.

"What else would I be doing?"

"Quite so," said the Count.

Along the way, we have plenty of the Essays of Montaigne, plenty of Casablanca, plenty of fine wine, plenty of Mayakovsky, and plenty of Dzerzhinsky Street.

It's all marvelous, beautiful, heart-felt, and grand: I guarantee you this is far and away the most fun you will ever have reading about a man in a hotel.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Up, up, and away

Well, this is not the sort of news you want to see when you return to work after a long weekend: New Crack in San Francisco's Tilting Millennium Tower:

Residents started hearing creaking sounds followed by a loud popping noise at 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Soon afterward, one owner found the crack in his window in a 36th floor unit in the north western corner of the 58-story high-rise.

And that's definitely not the picture of your own office building that you want to see, through the broken window of the tilting skyscraper.

Hmmm...

Meanwhile, in other news ... did I mention that the new bus terminal is open?

  • A Grand New Space for the San Francisco Bay Area
    Behind the curvature of a pearlescent lace-like awning, this brand new multi-story San Francisco landmark transforms a commuter hub into an urban destination. With interiors open to the light, it’s a sociable, open space for people to gather, topped by a leafy park where the sky is the roof.
  • Another Landmark in Benioff’s Blue: the Salesforce Transit Center in San Fransisco opens its doors!
    San Francisco Mayor London Breed said: “Our city is growing with both jobs and people, and we need to do a better job of moving everyone around this region, and this transit center will do just that. The transit center goes far beyond a transportation hub. It’s a thriving place of economic opportunity,”
  • If You Build It, Will They Sponsor?
    It has long been the status quo in the U.S. for nonprofit and public institutions to depend on private largesse, from Carnegie libraries to museum wings named for various philanthropists. Corporate naming rights are a slightly more recent phenomenon but have thrived in an era of record corporate profits, unparalleled personal wealth, and public-sector retrenchment.
  • Salesforce Park - Salesforce Transit Center
    Seventy feet above the Grand Hall, the Park runs the entire length of the Transit Center’s nearly four-block stretch. Home to 600 trees and 16,000 plants arranged in 13 different botanical feature areas, the newest public park in the San Francisco Bay Area is for the benefit and enjoyment of all...and there’s nothing else like it anywhere.

I confess to a certain amount of bias, but: the park is really nice.

My colleague, a passionate runner, told me that he's changed his routine to start coming in a bit earlier for a morning run around the park, early early, when it's not busy.

Normally, he runs along the city waterfront, with a view across toward Alcratraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.

So it's a definite statement that he enjoys running in the park.

And, man oh man, that bus fountain is awesome!

Just in time for September and October, the nicest two months of the year in the city.

Now, please: just fix the tilting tower already!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Backpacking 2018: Marble Mountains Wilderness, Cliff Lake

It was time to go, so we packed up and went.

The Marble Mountains Wilderness is in far, far northern California.

If you get to Oregon, well, you just missed it; turn around, and go back 20 miles.

This is old wilderness; it was one of the first "primitive areas" established by the 1929 Forest Service L-20 regulations:

The L-20 Regulation provided a policy to designate Natural Areas, for scientific and educational purposes; Experimental Forests and Ranges, for long-term research unfettered by other management objectives; and Primitive Areas "to maintain primitive conditions of transportation, subsistence, habitation, and environment to the fullest degree compatible with their highest public use."

Well, really, that's not what made it old wilderness.

But, at least, it's what helped us understand that, in fact, it is Old Wilderness.

To get to the Marbles, from the south, you Head North.

If you get to Oregon, you've gone (just a little) too far.

Anyway, did I say? It was time to go, so we packed up and went.

The most natural way into the Marble Mountains is from the Scott Valley, and so that's what we did. We rested overnight in Yreka, partially acclimatizing ourselves to the higher elevations, then out we went, past Fort Jones, through Greenview, and then up. Up. Up!

Before you know it, you're in the wilderness.

Our hike was, essentially, the one described here: Cliff Lake in the Marble Wilderness – July 2010

Things we did:

  • Climbed up to the intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail to see Shackleford Canyon from above, as well as to catch a glimpse of White Marble Mountain to the west
  • Swam in lakes
  • Tried out various new gear (tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, chairs, etc.) -- even a camp boat!
  • Enjoyed the near-perfect weather (clear skies, no rain, mid-day highs in the high 70's, overnight lows in the high 40's)

Things we saw:

  • Smoke
  • Cows!
  • Bats eating bugs
  • A California Vole
  • Beautiful Shackleford Creek
  • A cowboy, on a horse, leading a saddled pony, accompanied by a herding dog
  • A brilliant full moon
  • Lots of fish
  • A dense and healthy incense cedar and mountain hemlock forest in the canyon; burned trees on the other side of the Pacific Crest

Things we heard:

  • Two owls
  • Cowbells
  • No airplanes or cars or trains

It was a very good trip.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

There can be no doubt that I am extremely fortunate

I was talking to one of my colleagues, and happened to learn that he had just lost his mother.

This is now the 4th or 5th such colleague who's had this experience, in the last year or so, so I'm coming to hear this more and more often.

I don't think I know any colleagues my age (I'm 57, after all) who still have both their parents.

There can be no doubt that I am extremely fortunate.