Thursday, October 28, 2010

Message to Obama: Unemployment

So...we've got nearly ten percent unemployment. Worst hit is the construction industry.

We're spending billions of dollars on "shovel-ready" projects, which turn out to require lots of materials and not much in the way of labor.

Why don't we just re-institute the Civilian Conservation Corps? Remember that old program from the Great Depression, which took unemployed young men to the nation's parks and forests, and put them to work building roads and bridges and facilities, and planting trees, and landscaping. It got them out of the cities, started them on an adventurous life, gave them some skills, and kept them out of trouble. Most of them found other careers, outside the construction industry, but all of them learned something, and did something, and our country was better for it.

These days, of course, we'd have to let the girls play too, but that's OK. And there's lots of work to be done in our national parks, and forests, and monuments, much of which can be accomplished by young people just learning how such things are done. And surely it couldn't cost much more than we're already laying out for next to nothing.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Let's Pretend We Don't Know

candidate Sharron Angle
I heard a clip this afternoon on NPR's program, Talk of the Nationof Sharron Angle, who is running for U.S. senate from Nevada, telling a group of Hispanic law students, "I don't know if all of you are Hispanic; some of you look kind of Asian."

Neal Conan, the program's host, reported that the Hispanic law-students' organization has demanded an apology; and his interlocutor, one John Ralston, columnist for a Las Vegas newspaper, characterized the remark as being incomprehensible in its meaning and intent. (I think he said, in a bewildered tone of voice, "I don't know where that was coming from.")

Here's what I wonder:

First, why are Hispanic students insulted by being told that some of them look "kind of Asian"? Is that some weird post-modern ethnic slur? What, exactly, should this woman apologise for? 

Second, is this John Ralston unaware that there are physical resemblances between some Hispanics and some Asians? Is that real-world observation now so outrĂ© that we are no longer able to acknowledge it? I've observed it myself, on occasion, in photographs on the internet of people who I took to be Asian but were then identified as either Hispanic or Native American (meaning persons of aboriginal origins, not just people born in America).  This woman is stating an obvious fact that, yes, probably originates with her being brought up in an area bereft of persons of one or the other ethnic persuasion.

I'm told that Asians can differentiate between various Asian nationalities. I don't know if this means that a Korean, for example, can tell by looking at another person if they are Korean or Chinese or Japanese or whatever; it might mean that, or it might only mean that they can distinguish between "us" and "them." It might only be true of some Asians, or it might not be true at all. Me, I can't really tell. I kind of get the sense that there is a  subtle physical distinction between the various nationalities, maybe something to do with the eyes, but not having a great deal of interaction with Asians, I don't really know. I do know that Margaret Cho, whose family is Korean, looks different from George Takei, whose family is Japanese, and from an old friend who is Filipino, and from a not-as-old friend whose family is Chinese. But I don't know that the distinctions I see between Margaret and George and my friends are representative of their ethnic groups. 

But I also know that all of them, together, are discernibly different from the European root-stock that I mostly interacted with growing up. And so are many of the Native Americans, mostly Lakota, and some -- not all, less than half -- of the many, many Hispanics that I see.

Growing up in New Orleans, and later in North Texas, the people I knew were almost exclusively either European or African in origin. I never learned to differentiate among other ethnic groups based on physical characteristics, and maybe that's why I can't always tell a Korean from a Mexican or a Lakota. (I have similar problems with accents: they all sound "English" to me, though I've found that most of them are not.)  Likewise, most of my friends in central Mexico tell me that they can't really tell one "Anglo" from another, and they're amazed when we say somebody looks "Italian" while somebody else looks "Irish." To my friends who grew up in places where there were no Irish or Italian communities, they're all just hueros (or gueros).

We all do this. We can all tell "us" from "them." We can't always further differentiate some "them" from some other "them." 

But I have to wonder about this reporter, who could not conceive of what a person could possibly mean when she said that some of the Hispanic law students she was looking at looked "kind of Asian." Either his own upbringing was so deep in the melting pot that he is instantly able to tell a person's ethnic origins simply by looking at them, or he was being disingenuous in order to belittle the candidate under discussion, while making himself out to be entirely sensitive, yet paradoxically undiscriminating, in matters ethnic.

My money is on the latter.

I guess things have gotten so bad in this country that even the well-known host of a popular NPR program can't find people who are able to simply report the political situation, without trying to advance their own views, and so he has to fall back on "columnists" instead of "reporters." A shame.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Quelle surprise: a federal court in California has enjoined the U.S. military from enforcing its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding homosexuals serving in the US Military.

Personally, I think "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would be a reasonable policy towards the issue if the military added a "Don't Hear" segment to it. Most of the cases of homosexuals being discharged for being homosexuals --- in fact, all the ones I've heard the facts about --- involve denunciations made by people outside the military, or at least people who don't have regular interactions with the individuals being discharged. The most recent case illustrates the general situation: a man's wife left him and took up with a (female) army officer. (Maybe it was Air Force; I don't remember, but I don't think it's a material point.) He wrote an angry letter to the officer's commander, who was obliged under the military's interpretation of the policy to discharge the officer in questions.

The point of the policy, when it was implemented back in the early '90s, was to allow homosexuals to serve, as long as their behaviour didn't interfere with the Service's smooth operation. And let's face it, military people, like almost all of the rest of us (excluding the Taliban-Christian types, who consider everybody else's private matters to be their concern), don't give a rat's ass what somebody does in bed, or the dungeon, or where ever they do it as long as it's private. No, the military's concern --- the military's proper concern ---  is with the kind of mincing, limp-wristed in-your-face gay man, or overly-aggressive crotch-grabbing bull-dyke woman, that gets on people's nerves. 

Even most tolerant people are put off by too much of that exaggerated behaviour. These people flaunt their sexual preferences as if it was a school prize. People should not be forced to work around people who don't understand that sex, and sexuality, is a private matter. The military, like the private sector, needs to have a way to get rid of people that others don't want to work with. 

So if some outsider bitches to the C.O. that so-and-so is queer, the C.O. ought to be able to just ignore the complaint: "Dear X, thank you for bringing the matter to my attention. I will investigate the matter and take appropriate action." Then toss the complaint in the round file where it belongs. If it's not coming from somebody who has to deal with the homosexual in question, it's not a complaint that deserves hearing.

The issue isn't really sexuality; it's behaviour, and it's only public behaviour. The policy needs to recognize that.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Message to Congress: Immigration

The real issue in immigration is the legality of entrants to this country. It is caused not only by the vast economic difference between the United States and its southern neighbours, but also by the unwillingness of the United States government to recognize our own economic need for the low-cost labour illegal immigrants currently provide.

If there are a million, or two million, or ten million illegal Latin American immigrants in this country, it is because there has been, over a course of many years, an artificial and irrational dearth of residency visas issued to persons in Latin America. Just increase the number of visas being issued; in a few years, persons here illegally will find themselves frozen out of the labour market by the arrival of legal immigrants, and they will move on to other places, or back where they came from --- possibly to apply for legal entry.

If we are seriously concerned that the presence of illegal immigrants depressed wages for legal residents, including citizens --- and this is true only at the very lowest economic levels --- raise the minimum legal wage. If that is unpalatable, accept that legal residents' wages will be depressed by the number of immigrants willing to work for the present legal minimum.

At the same time, make it easier for the United States to deport those legal immigrants who are, or become, undesirable: criminals and (I suppose there must be some, though I've never seen evidence of it) lazy people who just want to sit home and watch telenovelas as if they were citizens. Restrict access to certain (expensive) social services: immigrants are not entitled to unemployment insurance; they are not entitled to welfare benefits; they are not entitled to long-term medical care at public expense. 

They are, though, entitled to work in safe conditions just like the rest of us, and their children are entitled to be educated at public expense just like our own children. They are entitled to reasonable emergency medical care, and if they are required (like the rest of us) to have health insurance, they are entitled to whatever that health insurance provides. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Concerning the Continental Price Divide

I've always known that South Texas is a relatively inexpensive place to live. That fact is reinforced every time I visit a restaurant or grocery store in Southern California or New York, or even in the Midwest. (The prices at a Wal-Mart in Menominee, Wisconsin took me by surprise.) But I noticed something on this most recent trip that I had never noticed before: there is a dividing line --- a Continental Price Divide, if you will --- that runs down along the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. Until this trip, I'd always travelled in the southern part of the West: California, Nevada, Arizona. The rise in prices as you go west from Texas is somewhat gradual, although no less noticeable for that. But up north --- and this is what really surprised me --- the change in prices is steep and sharp. In the north, the change is like a cliff, while in the south, it's a sloping plateau.

I'd always assumed that it had to do with things like transport costs and state tax policy. I still think those must necessarily play a part --- witness the difference between the price of gas in South Lake Tahoe, California, and Carson City, Nevada, less than 50 miles away; only the comparatively rapacious tax policy of California, the state with the least efficient government, can account for the great difference. And despite all the cost-lowering progress in transport, brought about by technological advances in my lifetime, moving things still costs money, and moving it farther costs more (to a point).

But these can't be the only factors at work here. I say this because of the sharp difference in prices from one side of the Cascade Mountains to the other, within the state of Washington.

Prices for things tourists are interested in --- primarily gas, lodging, and restaurant food --- are high to the point of exorbitance in Seattle, as in all of coastal Oregon and California. This was more or less what I expected to find, and, sadly, wasn't disappointed. But get across the Cascades into the eastern counties of Washington state, and suddenly prices for gas and food drop. The burger that costs you $9 in Port Townsend, on the Olympic peninsula, is only $6.50 in Grand Coulee. The gallon of premium gas that costs $3.55 in Sea-Tac on Saturday night is only $2.99 in Spokane on Sunday afternoon. 

I suspect the trend holds good in lodging as well, but because of special arrangements made in advance in one place, and not the other, I can't really say with any specificity. All I can say is that I found a reasonably-priced room pretty much at random on the eastern side of the mountains, but couldn't locate one in a week of internet searches on the western side.

I don't know what causes this sharp bifurcation. Why is it that people in, say, Everett, Washington will pay 40% more for a hamburger, and 20% more for gasoline, than their neighbours in Spokane? 

Ideas, anyone?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Favourite Photos, Part 2

I think this place is called the Cadillac Ranch. Some guy decided that, instead of trading his wife's car in on a new one, he'd just bury it ass-end up in one of his fields, near Amarillo, Texas. A compulsion was born, apparently, and nine luxury cars came to rest in this field, where they have been painted and re-painted by generations of grafitti artists. 

When I was a kid in North Texas, horny toads (or Texas Horned Lizards, or TCU Horned Frogs) were common. Now, I hear, they're pretty rare. This one was the first I'd seen since I was probably, oh, twelve years old. Found it by the road near Alibates Quarry National Monument, north of Amarillo, where we waited for a herd of cattle to clear the road.

Branson, Missouri is a pretty artificial place; kind of like Las Vegas, but with an overpowering aura of wholesomeness instead of a Sin-City reputation. (Plenty of sinning goes on there, I'm sure, but unlike their counterparts out west, they don't brag about it.) Everything in town is glitz and mock-hick glamour, from the traffic jam on the one main road to the giant theaters showing slicked-up down-home artifice. But it is possible to find some nice scenes there, as in this shot of one of the several lakes around the town.

This is the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, near Creede, Colorado, taken when I was driving out to California to tour the Redwood Forest with my son. I really like the mellow look of this picture. It looks like a late fall or early winter scene, but was actually taken in late May 2006.

I'm sure everybody who's ever gone through this tunnel in South Dakota has stopped to take this same photograph, but I really like the way the tunnel frames Mount Rushmore. I read somewhere that the road was oriented toward the sculpture expressly for that purpose.

This was taken on the Michigan shore of Lake Superior. Put on a recording of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and study the colours in the sky and water.

I have half a dozen pictures of the Mackinaw Bridge. I'm not sure which is my favourite --- it's a beautiful bridge in a beautiful setting --- so I just picked this one to represent the whole bunch.

I think it's the pattern of the clouds that makes this picture so attractive to me. It was taken in January 2008 near Fort Pickens National Monument, on Pensacola Bay. It was my first time on the Florida Gulf coast since I was too young to remember, and I was impressed by the white sand and the isolation of the place. (The beaches in Fort Walton, where I stayed that night, were all footprint-covered; here, it was almost completely untouched.)

When I was in Italy in the mid-1980s, I sat at a table in Piazza San Marco, in Venice, and got quietly drunk on two bottles of wine. I took a picture of my feet. Ever since then, I've taken pictures of my feet for what I call my "Feet On The Ground" series. This one, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, I happen to like for the contrast of black jeans and shoes against white, white sand.

I think this may be one of my favourite sunset pictures, taken from the same spot as the previous picture. 

Boeing Tour and Tacoma Museums (September 16, 2010)

Boeing has three big facilities in the Seattle area: a factory at Renton, where they assemble 737s; Boeing Field, which doubles as King County Airport, and which includes the Museum of Flight; and another factory at Mukilteo, north of the city (called The Everett Plant, after a nearby larger town), where they assemble 747s, 767s, and 787s. This was the place we went to for their factory tour and a visit to "The Future of Flight," a sort of museum showing what might be coming down the road ... er, runway.

Bus-sized groups of visitors are carted from the visitors' center, across the freeway to the factory, which is, as our tourguide made clear again and again, huge. It's something like a third of a mile from end to end. The doors that allow parts to come in and planes to go out are, of course, huge as well, and the photograph decorating the door is the largest printed picture in the world. (Sixty-seven d.p.i., our guide pointed out, but so big it looks incredibly sharp.) The building was the largest in the world when it was built in the '60s, so much bigger than anything that came before that its designers had no idea that it would have its own weather system. Once it was occupied, it started raining inside. That problem's been solved --- I forget how; ceiling fans, maybe --- and the building's not air conditioned. If it gets too hot (and with all that machinery going in there, it does), they just open the door a crack.

They build 747s, 767s, and now 787s in this building. The tour takes you up to the catwalks several stories over the factory floor, and you can see how the assembly line is put together. The jumbo jets have a U-shaped line, but the 767s and 787s can be done in a straight line. The 787s, the so-called "dreamliner" that is Boeing's future, is assembled here from parts made all over the world. Some of the parts are so big that Boeing had to adapt several 747s with oversized fuselages, so they could fit the components inside and fly them to Washington for assembly. These five "DreamLifters" are, as a result, the largest cargo aircraft in the world. Four of the five were on the ground outside the factory. (A few weeks before this trip, Boeing announced that it was returning production jobs to the US because it found it lacked adequate quality control over its foreign producers. I reckon that means that they'll have to build a much, much bigger building at some point.)

After the tour of the factory, the bus takes the group back to the welcome center, where there's a gift shop (of course) and museum of sorts that is supposed to be about what's in store for air passengers, but is mainly about Boeing's history. It wasn't interesting enough for me to walk all the way through it, especially after that hike through the factory. One of the featured exhibits is a series of computer terminals where you get to "design your own aircraft." What this means, it turns out, is that you get to pick the wing configuration from about 8 options, and choose from three exterior paint patterns and half a dozen logos. Then you get to print it out for free, or buy a shirt or other souvenir with your design on it. Big woo. There's more than enough little boy left in me that I was excited by the build-up this exhibit got, but disappointed by the reality of it.

We made a quick stop at Mukilteo Lighthouse, not very far away, because Jeff has decided to be interested in lighthouses. I may have mentioned that earlier. Something to do with a recent trip to Long Island. Anyway, we didn't miss an opportunity to visit any lighthouse we came across, and Mukilteo is among the more quaint that we saw. Not as dramatic as Hecata Head in Oregon, but with all the fog they have in this part of the world you come away kind of surprised that there's not a lighthouse on every rock.

After the lighthouse and lunch at a New-Yawk-Style pizza place (not bad, for pizza by the slice), we headed down to Tacoma.

There's been a little paragraph of newsprint on my refrigerator door for about a year now, briefly describing the Glass Bridge that leads to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. Someone wrote on it, "Sounds like a day trip," and ever since posting it I've been looking forward to this part of our trip. I have something of a collection of art glass myself, only about 30 or 40 pieces, but I love this particular art form, and was soooooooo looking forward to it: a whole museum, dedicated to art glass.

I should have known I'd gotten my hopes too high. Yes, it's an entire museum dedicated to art glass. The building itself is architecturally interesting, clever, and, surprise, attractive. A modern building destined to be a classic, I'm sure. Inside, the space is very limited. There are two galleries, the lobby, a café, a studio, and the gift shop.

The entire space was taken up by just three and a half exhibits when we visited. One was an exhibit of children's glass art. You can imagine how non-plussed I was by that waste of space. It was the museum equivalent of fingerpainted pictures on the refrigerator door.  Next to that was a one-man show featuring the work of a local artist, Preston Singletary. He is Native American, and this, plus the fact that some local rich person likes his work, has brought him to the point of prominence where you can get a one-man show in a leading museum. There were about sixty pieces in the exhibit, and while there is no disputing his command of the techniques of glassblowing, I found the One-With-Nature-Native-American focus more than a little heavy-handed. A few of the pieces had truly pleasing lines, and several were innovative (at least to me, who only gets to see what's going on in the world of art glass through occasional visits to shops, studios and galleries), but only one was what I would consider museum-quality: one of two pieces named Raven Stealing The Moon (after one of the artist's tribe's creation myths, duly told on a small placard next to the work). One of the two pieces named this hung on the wall like a rainspout on Notre Dame, a sandblasted black-on-red stylized bird with a big marble in its beak. It evoked a totem pole, with rounded lines and framed images inset. I didn't care for it. But the other one was stunning, and not surprisingly I found that this was the piece used on the promotional materials for the show. It stands on end, about a foot and a half tall; like its namesake, it's a black-on-red bird's head with a large marble in its beak, but this one has magnificent proportions and truly pleasing lines. One is art; the other is Art.

The studio contains the third full exhibit, the museum's "Hot Shop," where you can watch glassmaking live. They were on break when I was there, and I wasn't about to wait around for them to come back so I could see something I've seen in studios all over the country; and often enough to know that everybody does it pretty much the same way. Jaded, I am, when it comes to watching glassblowers at work.

The half exhibit is a couple of tables set up in the back of the lobby, whereon are gathered a number of birds by Finnish artist Oiva Toikka, a master craftsman at some factory in Europe who specializes in bird shapes. Some are pretty; some are ugly; some are just silly, possibly intentionally so. It seems these birds have become collectible, a 21st-Century alternative to Hummel. Anyway, the exhibit excited me about as much as the Steuben Glass room at Dillard's Department Store used to back in the '80s. The exhibit had the look and feel of an afterthought, as though somebody had said "We need to fill that space over there," and then they rushed around gathering up a flock of glass birds, put them on the table, then got busy with other things and forgot to make a show out of it. Kind of sad, really.

The stunning part of the Museum of Glass was the gift shop, for two reasons. First, there were the works of the aforementioned Preston Singletary offered for sale: tiny little glass baskets and boxes at positively astronomical prices, as though someone had accidentally added two extra zeros to all the price tags. Second, there were some genuinely magnificent pieces by other artists on sale there, at prices approaching reasonable (or, at least, museum-gift-shop-reasonable): Cohn-Stone Studios in San Francisco (whose web site, unfortunately, is all about cutesey pumpkin and leaf shapes, instead of the elegant type of stuff I saw at the museum), and a Canadian guy named Jeff Holmwood. I was sorely tempted to buy something, but I promised myself I wouldn't buy any more glass until I have a place to display it. (I plan to build a shelf above the french doors and windows in my living room, lighted from below and running the length of the room, just to put some of my glass pieces on. Been planning that for years....) Plus, there's the problem of getting it home, or the expense of having it shipped.

Outside the museum, crossing the adjacent railroad tracks and highway, and leading to other museums in the district, is the Chihuly Glass Bridge. It's a pedestrian bridge with three installations of art glass. In the middle are two poles with big chunks of blue-green dalle glass on them, like giant rock candy sticks. At one end is a wall of about a hundred cubicles, each containing a single vase by Chihuly, the local glass artist who's become the biggest name in the business, although to my mind he hit on a popular style back fifteen years ago, and has since turned into a one-trick pony, churning out the same products time and time again. I took pictures of almost every one of the vases, so I could look at them at my leisure (ah, the wonders of digital photography: it costs nothing to waste memory like that). Some of them are nice. All are technically proficient but most are unpleasant in their proportions, though that doesn't seem to matter in matters artistic these days. Some are gaudy, some are busy, some are subtle, but none rise above the level of expert craftsmanship.

At the other end of the bridge is an overhead exhibit, a space containing vaguely sea-creature-shaped glass. I suppose on a bright sunny day this would look downright pretty, but when's the last time Tacoma had a bright sunny day? (Oh, sure, they must've had one some time.) All of these pieces look like the Chihuly vase in Frasier's living room, or like the elements of the formulaic sculpture that some real salesman talked the Friends Of The San Antonio Public Library to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for. Same old, same old, and not even pretty to boot.

Edward Bruns, ca. 1910
All in all, I found more of interest in the Washington State Historical Society museum at the other end of the glass bridge. If I were to go back to Tacoma, that is the museum I'd head for. On the top floor is a model railroad (always worth seeing, and this one was particularly well done, if not as big as the one I saw in San Diego) and other exhibits relating to local history. My favourite parts were the exhibit of Arts-and-Crafts architecture and design (especially, of course, the stained glass windows on exhibit, and some prints that I photographed for my friend Rick, who's into that), and the "Washington Icons" exhibit, featuring a few things that museum visitors chose as representative of the state: notably, Galloping Gertie (the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which famously collapsed soon after opening in the 1940s), and a series of hilarious and imaginative Rainier Beer commercials playing on continuous loop.

8 miles offshore, heading out to sea
A propos of nothing: I have a DVD-based GPS navigation system in my little convertible that was probably not state of the art when it was designed in the late 1990s. It causes me a great deal of irritation because it's tedious to find things on, and won't plan out the kind of route I want, and sometimes it just plain gets lost. But after using Nancy's up-to-date GPS feature on her Blackberry (or whatever), I feel a whole lot better about my rickety old in-dash navigator. It, at least, does not ask me to exit a freeway, immediately re-enter the freeway, go to the next exit, take the turnaround, go back to the original exit, turn where there's no street, and then go three blocks past my destination.

Just thought I'd throw that in; it's the first kind word I've had to say about that device since I bought the car.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Failure of Education: An Example

We like to think that ignorance is confined, at least as to general topics, to uneducated people. That seemed to be true when I was young, but I suspect now that that was more perception than reality. Back then, there were relatively few people talking in mass media, and those who did --- reporters, anchormen, senators, admirals, generals, scientists --- generally maintained a certain gravitas, and spoke with some erudition. They didn't get on the air unless they could speak cogent, coherent, and --- politicians excepted --- concise English. As anyone will know after watching even half an hour of cable network news, this is manifestly no longer the case. Every ill-educated crackpot who can waive unexamined credentials under the nose of some desperate and time-pressed producer can now find his or her opportunity to befoul the marketplace of ideas with their peculiar brand of counterfeit reasoning, frequently clumsily expressed, and often at full volume. It's gotten so that even well-educated people no longer can be counted on to stop and consider before they put their ignorance on display for all the discerning world, wherein it will be noted, as well as for the uncaring world, wherein it will not.

My particular beef is with a presumably well-respected law firm, and with Here And Now, a nationally-available (on public radio, once an incubator and exemplar of erudition in America) news program produced by WBUR, the radio station at Boston University, which somewhat ironically pretends to excellence in education. 

On a number of occasions, the producers of Here And Now have thanked their corporate supporters on the air, including Hinckley, Allan & Snyder LLP, lauding it for providing legal expertise "throughout New England, and now in Connecticut." (Emphasis added.)

Surely somebody at Here And Now is aware that Connecticut has long been a part of New England. Surely somebody at WBUR is a former English major who recognizes redundancy. Surely somebody at Boston University has heard this frequently-delivered announcement, and surely somebody at Hinckley, Allan & Snyder LLP has listened to the announcement, either delivered to them by the program's producers for their approval, or on the actual broadcasts. Yet none of these surely well-educated radio producers or lawyers has thought to correct the appearance of ignorance that such an announcement projects.

It's bad enough when I hear Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show --- an intelligent and sophisticated guy, though he'd probably quibble with that characterization --- say, in an unscripted interview, that he and his staff "wean (sic) through" all the previous day's televised idiocy for stories on their program. I'm sure that if you asked him to write that down and say it once a day for months, he would immediately notice that the proper phrase is "weed through." But to have all these New Englanders go week after week in apparent obliviousness to the precise meaning of Here And Now's expression of gratitude is a far, far greater show of ignorance.

I bet this is what happened: somebody probably said, "You know, guys, if you say that, it means that either you think Connecticut is not part of New England, or that you're lying when you say 'throughout New England.'" But then somebody higher up, probably somebody with too much concern for economy of speech, said, "Well, people will know that what we really mean is that these lawyers now have an office in Connecticut."

Yes, we can figure that out. But while we're thinking about it, we're also thinking, with perhaps some exaggeration, "These people are idiots."  

That's probably not the image they were going for.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Olympic National Park

The National Park Service makes much of the fact that Olympic National Park contains three distinct ecosystems in one park; sort of a "buy two, get one free" special package. And that's true, the alpine environment in the north, the rain forests in the south, and the littoral of the west are all completely different from one another. All three are beautiful, mostly wilderness areas, and all three are impressive. 

Olympic is a gigantic national park, perfect for people who are really into wilderness stuff like hiking and camping. Me, not so much. I like a nice hour-long hike on flat ground, and even that can test my aching joints (currently the left ankle on even days, the right knee on odd days, the left elbow on most days). So the single day trip we took was just about right, though I will admit that I kind of wished I had more desire for the outdoorsy thing, especially on the beach. It would have been nice to take a week to hike from one end to the other, although I know that, after a few hours, it would've been like my last visit to the driving range: I'd be thinking, "Why was it that I thought this might be fun?" I haven't hit a golf ball since, and that's more than four years ago. I also recall making a resolution, some years before that, never to sleep on the ground again, the last time I went camping with my son. Oh, sure, sometimes I weaken and think it would be fun, but I always manage to get hold of myself before giving in to that particular temptation.

For our trip, we took the route suggested by the Park Service on their website for a full-day visit. We set out early --- well, sort of early --- from Port T, going first to the Visitors' Center south of Port Angeles for that all-important passport stamp. From there it was a scenic drive of 45 minutes or so up to Hurricane Ridge, where there's another visitors' center and an alpine view. A short accessible hiking trail was nearby, and we decided to take the time for that; but most of it was closed for some unspecified reason. So after taking just the time to enjoy the view, we drove on to Hoh Rain Forest.

Hoh is the largest of the three rain forests contained in the park. Three hours' drive from Hurricane Ridge, it sits near the base of Mount Olympus, which we didn't see because of fog, I suppose; I'm not sure it would have been visible from where we were anyway, but in that part of the country you're always safe in blaming fog. Back in the 1880s, when Washington was looking to become a state, the territorial legislature considered choosing "Semper Fog" as the state motto, but it was rejected in favour of something conventionally grandiose and meaningless. Anyway, the visitors' center at the rain forest is the starting point for a number of hiking trails, including one that goes up Mt Olympus. We opted instead for the more do-able "Hall of Mosses" loop tour. My first thought was, You're kidding, right? Moss? But it was short enough, and reasonably flat, and I didn't feel like sitting in the visitors' center with the guy from Newport, Oregon who, when he learned I was from South Texas, insisted on telling me Mexican jokes.

It actually turned out to be a very nice walk, about two hours if I remember right, through a forest of tall Sitka spruce and hemlock and Douglas fir, and more moss than the Louisiana bayous. Lush, verdant, all those synonyms. Beyond the cool darkness of the forest floor, the giant shaggy trees stretched up and up to a clear blue sky, bright in the afternoon sun. Below them, ferns and fungi grew amid roots that poured and slithered over each other, creating on every side an other-worldly sense of promiscuous abandon. 

From the rain forest, we drove out to the beach. This part of the park was added on as an afterthought, against, it seems, the wishes of the local indians. And in truth it seems, from the small taste of it that I've had, not to be a part of the same park at all. The alpine scenery of Hurricane Ridge and the mountainous rain-forests are enough of a piece that, while different, one from the other, they seem to belong together. This long tongue of beach, miles away from the rest of the park and stretching for miles along the shore, seems completely different.

It's almost a spooky place. The beach is narrow, maybe twenty yards wide; the loud, restless Pacific Ocean on the west takes giant trees from the still, dark forest on the east, and tosses their carcasses about on the beach. There seems to be no life here, no crabs scuttling about on the shore, no birds overhead, no seals or fish in the water. The remains of the trees, lying haphazard on the rocks, are like one of those warnings that teenaged girls are always ignoring in horror films: go back! Stay away! Don't go into the barn!

But like those teenaged girls, we couldn't help ourselves: we had to wander along the beach until it got dark and cold and we discovered that we didn't know the way back to the car. Then one of us observed a metal sign, a red cross and circle on a black background, nailed high to a tree trunk, and that turned out to be the sign showing where the path back began. By then, someone down the beach had started what looked like a bonfire. I thought that would be a good way to end our visit to the park, but instead we went back to Forks, the nearest town, for gas and dinner. By the time we were ready to head back to Port T, the fog had settled in. That made for a long, slow trip back to home base.