Jenny Lin “Get Happy” audio CD review

CD: “Get Happy” (Jenny Lin, 18 tracks, Steinway & Sons, 2012)

Frances and Iggy are celebrating their 50th anniversary in our local restaurant. They are both good, solid characters who worked their entire lives, Life probably beat up on them at some point along the way. Frances paints her purplish-red lipstick on with an angular sash and trim brush, Her smile has grown lop-sided over the years. Iggy’s rugged hands are bent and arthritic from decades of heavy work, with which he cups Frances’ hand over the table. They are still both deeply in love. They share decanters of a modest house red. The dining area sound system is playing a melange of old traditional favorites like “Begin the Beguine” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

Frances rolls her eyes in ecstasy. “Oh, Iggy, ain’t it lovely ta hear these again after all these years?”

Iggy concurs. “Frannie my love, it’s like we was back again at the old high school dance where we was first introduced at.”

Well, no, not really. It isn’t like that at all.

Jenny Lin was born in Taiwan, educated in the United States and Europe, and is an internationally known pianist of considerable talent and some renown. Amazon lists a number of her classical CD’s and “MP3 albums” promenading works of several obscure composers and three I have heard of: Liszt, Schumann and Shostakovitch. I sampled a couple of those. I’d rate her performance as noticeably talented if not enchanting. Sometimes in her keyboard work I hear traces of Debussy. Her published listings also include a number of attempts at popular and movie tunes.

The problem with “Get Happy” is it’s part music and part metaphor: not quite like anything you want to hear again.

It isn’t quite traditional. It’s not trad jazz. It’s not jazz improv, I don’t believe music needs to conform to strictly enforced centuries-old standards. Most of all, music of any genre needs to have integrity, and here “Get Happy” doesn’t quite have what it takes.

In the signature song track “Get Happy,” we keep expecting Lin to segue into “What’s It All About Alfie.” There are too many skipped and rushed notes, too many transitions for transition’s sake, and, worst of all, enough unwarranted show-off embellishments, frills and irrelevant musical lace to make Liberace blush.

One of many problems with this album is that occasionally Lin gets it right, as In the best-remembered bars of the title old favorite “Get Happy,” Lin makes you want to shout “YES!” as she re-creates the core feeling you remember even if you had not heard that song for forty years. But then Lin shatters it with mindless “look at me, I can play good, huh?” riffs that broadcast how she just doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. She doesn’t know when to play and when to quit.

In that wonderful old Gershwin favorite “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy and Bess, Lin’s keyboard work is so good that you really want to believe she’s going to make it work! Here is an incredible love story that listeners of all ages know and depend on for a memorable emotional experience. Lin turns it into sanitized piano lounge music, showing off the pianist’s skill, not the heart and soul of the composer’s gift to us, It’s just music that never distracts the attention of patrons sharing house wine in their own private worlds.

Those of us lucky enough to remember Rogers and Hammerstein’s wonderful musical “The King and I,” or the Yul Brynner movie of the same name, can immediately recall the dramatic contest of wills between the King of Siam and his children’s British tutor, Anna. The story line develops into an electrifying romance. Lin almost turns this song into a “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”

The delightful “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound Of Music, prompts us all to remember Julie Andrews teaching the Von Trapp children the disciplines and joys of harmonized song. Here in particular, in my opinion, Lin ruins that magic with a Niagara of trills, frills, and randomly improvised little embellishments. In monitoring this track I had to re-check iTunes to make sure Lin was still playing the same song I’d selected.

For me, Lin’s “Get Happy” release rarely augments the personal listening experience. It invariably muddies and distracts. It annoys in the same manner as when your sweetheart says “they say it’s going to rain tomorrow” but you have just said “I love you.” Where did that come from?

For all her talents, Lin plays most of her 18 track selections like one of those brilliant autistic kids who has never heard a composition before, but can play it – in metronome perfection with a few off-the-wall frills – after hearing a few bars..

For my money, I believe I’m right on about Lin’s overall performance, but I’m baffled about the rationale behind this release. Perhaps the fact the CD was produced and released by a leading piano manufacturer, rather than by normal recording labels, should have been a tip-off. This NASCAR special has been brought to you by Castrol. Only $15.63 for 18 laps.

Not everyone likes the same kid of music, or asks the same kinds of things from it. So, if perhaps you disagree with me, I hope you’ll buy Iggy and Frances a drink. They’re going to have hangovers tomorrow anyway, so the house red would probably still be a welcome choice.

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Adios Amigos, by Page Stegner

I first ran into Page Stegner while reading his father’s books. Writing of their travels around the West, Pulitzer Prize winning author Wallace Stegner would mention his wife Mary and, occasionally, his young son Page.

Later, Page authored the prefaces to collections of his late father’s essays and short stories.

The apple, they say, never falls far from the tree. I don’t know where they got this.

When the parent becomes famous, the progeny struggles “in the shadow of the father” to gain recognition in his or her own right. In business, the arts, politics, education and literature, the children are always compared and measured against the accumulated life portfolio of the parent, usually unfavorably. This is especially true when the second generation seeks standing in the same profession as the first.

Based on these generalizations, I thought I might be taking a chance when I was browsing, looking for Stegner books I had not yet read, and came across Adios Amigos by Page Stegner. There you have it. No one knows who said it first: “No generalization is worth a damn, including this one.”

Adios Amigos is Page Stegner’s short collection of tales of the West, just copyrighted in 2008. More particularly, “Adios Amigos” and “Septic Tank” happen to be two particularly nasty stretches of whitewater on the Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon. Normally tame, the Owyhee might flow at 1,000 to 4,000 cubic feet per second, and is rated by the BLM as suitable for tenderfeet and family outings.

This compares, Stegner writes, to 20,000 cfm average flow on the Colorado where it flows through the Grand Canyon.

My own “whitewater” experience is limited to canoeing the Russian River (at Alexander Valley, north of Napa, California). Currently water flow is at a low 166 cfm. We bashed up a canoe one spring when the winter flood stage was still receding, but no one came close to drowning. I have seen only enough reasonably rough water to know when I should avoid the river entirely. Most years, the river was good for a dunking and a bad sunburn.

Stegner writes of a year on the Owyhee, and they did not know it at the time, when it was well on the way to cresting at 24,000 cfm, the highest ever recorded. Their raft was loaded with wine, beer and picnic victuals fit for a banquet. Unaware of a sudden upsurge of distant snowmelt due to a heat wave, they were expecting the family outing but found a monster awaiting.

As author, is the son any measure of the father? I would like to leave you to decide for yourself with two short excerpts from his narratives of their journey down the two river stretches called “Septic Tank” and “Adios Amigos”. For my money, I can see why it was called “Adios Amigos”. My hat’s off to the author for the intense clarity of his writing, not to mention, for surviving this trip. He’s clearly an author worth collecting in his own right.

The following passages are both from the first chapter “Adios Amigos”.

Septic Tank

Flood-speed carries us downstream at twice the 3- to 4-mile-an-hour pace we’d anticipated, and none of the Class II rapids indicated in the guide are extant at this water level. Were it not for an occasional landmark along the bank, we would have no idea of our location, no notion of our progress, no way to guess our position in relation to the upcoming “no-brainer” at Septic Tank. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter. We can hear the rapid for almost a mile before we see the nasty incandescence of exploding water where the river slams through a boulder field and churns down through constricting canyon walls, rebounding off one side and then the other, smashing back into itself in a pileup of deranged fury, rushing on through the boiling foam of a gargantuan reversal until it dissipates, finally, in a series of steep-sided standing waves.

Adios Amigos

A thick mat of debris in the eddy makes it difficult to maneuver the boat, but the rotational current carries us back upstream along the bank until we reach a place where we are able to tie off, scramble into the rocks, and climb the steep talus to a vantage point above the rapid. The news is not much improved by the view, but there is, at least, evidence of a small passage through all this violence – a passage, unfortunately, that lies clear of the other side of the river. If the fast current (or the condition of the boatman) causes an early entry into the canyon’s constricted throat, there is absolutely no question about the outcome. Adios Amigos could flip a Mississippi River barge.

— Excerpts from Adios Amigos, Page Stegner, Counterpoint, 2008

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Herodotus Book III

Say what we may about radio and television, for direct access to events, phenomena and natural history, modern airwaves beat any communications method available to the known civilized world of 450BC.

In Book II Herodotus deals with the Persian takeover of Egypt under the miserable and demented Cambyses, son of Cyrus. We read of priestly intrigue, myriad plots and cabals among dynasties of pharaohs and foreign interlopers, and of mysterious beasts, such as the hippopotamus, which only comically resemble anything available in the Nile or in zoos worldwide today.

In Book III we find the king Cambyses has gone so mad as to be useless and dangerous even to the principal players in his far flung military and political alliance, the vastly expanded empire of Persia. Nevertheless, he obviously had an effective and superior organization. The Persian Empire now extends from the eastern shores of the Aegean to India, and some lands considered part of modern Europe, such as some of the Greek city-states, and Crete.

Near the end of Book III, Herodotus takes his opportunity to bring us up to date on what is known of India and the strange peoples who inhabit that rich land to the east. Here, his natural history is so far removed from the reality we know today, as to defy what we’d consider to be common sense. At this point we must remember that information in those days rarely passed directly by horse or camel to the seats of power in the qwest, but rather by the parlor-game technique of relaying a statement to the party seated next to us, and then to the next party, and so on, until we have an opportunity to compare the original take with its twentieth telling.

Here then are three select observations about the natural history of India, as told to Herodotus by word of mouth by the most reliable of travelers, as relayed to them by an unrecorded succession of excitable and imaginative hearers of travelers’ tales.

The Ants of India

The Persians drew their tribute from India in the form of gold dust, because …

Now in this desert of sand live huge ants, smaller than dogs but larger than foxes. Some of these ants were captured and brought to the Persian court. The ants in India make their dwellings underground by mounding up the sand, just as ants do in Hellas, and they also look very much the same. But here the mounded sand contains gold …

The sun is most hot nearest the place where the sun rises

So that is the way the Indians yoke their camels in preparation for their journey. Then they calculate when they should ride out so their plundering will take place during the hottest time of the day, since the ants then disappear underground because of the intense heat. In this region, the sun is unbearably hot in the morning, not at midday as it normally is elsewhere …

Wool grows on trees

Moreover there are trees in India which grow wild and produce crops of wool which surpass sheep’s wool in beauty. Indians actually wear clothing made from wool harvested from these trees.

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The New Yorker Cover

July 21 2008 New Yorker Cover - ObamasI saw it on PBS News before my own issue arrived. Like so many others, I didn’t get it.

But there was the firestorm of controversy. Was The New Yorkerimplying Michelle totes an AK-47 and Barack is a radical Islamist? And what’s with the flag burning in the fireplace? In short, was one of the nation’s most literary magazines disrespectingthe Obamas?

According to PBS, The New Yorker was gamely replying that this was satire. No, any fool (it was hoped) should see that the cover represents how Obama’s scaremongering enemies would like to paint him as election day draws near.

Well, my own July 21 issue of The New Yorker arrrived, and I looked at the cover again, and I still don’t get it. It’s not the first time. From where I stand, it’s just another attention-getting flub from the magazine’s cover editors and whomsoever else is responsible for keeping the magazine in the public eye from week to week.

The current White House regularly goes ballistic over incisive weekly reporting by Jon Lee Anderson and Seymour Hersch on gasoline-on-the-flames topics such as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Iraq and global warming – oops – I mean, Climate Change. Most of those leaders need no caricaturist, being fully qualified stand-in artists for The Joker in the current Batman cinema.

There’s rarely if ever any explanation or apologia for New Yorker covers, and I didn’t find any. What I did find was yet another outstanding issue – in the printed material inside.

On page 48 there’s a terrific feature article on the political scene by Ryan Lizza, MAKING IT– how Chicago shaped Obama. I learned a lot about Obama the candidate, most of it very favorable in my opinion. I learned quite a bit about Obama the politician. Let’s face it, no one who hasn’t mastered politics will ever be elected President, and here again Obama seems to have what it takes. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about the world of politics, Chicago-style – but (also my opinion) if you were thinking that the politics of a Boston, San Francisco or New York were prettier in any way, think again.

You probably know that cartoons grace the pages of The New Yorker, as they have for decades. The first rule of New Yorker cartoons is not really any different (if you think about it) than the first rule for cartoons in any magazine, or any collection of same: only one or two are going to strike a really responsive chord; the rest of them are going to be eminently forgettable, disappearing weekly in the recycling container.

New Yorker covers are a big deal to many folks, including the magazine itself. Periodically, the magazine publishes a “book of covers” so that, if you wish, you could ferret out an image of the cover for the week you were born, or Pearl Harbor day, or the day Bush took office – so to speak. Some of those covers are themselves cartoons, with the same success-failure ratios we just discussed. Most covers are just light art, breezy ethereal art, and occasionally even good art. Few people who buy magazines at all would need the words “The New Yorker” to instantly identify this magazine from the hundreds offered on the news racks.

I’m willing to go so far as to say I don’t care for the current Obama cover. I think it’s unfortunate. But I’m unwilling to join the thousands who will damn it or praise it. Sure, some conservatives will point to it and say, “I told you so”. Some liberals will see the cover as a betrayal of the last best hope for America. I say it’s just a lousy cover. It’s not just this magazine – Time also gets lambasted periodically for questionable covers. It’s happened before, and will happen again.

1962 New Yorker CoverIf I was forced – by an evil torturer, perhaps, or by the necessities of adventuring into the frugality of retirement living – to choose a paid subscription to just one magazine, it would be The New Yorker. The older I get, the more of its pages I devour each week. Sure, I would miss my venerable Scientific American, and my Astronomy and Sky and Telescope. But I can get all of that news and much of that content from the web. You can even get some of the feature articles of the New Yorker on the web. Would it be the same? Can I adapt? I don’t know.

Hell, before I retire, I’m going to buy one of those “Complete Set Portable Hard Drive” editions – every page of every issue, 1925-2007 – only $179.99 US.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”, goes the adage. It all makes you wonder how many people actually read what’s inside.


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Creation, Chromosomes and Time Lines

Creationists commonly cite the Bible as evidence of a recent arrival of the human species. Their “event” is tied to Creation, or Genesis. Figures I have heard and read seem to center around 4,000 years ago, with Creationist data points ranging wildly from 600 to 10,000 years ago.

These dates today utterly lack credibility to modern evolutionists and lay science students alike, with the overwhelming geological and anthropological evidence showing that modern man emerged from Addis Ababa more than 40,000 years ago. The question that has always bothered me: how could presumably intelligent and articulate Creationists fatally wound their own beliefs with such wildly out-of-whack dates?

A possible clue comes from Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian generally considered the first in the western world to record and compile a credible representation of the beliefs, anecdotal histories and myths of the early “western world”. He wrote at a point in time of about 200BC.

In Book II, Herodotus starts introducing the reader to the rest of the known ancient world. He spends a great deal of time on Egypt, and he did visit Egypt, though he did not actually see some of the sites he chronicles. For example, he reports that the hippopotamus has the tail and mane of a horse. But we begin to get a feel for the smallness of the then-known world: Greeks in the Aegean, Egyptians and Libyans in north Africa, Assyrians and Persians in what today we would call the Middle East. There are reports of other barbarians (any peoples other than Greeks) in the hinterlands of Europe (Iberia, or Spain) and perhaps a hint that they had heard something of the abandoned monuments at StoneHenge.

In the world of Herodatus, “Asia” meant the region in which we found Persia – roughly, modern Iran, which we call the “Middle East”. Of the 6,000 year old cultures in China, nothing seems to be known.

Herodotus reports on the record-keeping of the Egyptian priests, who claim to be able to trace the kingly lineages back 13,500 years or more.

The real item is that he also reports the observation of other Greeks, that peoples tend to ascribe the Dawn of Mankind to the age of writing in their region. It was commonly believed in those times that humans are born with a working knowledge of their native tongues. So, perhaps it was believed that as soon as a tribe was “born”, its scribes would start writing about it, this giving us a way to discover the origins of man.

Ancient Egyptian writing may go back to the Old Kingdom, 3000BC give or take. The Dead Sea Scrolls may date to 100BC. But by this time the Roman Army has reached a strength of 300,000, and Teotihuacan reaches a population of 50,000 in Mexico.

In 2000BC (according to Wikipedia) we find Stonehenge completed, the first ancestors of the Latins (Etruscans), the Minoan palaces in Crete, dynasty wars in Egypt, and a bronze age beginning in China. The Sumerians define the cubit, and Reu, son of Peleg, is born according to the Hebrew calendar.

Science has long since found that the archaeological and paleontological records reveal “homo sapiens” – modern man – has been around much longer than that. Most recently, we can assign credible dates or ages to the migrations that map modern man’s emergence from Africa to all corners of the globe.

Chronomsome time line - click for larger image

We know that the Americas were populated by emigrants from Asia across the Bering Straits, probably over the Bering low-water land bridge during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago.

But I didn’t know there were actually two migrations. An earlier and major wave of humans pushed out of Africa through the Middle East, India, Australia, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Siberia, and Alaska, apparently getting as far as modern Oregon. This was 50,000 years ago.

This same mitochondrial “branch” spawned an offshoot 45,000 years ago which split into Central Europe (25,000 years ago), and, in two more waves, to western Asia (40,000 yera ago), Spain (30,000 years ago) and, by a different route, northern Europe (10,000 years ago). And there were other “waves” emerging from Africa and from other “nodes” on the map.

The map is from a major article in the July Scientific American, “Traces of a Distant Past”, by Gary Stix. It’s important to note that the migratory “waves” discussed, and depicted on the map, were not continuous population movements; a population would most likely split from a large parent group, emigrate to a new area, put down its roots and grow in size, before wanderlust and perhaps changing ecological fortunes prompted further migrations.

Please note that even the newest migrations were complete thousands of years before the earliest known examples of writing or calendars.

All the paths can be traced through genetic markers to a single “Mitochondrial Eve” about 200,000 years ago. This “Eve” was, by the mathematics of DNA, a single human being. As Stix points out, she was certainly not the only human forebearer to populate the early world. But she was the only one whose blood line actually survived all the way to modern times. And her distinct genetic markers are in all of us.

The point of origin (by several different methods) seems to be in what today is Ethiopia, in the region where Addis Ababa was founded in modern times. This is also the site of “Lucy”, perhaps the world’s oldest fossil record of one of our prehominid ancestors. Lucy was a much earlier pre-human, Australopithecus afarensis (3.9 to 3 million years ago).

So, for the first 3.8 million years, the species that we trace to ourselves today didn’t move at all. Then, in a brief 60,000 years, something happened. We populated the entire globe.

Interestingly, many Native Americans and aboriginal Australians are not interested in helping scientists map migration routes through DNA sampling. According to the same edition of Scientific American, tribal cultural belief is that their people always inhabited the land they do now. The finding that they actually migrated via Siberia 13,000 years ago is not exciting good news; it flies in the face of faith.

Something like 99.9% of the DNA material in the human genome is the same for every human being alive today. It’s the other 0.1% that carries the genetic variations that we ascribe to race, geography, climate and appearance. Humans are almost instinctively able to visually detect subtle differences of facial cast, gait, anotomical proportion and such to recognize differences of ancestral origin. In parts of the world, villagers can often tell by appearance who belongs to a village a scant hundred miles away. In ethnic melting pots like Europe and the US, statements like “he looks like a Scotsman” may have more validity than meets the eye.  If you have ever wondered why many South Americans seem to have some Asian features, take a look at the Scientific American Chromosome map.

The map is complex, yet amazingly simple. “We are all descended from a common ancestor” may be hard to conceptualize, but now it is easy to visualize. It may be the “greatest story ever told.”



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Herodotus, Book I

This is not a “review” of the classic ancient history of Herodotus, but conveys some of my strong early impressions. [See my April 25 notes on my decision to order this translation].

Beyond what I read in the New Yorker review I had no particular expectations. I suppose I expected some kind of Arcadian prehistory punctuated by brief periods of intertribal skirmish on the part of the war-glorifying Hellenes. The very notion of an Arcadia stems from the westernized 19th century romanticism of a simple, rustic, idealized early agrarian community.

In fact, Arcadia lies within the central part of the Peloponnesian peninsula, which was divided in those days into the regions of Achaea, Arcadia and Laconia. The city-state of Argos [“Jason and the Argonauts”] might have been part of Arcadia; it grew to prominence by trade with the Phoenicians, and suffered in competition and battle with bellicose neighboring Sparta.

While Argos was “persona non grata” among other city states, because of its policy of remaining neutral in the wars between Sparta and Athens, there was nothing “Arcadian” about this early region of western civilization.

In fact, there was never a time in our history when there were not wars. “Massively overwhelming” military might and “shock and awe” have different terms and technology today, but the concepts are twenty-five hundred years old. Most of all, Herodotus guides us through the shifting sands of military warfare, victory, and defeat; the invincible tyranny of the superpower that rules today is tomorrow always guaranteed wholesale slaughter and slavery.

It is not so much that those early city-states fought wars of desperation, due to drought or famine, such as the butchery and lawlessness we are currently witnessing on the parched continent of Africa. The early warriors fought them out of a desire for the spoils of war, the accumulation of land, and raw power.

When the Persians started their mighty war engines against the rising Greek city-states, two things come to mind. First, the city-states were too busy sacking each others’ cities to come to the aid of their immediately beleaguered neighbors. Second, drawing heavily on the American assumption that size and might are the best defense against foreign incursion, we wonder why these city-states did not form permanent regional alliances, when, in view of the success of Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, it would be to their clear advantage to do so.

As we look at the forms of government of the time, there were many great tyrants, but the concepts of democracy and freedom were far from fully formed, and Herodotus so far [Book I] has not dwelt on any kind of relationship between concepts of government and the well-being of its peoples. These early city-states had their open markets, or agora, but no idea of what today we would call “participatory democracy” as far as we can tell in Herodotus. It would appear that each city-state held so many grudges against each other, for offenses both of pride and serious injury, and saw each other so heavily as threatening rivals, that we should not be surprised that this state of affairs had not improved by the time the next great war engine was mounted against ancient Greece. This would be imperial Rome, in a time long after Herodotus.

The narrative history of Herodotus [edited by Strassler] flows smoothly and is pleasurable to read. Usually, the wheels of this history revolve around the great heroes of the time, names that are still with us today. There is no attempt to demonize the other side, but to simply tell the stories from the point of view of the players. King Cyrus [of Persia] is revealed to be every bit as feeling and human as his Greek counterpart, such as the Ionian King Croesus.

Wealthy Croesus – a descendent of Midas, it is said – very early conquered almost all of the Mediterranean and Aegean regions before being captured by the great Persian king and General Cyrus. He was held in bondage not only as a captive, but esteemed military and civil advisor (!).

All these leaders made their decisions primarily by consulting the gods, namely the Pythia or Oracle of Delphi, and lesser oracles at other locations.

And these prophecies, handed out by the sacrifice-enriched Oracles, were ambiguous and cryptic. Croesus, for example, was told that if he attacked Cyrus, he would destroy a mighty empire. He was not told it would be his own. Modern-day oracles have spy satellites and fiber optic communications taps at their disposal, but we would not have to look too far for suitable contemporary Oracles.

It is impressive how thoroughly the prattle of the sooth-sayers was taken with the same literal seriousness that we today take the objective scientific reports of the mass spectrometers, x-ray telescopes and weather satellites. From our point of view, the ancient Greeks had no conceptual tools for distinguishing between the validity of the battlefield scouts and the supernatural Oracles – just so, as people of our Middle Ages “knew” the earth was flat, stationary, and the center of the universe.

Dreams were another source of mystical insight; one sage was quoted as saying dreams largely reflect what we happened to be thinking about during the day, but most people continued to believe dreams were divinely inspired.

To illustrate how closely dreams and reality were linked in the world in which Herodotus writes, I would like to retell the following story. I view it as mostly fable or myth, but Herodotus wisely sticks to reporting the story as it, no doubt, was told to him:

Croesus had a dream that his son and presumed heir Arys would be killed by the iron point of a spear. His son already being a wildly popular and successful general, Croesus decided to marry his son off and withdraw the youth from the battlefield, which he did, and the son’s attentions were devoted to building a life with his new bride.

It was not too long before this when Croesus had taken under his protection Adrastos, a fine young man and refugee from a neighboring noble household, who was sought after for murder by his own people, for inadvertently killing his brother in a horrible accident.

In most ways Croesus was successful as a tyrant because of his benevolence to the people he subjugated, and so they came to him one day to complain of an unusually large wild boar that was terrifying the villages.

Croesus said he would mount a force to take care of the wild boar once and for all, and he appointed the young man Adrastos, who was under his household protection, to lead the force. When Arys got wind of this, he complained bitterly to his father.

“You have pulled me from the battlefield, father”, he said, “because in your dream I would be killed by a spear in battle. But, this is not a battle.” And he went on to convince the old man that if he did not lead this force, he would lose popularity with the people, who were already wondering why he never showed his face around military ventures those days. After all, this was not a battle, but a boar hunt.

And so this is what happened. Under the command of Arys, the force quickly located and surrounded the wild boar. In the melee, as it happened, the young man Adrastos was closest, and he hurled his spear, which was tipped with a point of iron, at the boar. And he missed the boar, killing Croesus’s son Arys.

Ending this sad little Greek tragedy, Croesus is grief-stricken but forgives Adrastos, whose intention was certainly not to kill his friend the son of his protector. However, when Arys is laid to rest in a fine marble tomb, Adrastos slays himself over that tomb, and we are not to hear any more about either boy again.

Such were the times of which Herodotus wrote: the dreams, the prophecies, the heroic actions, and the occasional shameful acts of cowardice on the part of those timorous souls who just wanted to live, all seamlessly spiced together indistinguishably into a great epic tale. It is from these tales of the Homeric era that we get the idea of Greek Tragedy, a literary tradition that is still with us today.

No doubt these tales inspired glory-eyed warriors of all the intervening centuries to try to emulate the grand deeds of their ancestors, who brought brief interludes of peace and relative prosperity to a region decimated by warfare solely for the purpose of a change of regime. Throughout it all, the people endured, just as they do today.

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Love In The Time of Cholera – review

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Edith Grossman, Vintage Books, 1988.

Florentino Ariza was the poor, shy, bespectacled dreamer. As a youth he courted the girl of his dreams with serenades and secret anonymous letters. He lost when a mysterious high society doctor entered the life of the girl he loved. He would not get a chance to try again for fifty-one years, nine months and four days.

Fermina Daza was the tempestuous, self-determined girl with the beauty of a royal princess and the eyes of a panther. She had short shrift for men who loved from afar yet could not say what they mean. Fermina Daza’s father was a man of new money – ill-gotten, some said – who gave his daughter everything to propel her into the highest social strata, the ruling class. “I am not a rich man”, he would say. “I am a poor man with money. There is a difference.”

Dr. Juvenal Urbino was the dashingly handsome, educated, sophisticated prodigy of one of the country’s great old family names. He studied medicine in Paris. He grew to learn the whole world better, perhaps, than the whole truth of his own country, yet he followed a lifelong campaign of civic and infrastructure improvement. At the very beginning, Dr. Juvenal Urbino let it be known that he would wed Fermina Daza. Thus it was all arranged, and all Fermina Daza had to do was give her consent. She did.

Cartagena, Columbia at nightIn the following decades the newlyweds traveled the world, raised a fine family, survived an unforgivable breach of trust in the marriage, and settled down into the comfortable rust of old age. He told her: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.” All might have still have ended happily, except for that wretched parrot.

For me there could have been no higher recommendation of this book that than of the lender, who lent it without reservations, as a critically prized treasure.

It is about life in a South American country, apparently Columbia, around the turn of the previous century. It is a tale of love among the rich and the poor, but mostly among the rich, in a social stratum which has disappeared as surely as the manatee, gone as surely as the life and forestation that used to teem on the banks of the Magdalena River. The slow-witted manatee was shot for sport, to near-extinction. The alligators were killed for sport and perhaps for their skins; the trees themselves were stripped from the denuded rain forest soil for the fuel to power the river-boats that plied upstream, searching for the next cordwood depot to fire their boilers on their journey.

Set against the backdrop of this period, “Love in the Time of Cholera” is not about specie conservation and forest management, though it is somewhat prescient (the original Spanish publication was in 1985) about ecological balance and the un-greening of the planet. While the dread cholera ravaged all the continents toward the middle and end of the nineteenth century, Marquez’ book is not really even about cholera.

Until you nearly reach the very end, it is hard to see whether the book is really about love, either.

And it is no more about “the time of cholera”, than this book review is really a review. Cholera is touched on – Dr. Juvenal Urbino is said to have campaigned tirelessly for a civic cleanup of the terrible sanitary conditions which promoted epidemic waves of the cholera bacterium. The enormous contrast between the ruling social classes and the squalid living conditions of the poor is noted as a fact of life, which, in that time, it was. The advent of hot air balloons, airplanes, railways, oil-fired steamboats, the telegraph and then even radio – all these are acknowledged, but in passing.

I detest the worn phrase “the human condition”, and nearly everything to which it alludes, but I would end up saying that this book is really about that condition, and that Marquez did a remarkable job of describing his perspective on it.

The book is about the souls of the principal players, told expertly by a master observer. There are surely many reviews of this stunning 1988 best-seller translation (also a 2007 movie); Wikipedia as usual does a creditable job with the synopsis and plot analysis.

What I want to touch on, instead, is what I know best: why I ended up liking the book, why I admired the author’s style, and why at the end I had to give Marquez his due for his incredibly introspective insights into human nature.

On a good day, I could give you scores of reasons why I disagree with the author’s metaphysical viewpoint on humanity, but on a very bad day I could only tell you that I was not so sure I could go as far as he in both understanding and damning human aspiration in the same breath. 

I was not even sure, then, that I would like the book.

The people in it do not generally do things; they politely wait for things to happen to them, and then they blame others. Behind the mask of post-Victorian manners and politeness, we see that almost everyone lies, cheats and possibly steals: sometimes, worldly goods; mostly, souls. The dearer the victim, the more they turn the screw. And, of those who do not lie, cheat and steal, well, even there, there are lapses of human resolve.

Writers are often given to comparing layers of human personality to the layers of a vegetable, though it might be impertinent to suggest that they should know best. Not all of us come across so favorably in the comparison. Of course the domesticated onion is the favored vegetable for this analogy, perhaps because it has caused so many tears. Poets become lost in the rapturous mysteries of the unfolding petals of the rose, the daisy, the forget-me-not.

Personally, I am surprised we always forget the siren call of the unflowered artichoke, with its prized, edible barbed leaves and spiny, prickly interior. Of course the sweet delicate heart of the artichoke is the ultimate objective, the purpose of the whole exercise, and all of those outer leaves are best understood as the necessary exercise of the expected prenuptial ritual of conquest. The very act of eating the unfolding layers of the artichoke is a fine balance between high cuisine and choking to death on baby thistle.

To lavish so much attention on a domesticated weed seems frivolous in a book review, at first glance, but in keeping with the style of the book it would be indelicate to address the layers of human personality directly. Let us use the device of the lowly but emotionally neutral cabbage, whose full flavor is only appreciated in the company of other condiments.

So then, the cabbage is enfolded in layers of symbolic and literal meaning: the tough, fleshy outermost leaves protect the inner plant against the ravages of pest and garden. Call these the social petals. These are the only parts of the cabbage we see in the garden, and the only ones we strip off and dispose. The inner leaves might be our layers of deception, jealously, greed, pretense and fear. These are the layers of the cabbage that provide the heart core with security, safety, warmth and privacy.

Most of all, privacy! No one eats a cabbage by unfolding it petal by petal. Love changes all the rules. With a keen sharp blade, for better or worse, one slices the hapless plant as a geologist slices through the strata of time with his core samples: here, stripped naked, from oldest to newest, is the map of the entire life of the cabbage.

And so, as Love in the Time of Cholera unfolds the layers of human truth and meaning, it would seem we all live our lives enshrouded in the leaves of secrecy, in fear of being caught in discovery, and exposed in all our honesty or dishonesty. In this view, the mark of the successful person is only the superior ability to project to others a finer, more facile person than the fearful, ever-cautious deer mouse residing within each one of us.

Of course, I myself deny all this, or I would say that I deny it, and surely you too have no doubt that this may perfectly well apply to other unfortunates we have known. If we remain true to our conventions, whatever these may be, and, in the test of time, whatever they shall ultimately prove to be, then it should be entirely possible to live most of a long lifetime without ever being compelled to look inside the cabbage. So I, myself, once thought.

This review, like the book, is not about the “me” but exactly about any of us you might wish it weren’t. This loss of fear happened to come to me late in life as a sudden dramatic certitude. It was not always so. I hid in the long shadows of fear for decades, but even that held no equal to the terror of self-discovery. That is why our finest friends are often those who have the perpetual grace of not asking too many questions.

It seems impossible to determine who first observed that time is the great leveler, for civilizations have always known this, but older age strips off the leaves of the cabbage. The process is as inexorable as the glacier peeling the meat off the backbone of the mountains, depositing millions of tons of rock as the finest silts of time, into the rivers that bend and flow all the way down into the great ocean.

“Death has no sense of the ridiculous, above all at our age.”

It is up to you to find out how the marriage of Fermina Daza and Dr. Juvenal Urbino settles down into the sediments of the winding decades. It is up to you to follow the fate of the unfortunate and miserable Florentino Ariza, lurking like Gollum in a land of adventurous Hobbits. It is up to you to judge whether, by keeping his 622 clandestine affairs highly secret, he had remained “faithful in spirit” to his lost love. It is up to you to find out what happens when one waits out a pointless shadow existence for fifty-one years, nine months and four days, only to see whether there can be love in the time of cholera.

In the twenty-first century we learn that it is better to seize the moment, capture the day, and proactively build our futures, while politely seeming to wait for the others, or even cheerfully hurrying them along. We do admire decisiveness. We do not wait for things to happen to us, and we exchange knowing nods regarding those who do. But even as we renovate the whole house, it is in the basement that the archaeologists will find the most interesting material if we do not find it first.

It just does not seem plausible that the story of Love in the Time of Cholera applies equally to all of us. It is in the basements, if you will, hiding the dusty parts of ourselves left behind with no hope of catching up, that we find the truth of Socrates’ admonition that the unexamined life is not worth living. There is no terror like that which has not yet been confronted.

“How noble this city must be, for we have spent four hundred years trying to finish it off and we still have not succeeded.” — Dr. Juvenal Urbino

“I have never been able to understand how that thing works.” — Fermina Daza, on the male conjugal member

He: “I think I am going to die.” She: “That would be best; then we could both have some peace.” — on marital discord

“It is better to arrive in time than to be invited.” — Florentino Ariza

And, finally:

“They can all go to hell”, she said. “If we widows have any advantage, it is that there is no one left to give us orders.”

And so it comes in our time, each of us, to celebrate the safe passage of the ancient rocks and whirlpools, to summon the serenity, grace and courage to make our peace with the world in our own way, and to sail once more on the river with a love of the passing world in our heart, forever and ever.

You can read the plot outline on the back cover of the book. I gave nothing away. By reading the book you can see what Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw. I heartily recommend it.

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The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

As a youngster I was quite taken by “Swallows and Amazons”, the children’s adventure series by Arthur Ransome. It instilled in me a love of sailing, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of history, as the kids in the books were always concocting imaginary play battles with bad guys with names like Xerxes and Darius.

This is no longer just a childhood memory, it is now a memory from another century, of a yet much older time when “world wars” were fought in a known world not much larger than today’s modern Europe. Click the map below for a larger version at the Wikipedia entry for the world of Herodotus.

Map from Herodotus ca 450BC, Wikipedia

 I went on to take four years of Latin, and absorbed (and forgot) an amazing amount of history and lore of ancient Rome. But the exposure to the history of ancient Greece never came, and, until this week’s issue of the New Yorker, I never knew who this King Darius person was, or why military men study his defeat to this day, or how greatly the Persian wars shaped the future of the Western World.

The April 28 New Yorker review is Arms and The Man, by Daniel Mendelsohn. It is a masterpiece of expository writing in its own right, and reviews in detail The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, (Pantheon) edited by Robert B. Strassler. In case you are never going to get around to ordering and reading this work (Amazon, $29), I highly recommend you follow the New Yorker link while it is still active, and read what you can of this world of Herodotus, circa 450BC. I read the review twice and ordered the book.

Mendelsohn promises Herodotus will tell us as much as we could ever want to know about King Darius, and his son Xerxes, and possibly more. I expect to learn why the Persians’ two military campaigns to subjugate the city states of Greece both failed catastrophically, despite overwhelming military superiority (“shock and awe”). I expect insights into why it is said that the totalitarian power of mindsets like Xerxes cause peaceful democracies to lose sleep to this day.

And I look forward to reading the full story of how a Greek leader said, when told the Persian armies blacken the skies with arrows, “This is good, then. We will be able to fight in the shade.”

My take, based on the New Yorker review: this isn’t just a first-rate history classic, written by Herodotus, whom it is said gave the first modern meaning to the concept of “History”. It’s an epic adventure, on a relative and heroic scale that would remain equally immortal in prehistory or in Star Wars.

Hardcover. 1024 pages. Lavish illustrations, maps, annotations and cross-references.



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Names on the Land

Names on the Land

northeast coastline, Kauai - photo by Alex ForbesKauai, the name of my favorite island in the Hawaiian group, comes from an ancient time and people, and possibly from an older language language, from an ancient and prehistoric strata of place names stretching back way before King Kamehameha and Captain James Cook.

Wailau Valley (Hawaii) translates into “Many Waters”, according to one tour guide website, or more exactly “four hundred streams” according to George R. Stewart, author of Names on the Land (Lexicos, 4th Ed., San Francisco ©1945, 1958, 1967) – available at Amazon.

Wai, “water”, comes across in so many Hawaiian place names, such such as the Wailua River in Kauai County. The river mouth flows into the Pacific through the town of the same name.

North Fork at Sierra City - photo by Alex ForbesThe North Fork of the North Fork of the Yuba River underwent the scrutiny of the California Board of Geographic Names in the mid-twentieth century.

Part of the problem was, there were two North Forks, and two North Forks of those northern forks of the Yuba River. The problem was resolved, in part, by renaming one of those forks the Downie River, after Downieville, through which it flows — the town having been named after Major William Downie when it was settled in 1849.

California’s 1849 Gold Rush brought a huge influx of settlers and transient prospectors, all seeking their fortune in the gold fields, or selling goods or services to those who were. Many of these men brought little they could not carry, and cared not about the genteel sensitivities of postal regulations and tradition in bestowing their place names across the rivers, foothills and mountains of the Sierras. They brought us celebrated names like Rough and Ready and Poker Flat, exploited and popularized by early western writer Bret Hart, among others.

Name Clusters (my term) – Stewart describes how you can sometimes tell just by looking at the density and distribution of place names on a map where major events and population shifts occurred. Sometimes a name cluster gives insight into the fancies of the explorer bestowing the names. California’s gold country was certainly one of those local regions about which one could write a book on place names.

Stewart mentions an E.G. Gudde who was working on that project for California (and he cites numerous other researchers mining place names in other parts of the country). Sure enough, a Google search on ‘Gudde’ finds an EBay posting: California Gold Camps, by Erwin G. Gudde, printed 1975, 1 available, $175, 467 pages; “place names, glossary and bibliography, list of places by counties. Maps, black-and-white drawings and photographs. Rare!”

Mention “Groundhog Day“, and we automatically think of Punxsutawney Phil, and of course we might associate the groundhog and his Pennsylvania town with some local name for the groundhog. Not so; Stewart explains it comes from Indian words meaning roughly “punkie” or midge, the annoying little flying insect, joined to another native word for “town”.

Mooselookmeguntic is the name of a lake in Maine.

Pond In The River, Rangeley Lakes - photo by Alex Forbes It is found in the Androscoggin watershed, feeding the Rangeley Lakes where I fished as a boy. The word is Indian for “moose feeding place”. We visited “Pond In The River“, pictured at left, south of Middledam. Place names could be very practical, too.

To the west of the island I visited was Lake Umbagog. New Englanders are also very familiar with New Hampshire’s famed resort Lake Winnipesaukee, another Native American name – reported by Wikipedia to  mean either “smile of the Great Spirit” or “beautiful water in a high place”. The exact meaning of place names often gets lost in history, to be carried on anecdotally.

Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg is a lake my parents told me about in Webster, Mass. whose name was a hoax. The hoax was contained in the story passed on to me:

“So they named this beautiful lake after terms of that treaty. Chargoggagogg, ‘you fish on your side,’ Manchaugagogg, ‘I fish on my side,’ and Chaubunagungamaugg, ‘Nobody fish in the middle.’”

In truth, the lake name meant “The Fishing Place at the Boundaries—The Neutral Meeting Ground”. But somebody came up with the hoax translation, and it stuck. It has not yet been officially adopted as an explanation, but it will be. Trust the American instinct for local color.

You won’t find all of these place name etymologies in George R. Stewart’s wonderful and carefully researched book “Names On The Land”, but you will find others, more than you could possibly believe, in over 400 pages of gracefully literate narrative. Stewart started this work in 1941 before I was born, to become a definitive classic tracing the history of place naming in the United States.

If your American History is a bit weak, possibly because you suspect works of history of being a bit dry, this is just the ticket to shake you out of your rut. It is the story of geology, geography and the history of our peoples all rolled up into place names. It is nothing if not a fascinating, hard to put down read.

By researching every available resource of the time in libraries, periodicals, historical surveys and act of Congress, Stewart began with the names of the states as they worked their way westward, and shows how the local place names were a distinctly American blend of ethnic roots (New York, Germantown, Paris, Essex and so forth), tradition and established local usage, the nomenclature of discovery (Vancouver Bay, Bering Sea) and American Indian heritage.

Shuttle launchIn particular, we mostly avoided the European process of naming and renaming places to honor political correctness and toady up to political patronage. Of course, there were many blatant exceptions, and some very understandable ones as well. Cape Canaveral was renamed to honor our President Kennedy, and there were few who could take exception to that, except perhaps for the precedent that wasn’t really a precedent at all. I note that the media have taken to calling it by its old name again, though I’m not sure of the division of labor: there’s the city of Cape Canaveral, and Kennedy Space Center, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

When Jackie Kennedy learned that the original name was 400 years old, she blessed the restoration of the geographic place name “Canveral”, with the Space Center justly retaining the Kennedy honorific.

Denali National ParkOf Native American names, Stewart shows that there was a semi-codified procedure for name-giving, and rule #1 was: if it had a local name before, use that name on the maps and charts.

You can see this in all the regions of the US, from the Okefenokee to Mooselookmeguntic, across the states of the Plains Indians, to (especially to) Alaska and Hawaii.

The picture inset is of Denali National Park, Denali meaning “the great one” in the native Athabascan language. The name Alaska itself is reputed to come from several unidentified roots, including Alaeksu, Alaschka, and Alaxa. Wikipedia credits it to the native Aleut word alaxsxag, loosely meaning “the mainland”.

You can also see that when an “Indian name” did not come to hand readily, we could manufacture one to honor the heritage, such as Sioux City, or, for better or worse, to combat it: Fort Apache. And did we forget the states’ names – Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and possibly Wyoming?

In the Northeast, many towns were named or renamed after French heroes who aided us during the Revolutionary War. They had to put a stop to Lafayette in some areas (there’s even a Lafayette in California), and the Postal Service had to enforce it: you cannot have two post offices of the same name in the same state.

The coming of the railroads added a sudden need for many more station names than there were towns, and many towns grew up around stations and took their names, which often as not were given to honor railroad officials.

Of the lakes and rivers, the major rivers were all named before the states, and it is hard to think of all the states that took their names from the rivers: Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado (though the Colorado does not officially flow through it; that is the Green River, as originally named). Once the largest lakes were named (Tahoe, an Indian name), tens of thousands of smaller unnamed lakes took fanciful names from someone’s sweetheart or daughters. There are whole chains of lakes named after daughters.

Painted Lady, Rae Lakes Basin - photo by Alex ForbesSimilarly, with the mountains, once we were done with Pike’s Peak, Mt. Whitney, Mt. Ranier, the Appalachians and the most prominent or historical high-rise landmarks, there were thousands upon thousands of smaller mountains. My favorite, not noted by Stewart, is Painted Lady (King’s Canyon): its rich red bands really looks like a reclining lady in somewhat risque repose.

You can see the Painted Lady herself faintly on the peak in the photo to the left, imagining a figure reclined left to right on the peak above the pine trees. It shows better in late afternoon. It was no doubt named by a prospector who had not seen a female in 15 months and who may, possibly, still have been working on the precious whiskey supply.

Geological names are a favorite adventure of mine on rainy winter nights. On the USGS Mt. Pinchot map (15 minute series) we find Mt. Clarence King, honoring the pioneering surveyor, a contemporary of Major Powell (after whom the lake was named). Also in Kings Canyon National Park, in Evolution Valley (Mt. Goddard quadrangle, 15 minute series), we find a field holiday for scientists and students of science: Mt. Spencer, Mt. Mendel, Darwin Canyon and Mt. Darwin, and, gosh, wouldn’t you know it, Wanda Lake.

For you ancient history buffs, just south of there and way high above the John Muir Trail, USGS gives us the peak Scylla, the Ionian Basin, Charybdis, and the Three Sirens.

So, you see, once you get into the spirit of the research, you can find your own place names and surmise the history or research it from there. The names tell a story. Stewart begins the story as cited below, and you can continue the story every time you look at a map or tour this rich continent of ours:

Once, from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays …

Men came at last, tribe following tribe, speaking different languages and thinking different thoughts … after many centuries a people calling themselves Americans held the land. They followed the ways of the English more than of any others … yet they gathered together in their blood and in their manner of life something of all those who had lived in the land before them.

Thus the names lay thickly over the land, and the Americans spoke them, great and little, easily and carelessly – Virginia, Susquehanna, Rio Grande, Deadman Creek, Sugarloaf Hill, Detroit, Wall Street – not thinking how they had come to be.

Alex Forbes © November 1, 2007

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