Sunday, June 12, 2016

Amended

THE RIGHT OF
THE PEOPLE
TO FEAR ARMS
SHALL NOT BE
INFRINGED

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The saga continues, and I show my age…

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Mt. Jackson, from our ridge, Eastside Road
Fri. May 27: broken toe
Sun. May 29: Coast walk
Sat. June 4: 22 mile history walk
Mon. June 6: Walkabout at home
Tue. June 7: 8 miles, to Healdsburg
Eastside Road, June 10, 2016—
CONTINUING THE LOG : I left you a little over a week ago after a fine nine-miler out at the coast, with a fair amount of climbing and descending involved.

What I didn't mention was that I did that on a broken toe.

Until Friday, May 27, I had never broken a bone in my eighty years. But that night, in an excess of high spirits (though sober as a judge), I ran through the house, barefoot, to get someone a glass of cold water, having thoughtlessly served only myself. I failed to notice a box of files on the floor in one room — a box that's been there for years — and hit it with the fourth and fifth toes of my left foot.

I wish I'd thought to photograph it: the toes pointed off to the left instead of curling nicely toward the big toe. So I taped them back to the proper position and put an ice pack on it for twenty minutes. And, it being a holiday weekend, made a note to see the doctor on Tuesday. Memorial Day Weekend is no time to visit an emergency ward.

Next morning there was some pain, of course; the entire foot was somewhat swollen, the affected toes particularly so. I took it easy that day, doing a little work outside, because we'd planned that long hike at the Coast on Sunday. As I say, the Coast hike went okay. I took a couple of walkabouts at home the following week — I'll describe them in another post — and then gave the toe its real test last Saturday.


FOR A NUMBER of years the Sonoma County Historical Society has put on an annual walk of about 25 miles, at various locations in the county in the even-numbered years, in San Francisco in the odd-numbered ones. The hikes were the idea of the late Jeff Tobes, an enthusiast for both history and hiking who taught in Sonoma county and shared his enthusiasm with students and members of the Society.

I first met him four years ago, when I joined the hike taking in Fort Ross and environs — an area of particular interest to me since my mother lived and taught out there for a few years back in the middle 1950s. That had been a lovely walk, and Jeff was a remarkable leader, pointing out sites of special historical interest — the smallest California State Park, for example, which surrounds Beniamino Bufano's sculpture dedicated to peace.

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Toward Carneros, June 4, 8:20 am
Alas, Jeff died earlier this year, quite unexpectedly I think; this year's walk was dedicated to him as a memorial, and led quite ably by the competent, easygoing Ray Johnson. About eighty participants convened at 5:30 in the morning last Saturday, in the Sebastiani Winery parking lot. We walked a few blocks, past Sonoma Mission, to the Plaza, where we heard a little talk about the Bear Flag Revolt, and then proceeded south and a little east, out of town, toward Vineburg.

The morning was really quite beautiful. There was no traffic on the city streets at that early hour, and we were reminded to speak quietly when we stopped at a little park for breakfast: residents in the neighborhood were likely still sleeping. It was cool and pleasant, and when we got to open countryside the morning sky was low and gentle. We turned east and north again, then further east to the Gundlach Bundschu winery.

There we had a rest and listened to a winery staffer tell us the history of her company — a history going back to 1858, surviving the utter destruction of the winery in the 1906 earthquake (it was located in San Francisco; grapes were shipped their by barge from a Sonoma county landing), the disaster that was Prohibition, and the vagaries of the wine book of the late 20th century.

The winery is meticulously landscaped; even the vineyards seem gardened. I had always assumed Bundschu was Swiss; the name seems so, but we were told both he and Gundlach were German. Still, there's an impressive degree of neatness here, and I was inspired to try a bottle of their Gewurtztraminer next opportunity. (We had it the other night: very clean; very good — I prefer the Alsace versions.)

We resumed the walk, through the vineyard to a gate on Thornberry Road, finally up off the Sonoma flats and near the Napa County line. The houses here are big, on big, wooded lots, and mostly behind ornamental but effective gates. The road's nicely shaded and a fine stroll, but it is not my kind of place, I'm afraid.

We headed north, then west again, past a few historical sites Ray pointed out, and finally were back at Sebastiani where our lunch awaited us. In half an hour we were walking again, first to visit General Vallejo's grave in Sonoma's Mountain Cemetery, then into the fine oak-studded grassland hills forming the extensive back yard to his home, whose grounds we'd visit later in the day.

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Open Space Preseve on the Vallejo property
This was some of the best walking of the day: off pavement. The trail had climbed a bit, up to the huge water tanks drawing on Vallejo's springs for the Sonoma water supply; then traversed through oaks, as you see in the photo, before descending quite sharply back to city streets and sidewalkes.

We turned north again, paralleling the highway through Boyes Hot Springs, then diverging to stroll through another hilly residential area at Fetters Hot Springs — a more modest version of Thornerry's wealthy enclave. Then west, to turn south again and explore a third hotwater town, Agua Caliente.

It became clear Ray knew how to draw a historical route. He was following old railroad rights of way, for the most part long since co-opted into city streets but occasionally developed into footpaths. He wisely refrained from trying to expand on this history; there were too many of us, and many of us perhaps too inattentive, for even an impromptu lecture. (I'm sure he could have attempted: he seems to know the history well.)

Down here in the flats, in Boyes Hot Springs and El Verano, I felt more at home. The population seems much more modest: blue-collar workers for the most part. The houses are mostly old and small, many of them survivors from a long-ago time when they may have been vacation homes for San Francisco clerical class. In those days you'd have travelled from the city by boat to a landing on the Sonoma county coast, then taken either a carriage or, later, a train to a residential hotel or perhaps, if you had the money, your own vacation cottage.

We walked past parked RVs, small boats on trailers, and basketball goals on little wheeled bases. In one front yard a man was carefully trimming another man's handsome haircut; they smiled and waved to us. Two or three schoolgirls giggled as they saw us troop by, hailed us, asked where we were going, wished us a nice day.

We walked past a number of buildings that had once been inns — not only the spas profiting from the hot water ( agua caliente ) not far below ground, but also ramshackle old buildings, some boarded up, which must once have been boarding houses and, before that, country inns; one even had an attached one-storey addition that probably housed the stablehands. (Why didn't I photograph it?)

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Mother and child on the creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park
By now it was getting on toward four o'clock and it had heated up — and we'd been walking for miles on asphalt or concrete. My toe was holding up, but my soles were beginning to fry. Fortunately we turned into a marvelous park on Sonoma Creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park. Again we were on forgiving terrain: packed dirt paths and trails through what once had apparently been orchard or vineyard and woodlots along the creek.

It didn't last long enough: we emerged through a playground and picnic area back onto streets and sidewalks for the remaining few miles back to Sebastiani. When we reached General Vallejo's charming home, already closed to visitors for the day, I'd had enough: the last mile was on a paved footpath we'd already taken. I caught a ride.

My hiking buddy, who'd driven the forty minutes from home to Sebastiani, had thoughtfully brought a few beers in a cold box, and we were glad to have them with the quite satisfying Mexican dinner provided by the Historical Society.

IMG 7447After the hike
photo: Thérèse Shere

Monday, May 30, 2016

Alors, I resume…

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Mt. Baldy hike, April 24
Eastside Road, May 29, 2009—
IT HAS BEEN a long time since my last post here. One of the recent distractions has been my resumption of walking. Last month I began serious training, for a Long Walk I'm taking with my daughter Thérèse next Saturday, June 4 — a twenty-miler in and around the town of Sonoma, led by a local historian who will point out interesting sites en route. I look forward to this walk with mixed emotions: it will be mostly flat; much of it will be on pavement; it begins at 5:30 am (and that an hour's drive from home!); it is forecast to be hot weather.

I try to walk every other day, at least a mile, preferably more. A one-mile walk is easily done right here at home: Up past my lamentable "vineyard," then through the gate to the water tank, around the tank field, back to the other gate up to the ridge pasture, up to the ridge, down to the back fence, back to the ridge, and home. If I add a trip to the mailbox, that's another third of a mile and another couple of hundred feet of dénivèlement — total up-and-down elevation change (isn't there an English word for this?).

In addition to not blogging, I haven't been keeping a very good journal lately. I think my first training walk was April 12, as described just now, a total of 45 minutes. On April 18 I walked into Windsor, our nearest town, 4.3 miles, in an hour. That's not the pleasantest walking, as it's nearly all on our country road which has a fair amount of traffic. Still, the air is good, the views very nice, and there's a pleasant café at the end. I repeated that walk on April 21.

April 24, Sunday, Thérèse and I took a longer walk, say five hours, about eight miles with 3000 feet dénivèlement, on the flanks of Mt. Baldy, in the Sonoma valley. That was a glorious day, with quite a few wildflowers and long long vistas. Three days later I walked into Healdsburg, our local "city": eight mles, flat, on country roads; two hours.

IMG 6831
At Armstrong Woods (photo: Mac Marshall)
Then, on April 30, a seven-mile loop involving some serious scrambling with Mac, my buddy from the 2008 Alpwalk, on a loop around Armstrong Woods. I'd done it a month earlier, that same loop, seven miles, 2700 feet of dénivèlement, and wanted to see how my training was paying off. Not well: I slipped on loose gravel on a steep descent, fell, broke my fall with my right ringfinger, and dislocated it.

That hasn't kept me from continuing. I take two-mile walks around the pond across the road — a four-mile round trip from home. Three weeks ago Thérèse and I took a fine long ramble down to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a fourteen-miler that took seven hours with a half hour off for lunch — a glorious day. There've been more walks in to Windsor and Healdsburg, and today a hike out at the coast: almost nine miles, 2800 feet dénivèlement, three and a half hours.

We left the car at Goat Rock Beach, walked a couple of miles along the coast on level ground, through typical beachfront vegetation and past weathered rock polished in some places, they say, Thérèse explained, by mammoths, many thousands of years ago. At Shell Beach we turned inland, climbing steeply up toward Red Hill. We didn't bother with summiting; there was enough haze in the air to leave us satisfied with the long views we had from the shoulder.

I'd taken a delicious sandwich — salami and lettuce on buttered bread — and a hardboiled egg. After a twenty-minute lunch break we hiked back. The country was mostly open, but punctuated by a couple of marvelous redwood stands and a very dark fir grove. It was a fine walk. I hope to get two more long walks in this week, before the Saturday ordeal.

All this is leading up to something…

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(photo: Thérèse Shere)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Road trip

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Paso Robles, March 29, 2016—
WE'RE ON A SHORT road trip with a 13-year-old grandson, introducing him to favorite California roads of ours. Until recently I've hoarded some of these roads, telling only certain and special people about them, not wanting them to become too well known. Today I discovered (once again) the folly of this kind of stinginess. They've become better known, of course, as the California population has grown from 20 million in 1970, when we first drove some of these roads, to nearly twice as many today.

Still, they are marvelous roads, two-lane roads, relatively well paved for the most part, through the ranchland and mixed woodland tracing the San Andreas fault from Hollister in the north to San Miguel in the south. The northern half of the road began this morning, for us, at one of my favorite landscapes, looking across the broad San Juan Valley northeast of the Mission San Juan Bautista, and took us first to the formerly sleepy agricultural town of Hollister — now famous as a tee shirt brand and disfigured by shopping centers — to Highway 198, which runs east-west from San Ardo to Coalinga, neither of which towns we actually saw.

The southern half — ah, that's a very special road. It's been improved since last I drove it, several years ago; more of its own northern half has been paved, and today there was no water in the creek, meaning we didn't have to put our Prius to the test of fording open water.

From the summit, at 3500 feet, the road — now gravelled, not paved — drops down into Parkfield, population 18. Today both the motel and the restaurant were closed, so we continued, turning southwesterly, to close the day at a second favorite mission, San Miguel, where the church has been beautifully restored following a long closure after the disastrous earthquake of Dec. 22, 2003.

The proximate motivation of this trip was wildflower season. This year's rains suggested there would finally be a season worth seeing, and the Highway 198, at Priest Valley, promises much for tomorrow's leg, in the Carrizo Plain. The photo at the head of this post was taken toward San Miguel; the one here at the foot, in Priest Valley, looking north. Buttercups, poppies, lupine, owl's clover so far, and others not yet indentified. We'll see what happens next. IMG 6199

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ladies Voices

1
CURTAIN RAISER

followed by

LADIES’ VOICES

an opera in five acts to words by

GERTRUDE STEIN

music by

CHARLES SHERE

1987

commissioned by the Noh Oratorio Society for
JUDY RUTH HUBBELL

instrumentation: three sopranos
woodwind quintet:
flute (also piccolo), oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon
percussion (one player):
trap set, chime in D, antique cymbal


Eastside Road, March 18, 2016—

LADIES VOICES was first performed at the Berkeley Art Center, October 30, 1987, by Judy Ruth Hubbell and Anna Carol Dudley, sopranos; Marcia Gronewold, mezzo-soprano; Patrice Hambleton, flute; Robin May, oboe; Tom Rose, clarinet; Stuart Gronningen, horn; Robert Hughes, bassoon; William Winant, percussion. It was commissioned by Claude Duval and the Noh Oratorio Society for a concert at the Hatley Martin Gallery, San Francisco, November 16, 1987, when the role of the third lady was taken by Judith Nelson.

The Noh Oratorio Society flourished in San Francisco during the 1980s, largely (as I believe) through the benign creative energies of Claude Duvall, calligrapher, actor, stage director, litterateur. The Noh Oratorio Society had a wide range of interests, but always put a priority on the human voice and the use of language: they produced, for example, Michael McClure's ! The Feast ! in 1982; Chaucer's Parlement of Fowles in 1987; Edith Sitwell and William Walton's Façade in 1987; Robert Duncan's Faust Foutu in 1989; and many other works in various venues in the San Francisco Bay Area over a course of twelve or fifteen years.

I have no idea why he or his Society asked me to supply them with a little opera: probably through our shared enthusiasm for Gertrude Stein, some of whose poems I had already set as songs for voice with various instrumental accompaniment.

The brittle, hectoring music of the opera was composed on a Macintosh computer, as an exercise for a course I was taking in computer composition at San Francisco State University, taught by the composer Herbert Bielawa. We worked with the Apple Mac Plus computer, using software produced in those days by Mark of the Unicorn: Professional Composer for notation; another program whose name I don't now recall for a sequencer.

The classic Schoenbergian manipulations of melodic material are Transposition, which is setting the tune on a different starting pitch; Inversion, which is the tune upside-down, you might say; Retrograde, which is the tune stated backward; and of course Retrograde Inversion, which is both methods used simultaneously. These are easy techniques for the computer, which allows the composer to select a melodic passage of virtually any length, copy it, and paste it into the score elsewhere — in a different instrument, on a different pitch level, with augmented or diminished note-values (longer notes, shorter ones), or upside-down, or backward Ladies Voices takes advantage of these possibilities.

It is also a study in harmonic writing that avoids conventional tonality, following sporadic discussions I had had in the course of various visits with Virgil Thomson, and an early example of a growing obsession with counting: in the first act, for example, the snare drum sounds five notes to introduce the first soprano's first word, "Six," and 75 notes in all before the third soprano's last word, "Seventy-five."

The opera sets two plays of Stein's: A Curtain Raiser (1913) and Ladies Voices (1916). David M. Boje has written of Stein's theater with insight:

Gertrude Stein wrote 77 plays between 1913 and 1979 that fall under the general heading, Theatre of the Absolute. Absolute Theatre sacrifices developmental story (the dynamic movement to climax and receding from it) in order to invite the spectator to explore the present moment, and to stay in the present tense of theatrical experience. Stein was focused on opening a space in time, to explore the present moment. Stein wanted to free herself from the grip of developmental storytelling, the progress of time imposed upon story by the coherent narrative form that dominates traditional theatre. Stein sought to break free of the alternative reality created in developmental storytelling, and instead let the play be the reality that the spectators made sense of in the present moment of performance. …

A Curtain Raiser (1913), and Ladies' Voices (1916)… attempt to focus the spectators' attention on the present moment, on unfolding rhythms and textures(e.g. a series of non-referential numbers), with fragments of conversation, etc, all without a developing storyline. Instead of the progress of a coherent (linear) storyline with beginning middle and end, Stein uses fragments of dialogue that isolate from other fragments of dialogue.

(In the Four Seas (first) edition of Geography and Plays, in which the text was first published, an apostrophe sometimes occurs in the word “ladies,” sometimes does not. It has been suppressed throughout in my opera in the interest of consistency.)

I set the two plays in sequence to make a chamber opera in five acts exploring the psychological and musical nuances of three ladies of Gertrude Stein's milieu — the cultured, literary, leisurely set of liberated women in the first decade of the 20th century. Neither plot, setting nor scenario are supplied in Stein's text, but I see no reason to suppress them in production. I imagine a rather tense situation, with the second and third soprano pairing off apart from Genevieve, the first soprano, whose spiritualist trance in Act III contrasts with the amorous play of the other two ladies in Act IV.

I would prefer the instruments to be unseen by the audience, but would like three men and a string quartet to be upstage somewhere in the drawing room of Act II, the quartet possibly to be miming the performance of the opening of my second Stein opera, I Like It to Be a Play.

Act I (Curtain Raiser): The Theater, before the curtain (During the second performance these titles were for some reason spoken aloud at the beginning of each scene. This need not be considered a precedent.)
The three sopranos stage center right, discussing quantities among themselves. Winds and percussion in pit, if available, or in wings, or upstate right behind curtain; in any case unseen throughout the opera.
Act II: A Drawing room, late afternoon
A fashionable room in a Tuscan villa, ca. 1912. The ladies are in afternoon dress, probably at tea. The winds and percussion remain invisible, but a string quartet may be seen upstage left, alternately playing (silently) and resting, talking among themselves. The members of the quartet are never heard.
Act III: The drawing room, toward evening
The french windows at the back of the drawing room have been opened, exposing a flagstone or terrazzo terrace leading to a small formal garden beyond. Chaises-longues, side tables, a bar trolley. The string quartet no longer so evident; or perhaps its members are soundlessly among the company; or functioning as waiters, bartender, etc. The three ladies grow more expressive and animated.
Act IV: Garden terrace outside the drawing room. Later that evening
Twilight. The ladies have descended the steps into the near areda of the garden. The men are rarely visible, and that only at the extreme sides of the stage, engaged in mute conversation or business. The mood is expectant.
Act V scene 1: The Garden. Quite dark.
Act V scene 2: The same.
Duration: 9 minutes
I rehearsed and conducted the first two performances of Ladies Voices. The second performance was recorded, though not very well. (The recording reveals the interpolation of A few years later I was asked to change the orchestration for a performance at The College of Notre Dame, in Belmont, with unsatisfactory results.

The score was published, with a cover illustration, reproduced above, by the San Francisco painter Inez Storer, by Fallen Leaf Press, in 1996 (Fallen Leaf Publications in Contemporary Music (ISSN 8755-2698), No. 78.) It is available, with a set of instrumental parts, from Frog Peak.

The recording can be heard here.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Back to the blog…

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Eastside Road, March 4, 2016—
 

MARCH. TWO MONTHS into the new year, I resume. I was apparently temporarily frozen, the proverbial deer in the headlights, in the face of a return to this country after a pleasant and eventful European interlude, dismayed by the level of public discourse, discouraged by a number of unfinished projects left over from the old year, distracted by the stupid daily errands and repairs.

Distracted by further travels, too. A week after our return from Stockholm, January 11; we drove down to Los Angeles, returning via Reno (Nevada). Along the way we stopped at Manzanar. This is the site of one of the infamous relocation camps hastily improvised for thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry, taken from their homes on the West Coast and held for the duration of World War II.

The site is ten miles north of Lone Pine, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, the flat, windswept, arid desert at the foot of that remarkable range, near the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney. The photo above will give you an idea: it shows the monument in the former cemetery, with a view of the Sierra — the “Range of Light” — in the background. In the foreground, desert.

I have dim memory of that relocation. In 1941 I turned six years old. I lived, with my parents, in a middle-class neighborhood in central Berkeley. A number of Japanese-American families lived in bungalows along Grove Street; I seem to recall the carp ponds in their back yards. One day these families were gone: rounded up, taken away.

The area around Manzanar had a long, complicated, troubled history. Native Americans hunted, gathered, and gardened it for centuries. They were edged out by pioneer whites in the 19th century, attracted by the climate and its agricultural potential, especially after the coming of the railroads, which facilitated marketing.

Manzana is Spanish for “apple.” It was given the name in the 20th century, when it had become an improbably prosperous fruit-raising area. Fairly rich soil, hot summers, cold winters, and abundant water, and the patient and skilful attention of a few hard-working families, produced hundreds of tons of fruit for the quickly growing Los Angeles market  until that city realized its water was even more crucial to its future, and diverted it all for its own use, quickly reducing the land to desert.

The farmers sold their water rights and were left with barren land. Fortunately for them, empty land, on a rail line but far from “sensitive” coastal areas, were exactly what was needed to house a hundred thousand “relocated” Americans — temporarily, of course, just for the duration of the war. 

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This is what Manzanar looked like during World War II. The railroad stretches north and south along the eastern edge of the “camp,” whose neat, orderly blocks of bunkhouses are hygienically set apart to minimize the threats of fire and disease. Each array of eight or so bunkhouses has its own mess hall and two common lavatory-shower facilities, one for each sex. There were minimal recreational facilities — basketball court, baseball diamond — and, of course, the remnants of broken-down orchards, and chickenyards, and a factory where women could help make parachutes and other nonstrategic items needed by the war effort.

1Improbably, the prisoners —for that is what they were —made the best of things. They even made gardens. The federal government has installed an admirable explanatory center at Manzanar, and developed a self-guided tour of the facility. We drove the tour — with a few stops for photographs, and meditating, it took almost an hour. It took us, for example, to the cemetery, on the western edge of the site.

Along the way there were a number of explanatory panels. On one of these a faded color photograph recalls one of the traditional Japanese gardens these people managed to create:

“You are standing before San-shi-en, or 3-4 Garden. Water once flowed over these silent stones, soothing troubled spirits and easing the monotony of long mealtime lines. Designed and bilt by internees, mess hall gardens served as a source of block identity and pride.

“These and other gardens in Blocks 9, 12, and 22, share symbolic roots in ancient Japanese design. In each, you will find three distinct levels aligned north to south: a hill of earth represents the mountains from which water flows south to a pond, symbolizing an ocean or lake. Here, internees planted trees from the camp nursery and hauled stones from the rugged Inyo Mountains to the east."

1  2After the camp was abandoned in 1945 these gardens were gradually buried under windblown sand and the sediment left by springtime snowmelt. Archaeologists unearthed this one in 1999, and reconstructed the fence that had protected it. They have not reconstructed the garden itself; only its rocky bones, as you see in the second photograph here.

One of the mess halls, and one of the bunkhouses, has been restored and is left open for visitors to inspect. Here too welcome, fairly detailed, and sympathetic explanatory panels help the visitor understand just what life must have been like for these people. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph these interiors — it’s just too poignant, too intimate a glimpse into what may have been the most injurious aspect of this place: its theft of the dignity of its occupants.

A number of photographs show them as they were, in this place, at that time. They are surprisingly modern, lively, optimistic. They put on a good face, whether for their own morale, or for the benefit of whatever eventual onlooker they expected these photographs to find. They are well dressed, in the plaid pleated skirts and the sweaters and wide trousers of the early 1940s. You can be sure — there’s photographic evidence — that they jitterbugged to big-band swing; they played cards; they swapped stories.

Ultimately they survived, most of them, and returned, somehow, to a normal life. The war over, they were given twenty-five dollars and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. If they were lucky, a kind neighborhood might have looked after their homes and farms. They were a stoic lot, for the most part, and patiently endured their readjustment, as they had their confinement. Ultimately, during the Reagan administration, the government recognized its error, apologized, and paid a modest compensation.

The National Park Service has done a fine job recording all this, and making it available to visitors. They’ve done this, of course, in order to ensure that such an injustice may never be repeated. It’s something to consider during this presidential campaign. 
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Looking west toward Mt. Whitney

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Dutch interiors

Staircase
Prinseneiland, January 7, 2016—

ONE OF MY FAVORITE Dutch painters is Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597 - 1665), who specialized in the depiction of whitewashed church interiors. He did not, of course, paint the image you see here: I photographed it a few days ago in a friend's house in Voorburg, where we were staying a few nights.

I took it, in fact, the moment we stepped inside the front door, before even taking off my coat. The light was extraordinary, as it so often is in this country — can something so frequently observed really be called extraordinary?

The staircase is quite steep and narrow, and its treads are quite shallow: these staircases are dangerous to those unaccustomed to them. There isn't room to spare in Dutch cities. The house is in a long row of similar houses, all attached in the row. It rises three storeys and quite likely has a loft above the third.

Before stepping through that door you can barely see, on the right, let me remark on the paint. I think the Dutch make the best paint in the world. I don't know whether it's available in the United States — I seem to recall environmental regulations have forbidden its import, but perhaps that's changed. It's glossy, hard, and rich-looking; there's really nothing like it. That's what's on that door; and you'll see it in other photos here.

Voorburg

Stepping through that door on the right side of the entry hall we find a fine, spacious sitting room. Narrow, I suppose, but graceful for its high ceiling, filled with balanced light from large windows on the two ends. It was originally two rooms, as suggested by the ceiling panels; the bookcase bay recalls the original arrangement and separates the sitting area, at the far end of the photo, from a more worklike area with a table seating six and, out of the photo, a small upright piano.

Study

Upstairs a bathroom and a bedroom have been joined and reconfigured as a home office, with two desks, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a conference table, armchairs and a studio couch. At the back of this second floor, the master bedroom and bath.

The third floor contains three smaller bedrooms and a half-bath. The kitchen is tucked into the ground floor at the back of the sitting room, and has also a breakfast table capable of seating four or five easily in a glassed-in room, a sort of conservatory, that leads to the long, beautifully planned back garden.


A VERY DIFFERENT HOUSE always pleases and surprises us a couple of hundred kilometers north, in Friesland, in a village so small it lacks church, cafe, gas station — nothing but residences, a bridge over the canal, and the beautiful Frisian skies.

Rien1

Here you're looking through one of a pair of doors separating sitting room from entry hall and, beyond it, kitchen, with its tiled wall. The house is small, brick, and a national monument; the outside looks as it must have a century ago and more; and the interior, while modified for up-to-date appliances and technology, respects traditional visual and intentional configurations.

Like the Voorburg house, this cottage boasts its dramatic staircaseRiensteps leading to the sleeping loft, where there is also room for a small desk, laundry appliances, and storage.

The house belongs to a professional chef, and the open kitchen, filling one end of the ground floor, is one of its most impressive features.

Rienkitchen

Tiled walls, a huge French range, a capacious wooden sink, and under-the-cabinet refrigeration, as well as a large island countertop separating the kitchen from the dining table, facilitate preparation and service of anything from an omelet to a major culinary undertaking. The hood handles any ventilation problems readily — and silently, with a remotely located motor.

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At the other end of the house, even though it's right on the road, the mood is calm. Paintings on one wall, books and windows on the facing one, comfortable settees and chairs express the ever-present Dutch quality of gezelligheid, usually translated as "coziness" but in fact so fundamental a value it transcends specification.


EntryDRIVE SOUTH a couple of hours and you'll come to the heart of the Dutch orchard country, the land between Maas and Waal, two broad rivers embracing flat country that's been generally overlooked by industry and tourism.

Here friends of ours have transformed a century-old farmhouse, which had also contained the office for the farm's steadily growing poultry operation, into a spacious, comfortable, orderly home.

Here the staircase has room to be spacious and public, though it leads from the public floor to the bedrooms above. In fact this is a second entry hall, a good idea in country prone to rain and mud in the winter. I was particularly impressed with the hugee solid wooden door you see on the right-hand wall: it extends floor to ceiling, wall to wall when swung shut. It usually stands open to bring outside light into the kitchen beyond.

MapDeferring to the owners, I won't show you the kitchen itself, always a hub of activity. We're standing in it, our back to the stove, and looking past a display wall into the main sitting room beyond. I tried repeatedly to photograph the map on the wall, which is quite old, putting east at the top, and which nearly centers on this neglected corner of Gelderland, sometimes flooded delta country.

Our host explained the isolation formerly characterizing this country. The rivers run swift, and in the time before automobiles it wasn't easy to get off this island; people lived isolated even from nearby Nijmegen, twelve miles as the crow flies.

A few years ago we walked through the area, on the Lingepad, one of those marvelous Dutch long-distance walking routes. We stopped at a restaurant on the edge of the Waal. A fence around its terrace had provisions for boards to be inserted between posts, then caulked with straw and horse manure, to keep floodwaters out.

Our host is a poultryman; he and his brother inherited the business from their father, but then, when it grew too big for this tranquil countryside, relocated to Bulgaria. It's an interesting story: they dismantled the huge feed mill their business needed, loaded it on a barge, and sent it up the Rhine, then down the Danube to its new location. The whole trip was carefully planned, but heavy rains caused river levels to rise, threatening passage underneath bridges.

Sittingroom

Here's a look into the less formal sitting room, where you could do some serious writing if you liked, resting your eyes gazing out into the winter garden; or yu could watch a little television, or simply meditate on the fire burning in the stove.

Chairs

Another sitting room offers bookshelves and a pair of the most beautiful leather club chairs I've ever seen — I'd ship these chairs home in a minute, if I could pry them away from their owner. This is Christmas season, or was when we were there, so there's a small tree at the window. The doors between bookshelves have hinged panels, closed here, readily opened to let yet more light in. I don't know when I'e seen an interior so thoughtfully lit.

City row-house; provinicial cottage; country farmhouse. I hope our hosts in these places — and others I haven't mentioned: A small-town apartment; a big Amsterdam canal apartment — I hope they'll pardon this intrusion into their spaces. I share them with the blogsphere with a feeling of affection and approval; it seems to me they portray taste and modesty in a manner most instructive in this age of excess and commodity…

Modes of transportation

On train
photo: Grace Zivny
Hammarby, Stockholm, January 10, 2016—

WE BEGAN THE LAST leg yesterday, leaving our delightful Amsterdam apartment on Prinseneiland for a small but perfectly comfortable room in a cut-rate hotel in a Stockholm suburb.

And in the course of the move we use nearly every form of transportation we've handled so far — only the bus and the metro are missing.

First, since there are now three of us, I call a taxi to take us, our visiting granddaughter, and six pieces of luggage to Amsterdam's Centraal Station. The taxi app I use doesn't work in this country, I'm told, so I call the first number that turns up from a Google search.

Plunged immediately into a pit of phone-ladders. Negotiable, and soon I think I have actually ordered a cab — but then I have to enter a credit card number, and I back away.

The next phone number belongs to Electric Taxi, and is answered by a human being, who — like every telephone voice I'ver encountered here — speaks English. She sends a cab right over. We barely have time to get downstairs.

The cab is beautiful, shiny, solid-looking, spacious and comfortable — a Tesla. Forty percent of our cabs are Teslas, the driver explains; the rest are Leafs. (Charmingly, he pronounces it "leaves.") Too bad you're only going to Centraal; I could take you out on the highway so you can see what it's capable of…

After some serious discussion we stay with the original plan. The ride is direct and speedy. He takes my credit card with a little machine. One does not tip taxis here. We're out on the sidewalk, under the station overhang, with a pleasant experience fresh in mind.

Other taxi rides here have been just as pleasant but sometimes more interesting. Twice we've taken cabs that turned out to be minivans — I don't know why they're so popular here. Both times it was late and dark and we were in a hurry. Once it was raining heavily, the only rain we've encountered on this trip.

In the dark, and especially in the rain, taxi rides can be interesting. Amsterdam is a crowded city, especially the part we traverse. Bicycles and pedestrians everywhere, nearly all of them in Calvinist black. In my many weeks in Netherlands I've only seen one accident, and that inexcusable: a tram grazed a bicycle. The tram had not left its track to do this, so it was clearly the cyclist's fault. That didn't make him the less an object of outraged sympathy among some onlookers, but most clearly looked at him with near contempt.

That was in The Hague, many years ago. Cyclists — I know, I'm generalizing — have if anything grown more self-righteous since. (Hasn't everyone, other than us, of course?) They have their own lanes, of course, and they have the right of way. But most of them don't ride with lights, and in the rain their heads are down, and they seem to count on drivers' skill and intuition to a foolish degree.

OUR TRAIN to Schiphol, Amserdam's international airport, has been cancelled. This doesn't really matter: there seem to be eight trains an hour, this time of day. We head for information to find out which platform the next train will leave from, though I know perfectly well it's track fourteen, it's always been track fourteen, the furthest from the entrance to the station — in the old days: now Centraal has been given a splendid new shop-and-cafe-heavy entrance on the north side, where a lot of development has been going on.

Our fallback train is a local, of course, so the trip takes a few minutes longer than usual. Again, it doesn't matter; we barely have time to settle ourselves on the fold-down seats near the doors — preferable for us, with our luggage — before we're there.

Trains arrive and depart right from the Schiphol terminal, which has one big concourse-lobby. It will be the same in a couple of hours at Arlanda, Stockholm's airport, but that will be another trip altogether. The commute train there takes an hour to get from airport to our station, and isn't quite as comfortable.

The best train trip of the last few weeks was in Finland, where we went from Rovaniemi in the north to Helsinki in the south mostly in our sleep. Our little compartment was snug but comfortable: I handled the ladder to my top bunk with my customary grace and good humor, and my companion found her lower bunk perfectly comfortable.

Best of all, I thought, was the cunning lavatory. On opening its door you're greeted with the two appliances you want first: commode on the right, a little out of sight when you stand in the doorway; sink just ahead, well lit, with a good mirror above. I don't shave, of course, but if I did it would all be quite practical, with an electric outlet handy. (They're at the heads of the bed, too, so you can charge your phone overnight.)

Over the sink, though, there was a shower-head. How the devil would that work? Do you have to stand in the sink and crouch to use it?

No: a chrome lever turns out to be the handle on the problem. It releases a catch allowing the entire room to swing around, revealing a shower stall. I haver the uncomfortable idea, for just a moment, that perhaps the entire installation is shared with the next compartment — but careful inspection shows there's room on the shared wall for two of these ingenious affairs.

TIME TO CONSIDER our flight. At Schiphol, if you have time, there arer plenty of shopping, dining, and drinking facilities, on each side of security. Our plane has been delayed by half an hour. Still, security looks uncrowded at the moment; let's go through.

After the x-ray, an attendant wants to look in my carry-on. I have too large a tube of toothpaste: it should have been in a little Ziplock bag. Don't worry about it, he says, happens all the time. Lindsey has had to take her boots off; otherwise the procedure is unremarkable.

We take the long long moving-sidewalks to our end of the terminal and find our gate. No one is there: not surprising; we have almost two hours before takeoff. It'll be late when we arrive at our hotel, whose restaurant will be closed — let's have something to eat.

There used to be a quite acceptable pannekoek way upstairs in a sort of observation tower, and we head for the elevator. But everything's been revised here recently, just as it had at Centraal Station, and a food court has taken over, with the internationally predictable leases. We return to our gate and find a sandwich shop with a Spanish theme. We make do with jamon Serrano and a glass of Spanish beer. There will be nothing said about this over at Eating Every Day.

The flight, on SAS, is remarkable for only one reason: there is no explanation of safety precautions. A little odd, since the captain asked us to listen to them, in his announcement. I did see the attendants talking pleasantly to people sitting in exit rows, so I suppose they got their instructions; the rest of us will just have to follow them if there's a problem.

There isn't a problem, of course, and I promptly go to sleep, to wake up shortly before landing, probably from the change in engine noise, or maybe cabin pressure.

We took one other internal European flight on this trip, about three weeks ago, on Air Baltic, or whatever it's called this week, from Helsinki to Amsterdam, changing planes at Riga. Had we more time, we'd have spent a few days in Riga. I remember it fondly from a stay in 1983, when times were quite different. Baltic Air, or whatever it's called this week, is a cut-rate airline, like Norwegian Airlines, on which we'd flown nonstop from Oakland (California) to Stockholm for $190. (Dinner was an extra $40 or so, but then that's what dinner cost, at the least; and our suitcases paid another $25 for their seats down in the hold, but at least they didn't eat dinner.)

There's no passport control for us — we've flown between Schengen countries — and as usual we simply ignore the option to declare stuff at customs. We don't have anything to declare at any rate. It's a long wait for the baggage, but that's my fault; I seem not to have recognized our bags. Once again I regret not tying a little colored ribbon to the handles. Will I ever learn to travel?

At tram

AFTER THE LONG train ride to our station we step out carefully onto a platform paved with ice. We walk with extreme care to the lift and emerge in a little vestibule I recall from a month ago: the turnstiles on the side we want to use are not available; a uniformed man in the ticket window cautions us to go the other way.

Last time we took the tram here in the wrong direction: I know better now, but have forgotten the quickest way to cross to the correct platform. It's snowing. We watch our tram leave the platform; then gingerly drag our wheeled suitcases across the tracks.

I've heard it said that the wheeled suitcase is responsible for the democratization of travel, for better or worse — it has eliminated the need for porters. Could be, but it's made our life a little easier. Though not in Venice, much of the time, with all its steps at bridges; and not on ice and snow. A few weeks ago I saw a young woman pulling her suitcase in a little sledge, apparently made for the purpose: but that was at the Arctic Circle, where such a procedure must be much more routine.

The next tram arrives in due course, in eleven minutes, as the automatic sign you see at every tram-stop had promised, and we ride with pleasure to our new hotel -- new to us, and only the sixth (and last) hotel in the five weeks of this trip. Much of the time we've stayed with friends, and their homes may (or may not) be the subject of another post. One of them was a luxury hotel booked by our friends for their anniversary party; the others have been the cheapest decent hotels we could find at Booking.com, our current fallback website.

I'll write about hotels another time. First, to get to tonights's, we havre to walk a couple of blocks up a gentle hill from our tram-stop. It's past ten o'clock now, quite dark, and quite cold. The streets and sidewalks are covered with ice and snow. Parked cars have a foot of snow on their roofs. Our shoes are leather-soled. We'd thought of getting little crampon-like attachments for them, but it seemed silly.

We did fall once, in Rovaniemi, when we were out late at night in search of the elusive aurora borealis. (Have I mentioned that we finally saw it, when least expected, rounding a corner in Helsinki?) My foot simply slid out from under me. Unfortunately, we were walking arms linked, for mutual support, and I pulled my sweetheart down on top of me. No harm done, and a little laughter.

But a fall could be disastrous, particularly impeded by all this luggage. We pick our way carefully.. Thankfully there are no careening bicycles, no trotting athletes, no rowdy teenagers cutting in front of us. Only the still cold dark night and the magical white of snow.

We've done a lot of walking on this trip, averaging about three and a half miles a day, my iphone tells me, perhaps truthfully. It remains the best way to see things. Trams and buses, yes, we've made good use of them, buying city-cards that you simply top up with your credit card when necessary: they do a good job of concealing from you how much you're actually spending on each trip.

Trams and buses are frequent and easy to use in Stockholm, Helsinki, Amsterdam, and The Hague. You do have to remember that stops are frequently far apart, though — and so you walk. Thankfully, we still can, relatively easily, even on the snow.