Monthly Archives: August 2013

Mahler 9 ending

I am at this moment listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and my face is covered with my own tears and my insides are torn up by the force of the music.

It is the morendo of the final movement. Ersterbend, is what Mahler asks for. And he means “dying.” Not the dramatic or theatrical dying a sensitive teenager imagines, but a slow extinguishing ad nihil: a kind of evaporation of the last molecules of life. I can hardly tell when the last note actually ends, it is so quiet.

The great music critic, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who died last year at 90, (and who attended the Ring cycle at Bayreuth 17 times, and before he retired, managed to go to two different Mahler festivals, one in Amsterdam in 1995 and the other in Berlin 10 years later) said the highest experience he ever had in a concert hall was the Mahler Ninth conducted by Abbado in Amsterdam. As that last note hung in the ether and finally could be heard only in the mind’s ear, Dimitri said he was afraid the mood would be destroyed by the expected applause, but it didn’t: “No one applauded for a full five minutes,” he said. And I’ve read the same thing in other accounts of that concert. If he was exaggerating, it is only by a little.

Applause would have been the inappropriate response to the music; this was hardly a case of hearing pleasant tunes and enjoying them. The music, rather, spoke to its listeners on some deep, disturbing and emotional level.

The profound emotions drawn out of us by Mahler, or the late Beethoven quartets, or the Bach unaccompanieds (take your pick, fiddle or violoncello), have long ago persuaded me that music is not abstract, as the current prejudice would have it, but rather, it was meant by its composer to be “about something.” That is, the music is deeply metaphorical.

When we listen to Shostakovich’s Seventh or his Eighth quartet, or to Beethoven’s Eroica or Mahler’s Third, we are hearing the composers thoughts about extra-musical issues. Yes, they are all elaborate, complex and interesting arrangements of notes, but they are also about war, heroism, nobility, longing, death, love and idealism, among many other things. To ignore those things in the music is to misunderstand the music. Worse, it is to trivialize it.

I am not making the argument that all music, or all classical music is meant to be understood philosophically, but that a certain level of music by a certain class of composer was intended to intersect the larger issues of being alive. A brilliant Mozart divertimento may not be more than an especially graceful and intelligent divertissement, and our main concern may be the clever things he does with D-major, but you cannot hear “Viva la libertad” from Don Giovanni and not weep for its extra-musical import and what it meant at that instant of human history.

Neither am I making an argument for what used to be called “program music.” I don’t mean that the composer meant to tell a story simply by substituting notes for words. Yes, many 19th century composers published or announced “programs” for their works, but many of them also privately or later publicly disavowed those programs. And there are many cases of music writers proposing programs that are prima facie ridiculous. We now use those excesses to bludgeon the entire century of musical purpose.

But I am saying that the music we take most seriously, and hold to the longest in our lives, speaks to us of more than musical ingredients. We should not be embarrassed to be brought to tears or to elation by the Beethoven Ninth or the Verdi Requiem. That’s what those composers intended to happen. They weren’t entertaining us, they were speaking to us.

There are two aspects to this problem that I worry the most about.

The first is the assertion by some (including all those tedious French Post-Structuralists) that thoughts and words are identical. There is a good deal of thinking — perhaps the overwhelming majority — that is not verbal. We can think spatially, we can think mathematically, we can think emotionally, we can think visually. When we do something as simple as pass a car while driving, we don’t think in words about the speed of our car, the speed of the car in front of us, the speed of the car coming at us in the other lane and how far off it is. We think in temporal-spatial terms, completely without words, knowing whether there is opportunity to overtake the bumpkin in the pickup truck in front of us who is going 25 in a 45 mph zone. No words, but thought nonetheless.

And when Richard Strauss takes on the afflatus of idealistic aspiration in his Don Juan, we recognize the affliction in our own body-reaction — the heightened pulse or the rise of gorge in our goozle. I don’t have to put in words to know it. It is the perfect musical metaphor for the non-musical experience.

If one objects that the music can never be as precise, or that it is always ambiguous, I can only respond that words themselves are always ambiguous and imprecise. Their supposed precision is an optical illusion. (It is why we have lawyers). To contain largeness requires ambiguity: The more precise a word is, the less it defines, until the ultimate precise word has no more meaning than the name of a dog. Here, Spot.

(I mean, for instance, that genus is more narrow than phylum, species more precise than genus, breed yet more precise than species, and when you slice it down to an individual dog by name, you have narrowed the scope so much that whatever observation you make no longer has any wide application.)

If we think about this issue of precision, it is obvious: What is the white whale in Moby Dick? The very ambiguity is essential to its power. So, this can be no argument against metaphor in music.

And secondly, if you say music is not “universal” and is culturally inflected — as so many intellectuals do these days — then I scratch my head. Is not language culturally inflected? Do you not have to learn English to understand Steinbeck? So how is it different having to learn the tradition of European classical music to understand Mahler? Mahler is (albeit idiosyncratic) something to learn, just as you have to learn by reading Faulkner or Joyce to get past the parts that at first don’t make sense.

The Mahler Third arguably makes no sense understood merely musically. It took me years to begin to fathom what was going on in that vast ocean of music and orchestration, but now that I understand it metaphorically, it is the greatest of Mahler’s symphonies (or maybe shares that with the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde — “Ewig, Ewig.”

The other big problem I have is the prejudice of Modernism.

I have lived through the century of Modernism, and was infected with it from my earliest years. I am only recently cured. I grew up loving abstract art and stream-of-consciousness novels. The party trick that is Modernism is to understand the means of expression as the subject of the art itself: color, form, shape, contrast: These carry meaning in themselves.

(I know Modernism has other aims as well, but this part of it is what ruins classical music for me.)

And you can see the effect of Modernism in the history of classical music recordings. The old style of performance, exemplified by Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Casals and Walter, by mid-century, gives way to Toscanini, Weingartner and eventually Szell, Solti and now, John Eliot Gardner. These are the “just-the-facts-ma’am” conductors, following Toscanini’s dictum: “To some, the Eroica may be about heroism and nobility, but to me it is just Allegro con brio.”

A century of musicians have disparaged the very idea that music can be about anything but music. “Music can express nothing,” said Stravinsky, whose music is profoundly expressive despite himself.

What is lost when this Modernist esthetic is applied to music — and 19th century music in particular — is the core of what the music is about. If a Leonard Slatkin doesn’t believe that the first movement of the Eroica strives for something and achieves it in the coda, then he is only making noise. I read reviews over and over where the critic complains that the conductor is “interpreting” the music instead of just letting it speak for itself, and what he means, of course, is that he wants the music to shut up about life, death, the universe and everything, and just scratch the familiar tickles and amuse me. As if you could play Hamlet and just speak the words clearly without all that “acting.”

The century of Modernism is over, although the effects linger on. And what we call Postmodernism isn’t all that much better (it being merely a kind of Mannerism to the Renaissance of Modernism), but you can find a number of musicians and conductors seeking to find other ways of dealing with the real issues of the music. Yes, there are the Roger Norringtons out there, mucking things up with their idiocy, but there are also the Mikhail Pletnevs and Daniel Barenboims, seeking to understand why there should be a ritardando here, or a sforzato there, even when not called for in the score. The same as a Gielgud applies a pause in “To be or not to be,” to maximize the rhetorical understanding of the content. Shakespeare did not indicate such in his text, but an intelligent actor knows where they work and why.

I also have to laugh at the way Modernism once thought of itself as the natural conclusion of a historical process, having finally gotten to the point of esthetic “purity” that all art previously only aspired to. Got a giggle out of that.

Along with Pablo Neruda, I am in favor of the impure in art.

And in favor, not of a simple-minded return to an elusive “golden age” of the past — such an age never existed, and the old recordings prove that musicians now play in better tune and with better intonation than they ever played for Mengelberg — but for some new way to explore the metaphor inherent in the music, and not to ignore the music’s meaning for the sake of keeping alive a dying flame of Modernism.

goldin 4 black eye

Even when they stand before us stark naked, the only part of their anatomy that matters is their eyes, which hold us paralyzed in their gaze. They are mirrors of infinite sadness.

One of the perennial sellers among photographic books is Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a woeful tale of the underbelly of the art world told in a series of primitive color photographs full of battered women, tattoos, transvestites, pimps, drugs and hangers on.

Ballad of Sexual Dependency

Ballad of Sexual Dependency

They look out at us, bruised and lost.

Over a period of 40 years, but primarily in the 1980s, Goldin has photographed the beaten underside of la vie de Boheme — the art world and the pretenders to the art world, the gay world, the broken and wounded, the young who have found what they are looking for in being lost.

And it is an impressive accomplishment. Some 700 photographs, each an intense shot of emotional cocaine, are accompanied by music, ranging from blues to heavy metal to opera.

Goldin has photographed this subculture from the inside. She bears no objectivity: These are her friends and lovers.

“I don’t choose people in order to photograph them,” she has said. “I take photos straight from my life. These photos come from relationships, not from observation.”goldin 1

The pictures are raw, like snapshots, and the life is even more raw: They love, shoot drugs, party, cry on each others’ shoulders, smoke Marlboros, dress up in costumes and search for — and intermittently find — meaning. More often, they find pain and suffering. And in the age of AIDS, they also find death.

These are people on the edge, their nerves raw from abrasion. For them, “unprotected sex” is spiritual as well as physical: Their souls are wide open and vulnerable.

The photographs at first appear nothing more than snapshots, but the cumulative effect of 700 of them proves that Goldin is instead a rare technician, able to create the effect of spontaneity and carelessness at will. The figures’ motion shows as blur in the pictures, usually lit with the garish glare of the flashbulb. The colors of the pictures are the brightest Kodachrome blues, greens, violets and golds. Goldin has created a style perfectly suited to the subject matter.goldin 6

The faces are both pathetic and heroic. The young bohemians, living in squalor, clearly see themselves heroically, participating in grand love affairs, where violence can easily be confused with passion and romantic dreams can comfortably ignore their rat-infested surroundings. It is cold water flats with concrete floors, soiled sheets and nose rings.

Which gives them a certain nobility: They know they are alive.

Most people have seen the photographs published in book form, but Goldin didn’t intend the series as a book. It was first a slide show that she dragged around the New York art world in the 1980s, showing in night clubs as well as galleries. It is meant to be accompanied by music, which is missing in the book. The music is as important as a score to a film. goldin 11

The show, which takes 45 minutes to sit through, is not endured by many museum goers when it has been shown at major museums, most of its watchers come and go after seeing a minute or so of the presentation.

And its intensity does make it hard to sit through.

But Goldin manages to keep it all coherent, scripting the show in smaller bursts of slides grouped thematically, or as an episode in a single love affair.

Because she makes you see the flow from one slide to the next, it never becomes the interminable horror of a neighbor’s travel pictures. Unless your neighbor is Dante.

Yet, it isn’t quite hell, either. It is relentlessly romantic. Goldin is never the outsider, seeing the pain and filth and commenting on it. She is instead an avid participant, able to play-pretend with all her other subjects that she is in the middle of some grand opera of love and passion. goldin 16

And while at some level she must recognize the ugliness, she is no moralist, presenting shocking scenes in hope we will pass laws or enforce a social code. Lewis Hine she is not.

No, she gives us a layered, complex vision of her world that alternately repels and attracts. She makes us want to give in to the romantic illusions, but the bruises on her face brutally contradict them.

Indeed, Goldin is a major participant in the story she tells. She appears in a large number of the photographs, including the climax series, wherein she sustains the abuse of a boyfriend and wears the black eye he gives her.

But this is never a tract about domestic abuse: Goldin clearly takes responsibility for her own actions. She is willing to trade being terrorized for the drug rush of romantic obsession.goldin 12

This is la vie boheme in the age of AIDS and crack cocaine, and Goldin is its Puccini.

And that is the key to the success of these photographs as art. We do not need to live in rat-infested cold-water flats like Goldin’s subjects, but we do need to know we are alive.

It is the primary duty of art to reacquaint us with the fact.

Daily living takes the edge off life for all of us. Habit and conformity dull our senses. We may feel more mature and less reckless than Goldin’s druggies and transvestites, but if we are honest, we also must admit that what we call maturity is too often composed of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion.

Goldin’s people risk everything, even death, for the rush of feeling alive. goldin 13

In that, they are like the Medieval stories of Tristram and Iseult or Launcelot and Guinevere. Our notion of romantic love had its beginning in these stories of adultery. For the sake of their passion, the lovers accepted not only death, but the eternal damnation they believed would follow. The assumption of such stories was that transcendent experience could not be found in the routine, in the sanction of society; it must be found outside the rules. A life lived only by rules is a mechanical life; authenticity is found only by acting from the purest impulse.

It is a grand and romantic notion.

But we were not asked then to become adulterers and we are not asked now by Goldin’s work to go out and score a bag of heroin. Art must be understood metaphorically, not literally. The message we learn from both the Medieval and postmodern is that life requires risk, that any risk less than all doesn’t count.goldin 7

So Suzanne, Cookie, Siobhan, Claude and all the rest of the recurring denizens of this demimonde, including Nan herself, who is a principal in her own opera, throw themselves into relationships — into experience — with a foolhardy disregard for their own self-preservation.

When I call this impulse “romantic,” what I mean is that it attempts to connect with those things larger and more eternal than a smooth running society. It tests the limits rather than acceding to them.

They are a La Boheme for the current age. The violence is always mistaken for passion; the sex is always mistaken for love.

When you see something like Goldin’s pictures, you begin to understand some of the attraction of the life with its unmade beds, dirty drinking glasses and cigarettes extinguished on the rug. Perhaps you or I would not like to live that way, but there is an underlying romanticism to it: They are not living the quiet, safe world of their parents. It is a life taking chances, living on the edge, a desperate chance for transcendence.

So, the women risk beatings by their boyfriends and the men risk thrashing by their drug dealers, all in the name of feeling overpowering emotions and not giving in to what they see as the gradual death of conventional living. goldin 15

For the secret romanticism, whether it is Nan Goldin or Percy Shelley, is its aspiration to transcend life’s limits. Nothing should be forbidden and the only thing worth doing is what is impossible.

There is a wonderful scene in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. An angel brings the poet to a precipice and from their height, they look down on “the infinite abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black, but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swim, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption.”

On being told of this vile place, the poet innocently suggests, “if you please, we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether providence is here also.”

Much of what passes for art in any age merely keeps us lulled: Pretty pictures or numbing farces. People call for beauty, but what they really ask is for an anodyne: a buffer between themselves and the difficulties of being alive.goldin 8

But if we risk feeling alive, we must remember that to be alive is to suffer. Americans sometimes like to forget this fact; we live comfortable lives, insulated from the hard certainties. We kill to eat, although we never think of the slaughterhouse when we buy our burger; we grow old and die, although we spend billions on cosmetics and plastic surgery to deny the inevitable. Our love cannot protect our children and our best intentions cannot prevent us from hurting others.

But as Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, one must recognize the universal tragedy and still act.

And, like Nan Goldin’s art, manage in the face of suffering and death to say “yes.”


Wandering around the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I nearly broke into tears. So many old friends, so much moving, meaningful art. There the Panini, there a Canaletto, over there the Rembrandt and there the Assumption by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend.

This is why I love art. In one spot, so much of the best and even when not the best, then the best known. Each room contains two or three of my oldest, dearest friends, and oh, how they have changed over the years since I last saw them. It has been at least a dozen years since I visited them and they have altered greatly. Some that I loved passionately when I was a college student have now become garish, cheap, obvious and unsubtle.

It isn’t just us that change as we age: It seems the very paintings do, too.

So now, others that I knew as one knows a distant aunt or uncle, not too well but by reputation, now seem as deep and wide as oceans.

I have left TerBrorch and Hals, but they have been replaced by Corot.

At noon, my brother, Craig, showed up in the rotunda and we wandered the galleries trading enthusiasms. Mostly, we walked through the 19th Century French galleries where the Cezannes are as serious as Bach and the Renoirs as cheap as a wine cooler. Through the American galleries and then to the East Wing. We stayed there until we were thrown out by guards at 5 p.m.

When we got to Craig’s car, the battery was dead. He called AAA and we waited an hour for them to show up, much of that time listening to the sorry tale of a homeless ex-drug addict, now relapsed (making him, I guess, a former ex-drug addict). He seemed bright and alert and he originally showed up in an attempt to help us start the car. He offered to call the police, saying they usually have jumper cables and help out.

“Don’t ask a cabbie,” he said. “They always want money for it. It ain’t their business. They shouldn’t be asking money for helping people. But they always want $10.”

Craig let on that $10 might be a bargain to get the car started without waiting the hour to 90 minutes the AAA had promised.

But he began telling us his life story, kneeling on the asphalt so his head was at car-window level so he could see both of us inside.

“I’m going to a program in West Virginia Tuesday. It will help. I was in a 12-step program and I kept clean for 11 months and seven days, but two weeks ago, I relapsed. You know I never did none of that crack cocaine, but it’s a depressing high. It’s a nice high, you know. But it’s depressing. I makes you, if you have a conscience, you know, makes you do things you wouldn’t. You’d sell your own mother. Well, I’m lucky cuz I never had to steal nothing to pay for it. I had a job with the government, but they found out I didn’t finish high school. I had only two credits to go, they told me, and I could finish it in summer school. I had scholarships, had …” here he held up fingers like he was counting them in his mind … “seven scholarships. I was in track and field and in football. One was for Notre Dame, and the rest were for schools here.”

But drugs intervened.

“You know, one thing I learned: You should always marry into the same religion. My wife and I are different. She’s into Yaweh and Yeshua — Is that what it is? I never understood. Yeshua and Yaweh, that’s Jesus and God. I don’t know why she calls them different. But my Mama always went to church. I’m not much of a churchgoer, really, but if you don’t have religion, you can’t kick the drugs. I really believe that. This retreat in West Virginia is religious.

“My Mama showed what you can do, how you can overcome your adversities. She didn’t have no education, really, and my Dad, well, he was paralyzed from the neck when I was two. I never seen him after that. I told everybody he was dead. He came back from that war, what was that war, in 1968? Vietnam? Was that Vietnam? And he married my Mama when I was 2 then. But later he got real, he drank too much at a party one night and when he drove home he ran into that building there, what’s that building? The FBI building. He ran into it and got thrown out of his car and layed out in the street all busted up. He weren’t ever around when I grew up.

“Mama took some courses in typing and secretary things and got a part-time job with the Government Accounting Office. It was a good job and she took courses and after about six months, she left there and got another job and went to college. She studied accounting and became a CPA and now she works for the Internal Revenue.

“I don’t wanna disappoint Mama, which why I’m out here on the street today. I don’t wanna be out here tonight, cuz if I am and I do the drugs, I’ll miss the trip to West Virginia. If I do the drugs, I won’t be here.

“Drugs is bad, and that crack cocaine is the worst. I mean, the man who invented it … I mean the man who invented any drug should be in jail, but the man who invented crack cocaine, they should shoot him.”

He never sounded inarticulate, but he lapsed from King’s English into street patois and back, sounding sometimes like a home-boy, and sometimes like a middle-class stray. He was well-groomed and with a beard.

“I have never gotten so bad, you know, that I had to eat out of the garbage or pick up some food someone dropped. But I ain’t saying that couldn’t happen, but it hasn’t yet. But if I don’t stay clean till Tuesday, it wouldn’t surprise me. You know, they say that when you relapse for the first time, it’s the worst, that things are much worse than when you’re hooked the first time. And they’re right. If I don’t get out of this now, I’ll keep going back and it’s just gonna get worse and worse.

“But I never broke with my family or nothing, so they’re there for me, my Mama is, anyway. I’m an only child and I think she tries to take better care for me for that. She always tried to buy me the best clothes, not just ordinary clothes, but the best.”

And although he had mentioned panhandling early in the conversation, he never did hit us up for money.

“It’s good to talk about it,” he said as he rose from the pavement. “It’s good to talk with someone and tell them, so thanks for listening, you hear? I can go and get the police. They’re right over here in this building,” he said, pointing to a large, characterless, bureaucratic building of poured concrete and glass. “The police here will help you; they’re good about that. Don’t stop no cabbie.”

And he walked off. About 15 minutes later, AAA showed up and jumped us.

So, after a foot-numbing day of museum-going, I hobble back to the hotel and just as I get my socks off and begin rubbing my toes, it begins raining in downtown Washington, slickering the streets and streaking my window. Lightning flashes benignly in the clouds. And though I can barely walk, I slip my shoes back on and limp down the hall to the elevator and out into the weather.

“I’m from Arizona,” I tell the doorman. “What do you call this funny stuff falling out of the sky?”

He laughs. “Rain. It rains here most every afternoon in the summer.”

“Where I come from, it hasn’t rained since last year,” I tell him. And I don’t remember any rain since before January, so it’s true.

I walk out in it, get my hair wet and my clothes dampened. A low roll of thunder and the car tires sizzle on the wet pavement.

point roberts shoreline

Point Roberts is one of those funny little anomalies you spot on the map and wonder about. It is an exclave — a place that cannot be reached by land without leaving the country to which it belongs. Like the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, that tiny bump in the U.S.-Canadian border.

It is a tiny community on the end of a small peninsula that sticks down from British Columbia like a uvula into the Straits of Georgia south of Vancouver. But by a historical oversight, Point Roberts is not in Canada, but in the United States — the county of Whatcom in the state of Washington.

When the border between Canada and the United States finally was agreed upon in the 1846 Treaty of Washington — brokered, by the way, by that 19th-century Henry Kissinger, Kaiser Wilhelm I — and the 49th Parallel became the official boundary line, it cut across the Tsawwassen Peninsula, slicing off a teensy 4.9 square miles at its end, leaving the tip accidentally in the United States. Point Roberts map

Now, Point Roberts might as well be an island. It is surrounded by water on three sides, with the Canadian border on the fourth. It is a 23-mile drive through British Columbia to get from Point Roberts to the rest of Washington.

It has made life interesting for the 950 people who live there.

For one thing, all electrical power and telephones have to be contracted from Canadian companies; yet when there is a repair problem, American companies are responsible.

And when a crime is committed — admittedly not a common occurrence — the miscreant must be helicoptered or boated back to the mainland; he cannot be squired by road through Canada and back into the United States.

The police blotter of Point Roberts is worth mentioning.

In the four months from August through November, as reported in the All Point Bulletin, the local newspaper, the majority of reports were of three types: drunkenness and drunken driving; trying to cross the border with marijuana; and burglar alarms that went off accidentally. Sometimes a power surge is blamed.

There are also a few nasty tales of domestic violence: A daughter got into a fight with her mother and ”knocked a bunch of books off some shelves,” and a girlfriend threw a brush at her boyfriend.

But amongst the reports are a few worth quoting whole.

”Sept. 20: An individual reported that Camp Ruth Morton had been broken into and three fire extinguishers were stolen and recovered on the property empty. Fingerprints were taken. Case under investigation.”

”Sept. 21: A park manager in the 1400 block of Gulf Road reported that after having a dispute with a tenant, the tenant exposed his buttocks to him and his young children. The manager wished the information to be documented and the tenant contacted. Tenant denied any wrongdoing.”

”Sept. 22: A 46-year-old Vancouver, B.C., man was arrested for assault in the fourth degree after police, who had been called to the residence in the 1500 block of Panorama Drive for a possible domestic dispute, witnessed the man jerking a female by the collar and would not allow her to get up. The man was escorted back to Canada.”

U.S.-Canadian border

U.S.-Canadian border

”Sept. 29: An individual in the 100 block of Monte Road reported that his next-door neighbor had plugged a travel trailer into his house without asking. The individual does not know how long it had been plugged in. A note was left for the neighbor who had said no note was found. A summons will be sent to the neighbor for theft in the third degree.”

”Oct. 1: An individual advised that around the first of August, an unknown subject entered the U.S. from Canada and requested political asylum. The subject was Canadian and did not meet any requirements. The subject ran back to Canada leaving a bicycle and has not returned.”

So, you see, life is not uneventful in Point Roberts, especially in late September.

Point Roberts was named in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver after his longtime friend Captain Henry Roberts. Point_Roberts guard sign

It was settled by Icelanders, who scraped out a living by fishing and farming, although the soil is some of the worst in Canada. Later, canneries opened up to process the haul of fish from traps set into shallow Boundary Bay. Point Roberts reached the apogee of its fame during Prohibition, when the community was a hotbed of rumrunning.

Tables turned after the repeal of the Volstead Act, when Canadians began to come to Point Roberts on Sundays to drink. At the time, it was illegal to serve alcohol on Sundays in Canada. A thriving saloon business began that survives to this day, with the addition of bingo, although the bars advertise it as ”gambling,” because bingo just doesn’t sound illicit enough.

Things begin hopping in Point Roberts in the summer, when vacationers from Vancouver swarm the place, quadrupling the population. A marina is the central attraction. boundary obelisk

But hidden in the northwest corner of the enclave, along Roosevelt Way, is a monument of historical importance: the westernmost boundary marker along the 49th Parallel. It is a worn, lichen-crusted stone obelisk marking latitude 49 degrees north and longitude 123 degrees, 3 minutes and 53 seconds west. The surveyors who fixed the border started from this point and worked their way east.

Small customs offices are on both sides of the border on Tyee Drive. The Canadian office is newer and slightly larger. But the United States, not to be outdone, has built a new $5 million facility to replace the old one.

In the basement is a jail, needed to hold criminals until the boat can take them to the mainland.


This brings to an end the series of entries for “California and the West,” chronicling the drive from Tijuana, Mexico to Vancouver, Canada.

seattle aquarium rainy day

It is one of the unexpected symmetries of nature that the tropics should spawn the zillions of exotic flowers and vines that are its trademark, but that the abundance of ocean life grows where the water is cold. Puget Sound is cold year round.

A short list. Puget Sound has: 50 species of sponge; 200 species of annelids; 20 species of anemone; 70 species of shrimp; 25 species of hermit crab; 20 species of seastars; 36 species of sculpin; 24 species of rockfish; 16 species of limpet; and four species of octopus, including the world’s largest at up to 20 feet across and over 100 lbs., the Octopus dofleini.

And the animals of the Sound are often as exotic and lurid as any humid liana or dripping orchid.sea pen 2

There is, for instance, the Ptilosarcus gurneyi, or seapen. This has nothing to do with the spiny bivalve of the East Coast. It is not even a bivalve. It is an aquatic plume with its nib in an inkwell, buried in the sandy bottom of the Sound. It is bright orange with a fringed plumage that stretches up to a foot long. It is luminescent and produces a bright green light when stroked.

Seapens belong to the same general group of Cnidarians as the sea anemones, but the fact that their polyps are small and organized into a featherlike colony obscures that relationship somewhat.

What binds most of the invertebrates of the Sound together is color. The richness of the colors on the seabed shame the peacock. There are the three sea urchins each a different lascivious hue. Stongylocentrotus purpuratus is dayglo purple; S. droebackiensis is forest green; and S. franciscanus is 6 to 8 inches across and bright red and purple. It is a basketball among urchins.

The white sea cucumber is white as milkglass with electric orange thorns along its length. starfish pile

The starfish were manufactured by Binney and Smith. The Solaster stimsonii has 10 legs and each is striped with blue showing brightly against the field of ocher. The bloodstar is blood red; the rose star is pink; and Leptasterias hexactus has six legs and shows the color of a pomegranate.blood star

The sunflower star has up to 24 fat legs and is a dull yellow with bright orange rays.

The sea lemon is a 7-inch long nudibranch that is lemon yellow — a translucent yellow back with amorphous scores of lacy tubefeet. Puget Sound has more kinds of echinoderms than anywhere else in the world.

There are lavander abelones; 8-inch-long gumboot chitons; light blue filaments on algaed rocks that are an annelid, Thelepus crispus; crimson anemones; giant barnacles (Balanus nubilus) that are over 3 inches across; red-tissued scallops with rock colored shells and dozens of black eyes peering through the feathery antennae around the seems of the shell; gordian-knotted basket stars; warty, transparent, hairy sea squirts and sea pork; a red and pink anemone that is 12 to 15 inches across its waving tentacles.Green anemone

There is the edible pride of the Sound, the Panope generosa, or geoduck clam (pronounced as “gooey-duck.”) It is a bivalve that weighs up to 20 lbs. and, with its oversize siphon, looks like a bratwurst on a sliced kaiser roll. The meaty parts of the geoduck are so large that it cannot close its shell.geoduck

The other edible wonder is the sweet-meated Dungeness crab. Others may brag on their Alaskan king crab, but to those who have tasted the Dungeness, so much bragging on a thing merely because it is large is gauche, fit only for a Texan. The Dungeness makes the AKC seem like a can of tunafish.

So far, I have barely mentioned any fish. But they are as abundant and varied as the invertebrates. There are prickleback, gunnels, tubesnouts, pipefish, sea horses, sculpins, clingfish, and spiny lumpsuckers among the odder finny wonders.striped greenling

The painted greenling has zebra-stripes of cobalt blue on a salmon field with random purple and white spots. The Gobiesox, a clingfish, is round and fat with a flat head and a sucker on his bottom and is tan, netted with purple and with white spots or freckles. One tubesnout, Aulorhynchus flavidus, is translucent and yellow-green. It is 3 or 4 inches long, but narrow as a drinking straw and one can see his organs twitching on his insides.

By far the best place to see these zoological delights is the Seattle Aquarium. It is the best aquarium I have ever seen, making even the Coney Island show look bush league.

And the most wonderful feature of the Seattle Aquarium is the dome.Aquarium big room

Inside a huge tank of seawater, there is a many-windowed dome looking up and into the fish-filled water. The tank is decked out to look like the bottom of the Sound, one side complete with harbor pilings to gather barnacles, and the other strewn with rocks and sand. And swimming around are many of the aquadynamic shapes common to Puget Sound.

The sides of the tank scintillate with the wavering colors of sunlight broken up by the prisms of the waves on the tank surface. Through the spectrum swim trout, tomcod, salmon and catfish. The silvery salmon look like something manufactured by Boeing, like unpainted airplanes with scales for rivets. The glint of sun runs from nose to tail as the fish whips its body, propelling itself through the fluid.

The brown trout show an irridescent green when the sunlight hits.octopus 2

Huge scrotal octopods, all valves, siphons and tentacles, are strangely graceful.

A lime-white seastar rests on the sandand over it a flounder, like some Arabian magic carpet, flies, wavering its Persian body.

There are tomcod with supernumerary fins and charcoal gray dogfish with white-limned fins.

Looking sleepy among the rocks is a wolf eel with its prizefighter’s prognathous face. He is metallic blue with black coindots in bands across his body. He slithers around the floor boulders prehistorically.wolf eel 2

A sculpin stares straight at me from behind the glass with two Japanese fans for fins. A round, flattened seaperch floats slowly past the window. He has neon blue skin showing through rows of brown scales. Fom a distance he just looks brown, but up close, he is a vision.

Near me on one of the seats (church pews, I almost wrote) were four children, kicking their legs back and forth, ready to move on to whatever was next along the wall, and their shepherd, an older woman who must have been an aunt, asked almost of no one, but talking to the kids, “Isn’t it restful to watch them swim?”

But it is only restful to the adult, who has need of it. The children cannot yet understand the longing for such things.

coup de soleil, Puget Sound

coup de soleil, Puget Sound

Morning in Seattle and the drizzle slowly brightens in the dawn.

For those of us who wake up early, cities can be a problem. For although a city has a special attraction in the hours before traffic and business, it is also an oddly dead time. At 5 a.m., the light from an overcast sky slowly turns the glass on the empty bank buildings snow white; the downtown streets are vacant.Seattle roofs

And there’s really no place to find a good breakfast.

Sure, there are 24-hour chains like Denny’s, but I’m talking about a real breakfast. The fact is, a city is a slow riser. Like a groggy sleeper that first hits the snooze button, later spends a long time rubbing its eyes and finally stands under the shower half asleep, the city really takes all morning to get ready. Museums and the aquarium don’t open till 10. That’s five hours from now.

That’s one of the attractions of camping. No matter how early you get up in the wilderness, it’s open.

But there are secrets the urbanite knows. There are places he finds where he and his truck-driving buddies can get a plateful of scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee. The kind of place you don’t want to wander into and ask for Evian water or eggs Benedict.

Seattle is one of America’s great cities, or at least it was before all the Californians started moving there, before every streetcorner was anchored by a designer coffee stand.

It was a city that had a waterfront, with docks and boats. Most of the waterfront is now a tourist attraction, but the seafood companies and shipping wharfs can still be found, a little north of the aquarium and Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

In the early morning, before the tourists hit, the railroad switcher still shunts boxcars up and down a rain-shiny Alaskan Way and workers still pile fish into the backs of trucks.

There is an industrial clatter and clang along the road, under the viaduct, and steam mixes with exhaust in the mizzle.

And the city’s most beautiful breakfast can be had beginning at 5:20 a.m. on board the Kitsap.

MV Kitsap arriving in Seattle

MV Kitsap arriving in Seattle

One of the jewels of Seattle is the Washington State Ferry System and the huge, 2,000-car ferries across Puget Sound start operating each day at that hour. For a round-trip ticket of $7.70, you can board the Kitsap (or Walla-Walla, depending on which one starts the morning in the city) and take the one hour ride to Bremerton on the Kitsap Peninsula.

On board, there is a cafeteria line where you can get eggs and bacon, or a sticky bun and a cup of coffee to take to the table by the thick-painted window where you can watch Alki Point glide by as you leave Elliot Bay and enter the sound proper.

From the water, Seattle shows itself off as a seaport. You pass Harbor Island and its 10-story tall orange cargo derricks, you pass the waiting Japanese freighters anchored in the bay, and you see the working wharfs along the waterside.Seattle docks and cranes

The ferry rumbles through the water with its great diesel engines rattling the floors and windows. It churns a frothing wake through the water behind you and your coffee seems more leisurely. You get a chance to observe the weather as you eat and notice the deep slate color of the water and the patch of sunlight that breaks through near Vachon Island. Maybe the rain will break, you say to yourself.

If you’ve been here long enough, you know better.

The ferry curls around the southern end of Bainbridge Island and through the tight passages of salt water running between red cedar trees.Tacoma head on

When it docks in Bremerton, you can just stay put and wait to take the boat back to the city.

If the 2 1/2-hour round trip to Bremerton is too much time for you to spend, the ferry to Winslow costs the same and takes only 35 minutes each way. For that trip you ride the Tacoma or Wanatchee.

Either way, the trip is Seattle’s greatest bargain.

Seattle skyline, Elliott Bay

Coffeemania has abated slightly in Seattle.

There are still ”espresso” signs in drugstores and hardware stores and a local radio station advertised ”egg nog latte” at Christmas. But there used to be a Starbuck’s or a coffee wagon on every street corner. Now, they are on only every other street corner.

And the image Seattle projects through movies and Frasier of an upwardly mobile society surviving on caffeine is still at least partly true.

But there are other Seattles. There is Ballard, for instance.

Ballard is a section of town where the Norwegians live. The tourist brochure actually says, ”Velkommen til Ballard,” in ekte Norsk.

And although most of Seattle is notoriously hilly, Ballard is flat. It is looked down upon, literally and figuratively, by most of the more trendy portions of the city.



I remember living on Phinney Ridge, directly above Ballard, and looking down at night to see the whole city illuminated below me. ”Ah, Ballard, City of Lights,” I used to sigh.

The point being that Ballard was entirely too dull a place for anyone to actually live.

But although most of Seattle, at least in the media, is a white-collar town driven by Microsoft wonks and Boeing engineers, Ballard is uncompromisingly blue-collar. Along the Salmon Bay waterfront are working fishing boats. They pass under the steel-girder railroad drawbridge and through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks that connect Salmon Bay with Puget Sound.

Hiram Chittenden Locks, Ballard

Hiram Chittenden Locks, Ballard

The main street, Market Street, is lined with stores where you can buy useful things, like tools and food, and the people who live there are soft-spoken and decidedly normal.

The locks are the main tourist attraction, with the salmon ladder where, in the proper season, you can watch coho and chinook salmon swim upstream to spawn. And in another season, you can see steelhead trout come back downstream and head out to sea.

May 17 celebration, Ballard

May 17 celebration, Ballard

The Nordic Heritage Museum is a large and somewhat dusty collection of Norwegiania. Some of it is genuinely cultural, much of it has more to do with the folkways of second- and third-generation immigrants whose knowledge of the ”Old Country” is confined to woodcarvings in the form of trolls and funny-looking cookies made at Christmas.

Ballard is also a good place to shop for Norwegian cooking implements.

But if Ballard sounds more neighborly than exciting, then Bell Town may be more to your taste. That is, if you wear black clothes, tattoos and have parts of your body pierced. Belltown sign with space needle

In the area around Bell Avenue, between Second and Fourth avenues, there is a kind of neo-Haight-Ashbury growing up.

In the Speakeasy Cafe, you can order a vegetarian sandwich and sit down at a computer and check your e-mail or do the Internet research you need for the article you are writing on the resurgence of Marxism in counterculture music.

On certain days of the week at the Speakeasy, there are poetry readings and live music by bands you have not yet heard of. Belltown street

Up the street is Sit & Spin, a combination cafe and laundromat. Its walls are plastered with handbills for local bands and revolutionary art lectures.

”The Cacophony Society,” reads one, ”is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the irreverent industrialists of mirth, gleeful unionists struggling for the liberation of daydreams and special interest groups of absurdity. You may already be a member.”

While your underwear is in the spin-dry cycle, you can wander up to the counter and ask for homemade five-bean vegetarian chili on brown rice with cheese — $2.10 per cup — or the hummus plate, with cucumbers and pita bread, for $4.10. bell street belltown seattle

The place is decorated eclectically. Coaxial cable is a unifying motif, alternating with loops of old clothes-dryer exhaust hoses. There are video games, jigsaw puzzles and a lot of young, sturdy women in black wearing Doc Martens. The men are in black, too, with the occasional plaid shirt and jeans. There is an ethnic mix, although Seattle is predominantly white. Tans are even hard to find up here where it rains all winter.