A R C H I V E S   O F
The Reluctant Blogger

© 2008 Henry Kisor



J A N U A R Y,   2 0 0 8


[NOTE: Some of the links to newspaper stories may be broken, thanks to the sources archiving their articles under new links. Also, all comments from readers unfortunately have been lost.]

Jan. 31: Altering reality

During a just-concluded class in “Winter Photography” at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the instructor, Linda Oyama Bryan, sternly informed us that we were not to Photoshop, or otherwise alter with software, the pictures we took on assignment. “Make the best photographs you can with your camera alone,” she said.

That made good sense to me. There’s no better discipline for an aspiring photographer than finding the best possible subject, composition, lighting and so on before snapping the shutter.

But no photograph has ever been taken that can’t be improved afterward, either in the darkroom (as did Ansel Adams and the other greats) or on the computer. And so, as she screened our photos with her digital projector, Linda showed us how we could use Photoshop to zoom in on the subject by cropping out some of its foreground as well as bringing up detail in its shadows.

There might be a distracting person, or a tree limb, in the background. With Photoshop, she said, those elements could be completely removed as if they had never been there, like a disgraced commissar from a group shot of Party bigwigs in Pravda.

That stopped me for a moment, because I’m an old journalist. We were never supposed to change reality, either in print or in photos. You once could get fired for that.

No argument with bringing up shadow detail, sharpening focus and the like. Those things already exist in the picture and only need to be brought out. But removing something that was there when the picture was taken, or adding something that wasn’t there?

It all boils down, I guess, to the purpose of the photo. A news photo is presented as a reflection of reality at the moment it was taken. If it is to be credible, the viewer must have confidence that its contents have not been dishonestly distorted.

A garden photo is different. It is meant to represent reality, but not necessarily literally. There’s an annoying person in the corner of a shot taken at 5:35 a.m.. He’s gone in the one taken at 5:37 a.m. But the misty sun two minutes later is slightly higher in the sky, subtly altering the dreamy quality of the light in the first picture. The photographer does not intend to fool anybody, just present the best possible image, and he likes the 5:35 one better — without the distraction. So he uses Photoshop to erase the person in it.

The difference between art photography and photojournalism is that the former focuses on a pleasing image and the latter emphasizes its historical content. No argument there.

But why do I still feel twinges of unease when I fool around in Photoshop with photographs of flowers or wildlife? Maybe it’s just nature’s way of forcing me to take better photographs with the camera, not the computer.

[Later: It so happens that quite a foofaraw erupted yesterday over a University of Denver faculty advisor’s telling a student newspaper editor that he should have made the sky in a photograph bluer with Photoshop. The story is here and here. Thanks to Jim Romenesko.]

Jan. 30: None of the above

I don't often blog about politics, but . . .

As Super Tuesday approaches, doesn’t the pack of remaining candidates, Democratic or Republican, leave you with a sense of dismay? Are these people the best the nation can offer?

Hillary Clinton has been a decent senator for the state of New York, but something of a trimmer when the going gets tough on national issues. Like the present White House occupant, she is incapable of admitting that she makes mistakes. And she has one big and ugly albatross on her shoulder: her meddling husband. What is the White House going to be like if Bill gets back inside?

Barack Obama is a charismatic campaigner and an attractive person, but his actual accomplishments as a legislator, either in Illinois or the Senate, are minuscule. And he has that bulldog on his ankle, his apparently close connection to an exceptionally sleazy Chicago political figure that he refuses to acknowledge, let alone explain.

John Edwards is John Edwards, a pleasant fellow who can’t seem to get it together. He might make a good attorney general, however.

John McCain, of all the candidates, is the most admirable person, thanks to his sterling behavior as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But he seems to have learned nothing from that war and doesn’t think Iraq was a grievous mistake.

Mitt Romney is a rich panderer, as trustworthy as a snake oil salesman. (His Mormonism is utterly irrelevant.)

Mike Huckabee is an enjoyable clown, but do we want someone of his antediluvian intellect near the nuclear suitcase?

Rudy Giuliani, if he’s still in the running as I write this, was a lousy, combative, much-disliked mayor of New York who became an accidental hero on the morning of 9/11.

I’m a liberal. I believe in reproductive choice and cultural inclusiveness. Republicans by and large don’t, and so I won’t be voting for them. Besides, we have had eight years of Republican market greed, irresponsible tax cuts, incompetent cronies and blundering, ideological warmaking, and our country is now reviled among mankind for its arrogance. It’s time to give the Democrats a chance to clean up the mess.

Or make a new one of a different but hopefully not so vicious kind.

So I guess it’s either Hillary or Barack for me on Tuesday, but God help me, I don’t know which box I’m going to mark.

Jan. 28: Making a fuss

I don’t often blog about deafness, but . . .

Last week Karen Putz, a fellow deaf person, fellow blogger and fellow Chicago-area resident, stopped at a Steak & Shake with her 10-year-old son to order a couple of milk shakes. Since she obviously can’t use the speaker and mike in the drive-through lane, she drove up to the pickup window instead to place her order, as she had done several times. The fast-food workers she had encountered thought nothing of accommodating a deaf customer that way.

This time, however, the manager refused to take her order, telling her she had to follow the rules. Drive around to the speaker and give your order to the mike, he said. I can’t, she said, I’m deaf. You have to, he said. Those are the rules. A heated disagreement ensued, and the oaf threatened to call the police if Karen did not depart the premises immediately.

That day she blogged about the incident, and it snowballed overnight through the blogosphere and onto the assignment desks of the ABC and Fox news affiliates in Chicago. The whole thing was an utterly unnecessary public relations disaster for Steak & Shake and a widely broadcast triumph for one pissed-off deaf woman.

Initially I had an ambivalent reaction to the incident. I belong to a generation older than Karen’s, a generation that grew up without the Americans with Disabilities Act. We were taught that when encountering a problem with hearing people, it was smarter to attempt an end run around a massed defensive line than to try to punch head-on through it. Get what you want, we were counseled, but don’t make a fuss. Noisy confrontations often result in hardening of attitudes.

Couldn’t Karen have done what I instinctively would have? I’d simply have parked and gone inside to order rather than try the drive-through lane. Mission would have been accomplished without fireworks.

But the younger generation to whom Karen belongs is not so diffident about exercising its rights. I can just hear her telling me that deaf people, too, have a legal and moral right to enjoy the same drive-through convenience hearing people do, thanks to the ADA. Unless deaf people use those rights, they may just disappear.

And let’s not forget that 10-year-old child. He learned quite a lesson: that out of humiliation can come victory, and that his mama is one tough, resourceful and brave woman.

I have to hand it to Karen, even though even now I’d probably still just park and go in without thinking about it. I’m a creature of habit.

But that’s my problem, not hers — thank goodness.

[January 30: Karen and representatives met with Steak & Shake executives today. Her report on the meeting is here.]

Jan. 27: Just what the traveling reader needs

Today’s New York Times Style section contains an article about the playwright Tom Stoppard’s book valise — an item of luggage that is perfect for the traveling reader but is no longer manufactured. I want one. I need one. I must have one.

Probably I will have to make my own. If it is not to weigh a ton empty it will have to be made from a lightweight plywood — aircraft spruce, maybe — covered in leather and reinforced with brass steamer trunk corners. Probably, if it is to stand up to abuse on airline luggage carousels, it will need some kind of steel frame. I can do the woodwork but would have to find a welder for the metalwork.

There’s always eBay, but an item like this probably comes up for sale once every few years — and now, that the Times has blown the whistle, the bidding will be frenzied next time one comes on the block.

Jan. 25: Ice on the shoreline

Courtesy Steve Sundberg

Steve Sundberg, who fast is becoming the unofficial “Porcupine County” resident winter photographer for this blog, sent these photos of the shoreline of his property on Lake Superior just east of Ontonagon, Michigan, last night. Compare the one above, taken yesterday (Jan. 24) with that for the Dec. 31, 2007, entry — see how the shore ice has grown out into the lake since New Year’s Eve?

The first photo below, Steve says, was taken Tuesday (Jan. 22). “We had a westerly wind that day and it blew the ice pack out from the shore ice. The shore ice is firmly grounded on the bottom and will be there until well into the spring.”

Courtesy Steve Sundberg

The second photo “shows how the pack ice has moved back in today. It looked like there was open water, but it has to be at least 5 or 6 miles out.”

Courtesy Steve Sundberg

Thanks, Steve. Keep ‘em coming!

Jan. 24: Improving the photographer's eye

Pentax K10D, Sigma 17-70 at 70mm, 1/125 f11, ISO 400

This photograph of a doorway in the English Walled Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden is the result of an hour tramping around in the snow and cold last Tuesday trying to find a good subject for a photo.

Although I’ll admit the composition can be improved (move in to get rid of the distracting branch at upper left, open up the aperture a bit to throw the tree behind the gate out of focus, maybe move the gate a bit to the left), I’m fairly well pleased with the technical aspects. What do YOU think?

(By the way, although I handled the camera, the Lady Friend was the one who found the subject.)

At the very least, taking this three-week course in Winter Photography at the Botanic Garden is teaching me how to look at a scene, to take everything in and to find the best possible composition. I can hardly wait to get back up to Porcupine County in upper Michigan in the spring and put my newfound knowledge to good use.

Jan. 22: What 39 inches of snow looks like

Courtesy Steve Sundberg

A shed on Steve Sundberg’s property east of Ontonagon, Michigan, after 39 inches of snow fell last weekend.

Steve Sundberg and Superiorgirl, two of my favorite undercover agents in Ontonagon County, upper Michigan, report that between 9 a.m. last Thursday and 9 a.m. yesterday, no fewer than 39 inches of lake-effect snow blanketed the place, giving new life to the skiing and snowmobiling that is so important to the tourist economy of this remote area.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve just got to spend a winter up there for a Steve Martinez mystery novel. The Lady Friend and I would have to rent a place in town — the Writer’s Lair on the shore of Lake Superior is a summer retreat only. I would hope any rental house comes with at least a 15-horsepower snowthrower, and a snowmobile would be a nice bonus.

Steve Sundberg further reports that “I let Ruby the Wonder Dog out last night around 11 for her evening constitutional before bed, but she was nowhere to be found when I checked to let her in. Calling her and whistling brought no response. I sometimes worry when letting her out at night that the wolves might come calling looking for a bedtime snack, but I think I would have heard something if that was the case.

“So I left my warm fire, put on my hat, coat and boots, grabbed a flashlight and trudged into the three below night, wind howling around my ears, to look for the dog. Her tracks were easy to follow in the new snow and after busting through a few drifts I found her hard “on point” under a maple tree. No doubt there was a red squirrel slumbering away in that tree, but why she picked this near-blizzard evening to point that out to me, I don’t know. Maybe dogs get cabin fever, too.”

Tell you something, Steve. Down here in the big city of Chicago, supposedly full of urban delights even in the winter, we’re getting cabin fever as well — even the Lady Friend, a northern Wisconsin girl brought up to worship ice and snow. T.S. Eliot was wrong — January, not April, is the cruelest month.

Which reminds me of that brilliant Ezra Pound parody of the Middle English “Sumer is icumen in”:

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Jan. 20: The star-spangled Stormy

The temperature in Ironwood at the western end of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is minus 15 degrees F as I write this, but you can rest assured that even bald men who wear Stormy Kromers will not suffer from scalp freeze. For those of you who are relative newcomers to this blog: Last January 21, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the iconic U.P. headgear and modeled an example.

The Kromer is back in the news not just because the Alberta Clipper again has the Midwest in its icy grip, but also because the hat’s manufacturer is trying to get the U.S. Olympic Committee to outfit American athletes with the cap for the opening ceremonies. Yesterday Bob Jacquart, the Kromer manufacturer, was to have made a pitch to the USOC at Marquette, Michigan, but he had only 15 minutes to do the job, and he faced tough competition from Roots, a big, deep-pocketsed Canadian outfitter that has had the headgear contract since 2002 (it expires in 2010). Like everybody else whose trademarks appear on athletic uniforms, Roots pays for the privilege, and the dough is considerable.

There was no news about the meeting in this morning’s papers, suggesting that Jacquart was unsuccessful in his mission.

But a scandal — a major scandal — is brewing, and I’ll see if I can fan the flames some.

It is absolutely disgusting that a foreign company — a company owned by aliens! — owns the tops of the heads of American athletes. Until this state of affairs ends and “made in America” (the real America, you commies) flies from their pates, I propose that a twenty-four-foot-high steel fence be built from the western edge of the Soo Locks to the falls of the St. Mary’s River and that the underwater border across Lake Superior be mined by submarines.

Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, wake up your followers! What use is nativism unless it protects us from invaders from both north and south?

By the way, do not ever make the mistake of viewing a Stormy Kromer as just another dorky “Elmer Fudd” hat. The Fudd has big earflaps that tie on top of the hat. A Kromer has half-earflaps that tie in front, just above the bill, and the purpose is to snug the hat on your head in high winds, not to warm the ears.

I own two Kromers now. The first, the one modeled in last year’s blog entry, was a gift from an Upper Peninsula sheriff’s deputy who has given me considerable assistance with my mystery novels. It sports a six-pointed “Gogebic County Sheriff” star.

Last March, when I gave a clearly able-bodied young lady a dirty look for parking her Expedition in a handicapped slot, she reacted with surprising defensiveness. Then I realized I was wearing my star-bedecked Kromer and she thought . . . I got out of there fast, before the cops nailed me for impersonating a law enforcement officer.

I now wear a regular Kromer, but I miss the star. It was always good for starting conversations about the Upper Peninsula.

(With thanks to the Green Hermit for the, uh, heads-up.)

[January 24: Today I just happened to be reading Madeleine Albright’s new book Memo to the President Elect, and came across a passage describing how the former U.S. secretary of state helped carry the Olympic torch to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Games. The Olympic Committee sent her an official U.S Olympic track suit for the job:

[”When my uniform arrived, I glanced at the label, which read ‘Made in Myanmar,’ that is, Burma, a country that suffers under one of the most repressive governments on earth. It was not yet illegal to import clothing from Burma, but public pressure had induced most U.S. retailers to stop doing business there. I had my own grounds for revulsion, having visited the country to pledge support for its courageous democratic leader, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. I was furious about the uniform but knew it was too late to reorder all the clothing, though I did go out and buy my own shirt and pants (Made in America). When I arrived in Salt Lake City, I informed Mitt Romney, head of the U.S. Olympic committee, about the gaffe; he thanked me kindly for keeping my mouth shut. The following year, Congress approved a ban on all imports from Burma.”]

Jan. 16: From accidental to purposeful

All my life, I discovered yesterday, I’ve been an Accidental Photographer. All the good pictures I’ve taken have been “grabshots,” the result of blind luck — simply being in the right place at the right time with a camera — rather than the fruits of study and planning with the principles of form and function.

But now I am on the way to learning the aesthetics of photography. I’m one of twelve students (some of them small geezers with big Nikons, except for me, a small geezer with a big Pentax) in Linda Oyama Bryan’s “Winter Photography” class at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Bryan is a pro, a landscape and architecture specialist, and she brings an eye for design and color to her teaching.

In our three-hour session yesterday, we learned many things, from the simple (”dress warmly and wear two pairs of socks”) to the sublime (”obey the Rule of Thirds”). It was like being reborn into a world of shifting light and shade and constantly changing perspective.

Usually, as a deaf person who reads lips, I have small tolerance for sitting for hours and watching one person speak. That is hard on the eyes. But Bryan kept me rapt. I knew all about f-stops and shutter speeds and depth of field and color balance, but she made me look at them in new ways.

Winter photography, she said, differs from that of other seasons because there is so little color. Often there is no sun. What to do under an overcast? Look for contrast, texture and careful composition.

During the last hour she sent us outside to two gardens to photograph their “bones,” as she called them. Experiment, she said. Don’t be satisfied with one or two shots. There are always many, many ways to look at the same subject. Walk around an object. Examine how the light falls upon it. What is the background like? Should it be in focus or not?

Next Tuesday each of us is going to screen our five most favorite shots of those gardens and present them for critique. We will learn from each other, Bryan said. And no Photoshopping!

But none of the photos I took yesterday is a good candidate for presentation — too little depth of field in this one, too little design in that one — so I’m going back to the gardens today to try again. If I get some good shots (even one) I’ll post them here.

Geriatricians say taking classes is a good way for oldsters to keep their minds lively. Of course, but I’m not sure the doctors consider sheer, sweaty competitiveness as an impetus to live long. Some of my classmates seem to be highly motivated and accomplished amateur photographers, and I suspect that the glint in their eyes as they got up to go out with their thousand-dollar cameras suggests there may be blood on the floor during next week’s presentations.

At the very least I hope to use this new knowledge as a mystery writer, to transform the landscapes of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan into fresh perspectives of narrative.

Jan. 14: The 1843 Yooper-Canuck War is back!

Last August 26 I wrote about a Salon.com entry on Wikipedians’ often hilarious and sometimes audacious senses of humor, citing in particular a splendid hoax involving an utterly fictitious 1843 war between Canada and Upper Michigan. The next day that page, along with all the other Bad Jokes and inventive hoaxes, had disappeared from Wikipedia. The Wikipowers that be evidently deleted them in alarm, fearing that such pages would only encourage vandals. “What a pity,” I wrote. “Evidently online encyclopedians have no more sense of humor than their print comrades.”

And now that page has returned to the wikisphere. It’s a marvel of scholarly inventiveness.

Thanks to the Green Hermit, a UPer born and bred, for this vital intelligence.

Jan. 13: Landings

At the end of his most recent pilot’s column on Salon.com, Patrick Smith, who flies for an international airline, writes:

“Lastly, a small confessional. By airing this in public, maybe my luck will change.

“I once wrote that judging a flight by the smoothness of the landing is a bit like judging a chapter by a single punctuation mark. Not that an aviator doesn’t take pride in ‘greasing one on,’ but it’s hardly an indicator of overall experience, talent or skill. Pilots will suffer spells of rough landings the way baseball players go through batting slumps.

“I need all the excuses I can get — my landings have been awful lately. My latest, at the end of a flight from Brazil, may have been the worst. Imagine if you will the sound of a hundred empty trash barrels dropped from a three-story building. That was the noise of my 767 flopping onto the pavement, followed in short order by a distinct cackling sound — that of the captain laughing.”

I can’t tell you how good Smith’s sad tale makes me feel. As a small-plane pilot, I am obsessed with landings. Once in a long, long while I achieve a greaser — with nobody else aboard and not a soul watching to appreciate the feat. More often, despite my best efforts, my little two-seater Cessna 150 hits the runway with a sharp thunk! if I am lucky and a bouncing, head-rolling twang! from the spring-steel landing gear if I am not. Usually when the latter happens, half a dozen veteran pilots witness the event and chuckle behind their hands when I walk into the pilot lounge.

Practice does no good. Even though I’ve amassed 1,200 hours in the cockpit, practice makes my landings worse. Practice makes me think about them, and there are so many things that affect a landing — crosswinds, gusts, convective turbulence, trees, traffic in the pattern, runway length, high temperatures, low temperatures, high approaches, low approaches, awareness that there is a hard-nosed instructor or a skeptical FAA inspector in the right seat, even a trusting Lady Friend — that no touchdown is ever going to be the same as another. Dwelling on all the variables turns me obsessive, white-knuckled and herky-jerky.

In fact, my best landings come after a long stretch, a month or even two, away from the air. My brain’s on autopilot during downwind, base and final, and instinctively, wholly without thinking, I lift the nose to the proper elevation above the horizon as airspeed bleeds away, and the wings lose lift — stop flying — at the very instant the main wheels kiss the ground. Slowly, like a dowager lowering herself onto a divan, the nosewheel dips to the pavement and adds its thrum to the rumble of the mains.

Perfect. Life doesn’t get better than this.

But, like everything else in life, perfection rarely comes to call. Life is an ongoing struggle to make that happen, and it always happens when you’re not trying.

(Here’s an interesting video of a landing taken from a Cessna 172. A bit of a thunk, and the nose could have been a little higher on touchdown, but as the old pilot’s joke has it, “A good landing lets you walk away. A great landing lets you use the airplane again.”)

Jan. 8: Riffed. Sacked. Fired. Axed. Dumped.

Is there a humane way to inform an employee that his services are no longer required? Maybe not. One hard-nosed school of management advocates a swift, merciless firing, followed by an immediate security escort out of the building. The idea is to cauterize the stump of the amputated limb immediately — for the sake of the company’s healing. Too bad for the hapless ex-employee, but the bosses’ fiduciary duty is clear. It’s a dog eat dog world out there, you know.

This mindset apparently ruled yesterday at the Chicago Sun-Times, my former place of employment. It’s no secret that the newspaper is struggling to survive, beleaguered on two sides — on one, by an antiquated industry in free-fall, and on the other, looting by its former owner, convicted and waiting to go to prison. Fifty million dollars must be saved and forty jobs have to go.

So far, five people have been sacked and two resigned. All are in non-union managerial editorial positions. And all, it must be said, are distinguished journalists. I know some of them well, and like and respect them all:

Dan Miller, the financial editor. He — a member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame — and I were colleagues on the late lamented Chicago Daily News, and he was always my go-to guy when I needed someone to review an especially important science fiction novel or biography. He resigned.

Russell Bath, a news editor who retired some years ago to care for ailing parents but whose editorial skills were so valuable that the paper later was willing to take him on part-time. He also resigned, reportedly to help save a job for a younger staffer.

Lloyd Sachs, an editorial board member, a veteran critic and reporter, a graceful prose stylist and one of the few true intellectuals on the paper.

Michelle Stevens, a veteran editor and reporter and straight-speaking writer who was one of two African-Americans on the editorial board.

Michael Gillis, a highly respected newsman and longtime chief of the paper’s Springfield bureau, who had been on the editorial board for a year.

Marcia Frellick, the highly competent Sunday editor, one of the toughest and most thankless jobs on the paper.

Avis Weathersbee, an assistant managing editor and Features Department veteran who often wrote brilliantly about mystery novels and mystery authors for the book section I ran. She is another African-American the paper can ill afford to lose.

They and the institutional memory they took out the door with them are huge losses to the Sun-Times and to Chicago journalism.

Next week some 32 union reporters and editors belonging to the Newspaper Guild very likely will be let go. Supposedly the company is honoring seniority lists, which will be good for those hanging on until retirement, but not so good for young people with mortgages and families. In the old days this arrangement seemed reasonably humane, because it protected older staffers, who were less likely to be rehired elsewhere because of their ages.

But now that jobs in newspaper journalism have dried up everywhere, the prospects of employment for younger people are worse than dismal. Youth is being cannibalized for the sake of the aged.

I don’t have any solutions. I just hope that the next Sun-Timesers to walk the plank will be allowed to depart with a shred of decency. At the very least they should be honored and saluted.

[Later Friday: It’s now being reported that the Sun-Times is offering Guild members aged 55 and over a buyout plan involving severance pay and extended health insurance, plus an optional slot on a rehire list. This might dilute the bloodletting some.]

Jan. 8: The appalling past of Ron Paul

This blog does not ordinarily discuss politics. For one thing, I haven’t the background or the expertise in the subject. For another, there’s no point in adding my voice to the circus of cacophony out there; people read political blogs to confirm their prejudices, not to learn the truth.

But today I came across a fascinating piece of muckraking in the New Republic (hardly a liberal journal) regarding the libertarian presidential contender Ron Paul, who in the past seems to have run with the paranoid, white-supremacist, anti-Semitic, homophobic pimples on the body politic.

If even only half of it is true — and there is no reason to think all of it is not — then it is disturbing to consider how this man managed to become taken seriously as a presidential contender.

Jan. 5: The Big Hole at Donner Pass

By cracky, sonny, this weekend’s big snowstorm in the California Sierras has got this geezer happily reliving his salad days as a nonfiction author. Draw up a chair, tuck a blanket over your knees, and bear with me.

Back during the winter of 1993, Mrs. Geezer (a k a the Lady Friend) and I rode over “The Hill,” as railroaders call the Sierras, in the cab of a locomotive pulling the California Zephyr – Amtrak’s Number 5 — from Lovelock, Nevada, to Oakland, California. (The L.F. served as an interpreter in the noisy cab between me and engineers Ray Craig and Chris Younger. I am deaf, and so, after long years sitting in front of a yammering diesel prime mover, were they.) It was one of the great experiences of our lives, and I wrote about it in Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America. We had just left Truckee on the eastern side of the Sierra:

“The grade steepened perceptibly. ‘Eagle!’ Chris called as the brush along the Truckee River parted and a majestic bird soared upriver. This morning Ray and Chris counted four eagles along the river — ‘a record for me,’ Ray said. Riding in the locomotive going over the Hill, Ray said, is ‘just like going to the zoo. There’s a lot of deer, and you’ll see bears, once in a while a mountain lion, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, all kinds of birds — but mostly deer.’ In the winter, he added, ‘deer, bobcats and coyotes run right up along the track, where the snow’s been plowed real shallow. It’s easy going for them.’ . . .

‘Five, Donner!’ Ray barked into the radio as we approached the Stanford Curve, a long stretch of track that arches back on itself as it claws for altitude. From our vantage point we could see the line high up as it plunged into a tunnel, and in a few minutes Number 5 entered that curving tunnel. At the instant we emerged on a long ridge overlooking Donner Lake, still and deep blue far below, Ray turned and beamed a proprietary smile at me. The vista was so glorious that Jennie (Lady Randolph) Churchill’s words on her first visit to Blenheim sprang to mind: ‘As we passed through the entrance archway, Randolph said with pardonable pride, ‘This is the finest view in England.’ Anywhere, but especially high in the Sierra, a locomotive cab is like a fifty-yard-line, front-row-orchestra, picture-window seat upon wide-angle landscapes of the kind nineteenth-century Victorian romantics painted of the Old West. For the next twenty miles something unexpected and breathtaking always lay around the next bend.

“Seconds later Number 5 slid into Tunnel 41, the ‘Big Hole,’ and for a quarter of a mile we fell silent in the roaring darkness, the tunnel walls magnifying the bellow of the locomotives. The cool air in the bore told me that Number 5 was the first train over The Hill that day. If a freight or two had preceded Number 5, our cab temperature would quickly have risen ten or fifteen degrees, thanks to the hot fumes from the multiple engines ahead. So smoky is the air at those times that the engineers cannot see the end of the tunnel beyond. It’s an eerie sensation. What lies ahead? Will the locomotive collide with something unseen? Running at thirty miles an hour into a gray, roiling void is uncomfortably spooky, and these engineers do it every day.

“As we dove out of the Big Hole into daylight right under the gondolas of the Sugar Bowl ski lift soaring to the summit above, I began to share another sensation of uncertainty with the engineers. A warren of crossover tracks lies just before Norden, the huge old Southern Pacific summit station and yard that once sheltered against the snow scores of helper locomotives under wooden roofs. Today six inches of new snow covered the tracks, obscuring the crossovers. The engineers could not see where the switches pointed, ‘and that’s a discomforting feeling,’ Ray said.”

What a thrill that was.

Jan. 4: By the skin of their teeth

From January 13 to 16, 1952, more than 230 people huddled aboard the snowbound City of San Francisco during a massive Sierra storm.

As I write this during the morning of January 4, it seems that a gathering storm on the West Coast could dump as much as 10 feet of snow this weekend on the Sierra Nevada, and that has the television weathercreatures gasping and carrying on, forecasting all kinds of disaster.

They could be right, but let’s hope not.

Almost exactly 56 years ago hundreds of passengers on the Southern Pacific’s storied streamliner City of San Francisco faced icy death when a monstrous storm slammed into “The Hill,” as railroaders still call the line of the original transcontinental railroad over California’s Sierra Nevada. The memory spurred me to hunt up a passage from my 1994 book Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America. It follows:

“On January 13, 1952, snow had been falling steadily on the Sierra for four days and four nights. That morning, at a point a few miles west of the summit [Donner Summit], the Southern Pacific’s westbound City of San Francisco, carrying 226 passengers plus crew, plowed through a raging blizzard into a snowdrift between six and twelve feet deep, and locked fast. The SP dispatched rescue engines and rotary plows from both ends of the summit, but they too became snowbound. One engineer died when his rotary derailed, crushing him.

“Meantime, the wind, raging at eighty to ninety miles an hour, blew solid sheets of snow onto the line. By the morning of the fourteenth both No. 1 and No. 2 tracks were so snow-choked that nothing could get through. U.S. 40, the only highway over the summit, had been closed earlier in the month after an avalanche had buried a truck and trailer near Donner Summit, and it would remain closed until early February. Now the national press focused in grisly fashion on the streamliner snowbound near the spot where, a little more than a century before, members of the Donner Party had consumed each other in despair.

“Late on the fourteenth, the U.S. Army sent Weasels, World War II-era tracked snow vehicles, to the rescue, but they sank uselessly in the wet snow. On the morning of the fifteenth, a Pacific Gas & Electric Sno-Cat rendezvoused with a doctor and a dogsled team brought to the summit from Truckee aboard a rescue train, and struggled with its load up the steep hillside to the snowbound City of San Francisco. The little vehicle, however, was useless for evacuating 226 people. Later in the day a Coast Guard helicopter used a break in the storm to drop medicine, food and supplies.

“On the morning of the sixteenth, fuel had run out. Cold seeped aboard the train, freezing toilets and rupturing pipes. But the storm had ended, the sun had emerged, and highway crews managed to dig a path from a lodge in Emigrant Gap a few miles east to a point on the road just below the stranded train. There rescuers helped the passengers, wrapped in blankets, down to the highway and into waiting automobiles. Not one perished.

“Not for three more days was the empty streamliner finally pulled from the drifts, and not until January 27 was The Hill once again open for normal operations.”

The much better weather forecasting of today very likely will prevent such a scare again, fortunately for the passengers of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr, which mounts The Hill from both directions every day.

[Later Friday: Marc Magliari of Amtrak media relations says it will try to operate the Zephyr through this weekend’s storm, but if it decides to cancel, passengers whose phone numbers are on their reservations will be called.]

[Still later Friday: As of 7 p.m. CDT it appears that while snow pounds The Hill, Amtrak is holding the westbound Zephyr at Reno, Nevada (not a bad place to be snowbound) on the east side of the Sierra, and is doing the same to the the eastbound Zephyr at Roseville, Calif., on the west. Amtrak also reportedly has told passengers that there will be no alternate means of transportation during the storm. At least nobody will be marooned in Donner Pass for three days.]

[Saturday morning: Looks like the doughty crews of the Union Pacific’s snow-fighting rotary plows managed to keep The Hill open during the blizzard Friday. The westbound Zephyr arrived in Emeryville two and a half hours late, and the eastbound train made it to Reno four hours behind schedule. Not bad at all.]

[Sunday morning: Saturday’s westbound Zephyr got in to Emeryville 4 1/2 hours late and the eastbound Zephyr left Reno 6 1/2 hours late. But they made it over The Hill.]

[Monday morning: Sunday’s No. 5 arrived at Emeryville 5 hours 4 minutes late and No. 6 departed Reno 4 hours 39 minutes late. Not a single Amtrak train going over The Hill was annulled last weekend, quite a tribute to the hundreds of unsung railroaders who kept the line open in the snow and ice, even resorting to running diesel-soaked ropes along the tracks in Truckee and setting them aflame to lessen ice buildup. The press tends to ignore such heroics, considering them Industrial Age commonplaces.]

[February 3: I’ve just discovered the existence of a newsreel from 1952 about this event.]

On January 16 the passengers of the City of San Francisco began to file down the rail line to nearby U.S. 40, where automobiles waited to carry them to safety.

Jan. 2: Limning wintry limbs

Pentax ist DS, Sigma 17-70mm at 40mm, 1/45 sec f6.7, ISO 400

At 7:30 a.m. New Year’s Day I stepped out on the deck of our house in Evanston to snap this shot of new-fallen snow clinging to the trees in our back yard. For most of the previous evening, an icy fog had shrouded the area, gluing the ensuing night’s light, fluffy snow to the branches like a heavy dusting of powdered sugar.

The eerie bluish hue presumably comes from the low early-morning sun trying to punch through the overcast. The photos I took an hour later had lost the color, turning an uninteresting gray.

A larger version of the photo is here.

Jan. 1: Getting rid of books

You know that fellow surrounded by books? The one who dwells inside a multi-room, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling library? The one who oozes tweedy schmaltz about being unable to say goodbye to his best friends?

That’s not me, not lately anyway. Since coming back from Lake Superior last fall, I’ve been steadily banishing a lifetime’s collection of books from the premises. Sooner or later, whenever the housing market recovers, the Lady Friend and I will be moving into a condo, or maybe a retirement community, and we will have to dump most of the the packrattery we’ve amassed.

The books are easiest to let go of, but there are so many of them. Everyone will have his own standards for triage, but mine are simple:

1. The mysteries and thrillers will go to the cabin on Lake Superior, where most of the whodunit collection has lived for the last few years anyway. They are reference tools for the working whodunit writer and some of them are worth rereading just for pleasure.

2. The personally inscribed copies from fellow writers will stay, out of a perhaps misguided sense of loyalty. Wouldn’t want a colleague to come upon one of his books in a used bookstore and feel that I hold our friendship jettisonable. After I’ve passed on to the great library in the sky, neither of us will care.

3. The mound of paperbacks containing cover quotes from my reviews stays, too. It’s a simple matter of ego: Once somebody, perhaps only a marketing specialist, valued my literary opinion enough to enshrine it on the back of a softcover. Those are trophies of a kind.

4. Also remaining is the pile of first editions of novels by Updike, Bellow, Cheever, Roth and Malamud. Someday they might be worth good money on the collector’s market, and my heirs could use the proceedings to help send their children to college.

5. The thirty feet of Library of America books will remain, too. Not only do they look good on the wall, I plan to read them all from A to Z, beginning with Adams, Henry, when I eventually wind up in a nursing home.

All these make up only about five per cent of the books in my house. All the rest slowly are being boxed and trundled down to the Evanston Public Library, which cherry-picks what it wants for the shelves and puts the rest in book sales, the proceeds from which go to new acquisitions.

I have felt no sentimentality about this process. A book, to me, is not a holy artifact, an icon, to be blindly worshipped. It’s what’s inside the book, its intellectual content, that’s important. A book is only a container for ideas. Once read, it’s just a husk. Passing it on to a new reader magically resurrects its soul.