Friday, April 28, 2017

Travelogue 749 – April 28
Marking the Calendar


The baristas are giddy this morning. They worked yesterday, on King’s Day, and the cafe was a madhouse, as it always is on King’s Day. By afternoon, the lines were long, and they were managing drunks and families and the crises of impatience. The morning after is a relief. They are free to be careless.

Another April is ready to pass into memory. This one is passing on amid colder temperatures than those that brought it in. The skies are dark, and the lanes glisten with the last shower. It’s cold. I ask if I can close the window on the third floor that allows all the heat out. My fingers are moving slowly over the keyboard. The barista only laughs.

Calendars were conceived in ritual. Seasons cycle round; nature’s events seem to recur. The day is much like one a year ago. We remember. We celebrate, commemorate. We observe. We purge. We let it go again. It comes again. Spring is a fun time of year to welcome back.

April has a light heart in Holland. The weather breaks. The trees blossom. The black bird with the lovely voice settles in the courtyard. The April calendar starts for me with the local marathon. I ran this year, as part of a relay team from work. I was one of four, and I got to bring it home and cross the finish line. It sounds exciting, but the reality looks more like zigzagging among tired and nearly hopeless people. As I’ve said, April has stood on its head this year. Warm weather blew in early, and then the weeks slid back toward winter until cold King’s Day. Early April is summer-like. These poor, pale runners, bred for cold, were suffering in the heat. I had a good race, feeling light and ready to run. The weather was gorgeous. I flew by them all, and I felt guilty for it. I snuck across the finish line – though, yes, with arms raised in triumph.

April closes with King’s Day. It may sound like a sober state holiday, but it’s a day meant to be fun. It is simply the celebration of the birthday of the monarch. Holland has been blessed with long reigns since the nineteenth century, and one of those healthy people was blessed with an April birthday. It so happens the new king is also an April baby. Grandmother and son were born only three days apart. (Mother retained her mother’s birthday as Queen’s Day.)

My family and I did our part. We dressed in orange, and we set out to the street markets to walk among the crowds and shop. Our market this year was at Heemraadsplein, a busy centre in the west of the city. Our friend Jan has a balcony that overlooks this pleasant park. Today, his children are manning a table in the market selling hot wine and fudge. In a spirit of charity, I indulge.

Menna and her mother leave Baby and me behind, diving into the crowds and quickly disappearing. Baby quickly finds ways to divert herself with other people’s things. I realize that browsing without touching is not a working concept for Baby. I buy a bag of baby-sized plastic kitchenware for fifty cents, and we retreat to a grassy area to play. She enjoys nothing more than pretending to eat and drink. She can repeat the rituals of meal time for hours, and I’m happy to pay along. The cold day is not bad once the sun gains some strength. We sit in the grass a long time, rowdier and older little children running past, stopping in order to smack and trip and push each other. Baby watches, bemused, and returns to her polite repast.

Shopping done, Mama re-appears like a mirage. ‘Is that Mama?’ I ask Baby. ‘Mama!’ We walk to the tram station along the canal, through the busy park, strolling among many other families. We stop to play on the slide and the swings. Baby sits with Mama on the little toadstool seat that turns in dizzy circles on its base. She laughs and laughs. This is what spring should sound like. This is what we commemorate in April.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Travelogue 748 – April 20
Seeing Friends


I’m contemplating communities this month. They’re surprisingly diverse these days, intersecting in funny ways, making us complex interchanges of identity. We become richer in character and judgement, hopefully. I think of my friend the philosopher, who works at the café and plays minor-league football. I enjoy how all this works itself out in his personality. He has a few voices he can employ. I reflect on the communities themselves. They interact there, at the node of the individual, but rarely outside it. The mid-fielder on his team and his closest associate at the university may pass each other every day on the street and never know it. If they met at a party, they may struggle with conversation. Communities intersect for us in time but not in substance, lying like one transparency over another, making the blotter of life a colourful one.

There are communities that intersect across time. My communities now, include runners, theatre people, writers, teachers. My communities across time are those who were with me in college, in jobs, in adventures. They represent places, California, Ethiopia, the East Coast, and Europe.

This month, I’ve had emissaries from several different lives. Howard travelled from the furthest point in time, all the way from our freshman year in university. He spotted me in the café by the train station before I spotted him, though he stood directly in my line of sight. It had been longer than we realized since we had seen each other last. The lines in our faces and the greying hair gave us away. ‘How long has it been?’

It’s been a long time since his son was the age of my girls, but he still knows how to make Baby laugh. He holds Little Sister with no awkwardness at all. He joins the family, and he’s in good spirits. They aren’t the high and unbridled spirits of our first acquaintance, when we were set loose on university property. That reckless community has dispersed. What is left is the enduring friendship, enduring through years of much quieter times. Quiet as they have become, our vocabulary was formed during the wild times. Everything is set beside the dreams of youth, perhaps with irony, perhaps with contentment, but the mould is set. Friendships are legacies of community. They follow laws. After a few days with us, he continues on to Sweden, where his son studies. They have plans to travel to Israel.

Our bonds are memory and vocabularies are hope. Shared partying, shared dreaming.

The next visitor travels from a later time, a time following closely on university, when dreams are careening into kerbs and walls, propelled by our naivete and inexperience. Wes and I met in Boston, but knew each other best in San Francisco and Minneapolis. When we first met, he was a rocker and a college student, and generally too cool to be hanging out with the likes of me. He’s still a rocker, but a family man, and even now, too cool. He has brought his wife and teenage daughter. They are touring Europe, and we are one of their first stops.

Baby benefits again, everyone wanting to hold her, read to her, take her picture. She is laughing, shy and fearless in turns, climbing over her new friends and then retreating into Mama’s arms.

Our bonds are music and culture, the decades we have shared, the things we know about each other by witnessing the struggles. Shared disappointments and lessons.

And now come visiting us are our Dutch visitors. They are co-workers of mine, husband and wife. They have come to meet our youngest daughter for the first time, Baby’s little sister. They bring gifts for both girls. For Baby is an orange dress for King’s Day, and for Little Sister, a crinkly toy. Little Sister smiles, as she so often does. She’s a happy soul.

It’s the present. We sit together in our modest living room, and the day’s vocabulary is woven from work and from the calendar, from the world right outside or windows. Conversation follows simple lines of projection, no less satisfying for their simplicity. Summer is coming. We talk about travel. They are planning on Prague, and tell them about that grand city old in the 90s. It was cheap; it was a celebration. We tell them we’re going nowhere this summer. We don’t hesitate or regret to say it. ‘We’re staying home.’ We’re staying home with the tightest little community, our family. Happy for it. We’ve seen a lot already. And we’ll see more, when the girls are old enough to travel.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Travelogue 747 – April 13
Making Books


Electricity has returned to the wijn bar. Customers cheer. Enough of the Ethiopian experience survives in me to temper my response. All this happens on a different register for the Dutch. The music resumes. Perhaps that is more comfort than the light to generations raised with earphones. The interruption is unsettling; one can’t be sure one is having fun unless the music says so. Ethiopia has been good conditioning for me, a culture of interruption to scramble the programming. It’s liberating for those of us bred to be cyborgs.

I pack away the magazines. The evening is just beginning. I have a ticket to see author Michael Chabon speak at one of the local bookstores. It’s the biggest bookstore in town, meandering across the entire ground floor of a large building facing the busy Coolsingel. It’s after hours; the doors are looked. A solitary employee is stationed by the door to let in people with tickets. We are guided through wide open spaces lined with bookshelves toward a central room set with chairs and stage.

We ticket-holders are a select crowd. We check each other out, with all the affection and hostility of extended family. We are bookworms, writers, and culture junkies. Some of us are comic book aficionados, drawn by Chabon’s forays into that special realm. We chose our seats with care. We pose by the display tables. There is some posing with the interviewer and moderator, a young author who apparently cuts a fine figure among local literary circles.

Once the show gets going, I recognize with a smile the interviewer’s distinctly Dutch style of questioning, brusque and eager for every tangent. Mr. Chabon handles it well, with appealing humility and openness. He discusses his new book, writing styles, his distinct subject matter, and working with his author wife. If it weren’t for his unnerving resemblance, with the coke-bottle glasses and the querulous high treble in his voice, to a particularly repellent member of the board I worked for until recently, I would have thoroughly enjoyed his company.

I reflect on these communities we drift along through and along with, and how these communities define us in pinwheel fashion, giving us our chameleon colours as we progress through our days. I’ve been contemplating this little bit of commentary that takes a look at how politics changes with the multiplication of identities. We are loath to admit how much democracy has historically relied on homogeneous blocks of identity, and how fragile democracy is proving to be in the age of heightened individualism.

It’s a sort of intrusion of politics that finally convinces me to leave the lecture. Chabon is clearly very experienced in interviews. He is resolute in taking no risks. I don’t blame him. I’ve noticed how sensitive people have become, so easy to wound. It has become a persistent danger to anyone in the public eye. It’s as though the enrichment of individuality has only accomplished a taut stretching of our thin skins over more surface area. We are many-faceted targets.

It’s getting late, and I’m thinking about my babies. After his engaging thoughts about the Holocaust in arts – worded with excruciating and exhausting care – I find there isn’t much more to excite me. I slip out of my seat and go in search of the lonely guardian of the door. It’s true night now; there are no traces of the spring sun in the west. I’ve forgotten where I locked my bike. I walk up and down the Coolsingel, breathing deeply of the cool air.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Travelogue 746 – April 12
Making Lists


I cycle down to the Meent. I have some time between engagements. I have a mind to stop in at a favourite wijn bar. What I want is a place to read.

I stop on a quiet street, not far from the cathedral. There is a row of small cafes here, all carrying forward a tradition of simple tastes and quiet relaxation. The décor is subdued, the interiors both dark and light, big windows and dark wood.

I lock up the bicycle and enter. It’s a week night, and there aren’t many people. Something is up. It’s unusually quiet. The few patrons have a stunned look about them. They look at me as though sharing a joke. I take a seat, and I extract my magazines from my rucksack.

I’m slow to figure out what has happened, but it does seep in. They are talking about it, and the language filters in. The lights have gone out on this block. One of the servers is lighting candles and deploying them, though it’s still light out. The barkeep from next door rushes in to assure everyone he has called the city.

I shrug. It’s all the same to me. Spring has brought long hours. There is still plenty of sunlight to read by. Out my window, the sun is hanging over the shoulder of the cathedral.

My first article is an unfortunate choice. It’s enjoyable because it’s well-written, but the subject is loss and grief. I have been spending so much time in this emotional territory lately, I’m vulnerable to the underlying despair.

I set the magazine aside, and I stare out the window at the narrow lane outside. I feel the weight of the subject matter settle inside of me, and I take a minute to acknowledge what I’ve done to myself. I’ll be paying for this for a few days. There’s a nightmare coming.

What’s more, the article was written was written by a woman who has lost her father. This will work to layer my new anxieties about fatherhood on top of the existing layers of grief. I’m beginning to realize there is no ‘working this out’. One premise behind years of scribbling has been proven false. I am still editing pages for publication from among of the hundreds written about this stuff. At least I can take pride in how diligently I have pursued the premise.

The realization has been a very long process, maybe because I have imagined healing to be a long process. By the time the rainbow dissipates, stranding one far from any pot of gold, many irretrievable miles have been travelled. One settles in a new country.

It’s an American publication I’ve been reading. I’m wondering if mood is an American specialty, soul-drenching mood, sorrow and melancholy, rages and fits of insanity. It’s not that other nations have no struggles with the spectre of death, but could it be that Americans of a certain generation have taken it personally? Is it the shadow of our post-war optimism?

I’m discovering that parenthood sharpens this struggle. The stakes are higher. I must teach hope. I have observed that hope tends to reward itself, and hopeful people have happier lives. I refer to real hope, not the hope bred of desperation.

I sense – probably wrongly – that Europeans do see things differently. I sense that the world consists of more facts, and is less saturated with mood. I sense that Freud’s (and his followers’) theories were indeed revolutionary, but were processed in the mind first, rather than in the heart. Existentialism fuelled discussion, rather than lonely despair.

I set the magazine aside. I use the balance of my time to write lists. Lists are wonderful restorative devices. Inventories of names are a tonic to depression. Death teaches the insignificance of things. Names teach significance. It is not the job of the void to assign value to things of substance.

Every day Baby learns a new name. I have to keep up.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Travelogue 745 – March 28
Counting Steps


And so I lick my wounds after the half marathon, and I return to my routine in Holland, even as spring dawns. The weather has been a sudden tonic for winter, and people have been beside themselves, making every step a celebration. The skies are alarmingly blue, and the sun brings us warmth.

And so a winter training season ends with a spring run. The skies have broken open. When I ride the bike into work in the morning, the sun has risen. The birds are singing. By the time I get a chance to run, the pavements beyond the protection of shadows is warm. I regret the long sleeves. I have company in new runners, lured by the spring into fleeting hopes of sweaty fun.

I bring the injury back into training, and slowly it disappears, a Cheshire grin of pain. I have slowed the training down, but I must continue. I am scheduled to run another distance for charity, this time as part of a relay team of colleagues in the Rotterdam Marathon. It will, thankfully, be a shorter run.

Running is an opportunity for reflection. I reflect on the long stretches of road in Bath, unusual for England in their straight lines of sight, chosen by the marathon committee to unnerve native-born Brits, who would rarely have run a straight line for miles in this way. There’s something like achievement in turning corners. The sight of distance can drain away momentum.

I had made it to the final straightaway, leading back into town on the second loop, when my hip went into meltdown. In that circumstance, the distance ahead was taunting. I started walking.

I think of the winding roads outside Bath, riding along them in Pey’s car, struggling with car sickness. I’m sitting on what should be the driver’s side, and I’m watching whatever I can see in the high beams of the little auto. Most of what I see is alarmingly close. The landscape is as compact as the car, the little stone walls racing by just beyond the bumper, other cars breezing bay with inches to spare. We are turning, rising and falling, all at once, and I am battling to keep my stomach in place.

We are traveling to Trowbridge, where we will sit in a poetry group. I will sip tea with some desperation for the first half hour, hoping to calm my tummy. But as the nausea recedes and I listen, I discover with some delight that this is good stuff being shared. My memories of poetry readings from my youth has prepared me for embarrassment and boredom. These people are good. They are lively and intelligent, and they know their poetry.

I leave inspired, even if a little disheartened by the prospect of another harrowing ride home. I write every day, even without much faith in writing. This renews my faith. Their faith is contagious.

I write every day, and lately I am rounding off the editing work on a book I hope to self-publish within a matter of weeks. This book forms the second and connecting link among three works that capture some themes from my life, specifically from what forms now the middle part of my narrative, those years begun in Minnesota and carrying me to Ethiopia.

It’s funny. The more I try to narrate ‘life’, the more I think there is no such thing. There are only details. And, as I’ve recently said about sport, one can only take detail lightly in order to take it seriously. It makes no sense as meaning unless dismissed as meaning. One writes and reads about detail simply for the fun of it, and then somehow a sense of import dawns on one. But it rarely unfolds, blooms, (like spring,) into an explicit, simple, readable text.

I’ve returned home with blue skies commencing. I ask the Gryphon to lead me to someone with a story. The Mock Turtle looks at us with large eyes full of tears, saying nothing.

'He wants for to know your history, she do,' says the Gryphon.

'I'll tell it her,' says the Mock Turtle in a deep, hollow tone. 'Sit down, both of you, and don't speak a word till I've finished. When we were little,' the Mock Turtle is still sobbing, 'we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle — we used to call him Tortoise — .'

Monday, March 13, 2017

Travelogue 744 – March 13
Halted Steps


There are those moments in a long road race when you are empowered to make time stand still. You are compelled to make time stand still. It’s meditation forged in a furnace, a deep mining of the present moment by agency of pain.

Except for the first mile and the last mile, the course of the Bath Half pursues a loop west to a bridge that crosses the Avon out past the city limits, where the town has given way to open fields, and following another road back into town. The race completes that loop twice before running by the train station, through Widcombe, and down Great Pulteney Street to the finish. That loop makes for four long straightaways, first west and then east, long and flat stretches of road that test the will.

‘It's always six o'clock now,' says the Mad Hatter mournfully. Time (Him, not It, the Hatter has clarified,) Time won’t allow the hour to advance past six. ‘It’s always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.'

This is the chosen curse of Mr. Time, in the mad science of the Hatter. Make him mad and he will stop the clock. Why do we (more or less) sane mortals daydream about stopping time? Maybe it’s simply because we want to sleep, or read more than headlines. But in Wonderland, this is a punishment particularly galling, especially when you can’t complete tea time to satisfaction.

In our world, runners stop time in order to complete the race. It’s a paradox among endurance sports: we perform feats that are measured by time, so we must dismantle time. The race becomes a set of steps. And each one is a still shot of the asphalt underneath, of that guy just ahead of you, of the furthest visible point ahead. It becomes a chronicle of single, noisy breaths. For an older runner like me, it’s like a medical file, monitoring a variety of systems. How are those ankles, those knees? Lungs, heart, stomach?

And then there’s the recurring question, ‘What am I doing here?’ That needs constant contemplation. There are so many angles to explore. When is sport trivial? When is sport madness? The answers are almost universally matters of perspective. Take it lightly, and sport has merit and meaning. Take it seriously, and become ridiculous. Yes, it’s madness.

They say Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the nineteenth-century Oxford don writing as Lewis Carroll, had a special sympathy for children, particularly little girls. It could be that ‘sympathy’ was not the right word. Either way, he enjoyed the company of children, and enjoyed the kind of repartee that children partake in, the word play, the irreverence, the quick moods and emphatic declarations, the will to subjectivity.

‘We’re all mad here,’ says the Cheshire Cat. ‘I’m mad. You’re mad.’

"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”

I’m keeping a decent pace. I’m not on course to break my record, but I’m not far off it, either. Then comes Mile Ten. Every long race has its wall. For the half marathon, it’s Mile Ten. I put in many long training runs before the race with nothing more than the spectre of Mile Ten to goad me forward, the anxiety of the imagined pain. But no preparation will save me this time. My hip suddenly starts in with a steady and deep, debilitating ache. I have to stop.

I stop, and I calculate. What am I capable of doing now? The time is gone, but is the race? I walk, testing the hip. I slowly start running again. It’s painful, but if I keep it slow, maybe. I carry on for no more than half a kilometre before I have to stop again. I won’t let myself pull out of the race. I think of my athletes in Ethiopia, and I’m ashamed. I have to finish.

So this is how I make it to the finish line, some 15 minutes off the time I should have had. But I arrive in one piece, and I celebrate nonetheless. Anything less would be madness.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Travelogue 743 – March 12
Many Steps


‘It’s HIM,’ the Mad Hatter says. ‘If you knew Time as well as I do, ….’

I began the day of the race with some drills out in the rain. At seven, I jogged up to Alexandria Park and did a few circuits, alternating between fast and slow, warming up for the ordeal of the race. The park occupies the top of a hill, and there is a circular drive there, about half a kilometre in length. It climbs steeply, then drops. Running round it is a good warm-up. I build up to some speed. Time is, after all, the measure of today’s success.

I’ve been re-reading Alice(‘s Adventures) in Wonderland. The Tim Burton film was on TV before I left for England. Alice’s story seemed rather liberally re-interpreted in the film, but it had been many years since I read the book. In point of fact, I didn’t remember there being much of a story to Alice in Wonderland at all. Hadn’t that been one of its charms?

After my morning drills, I ate with Pey and her family. I took an hour to rest, completely off my feet. I read a few pages from Alice. ‘I dare say,’ the Mad Hatter objected, `I dare say you never even spoke to Time!' The little girl wasn’t sure how to answer.

Lewis Carroll – actual name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- published this little story in 1865. Before it was ever written down, the story was told to entertain the three young Liddell sisters (including Alice) while rowing one summer day up the Isis River in Oxford. Mr. Dodgson was a professor in mathematics and logic at the university. That a logician should come up with the age’s nonsense tale seems to me lovely.

I’m here to raise money for my athletes in Addis Ababa, a place far down the rabbit hole of north-south disparity. I’ve set a nonsense goal, a new time to beat an old time. Nonsensically, I allow it to rattle me, to make me nervous. I’ve been training toward this nonsense time for months, and it’s been strangely effective in motivating me. I’m in very good shape.

‘I know I have to beat time when I learn music,’ Alice says. The Hatter warns her, ‘He won't stand beating.’

Pey and I start down the hill toward town. She’s accompanying me to the race start. I’m feeling fragile as we approach the steep staircase down Beechen Cliff. ‘Maybe I could do this thing tomorrow?’ I wonder. Pey advises me that they will disqualify me. Why this day? Why this distance? I ask all the questions that make sport seem genuinely silly. And not only am I running, but raising money for runners and perpetuating the nonsense. So it goes. Life is a very serious matter until one attends the details.

I’m safe among the crowds of runners in the starting gate. The race will begin in five. We stretch and jump to keep warm. We joke with each other and wave to spectators. Phones are raised high to snap pictures of the thousands of competitors. It will take us almost five minutes to reach the starting line, slowly surging forward, and we’re among the first groups to start. In an hour, the same people bouncing left to right and smiling in anticipation will be lost somewhere in the second loop of the course, suffering and urging him- or herself forward with every step, perhaps with a mantra like mine, ‘Never again.’ Every so often, police will wave them to the side to allow passage of an ambulance.

‘Suppose it were nine o'clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons,’ says the Hatter. ‘You'd only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’