Saturday, March 10, 2018

Travelogue 792 – March 10
Change in the Machine

Nobody has change. We’ve stopped at the grocery store, at the café, and at several bars. No one can break the fifty.

It’s funny how few Dutch people actually use currency. I know I don’t. I rarely have cash on hand. Even small change. If I want to leave a tip, I have to remember to ask the cashier to add it into the charge on my card.

Living on electronic money certainly makes life easier. Transactions are fast. Everyone has card-readers. And most are the kind you can simply swipe. Once in a while the machines will reject a swipe and ask for a code, just the occasional check against fraud.

It can trigger anxieties. Your heart might skip a beat when the machine rejects your card, especially when you are new to the cashless economy. Have you been hacked? Are you bankrupt? Has the account finally been emptied? Somehow spending money with a card exaggerates the sense of burning through money. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe that’s unique to those who grew up spending cash.

I only wanted to sell a few tickets to my upcoming play. I wrote two one-acts that I’m directing and producing in April. And the old-style promoter in me wants to sell paper tickets in advance, to make sure we fill seats - or at least to try to break even early. Friends are willing, but they have no cash.

I accompany Teresa to the grocery store at lunch time. She buys a sandwich with her card. She withdraws a fifty from the cash machine. We walk from storefront to storefront trying to break it. Finally, we give up. She leaves the fifty with me, good friend, and leaves it to me to break.

Later in the day, I pay for coffee with the fifty. It feels awkward. The barista stares at the bill a moment. She has trouble counting the change. I’ve embarrassed myself presenting cash.

If I feel vulnerable without paper money, it’s probably only my age. Was my money safer when flesh-and-blood bank cashiers counted it out for me? Were the cashiers or bank managers more responsive in crisis? Isn’t that the core anxiety in a world of machines, that there is no one to hear you scream – in rage or in distress?

I am curious about the story of the failsafes that were developed before banks set up their first ATMs in the mid-1960s. The procedures and tests must have been extensive, trusting money to unmanned machinery.

Now I realize if I want to accept cash, I need some sort of mediating machine. I will need to invest in a card-reader. It’s an odd accommodation, a form of cybernetic adaptation. My hand is no longer adequate equipment for receiving payment.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Travelogue 791 – February 27
Darkness in the Machine
Part Three

The new computer is fine. Data darkness recedes. But it will never abate. That’s clear. There are files I grieve over, photos and documents. Projects are still on hold because I don’t have the heart to start over. Not quite yet.

It comes as a sobering realization how fragile data is. It should. We need the occasional check on our powers, the reminder that darkness is the prevailing state. ‘Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away,’ and all that. It was ever that way with knowledge and our projects. The darkness is shocking when it comes, no matter our strength or wisdom.

A corollary of darkness is contingency. It isn’t something we humans like to admit, how much our lives are the product of accident and darkness. How many butterfly opportunities have flown because I lost letters and CVs, lists and thoughts?

The stark figure of contingency stands in every scene, in every story. That should be understood. We should pencil him in, like the skulls so ubiquitous in Renaissance paintings. He’s been president and pirate, Roman and Ethiopia. And yes, he was a Bolshevik. I find funny this belated hush about 1917. As though the Russian Revolution had let us down. As though it could have ever claimed to have been socialist, Communist, Marxist, or even a revolution. Russian, yes – though it indeed had to be imported.

History is fascinating and beautiful because of its contingencies. The revolutionaries lived in exile in London and Vienna and New York, and they dreamed about revolution. But they could not call the date. When the day came, it was in the midst of a soul-crushing war, and the exigencies of state overcame the dreams of utopia. In these conditions, every decision it came to the Bolsheviks to make as leaders led them away from the ideas of the Bolsheviks as thinkers. They were cornered by contingency.

In order to manifest their dream, the Bolsheviks needed a state apparatus. But the state, and the apparatus, they inherited was on the verge of collapse. Their first mandate was power. The state must function, that their program see the light of day. Way leads on to way, and we never see that first road though the yellow wood again. Ideologues argue. Politicians jockey for position. Lenin has his stroke. Fascists come to power in Europe. They hold forth on the menace of the Bolsheviks. More lines are drawn, more wars to come.

All of it is a fine fable. There was only ever contingency. And so, ultimately, it’s comical that we censor history. All real lessons are lost. They are heroes; then they are disappointments. It’s a silly game, and ironically, it only demonstrates our disregard for history. Observing and measuring humanity by its palpable responses to history, I find that history is an unconscious force far more powerful than a conscious one. In fact, the more that people have no idea how to process history consciously, the more powerful it becomes as an unconscious force.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Travelogue 790 – February 25
My Rabbits

I got a late start this morning, and still the temperatures were solidly below zero (Celsius). I debated my decision to cycle into town as I descended the stairs to ground level. The bicycle won, and I set out. Tears sprang into my eyes at the first cold wind. My fingers through gloves and toes through trainers felt the bite of the chill. But the truth is, though every day at my first exposure to the morning cold I question my resolve, the bike always wins. I enjoy this kind of cold. It comes with bright blue skies and rare sunshine. It’s brisk. It’s exhilarating.

February has been a sunny and a cold month here in Rotterdam. I admit that I’ve felt some relief, after months of clouds and intermittent rain. I’ve been cycling more. I’ve been running. My struggling training campaign for a spring half marathon has revived.

I returned from a run yesterday afternoon, and a neighbour had to comment. ‘Optimistisch,’ he said, not realizing I had already been out for more than an hour. He eyed the shorts, and I laughed. It really doesn’t bother me, the bare legs in freezing temperatures. It may be the dulling effect of age. It may be some genetic recoding I underwent during my years in Minnesota.

As a matter of fact, yesterday was the first occasion this year I felt like a runner. For months, I’ve had to ignore the rabbits, fellow runners placed by Providence to stir the competitive spirit. I haven’t had the strength of body or mind to rise to any challenges. Today, I couldn’t resist. I was passed by a young man who was huffing and puffing and dragging his feet. He looked fit, gym-fit, well-built, but no natural runner. I couldn’t countenance it. I found some reservoir of endurance, and, though I’d already logged a number of cold miles, I put this upstart behind me. A glorious performance. Surprisingly, I paid no heavy price for it. The new pace felt good, and I was mightily encouraged. The half marathon in May might just be within my reach.

At home, I tell Baby it’s time to run. She’s overjoyed. She tells me what needs to happen. ‘I need my jacket, Papa. Where are my gloves, Papa?’ Outside, we start right away. ‘Run, run,’ I say. She holds my hand, and we run a full lap around the whole building, along the first-floor balcony. We stop occasionally, and she blows noisy breaths to signal that’s she exercising. Then we start again. She never seems to get tired, and the cold doesn’t bother her at all. Once home again, she boasts to Mama. ‘Baby goes running!’ Wow! Mama says. One day I’ll be the rabbit, old man with the audacity to be ahead of her.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Travelogue 789 – February 18
Darkness in the Machine
Part Two

One hundred years ago today, the Germans launched their continued offensive against Russia, impatient with Mr. Trotsky’s strategy of high discourse and low delay. The German socialist revolution was not coming, but the German army was. The Red Army, the new Russian army, made semi-voluntary, was going to crumble before them. When Lenin decided there was no choice but to sign for peace with Germany, at the expense of extensive territory, Trotsky resigned as Foreign Minister, rather than sign the treaty.

Several weeks on, I’m still stumbling over gaps in my data, weeks on from the collapse of my own data army assembled in the cheap little netbook that suddenly went black. We hired a baby-sitter for date night, but we paid twenty minutes of wages just trying to buy our movie tickets. I had to retrieve three passwords from three different vendors just to be able to buy those tickets and transfer them to Menna’s smart phone. It’s frustrating to be hostage to such small details.

I’ve wondered why a figure like Trotsky would hold such fascination, particularly in a new era that prefers to downplay the Russian Revolution as an embarrassing bit of history. We still enjoy our Cold War stories, but I wonder how many from the younger generations can link that history back to the wild Bolsheviks of 1917. Myself, I remember quite well my fascination with 1917 during my university studies. I recognize the foundation level of the palimpsest that is my picture of Russian communism, a romantic picture, painted in thick impressionistic oils. The outlines were basic: the suffering, the idealism. Why did I find Trotsky so compelling? Why does the idealistic adolescent of our stereotypes always have a poster of Che on his/her wall?

Trotsky’s career was far from over once he retired as Foreign Minister. Having watched the Red Army’s collapse, he resolved to put Humpty Dumpty together again. He took over the Red Army, and he took it over just as another threat appeared, a threat more frightening than the Germans. In the spring, the Czechoslovak Legion in Siberia rebelled when confronted by Bolshevik officials who were protecting enemy prisoners. The officials were bound by the terms of the new treaty to protect prisoners. The rebels overthrew the officials and quickly controlled an impressive swath of territory. Russian officers joined in rebellion against the Bolsheviks, and very soon much of Russia east of the Urals was lost to the central government. The Civil War had begun.

Trotsky has often been classified as the ideologue, set beside the cold pragmatists Lenin and Stalin. But re-assembling this broken army was not philosophy; it was compromise and calculation and hard work. He re-professionalized the army. He recruited leadership from the old regime. Rivals denounced it as betrayal of their ideals. He pressed on, often preserving individual units only by personal intervention, standing in the way of deserters, making speeches. He was true believer, even if only in his own abilities.

We marvel over the feats of our predecessors. We feel the anxiety of the late-comer. We romanticize the past and regret our own lack of opportunity – when our greatest adventure is a dying hard drive. I think it’s perhaps the shadow of the opportunity that has more power, the challenge implicit in the achievements of our ancestors. Would we survive what our grandmothers and grandfathers survived?

I have had occasion to question Freud’s improvisation of a universal death instinct. The theory is emotionally satisfying, particularly in a time of school shootings, but it seems simplistic. I find more potential in an exploration of this late-comer anxiety. How do we navigate our own age, so radically, so palpably different than any other age? How do we reconcile our histories? How do we reconcile our heroes – board room, lab coat, social media heroes – against the volumes of encyclopaedias full of Caesars and Trotskys?

Many ancient cultures had deep-rooted traditions of ancestor veneration. I remember finding that so strange and alien as a young person. I was typically naïve about it. ‘They worshipped their grandfathers?’ I could shrug it off when it was reduced to a formula like that. I didn’t much like my father. I couldn’t countenance someone worshipping him down the line.

But he threatens me. He has the power to speak out of the darkness. Down there is a reservoir of data much harder to re-assemble, a hard drive that hasn’t quite crashed, and yet is impenetrable.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Travelogue 788 – February 1
Darkness in the Machine
Part One

What I've started I've lost. My computer died a few days ago.

I remember I was writing about the darkness. I had read some time in recent weeks that this was becoming the darkest fall-winter season in a hundred years. I hadn't needed to be told; I had felt it like a damp wool suit. My Dutch friends denied it, but locals always want you to believe that the extreme is the normal.

Maybe writing about darkness had imported it into the system. It took over my computer and coated the circuitry like syrup, like coffee. Coffee was the repair man's best guess at what had been spilled on the keyboard and, from there, onto the mother board, extinguishing all life in the poor machine.

I wouldn't have minded - I had already begun marvelling at the long service provided by the inexpensive toy netbook, - but for the timing. But how can I complain? There's never a good time for loss. And bad luck wouldn't be particularly bad without its sense of timing.

Sunk into the syrup of night were also a few shelves of documents. I don't have any catalogue of what's gone. Among the casualties will be drafts of writing that I was lazy about backing up. Even the plays I'm currently rehearsing only exist in hard copy now.

Losing things can feel unexpectedly liberating, when it isn't a house key in winter or something you need urgently. Relief makes for an odd mix with anxiety, with the sobering reminder of human frailty. But there is something undeniably exhilarating about those show-stopping moments when the plot is suspended, and you have no choice but to regroup.

A part of the mind finds the strong language funny when employed about a cheap computer. Our dependencies are so various and many and surprising. These are interesting times.

I was writing about the darkness. And I was writing about the centenary of Russia's dark winter of 1918. The nation was in a precarious position that winter. There was a new regime, new to Russia and to the world. It had taken over during wartime.

Perhaps the most intriguing figure from that era was Leon Trotsky, writer and orator who was destined in the course of this year and the several following to become a battle-hardened general.

As the year opened, Trotsky was the Foreign Minister for Bolshevik Russia. He was on his way to join in the negotiations with Germany at Brest-Litovsk. He was going to bring discipline to the negotiation team. He was going to bring socialism to the table of generals and diplomats. His strategy was to delay, in hopes that revolution would be sparked in Germany, inspired by the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg.

Though he did miscalculate, it must be said that revolution was indeed to come to Germany, later in 1918. It was the change in regime that would finally lead directly to the general armistice in November.

Trotsky did miscalculate. An impatient Germany resumed their offensive on February 18th, and the Red Army folded. Within days, Russia had lost even more land, and Lenin was forced to accede to German terms. Trotsky abstained from the final vote on the treaty and resigned as Foreign Minister.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Travelogue 787 – January 18
Questions We Ask
Part Two

The water in the canal is choppy as the sea. The clouds are moving with drama. Ahead is the central station. The wind is high today. At the moment, I find it lifts my mood. I lean into it and look at the sky. I imagine Rotterdammers in past centuries leaning into the wind. I wonder how they managed. I contemplated their closer relationship with the cold, in days before central heating and insulation, before public transit and sick leave.

I’m taking a different route to work. That’s because my place of work has changed, and I mean place. Our old building was declared a fire hazard, and so now we’re working downtown. I have to cross over the canal and head east. The wind gusts sharply while I cross the pedestrian bridge. I have to lean. I have to plant my feet. I make it across, and then across the tram tracks on the other side of the canal, tracks set among healthy grass that separates the canal from a parallel street. I’m crossing the street, when the gusts roar with even more strength. Now I’m being pushed down the street. I brace against a car, and then work my way, hand over hand, to the sidewalk. I reach for a lamppost.

There was a woman following behind me on the bridge, pushing her bicycle. Now, she’s been pushed to the ground with her bike, on the tram tracks. Two men have stopped to help her. None of them can move, all three crouching beside the bike on the tram tracks. A tram has stopped twenty metres away. Further down the street, I see a woman thrown face down into the grass of the canal’s park.

Maybe it was the long tutelage as revolutionary, but Trotsky refused to acknowledge that the revolution ever ended. His and Lenin’s would be the first, and it was their responsibility to ensure it didn’t stand alone. He took his seat at the negotiation table opposite the German delegates convinced that the joke was on them. The socialist revolution would overtake them, and soon Trotsky would be making a deal with new, friendly government in Berlin.

There’s every chance that Lenin believed that the Russian revolution was a holding action. Marxist orthodoxy would have suggested it. The real revolution had to start in the most developed nation. That nation was Germany. These were the strange metaphysics of a Russian revolutionary finding himself at war with Germany.

We grow up with questions. We think through questions. The question occupying me now, during this time so fond of its many historical anniversaries, celebrating simultaneously seventy-year remembrances of World War Two and hundred-year remembrances of the First World War, my question has been, why have we been so quiet about the Russian Revolution, one hundred years on? The anniversary was only a few months ago, and I found the sudden silence disorienting.

Is the silence a new measure of perceived impact? At the fifty-year anniversary, in 1967, there was little doubt in the minds of world citizens that the Russian Revolution was pre-eminent among events of the century. Can we really revise significance? Are we setting mid-century European fascism higher in the history game than the Bolshevik Russian state? Is it simply a matter of simplicity? The war against fascism is simply easier to understand. One can assign values relatively quickly. The Russian Revolution is challenging in its bizarre contradictions. As such, I find it to be a sample of real history, something you can chew on.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Travelogue 786 – January 7
Questions We Ask
Part One

Vacation time is coming to an end. One of the joys of vacation time is waking late and then lying in bed, relishing the quiet mornings before anyone else is up. This is my last quiet morning.

In the mornings, the babies are slow to get going. And when they do wake, they are at their sweetest. It’s at night time that they like to terrorize their parents. The busier we are or the more engaged in a movie, the crazier the babies become. They have an infallible feel for where our attention has settled, and with how much intensity. When they want us back, they cry, they climb, they argue, they teeter dangerously on the edge of the sofa cushions.

They claim their turf. I’ve remarked on Baby’s early sense of possession. I still marvel at how quickly babies become territorial. I don’t remember speaking much in the language of possession, or encouraging Baby to label things as hers. But the impulse arises, like instinct. Now I find myself saying lame things, like, ‘You have to share, Baby.’ Because she has developed a habit of taking toys from the hands of her little sister, Ren. Ren looks up at us, her beautiful, round, one-year-old’s face screwing up into despair, and she howls. Baby also looks to us, with an expectant expression, awaiting our judgement. I find Ren’s disappointment heart-breaking because she follows her big sister around all the time with big eyes of wonder and admiration.

We new parents have questions. We ask the questions when we’re tired, and we struggle to concentrate. Babies change so fast that the answers don’t hold for very long. The stages of child development succeed one another at an unforgiving pace.

Just about this time of year, one hundred years ago, Leon Trotsky was making his way west to the frontier of what only months ago was the Russian Empire. He might have felt like a new parent. He had spent almost twenty years as a revolutionary, and suddenly he was one of a very few people at the top of a dizzying ladder of accountability, responsible for holding together a collapsing nation.

As noted, all idealism aside, the most pressing business for the revolutionaries at the end of 1917 was the German army at the door. The Germans kindly agreed to an armistice, ahead in the game of conquest on the Eastern front and grateful for the respite themselves.

Apparently, the negotiators in Brest-Litovsk had a pleasant enough time of it in December. They ate together and socialized outside negotiations. The Russians were cheered by promises by the Germans that they would not annex any territory. Cheered until, some time after Christmas, the Germans added the footnote that all areas in question, some 150,000 square kilometers of formerly Russian territory, were expected to become independent. This was only fair, the Germans argued, as self-determination was ostensibly a Bolshevik principle.

Trotsky decided he had to oversee the proceedings himself. When he arrived, all fraternization stopped. The discussions became philosophical, and the talks extended through the winter of 1918.