Monday, April 16, 2018

Travelogue 798 – April 16
The Butterfly with Feathers
Part Two

It’s mid-scene, and I’m exiting the stage. The lights go out, and I stumble. One actor is left onstage, and the scene is supposed to go on. The lights come back on as I reach the curtain. The actor picks up with his lines.

I only had ninety minutes to confer with the technician, to set lights and to run through light and sound cues. This is the reality in small-time theatre. There are going to be mistakes. And every one of our four performances is in a different venue, so this will happen every time but with different and unpredictable mistakes.

Offstage, Maria helps me with a costume change. ‘Backstage’ is simply the rest of the café. I’m changing pants, but no one is paying attention. Actors backstage pace and mumble like extras in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, too focused on their next entrance to notice what anyone else is doing. Maria very sweetly wipes my brow for me. I had forgotten how hot those stage lights are. Sweat has been trickling down to my collar.

During a short monologue, an audience member abruptly stands and rushes off stage. The way to the café – and the toilet - leads across stage. I stutter and hesitate. I drop a line. I recover, but the performance feels marred. An actor shouldn’t let anything get to him.

Performance time flies. The show is over before I’ve found the moment to place myself: this is the premiere of two new plays. It’s the culmination of months of work. There is too much to process, so much to do to make the simplest play start on time, that there is too little space for enjoyment. Performance is a pinpoint of time.

Maybe that’s why theatre people return again and again to the scene of something essentially insane, the enactment of absurd lyrics, jotted down like notes from dreams recorded in bars and Metro stations, each scene an orchestration of chaos. We return to try again to be present during these rare and fleeting experiences.

We blink, and the show is over. We pat each other on the backs. We leave the green room to join our audience in the café. I’m handed a glass of wine, and I’m grateful for the timely tether to earthly things. I’m not really an actor so these rituals are disorienting.

I’m still disoriented, days later. Opening night is a type of magical rite, and I’m recovering. How do the remaining performances go? Will it be more routine the second time, just taking care of business? Will I have a cooler head and be more present? Or will time still resolutely race, while I find different mistakes to make? After all the shows are done, will I have memories of stilled motion, images of heightened moments? Or will the experience resist and remain a blur?

I’m sitting quietly. Another type of performance begins in an hour. I have a class to teach. I’m watching the street outside. It’s a bright spring day, and I can see the delight on many faces.

Life is a set of projects. That’s how we moderns live. And each project has its key moment, the performance, the result. Conventional wisdom has it that life is about the long intervals in between performance points. That’s obvious. That’s comforting. But where’s our philosophy of performance? In a society driven to reality TV, extreme sports, and extreme politics, where’s our understanding of the moment when the stage lights are raised?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Travelogue 797 – April 14
The Butterfly with Feathers
Part One

“Hope is the thing with feathers.” I used to share this poem when I taught developmental reading at the community college. It led to great exercises in the understanding of metaphors. That was a long time ago. Now, instead of teaching poetry, I’m writing an exam testing vocabulary for business English. Put this noun phrase in order: job and dull extremely an laborious.

I like how Dickinson’s poem manages to say something very simple about hope, the very simplest thing: how it endures. It’s simple but nonetheless mysterious. How does it endure? Strip the question down: does it? Its resilience is integral to the definition of hope. Or is it? Is hope just a feeling that comes and goes, like all emotions, fleeting, powerful and yet without substance?

I miss hope. It’s not the sprightly little bird it used to be. I can’t say why. Maybe hope requires wider horizons than I have at my age. Maybe hope, which ‘sweetest in the gale is heard’, doesn’t bother with the fortunate. I’ve been fortunate, and I knock on wood. Or is it just that the song of hope takes on a different tone in life’s long second half, something softer and more indirect?

What I seem to have replaced for hope is anxiety. I have written two plays and they debut this evening. Rather than anticipation or soaring expectations, I just feel a dull ache in the heart, something like disappointment. Hope encourages risk. But risk does nothing for hope. Hope looks only toward the future. Take enough risks in life, and you might learn to dread success. The let-down is the same whether in success or failure; the success just messes with your mind.

I’m nervous. I should never have agreed to act. I’m no actor. I had a fancy that I wanted the camaraderie that actors have. Admittedly, it’s been fun. But I would like to opt out of the performance, please.

It’s funny that I should wrestle with hope. I have founded several organizations with the name of Hope. Should I be an expert? Or, in this era of ‘campaigns’, isn’t it best to see the campaign manager as the one most driven by the puzzles inherent in the pursuit? I have needed to know that there was hope. Many good people have answered the call and taught me.

Still, I seek today’s rescue in my morning coffee. The spirit of the café reaches out to me. The barista shows me a photo of his colleagues meeting with the king. There’s a march outside, people and their noise-makers labouring for change. I am always learning. I am telling people’s stories.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Travelogue 796 – April 8
The Course of Rivers

Was the church built to resemble a castle? Under the onion-like domes of its spire, the brick tower is square and fitted with lancet windows. Each corner on top has a small tower with triumphant little flags that shine golden in the intermittent sun.

I’m back in Overschie, the little town on the Schie that has been absorbed into Rotterdam. At the village’s centre is this fortress of a church that rises high above the rest as a landmark and a time-piece. I have a road race coming up in mid-May, so my training is allowing me to reach longer distances. Improved endurance opens horizons. I go farther, see more. I visit old friends like the Grote Kerk in Overschie. The church still stands at the sharp bend of the Schie, where the river jogs quickly east before continuing north toward Delft.

When I run north to see the old church, I run along the river and then down the quaint streets of Overschie’s small town centre. The church grounds force a curve in the road, like a boulder standing in a stream, before the road turns left as the town follows the river. But I turn into the cobbled lane that runs behind the church and, just for twenty metres or so, overlooks the river.

Soon I will have to say, ‘This is where the river used to be.’ Currently what you encounter when you jog along the cobblestone is the prospect of several kilometres of piles of displaced earth. It has been decided to redraw the map. This particular dog’s leg in the course of the Schie must have been a nuisance for barge pilots. Heading south, the river’s curve as it passed the church was relatively gentle. But thereafter boats were forced to negotiate a rather sharp turn to continue south, passing under a low old-style bridge, the control of which was housed in a small and quaint structure that was a contemporary of the seventeenth-century church. For all I know, this dog’s leg survives from the earliest days of the church. The map of the town certainly suggests so.

Running home, I follow the path along the other side of the river. There, I overlook the new river bed, being laboriously dug from the soil. The evidence of the dig is there, though I’ve never seen the equipment. The trench seems nearly complete, left silent amid great stands of raw dirt. A few metres of water stand at the bottom. A swan floats lazily there, preening itself, the one sign of peace. I can see the course of the trench as it aims directly for the old bridge. The barge pilots will be happy.

I marvel that the map can be changed so easily. I don’t know how long the river ran the way it did, but I’m guessing a good long while. In years to come, people will question the strange jog in the street map. They will see in the plan of the old town the vestiges of something gone. The piles of earth will probably be replaced in quick order by new types of construction, and in years to come there will be new homes. The church spire will stand over their yards.

This has always been the story of Holland, a steady re-shaping of the lands and waters. Everything we see has been moulded and cultivated, excavated and then sculpted. To some degree it’s the story of Europe. It takes centuries to execute this scale of architecture in town and country. America’s story is one of amazing, dizzying, frightening development, and yet Americans settlements still have their rough edges, and the wilderness makes its quiet incursions. This sort of detail in the milieu can have decisive effects on character.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Travelogue 795 – March 30
Songs for Children

I’ve been listening to Dutch children’s songs. Sometimes Menna starts up a cycle of YouTube videos. We sing together. Baby dances, and Mama and Papa practice their rude Dutch. There’s a particular series we prefer. It’s a mix of cartoons with videos of teachers singing with their small students. The teachers are dubbed over with professional voices.

In one catchy tune, the cartoon boy starts with, ‘Ik ben ik, en jij bent jij.’ That means, ‘I am me and you are you’. The song introduces each member of the boy’s family. The cartoon boy is quite a happy little character. He runs into the arms of papa, mama, grandparents, sisters and brothers, all with manic smiles.

Baby watches with rapt attention. And so do I, for that matter. I’m finding the world of children’s art mesmerizing. The first objectives of children’s art are pedagogical, of course, and therefore peculiarly resonant. Since it is likely that all art, literature and philosophy is pedagogical in its roots, when we indulge in children’s art or song we are exploring the building blocks of thought.

Children’s songs name the things of the world. Here is your family, and this is your house. Here are cars and buildings. Here are the animals. This is the set, and this is the cast of characters for a lifetime, for a lifetime of lifetimes. The furniture of the mind is the mind itself. While I sing with Baby, it’s like taking a tour of the beams and girders and foundations behind the six walls of consciousness, before the room is finished and decorated, before we outline some story on the bare plaster.

If pedagogy is the first priority, form is still the first contact. It must be sweet as honey. The hooks are unflinchingly cute and alluring. Melodies are catchy. Cartoons are silly and the characters adorable. Stories are structured like songs, with beats and rhymes and refrains. In full stride, it is great art in its ability to captivate. After only a few viewings, ‘Ik Ben Ik,’ was imprinted in my mind, image and melody, indelibly. I am singing it to the rhythm of my bicycle. I’m am whistling it at work.

And children’s art must be funny. It’s surprising and how daring children’s humour is. We grow up and our horizons contract. Watching TV, it would seem as though penis jokes were the very cutting edge of humour, but this is more childish than childlike. Children’s humour cuts much deeper, challenging reality and society at their underpinnings with the lightness of immortals. It recalls the cruel pranks of the Greek gods.

I’m more convinced than ever that the most profound philosophy is the philosophy of things. The basics are the mystery. No matter what age, how old and wise, the human is forced to wonder at the simplest things, stare out the window at the mad city and wonder what each simple form could mean. Take the human form, ridiculous and beautiful at the same time. No evolution or physics can give it significance. The science of colour doesn’t make green less wondrous. It doesn’t add a thing to the joke and the subversion of Green Eggs and Ham. One does no justice to the thing, abstracting it into Platonic form. ‘Suffer little children.’ The gods always put wonder and humour above all else.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Travelogue 794 – March 25

Last Wednesday was election day for municipal councils across the Netherlands. The Dutch cast their votes for council members in 355 municipalities, choosing among dozens of local and national parties. Party placards still litter the city, reminding everyone of their civic duty long after the races have been decided. Non-citizens can vote in these elections, though only after five years’ residence, so we fell just short of eligibility.

An actor in one of my plays was running. I should correct to say ‘campaigning’, since parties can run, but not individuals. He was principal founder of a new local party, so he probably would have been first to take a seat in the community council. They didn’t win any seats, as it turns out, but they did run a strong race.

This is the time to start a local party. The last decade has seen a sharp rise in the success of the local and the new. The post-war party system has seen significant decay in Western Europe. This was perhaps best dramatized by Macron’s victory in France, winning the presidency with a party of his own making. In a country where political traditions are so strong, this was remarkable.

In Holland, the template may have been set by the GroenLinks party, or ‘Green Left’, founded in 1989 during the Green Party craze and still going strong. Wednesday they won more seats in Amsterdam than any other party. The party polled well in the national race just last year, under the leadership of a charismatic young man named Jesse.

These days, new parties crowd the ballot. One of the most popular is the Party for the Animals. It may sound comic to an American ear, but they have a complete platform of left-leaning policy statements and are taken very seriously. Founded in 2002, they have five seats in the national legislature, and Wednesday captured 33 council seats.

Rotterdam is a conservative town. The biggest winner was the party that has dominated for some time, Leefbaar Rotterdam, ‘Liveable Rotterdam’, a populist party founded by a controversial figure, one Pim Fortuyn, who was an early example of a type that we are so familiar with now, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002 by a Dutch environmental activist, a non-Muslim. Fortuyn’s party carries on, stronger than ever.

One very new party is named ‘Denk, or ‘Think’. It was founded in 2015 by two Turkish-Dutch members of the House of Representatives who left the Labour Party to found a group more directly committed to the issues of immigrants. They have done well, winning seats in 13 cities. They won three seats in Rotterdam. It shouldn’t be surprising that there has been some grumbling about this party. It is rumoured to be an extension of Erdogan’s political machine, keeping tabs on the Turkish-Dutch community, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, including many who can still vote in Turkish elections.

My friend didn’t win his seat, hut he’s optimistic. The new party will go on. He’ll campaign again. He’s very young and has a lot of energy. I’m still not sure what his party stands for, if not simply for youth. He speaks like a 90s third-way centrist. He questions the EU, but in thoughtful ways. He questions the role of government. He mocks Trump. These are the times.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Travelogue 793 – March 17
Pursued by the Machine

Yes, it’s time to start selling tickets for my plays. But things aren’t that simple anymore. Once upon a time, I would have visited a printer and walked out with a roll or a stack of paper tickets. I would have accepted cash money in the palm of my hand, and with my own fingers I would have passed one entrance ticket to the eager audience member.

Now everything is cybernetic. Tickets exist in the ethers. I’m supposing those are the same ethers as those that harbour our money. Access is granted by one machine or another. You type in codes, or you produce plastic cards that are meant to be swiped across magical surfaces or inserted into magical boxes, and then entrance is granted you. You may never touch a paper ticket, but the gatekeepers will know it’s you.

I’m superstitious. I want to take cash and give a paper ticket. I mention this to my cast. The twenty-year-old just stares. ‘Why?’ she asks. To her, it must sound like I’m going to translate the play into Klingon. As it happens, there’s no easy way to get paper tickets. Because Matteo has signed up for online sales, he has to request and print tickets for me. He has to drive to Rotterdam on the weekend to drop them off for me. Once I have tickets, it’s in no way easy to sell them. When I pitch to colleagues, they search for cash in their bags and wallets as though it were an old coffee-drink discount card. ‘I was sure I had it …’

I’m just wrapping up a short run on a cold day. I’m stretching and pacing in the courtyard of my apartment building. The familiar face I see belongs to Matteo. He’s been pacing the grounds of my complex seeking entry. The first floor is accessible by intercom and buzzer only.

He looks me up and down in disbelief. It’s not the shorts in the cold. It’s the fact that I would run at all. There’s an old-world Italian courtliness to him, the kind that may believe in duty and hard work but still finds exercise distasteful. He produces from his rucksack a folder with twenty printed tickets. I’m embarrassed that he had to deliver these by hand.

He tells me he was looking for a mailbox, somewhere he could drop off the tickets. ‘How does mail get delivered?’ he asks. I say the mailman drops it through the slot in the door. ‘He must have a key, then.’ I hadn’t thought about it, but yes, he must.

In good Dutch fashion, the mailman delivers on a bicycle, outfitted with saddle bags in the colours of the Dutch postal service, orange and blue. He’s friendly enough, shy and soft-spoken, looking a bit beleaguered, as no doubt anyone would delivering mail in this weather. And still, nice enough as he is, I flinch a bit at the sight of him. The mail he delivers is never good. Most of it is invoices. Those invoices might be from utility companies. They could be from any of the myriad government agencies who collect taxes. Said agencies have each a signature coloured envelope, and the sight of those colours is likely to give me hives as time passes and debt compiles. They pursue me with the coldly efficient persistence of the Dutch temperament, and their threats are never idle. They are quietly executed on exact timelines, and there is no escape from enforcement, as residence here is allowed only on strict terms of accessibility in your profile. One must be plugged in to be Dutch. Bank accounts, addresses, wages, insurance, visas, taxes, and government benefits are all wound tightly together in citizen identity. It’s an effective system, and we are easy prey.

Still, it’s a benevolent system, better represented by the mailman’s deferential manner, really, than by the stern and unadorned language of Dutch bureaucracy. If this bewildering network of governmental agencies hadn’t proven to be more forgiving than first appearances, I would have been bankrupt and abandoned back in Minneapolis by now.

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.