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 na├»ve 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.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Travelogue 785 – January 2
Sounds of War


There is still debris in the streets from the New Year’s celebrations, the cardboard shells of rockets toppled beside their scorch marks on the pavement, wet piles of pink paper that once housed small firecrackers. All the glass at downtown Metro stations is still boarded up in anticipation of vandalism.

The night was a wild one, reminding all the mild peaceniks in this quiet country of the noise of combat. Everyone in our neighbourhood, Spangen, is a fireworks artist. We put the babies to bed well before midnight, but our own sleep was fitful. Outside, the sound of combat carried on for hours, the stormy crackling of the human libido, party lust, perpetrated on Nature’s night. Sadly, our flat is ill-positioned for watching the show. We are set between rows of buildings, and our view is blocked of all but the highest bursts of colour. So it is that all we can enjoy is the sound. Baby shakes her head and knits her brow. She says, ‘Noise!’ and it sounds like ‘No ease!’

One hundred years ago, the new year dawned on a devastated Europe and on peoples desperate for a cease to the roar of guns and cannons. Dawning over Russia, it discovered a brand new government there, a revolutionary government less than two months old, led by fierce exiles who, a year before, were scattered among a handful of tolerant nations to the west. Lenin made a daring journey from Switzerland, through Germany, Sweden and Finland. Trotsky, the revolution’s wild man, had travelled from New York early in 1917, after the first and milder St. Petersburg revolution in March. He spent his summer in jail, but was free in the fall to take a strong hand in the events of November. Where discussion about the Russian Revolution manages to survive, there is a lively debate to be had about whose revolution it was, Lenin’s or Trotsky’s. Lenin arrived for the final act.

Dealing with the war was pre-eminent. It had torn Russia apart. The country had made significant progress in catching up with the industrial powers, but by the time war broke out in 1914, it was still only five per cent of the labour force that was employed in industry and twenty percent of the economy that was industrial. By the second year of the war, the army was able to supply only one in three soldiers with a rifle. The army could supply one surgeon for every ten thousand troops. One in three Russian men was in the army, so agriculture slowed, causing food shortages and crippling inflation. Desertions were high: an estimated two million had left, a number matched by the number of dead.

Having taken control of St. Petersburg in November, the Communists had signed an armistice by mid-December. But discussions about a treaty had bogged down over territory. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed over strategy. Lenin thought any more combat would be too destructive; they could only lose more territory. Trotsky believed in revolution. He believed their own achievements would inspire the workers of Germany to rise in revolution. He fought to delay the signing of any treaty. In January, he took charge of the negotiations himself, travelling to Brest-Litovsk in present-day Belarus.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Travelogue 784 – December 26
The Three Johns


It’s the second day of Christmas, another quiet day of closed shops and families taking to the streets with their strollers. Now that I own a few strollers myself, I greet the holiday with some defiance. Whereas I was simply annoyed by holidays during my long service as a bachelor, now I inhabit them with some pride. And truthfully, a fair share of real appreciation. I was moved this year to essay some modest traditions – tree and gifts and stockings, -- a set of rituals that might withstand the pressures of our schedule and survive to the next year. This effort proved surprisingly successful, and even more surprisingly gratifying. The Scrooge in me suffered a severe blow.

It certainly is nice that there are two days of Christmas in Holland. It allows double the time to meet our obligations to this gilded feestdag, debts to family as well as to that monkey on our backs, entertainment. Either we must entertain or be entertained, or we must simply partake in some artificial entertainment. My wife and I like to make an appearance at a traditional Dutch pub and watch the old-timers surrender to their spirits and dance, if it’s late enough even weaving through the bar in a human chain. It’s not the carols that trigger them, but Dutch pop classics, still sounding to me like modern elaborations of oompah music.

I can’t say it makes much sense, two days in celebration of one birth. Perhaps it was a long labour. In the liturgical calendar, the 26th is also Saint Stephen’s Day. Maybe it became a comfortable habit, holiday after holiday. In England they call it Boxing Day, named for the small gifts for the servants on the second day of Christmas. I like to think of it as Boxing Day. The name has the right degree of obscurity mixed with English silliness.

England has been on my mind. I have one pressing reason for that, which is the approach of my half marathon in Bath. I am in distressingly poor shape, never getting the time for proper training. Though I worry about the race, it’s pleasant to have the calendar’s geography cycle around again. In a couple months I’ll be crossing the Channel again.

If I had the time to make it back to London, I would walk the map of the houses of the Forsytes, those infamous Victorians of Galsworthy’s books. The second volume came with a map, numbering the fictional family’s houses in districts of west London too posh now for Victoria herself, St. James, Mayfair, Hyde Park, and Knightsbridge.

I would also stop by a pub in Angel that I had the honour of visiting last time I was in London. I met Patrick there, along with some of his friends, classmates in his PhD program. We had a good time and the setting was this classic corner pub, one spacious room under a moulded tin ceiling, with wood panelling below brick walls. Inexplicably, there was a portrait of George Washington on one wall. I couldn’t help taking a moment to contemplate the image of that old statesman, the odd drunken meditation in London.

I was just reading about one of Washington’s portraitists, Mr. Charles Willson Peale. The painters of his generation were discovering a new subject, the contemporary revolutionary hero. Historian Joseph Ellis makes the point that painters of the era were influenced by an Enlightenment aesthetic that still colours our perception of the American Revolution, making it a gentleman’s conflict, fought by heroes in serene Acadia, as though war could be fought in stillness, with nothing but one’s dignity. These painters were pioneers in a genre that would become quite sophisticated, starting with Jacques-Louis David during the French Revolution, who could make of stout little Napoleon a hero the Romantic Period.

I had no idea of the history of the Three Johns pub that evening. As it happens, this old watering hole opened in the days of the French Revolution and was still open for business for a stubborn group of Russian exiles in 1903, a group that was meeting to define a revolution they were going to bring to the Romanov Empire.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Travelogue 783 – December 24
Why We Have Holidays


The grey skies herald a day of quiet peace. It’s Christmas Eve. There’s a gentle mist in the sky. The streets are quiet. The cafe is quiet. The Christmas music has been shelved, and we listen to jazz. The shopping frenzy seems to have subsided.

Work deadlines still haunt me, but their voices have withdrawn into the aural shadows, out of respect for the holidays. I’m able to breathe. I sit and listen to Baby tell me stories, recounting some cartoon she’s seen, recalling the characters and their words, and I am not beset by the nervous energy that every day urges me to hide somewhere with my computer and ‘take care’ of things.

I took Baby on our first walk together yesterday. No buggy and no destination. We just put on our shoes and jackets, and we went outside. We walked along the canal behind our building, and we took time to quack back at the ducks. Baby was fascinated by the gravel on the path. She picked up one tiny black stone and held it up for inspection. It’s a rock, I said, and she repeated. She bent over to find another, this time white.

I never tire of these exchanges, these short and essential dialogues, though sometimes I wish I could. They are so deeply satisfying that they are heart-breaking. Each is so brief, and each passes, as though time were looking over my shoulder. I want to hold each like I hold my child, with tenderness and a with a fierce sense of protectiveness, against age and decay. But time has an ally in my baby. She wants to embrace life and growth. So I let go.

We circled under the railway and by the school. There’s a small speeltuin hidden away there, a playground. We entered and found we were alone, a singular luxury in the crowded Netherlands. Again, I found my breath coming back to me, my lungs extending in the rare, relaxed full inhalation, enjoying the damp winter air. Standing behind Baby in her swing, I gazed into the cloudy skies to watch the birds charting their erratic courses. Baby caught sight of the black wings against the soft grey background. ‘Birds!’ she shouted and pointed. She likes naming things.

It’s approaching midday, and still the cafe is quiet. The tables are sparsely occupied. Couples murmur to each other, freed from the stridency of work days. I have some research I need to do for work. I follow a few links, and stumble upon a few engaging items. I read, but only lazily. It’s when the baying hounds of the office calendar are shaken for an interval that you find the fun in the work again. You taste of it, and you put it away. The sights out the window are inviting, people in their coats strolling together, the bikes in repose, the half-light of winter set with a whisper upon the old rooftops.