Sunday, November 30, 2014

Travelogue 587 – November 30
One Stick

It’s a funny little bend in the road. The road winds down the hill like a lazy stream, arranging meetings with its cobblestone tributaries at small plateaus like this one, where the ways conjoin at a curve, washing around a sharp point of pavement, on which stands a narrow building that houses a restaurant That narrow promontory surrounded by cobblestones plays host to a small patio under an awning and sided by plastic sheeting. Tables with ashtrays stand protected by the awning and plastic. Outside, on the last bit of kerb, a few more tables stand exposed to the elements. Crossing the small street there, one crosses into a small plaza occupying the curving space near the gate into the hillside park. This plaza is sided by three other restaurants.

She sits at one table with two friends. Everything she wears, except her tall boots, is purple. She has one cigarette, and she has one mobile, both held high, She wraps up one conversation, singing, ‘Merci, merci, ciao bella, au revoir.’ After that she has one hand free, which she returns to her fruit tart. Her attention she returns to her friends. The man with the long and well-tended beard is talking now. He is leaning forward, shoulders bunched. He has one cigarette, which he holds low, as though holding the collar of his dog. He is laughing without laughing, and that could be what he is doing all day.

Along the left side of the restaurant, the road drops quickly down to busier avenues. I have climbed up that same hill, and I needed a pause. My body is aching. Last night, I felt the advance of some infection, and today, a day of travel, my muscles are sore. I have to slow it all down. I have to rest.

I won’t enter into the park until I’ve taken my rest among the ashtrays, no matter how much I want to make of the last light of the short day. The sun casts intriguing, dappling shadows, its light becoming entangled in the leaves of the trees in the park.

I’ve been reading Foucault, preparing for post-graduate research, and I feel both smug and embarrassed opening to the words of the great French philosopher while sitting on the train to Paris. I’m flying out of Charles de Gaulle tomorrow, flying toward Minnesota. But I get my few hours to enjoy French genius on French soil. In one hand, he holds an argument like one ball of yarn that unravels under the influence of gravity and, falling, tells a spiraling story about power.

I get one evening to stroll around Montmartre. The gate into the park leads to another steep incline, a paved walking path that switches back up the parks’ hill, and on this last spur deposits the pedestrian at the foot of the steps below the white-domed church on the hilltop, the hilltop where cannons were seized by the hungry and rebellious mob. That was half a century before Foucault was born.

The boy in sweats hangs by one hand by the struts of a street lamp. With his one free hand, he holds aloft a spinning basketball. The ball doesn’t spin on a finger, but on one small stick that he holds straight while turning his body around line of torque defined by his hold on the pole. He has the muscle to swing his legs around, in a slow break dance in the sky, while he keeps the ball aloft. The sun is setting now, but there are many people passing. There are still people to hold their phones up in tribute.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Travelogue 586 – November 15
Sint Job
Part Three

I’ve been running this route for a long time. I remember discovering this little pier that opens onto the River Maas. I remember the appeal of the open water. It offers some space, some forgetfulness. Again I reflect on the perpetually renewing nature of free water. Does free thought, free spirit, renew just so? Doesn’t the cage drown the song?

I have chosen this place. As my father chose L.A., choosing to live on with the choice, years afterward, with the suffocation of his job, with the suffocation of the polluted airs of the L.A. Basin, as his blood continued to pulse even as he drove down the grey highway day after day, highways built to defeat aesthetics, as though aesthetics were the enemy of productivity, despite the assault of doubt on happiness, he stood by his choice; in this way I must show the courage of my volition, even as the mists gather, the mists that somehow absorb the ghostly impressions of all reflection, condensation of soul and psyche, even as they sow in their very grey damps the seeds of melancholia, reaping the harvests as well, bearing them on as grafts onto water made light enough to drift above the sand. I live with my choices.

The promenade along this side of the pier is paved with small, square flagstones, about four inches per side, made of grey composite. I enjoy my two minutes on this straightaway, a couple hundred peaceful meters from end to end. It’s an opportunity to surrender to steadiness, steady footfalls, steady breathing. I monitor the matrix of waves in the water to my left. I watch the tiles under my feet. They were uniformly manufactured, but the place has marked them with identity, weathered and stained them, so that they tell stories. Something has soaked them, maybe water, maybe oil, so that dark areas trail across the surface in rivers and islands. Some areas are dry and bleached. The same stones, laid some time not long ago, each changed, diverging since the first day they were set in mortar.

In exercise there is a sense of power. It is suitably limited, a reminder of one’s limits. One enjoys the articulation of muscle, feeling every step with a refreshing sense of being the motive agent, even while knowing that companion to power is fatigue and hunger, knowing that, among the tomorrows, one has the privilege of witnessing the deterioration of muscle tissue. Nothing is more repetitive than exercise, and yet each step, copy of the last, is still a minor liberation, a paper ship set out upon the river.

The stars are out. The damp air is cool. It’s fresh. I couldn’t do without this taste of Creation. The Creator gets nostalgic for beginnings, too. ‘When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,’ He says to Sint Job. Have we decided we don’t need to shout anymore? The stars have been coming up for so many years. The many clouds have made me appreciate the stars when I see them, and I love seeing them. I don’t shout, but I love them.

‘Where wast thou?’ He asks, and it’s a challenge. I barely know where I am now, Lord Creator. Where I was yesterday. Where I was in spring. Where I was one summer, then another summer. How I’ve gathered so many. My skin is like the crust of these flagstones, grey but tarred by time. Sint Job has moved on, and there is only me here on the bike path at 5am, heading home. I love the stars, but I don’t shout. Maybe once I’m gone, it will all be a little bit quieter. Maybe it doesn’t matter how many people there are, the loss of each adds to a great silencing.

And if Job had lived in the time of the existentialists? Would his family have survived? Would the Accuser have tormented him with thought? It might have been enough. It’s a different age. Foucault says we live in the time of confessions. When nothing stings like the open sore of identity. Many people died on the cross. But one of them cried, Eli, Eli lama sabachthani.

Naked came I out of my mother's womb, says Sint Job. I’ve provided the day’s sweat, like the oils for the sacrifice. There’s a moment’s regret I have to stop, when I pause in front of the apartment door, in the gathered silence of the old, old city. But then I turn to enter, I return to the shower, to wash the sweat. I return to the mirror, to the curse of ever-lastingness. It’s uncanny how identity persists. The city is the city and the sky the sky. The mirror bears its marks, the signs that time has made its passing, the chips, the residues of washing, and still it utters the same name every morning. Uncanny machine that stretches the one line upon the earth with such a steady hand.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Travelogue 585 – November 14
Sint Job
Part Two

It’s five in the morning, and I’m running alongside a small harbour built early in the twentieth century and named for Saint Job.

And I’m wondering how the name for the harbour came about. Among the complex economies of the human mind, it is rare that a name comes from nowhere. There is always a thread linking stories and names. It could be that the location had long had some association with the old, old man. It might have been some vaporous linkage in the mind of an engineer, a fragile connection that has evaporated in time. The human imagination is so rarely capable of the true random, the free thought.

‘Can you loosen Orion’s belt?’ the mad god shouts.

And I wonder how young my Dad was when he discovered his fascination for the stars. Was he just a boy in Colorado? I don’t think it would have come from his own daddy, who was by all accounts a shell-shocked WWI vet, and a drunk. But who knows? A drunk and a dreamer, perhaps, who stared into the skies as evening turned to night over the plains, watching the stars emerge and showing them to his boy. ‘One day, …’ he might say, the alcohol fueling a fleeting sense of hope for the race of humanity. And the boy may wonder, the boy who would live to see rocket ships travel to the moon.

I imagine that he was young when he discovered he could not loosen Orion’s belt. His was a youth made of labor, caring for the family abandoned by his trauma-crippled father. His time was a time of labors, a span stretching across the middle of a tumultuous century, a life fostered in poverty and spent reaching for a place among men that commanded respect. He was a grandson of immigrants. He would be the first to earn a college degree. All that would come after the war.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? cries the god in rage.

Before there was an earth, I must have been in space. But the fact is, I don’t know. I don’t even know enough to say I was nowhere.

I’ve moved to live in a place where the stars are obscured. My father, in contrast, kept moving south and west, until he landed the family in southern California. It could be that in the back of his mind, there was a devotion to starry skies driving him to the driest climes. He wanted unimpeded views.

How close a match are those L.A. skies to the ones once rotating over Sumer or ancient Arabia, where Job lived a life renowned for sanctity and for God’s favor? He may have spent evenings sitting on the porch and watching the stars emerge, and giving them names for the benefit of his sons. Look, there’s the great shepherd. He follows his flocks across the whole sky. See how dedicated he is? He never strays.

For the Greeks, he was the Hunter. Could the name Orion have once attached to a living man, someone so known for his feats as a hunter that he survived in stories? Names are so rarely made up. They are required to bring significance even to the identification of a hero or a monster or a god.

They say Job was likely to have been a man once, before he was a memory for the race, a memory of riches and devotion to God, ‘perfect and upright’. Many years later, a poet borrowed the semi-mythologized figure of Job for a story. The poet wanted to formulate a philosophical query into a story, the query behind a world of theory called theodicy. He invented a scene on Olympus, in which the Accuser is offered a seat at the banquet. And the Accuser offers the obvious challenge. Well, yes, he says, successes and devotion to the Creator are a salubrious mix. In borrowing the character of Job, the poet employs a sort of shorthand. The name was already associated with the archetypal good man. Is it no accident that Job is rich and he’s pious?

And who hath stretched the line upon the face of this earth? God challenges.

I would be born in the place of clear skies, and eventually reverse the direction my dad took, describing an arc in my travels that would end at just about the place where his youth exploded in a shell burst, sacrificed to the war. His new home in America would be an army hospital. In heading east, I undertook my journey in some spirit not too alien from his, I would imagine, not too alien to that of a majority of people. I look for something that fits, and makes sense. Skies that explain something, even in their obscurity.

We try. But we must fail, and we did when we endeavored to stretch the line into space. We stood upon the moon … and we retreated. Such frightening hubris. Now we tell ourselves it may have been a conspiracy, a bit of theatre in a NASA studio.

It’s hard to say whether this, the slow decay of the space program, would have been one my dad’s greatest disappointments, with more immediate regrets to face in his final years, but it must have struck a plangent note. It must have seemed a clear failure of hope

At river’s edge, as I round the end of the pier, the wind is at its strongest. It usually blows in from the direction of the sea, which puts it in my face. The surface here along the river is laid with uneven cobble stone. The combined effect is one of a sudden loss of momentum. The river opens its grey space, now to the stars, in a few hours to the new light. The sun will be rising behind me, the wind in its face.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Travelogue 584 – November 13
Sint Job
Part One

I don’t get to see the stars too often in Rotterdam. The city lights wash out the weaker specimens, and the clouds wipe out the rest. Most nights I don’t even think about them anymore.

In Ethiopia, the stars were like family. I saw them almost every day. I got to know their names. I made time for conversation.

I’ve been sleeping well until last night. At four, I was up suddenly. The brain was going to be put to anxious work. I didn’t fight it. I opened the computer, and got to work on a nagging project.

I worked for an hour. The gesture made, the conscience appeased, my anxious energy could be directed into proper, more enjoyable channels. I put on the running gear. It was cold enough to wear gloves. I emerged into November’s long night. It’s now the season that Menna dreads: the sun turns away from us. The temperatures are dropping at a taunting rate. Morning light and morning warmth come ever later.

I see Orion! Setting my warm-up pace alongside the Schie, and glancing over the waters that are surprisingly still, I see stars. I see familiar patterns among the stars. I am reminded how fragile is knowledge, and how fragile are relationships. My stars are distant. They have withdrawn into space.

I grew up watching Apollo shots, my dad watching with the anticipation of World Cup fans, breathing and sweating hope, drinking his Manhattan as though it were the future itself. The launches were a luxury of boredom for me. There was little of my dad’s amazement, though now I appreciate his solicitous need to impart enthusiasm and perspective. I grew up with an almost genetic appreciation for our achievements in space.

No generation has had such an awareness of ‘space’. I grew up looking at the sky differently than any boy could have in any previous generation. I had read stories about distant galaxies, other planets, alternative dimensions. I’d seen the stories in television episodes. I had watched as the rockets launched. When I looked into the night, I looked into ‘space’, into dimension, into open territory that had now been given dimension by human beings. I was gazing straight out into frontiers and aspiration. We traveled into ‘space’, and then, I vaguely became aware, we stopped.

Orion, rising in the early morning hours at the beginning of winter, himself stands for other, older types of aspirations. The constellation was myth and god. He heralded winter. For some he stood for regeneration. For the Hebrews, he was hope of winter rains. Further: thirty thousand years ago, a member of race carved what is considered Orion’s first portrait into ivory of mammoth. It may be he was associated with the miracle of childbirth because his term in the sky synchronized fairly closely with the period of pregnancy, even to the term of a best-case pregnancy that ended in summer.

For the Babylonians, he was a shepherd. To medieval Muslim scholars he was known as the Giant. To the less imaginative Chinese he was the ‘Three’, named for the stars in his belt. For the Greeks, Orion was the hunter.

Before the Schie empties into the Maas, it flows through a lock, over which two street bridges cross. Beside the second bridge there is a police station. On one side there is a fenced lot for their cars. On the river side, there is a mooring for their boats. Some of the officers are already stirring. They watch me go by. I turn the corner by their station and down the pier that forms one side of the harbour. It’s a favorite straightaway of mine, heading out into the Maas, and into the winds.

The stars are bright here. One catches a taste of their freedom over the sea. Not far from Orion -- it looks as though he hunts in the territory of the Crab, -- the moon is suspended, more full than not, waxing or waning I can’t tell. She’s strong with light.

On the other side, the pier bounds the haven of Sint Job. I’m running by condos on this side. On the land side of the small harbour is a landing for water taxis that travel as far as Dordrecht. On the other side is a maritime school for youngsters. Sometimes I see the students bobbing in rowboats on the Schie, learning some obscure trick of the waters. They shout joked to one another. A teacher with a bullhorn struggles for their attention.