Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Travelogue 650 – September 30
Dreams Made Real

My first book event was a small event. It was little more than sitting at my friends’ dining room table holding the book in my hands, talking to a group of half a dozen. It’s my book. I touched it for the first time yesterday. It’s an object. It has weight. There are so many pages. I feel writer’s block just looking at it. How did I come up with all that to say? I feel a quick sense of panic, as though I have to say it again.

And then I’m holding it in my hands, talking to a circle of friends. It’s Westchester County. It’s been raining. We can hear the waves of rain against the roof.

In some sense, I haven‘t arrived yet. I’ve been in the States for a week. I wake at four every morning. Four in Minnesota. Here in New York, that’s five in the morning. I sit up in bed, and I talk to Menna on Viber. It’s midday for her. I listen to Baby attaching sounds to her first thoughts. Outside, the sun is shedding its first light.

The rule is, the dream never looks the same, beginning to end. I’ve had the good fortune in this life to shepherd a few toward realization, and they never look on earth the way they did in heaven.

Making a book is such a long process, one can be forgiven for forgetting what the original thought was. I hold the book in my hands. The slight weight of it, the texture of the cover, the name on the front cover, the features of it are still new to me. It operates as an object of magic.

The event is an informal occasion. We are gathered around the dining room table. I have a few minutes to frame the topic. Yes, I did this, and it’s a source of wonder to me. I’m telling you about it as though it were someone else’s story. Friends are asking questions about Ethiopia and the work. ‘I don’t know what NGO means,’ David says. A few others jump in helpfully. I laugh to hear the definitions.

Ultimately we must talk about grief, and the nature of those events that change lives. Most everyone has something to say. The stories branch. I still hold the book, fascinated by the feel of it.

Our journeys are long ones. Still everything is sudden. Sometimes it seems like the vocation of the species is recovery from the shock of transitions. I’m getting sleepy. I’m still exhausted by the travel. Later we’ll drink in celebration; then we’ll sleep. I’m alone on the floor of the vast living room. The windows are black. The rain doesn’t let up.

In the morning, I’m writing all this down at the Chappaqua Starbucks. The place is cosy in green, trademark fashion. Irritating and cosy. The people streaming by my table are alert, their chatter like birdsong. The windows are fogged from the abating storm. A few locals are commenting about power outages. It’s just another day in a rich small town, where quiet streets wind among wooded hills. Houses have New England pillars. Up the ascending street opposite the Starbucks entrance is the house of old Horace Greeley. Horace ran for president against Ulysses in 1872. Ulysses won.

I’m scanning the quiet streets outside for signs of Bill or Hillary. Chelsea is due to speak at the town library tonight.

I have these vigils in life, posts beside the trails of history. I hope to witness something. I know I won’t see Bill; I won’t see Horace. But it’s the setting, a pedagogical form of its own. History happens in places, and the places impart a knowledge, a sense of the imminent.

I’m reading the New York Times. Putin has decided to intervene in Syria. Obama meets with him, and he has put on a darkly stern expression. Obama looks like this a lot lately, during his final years in office. Would he run again? Does the White House look like it did in 2008? What stories will he tell in retirement? What would Bill say if I saw him this morning?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Travelogue 649 – September 18
Rules of the Road

I’m at Schiphol Airport, ready to fly to Minnesota. For a few weeks, I’m on the road again. The rules change, as soon as I enter the airport. I’ll pay €3.75 for a bottle of water. I’ll pace bright hallways in search of latrines. I’ll find bookstores. I’ll browse news shops. I’ll map the places to sit. I’ll make my way through an entire newspaper. I’ll be topically informed again, versed in the surface news of the day.

I had my brush with history the other day. I wasn’t travelling, but I was passing through the central train station. I wanted to replenish my travel card. There was a policemen at the entry way saying there were no trains. I shrugged him off and entered anyway. Only later did I notice all the police around the station. Only then did I question why there were no trains.

As it happens, there was a man who had to be dragged out of one the train’s latrine. Shutting down all train traffic through Rotterdam seems like a strong reaction, but this is only weeks after a man pulled out guns and knives on a Thalys train to Paris. Police are jumpy.

I’m reading a headlines in Dutch lately, with dictionary at my side. I never get too far that way, but I get the idea. The front pages have been dominated for what seems like all summer with news of the vluchtelingen, the refuges from the Middle East and Africa and the Balkans assaulting the borders of Europe. It’s been surreal, the reading thereof in a foreign language. It’s a ready reminder that I don’t belong here any more than they do. I’m a legal immigrant, but the building resentment against the outsider in Europe makes my status feel little more secure than the status of these refugees,

Earlier this month, the government in Hungary shut down the train station in Budapest, while tension mounted among the thousands of refugees encamped there. Hundreds of them decided to walk the hundred miles or so to Austria. I don’t know what happened to them, don’t know whether they made it. I imagine many ended up in one or another of the receiving camps being hastily erected around frontline countries.

I have time for an espresso in one of the cafés next to the train station. There are two on other side of the station. Menna and I call them Azedebo and Fundame, after two school projects in Ethiopia. I’m in Fundame, and at the next table are a young couple. They are from somewhere else. Are they Romany? They are clearly disoriented. The woman walks outside to consult with a taxi driver, and apparently without satisfaction.

When she walks, it’s with a curious, cautious shuffle, taking very small steps and leaning backward. She fixes her wide eyes on her target and she shuffles forward. She leans into the taxi window, and it’s no quick consultation. It takes a while, but when she shuffles back it’s only to sit again in silence.

A policemen visits Fundame for a coffee. The Romany woman fixes him with her wide brown eyes. She stands and she shuffles, and she accosts him with a long list of questions, delivered in a soft but deliberate voice.

In contrast, the policeman has a strong Dutch voice. ‘What are looking for?’ She whispers. He takes them outside, and points. They enter, and the woman hovers close to him, fixing his face with her wide-eyed gaze. She asks again.

The policeman says, ‘Bring you? No, I’m not a taxi service. You have to do it yourself.’

He is enunciating for them Dutch philosophy in its several words. All are equal. The rules are for equals. There are no exceptions. One wins no concessions with charm or money in Holland. Romany’s big eyes melt with confusion and hurt feelings.

He softens his stance only so far as to say, ‘It’s easy.’ ‘Come,’ he says, and he takes them outside again, pointing as though he could brush a line of colour down the sidewalk and onward for five kilometres ahead.

The policeman leaves. The Romany couple stands outside. They light cigarettes, and they discuss strategies. They look longingly down the road, along the route painted with the policeman’s eyes. They pull on their cigarettes slowly and thoughtfully, staring together.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Travelogue 648 – September 10
Meet Brad

Home in the evening, tired from the trip to Tilburg, we sit to eat and listlessly we watch TV. There’s a film on tonight, a classic from 1998. It stars a young and sultry Brad Pitt, cast opposite Anthony Hopkins. ‘Meet Joe Black’ it’s called. Joe Black is Death in disguise. He looks like Brad Pitt. Anthony Hopkins negotiates for a few more days, and Death uses this opportunity for a vacation among the mortals.

I’m wondering about the persisting trope in human thinking that makes humanity a destination for deities and supernaturals, who are drawn to visit for sentimental reasons. ‘You’re a fascinating species,’ they will say. And then they incinerate us.

I’ve always liked Brad Pitt, but here he’s too young to have been matched with Anthony Hopkins. The result is happy one for humanity, in that the human is by far the more interesting study. It could have been Milton’s Satan again, the alien more sympathetic than the people, liberated from convention and fear to be playfully, excessively and attractively human.

But Brad, perhaps at the bidding of an uninspired director, reaches only as far as the deadpan alien, a kind of mildly amused Vulcan on reconnaissance, settling for the occasional cheap laugh in a clumsy naivete. He loves peanut butter. There’s a bit of Chauncey-Gardiner-style truth-telling thrown in, casting Death in a light of innocence, an angle that has a spark of potential to it, but is wasted in the cheapest effect.

So we’re going to be disappointed. The whole premise has such great potential for perversity. I can’t help thinking that the later Brad Pitt would have had much more fun with it, smirking through it all with a provocative chill and detachment.

Instead, he is outclassed by Hopkins, for whom the highest compliment is going to be that everything he does makes sense. In a plot that challenges logic, and allows itself a few too many turns toward the silly, his choices are consistent and absolutely correct. He’s going to die, and what is more, he’s trapped in a sort of cat-and-mouse game with Death himself, whose behaviour is wildly erratic. The man is mourning. His life is being trashed by this visitor. He struggles to maintain dignity. He is finally forced into standing up to this terrifying entity. The potential here for great narrative and cinematic moments is untapped. One senses that the writers and director have grabbed an idea by the tail and been unequal to the project.

Along the way we are treated to one more unbelievable movie romance. The actress works very hard to play against her lifeless partner. She forces this hasty love in the best way she can, and we are disappointed for her. She deserves better. She deserves real evil before this listless affair. Pitt the Elder would have proven game, would have charmed her, with all the worst intentions.

Hopkins plays a man of honour. But he has made a deal with Death for a few more days. That Death then wreaks havoc should be a morality tale. We should be allowed to watch in horror as the life of the good man is trampled underfoot. At the end Death will shrug and take him away, the man’s last view of life is the prospect of ruin, everything he had worked so hard for laid waste, even his beloved daughter poisoned by agency of his one weak moment.

Or even more fun would have been to free the scenario into the chaos beyond our consciousness, which can only appear evil at first contact. The divine, or the god-like, must be fearsome and terrible. It was something the ancients understood better than we have, as delicate as we have become. We’re more afraid of each other than of the powers in the shadows.

Paint a scenario. ‘Why me?’ asks Hopkins’s character. Pitt the Elder replies simply, ‘I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.’ Could be good. Instead we struggle through the attempt at a happy ending and turn off the TV, feeling restless.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Travelogue 647 – September 9
The Tilburg Ten
Part Three

I’m slipping back through memories. It’s a wonder we don’t lose track as we get older and collect more memories, lose track of the directions on the compass. It’s sometimes like boarding a train at an unfamiliar station and having to guess which direction the train will go. There are seats facing both ways. I’ve noticed how much people hate to face backward. I wonder why. Others don’t care. They’ll be staring at their phones the whole way, anyway.

There’s lots of time to think when you’re with family. Baby needs feeding. I’m sitting across from family at our booth at the pub in Tilburg. I’m staring out the window, studying with half my attention the light post across the street, pointedly experimental, artistic in its design, with a thick base panelled in light wood, tapering toward a pointed top and set with three huge, flaring spot lights. The wood, I notice, set against the rose-coloured brick of the building behind is perfect in colour tone. Dutch design, a product of Brabant.

I get some precious time to space out. I’m rewinding through the race, and more, through the training that fed the race. I see, as though out the train window, my long training routes, where I’ve put in hundreds of miles, up along the Schie toward Delft, along the city’s northern canal, along park paths, through the Zestienhoven Park, though the Roel Langerakpark, through the Vroesenpark, past the city zoo, past Sparta stadium. Some days have been long and slow, in summer’s humidity and some days in light, misty rains. Some days, I’ve added sections of speed, pushing.

I tell myself I could have done better.

It’s the curse of once having been young. I can still remember how easy it used to be. The memory train skips a blur of years, and another ten-mile race comes into view. I’m attending university. That was Santa Barbara. The course followed the beach. The race was a lark. I hadn’t trained very intensively.

When I first came to the university as a freshman, I had tried out for the cross country team. I’d been accepted, but I was far from qualifying for varsity. Ultimately I wasn’t serious enough, something the university coach made clear in the few disparaging remarks I earned. And then I sprained my ankle in a weekend basketball game. The coach had shrugged. That was the end of it, my career as a competitive runner.

The detail isn’t sharp as I remember the race. I don’t remember the streets. I don’t remember the water stations or mile markers. I don’t remember the finish. I don’t remember the time exactly, though I remember it was good. What I do recall is the feeling, the ease. I feel the pace, fluid and strong and natural. The miles melted away. It was exhilarating.

When I tell myself, years later, that I have to push harder, it’s this dream I’m chasing, There’s no record I need to beat. Race times are arbitrary markers in time, they are tools for training. But the emotion is there, in the exultation in the body liberated for a while from its mundane function to express free spirit, running without purpose. Racing.

I pause in my memories to taste the Belgian beer. It’s been a long time since running felt like that. I still enjoy it, but it never ceases to be work at my age. I’m never free of some drag, some fatigue, some aching joint. I do it for fun, but it’s a different sort of fun. It’s a chance to breathe the autumnal air, redolent these days with lavender, and find nature’s restless kind of peace, the sound of the wind.

But when I tell myself to push harder I’m confusing my motivations. As one ages, I suppose he must cure himself of living in multiple moments.

There are things at any age that come easily, that have the flow of a liberating mastery. I must appreciate those experiences. Maybe it’s simply the grace with which I taste and measure this beer. Maybe it’s the ease with which I admire my family.

We walk slowly back to the train station, strolling down the humble street in the humble town. My legs are sore, pleasantly sore with achievement. We find our track, climb the steps to the platform, and as we emerge we hear applause. It’s coming from across the tracks, from the platform for the train going the opposite way. There is a group of runners wearing the same medallion as I am. They are saluting me. I wave. I hold up the medallion.

I’ll be back in Brabant next month. My next race will be in Eindhoven, city of genius, for my second run of the Eindhoven Half.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Travelogue 646 – September 8
The Tilburg Ten
Part Two

After the race we walk slowly along a quiet brick street, away from the station. We’re pushing the buggy with sleeping Baby. We’re only a mile or two away from the race, on the other side of the station, and the streets are sleeping. The occasional cyclist clatters by. If we see others, they are wearing the same medallion I’m wearing around my neck.

Places like this are calming for me, the brick modesty of northern European streets. There’s history, but a humble sort of history. Beauty, and a humble sort of beauty, accommodating the budgets of aspiring bourgeois merchants and bankers and tradesmen and civil servants in the bourgeois centuries before Hitler. There is just the right pitch of variety inside the uniformity. Every construction has individuality, but the sort that doesn’t clamour for attention.

We discover an intersection, five brick roads in five directions, where a few pubs have taken over the brick sidewalks with outdoor seating. We park the buggy and find a booth inside. Baby needs feeding. Daddy needs a beer. Menna is going to teach Batu how to play Connect Four. I found the Connect Four game for one euro in a discount store. It brings back memories of Ethiopia, afternoons with the athletes as they play the game over and over, or sitting by the lake in Debre Zeit with Mark. Batu looks at the game with the same face she brings to anything new, an expression of distaste. She shakes her head in a vigorous negative. Menna insists, and they play.

I’m staring out the bar’s window. I’m thinking about the race. I did get some momentum going, despite the cold start. I held a constant pace throughout, an enjoyable pace, the kind made three-quarters of push and one of cruising. I was passing people the whole way, which is only a measure of how far back I started.

September is nearly perfect for running, the sun magnificent when it’s out, and it’s out intermittently now, after having hidden from us all morning.

The streets of Tilburg were narrow enough that I was never quite free of the crowd. Even in the final miles, we were piling up in places, channelled through bottlenecks made tighter by the cheering crowds. The people have been my favourite part of races in Brabant, the warm welcome. There’s a section in the last mile of the Tilburg Ten that leads between two banks of bars and every outdoor seat is filled with smiling patrons, and more are crowding in and cheering like we were the Tour de France. It’s hard to resist feeling exhilarated.

Friendly Brabant, all peace now. More or less an improvised district during the heady days of great Carolus, and a minor jewel in the ill-fated Middle Francia, it went on to reprise the role contrived for it in its birth, always a middle and middling place to be traded among larger powers, but still somehow retaining its first identity, Brabant, the marshy place. It becomes a duchy, and rises to prominence and wealth in the High Middle Ages. It becomes an acquisition for the Burgundians, the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons and the revolutionaries. It becomes a battleground. The most defining conflict is between the Dutch and the Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Little Brabant is unable to be saved. Like the throwaway character in disaster movies, she can’t maintain her grip, and she drops back into the sea that is despotic Spain. Spanish Flanders and Brabant don’t get a chance at independence until the great realignment after Napoleon, and even then the new nation of Belgium can only accommodate half of Brabant.

Baby needs feeding. The game is set aside. Still Papa gets some space-out time. I’m enjoying the uneventful big window. I’m enjoying the taste of the Belgian beer. Beer and frites, two of the signal contributions of the region to the world. I’m happy to be doing my part in carrying on the tradition.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Travelogue 645 – September 7
The Tilburg Ten
Part One

We miss the first train. We miss the second train. Travel with family is something I’m still getting used to. On my own, I’m ready in fifteen minutes; I arrive at the race early so I can warm up. Now I have family. I do want them there. So I become accustomed to joining in the mob of runners even as they’re surging toward the starting line, tugging off my sweats as I go. My warm-up is the first five kilometres of the race.

This is the first time Baby gets to watch her daddy run. All in all she seems underwhelmed. Riding in the buggy is soothing. She sleeps. When she wakes, she has all kinds of interesting things to look at. Sweaty daddy is the least of them.

The second train we miss by a matter of minutes, rushing into Central Station three minutes too late, just as a light rain starts to fall. We are rushing, though I know we’ve already missed the train and have a half hour. It’s the energy of the terminal hall, people crossing the cavernous space in dedicated lines. Travellers are unyielding. They are concentrated. Inside the terminal we slow, and we drift. The big hall is made dim by the showers outside. The flagstones inside the sliding doors are dark with wet tracks. We stop and we evaluate. There is a café at the top of the escalators. We have just enough time for a quick snack, though I’m wondering how much I dare burden my digestive tract. Just an apple juice, please. Okay, one small espresso, too.

The train is quiet. The journey is pleasant. Baby is dozing. Tilburg is only three stops. Past Dordrecht, the landscape is open and green. Batu enjoys watching the fields as we pass. She tells us, ‘Yamaral.’ It’s pretty. She deserves the peaceful distraction. Next week she goes into surgery.

The race is underway, and I’m assessing systems. Out of the station, we had to quickly look around for signs to the course’s starting area. We had to follow other runners. I’m among my comrades again, the congregation of weekend endurance athletes, gathered in a communion of exertion. We crowd into the pen for starters, all facing the same direction, though we can’t even see the start. Everyone is bouncing on the balls of their feet, stretching, checking watches. Very slowly, the crowd begins to move. The inflated archway over the starting line appears. The crowd is walking faster. We cross the mats where the timing system records our each chip passing over, and there is room to start jogging. I’m assessing systems, points of resistance, points of pain. I set a pace that is moderate enough to allow the body’s kinks to work themselves out and fast enough to keep me within reach of a decent finishing time.

Tilburg is a nice town. It’s quiet, quiet as a university town can be. It was once one of those centers of wool trade and craft so dear to northern Europe. But there is nothing remarkable about it. I just find myself drawn to the smaller cities lately. There is a feeling of refuge. Even the big cities in the Netherlands feel so much more peaceful than major American cities. Maybe it’s Baby’s influence. I want safe spaces.

This is the province of North Brabant, this peaceful countryside that Batu contemplates from the train, the green fields stretching between calm towns. The peace belies its stormy past. Brabant appears in history during times of empire, when the heirs of Great Carolus, Charlemagne, negotiate ways to divide lands among them. The sliver of ‘marshy land’, Pagus Bracbantensis, becomes a bargaining chip, becomes a part of the failed Middle Francia. Within a few more centuries, it will be elevated to a duchy.