Friday, December 30, 2016

Travelogue 731 – December 30
Reading Babies

I’m moved by movement to interrupt my series about David, moved by the ceaseless movement of my new-born. If I don’t speak now, the week will pass. The week will become another and Little Sister will be a different text. Reading babies is day to day.

She is ceaseless noise and heat. She squirms in my hands, tiny fingers exploring the atmosphere and her lips forming the shapes of every quick mood. She’s ready to yawn, but she’s overcome by sudden worry, and then she resolves it with a frank look into my eyes. She stares into my eyes with curiosity, a look so sure and unalloyed that I am profoundly moved. She sighs. Her fingers curl. She kicks.

I have written that babies have changed my perceptions about the significance of organic life. We humans have always defined ourselves by the power of thought, but we find ourselves threatened by a new chimera, that of artificial intelligence. Machine thought: maybe it’s imminent, maybe it’s not. It doesn’t matter to the psychology.

For me, the profile of intelligence has changed. It isn’t described by the movement of Euclidean proofs. It is described by the squirming dance performed by the baby in my hands.

The routine of the last few days has me watching Little Sister late at night. She has just been fed. Her colic kicks in, and she is crying in pain. I can only hold her upright, and rock her, and hope she moves some of the air through her system. Sometimes it takes hours. I am saddened by all this pain. This is another axis in the notation of life and intelligence: the crying, the adversity of biology.

In movies, chimerical machines are smarter for their liberation from the biology. I’m skeptical. I’ve read the babies.

The solitary yellow VW winds along the mountain road. The camera silently follows from a great height.

What the hell, I think. I may as well watch. I haven’t seen ‘The Shining’ in a while. I’m in charge of Little Baby, and it’s late at night. She’s on my shoulder. We’re alone downstairs, alone on the sofa watching TV.

It’s a unique viewing experience, ‘The Shining’ with a new-born screaming in your ear. She doesn’t stop. I rock and I soothe, and I watch Jack Nicholson deteriorate into a murderous father. I can’t quite hear everything over Little Baby’s screams, so I’m reading the subtitles in Dutch. (I’m struck again by how much is lost in subtitles, how bland the language.)

Given I can’t hear much, I am absorbed in Kubrick’s vision, in the measured pace of each scene, the pacing of the speech and action. It feels so different to the manic choppiness of current film. I’m watching Jack’s face. He’s so young, and it seems as though he’s still finding his signature tics. There is something irrepressible in him, some unconquered energy. I imagine trying to direct him. I say, ‘Beautiful at one-tenth the amplitude.’ But everything depends on the mobility of those iconic features of his.

Little One finds some peace. The final mayhem hasn’t erupted in ‘The Shining’, and it’s just as well. I shut the TV off, and I quietly carry her upstairs. Everyone else is asleep. I check on Big Baby. She’s in deep sleep. Her face is so calm. She also changes all the time. I have renewed wonder for the human face and its mutability.

Time for sleep. Good night, Moon.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Travelogue 730 – December 21
Reading David
Part Two

Now she doesn’t sleep. She is so bereft. She loses her Mama. Every time is new grief, every time Mama responds to the cry from the crib, the new baby. Why, oh why? She sits up and she starts crying, with such hopelessness. Papa is a poor substitute. But she tires herself out. She has caught Papa’s cold, so she is not at full strength. Papa is happy when she slumps back and consents to cuddling. Her breathing evens out, even through her clogged sinuses. She’s breathing deeply and sighing.

We have so little power over the sadness in the world. We offer each other time. When Baby finally dozes off, I don’t dare move, even while my back aches. The position is all wrong. I ache as long as I can stand it so I won’t disturb her. It’s something I can do. It accomplishes very little about Baby’s sadness, about Mama being occupied. But it’s something. I’m studying her innocent face, and wishing for her some peace.

At my morning café, the young musician-barista is shaking his head over the newspaper. He has read an article about an advertising firm steering away from the term ‘Christmas’ for fear of offering offense. There is a backlash, people offended by the suggestion there would be offense. Others are offended by offense at offense being called offense. And so on. The young barista finds it sad and aggravating. ‘Why are they feeding me this as news?’

It does seem at times like we are confounded by the news. Journalists are as confounded as readers. News feeds read like an extended contemplation on human folly and forms of misery we can’t understand. Our writers are hypnotized by the tide of irrationality, like victims in a disaster film, watching the tidal wave come in.

Last week, Scottie sent me an article about Jerry Brown, governor of California. The two of us remember him from childhood, when he was governor for the first time, as a young man. The governor is defying our new Commander in Chief, saying he will preserve data about climate change. If Trump pulls satellite time, then California will launch a satellite. We laugh at the folly. But we finish the article feeling unsettled. Doesn’t it echo a history lesson, something about medieval scribes in monasteries?

Is it true? Is science suddenly struggling to preserve its own narrative? In an age when science might have claimed ultimate triumph, when ‘data’ has supplanted knowledge, the tide turns and science finds itself drowning in its own prolific outflows.

Science itself seems to support the obvious about the internet age, the decay of sustained reasoning and imaginative response. Information is no longer a wave but a particle, packaged in randomized bundles, crashing against the reefs of the mind with mounting ferocity. The world itself appears to us increasingly random and pixelated.

Sadness arrives, like the debris of broken seashells on the beach. It almost seems disrespectful to search for a pattern.

Baby still has the patience for a story before bedtime, though her eyes are teary and swollen. We make it through the storybook. She takes it from me, and she reads it back to me in her own way. She turns a few pages, points and recites in her made-up language.

I daydream about my books while I am holding my sleeping baby. I keep still. The night’s routine always accelerates past any point I might be able to do any of my own reading. The books from the Leeskabinet stand in a pile on my desk. David’s volume sits by itself. It is a reading with a deadline. I must get to it soon.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Travelogue 729 – December 17
Reading David
Part One

Baby enjoys reading. It comes to her like a new notion every day. She sees ‘One Fish, Two Fish’ or ‘A Very Hungry Caterpillar’ and she gasps and points. She opens her mouth wide in amazement and expects similar expressions of wonder from us. We say, ‘Wow, look!’ We pick it up, and we read out the title. We open it like a precious package. ‘Look, Baby. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish ….’ At some point, she will grab the book and conduct the reading herself, pointing to each picture and making up stories in her language.

I’m glad she likes Dr. Seuss. It makes Papa nostalgic about his first years reading. I don’t remember specifically what reading looked like in my family. I don’t remember the plot lines; I don’t hear the voices. I had two brothers old enough to be in school, and I think they must have contributed to reading duties. I have memories of others types of play, but no pictures of sitting with them while they read aloud. I can imagine my mother reading those crazy stories, and I think she would have been good at it. But I can’t pull up any memory of it.

I know I loved my books. What I remember is all sensory. I loved them as objects, the bright colours, the glossy covers, the smell and the texture of new pages. I loved them as visions and sounds, the bold lines and the bright colours, the wild characters, and the rich rhymes of Dr. Seuss.

I still love books. I find peace and sometimes solace in bookstores. I’m attracted to books by their colours and their heft. I rub my hand over the covers. I smell their pages.

Papa is happy about a new development in his reading life. He has re-discovered libraries. After so many years on the road, after so many years in Ethiopia … indeed, after so many years building school libraries in foreign lands, Papa has discovered the public library, here at home. The revelation comes to him in the form of the Leeskabinet at Erasmus University.

The whole campus has been undergoing massive construction and renovation projects. As has my neighbourhood. I’ve resigned myself to a life among construction equipment, dust, detours, and orange vests. Addis Ababa was no different. The Erasmus library has been shut since I started at the Hogeschool. Parts of the collection reside in various locations around the campus. I can’t decipher the plan. I’d had no motivation to understand it before I accidentally discovered the Leeskabinet. It’s housed in a temporary structure that feels like a container, not far from the Hogeschool where I teach. I walked by it dozens of times before I noticed it.

The Leeskabinet is a sort of library within the Erasmus library, an institution founded 150 years ago as a place to read, based, I’m assuming, on the great Reading Room in London. I’ve seen photos from its Victorian days, hardwood shelving and carpets and dim lights. The current war-time digs are a shocking departure.

I strolled through one day to kill time between classes. I found shelves devoted to English-language fiction. I could borrow one of these, I thought to myself. Libraries are more than exhibits of book art. The books shelved here have more purpose than visual catalogue and meditation. I could, in theory, do more than browse and skim.

At the desk, I was told I could pay a reduced membership fee because I was Hogeschool faculty. I was stunned. Long shelves full of books, and I didn’t have to pay.

The kind auditor of my thoughts must be reminded of two factors that led to such retarded development on Papa’s part. First, there is the power of habit. Poor Papa has been on the road so long, and so far from home, that he is used to picking up reading materials as contraband, here and there, accepting the expense and the limited selection as things beyond his power, a tax levied on travellers. The second factor has been the peculiarly closed system in the Netherlands, the surprisingly effective management of the rights of residence in this small republic. Without an address, it’s hard to get a residency number. Without residence, it’s hard to rent. Without residence, you can’t get a bank account. And so on. Library card is far down that cascading chain of conditionals.

I proved my residence with a card. I proved my occupation with a card. I paid for my membership with my bank card. And I was issued a library card. I immediately collected a bundle of books, like a survivor of disaster, and I dashed out the door before the custodians could change their minds.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Travelogue 728 – December 12
Collateral Truths

I’ve managed a few hours of sleep. Sometimes a little sleep is worse than none. I wrote in my last entry that my mind felt like a spilled tray of tiny ball bearings. That was hubris. They were not ball bearings but in fact those little sprinkles you put on cakes. They crunch under foot as you stumble, and the thought or the neuron is turned to powder.

Baby Two is doing well. She lost weight during her first day, but she is regaining it now. Her big eyes search the room, and she exercises her thin fingers in the air. She works her lips, tasting something, then opening them wide for air or for food. We are quiet and smiling in her presence.

Little Sister has her own complaints, of course, having been rudely pushed into the world of air and oxygen, a world where she has to take in her nutrients through those untried red lips. She takes her food, and it causes pain. Her little stomach can’t handle new substances. She cries in the middle of the night and needs to be soothed. We hold her upright so her system can pass the air trapped inside. In her tiny body, these bubbles of gas cause turmoil.

Baby One is taking a kindlier view toward her little sister, though still circumspect. Sometimes she points and giggles. Sometimes she says ‘baby’ with wonder. Sometimes she just stares sullenly. She has her doubts. We still have to sell her on this new idea. ‘You have a sister.’ But she said unto them, ‘Except I shall see the nails on her delicate hands, and put my finger against her warm skin, and thrust my hand into hers, I will not believe.’

We keep her at a distance because Little Sister is so fragile. Baby One doesn’t know her own strength. She bruises us in her enthusiasms. We take it; that’s our job. And, no doubt, she will give Little Sister plenty of small bruises in the years to come, and Little Sister will reciprocate.

I appreciate her skepticism. In this Christian season, in this year that sees the resurgence of authoritarianism around the world, I think of Thomas. Didymus was his name. He was one of Jesus’s chosen twelve. But he had other business the day Jesus showed himself as resurrected Saviour. Afterward he questioned. He was called ‘Doubting Thomas’. I think Doubting Didymus sounds better.

Jesus showed himself a good teacher by saying, yes, please ask. Here, push your fingers into my wounds. But then he also showed himself the typical teacher by praising those who hadn’t needed to ask in the first place.

I know how annoying it can be to be interrupted by questions when you’re leading a class. But teaching is communication. You have to know how those beatitudes are being received. Jesus didn’t have the tools for standardized testing. So we say, ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question.’ What we’re really saying is, ‘I can’t always tell when I’m being stupid.’ It’s a doctrine of second chances. We want the chance for true knowledge, in both directions.

It’s not a time that favours doubt, though. Doubt is seen as weakness. One backs one’s party, and one’s clan and one’s country without question. Anything less is scandal. The answer to doubt is some form of violence, first verbal, and after that, more.

The voice inside must conform. The habit of questioning oneself before speaking is a quaint modernist notion. Better to pronounce oneself sure upon all points. There’s time to think later. There’s no time to think later. The same certainty may lend itself to an opposite viewpoint. That’s what happens later. It’s the certainty that counts.

I think it’s a probably a fun way to live. It’s living in a state of perpetual revelation. The things coming out of your mouth are surprising and exciting. There is an astonishing truth to your words, you realize, even as you hear them.

You have been raised on a belief in revelation. Now you are experiencing it on a daily basis. These are the fun possibilities in post-truth politics. It’s magical.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Travelogue 727 – December 9
Collateral Damage

My feet are still sore. So is my back. I don’t think my brain is doing all that well, either, to be honest. It’s difficult to measure brain function from the inside, but my thinking is cloudy, reflecting the chilly fog outside. It’s so cloudy I can’t remember what it feels like to think clearly. How does one define clear thought? If there were any objective measure, I’m sure I would find it very humbling. Fortunately, none is handy. Maybe this sort of rambling is the best yardstick.

I have enough brain function remaining to trace the genesis of every ache and pain. Each has origins within the past thirty-six hours. That’s about as long as my second daughter has been alive. There is no coincidence in that.

Baby Two (Meisje Twee) entered into the world somewhat precipitately. The pains of contraction never settled into a pattern. Menna waited to wake me up. By the time she did, the pains were coming fast, but still erratically. We debated calling. We called. And then she came, our eager little girl. Oma was watching Baby One in another room. There were only the two of us, Mama and Papa, and the baby was not going to listen to reason.

It’s not easy to be calm while someone is screaming. I’ve had some intense tutorials in the last thirty-six hours. Mom is screaming with pain. The baby is not waiting, I need to think clearly. What is there to think about? I have to guide her into the world.

It’s night again. No one has slept in a long time. Baby One is screaming. She doesn’t understand. Mama can’t be available. She is nursing Baby’s new little sister. But she can’t think it through. Mama is always here for her.

I am trying to hold Baby and comfort her. She is grieving. And she is strong. I have to fight to keep her on the bed with me. She struggles. She kicks out a tantrum. She wants her mama. I pick her up and I walk around with her. We walk back and forth a long time. My back is protesting. When she is sleepy, we lie down. I hold her. I can’t move. My back is aching. It’s all I can think about.

It’s only after Baby Two had arrived that the nurse arrived. Menna was holding the new baby, cord still attached. The nurse called from her mobile. She was downstairs and lost. We live in a massive complex, which is locked up at night, and we play this game with visitors every time: where are they? Which entrance? The baby had arrived, but we were scared for her. Her pallor seemed off, seemed bluish. We needed the expert immediately. I didn’t hesitate; I ran out the door.

I ran down the stairs and out of the complex. I didn’t have time to play hide and seek among the various entrances. I would have to run the entire outside perimeter until I found her. And indeed I did make it most of the way around before I spotted her, lone figure beside the building at 3:30 in the morning. She told me as I guided her in that she had called the ambulance.

She checked the baby. She declared all things appearing well and normal. She helped to cut and tie the cord. She said the ambulance must have arrived. I ran outside again, and started the dash around the building. This time I made it about halfway around, as far as the front gate, where the ambulance had parked, lights flashing. I let them in, and we started the long hike back to the flat. They laughed at me. I was in short sleeves. I was barefoot.

Once in the flat, they took the baby in hand, big and expert hands. With gentleness and with authority, they checked to see she was whole. She was.

Now it’s the morning after the morning after. No one has slept much. The babies traded off in their crying, Baby Two looking for food, Baby One looking for love and reassurance. My feet are bruised and lacerated. My back aches without respite. My mind feels a spilled box of tiny ball bearings, dropped onto grey concrete. I’m on my hands and knees, collecting them one by one. I replace them in the carton, but I think there may be a whole in the bottom.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Travelogue 726 – November 23
The Virtues

Baby is playing with her food. She’s quietly digging among the remnants of dinner with her spoon. She’s not making a mess, so I let it go. I just enjoy watching her, whatever she’s doing.

It’s dark outside, a deep winter’s night already. It was dark when I cycled home from work, and it was barely past six. In the morning, I had cycled in the dark to work. At midday, it was an anaemic and soupy, grey light that had been filtering through the classroom windows.

We gather at night in the warm bubble of light that is home. The TV adds a flickering note of blue. Baby has her back to the screen. She’s standing in front of the low table in our salon, and she is perfectly absorbed in her explorations.

I know what will happen when I take the bowl and spoon away. She will cry and kick. I’ll pick her up and comfort her, but she will be outraged. She will arch her back and cry to the heavens. That’s how she is now, and I don’t mind too much. A few minutes pass, and she’s smiling about some new occupation, the tears still fresh on her cheeks. The tantrums are hers, and they make sense. I regret being the one to say ‘no’ so often. I imagine most parents haven’t thought his through too thoroughly, this sudden inheritance of the power of no. We have all apprenticed on the other side it. As children, we may have daydreamed about the day we would have this mighty authority. Then quite unexpectedly, we are asked to carry it forward, civilization’s strict negative.

Once in a while, I have a few minutes to spare at work and I skim through articles on the Guardian’s website. I was captivated by a wonderful quote today. It was embedded in a story about the alt-right’s outrage at Trumps’ disavowal of a group who trade Nazi salutes at their meetings. They videotape themselves giving what they imagine are thundering orations. They shout and they salute, and they look about as scary as boys playing cops and robbers in their clubhouse. They wouldn’t merit disavowal from anyone other than Trump, the prince of juvenilia in politics.

Someone had left a comment on Breitbart that was quoted in the Guardian: ‘This constant virtue signaling needs to finally end, otherwise our civilization will simply collapse,’ he said. It was such a wonderful quote, I smiled about it all day.

Civilization will collapse! Such warmth and such purity! I wish I could bend my mood to this kind of major chord. Isn’t this how we all wish things were in this tedious world, where, in fact, civilization seems more vulnerable to aerosol than to philosophy? It’s inspiring to think my virtue may be ransom for all the world’s safety.

Still, silly me, I had thought that ‘virtue signaling’ was civilization. Didn’t society evolve from a set of ‘virtue signals’, as humans learned how to live together? There were ‘virtue signals’ like the Ten Commandments, for example. Killing people may be counterproductive. You may need that guy later, or his family may come after yours. Things like that.

And I’m confused by Nazis rebelling against rules. I had thought that society under the Nazis was nothing if not a very strict litany of ‘virtue signaling’. Certainly that old lady Adolph, who in his secret mirror was a scolding, powdered English duchess, had codes upon codes scrolling through the dim chamber of his mind.

There’s something to raise compassion here, this pouting resentment against the people who, yes, do enjoy telling us what to think and what to do, and enjoy it too much. There are always those who are right, and there are those who are very smug about it. Few personality types are more irritating. But righteousness is free as sunshine. The smug ones don’t own it. There’s the Word and there’s the preacher. I think there’s a saying, something about the baby and the bathwater?

But we want freedom. That’s what people do. We want to play with our food. We want to put the five-cent piece in our mouth. We want to play on the stairs. Some poor sucker has agreed to be the one to say ‘no’. We scream and we kick. The adult hangs on, and probably wonders how he or she ended up in this position.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Travelogue 725 – November 14
Shadow Play

It’s foggy this morning. I’m waking to life from dreams. I’m always waking from sleep, and I can’t always say I know which way lies the dream. My compass is ageing, corroded. But I say, I wake to life and take my waking slow.

I’m going to take my time going to work. The fog creates a wonderful sense of making no progress. I’m rolling on the bike beside the River Schie, and the fog is rolling back. The water slowly reflects the greys back, a variety of greys poured back into the other elements. I can’t see to the end of the straightaway on the path ahead. I take my rolling slow. I don’t see the destination. I guess I never do.

It’s a foggy Monday. Mondays are made for work. Yesterday was about play. And by play, I mean the theatre. I attended the second staging of my one-act plays. The one-acts go together. They were written to complement each other. I should say, the second was written to complement the first. The first was written almost twenty years ago.

There are a few themes uniting them. The most obvious is sexuality. Is there a coincidence at work, my staging plays about sex in Holland? As far as I know, there is. The first play was written in buttoned-up Minnesota, after all. And, after all, it’s such a ready theme, always rich in blood and comedy.

Underneath the theme of sexuality is one of gender identity. In the 90s, the thought of gender as a choice was closer to cutting edge than it is now. So the second play can afford to be more playful. In fact, it is a very silly farce, in randy cabaret style. In some way, it had to be, as an answer to the sober meditation that is the first play.

Peel back the words about gender identity, though, and there are more crawling underneath. There are deeper veins of identity. Do we fight? Do we think? ‘See, I’m a fan of anonymity,’ says the jaded brother of the dying man-become-woman.

There are the riddles we solve every day, solving always the same ones, though they are delivered in slight variations of grey, like shadows in the fog. We solve the stripes on the zebra. We say they point up; we say they point down. We say devil, we say God. And what do we do with God, after all?

We pray. We fashion prayer, and it has objects. It is sent with direction. But I take the opportunity to wonder about efficiencies. Prayer might be most pointed in Monday fogs, making the spoked wheels turn, so to say, and getting nowhere. It’s a little machine for love, like a toymaker’s invention, sitting in one’s palm, tiny spoked wheels whirring and tiny levers clicking. It was made to go nowhere, but to excite affection. It is far from useless, but a cause for wonder.

Pray that the toy exists. The toy exists. Pray that it exists. That is as profound as it gets; this is our life in the palm of a hand. Pray for the stripes. They go up and down, and then the zebra runs. It finds the sun, but that’s after your time.

It’s the first time I’ve had a chance to watch a play of mine staged since about fifteen years ago, since before I went to Ethiopia. Every step of the process comes with memories of the last time, long ago. We audition. I compare people to ghosts. Previous actors stand before me, and, behind them, the unfinished productions of the imagination, characters in the rough. In this case, there are real people who inspired the parts. Rehearsals ensue, the acting out of acting. The explanations: here is how I think. The actors are opening windows. ‘What if?’ they are asking. And I catch the scent of fresh air. I’m thankful.

Finally, there is the sensation of being in the audience. ‘So many words!’ I’m thinking. It doesn’t seem feasible that this torrent of words originated from one source. Plays and books just exist, after all. I understand the improvisations of artists like Michelangelo and Plato in philosophy: every creation existed before being created. It must be so. I recognize each phrase; the sum of them escapes me.

I find that finishing projects leaves me more naked than before. Life is paradox.

This long ride through fog is refreshing. The grey wash is liberating I’m getting nowhere. I’m relishing each breath.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Travelogue 724 – November 7
The Troubles

In London, I stopped to see some of my favourite paintings at the National Gallery. There is a kind of resonance that happens when we check in with history. I mean something more than reading about it, more than TV portrayals or fictionalized accounts. There is a spark of truth passed in the physical presence of history. The artefact can’t interpret or editorialize. Romance does not survive the encounter intact. It changes. I won’t say romance ever dies, because it’s a reflex too deeply embedded in the human psyche to ever be uprooted. But silent contact, mixed with even the most diluted sincerity, stimulates change.

There’s a blunt edge to the work of the old masters. I think we are encouraged to project a decadence upon them and their works, lay over them a veil of eviscerating sophistication. We are surprised by the artefact. It is smaller than we expect, rougher, coarse in its materiality. It is a product of craft and crude materials. The human hand is evident.

I walked out of the National Gallery and into the confusion of the construction under way around Trafalgar Square. Cities are never static. They are collections of projects. Rotterdam has exploded with road work this fall. It feels like living in a changing matrix of sawdust and cement dust. Every day a straight path has become crooked. One gets used to a life of detours.

I emerge from the Gallery, and I follow my detour around the construction and to the Tube. I’m heading to West London. Later that night, I am walking with Patrick alongside the Thames, down by the Hammersmith Bridge. The humble little bridge was targeted by the IRA three times! I scratch my head at that, examining the modest artefact of Victorian engineering, the bridge that seems barely able to clear the surface of the river, the bridge that asserts so little with its squalid towers in dark stone.

It seems the IRA have paid their respects at the National Gallery, as well. Twenty-five years ago, a firebomb was set off in the bookstore at 3:30 in the morning. No art was damaged, and the museum was open the next day. It was the Christmas season, and the IRA had planned a spate of attacks around the city. The whole year had been a busy one, some dozen incidents altogether. That included a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street, while the Prime Minister had been meeting with his War Cabinet.

Yes, the IRA was still active in the 90s. History is an odd patchwork. Things overlap and challenge our categories. The IRA stages an attempt on the life of the Prime Minister as he meets with advisors about the first Gulf War. Al Qaeda had been founded three years earlier. The Gulf War offends their sensibilities, with troops stationed in sacred Saudi Arabia. In seven more years, they would attack U.S. embassies in East Africa. In ten, they would take down the World Trade Center.

Now’s it’s thirty years on from their founding, and Al Qaeda is considered a moribund entity, past its glory days and out-performed by ISIS. The IRA seems a quaint bit of history, bloody history, though the IRA represented more than three hundred years of armed resistance to British rule. And a struggle not yet abandoned, a few stalwarts will say.

The history behind the IRA describes anything but a straight line of development. It included a detour through America, not too dissimilar to Al Qaeda’s. In the 1860s, in the wake of the Civil War, militants decided that an invasion of Canada was just the thing to advance the Irish Republican cause. They made a few raids across the border, the biggest of which crossed the Niagara River in 1866 and seized one town for a few days. Ulysses S. Grant himself rushed to assess the situation. Canadian patriotism was inflamed for a moment, and the raid seems to have galvanized the movement toward confederation among the provinces, achieved the next year.

Shoot a few guns, and you never know what will happen. It’s so rarely what you set out to accomplish. There’s always this kind of blunt edge to the objects of history.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Travelogue 723 – November 3

When I went to London a few weeks ago, my first stop was the National Gallery. I only had an hour or so before I was due to meet Patrick. I hadn’t visited the gallery in years, so I was happy with even this one hour. I strolled slowly through the Middle Ages, and on to the Renaissance. I had two favourites I wanted to visit. One was Jan van Eyck, my Flemish muse. I’ve written about him in several stories now, and I had an urge to see the Arnolfini portrait again, to meditate the intensity, the loving detail, the sense of a future -- the future of the couple, the future of an art form, the future of a civilization.

I stopped to see Holbein. I stood before his portrait, ‘The Ambassadors’, for a while. The painting was commissioned in 1533 by one of the two subjects of the portrait, a nobleman named Jean de Dinteville. He had been sent to England as France's representative at the coronation of the new king, Ann Boleyn. The other man in the portrait was the Bishop of Lavaur, one Georges de Selve. He was in London on a hopeless mission to keep England faithful to the Catholic Pope. The wedding itself was proof and cause of the hopelessness. One can fairly see it in the bishop’s sombre face in the portrait.

We all know the story. Henry needed a male heir. He was the son of a king who had put an end to a long bloody civil war, whose claim to the throne was tentative, and who had to watch for betrayal throughout his reign. The Tudor dynasty was haunted to the end by its early history. Their pre-eminent concern was stability. Henry’s wife of more than twenty years had not born him a son. He needed an heir that the nobility would recognize. Henry decided he had to have an annulment. He would remarry and have another chance at producing an heir.

The Pope was not inclined to grant that annulment. Queen Catherine was aunt to the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who had only a few years earlier sacked Rome in a conflict with the papacy. This was not an enemy that Pope Clement VII wanted to aggravate. Henry reacted by denying the Pope and declaring that the English king was the head of the English church.

Poor Georges de Selve was on a doomed mission. Events were too far advanced. The marriage itself was a sin and an offense in the eyes of the Catholic Church. In short order, Henry would be excommunicated by the Pope.

I find this kind of paradox in history often. The Tudors were essentially a conservative force. They did not want to rock the boat. Henry, in an effort to secure stability, effected one of the most wrenching and revolutionary changes in a millennium of English history.

It would seem that both subjects of the portrait found themselves discouraged by the state of affairs. Only sixteen years after Luther had nailed his challenge to church doctrine on the door of the Wittenberg church, Europe was wracked by rebellion and war. To Catholic men of principle, it was horrifying. It was profound tragedy.

The painting is loaded with symbols to reflect the unease in the minds of the two men. Between them in the painting are shelves stacked with objects that seem to advertise their learning, books, quadrants, a globe, a lyre. Renaissance noblemen were expected to demonstrate an intellectual versatility that today’s party of Donald would probably find suspect and effete. These sorts of displays in portraiture were not unusual. But when you study the objects, there are elements of discord. The lyre has a broken string. The astronomical devices are misaligned. A book on mathematics is open to a page about division. The only sign of a higher order is the silver crucifix high in the left corner of the painting, half hidden by the green curtain that is the backdrop for the scene.

The two men in the portrait were fated to live in a time of growing discord. Within a generation, France itself would be engulfed in a bloody civil war. There were few signs of hope for them. They had no refuge from the violence but that of philosophy, captured in the final symbol and most famous of the great painting, the distorted skull at the bottom, the reminder that all things pass, the memento mori.

Few and fortunate are those who have regarded this portrait in the subsequent centuries, and, recognizing the symbols of discord and distress, didn’t identify with them. It’s in the nature of our inventive species to find new ways to compete and fight for advantage, flying the banners of ideas forged for the occasion.

We in our time watch a tide of conflict envelope the world. We ourselves watch as a citadel of ideas is under siege, the philosophies we thought impregnable: liberalism and democracy. While some Americans celebrate Trump’s irrationality as a kind of mystical quintessence of democracy, the rulers of China and Russia openly mock democracy. The emergent non-nations of ideological clans and warlords invent post-modern elaborations of medieval law. We manifest the same sort of shock and disbelief that overtook the ambassadors to Henry VIII’s London. Reason must have some weapons left in its arsenal. But the partisans of reason so seldom win out. We’re far more likely to be the witnesses of a violent birth of some new era, than the guardians of the faith in a time of trial.

Look at the scene from just the right angle and you see the skull emerge. Find your solace.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Travelogue 722 – November 1
Trick or Treat

Halloween still exists! On an early evening break from duties at the school, I ride through Kralingen, in eastern Rotterdam, close to campus, and I see the boys and girls in costume. I think I had decided that the holiday was dead for children. It had become a prank for adults, a time to dress up and drink, bust glass in the streets as they stumble home. But there they were, little witches and skeletons and clowns running along the brick sidewalks, clustered in front of open doors. The difference now, it seems, is that parents tag along. I see them standing behind by a few paces, taking pictures. The children seem genuinely overjoyed. It’s cheering after a full day in classes full of the older versions of these Dutch children, children who have discovered the dubious delights of adulthood, innocence still showing in their eyes though they have become busy being grown-up with their bodies.

I’m meeting up with the actors later tonight. We’re playing our own style of trick or treat. Our first performance is only ten days away. We are rehearsing my two one-acts, two pieces to be performed the same evening. We’ll be performing in a club-and-theatre in downtown Rotterdam, near Eendrachtsplein and the train station.

Are we ready? Theatre is chaos. That’s part of the attraction to performance, I think, the temptation to ride this wave toward controlled disaster. You set a date and you put money down on a room. You gather people together and you commit each to one another in an exercise in silliness, a playful seriousness, masks and costumes in front of people paying for tickets. It’s a species of madness.

The venue is being difficult. No one answers or returns our calls. We are anxious about logistics. How will we plan things like lighting? Are we getting enough promotion out there? Why isn’t the theatre promoting? Actors are still struggling with their lines. My job is to push them. They snap at me. Tensions always build this close to show-time. But the game is resilient. We dive right back into it. It’s surprising every time I see it.

Trick-or-treat is not only about the costumes. It’s as fun as the buy-in. With the right group, every costume is hilarious and every piece of candy delicious. We have a good group of trick-or-treaters.

Theatre is magic. It conjures things out of spirit. It plays with the essence of the transitory world. Each show vanishes in the moment, different than the last. The script might be the constant, but each show changes, like the water in the river.

Reading Shakespeare is reading poetry. Seeing stagings of Shakespeare is speculation. Seeing his play in 1600 was probably good fun. But no one walked out of the theatre thinking it was the event that defined his life. It was gone.

I arrive back at the college. I see my playmates. And so we move on to the next door. We’re giggling at the silliness of it all, dressing up like this and shouting to the house, lights up, ‘Trick or treat!’

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Travelogue 721 – October 23
East London

The town is waking up. People resume their lives outside. They join the streets. They stand in queues. At the stop lights they line up. At the café counter they line up. I see my city first there at the café. They are chatting over their coffee like discoverers at the start of their journey.

I’m sitting by the windows. The light coming in is hardly dazzling. My computer screen is brighter. It’s a day that has begun with sunshine. But it is only the autumn sunshine, and some high haze is forming tentatively. This will be the light of winter.

The light was like this – diffuse and uncertain – as I travelled across London. I had started from Bath, and caught a morning train into Paddington. It was a lovely ride through the green landscape of southern England. At Paddington, I transferred to the Circle Line, and rode to Bank. There I caught the DLR train to London City Airport.

The DLR is the Docklands Light Railway. My line originates at Bank, in the heart of the old City of London, and it travels east through the intriguing territory called the Docklands. Just about every stop has some resonance to the name that makes me want to stop to explore. There’s Limehouse and Canary Wharf and Silvertown. From the Napoleonic Wars until World War II, these areas were among the busiest in London, site of a series of ports that were probably the biggest in the world, and site of related industries.

After the 1960s the ports fell rapidly into disuse. By 1980, most the ports were closed, and the Docklands were in economic free fall. The city of London initiated a series of redevelopment projects. One of the products of this attention is the booming area called Canary Wharf, where you now see skyscrapers as tall as any in England. This zone quickly became the second home to London’s finance sector, being only a few miles east of the first hub of finance, in the City, back there by the Bank Tube Station, where I began my ride on the DLR.

The Isle of Dogs is no isle, but it is bound on three sides by the River Thames, inside one of the biggest meanders in the river. It’s around this crazy loop in the river that the development of the Napoleonic docks began, starting to the west in Rotherhithe (from an Anglo-Saxon name for the place where they landed the cattle) and Limehouse, and then wrapping around the Isle of Dogs and extending east in the twentieth century.

It’s out east, among the remains of the last docks, that the City Airport was built in the 80s. From the train, I could see the Thames Barrier, great engineering feat of the new Elizabethan era, built in the 70s and 80s to control flooding on the Thames. Flooding has been a perennial curse for the city on the river, and this marvel of science seems to have solved it. I have tried to understand the principles of the design and failed, but I will say it makes a fascinating sight, those silver pods rising at intervals in a line all the way across the surface of the river. You sense the magnitude of the achievement, even if you don’t have the intelligence to explain it.

The airport itself was a product of the city’s regeneration project. It’s an odd little airport, with one runway and strict rules about the size of airliners it can admit. Every time I travel through here, I sense the relief. ‘It could have been Heathrow,’ everyone is thinking together. It’s a blessing that one of those smallish planes out there is flying directly to Rotterdam. Over the course of the morning, I had travelled almost as far across England as I would fly I the afternoon. The day advanced outside the enormous windows, feeble sunlight soaking into the madam of the runway. By the time it set, I would be home.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Travelogue 720 – October 22
Bath Melancholia

I’m unlocking the bicycle, fumbling with cold fingers. I pause to look up. Orion is high, and below him, the bright star of Sirius the Dog. I pause because I don’t get this pleasure often. I’m too busy these days. And I rarely get clear skies. And then there’s this benefit to the season, a chance at the stars. In summer, I’m never up early enough.

I’m breathing in the cold air, taking it in deeply. It feels cleansing. I’m have no evidence that cold air is cleaner than warm, but it sure feels that way in the lungs. It awakens and enlivens. I stand alone in the courtyard with my bike and the stars. Only two minutes on the clock, it’s a curative, a generous time, worth hours of anxiety.

The light was like this in Beechen Cliff Wood, climbing up the steep stairs at the end of the day, under deep cover from the high trees. The air was damp and close. I paused several times on the ascent to catch my breath. I wanted to breathe in the stillness and chill of the woods.

I had spent the afternoon in town, visiting familiar sites. I hadn’t been in Bath for years. There was a time I came often, stayed for weeks at a time. I stayed at Pey’s house on top of the cliff. Or I rented a room from Becky, who also lives on top of the hill. I visit with her just a minute this time, feeling some refuge in her warm personality. Her boy has a beard now!

I stopped in the Raven, my favourite pub. It’s down in the centre, down the narrow cobble-stone lane and underneath the limestone arch. The pub is known for their pies, the English type of pies, with meat inside. That’s upstairs, but I like sitting downstairs, where a series of wooden benches curls around the corner by the bar. I ordered a pint of bitter and I found my spot, tucked in behind the bar. There were a few regulars at the bar, chatting with the bartender. I read my new book.

I bought my new book at the Guildhall Market. They say there’s been a market on this site for eight hundred years. The current building dates back to the 1770s. The distinctive dome dates to the 1860s. The market overlooks the pretty Avon River. I had walked along the other side of the river to get to the centre, by the rugby field and the falls, and up onto the Pulteney Bridge, another eighteenth-century beauty, lined with shops.

I say new book, but it was a cheap used book, purchased at the book stall in the Guildhall Market. The same guy mans the stall as did years ago. They could be the same books on the shelves as last time I visited.

I picked up the second in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. I’m slowly re-reading the whole Waugh catalogue. I find his desolate humour a consolation. And who doesn’t like comic writing set in war? Who doesn’t like reading about World War II? I have a theory that soon there will be more fictional characters set in World War II than there were real ones. But Waugh’s characters restore one’s faith in the capacity of humanity to fall far short of the ‘Band of Brothers’ type of exceptionalism.

A band of old men entered and lined themselves up along all the rest of the bench, launching into vigorous conversation in accents that suddenly I found challenging. I was unable to eavesdrop very successfully, and the book had lagged among the old men’s noise into a torpid stasis. I concentrated on my pint, and I reflected on the tricks that time plays.

I had grown accustomed to thinking of this town as a constant, a safe place and a touchstone, somewhere I visited among spells working on the changeable. It was a peaceful contrast to Ethiopia. But on this trip, I had sensed that something had changed. I could have pointed to specific changes in the landscape. Down by the train station, whole blocks had been cleared and rebuilt in a bland yellow complement to all the town’s old limestone, designed in clean lines with spacious malls to support large-scale shopping. But just as much of the town, or more, had remained the same. I had changed somehow.

Walking up the steps, I realized that this was what I most loved, the hills themselves. The town was sacred as an elaboration of these hills. When we said the town was ancient, we shared our love for the trees and the stone underneath. This was always the best of the English spirit, its communion with the elements. It was a seafaring nation, but its heart remained with the hills. The Dutch were the ones more in love with water, I think. But I’m still learning.

I swing one leg over the bike, and I’m on my way. The night is a quiet friend. It’s a cold friend. it’s like a friend who’s very much older. Its thoughts are its own. It cares in its own cold and distant way. I am fond of the cold night. I like seeing Orion at the start of winter.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Travelogue 719 – October 21
West London

The light was similar then. We’re deep into the fall now. The sun is always either coming or going. It’s slowly, slowly dawning now. I’m cycling in temperatures near freezing, happy to see the stars still. I’ve been thinking the sunny late summer might be translating into a cold winter. So far the mornings like this one are agreeing with me.

I’m into the last few days of fall break. I’m back in Holland. Morning doesn’t break before morning starts. I’m up, and I’m listening to Baby’s steady sleep. I study her peaceful face, watching for the fleeting smile of dreams. Every smile of hers makes me happy. I dress quickly, and I rush out into the chill. I take a minute for Orion, high in the sky at dawn and heralding winter.

The light was like this over the Thames. But it was evening. The sun, always in a hurry these days, was near setting. We couldn’t see it. Patrick and I were rushing through a brief shower toward shelter. The shower was a light one, but the drops were fat. It wasn’t like the misty showers of Holland. We stopped for a minute’s shelter underneath the Hammersmith Bridge, I decided the rain was more comforting. The underside of the bridge, layered in rows of old planks, was so low and close to our heads. The bridge is a Victorian beauty with its pretty, green turrets, a suspension bridge first built in 1827. It creaked and moaned underneath its traffic, and we hurried on.

It’s such a staid old bridge, so close to the river, so bourgeois in its bulkiness and its low centre of gravity. It’s odd that it would have become an attraction for the kind of dramatics that it has. It has been the target of IRA bombs on three separate occasions. In 1939, a man threw a suspicious-looking suitcase into the river, and the bomb blew water sixty feet into the air. In 1996, the detonator failed, and the bridge as saved. In 2000, the bridge was not so lucky. The explosion shut the bridge down for several years.

In 1919, a South African airman saved a drowning woman, only to die of tetanus for his efforts soon afterward. He’s commemorated by a plaque on the bridge’s handrail.

Nothing so dramatic lay in store for us. Even the rain had been mild with us. It dissipated by the time we were halfway through our first pints. We were sitting at a table in the front room, talking about faraway places, about places in Africa, where rain like this would have been an event. Outside the panes of the window, the clouds grew darker with night, and the commuters continued their procession, some on bicycles, passing on the pedestrian path beside the river.

We would re-join the traffic eventually, heading back under the heavy old bridge, groaning from its injuries, and then inland, away from the river, through areas of Hammersmith still blithely denying with its ambitious construction projects the post-Brexit mood of anxiety and caution. It was a well-to-do area, but isolated to the riverside. It didn’t take us long to reach Patrick’s humbler district further east. He lived on a road there that overlooked the Tube tracks into the centre of town. All day, the trains rattled by with admirable persistence.

He said that two luminaries had graced this street with residence. One was Gandhi himself, who had made his home in West London during his law studies in the 1890s. ‘Gandhi,’ I said with reverence. But Patrick seemed to take more pride in the other, whom I’d never I heard of, one Geoffrey de Havilland. The better educated among my readership will know he was the designer of the wooden Mosquito combat plane that terrorized the Germans during World War Two. Patrick painted him as a stubborn man of vision, and I pictured Patrick himself in a RAF uniform, blueprints in his powerful grip and jaw thrust forward.

Our heroism for the evening was restricted to venturing out to Patrick’s local for one more round. We sat comfortably in the back of the pub, and we discussed politics. It seemed some minister prominent in May’s government frequented this pub. Brexit and Trump easily dispatched, we turned to the Middle East, an area of expertise for Patrick and his girlfriend, who was a journalist. They explained the situation in Syria in lurid detail, and in lurid language. The situation was desperate; it excited passions. I was raised to heights of angst and then dropped into my pint of ale whole. Before I knew it, it was time to walk back to the flat. I would fall asleep to the roar of the insistent trains of London.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Travelogue 718 – October 2

I run up the stairs. The steps are concrete. This stairwell is a brick echo chamber, a remnant of the old building that dates back to the ‘20s. The steps must be new, unbent by the footsteps in their grooves, uncracked by the torque of time. But the walls are vintage, eroded, salty, and still strong. Baby loves this stairwell. She leads me here on our daily walks. She shouts at the head of the stairs, listening with wide eyes to the echo.

It’s early Sunday morning. Baby is still asleep. I was on my way out when I realized I was going to need my jacket. It’s fall; it’s getting chilly. I have pulled the bike into the stairwell and left it at the bottom of the stairs. I didn’t lock it up, because the stairwell door at street level locks behind me.

At the top of three flights is the heavy door, made of thick planks of wood bound together with strips of iron. Once a day, Baby stands outside that door, pushing and looking up at me. She holds her arms up and wiggles her fingers. That means I should pick her up. We push the big door open together and her eyes grow wide. We enter into the echoing stairwell, and she turns quickly to watch the big door swing shut.

Once in a while, I take her all the way down the stairs and outside. I carry her to the canal. We talk about the silly ducks there. She stands in the uncut green grass by the water. She points at the tree branches above. Someone is coming, walking her dog, and I pick Baby up. Walking back home, I whisper to her about the silly ducks, and about the clouds, and about the doors and the windows, about the cars on the streets. I tell her we stay out of their way. See? We walk on the sidewalks and we’re safe.

Now I go to work on weekdays. I go to work at the college. She waves bye-bye, her expression vague, puzzled by the contradiction, the fun of the ritual but the coming absence of her playmate. I’m off to school, where I teach in front of classes of teenagers. In one class, we review presentation skills. There’s the problem of data. How do you describe life in numbers without being boring?

I introduce them to a fascinating site called Gapminder where you can view some number-crunching done in creative ways. One of the founders of this organization and site is an eccentric Swedish pubic heath expert. He wants us to re-define what we think of as the ‘developing world’. He demonstrates to us what he’s thinking in animated models of the data. In graphs measuring family size, income, child mortality and life span, he shows how things have changed. It isn’t 1950 anymore, he says, when all the world fell into two neat camps of haves and have-nots, divided by a wide gulf of cells on the graphs. The divide we have complacently accepted as fact resides in one fleeting arc drawn in history, most dramatic in the aftermath of the world wars.

Much has been said about how ineffectual charity is, but here we see pretty clearly how worldwide charity, that devoted to public health in particular, has changed history, providing a short cut for many parts of the world to reach standards of living we assume are a birth right.

The eccentric Swede talks about poverty and child mortality. He says the data shows that world population growth will only slow when we alleviate poverty. He has little figures to stand in for families in his video. He pushes over the figure of a child.

I am reminded how much I worry. Mortality is a bitter taste, impossible to wash away. Is that one reason it’s better to be a younger parent? There should be a minimum level in the reservoir of hope.

I’m thinking of Hannah again, the pretty, seven-year-old girl at the Mojo school, and the way she disappeared. Her mother felt helpless. She kept the girl at home. Without any medical attention, she slipped away. I shouted. Why didn’t she have me called? I was heart-broken.

I take Baby down the big stairs and she jumps up and down in my arms, indicating I should keep going. I carry her along the street, toward the park. I whisper to her, narrating what we see. I point out the speeding cars passing and tell her how we ought to cross the road. She sees the dogs of the leashes, and I say we should be careful.

I want to be fair. Life is about more than being safe. She has to indulge and enjoy her curiosity. I have to re-learn faith. The Swede delivers his lectures, year after year. He is older than I am. He believes that the numbers tell a hopeful story. I’m a student. I need new patience. I need new breath, new air to breathe. I pause before we head back upstairs. It’s like a prayer. She wiggles again. Let’s go!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Travelogue 717 – September 27
The Moestuin

The river feels like an improvisation. We see it from the surface today. I haven’t seen it this way before. The banks of the river south of Rotterdam are crowded with industry, huge warehouses, rusting plants of one sort or another, trash and barges. Then every so often, there is a field that opens up, humble space of trodden green, more space than green. Ugly as it is, there is still sweetness and peace. There is something about water, something generous.

Holland is generous with water. In the short distance we cover, the water divides and twists around the land. We pass two confluents; we pass islands. The river itself changes, from the Nieuwe Maas to the Noord River. We make no turns, but one river becomes another.

This is the magic of the sprawling delta lands. The waters twist and wind among each other. They change names, sometimes after only a few miles. The short span of the Noord River comes to a sudden end at the confluence where historic Dordrecht juts its head into the waters. There, the Noord meets the Beneden (Lower) Merwede and the Oude (Old) Maas.

Riverbeds are, of course, improvisations on the part of Nature, so our improvised names seem only fair. The map as we know it came into existence in (relatively) recent memory, during the great floods of 1421. The courses of these huge waterways changed then and never changed back, something staggering to imagine. Little Dordrecht occupies an island now. It didn’t used to. Dordrecht was a minor power in those days, and the floods broke up a lusty feud with a neighbouring town by the name of Geertruidenberg. After the floods they were divided by the Nieuwe Merwede and the Biesbosch, miles of wetlands. The war was forgotten, and great Geertruidenberg’s glory diminished.

We disembark in little Dordrecht. If you walk straight ahead, you will stroll into the pretty historical district. We turn left instead. We stay close to the water, (now the Beneden Merwede,) walking among quiet apartment blocks, until we reach the Villa Augustus.

The hotel is visible from water bus station. It was a water tower once, built in 1880s and abandoned some time in the last decades of the twentieth century. The hoteliers took it over more than ten years ago, converting it to its present use, cultivating a pleasant little garden between the hotel and the restaurant, where they grow vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. The Dutch call this kind of kitchen garden a moestuin. I learned that in the restaurant’s bookstore, where they proselytize for gardening and healthy foods. Even more interesting is the bakery next to the bookstore, where we can invest in real meringue, not so healthy.

We have eaten. The hotel is surrounded by lawns and gardens, and the whole is surrounded by a brick wall. The grounds make for a pleasant stroll after lunch. We’re thinking how quiet the small town is, how worthwhile it was, our long trip down so many rivers.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Travelogue 716 – September 24
Autumnal Rests

It’s a fine fall day, and it’s the weekend. I’m out early. I’m always out early, cruising on my bicycle along the bank of the tiny Schie River. I’m returning home from a session at the café, where I spent time hammering out phrases in the rough-hewn old memoir that has eaten up so much of my life. I’m hoping to publish it this fall as an e-book and let it go. It will be a part of my past, a book about the past finally free to fly into time, one gull released to scavenge among the tidbits of sentiment.

This morning, the gulls are calmly riding the calm swells of the river. The slight breezes are forgiving. The birds are left to rest.

Nature is many parts rest. Everything rests. Only humans see rest as a false promise, as the quarter note rest among the anxious chords of effort.

I’ve been working at the café on the Eendrachtsplein. As I unlock the bicycle there, ready for the return home, a group of teens is disembarking from mom’s car. It has to be a heart-stopping commotion. They see each other, and nothing else. Mom is devotion and smiles. The boys are rowdy in anticipation of … rowdiness. They are proud of their healthy surfeit of energy. One tall boy is shouting at the others, who are three meters away. He drops his skateboard to the pavement with a clatter. This is youth, and the anticipation of battle.

On the bike path I see passing faces. I see a very young man with a blonde beard, in Civil War fashion. He coasts by with a sleepy look of complacency. I sense that the beard is his signal achievement. He must exhibit it. I see a young woman ahead. She is on roller skates. I see the posture from far behind, legs spread and toes pigeoned. She eats up the entire bike lane. I pass her delicately, and she doesn’t notice. She’s alone, and I sense the stubborn decision to have fun that rarely results in fun. It’s merely assertion.

There is a line of barges moored in the river at the place called the Lage Erf. That means ‘Low Place’. One barge is full of sand. There’s a man sitting on a deck chair in the sand, his bare feet and a cold beer planted in the sand. His dog lies beside him. People on bikes smile to see him as they pass, and he has only a sour face for them. He wants his peace.

Out in the river, the gulls float on the rippling waters. They are silent. They are spread randomly in a band across the surface. They ride the calm swells of the river. They seem to be watching us. They are the advance drones for Nature, the eyes that watch and record. I’m feeling the regrets of the species this morning. Why so restless?

Maybe it’s the work on the memoir. Today it’s 2005. The capital city is in the grip of the country’s oppressive regime. Police are shooting at children. I’m transported into the debilitating tension of that place. Living in the developing world taught me more about angst.

I have read Kierkegaard too young. Kierkegaard was too young to read Kierkegaard. He died when he was forty-two. He should have lived to be a hundred, and started writing when he was eighty.

I went to Ethiopia because someone died young. I wrestle with the restless violence of this world. I want to craft something good. I want to create a place of peace.

Today, the fine weather surprises us and pleases us. Autumn is invigorating. We want to take it into our hands. We want to play it like a flute. We can’t help ourselves. And we can’t stop once we start. The song must obey. It must be busy. It must go on with the persistence that characterizes the species. We stood mature on Nature’s savannah, and then we pushed back against the sky.

The gulls don’t have the sense to know the day is beautiful. They know the winds are calm. They rest. They watch. Without much interest, they watch.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Travelogue 715 – September 18
The Ramones

It starts with the bass, in a drilling beat. The drum comes in to support, driving the punk rhythm forward in a sound like 1979. The barista has worked at my old morning café quite a while. I’ve been coming so long I have seen generations of them. There is only one that dates to my first visits, the philosopher-football player. The philosopher is now teaching at Erasmus University part-time, while still making coffee. This one is new. He has been here only a few years. He says proudly, proudly irreverently, ‘I started my study, but after six months, I said fuck it.’ He has repeated this line almost verbatim before. It’s obviously an important point in the narrative that feeds him and his music. He has a way of talking, with a laugh and a carelessness, that can be off-putting. But you get to know him, and you see there’s nothing behind it. He’s having fun. Fun is his life and his identity. At my age, I am tempted to feel paternal, concerned and sentimental about his innocence. His punk innocence. Punk looking like 90s Grunge. He wears his hair long, to the shoulder, and uncombed. He is unshaven. He is thin and has a posture made of irreverence, slouching and hunched, but still nose high in the air. He has a deep voice, but he speaks in a kind of nasal parody of a pothead accent. Everything is a posture of silliness.

The recordings are pretty good. They are surprisingly good, given the methods of recording he describes. The voice is clear, and if I spoke Dutch well enough, I would actually know what he’s saying. Our barista is the bass player, writer and singer. The first song on this EP starts off with the bass, driving immediately with the rapid and sharp strike of the pick against growling bass strings. They transition from one short song right into the next, seeming to record in one long run. Every song sounds alike, but that is part of classic punk sound. I congratulate him on an accomplished and tight performance. He said that he and the drummer had played no instrument before a year ago. Classic punk M.O. I tell him it reminds me of Brit punk. He says they listen to a lot of Ramones.

I remember the Ramones. I remember them when they were at their best. And the Ramones at their best never added up to much for me, though there were a few songs one couldn’t help liking. And I could never forget their movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. I was in high school myself when it came out, and my friends and I snuck into the local movie theatre three times, one time lugging cases of beer through an emergency exit, so we could drink beer through straws and then rush the stage in the old theatre and thrash about in punk style there, prompting the projectionist to stop the film. And it is true that our sentiments in those chaotic years was very well captured in the Ramones lyrics, ‘I want to be sedated’. But back then I thought my tastes were more refined. I was sceptical of my punk friends. I still thought that talent was expressed in the guitar solo. In college, I would change. Grow?

I think about the students in my classes at the college. They’re 17 and 18, and they seem happy. I want to say happy despite the conspicuous uniformity of their lives. But maybe it’s because of. They like festivals. They like beer. The boys have all played football. The music is hip hop or house or metal. I should smile indulgently, and I should mean it. Youth is best savoured while being wasted. They are enjoying it. But instead, it strikes as being desolate. I am apprehensive for Baby. Is this to be the extent of her satisfaction in her life?

The boy barista is laughing in an embarrassed way. He’s happy for the praise. His eyes are glowing. I’m surprised by how tight the musicianship is. Even in songs this simple, that’s impressive. I want to call it ‘accurate’, because, in the end, it feels like an academic exercise, he has so correctly captured the sound and spirit of a time long ago. Music is like a text to these kids. They read it for their passions. They listen day and night. They have encyclopaedic command of the artists and acts out there. They know the history. When they declare their tastes in music, it’s with a touching formality.

I ask when I can see his band play. He says they don’t play out. They’re waiting until they’re good enough. And just like that, the spell is broken. The age of punk is indeed far away.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Travelogue 714 – September 11

The white cockatoo refuses the call. ‘Kom op,’ insists the man, and he holds out his arm. Instead the small bird with the crest on its head, flapping in the stale air of the café, gracefully maintaining position there a moment, decides for a perch among the dishevelled morning hair on the man’s head. I find it endearing, but the man is not happy. He frowns and he coaxes the bird off to begin again. The bird flaps to the back of a seat. ‘Kom op!’ And the tiny parrot lands on his head again. The man is frustrated.

We’re on the second floor of the café. I saw the couple when I came in. It was a warm family scene. The man shared his pastry with the bird, setting the croissant on the left page of the newspaper he’s reading. The bird pecked, and pored over his articles. Everyone smiled as they pass.

When the man climbs the stairs to the bathroom, the cockatoo rests on his shoulder. I nod in familiar greeting. I’m sitting and writing. This is my table. This is where I have sat since my earliest days in Rotterdam, sat and done my writing, to the bemusement of staff and regulars. What does a writer look like? He looks like a guy typing for hours. The colours may be bright in the mind, but the exterior is cool and static.

Not for the first time do I envy the choices of friends like Troy, Wes, and Ben, whose choices in artistic expression are so much more engaging. What is there not to love about watching a painter work, seeing the eye and hand move in creation, the colour and shape immediate? And what is there not to love about the immediate warmth released at the touch of a guitarist’s fingers on the strings?

On the way back down, the man and bird stop to adjust. And now the bird is not happy returning to the shoulder. He flutters there in mid-air, a kind of moment’s ornament hung over the floor of the café. Then he bolts, swinging over the balcony rail and sweeping over the counter and toward the door. The man swears and runs to the stairway.

This vignette has an element of the summer to it. Maybe it’s the fluttering beat of the white bird’s wings, sustained over our heads. Maybe it’s the sober whimsy of the man and cockatoo reading the morning paper. The sun outside has been strong for weeks, Indian summer on the North Sea.

The bird didn’t escape. I’m sure it didn’t want to. It was just thrown by the space, like we all are sometimes, distracted by the opening of the sky, and driven to wild runs for the horizon.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Travelogue 713 – August 25
We Do Make It After All

I’ll remember this week through the autumn. I’ll remember the heat, almost overwhelming. I’ll remember the stars at night. The sky has been clear for days on end. I’m surprised to see the stars. It’s like unexpectedly encountering people you had forgotten about. You don’t know what to say. You are swept into the feelings of being a younger person. You are swept into memories of another place. Like Ethiopia.

It was almost too hot to go to the beach. But when the summer gives us one more opportunity, so late in the season, we feel it would be wrong to refuse. Troy is in town. Baby needs to see the sea. She was only a month or two old the last time she did.

It’s no easy trip. It’s one of the last weekends of the summer. The Metro to Schiedam is crowded. The train to Den Haag is so crowded we have to stand. The tram to Scheveningen doesn’t run as normal. We have to disembark halfway and board a hot and stuffy bus. People are politely allowing Menna to sit, thankfully.

And then we are crossing the hot sand. We sit, and we spread ourselves out. In the glare of the white sand, it’s the kind of heat that makes you apprehensive. It weighs on you like it might have mass. It constricts and oppresses. Baby starts fretting. She doesn’t like the sand. She recoils from it, and she cries. She protests against the sun tan lotion. We wrestle with the umbrellas, angling them for most shade.

When we are finally able to lie back and enjoy, the effort becomes worthwhile. The sky is clear and bright. The sea is reflecting all the intensity of the day, white light bursting from its surface. There is a boat offshore with all its sails unfurled, presenting itself in perfect profile. The nineteenth-century Kurhaus hotel glows under the spectacular sun. The longer we lie idle, the more our body temperatures adapt, and the less suffocating the heat becomes.

We take Baby to the water. She is fascinated, but she’ll have nothing to do with the wet sand. We’ve brought a little plastic shovel, but she finds it far more fun to wave in the air than to plunge into dirty sand. I carry her out into the sea. Menna wades out behind us, her big belly before her. She bobs up and down in the surf, and Baby laughs. I take Baby out far enough that incoming waves wash over her legs. She starts to enjoy it. She kicks at the water.

The sun sinks lower in the west. The heat dissipates as the afternoon light softens and becomes golden and beautiful. People are packing up. We stay long enough for another dip in the water. The water is never anything but cold. Now the breezes are cooling off.

We are walking back toward the long boardwalk. I see the white Bungy Tower off the pier, with its irregular, encircling staircase, and ‘Bungy’ in big black letters on the side of its crowning deck. There are people ready to jump, huddled on the platform suspended off the projecting crane, silhouettes against the evening sky. One lets go, just a shadow, and momentarily reaches the limit of its leash, rebounding up into the sky in a way startling even from this distance, and humorous. That’s a person there, submitting the body to wild gravity, bouncing like a ball, held in the sky.

Night approaches, and, after the long ride home, I will see Cygnus and I will see the Dipper. I’ll stand on the balcony outside our flat, admiring the constellations. It’s a privilege of summer.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Travelogue 712 – August 19
Russians at Sint Job’s

I’ve returned to Sint Job’s Pier. It seems ages since I ran here. For a while, I was here almost every day, following the perimeter of the pier, matching my pace to the grey and wet flagstones underfoot. I didn’t live far away then, and this was one of my favourite stretches of the running course. I could look out over the waters of the wharf and then the river.

Once in a while I would have to contend with groups of sarcastic boys of about high-school age. Now I know where they were coming from. Down at the end of the pier is the STC building, ‘the Periscope’. Its odd shape is a hallmark of the Rotterdam riverside skyline. It looks like a crooked cubist creation, checker-boarded in blue and pushing one asymmetrical piece out at the top to hang over the pier. STC is the Shipping & Transport College. This building is only one campus of a huge institution. It teaches ten thousand students from secondary up to post-grad levels.

I’ve started taking on some hours as a free-lancer in English language tutoring. As it happens, there are a few secretaries to the board on the top floor of the crooked building who would like to improve their English.

They greet me cheerfully every morning. They offer me tea. We take over a conference room, and we practice our morning small talk in English before the lesson begins. ‘Did you have a nice evening, Lonneke? Did you go out again? Yes? And where did you go this time?’ Oh, to be twenty-one again. Or not to be. She exhausts me with her social life.

I cycle to Sint Job’s pier in the morning. I get there early so I can stand by the river a while, meditating. There is much to meditate. There’s the river itself, and the barges already wending their way inland and to sea. Across the river, the horizon is dominated by the first of the ports that take over the river all the way west, almost to the sea.

There’s almost always a ship moored here at the end of Sint Job’s. Today it’s a three-masted sailing ship, pictured here, looking to be the restoration of some historical vessel. It’s a loose interpretation, if so, judging by the carvings along the bow, modern and humorous, possibly depictions of the crew. I don’t see a soul on board. It’s painted here and there with mysterious inscriptions in the Cyrillic alphabet.

I walk alongside the boat, wishing my cousin Paul were still in town. He visited three weeks ago, after officiating at some sailing races on the IJsselmeer. We saw a few similar boats at the yacht harbour downtown, but he didn’t seem too impressed. He has sailed in many places around the world, but even so, I think he’s probably seen everything there is to see right at home, in San Francisco. Me, I’m impressed. I have the enthusiasm of the unschooled.

Nearer to home, I took him to see the Delft, an eighteenth century schooner being reconstructed in Delfshaven. It was a warship sunk by the Brits during the Napoleonic Wars, sunk off the Scheveningen shore. The ship was originally built in Delfshaven, so now the project has been brought home. There is a museum, with bits and pieces of the original retrieved from the sea. Again, I’m impressed.

That’s my morning meditation. It’s time to turn away from the water again. I enter the crooked building and head to the elevator. I start with the English phrases in my head, preparing for the lessons. ‘There once was a man from Uz, ….’

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Travelogue 711 – August 17

We are experiencing summer this week. It’s almost too much responsibility. You watch the sunny day approach day by day in your forecast, and a part of you hopes a North Sea front blows it aside.

But this one has held steady, the sunny symbol of good times in the ten-day Google forecast. We must enjoy it. We breathe deeply and try to gather some energy.

We have been discussing a trip to the beach all summer. We’ve made it to the beach every year, and every time we’ve had a great time. It’s a lot to live up to. Now we have a rowdy toddler, and a baby on the way. Menna breaks into a sweat when we talk about having fun.

So we have decided to stay close to home. We want to have a picnic in Het Park in our old neighbourhood. We have a soft spot for the green lawns and the flower gardens. We used to run the paths together, before Menna was pregnant. We ran around the little lake and by the trimmed hedges of the small English garden by the quaint old clubhouse where the wedding photos are taken. We ran underneath the high Euromast, Rotterdam’s monument in 50s wowee style, a space-needle-type tower that rises on a massive concrete column and supports an observation deck and restaurant. In summer you occasionally see people repelling down the side of it.

We have chosen a picnic in the park over a trip to the beach. It’s simpler, but it still it takes a long time to pull together. We don’t get to the park until four. Baby was crying the first time we try to prepare for departure. Then suddenly she was asleep. Then suddenly Menna was asleep. I carried on with work at my desk, quietly typing. We packed what we can underneath the buggy. We set out at our snail’s pace to the tram station.

Jan is able to join us. His office is close, on Westzeedijk. I stop by his building on the way. He’s in shorts and looking molto bronzato from his summer trip with the family to Napoli. He scrolls through photos on his iPhone. His wife stands by a stone wall overlooking a prospect of green valleys. The children stand beside one of the short mules that carry supplies up the narrow switchbacks to the villages above. The children are making mule faces.

Baby loves the outdoors now. She struggles to get out of my arms. Once on the ground, she strides forward, throwing her arms up and squealing with delight. There’s not a lot of separation anxiety there. She doesn’t hesitate. She doesn’t check to see if we are behind her. She just keeps going. One of us has to jog to catch up. She’s standing over a couple who have been enjoying their own company. We apologize.

Oma Batu sits on the blanket in the shade. Jan lies on his side in the grass. He remarks on my bike. ‘The same bike.’ It’s true. I’ve had it for years now. And it’s true that every time I see Jan, he’s riding a new cycle. He says they’re stolen. I think he just wears them out. He rides like a happy boy. Often enough, he has all three children on the bike, front and bike.

Menna and I pick a sunny spot, and we play volleyball with Baby’s beach ball. The goal of the game is to keep Menna from falling over. We win, but I’m exhausted.

It isn’t the beach at Scheveningen, with its air of history and summer abandon. We don’t get our annual dash into the cold sea, laughing while struggling with the waves. But we are content. Baby has explored every square metre of grass in our area. We’ve eaten burgers. We’ve absorbed some precious sunlight. All good.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Travelogue 710 – August 4

Summer might be finished here in Holland. The temperatures have snapped back to their slightly chilled norm, as though the heat were a dangerous indulgence. That may be all right for southern Catholic countries, but here the elastic bonds reigning in wicked summer must be strong. The North Sea winds and the drizzling chill are ascendant again, as they should be. Menna despairs of getting a chance for even one summer trip to the beach. We are on alert. We are waiting for the first day with sunshine and temperatures above twenty.

I’m missing the American heat, particularly the sultry Midwestern variety. I loved it, and I struggled with it. I couldn’t sleep. My skin developing instant heat rashes once I was in Minnesota. I suffered when I got into any super-heated car interior. But there were moments, strolling in the sun, as satisfying as swimming slowly in warm water. This was how summer was supposed to be.

The Air BNB where I started my stay in Minneapolis had no air conditioning. I slept with the window open, the second-floor window looking out over the sloping back yard, and beyond the tops of some trees, the green lawn of the Bryn Mawr Meadows Park. There was only a fan in the other window to cool the room, and it didn’t do much. I didn’t sleep. At sun’s first light, I resigned myself to being awake. I dressed to run.

I didn’t last long in that Air BNB. The owner of the house had very free ideas about living together, ideas that are easy to admire but not so easy to live with. The house was never locked. She came in and out of the bedroom to regulate ventilation on the second floor. Other guests appeared randomly, slept on couches, peeked in the bathroom. I decided I had to give the Air BNB service a rest. I moved to a regular B&B, an historic Victorian house I found in one quick web search. It was a beautiful place. The doors locked. I was served a very nice breakfast every day. No one wrote a review of my behaviour as a guest once I was done.

Coincidentally, this house was close to my last neighbourhood when I lived in Minneapolis. I lived in Northeast Minneapolis, a block from the river, near the brewery, near Dusty’s. Dusty’s was a local bar in its own tiny brick building on Marshall. Dusty’s had been there since the 1952. And it’s still there, though Dawn says the owner is getting ready to retire. When he retires, he will sell the bar. The property prices in the area have skyrocketed, and it’s too tempting.

Dawn recognized me when I walked in. It’s been fifteen years since Troy and I started hanging out there, ordering gin and sitting at one of the few round tables along the wall, playing chess. Dawn worked there then. She looks almost the same, the same military build and the same feathered haircut. Some of the blonde hair has turned white, but there is barely a crease on her face. There’s still the photo of her hanging behind the bar, from her days in the service.

I was astonished that she would remember me. I sat at the bar, and we caught up. I ordered a ‘dago’, which is a sausage and onion sandwich and a specialty of Dusty’s. I have never seen dagos sold anywhere else but Minnesota. I’ve heard it originates here.

Thirteen years ago, Troy and I went to Dusty’s. I was in a mood. I hadn’t heard from Leeza. We were supposed to go out that night, and I never heard from her. Troy and I played chess, and then took a walk down to the river. We sat on the railway bridge, and we watched the aurora borealis. I wonder what we talked about. It would have been a mundane conversation, though it was not a normal night.

If I could time travel, I might like only to eavesdrop on old conversations. If I could listen to my own, I imagine I would be embarrassed. I would discover a lack of wit and a lack of grace. I would find great holes in knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps I was able to demonstrate great enthusiasm, but that faded as I aged. It’s funny we aren’t able to remember conversations. They mark our paths nad our biographies like stepping stones in a garden, everywhere we go, in celebration and in tragedy. We talked of this and that while the world turned.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Travelogue 709 – July 24
Los Angeles
Part the Third

This year we’re holding our annual board retreat at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Thanks to Elias at Tsehai Publishing, we have a few rooms in the old Hughes World Headquarters. It’s a pretty building, three floors arranged in open balconies above a long, clean lobby. There are lots of skylights, and trees growing in planters up on every level. But the building isn’t easy to navigate. The elevator systems are staggered and hidden from view. You can’t ride one elevator from top floor to the lowest parking garage. They say this was the product of Howard Hughes’s paranoia. There is no quick exit or entry.

Howard Hughes left his stamp on this part of the city. Below Loyola Marymount are the fortune-blessed streets of Playa Vista. It was right here that Hughes set up first a private airfield and then his aircraft company during the war.

Hughes’s parents had died in his teens. He inherited quite a bit if money at age 18, and in 1925 he moved from Texas to L.A. to try his luck in film-making. His luck was good, and he became a Hollywood success, producing and directing four films in his first five years that were Academy Award nominees. In 1932, he produced the controversial first ‘Scarface’.

Hughes had many talents and many interests. He was a precocious kid. At 11, he built the first wireless radio transmitter in Houston. At 12, he built the first motorbike in town from parts of his father’s steam engine. He was born to be an engineer. In the 40s, while he was recuperating from one his near-fatal plane crashes, he designed a new hospital bed that became the inspiration for the standard hospital beds we see today.

By the 30s, he was indulging his love of flying, setting world speed records and records crossing the U.S., records circling the globe. And in every case, he was tinkering with the planes, innovating in in ways that would leave a permanent mark on the industry. By 1932, he had founded his aircraft company, which would become defense contractor and then player in aerospace.

In 1941, he moved into Playa Vista. It was here he built the Spruce Goose, wooden monstrosity designed for World War II but not finished in time for deployment, built with the largest wingspan in history.

I run by the post-Hughes Playa Vista, the still-new development being called ‘Silicon Beach’ in honour of its status as tech haven. Steven has drawn me a map to the local running paths. Still waking at 5am, I have the run of quiet eight-lane L.A. streets. I cut over to Centinela and through the little park behind the Clippers’ Training Center. The path begins nearby and climbs up the side of the bluffs that run toward the ocean. There’s no construction allowed on the steep hillside; it’s a kind of preserve, harbouring a healthy variety of brown California vegetation that awakens all sorts of childhood memories in me. It’s feels like this geography survives in the cells of my body.

Running for a half hour, nearly the full length of this bluff, I have a view over much of this trendy little neighbourhood. I pass by the old Hughes hangars acquired by Google. I run by the You Tube Space office. I run by the pretty little condos, some still under construction, and their mall and the Imax cube. I look out over the quiet streets where cars share the road with electric buggies like golf carts.

I run as far as the white LMU letters laid out on the hillside. I can see Lincoln Boulevard and the Ballona wetlands beyond, pushed west by the Playa Vista developments. Beyond that are the beaches.

One day, with an hour to kill, I spontaneously turn the car toward the beach. Miraculously, I find a parking space, and I trudge through the white sands in my shoes and jeans, past the paved ribbon of bike path and beyond to sit just beyond the reach of the water. I watch the waves, settle a long gaze on the horizon. I soak up the strong sun, and I think to myself, there is something blessed about this place, after all. Remarkable.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Travelogue 708 – July 23
Los Angeles
Part Segundo

This is Daisy Dell in the 2010s. In the 1910s it was a popular picnic spot in the Cahuenga Pass above Hollywood, just grass and sea breezes among the dry needles of the trees. In 1920, the pacific little valley was scouted and then purchased by one Christine Wetherill Stevenson, heiress and theatre enthusiast. The dell was a natural outdoor amphitheatre. There were recitals and theatre productions. A few short years later, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright was offering designs for the shell over the stage. His second attempt produced the concentric arches that have formed the basis of all subsequent designs.

Daisy Dell is lit up and resounding with sound. I’m taken back by the power, We’re halfway up the steep incline, and still the flashing lights right behind the band are blinding. The bass vibrates among the benches, even as high as we are. We’re about halfway up the steep incline. The band itself is a set of small, dancing figurines. We can watch them in the massive TV screens. At least, we can watch Mr. Sting. Peter Gabriel prefers to devote his TV time to distortions and abstractions.

I have never been one to go to many large concerts. I wondered what the point was if you could not see the musicians. For me, ‘seeing’ music was witnessing the making of music.

The audience answers my concerns. It’s a celebration, they say, rising from their seats when Mr. Sting launches into ‘Message in a Bottle’. The song is a palpable artefact of our culture. It has defined a mood and a time. It has inserted itself into private moments among all these thousands of people. Now we are here together. The artist is present. He makes the song again, just for us. We celebrate.

Daisy Dell is a lovely spot for a celebration. A hundred years on, the theatre could still be the location for a picnic. Up above the highest rows of seats, you can still see the natural summit of the hillside, the grass and the trees. The sun sets; the gloaming settling in among the quiet hills. Gentle breezes bring a sense of the ocean. ‘Hollywood,’ declares the sign on Mount Lee. It was once an advertisement for a real estate development

There is still the feeling of magic and possibility to Los Angeles, city la más grande of the Golden State. I’m surprised to discover again this youthfulness. I left it so many years ago, I have imagined it to have changed as much as I have. I have fast-forwarded it from my childhood into its own adulthood and senescence, imagining it a dirty, decaying, and cynical city to match its prodigal son. Instead, I find the same sunny insistence on hope that I remember, the memory more like a dream than life.

On another day, Carolyn and I drive through Santa Monica. It’s sunset. We wait patiently in the traffic on Ocean Avenue, while hundreds of people promenade in the park by the road. The park overlooks the beach. It feels like a holiday. There is a bright-eyed ebullience to the procession. Any day can be a holiday. Just like every day is a traffic jam.

We come in sight of the pier. The entrance is marked by the famous arching neon sign from 1941, advertising Sport Fishing and Boating. We can see the amusement park, a feature of the Santa Monica Pier since the 1910s. More importantly, we see the heavy tide of people surging across the park and the pier. We decide it may be more fun to watch the action from inside the Red O on Ocean Avenue, contemplating the ocean sunset over margaritas. It’s dark by the time we merge. The Ferris wheel on the pier is lit in many colours.

Carolyn met in another California beach town when we were both university students. It was our freshman year. We lived in a dorm off-campus, and we were devoted to the kind of perpetual, riotous celebration we see broiling around the Santa Monica Pier. That was Santa Barbara, before it was a TV show, before it was another expensive lifestyle, laid out for boutiques and spas. Back then, the town was just a town. And there were beaches under gentle bluffs. Oil rigs stood at intervals in the ocean. The beaches smelled like tar. I ran the circuit around the university’s lagoon. I ran in sand. I attacked the cold water, swimming straight out, in defiance of the slanting lines of the powerful waves.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Travelogue 707 – July 22
Los Angeles
Part One

‘Red rain,’ he says, ‘red rain is coming down.’ He has said this before. He is offering it to us, a crowd of seventeen thousand. He is standing at the keyboard and singing. The video is capturing him and relaying it on to seventeen thousand people arrayed up the side of the canyon. ‘Red rain is pouring down.’

That was Monday. I’m back in Nederland now. The jet-lag is so powerful it drags me into heavy sleep at night. I awake in the dark gasping. In a dream, something has fallen on me. Maybe there’s been an earthquake and a massive beam has taken me down and trapped me. A policeman is telling me they won’t be able to move it in time. He tells me I’m going to die. I feel it coming then, like a swelling tide. It shuts out the light. It has a certain light of its own. I’m thinking to myself, this is the thing I have feared and wondered about for so long. I have to figure out a way to say good-bye, and all I can think of in the rush of events is to say, ‘I love you’. It’s a kind of declaration to all things and all people.

Monday, I was in Los Angeles. In the morning, Carolyn and I visited the beautiful Getty villa, a place like a dream, made for L.A.’s golden light, a museum for antiquities with a garden laid out like a senator’s villa in Pompeii. It’s empty when we arrive, peaceful under a cloudless, blue morning sky. I wonder about the leisure that a garden like this one suggests, a life of rest. And a life of politics. From what I hear, the modern institution also does a decent job replicating the Roman politics behind the scenes. We are just guests. We stroll the circuit of the garden just once. Busts of forgotten men watch us with terrible restraint.

Monday night, we attend a concert in the hills. It’s light when Carolyn and I tales our seats. Through a break in the brown hills ahead, we can see the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee, white letters raised among the California brush and grasses.

‘Mr. Sting,’ he calls his friend. They are sharing the stage for this tour, collaborating in each other’s music, thirty years of catalogue. ‘Red rain,’ he’s singing, and Mr. Sting shares the stage with him still. They have shared more than the music, each taking a turn voicing concern over the violence of recent weeks. Peter Gabriel knew Jo Cox, the MP shot by a fanatic supporter of Brexit. Was this really a reason to shoot, a reason to die? If there is a soul, I wonder if it hungers for absurd ways to die. There might be a sort of spiritual symmetry to the absurd exit from this kind of world.

I’ve been in America two weeks and there have been half a dozen scenes of violence, in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and more. I’m stopped one morning in a long line of traffic down University Avenue. I turn down a side street and escape, taking a long route round the highway entrance. The radio informs me that the traffic was caused by a protest on the highway, an expression of rage for the police killing of Philando Castile.

Will the soul of Philando have seen much irony in his demise? It seemed something desolate to the rest of us, a smear on the glass, an offense against decency.

But then, if my dream is any indication, death comes as a surprise, making up its own urgency and blotting out the rest. I still wonder, because I only have dreams. ‘Pouring down all over me,’ he sings, and it sounds like a kind of protest. It wasn’t what I had in mind.