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!’