Thursday, February 25, 2016

Travelogue 681 – February 25
The Queen’s Dog

I’m feverish and trying to sleep, despite the headache and the alternating sweats and chills. My back hurts from lying down for too many hours. When I do sleep, my dreams are horrible. I’m reliving nightmarish work scenarios over and over. I cannot rid myself of the dreams.

Outside, I hear a dog bark. It strikes me: as much as the Dutch like their dogs, it’s rare I hear them barking at night. It’s a sound I grew up with. There were the dogs next door. There were crickets. It always took me a long time to get to sleep. I seem to have followed a different line of sleep evolution to the majority. The middle-aged man to that sleepless child who listened to the dogs now generally drops off without effort. When there’s no fever.

There was a window above my bed, as I recall, and that was the direction of the dogs. The neighbours had a pack of German shepherds. They were unruly. We had a brick wall separating us, but that didn’t stop them from getting at one of our dogs and killing her.

My mother had a fondness for corgis. I was too young to enjoy the camp of it. My mother was an unashamed Anglophile. The queen’s breed is so silly looking, but so cute. These two dogs were very good-natured. I have an image surviving, my mother walking down the driveway weeping for the lost corgi. Either she or my father was carrying the bloodied body. I can’t remember which. Oddly enough, my mind can produce both images, my mother’s arms at her side, hanging empty in despair, and the dog’s body draped across her arms. For all I know now, I may have invented the memory entire.

There were also windows to the left of my bed, high ones, with a door in them. They led out onto a terrace overlooking a steep decline covered in ivy, divided by a staircase, and, at the bottom a stretch of brown grasses that we owned. The house was a patch of peace in the L.A. basin. The house was a temporary monument to the success of the family, lasting only five or six years, until the divorce. There were fruit trees on the grounds. There was a haystack with an archery target for my athletic older brother. There was a spot where my father set up a tent in a futile effort to cultivate an outdoorsy instinct in me, his youngest.

Just outside the window above my head was a sort of backyard that appealed more to my sensibilities. It was not a lawn. It was more like a sheltered little clearing in a wood, bare ground shaded by high trees, bordered on one side by the brick wall and on the other by the house. Here I whiled away a lot of lonely hours. My brothers had headed off to college. I was left to weather the tough seas of my parents’ final years together.

We were left with one little corgi, an affectionate little boy with red hair and no tail. He waddled around the house. He followed us and nipped at our heels. I would take him to the backyard and I would try to train him. He was very eager to please, and he licked my hand. When I wasn’t happy, he lowered his ears in shame.

I had a boy’s fascination for the circus. I read histories of the American circus I pictured the romance of the life on the road. I imagined the two of us could be an act together. We were friends and conspirators. He could sit and lie on command. He could sit up, and that’s a funny sight in a corgi. I tied a couple lengths of rope tight, parallel and about one meter above the ground, and I forced the poor pup to venture out on the ropes. He took it well. He had such a good disposition. He crossed the length of the ropes. We were ready for the circus.

But I never booked the audition. It was a dream. Instead I carried on with school in the day, and I listened to those dogs next door into the night, trying to interpret the message in their feverish barking. There was something I had to understand, a barren darkness over the wall. And I wasn’t going to be able to dream.

Among the streets of Rotterdam, the bark echoes, like an ink blot folded on itself and making a pretty aural design, and then it’s gone. That was it. There is no more to it. The fever twists the needle in my temple, and I roll over. I’m facing away from the window. I’ll slip into the foam of those dreams again, wondering while I do why the ones closest to the surface are the most troubled. I would drink from deeper in the well if I could. The darkest waters would be cool and refreshing.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Travelogue 680 – February 18
Bedtime Stories
Part Two

The nights are long. We sit around the fire, and we call upon the poet to entertain us. The clan has its poet. Every age has its poet, the one who captures Truth with words.

‘If … I say, “That train arrives here at 7 o'clock,” I mean something like this: “The pointing of the small hand of my watch to 7 and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events.”’

And so begins one of the most memorable of modern bedtime stories. It was published in 1905. The story has an unlikely title. It’s called, ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.’ There is no smiting and there are no bloody executions. The enemies are a no-show, so there’s little need for puissance or valour.

Much of it is written in a language that isn’t accessible to the masses. I can’t read it. It looks like this:

It’s a kind of music. It’s lyre and pan pipes. One can only listen. This is the language of modern cosmology. When the ancient poets told us about Zeus and his escapades, we could picture them. But when these poets tell us stories we have a hard time visualizing. They see the universe as textiles woven of these threads of formulae, maybe like computer programmers stringing lines of obscure text together, knowing it results in the web pages we see on the screen.

It started with Newton. We could picture the apple. It led to Einstein, and now we have to picture curving space. No, you’re not seeing it.

Einstein was in the news recently. Scientists had confirmed another of his theories. They confirmed the existence of gravity waves. (The latter translates into another fun tongue-twister in Dutch, by the way: zwaartekrachtsgolven.) The Guardian, offered some interpretation, calling it a triumph of the local. Waves are subject to Einstein’s rule that nothing travels faster than light. Newton himself had been troubled by the implication in his theory that gravity was a force that would be felt instantaneously everywhere, even if in weakening proportion. Einstein added the speed bumps.

So, like all good story-telling, Einstein’s tales offer us explanations of the universe, creation stories, and even a kind of morality. The world coheres according to law. We are guided by the golden rule, c, the speed of light. And there is a good inside the search for universality. If stories require conflict, then maybe, lurking in the shadows, there is in fact a satyr, a trickster, in the guise of one Max Planck, Einstein’s mentor and father of quantum theory. It’s only there, among those quirky quanta, that the morals and the universals seem to break down.

Merrily our modernist poets wove their tales, reciting in their esoteric language, until their time began to wane. The modern world was passing, giving way to the medievalism of the post-modern era. Abstraction in art became suspect. Form returned to poetry. Religion surged. Evolution was under attack, a theory one had little problem visualizing. Those who were busy curving space and pursuing ghosts inside the atom found themselves isolated. The university was a fortress again. Outside, there were marauders.

Yes, the poets have rediscovered the power of waves. They obey the golden rule of c. They travel out; they come back. Their lives are waves. Their times are waves. They pick up old tools. It may be time to smite again.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Travelogue 679 – February 17
Bedtime Stories
Part One

The nights are long. Light the fires. Call upon the poet to entertain us. Every clan has one, the man or the woman with words. Tell us stories.

“Once upon a time,’ they say.

Andra moi ennepe, Mousa,’ they say. ‘Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many ways …’

‘In the beginning was the Word,’ they say because they’ve learned something of their power. The clans have built altars and pulpits.

‘Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God,’ was the story Valentinus told the Roman emperor. ‘And if thou believe in him, verily thy soul shall be saved, thy realm shall multiply, and he shall give to thee alway victory of thine enemies.’ That seems very persuasive. What emperor doesn’t want victory over his enemies? According to the Aurea Legenda, Claudius Gothicus was persuaded. He said, ‘Hear ye how wisely and reasonably this man speaketh?’ But his evil counsellors talked him down.

The saint should have just said, ‘Be my Valentine.’ But if he had, and if the emperor had chuckled and let Valentinus go, as too cute to have bludgeoned to death, there would have been no reason for the Archbishop of Genoa to have written about him a thousand years later.

The archbishop, one Jacobus de Voragine, has an interesting rhetorical technique. He interprets the names of the saints. ‘Valentine,’ he says, ‘is as much to say as containing valour that is perseverant in great holiness. Valentine is said also as a valiant knight, for he was a right noble knight of God, and the knight is said valiant that fleeth not, and smiteth and defendeth valiantly and overcometh much puissantly. And so Saint Valentine withdrew him not from his martyrdom in fleeing, he smote in destroying the idols, he defended the faith, he overcame in suffering.’

I’m not sure what or how Valentinus overcame in this story. Best to say the poet overcomes. His words survive. He himself becomes a word. ‘You are my Valentine.’

He chose his poetry, and the emperor wasn’t convinced. The poem was sedition. The voice had to be eradicated. The emperor has the poet beaten outside the city gates.

There’s something careless about Valentinus’s martyrdom, a kind of casual cruelty. The stories of martyrdom invite speculation. How serious was the old soldier Claudius Gothicus -- called Gothicus because of his slaughter of many Goths, -- how serious was he about this execution? It seems like an act of casual cruelty, a sort of theatre of flippant power.

Valentinus was no symbol of romantic love at that time. That came about more than a thousand years later, even later than Jacobus de Voragine. (Strange to contemplate that kind of time in the span of one’s reputation.) If he were the saint of chocolates and flowers, cupids and kisses, of fickle love, then the capriciousness and the cruelty might have been apt.

Instead, Valentinus just seems like an annoyingly earnest priest. Why not allow him a poetic exit, his walk up Calvary, his solemn moment before the axe or blade? But execution is theatre, and I suppose power is best demonstrated by contempt. I think of the violent dispatch of tourists and journalists and aid workers by warlords and jihadists around the world.

‘Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God,’ the poet says, and he describes the world. The jihadists perform their spoken word on video and they defy the world. They turn the technology on its head, reviling the science that made it. It’s funny to contemplate this assault on the children of the positivist, anti-clerical theologies that created the modern world, an attack clothed in the words of atavistic religionists. Funny.

They smiteth and defendeth valiantly and overcometh much puissantly. Their realm shall multiply, and Allah shall give to them alway victory of their enemies.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Travelogue 678 – February 16
The Day After

Romance looks a little different this year. For one thing, we’re a day late in celebrating Valentine’s Day. The weaker link in this marriage has left his planning for the last minute. He has asked for a delay.

And it’s been cold. Strange that lovers choose winter to celebrate themselves. Is it the cosy hearth, the warmth of the blankets, that make this date seem the natural day?

Did Saint Valentine remark upon the cold as he was led to execution? How cold was it in Rome that day? Was he thinking about love? One legend has it he married many Christian couples. Was the memory of their happiness warming him on his last walk?

Was he regretting his decision to preach to the emperor? They say Claudius Gothicus had taken a liking to the saint, until he had started trying to convert him. This emperor was a hard man, a soldier. He performed as a wrestler in his youth. This was a man rumoured to have taken out a horse’s teeth with one punch.

Saint Valentine was led outside the Flaminian Gate, and there he was beaten with clubs and stones. When that didn’t kill him, they took off his head. This was an ignominious end to the man. He leaves off as man; he becomes a martyr. And something survives in the violent end.

Interestingly, the Piazza del Popolo, just inside the Flaminian Gate survived as a spot for execution into the nineteenth century. There are always two sides to the survival.

Today, on the day after the day after, the cold is particularly acute. The sun is out, and usually that is enough to inspire me to cycle into town. But there is frost on the grass. There is ice in the street. I am convinced to walk up to the Metro Station. I contemplate the passing of Saint Valentine. He has died again, and the cold reminds us that winter still has power to overcome the warmth of red hearts and the shadow of groundhogs alike.

They buried Valentine hastily in a shallow grave outside the gates. The ground must have been hard. His followers dug up his remains, and returned them home to Terni.

I found a very nice selection of flowers available yesterday. That is one advantage to being tardy. I was eager to reward my patient wife. I presented flowers. I cooked. We lit candles, and the four of us shared a cosy moment of romance.

Baby stares at us when we kiss. My mother-in-law just looks the other way, usually finding some excuse to start shuffling noisily around the apartment again. She tidies. She wipes down counters. She piles dishes, and then she re-arranges them. She shuffles back to check on Baby. She tosses out a useless question. ‘Is she poopy?’ (And it doesn’t sound much better in Amharic.) She shuffles back with a sigh. My wife and I smile and we kiss again. Baby stares. She seems shocked. She considers crying, but we smile and we laugh and we gather her up in our arms. It’s Valentine’s Day, Baby.

And really it isn’t. Valentine’s ghost has flown, flown away to its home in heaven. It has flown like a turtle dove. In the Middle Ages, people believed that birds mated in February. That is such a lovely little caution of hope, a story like that. I will tell Baby that one day in February, when we are tired of winter. Listen to their songs, sweetheart.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Travelogue 677 – February 8

Baby shivers with excitement. She sits in her high chair, her throne of white plastic and still regal, and she throws her arms wide. She holds her hands out, and she waves them with enthusiasm. She has these expressions of joy.

Each day seems like something different. She is growing so fast. She discovers new moods every day. There are days she devotes to whining. There are days she is content. She can sit on her mat in the living room, absorbed happily in the tag on one of her stuffed animals. She looks up. She bounces on her butt, and she talks. She looks for some new object to grab hold of. She reaches across the low coffee table. I’ve set a vitamin bottle there. It sounds like a rattle. She can shake it. She can scratch at the ridges along the cap’s edge.

There are days of joy. She claps, and she squeals. She coos and she waves. She gives Daddy a smile when he gets home that erases all troubles. She watches him take his coat off, drop his heavy backpack. She reaches up for him to pick her up. And with his help, she turns in the air.

Daddy’s coming and going. Lots of opportunities for homecoming, lots of flights around the living room.

It’s a season for starting projects. I’m launching into training for my spring race. I’m conducting auditions for my play. We have a lot of new recruits for the amateur theatre group. The actors are volunteers who speak English and enjoy theatre as a hobby. Many are teachers or students. We rehearse at the college. I’ve offered up one of my old one-acts for production, and I’ve written another one to accompany the first. The first is tragedy, the second a farce. They should make for an entertaining evening.

The evening start with warm-up exercises, led by one of the directors. He has them shake their feet, shake their hands. He has them make funny noises. I always sit these things out. I’m no actor, and I don’t have the stamina for this kind of fun-making. They are walking briskly around the classroom space, tracing random lines with their steps, turning around each other, stopping when the director claps, eyes closed and telling us what they have observed, or freezing in spontaneous poses at the director’s command. Show me revenge, he shouts. Show me grief. Show me love.

I’m struck by the poses for love. The contrast is startling. The men show us sad-eyed longing, even pining. The girls show joy and pleasure. It’s a young crowd, and so there’s something right about this pantomime. The picture is occasionally worth a thousand words.

The director claps and love is abandoned for the next drama. Walk. Shake the puzzle pieces and see where they land. Theatre is a beautiful vision, a state of nature.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Travelogue 676 – February 6
Winds in the Port City

Baby stayed up late last night. We were celebrating having her home. She started daycare this week, and we all suffered. We took her three mornings this week for ‘wenen’, which means getting used to it, to the place, the people, and the routine.

The first morning, she cried desperately when we placed her in the arms of the minder. I was rooted to the spot. I could not make myself walk away. This was heart break again. A feeling I didn’t expect on a day like this.

This is what days this week have looked like. Bike under clouds, the winds gathering under bridges and rushing between buildings downtown. Central Station stands as buttress against depression, steady and suggesting light in its silver panelling. While there isn’t much light to reflect this winter, the station glows with what it may.

People cross the open plein in front of the station. Their gait suggests hope, no matter what their individual moods might be. They assume a city pace reflexively, and the effect is contagious. We have places to go!

Baby will one day stride across some city square, absorbed in thought. Thoughts will churn through her young mind. She’ll be in a hurry, and she will understand urgency. There is only today’s clock. Someone watches her. Suddenly all is silent. There is only motion. The engine is sealed inside. One doesn’t hear the pistons of insistent thought.

From this distance, it appears she’s leaning to one side as she walks. She tilts into some wind. She makes her way across the square

I’m afraid it’s a moment I won’t forget, the first moment of abandonment. I can’t amend that. Even morally. This world requires the testing of innocence, the strain against trust. It’s an unexpected burden. I’m made to enforce the ways of a world that I don’t entirely believe in.

Bike under clouds, and the cold wind gathers under bridges. When it comes, it teases the nerves and awakens imminence. Depression pools in the high portals of the train station. The people lay down their footsteps, quick rhythms toward the turnstiles. There’s a massive screen above the terminal and it exhibits looping video of daily business in Europe’s biggest port.

I guess it’s all about the turnstiles.