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.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Travelogue 706 – July 7
Racing West

Outside, the clouds gather. Outside the windows of this dull café, the clouds are gathering. They gather out east, beyond the Minneapolis city park across the street. The park is one city block of green grasses, sedate trees, and chain-link fences setting apart play areas. There’s a squat, orange building with curving walls. It looks like a playground toy itself. It couldn’t house more than a few rooms. The park lies very still underneath the grey skies. The clouds are dark in patches, proposing rain and then holding back.

Earlier, at 5am, there was a light rain falling, like a Dutch rain, and the cool breezes that blew in the open window of my bedroom cooled me. I dressed in running gear, and I went outside. I have switched lodgings, from my friend’s house to an Air BNB recommendation. This is a small house in a little neighbourhood west of downtown, wedged in among highways, railway tracks and large tracts of parkland. Jogging no more than half a mile, I can cross over a railroad track and over a creek, and then turn onto a bike path that circles an extensive city park. This park is larger than a city block. It’s at least a dozen city blocks, fields of grass that stretch alongside one of the busiest highways rushing out of downtown. People meet there in the afternoons to play soccer, ultimate Frisbee, and even cricket. I know this because I took a long walk after moving in, and I slowly passed by game after game under a strong summer sun.

There’s a place where you can pass underneath the highway, and underneath another railway line, and reach a set of busy bike paths, where dozens of cyclists pass with the same sort of iron determination exhibited by cars racing by on the highway. They race the length of this pretty little valley, sided by the raised highway one on side and hills on the other. Over the hills is a well-to-do neighbourhood called Kenwood, where expensive houses line tidy, meandering lanes. Down here, there are only quiet meadows with high grasses, and stands of high trees that obscure the distances the summer cyclists will cover. Atop one of the Kenwood hills is a brick water tower dating back to 1910. It’s a stern watch tower the colour of dried blood.

When I first moved to this sombre town, many years ago, I rented a room just down the street from that tower. That would have been as long before dating Leeza as it has been since she died.

I invite the vision: He’s thinner. He has more energy. He has blustering confidence, even though his life is a mess and he’s scared. He has left the east coast for Minnesota. He’s working terrible temp jobs to survive, riding the buses in the chilly weather of autumn. Winter is closing in.

The chaos makes sense to him. His struggles are brushes with meaning

‘I am unequal to these puzzles,’ I say to him. He nods. That was apparent to him. He’s asking what was the point of it all, if at my age I have nothing better to say. When he contemplates all he is suffering for his passions and his ideals, the older man and the subdued narrative he represents seem hardly worth the effort. My life, these many years later, appears arid. What is life without the wrenching emotions, the wild risks, the life-changing decisions over and over, the reeling emotions, the daily confrontation with meaning?

There are things he doesn’t foresee. Passion is a branching road, and one offshoot leads to Addis Ababa. Young people conceive a passion for experience. They have energy like the winds off the sea. But we don’t have the resilience of the winds. Experience batters the sea walls. We get older.

‘I am unequal to these puzzles,’ I say to him. What I can’t say is that the puzzles become landscape, and then they become a part of you. They aren’t solved. They aren’t there to be solved. They unfold, eventually revealing a certain intuitive sense. Maybe they solve you.

I release the vision. I’m not moved. Perhaps it only validates Youth’s low opinion of me that I’m not moved. I’m after all content with my sangfroid. Youth must return to his struggles, and all I have to do is to complete my peaceful walk among the meadows of the westward valley.

That was yesterday. Already. Today is a day just starting. The beginning of it is brooding. The clouds gather over the park. There might be some rain to slow us down this morning. I am watching from this cold room, the café over-climatized in Minnesota style. We shiver as the midsummer day progresses.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Travelogue 705 – July 5
Peace Be Upon Us

The sun hasn’t risen, but I’m sweating. There’s no one out but the mosquitoes and a few conscientious dog owners. When I start my run, clouds are tinted pink in the east. That’s the direction I’m headed. I jog alongside the long chain link fence enclosing the V.A. Hospital. It takes a full eight minutes to get from Wes’s house off 43rd Avenue to the expanse of asphalt that is the 55. I’ve run this way many times before. I know exactly how long it will take. Traffic is light. I don’t have to wait for the slow lights. On the other side of the highway is the park.

Jet lag has gotten the better of me. After 3am, I won’t sleep again. I plan for the day. I call Menna, who is now thousands of miles away. We activate video, and I chat with Baby, who has recently starting walking She stands and stares at me through the phone uncertainly. It’s midday there. The light in my video is dark and yellow. I look like I’m broadcasting from a cave.

I dive into the trees, following the bike path that winds among the bluffs underneath Fort Snelling and above the Mississippi River. The canopy of leaves is thick, and it counters the growing strength of the sun. The air is humid and rain forest green. The running is effortless. I am reluctant to turn around. By the time I emerge onto the broad roads of the city again, the roseate effect of the dawn has moved into the western sky. The daylight is approaching full intensity.

I left Holland in the morning. It was a sunny day. But there was nothing of the sultry heat of the American Midwest. You are so rarely out of the reach of the North Sea chill in Holland. I delayed my departure as long as I could. I wanted to watch Baby wake. I wanted to hold her on my chest as she dozed. There’s a ritual to her waking. She has to cry out loud and raise her head to scan for us with bleary eyes. She has to drop her head again, like a heavy sack into the mattress. She might catch your chin or nose with a sharp blow. She rolls over a few times. After quite a while, she opens her eyes, suddenly alert. Yesterday I was gone before that happened.

I’m sweating. I’ve made it back to the house, and I’m pacing to cool off. The neighbourhood is so silent. I feel, among the tall trees, as though I were in the country.

Summer has been a spinning wheel of climates for me, flying from chilly Adds to sweltering Dubai, and back to Holland, where you’re never quite sure whether you want to be in a T-shirt or a jacket.

It was Ramadan in Dubai. The streets were sleepy. The cafes were closed. I was drawn to walk in the heat, but could only stand it in short bursts. The sky was a white haze. It wasn’t until I was about to wrap up the day that I could make out the Burj Khalifa in the distance, sunshine glinting off the glass windows of the spire.

I watch Ghost Protocol again on the plane. The man next to me is fidgeting. He’s a big man and he has a lot of energy for someone fasting. He explains to the stewardess that it’s Ramadan. He holds up his watch, and he tells her exactly when he can eat. When it comes time, there is still sunlight coming in the windows. The Prophet might find this a strange world.