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 cafĂ©, 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.