Friday, April 28, 2017

Travelogue 749 – April 28
Marking the Calendar


The baristas are giddy this morning. They worked yesterday, on King’s Day, and the cafe was a madhouse, as it always is on King’s Day. By afternoon, the lines were long, and they were managing drunks and families and the crises of impatience. The morning after is a relief. They are free to be careless.

Another April is ready to pass into memory. This one is passing on amid colder temperatures than those that brought it in. The skies are dark, and the lanes glisten with the last shower. It’s cold. I ask if I can close the window on the third floor that allows all the heat out. My fingers are moving slowly over the keyboard. The barista only laughs.

Calendars were conceived in ritual. Seasons cycle round; nature’s events seem to recur. The day is much like one a year ago. We remember. We celebrate, commemorate. We observe. We purge. We let it go again. It comes again. Spring is a fun time of year to welcome back.

April has a light heart in Holland. The weather breaks. The trees blossom. The black bird with the lovely voice settles in the courtyard. The April calendar starts for me with the local marathon. I ran this year, as part of a relay team from work. I was one of four, and I got to bring it home and cross the finish line. It sounds exciting, but the reality looks more like zigzagging among tired and nearly hopeless people. As I’ve said, April has stood on its head this year. Warm weather blew in early, and then the weeks slid back toward winter until cold King’s Day. Early April is summer-like. These poor, pale runners, bred for cold, were suffering in the heat. I had a good race, feeling light and ready to run. The weather was gorgeous. I flew by them all, and I felt guilty for it. I snuck across the finish line – though, yes, with arms raised in triumph.

April closes with King’s Day. It may sound like a sober state holiday, but it’s a day meant to be fun. It is simply the celebration of the birthday of the monarch. Holland has been blessed with long reigns since the nineteenth century, and one of those healthy people was blessed with an April birthday. It so happens the new king is also an April baby. Grandmother and son were born only three days apart. (Mother retained her mother’s birthday as Queen’s Day.)

My family and I did our part. We dressed in orange, and we set out to the street markets to walk among the crowds and shop. Our market this year was at Heemraadsplein, a busy centre in the west of the city. Our friend Jan has a balcony that overlooks this pleasant park. Today, his children are manning a table in the market selling hot wine and fudge. In a spirit of charity, I indulge.

Menna and her mother leave Baby and me behind, diving into the crowds and quickly disappearing. Baby quickly finds ways to divert herself with other people’s things. I realize that browsing without touching is not a working concept for Baby. I buy a bag of baby-sized plastic kitchenware for fifty cents, and we retreat to a grassy area to play. She enjoys nothing more than pretending to eat and drink. She can repeat the rituals of meal time for hours, and I’m happy to pay along. The cold day is not bad once the sun gains some strength. We sit in the grass a long time, rowdier and older little children running past, stopping in order to smack and trip and push each other. Baby watches, bemused, and returns to her polite repast.

Shopping done, Mama re-appears like a mirage. ‘Is that Mama?’ I ask Baby. ‘Mama!’ We walk to the tram station along the canal, through the busy park, strolling among many other families. We stop to play on the slide and the swings. Baby sits with Mama on the little toadstool seat that turns in dizzy circles on its base. She laughs and laughs. This is what spring should sound like. This is what we commemorate in April.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Travelogue 748 – April 20
Seeing Friends


I’m contemplating communities this month. They’re surprisingly diverse these days, intersecting in funny ways, making us complex interchanges of identity. We become richer in character and judgement, hopefully. I think of my friend the philosopher, who works at the café and plays minor-league football. I enjoy how all this works itself out in his personality. He has a few voices he can employ. I reflect on the communities themselves. They interact there, at the node of the individual, but rarely outside it. The mid-fielder on his team and his closest associate at the university may pass each other every day on the street and never know it. If they met at a party, they may struggle with conversation. Communities intersect for us in time but not in substance, lying like one transparency over another, making the blotter of life a colourful one.

There are communities that intersect across time. My communities now, include runners, theatre people, writers, teachers. My communities across time are those who were with me in college, in jobs, in adventures. They represent places, California, Ethiopia, the East Coast, and Europe.

This month, I’ve had emissaries from several different lives. Howard travelled from the furthest point in time, all the way from our freshman year in university. He spotted me in the café by the train station before I spotted him, though he stood directly in my line of sight. It had been longer than we realized since we had seen each other last. The lines in our faces and the greying hair gave us away. ‘How long has it been?’

It’s been a long time since his son was the age of my girls, but he still knows how to make Baby laugh. He holds Little Sister with no awkwardness at all. He joins the family, and he’s in good spirits. They aren’t the high and unbridled spirits of our first acquaintance, when we were set loose on university property. That reckless community has dispersed. What is left is the enduring friendship, enduring through years of much quieter times. Quiet as they have become, our vocabulary was formed during the wild times. Everything is set beside the dreams of youth, perhaps with irony, perhaps with contentment, but the mould is set. Friendships are legacies of community. They follow laws. After a few days with us, he continues on to Sweden, where his son studies. They have plans to travel to Israel.

Our bonds are memory and vocabularies are hope. Shared partying, shared dreaming.

The next visitor travels from a later time, a time following closely on university, when dreams are careening into kerbs and walls, propelled by our naivete and inexperience. Wes and I met in Boston, but knew each other best in San Francisco and Minneapolis. When we first met, he was a rocker and a college student, and generally too cool to be hanging out with the likes of me. He’s still a rocker, but a family man, and even now, too cool. He has brought his wife and teenage daughter. They are touring Europe, and we are one of their first stops.

Baby benefits again, everyone wanting to hold her, read to her, take her picture. She is laughing, shy and fearless in turns, climbing over her new friends and then retreating into Mama’s arms.

Our bonds are music and culture, the decades we have shared, the things we know about each other by witnessing the struggles. Shared disappointments and lessons.

And now come visiting us are our Dutch visitors. They are co-workers of mine, husband and wife. They have come to meet our youngest daughter for the first time, Baby’s little sister. They bring gifts for both girls. For Baby is an orange dress for King’s Day, and for Little Sister, a crinkly toy. Little Sister smiles, as she so often does. She’s a happy soul.

It’s the present. We sit together in our modest living room, and the day’s vocabulary is woven from work and from the calendar, from the world right outside or windows. Conversation follows simple lines of projection, no less satisfying for their simplicity. Summer is coming. We talk about travel. They are planning on Prague, and tell them about that grand city old in the 90s. It was cheap; it was a celebration. We tell them we’re going nowhere this summer. We don’t hesitate or regret to say it. ‘We’re staying home.’ We’re staying home with the tightest little community, our family. Happy for it. We’ve seen a lot already. And we’ll see more, when the girls are old enough to travel.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Travelogue 747 – April 13
Making Books


Electricity has returned to the wijn bar. Customers cheer. Enough of the Ethiopian experience survives in me to temper my response. All this happens on a different register for the Dutch. The music resumes. Perhaps that is more comfort than the light to generations raised with earphones. The interruption is unsettling; one can’t be sure one is having fun unless the music says so. Ethiopia has been good conditioning for me, a culture of interruption to scramble the programming. It’s liberating for those of us bred to be cyborgs.

I pack away the magazines. The evening is just beginning. I have a ticket to see author Michael Chabon speak at one of the local bookstores. It’s the biggest bookstore in town, meandering across the entire ground floor of a large building facing the busy Coolsingel. It’s after hours; the doors are looked. A solitary employee is stationed by the door to let in people with tickets. We are guided through wide open spaces lined with bookshelves toward a central room set with chairs and stage.

We ticket-holders are a select crowd. We check each other out, with all the affection and hostility of extended family. We are bookworms, writers, and culture junkies. Some of us are comic book aficionados, drawn by Chabon’s forays into that special realm. We chose our seats with care. We pose by the display tables. There is some posing with the interviewer and moderator, a young author who apparently cuts a fine figure among local literary circles.

Once the show gets going, I recognize with a smile the interviewer’s distinctly Dutch style of questioning, brusque and eager for every tangent. Mr. Chabon handles it well, with appealing humility and openness. He discusses his new book, writing styles, his distinct subject matter, and working with his author wife. If it weren’t for his unnerving resemblance, with the coke-bottle glasses and the querulous high treble in his voice, to a particularly repellent member of the board I worked for until recently, I would have thoroughly enjoyed his company.

I reflect on these communities we drift along through and along with, and how these communities define us in pinwheel fashion, giving us our chameleon colours as we progress through our days. I’ve been contemplating this little bit of commentary that takes a look at how politics changes with the multiplication of identities. We are loath to admit how much democracy has historically relied on homogeneous blocks of identity, and how fragile democracy is proving to be in the age of heightened individualism.

It’s a sort of intrusion of politics that finally convinces me to leave the lecture. Chabon is clearly very experienced in interviews. He is resolute in taking no risks. I don’t blame him. I’ve noticed how sensitive people have become, so easy to wound. It has become a persistent danger to anyone in the public eye. It’s as though the enrichment of individuality has only accomplished a taut stretching of our thin skins over more surface area. We are many-faceted targets.

It’s getting late, and I’m thinking about my babies. After his engaging thoughts about the Holocaust in arts – worded with excruciating and exhausting care – I find there isn’t much more to excite me. I slip out of my seat and go in search of the lonely guardian of the door. It’s true night now; there are no traces of the spring sun in the west. I’ve forgotten where I locked my bike. I walk up and down the Coolsingel, breathing deeply of the cool air.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Travelogue 746 – April 12
Making Lists


I cycle down to the Meent. I have some time between engagements. I have a mind to stop in at a favourite wijn bar. What I want is a place to read.

I stop on a quiet street, not far from the cathedral. There is a row of small cafes here, all carrying forward a tradition of simple tastes and quiet relaxation. The décor is subdued, the interiors both dark and light, big windows and dark wood.

I lock up the bicycle and enter. It’s a week night, and there aren’t many people. Something is up. It’s unusually quiet. The few patrons have a stunned look about them. They look at me as though sharing a joke. I take a seat, and I extract my magazines from my rucksack.

I’m slow to figure out what has happened, but it does seep in. They are talking about it, and the language filters in. The lights have gone out on this block. One of the servers is lighting candles and deploying them, though it’s still light out. The barkeep from next door rushes in to assure everyone he has called the city.

I shrug. It’s all the same to me. Spring has brought long hours. There is still plenty of sunlight to read by. Out my window, the sun is hanging over the shoulder of the cathedral.

My first article is an unfortunate choice. It’s enjoyable because it’s well-written, but the subject is loss and grief. I have been spending so much time in this emotional territory lately, I’m vulnerable to the underlying despair.

I set the magazine aside, and I stare out the window at the narrow lane outside. I feel the weight of the subject matter settle inside of me, and I take a minute to acknowledge what I’ve done to myself. I’ll be paying for this for a few days. There’s a nightmare coming.

What’s more, the article was written was written by a woman who has lost her father. This will work to layer my new anxieties about fatherhood on top of the existing layers of grief. I’m beginning to realize there is no ‘working this out’. One premise behind years of scribbling has been proven false. I am still editing pages for publication from among of the hundreds written about this stuff. At least I can take pride in how diligently I have pursued the premise.

The realization has been a very long process, maybe because I have imagined healing to be a long process. By the time the rainbow dissipates, stranding one far from any pot of gold, many irretrievable miles have been travelled. One settles in a new country.

It’s an American publication I’ve been reading. I’m wondering if mood is an American specialty, soul-drenching mood, sorrow and melancholy, rages and fits of insanity. It’s not that other nations have no struggles with the spectre of death, but could it be that Americans of a certain generation have taken it personally? Is it the shadow of our post-war optimism?

I’m discovering that parenthood sharpens this struggle. The stakes are higher. I must teach hope. I have observed that hope tends to reward itself, and hopeful people have happier lives. I refer to real hope, not the hope bred of desperation.

I sense – probably wrongly – that Europeans do see things differently. I sense that the world consists of more facts, and is less saturated with mood. I sense that Freud’s (and his followers’) theories were indeed revolutionary, but were processed in the mind first, rather than in the heart. Existentialism fuelled discussion, rather than lonely despair.

I set the magazine aside. I use the balance of my time to write lists. Lists are wonderful restorative devices. Inventories of names are a tonic to depression. Death teaches the insignificance of things. Names teach significance. It is not the job of the void to assign value to things of substance.

Every day Baby learns a new name. I have to keep up.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Travelogue 745 – March 28
Counting Steps


And so I lick my wounds after the half marathon, and I return to my routine in Holland, even as spring dawns. The weather has been a sudden tonic for winter, and people have been beside themselves, making every step a celebration. The skies are alarmingly blue, and the sun brings us warmth.

And so a winter training season ends with a spring run. The skies have broken open. When I ride the bike into work in the morning, the sun has risen. The birds are singing. By the time I get a chance to run, the pavements beyond the protection of shadows is warm. I regret the long sleeves. I have company in new runners, lured by the spring into fleeting hopes of sweaty fun.

I bring the injury back into training, and slowly it disappears, a Cheshire grin of pain. I have slowed the training down, but I must continue. I am scheduled to run another distance for charity, this time as part of a relay team of colleagues in the Rotterdam Marathon. It will, thankfully, be a shorter run.

Running is an opportunity for reflection. I reflect on the long stretches of road in Bath, unusual for England in their straight lines of sight, chosen by the marathon committee to unnerve native-born Brits, who would rarely have run a straight line for miles in this way. There’s something like achievement in turning corners. The sight of distance can drain away momentum.

I had made it to the final straightaway, leading back into town on the second loop, when my hip went into meltdown. In that circumstance, the distance ahead was taunting. I started walking.

I think of the winding roads outside Bath, riding along them in Pey’s car, struggling with car sickness. I’m sitting on what should be the driver’s side, and I’m watching whatever I can see in the high beams of the little auto. Most of what I see is alarmingly close. The landscape is as compact as the car, the little stone walls racing by just beyond the bumper, other cars breezing bay with inches to spare. We are turning, rising and falling, all at once, and I am battling to keep my stomach in place.

We are traveling to Trowbridge, where we will sit in a poetry group. I will sip tea with some desperation for the first half hour, hoping to calm my tummy. But as the nausea recedes and I listen, I discover with some delight that this is good stuff being shared. My memories of poetry readings from my youth has prepared me for embarrassment and boredom. These people are good. They are lively and intelligent, and they know their poetry.

I leave inspired, even if a little disheartened by the prospect of another harrowing ride home. I write every day, even without much faith in writing. This renews my faith. Their faith is contagious.

I write every day, and lately I am rounding off the editing work on a book I hope to self-publish within a matter of weeks. This book forms the second and connecting link among three works that capture some themes from my life, specifically from what forms now the middle part of my narrative, those years begun in Minnesota and carrying me to Ethiopia.

It’s funny. The more I try to narrate ‘life’, the more I think there is no such thing. There are only details. And, as I’ve recently said about sport, one can only take detail lightly in order to take it seriously. It makes no sense as meaning unless dismissed as meaning. One writes and reads about detail simply for the fun of it, and then somehow a sense of import dawns on one. But it rarely unfolds, blooms, (like spring,) into an explicit, simple, readable text.

I’ve returned home with blue skies commencing. I ask the Gryphon to lead me to someone with a story. The Mock Turtle looks at us with large eyes full of tears, saying nothing.

'He wants for to know your history, she do,' says the Gryphon.

'I'll tell it her,' says the Mock Turtle in a deep, hollow tone. 'Sit down, both of you, and don't speak a word till I've finished. When we were little,' the Mock Turtle is still sobbing, 'we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle — we used to call him Tortoise — .'

Monday, March 13, 2017

Travelogue 744 – March 13
Halted Steps


There are those moments in a long road race when you are empowered to make time stand still. You are compelled to make time stand still. It’s meditation forged in a furnace, a deep mining of the present moment by agency of pain.

Except for the first mile and the last mile, the course of the Bath Half pursues a loop west to a bridge that crosses the Avon out past the city limits, where the town has given way to open fields, and following another road back into town. The race completes that loop twice before running by the train station, through Widcombe, and down Great Pulteney Street to the finish. That loop makes for four long straightaways, first west and then east, long and flat stretches of road that test the will.

‘It's always six o'clock now,' says the Mad Hatter mournfully. Time (Him, not It, the Hatter has clarified,) Time won’t allow the hour to advance past six. ‘It’s always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.'

This is the chosen curse of Mr. Time, in the mad science of the Hatter. Make him mad and he will stop the clock. Why do we (more or less) sane mortals daydream about stopping time? Maybe it’s simply because we want to sleep, or read more than headlines. But in Wonderland, this is a punishment particularly galling, especially when you can’t complete tea time to satisfaction.

In our world, runners stop time in order to complete the race. It’s a paradox among endurance sports: we perform feats that are measured by time, so we must dismantle time. The race becomes a set of steps. And each one is a still shot of the asphalt underneath, of that guy just ahead of you, of the furthest visible point ahead. It becomes a chronicle of single, noisy breaths. For an older runner like me, it’s like a medical file, monitoring a variety of systems. How are those ankles, those knees? Lungs, heart, stomach?

And then there’s the recurring question, ‘What am I doing here?’ That needs constant contemplation. There are so many angles to explore. When is sport trivial? When is sport madness? The answers are almost universally matters of perspective. Take it lightly, and sport has merit and meaning. Take it seriously, and become ridiculous. Yes, it’s madness.

They say Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the nineteenth-century Oxford don writing as Lewis Carroll, had a special sympathy for children, particularly little girls. It could be that ‘sympathy’ was not the right word. Either way, he enjoyed the company of children, and enjoyed the kind of repartee that children partake in, the word play, the irreverence, the quick moods and emphatic declarations, the will to subjectivity.

‘We’re all mad here,’ says the Cheshire Cat. ‘I’m mad. You’re mad.’

"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”

I’m keeping a decent pace. I’m not on course to break my record, but I’m not far off it, either. Then comes Mile Ten. Every long race has its wall. For the half marathon, it’s Mile Ten. I put in many long training runs before the race with nothing more than the spectre of Mile Ten to goad me forward, the anxiety of the imagined pain. But no preparation will save me this time. My hip suddenly starts in with a steady and deep, debilitating ache. I have to stop.

I stop, and I calculate. What am I capable of doing now? The time is gone, but is the race? I walk, testing the hip. I slowly start running again. It’s painful, but if I keep it slow, maybe. I carry on for no more than half a kilometre before I have to stop again. I won’t let myself pull out of the race. I think of my athletes in Ethiopia, and I’m ashamed. I have to finish.

So this is how I make it to the finish line, some 15 minutes off the time I should have had. But I arrive in one piece, and I celebrate nonetheless. Anything less would be madness.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Travelogue 743 – March 12
Many Steps


‘It’s HIM,’ the Mad Hatter says. ‘If you knew Time as well as I do, ….’

I began the day of the race with some drills out in the rain. At seven, I jogged up to Alexandria Park and did a few circuits, alternating between fast and slow, warming up for the ordeal of the race. The park occupies the top of a hill, and there is a circular drive there, about half a kilometre in length. It climbs steeply, then drops. Running round it is a good warm-up. I build up to some speed. Time is, after all, the measure of today’s success.

I’ve been re-reading Alice(‘s Adventures) in Wonderland. The Tim Burton film was on TV before I left for England. Alice’s story seemed rather liberally re-interpreted in the film, but it had been many years since I read the book. In point of fact, I didn’t remember there being much of a story to Alice in Wonderland at all. Hadn’t that been one of its charms?

After my morning drills, I ate with Pey and her family. I took an hour to rest, completely off my feet. I read a few pages from Alice. ‘I dare say,’ the Mad Hatter objected, `I dare say you never even spoke to Time!' The little girl wasn’t sure how to answer.

Lewis Carroll – actual name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- published this little story in 1865. Before it was ever written down, the story was told to entertain the three young Liddell sisters (including Alice) while rowing one summer day up the Isis River in Oxford. Mr. Dodgson was a professor in mathematics and logic at the university. That a logician should come up with the age’s nonsense tale seems to me lovely.

I’m here to raise money for my athletes in Addis Ababa, a place far down the rabbit hole of north-south disparity. I’ve set a nonsense goal, a new time to beat an old time. Nonsensically, I allow it to rattle me, to make me nervous. I’ve been training toward this nonsense time for months, and it’s been strangely effective in motivating me. I’m in very good shape.

‘I know I have to beat time when I learn music,’ Alice says. The Hatter warns her, ‘He won't stand beating.’

Pey and I start down the hill toward town. She’s accompanying me to the race start. I’m feeling fragile as we approach the steep staircase down Beechen Cliff. ‘Maybe I could do this thing tomorrow?’ I wonder. Pey advises me that they will disqualify me. Why this day? Why this distance? I ask all the questions that make sport seem genuinely silly. And not only am I running, but raising money for runners and perpetuating the nonsense. So it goes. Life is a very serious matter until one attends the details.

I’m safe among the crowds of runners in the starting gate. The race will begin in five. We stretch and jump to keep warm. We joke with each other and wave to spectators. Phones are raised high to snap pictures of the thousands of competitors. It will take us almost five minutes to reach the starting line, slowly surging forward, and we’re among the first groups to start. In an hour, the same people bouncing left to right and smiling in anticipation will be lost somewhere in the second loop of the course, suffering and urging him- or herself forward with every step, perhaps with a mantra like mine, ‘Never again.’ Every so often, police will wave them to the side to allow passage of an ambulance.

‘Suppose it were nine o'clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons,’ says the Hatter. ‘You'd only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Travelogue 742 – March 11
High Steps


The youngest trees are budding here on Beechen Cliff in Bath. It’s spring. The morning air is still, fresh and damp. I have to stop at the head of the stairs. I pause because the stone staircase down the steep hillside is daunting, I know, from years’ experience how jarring they are, the steps spaced unnaturally. I want to take a breath. I want to stretch. I set my back pack down and exercise my aching back. I’m only freshly out of bed. I was so eager to enjoy the morning, I set out immediately after waking.

I take a deep breath, exercising my lungs. They are going to be put to the test tomorrow, when I run the half marathon. I’ve been having some trouble with those trusty old organs of breathing. I have asked a lot from them in this long life. They have lived in some of the planet’s most polluted cities. They have run. They have performed quite faithfully despite debilitation in childhood, due to asthma and repeated illness. This week, it feels like I have some minor infection, inhibiting full expansion. I stand at the head of the stairs and I fill my lungs. I undertake some easy stretches.

My senses are sharp. I am aware of the miracle of this morning, the concatenation of miracles. For one thing, I am back. I have been writing about return, in my piece about Grace. At my age, life seems like stories of return and recurrence. This place, both Bath and the cliff above it, are sacred places of return. I have been here so many times, standing under the high pines, pausing just like this, to catch my breath on the stairs, to listen to the birds, to absorb the stillness of the small wood, so often free of human disturbance, a place made for pause among the activities and travels.

Another miracle is the sensation of being rested. I have slept eight hours straight! If I didn’t have the race tomorrow, I wouldn’t know what to do with this renewed energy. With twenty-one kilometres to run on the morrow, the answer is, conserve it. Tuck it away and protect it, like gold. And what to do with this clarity of mind? The answer is, calculate how long it’s been since I had eight hours of sleep. I try and I can’t. I will need another eight hours to have full brain power. I’m content to enjoy the hushed scene of slender tree trunks soaring past me into the fog of the early morning. That seems the best use of heightened perceptions.

I pick up the old rucksack again, throwing it over my shoulder. I start carefully down the decline, employing a kind of sideways, swinging gait to minimize the impact of the high steps. I remember the days when I could jog all the way down. Reaching further, I remember days when I could jog up. Age is measured in pain.

At the bottom, I’ll follow the walkway down, through the old churchyard and then to the river. Pey has told me about a great new bakery by the bus station. I will have a huge pain aux raisins with an espresso.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Travelogue 741 – March 2
Reading


I’ve been editing. I’ve been a long time editing. As the atmosphere condenses, as late winter broods and struggles with itself, wrestles with its shadows and its showers, I’m reading and revising. I have another book to get out the door. Most of the stories I wrote years ago. There’s been so much to do.

The spring birds have begun singing in the courtyard of my apartment complex. I hear them when I leave the flat, as I take my first breaths of the day’s fresh air. I love that one moment of the day. It is unique, and it’s precious, the taste of fresh morning air. It’s the taste of being alive. It renews my choice for this place by the sea, even during times of trial. Now the birds of spring have returned.

It’s less often that I’m leaving the house in darkness. Night is retreating.

I hear the cry of ‘Boek!’ Baby has developed a passion for books. She cries for them, cries if we don’t have time to read them aloud. She sits and recites from them for her stuffed animals, jabbing one chubby finger at the open page.

‘Where is the boek?’ Mama asks, and Baby stops, suddenly alert. She runs to the cabinet where we keep her books. She pulls at the door. We laugh. ‘Panda, panda,’ we read. ‘Wat zie jij daar?’

There are more words. They wrap round me when I’m tired. I want this done by month’s end. I am editing the final piece, a short memoir piece about my mother. Three brothers are there. They stand above the wild surf in Oregon, and they are releasing ashes into the waves, releasing words in memoriam into the salty spray and the roar of the violent ocean. It is all I can do to make this scene cohere.

I’ve written a lot about survival. ‘Survive’ is a transitive verb, whether one uses it as such or not. One survives something, and that something is meant to harm. One survives someone, and that someone did not survive the things that harm. Survival, when treated as an intransitive, is a celebration. I have not overcome its transitive nature. That is survival’s shadow. It casts one in darkness, and in that darkness it can be difficult to concentrate.

The ocean spray, water’s intention cast upon stone, waves disintegrated, lines the boulders with slick sea water. I remember that much. Those stones underfoot have uneven and sharp edges, and the brothers are struggling for balance. In quick flashes, they may observe themselves. It is comic. And it’s also unbearably sad. The one occasion for remembrance is rendered another silly story. It is freighted with detail. But detail is the stuff of living, and it makes fools of us all. There is beauty in being a fool.

It is all I can do to make this scene cohere. That’s the truth, while it’s happening. It never did cohere. The written word gathers the shards and splinters of it, lovingly places them in neat rows and catalogues them. The order achieved is no order. So why?

The rivers surface is choppy. One sees the wind cross over the rippling puddles. And the spray from the sky, leaving ephemeral patterns there, drops quickly passing. The spring is born from such turmoil. I am tired. The wind on my shoulders requires so much effort. I bend to it; I set myself to the day’s mundane journeys. The afternoon is gloomy. It darkens so. The rain catches me before I’m home. I stand outside one extra minute, too tired even to get out of the weather. The birds have retreated to their nests. Inside mine, I stand a moment without shedding even my backpack. Baby comes to look up into my face.

It’s evening. The lights inside are yellow, a low flame held in stasis. We hear the wind outside. Tiny Baby’s fingers are cold.

‘Boek!’ She says. Her voice is sure. Okay, Baby. Come close. ‘Panda, panda, wat zie jij daar?’

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Travelogue 740 – February 21
Two!


Baby says new words almost every day. Yesterday, she repeated her own name for the first time. We were drawing, and I spelled out her name for her. I’ve done it before, but this time she repeated it when I read it out loud.. She said her name.

Her excitement was nothing compared to ours. Mama rushed in from the kitchen. But Baby was already tiring of the game. It’s funny how the little things begin to count for so much. She is saying her own name! And I marvel at it. I briefly wonder what it means to her. Names suddenly appear so ephemeral and arbitrary. How does we take these words to oneself, fashion identities from them?

All words are being re-invented. Some of her first words: cold, lekker (delicious in Dutch,) joro (ear in Amharic). She counts to three now, with some assistance. She and I recite the numbers to each other. She seems most taken with two. She wants to start there. She points at any number, and she says two. I point to numbers and name them. She looks up at me and she thinks. Says, ‘Two.’

Everything she says, she says in a tender baby accent. She wants us to say it over and over, while she repeats it. She plays with the pronunciation. And she never says it quite right. She smiles with excitement.

What is the difference, after all? Five looks like a backward two. Three is the bottom twisted the other way. Eight connects all the lines. Why? Play that game where you repeat some word until the meaning fades and the sound begins to sound ridiculous. I think numbers are most vulnerable to degenerating into nonsense. What is a number? Why do they follow each other this way, each a product of the arbitrary ‘one’? Is there something inherent in the sound or symbol of ‘one’, or ‘two’, that fits it to its place? No, each dissolves into nonsense. And then, as soon as you turn your back, they re-constitute themselves. Numbers are durable as atoms.

‘One … tree,’ she shouts and she jumps into my arms. I lift her up in the air, so she can scream. When I put her on the ground, she retreats and repeats. ‘One … tree,’ and charges. She hasn’t put the names of the numbers together quite yet, but she has discovered the fun of the countdown.

I don’t remember learning numbers. Baby won’t. None of us remember, I suppose. But the numbers enter our minds, and I’m guessing they form there one of the early structures for logic, order and thought. What colours and shapes do these forms take in the inchoate mind of the child? Will two always be yellow, and four green? Do the numbers march in succession, left to right? Or does each appear freely, ballooning like cartoons before the mind’s eye?

Does this zone of pre-thought form one province of the unconscious? Do our precious numbers float there among so many other impressions brought on board before we had thought? Do they always thereafter speak to us of a thousand other ingredients from the dark? As adults, we will return to numbers with some wonder. We will sense a mystery around them, and sometimes form theories that numbers have mystical qualities to them.

I’ve been reading about the Early Moderns in Europe, whose science and mathematics changed everything. They taught us that mathematics was the language for understanding the universe. I find that an appealing thought. I’m sure I’m not alone. We’ve wrestled with the uncompromising laws of maths and found in them something to admire and respect. Life is like that, we think, precise and unbending in its laws. We learn about pi, and we slowly realize that it occupies its place like a monument. And we learn that some monuments have no corporal existence. They are abstract. Civilization shares a mind, and in that mind are monuments of absolute value. How is that possible?

It will be easier for Baby, I’m guessing, having been born into the computer age. Information is a parallel realm of disembodied thought, built from thought matter provided by mathematicians. Maybe abstractions have become easier.

It’s said that René Descartes was a sickly child. The teachers at his boarding school allowed him to stay in bed until noon. He followed this pattern for much of his life. He lay in bed dreaming about numbers. One morning he watched the progress of a fly across his ceiling, and he asked himself how he would describe the fly’s position mathematically. He realized that any position could be described by any two numbers, along a vertical axis and a horizontal one, once you defined one point of reference, say, the corner of the ceiling.

This thought experiment became the basis of Cartesian coordinates and analytical geometry. These, in turn, became a foundation for calculus and then the imaginings of modern physics, drafting geometries we can’t see, pictures of the universe that can exclusively be described by mathematics.

This is how we construct worlds from numbers. These are fantastical dreams. I wonder what the Greeks would have thought of relativity and gravity wells and quantum mechanics, elaborations on reality that describe no phenomenon that any man or woman has ever experienced. Would Plato have decided these mathematical dreams were the incorporeal forms that informed the imperfect world?

Every day, Baby is learning. I can’t describe it. I couldn’t direct it or stop it, even if I had the will. It’s nature, and it’s wondrous. ‘One, two, three,’ and she jumps in my arms.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Travelogue 739 – February 13
The View from the Gym


I’m not going far, only as far as the gym. Today was supposed to be my long day, the day I put in a couple hours running the roads. But there’s still too much snow on the ground. I’m better off cycling through the slush than trying to run through it for two hours. My shoes would be soaked in fifteen minutes.

I’ve chosen to pay for a cheap gym membership this winter. It works out on days like this. It also works out as a commuter option. It’s on the way to work, and convenient to my usual cafes. Like this morning’s cafe. I’ve been coming to this cafe for years, taking a table upstairs for my morning work desk. I’m appreciated. I’m a nice regular. The baristas have organized a campaign to support my fundraising for Team Tesfa. I appear now on the cafe’s Facebook page.

From there I only have to pedal down the Westblaak, turn left before I get to the Blaak. and cross the pedestrian Hogestraat, lined with chain discount stores and the dingy little shops selling cheap watches and cheap luggage. The gym is there, overlooking the Hogestraat. The gym shares something of the character of the seamy old shopping district. It’s a good deal, but the facilities are old, the services minimalistic. There is little ventilation. That becomes problematic when you’re training for a half marathon. Maybe it’s different for the guys who groan over their weights for two minutes and then strut around for ten. Marathoners need long shifts of exertion. My cheap jersey is quickly soaked. My towel is soaked. I’m dripping on the treadmill.

But all that’s fine. My gym has the basics. I don’t have to wait for machines. In between spells on the machines, I stretch by the windows that overlook the Grotekerkplein. This is the view from the other side of the building. On this side we see the city’s cathedral and its square. I’ve always been fond of the old church. It was never one of Holland’s magnificent churches. It came along a little late for High Gothic, begun in the fifteenth century or so. And it took a beating in the 1940 bombing of the city. It’s just a solid old brick structure, content with its square tower and the dignity of its age.

They’re working on the square now. It looks like they might be laying gravel and walking paths across the previously open square. I am relieved to see they have raised a fence around the statue of Erasmus. The bronze is an icon itself, standing in front of the old church. It was cast in 1622 to replace a stone statue of their native son. There is some academic dispute, as it turns out, about whether Erasmus, known as ‘Roterodamus’ even in his own day, was actually born here. Gouda wants to claim him, and it’s true that he spent some of his childhood there. But, lacking the final proof against it, I will think of him as a Rotterdammer.

In an age of extremists, it may be hard to appreciate our friend Erasmus. He was a moderate. He decided to stand against Luther, even though his own critiques of the Catholic Church had contributed to setting the stage for revolution. In an age that seems staunchly anti-intellectual, it may be hard to appreciate Erasmus, who was a scholar first and last. He was one of the greatest of his age, mastering Greek and Latin, much of classical thought and literature, as well as contributing enormously to Biblical scholarship, particularly with his Greek New Testament.

So it goes. By our standards, he must be unpopular. I read – and enjoyed – Wolf Hall. I observed how Erasmus was portrayed as a flatterer and opportunist first, and the penniless, drifting intellectual second, set beside Mantel’s man of action, Thomas Cromwell. I resign myself to it. These portrayals stand in as assessments of our own boring men of reason. Me, I still like the old man. I salute to him from the second-floor window in the gym. He doesn’t see me. He’s still turning that page.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Travelogue 738 – February 12
The Swell New Snel


I’m grateful for my new bicycle this morning. It has fenders. I’m protected from the slush on the roads. I miss the silver ‘Snel’, my classy old ten-speed, totalled in my run-in with the belligerent auto a few weeks ago. But there’s no denying that I would have been a mess in this weather, arriving in town wet and cold, with a line of mud up my back.

Baby stands in the courtyard of our complex. She is looking at her boots, on the toes of which she has picked up two little dollops of new snow. She is wearing pink mittens, and holding her hands out as though pushing away the sting of the cold. She watches mama gathering snow into a ball, laughing, throwing it at Papa. It’s all a beautiful mystery.


Yes, I miss the sleek old ‘Snel’, and the quick pace I could keep crossing town. I rode it for more than three years. But there is no denying the benefits of the new cycle. It’s not as fast, but it’s fun, riding low to the ground cruising on the fat tires. And it has fenders. The melt is on this morning, turning the pretty fields of white back into green grass, making the trees shed their pretty white dressings in steady, chilly drops on the heads of cyclists travelling underneath.

I stop at the café on my way to the gym. The baristas laugh to see me. I’m arriving just as they open. ‘Only you,’ they say. I’m their lone customer this early on a Sunday morning. ‘Only you.’ Later they laugh again as I leave. It happens that Springsteen is singing, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

I unlock the sturdy new bike, green and black and rusting, my durable second-hand machine. I swing a leg over the frame, settle on the cushioned seat. I bought this bike from my regular cycle shop. The shop is run by an amiable guy who has been in the business a long time. He still looks young, slim and wiry, his bowl cut exhibiting very little grey. He always has a smile and some wry aphorism about life and cycling. His shop occupies one corner in what is considered an unsavoury neighbourhood in Delfshaven. He has rows of sturdy little bikes, just like my new one, bikes he buys from the city’s impound lot and fixes up. I decided I would save myself the online search for second-hand deals on Marktplaats and buy from my cycle doctor. He shook his head sadly when I wheeled in the bent and scraped old Snel. He took a measure of the frame and declared it a lost cause. He signed a quick letter to present to any insurance agent that may find his or her way to my door.

I start pedalling toward the Westblaak. I don’t have far to go. I have to log a workout at my gym this morning. The calendar shows I’m getting uncomfortably close to race day. One month, in fact. I’m running the Bath Half in one month, and trying to raise money for the team in Ethiopia. I set the foolish target of breaking my record, set on the same course seven years ago. Seven years ago! Never dream up goals from a vantage point of three months ahead. They weigh more heavily with each day’s subsequent training.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Travelogue 737 – February 5
Negative Space


It always sneaks up me. More than that, it nearly sneaks by me. By the time I realize that Rotterdam’s international film festival is actually under way, the festival is usually half completed. I note all the advertisements, months ahead of time, but the dates don’t sink in. And so it goes this year. I only think to search the schedule during the final weekend.

Rotterdam hosts one of the biggest film festivals in the world. It’s been going since 1972, and last year over three hundred thousand attended. There are more than four hundred feature length and short films. All the theatres downtown are taken over by the festival. That’s what usually triggers the realization for me. ‘Ah, the festival is in town.’ A few days later, I’ll make the effort to check the festival schedule.

All these steps have to play out in my glacial intelligence. I look up the festival schedule. This year I’m going to go with documentaries.

I’m lucky with my selections. On Friday night, we catch a film by a young Argentinian who charts his course through a variety of assignments, artistic and journalistic, around Europe and Israel. He has a fascination with war and fantasizes about a story on the front line. Any front line. He ends up in Israel because he is a descendant of Russian Jews who found their way to South America well ahead of the Nazis. He narrates with irony. He shares texts from his mother asking about new charges on her credit card. He critiques his own interviews, calling them lot opportunities. Finally he finds his front line in Palestine. Nothing terribly dramatic happens, but he feels a sense of arrival. He floats in the Dead Sea, and he tells us he is only a character in the production.

It turns out we had stumbled over the Argentinian’s legs when we arrived late. He stands for questions. Audience questions circle around this dichotomy of his, the split between the director and character. He insists on a playful interpretation of it all, which I appreciate.

On Saturday night, we see something more local, a film by a guy from Ghent. He is also in the audience and fields questions afterward. He is also humble, though in the quieter way of northern Europe, in the way that doesn’t look like humility to people from the Americas. The audience is also more intense. They ask about equipment. They ask about composition. He admits his love of ‘negative space’. I’m moved by his intelligence and the intention behind his work.

I’m moved by the film. The premise is simple enough, a look into the life of a boxing coach in Ghent. The old man is an Armenian from Georgia, who moved to Belgium thirteen years ago. We witness his first trip back home. Tbilisi looks like Addis. He sits on the balcony of his friend’s flat. The flat is in a tired old Communist-era block. The balcony looks out over trees and the debris of poverty, and out toward mountains that could be Ethiopian. They are drinking, and they are reminiscing. When Giorgi laughs, you feel somehow comforted. You sense something of hardship and survival. He speaks softly. Several times, we see his old boxer’s hand resting on a map of Georgia.

The young director does love negative spaces. The film is very shy of direct shots. We see things through mirrors and around corners. Shadows occupy much of the screen. At boxing matches, we hear the action, and see the coach’s eyes and his ears. We hear his occasional shout, and we see the sweat trickle down his neck. His protégé wins the European title, and we see none of the winning punches. The coach calls his son in Georgia. The young champ says hello shyly, and receives his congratulations.

Both films reflect back to me perspectives on my own process in writing memoir. One admits that the subject can only ever be a character, and the other captures the subject from distances and muted, frames him among negative spaces. There are severe limits to reporting. The subject, and even oneself, is elusive and must be approached obliquely. There’s a skittish animal inside stories, or inside characters, and one has to tread very softly in, into their territory.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Travelogue 736 – January 27
The Accident, the Substance


He’s speaking Dutch, so I don’t catch every word, but I understand enough. ‘You should watch where you’re going,’ he’s saying. ‘What?’ I shout. I decide to offer him a personal lesson in English invective, my face very close to his so he catches every inflection.

It has taken two bystanders to help me free my leg from underneath his car. My bicycle is destroyed, wheels and frame bent. This driver has stayed inside the car until now, and his first words are accusation.

Later, I tell the police the worst of it. He wouldn’t stop. ‘How long,’ the policeman asks. I say I don’t know. I hadn’t thought to trigger the stopwatch. But long enough, I tell him, that I’m yelling, ‘Stop the *** car!’

I survive, even if the bicycle doesn’t. My leg is bent. I can’t walk on it without a lot of pain for a day or two. But I’m fine, and the leg will recover. This won’t stop me from running my race in March.

As hardy as the body, so fragile is the spirit. I am shaken. I ask myself, was I wrong to react with so much anger? I don’t think anyone would blame me, but that doesn’t make it right. I don’t have an answer, but I do decide that it might all have played out differently if the driver had begun with expressions of something more human. ‘Are you all right?’

It’s sobering to think this way, how powerful is the discourse, how powerful the force of forgiveness. I see it everywhere. It would be impossible for me not to extend the concept outward, given the tenor of world events, when America reaps the fruit of several generations of rage and polarization.

It’s astonishing how fragile we are, how sure we think we have to be. The man emerges from his auto with no thought but for his righteousness. It’s astonishing how fragile our world view has become when we deny, without qualification, that there can be any view but ours. We become weak. The police confront him with the likely facts, and the driver is rattled. All he can do is repeat his objection, until the policeman feels he must check whether he is hearing properly. Outside, the driver’s wife is illustrating her version of the story to passers-by.

The police here are trained in objectivity. They stay calm. They speak rationally. They analyse situations; they isolate the basics. They repeat and re-direct, maintaining focus on those basics. I admire them. I reflect how rationality is a learned skill. I reflect that it’s a skill we expect from our police, but not from ourselves. There was a time when we expected it from political leaders.

These days, we question the value of objectivity. We find it suspect. In truth, it challenges us. We have fallen for righteousness. We are seduced by the idea that one side in a conflict is one hundred percent right, and the other side is one hundred percent wrong. If we are unsettled by a doubt, we cannot expect reason to come to the rescue. Reason will moderate, and will humble.

Because I am puzzled by this, I have been reading. I am curious about the history of reason during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment in early modern European history. It’s a great heritage. (No civilization owns reason, of course. You can find stories of the triumph of reason in Islamic, Chinese, African history. But I’m a sucker for European history. I have been since I was an impressionable bachelor’s student in university.)

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Francis Bacon

‘I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.’ Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Travelogue 735 – January 22
Reading Romania


Only a few days later, I have my proofs. I have seen the ice. I have seen the children playing hockey on the surface of a canal. That was over by the Zestienhoven Park. I was half an hour into a run and crossing over the canal and into the park. My body has been struggling with the long freeze. I feel sluggish. The muscles are tight; I need to stop for a stretch. My joints complain. But my spirits are high; the sun is out. I start across the small, arching bridge, and I spot them a hundred metres down the canal, skating feverishly, swinging hockey sticks. As quickly as I spot them, they are hidden by the reeds attending the canal. It was a glimpse, an imprint like a vision of Breughel.

Then this morning, it’s even colder. I’m surprised by the reading on my phone. It was supposed to be warming up. The sun is up by the time I leave the house. It’s Sunday. I’m free to wait for sunrise. It’s a bright morning, and as I cross the River Schie, I can see quite clearly that the ice has claimed it, forming one delicate surface from bank to bank. Only birds test the strength of it. They stand and turn their heads, as though still assessing the risk, as though listening for tell-tale crackling under their feet.

Yesterday was the women’s march in Washington, and in other cities. It was a day for us to share our pain. Citizens are protesting political systems that have broken with their people, systems intent upon their own interests. Their interests diverge more boldly with every generation from even the broadest definitions of the public good. Leaders name themselves elected, and they follow their will. The new administration issues ‘alternative facts’, and it makes for great comedy. But it’s governance only in the sense of power.

Eventually, the high gestures of history filter down to the personal. They impact us at home. That seems easier for Europeans to understand, even as the Second World War recedes into the past. We see refugees from the Syrian civil war in our cities. The Dutch Turks debate Erdogan’s rule, more aggressive as every week passes. Students at my school were born among the debris of the Bosnian war. Putin seems more of a menace here. To Americans, he is still a curiosity, the bear at the circus. We won the Cold War, after all.

I have some students from Romania. They look like the other teenagers, going to the same lengths to fit in and have fun, displaying their references to pop culture in clothes, style, word and gesture. The kids from the smallest villages show the same savvy nowadays. There are no country rubes.

When I mention that I’m reading a famous Romanian author, Bogdan lights up. He knows the author, cites the controversies he stirred so many years ago. He goes on to recommend other authors from his homeland. He is a patriot.

The book is called ‘For Two Thousand Years’, and it was written by a Romanian Jew who lived during the first half of the twentieth century. The story is based on his own experiences as a student in the years following Romania’s experiment with a liberal constitution. Modern Romania came into being in the aftermath to the First World War. In 1923, it voted on its first constitution. The document declared universal male suffrage and equal rights. Apparently, this was a bitter pill for many people. Rights for the Jews seemed particularly provocative. The right reacted with riots. At the university, they called for a cap on numbers of Jewish students.

The book begins with a litany of beatings the character and his friends submit to in order to attend classes at the law school. He’s ordered mid-lecture to leave, by fellow students. ‘I slide out of the desk and slip towards the door between two rows of onlookers. It all happens decorously, ritually. Someone by the door lashes out with his fist, but it is a glancing blow. A late punch, my friend.’

The students live together in abject poverty. They walk together to the university, looking for safety in numbers. They escape from unexpected mobs intent on violence. Every day is an experiment in hope. This is the loneliness of oppression.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Travelogue 734 – January 19
Cold!


There is ice on the small canal behind our building. Temperatures have not broken freezing for several days. This is the coldest stretch since I moved here. The ice covers the whole canal. But it wouldn’t hold anyone’s weight. When I see ice, I think of complaints I’ve heard among the older Dutch people I know. They say that winters aren’t what they used to be. Ice skating on the canals has become a fond memory.

Cycling beside the Schie in the early morning, I think I see the curdled sheen of thin ice on the surface of the river. Hard to say without light. Was there a day when locals skated on this river? I’m sure there was.

There were times the Thames froze over in London. Apparently, the eighteenth century witnessed an exceptional number of harsh winters in Europe, particularly in the 80s. One of those winters is generally recognized as a contributing factor in the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789.

Yes, I’ve continued my reading about the Enlightenment. The events of the day move me to read more. They were prolific writers, those men in wigs, and their ideas are foundational to our systems even today. They inform how we think about human rights and citizenship. They inform how we form governments. Their essential optimism about human nature has nourished philosophy ever since.

Lately I can’t escape the feeling that some consensus has been reached among the people who shape our times that those ideas have outlived their usefulness. Chinese leaders and Muslim extremists mock ‘Western values’. Democracy is lumped in with crass consumerism and moral decline. Trump and Putin make a mockery of democracy, serving older ideas of tribe and empire.

‘Co-o-old,’ Baby says, and she dances a variation of the shivers. We don’t go outside much anymore. I miss that. It was one of my favourite activities with her. She shivers and she makes a face, a mask of surprise at the big cold world out there. I say it with her. ‘Cold!’ And I shiver. She laughs.

I can’t help it. Her face is a sign of hope to me. It’s hard-wired into my father’s brain, something biological, I imagine. Maybe it’s this advent of new hope into the world, my baby, someone whose life span may encompass the rest of this pessimistic century, that compels me to contemplate hope.

She watches me suit up to go out. I’ve had to make one concession to winter this year. I was forced to buy full finger gloves. Twenty minutes on the bicycle has become too painful without them. I’m waiting before I take on the bulky wool coat. I’m fine like this to 5C below. But there is still a lot of winter left.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Travelogue 733 – January 14
Night Comes in the Mail


Winter brings us night. It drops night in the mail slot of the door, delivering it before dinner. We turn the lights on, and the long evenings are yellow with dim incandescence. Winter ought to be a season of reflection. But we work. I do my thinking on the bicycle, pedalling in the dark, pedalling across town to school.

I’ve succeeded in making Baby laugh tonight. We’ve played some of her favourite games. She tugs on my shirt, so that I’ll chase after her. Once I’ve caught her, I swing her in the air and I tickle her. She hides behind the drapes, and I pretend to look for her. We sit together on the floor, and we draw swirling lines on an A3 sheet of paper. She leaves marks on her hands and on her new clothes.

I’m having to make up to her. During the week, I was distracted. Classes were on again after winter break. At home, I corrected old assignments and I prepared new ones. Baby shot me hurt looks. I smiled and I invited her to sit with me while I worked. But still my attention was quickly diverted. I’ve had no time of my own.

This complex was built in the 1920s, and the flats were originally half the size. They’ve been expanded, but our place still has two front doors. One of them we never open. But since both have mail slots, we get twice the junk mail. One door is just beside my desk. Suddenly, in the early evening, there will be a sudden noise as the metal slot is opened, and then a packet of sales material in a plastic bag is shoved through. It hangs suspended there, never making it all the way through. Baby opens her eyes wide and covers her mouth in a gesture of surprise. She points.

The house is a hungry economy. Everything is used. The little sales booklets from the super market chain, those become magazines for Batu. She sits in her chair in the dining room and leafs through them for hours. While Menna cooks, Batu gossips with her about prices. The rest of the junk mail becomes play material for Baby. She arranges them on the floor. She tears them. She throws them to see them flutter.

I used to take Baby for regular walks. It was her favourite part of the day. But now there’s little time, and the weather rarely cooperates. Baby points to the window, and she repeats her first word, ‘Cold!’ She shivers theatrically. ‘Cold!’

I pick her up, and we look out the window. ‘Look, Baby, it’s winter!’ She touches the glass with one finger, and she whispers something to herself.

Home starts to look like night to me. Most of my time there is zonder zon, time without light. When I pick Baby up, and we go to the window, there’s little to see outside. We see lights in the windows. We see a portion of dark sky. She whispers, and she peers out into the world without sun. We turn back inside.

Winter brings us night. The mailman slips it through without effort. There is no noise to announce it. Darkness enters with the same ease as light.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Travelogue 732 – January 5
Reading David
Part Three


The philosopher works at the café where I do most of my writing. We discuss books. He has made me interested in philosophy again. He awakened an interest in those naughty existentialists again. My first loan from the Leeskabinet was ‘Nausea’, which has been a guilty pleasure over a pint when I’ve had time.

I appreciate philosophies framed in stories or practical exercises. I told the philosopher that my tastes in philosophy generally ran to dialogues. It was perhaps no surprise that a playwright would say that. The characterization makes a literary exercise of it, keeps an author honest. And it offers the philosopher diverging voices in which to explore differing angles on a question, keeping the scientist honest.

I had started David’s dialogue about Natural Religion, written as a dialogue among three characters. Appropriately, it starts with the question of how children should be educated. Appropriate because Greek philosophy began as a pedagogical exercise. Of course, as debates among consenting adults will do, it meanders, and the three men jibe each other about their religious beliefs. Erudite mid-eighteenth-century gentlemen that they are, their thoughts about religion are laced with scepticism and attempts at scientific method.

My café philosopher’s interest was piqued. He commented that David was a very important link in the chain that was the history of Western philosophy, and, what was more, he himself hadn’t read him yet. He suggested we tackle the seminal work together, the hefty Treatise of Human Nature. We would meet in reading club style and discuss.

Our first two meetings have been something like David’s dialogue, meandering and effective only in releasing a dizzying variety of tangential thoughts. But how could David object?

The work itself begins with a somewhat airy examination of the activities of the mind. He starts by saying,

All the perceptions of the human mind
fall into two distinct kinds,
which I shall call ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’.

David wrote this work – running in my edition over six hundred pages – before he was thirty. He had dreamt about this achievement since he was a teenager, studying at the University of Edinburgh. He gave up the study of law to read philosophy. He conceived a plan for a scientific study of human nature. His generation grew up in the shadow of Newton. Humanity seemed poised to decipher all the laws of the universe. Some forays had been made into explaining the human thought and character by way of the new scientific method, but never comprehensively. He would be the one. He fled to France. He wrote. He consulted with the Jesuits at the college where Descartes studied as a boy.

‘And as the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences,’ he wrote, ‘so the only solid foundation we can give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation.’

He set himself in mild opposition to the rationalists, like Descartes himself, asserting that the most successful scientific inquiry was not solved through mathematical thought but by observation.

‘We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life,’ he says, ‘and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures.’

He is ambitious. ‘Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.’

His method places him among the empiricists. His book earns him a high rank in that company. David goes on to write more. He goes on to regret the big book he wrote in his youth, though it only continues to grow in stature. It goes on to inspire a young man in Germany who will do much to undermine poor David’s naïve thought, and the naïve hope of the eighteenth century.