Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Travelogue 740 – February 21

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.