Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Arriving in Amsterdam

I wrote this almost two days ago. Since then, everything has gone perfectly in Amsterdam, and I am ready to ride out tomorrow morning to The Hague. Feeling very mellow and happy, knowing that this pickle I have put myself in is just the ticket.

The adventure begins. I got five hours sleep on the plane to Amsterdam, the gift of a half tab of prescription Temazapam made the more effective by the circumstantial gift of two seats all to myself. What awaits me in a about an hour is the horror of schlepping that 62-pound bicycle box through the narrow confines of an old city.

But once settled into the Hotel Hestia, I will lay back for a moment and drink in this bizarre quest I have laid before myself. Not so bizarre in a prosaic sense. I mean, a bicycle tour of the Low Countries is hardly unusual and nowhere close to a trek through the semi-charted jungle of Papua New Guinea. I did that too, in 1983, with by best friend then and now, Ian Mackenzie, as capable guide. But I was young and vital then. When I set out to conquer the lanes of alleys of Holland and Belgium, I was coming off two dogs, those perfect complements to a sedentary lifestyle, and a not as shocking as I might have thought 60th birthday. I could barely cycle 10 blocks, but soon after I started biking along the sidewalk - legally - of the Embarcadero, and I just decided that this trip would make sense.

That was a year ago. Now I am here. Or more to the point, it is here. The bizarreness is that I have just thrown myself at it, willfully and inescapably. I'm here because I said I was going to be here so many times that I eventually jut had to do it. I'm going to be a 61-year old man on a bike by himself on roads I have never seen before with faith only in a Garmin Edge 810 GPS bike computer and a bunch of Google maps printed out on waterproof paper. And in myself. Faith, that is. Faith in my now well-trained legs to power me forward irrespective of the uncertainties. This trip. I want to be alone. I want my mind to go where it want to. I want to be away from work and quotidian reality. I want to be here, not there. But I want to go back there refreshed and transformed. I want to relish the slowness and revel in the uncertainties I have brought on myself. And I want to write. I want to start writing again. The things that normally make me anxious traveling are money and loneliness. I guess I am finally thoroughly middle class because the money side of it all is not worrying me. And for once, at least right now, I am looking forward to the loneliness. That's a paradox in my traveling behavior. I really like traveling alone, but even so I am always lonely. The ideal way to travel would be to set an itinerary with a friend, agree to part ways during the day and meet up for dinner at a pre-arranged spot. The ideal combination of loneliness and companionship. The plane just entered its descent. I'm going to call this a blog post, and will put it up as soon as I have wifi. Subsequent posts will be less centered on myself, at least that is the hope.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Stephen and Loki reflected in the Fog City Diner on New Year's Day, 2013, before  Loki's diagnosis
Written on the plane from SFO to SYD, San Francisco to Sydney, about 30 hours ago.

I put the dog down 11 days ago. 

Loki did me an odd favor by contracting terminal cancer just when he did. I set out a few years ago to make turning 60, which I accomplished on April 6, a turning point. I described it as using my 60th year as a re-evaluation, but in the event the great bulk of the reevaluation occurred in a great clump at the end. The first part of that 60th year was a year where, as happens in a career, success an frustration bounded ahead in equal and matching parts. Midway through, my boss changed my job description; I like to say that I re-write my job description not annually but every third trimester. I like it that way, and evidently so does the boss.

But like so much in my life, it forces forward in me a chameleonesque adaptability that is belied by only apparent stridency and my entirely phony self-confidence.

The dog's death ripped the veil off those traits, at least for me, and that is part of the favor that Loki unwittingly did me. My life has been so many memes. Gay liberationist, typesetter, cyclist, leather guy, scholar, registrar, those are the broad lines, but I am so restless, so itchy and fidgety. I search out anchors and hang on to them, human and inanimate, and for the last twenty years, canine. Loki ripped me away from his anchor, and made me squarely gaze down into the free radical status that must be the source of any creativity or joy and involvement that I might muster in my 60s.

I needed to be free of dogness both for time and for perspective. I keen for him, all the while, for his being, for his anchoring, for his companionship.

Stephen and Loki at our last annual New Year's Day self-portrait reflected in the window of Scoma's on Fisherman's Wharf. BTW, I've been working on that gut ;-} 

So I got thinking about keening. I am on a flight to Sydney for two weeks of primarily family-oriented vacation. I have three days in Sydney on my own, and I have done some social media correspondence to see if I might set up some intellectual encounters. Nothing set in stone even yet; social media intellectual affinity does not translate readily to face-to-face affinity. Not trying to be superior here; I too am not so much suspicious as leery lest I be the fool who imagines that a perceived electronic warmth would be real in the flesh. It is not so much that we do not trust the other, but that we don't want to be the one who ends up overplaying his hand at a table of merry hucksters. Even if we don't really believe any of us are hucksters. It just might be better not being flesh and blood to each other. We just don't know.

But on keening. Australians use the word keen, in my limited online experience, to mean enthusiastic … I'm keen to meet you. I know what it means, but the term is still poetic for me, as above, whereby I keen for my dead dog. It has a sense of irreducible longing, where the Australian usage has a sense of realizable desire. It is curious that there is an Indonesian word that sits right smack in the middle of these two meanings … rindu … normally translated as longing, but also with the sense of being in love. So there is a phrase, sakit rindu, which literally means sick with longing, but has the sense of being in love and pining for the presence of the loved one. Rindu as a concept haunts broad swaths of Indonesian poetry, whether in the sense of love of the beloved or love of god as the beloved in the Sufi-istic sense that is increasingly literally against the law and punishable.

So being keen on something says that I want it in the context of it being possible to get and keening about something says I want it in the context of it not being possible to get. Rindu is the two senses merged and left inchoate, uncertain, liminal, unresolved.

That is my psyche at each and every juncture - inchoate, uncertain, liminal, unresolved. It is a source of perverse self-satisfaction that many think me self-confident, even arrogant, assured. It's a parlor trick that I have taught myself over the years. I have had to come to terms with the fact that a personality like mine just plain rubs some people the wrong way. Costanza-like, I cannot bear it and demand to know why, why, why don't you like me. But I have applied a parlor trick to that also and, except for the slight look of desperation that I cannot help but proffer on such occasions, I think I hide my inner George well enough for practical purposes.

Inchoate, uncertain, liminal, unresolved … those have been the sources of any creativity and accomplishment that I have ever known. Loki's death puts me squarely face to face with them again, unanchored, unrestricted. That was his last gift to me. And so, as the heartache recedes, the keening with no answer, I resolve to be keen on the future, yearning for a sexagenarian burst of creativity and expansiveness. 

Stephen, self portrait in the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February  2013. The sculpture is Untitled, 2010, by Anish Kapur, who is most famous for the Chicago Bean
All photos by arod.

Friday, April 26, 2013


I put Loki down this morning. He's been my dog since July 31, 2000 until today, April 26, 2013. He was six months old when Richard, my then partner and now sainted ex, and I picked him from all the other mutts at the San Francisco SPCA. He was so calm and he had those deep soulful brown eyes that penetrated from behind the bars.

Loki and Stephen, saying hello

I was 47 when I got Loki and the photo above is the first photo ever taken of him, in the dot.com office where I worked with Chad who took the photo. Loki's calm in the cage belied his nervous nature. When I walked him out of the SPCA to the office where the photo was taken, he just about jumped out of his skin when the first car passed us by. We learned that he had been an apartment dog that had to be turned in by his first owner because dogs were not allowed. Loki was afraid of boxes in his puppyhood, and we figure he was kept in a box before we got him.

His first name was Banjo, but that did not do it for Richard and me. We picked Loki, the mischievous. His full name was Loki da Dawg. He was a doggy type dog. That's how we saw him.

But this blog post is not meant to be a life history or even an obituary. It's meant as a reflection on a dog and a man, and dogs and what they mean to us.

I put Loki down because the malignant tumors in his jaw and throat were threatening a catastrophic event, and his breathing was starting to be labored. I see no point in letting an animal under my care suffer, and the imminent suffering would have been grotesque. Outside of the cancer, Loki was still vigorous, gobbling down his breakfast on his last day, and then, albeit slowly, retracing the steps of our regular Saturday morning walk in Golden Gate Park and through the AIDS Memorial Grove. By the end of the walk, it was slow going indeed, and from there I took him straight to his demise.

Loki and Stephen, saying goodbye

This is the last photo ever taken of Loki, by me by shutter delay today in the big circle in the AIDS Memorial Grove. He would be dead less than an hour after this.

When a dog dies, it is like the loss of a limb. A dog's attention is constant; his work is to observe and, in his canine way, interpret every move his master makes. Part of the need for animal connection, I am convinced, is an inner harmony with being watched by a beast. The conversation between beast and man is not in words or in concepts, but in physicality and presence and response.

It's not like that when a person dies. This has been a bad year in my circle that way. We lost our friend Jim Gaither to a sudden heart attack last July, and we lost our friend Lindi Press to a galloping and cruel cancer on New Year's Eve. When a person dies, it is kaleidoscopic. it touches so many, alters so many paths and connections. It takes years to adjust to human loss, and even years are not enough in so many instances.

People often say that dogs are like children. It's just not true. The death of a child never ends. The death of a dog zeroes in on his few primary persons, and we feel empty and bereft. But we move on soon enough. I will never forget Loki, as I can never forget Laddie, my boyhood dog, nor Den, the husky who immediately preceded Loki. Remembering any of them makes me wistful and nostalgic. It makes me remember their presence as we wandered and cavorted and hung out. It will make me want him by my side again.

Loki on Strawberry Hill

I did some calculations, and I figure that Loki and I walked about 27,000 miles together. The photo above was taken on top of the hills above my alma mater Cal. Walking is my solace, the best way to think. Loki and I came to walk together so natively to each other, unspoken patterns repeated countless times. Loki didn't really like other dogs, especially big ones, and especially golden retrievers and boxers and big labs. So he was always on leash. I preferred it that way anyway because I walk to move along, cover distance. Dogs left top their own devices tend to dawdle or travel in circles.

I was never Loki's care giver or whatever term is preferred now. I was his master, and we had a clear hierarchy. He knew how to read what I wanted, because I taught him how, and by and large he obeyed. By and large only because I, for many years, had to take firm measures to walk past the aforementioned big dogs. But he got it, and we did it. We understood each other; we felt each other's presence.

Loki contemplating

He was a contemplative beast as contemplation goes in beasts. He showed his skepticism when he didn't cotton to an activity or a chain of events. He made his assessments rapidly and he stuck to them. My roommate called him Mr. Grumpipuss because of that long low glower he proffered as his initial position on pretty much anything outside the norm. He'd give it to me when he thought it was time to go to bed, or time for a walk. O, how I already miss that look. I want him to glare at me right now, to command with his eyes, to assent with his swinging reluctant gait in the face of an unwanted order.

O Loki, my sweet sweet dog.

Because a dog is a lot about ego, about the owner's owning. The connection is direct and unmediated and particular. With Loki gone, I am left with myself. I have one less angle, one less buffer. You know, the world is a bloody bleak place, but we hide that with our friends and creativity and actions and brainpower. And with our animals. There is a special pureness in the way that a dog obscures the bleakness, and when he is suddenly gone, by my call, that bleakness presses into my heart and makes me long for his warmth, his presence, walking still beside me as he did for 13 long beautiful years.

So good bye Loki, good bye. Good bye.

Loki snoozing in the sun

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


the sun breaks through clouds over the San Francisco Bay looking east from San Francisco
Skyline over the Bay, 2012

When I was a boy, I played a solitary game with a lacrosse ball and the two story wall in the back yard of one of the houses we lived in. I bounced the ball off the wall according to arcane rules, and received a fixed number of points if I caught it. most throws were for 3 points, and 7 such throws consecutively gained me 21 points for a victory. I had to score exactly 21, which is, as you know, 3 times 7. My favorite numbers from my earliest memories have always been 3, 7, and 21.

But if I missed or overplayed one of the catches, the next available winning score was 32. Not sure why, but those were the rules. And I'd have to do some dipsydoodle throw with a non-three score to get there.

I'm thinking about 32 because today, New Year's Day, is the 32nd anniversary of my moving from Vancouver to San Francisco. January 1, 1981. Long ago and far away. Little did I know that it was a turning point in many ways. Reagan was inaugurated a few weeks later. AIDS was in our midst even though we did not know. Vancouver was on the cusp of being completely rebuilt, and San Francisco was a little further away from having its countercultural soul ripped out of its chest by an avalanche of filthy lucre.

But none of that interfered with my beating heart as I climbed on the plane that day. I was in tears as I waved goodbye to best friends; we'd spent New Year's Eve in a waterworks of a party at my old place. I left behind my partner, Gary Bandiera, who would join me a few months later.

Boundaries in life are funny things. Even when you see them, as I did 32 years ago, it is hard to comprehend what the flavor of life will be on the other side. And it has been many flavors. I have been a gay activist here, a student through three degrees, a nurse to my numerous friends impacted by the plague, and now a higher education professional. A long 32 years.

And in this upcoming 33rd year, I will celebrate in my adopted home my 60th birthday. It is a long way from a boy throwing a ball against a wall  and trying to avoid having to count to 32. I've counted to 32 a different way now, and can only hope that I can continue to count.

First blog post in over a year, but bound and determined that there be many more.

Photos by arod.

sun bursting through clouds

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How to Remember 9/11: Blasphemy is a Civic Duty

Any historian knows that there are moments upon which everything turns. Leftists have a problem with that because it reeks of anti-Marxism, though that shows only how poorly Marx's thought has propagated into modern leftoid thinking. I think liberals like the notion of the turning point for the same reason that reactionaries like it - they figure it will finally prove that they have been right all along.

Historians know that in turning points are many horrors prefigured.

The right successfully seized the interpretation of 9/11 and liberal responses have not been to the event but to the reactionary interpretation of the event. So, on the one hand, liberals try to out-do the right wing in sympathy for victims, and then further extend victimhood as far as the eye can wander. On the other hand, liberals have tried to defend the vast array of the stigmatized that the right has created.

Liberals are wrong on both counts. Instead of being reactive to our opponents we need to understand what this turning point exposed about society, and what it portends for the future.

What 9/11 exposed is that the worldwide religious revival of the last 50 years remains a grave threat to freedom and democracy. What it portends for the future is that humanity will face the greatest crises of our existence with religious fantasy on the ascendant and scientific rationalism under its thumb.

And that means that now more than ever, blasphemy is a civic duty.

Among liberals these days one finds an astonishing failure of reason in its defense of religion. There is a confusion between the defense of the right to believe and the defense of belief. I like to put it this way: you are free to believe any nonsense that you want to believe, but keep that nonsense out of the public sphere. Do not invade the corridors of governance or the public debate with bronze age fantasies that have never died the airless death they so richly deserve.

The corollary of this error is this curious form of bad thinking: you can't condemn a religion for its published point of view because there is one member of that religion who doesn't agree with that point of view. That opinion is often expresses thus: I know this muslim, and he's really nice and he has gay friends, so you can't say that Islam is virulently homophobic.

This is a thin form of know-nothingism. Think of it this way: you can't say that the Catholic Church is not opposed to abortion because I know this nice Catholic lady who had an abortion. Or, you can't say that Mormonism isn't homophobic because I know this nice Mormon guy who went to a gay bar once.

The individual does not count in religion because any religion is a system. The system by its nature is composed of contradictory parts - let's call this the dialectical nature of religion. I could snidely remark at how little dialectical thinking one finds on the left, but that would not be nice. And leftism nowadays seems to consist mostly of supererogatory appeals to niceness rather than hard analysis of social conditions. But I digress ...

Any religion is a system composed of contradictory parts. A religion has to be valid for all conditions. In war and in peace, in love and hate, in richness and poverty, at home and abroad, among believers and infidels, for the past and for the future. Killing is wrong, and you must kill. Love is supreme, but you must not love. Share with your brethren, but poverty is divine. Speak not to the infidel, but spread the word of god among the unwashed.

We cannot understand religion without admitting its essentially contradictory nature. When liberals - again seeking appeal to niceness rather than deriving response from analysis - make arguments based on "true" religion, they fall prey to the most pernicious form of religious thinking. We see all the time appeals to the notion that such and such a religious fanatic has betrayed his religion which is at bottom about peace and love. People repeat this blather as if they did not have the opportunity to read the holy books and see how violent and bloodthirsty they actually are.

That most pernicious form of religious thinking is this: that being contradictory is the inner truth of religion which is understandable only by god. "God works in mysterious ways", that sort of nonsense. So when one points out a contradiction, that proves your misunderstanding. When one bemoans the vicious actual actions of the religious - beheadings, suicide bombings, hangings, honor killings - we are chided that we cannot see that these perpetrators are not representative of the "true" religion which is all goodness and niceness.

As long as liberals accept that religion is divine, we have no argument against that. But once we accept that religion is a human social system, we can call things by their true names.

It comes down to this: there is no god. 5,000 years later, there is still not one jot of proof anywhere that there is a divine plan or divine planner. We know that the sun did not stand still at the walls of Jericho. We know that Noah did not cram a pair of every living thing into a small wooden boat. We know that there was no angel whose saliva transmitted truth into the mouth of Mohammed. We know that Mohammed was not magically transported from Medina to Jerusalem. We know that no one who was later called Jesus rose from the dead or walked on water.

We know that religion is nonsense.

And now more than ever we are challenged to speak truth to these terrible death-dealing powers.

After 9/11 many of our reactionary neighbors sought to villainize individual Muslims. This was stupid and mean and wrong. But that does not mean that I cannot argue that al-Quaeda represents an ancient and prominent mode of thought and action in Islam that has operated in numerous and varied contexts throughout Islamic history. That does not mean that I cannot see the connection between the bloodthirsty operations of the theocratic Iranian state and the party of Islam that seeks to impose theocracy everywhere. That does not mean that I cannot aver that Islam is irreducibly antagonistic to genuine democracy and individual freedom. That does not mean that I cannot call upon Muslims to provide answers for the crimes committed by their co-religionists.

I apply to Islam the same standards that I apply to holy mother church. I think it is a pile of nonsense, and I say it is a pile of nonsense. I respect the civil rights of the believers to believe, but I do not respect the beliefs which are dangerous and anti-social.

Religion is a curse, and some curses are worse than others at different times in history. Today, Islam is the most powerful reactionary political force operating on the planet, unbowed as its Christian brethren are by a history of defeat at the hands of an Enlightenment. Islam freely does all over the planet what the papists did to Giordano Bruno in 1600, what the Inquisition did to heretics in Spain. Our freedom is a result of those countless courageous men and women who over the centuries took away the power of Christianity in the West to murder and torment those who disagree.

Islam needs an Enlightenment. It needs to be defeated by its own in its own home.

And our duty as secularists and liberals is to aid that in a relentless blasphemy, calling out religion - all religions without exception - exposing its lies and its depredations.

So let's start right now.

There is no god. Period. Arguments based on god are false. Without exception.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Roma, final post

I've been sitting on this final post that I wrote over several days as my trip to Rome drew to a close because I thought I might create a number of posts out of it. Hasn't happened, so here it is, as is. BTW, starting to mount photos on my Flick site ... many more to come in the next week or so.

April 6: So, it's my birthday. And I am sitting on a train to Florence at 7:15 a.m. per long-standing plan. I keep reminding myself that it is my birthday because it just feels like my last day in Italy. I keep my trips short deliberately because I want to be hungry for more when I leave ... and I have succeeded in that on this trip. Definitely not looking forward to leaving tomorrow.

The train is, as you'd expect, smooth and comfortable. The chairs are firm and contoured with fixed foldout tables at every seat. Lots of leg room. A brown and tan decor. Very tasteful.

Two elderly and refined gentleman sit opposite me in similarly styled tan windbreakers. They moved back and forth several times before taking their seats, evidently trying to ascertain that they indeed had the right place. A quick pleasantry to me which I did not understand, but it was clear that they did not expect a reply so I nodded and smiled.

Across the aisle are what I can only describe as two vulgar young Americans. They have brought along a huge bag full of McDonalds which they are loudly crunching. The entire car is filled with the stench of the food. A young Italian man got up and changed seats without hesitation once they dropped their sorry behinds into their assigned slots next to him. The man is dressed like a slob showing all manner of hairy parts that we do not want to see, including at one point his misshapen stomach when he returned his ticket to his traveler's belt. No wonder Europeans think of us as the fat slobs of the world.

Oh well, they will probably fall asleep shortly ... that is my plan, as it were.

Twelve minutes out of the station and we are in the green countryside. No point in taking photos as the window is streaked and dirty, and the sun is low in the sky and glaring at me.

I love trains, and this quick Roma/Florence/Rome trip is itself a present. The capper will be the Ufizzi, and a quick tour of the sites. I have already stood at the spot where holy mother church burned Giordano Bruno to ashes because of his intelligent reflections that did not coincide with their then-operant theocracy. I shall shortly stand at the spot where holy mother church burned Fra Savonarola to ashes after gruesome torture because his insane fundamentalism came to represent a threat to them. He made quick, once in power, to condemn homosexuals to death ... fundies are that. They just can't stand other people having fun. But his virulent opposition to pleasure was not what got him condemned.

Our vulgar American fellow travelers have now turned their iPad into a gaming device, sound on, so that we all get to listen to various explosions and death chortles in low static-y volume. Italy is a loud place, that is certain, but it is voices and music and, horrors, screaming radio and TV that form the ambient sound. So I resent these little creeps for invading my sound space. The old gentleman across from me is looking down his nose at them as they giggle and play.

Deploy the earplugs!

I am going to turn to the International Herald Tribune for a few moments.


Dozed a bit, and so did the vulgars across the aisle per prediction.

The Herald Tribune has a story about French secularism. Western societies must defend secularism at all costs or we slide back into the hell of theocracy. The left likes to pretend that Islam is some kind of religion of peace, as it were. Nonsense. Across the globe, it is Islam that is practicing the ancient art of auto da fe with virulence and abandon. I don't trust holy mother church, but I can live next door because we have them under control. I don't trust Islam, but if we have to live next door to it, we need to control it too. Religion is a private matter, and its apperance in public space is always an immanent threat to freedom.


April 7: I am now on the 11-hour flight to San Francisco, and it is the day after my birthday. I thought I might just pretend that I was still on the train, but that makes no sense.

So to continue my thoughts on the secular and the sacred, everywhere we are reminded of the conflict. In most places in the globe, the threat of the religious to freedom is on the ascendant. The only hold-outs are Europe (minus Poland and such parts of the former Soviet Union as we might consider European), the English-speaking countries (minus the United States), and China and Japan. Did I forget anywhere? Perhaps most of South America.

Visiting Europe engages this personal conversation because the memory of religion is everywhere, and the evidence of the victory of the Enlightenment over it surrounds and smothers it. Even the bizarrely phrased message from the Ratzinger Pope on the back cover of the guide to the Vatican Museum notes that even though some of the visitors may not even be believers, they should recognize the value of the church for having preserved so much. Pretty cynical that, considering the vastly greater quantities of lives and relics that the church has systematically destroyed over the centuries.

We face that threat now again paradoxically precisely because the technological advances have lengthened and brought into brighter light the unsupportable distances between the bottom and the top. Religion exploits that and when it is victorious it hardens those social separations and makes them unbreachable. That is the curiosity, or more properly the recognizability, of the current reactionary impulse in America. In the name of all that is holy combined with a illogical populism, a bunch of purple faced morons will drive millions into poverty and ensure the steady separation of the rich from the rest of us.

This is a theme in what I think, and I will return to it. Now I want to think about my recent trip.


Random episodes:

As I was leave the Termini train station in Rome on my birthday, an orchestra apparently celebrating the second anniversary of something was giving a free concert in the entryway. I stayed for their Bolero which, in my inexpert opinion, seemed competent and moving if not sublime. It appeared to be mostly a youth orchestra with a few gray beards sprinkled in for what I imagine was mentoring. I listened to several speeches because I love the sound of Italian. It seems like a language that would not take me a lot of trouble to achieve some semblance of competence. I've always said that if I had a second lifetime, I would include Italian in it. Perhaps I should move that project one lifetime forward.

After the free concert, I wandered to the Via Gaeta to have dinner at the Ristorante La Famiglia per my twitter friend @jonvox's suggestion. I sat on the sidewalk and had an excellent vegetable soup and a risotto pescatora that featured two complete unshelled shrimp, heads and all, that I was not white sure how to handle. I squeezed and chewed on them as best I could and got some meat and flavor. I didn't want the staff to see my struggles. Why should I care; they see tourists once and then never again, and they will hardly remember a fortnight hence. But we all have a certain pride in the moment that others will respect us, think that we are something more than the run of the mill.

It's a vain conceit, unsupported by any evidence in life. When I look at tourists in San Francisco, I am not judging their authenticity in any sense. I admit I am looking for the good-looking ones, just because it's nice to look at nice things. And there it is, as a tourist, you let yourself become a thing for a while, a pampered thing, but a forgettable, disposable thing. Travel for me is this see saw between admitting that and hating it. Regardless, I find it hard to embrace my touristy thingness, and so I stumble from confidence to ineptitude by turns.

Traveling alone also mean that there is a lot of silence. Something I seek, again for the reflective character in it. But that too is maddening, and further underwrites this stumbling from ineptitude to confidence. I had hoped on this trip that I would turn that tension into writing, but I was not aggressive enough with myself until the end. That wil be first on my list of pointers I make for further reference. Just slap down the iPad in some cafe and write hello 15 minutes after you hit the ground running.


This plane flight itself changes a few patterns. I ended up with an aisle seat, and I admit that it is a real pleasure. I normally conspire to sit by the window so I can gaze out, but the downside, as one well knows, is that getting up involves moving inert humanity.

Also, the reading light in my seat does not work, and this part of the cabin is actually a little too dark for comfortable reading. So I watched a movie. I never do that. The movie was The King's Speech, which has been roundly and repeatedly recommended by all my friends. Certainly an excellent movie that at several points had me welling up. Beautiful colors and fine portrayals.

The movie is about charisma, and it is a flaw of secularism that we have lost touch with the power that charisma has and still exerts. Charisma inheres in authority, not in authenticity, and the modern secular world prefers to focus on authenticity rather than authority. That is why religion feels so pallid and farcical to us ... it may be authentic in some contexts, but it is no longer authentic in ours, so it is a drama, a performance, a spectacle to be turned off, as we douse the television before we go to bed.

I have no complaint with this. It makes for a life that is less ecstatic, where meaning is always contingent and ambivalent. But it makes for a world of discovery and reality, where everything human is part of us, where we do not need to pick one highly articulated truth to the exclusion of any other.

So the charisma in the film inhered in the position of the king, even as he confronted the modern realities of a new kind of performance. George VI certainly understood that his lack of personal charisma was irrelevant to his bearing the charisma of monarchy. The film is about a very personal, banal battle over that contradiction. His daughter, of course, has the royal charisma bug just right. One moment that struck me as very real was when the young Elizabeth gives a refined critique of Dad's big speech, that he has stumbled at first but got better toward the end. Queen Bess understands "the firm."


more quick hits:

The angelic beauty of the, I think, Danish boys who ate across from me at La Famiglia. They were evidently part of a much larger group of boys and girls - we are talking 16-ish - as various small mobs of them passed on the sidewalk between us and interlocuted. Again, I have to note how adult and self-possessed European youth seem. Sure they were kids, giggling and gaggling, but without the imposition and indiscipline that we have to put up with. Every time I come to Europe, I am impressed by how our revisionist approach to parenting does not stand up to comparison. Given that I have essentially nothing to do with children, and only encounter them as they misbehave in public, I suppose I am shooting hot air through a hole in my hat. But that's the way I see it.

Twice I was asked what I thought of Berlusconi, first by the driver from the airport, and then by a 20-something waiter in the pizza place on Via dei Guidari on, I think, Monday night. Both of them laughed at my response and said "bunga bunga." I guess that means something like "nooky nooky", and it is commonly used in the Italian papers when referring to the old fascist's dalliances. The phrase in Indonesian, for what it is worth, means flowers, and that has a certain referentiality given the deflowering and all that. The young waiter asked me first if I liked Obama, and I said I did. Then he asked me if I liked Berlusconi, and I shrugged my shoulders. That's when he laughed and said "bunga bunga." We later talked a little about football - he is an Inter fan and they were playing on the TV - and i told him about how my team had won the world series. Either he did not understand or was unimpressed.

On coffee: it is going to be hard to return to the pitiful excuse for espresso that we have to put up with in America after the delights of Italian espresso. I had a cappuccino at the Caffe Farnese across the piazza from the Palaccio Farnese that was a revelation, so smooth and frothy. Even the offbeat places had good coffee. I came to prefer cafe doppio lungo, or a long double espresso. In the States, you just cannot get them to make a long espresso ... they just don't know what it is. This again illustrates a difference between Europe and the States, one that lies, I think, at the core of the special loathing that the right wing has for for Europe. It has to do with greed and apportionment. Everybody always wants more for themselves, but it is possible to balance that with restraint. But restraint in the States seems like it is giving something to somebody else - it is the zero-sum game fear that haunts the American soul. If you are doing well, than that must mean something is going wrong for me. The vast double soy lattes with whipped cream that we order is a way getting more and more. I have long argued with American baristas that cappuccino is a question of proportion not amount when they ask if I want a large, ultra-large, or stinkin' extra effin' huge. So I order a macchiato and tell them to put 2 teaspoons of foam in; I still normally have to scoop out 4 or 5 tablespoons of foam only to find that the espresso is really a cafe au lait.

More, folks, is more. More is only better sometimes. Other times it is worse.

Coffee teaches us this.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Roma, Day 5, evening

Sitting in Voglia di Pizza on Via dei Guibbonari near the hotel ... and writing! Just getting the hang of this place, and then off I go. That is the way with short trips. I promise to make a lot of notes to myself on the airplane to get going faster next time.

The curiosity of this trip is the failure of my laptop which forced me to change the way I photograph. That's been a good thing. I have become so used to three exposures a shot, and then all the endless, crazy-making file management. With limited chip space, I have been more careful, and it will probably mean I get a viewable result more quickly and with less time spent. In the modern world, if not always, time is the irreplaceable piece, especially for a working stiff like me.

I ended up retracing the steps of my first day to some degree. Before that, I stopped in the modern glassy container building that houses the remnants of Augustus' Ara Pacis, his "Altar of Peace" temple to his own conceits, frankly. That said, history, at least in the current age, gives too much credit to Julius Caesar and not enough to Augustus. Just as Napoleon rescued the French Revolution by creating an empire on its grave, so Augustus rescued the Republic by remaking it to his own image. In the sense of being a sporting fan of history, I root for him. As a diehard democrat, I have to formally question the victory of the imperial, but it was that victory that provided the broad middle, such as it was, whereby Roman civilization became the founder not only of the Europe we know, and the Christianity we endure, but also the science and literature and thought that has endured.

All that said, inexpertly I admit, I was bored by the interminable audio tour of the Ara Pacis, and my fatigue caught up with me. Had to get back on the road before I fell asleep while pretending to rest.

I picked my way through this maze of a city to the inimitable Giolitti gelato parlor, per my twitter friend @jonvox - I hope his head does not swell, but he has been a fine interlocutor and guide. Again, per my tweet of some time back, I owe you a dinner and drinks whenever you land in San Francisco! I chose to press my way to the second clerk because he was ... o well, I admit it ... really hot. But I think he thought I had jumped the line which was, as is the manner of these things, more a crush than anything else. So he served 4 or 5 folks in front of me, but then graciously took my order for crema and amoretto. And, @jonvox, you are right, after this there is no other gelato that will ever measure up. I took good care not to splooge any of the ambrosia on my nice pressed shirt.

And then I headed back first to the Pantheon, then to San Luigi de Francese to re-review the Caravaggio's, and then to Piazza Navona. I did not actually go into the Pantheon again, but rather wrote the three postcards that I always send from any trip. This viewing of Caravaggio was much more pleasant than the last in the same locale given heightened attention to the imbecilic flash-photo behavior by the custodians. I lingered long. He is an amazing painter whom I have admired from afar for many decades. That said, given all I have experienced here, I have to say that one may come to Rome to worship Caravaggio, but he's have to stay to worship Bernini! That's another story.

The Piazza Navona this time was in its full splendor. The scaffolding that piqued me in my jet lag was gone, and it was wide open this time, filled with throngs. I tarried among the art-sellers, and ended up buying a few souvenir ink drawings - 8 euros each, clearly touristy ... but, jeez, I gotta get some kind of souvenir. I am such a ludicrously bad shopper - I had dawdled in the entrances to several men's shops, my intention being that I would buy a belt if I found one. Notwithstanding my dapper dress - pressed wool slacks and button-down shirt - they paid no attention to me. The camera is a dead giveaway, I guess. I even went into a tourist shop to try to buy T-shirts, but eventually fled in confusion despite the practiced entreaties of the seller.

But I did manage to buy something after all that in the Piazza Navona ... and then bull-headed back to the Campodoglio to complete an interrupted purchase of the massive Italian language catalog of the Faces of Power exhibit I had seen on day 2. It is quite possible that this massive tome will put me over some weight limit on the way back but I just know that I will never forget the book if I do not get it, so get it I did. My fetishism of the book really knows only the bounds of my purse, and then only just barely.

On the way I ventured into (name to be filled in) ookstore in search of relevant works of theater thinking of my great theater pal back home. But since he reads this blog, I must leave my discoveries a mystery.

Speaking of which, earlier today I ventured into an antique booksstore. A 1912 Arthur Rackham illustrated Shakespreare's Tempest went for 300 euros - it was like velvet in my fingers. I craved it, and I could spend 300 euros if I chose to, but I could not afford it. The tempation was only virtual; I never would have pulled the switch. Later I held in my hands a massive 17th century collection of the works of Plautus. Imagine, I thought, having that as warm comfort after I retire. I did not ask the price. She probably would have laughed, and whatever figure she gave would be only what wandered into her head to humiliate me.

My gorgonzola and zucchini pizza has arrived. Roman pizza is quite fine, not the fat paean to the bottomless pit of consumerism that American pizza is. I will pay it the full attention it deserves, and then return to my digs to post this. Well, one quick promised stop at Bar Farnese to sample their finest bourbon on the rocks, if my exhausted feet, further encumbered by a pair of beers here, will allow it.

Roma: Day 5, in a Bistro

Sitting in a little cafe, Bar Bistro Centurion at the very end of the Via Corso facIng the Piazza del Popolo with a trio of strings playing Italianate popular tunes behind me. They are quite good and I think I will buy the cd if they are still here when I stand up. One problem with travel is that you are bogged down by your stuff and not very nimble at conjunctures like this.

I managed to undermine myself at Santa Maria del Popolo which has a bunch of Caravaggio's, including his St. Peter and the upside down crucifixion. As I passed, a horde of schoolchildren were entering, and I thought, ok, photograph the Piazza first since then light is perfect, and then hit the chiesa after the horde is gone. I see them exiting 30 minutes late and head over. A kindly older priest apologizes, "Chiusa la chiesa ... alle quarto." Pardon the fractured Italian, but that is how I remember it: the church is closed until 4 o'clock.

This too will have to await the next trip.

I figure that, if I apply myself as I want to, I have about 10 European trips before I am 70. I could scatter my interests, or I could focus on two or three countries. If the latter, Italy gets to be one of them.

My tagliatelli con funghi has arrived ... not bad for an obvious tourist place.

This is the first time I have actually written outside the hotel. I meant to do a lot more of that. That is illustrative of the fact that I have not traveled in Europe since 2006, and things, not to mention I, have changed. I've had to re-learn how it is that I want to travel. The key is: Faster start on the first day or two and, as is my wont, I have reduced that to a simple tactic. Bring a damned tab of Ambien and make sure that I get a proper night's sleep at the end of the first day.

My trio has become a quartet with the addition of an accordion. After long tuning up, they finally get back into it. Very La Dolce Vita, at this point.

I photograph all day and into the night but what I cannot photograph is the exquisite natural masculinity of the men here. From the carabinieri who strut around in their razor sharp uniforms seemingly paying attention exclusively to each other, to pairs of like-aged men striding and gesticulating, to the hordes of young men passionately entertaining each other. Romanticizing here, but it is a great show ... and I think Italians like the great show. The women are no slouch either, but they are, frankly, not as elegant as the Parisian women. They are too brusque for that ... and I like them the more for it.

All that said, this is one of the most abidingly heterosexual places I have ever visited. I may find the men achingly sexy, but they give no indication that they find each other sexy, unlike the Germans or Americans whose latent homosexuality seems always the order of the day.

Enough for now. I now confront the single most difficult part of travel ... finding a souvenir. In Berlin it was a glass from a second-hand market, in Paris it was a hairbrush. I buy books all along the way, mostly museum catalogs, but actually coughing up dough for a memento is impossibly difficult. Wish me luck

Monday, April 04, 2011

Roma: Day 4, the Vatican

I am so bombed tired after over 12 hour of tromping about that I have been on my hotel bed for two hours unable to muster the energy to pick up the iPad, as it were, and blog. But best I commit at least my itinerary here for purposes of thinking about it later.

I had a 10:30 appointment with the ticketeers of the Vatican Museum, so I headed off with plenty of time to spare. I stopped at the Caffe Farnese which I believe the to be the same as the Bar Farnese recommended by my Twitter friend @jonvox. I had a cappuccino, my first in Rome, and it is as if I just had my first cappuccino ever. The Cafe Flore in San Francisco used to make a good one before the ownership chagned reduced them to the standards, such as they are, that "guide" every other espresso place in America. But this cappuccino was frothy and composed and at one with the palate. The coffee is Rome is incomparable.

I walked along the Tevere, and descended to its banks where I was the sole denizen. Made me a little nervous since I would be perfectly set jup for a robbery. But I saw not a soul. As I approached the Ponte Sant' Angelo, alas, the first thing I saw was a giant yellow crane in front of Hadrian's tomb, what the faithful call Castel Sant' Angelo. Hadrian is my favorite emperor by a long stretch, and not only be cause he was the most unabashed and exclusive homosexual to hold the post. His travels and the broadness of his vision marked the height of the Pax Romana. I do not have the time to go to his villa, but that will be a good excuse for a second trip to Rome.

On that point, I have loved every city I have visited in Europe. I used to struggle as to whether Berlin or Paris was my favorite. But none have affected me the way Rome has. I love the people, the way of life, the majesty of its past. I feel like I will come here again even if it means crossing some other capital off my list.

I arrived at St. Peter's as the morning light was bathing the cathedral, so I had no choice but to photograph it quickly if I wanted proper photos and also make my appointment with the museum. The square is so filled with crowd control devices, seating, scattered scaffolding, and modern lights and audio equipment, that a lot of the magic is sacrificed. Good enough. My love of history does not permit me to forget what this institution did to human freedom over the centuries. Even so, it is a really cool looking church. And Bernini's colonnade certainly lives up to billing.

I made my way to the entrance to the Vatican Museum, and managed to be a half hour early. No problem, they let me in anyway. The difference between an online reservation and waiting in the line appeared to be over an hour, so gawd noze why anybody would decide to wing it. But plenty did.

I spent seven hours in the museum, and even so managed to miss the Pinacoteca, or painting gallery. So I did not see their Caravaggio's. But the enormous collection of ancient sculpture itself would be more than enough for a full day's work. Predictably it was the numerous Bacchus, Hermes/Mercury, and other athletic visions that drew me. Most significantly, it was several depictions of Antinous, the ill-fated lover of Hadrian who was either drowned in the Nile as a sacrifice for Hadrian's desire for longevity, or did the deed to himself to the same end. He became the center of a substantial cult which, frankly, might have been a damned sight better than the semitic death cult that actually ended up winning the west.

Two things about that: one, jeeeezus keeerist, does Christianity love death or torment or what? And what do they have against penises? Most of them are broken off, some of them with a neat drill hole in place of what was once a modest uncut projection. And most of the rest are covered with tacky plaster fig leaves. We all know about both of these madnesses, but witnessing them in this incredible collection makes it all the more absurd.

New appreciation for Raphael. And then the Sistine Chapel.

First off, the madding hordes. Notwithstanding the strict prohibition on cameras in the chapel, flashes were going off all over the place. Ludicrous. And people yammering away as if they were standing in line at a supermarket. I am an atheist with nothing but contempt for the conceits of religion. But in a sacred space, for crying loud, shut the eff up!! People banging into me as I craned to view the ceiling. It truly is an amazing room, I wish they had special viewings for people who promised to be quiet and respect the rules.

After that, I squeezed St. Peter's into an hour. Again with the bloody flashes at the Pieta!! Nice cathedral, as I've said. But everything about it betokens power more than spirituality. The vast size of everything seemed to call it more than "we can" than that "we see." The Baldocchio, certainly magnificent, seems to get in the way of the altar. I saw only a few people at devotions, and the larger number in front of a truly ghoulish crypt-ic representation of the dead John XXIII. Two young priests with very clean soles kneeling at a side altar. The odd nun. It is a secular age, at least in Europe, and the church has to put up with it.

An aside re children. In every case since I have been here, whenever I see misbehaving children, they turn out to be English speaking, either American or Australian. The very worst today were two Australian boys who should have been beaten on the spot, and I mean that with no irony whatsoever. American parenting, not something that has impressed me very much for some decades, shows is deficiencies in the whining and rudeness and general inability to behave with any kind of respect for others. Nuff said ... for now.

I took a quick tour of the Vatican Museum of treasures, mostly catholic paraphernalia distinguished more by its gaudiness than any subtly of composition. And then I ambled out into the square where I sat for 15 minutes to try to get some of the pain out of my feet. I forced myself to fulfill my vow to head to the Trastevere, and a good thing that was. Ended up at Bar Poeta, per Rick Steves' excellent suggestion and had an excellent salmon and arugula pizza in an ancient alley. Two young gay guys walked past holding hands - the first openly gay behavior I have seen in Rome, other than the waiter at the gay restaurant mentioned yesterday. And from there, via some night photography, i walked home, erringly, finally knowing the alleys around here well enough to walk pretty directly to where I am now abed.

Again, to my proofreading friends, bear with me. Editing to follow when I return home.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Roma: Day 3

Just got back and did all the maintenance. A little tipsy as a rsult of a Negroni and a rather large Maker's Mark in the the pizzeria at the corner. Got out of there for 20 euros including tip, and the two drinks, so that's pretty good.

So this is a blast away itinerary for the day, mostly as a mnemonic when I start looking at photos.

I intended ot start out by hightailing it to the Piazza del Popolo to take in the Caravaggios at santa Maria del Populo, but Rick Steves says that they close at 12:30 on Sunday, Got a deliberate late start that ended up being a little too late. So instead I headed for the Colisseum per original plan. Stumbled across the Theater of Marcus (if I remember correctly, and may yet correct this), and then the main synagogue. The traveled that length of the circus Maximus which is more a hint than a statement at this point. Some locals beating drums at the bottom of a set of steps. Sunday is for drummers the world over.

And thence to the Colisseum, via the Arch of Constantine, which is nine boggling. His is a career that a constantly investigate. Everybody wants him for hero or villain. He was just a good emperor who picked the wrong religion, and ended up picking the wrong creed, and then only in extremes actually succumbed to its dark magic. And then to the Colosseum which is mammoth. The swarms of tourists try to engulf it in their obliviousness. So I pretend they are not there, or that they are the descendants of those who, alas, were not victims of the horrors. I suppose I should't say that ... but I did think it. I am pretty good at getting pictures without the surrounding loing crowd, and I hope to prove that when I finally can download and view my pix,

I left and went searching for the Metro which is strangely hardly marked at all. I stumbled across one of the gay bars I had marked as possible night eateries or dinrkeries. But I did not tarry because they do not have coffee on the menu. Say what? Get an espresso machine, queens.

The train to Spagna station where I tailed an impossibly sexy and skinny Italian boy and his girlfriend through the long tunnels that end up depositing you in the Borghese gardens. Wonderful urban parkm filled with lovers and families and cranky old dudes and expressionless old women on a fine April Sunday afternoon. Had an espresso and a quick sandwich at an outdoor cafe with a smoking hot but painfully rude young waiter ... I guess he could feel the burn of my eyes on his hindquarters. And then to the Borghese galleries where I had yet another espresso and sandwich. Doing well in the food department.

If you go to Rome, don't miss the Borghese. If you are a culture nut, book two viewings, both at the end of the day. The allotted two hours is not enough to languish. Perhaps four hours is too much. The 30 minute limit in the Pictatura upstairs is ludicrously short, although I went for the second to last slot and they let me stay a full hour.

Thence wended my way via the Via Veneto to the Fontana Tritone, and then to the Trevi Fountain whose majesty is such that it is not belittled by its misfortune of being the default tourist hangout. Played photo and video games there, and was asked by a doll of a young French guy to take his pic ... and he returned the favor.

Night photos as I maneuvered down the Vai Corso and ultimately to the Pizzeria where I started this post. I almost back-tracked to the aforementioned gay bar, but when I did the math, it would have put my back here just a little too late.

Gotta crash - early call at the Vatican.

Roma, Day 2: The Ancients

I have a lot to say here, and perhaps will at some point. But I will restrict myself to the two moments that gave me the most pause.

The bust of Elagabulus, an "attractive and hormonally charged teenager" as the linked article states of this Severan emperor; there's a pic of the bust at the link also. He looked so modern that I kept staring at it and wondering at how absolute was absolutism in the ancient world. He tried to establish a religion but he had neither the luck nor the charisma of the 10 or so men who actually did establish long-lasting religions. The bust was eerie. NOt the best piece by a long shot in a Museum filled with wonders. I stopped long at the Dying Gaul, and was transfixed by the giant head of COnstantine. Somehow I missed the boy picking the thorn from his foot. I loved all the nude divine youth. But it was Elagabulus who made me pause to consider the transcendence of being human.

The second moment was occasioned by the extant frescoes in Augustus' house on the Palatine. It brought home the notion that he ate dinner there, he mused, he paced, he ordered and he cajoled. The colors were alive, and so like ghosts of a past where people lived and breathed. I tarried so long that the young female guard dogged me a bit. Not the most spectacular place in an area filled with glories. But, again, it gave me pause. And that is what we are looking for.

The seagulls are starting to buzz me ... I suppose wondering why I am here so long with no food. That means it is time to go. I probably will not set foot back here until 10 tonight.

Roma, Day 2: Travel Notes, Observing

The Musei Capitolini atop Capitloline Hill is now one of my favorite places in the world. It lacks the universality of the Louvre, but Italy has not been imperial for about 1700 years. To have a Louvre, a country needs the means to thieve, and that means empire. Wht this museum has is as much pride of place as any I have ever been in.

The place was generally less crowded than I expected except for the three or four traveling bands of visiting youth. I arrived in the midst of one and the guards asked me to step aside for a moment ... then they gave up and pushed the students aside so I could get in.They scanned my bag without looking at the monitor. This particular band of youth dogged me throughout ... they were a gallery ahead or a gallery behind most of the time.

Italisn youth, and this seems broadly true of continental European youth in general, are so much more adult in their behavior than American youth. They are certainly skinnier, and I mean that in a healthy sense. They look after themselves, they do not seem to need constant adult supervision. But even so, in a group like this, they marched along and stuck to the program. The tour guide lectured in a strong voice, uninterrupted by queries or complaints. It was always a dense patter, and I noticed this again and again in numerous languages all day long.

I get the sense that Europe has not invested in the culture of parenting as indulgence and service. Children are expected to be and do and to take some responsibility for themselves. Youth swarm all over the place here. On the Piazza de' Fiore by night, on the Piazza Navona by day, in gender separated clumps of 3 to 20, they cackle and gaggle and move about. But hey do not interfere or litter or demand. They are, as I said, rather adult about it all. I'd rather be alone, but that option is not available. So I would much rather be surrounded by a bunch of European youth than American ones.

Suddenly in the Forum there is a young boy and girl running and screaming and getting underfoot. They speak ... ah, yes, they are American. I saw an Italian mother smack her son on the rump. He looked up with a smirk. She said something, his eyes widened and he shrugged. Whatever it was, he was in the wrong, he knew it, he took the hint, and life moved on. In America, it would be a Judge Judy episode that might end up with the child being taken by Child Protective Services.

This is all very general, and informed by a day's observation. But it is the same impression I have had in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Prague, and largely in London.

The other note on Italians I might make is that they all seem rather mannish ... that is something shy of masculine but certainly not feminine. The men are unabashedly masculine in their demeanor, and so are the boys. But the women are distinctly mannish in the sense of blunt and forward and self-possessed. I like it. I can see why it would be difficult to be gay here. But I like the forward and unadorned character of being. I will try to write more about that anon.

Aside: two Americans with Southern accents have arrived on the rooftop garden where I write ... the woman staopped to talk to me and told me the story of her Italian grandparents and how they made their way by growing and selling vegetables from the back of a truck in Florida. Very friendly. That said, despite being from FLorida, she was unable to identify a seagull and wondered what kind of big bird it was.

A note on eating: I did a lot better than yesterday. I suppose my ranting about it in yesterday's post may have inspired some "adult" approaches. I picked a restaurant for dinner in the morning as I left. I had lunch in the Musei Capitolini cafeteria, eating on the rooftop patio. When I arrived at my dinner place, Ristorante Santa Ana, I believe, the place was still empty since it was a little shy of 7 p.m. The waiter replied to my "per uno" with a big questioning "adesso?" Sure enough, he gestured to a good table with a bemused shrug. Big personality, again, unadorned by a false meekness or submission. I had a sublime linguini with porcini mushrooms ... and they know exactly what al dente means ... and a grilled fish that they described as sea bass but looked an awful lot like trout to me, and a giant salata mista, mixed salad. with a beer. Again, 40 euros, but this time worth it. The fish was sublime.

I picked out a spot for dinner tonight that is close by in case I do not find anything on my "La Dolce Vita" night walk home, thanks be to Rick Steves. It is an inexpensive spaghetti pizza place. 40 euros a night is a little sleep for the likes of me.

Roma, Day 2: Travel Notes, the Mundane

We'll get to the ancients in a bit. They can wait ... to paraphrase a well known Roman quote, then were what we are and we will become what they are, but in the meanwhile we still have this business of living to get after.

I am sitting in the rooftop garden of the Hotel Smeraldo. After yesterday's grueling pace, the prior's night's inadequate sleep, and a last minute nasty surprise, I did manage 8 full hours of deep sleep. Notwithstanding that the mattress is so hard that a Prussian soldier would find it challenging, and that my rib cage aches as a result, I am filled with the optimism of feeling rested. So I have decided to tarry a bit this morning, and reflect on travel, the ancients, and, of course, myself. Because traveling alone is really designed to foreground the dialectic of introspection and reflection. In other words, no matter how vast the experience, you can't quite stop wondering what it all means in terms of the life that you live.

The little disaster is that my laptop's power cable suddenly stopped working. I am pretty sure that it is just a broken wire inside the cable because there was the tiniest little sound at the moment it occurred. But there is also the possibility that the internal power supply to the laptop is gone. In any event, it means I have 91% of a battery that drains like a cracked sink. I do not want to download photos onto a machine that might die; it is four year's old and it would be a challenge to find someone else with a similar laptop in order to power up my battery for future work. I'll just have to wait until I get home to determine if I am suddenly, after the "big trip" in the market for a new laptop. In the meanwhile, than gawd for the iPad, and photographs wil have to stay on their chips until I return.

This forces another accommodation. I normally burst shoot three exposures of anything, with an auto brackete of plus and minus a third of a stop. Mostly the minus 1/3 tends to work out, even for low light shots, partly for the saturation value, and partly because the second exposure tends to have less camera shake. Yesterday I shot over 1600 exposures!! But even on an 8 gig card, that will be too many for 4 days shooting. I have three cameras with me ... o the joys of 21st century middle-class consumerism ... so I am going to retire the middle camera, and hope to get by with 2 8-gig chips for the rest of the ride. I'll make a call on Tuesday as to whether or not I can get through the Wednesday trip to Florence with merely 7,000 exposures!!

So, notes to self ... remember the polarizing filter next time. The time for a new laptop may not coincide with my carefully arranging spending plans. Splurge on extra ships. You didn't need the middle camera anyway.

A little not to my fellow editor friends: given that I writing this on an iPad and that the interface is challenging and that I am sitting in the last little bit of shade before mean mother sun makes it impossible to see the screen, I am not going to do a lot of copy editing. I will re-read and correct in the safety and langour of home.

No photos, per above!

Friday, April 01, 2011

Roma, Day 1. Notes, and Eating

A guy could easily fall in love with Rome, and this guy pretty much has.

This first day on the ground was dedicated to the area near the Hotel Smeraldo where I am staying. Nice little place, recommended by a good friend, and ten minutes from the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, and under five if I hurried from the Piazza de' Fiore where holy mother church infamously burned Giordano Bruno alive and nude in 1600.

The highlight of the day was gazing at Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath, normally in the Borghese, but relocated to the _____ as part of a show of contemporary records that touched on the painter's life. The painting is so raw and unromantic; this is no hallowed figure, but a mean boy who has risen to a challenge. The same show also had his portrait of Paul VI, the Borghese pope, who looked like some kind of modern gay leather guy duded up in fancy red and lace robes for a drag show that he didn't really want to do.

It was hard to enjoy the Caravaggio's in the San Luigi dei Francesi becasue of the incessant, albeit banned, flashing of cameras in aid of what must certainly end up as bad photography. Buy the postcards, you morons, and just shut up while you look at the art.

Ooops, cranky.

While we're at it, though, it still drives me nuts that people don't know that flash reflects off glass.

So as my wanderings began, I curiously could not find the Piazza Navona. That's a bit like missing the ocean at the beach because you are turned facing inland. But the good side of that was that the first site I saw ended up being the Pantheon. Christianity is all around in the Pantheon, but I kept looking at the stones, and the marble, and imagining how long it has been there. Swept up in reverence for time and ancientness.

Frankly, the Piazza Navona was tacky - not the fault of the architecture, but a vast amount of scaffolding in aid of what appears to be an upcoming concert. It was hard to see the majesty except up close. It was there that I decided that I would confine my video efforts to running water. I think I am a creditable photographer, but I do not have the patience for video, at least yet. SO if I get a bunch of footage maybe I can play around. There was a bit of a farce when I tried to shoot the Fontana el Moro. Every time I turned on the camera, a jackhammer started up behind me, and would only stop when I walked away. I did manage to get about 20 seconds in the end.

I watched the swarming youth in the Piazza Navona, but I think I will defer my notes on that to a later post.

When I travel, I am a terrible eater. As I write this, it is 6:30 in the morning, and I have been awake since 4. I am starving hungry in one of the world's capitals of cuisine. When I look for a place to eat, I am like an insect in a spider's web, strung up between mutually exclusive options, the stickiness of my situation entirely internal to my psyche. I fear that I will be stuck in a place with lousy food, and I don't want to go to a place that is oriented to tourists. But I deeply feel that most better places probably don't really want a single diner, and besides there is the language problem ... although that did not stop me from the same behavior in London or Paris where I speak the relevant language. I do not want to spend too much money, but I am afraid of seeming cheap. I loathe being approached by shills or friendly maitre d's so I never tarry long perusing a menu lest I have to say no or even just maybe. I feel as if I am required to go in if they say hello to me.

So when I look for food, I circle, and circle, and stop for photos, and circle back. I pick failsafes and then get lost and can't find my way back. I don't want to go into crowded places both because of the racket and because I, again, figure they don't want to waste a table on lone eater. But I don't want to go into empty places because I figure they can't be good. I don't want to go into popular places because I might feel cheap. But I don't want to go into intimate places because I feel like a voyeur.

All this is nonsense, of course. But it makes eating a nightmare. It took me about half an hour to find a place to buy a slice of pizza mid-day. The guy was actually really rude, but the pizza was sublime ... salmon and herbs, I would call it. That said, it was 6 euros and I was still hungry. I forced myself into some place for an espresso just for practice. They were nice, but I was so shy that they actually had a chat about who should rescue me. Later, filled with overconfidence, I went into another espresso place and stood by the counter. Three clerks studiously ignored me until one finally pointed to the cashier ... o, thought I, pay first. I watched others put their tickets down on the counter, and so did I. But still they ignored me. Finally, the middle-aged and haughty waiter picked up my ticket and said long and languidly, "Shuuugaaar?" ... i.e., sugar. "no" quoth I and I think that got me a little cred. The espresso was sublime.

So when I set out at 8 to find a place to eat dinner ... this is Rome, mind you, where food is everywhere ... it took me 90 minutes and I finally ended up in an outdoor place in the Piazza de' Fiore. when I said "uno", the lady nodded and disappeared. A party of six crowded in front of me, so I retreated, and came bloody close to leaving. But I was starving at this point. So I stuck it out and finally the lady re-appeared, seeming annoyed that I was still there. She wanted to stick me in a back table, but I pointed to one up front, so she shrugged and nodded. The waiter was a fine older man who sensed my discomfort and warmed to me. I had gnocchi with black mushrooms and a Roman salad with anchovy dressing. And some wine. Delicious, not filling, and 40 euros. At that rate, I could be bankrupt on Sunday ... but it wouldn't matter because I would be passed out from hunger in some piazza no more than 60 metres from a feast.

So travel for me is a combination of fabulous days of seeing and walking and experiencing, and nightmarish nights of searching, searching, searching for something to eat.

Enough for now.

All photos by arod, taken today. More on my Flick site once I figure out how to upload stuff - for some reason it is being cranky and refusing!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

After the Deluge

On the morning after the deluge of an election we just suffered, I dragged myself out of bed at 5, only a half hour earlier than usual, and walked the dog through the silent cool morning. I have been enjoying seeing Orion peer over the trees of late. Orion's appearance is a sign that Christmas is soon to be upon us. I was up early so I could make my way down Highway 1 to California State University Monterey Bay for an all-day Registrars meeting.

The drive down Highway 1 is one of the sweetest highway drives on the planet I am quite sure. This morning the mist lay low on the water and in the cliffs. The surf has been outrageously high, so even in the dim morning light, the side of the road was graced by smoking hot surfers struggling with their wet suits. I saw a bevy of red-tailed hawks, and any number of silhouetted herons and egrets.

The drive was about a hundred miles to Seaside which is just shy of Monterey, the town made famous by John Steinbeck. And as I got past Santa Cruz, the great agricultural fields of that part of the world hove into view, replete with their armies of migrant farm workers.

The election just past is about a population that rejects the notion of a world that changes. You need only drive by fields of artichokes to know that this is not the world that they imagine. This is not the world which has made their infernal greed and self-absorption possible. But no matter, they are stamping their feet, and they are demanding that tough politicians call a halt to it all and remake their world into what they fantasize that it once was.
The proof of their lie is certainly visible at the austerely modern and almost vacant campus of CSU Monterey Bay. Don't get me wrong ... this is a noble experiment staffed by people who are dedicated to its expansive mission. That mission is evident all over its web presence. The experiment talks a lot about quality education, small classes, dedicated professors, and especially diversity. What was readily apparent, even in vastness and absence of humanity, was that the student population here is disproportionately Latino and Black. The long and the short of it, tea baggers be damned, is that the children of the exploited laborers who pick the tea baggers' artichokes and mow their lawns and change their discarded elders diapers are the future of California. Their education is the highest calling, higher indeed than the gold standard stuff that is the mission of the sainted and essential Major Research University (MRU) that keeps my lowly lifestyle supplied with shekels. The CSU Monterey Bay's 2008-2018 Strategic Plan (pdf) has a telling graphic that states its entire case.
Look at the middle figure in each of the two graphs. A perfect example of a picture being worth a thousand words. Anyone who needs this explained is not paying attention.

My purpose here is not to argue the obvious good of a society educating its residents, be they "legal" or "illegal". And my purpose is only partially to note that ineluctable and eternal rule of history that "people move" ... yes they do. More so, my point is the enormous good that is done by rational and sensible government. CSU Monterey Bay is built on the decommissioned Fort Ord; its spare architectural quality is a combination of its newness, the flat local geography, and the fruits of resurrecting decommissioned concrete bunkers, as it were. And it is an enormous contribution to the possibility of a fruitful and prosperous future, funded entirely by government money.

More than anything, though, my point here is what I turned over in my mind as I drove north on Highway 1 after the meeting. The afternoon was unseasonably hot, there was more traffic, and the mist and mystery was overlain by the haze of traffic and human invention. I did see another smoking hot surfer, and a white-chested raptor that I could not identify. But mostly I thought about how the Democrats cannot defend a place like CSU Monterey Bay, how they cannot use it as an example of how rational government raises all.

The madness that has swept this country did not come from nowhere. It came from that perpetually frothing 20% who are just mad at everything and so overwhelmed by the simplicity of their own obviousness that they gurgle when they are not frothing. But moreso it came from the Democrats who insist on acting like Jimmy Carter. For that is what Obama instantly became the moment that his heels were rested from dancing the inaugural night away. He forgot that the failure of the previous two Democratic presidents was written by their pandering to their enemies, their failure to motivate their own followers, the fear of using their own power.

I am utterly pessimistic about this country, my adopted refuge. The home of the greatest scientific inventions in human history, its politics immune to reason.

There will be plenty of time to think about this as the Republicans go about systematically ruining our future in the next two years, and as Obama finds ever greater depths of craven apology.

But for today, I at least enjoyed a long drive on this spectacular coast, and was able to amuse myself with speculation.

All photos, except the graphs, by Arod, taken today at California State University Monterey Bay

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Frank Rich's piece on the little mosque in Manhattan today, as is the norm with Rich's writing, cleared the haze so as to better focus on the key determinants. He argues that the hysterical right opposition to the mosque betrays their hero General Petraeus and his efforts in the Afghanistan war which increasingly only the far right supports. In other words, the right wing, if it were true to its principles, should favor Park51, as the wee mosque is often agnostically labeled.

It has been some time since the American right wing has been true to any principle other than naked cynicism, and this is Rich's underlying point. But the corollary of this argument to me is that a principled opposition to a cynical religious project by secularists should not be stymied by the fact that the far right is in its usual purple rage about everything and anything. I oppose the project because I believe that civil society has the right to defend itself against religion and its lies and depredations, and its cynical sleight of hand and misdirection. I don't see Islam as a religion of peace any more than I see Catholicism as a defender of life or an educator of youth. New York has the right to determine zoning, and it should determine that no further religious structures should be built near the former twin towers.

All the current ratatat-tat-tat about the aforementioned little mosque in Manhattan has got me thinking in a larger sense about place. And the place of place. It is a curious contradiction in secular society that religion places so much emphasis on place, and then, their faces plain with unctuous honesty, asks us to forget about it when it suits their ends. In other words, religion proposes that certain places are more holy than others, and demands that everyone respect their determination of which places are to be so deemed. But then it backs up and says that it has the right to change the meaning of any given place without reference to any thoughts or opposition that secular society and secular individuals might have about it. They always insist that they be recognized as holding all the cards and that we submit to them.

Christian churches have argued that zoning does not apply to them, that environmental legislation does not apply to them. They run tax-free businesses that compete with their non-religious neighbors. They demand special access to education and the public purse. I am against all of that for all religions. I think secular society should always be righteously suspicious about religion in all its endeavors.

Liberal thought betrays itself when it adopts without critique the prejudices and demands of religious thought. And nowhere is the conceit of religion more evident than in its demands about place.

Various senses of place. We all enjoy what I will call the Walt Whitman sense of place: the numinous refraction of the calm majesty of life in the quiet and solitude of nature, in the waves of sensation created by wind and light and weather. As the trees bend and the grain undulates, as the birds soar and the insects hover, so our souls move in syncopation, stirring our being in harmony and in contrast to the land, water, and sky which are our home.

We liberals seek to hold on to that beauty through parks and reserves and respect for nature. I say it is precisely our secularism that opens us to the necessity of preserving nature ... those who have bought into some gawd or other can cheaply and egotistically dispense with nature in favor of the supernatural. They abandon the presence of place for the immanence of the divine. It is this "zero-sum divider" that permits the religious to adopt all manner of positions that are inimical to the expressed spirit of their own imaginary system. Yes we may be stewards of the earth, they say, but given the greatness of gawd, we still want our Hummers. When they experience the Walt Whitman sense of place, they pin it on their gawd, and thereby are vastly more likely to miss the responsibility of civil society to protect the beauty, to guard nature against our baser instincts.

Then there is the architectural sense of place. Staring up at the Empire State Building in amazement. Contemplating the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, marveling at Saint Chappelle in Paris. I find great comfort in the still majesty of great cathedrals and I loathe with an abiding passion the unwashed tourists who have no sense of place. I love to contemplate the ancient stones and wonder at the horrors and the pageants that they have witnessed.

It is a curiosity of modern secular life that we can imbibe place without being its victim, that we can appreciate the whispers of ancient and outmoded thought without giving up our intellect to it. The religious hate this. To this day, muslims carefully guard access to their holy places and are deeply suspicious of the presence of blasphemers and those think it is all a bunch of piffle. christians in the West put up with it because they are such an endangered species, except in this font of religious idiocy, these good old United States of America. Johann Hari's recent piece "The Slow, Whining Death of British Christianity" amply captures the political contradictions.

There is another sense of place which the religious loathe, and that is the sense of private place. At the end of long day, after the dog walk when I close the front door for the last time, I am wrapped in my personal space, the private realm where my objects and my "family" and my animals and most importantly my books warm my being and give me for those few short hours before sleep a sense that I am whole and free and, frankly, safe. The sense of private place is the great invention of modern life. It is what allows us in a practicable sense to be autonomous individuals, to choose how we live and with whom we live. Without private place, the forces of social conformity, religion chief among them, have vastly greater pull upon our lives.

When I used to hang out in Indonesia, I frequently had the experience of my host checking in on me or sending some offspring to intervene with me when I had been locked alone in my room for too long. There is a cultural predilection in Indonesia that the person alone is lonely and abandoned. They sought only to make me happy, not realizing that my happiness at the moment when the door was closed was predicated precisely upon my being in solitude.

I love Indonesia. I am fascinated by religion. I live for the exquisite whispers of place and context. But I am a free person, and I live in a free society. I am, and we should be, suspicious of those who seek to predetermine place and context, who seek to tell us who to love, what to think, and how to act. No part of me forgets that threat ever. And when I think of the horror of 9/11, I realize that it was an imposition, still broadly unrepented in the muslim world, upon a free society of exactly that idea that something, a religion, is greater than freedom. The idea that such an idea can build a temple to itself in the very shadow of the horrors of what it means is anathema to me. It should be anathema to anyone who loves our freedom from religion and its bloody trail of misery.

That is because place does matter. We, the lovers of freedom, must demand and secure our own sense of place and not surrender it to those who loathe everything we stand for.

All photos from my 2006 photo essay on Paris.