the perfect city, a place to grow old in.
"perfect"? i remember in alleppey, india, sitting at the edge of the gently flowing, cow brown river, laid back with my feet up on the old wooden arms of the traditional "grandfather chair", feeling i was in the "perfect" place.... watching the river flower... at peace w/ myself and the universe. not having to move anywhere, not having to pursue anything, just letting "it" all come to me. via river. i mean, why could spalding (gray) never find his elusive "perfect" moment when i was finding them, and am still finding them, all the time. perfect enough. in tune with myself, inner and outer, not thinking of the irking past or anticipating the unpredictable future... just content.... in the moment. who needs meditation, religion, art, prayer, politics, work, you know, when life is so full?
anyway, it's different here in amsterdam. you get ON the river... the amstel and it's 200 canals.... to be IN the flow. like when you're on a boat... even a tourist glass-covered one in the freezing sunlit air.... you become part of the city... part of life.... part of the flow. it doesn't matter which way the boat turns.... up which canal.... down which lock.... it doesn't matter whether you're on the red, blue, or green line (amsterdam's aquatic subway)... it's all good. the center of the city... centuries-old, or recently restored... rusty red and white brick buildings, each with their own unique gables (you know gable?), identifying the family, the industry... of the miller, the baker, the candlestick maker.... from the 16th century... 17th century... when the dutch were commanders of the high seas... and founded new amsterdam for 24 trinkets to the bare-chested manhattan natives (no wonder my wife keeps saying amsterdam reminds her of a "little new york"), when the dutch brought back silks and spices from the malacca straight between indonesia and the malay peninsula.... via the dutch east india company. when the netherlands was not just a little tulip-loving, pot-smoking country on the international backpackers' circuit. when it was numero uno for an empire's short while, fighting it out with merry old england and the rest of the bloody warriors of the roses.
yeah, when you're IN the river's flow.... not just watching.... the world is similarly... at your disposal. or you're at it's. on the canals.... over each and every little foot bridge, you can soak up the history of holland... or simply navigate the 21st century cobblestoned city.... from old hippie dam square to jazz loving leidseplein, from local, beer-swilling rembrandt square to the ever diminishing but still bare-skin red light district, from the sexy flea market at city hall to all the toney shops and restaurants of the jordaan, where we're staying... thanks to the generosity of trules’ child, myeisha, and her fiancé, gur, while they're holidaying back in colorado and california. fuck it. life IS a run on sentence. it excuses indulgences, side steps, dead ends, and prevarications. it teaches you that behind every closed door lies an open window. miss the boat? walk and enjoy the scenery. get closed out of the neighborhood restaurant? tumble around the corner to one that couldn't be better. get cancer? learn how to let go, accept the possibility of dying, open your heart, and recognize all the love in your life. setbacks are just opportunities stood on their heads.... or asses.
so perfect… is relative. but a perfect moment in amsterdam? here's one: first, the 700 year old westerkirk (west church) in the jordaan, the old jewish part of the eternally merchant city. next, the 12 foot double circular window on the top (4th) floor of myeisha's remodeled prinsengracht townhouse…from blond hardwood floor to white vaulted ceiling, with an outer clockband of divided glass between 12 and 2, 2 and 5, 5 and 8, and 8 and 12. got it? now lie on your back on the day couch staring out at the westerkirk between 2-5 on the glass clock. you see the blue ceramic, eastern-looking onion dome with a cross above it, then a short spire with a rooster on top… crowing at…what? doesn't matter. miles davis is playing "summertime" from porgy and bess in surround sound. you've had another cup of coffee from the fancy espresso machine, the wife and sister are out shopping for their second trip of the day, the bro-in law is making his way in from rotterdam; there is no future, there is no past, only… the westerkirk. and then… there's another perfect moment... 15 minutes later.... nothing has changed... you haven't moved... but now john coltrane is playing "my favorite things", with mccoy on the heavenly chords, and once again.... it’s perfect enough.
we're officially visiting da wife's younger sister, cus (pronounced "choose"), and brother-in-law, dave, in rotterdam. but we're covering a lot of ground: from the teeming center of old antwerp, to the christmas markets of west germany, to the aforementioned... grand amsterdam. my wife and i have finally agreed on something: different things make different people happy. she likes to shop, i like history and beauty. her sister likes to shop; her brother-in-law likes rock and roll. well......... i/we've found a way to make us all happy. she shops in the ubiquitous german and dutch malls; i walk in the barren winter parks across the street. they go to the "water hole", the trendy leidseplein rock & roll club on christmas eve; i go to christmas mass at the westerkirk and listen to liturgy and christmas carols... in dutch. today she and sister are training to an indonesian friend in holland's hinterlands, and i'm canaling, photographing, and writing. sometimes it takes a while to get with the program, to know who you are, to know how flexible you're not.... and another little or long while to know who your partner is and is not.... but should you be strong-minded, tenacious, patient, loving, and flexible enough... which travel teaches you times ten.... then you might be lucky enough.... to have "a good trip".... with your partner!
i/we've never been to europe in the winter and like wow, it's the original winter wonderland. i'm loving it. the intense cold (below freezing), people bundled up in winter coats, scarves, gloves, & hats.... riding bikes, buying groceries, walking everywhere. such a violent change from car-happy, prettified LA: everyone who can afford to.... driving around in their clean, washed cars, wearing the latest brands of the day, so concerned about what others think... how they stack up. here in holland women don't wear makeup; they seem to age far more naturally (fewer lifts, tucks, & implants) and mostly, more gracefully. they seem so much more at peace with themselves. men too. so much more real than LA, more down to earth. sure, they all have their jobs, cell phones, i pods, and cable tvs, but c'mon there IS a difference!
amsterdam center is a much smaller city, geographically speaking, than manhattan is. but surprisingly, it's much easier to get lost in amsterdam. at least, at first. it's because all the canals and street corners look so much the same. at least to the newcomer's eyes. i mean, in new york, when you walk your feet off, you can visually recognize and remember the neighborhoods... the street corners.... the hotels... the restaurants... the parks, the avenues, the theaters. and even after guliani's homogenization of my formerly patchwork city, you can still tell the difference between times square, china town, harlem, the upper east and west sides, soho, tribeca, wall street, the battery, etc. but here.... in amsterdam..... herengracht looks like prinsengracht looks like keisersgracht.... in fact all the grachts (canals) look the same.... so you have to navigate in a different way: you have to count canal rings from the center of the city. singel canal is first, herengracht next, keisersgracht, prinsengracht, etc. there's central station at the bottom of the flattened oval, and you take it from there. like the old lionel train sets we had as kids. as i said, it doesn't matter... whether on foot.... or "at sea"... it's all old world and charmingly beautiful in the icy cold. you just have to dress warm. "wear layers!" that's me to the wife, with sage new york and hawkish chicago winter advice. "don't worry, i am." that's the wife, who grew up in sweltering indonesia, now with her trendy LA fashion, tramping around the flea market - shivering. what could i do? i bought her an old white fox, short-waisted coat! at least the animal activists aren't stoning her here like they did j-lo in LA!
i feel so grateful to be here. my favorite city in europe. i know, i know, paris, rome, what sacrilege! but last tuesday the trio (me, da mrs, and da sista… while ol' bro-law, dave, worked in rotterdam) went to "the alto", the decade-old jazz club in leidseplein. yesterday we walked to the white elephant of an opera house to see to "the nutcracker". some nutcracker! hardly a stitch in common with america's: little clara falling asleep, envisioning dancing sugar plum fairies and toy soldiers. yeah, ok, there was a sleeping clara, but with a curly-haired younger brother, a crotchety uncle magician, and horse-headed satyr with an army of munchkin mice. still tchaikovsky, but a whole new story and staging. marvellieuse! and new years' eve..... a private fireworks exploding right out our 12 foot round window, with an old fashioned metal spinning fire wheel, and a street full of broken bottles and red shredded, spent paper the next day. i must be doing something right. i think it has something to do with giving my best to my students and them giving back years later in unpredictable and surprising ways. i am a lucky man, indeed!
hot belgian waffles, fresh ham & cheese, baguettes, local wine, yagermeister, fresh coffee from the famous espresso machine every day, truffles, thick mushroom soup, "spoum" (a between-courses, foamy dinner drink), 34 year old portuguese port, foot long bratwurst, warm "nuwein" in the street markets, yogurt in carton's, fresh made bread every day, hot frites on the street with mayonnaise, ummmmmmmm. flannel shirts, turtlenecks, old woolen hats, coats and scarves, silk leggings under the pants, hot steam coming out of your mouth, like from a new yawk "manhole". are we talking politics? obama? terror? not much. it's like most places outside the US. no iraqi or israeli headlines. no death counts. people just happy to live their lives. make enough money, make more money, feed their children, put them through school, and put themselves in debt by buying those new flat screens, i-pods, & i-phones. i always think it's amazing how much we all really do have in common, and how much the news, our leaders , the media, our neighbors... choose to emphasize our differences. how we choose fear and war over love and peace. believe me, i know, my father didn't speak to his one and only sister for years and now i'm repeating the pattern.
i met a friend of the in-laws, erik jan, a really nice guy.... tall, dutch, prematurely gray. forty-five, doing well (until recently), developing real estate in southern spain. friendly, generous, he of the 34 year old port. erik jan runs his own company, pays a good deal of his income to alimony and child support, and he never leaves the netherlands. says he doesn't like to fly. can't take it. also says he never stops thinking about his business, even when he's on christmas vacation - like now. i invited him and his lovely dutch-indonesian wife, ginny, to come to LA. erik jan's says he can't, he gets claustrophobic after 4-5 hours in the air. i understand. i said, "take a sleeping pill. you'll stop thinking about your business if you get away from home". he was surprised. thought it was a good idea. do i expect to see erik jan in LA? i certainly hope so.... i give good LA tour..... but i'll be surprised if he and ginny come. it's hard to get out of routine, to change your scenery.
most people think it's so expensive to travel. well, i don't know how i manage it year after year. maybe it's my karma. or my path. i'm not a rich man (except in experience). but i'm able to travel. and i really don't think it costs me any more to live in amsterdam than it does in LA. and that's with the nasty exchange rate of the euro. asia, south america…. cheeeeep! where there's a will, there's a way. i think we all need to get away from our lives, our routines. see ourselves, our lives, anew. travel gives good perspective. and it's expansive, enlightening, challenging, and adventurous.
so c'mon. look for a little change and adventure. find the flow.... maybe even a perfect moment.
if not, have a little taste.... a little vicarious improvisatory adventure....
i mean it's my job. what i teach. improvisation. and a good teacher has to keep re-learning. so... i keep pushing myself to... just do it.... hopefully without too much self congratulation, and with as much pleasure as possible.
the times, they are a... hard. and the (financial) future.... unknown.... but what the hell? say yes to the information. improvise. life has a way of working out.... one way or the other.
in any event, have a happy and adventurous new year.