“The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest. . .”

People are all the time giving me books to read or suggesting the book I must read next in order that my life be complete.

I make my own reality?

I make my own truth?

Every academician—or anyone who wants to be thought of as literate and intelligent—knows one is supposed to read books. Lots of books.

I don’t get it. I don’t like to read. I find it very difficult to read. I used to read. I used to read a lot. I have hundreds of books behind me on homemade shelves to prove it. I’ve read (at least parts of) almost all of them.

I find the thought of plowing through a book daunting. I can’t concentrate. I can’t keep a story in my mind (if it’s fiction), and I can’t absorb huge amounts (or even small amounts) of information (if it’s non-fiction).

If this is a sign of old age, my old age began when I was about 55. The last time I read lots of books was 1999 when I was preparing for the qualifying exams for my (2nd—unfinished) PhD. I passed the exams after I finished reading 30 novels in one summer. Mostly 20th-century American, so—if there had not been so many of them—it would have been fun (Madison Smartt’s Washington Square Ensemble was my favorite).

In the last week I have bought the Nook versions of:
Rottenberg, Jonathan. The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. New York: Basic Books (2014), 272 pages.
and
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013), 672 pages. (672 pages! Yikes!)

I usually won’t even look at—much less purchase—any book over 300 pages. It seems impossible that anyone can write 672 pages worth reading. I don’t know why reading is such a chore.

I’ll bet most people who tell me I must read such-and-so book (or what? I won’t go to heaven?) have read that one book and not another in the last year. Not “all” — “most.” I know people who read all the time. Most of them watch a lot of movies and listen to music, too (unless they’re academics, in which case they live somewhere the rest of us don’t even want to visit).

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Here’s the truth. The books I read these days are Stieg Larsson’s novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest –I’ve read the entire trilogy); Jo Nesbit’s trilogy (The Bat, Cockroaches, and The Redbreast—I’m on the second one); John Morgan Wilson’s “Justice” trilogy—which I started, but—as so often happens with gay literature—being gay is more important than being a good story, so I didn’t finish even the first of those.

So what’s with this? Crime, mystery, serial novels. Right up my alley these days. None of them is as good as Raymond Chandler, of course (who is?), but they keep my mind occupied and hold my interest. I suppose Danielle Steele is next. Or, HORRORS! J.K. Rowling. (No, even in my dotage I can’t stoop to that level of BAD writing. Shudder. What insults to the English language.)

I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be at least a “pseudo” intellectual. I remember 35 years ago having a conversation with a friend in Muscatine, IA, when I was in graduate school (for my first PhD, which I did finish). She was the go-getter director of a foundation that did lots of educational stuff, and she said to me, “Isn’t great that we’re part of the intellectual elite?” Well, no one who was would say so, and I knew we certainly were not.

As Rosencrantz says, “I like a good story with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act II, line 322).

You see, I’m at an age when pretense and obfuscation (in the name of whatever intellectual game) are just silliness to me. If a writer can’t say what they mean in plain English and spin a good yarn, I don’t want to be bothered. I tell my students to write for their 6th-grade siblings, that Poor Dumb Reader is just that, “dumb.”

And then I come across a passage in one of those low-brow books that I think is worth not only reading, but making note of.

Truth is relative. . . We have forensic psychiatrists who try to draw a line between those who are sick and those who are criminal, and they bend and twist the truth to make it fit into their world of theoretical models. . . and journalists who would like to be seen as idealists because they make their names by exposing others in the belief that they’re establishing some kind of justice. But the truth? The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.  [Nesbo, Jo. The Bat. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013) page 200. I think it’s unfortunate that the detective’s name is Harry Hole, but. . .]

OK. I know it’s Nesbo slipping not-very-intellectual “big ideas” into his fiction. Preaching even. Not subtle. But an idea I can get my mind around. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

My interest is in getting through this life with some grace and dignity. I hold almost no power. The sum of my self-interest and my power diminishes every day. And so I stop trying to make “the truth for myself” and care about truth. That’s what Nesbo’s cop is trying to say, I think. Without obfuscation. girl dragon

“. . a lantern, burning in the midst of parenthetical opaqueness. . “ (1)

Do you know your temporal lobe  from a hole in your head?

Do you know your temporal lobe
from a hole in your head?

But I use memory differently. I use memory to fortify an idea. These . . . are meditations on subjects in which I use my childhood as information to support the theme, the thesis of the meditation. But it’s not a . . . memory of my life. I use my life for other purposes (2).

Two friends have prodded me to write today. The first responded to my post yesterday in which I wrote I’m often the bull in china closet (if I had any artistic sensibilities, I would find a poetic rather than a clichéd way to say that). That was in response to my reporting that my shrink told me I’m “fragile”—??

Judith said, “Yes. I find you often fragile, and often a “bull” who goes “where angels fear to tread . . .” and then, “Add to the above. ..reference ‘bull’…see Turku Cathedral…wooden cane. What happens in Scandinavia stays in Scandinavia. Reference ‘fragile’…see also Turku” (3).

The second friend asked me why “Temporal Lobe Epilepsy” is always a tag for my posts here.

A word about TLE. I have written about my experience of the condition here before. I won’t repeat myself except to say that a certain emotional intransigence (that is not to say, obstreperousness brought on by confusion) is one of the “presentations” of the condition.

The cathedral in Turku, Finland.

       The choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, TX, was  traveling in Scandinavia this past summer. A wonderful time in Sweden, equally delightful time in Finland, and then out of Scandinavia to St. Petersburg. I was blessed, thrilled, to be asked along to play the organ and piano. I have pictures of all of the places we went except Turku, Finland.

What I am about to write is none of the following:
an attempt to garner pity or engage in psychological exhibitionism
my playing doctor
excuse-making for a man behaving badly.

My psychiatrist, Dr. Mary Bret, of whom I wrote yesterday (doesn’t it sound so ‘70s and ‘80s to say “my psychiatrist”), tells me more often than I want to hear that unseemly anger is symptomatic of at least two of the two neurological disorders with which I have been diagnosed.  Temporal lobe epilepsy, and Bipolar II disorder. The jury is still out on the second. It was, after all, the designer disease of the decade of 2000, so diagnoses are suspect.

We avoided the front staircase.

We avoided the front staircase.

However, my bag of behavioral and affective tricks includes most of the symptoms of the diagnosis. So we’ll go with it, neither stating with certainty that it’s true, nor wanting to make anyone squeamish. If it’s true, it’s no big deal, and if it’s not, I probably simply need some anger management classes.

Back to Turku. We got off our bus at the cathedral to visit on our way to the Medieval Market, simply because it is so splendid.

I was walking with a cane because I needed hip surgery. The woman who was showing us the cathedral kindly took the two of us with canes aside to let us in a door which did not require climbing stairs. But she left us waiting while she took the others in. By the time she got back to us, everyone else was having a grand time looking at the magnificent church. Including our director who, by the time I arrived, was already playing the organ.

The old church’s organ was, of course, in a loft accessible only by climbing a daunting spiral staircase. I went creeping and stumbling up with my cane and arrived at a balcony snuggled under the eaves of the building. I could see my friend at the same level playing the organ perhaps fifty feet away in the loft—to which I could find no means of approach other than a flying leap across the nave.

I was already out-of-sorts because of the cane, but as I stood trapped, watching Viktor play the organ which I knew I should be doing, I became enraged. It was blind fury. The loft was a sort of museum, glass cases filled with treasures of the 1,000-year history of the place. I was ready to smash one of the cases. Instead I brought my cane down to the floor with all of my force, smashing it into many lovely pieces.

Whatever trouble I was having getting around with the cane was now going to be exacerbated trying to walk in pain without the cane. The rest of the story is sweetly strange. The group thought I had somehow broken my cane stumbling up the stairs, and that’s why I was angry.

Remarkably, one of my friends found a store (a drug store?) and bought me a replacement cane.

I finally calmed down enough to tell my friends that I had simply lost it, that I was sorry for causing them concern, and more grateful than I could say that my cane had been replaced.

This writing is not a meditation in Roger Rosenblatt’s sense (I’m not self-deluded enough to pretend to write with his impact and precision). This is not a “lantern burning in the midst of opaqueness.” But I can use the memories of “my life for other purposes.”

It is immaterial whether or not my tantrums are, as Dr. Bret tells me, a symptom of my manic disorder. I don’t know. Those moments feel like mania. That’s not important. It is also not important if such outbursts result from the lurking fearful confusion of TLE. That could be also.

A flying leap across the nave.

A flying leap across the nave.

If this were a “meditation,” it would be about my continually and undeservedly being cared for by others. Yesterday I wrote that Dr. Bret told me I seem to “have trouble finding people to be kind” to me. She is absolutely right. I don’t, I can’t find those folks.

They simply appear.  A cane will materialize when I least deserve it.

______________________
(1) Alexander, Will. “On Anti-Biography.” Poets.org.  Academy of American Poets, 2011. Web.
(2) Rosenblatt, Roger.  “In ‘Boy Detective,’ writer Roger Rosenblatt investigates his Manhattan childhood.” Transcript of interview with Judy Woodruff. PBS Newshour (October 30, 2013). Web.
(3) Palmer, Judith. Comment on Posting by Harold Knight. Facebook. October 30, 2012.

Who are all those people shopping at the downtown Neiman Marcus. . .

If only they had a sign! At least on the parking garage behind.

If only they had a sign! At least on the parking garage behind.

. . . and why isn’t it pronounced “ ī ” as in “ice” as any self-respecting “ei” word would be?

The summer is almost over, and I have only two accomplishments to show for it. A glorious trip to Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia, and an arthroscopic invasion of my right hip. Which is more important (if either is ultimately important) I can’t say.

All of those people shopping at the downtown Neiman Marcus aren’t, that’s who they are. Most people in the Dallas area wouldn’t know the store from the Dollar Store on Maple Avenue if it didn’t have a sign. That’s NM’s problem!—they don’t have a sign! If they’d put up a sign, they’d have more business.

I walk past NM on the average, I’d guess, six times a week. I use the NM parking garage across Commerce Street from the store three nights a week. It’s cheap. $2 overnight. No meter-feeding (Dallas is insanely vigilant about parking tickets). That is, I use the parking lot on Commerce Street when my hip doesn’t allow me to take the train downtown.

Taking the train comprises a walk across the new Parkland Hospital employee parking lot to the DART station, a ten-minute ride, and a four-block walk to the Merc on Main. A total of about half an hour—ten minutes longer than it takes to drive, and there’s no parking hassle at the end of the trip.

A friend who has lived in Farmers Branch (the first suburb north of the city) for 25 years told me not too long ago he’d never been to downtown Dallas. He’s been to basketball and hockey games at the American Airlines center, but it’s possible to get there without setting foot in downtown.

I don’t think St. Petersburg ever did much to destroy itself in the form of renewing its urb. They’ve had a couple of pretty disastrous wars that destroyed big chunks of the city, but I didn’t see much evidence that they’ve willfully gone into the center of the city and torn down old buildings in order to make room for ugly new ones. Perhaps they have and I didn’t notice those places.

Dallas, on the other hand, is fixing to tear down the oldest building in downtown (for all I know, in the entire city) to widen a street. That kind of self-mutilation is endemic to Dallas. As it is to almost every other American city. You know, urban flight (a self-delusional term for racism) and all of that demographic mumbo-jumbo. Urban renewal. Destroy the heart of the city to make a few hundred billion dollars for a couple of “developers.” I’ve written about it before.

Klyde Warren Park - renew or rebuild?

Klyde Warren Park – renew or rebuild?

Everyone knows the process.  White flight, urban decay. Urban renewal, decimation of the city. Suburban growth. Freeways. Freeways. Freeways. Homelessness. Homelessness. Homelessness. Billionaires. Billionaires. Billionaires. Tear down a few more buildings. Gentrify. Gentrify. Gentrify. So predictable.

You know what you can’t do with your own body? Stop suburban flight or renew the urb. There’s this suburban flight going on from the day we’re born, I think. I’m not going to press this metaphor because it’s too obvious, and I don’t have the poetic skill to make it anything other than ridiculous. The metaphor has been around for at least 3,000 years. “Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth. . .” (1)

You can have all the arthroscopic surgeries you want, and you can’t renew the urb of your own body. Can’t be done. You can work out at the gym three times a week from the time you’re 20 until you’re 80, and you are not stopping the process.

Neiman’s stayed in downtown until it was—quite literally—the only retail store left. How could it leave? It WAS Dallas, Dallas WAS Neiman’s. Shall I carry the figure to its (il)logical conclusion? Neiman’s was (is) in some way if not the soul of Dallas, at least an image for the soul of Dallas.

Now it’s having a facelift (literally, there’s a sign that says so). And a little cluster of retail stores and restaurants and such is growing up around it. And more than a few of the old empty buildings (both retail and high-rise) are being refurbished, completely gutted and rebuilt and made into new businesses and  apartments. Thousands of people (with their thousands of dogs) are moving back to downtown. Not the kind of people who were pushed out when old downtown was obliterated, mind you. Not the poor, the tired, the humble masses who huddled in the rooming houses and inner-city apartments.

The urb is, once again, being renewed. And I love it. I want to live there.

Neiman’s can have a facelift. Dallas can build the Klyde Warren Park. My hip can be fixed (at least temporarily).

But it’s that soul, or the image of that soul that won’t let my mind rest. Dallas can’t be renewed. It can be rebuilt, but it won’t be the same city. Renewal is not the process. Remaking is, finding a new soul is.

Do I need to push this metaphor to its limit? A human body cannot be renewed OR rebuilt. To say nothing of a human soul.

Damn! I wish that had worked out.
____________
(1) Ecclesiastes 12:1-8, KJV.  Hebrew Scriptures and Urban Renewal

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

Towne Square Apartments; Employee Parking Lot; DART line rail (with yellow train); New Parkland Hospital. Can the urb be renewed?

Towne Square Apartments; Employee Parking Lot; DART line rail (with yellow train); New Parkland Hospital. Can the urb be renewed?

 

A bit of simple (or simplistic) writing

Leader and cousin

Leader and cousin

People who know me well enough to know my sleeping/writing/working habits ask me from time to time if I already know what I’m going to write about when I can’t keep from sitting down to write because—what is the reason? TLE, desperation, addiction to words, habit, uncontrollable compulsion (isn’t that a redundancy, I’d ask my students).

Whatever the reason, the answer to the question is, “Yes or no.” Often I have an idea caroming around in my head when I wake up (in those instances I think it’s the idea itself that wakes me up) so I know it’s time to get up because I can’t put the idea out of my head. It’s seldom an idea I remember thinking about as I fell asleep. So I have no idea why it’s there. Oh, I usually know where the germ of the idea came from.

On Friday, for instance, I heard on PBS a scientist talking about the expansion of the universe and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Pretending I understand it was what woke me up today—or, at the very least, it was the first idea that came into my head, even before I poured my first cup of coffee. Why that law (which I have no chance ever of understanding) instead of wondering where the cat was or anything useful is beyond me. But I knew I had to write about it even though I don’t have a clue.

The problem is that I also have to write about the pictures I’ve inserted here because—because. They have been bugging me for a couple of days as the germ of an idea about friendships, relationships, meeting people. So The Second Law of Thermodynamics and friendships have to come together in these 800 or so words.

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad

First, my understanding of the “problem” of The Second Law. When you drop a bunch of ice cubes into your lemonade, does the lemonade heat up the ice and make it melt, or does the ice make the lemonade colder? I’ve read that heat (energy) cannot pass from a colder object to a warmer one. Then why does my lemonade get cold?

Those of us who slid around the edges of Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia, together last month had experiences that most tourists don’t. I’m speaking of our meeting with and developing fleeting relationships with people whom most tourists would never meet. We dropped into these generous souls’ lives and out again almost immediately.

The top photo is of our leader and his cousin (Viktor is wearing the Midsummer garland, his cousin sitting with her back to the camera, and her husband beside Viktor). Their family relationship was the original impetus for our trip. They were with us for the better part of two days.

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad, owners of the ENGarden art museum and conference center near Arvika, Sweden provided us with a scrumptious luncheon at their museum, prepared by Carl-Axel, the chef of the center.  It’s fairly obvious (although I don’t know this for sure) that we were there because of Viktor’s family and their knowledge of the area. Certainly the ENGarden is not a normal tourist destination.

Ville Niittynen

Ville Niittynen

Our guide at Rauma, Finland, was Ville Niittynen, one of the priests of the Church of the Holy Cross, where we sang a concert.  Ville and his wife Paula were our hosts for a dinner at the church’s cabin on Lake Narvi, with a sauna experience for the brave ending with a jump in the lake.

Cookouts and picnics together as the guests of hosts from the cities where were staying and singing were the norm. At the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosaratovka, a suburb of St. Petersburg, we were treated to another barbecue (not Texas style!) cooked by members of the seminary community. Our host was the director, Dr. Anton Tikhomirov, who is also the pastor of St. Catherine’s Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg where we sang an evening concert. The seminary was the recipient of the monies we raised on our tour.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that mechanical work can be derived from a body only when that body interacts with another at a lower temperature; any spontaneous process results in an increase of entropy.

Lutheran Seminary Cookout

Lutheran Seminary Cookout

Relationships are like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That is, the energy cannot pass from the colder participant in the work of being together to the warmer. Ever. Energy always passes from the warmer object to the colder and leads to an increase of entropy. There, see? I said I absolutely do not understand physics.

My point here is not only simple, it’s simplistic, I fear. We received warmth from people in each place we stayed, and in each church where we performed. We experienced those places not as tourists but as recipients of generosity and grace. I hope my understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is incorrect. I hope some energy passed the other way, that we, less involved in the relationships we developed because we were there for so short time, managed to return at least a bit of the warmth and grace we received.

ENGarden Art - very little exchange of warmth

ENGarden Art – very little exchange of warmth

Oh, to be “unobtrusive, modest, subdued”

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

In a shopping mall in expansive building at a major intersection in the center of city with a population of 4,000,000 (the mall is adjacent to a hotel with 825 rooms) is a hamburger joint that recreates a 1950s diner with red faux-leather chairs and booths, black-and-white checkered tiles on the walls, and large photographs of iconic entertainers such as Elvis Presley, Patti Page, and Bill Haley and The Comets. The diner serves the “Texas Burger,” the “Double Cheese Burger,” the “Bacon and Swiss Burger.”

I ordered the “Texas Burger.” It was very much like a burger one might get at Smash Burger in Dallas except the fries were potato wedges, not French fries, and I had to pay extra for ketchup (Heinz in small packets).

The "Baltic Princess" - too crowded for comfort.

The “Baltic Princess” – too crowded for comfort.

The city intersection where the mall, hotel, and diner are located is the end of the Nevsky Prospect where it connects with the main bridge across the Neva River into the center city of St. Petersburg, Russia. Across the street from the hotel is the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Elvis Presley’s first RCA hit single was “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. I was eleven years old and could sing it from start to finish (if my parents were not nearby). I’m (obviously) 86 today. I can’t even get the melody well enough in my mind at the moment to start it, much less finish it.

The etymology of the word “retire” is not to tire of something and then tire again. We use the word in such a way that it might seem that’s where it came from. I tired of working when I was about 50 (or 35, or 25), and now I have again tired of working. It’s time to stop.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “retire” comes not from some form of getting tired but from the Middle French verb meaning retirer “to withdraw.” That’s a transitive verb, meaning it needs an object, so it must be used (the Middle French, that is) in the construction “to retire something.” The first use in English was “to withdraw oneself,” specifically “to withdraw oneself and go to bed.” By 1640, the word had come to mean “to withdraw oneself from business.”

By 1766 the adjective form of the word had come to mean “fond of retiring, disposed to seclusion,” hence “unobtrusive, modest, subdued” (1766), as in “he is the retiring type.”

My friends on the upper deck.

My friends on the upper deck.

I am somewhat disposed to seclusion.

This will be a somewhat trying week for me. I went to a party two nights ago with the kind and gracious group with whom I traveled in Europe last month—a group of which I have grown enormously fond, and of which I am delighted to be a part. Today I will attend a birthday party for someone of whom I am exceptionally fond. He is—dear me, can it be?—less than half my age, and he is attached to and understands the cultural world in which he lives and in relation to which I often find myself an outsider looking in and wondering what the hell is going on.

My primary goal as far as parties and such occasions is to be “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued.” This is not a new phenomenon for me. Even when I could sing “Blue Suede Shoes,” both words and music, from memory and not only knew who Bill Haley was but could sing “Rock Around the Clock Tonight” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” as vociferously and flawlessly as any of my junior high school friends, what I really wanted was to be in a corner (or preferably in the next room) singing by myself. Or, better yet, to be listening from the private world in my mind.

The enervating crowd disembarking

The enervating crowd disembarking

I’d guess that few people who know me as an acquaintance would expect me to say that about myself. After all, I have supported myself all my life in two very public professions, music and teaching. An “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued” person can hardly manage those two professions. Perhaps I haven’t. The common pop definition of “introvert” applies to me, that is, a person who feels energy sapped by being with too many people, as opposed to the “extrovert” whose energy is increased by being with groups of people.

I want to retire in at least two senses of the word. I want to “to withdraw [my]self from [the] business [of teaching]” because I’m old, and I want to make myself “unobtrusive, modest, subdued.”

Don’t misunderstand. I love teaching. And, if student evaluations are reliable evidence, I’m very good at it. And I love such experiences as running off to Scandinavia and Russia with a kind and generous group of people.

But I love being retired from too much social interaction more. “Unobtrusive, modest, subdued.” Ah, yes.

I may be as confused as a picture of Elvis Presley in a ‘50s-style diner in St. Petersburg in 2013.

Finland's coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.

Finland’s coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.

A short travelogue (my tourist advantage)

Bustling activity of Arvika Town Square (5:30 AM)

Bustling activity of Arvika Town Square (5:30 AM)

I have a great advantage over most tourists. I often see the places I visit in a clearer— perhaps more “accessible” is the right word—aspect than most tourists. That is one of the benefits (there are, believe it or not, others) of having a sleep pattern that my neurologist insists on calling a disorder.

Arvika Music School

Arvika Music School

I’m up by 5 AM (often earlier) every morning. Perhaps not every morning. Let’s say nine out of ten. When I get up, I have two favorite activities, writing and walking. I have about a gazillion photos of Sweden, Finland, and Russia on my iPhone. Many of them I can’t identify (the ones with lots of people in them). However, many I can identify absolutely. They are, generally speaking, the ones I took while walking by myself around the places our group stayed.

Arvika Library

Arvika Library

At about 5:30 AM on June 22, I took a walk around Arvika, Sweden.  You can probably guess that I was pretty much alone. I said good morning to exactly four people (our driver had taught me a pretty good facsimile of the Swedish), and two of them said good morning back. One of them was a young man out for his morning run, and we had a delightful half English, half Swedish and – HA! – half Spanish conversation.

Just a street

Just a street

I saw Arvika as no one else in our group did, I’m pretty sure. And as few tourists ever do. This is the writing closest to a travelogue I will ever do, so listen up.

The bustling town square comes first. The square is surrounded by shops and restaurants, but it does not seem like a “touristy” place, even in the middle of the day.

Terraced apartments

Terraced apartments

As I returned to the street the hotel is on, I walked toward an imposing building at the end of the street. It turned out to be the Music School. I know nothing about it (forgot to ask the organist at Eda Church where we performed), but the building and grounds are certainly impressive.

Up the street to the right (north, I think), I came across the town library nestled among apartments – as a library should be, not off by itself somewhere. And the obligatory fountain in front.

A Swedish Italian Jewish restaurant?

A Swedish Italian Jewish restaurant?

Farther up the street I came to (perhaps) my favorite oddity in the city. The “Pizzeria Shalom.” An Italian restaurant with a Hebrew name in the middle of a mixed-use neighborhood in a small Swedish city. OK, so I’m easily amused.

Sunrise (?) over the lake

Sunrise (?) over the lake

One of the most interesting buildings I saw is an apartment (condo?) building built so each floor is set back from the one below, so the roof of the lower floor serves as a garden for the one above it. I don’t know how the back of the building is structured, but the front is certainly a place I’d like to live.

Then I wandered up a residential hill and down and around on city streets that look pretty much alike, and then retraced my steps and headed back to the hotel. In the block in front of the hotel, I discovered a couple of statues along the sidewalk. Although I could not read the Swedish, my guess is that this one is titled something like “Baby on Floor.”

[Obviously what follows is an error: the lake picture is from the next morning, when I began my walk at the lake. The sun did not, in fact, go back down after I took the pictures above.]

The best is last. I ended my walk at the lake which delineates the (I think) south side of the city. Lupen and other flowers, benches to sit and stare, formal gardens, a fountain – I cannot begin to describe the place. I more or less watched the sun come up (of course, it does not come “up” because it’s been close to the horizon all night, sort of sidling around until you can see it – very eerie for a Texan).

End of description of Arvika.Oh, and, by the way, I was walking with my cane. This was the morning I figured out how to take pictures with my iPhone holding it in one hand. Not bad, eh?

A baby in the street?

A baby in the street?

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Rembrandt

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci - one of fourteen

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci – one of fourteen

Last Sunday I attended the exhibit “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks from the British Museum” at the Dallas Museum of Art. It is a comprehensive retrospective of the British Museum’s holdings of ancient Greek sculpture, with commentary about the development of the Greek artistic (and cultural) understanding of the human body. The exhibition is touring museums world-wide. Of course, all of the statues, all of the art, belong in Greece. That the British Museum “owns” these works is some kind of bizarre cultural and national hubris that I (just me, uninformed as I am) find difficult to justify.

A week ago I wandered away from our group which was making a mad dash through as much of The Hermitage, the Palace of Catherine the Great, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as we could manage in one afternoon (not much of it, let me say). I wandered into a large gallery of sculptures of human figures from ancient Greece. Two experiences of seeing somewhat overwhelming collections of statuary from ancient Greece in less than a week, both worlds away from Greece.

More statues than in Greece?

More statues than in Greece?

It may be (although I don’t know for sure) that in a week I saw more sculpture from ancient Greece than I could have had I been in Greece.

I wonder about the cultural integrity that allows that to be true. Surely neither the Russian Tsars nor the British Museum can (could) lay claim to “owning” that art. Why shouldn’t Cambodia come to New York and drag away the Statue of Liberty? Or Greece make off with the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London?

Of course, some benighted and totally discredited “communist” theorist would say these affronts to culture are the result of “imperialistic capitalism” or some such nonsense. I suppose “imperialism” accounts for the British carting off statues. I don’t know Greek history, but I do know that Britain had great influence (if not absolute control) over Greece during the 19th century and up to WWI, and that the German states also wielded power during that time (I don’t have time to do proper research). Catherine the Great of Russia was German, as was King George I of Greece, and they were both somehow related to Victoria of England. Boundaries of weaker European nations were pretty fluid, and there was no reason—is my guess—for the British not to have assumed that “your antiquities are my antiquities.” And Catherine the Great certainly had the money and power to buy up just about anything she wanted. Every country’s treasures were up for grabs by the countries with the strongest armies and monarchs and other venture capitalists with the most money.

I know, I know. I’m not a historian, and that may be all wrong, but it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (Not really. If anyone wants to bother to correct my theory, go ahead. I’ll post your correction.)

Should the Prodigal be returned?

Should the Prodigal be returned?

All of that is getting in the way of what I intended to write about.

The Hermitage is Catherine the Great’s private palace. At least the beginning of it was. She didn’t want to live a public life, so she built a small palace where she could hide away as a hermit. Of course it’s a lavish example of the most ornate styles of 18th-century architecture and decoration. And she (and her heirs) collected the greatest art of Europe. While I may be uneasy that these great works of art reside together in one place because it requires great wealth to “own” them, I have no un-ease at having the opportunity to get a tiny glimpse at a tiny percent of the works in The Hermitage.

Two of the fourteen extant paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. “The Prodigal,” the intense and affective painting by Rembrandt, as well as his “Portrait of an Old Jew.” Two large paintings by Matisse.  To say nothing of the building (much expanded after Catherine’s day) itself. It’s overwhelming. I don’t have the words to explain the magnitude of the experience.

As a side bar, I point out that we have a parallel example of a collection of masterpieces gathered by a captain of capitalism, Alice Walton. Her Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alice Walton’s collection is smaller than Catherine’s, but the idea, the impetus, I’d guess is the same. Should I never see the art in Arkansas because of my feelings about Walton’s billions? I don’t know. I’ve been to both museums, and I would go back in an instant (to the Hermitage in February when thousands of Japanese, American, and Uzbekistani tourist would not be braving the St. Petersburg winter to see it).

The fact is, I was at The Hermitage as part of a group of people of whom, by the time we were there, I had grown exceedingly fond. Being with them mitigated my discomfort. Perhaps the only way to see—to  feel oneself part of—our shared cultural history is in the company of those with whom one shares a personal history.
group RR

Cultural or personal history?