Canada Slim and the Forgotten

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 May 2017

Marriage ain’t easy.

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“My successful marriage is built on mistakes.

It may be founded on love, trust and a shared sense of purpose, but it runs on cowardice, impatience, ill-advised remarks and low cunning.

But also: apologies, belated expressions of gratitude and frequent appeals for calm.

Every day is a lesson in what I am doing wrong.”

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“Twenty years ago my wife and I embarked on a project so foolhardy, the prsopect of which seemed to us both so weary, stale and flat that even thinking about it made us shudder….

We simply agreed – we’ll get married – with the resigned determination of two people plotting to bury a body in the woods.”

(Guardian columnist Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband)

Since autumn of 2016 I have been teaching technical English to a company in two locations: Amriswil in Canton Thurgau (the Canton where I reside) and in Neuhaus in Canton St. Gallen (the Canton where I mostly work) on the border of Canton Zürich.

From Neuhaus it is closer to visit Zürich than it is for me to return back to Landschlacht, so when my schedule as a freelance English teacher finds me with a free afternoon after the company class I take myself down to Zürich.

Zürich possesses many temptations for me: museums, bookshops, the Limmat River, the Lake of Zürich, restaurants and cafés.

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And as well Zürich is where my wife resides from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening every week.

And somewhere buried deep within our marriage contract in words only my wife can read is a clause that insists that I occasionally be nice and visit the Wife, aka my own personal She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Upon my arrival in Zürich yesterday a bus ride and a train journey later, I still had a few hours to myself with which I had the illusion of freedom to do what I wished before my wife, the doctor, finished work at her hospital.

I foolishly forgot that most museums in Switzerland are closed on Mondays and I had this explained to me politely by a security guard at the Swiss National Museum.

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But like every bibliophile bookworm I never travel without literature for such situations, so with Duncan Smith’s Only in Zürich: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Ununsual Objects in hand I once again set out to discover Zürich before meeting the wife who would then set my agenda for me.

All guidebooks to Zürich mention the fact that Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) spent time in the city during the years leading up to the First World War.

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Seven years and eight months (1896 – 1900 / 1909 – 1911 / 1912 – 1914 / 1919), to be precise, at six different addresses (Unionstrasse 4 / Klosbachstrasse 87 / Dolderstrasse 17 / Moussonstrasse 12 / Hofstrasse 116 / Hochstrasse 37).

Albert Einstein’s name is now synonymous with genius and his face has become a 20th century icon.

But what about his wife during this time, the gifted mathematician Mileva Maric (1875 – 1948)?

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Few books mention her name and even fewer mention that she was buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich.

Albert Einstein arrived in Zürich in October 1896 to study at the Federal Polytechnic Institute (Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum) – today the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule)(ETH).

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A wall plaque at Unionstrasse 4 marks one of the addresses where Albert lived during this period.

In the same year Mileva attended the same institution and the two soon became close friends.

Born to wealthy parents in Titel (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a part of Serbia), Mileva was the first and favourite child of an ambitious pesant who had joined the army, married into money and then dedicated himself to making sure his brilliant daughter was able to prevail in the male world of mathematics and physics.

Mileva spent most of her childhood in Novi Sad and attended a variety of ever more demanding schools, at each of which she was at the top of her class, culminating when her father convinced the all-male Classical Gymnasium in Zagreb to let her enroll.

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Above: St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb, Croatia

After graduating there with the top grades in physics and math, Mileva made her way to Zürich, where she became, just before she turned 21, the only woman in Albert’s section of the Polytechnic.

More than three years older than Albert, she was afflicted with a congenital hip dislocation that cause her to limp.

She was prone to bouts of tuberculosis and despondency.

Mileva was known for neither her books nor her personality.

One of her female friends in Zürich described her as “very smart and serious, small, delicate, brunette, ugly”.

But she had qualities that Albert, in his romantic scholar years, found attractive: a passion for math and science, a brooding depth and a beguiling soul.

Her deepset eyes had a haunting intensity, her face an enticing touch of melancholy.

Mileva would become, over time, Albert’s muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist and she would create an emotional field more powerful than that of anyone else in Albert’s life.

Mileva would alternately attract and repulse Albert, with a force so strong that a mere scientist, a mere man, like himself would never be able to fathom it.

Mileva and Albert met when they both entered the Polytechnic in October 1896, but their relationship took a while to develop.

They were nothing more than classmates that first academic year, but they did, however, decide to go hiking together in the summer of 1897.

“Frightened by the new feelings she was experiencing” because of Albert, Mileva decided to leave the Polytechnic temporarily and instead audit classes at Heidelberg University.

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Mileva and Albert corresponded, her letters a mix of playfulness and seriousness, of lightheartednes and intensity, of intimacy and detachment.

Albert urged her to return to Zürich.

By February 1898, Mileva made up her mind to do so.

By April she was back, in a boarding house a few blocks from him and now they were a couple.

They shared books, intellectual enthusiasms, intimacies and access to each other’s apartments.

Friends were surprised that a sensuous and handsome man such as Albert, who could have almost any woman fall for him, would find himself with a short and plain Serbian who had a limp and exuded an air of melancholy.

But it is easy to see why Albert felt such an affinity for Mileva.

They were kindred spirits who perceived themselves as aloof scholars and outsiders, rebellious toward others’ expectations, intellectuals who sought as lovers someone who would also be a partner, a colleague and collaborator.

Above all else, Albert loved Mileva for her mind.

She would eventually gain the same score in physics as Albert.

In 1900 Albert presented his first published scientific paper to the Annalen der Physik, Europe’s leading physics journal, in which his unified physical law of relativity was already apparent.

In February 1901, Switzerland made Albert a citizen, but his parents insisted that he go with them to Milan and live there if he could not find work in Zürich.

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Both in Zürich and in Milan, Albert was unsuccessful at attaining fulltime employment.

He spent most of 1901 juggling temporary teaching assignments and some tutoring.

Waiting for a decent post to materialise, Albert accepted a temporary post at a technical school in Winterthur for two months, filling in for a teacher on military leave, while Mileva remained in Zürich.

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To make up for his absences, Albert proposed that they have a romantic getaway by Lake Como.

It was early Sunday morning, 5 May 1901, Albert waited for Mileva at the train station in the village of Como, “with open arms and a pounding heart”.

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Mileva became pregnant by Albert.

Back in Zürich preparing to take her exams and hoping to go on to get a doctorate and become a physicist, she decided instead that she wanted Albert’s child – even though he was not yet ready or willing to marry her.

Perhaps as a consequence of her pregnancy or her dissatisfaction that Albert went on summer vacation with his parents and sister in the Alps instead of finding employment after Winterthur as he had promised her, Mileva failed her exams and gave up her dream of being a scientific scholar.

In the fall of 1901, Einstein took on a job as a tutor of a rich English schoolboy at a little private academy in Schaffhausen.

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Mileva was eager to be with Albert, but her pregnancy made it impossible for them to be together in public, so she stayed at a small hotel in a neighbouring village.

Their relationship became strained, as Albert came only infrequently to visit her claiming he did not have the spare money.

Albert was desperately unhappy with his job in Schaffhausen so it was with some relief that his friend Marcel Grossmann told him that a job as a Bern patent office clerk would soon be his.

Albert moved to Bern in late January 1902, while Mileva returned to her parents’ home in Novi Sad to have their baby, a girl they called Lieserl.

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Above: Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Though Albert wrote to Mileva asking about Lieserl, his love for the child was mainly abstract.

Albert did not tell his friends or family about his daughter and never once publicly speak of her or even acknowledge she existed.

Albert found a large room in Bern but Mileva would not be sharing it.

They were not married and an aspiring Swiss civil servant could not be seen cohabitating in such a way.

After a few months Mileva moved back to Zürich to wait for Albert to marry her as he had promised.

She did not bring Lieserl with her.

Albert and Lieserl never laid eyes on each other.

Lieserl was left back in Novi Sad with relatives and friends, so that Albert could maintain both his unencumbered lifestyle and respectability he needed to become a Swiss official.

The fate of Lieserl remains unknown.

Albert finally was rewarded the position on 16 June 1902.

Albert married Mileva at a tiny civil ceremony in Bern’s registry office on 6 January 1903.

Their son Hans Albert Einstein was born on 14 May 1904.

After gaining his doctorate in 1905 while working in the Swiss Patent Office, assessing the worth of electromagnetic devices, Albert wrote four groundbreaking articles: one concerning the photoelectric effect (for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921) and another containing his now famous mass-energy equivalence equation: E=mc squared.

In 1909 Albert and Mileva along with Hans moved back to Zürich, where Albert was made Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Zürich.

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The Einstein family lived on the second floor at Moussonstrasse 12, where in 1910 their second son Eduard “Tete” Einstein was born.

In March 1911 the family relocated to Prague, where Albert became full professor at Charles University.

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Einstein’s fame would lead him to wander around Europe giving speeches and basking in his renown, while Mileva stayed behind in Prague, a city she hated.

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She brooded about not being part of his scientific circles that she had once struggled to join.

She became even more gloomy and depressed than her natural disposition had often led her to before.

So it was in this instability between them that Albert travelled alone to Berlin during the Easter holidays of 1912 and became reacquainted with a cousin, three years older, whom he had known as a child, Elsa.

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Elsa Einstein had been married, divorced and now at age 36 was living with her two daughters in the same apartment buildings as her parents.

Albert was looking for new companionship and thus began secret romantic correspondence between them.

But after returning to Prague from Berlin, Albert began to develop qualms about his affair with his cousin.

What remained between Mileva and Albert was a feeling that living among the middle class German community in Prague had become wearisome, so they decided to return to the one place they thought could restore their relationship: Zürich.

In July 1912 the Einsteins returned once more to Zürich, where Albert took up a professorship at the Polytechnikum.

Life should have been glorious.

They were able to afford a modern six-room apartment with good views.

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Above: Hofstrasse  116, Zurich

They were reunited with old friends.

But Mileva’s depression continued to deepen and and her health to decline.

After a year of silence, Elsa wrote to Albert.

So, when a few months later, Einstein received an offer to work in Berlin and be with Elsa, he was quite receptive.

This time they lived at Hofstrasse 116 where they remained until February 1914, when Albert became professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

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Mileva was unhappy in Berlin and their marriage was dissolving.

She had become more depressed, dark and jealous.

He had become emotionally withdrawn.

Mileva became involved with Zagreb mathematics professor Vladimir Varicak who challenged Einstein’s theories.

In July Mileva moved out with the two boys into the house of her only friend Clara Haber and her husband the chemist Fritz.

Albert was prepared to take her back if she agreed to a brutal ultimatum of her duties and responsibilites.

He was prepared to live with Mileva again because he didn’t want to lose his children but it was out of the question that they would resume a friendly relationship but he aimed for a businesslike arrangement.

Mileva and the two boys left for Zürich on 29 July 1914.

She filled her time giving private lessons in mathematics, physics and piano playing.

Einstein returned to Zürich once more in January/February 1919 to lecture on his Theory of Relativity, staying at Hochstrasse 37.

That same year Albert divorced Mileva, giving her the proceeds from his Nobel Prize for her and their children’s support.

Mileva invested the money in three properties in Zürich, occupying one of them herself at Huttenstrasse 62, which has been identified by a memorial plaque since 2005.

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Hans Einstein (1904 – 1973) would go on to study engineering at Zürich Polytechnic, get married, become a father to two sons and a daughter with his first wife Frieda, move to the United States becoming a professor of hydraulic engineering at Berkeley, remarry after Frieda’s death, father two more children.

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Above: Hans Einstein’s final resting place, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA

Eduard Einstein (1910 – 1965) was smart and artistic.

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Obsessed about Freud, Eduard hoped to be a psychiatrist, but he succumbed to his own schizophrenia and was institutionalised in Switzerland for much of the rest of his life at Zürich University Psychiatric Hospital.

Albert would go on to access even greater fame and award, eventually marrying his cousin Elsa.

And what of Mileva?

By the 1930s, the costs of treating Eduard for schizophrenia had overwhelmed her.

She was forced to sell her two investment properties and to transfer the rights to Huttenstrasse to Albert so as not to lose it.

Although he made regular payments to her Mileva died penniless in 1948.

She is buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich’s Nordheim Cemetery and mostly forgotten.

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It was not until 2009 that a memorial gravestone was erected by the Serbian Diaspora Ministry, just inside the cemetery entrance on Käferholzstrasse.

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I visited the places Mileva had known in reverse order from the cemetery to the first apartment she had shared with Albert.

And I found parallels with my own past…

I too had been left behind by my parents like Lieserl.

My mother lies buried in an unmarked grave, but unlike Mileva there is no society to put a plaque on Fort Lauderdale´s cemetery.

Like Mileva I have married a partner more successful professionally than myself, though unlike Mileva I have no illusions about my ever having the same aptitudes as my wife possesses, nor do I feel jealousy or resentment for her success.

Mileva’s partner required that she uproot her life several times to different locations in Zürich and to other cities like Prague and Berlin.

As my wife´s career is more stable than mine, I have moved with/for her from the Black Forest to the Rhine River border near Basel up to Osnabruck and then to this wee village by the Lake of Constance here in Switzerland.

I, like Mileva, am less attractive and outgoing than my spouse.

I, like Mileva, have my own quiet struggles with depression, but, so far, these bouts seem far less serious than those she suffered.

I came from work at the company in Neuhaus dressed for executive type work.

The temperature in Zürich yesterday was 32°, hot and humid.

Elves could have taken a bath in the pools of sweat gathered under my armpits.

Zürich like Rome is built upon hills so seeing the former abodes of the late Mrs. E demanded energy.

Happily if one gets thirsty in Zürich there is no need to find a café or a supermarket because it is quite acceptable to drink from a public fountain.

One never has to travel far to find a fountain because there are few cities with more fountains than Zürich, again compareable to Rome.

At last count, this city boasts a total of around twelve hundred fountains.

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Above: The Napfbrunnen Fountain

With portable Starbucks cup in hand, I drank deeply and often.

Albert, with his great intelligence, achieved great fame and fortune.

Mileva, also possessing great intelligence, gave up fame and fortune for her family.

If Albert was a bad husband and father, history has no record in Mileva’s handwriting.

Her secrets and potential lie buried somewhere beneath the earth of the sprawling necropolis in the metropolis she chose to call home.

Daughter of Serbia, wife of a genius, mother to an abandoned daughter, sons becoming a wandering engineer and an ill schizophrenic, a victim of depression, genetics and passion, Mileva Maric Einstein was many things.

Now she is just a historical footnote lost in the shadows of an uncommunicative cemetery visited by a sweaty Canadian with too much time on his hands.

Mileva had her flaws and made her mistakes, but in the end analysis I am glad I found out about her.

I meet the wife later for a quick bite after her work and before her tango dance lesson and as I watch her speak with drama and passion, and as I consider both are good and bad times I can quietly smile and know that I have met my match, muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I will say that she has made my past quite interesting.

Being a husband ain’t easy, but it sure isn’t boring.

Sources:

Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband

Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe

Duncan J.D. Smith, Only in Zürich

Wikipedia

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Big Yellow Taxi

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Ides of March 2017

These are interesting times we live in, where nothing seems as certain as it once was.

Uncertainty as to whether foreign governments can determine other national elections…

Increased irrationality and xenophobia and hate crimes against folks whose only offence is the appearance of being different…

Wars that never end, from the ancient conflict between the Koreas that was resolved by uneasy ceasefire but without a peace treaty, to Afghanistan whose location and lithium cause empires to clash, to Syria so divided and torn apart causing untold millions to become adrift in modern diaspora, Africa where bloodshed is constant but media attention is scarce…

The most public nation on Earth run by an administration whose only real goal seems to be the total erasure of any achievements the previous administration might have accomplished…

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Brazil: where governments change and prison conditions worsen…

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Turkey: a land of wonderful people ruled over by a government that seems desperate for the world to view the country in the completely opposite way…

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Israel: fighting for its rights of self-determination while denying the same rights of those caught within its reach…

Centered blue star within a horizontal triband

India: a land of unlimited potential yet prisoner of past values incompatible with the democracy it would like to be…

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the centre of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

A world where profit is more important than people, short-term gain more valuable than long-term consequence…

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

Interesting times.

And it is these interesting times that find me re-evaluating the behaviour of the routine traveller and why this type of person may be more deserving of respect than is often shown him…

A routine traveller is that kind of person who, regardless of a world that has so much to offer visitors, will not visit any other location than the one to which he returns to, again and again, year after year.

This kind of routine traveller tends to be found amongst the older population.

My biological father will drive down from Canada to Florida once a year, following the exact same route, stay at the same motels and eat at the same restaurants he slept in and ate at before, return to the same trailer by the same beach and do the same things he did before, vacation after vacation, year after year.

An elderly lady student of mine travels from Switzerland to Spain once every seven weeks and lives in Barcelona for a week, remaining in her apartment except to visit familiar places and familiar faces.

22@ district, Sagrada Família, Camp Nou stadium, The Castle of the Three Dragons, Palau Nacional, W Barcelona hotel and beach

And the only thing that would dissuade them from changing their routine would be circumstances beyond their control, like ill health or acts of God or government.

For much of my life I have mocked this kind of traveller.

I have wanted to explore the planet and visit faraway places with strange sounding names.

I have loved the sound of ship horns, train whistles, plane engines…

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I have loved discovering new sights and smells, meeting new people with different perspectives, learning anew just how much I have yet to learn, every day a new discovery, every moment a new adventure.

And that inner child, with eyes wide open with excitement and wonder, never really disappeared from within me.

But as I age I feel I am beginning to understand the routine traveller more, for there is something comforting in the familiar.

My father and my student had made wiser financial investments than I ever had or ever will so they have managed to build themselves second homes in other locales outside their countries of regular residence.

My wife and I, limited like most by time and money, have not even considered the lifestyle of the routine travelling retiree just yet.

But I am beginning to see their point of view.

Last month the wife and I visited the Zürich Zoo and I found myself, to my own amused astonishment, expressing a desire to retire one day in walking distance of a zoo with an annual membership and spend my final days sitting on benches watching the animals obliviously engage in their natural routines.

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I could see myself spending hours watching monkeys climb and swing, penguins march, peacocks strut, elephants calmly forage for food, owls stare back at me unblinkingly, bird song filling my ears, animal odors filling my nose, the solid concrete beneath my feet, the endless activity and colourful wonders of nature in myriad form.

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I can imagine worse ways of spending my last days.

There must be something comforting about going away to a place oft-visited, to once again shop in familiar markets, to take familiar strolls that never require a map, to rediscover the pleasure of a favourite café, to browse again in a well-loved bookshop, to feel at home in a place that isn`t home.

Above: Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh

I am a married man, for better or worse, so I am unable to simply abandon everything and hit the road as I once did.

I, like most, am bound by schedules and obligations and responsibilities and it is an adjustment, a rut, quite easy to mold oneself to, with its security and certainty in a world not so secure, not so certain.

Time is precious – as is health –  and the unreligious know that we only get one life, so there should be more to life than spending one`s youth working for unappreciative others than finding oneself struggling painfully to maintain a sliver of dignity in a health care centre just waiting to die.

Yet if this be fate then few will avoid it.

As much as I long to see more of a world so vast and unexplored, I think what might attract me to a life of a routine traveller is the increasing realisation that change is inevitable so it is important to appreciate what we’ve got before it is gone, before it is no longer available.

My father at Jacksonville Beach, my student in Barcelona… are comforted by the false security of the familiar getaway.

Images from top, left to right: Jacksonville Beach Pier, water tower, Jacksonville Beach City Hall, Sea Walk Pavilion, Adventure Landing, Jacksonville Beach

No matter how much their lives have changed back in Canada or in Switzerland, the trailer by the beach abides, the apartment in Barcelona is waiting.

But I am not yet ready for a trailer by the sea or an apartment in another city, for what I want to do in the few precious leisure moments afforded me at present, though I am limited by money, I want to step outside as often as possible and explore and re-explore the outdoors within my reach.

While it still lasts…while I still can.

For the newspapers and the media suggest that things might not last.

America has convinced itself that running a pipeline next to a major supply of fresh water is somehow a good idea.

Around the globe, forests are denuded, holes scar the Earth in Man’s mad search for scarce resources, waste is dumped into rivers and oceans with no thought or compassion as to what dwells under the surface or the consequences these actions will have for generations to come.

We rattle our sabres, stockpile our nukes, cry out for war and blindly fight for invisible gods under ever-changing banners, staggering drunk down the road towards our destruction while applauding ourselves for our cleverness.

Nuclear War: Nuclear weapon test, 1954

How long will the forest beyond the village of Landschlacht stand?

How long will seagulls and ducks swim in the clear waters of the Lake of Constance?

How long will the waves crash upon the shores of Jacksonville without dead fish and rotting carcasses polluting the sands?

How long will Barcelona’s streets be filled with music before the sound of marching militia boots tramp over the assumed tranquility?

How long will mothers fear the future for their newborns, teenagers feel the rage of a legacy cheated, the workman groan under the weight of his duties, the elderly too weary to care?

Too many questions…

I still want to explore the planet, but I no longer mock the man who embraces the familiar.

For the routine traveller may be lacking in courage or curiosity, but he is wise in his appreciation of the moment.

The routine traveller abides.

I take some comfort in that.

 

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot….

…They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum

Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em….

…Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT.

Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees please….

…Late last night I heard the screen door slam

And a big yellow taxi come and take away my old man

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve gone ’till it’s gone…”

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

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The great adventure

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 21 February 2017

Sometimes words flow out of you, rushing and pouring out of your heart and soul like a waterfall that can´t be stopped.

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Other times ideas and thoughts trickle down into words upon a screen like a desiccated desert drain from which only gasping drops remain.

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And then there are moments when what one wants to say has to be chewed over thoughtfully, ruminating in the sauces of one´s consciousness, digested and processed like the cud of some bovine creature grazing soundlessly on some empty barren prairie.

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For three weeks thoughts and feelings have remained close to me, unsaid, unwritten.

It took the dying of an innocent man to bring fingers back to keyboard and courage back to expression.

Learned recently of a man I only knew of through another person.

He was only 40, a husband and father of a newborn, killed instantly by a lorry while riding his bicycle outside the Kunsthaus in Zürich.

Above: Kunsthaus Zürich

He leaves behind a shocked and grieving widow and an orphaned child who will never know his daddy.

That morning when he rose from the warm bed of his bride he did not imagine the day ending in his death.

He had a lifetime to look forward to.

Watching his son grow into a man, holding his wife in warm embrace as they grew old with one another.

Now all that he was, all that he could have been, is no more.

Death stalks us all, yet we mortal fools deny that death would ever happen to us.

We fight against the dying of the light.

We burn bright against the gathering shadows and we either decide to live life to the fullest, determined to wrestle with mortality with our last breath, or we keep our heads down and slowly sip the waters of life, hoping that a quiet life will keep the Grim Reaper’s attention focused on others.

We are all fools.

I am reminded of my foster parents.

They pinched the Canadian penny until the beaver upon it pissed blood.

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They scrimped and saved with plans to see the world and travel one day.

Cancer cheated them of these hopes.

She died first of ovarian cancer, he a heartbeat later of intestinal cancer.

I would later learn of my biological mother dying of breast cancer when I was but a toddler.

All three had made their plans.

They would travel.

They would see the world.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

They would have adventures.

I was determined while I had my health, whether I had money or not, I would travel, see the world, have adventures.

I have tried in the humblest way I can to learn and understand the world beyond my own limited experience.
The older I get, the more I realise there will always remain much to learn.
I first sought to understand my home and native land of Canada.
 Flag of Canada
Then I travelled to the US and Europe and a wee bit of Asia hoping to understand more about people and places I had only heard about.
I hope, life and health willing, to see the Middle East and Africa and more of Asia and, maybe one day, the rest of the Americas south of the US border.
Limited by love and responsibilities I am not so free as I was when I was single.
Though I have encountered the poor in my travels I have never witnessed 3rd World poverty.
 
I have always preferred peace to war, though I have never been in war conditions to fully understand the fear, horror, sorrow and hate that war produces.
 
Above: The ruins of Guernica, 1937
I have been truly blessed by accident of birth and the shelter of my limited experience not to have seen the things that children of men should never have to see.
And I suspect that having never seen these things that I am a fool to believe that I will understand these things without direct experience.
But if I could see a world where these things no longer exist…that is a world worth experiencing.
Christopher McCandless in a letter to his friend Ron:
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“I’d like to repeat the advice that I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt.
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.
The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy.

 But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.
And so, Ron, in short, get out of Salton City and hit the Road.
I guarantee you will be very glad you did.
But I fear that you will ignore my advice.
You think that I am stubborn, but you are even more stubborn than me.
You had a wonderful chance on your drive back to see one of the greatest sights on earth, the Grand Canyon, something every American should see at least once in his life.
 Grand Canyon view from Pima Point 2010.jpg
But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted nothing but to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day.

I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover.

Don’t settle down and sit in one place.

Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon.

You are still going to live a long time, Ron, and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.

You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships.

God has placed it all around us.
It is in everything and anything we might experience.
We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.

My point is that you do not need me or anyone else around to bring this new kind of light in your life.

It is simply waiting out there for you to grasp it, and all you have to do is reach for it.
The only person you are fighting is yourself and your stubbornness to engage in new circumstances.”

But…

An adventure is only an adventure in the telling.

You are 27 miles from Anywhere in the middle of a black night with the cold rain drenching you.

You have no tent.

No cover can be seen.

You are sick.

You are tired.

Loneliness has struck you sharper than any dart could.

You crave people, light, warmth.

No one stops.

No one cares.

You are in the guts of an isolated landscape.

You have no idea of precisely where you are or how you will leave this vale of sorrow and suffering.

Welcome to the adventure.

Are we having fun yet?

Perhaps I have painted a picture of roses and sunsets and intense happiness that I encountered in my own travels.

But suggesting that all of travel is an endless array of joy and harmony is not at all the full story…

As I have already suggested in previous posts I have done a wee bit of travelling…walked thousands of kilometres in Canada and abroad, hitched tens of thousands of kilometres in North America and Europe…journeys sometimes lasting months.

The longest hitching trip I made was a year’s journey from Ottawa to Newfoundland to Key West to California to Vancouver back to Ottawa.

And as many great times as there were, there were also moments of fear, worry and sorrow.

It would take a lifetime to describe them all…
– being shot at in appropriately named Winchester, Ontario
– being caught out on the side of a mountain in the dark and the rain with no shelter
– violent encounters with other residents of men’s shelters in Montreal and Strasbourg
– stranded for three days and nights in Death Valley
– arrested and jailed for two weeks in Phoenix
– a boy threatens me with a rifle in my face in Collingwood
– followed for miles by a person whose intentions were unclear in the night streets of Memphis
– the same evening an old man dies in the bunk across from me in the men’s shelter
– drivers stoned, drivers drunk, uncertainty of arriving at final destination alive
– unwelcome overtures by those eager to share the night

Any one of these moments made me question the wisdom(if any) of the journey I was making.

But, take heart, would be nomad or present nomad, wondering if the darkness really means that dawn is fast approaching…

There were many more moments that more than compensated for the dark times.

Just a few…
– Sharing meals with migrant Mexican workers in the bunkhouse of a winery on Pelee Island
– Landscapes too beautiful for words
– Generosity offered by strangers more precious than gold
– Women whose beauty and character reminded me of why I am alive and stand in awestruck wonder and amazement at the luck that brought them into my life if even for a moment
– Lying on a hillside sharing a bottle of wine and looking up at a sky full of stars by a campfire round which the homeless of Kingman were gathered
– Lying under the stars by the mighty Ottawa River until the next morning’s ferry would depart
– Witnessing the Northern Lights from a snow covered field in the middle of Alaska

Above: Frederic Church, Aurora Borealis (1865)

Is travelling risky?

Yes.

Is it worth the risk?

I recently read the news of a young lady who after exploring 5 continents and more than 33 countries was found dead on an island off the coast of Panama strangled with her own sarong.
A few months ago a young woman was murdered in Nepal by a host whose mental state had been impossible to predict by the website that they had both registered with.
A few years ago a young man who wanted to experience the true wilderness of Alaska died in the attempt.
All sad stories and the fuel of cautionary warnings about the folly of travel.
And if you are looking for more reasons to never leave your country of origin just follow a newsgroup or listen to the fearmongering media or follow the advice of state departments and ministries of foreign affairs.
But before you put bars on your windows and gather the family in the basement waiting for the end times, consider the following…
Who is guaranteed a long and healthy life?
What’s the point of living if you don’t feel alive?
Making a living and ensuring your loved ones have a loving and stable life and a promising future is worthy of merit and respect.
Without this kind of love and devotion, civilisation would not be possible.
But waiting until the time is “right” is no guarantee that when the time arrives you will have the ability to travel.
Were the above mentioned victims of their travels foolish?
Perhaps.
But while they lived, their lives were filled with great moments that are unique to travelling.
Too many people live lives of quiet desperation.
Too many people sell their souls in the name of material wealth.
The young ladies lived their lives to the fullest.
Chris McCandless felt the passion of life until a fatal error of eating poisonous berries ended his life too soon.
But while they breathed they lived.
And isn’t that the point?

If you are looking for guarantees, there are none.

But all that life is, the good and the bad, will be magnified beyond all that you have known when you travel.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things (and experiences) than are dreamt of in your (present) philosophy.
 Shakespeare.jpg
 I have struggled these past three weeks, save for a few Facebook posts, to sit down in front of my computer and create.
And it has not been that there is nothing to write about, but rather the reverse.
I found myself wondering if anyone is interested in what I think and whether my writing is less inspirational than it is egotistical.
Granted to write is to believe that what one thinks is worthy of communicating.
But recently I have been reminded of George Orwell/Eric Blair and his classic 1984…not because these modern times are Orwellian…but because of the reasons why Winston Smith – the protagonist of the novel – began keeping his journal.
 Nineteen Eighty Four.jpg
Smith doubted anyone would read his words, whether anyone who did read his journal would understand him or the reality he was writing about.
But I am inspired by what Smith concluded…
Smith wrote to express himself, to put into words what was real, in an age where reality was regulated to fit the wishes of power rather than what Smith knew to be true through his own experience.
To express with courage the reality of 2+2=4, rather than what someone else insists that 2+2 must be.
Why do I write?
A number of reasons…
Partially psychologically…
By putting an experience into words, I begin to better understand the experience.
Socially, I try to follow two statements:
1) Every person is my superior that I may learn from him/her. And I am superior to everyone that they may learn from me.
This keeps me both humble while it maintains a healthy feeling of self-worth.
2) Do no harm.
I do realise that I will never please everyone all the time, but I continue to try and not hurt anyone with my words or actions.
Travelling has taught me so much and I hope my words offer confidence and comfort to any who have chosen to read them.
I have seen so much and yet there is so much left to see.
I have learned so much and yet there is so much left to learn.
In Africa it is said that when an old man dies, a library is destroyed.
I am not sure, if I live to a ripe old age, whether that will be the case for me.
But in the grand symphony, the great adventure, of Life, if I can know in my own small way I have contributed a verse, then I think my life will have had some meaning after all.
It was suggested to me that when one shares one’s experiences that this is an expression of an overinflated ego with delusions of one’s value in thinking that his experience actually matters to anyone else.
And I can’t deny that this bothers me.
Speaking only for myself, it has bothered me when I have tried to share some of the feelings and thoughts that travelling has generated to find those who have not travelled only marginally interested.
So often those you love neither understand nor care about what you have felt and learned as it has little to do with their own lives.

So why write?
To express myself.
To relate reality as I perceive it to be.
To shout out loud the truth of experience and the certainty of conviction.
In an age where presidents can lie boldface and critics cower and avoid confrontation…
In an age where dignity and respect are secondary to messages transmitted loudly and repeatedly until the listener simply surrenders…
Where a lie becomes truth if spoken by power in a never ceasing cacophony of intimidating relentlessness…
An age where we are taught to be afraid of the future, dissatisfied with the present and unconvinced by the past…
Where thought is discouraged, dissent repressed, emotions controlled and hope is crushed…
We rush through reality without looking at it, eyes downward cast in submission to electronic gods we have fashioned for ourselves.
 
But those who can think, those brave enough to feel and speak…
I encourage you to travel and to speak your minds…
While you still can…
I travel and write to help myself understand…
I hope my words encourage others to do the same.
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Out of the Shadows

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 February 2017

Sometimes inspiration flows like sap through a maple tree.

Sometimes it is as slow-moving as molasses in January.

Those who read this blog (both of them!) or follow me on Facebook (the rest of their families!) are aware that I work…a lot.

Between working as an English teacher during the work week and at Starbucks on weekends, I don´t seem to have an abundance of leisure time.

And what leisure time is not required by my spouse´s instructions is not always used as productively as it should be, for there is much in this modern world to distract even the most resolute of urban animals.

And though I feel most alive when writing my thoughts and feelings, peppered with facts obtained through reading and research, writing – an exercise of the mind´s creative muscles – does feel like work sometimes, so my impulses don´t always cause me to leap behind the keyboard and create words that drip like honey from the lips of the gods.

Yesterday was my first day off – not counting sick days when I truly was ill with that most fatal of ailments, the man cold – in weeks, when I had no immediate urgent obligations to spouse or employers.

A much-beloved private student of mine works at the Kunsthaus in Zürich and finally after months of discussion, I took advantage of her offer to explore the museum for free.

Kunsthaus Zürich.jpg

I thought that getting out of Casa Kerr – our humble wee apartment a short stroll away from the Lake of Constance – would aid me psychologically and inspire me creatively.

For though there are a number of ideas I am working on, words have been trickling slowly these past few weeks.

Part of the problem has been the immediacy of the moment…

It is one thing to write about problems in faraway places like Turkey or Belgium or speak of times past remembered or researched, but to capture the electricity of the moment, fresh and still sparking, this is what has been missing from both my spirit as well as my writing.

I later visited the FIFA Museum and though I see future ideas from this visit there was still lacking the sense of urgency to verbalise what I witnessed there.

Image may contain: sky, tree and outdoor

Serendipitiously I stumbled across a dozen books I had neither seen nor read before in three different bookshops, but again ideas from them must be sifted before grains of inspiration can be found lying at the bottom of the goldpan of the mind.

I returned home, began watching To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Bronte Sisters and, like many typical husbands unsupervised by their spouses, I fell asleep on the couch.

I was awakened by a phone call from Canada.

My childhood was rather…unusual.

I have four brothers (Christopher, Thomas, Kenneth and a stepbrother Stephen) and three sisters (Valerie, Cythnia and a foster sister Victoria).

Having met or learned of my brothers and my biological sisters only when I was in my mid-twenties and finding that decades apart does not a family create, the only true sibling I have any significant contact with is my foster sister Victoria.

It was she who phoned me last night / this morning.

There are many similarities between Vicki and myself.

We both come from large families yet were raised as isolated foster children by the same Irish Canadian woman and French Canadian home owner.

We were taken from our biological families because they were unable to properly take care of us themselves.

In a revolving door type scenario, Vicki, 14 years my senior, moved out to pursue her post-secondary education when I moved in.

For a time Vicki was a French teacher while I remain an English teacher.

There is a significant age difference between ourselves and our spouses.

Vicki remains quite spiritual in her beliefs and I can be occasionally philosophical in my expression.

Vicki feels too much.

I have often been accused of thinking too much.

We both worry too much.

We both desperately need to learn and practice the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi´s Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

And, sadly, though we both are driven by the creative impulse, we are both hampered by crippling bouts of self-doubt and discouragement.

She confessed to me last night that she had written two books and having been unsuccessful at getting them published, she simply tossed all of her work into the rubbish bin.

I love my sister and I know her mind and I am convinced that she, like me, need not worry whether her words are good enough to share with others but instead she should keep writing and keep learning how to market her writing.

Instead of seeing shadows of a winter endless in prospect and prophetically cold and unwelcoming, Vicki needs to believe that success will eventually spring her way and that the only handicaps preventing her from reaching that spring are those she has created herself.

Which leads me to the subject of Groundhog Day…

Last year I wrote a blog post called Omens and portents from a rodent.

I spoke of the tradition of Groundhog Day celebrated across many locations in Canada and the United States, where, according to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring weather will arrive six weeks early before the spring equinox; if it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow and retreats back into its den to resume its hibernation then winter weather will persist for six more weeks.

I wrote of the largest Groundhog Day celebration that is held every February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where crowds as large as 40,000 have gathered to celebrate the “holiday” since 1886.

Groundhogday2005.jpg

I told of other groundhogs less famed than Punxsutawney Phil, like Wiarton Willie (an albino groundhog)(Wiarton, Ontario), Balzac Billy (Alberta), Fred la Marmotte (Val d’Espoir, Quebec), Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), Manitoba Merv (Winnipeg), Oil Springs Ollie (Ontario), Winnipeg Willow (Manitoba), Dundas Donna (Ontario)…and these are just the Canadian celebrations…

Flag of Canada

In the US, besides Punxsutawney, Groundhog Days are celebrated in Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Connecticut, New York and many other places across the US…and not always with a groundhog.

Flag of the United States

Red Rock Canyon in Nevada has Mojave Max, a desert tortoise.

And Claude the Cajun Crawfish annually predicts the weather one day earlier in Shreveport, Louisiana.

And in faroff Srentenje, Serbia on 15 February (2 February according to the local religious Julian calendar), it is believed that if a bear awakens from his winter slumber and meets his shadow in his sleepy and confused state, the bear will get scared and go back to sleep for an additional 40 days, thus prolonging winter.

So, if it is sunny on Sretenje on 15 February, winter ain´t over yet in Serbia.

And it is this idea of a sleepy and confused state, this viewing of shadows of portents and omens to come, that first made me think of waxing political about how Donald Trump´s hair resembles a dead groundhog and how he casts shadows of doubt upon the future…

Donald Trump official portrait.jpg

Then Vicki´s phone call and my encouragement of her literary efforts made me think of the 1993 film Groundhog Day.

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again and again.

After indulging in hedonism and committing suicide numerous times, Connors begins to re-examine his life and priorities.

Estimates regarding how long Connors remains trapped in the time loop, in real time, vary widely.

During the filming of Groundhog Day, director Harold Ramis, a Buddhist, observed that according to Buddhist doctrine, it takes 10,000 years for a soul to evolve to its next level.

Harold Ramis Oct 2009.jpg

Therefore, in a spiritual sense, the entire arc of Groundhog Day spans 10,000 years.

Groundhog Day is often considered to be an allegory of self-improvement, emphasizing that happiness comes from placing the needs of others above one’s own selfish desires.

For some Buddhists, the film’s themes of selflessness and rebirth are reflections of the Buddha’s own spiritual messages.

Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra).jpg

Some Jews and Christians see Connors’ time loop as a representation of Purgatory, from which Connors is released once he has shed his own selfishness and commits himself to acts of love.

Above: Gustave Doré’s image of a non-fiery Purgatory illustration for Dante Alleghieri’s Purgatorio

Theologian Michael Pholey has suggested that the film could be seen as a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Pilgrim's Progress first edition 1678.jpg

Above: Title page of first edition of John Bunyan´s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

Others see Groundhog Day as an affirmation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s directive to imagine life – metaphorically and literally – as an endless repetition of events.

Nietzsche187a.jpg

Above: Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900)

The phrase “Groundhog Day”, as a result of the film, has entered into common usage as a reference to an unpleasant situation that continually repeats, as in today is SSDD – same stuff, different day.

Fourteen years after the movie´s release, “Groundhog Day” was noted as common US military slang for any day of a tour of duty in Iraq.

Major Roger Aeschliman in his Iraq War memoir Victory Denied describes guarding assorted visiting dignitaries as his “Groundhog Day”:

“The dignitaries change, but everything else remains the same.

The same airplanes drop them off at the same places.

The same helicopters take us to the same meetings with the same presenters covering the same topics using the same slides.

We visit the same troops at the same mess halls and send them away from the same airport pads to find our way home late at night.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until we are redeemed and allowed to go home.”

And this is my take on Groundhog Day, both the film and the event…

Yes, there is fear that success in our endeavours is a long long way away and that it will take 10,000 years, or at least a lifetime, for us to achieve our goals, so it is almost instinctive to return back to our caves/our burrows/our warrens and ignore the unpleasant weather and let our dreams remain dormant.

But not venturing outside our comfort zones, we avoid dangerous difficulties that may lie ahead.

But just as Phil Connors had to continually relive Groundhog Day until he finally did the day right securing his release, so must we continue to strive, despite failure after failure, until we finally learn how to succeed.

So, my sister, if you are reading these words, keep on keeping on.

Fail, learn why, fail again and again, until finally you find the formula to see your thoughts and ideas spring into the hands and minds of others for their enjoyment and enlightenment.

Ignore the shadows of doubt.

Spring will come.

Groundhog Day (movie poster).jpg

Sources: Wikipedia

How to build a railroad

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 22 August 2016

As the few but faithful regular readers of this blog may recall, I am in a marriage wherein my wife is away four days out of seven working in Zürich bringing sick children there the love and professionalism by which she is already known in her particular circles.

So, while she is away with the car I am forced to rely on public transportation when necessity demands I leave this tiny hamlet for purposes other than sleeping.

Today, suffering from extreme toothache, I must once again calculate in my mind the travel time required to reach my destination, in this case a dentist’s chair in Konstanz.

Happily there are moments when taking a train is not connected with work or other necessities, but instead is an adventure and genuine pleasure to do so.

In moments of my recent past I recall the joy I have felt when riding the rails to some undiscovered place as part of another spontaneous exploration.

And there are “before I kick the bucket” travel destinations I would like to visit, which involve boarding a train and seeking out stations that beckon with promise and excitement.

I have even already mapped out in my mind a round-the-world trip that would have me take the train from Paris to Istanbul, then on to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostock, a flight to Alaska, then buses and trains south to British Columbia and down to South America, fly to South Africa then buses and trains back to Europe.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 lunar mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

It is an imperfect and imprecise plan, but then most grand adventures are.

Here in Switzerland, Swiss chests are swollen with pride not only because Swiss athletes have won medals in the Rio Olympics, but because two months ago, on 1 June 2016, the Gotthard Base Tunnel (Gotthard Basistunnel / Tunnel de base du Saint-Gotthard / Galleria di base del San Gottardo / Tunnel da basa dal Son Gottard in the four official Swiss languages of German, French, Italian and Romansh) was officially opened with dignitaries from across Europe extolling its virtues.

20141120 gotthard-basistunnel02-wikipedia-hannes-ortlieb.jpg

And I might visit this tunnel one day, for as much as it pains me to give the Swiss praise – they praise themselves already too jingoistically as it is – I have to acknowledge that Swiss engineers have truly accomplished something noteworthy here.

With a route length of 57 km (35 miles) and a total of 151 km (94 miles) of tunnels, shafts and passages, it is the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel and the first, flat, low level route through the Alps.

The GBT’s depth is approximately 2,300 metres (7,500 feet), which is compareable to that of the deepest mines on Earth.

Without ventilation, the temperature inside the mountain reaches 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit).

The main purpose of the GBT is to increase local transport capacity through the Alpine barrier, especially for freight, notably on the Rotterdam-Basel-Genoa corridor, and more particularly to shift frieght volumes from trucks to freight trains.

Now this is significant, because not only does the GBT reduce the danger of fatal road crashes involving trucks, but it also reduces the environmental damage caused by these trucks.

The GBT bypasses the Gotthardbahn, a winding mountain route opened in 1882 across the Saint Gotthard Massif, which has been operating at full capacity, and establishes a direct route which can be used by both high speed rail and heavy freight trains.

The GBT consists of two single track tunnels, connecting Erstfeld in Canton Uri with Bodio in Canton Ticino, and passing underneath Sedrun in Canton Graubünden.

Passenger trains are now able to travel up to 250 km/h (155 mph) through the GBT, reducing travel times for transalpine train journeys by almost an hour.

And this saving of time and the environment cost the Swiss only 14 billion Swiss francs and nine people´s lives (only one of whom were Swiss).

But these costs in taxpayers´ hard-earned incomes and human life have all been forgiven and forgotten, for a commemoration ceremony – led by a Catholic vicar general, an Evangelical vicar, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam – absolves all guilt… and the massive inauguration – with hundreds of Swiss citizens chosen by lot and dozens of dignitaries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, and the resulting publicity –  absolves all remorse.

Throw in dancers and acrobats, singers and musicians, print and media, all united in harmonious orgasm in a celebration of Alpine culture and history…and you have yourselves the making of one hell of a party.

Artists perform during the opening show directed by German director Volker Hesse, on the opening day of the Gotthard rail tunnel - 1 June 2016

Now I recognize the merit of building a 57-km long tunnel but I find myself unmoved by this hullabaloo, for though the GBT might get me from Zürich to Milano a wee bit earlier, I am robbed of seeing much along the way if I am travelling through an underground passage.

For in reaching the destination quicker, we lose the quality of the journey.

I feel the same way about the Channel Tunnel, having crossed the Channel by boat and through the “Chunnel”, I gained time on the train and felt enchantment on the boat.

Course Channeltunnel en.svg

The trainspotter in me, the rail enthusiast within, does not celebrate the GBT.

Now, as suggested above and in previous blog posts, I have travelled by train in Britain.

A flag featuring both cross and saltire in red, white and blue

I have ridden the rails to Cornwall with my wife and have visited friends in Southampton and Oxford and London by train and thoroughly loved riding old steam trains with a former girlfriend when we vacationed in Wales.

For even though rail travel in Britain is expensive, trains are still generally more comfortable than coaches.

Though British trains are still prone to the occasional delay or cancellation, at least most still run close to their scheduled times.

Though about 20 different companies operate train services in Britain and tracks and stations are operated by yet another company, causing confusion for many passengers, information and ticket services are increasingly centralised.

But the days of the best British trains – the slow, sweet branch lines – endangered in the days when train travel writer Paul Theroux in the early 80s wrote The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain, may be drawing to a close.

“Twelve groups of companies have made applications to run rail franchises until 2020.

Among them is the East Japan Railway Company (JR East) who has made a bid to run the West Midlands franchise, operated at present by London Midland.

JR East is the operator of Japan’s high-speed bullet trains and manages the 742-mile high-speed network north of Tokyo.” (Times, 8 April 2016)

The Shinkansen, falsely translated by Westerners to mean “bullet train” from the Japanese dangan ressha, the nickname given to the high-speed project in the 1930s, actually refers to the earthquake-and-typhoon-proof track.

There are several types of Shinkasen train, including the 0 series – the front of which actually does resemble a bullet – and the 700 series – the front cab resembling a duck-billed platypus.

These trains reach speeds of up to 300 km per hour, and on average arrive within 6 seconds of their scheduled time.

The Swiss are the most frequent train users in Europe and there is no denying that its network is high quality, comfortable, efficient and scenic.

Swiss Federal Railways – or Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (SBB), Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses (CFF), Ferrovie federal svizzere (FFS) – retains a monopoly on most of the network, but there are some routes, especially alpine lines, which are operated by the companies whch constructed them often a century or more ago.

Logo

Still in comparison with other nations, arrival of the railway in Switzerland was relatively late, because each of the country´s Cantons had a say over the routes chosen and they didn´t always agree.

Only after the enactment of the Federal Railways Act of 1852 did the possibility of a nation drawn together by a cohesive rail network become possible.

Zürich´s Main Station (Hauptbahnhof) is the largest railway station in Switzerland.

Heutiger Hauptbahnhof mit allen Anbauten, dahinter die Sihlpost

3,000 trains, carrying over 350,000 passengers, arrive and depart daily on 30 tracks.

The Hauptbahnhof is one of Switzerland´s oldest.

Outside the neo-Renaissance station is a fountain to the memory of Swiss politician and railway entrepreneur Alfred Escher (1819 – 1882) who initiated the construction of the Gotthard Railway and was the founder of Credit Suisse.

(See The Haa Bay and Needle Park of this blog.)

The GBT doesn´t recall the name of Alfred Escher but a Catholic shrine to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, stands inside the tunnel as a memorial to those who built the GBT.

I use the train almost every day, travelling to Konstanz and Zürich for shopping, travelling to St. Gallen, Amriswil, Herisau, Neuhaus and Winterthur for work.

And as much as I enjoy travelling by train, these routes are not my favourite, for I love more intensely the slow, sweet trains, trams and cable cars that climb and descend the hills and mountains of this alpine land.

In a former post, Along the Comedy Circuit, I described how one could travel from the Lake of Constance and the harbour of Rorschach, ride a boat along the lakeshore and up the Rhine River to Rheineck, take a gauge train up the hills to Walzenhausen, walk the Witzweg (Joke Trail) to Heiden, then take another gauge train from Heiden down the hills to Rorschach.

I mentioned how I had made this excursion with my wife.

But as much as I adore and respect my wife, I am very much like Paul Theroux in that I find travel more satisfying, more educational, when I am on my own.

When you travel with someone else your world and your perspective of it is reduced to seeing only one another rather than your isolation compelling you to interact with the world.

I mentioned in A to Z: Adam to Zelg how I taught a family in the village of Zelg in Canton Appenzell.

Zelg is a tiny town in the municipality of Wolfhalden and is reachable by bus from either Heiden or Rheineck and is midpoint by car between Walzenhausen and Rheineck.

On two occasions during my contract with the family Frei I had the opportunity to take these two mountain railways of Rheineck-Walzenhausen (the RhW) and Rorschach-Heiden (the RHB) on my own.

The RhW (Bergbahn Rheineck-Walzenhausen) is a 1.9 km (1.2 mile) long rack railway, that links Rheineck, Canton St. Gallen (SG), with Walzenhausen, Canton Appenzell Ausserrhoden (AR), in operation since 1896.

Strecke der Bergbahn Rheineck–Walzenhausen

Rheineck (Rhine corner) is a Swiss municipality on the Austrian border, where the Rhine River meets and flows into the Bodensee (Lake of Constance).

Rheineck SG Schweiz, Gaißau, Vorarlberg 1.jpg

Rheineck is an old place – by white Canadian, written historical, standards – as it has been around since 1163 when it was known as Castellum Rinegge (Rheineck Castle) – and it is filled with many old structures in its Altstadt.

Rheineck was home to Swiss writer William Wolfensberger (1889 – 1918) and painter Heinrich Herzig (1887 – 1964).

Walzenhausen is a village and a health resort and a starting point of the 8-km long Witzweg walking trail to Heiden.

The RhW starts from platform 1 of Rheineck`s railway station, parallels the SBB’s St. Margrethen – Rorschach railway line for 600 metres (2,000 feet), then makes a sharp right and crosses the highway to reach the Ruderbach stop.

Here the line joins the funicular rack operation and begins to climb at a steep gradient (25%)(272 m / 892 ft) in a straight line to Walzenhausen, passing first through a 315 metre (1,033 foot) long tunnel and then across a 153 metre (502 foot) long iron bridge over the Hexenkirchlitobel (little witches´ church ravine), to finally enter a 70 metre (230 foot) long tunnel under Walzenhausen’s spa house.

The entire journey on the RhW’s single four-wheeled railcar takes only 9 minutes, but despite the discomfort of the car´s wooden benches, one wants to ride the RhW again and again.

The RHB (Rorschach Heiden Bahn) is a standard gauge mountain rack railway, a 7 km (4.3 mile) route that links Rorschach, Canton St. Gallen, with Heiden, Canton Appenzell Ausserrhoden, in operation since 1871, and is a 19-minute journey.

BDeh 2/4 24 mit Velo- und Sommerwagen

Personally I don´t find the RHB as exciting as the RhW, but the places it connects are far more interesting than Rheineck and Walzenhausen for the visiting tourist.

Rorschach, on the south side of the Bodensee, is a very interesting place to visit and not just for its amazing location on the Lake.

One can reach Rorschach by train from either St. Gallen to the south or Romanshorn to the west as well as the RHB up to Heiden.

Highway A1 to the south leads to St. Gallen and St. Margrethen.

Rorschach has a harbour served by passenger ferries that travel to towns on the Swiss, Austrian and German sides of the Lake as well as upstream along the Rhine.

A number of trails begin in Rorschach: the Via Jacobi (one of the routes of the Way of St. James (Jakobsweg) that one can follow to Einsiedeln, Geneva and Santiago de la Compostela in faroff Spain), the Alpenpanoramaweg to Geneva and the Rheintaler Höhenweg (Rhine valley elevated trail) to Sargans.

For the tourist, one can visit the old granary and the Benedictine abbey of Mariaberg, the promenade along the Lake, the St. James Fountain (the starting point of the road to Spain), the bathing hut directly on the Lake, the aviation museum and Hundertwasser House in nearby Altenrhein, as well as the castles of St. Anna, Wartensee, Sulzberg and Wartegg.

Rorschach was the birthplace of Barock fresco painter Johann Melchior Eggmann (1711 – 1756), film actor and 1st Oscar winner Emil Jannings (1884 – 1950), photographer/painter/publisher Ernst Scheidegger (1923 – 2016), Bruno Stanek, space expert and TV moderator (born 1943), and professional racing car driver Neel Jani (born 1983).

(The famous Rorschach inkblot test is named after Hermann Rorschach (1884 – 1922), its Zürich inventor, not the town of Rorschach itself.)

Heiden is also noteworthy as a spa resort, as the birthplace of renowned scientist Hugo Thiemann (1917 – 20112) and footballer Davide Chiumiento (born 1984), and the final residence and resting place of Red Cross founder/Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri Dunant (1828 – 1910).

Dorfansicht von Süd-Osten her

The Henri Dunant Museum is very interesting and well worth a visit.

The RHB is a very comfortable train that ascends 400 metres from Rorschach Main Station (not to be confused with the stations Rorschach Stadt and Rorschach Hafen) and stops upon request at Seebleiche (Pale Lake), Sandbüchel (sandy beeches), Wartensee (waiting lake), Wienacht-Tobel (like night ravine) and Schwendi bei Heiden.

The RHB is a very popular line with both local and international tourists and often the RHB will employ classic train wagons and old steam engines to attract more visitors.

I find myself drawn more towards the RhW and the RHB than the GBT because the old mountain railways embrace the mountains they climb rather than burrow through them.

The RhW and the RHB are symbols of harmony with heritage and nature rather than an avoidance of the environment in the pursuit of speed, in the name of progress.

As I am forced to concede that I do take the fastest trains to work to save time and reach my destination, my heart will always belong to the slow romance of the mountain railways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best kept secret

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 7 August 2016

In preparation for my Friday morning conversation classes and in an ever valiant quest to bring order to the chaos that is our apartment I have stumbled upon an “old” article from the Independent.

And it has got my mind spinning in a variety of directions.

The article is about how scientific technique that is usually devoted to finding criminals was used to solve the mystery of the identity of the elusive graffiti artist Banksy.

The article has got me thinking about the dangers of too much information, the necessity at times for privacy, and the costs of fame.

First, the article:

“A technique used to catch serial criminals has proved that the elusive artist Banksy really is a man named Robin Gunningham, according to academic research that the artist hoped to keep under wraps.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London claim to have tagged Banksy using geographic profiling, by identifying a pattern between the locations where his graffiti artworks most frequently appear and addresses with a close association to Gunningham.

The secretive street artist was the unwilling subject of a statistical geoprofile.

The researchers said they wanted to demonstrate the broader potential of geographic profiling, a sophisticated analysis used in criminology to try and narrow down possible locations where a repeat offender might be living.

Setting themselves the challenge of establishing Banksy’s identity, the academics selected 140 suspected works by the artist in London and Bristol.

The locations suggested clusters of “hot spots” which could be narrowed down, with further investigation, to pinpoint an individual.

The “hot spot” peaks corresponded to a pub, playing fields, a residential address in Bristol and three addresses in London.

Using publicly available information, the researchers concluded that those locations were all places lived in or frequented by Gunningham.

The academics made the unflattering comparison between Banksy’s street artwork, which sells up to 50,000 pounds, and acts of criminal vandalism.

“The pseudonymous artist Banksy is one of the UK’s most successful contemporary artists, but his identity remains a mystery.

The model takes as input the locations of these artworks and calculates the probability of “offender” residence across the study area.

Our analysis highlights areas associated with one prominent candidate (for example, his home), supporting his identification as Banksy.

More broadly, these support previous suggestions that analysis of minor terrorism-related acts (for example, graffiti) could be used to help locate terrorist bases before more serious incidents occur, and provides a fascinating example of the application of the model to a complex real-world problem.

I would not be surprised if Banksy is Gunningham, even without our analysis, but it is interesting that the analysis offers additional support for it.” (Steve Le Comber, biologist, Queen Mary University of London)

(The Independent, 4 March 2016)

Does this article bother only me?

I am bothered by a number of things when I consider this article:

When did graffiti become a “terrorism-related act”?

Why was it so important to uncover this artist’s identity?

How much information is there “out there” about each and every one of us?

Has our privacy become less important than our security or our “right to know”?

What motivates a person to create street art / graffiti is not so clear to me for I have not felt this impulse myself, but should a public structure’s decorations be considered vandalism at best, terror-related at worst?

I think of the Sprayer of Zürich, Harald Naegeli.

(See The artistic criminal of this blog.)

His graffiti provoked heated controversy across Switzerland.

The Swiss authorities and the majority of the general public saw Nageli’s splindly black spray paint human figures as illegal defacement of property.

Intellectuals and artists saw value in them.

Nageli saw himself as a political artist, using graffiti as a means of opposing Zürich’s increasing anonymity.

At the time of his arrest Nageli was responsible for around 900 graffiti across Zürich.

He was sentenced to nine months in prison and a hefty fine.

If it is proven that Gunningham is Banksy, will he share a similar fate, or worse, to the Sprayer’s?

Gunningham was investigated without his consent, almost as if he were considered guilty before given the chance to be proven innocent.

I like Banksy.

Banksy’s impact lies in his anonymity, for an individual can be attacked, belittled, marginalised and shamed, but a message of dissent without its source vulnerable to consequence can be part of a vocalisation of reform and change for a populace desperately afraid of confronting the wrongs of the status quo system elites that govern it.

Now I am referring to street art, as opposed to teenage scrawlings of genitalia or obscenities, or messages like “I was here” or “Bobby loves Suzie” or “For a good time, call…”.

And I personally have no problem with street art on the side of an anonymous office block or alleyway in some huge metropolis like London or Manhattan, but I would consider it defacement to find these above-mentioned juvenile creations on the side of my apartment building here in the isolated rural village of Landschlacht.

It bothers me that criminologists could not rest until they found out Banksy’s identity, for it seems that dissent is a criminal act even if it is expressed in anonymous street artworks.

It bothers me that while criminology can be used to protect citizens from criminals it could also be used to change citizens into criminals.

I have no problem with advanced methodologies used to prevent the reoccurance of violent crimes but how far will this process extend?

If graffiti is considered terror-related, how close are we to the slippery slopes of our justice system declaring our phone conversations, our emails and text messages, our restaurant / bar discussions criminally liable and treasonous to the public interest?

Has George Orwell been proven psychic in his 1984 predictions of a dystopia where BIg Brother is watching and the Thought Police rule?

I wonder.

Artistic differences, dogs and cats, earth and sky

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 7 August 2016

One of the dangers of spending “quality time” with a significant other, especially if much time has passed since the last period of “quality time”, is the need to “discuss the relationship”.

Spend any significant amount of time with a member of the opposite gender and you quickly come to realise just how different the genders really are from one another and that these differences, though occasionally complimentary, can make for serious challenges to a relationship.

Cats will be cats and dogs will be dogs and rarely the two shall mix harmoniously.

There are differences and much is made about these differences.

When I think back to my recent travels in Tuscany with my wife, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, I am struck by how male-dominated Italian society seemed to be, especially in regards to artistic endeavours.

Everywhere we travelled in Toscana we were bombarded by art and literature designed by male painters and male sculptors and male designers and male musicians and male writers: DaVinci, Michelangelo, Bellini, Carducci, D’Annunzio, Dante, Machiavelli, Puccini, Verdi, to name only a few.

But where are the women?

Is Italian heritage and culture only “his-story”?

Is an Italian woman’s role resigned to being Virgin Marias, Mamas, obsessive-compulsive saints, fashion models and nude statues?

Tim Parks, one of my favourite authors known for delighting his readership with his observations on all aspects of Italian life and customs, has recently written a book about the literary lay of the land of Italy.

In his A Literary Tour of Italy, of the 24 writers Parks felt shaped and inspired Italian literature, he mentions only two that were women. (Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzberg)

A Literary Tour of Italy

I think of my own homeland of Canada and other lands I have lived in and it is with some embarrassment that I must confess to a woeful ignorance of the women who have graced these worlds with their creativity and imagination in art, music and literature.

Could it be that men have a great difficulty in acknowledging women’s contributions?

But perhaps all is not total despair for me, this wretched member of the male species…

I have a private student, a lovely lady, a Winti (from Winterthur) who works in the Kunstmuseum in Zürich, and it has been through her I have been educating myself into the mysterious realm of art previously ignored and thought unattainable by this mere country boy from the wilderness of Canada.

To satisfy her thirst for topics for our weekly conversations I have eagerly sought articles about art to pique her continual interest.

At present, in London’s Tate Modern, the works of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) are on display until the end of October.

“There are few artists in history whose work is consistently reduced to the single question: flowers or vaginas?

O’Keeffe, one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th century, is best known for her large-scale studies of flowers, painted as if looking at them through a magnifying glass.

However, since the early 1920s, her vast oil works have been dogged by erotic interpretations.

Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, said a key reason for hosting the O’Keeffe retrospective was to offer her the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist.

“Many of the white male artists across the 20th century have the privilege of being read on multiple levels, while others – be they women or artists from other parts of the world – tend to be reduced to one conservative reading.  It’s high time that galleries and museums challenge that.” (Achim Borchardt-Hume)

Tanya Barson, the curator of this exhibition, emphasised how much O’Keeffe had resisted the sexual reading into her paintings.

The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva was first put forward in 1919 by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who first promoted O’Keeffe’s work and later became her husband.

This cliched interpretation, written a century ago and prepetuated by male art critics, is gendered and outdated.

“I think it’s time to rethink these ideas about her work.  They didn’t come from her, they came from him and we have to question the validity of these interpretations since she constantly denied them over six decades.” (Tanya Barson)

The O’Keeffe retrospective aims to display her as a multifaceted artist, exploring in particular her relationship to photography, music and the landscape of New Mexico, where she lived in the 1930s and 1940s, and in whose spirit and traditions she embedded herself deeply.

Also included in the show will be photographs that O’Keeffe’s husband took of her during their complex marriage, including portraits and nudes.

(What husband truly understands his wife?)

The Tate’s decision to host the retrospective came from an awareness that the contribution of women to 20th century art is still at risk of being overshadowed by men.

(Not only in the 20th century, not only to art…)

“When it comes to contributions of women, we have made it a task to test ourselves much more vigourously when we look at the history of art.  O’Keeffe was very assertive as a woman, but was always very keen to assert that she was an important artist, not just an important female artist.” (Achim Borchardt-Hume)”(The Guardian, 2 March 2016)

I think of Pipilotti.

Elisabeth Charlotte “Pipilotti” Rist is a Swiss visual artist who works with video, film and moving images, and has been featured in Zürich’s Kunstmuseum.

Born 21 June 1962 in Grabs, Canton St. Gallen, Pipilotti, (a nickname harkening to Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking), the daughter of a doctor and a teacher, is famous for her works treating issues of gender, sexuality and the human body.

She is married to Balz Rith, with whom she has a son named Himalaya.

She lives and work in Zürich.

Her work is regarded as feminist by some art critics and is held by many important art collections worldwide, including the Guggenheim and the MOMA.

Working in St. Gallen, I am often reminded of Piplotti as her work is literally underfoot.

City Lounge (2005), created for the Raiffeisen Bank, St. Gallen

In “I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much” (1986), Pipilotti dances before a camera in a black dress with uncovered breasts repeatedly singing “I’m not the girl who misses much”, the first line of the Beatles’ song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”.

In “Pimple Porno”(1992), a work about the female body and sexual excitation, a camera moves over the bodies of a couple, charged with intense colours strange, sensual and ambiguous.

In “Ever is Over All”(1997) a young woman walks along a city street, smashing the windows of parked cars with a large hammer in the shape of a tropical flower.

In “Pour Your Body Out”(2009), she tries to capture a church’s interior where one is constantly reminded that the spirit is good and the body is bad and bringing these two differences together.

Would O’Keeffe have approved?

Does Balz Rith understand Pipilotti?

I think of Canada’s most famous female artist Emily Carr (1871 – 1945).

A Canadian icon, Carr was heavily inspired by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, shifting from aborginal themes to forest landscapes.

Carr, like O’Keefe and Pipilotti, courted controversy.

She smoked and cursed at her students in class, her art was vibrant and alive, her religion nature, her spirit raw and mystic.

When I think of O’Keefe and Pipilotti and Carr, I am inspired to rejoice that the world of art, music and literature has been graced with the inspiration and imagination that all women bring to this world.

I think we do a great injustice to a place when we consider only male contributions as significant, as somehow superior to female contributions.

“There is no question about it — woman is different. That is half the secret of her charm. She is one of those delightful subjects we can discuss, concuss, and rediscuss from every imaginable point of view, ad infinitum, world without end, without ever coming to any final conclusion, because woman is not final herself.
She is always changing, always improving, forever eluding the grasp of the crude male intelligence by never doing just what it expects her to do — the net result being that she usually arrives at her predestined goal before the perplexed and blinking man in the case finds out what she is really driving at.
Then, of course, he consoles himself by denouncing her as illogical, and endeavors to cover his defeat with some such cynical philosophy as that of Chimmie Fadden: “You never kin tell what a woman is goin’ to do until it’s too late to do you any good to know.” This is the principal function of philosophy everywhere — explanation of failure.”
~Woods Hutchinson, A.M., M.D. (1862–1930)

“Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood. ~Oscar Wilde, “The Sphinx without a Secret,” 1891

“Sure God created man before woman. But then you always make a rough draft before the final masterpiece.” ~Author Unknown

“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” ~Charlotte Whitton

“A woman can say more in a sigh than a man can say in a sermon.” ~Arnold Haultain

“I expect Woman will be the last thing civilized by Man.” ~George Meredith

“I would rather trust a woman’s instinct than a man’s reason.” ~Stanley Baldwin

“One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” ~Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949

I think we need to seek out women’s contributions to better comprehend who we are as a species, as nations, sharing a planet together.

For if men are the earth, then women are the sky.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17.jpg