I used to write down numbers.

Well, for a few weeks in fourth grade, I wrote down numbers until I grew tired of it. On a sheet of ordinary paper I simply wrote one number after another and kept going.

… 2371 2372 2373 2374 2375 2376 2377 2378 2379 2380 2381 2382 …

You get the idea. WHY THE HECK DID YOU DO THIS, I hear you cry. As Tevye once said, “I will tell you. I don’t know.” I remember classmates leaning over to watch me to this, especially when an interesting number was coming up, like 4444. Fourth grade must not have been that exciting if David’s numbers were the best show in the room.

opalka numbers
One of Roman Opalka's early "details"

This whole episode flashed back into my memory this week when I read an obituary of painter Roman Opalka, who died on August 6th at age 79. Opalka wrote down numbers, only he kept at it for the rest of his life. He called each of his paintings a “detail,” and they all had the same title: “Opalka 1965 / 1-∞”. Each detail was the same size as his studio door in Warsaw, and the numbers on each detail picked up where the previous one had ended. As he painted each number, he whispered its name in his native Polish. He started the project in 1965, and painted about 400 numbers each day. By the time he died he was well over 5 500 000—he used no commas—though he had originally hoped to reach 7 777 777.

At first he painted white numbers on a black background, but in 1968 he changed to grey, and in 1972 he began adding 1% more white to the grey background each year. By the 2008 the ground was essentially as white as the figures: both the numbers and the visibility merging into infinity.

Croatia 5: Klapa

One of the women's klapa groups. The banner reads "25th evening of Dalmatian klapa and folksingers". Sudamja is the name of the festival, a contraction of the Croatian words for "Saint Duje"

We arrived in Split two days before St Duje’s Day, and discovered to our delight that one of the festivities was a klapa concert. It was to be held in the peristil, the central collonaded area in Diocletian’s Palace. No fewer than sixteen different klapa groups participated, almost half of them women’s groups (until very recently, klapa groups were exclusively male). This was very definitely a concert by and for Croatians: the audience was mostly friends and relatives of the various groups.

The Croatian crowd listening to the klapa concert

It was also a lesson in local customs. The audience was supportive, but also talked freely during the music, and didn’t care about blocking the views of those sitting down on the side stairs (even ignoring other locals who were complaining to the standees in Croatian). Smoking? No problem: almost everyone smokes cigarettes in Dalmatia. We even saw pregnant women smoking.

Klapa is wonderful music, but it’s nothing like the Croatian music I’m most familiar with. Why is this? A glance at a map of Europe reveals dozens of small countries, but most of them are composed of even smaller regions with distinctive languages and traditions. Over my folkdance career I’ve learned many Croatian dances, but it turns out that almost all of them are from Slavonia, the northern inland area of Croatia bordering Austria and Hungary. Our vacation was in Dalmatia, along the south-eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea: just 150 miles from Slavonia as the crow flies, but a very different place. We think of Croatia as an Eastern European country, but Dalmatia has a very western feel, much like Italy. This is not surprising given that the Republic of Venice controlled and influenced Dalmatia from the middle Ages until the Napoleonic Wars. Italy also occupied several pieces of Dalmatia between the two World Wars. All of which explains why klapa sounds so pleasingly western to my ears. If the words were in Italian instead of Croatian, I would never guess that the music wasn’t Italian.

Klapa Dalmacija, our delightful evening's entertainment the night we were docked in Korčula

We were treated to a second, more intimate klapa concert while in Korčula. Klapa Dalmacija, a group from the town of Vela Luka on the other side of the island, serenaded us during dinner. Later on, while they were having their own dinner, they kept singing. We bought one of their CDs and play it often as a reminder of our trip.

Read David’s other blog posts about the Croatia trip!

The Incredible Invisible Milky Way

The Milky Way over Switzerland, (c) Stephane Vetter

Arlene and I just returned from three days in Mendocino, on the northern California coast. It had been foggy recently—a very common thing in Mendocino—but during our stay it was completely cloudless. And no moon! A stargazer’s paradise. I walked down the street to where there weren’t any nearby lights and looked up. And there it was! The magical mystical Milky Way: the combined glow of billions of stars in our own galaxy.

The Milky Way is magical to me because I can’t see it at home. There is so much artificial nighttime light in the Bay Area that only the brightest stars are visible. The Milky Way is still there, of course, RIGHT THERE, EVERY DAMN NIGHT, AND I CAN’T SEE IT.

My brother and I were both interested in astronomy at an early age. Every weekend we went around the neighborhood collecting used newspapers in the old red wagon, which we stacked up in our garage. Once we had accumulated a carload, we’d pile them into our Chevrolet station wagon and Dad would drive us into Oakland to the recycle yard. (I’m sure Dad spent more in gas, not to mention in his time, than we made selling the newsprint. He was generous that way.) After about two years, we took the money we had saved and bought a small telescope. I still remember the first night we used it and saw Saturn.

But we couldn’t see the Milky Way! Suburban Fremont in the mid-1960s already had way too much light pollution. Pretty much the only time I got to see the Milky Way as a lad was during Boy Scout summer camp, far from the city lights.  And as an adult, I still have to journey far to see it: this week was the first time I’d seen the Milky Way in several years. It’s one of the prices we pay to live in the city, and one of the reasons I often fantasize about living out of it.