Monday, October 29, 2007

In Ten Year's Time

Something that I've struggled with much of the time I've lived in The Netherlands is, will I ever come out this? Will I ever come out of the seclusion I've found myself in the past nine years. I'm positive the answer doesn't lie in the Dutch culture itself. I'll always be a foreigner here, even though I speak the language, and have a Dutch passport. It isn't possible to be accepted as a whole into a culture that isn't one's own. People will always look at me as the American, which carries with it elements of suspicion and misunderstanding that I surpass in my own culture. I'll always be an outsider, and I don't like it. I have a strong need to get out. I feel like I've been watching my life go by here, and that I'm shut out of a lot of opportunities as a writer by the nature of where I live. My life and development stopped when I got here. There were a lot of things I could have done rather than come here. I have this vision that I will pick them up once I get back, if I ever get back.

My old fiction workshop teacher Alice Sebold's new book The Almost Moon came out. I took two fiction workshops with her at Hunter College in Manhattan in the early 90s, before she left for California. Obviously, she's achieved enormous success, and I can't aspire to that. From what I've read, it sounds like her opportunities to really develop as a writer, to take things further, started when she became a graduate student at UC Irvine.

I was surprised that she remembered me when I took her second workshop, since I took the second one a few years after the first. My stories often silenced the class. She told me that there was "a brittle disparity" running through my work.

I feel like I could possibly take my writing somewhere, given some opportunity, and a little support. I find myself starving for those two things where I am at now. Maybe I have them already, and I'm taking things for granted too much. Maybe I just need to be like the little steam engine, "I think I can. I think I can" all the way up the hill. Everyone has obstacles. I just need to stop grumbling, and get to it.

Living where I do, I'm shut off from any community at all, let alone the intensive writing community that a graduate program provides. It sounds ideal, but perhaps I'm dreaming.

I'm completely stranded here with my kids all of the time. My situation leaves me feeling so hopeless, it's so discouraging, that I find it impossible to work up enough confidence to start writing again. I have enough material, and ideas to work with, but I just need to convince myself to follow through a bit.

There have been periods when I've felt some inspiration, and I start ticking away, writing some things down, but it hardly ever comes to that. Most of the time I'm stuck here feeling ship wrecked. I'm sure it isn't interesting to read about, but that's what most of my days look like, and I really need to put it behind me soon.

People who live in Amsterdam can talk about what a great city that is to live in, but I don't live there. It's an hour and 15 euros away by train, and let's face it, I can't afford too many trips.

It pains me to think of all of the time that's passed, the daily struggle I've had to face since coming here. Maybe I'll write a novel one day about alienation, after experiencing it for so many years myself. First I need to gain some perspective on the situation, and I don't see that happening if my emotional life continues the way it has been for the past nine years.

Perhaps it's taught me a valuable lesson. I feel like I know what it's like to be a discriminated minority, to be shunned by the majority. Maybe that's a valuable lesson, something that I can take with me somewhere else. I try to think that it can be a form of empowerment, but those are only moments. It's not something I can sustain, or lean on in any way in the day to day.

Some people come here, and are happy that they can work less, and that the health insurance is cheap. They think it's a better society, but that hasn't been my experience at all. Living here isn't better than living in the United States.

People I knew have gone on to getting higher degrees, getting published, going further in their careers, but I'm shut off from all of that by virtue of being here. Maybe if I had lots of money, and lots of freedom, I'd feel differently, but I don't. I could travel back and forth. I could do an expensive online program. I wonder where I'll be if I have to face another ten years of this. It's a scary proposition.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Grin Like The Cheshire Cat

It was an interesting complement to make, when, over two decades ago in group therapy, the therapist said, "You're just like the Cheshire Cat. When you smile, everything disappears."

Okay, I thought. I like that. I went on and on smiling to all kinds of people. No matter how I felt, I smiled. While working as a desk clerk in the New York Hilton, people always commented on my smile. "You're so happy!" They'd say. Walking down the Westside of Central Park one afternoon a tall black man said, "I love your smile," among other things. "Keep smilin', baby."

Just the other day I was laughing at something my daughter did, and my son said, "I like you when you laugh. You don't laugh very much. You should do it more often."

Where did the well-spring run off and disappear to. Where has my undeflected smile gone.

Two years ago while camping in the Dutch forest The Hoge Veluwe, there was a sign in the office. "Practice smiling everyday. It improves the mood. Try it, and you'll see." I tried it immediately, and I must say that it seemed to work momentarily.

You've heard it before, smiling is good for the soul. Children in families that laugh more grow up happier and healthier.

It's taken me more than twenty years to realize, until seeing this photo last Friday of me standing in front of the miniature Freedom Palace at Madurodam, The Hague, that the therapist was right! My smile here really does resemble that of the Cheshire Cat's as depicted in illustrations. How very funny that I should be reminded of it after all these years.

Here I am giving myself advice once again. I'll have to work on keeping the smile there. My winning smile. It's a shame to allow it to completely disappear.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mensch, Durf te Leven...

People, dare to live!

I read this in a Dutch newspaper yesterday, and, if I dare make a disclosure, I think it's been my central problem in life. I haven't held back completely, but I haven't always dared to develop something, to follow through. At times, I've dared the wrong things. I've been impulsive. I've been destructive.

It's an easy command to make, but a difficult one to follow. What is anyone's impulse in "dare to live?" What is central to the "dare." It could be interpreted in so many different ways. What should I dare. Is it calculated, or is it impulsive. After all, I could dare to dance through the center of Rotterdam as a performance piece in brightly colored clothing, all the while, singing a ditty, or I could dare to let out a loud walloping bellow. On the other hand, I could dare to be quiet, reserved, to hold back, and why not?

The article also commands, "take life seriously." I guess it's a combination of seriousness, and courage. What to take seriously. What to discard as irrelevant. Too much worry, and as a result, a lifetime of hesitation, measured response, relativism. I suppose the daringness the article refers to also entails intensity, but intensity can be misleading, a wash of mis-wired emotion when tireless striving is what's really necessary. Even so, there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees, humpf, that old adage.

What if I dare to sit at home, reading all day long? Is that the "right" choice. What if I dare to take care of my children myself? Is that daring, or is it a cop-out? Am I taking too much risk by neglecting to maximize my earning potential, or will I be pleased after years of tireless mothering results in happy, well-developed children? Is daring a life of adventure in far-off lands. Daring to quit one's job, and spend a year writing a novel? Is daring going for that impossible career, developing a talent to the fullest, without restraint. Is daring speaking my mind. Daring can also easily be stupidity. Daring can lead to perilous consequences, to ruin. Daringness can easily be a trap of illusion, when ordinariness, or simpleness is often, for most of us, a more viable recipe for personal, and familial satisfaction.

There have been times when, after some consideration, I've decided to "just do something," but this can be hit or miss. Sometimes just doing something can lead to regret, or to nothing at all. Other times, it can bear accidental fruit. I could just dare to go see a movie, or just dare to take a course, but daring to do nothing might just be the better option, after all. I could just dare to start a blog, just as millions of others have dared to do, but is that daring, after all.

In the end, there are no guarantees, daring, or no daring. After all, daring can be very misleading, don't you think? Perhaps, "people, dare to think!" might be a better command. Then I'm led to the question, what should I dare to think about? There's so much to think, and not to think about. There's so much to do, and not to do. I could dare to leave Europe, too, but I haven't yet, so I'm not sure where that might lead me, my husband, or my children...

Friday, October 26, 2007

Robot Zoo

Here's a bit of excitement. Yesterday we went to the Robot Zoo at the Museon in The Hague. You can control the animal robots yourself remotely. Just like in a conventional zoo, there's no feeding or petting allowed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Public Bathroom

If you're in Rotterdam, visit city hall, and the old post office. They're great old buildings, some of the few that weren't destroyed during the 1944 bombing. Rotterdam was a medieval city, but there isn't a trace of that left now. It's pretty modern. There are a few small vestiges of the old city, thankfully.

Until December 16, you can relieve yourself in this great bathroom, right in front of city hall. You can see out, but they can't see in. It's pretty clean, and it's free! At most bathrooms in much of Europe, you have to pay fifty cents, or so. It was great not to have to go in anyplace, and it was conveniently located in between the dentist, and the Kunsthal, where we were headed to the Jean Tanguely exhibition. You could do a strip show in it, but no one will notice.

Sleeping Fox

It's fall vacation in Rotterdam, and I've been doing some entertaining. Here's a sleeping fox all curled up in the sun at the Rotterdam Zoo, or Blijberg Diergaarde, a great zoo, if you're into zoos. Four years ago, we had some visitors over from Utah and Michigan, and they said that it was the "best zoo they'd ever been to." The Bronx Zoo in New York is a total fog in my memory, so I'm not sure how it compares to that. It beats the Salt Lake City Zoo, although they do have beloved cougars in captivity. The Netherlands is rich in zoos, all with a slightly different character. I haven't been to all of them, by far.

Before having children, and after growing out of childhood itself, I wasn't much into zoos. They were places where animals were confined to limited, articficial environments, far removed from their original habitats. Certainly it's too cold here for Gorillas, but the zoos here feature animals from tropical climates. They do their utmost to make the animals nice homes, but it still can't beat the wild.

Of course, zoos perfrom an important function in research, and in bringing greater public awareness for animals. They can also keep endangered species alive.

Over the summer a visitor to Rotterdam Blijdorp was taunting the big male gorilla Bokito, and he sprung over a four kilometer stream, attacking an older woman who came regularly to see him. He dragged her along, breaking her wrist, until he was tranquilized. It wasn't known that Gorillas could jump so far. But I guess they can when taunted. They've now built a high wall with a view point over the Gorilla island, and finally put tint on the glass inside. Even though there were big signs everywhere inside by the gorillas not to use flash, visitors still flashed away, throwing into question how aware a zoo can make a non-thinking public aware of anything. I've often thought, the animals are better behaved than the public itself...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mincing Words

An after thought to my post on the princesses' failed speech... She could have said that she's seen a lot of The Netherlands, and that she's had a lot of opportunities, but that the Dutch identity is too diverse, and mutable, perhaps, to encapsulate into one simple idea or catch phrase. It's funny that neither she nor the expensive speech writer, nor the think tank behind her came up with this idea. It's so much more nuanced, so much kinder, so much more thoughtful than what she/they said. What an insult to the Dutch people to say that their identity doesn't exist. For all of my complaining, this is an old culture, and there's so much to say about it. It exists in multitudes. I think Maxima, the dingbat, should stick to shopping and traipsing around in expensive clothes.


In Brussels several months ago I read an interview with the Dutch author Hella Hasse in a local newspaper. In it she said that she didn't see how the freedom to sit behind a desk and perform menial office work was emancipation. I couldn't agree more. Of course, working in an office gives you the freedom and power that your own income brings. Being dependent on a man's income isn't an option for most women today, although 62 percent of women in The Netherlands work, most of them part-time, so there must be a lot of dependency going on here.

I read Martha Quest and The Grass is Singing over ten years ago, and I'm not even sure where my copies are anymore. After Martha is married, has a child, and is living miserably as a housewife, Lessing remarks that "she woke up everyday to endless deserts of time," waiting as she did everyday for her husband to return.

In in The Golden Notebook Lessing remarks that each housewife was locked up at home alone and isolated in her own personal hell.

Of course Doris Lessing worked hard, and wasn't afraid to think, or to draw from her own experience.

She said that she wouldn't recommend raising a child without a father, especially a boy. She and her son Peter are still living together today.

Writing a good novel is just as all-engrossing as raising a child well. I doubt very much if the two can go together. Either you neglect the child, or you neglect your work. If you have the money, or you have to work, you can pay someone to raise the children for you. There's always a sacrifice. Of course if you raise your children, and you'd really rather be a novelist the entire time, the children are probably going to grow up being made aware of it somehow. Few people have the true measure of freedom creativity requires to thrive. Perhaps you just have to be bold enough to take freedoms. Someone, or something, eventually has to give. Either that or you wind up on the boulevard of thwarted dreams. Or are they illusions....

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dual-citizenship, Princesses and Other Such Nonsense

"There is no reason to accept the doctrines crafted to sustain power and privilege, or to believe that we are constrained by mysterious and unknown social laws. These are simply decisions made within institutions that are subject to human will and that must face the test of legitimacy. And if they do not meet the test, they can be replaced by other institutions that are more free and more just, as has happened often in the past."
Noam Chomsky

"The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd."
Bertrand Russell, British mathematician, philosopher

As I've repeated so many times, The Netherlands is a savory place to live. In the United States, we have the military-industrial complex, corporate controlled media, rising poverty, exploitation, and countless other ills befalling, and controlling the people in unseen measure. The Netherlands isn't much different from the USA in this regard, I'm sure. On days that my stomach isn't all too weak, I sometimes read the Dutch newspaper, the NRC Handelsblad, and it's just as filled with disinformation and hearsay as any other respectable newspaper.

A lot of Dutch people have become obsessed with people who hold dual, or multiple citizenship. There have been heated debates on the pros and cons of getting rid of dual-nationality, forcing people who want a coveted Dutch passport to give up their original nationality to get one.

My status as an American married to a Dutchman give me the legal right to dual-citizenship. When I went in to file for a Dutch passport, all I had to do was to say a few sentences in Dutch, tell them how long I'd lived here, and that I wanted to apply. The woman at the city hall here turned around, got the paperwork out for me, and told me how much the fee was. I asked her if she was kidding, because I couldn't believe it could be that easy. It was.

A lot of Dutch people like to get all hot under the collar when it comes to dual-citizenship. They'd like it if you forgot that you ever lived anyplace else, spoke another language, said, did, or thought anything other than what they think is right and proper.

They've since made it tougher for people to get a Dutch passport, made up a test, and a language requirement. I had already gone through all of the rigmarole of learning the language, and I've discovered that I know a bit more about the country, and its geography, than some of the Dutch people I talk to.

One of my favorite people, the future queen, Princess Maxima, has recently come under fire for saying that the Dutch identity doesn't exist, or that she hasn't found it. She identified The Netherlands as "a cookie with coffee," "open windows," and other deeply sought observations. After being escorted around the society for years, personally taught Dutch by the most highly regarded Dutch language professors, and given every privilege, a job at the UN, palatial homes, travel, couture clothing, etc. since 2001, this is all she could come up with. It goes without saying that a girl doesn't need to be too smart to marry the prince. Still, she's lauded in the press as being a "great woman," with "beautiful," "sympathetic eyes," just like the queen's. Her eyes will save the monarchy, and she'll come into the good graces of the Dutch public, even after summing up their culture as a cookie with coffee. Even I, with all of my problems and disadvantages, could come up with more than that. (More on that later.)

In The Netherlands we are all required by law to subsidize the monarchy. I haven't been home to visit my family in nearly two years because I don't have the money, but I still have to pay for the princess to say stupid things, and to run back and forth to Brussels to get her clothes made. In the land of greater equality, we have a monarchy.

When I was growing up in the United States, I always thought that monarchies went hand and hand with totalitarianism, feudalism, and general repression. I also naively suspected that they were naturally abolished as a society became more modern and sophisticated. They were something that fell away with the right to vote. Not so in The Netherlands, and many other industrialised societies, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, England, etc...

It's become a source of personal resentment that I came here, struggled, shelled out money to learn the language, taken care of my children myself, but that someone like Maxima comes here, and is given everything. I was even accepted to a Dutch university, but was denied funding because I was over 27 years old. As long as Maxima can wear Blahniks, what does it matter. Inequality exists the world over, and the Dutch like to perpetuate it by keeping their monarchy in place. They are an example of supreme egalitarianism the world over, to be sure.

People who criticize the queen, or anyone in her family, are subject to criticism for daring to speak against these holy untouchables. In writing this, I could be committing treason. Maxima could charge me in court for defamation, as has happened with some people who've said unkind things about the queen. In the land of free speech, speech is not free.

If they finally decide that dual-citizenship should be outlawed, that'll be fine with me. Unfortunately, my children will have to choose between the country they were born in, and the country they'll be living in soon. For me, the choice will be clear enough. At least in the United States I can get funding if I want to get an education.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Heber Creeper

I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry

Ah, Hank Williams. Last time we were in Utah we took a ride on the Heber Creeper, a wood burning steam train that runs from Heber to Provo, and back. If you want to catch a glimpse of this train in action, I'd recommend watching the Robert Redford picture, A River Runs Through It, where that train is featured.

On our way back from the fun ride peopled with family members who love me, we stopped into a diner right out of a Hollywood film, right on Center Street in Heber. I played a few songs on the jukebox, Hank Williams among them. I knew the name, but didn't know much about his music. I hadn't realized what a great artist he was.

It took me a while, but I finally checked out a Hank Williams dvd from the library in Rotterdam, and I'm glad that I did. I've started listening to Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson... Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys.... I'm so Lonely I Could Cry... I've never felt like such a lonely cowboy as I have these years among the icey hearted Dutch. There are many days when I'd be only too glad to settle into a four bedroom house in Springville, UT.

One of my readers from New York City, who I'll identify as Mtt Vscvi, made the suggestion that I give people in the USA an idea of what it's like living in The Netherlands. Well, MV, I can't vouch for anyone else, but here are some examples:

After sitting on the playground at my kid's snotty school in Rotterdam all choked up, and on the verge of tears because no one there ever acknowledges my existence, I gathered my children together, and headed toward the Metro. On my way down a typical Rotterdam street, strewn with dog shit and garbage, I encountered a group of middle-aged Moroccan men. There were other people on the street, typical white Dutchmen, some of whom were engaged in loud construction work. One of the Moroccan men smiled, or nodded. Then he said, "What wide open eyes you have! I'd like to fuck you." To which I called him a pig in two languages. Of course, all they did was laugh at me. One of the fathers from two kids in my kids' classes walked by at this point, but of course he couldn't be bothered to do anything at all, and has never even asked me about it. Lilly-assed Dutchman. He even looks like a lilly ass. His wife wears four inch stilletos to pick her kids up from school. I guess she pulls out the whip after the kids are in bed every night.

About a month ago I went to the parent-teacher night for my daughter's class. I was looking forward to reading my book on the Metro ride over, and settled into Annie Tyler's The Maytrees, but didn't get far. It was 9/11, and there seemed to be a lot of young Muslim men out celebrating on the streets.

In the first car was a group of young Moroccan men making lots of noise singing music from their village back home, so I moved to the next car. One of them followed me. He proceeded to ask me if the Metro stopped someplace. I pointed to the map on the wall, and tried to continue reading. But he wouldn't leave me alone. He kept asking me questions. Where was I from. What was I reading. I kept trying to ignore him without seeming rude. Then he sat down right next to me in an empty car, and kept talking. "Are you scared of me?" "No. I'm reading," "I can't read English," Wow, like I care. Then he put his hand out for me to shake it. I didn't know what to do, so I shook his hand. Turns out you should NEVER shake hands with a Muslim man, because then they think it gives them the right to touch you further. I had to duck my head away from him as he tried touching my cheek and hair. Thankfully, he had to get out at this point. While he was standing at the door, he said "Why not. It's so nice," (Actually, he said lekker, which is the equivalent of delicious). Then he kept repeating "lekker" over and over again before getting off the Metro.

I got to the school a minute or two late, but was still able to get a cup of tea. When I got to the classroom and sat down, the parents were introducing themselves. After I'd introduced myself, the teacher asked in front of everyone why my daughter (four-years-old) missed school that day. In the past year I've made myself unpopular at the school for allowing her to stay at home to rest resulting in 20 absences (she was FOUR). Well, I'd probably be unpopular, at any rate because I speak English to my children everywhere. A big taboo here. I don't care. I'm teaching my children English, and I don't care if they spit on me for doing so.

In short, after being harassed on the Metro, I was accosted once again by my daughter's school teacher, a short Dutch woman who looks like a frog, for keeping her home after she woke up in the middle of the night crying with an ear ache. I told the teacher that she seemed just fine during the day, to which the teacher scoffed that I'd allowed her to "play hooky."

Oh what fun it is to live in the land of the broad minded Dutch. Children here are allowed to stay at home until they're five, and even until they're six, they are allowed to stay at home one day every week, but this law didn't prohibit my daughter's teacher from calling me out in front of everyone. How appropriate. Maybe I should have told her that I was just getting over being harassed on the Metro, and could she please leave me alone.

I'm so lonesome I could cry... My bucket's got a hole in it... Oh yeah.

Hey Thar Cowgirl...

As an American in The Netherlands I've come at times to identify with Americana I distanced myself from while a resident of the good ol' USA. One of my funnier recurrent fantasies is to come back from a visit to Utah with a brand spankin' new pair of genuine Tony Lama's, a pair of lip hugging Wrangler's, and a nice big hat. I could go back to curling my hair everyday, and wearing makeup, or I could get a perm. I could develop a bounce in my walk, and purchase a belt with turquoise inlay. Mind you, I'd need a good ol' fashioned wad o' cash to do so, but it might be worth the supreme feeling of disdain I would feel walking down the streets of Rotterdam, having made myself into a true outcast.

Most Dutch people like to pride themselves on being better than Americans, and their society as being better than America. They're constantly comparing themselves to America in the newspapers. I'm sure that they think of themselves as superior in every way to me, a lowly American without a drawl. Faced up as I have been with this attitude for the past nine years, it would be great to play right into it with one of the greatest American icons there is, the cowboy. It would be a fun way of saying "Fuck you," to all of the fun people I see regularly, but who keep their distance because I'm too different from them.

Of course, I've come to prefer wearing running shoes everyday for comfort, but I checked out the Tony Lama website, and they do have orthopedic boots. They might just be comfortable enough for long walks through Rotterdam flaunting my new identity.

Monday, October 8, 2007


I found this poem on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's homepage:

Why do I have to fight???
(By Daw Aung San Suu Kyi)

They killed my father a year ago,
And they burnt my hut after that
I asked the city men "why me?" they ignored
"I don't know, mind your business," the men said.
One day from elementary school I came home,
Saw my sister was lifeless, lying in blood.

I looked around to ask what happened, if somebody'd known,
Found no one but living room as a flood.
Running away by myself on the village road,
Not knowing where to go but heading for my teacher
Realizing she's the only one who could help to clear my throat,
But this time she gave up, telling me strange things in fear.

Why, teacher, why.. why.. why?
I have no dad nor a sister left.
To teach me and to care for me you said, was that a lie?
This time with tearful eyes she, again, said...
"Be a grown one, young man,
Can't you see we all are dying?
And stop this with your might as soon as you can,
For we all are suffering."

She has several very beautiful poems on her website I recommend reading.

If I had been a stronger woman, I would have been a fighter like her. But I have no country to fight for. If I had been a stronger woman, I would have been an activist with a voice crystal clear, speaking for those less fortunate than we. If I had been a stronger woman, I would have had the courage for many, instead of the very little I have left for me.

One of the last papers I wrote before leaving Hunter College in Manhattan was on Burmese nationalism. My teacher loved it so much, he recommended me for a fellowship. He was a generous man.

It would be great to have more meaning, to do something to make a change in the world. Wouldn't it?...

If you haven't signed the petition yet, you can do so here:

I hope the Burmese people win their struggle this time, and that Suu Kyi can finally take her rightful place as their democratically elected leader.

I recommend The Glass Palace to everyone. It's a beautifully written book about colonialism in Burma, and about the downfall of the Royal family. It brought the realities of colonial life into my imagination. I read it almost without putting it down.

Sojourner Truth

I changed my profile description today from, "Mama Mojo is a star trying to create something, anything, in the face of isolation," to "Mama Mojo is a sojourner currently living in The Netherlands."

When I typed "sojourner" into Google, I was reminded of Sojourner Truth, who made up the name herself, and became famous for her speech, "Ain't I a woman?" When we learned about her in Women and the Media, this phrase sent chills down my spine. What a heroic person she was.

I realize that sojourner is probably a combination of solitary and journey. My search didn't turn up an official definition, but lots of sites about Sojourner Truth. Her pseudonym says so much. Perhaps I'd be a braver person if, like her, I'd been forced into slavery, and born 13 children, only to see them taken away and sold off. It's incredible what some people's lives bring them. Perhaps I would have been totally broken down by such tribulation. Perhaps if I hadn't been born a relativist, I wouldn't be sitting here thinking about her now. I'd be out there digging my claws into gainful employment instead of endless rumination.

In the Pantheon

Here I am in the Pantheon...

Oh Candide!....

"I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me.” --Oscar Wilde

The eternal optimist Candide returns from lifelong strife to marry Cun├ęgonde, and quite simply, to plant a garden. There's nothing left for him to do.

There was a point about five years ago here when I thought I should volunteer on a farm, but since I can't stomach the scent of manure, this would have been a bad idea.

This photo actually is of the Pantheon in Paris, where Voltaire is buried. You can just barely see the sphinx, and Foucault's Pendulum.

I was reminded of Voltaire while looking at photos of our trip to the Pantheon in Paris this summer. It was originally built as a church to honor the patron saint Genevieve, but was later rededicated as the temple of France, and as a resting place for its great "men," (Marie Curie is interned there), foremost among them, Voltaire.

The Bernstein opera Candide is one of my favorite pieces of music. What a witty libretto written by Lillian Hellman, and the music Bernstein wrote to accompany it is just as witty to match. It's a real brain tickler. I've felt on many occasions, since singing it in choir at Hunter College, that it's my theme music.

With every mishap, disappointment, bad turn, I try to find some hidden jewel of wisdom. I try to think, like Candide, that if this or that unforunate thing hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't have been led to do such and such a thing, which is really what I wanted, after all. On the other hand, I am also quite pessimistic. Voltaire originally intended Candide as a parody of optimism. Every disappointment leads us to a new and surprising place. In the end, it leads us to the right place, even if we hadn't intended on going there.

I'm not sure if there's any point in this. Just passing it along to anyone who might be passing by here...

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Learning a language sharpens the mind, and other ruminations...

I've read that learning a language is a good defense against dementia. Dostoevsky reportedly learned Greek later in life. Some advice books recommend language learning as a means to sharpen one's native language skill. I've read that many talented writers learned several languages.

Perhaps learning Dutch has made me a better writer, or a smarter person, who can judge? Certainly, I couldn't compare myself with Dostoevsky. I am now attempting to learn Swedish.

The more I hear spoken Swedish, the more I want to master it. It's such a beautiful language, and it's a language I've wanted to learn my entire life, unlike Dutch.

While in Paris this summer I picked up Gregorius by Bengt Ohlsson in translation at Shakespeare and Company. What a brilliant read. He's supposed to be one of Sweden's most talented contemporary writers.

I've sometimes thought that I would be happier if I'd ended up in Sweden, instead of The Netherlands. Of course, with the cold and dark winters, I'd probably just have more to complain about. People like to claim that the Swedes are cold and unapproachable, but I can't imagine that they could be much more disinterested than the Dutch. Any culture has got to be difficult to break into, and there's nothing like the comfort level of one's own culture. If only I were less reticent, I might have made a greater success here.... I must admit to identifying with the Swedish demeanor on a visit there in summer 2000.

Several months ago I read on the Internet that Sweden has the most progressive prostitution laws in the world. They used to have the same prostitution laws as the current Dutch laws, but after realizing that legalized prostitution is a total failure that only sanctions the illegal traffic in women and children, they developed a simple, yet brilliant strategy: Criminalize the client, ie, jail the men! What a revolution! Finally, tackling an ill from the predatory side. If you criminalize the demand for prostitution, you curb the demand. They also found that such an approach improves the position of women in society in general!

I was so happy to read this. It made me want to jump on a plane to Sweden right away. Not only do they have some of the most liberal women and child friendly maternity leave laws, the most successful daycare system, a progressive policy toward bullying in school (educate everyone), but they're doing something to help change one of society's greatest problems today: prostitution and trafficking. It should have been thought of thousands of years ago, but the Swedes are doing it today.

I don't think this will ever happen in The Netherlands. The Dutch government is too happy with the tax revenue it gets from prostitution. I'm not sure what they're doing about illegal trafficking, but I'm afraid that it probably isn't much. From what I've read in the newspapers, they're very good at looking the other way, and claiming that their policies are working, when they are a failure.

When I moved here I noticed that there was a lot of hostility toward women generally, and me in particular, on the street level. I'd always wondered if it had any correlation to women standing in shop windows literally for sale. I think that this level of degradation affects women on all levels of Dutch society, and gives men a general license to mistreat women and girls, and to see them as inferior beings, commodities, even. The study in Sweden proves that my suspicions are well founded.

Things couldn't get much worse than in Germany, where a woman can apparently be denied unemployment benefits if she doesn't accept a job as a prostitute. Since prostitution became a "legitimate" means of earning a living, pimps/madams and the like started recruiting from employment agencies. If a woman denies a chance at a job, she can legally be denied benefits, and this includes an "opportunity" to work as a prostitute. I would imagine that this law has since been amended. How absurdly arcane. Liberal/legalized prostitution hasn't improved anything The Netherlands, or anywhere else, it's apparent.

An interesting digression...

I've started listening to Swedish radio broadcasts in hopes that this will somehow adapt my mind to the language. I learned Dutch by being forced to hear it a lot, and not so much from studying, but I'm sure it was a combination of the two.

I hope that once I have learned Swedish I will be a smarter person, and a better writer. Who knows, perhaps someday I'll get to spend more time there. It sounds like a better place to be.


Having felt vastly misunderstood ever since moving to The Netherlands in 1998, really felt like I've run into one brick wall after another, I found this interesting quote online last night. It clarifies much of the misrepresentation I've experienced here, from the neighbors, to the teachers at school, to literally just about everyone I've "bumped" into since coming here... Of course, there are a few valiant people out there who have been capable of looking beyond whatever it is about me that turns so many people off... Thank god for them!... The simple matter of the fact is, I don't belong in a flat country. It's quite obvious. I don't belong here... Here's the quote...

The fundamental attribution error: "The tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person's actions depend on what 'kind' of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person." Amen.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Biding Time during a Block

What a bizarre lack of inspiration politicians are. Yesterday morning I went to a book signing in Rotterdam of Bill Clinton's latest political tract, Give or Geef (they only had Dutch language copies).

After waiting in line for about two hours, I finally got a glimpse of the man in person.... My first reaction was, wow, he's short!... Not much taller than my 5'6"..... I admit to feeling a surge of American patriotic sentiment, standing as I was in a crowd of perspiring Dutch people, nearly all of them taller than I. I nearly cried, I felt so bad for myself.... But I was able to wait out my emotional wave, and the tears didn't come.

I shook his hand, said my name, told him I voted for him, and Hillary, which really caught his attention. He actually looked right at me, turned his head to look again, and thanked me. I was able to steal a few more seconds, and a few extra glances, than the rest of the folks were when I actually said my name in an American accent. It seemed that most of the people weren't saying anything....

I had spent some of my time while feeling faint in line thinking that I had better things to do, but I persevered in the thought that this might be my only opportunity to touch Bill, and to look him in the eye. I actually started to feel inspired, and made several resolutions on my walk back to the Metro. I too could do great things....! I too could do great things....! What a revelation. My life was going to make a great turn around that afternoon! And I had a brief meeting with Bill Clinton to thank for a brighter tomorrow.

When I read the sentence on the poster in the bookstore, "We all have the capacity to do great things," it reinforced my feeling that I was doing something good, of iets nuttigs, in het Nederlands. Just goes to show what a sucker I am for marketing. I even told the guy behind me that the book was probably inspirational, if a bit clich├ęd. Well, my friends, I am here to tell you now that it is none of this....

Later that evening I started to read the book, which turned out, as I've already said, to be a political tract in support of Hillary's campaign. The book starts out as a list of all of the great things the Clintons have done for the world, and of what great people they are on top of it all. Hillary was of course a great mother who contributed to the common good her entire life. Then it goes on to list other great and powerful, and fabulously rich people in the world who've done great things, including fighting aids in Africa, and the Clintons are associated with all of many of these people, naturally.

It's funny that I've read persuasive articles to the contrary in The New York Review of Books. Hillary was never much of an activist, and turned her back on her activist roots in political revenge. All of the rich Western NGOs crusading against AIDS in the developing world have apparently done a lot more harm than good. As always, the most that's been done to combat the AIDS epidemic has come from the grassroots level, and not from ingratiating politicians looking to score humanitarian points with the masses.

The article on AIDS in the NYRB quotes a Ugandan saying: "there is Slim AIDS and Fat AIDS. Slim AIDS is what happens to the emaciated victims of HIV. Fat AIDS is what happens to the consulting companies who win contracts from International AIDS Inc."

Ever the salesman, Bill was out there plugging himself and Hillary, signing 1,000 books in Rotterdam, and I was one of the suckers who shelled out 20 euro, and several hours of my time to get one.

Eeking out a few words...

About two years ago I picked up the Joyce Carol Oats novel Blonde at a used bookstore in Amsterdam. There was this great sales guy from Hoorn working there who'd worked as an botonist in Peru, or someplace, and was slowly writing a Ph.D, but that's another story.... (I'm always surprised, at my age, when anyone flirts with me, my head turning days having ended long ago....)

Of course Arther Miller plays a small role in the book, since he was Marylin's husband. She criticizes him for for slow writing. Apparently, he spent a lot of time on one project, eeking out a few sentences, or was it paragraphs, per day. So that means that in the spectrum from Joyce, extreme profluence, to Arther Miller, and then to me (Daniel Bartholemew might figure in there somewhere), I might not be doing too badly as a writer of minimal words, after all. :-)

Incidentally, I became so depressed reading Blonde, that I had to put it down in the end, and have yet to read the last 50-100 pages. Poor Norma Jean. Otherwise, brilliant book about the tragic life of a brilliant woman.

Write 1000-2000 words a day

Here's a goal: If you want to be a writer, you should write 1000-2000 words every day! Of course, all of the advice says, if you want to write, you have to write regularly. Fair enough. Very sound advice indeed. Although, I can't seem to follow it.

Does this mean 2000 words of blather? Or does it have to be focused, purposeful writing. Will "automatic" dadaist writing do? The advice doesn't say. So many days go by of me persecuting myself for not coming up with something brilliant, predigested, and perfectly worded, that I do not write a word, but writhe in a lack of profluence.

Some of my best writing is under 500 words, which almost always comes out in a minute of inspiration. Problem is, inspiration running low.... Of course, this was an advice website for aspiring freelance journalists, a career I gave up over 15 years ago. The guy said that he reads hundreds of magazines. I just don't have the stamina for that anynmore. I may have back in my early twenties, but I changed, and now that's all over.

Even though I am not hyper-productive, and I question my motivation a lot, underneath it all, I like to think I am a writer.

Some other advice I've read is to tell people that you're a writer, if you want to be one. I did this for years in between dropping a journalism career, and dreaming of writing stories. Okay, I'd written some stuff in Alice Sebold's creative writing classes at Hunter College in New York, so I can't say that I was a total fraud. I'd written lots of other things. But I did feel like a fake a lot of the time when I told people (mostly in the art community of New York) that I was a fiction writer. Some astute people would want to know what kind of fiction I wrote. I had a remedy for this, too. I told them the truth, which is that I play around with voice, using material from my own life, developing different persona's.

Once, years ago, in the process of giving up a journalism career, I met with a guy who was a feature writer for Forbes or Fortune. He told me that when he was starting out he had what he like to call the "impostor complex." He was working at Time, but had a constant internal dialogue that he was an impostor, and that sooner or later, someone was going to find him out, and that he would get the sack. Of course, his fears were never played out, and he went on to have a career in journalism.

What a shame that I've never had the guts to go for anything. Even with people around me telling me that I was capable, I was always intent on proving to them that they were all wrong, and that I was right. I really was the impostor. It's a great way to squander all of your talent, grinding it down into sodden ashes.

There can always be a new dawn. I might just achieve my personal millennium goal to become a writer, yet. Hooray!