Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Moon Tonight

The moon, the moon, the moon, balloon.

I just took this photo from our garden. The moon is full and bright, and the clouds are moving rapidly across it, changing the diffusion of light in the night sky. It was difficult getting a shot without neighboring buildings obstructing on the sidelines, and zooming with a small digital camera with little daylight only leads to a more blurred image. I didn't bother with a tripod. All of my photos are snapshots. My new digital camera is so dinky, and I haven't gotten used to it yet, which has resulted in many less photos. Perhaps the early days of my digital photographing mania are changing into a more cautious approach, although I personally don't see a problem with amassing hundreds of thousands of snap happy shots over the course of years. With film I took fewer consecutive shots, but I enjoy seeing a rapid series of images expressing movement, capturing the nuance of facial expression I would otherwise miss, or in this case, the many faces of the moon. A person's face, especially a child's is so varied in utterance. A variousness that can only be captured in its completeness in a frozen second, moments that would otherwise go underappreciated are recorded, and can be enjoyed again and again, with renewed wonder each time, over the course of our lifetimes.


I find myself thinking that I will become like the bookstore, a relic dissolving bit by bit into the city while change flows all around it. I can almost see myself thirty years on still staring at the window, except that my face is stained and marked and dusty as well. I wish there was someone who would give me a chance to try my hand at something better, something I am capable of.....

But they're sometimes on my my mind, and it seems to me that I notice the things and people nobody else does, the decrepit and the defeated and the solitary, perhaps because I identify with these aspects so closely.....

Why do I see these things and nurse them and take them home with me when I have gone back to the flat after fighting with the auto-rickshaw drivers or having warded off the hands trying to grope me on a bus? I sit with the lights off in my room, and wonder what I am doing with my life and why the things I looked forward to during college never happened.....

Surface, Siddartha Debb

Self Study

I did not feel the least surprised that an amateur palmist should have been accurate in some of his guesses. It was the nature of the place, not the science of palmistry, that had once again brought up the question of who I was and who I had been and what I would become. After all, Sema had given me a new identity card in Kohima. Perhaps prolonged self-scrutiny was the price one paid for the freedom of a new identity.

Surface, by Siddartha Debb

Get on a Pogo Stick, and Spring....

It was a first step in a journey towards my independence, finding out if I could emerge from the stupor of the past seven years to start a new life. People do it, Herman had said. They change careers midway, go to college again, begin anew, because the self is not a fixed, immutable thing but a core around which our hopes and acts fashion fresh layers of being every day. There are no laws that say you cannot become much more than your environment asks of you, nothing that prevents you from seizing the circumstances and shaping a unique role for yourself in the flux.

From the brilliant novel "Surface" by Siddartha Debb.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Greatest Speech Since Seneca...

If you've never seen Dr Martin Luther-King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, you ought to. It's got to be one of the most moving, beautiful speeches of all time. I managed to listen to it twice just now without shedding a tear, which was quite difficult, but I was intent not to cry.

Oh Happy Day....

When I was a high school student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of my good friends was a member of the Holy Rollers congregation. As I understood it from her, at the Holy Rollers, everyone stands up, sings and dances together. Every Sunday, it's one big celebration. When she told me about it, I found it a little silly; all of that over-joyous, fevered singing embarrassed me.

Incidentally, my friend, an African American, was one of the smartest students in a high school, in a town, with one of the top Universities in the United States. She's a lawyer in Atlanta now.

Every now and again in my cramped life in The Netherlands, I explore Internet radio. In the past few days I've started to appreciate African American gospel music. And I find myself thinking, there's no place like home.... It's wonderfully exuberant music. This, combined with footage of African American women giving their opinions from beauty parlors on Obama and Hilary has made me a bit envious of Black American communities. They seem so tightly knit. They have each other.

As a student at New York's Hunter College, I worked with several African Americans on the school newspaper. They are all intelligent, ambitious young people who went on to respectable careers.

While at Hunter I also had the privilege of tutoring numerous young African American college students who'd come from inner city schools. They were all hard working, holding jobs, and sometimes raising children, while studying. I'm sure they all "made it." They were lovely people, and it was a joy to help them learn to become better writers.

I also lived in Black Harlem, 110th Street and 5th Avenue in the late 1980s. The turn-styles in the Subway were permanently broken, and almost no one ever threw a token into the box set up at the entrance. I even dared not to throw a token in there a few times....

Funnily enough, while at Hunter, I also ran for office with a group of African American students head by a huge black guy with corn rows. They had their own newspaper at school, and were known never to associate with white students on principle. But they associated with me. I was glad. We never became good friends, and we lost the race, but we were always friendly with each other after that. It was something I liked doing, building bridges across boundaries that other people weren't willing to cross. I've said it before. I've always felt like I had no boundaries.

The Netherlands is a different kind of place, even more segregated and rigid than the supposedly deeply divided United States. You'd think that because I have European heritage (I'm about as white and blond as they come), and come from a "Western" country, I'd be accepted into the fold here, but it isn't the case. Even when I think I've made a friend with a Dutch person, that person always puts up a wall for me. I feel like I'm constantly being judged. My Dutch is perfectly good, but it's never good enough, and no one here has ever put their faith in me, given me a chance. It's like the land of zero opportunity. If I'm lucky, I might get thrown a few scraps here and there. After I moved here I got job offers at Newsweek, Business Week in New York, but no one called me for any jobs here.

A popular theme in Dutch media is of the "underdog" African American communities in the United States. The Dutch media adores pointing a finger at the United States for not taking care of its African American citizens. There are undoubtedly problems in many of these communities, but there also exists in many parts of the United States, strong communities of African Americans, and there are many thousands of success stories.

Last week I went to the book signing of a (white) Dutch (male) thriller writer who's making his career out of writing books about African American "loosers." He won an award for his first novel, and is gaining momentum in his career here and in other non-English speaking countries.

Funny. It struck me. There wasn't a single black person at the signing. His book is called "Born Loosers," in Dutch, or Geboren Verliezers. I don't know why he's chosen this as a subject matter, but it struck me that he doesn't know a single black person, probably never has, never will. Certainly he's never known an African American. I suppose the premise of the book is to lambast and mock the United States. He was called the best thriller writer in the Dutch language in the most prestigious Dutch paper, the NRC Handelsblad.

Yesterday I read an article about Jimmy Breslin in the New York Times. One of his premises as a journalist is that when someone fails, there's always a story. He's well-known for having contacts in the mob, and for interviewing the boxer who lost. Maybe it's true. Perhaps failure does make a better story.

Last year I took my kids to the World Museum in Rotterdam where they have an exhibit for children of hotel rooms in different parts of the world. With a glint in her eye, the receptionist sent us to the Native American room. They didn't have much to say about Native Americans, their cultures, languages, customs, way of living. But they did have a lot to say about how persecuted they've been since white Europeans landed on their territory many hundreds of years ago. They spoke about the persecution done by white Americans, not white Europeans. I know about this history, and it has saddened me much of my life. But I also think that there's something to be said about saying something positive about a person's culture, and this is what the Dutch museum was wont to do. Native Americans say this themselves. They're ready to move on as communities, and they too would like to focus on the positive aspects of what being them is all about.

I'm ready to move on, too.... Maybe I'll go join the Holy Rollers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Here's the Thread

There's a thread that I've been attempting to pick up on in the barren universe I've found myself stuck in here in this greatest of social universums, The Netherlands.

I can't speak for anyone else, but my experience here has been a negative one indeed, and it doesn't all lie in myself, my outlook, my response. I've been attempting to keep my head above water here for going on ten years now. That's a long time to be merely surviving.

There's this happiness research going on at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm not doing too well in any of the "happiness indicators" they list as being key to happiness. The most important elements are closeness to people, friends, family. I feel like a one girl show. There isn't much closeness on offer. Of course, I have only been too aware of this all these years. It's not like I'm sitting back here not trying to find any solutions, either. But it just seems like whatever I do, whatever overtures, whatever I try, snaps right back at me and hits me in the face.

One of the things I like to tell myself is, "You're a tough person. You're a survivor. You can do anything. You don't need anyone. You can do everything on your own," which would make me an extrodinary person, far outside of the norm. Instead, I've become bitter, angry. I'm a walking ball of discontent. No one's going to walk up to me and say, "Hey. I'll be your friend! I'll be nice to you, and together we're going to turn this all around!" I've faced so much rejection and negativity here, I try to ignore people as much as possible. How much can I possibly put myself out on a line, only to be pulled off of it again. It's just not worth the risk. That to me is sort of the key to this society. That's what I've learned here. Don't take any risks, because if you do, you'll be slapped on the hand, or worse.

I'm here existing, and I've been crying out for years. I've been throwing out my fishing line for years in different directions. How unlucky can any one person be. All I've wanted to do for years is go back to where I was, but since the chances of that happening are unlikely, I make little steps here in varying directions.

What an awful society this is. Everyday, I am constantly amazed at the stinginess of the people here. Mostly, they're stingy with their friendliness, and that's what burns me the most.

I've been asking myself for years here, "What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I so lonely here. Why is my life here such a resounding failure."

Answer, people aren't nice to me. People aren't supportive of me. I can cry, say, tell. I can talk, complain, rail. Things, life, has been wrong for me here from the start. I've been saying it for years. For years and years. And now the time has finally come. I don't care if there's a recession in the United States, or if the insurance is unaffordable, or if some people have guns. I don't care if the gasoline prices are high.

All the things I lack here are good for taking ten years off of my life expectancy, and that's how many years I've wasted living here. So that's twenty years from my life in total that I've squandered so far.

The Dutch like to accuse and laugh at Americans for being positivists. We're too friendly. We're so friendly, we're all a bunch of phonies.

Well, I'd like to suck up some of that attitude right here and now. I'm going right back down there to that level. Somehow, I've got to get back to the days when people were amazed at how much I smiled, when I was always courteous, considerate, polite. There are layers of damage, but that person is there, and that's where I'm headed to, so help me God.

I once read an article about a Dutch gymnastic athlete who trained in the United States with an American coach. Her response to the criticism that Americans were too positive was, "It feels good to hear 'good job,' and 'keep up the good work!' all the time. It makes me work harder."

In Germany, leading up to the the World Wars, it was a fashionable method of parenting to ignore your child's needs from the start. The theory went that you should give stern looks, and generally treat your infant and child with ill will. It was considered "good" parenting to be mean, because then you had your children under your control. All you had to do was to look at them in certain way, and that was enough. They'd fall right into line. This became a vogue in Germany, I read, in the mid to late 19th century, and it continued to be a vogue up into the war years. Gee, I guess the worst parents were the ones who reared SS officers.

When I had children here people told me to leave my infant screaming in its crib. It went against my nature. People here have been doing their best to enforce their life philosophy on me for years, and it goes against my nature. I don't want to be mean, stern, unfriendly, stingy. Those are all things that I don't want to be, and I don't want my children to be that way, either, and so, I must leave. I cannot fight a one girl battle anymore.

I've met with a lot of negativity here, and a lot of criticism. People are so rarely nice to me. It's been non-stop and relentless. When people say something good about me, I'm inclined to believe they're lying.

I became extremely depressed, and finally went into therapy. Even the therapist said in reaction to my loneliness, "But you've been like that before, haven't you. You never did have friends. You've always been a loner." Those were some of her last words after about two years of being "under her care."

Yesterday, my daughter told me that her teacher "got mad" at she and her friend for getting something wrong on a game they were playing. My daughter is five. My son is also often scolded by his teacher. I guess those are the old school ways, and Europe is the old school.

The Netherlands trails behind many leading economic powers in innovation. They look at their navels, and ask themselves, "Why aren't we doing better than other countries in the West?" Answer: Doing better means positive psychology. It means stimulating children from a young age with positive feedback. It means creating communities of people where people, rather than looking askance at one another, put their best foot forward with their neighbors. It means offering friendship and help.

Apparently I'd need to be about a millionaire to make up for what I lack in here terms of support. I'm not sure if I'll find what I'm looking for in the United States, but I've been looking here for long enough, and I'm sick of trying.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Salacious Santa

This sculpture by the American artist Paul McCarthy, who was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, has been standing in the courtyard of the Boijmans van Beunigen Museum in Rotterdam for several years. It always struck me as silly, funny, clunky, something to appeal to a child's sensibility. I'd sometimes joke with my kids about it in a passing way while walking up the stairs to the entrance, trying to stimulate their interest in art in whatever little way I could. Funnily enough, they never expressed much interest in the sculpture, preferring a double-mirrored tunnel-like sculpture by Dan Graham that stood in the courtyard for a while.

I always thought of the sculpture as a gigantic gnome, or "kabouter," in Dutch, pretty neutral stuff, and I still do. I hadn't realized it was a work by McCarthy, who is known for his shocking, at times horrific, and bloody, sometimes fecal, video works. His work is aesthetically revolting, unappealing. I avoid it whenever I can.

About a week ago I was surprised to read in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad that it's a McCarthy, and that it originally came to the Boijman's courtyard to be hidden from the general public. Originally intended as a public sculpture, it incensed a lot of people as sexually provocative. The thought never occurred to me at all, and I'm kind of disappointed to know about it, because now whenever I go there, and look at it, I'll have to be reminded of its popular nickname, "Kabouter Butt Plug." Just goes to show how much my thinking apparently diverges from general thinking, perhaps, because I never saw an inkling of sexual connotation in the brass gnome.

The City of Rotterdam is currently looking for a new home for the sculpture, also known as Santa Claus, but no one wants it in her neighborhood because they don't want to look at what to them looks like an over-sized dildo regularly. The thing he's holding is supposed to be a Christmas tree, which makes more sense to me. It might end up on the shopping and gallery street, the Witte de With, a decision McCarthy was happy with, since he says it's meant as a commentary, or criticism, of consumer culture. It still seems more like a giant garden gnome to me. I always thought the thing he's holding was a "soft" ice cream cone. Ah, the pleasures of interpretation, of still seeing the world somehow innocently. ;-)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Netherlands, Inc.

It's a bit of an irony that you can smoke marijuana here, smoke yourself silly, buy it in every neighborhood. It's cheap, too. You can get every variety. All sorts. Of course, it's produced here, so the state is making a nice fat profit. It's the same with prostitution.

What a blow it would be to the state revenue if they couldn't bring in all of those tax dollars anymore. Yes, the poor prostitutes have to pay tax, and taxes here are high. They're considered "independent business women," or "freelancers." Yes, freelance prostitutes. Those taxes are even higher, baby. Let's say 60+ percent, plus tax on any "profit" you make. Then you have to pay for your insurance. Let's face it, being a prostitute doesn't pay.

Until recently, you could also buy psychedelic mushrooms at the "Smart Shop," but they clamped down on that after a depressed tourist jumped to her death while on mushrooms into an Amsterdam canal.

Funny country. Funny laws. Small country. Small-minded laws.

If you have someone from outside the country send you a tube of homeopathic cream to Netherlands, Inc., you become a suspected criminal.

In a recent study, The Netherlands also ranked high on surveillance. They can listen to our telephone conversations, spy on us all they want. But importing a small tube of homeopathic cream is a criminal offense. If we try it again, and get caught, we will have to do jail time, or pay a steep fine. We're already received our first "warning."

Of course, Netherlands, Inc. can't profit from that small tube. They tell us, you must purchase it here, from a pharmacist. But the pharmacist doesn't sell it, and they can't make it, either. So, you're "screwed," no cream. Ha ha. The irony of being screwed in Netherlands, Inc.

Oh but, hey ladies (guys, too), if we want to get high, and sell our bodies, that's perfectly legal! But don't forget to register yourself as a freelancer, and of course, pay your taxes! That's right! Be a good little girl! As long as you don't get a skin condition in the process, you'll be just fine.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gouda Illuminated

Every year at Christmastime in Gouda portions of the city are festively illuminated.

The city hall is picturesque medieval affair with a funny little clock from which parading court members pop out every half hour to tell the time. The Sint Jankerk (Saint John's Church) is lit up from inside. A group of artists is selected each year to design something, a projection, or an artwork someplace, all things that I've glanced at for the second consecutive year.

The entire old center of Gouda is slowly sinking away, so who knows where it will be in fifty year's time, but if you want to pay a visit to the cheese market, or visit during the holidays, I'm sure you have at least a few years left to make your decision. :-) We like the Christmas lights, but have never made it for the cheese market.

This year, there was an outdoor ice-skating rink next to City Hall where a group of people were engaged in an amateur hockey match.

We visited the St Jankerk, the longest church in The Netherlands, where a 500 year-old tree told stories about its age, and how things have changed in the city since his youth. Across the courtyard, a 450 year-old retirement home for men talked back to the tree about its age. The library, and an old school house chimed in from across the street. In the schoolhouse, a child received an old-fashioned lashing, and was forced to praise the Queen. We were also told by a recorded Dutch voice in a German accent about the occupation, and what a heavy toll Gouda paid during the war.

The kids enjoyed the illuminated, "talking," buildings, especially when smoke poured out of one of them. That was funny.

In the courtyard of the medieval library, there was a plexi-glass pyramid about 6 foot high, with glass pigs sticking out of it, lit up a sickly yellow hue from the inside. There must have been a deep and complex meaning or theory behind its construction which I was incapable of imbibing.

We tried visiting a museum courtyard where they sold hot chocolate milk and Gluwijn (sweet, warm wine) last year, but they weren't serving anything. The stand was closed up, and hanging above it was a sign that read, "Kalm nou maar. Geen zorgen. Alles komt goed." (Remain calm. No worries. Everything's going to be fine.)

Skin Cream

Watch out Rosacea sufferers trapped in The Netherlands. If you try to get the only cream that helps our condition, Prosacea, and have some nice person in the United States mail it to you, you could come under investigation by Dutch customs officials.

Yes, it's true. It's happening to me.

Prosacea, a homeopathic cream with the active ingredient Sulphur 1x, is considered prescription medicine in The Netherlands. Two tubes of Prosacea were confiscated by customs in Rotterdam, and we have now become suspected criminals subject to steep fines!

Despite the fact that Sulphur is available in every health food store, it's still considered medicine by the sadistic customs people who have nothing better to do but punish people with incurable skin conditions.

My conditions worsens under stress.

They also charged us 100 Euro for a box of Christmas gifts from Grandma in the US.

My skin condition is flaring up again. I went to a dermatologist here, and all she gave me was anti-biotic cream, and a putrid tar-based cream, neither of which helped.

My joy and luck at landing here increases by the day!

You're right, I'm whining again, but if you had flaming red skin that broke out every month, and you tried everything, nothing helped, even the dermatologist couldn't help you, but wow, what luck, you finally, after years of searching, found something that actually made your skin creamy and beautiful again, you'd be crying now, too.

Monday, January 7, 2008

New Post. New Year....

Since November's flurry of posts, I've become lax indeedy with postings. ;-) As with many of us, the holidays did steer me away from the daily grind, and although I did have flickering thoughts, flashes of what to post, I was too pre-occupied with the holiday grind to commit myself. I might actually return to some of those thoughts, but after the fact Christmas or New Year postings already have a post date on them. The Christmas holiday is so far away from everyday life, with all of the decoration, conjuring of special holiday emotion, that it seems a violation to "go back" to it after the fact. We'll see. I won't make any promises to publish what I started the past two weeks, because who knows when I'll ever get around to it.

I stumbled on this Orson Scott Card website, and just couldn't resist this passage, since it's Rotterdam fictionalized in the future. It's bizarre to stumble across it, since, if you've followed my blog, you'll know how I feel about living here. What's even more ironic is that it's written by Card, an American, and a practicing member of the religion I left, Mormonism. I put too much stock in association, I'm sure. I just couldn't resist sharing this passage:

Rotterdam was once a bright city in a nation of light.

Then the Netherlands, in its last gracious gesture, gave itself to the International Alliance, believing that other nations would follow suit, that nationhood would fade away and the unity forced on humankind by the brutal invasion by aliens would become universal and permanent. Instead, as the only territory completely under the control of the International Congress, this small nation became the stepchild of politics. Perpetually underfunded and yet forced by law to allow any refugee from any nation in the world to enter and take up residence among the "citizens of the world," the Netherlands had become the most overcrowded, poverty-stricken nation in the world. Gone were the fields of tulips, gone the quiet graciousness of life. Not one person in a hundred spoke Dutch; not one person in ten had a decent job. The understaffed police did their best to keep order. But there was no order to be kept. And of all the cities of the Netherlands -- now the IZ, the International Zone -- Rotterdam was the largest, the most overcrowded, the least orderly. It was the city where hope became desperation.

It was a city of lost children.

They flooded the streets, swarming around people who looked like money, begging or picking pockets right in front of the police. They descended like locusts on the markets, until the merchants hired thugs to beat them away with sticks. The corpses of starved children, of stabbed or beaten children, of children dead of cold, were found daily -- only the body count was listed in the netrags. There were no names to write about. These children had no identity. They had burst into the world like pus from a boil, and if they once had parents who wanted to love or know them, it made no difference now. Somewhere in the world children went to school. Somewhere children played in gardens. But in Rotterdam children burrowed into the dumpsters to eat and then to sleep. In Rotterdam, the strong and cruel and heartless children made sure that the weaker ones never got near the soup kitchens and hostel.

Rotterdam was the darkest city in a nation of shadows.

If you want to check out the website, it's: http://www.hatrack.com/. It's an interesting site for writers, with pointers, etc., for the budding writer.