Another favorite thing about our year in the Netherlands: neighbors with kids

Another favorite thing about living in the Netherlands this year: next-door neighbors with children.  While Steve and I chose where we lived this year very carefully, we got even more than we were hoping for.  We hoped to live without a car in a historic city within easy commuting distance to Amsterdam where there was an international school for our kids.  It took us months of research and good luck to find this house in Utrecht.  Google Earth helped us to scout out the neighborhood before we signed on the dotted line.  But what we could not know, and could not even imagine, was the special enclave of young families into which we stumbled.  There isn’t space here to do justice to the appreciation we feel to our neighbors.  They have welcomed us, invited us to dinner and birthday parties, taken us for boat rides, signed our kids up for gymnastics, art, and horseback riding with their kids, and taught our kids more Dutch than they learned in school.  We have been so blessed.

buuv photoOur neighbors told us that they had an annual neighborhood photo tradition, see above. Tonight, they confessed that it was staged for our benefit, and gave us an album with shots from the year.  Thankful!

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Nine days to go! This year I have relished architecture. Everywhere we go, we encounter something to see: charming 17th century row houses, soaring cathedrals, Amsterdam School brickwork, or innovative new design–sometimes in the same block. We are living our daily lives within a rich and varied built environment.














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I ran across this poem today while reading an article in English Journal about the Toulmin model of argumentation.  What a serendipity.


Even as we watched from my writing class

a man kick the trashcan in front of school,

yelling I will not eat your fucking garbage,

my students had the decency not to laugh,

but to settle into their desks to write.

One student, a Hindu girl, asked to be

excused, and we watched her at the curb

give the man her sack lunch.  I remember

thinking at the time, that we can begin

and end each day with even: even

as the sun crests the eastern edge of

the ridge, a peregrine swoops from

the gargoyle on the Commerce building

and takes a pigeon from the street; even

as the sun melts the horizon like an egg

yoke, the old woman pushes her rubble

from 8th Avenue into the alley full

of dumpsters, and one has to admire

how sweetly she cares for the faded baby-

doll in the child sear of her grocery cart.

–Bill Brown

English Journal July 2010

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I’ve got a cold. The pesky virus came home with Caroline from kindergarten and infected both Margaret and me this week. I’m on the mend, but last night I went to bed early (again), missing the Dutch bluegrass band concert to which I’d purchased tickets. Steve said it was great. The audience seemed kind of bewildered by a musical style unfamiliar to them, though the band spoke Dutch to introduce their numbers.

Early to bed means early to rise, so although I didn’t set an alarm, I woke up when the bedroom grew a fraction lighter. I happily found that I had enough time to walk up the street to the sunrise service at the Domplein (cathedral square). The rest of the family was silent while I pulled on a sweater and jeans and crept out the front door.

The crowd was less than a hundred people singing along to music led by a trumpet. As you might imagine, some tunes were familiar, and I know enough Dutch phonics now to sing along with syllables whose meanings I don’t get.

In front of us as we sang stood the Dom cathedral (the choir and transept are all that are left after a hurricane blew down the neglected nave in 1674). Behind us stood the Domtoren (bell tower). RDMZ01_ST-1213_WI’ve climbed the Domtoren about four times now, all one hundred and ten meters of winding stairs. It is simply lovely–a beautiful stone lace north star to any lost tourist who needs to find the center of town. Over half way up, visitors get to walk among the massive historic bells, fourteen of which were forged in 1505. I’ve spent a cumulative hour reading their personified inscriptions, which sound like this: “I am John the Baptist. I will preach baptism and God’s power to all the people.” On our last tour, when asked when these historic bells were played, the guide replied that each bell requires several persons’ effort to pull, and they are only played a few times a year, like Christmas and New Year’s Eve at midnight.  One level higher in the tower are fifty much smaller bells whose melodies I often hear on Saturdays when the city carillon player gives her weekly concert.

During our last hymn, to the tune of “Thine is the Glory,” a lone bell began to sound in the tower above us. A second soon joined, then a third. Soon the bell tower was the center of attention. The crowd turned in unison and looked up.

I got to hear the bells. The really old ones.

They sounded like Pentecost–everyone talking in different languages. They were each ringing in their own rhythm and pitch, unrelated to the others–fourteen singers belting out different hymns of praise, shouting different tidings of good news. The noise was all encompassing. I contemplated hurrying home, because I thought for sure that they would wake and awe my family. (They didn’t.) But I stayed with the crowd and just marveled at the noise. Having climbed the tower and walked among those massive bells while the wind whistled through their silence several times, I felt affection for them. I’m so glad that I got to hear their voices once while we lived here.

Easter morning.  Sunrise.


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This year I had a birthday reminiscent of my childhood: surprising, magical, and warm. Growing up in Atlanta, the middle of March is usually host to a visual celebration of cherry and pear tree blooms. The daffodils might still be lingering. Decorative gardens have been planted with pansies, violas, and impatiens. Spring is springing.

In Michigan, as Steve recently texted me, March is the color of a dead deer on the side of the road.    March is the dirt left behind when the pile of snow begins to melt–or it is fresh snow. Or it is a cold, freezing rain–rain makes you realize that snow is nicer. The utter miracle of resurrection is still a month away.

photo-25This year, my birthday lunch was a picnic in Wilhelmina park. It was warm.  Steve and Brian played ping pong on the permanent tables next to the play ground. The kids took turns on two sets of roller blades, holding hands for stability. The women lounged on blankets and watched the crowd of college students grill rookworst, drink beer, and kick soccer balls.  photo-24My sister and her family were visiting. For dinner, Steve surprised us with a boat hire to cruise our group of fourteen around Utrecht’s canals.  Along the banks, the crocuses were blankets of purple, and the daffodils were beginning to open up.  The Staggs baked me a cake.  Brian held it aloft as he biked from home.  On the top was a candelabra from Tiger Direct that reminded me of the playful crystal chandelier in our otherwise modernist row house.  On the canal boat, we drank prosecco and dipped fresh vegetables from the Turkish groceries on Kanaalstraat into homemade pesto.

photo-22 Against this scenery, we are the actors. I’m still me, with my fierce loves, my anxiety about living up to my own standards, my impatience, and my effort every day to just breathe and enjoy myself and others.  This year, our setting is just about perfect. I pedal my bicycle along the most lovely backdrops imaginable. Every day. And soon (it feels so soon) we will get back into our automobiles and zoom down highways. That near end point changes how we live in this space, trying to notice every little thing. Every inconvenient wrestling match with a bike chain lock is novel. Every blue sky is another gift. Every chill on my skin reminds me that I’m outside, using my legs to get around, rather than stuck in traffic.

Margaret, at age 8, is homesick. She wants to go home, and to her this year feels endless. She misses her teachers at Stepping Stones. She misses building forts in the basement.

For me, at age 41, a year has never felt more ephemeral.

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In my last post, I challenged myself to write my way through an actual decision I’m facing.    I want to better understand writing as a tool for decision making.  When is writing a useful strategy?  When is writing too cumbersome a tool for the task?  In what ways is my intrapersonal argumentation like and unlike interpersonal argumentation?

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It seems like a simple question, whether to get one’s hair cut, but as with most decisions in our interdependent society, my choice influences others and thereby has political implications.  Most decisions are small, but their force is big when multiplied by thousands of people, even millions (I could say billions, but there are not too many decisions that are the same facing all individuals across the world).  The choice to buy a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon rather than 20, for example, has a significant impact on oil trade and air pollution when multiplied by hundreds of thousands of American consumers.  The choice to buy a bottle of water and throw the bottle away…well, most of us have realized that these small choices make a landfill.  When my first cousin had her first child, her husband, an ecology professor, calculated the environmental impact of plastic versus cloth diapers, factoring in the water and detergent usage of washing the latter and the trash of the former.  They went plastic in the end.

But a haircut?  How does this have environmental or political consequences?

Well, to me it’s all about time and mental focus.  How do I spend my time and my productive thinking?  Do I spend it on myself, or do it spend it working to make the world a little bit better for others?

My friend Christina recently wrote a Foucauldian analysis of the preoccupation on bodily transformation of the citizens of the Capitol in the Hunger Games.  These folks were distracted away from political engagement by their concern for their bodies.  Their minds (as mine is in this essay) were focused on questions like: should I get my hair cut?  What color should it be?  What new style of clothes and make up should I don?

And that’s just the mental preoccupation.  Every day, many women across the country spend an extra 30 to 60 minutes that men don’t spend on their appearance.  We shave legs; we brush, dry and curl long hair; we put on makeup; and we assemble complicated outfits through trial and error in front of a mirror.  Every minute that we are thinking about these things, we are not thinking about how to phrase strongly worded emails to our Senators or even how to phrase notes of encouragement to our children.

I gave up shaving my legs a couple of decades ago, not on any aesthetic principle, but on a use-of-time principle.  I would rather spend the ten minutes a few times a week working: writing, reading, or talking to someone about how they are doing.  A few times a year, I pull out the clippers and shear off the season’s growth, like the shepherd of a malnourished sheep.  Yes, generally speaking, my choice is a feminist one, in that I don’t think women should have to spend more time on their appearances than men do.  If we as a sex are consistently spending more time on our bodies, then we as a sex are collectively spending less time having an impact beyond our selves.

But what if we enjoy it?  I admit that I spend twenty minutes a week–the time I would spend shaving my legs if I did so–making coffee.  Drinking it not included.  I also love warm showers, and I don’t take them to maximum efficiency in order to get to work quicker.  Instead I savor the heat on my skin, and say words of gratitude for the pleasure.

I like getting my hair cut, too, but it takes a whole hour, or more, if I book an appointment at a salon.  I think I’ve done it five times in the last fourteen years. Steve usually cuts my hair–with the skilled precision of a knife-wielding doctor, which is what he is.  For years, I’ve just asked him to cut it in an even line all around the bottom.  And he does.  I used to ask him to cut it at a nice, face-framing, chin length bob.  It looked cute just peaking out below the rims of ubiquitous hats I wear in the winter.  For the last five years, I’ve kept it long, asking for only the occasional clean-up trim. This has allowed me to wear it up in a twist, or in two low pig tails if I’m feeling sporty.

You see, I have “fine” hair, if we are being polite, and super thin hair, if we are being honest.  There’s not much of it.  There is even less of it since having two kids.   Lately it seems that the hair in front is always breaking, giving me bangs where I did not intend them.  If I want to wash and go, be showered and out the door in half an hour on a daily basis, then is it time to go short again?

Ten years ago I had it cut pixie short–in a salon.  I liked it, a lot, but before I knew it, it had grown out again.  The thing about short hair is that you have to keep making appointments to see a professional.  Appointments cost time–and money.  How much cash have I saved by having Steve cut my hair these last fourteen years?  At least a thousand dollars, I think, if I multiply it out.  How much time have I saved?  Time spent at the salon is time not spent enjoying my family, preparing for class, or grading papers.

Or could it be?  I’ve brought a book to the salon before, and I feel a bit rude reading while the hair artist works.  I haven’t let that stop me other places, though.  I more often read than talk to the stranger next to me on an airplane, and sometimes even read rather than talk to other parents at the park or indoor kids’ gym.  Maybe I could get my hair cut and read for work too–saying grateful words while having my hair washed and scalp massaged at the beginning.

Reading is working, so maybe the only time wasted is the meeting and the transit time.  Since time spent getting around here in Utrecht  equals a bike ride across a city that never ceases to delight me–that isn’t wasted time either.  I’m both exercising and visiting Europe–two things that make my list of priorities.

Getting my hair cut, too, would save me time with a hair dryer on a daily basis.  Hmmm, this is looking like the more powerful option by the minute.

What if I get it cut and don’t like it, thereby distracting my mind back onto myself and off of the other people and tasks at hand?  That’s within my control, and I really do like hats if all else fails.

Maybe I will get my hair cut.

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