Opening Pages


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CHAPTER ONE

A RARE LIBRARY FIND

Eva Dreyfus had finally managed to get to that stage in life where everything seemed to have fallen into place, like a perfect game of solitaire, when, after turning card after card, there was that one desirable opening when kings lined up with queens, and jacks preceded tens. Was it a fortunate lining up of the stars or just her age, the time of life when one’s professional trajectory was finally coming to fruition? Or maybe, maybe she was just lucky? 

Thinking of her friends, and one of her friends in particular, who had quipped one day that she had become a COO (Career Officially Over), Eva realized that she was very blessed to have ended up in a career that had grown out of her lifelong passion for books.

At 50, she knew that she had arrived where she had always wanted to be, and how many people could say that?! As she was dwelling on her good fortune, she felt herself smiling, while ambling from the quaint fifties’ downtown of Briarsville shops onto the campus with its manicured lawns, Neo-Gothic buildings and Italianate clock tower. No matter her mood of the moment, she always savored this early-morning walk as a moment of quiet and reflection before her workday started. 

It was her favorite part of the day when the sleepy campus seemed to be waking up, the first birds piping up and with only a few hungover students emerging from their dorms and frat houses. By the look on their faces, she could tell they still chided themselves for signing up for that 8 AM class.

She passed Drabnell Hall, the building for foreign languages with its tired lions guarding the front entrance, and admired the ornate nineteenth-century wrought-iron gate she passed through to get to the library: she passed through it every single day, but never once did she take it for granted. This was her domain, her life, and life was good.

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Funny, the above is another manuscript (When the Ivy Prospers) sitting under my bed. A campus novel, murder mystery and roman à clef. In it, I kill all the people who stifled me, but not really…

Cleaning house… and this is all part of it– Miller manuscript is still going strong and it may make me sound manic but it’s all about keeping some readership going by posting often…

Stay tuned (code for SUBSCRIBE, which doesn’t cost you a cent) and read the opening chapter of Going Dutch, next…

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Going Dutch on the Berkeley Campus: Prologue


Prologue: Teetering on the Brink

Summer 2004: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table as if we were a bunch of silent second-rate actors against the backdrop of a sparse and tired set by Harold Pinter. We had been pinching pennies all year long. After two and a half years of unemployment in the US, the country of big dreams and unfathomable depths, our balance had shrunk to a pitiful $53.13.

Our seven-year-old son, Will, already walked in with his piggy bank, yet the materialism of our five-year-old Caroline knew no bounds. She was still hoping for a pink Rolls Royce on her 18th birthday. And when she’d turn 35, she casually informed me one day from the back seat of the car, it was high time for a second marriage, potentially with a guy with serious prostate problems, so she could start her second act with a fitting capital for a mourning widow.

My husband, who had been working for reputable firms such as Ernst& Young and Deloitte & Touche, had taken on all sorts of odd jobs while applying for real jobs. The recession, which had hit California the hardest, had affected a third of California’s families.

With a black hole of five years on my CV (which was spent birthing, burping babies and giving my kids a solid start as a stay-at-home and increasingly unhinged mommy), I took on every little job even though I had earned a Ph.D. in American Literature in the Netherlands, the country I was born in.

These odd jobs included offering literature and writing courses for retirees, translation work and a paid medical trial of Botox for migraines. The trial never got rid of my migraines but it messed with the symmetry of my eyebrows and made me look like a portrait by the late Picasso.  At least the kids thought it was hilarious.

Basically, my career had disappeared between the diapers of my kids. And when you sink that low, people start talking to you about flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s as a serious career option…

In the Netherlands, the lowest of the low is a job as a putjesschepper. Of course (it being Holland) it has to do with water and something icky with water, so a putjesschepper is someone who cleans questionable drains. In elementary school, I remember discussing that job as the ultimate sign of being a society flunkee. As a 36-year-old woman in America, I realized a similar prospect might be my next best career move, and needless to say, I felt like a total and utter loser.

But I was more worried about my husband’s mental state of mind. Men’s egos are tied up with jobs and careers, and two and a half years of unemployment might make anyone want to hurl themselves off San Fran’s suicide monument, the Golden Gate Bridge.

A friend of mine told me to keep the faith: “When things look really dire, that’s usually the sign of a breaking point and things could look up for you guys.”

And she was right.

When we started contemplating selling our newly renovated house, the light at the end of the tunnel came pouring in, in the form of a telephone call.

“You’ve got the job.”

After no less than ten interviews, Jon had landed a job with a software company.

When he walked into the room where I was sitting, he told me the happy news, but we were both shellshocked and seemed barely able to process the news.

Teetering on the brink, we had glimpsed the abyss but we had been saved, although the relief was unreal and almost anti-climactic.

When, a week later, I bought a dress for Caroline at full price, she looked at me with disbelief.

“Are you sure,” she said, “that I can have this one?” Her big, sparkling eyes reminded me of an orphan from Charles Dickens, getting her first piece of fresh bread, after eating watery soup for weeks.

I realized then that we had lived like misers, supported by thrift stores and the hand-me-down generosity of friends. And we got to know who our real friends were. We had so-called friends who dropped us like a ton of bricks and we had acquaintances who reached out and became solid friends, supporting us through thick and thin.

But I still had sleepless nights.

I realized that, in the country of economic insecurity and no safety nets, both husband and wife have to work to bring home the bacon for the kids. I wouldn’t rest until I, too, had solid ground to stand on professionally, so when a position opened up to teach Dutch at UC Berkeley, I applied immediately.

My speciality was American Letters, but as a struggling student in the Netherlands, I had made some moolah teaching Dutch to embassy personnel and employees at big international companies in The Hague. As I was printing out my CV, I reminisced how I rode my rusty old bike all over rainy The Hague to teach private lessons.

“So if you want to make erwtensoep (pea soup, a Dutch specialty),” I told an Australian couple one particularly cold winter night, “you go to a good butcher and ask for a Gelderse rookworst (a special kind of smoked sausage).” The wife loved cooking and wanted to try as many local recipes as she could, so she wrote down my tip without checking with me on the spelling or pronunciation.

The next day, she went to her local butcher.

“Zegt u het maar…” the butcher inquired when it was her turn to say what she wanted. In Dutch, she then asked him for a geweldige worst which has nothing to do with Gelderland, the province after which the sausage is named, but which has everything to do with an enormous sausage.

The week after that, I told her about sliced (gesneden) versus unsliced (ongesneden) bread, in case she wanted to try out more language bloopers at the local bakery. I warned her that she should not ask for an onbesneden bruin, coz that would be a “circumcised brown”, and that sort of thing you only do in certain religions and (American) hospitals…

All joking (and Dutch humor) aside, I had good memories of that time, and I loved to teach. That I was going to teach Dutch grammar instead of Emerson and Emily Dickinson… oh well, I just had to grin and bear it.

The interview went fine and barely a week later, I heard I had made the cut. I had a new future as a teacher of Dutch at UC Berkeley.

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Life is unpredictable, I knew by then, but that our fate could make a 180 was the stuff of miracles. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it all wrong. There are second acts. Although admittedly, for me the whole experience was a rude awakening.

But when life gives you lemons, you might as well make lemonade out of it and the same year I started at Cal (2004), my book Ontwaken uit de Amerikaanse droom came out in the Netherlands. It dealt with all the disasters of our house remodel, losing your job and the American Dream being a vapid dream of crass commercialism and capitalism (a koopkrachtdroom I call it in my book).

And well, nothing has changed really.

The book did reasonably well, and I did some TV and radio interviews for it in the Netherlands, and lo and behold, 14 years later, you can still find copies at the Dutch discount store De Slegte. It’s a bargain at 8 euritos…

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Humbling? Na. Publish and perish? Yes.

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NOTE: In order to protect the privacy of my students, I have changed their names and details that could identify them. Alas, this doesn’t apply to my children Will and Caroline who make appearances in these vignettes as well. They’ll just have to suck it up, for as Czeslaw Milosz said: When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.

 

 

 

 

 

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Going Dutch on the Berkeley Campus; WE’RE ON!


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Hi Folks,

Traffic was insane for my last blog post so I am going to take the plunge and release my manuscript about my years at Berkeley, teaching a language that has/had a certain appeal to a very eclectic group.

I just subscribed for a personal plan ($60/year) at WordPress so you don’t get to see those obnoxious ads and health scares anymore, like: The five symptoms that no one notices but that are a sure sign of syphilis eating all your organs.

You want to go Dutch with me? Please do.

What people still don’t know is that of all Western European languages, Dutch is the closest to English, and much easier than German. So why Dutch isn’t taught at American High Schools by now, is BEYOND me.

Wanna hire me? Make me an offer.

I will be back, later this week, with the first chapter so stay tuned, or better yet you morons, SUBSCRIBE. After those $60 you owe me.

Cheers, cheerio, de mazzel, doei, laters, ajuu, tot ziens.

 

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Shall I Feed this Manuscript to the Fire?


As we are ready to leave our happy home, I’m finding discarded manuscripts. One of them contains essays on my experiences teaching Dutch at UC Berkeley (2004-2014). I wrote them in Dutch but I am thinking of translating them, because some of them are pretty funny. Below you find a 2014 article that was published by the Berkeley Language Center, to give you a taste of what these essays feel like– although I think the essays are much more hilarious than this paper which I wrote in my last year that I was teaching at Berkeley.

Testing the waters… would you want to read this shit? Let me know! I’ll release the whole manuscript in English, on my blog if you, dear readers want to read them!

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IN THE DUTCH MOUNTAINS

by Inez Hollander

Previously published by the Berkeley Language Center

Many years ago, when I was teaching English 101 at a community college in Arizona, there was a quiet, older woman in the back of my classroom. She did not participate much but she was a devoted student.

When visiting the local super market one day, I noticed she worked behind the bread counter and we chatted briefly.

On the last day of class, she waited till everyone had exited the room, then walked up to me and told me that years before, she had to drop out of high school because of a teen pregnancy and only now, in her forties, could she resume her education.

Her eyes were welling up with tears when she said: “Thank you so much for teaching me how to write. I have a new take on life and it’s all because of your class.”

Fast Forward: I have been teaching Dutch at Cal for ten years now and it seems highly unlikely that a student in Dutch 1 would come up to me at the end of the semester to make a tearful admission that I changed their life because I taught them to speak Dutch. And if they did, I might be wondering whether they were stoned or trying to cozy up to me because they were stressed out about their final grade.

To make matters worse, when I tell Dutch people that I teach Dutch to American students, they roll their eyes in baffled amazement and utter: “But for Pete’s sake, why…?”

This tells us something very interesting about native Dutch speakers, namely: a) they are not very chauvinistic about their own language or insistent that others should learn this smaller language and b) they speak English willingly and gladly when called upon, so if Americans do want to rise above their monolingual status, the Dutch seem to imply, why not try your hand at Spanish or Mandarin, or if you really do plan on working for the CIA, Urdu or any of the other “terrorist languages” our government decided to support.

It doesn’t make it any easier when Americans sometimes ask me whether Dutch, in spite of the 20 million speakers around the world, is an endangered language, like Cornish or Yiddish.

The inferiority complex about Dutch is hardly justified, because even though Dutch ranks (last time I checked) 58th in the list of world languages which is just above Kurdish and Serbo-Croatian, it is the 10th language on the internet and a tier 1 language for Silicon Valley companies who are translating their content for the global market.

In addition, Dutch should be taken more seriously from a world history point of view: due to the Dutch dominance in the seventeenth century across the globe, we have 10 kilometers of Dutch East India materials that have hardly been touched by international scholars because of the language barrier. In Berkeley at the Bancroft, there is an entire un- and underused room full of boxes, i.e. the Engel Sluiter collection, compiled by a Berkeley historian and containing transcripts of all the documentation of all the places around the world where the Dutch touched down and left a paper trail.

Finally, even though England and France have always claimed the Enlightenment and the beginnings of an egalitarian society that we base the modern Western world/if not America on, an early Enlightenment (freedom of religion, freedom of the press etc) took place in the Netherlands with figures like Spinoza and Bayle. I quote Jonathan Israel who wrote this in the TLS: “[…] around 1700, Holland rather than England counted internationally as the world’s most foremost model of a tolerant, prosperous republican ethnic and religious melting pot […] The Dutch Republic was also the world’s model for commercial freedom.

Even after Britain had long overtaken it in economic dynamism in the mid-eighteenth century, the Dutch Republic, as Diderot pointed out in the 1770s, still outstripped Britain in one crucial aspect: “The Netherlands was the first society in known human history to give a decent standard of living to everyone.”

So there’s plenty to like about the Dutch, aside from the general cliché of tulips, prostitutes and pot… And yet, as a teacher of Dutch in an English-speaking context, I’ve felt as a missionary at times, not an ambassador, for Dutch is a hard sell on a campus where Asian students outrank all others, and languages like Korean have long waiting lists.

It also means that on the first day of class, I really have to hook my students to stay and that means sexing up the curriculum to make sure Dutch on the Berkeley campus does not become an endangered language, too. But the cynic/some would call it a Dutch uncle in me too often also reverts to the question of relevance.

Yes, I tell my students, learning a foreign language, whether it’s Chinese or Czech, is not so much about end results such as near fluency, but about getting out of your own cultural comfort zone, leaving your familiar surroundings behind and surrendering yourself to something strange and foreign, for which every American should learn to develop a tolerance if we want to call ourselves true world citizens even if we are or remain, for the most part, monolingual Neanderthals.

But what is the relevance of one semester of Dutch, after which most students leave the language behind and never try their hands/tongues at those funny sounds again? What is my significance, and how do I make peace with feeling so irrelevant at times? Or why do we still support these smaller languages on a campus like Cal? Is the Dutch program truly necessary when every moron in the Netherlands learns to speak English from the moment he is out of diapers?

Well, of course, you guessed it, this is not about the Dutch, but this is about young Americans, Gen X’ers and Millenials for the most part whose only introduction to a foreign language is sometimes that one Dutch or Swahili class. And, yes, then I will feel a little more relevant, for then I become the apostle of foreign languages and need to convey, no sway them, that globalism is here, and globalism is now. A better example than the Dutch, who always learned to speak other languages to do more business globally from Batavia to New Amsterdam and Surinam to South Africa one could not have.

Interestingly, the founder of Rosetta Stone, who was an avid language learner, talked about his experience with Chinese, which he had learned in a language lab at home in the US. However, when he then arrived in Beijing and was actually able to have a short but simple conversation with a Chinese cabbie, he felt excited and validated. However scary it is to start a conversation with a native speaker, we all remember the thrill of first communicating in another language and being understood and understanding.

So, more than anything, a foreign language may be a puzzle at first but becomes the ultimate communication tool, a social thing and the thing that makes us human while also becoming the gateway to contact with a human from a completely different culture and that contact, that validation upon contact, is much more exciting than Google Translate.

Like the maker of Rosetta Stone, I had a very authentic but entertaining and somewhat similar experience in one of my advanced Dutch classes, which for the most part consisted of young Americans who had learned Dutch from me. Many of them had never even been to Holland.

At that time in my life, my mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and she had some pretty wild hallucinations. My siblings back in the Netherlands took care of her daily, were in contact with her daily and sometimes would bitch about what a burden this had become, to me via Skype.

So when I was showing my class a YouTube video and I had forgotten to turn off Skype, my one sister barged right in via Skype, across the screen, typing in Dutch:

Just talked to mom. There is an overweight monkey sitting next to her on the couch. He asked her for a prosecco (lol). Completely bonkers And P. (my sister’s partner) Is getting fed up with all this talk about mom The Dutch idiom here is (and I warn you, this is crude): “P. is growing a horse’s dick from all the talk about mom”.

At that point I closed my laptop, blushing, but the students had been reading all along and were asking what was going on, why my mom was sitting next to an overweight monkey, how a monkey could ever even ask for a prosecco and why the guy named P. was growing a horse’s dick.

Without leaving the classroom in America, they had had a genuine language moment with a native speaker that they were puzzled by, but here’s the kicker, they understood Dutch, so suddenly they had been part of this very private conversation and they felt validated by the fact that they picked up the words and meanings so fast.

Dutch was no longer a soup of mere gutturals but more of an open book. More importantly, at that moment, Dutch was relevant, and I was relevant for taking them to that level in comprehension That experience was interesting to me in that it confirmed to me that students, like the maker of Rosetta Stone, crave those genuine unrehearsed language moments with native speakers and feel especially validated when they understand what is said or written.

For this very same reason, I used story telling in Dutch to recreate the same experience and I have had GSI’s set up experiments with native speaker pen pals, while in my advanced classes I also encouraged students to submit good pieces to media outlets in the Netherlands; one semester this even led to an opinion piece of one of my students being included in one of the major national newspapers De Volkskrant: the student had had only three semesters of Dutch under his belt and no previous, like heritage, experience with the language, so it can be done, but only if we encourage our students to excel and try.

Another example: my advanced group of students also did an exercise in diplomacy last semester: last year there was a Russia-Netherlands anniversary, but due to some diplomatic incidents back and forth and Russia’s stance on homosexuality, there were pieces in the Dutch media about whether the rest of the anniversary celebrations should be canceled. All the students wrote opinion pieces after debating it in class and I sent their pieces to the Dutch Consulate who then engaged into the discussion with us.

These kinds of exercises take the language out of the language lab and the isolated space in which we teach our languages at Berkeley, and put them in action, in context and in contact with native speakers and that sort of REAL TIME (PAROLE versus LANGUE) as I call it, is a huge success with students and gives them the realization of relevance and the realization that yes, there are actually 20 million Dutch speakers out there in the world with whom we can communicate in their own language, and how awesome is that?

Moreover, native speakers, have more and deeper connections with other native speakers, so as native speakers we should utilize that resource, even though, I have a feeling, this resource gets underutilized in the classroom.

Finally, last year, the New York Times printed a very interesting article of a study that showed that readers of literature become more empathic. One of the things the study had tried is have job applicants read some world literature like Chekhov or Jane Austen right before they went into a job interview and this actually triggered more empathy in the interview, i.e. a better interview performance.

Likewise, the learning of a foreign language generates cultural empathy, which again, is something Americans ought to acquire more of, knowing how few Americans carry passports or go abroad, and horrors, how few US Congressmen and Senators carry passports or go abroad.

Once again, teaching or learning another language is essential for a greater global empathy and whether a student learns that by taking Slovenian or Finnish is, in the end, irrelevant. The greater gain is cultural empathy and not the fact whether this student knows at least 10,000 words in Dutch, which will enable him or her to converse in the language adequately or read a newspaper without the use of Google Translate.

In closing, you may have wondered about my title “In the Dutch Mountains”. The title, just as my job title (Teacher of Dutch in an Anglophone country) is ironic of course. You are correct in believing that there are no mountains in the Netherlands. More than half the country lies below sea level and while the south is above sea level and hillier, overall, it is flatter than an old man’s behind (this is sexist, but as women we have some catching up to do).

Thus exposed, The Netherlands has had no natural barriers against invaders, and consequently, has been run over by enemy tribes and later, invading countries, like Spain, France and Germany. While opposing these countries the best we could, we, at the same time, opened our borders to the persecuted, which, in previous centuries, were those who were persecuted because of their religion (Jews, Huguenots).

Our lack of geographically sound borders can be seen as a blessed metaphor of our openness to foreigners and foreign languages. Because of this, The Netherlands is one of the most multicultural places in the world. Amsterdam alone counts more than 150 different nationalities.

While the more conservative government of the last few years has put greater emphasis on the fact that immigrants need to learn Dutch, too, for the longest time, English was the lingua franca, the glue to have all those different nationalities conversant with each other. This too, this aptitude to speak English for the sake of communication and keep shops and cash registers open, is part of our national identity, and just as Dutch as windmills and tulips.

In other words, while this internationalism of the Dutch made my job at Cal much more difficult, if not impossible, what students took away was maybe the most valuable lesson of all, notably, that the Dutch survived in the world economy because of their multilingualism and that may be an important reality for young Americans, as America is faced with increased competition from China, India and Brazil.

The underlying lesson and relevance here is that Americans need to embrace their global identity more if we want to stay ahead of the game. Any interaction with my Dutch classes at UC Berkeley taught them just that, whether they became fluent or not. The thank you notes I received from former students over the years confirm this and often, and to their surprise, they told me that their minor or major in Dutch Studies made them stand out in the job market in one way or another… so going for a hike in the Dutch mountains is not entirely ludicrous or frivolous but an excellent exercise in global empathy, validation and respect.

THE END

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And so the end is near…


This title sounds more ominous than it is which is just to hook you, dear reader…

Clickbait.

Sorry. But do read on.

Time moves in loops and circles and I hope this end is a new beginning. This morning we’re meeting a second realtor to show him our house.

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When we moved into this house, it was literally falling apart. Rain came through the roof, ivy and roses grew behind the dry rot walls, and rats, the size of mini dachshunds ran through the kitchen.

I wrote a memoir about what it was like for a European to move to the New World to fix up an old house and it became my debut book in the Netherlands. In part, it was a parody of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun (about an American moving to the Old World, fixing up an old farm). As we were pulling some of our shit together before the arrival of the realtor, CBS Sunday Morning played in the background, featuring Italy, and Frances Mayes… There are no coincidences in life. For me it was a sign that my long history with this house was coming to an end, and that it was time to move on. I was only half listening to Mayes but I believe she’s written yet another book about Bella Italia, no doubt recycling old material as the publisher basically wants her to write another blockbuster like Under the Tuscan Sun. For some reason, this country is obsessed with sequels, but very rarely are they more successful than the original.

But the title of this blog is also to tell you that I’m in the last 50-100 pages of my Henry Miller manuscript and while I promised to have a first draft by the end of this month, I missed that deadline. This is my life: doing most of my reading on the weekend, I sit down at my desk on Monday, and get some assignments in. Most of these have to be returned within 24-48 hours and since my clients pay and Henry Miller does not, and may never, that kind of work takes priority. In the lulls between assignments I return to writing but as some of you know, the interruptions are a killer for momentum.

Because I put myself on a deadline, I have literally not looked back. Editing your work can be a total buzz kill and leads to writer’s block, so I just fixed my gaze on the horizon and plodded on. No doubt, I may have repeated myself but that’s all for the chopping block and I’m going to be ruthless.

This is my plan:

  1. Finish (if all goes well, by the end of this Summer?)
  2. Put it away. Time away from a manuscript is good as it will give you distance and thus more objectivity and, hopefully endow you with the cold eye of the critic. Go over your work as if it were written by your arch enemy, I used to tell my students.
  3. Once I start reading, I’m only going to keep the paragraphs that really sparkle. The rest? Cut, cut, cut.
  4. In the process, the book may well take a different direction. Right now it is a memoir about my relationship with Henry Miller as a reader and a woman, while focusing on his relationship with the two most important women in his life, June and Anaïs Nin. All of this means a process of careful:
  5. Rewriting
  6. And eventually: Proofreading

As I start this process, I may try to get more articles published but if the manuscript falls into place, as I hope it will, I will seek out publishers.

If it becomes a big rejection game, and why wouldn’t it be (people don’t read books anymore is my feeling), I will use the money that I raised on GoFundMe to publish hard copies for the people who supported me and the rest can buy it through some self-publishing company. I like to avoid self publishing as I don’t take it seriously at all… and well, self-published books don’t get the respect they probably deserve. You can forget about reviews and the marketing is something you have to do all yourself, and I don’t have time for that sort of shit.

That’s it. I will close to tell you (and all the people who supported me on this journey) that I love you.

Or as Nin wrote in a 1932 letter to Henry:

“That I love you.

That I love you.

That I love you.

I have become an idiot like Gertrude Stein. That’s what love does to intelligent women. They cannot write letters anymore.”

 

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The Next Generation: The Nexus to Hope and Redemption


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This past week Jon and I were fortunate enough to see our son graduate in Boston. He received a BA in bioengineering and got a job offer from CRISPR, a gene editing company that may make a slew of hereditary diseases obsolete if they manage to manipulate the DNA of, hopefully, countless, and once terminal, patients. It sounds like science fiction but it could really change the annals of medicine in this country and abroad.

I’m not going to say Will was lucky. He worked hard and has a real passion for the science.

It also makes the world in which I received my PhD look like the Middle Ages.

Looking out over the caps and gowns of the engineering school grads, and listening to the speeches that spoke of dreaming big and being bold, I couldn’t help but feel ripples of hope welling up in me. These kids will be the leaders in their field, and as a mother I didn’t feel pride so much as a form of blessing. And hope. And redemption.

IMG_6434From the moment you hold a newborn in your arms, you realize how fragile they are and, jaded by some of your own failures, you know that the road to success is paved with obstacles and rejections. The chance whether your kid will make it and have a life that is worthy and joyful is a chance of 1 in 20, maybe 1 in 100, and while Will still has to prove himself in the working world and the promising career that lies ahead of him, he’s on the right track. Kudos to Will!

A graduation can’t be more symbolic. It’s the moment when parents let go more definitively. As the young bird flies out of the nest to never return, you cheer them on but also feel the evanescence of your own life. As their career begins for real, you’re in the sunset days of your own career and it is a bittersweet moment.

After hugging Will and his beautiful Lily on a rainy and dark street corner in Cambridge, Jon and I then took off to Chicago. Caroline majors in Comedy Writing and Performance and she had an extremely inspiring semester at Second City, the talent stable for Saturday Night Life and many greats in comedy in this country.

Caroline had been telling us about her classes and how much she had learned from the different teachers who have all worked or still work in the industry. The end of the semester had to result in a showcase of their work, written and produced by themselves.

Immersed in rehearsals and material they had been refining in the last few weeks, Caroline tried to tamper our expectations, downplaying the quality and comedy of the show, but when we sat down in a packed theater for two hours of fun, we roared with laughter: the writing was original and fresh, the comedy was superb, and the talent simply sparked off the stage.

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As I told Caroline this morning, the Second City stage is small and the props are minimal so these kids have to create stories out of nothing, but boy when a scene turns into a world of its own, you forget about the bare stage and the lack of props. You go on an imaginative journey that takes you out of the here and the now.

And the kids took risks. Edgy, zany and pushing boundaries, they dared to be vulnerable and authentic and it was so refreshing to watch. Kudos to Caroline and her daring, funny peers!

In the background, in the real world, there has been a slow-moving coup of Team Trump, propped up by a bunch of GOP brownshirts, who, in cahoots with the Russians are dismantling our Constitution and American democracy as we know it. The man in charge, whose Trump building overshadowed our hotelroom in downtown Chicago, is the opposite of the raw talent, honesty and authenticity of the kids I saw at the graduation in Boston and Second City in Chicago.

As #BillionDollarLoser was trending on Twitter with the breaking news of Trump’s tax dodging and scandalous business losses, many in this country still don’t see that the emperor has no clothes. This fat Nixon, this constipated yam of a man is not just a criminal and a traitor but an evil swamp creature whose atrophied brain is the very opposite of the promise and brilliance of the kids I saw in Boston and Chicago.

People who bet on him seem to be kicking a dead donkey who can no longer pull America’s wagon (if he ever did). The GOP might try to kick a little harder to win time and obstruct justice, but this dead donkey is now lying by the side of the road, and no matter how hard they kick, DONkey Trump can’t even produce a single, dry fart or tweet that is worth staying up for.

In the meantime, we have a generation of young talent in the greenroom, ready to make their mark on the world, but we, their parents, have one more job to do and that is clearing the stage. The Trump Show ain’t over yet, but they have covered the stage with colon blow and insulted, divided and alienated the audience. They want to own the show (and make lots of moola), but you’re only entitled to owning the show if you are truly willing to run it for the benefit and sake of the people.

Someone needs to step in and pull the curtain, or else they might just burn down the house and waste all this talent that is waiting in the wings.

The next generation will make us forget about this dark episode but they need a clear playing field instead of daily dumpster fires. The next generation deserves it. They are the best and the brightest.

Enough is enough.

Start those impeachment hearings already.

#Resist

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May 4th, 2019: The Forgotten Women of WWII


Evil runs in cycles. With a strong men cult around the world and the right hardening and winning in places where liberalism and freedom once reigned, I lie awake at night, worrying about the possibility of a world spinning out of control.

And this is why it’s so important to take a moment and remember the ending of WWII. The victims can no longer speak which is why we, the relatives of those victims, need to speak out for them when we see the world moving in a direction that builds on the fear and irrational hatred of certain population groups.

This country was based on freedom from tyranny but when you grow up in a free society you only start to miss it when it’s taken away from you.

As many of you know, I have written extensively about the fate of my relatives in the Dutch East Indies during WWII (see Silenced Voices), but I had relatives on Java as well as in The Netherlands. This year I want to remember my Jewish greataunt and illustrator Nora Schnitzler. I never met her but because my greatuncle (and artist) Gerard Huijsser kept an extensive diary, we know a little more.

Thus we know that her parents’ house in Laren was confiscated by the Nazis early on, upon which they were soon transported to Westerbork and Auschwitz where they found their death in the gas chambers.

Through her marriage to Gerard, Nora was kept out of the camps but, as we realized many years later, while the Nazis allowed so-called “mixed marriages”, all Jewish women in those marriages were forced to get sterilized. Nora loved children and would have wanted childen, of that I am sure: When you look her work up online, you’ll notice that children are the prime focus of her work. Here’s an example:

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After the war, Nora found out about the fate of her parents and was thrown into a deep depression. She had a brother in the Dutch Antilles, but not much of an extended family, except for Gerard’s (my) family. Their experience of the war had not been easy either but their fate and outcome of the war could not be compared to her family’s (except maybe for the other branch of my family who went through Japanese starvation, internment and the Bersiap in Indonesia).

Nora found herself alone. She grieved in silence. And she never had any children.

Recently, I was contacted by a descendant of Nora’s brother. He told me how he, as a small boy, had sat on Nora’s lap in her garden in Laren, right before her death. He was small but remembered the incident clearly and when he told me about it, I couldn’t help but think that the symbolism of that moment had possibly made such an impression on him because Nora, unconsciously, had impressed upon him the burden of her family history, which he tried to uncover so many years later, in 2019.

Nora survived the war, but her survivor’s guilt and the loss of family, aggravated by the inability to start her own family would darken the rest of her days. If it weren’t for my greatuncle’s diary, this history would have vanished from the record, which is why I’m putting it down here, once more, in this blog.

There are many other forgotten female victims of wars started by men and male egos, but another group I do want to mention here is the so-called “comfort women victims”. When Japan invaded most of Asia, they recruited young women from their occupied territories and put them in soldiers’ brothels all over Asia where they were forced to have sex with soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army.

An estimated 400,000 victims with more than 15 different nationalities were forced into sexual slavery. This has been considered the largest sex slave operation in world history.

It was the perfect crime against humanity because when these women picked up their lives after the war and started their own families, many of them could not and would not talk about what they had been through, which was very convenient for the Japanese who still suppress and silence this story at every opportunity they get.

Prime Minister Abe, whose own grandfather was complicit in war crimes, would like to move on but we can’t if these victims have not been acknowledged. I call upon the new emperor of Japan, whose own grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, sanctioned these crimes against humanity, to come clean before it’s too late.

I imagine emperors and royalty cannot become overtly political or speak out due to constitutional constraints but giving up the throne to honor and recognize these women would be a truly noble act and worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

It would align Japan with a country like Germany, that, unlike Japan, has truly done everything in their power to make sure the Holocaust is fully documented, part of the school curriculum and remembered. The importance of this cannot be underestimated as it becomes a crucial reference point when fascist and autocratic tendencies in countries like our own resurface.

The new Japanese emperor will never do this, I know, but like Anne Frank, I’m not yet willing to give up on the idea that there are still plenty of good people in the world whose wisdom and goodness form the points of light we need to hold on to and reinforce, so that light and truth can win from darkness (and the dark web of propaganda and lies) again.

I ask and plead with you to be truly woke so that women like Nora, and the countless faceless and nameless sexual slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army can rest in peace with the knowledge that their suffering wasn’t in vain but a flashing beacon and warning sign that we can never take that path again.

#resist

 

 

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Everything is Connected


And so it’s April, and still raining. This has been the wettest Spring I’ve seen in California but we’re out of the drought for the first time in eight years, so we can start flushing our toilets again and ask for water with our meal in restaurants.

There’s very little to update you on but since I’m writing a book on Henry Miller, I feel the need to let you know that after a very busy last four months work wise, a certain quiet has set in and I can switch to Miller again. It’s still my goal to have a full manuscript by the end of May, and since I’m nearing 300 pp. so far, there will be plenty to cut and reorganize after that.

At first I thought I could sneak away to Paris in May and write my last Henry Miller chapter there, but Will is graduating in May (YAY) and Caroline is performing at Second City in May (another YAY), so travel to Europe is out. That said, when I was in Mendocino last week:

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I couldn’t get over how much it reminded me of Big Sur, so I thought maybe I should just write the last chapter on the California coast where Miller found happiness after being forced to leave his beloved Paris, at the outbreak of WWII.

Meanwhile things in the world (Brexit, right-wing populism in Europe and the chaos Presidency in this country) are nothing to write home about, but it does worry me a great deal. The forces of evil are winning out and it almost seems as if in our history, there has to be a cycle of evil after times of prosperity and peace.

Yesterday evening Jon mocked me for watching the all but uplifting Frontline documentary on the trial of the Serb General Ratko Mladic in The Hague, but evil has a chillingly similar character everywhere. Fear of the Other, shaming, propaganda, misinformation and setting people up against each other is a cunning political strategy to silence the opposition, seize power, kill and destroy.

We often think of Hitler in this context but it was already employed by the Bolsheviks and Lenin at the time of the Russian Revolution. I just wrote an article about this after starting a portrait of the literary widow Etolia Basso (wife of novelist Hamilton Basso, on whom I wrote my first book). In a surprising twist of my research for the portrait, Etolia’s father blossomed into a formidable and courageous figure, who, when testifying before Congress in 1919, had an important story to tell that is still relevant for us today. Yes, even after a hundred years… Here you see a picture of him:

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I’m seeking a publishing outlet for this piece, so if you have a suggestion, let me know.

On an entirely different note, I’m rereading Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics which was the final blow to what was left of Henry Miller’s career and reputation at the time. Once again I couldn’t help but see how everything is connected: I mean we have been seeing how Trump is enabled and kept in power by Republican sycophants (all white males), and with white supremacy on the rise (and white males feeling marginalized– oh, boohoo), men have, according to Millett and others, traditionally formed groups to consolidate the power of the patriarchy.

This country is pretty diverse but if you look at the Republican Party in DC, it has become, under Trump, a club of cliquey and brazen white males who hang together because of the fear of the Other. Aside from all the scandals and talk of impeachment, I just hope that come 2020, America has a good hard look in the mirror since there is only one choice that’s on the ballot: freedom or fascism.

Alarmist? No.

History continues to serve up valuable lessons, so I hope the power and the glory will be with those who heed those lessons.

Everything is connected. Don’t close your eyes. Stay woke. #Resist.

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The Things that Remain…


I admit that my last blog was rather gothic, although writing about my doldrums is a way of writing things out of my system and thus free therapy for me. I want to switch gears and tell you that I’m certainly not ready to jump off a cliff (yet). Dealing with life’s blows is part and parcel of living, and we can’t have the ups without the downs.

So moving on…

In the last few weeks I have been shedding (joyless) stuff but as we were emptying Jon’s dad’s apartment, we also brought stuff back into the house, and, possibly, at a higher rate than us ditching stuff. At first, I told Jon, I didn’t want a thing, a sentiment I had had when we were emptying my parents’ house as well, but then a wise aunt said “Please reconsider– it’s all that remains and cherish the pieces you have a connection with.” She was right. In our rush and frenzy to empty a place, it becomes quickly overwhelming and once we start tossing stuff, it’s easy to take everything to the dump.

So… Jon brought home three Persian rugs, we got some chairs and after a lot of humming and hawing, I broke down and took my mother-in-law’s desk. No place to put it of course so I jammed it into one of the bay windows of the kitchen:

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In fact, it fits perfectly in terms of size and with that little Persian rug underneath, it does make for a cozy corner. Sitting at it feels weird and good at the same time. Weird because it feels like appropriating a piece of furniture I never asked for, and good because it reminds me of my dear mother-in-law whom I still miss. It’s no precious antique but it’s well made with drawers that don’t buckle (like IKEA’s). The table top is a smooth mahogany surface and since I mentioned the solid drawers I do want to share the birthday card I found in there. It’s a little time capsule of the kids, writing to their beloved grandma:

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I like Caroline’s “Absolutely the best!” and William’s characterization of Dot as “Deceivingly smart” and, especially the “Yell Proof” because she was, and as such, a contrast with her husband whose go-to MO was yelling which, time and again, scared the socks off of me.

If you look at the photo of the desk again, you see, on the right, a Chinese statue (ivory woman with lotus flower), and Jon said that his mother told him at the time that it was a precious antique though certainly not my thing. I contacted a store in the city that deals in Asian antiques and they told me they can’t take ivory because of the “restrictions” on ivory (Duh– should have thought that one through). It’s fine to inherit or pass on in the family but you can’t sell it, and rightly so because I, too, worry about the extinction of elephants due to disgusting trophy and ivory hunters. So the wench with the lotus flower stays and the scene of the desk with other family stuff feels a bit like Lares, the sacred spaces the Romans created in their homes to honor their ancestors, who in turn, served as guardian angels or spirits of the family.

In other words, every time I tell Jon it feels like a fucking pawn shop (uitdragerij in Dutch and I love that word because my mother used it for any interior that looked burgerlijk or just cluttered), I should bite my tongue: we’re not hoarding but creating Lares around the house.

I need to update you on some other things. Due to my workload and life shit surrounding my father-in-law’s death, my writing on Henry Miller came to a screeching halt and I know from experience that once you lose momentum on a writing project, it becomes harder to return to it, the more you become removed from it.

That said, my first Henry Miller article was published by Nexus, the Henry Miller Journal. I shared this article with my donors of the GoFundMe I started at the time, and if you’re interested, let me know and I can share it with you as well. I hope to get more articles submitted and published, as a way also to generate interest for the larger manuscript I’m working on but I’m excited because the book I’m writing, (i.e. a personal memoir about Miller’s relationship with the most important women in his life, and my personal relationship with him, as a woman and a 21st century reader) is an up and coming genre (that is, the genre of writing a memoir about a famous person and intermingling it with a personal story of your own) that’s gaining more ground and more popularity.

The desk, that reluctant family heirloom, is now the space where I go for Miller when I need a change of scenery after doing a day’s work of translation and review. When I get blocked, I stare at the Lotus Lady. She doesn’t talk back alas, but the lotus in her arms reminds me that purity, which the lotus apparently represents, is a standard to be emulated when you write. Purity is integrity, originality and forces me to keep it real. It also reminds me of my mother-in-law, whose grace and elegance were authentic and pure, even though my memory of her now also gets conflated with something as simple as a quiet, elegant desk that we almost took to the dump…

It is all that remains…

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January is the Longest Month…


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I never liked January. Do you?

As much as I enjoyed Christmas with the kids coming home from faraway, cold places, January hit me like a menopausal mood swing. I put the Christmas tree away early, packing it and shelving it, together with all those dreams and ambitions that didn’t find any closure in 2018. Ugh.

I have no reason to complain. I know people who have every reason to complain, so why am I such a whiner and why does this January feel like a month-long bout of indigestion? Actually, I can point at several reasons:

  1. The anti-climax after Christmas. We fill our house with lights and laughter during the darkest and coldest month of the year, but January is still cold and just as dark, so why don’t we extend the hols for just a bit, until the first daffodils and tree buds start popping up, getting us out of our funk and reminding us that life is never truly linear but a cycle, always?
  2. Total Trump fatigue. Am I alone in my outrage that Donnie Delusional gets away with murder while the GOP, who are the only ones who can stop him, just roll their eyes? The news cycle, the scandals that roll in at a frenetic pace and the denials and daily Twitter harassment of our malignant leader have worn me down. The Titanic has hit the iceberg, we know we’re going down, and yet we can’t bear to look away.
  3. Work. The last two months have been insanely busy with absurd deadlines and word counts. I take the work because it pays well but I realized that since I started freelancing in 2014, I haven’t taken a single true vacation in the traditional sense of the word (I vacation but work on vacation– the industry is so cut throat that if I decline or decline too often, the phone stops ringing) or a single sick day. Translating tech kills the soul and zaps your energy. I need to return to my Henry Miller project but when I get up from my desk at night, I can’t bear to spend more hours looking at a screen. Yes, first-world problems.
  4. Everything else under 4 starts with an M: menopausal weight gain and insomnia, midlife crisis, missed opportunities and that miasma of death staring us in the face. Since my father-in-law died, the wall of complacency, the notion of death being a foreign country you never hope to visit, let alone get stuck in, has started crumbling. Right before Caroline left, we were walking through San Francisco with grey skies overhead. We walked by the park in North Beach where the kids used to play, and now, anno 2019, I started talking to her about death. I told her that, as a child, I would run up to my mom, telling her I didn’t want her to die, like ever. And my mom related to my fear, because she said that she had done the same as a child, with her mother. Her mother had reassured her that when that time comes, most people actually want to go because your quality of life has taken such a hit that dying actually seems better than shitting yourself in the dementia ward of a nursing home. Ah, the sense of reality of the down-to-earth Dutch…

But that’s the rub. The giving up. The letting go. Since I’ve hit my fifties (where clearly, in this youth-obsessed country, your life is over or only suitable for vapid cruises, sensible, ugly footwear and endless games of bridge), I have felt a sense of jadedness, a feeling of not giving a fuck anymore and a lack of appetite for the books I’ve told myself I still need to write.

When I bring this up with friends, many of them own up to being totally burned out on work and wanting to retire early. As the years go by, the energy and youthful joy and optimism seem to be siphoned off, too. And I don’t want to have these feelings, because there are ways and should be ways that I can still contribute and work and write and be the kind of mother who doesn’t refrain from telling a dirty joke to her kids. I want to be irreverent and provocative and make people think. I want to tell people to not give up, but feel in the deepest part of my heart and soul that I’m beginning to give up myself, just a little, every day until there’s nothing left to give up. I don’t want to be that person. I want to feel and embrace life as I did in my twenties, thirties and forties. Oh my God, this has midlife crisis written all over it…

Or maybe this is just the Empty Nest hitting me later than normal… maybe we all feel redundant and old when our kids move out and really start their own lives with exciting new careers and opportunities that, frankly, I never had.

And yet, my mantra has always been that everyone should make it count. Every minute of the day. Make it worth the light and life you’re given. Tell yourself we’re blessed and that in order to inspire we need to seek inspiration. Every dreadful day. And seek the company of friends, because misery loves company.

It’s January 31st. Thank God.

I’m going to pour myself a glass of wine and toast to February and second acts. You might as well live.

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