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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Baby, It’s Cold Outside…


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Look at this… and we thought we had two kids…

Here you see Will and Caroline, and Lily and Will at Tahoe, over Thanksgiving…

Thing is I love all four of them as if they were my own, so I don’t want the happiness of this picture to change like ever. Stage whisper to Will B. and Lily: if you guys break up, don’t break up with us. We’d love to be your surrogate parents ANY TIME, ALL THE TIME.

Our Thanksgiving was hard, because of Benjamin Thornton Lake’s sudden passing. We’re still dealing with the after effects of that but these four above worked their magic and grace to help us through a rough time. The grief is real but family and friends soften the blow, so thank you for being there for us!

Yes, this is my annual Christmas Letter, which has become my thing, and maybe the only thing that people will only ever read of what I’ve written.

So… here’s our news:

Will is still at Northeastern, finishing his last semester this coming Spring, and will have finished four years of school (read: four Boston winters) and three internships in bioengineering in 2019. He has found his niche and when he really starts about the nitty gritty of what he’s doing, or, for that matter, shows me the science articles he’s reading, I feel rather retarded. His plan is to get his PhD, in the US, Europe, or God knows where but first he’s planning on working to make some moola, before starting graduate school.

He’s dating Leonor, also an engineer and she has a dad who likes to cook. Lily, if you’re reading this at all, tell your dad that next Thanksgiving we should all get together so he can show me how to best cook a turkey the Portuguese/Colombian way. I have a feeling it will be the best turkey ever.

Caroline… is going into her third year @ Columbia College in Chicago. I love her writing and everything she does, and while I know she doesn’t want to act or be on stage, this video was the fucking highlight of my year.

Oh yes, we’re gloating parents and that’s simply because Jon and I are such losers.

Caroline is dating Will Brown and Will, if you’re reading this, I want to meet your mom and dad, and sisters, and we should all book a trip to Dublin and start singing in an Irish pub, because that’s one of the things I want to do in 2019. Are you game?

I’m going to leave it at this, because it IS about the next generation and not ourselves. We’re old news, even though Jon is still at ForgeRock, while I’m translating for various tech clients till I’m blue in the face. I’m also wrestling with finishing a book on Henry Miller, which is absolutely the wrong person to write anything about in these #MeToo times. Timing is everything in life, and clearly, I haven’t figured that one out. Didn’t I tell you I was a loser?

What can I say?

We live in scary times which is why YOU need to find and savor your little pocket of happiness every day. This is what Henry Miller said on the subject and I want you to cut it out and paste it over your bed if it has any meaning to you:

It’s good to be just plain happy, it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss.

Make it count, folks, every friggin’ minute of the day.

Be happy, be best (lol), be blissful and ROCK ON. 2019 is just another number.

Peace.

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Death Sets a Thing Significant


Now when I read, I read not,

For interrupting tears

Obliterate the etchings

Too costly for repairs.

~ Emily Dickinson

On Thanksgiving Eve, we got a call from the retirement community where my father-in-law Bud Lake resides. It’s the kind of call we maybe expected some time, but the dimensions of it only seized us when we saw Bud, deceased, lying in the hallway of his apartment.

I will spare you the details, but for me personally the image has lingered as a larger metaphor of the mystery of his life.

In many ways, Bud was like my own father. A loving husband and grandfather who provided in ways that many can’t anymore in this country, but he was also, like my father, an emotionally absent father, consumed by work.

My husband, Jon, tried many times, and especially in the last few years of his life, to penetrate the veneer, to connect more deeply on an emotional level. To say I LOVE YOU without expecting I LOVE YOU back.

Since my mother-in-law’s death, Bud would join us for Sunday dinner and at those moments too, we tried to ask questions, about his parents, about his life, about his late wife Dot, about life in general, but we often hit a wall. His eyes would glaze over and we stared into an abyss and a mystery he wouldn’t share with us.

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As I was dwelling on his life and significance over the weekend and drafted an obituary, I realized Bud was defined by work and gave his time generously to the community we’re living in. As an active member of his church, Bud was a true Christian, or the kind of Christian I believe in– one who believes that faith is manifested in good works and compassion we have for others who are less well off.

If anything, Bud taught me one crucial life lesson and that is that life is about showing up. When we don’t show up for others, organizations, worthy initiatives, we lose some of the moral fabric of society as a whole and, in polarizing times like these, that lesson may well be the crux of it all.

And yet, at home, we craved that same showing up, and while he was there in person, his mind often seemed to be somewhere else. His wife, Dot, made up for the gap, like 200%, but sons need to connect with fathers in ways that daughters need to connect with mothers.

This morning I lost it. I was listening to some Joni Mitchell, and music always pulls the strings of deeply felt emotions. It was like a dam that broke.

What has haunted me is the way in which he might have died, but particularly, how long he might have lain in that hallway, crying out for help with no one hearing him.

For the last two weeks, he had had a cold. We had called him several times, but he wouldn’t return our calls which was typical for him. Last Sunday, we connected for the last time by phone. He said he was still fighting a cold, so he couldn’t join us for dinner and CLICK. That’s how he always communicated by phone. I told Jon to call back and tell him he really needed to see a doctor with a cold that hung on that long, and asked Jon to ask him if we could do anything for him.

In the last year of his life, Bud had fallen several times. As a daughter-in-law I’ve never wanted to cross boundaries and tell him what to do but I did remember telling him he should consider wearing an alarm, or maybe even using a cane. I know, aging ain’t for sissies but sometimes we have to admit to ourselves that aging is also about wanting to help yourself. To no avail. Vanity often gets the best of us.

On Monday, I exchanged messages with a family friend. Had we heard anything from Bud, she asked. We called Bud again and got the machine again. We called the retirement community. They sent someone for a so-called welfare check. They knocked on his door and he was fine. They also told him to call his son Jon. He never called us back. But we did see that note on his kitchen table when we walked in on Wednesday.

At my urging and nagging, Jon called again the next day. No answer. We knew he was going to travel to Oregon to be with Chris, Jon’s brother, and his family, over Thanksgiving, so Jon called the hotel where he said he’d be staying and they said he had checked out, giving us the impression that he was fine and en route to Oregon (this really gave us a false sense of security because he probably had NEVER shown up, and the system may have indicated that he was checked out because he never showed up).

So when we saw him Wednesday morning, helpless, vulnerable and alone, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. While my father-in-law had taught me that life was about showing up, we, the nearest next of kin, had failed to show up for him at the most crucial time in his life.

Could we have prevented this? Should we have gone over on Tuesday to check up on him in person? Or was his withdrawing from us in the last month or so (he seemed out of it, not engaging, listless, and depressed maybe) the prequel of him desiring death when his life had been lived so well and abundantly?

It was the final missed opportunity. So now, “when I read, I read not/For interrupting tears/Obliterate the etchings/Too costly for repairs.” I really have no answers. Or as the soulful Joni Mitchell reminded me this morning: “I really don’t know life at all.”

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Walden Pond Intimations: The Time for Civil Disobedience Has Come


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As some of you know from my Facebook updates, we were in Boston last weekend. As we were staying in Cambridge, and not too far away from Concord and Walden Pond, I realized it was time to revisit this legendary lake where Thoreau wrote his famous book.

I had been to Walden Pond more than twenty years ago during a cold Thanksgiving break and quite frankly, I had been underwhelmed. The pond was partly frozen, the trees were barren and there was not a single sign or reminder of Thoreau’s two-year stay there. A further demythologization of the man followed in the years thereafter when I read stuff about Thoreau seeking isolation, yet not enough isolation to allow his mother to do his laundry. Was Thoreau a fraud?

When I returned to Walden Pond, however, I was in for a surprise. There was paid parking with solar panels, a visitors’ center and a gift shop. The pond itself had an attractive beach where people lounged and seemed to lead anything but “lives of quiet desperation.”

Of course I also went there because Thoreau (and Emerson) had been such a profound influence on Henry Miller’s writing and thinking. In essence, Big Sur became Miller’s Walden and spawned a memoir that was not unlike Thoreau’s canonical book.

Visiting the visitor center, Jon and I decided to watch the Ken Burns movie on Thoreau and Walden Pond, and I don’t know what set it off but it moved me deeply.

images-1Like Miller, Thoreau was a bit of a drifter until he wrote his breakthrough book. As a Harvard graduate of his day, there were several careers he could have had but he chose teaching, which he abandoned when he didn’t agree with the school’s practice of flogging. He would continue to teach elsewhere but he was really a poet and philosopher at heart.

On July 4th, 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden Pond to live in a modest one-bedroom cabin which he had built himself and that sat on land that his mentor and friend Emerson owned. “I went to the woods,” he would write in Walden, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

By living deliberately, and living in the moment, an exercise in which he focused on and meticulously described Nature around him, Nature became his best company and solitude his best friend. Like John Muir, he was an environmentalist before the word or movement were invented. This new way of looking at Nature coincided of course with a new respect for Nature in the Romantic Movement, but both Muir and Thoreau were far removed from the Romantic poets in Europe, yet used the American wilderness as an inspiration to create a new and more enlightened appreciation of the natural world. They fathered a conservation movement that, among other things, and with Teddy Roosevelt’s help, created America’s national parks.

But Thoreau might not have been half the man if it weren’t for Emerson’s famous essays on Nature and Self Reliance. It was Emerson who talked about the “immanence” in Nature, as in the notion that God, or the divine, only manifests itself to us in Nature (incidentally, Spinoza said more or less the same thing). As a lapsed Catholic myself, I, too, believe that God was never truly present in any church, synagogue or mosque but was there in Nature all along, provided we are receptive to it.

Coming home, I went back to Walden. I also went back to what Miller had said about Thoreau in an essay he wrote in the 1940s. Miller was astute in observing that whereas most young men and contemporaries of Thoreau went bonkers with the Gold Rush and moved to California, Thoreau did the opposite: he stayed home and cultivated a different (and more significant) mine on the shores of Walden Pond. Or As Thoreau claimed himself: even though Walden was close to civilization, and the town of Concord in particular, “for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”

“He found Walden,” Miller said, “but Walden is everywhere if the man himself is there.” He was a man after Miller’s own heart: “He was too deeply religious to have anything to do with the Church, just as he was too much the man of action to bother with politics, and too rich in spirit to think of amassing wealth.” Simplify, simplify and you get to the core of what life is all about.

I also reread Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience which was triggered by him having to spend a night in jail because he hadn’t paid his taxes. Interestingly, that essay and his political views in general were an inspiration to both Gandhi and Martin Luther King. You realize, as Miller realized as well, that Thoreau was quite radical for his day (early on, he spoke out against slavery but he also argued that we are all enslaved when we lead lives serving and performing our daily duties, tasks and jobs while not nurturing the self and soul).

Although the young republic of America had shaken off its colonial shackles and had rejected the English king in favor of an American president and a seemingly more democratic system, Thoreau’s negative views of governments and majority rule were revolutionary for its day, or as Miller observed: “He is nearer to an anarchist than a democrat, socialist or communist,” and extending the analogy to his own time, Miller echoed Thoreau when writing that “no government on earth is good enough or wise enough to be entrusted with such powers as employing nuclear weapons.”

As a child of the Enlightenment, Thoreau was not blind to the societal progress that had been made: the absolute monarchy became a limited monarchy and finally a bicameral democracy. With each new government, the rights of the individual became more important than the rights of kings and autocrats. After all, this had been the point of the French Revolution.

Yet at the democratic level, progress was halted, for an elected government by the majority could still go to war, enslave other people, commit injustices and/or be corrupt. Government still had too much power to make the wrong decisions, decisions that might go against the interest of the majority vote. “There will never be a really free and enlightened State,” Thoreau wrote, “until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” Thoreau asks for a State that is “just to all men” and “to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.”

We thought, at the time, that we had done an adequate job of dismantling the monarchy in favor of a Trias Politicas model, but it is almost as if Thoreau argued in favor of a fourth body or power that truly represented the people’s agenda and could serve as a check if there were an abuse of power that spread to the other three branches. In light of the Trump administration and the seemingly unchecked power of the President that now seems to extend itself to the highest court of the land, people seem to hunger for a level of consent we’re not getting.

Of course, no such state has been realized anywhere, not even in Europe, where people seem to share in a more just society because there is more income equality and a greater respect for basic human rights such as universal health care, free education, and greater social security.

After two years of Trump, we’re going backward– the rights of the individual (immigrants, women, people of color, children, the poor) are curtailed and violated left, right and center, whereas the power and abuse of an increasingly autocratic government (the monarch and aristocracy being replaced by an oligarchy of the rich and their corporations) has started to oppress and enslave its subjects.

This is not only the Putin model but if you’ve been watching the Kavanaugh hearings, you see the pattern become apparent there as well: Kavanaugh is a tool of our new corporate fascist state, for he has ruled time and again in favor of corporations and deregulation and against the rights of the individual (women and people of color in particular). Soon, who knows, he’ll also be a safety valve for a corrupt, greedy and amoral, corporate fascist whose coup belongs in banana republics and not a country that is rooted in the Enlightenment ideals of the eighteenth century.

Protesting, calling congressmen and senators, writing letters, starting petitions, knocking on doors to bring out the vote, voting… am I alone in feeling that the voice of the majority is not heard and respected? We are powerless as the constitutional crisis deepens.

The time has come, maybe, for some actual civil disobedience. People who work for the government and government agencies could go on strike, teachers could fail to show up for work, and what if we all decided to not pay our taxes? Because truly, what is the government doing for us? Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and scores of other social programs are being gutted while those funds are financing a tax cut for the rich, more nuclear warheads and an army that has not protected us, but that has gone to war with other countries that don’t form an immediate threat to us. This country was founded by imperialists but now we have become imperialists ourselves and that requires a huge tax burden that squeezes the poor and the middle class, because the rich and corporations are not paying their fair share.

Conformity leads very quickly to obedience and indifference, and in order to have a society that protects our basic individual freedoms and human rights, Thoreau seemed to argue, we first need to free ourselves from the kind of group thinking and tribalism that is tearing us apart. We need to establish a firm sense of our own Walden before we can ensure a Walden Pond for future generations.

In the meantime, the call to action by Thoreau is a firm reminder that as citizens we should never resign our conscience to the legislator, for “Why has every man a conscience, then?” #Resist

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The Meaning of High School and Reunions: BS Reunions? #mendelcollege


 

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You read that right…

High School… Who cares, right?

Someone contacted me on LinkedIn this week. Someone from High School. He asked me whether I was going to our HS Reunion this year. I haven’t been to any of them as far as I can remember and it has been more than thirty years since I graduated from there. Plus, the school is in The Netherlands, so every year I have a solid excuse, for who travels thousands of miles to relive those wretched high school days?

High School. Were you happy in High School?

My kids went through the American school system and when they went to their High School here in California, there was a deep disconnect with my memories. We had no cheerleaders or football teams. We didn’t have a swimming pool or water polo players either. The extreme sport and conditioning my kids had to engage in was also a very American notion and my god, I wish my HS (Mendelcollege, Haarlem) had a Drama Department like Miramonte has.

American HS experiences have been glamorized and mythologized in American movies but there is also a very dark side to American HS, because it is truly a popularity contest at times. In fact, it is a rather ruthless and cruel scene for the girls who don’t feel as pretty, popular or as smart as the clique they would love to belong to. Mean girls are the meanest sons of bitches in HS… After which they become press secretaries for Donald Trump.

And then there are the parties, the binge drinking and the plethora of drugs– that’s a part of HS I wasn’t familiar with either. I can hardly remember drinking much at school parties at all and I didn’t need a prom dress or a partner or a line of coke to make me feel better about myself. Nice, you might say, not to have all that baggage and hoopla, but prom or no prom, I think lots of people remember HS with mixed feelings, if not anguish. It was a time of becoming and evolving and the biggest tragedy was if you had “peaked” already in HS. Most of us peak after, if we peak at all.

My elementary school was a very happy time but then puberty sort of coincided with taking Latin and Greek and it all went downhill from there. I became very introverted, related for most of my HS days to Janis Ian’s brilliant song At Seventeen (those of us with ravaged faces/lacking in the social graces/desperately remained at home/inventing lovers on the phone …  it isn’t all it seems… at seventeen), and dreamed of graduating and leaving all of that debilitating awkwardness behind.

So do I have any good memories, you ask? Any nostalgia? Maybe.

I remember certain teachers and did fall in love with languages and learning English in particular, a language I found (and still find) far more nuanced than my native Dutch. The school, started by priests, was known for its academic discipline. I went for the equivalent of what people in Britain refer to A levels (Gymnasium B), so I learned to work hard, a work ethic that’s still with me today. For that I’m grateful, but the rest is a hodgepodge of cringeworthy memories and mostly… regrets.

Socially awkward and shy, I regret not having reached out to others who were more alike than I dared to assume. Like a journalist friend whom I barely exchanged a word with in HS, but whose path I crossed many years later, and when we started e-mailing, we realized we had both been devoted readers and lovers of books and we wondered out loud why we hadn’t been better friends in HS. We learn to have more open minds when we actually venture out in the world but in HS we are too busy dealing with our adolescent acne-scarred selves to bother to look around us. I wish I had been more open. I wish I had reached out to that one unhappy and unpopular kid in my class (like I was for a large part myself) and I wish I had actually thanked that one teacher who made a difference.

After HS, I blossomed, as a student in Leiden, the US and Great Britain. I got my PhD at Radboud University in Nijmegen, which was followed by my first book with an American publisher. But those are just resume data points. My biggest success was a personal one in that I could ditch Janis Ian, even though the song still brings tears to my eyes because I felt like such a fucking loser in HS.

As a result, I never liked Dutch guys very much, a romantic hangover from my HS days for sure, so I vowed I would find myself a foreigner instead. And I did, dear reader, and married him. After emigrating to the US, I taught briefly in Arizona and Colorado, then took some time off to raise my kids and resumed my career in academia, writing and publishing. I had some level of success but can’t say I have peaked. If anything, I have failed on many levels. But I’m still in love with my husband and don’t know for the life of me how I ended up with kids whom I admire and respect and love more than I love myself. I find this humbling because the scar tissue from my HS days tells me I’m not worthy.

So… is attending a HS Reunion a masochistic exercise, and if so, why go?

As I’m writing this I’m reminded of that movie Romy’s and Michele’s High School Reunion in which two ditsy girls who haven’t quite gotten their professional lives together invent a story about themselves… at their reunion, they will tell everyone they’re the inventors of Post-It Notes. The premise of the movie alludes to the baggage of HS reunions… there’s a perception that only the successful people attend so they can brag about their career successes, fabulous spouses and obnoxious kids. Let’s face it: many of us didn’t feel quite cool or hip in HS, so the narrative you tell about yourself at a HS reunion serves as a correction of a past image we all like to erase, or at least improve on.

This is not the reason I want to go. I want to go because I want to make peace with my HS demons. For all I care, I may tell people I’m still the same loser, living under a bridge somewhere, while spending my panhandling income on nothing but meth and booze (I almost wrote “men and booze” but at my age that would be a success story in itself). I don’t really care about the story I need to present of life after HS. I want to go and find that kid I should have connected with and thank that teacher who sparked something in me that’s still with me.

And when all is said and done, I want to walk away from that school and say to myself, Wow, I still don’t fit in but I met some of the greatest people. Best day ever I had in that building. Life is good.

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