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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Getting Rid of Books… and the Stuff You’ll Find…


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I have too many books.

The fact is we have lived in this house for over twenty years, so we need to start shedding and shredding stuff or else our kids will be burdened with all that shit when we keel over.

So I started the big book cleanse today and being a bibliophile, this is an extremely hard job for me to do. Some books are easy to donate, others I put on a pile, so I can sleep on it.

There was one large Dutch book I quickly discarded but then I saw my mother’s handwriting on the cover. The book dealt with Van der Pigge, an old drugstore in Haarlem, which has even been called THE drugstore of the Netherlands because of its uniquenessThere was even a bawdy song about it, i.e. that you could buy anything in this store as in cookies to snack on and little pills to make you poop…

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As it turned out, in 2003, they made a musical about the store and my mother, who started writing and publishing late in life, provided one of the song lyrics.

I went online but couldn’t find anything about it. I was especially interested in my mom’s song which was mentioned in a review of the musical: “There is a moving scene in which a boy and his four sisters come to the store to ask whether it has any mothers for sale, because she has left the family.”

This song received a standing ovation, so I was interested in finding the text. Returning to the book, a program to the musical fell out, and there it was, the full text of my mom’s song. I’ll reproduce it here, so it won’t get lost. I’ll translate it so you can see what it says, but obviously this has to be free verse and it’s not as good as the original.

MOEDERLIED/MOTHER SONG (2003) by Laurine Hollander

Mijnheer, ik wil u graag wat vragen/Sir, I would like to ask you something

Heeft u een moeder voor ons te koop?/Do you have a mother for us, for sale?

Voor mijn werk in de stallen/For my work in the stables

Betaal ik acht stuivers en een knoop/I (can) pay eight nickels and a button.

Ik heb zusjes, ik heet Marinus/I have sisters, my name’s Marinus

En we zijn toch zo alleen/And we’re so very lonesome

Mijn moeder is plotseling vertrokken/My mother suddenly left

En we weten niet waarheen/And we don’t know where she’s gone.

Beste knaap, wat moet ik zeggen/My dear boy what can I say

Je moeder komt misschien weer thuis/Your mother may well come back

Want een moeder voor vier kinderen/Coz a mother for four children

Die heb ik echt niet hier in huis/I don’t have here in the stacks.

Maar Anton, de mensen zeggen/But Anton, people say

Dat hier alles te koop is/That you can buy anything here

Waarom dan geen lieve moeders/Why no sweet mothers then

Want hun moeder die is dood/Because their mother… she is dead.

Geen moeder om ons voor te lezen/No mother to read to us

Of te huilen in haar schoot/Or to cry in her lap and all.

Heeft u dan geen toverstokje/Don’t you have a magic wand

Voor een moeder, kleine of groot/For a mother, big or small?

Marinus, ik kan je echt niet helpen/Marinus, I really can’t help you

Geen moeder en geen toverstaf/No mother and no magic wand

Geen hocus-pocus-pilates-pas/No hocus-pocus-pilatus-pas

Ik wou dat er een moeder was/to conjure up a mother

Wat een potjes om zalf te maken/So many jars to make ointment

Flesjes groot en flesjes klein/Bottles big and small

Zou er tussen al die dingen/Wouldn’t there be among all those things

Voor ons geen lieve moeder zijn?/a sweet mother for us all?

Zoals we pas hebben gelezen/Like we have read recently

Zit een geest soms in een fles/A genie can be inside a bottle, no?

En hier op die houten planken/And here on these wooden shelves

Staan er wel een stuk of zes/There are about six or so.

Anton wil jij ze open maken/Anton, can you open them?

Een voor een dat mag van mij/One by one, that’s okay by me

Geesten worden wel eens mensen/Spirits sometimes turn into people

Misschien is er een moeder bij/Maybe there is a mother there for me.

THE END

The English translation doesn’t do it justice although I tried to make it rhyme a little. My mom was the better poet, clearly.

My mom left us in 2013 but her spirit was inside this book, this book I was ready to toss out with old paper.

I sometimes wish I could conjure her up, like a genie in a bottle, but for me neither, there isn’t a store where I can retrieve her or find a replacement, big or small.

Yet we made contact today, thanks to this book and her writing, and if she hadn’t left something on the cover, I would have missed out on this special moment. For a split second, her genie came out of the book and filled the house with her presence.

Wie schrijft die blijft. 

Or as Benjamin Franklin said: If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing. 

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Coming Home


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I haven’t blogged for ages because I try to reserve those spare hours for writing on my Miller book, but after a rather frantic vacation (How to see five countries in under three weeks… madness), I feel empty, frustrated and frightened about returning to Trumpistan. For all the noise on Twitter and other social media, one thing is chillingly clear: We have a president who is a Russian asset and even after several indictments and mounting evidence that the Trump campaign did conspire with a foreign enemy, Trump is meeting with Putin and trying to convince his base that Putin ain’t so bad and that our bad relationship with Russia is just the result of US not wanting to get along.

The GOP is silent.

And thereby our checks and balances are eroded day by day. Democracies don’t die over night. It’s a gradual process and people get numb, are busy living their own lives and busy surviving. Back in Boston alone, we met two people talking about their two jobs, because one job in this country doesn’t pay the bills.

Back in Europe someone said that there is a rising cult of so-called “strong men”. People are not happy, and those who want to stay aloof from the facts would rather follow a “strong” leader because he spouts the kind of propaganda they want to hear and that includes stepping on other people (the free press, people of color, immigrants) to be swept along in a tide of white supremacy nostalgia that had its heyday under Hitler and Mussolini. America, a country of immigrants, always claimed it couldn’t happen here. Well, it is happening here, and at an alarming rate.

I will continue to do my share: speak out, take to the streets, call congressmen, knock on doors in the 2018 elections, follow the news and donate to organizations who help those who are in need right now, but I despair and do so frequently. This ain’t Watergate anymore… we have a brainwashed base, a complicit GOP and a Russian asset for a president. I can’t afford to drop everything because I have a living to make and a book I want to finish within a year, but I will do my share. Fleeing this country is not an option. We have to fight for all the great people in it.

On Saturday, we visited JFK’s birthplace in Brookline, Mass, a suburb of Boston. As an intro to touring the house, we watched a video and listened to one of JFK’s electric speeches in which he inspired and lifted up people with that Kennedy brand of idealism, integrity and honor. No blaming of other people. No throwing of cheap red meat. No lies. No narcissism. No ugly red hats and that mendacious mantra of making America great.

My eyes filled with tears. Tears over what this country once projected to the world and itself: A shiny city on a hill.

The lights are going out folks, and we better stay WOKE to make sure our children and grandchildren can live in a place that JFK had in mind. A place where working together with love and faith and honor, a country where we stand up for each other, a haven where migrant children don’t languish in camps without their parents, a warm locus amoenus where everyone can live up to his God-given potential, a melting pot and a spot where kindness and tolerance are not booted out by division, fear and white supremacy. We can do this, but the light is swallowed up by a darkness and we’d better get ready and follow a plan of resistance and persevere, because it may get worse, much worse, before it gets better.

#Resist

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I Love My Cunt


Maybe it’s because I grew up with the word “kont” which is your rear in Dutch, but, as such, related to English cunt. The word first emerged in Middle English (cunte) and had related words in Old Norse (kunta) and Middle Dutch (kunte). You can clearly see how kunte changed into kont as well as kut which is the Dutch word for cunt and used as often as fuck and shit are used in the Netherlands. Kut is also the favorite word to glue in front of another as in: kutweer (bad weather, so typically Dutch weather), kutzooi (shitshow) etc.  Because kut is so prevalent in Dutch, I really started wondering why cunt is so charged and taboo in English.

The Oxford English Dictionary proves this. There are very few citations listed for the word cunt, although Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett beat the record since they have not one but two (citations that is, not cunts). You want to hear them? I’m going to give them to you because we need a little desensitization as far as the word cunt goes. Here they are: “O Tania,” wrote Henry Miller in Cancer, “where now is that warm cunt of yours?” Beckett also used the word cunt in his novel Malone Dies and proclaimed it was the “trump card of young wives.” But the word can also be used to describe a woman (or man!). Miller again in Cancer: “Two cunts sailed in– Americans.” And Beckett, once again in Malone Dies: “They think they can confuse me… Proper cunts whoever they are.”

There are two more examples with the word cunt in the OED, combined with other words, namely “cunt struck” which refers to women liking women and “cunt sucker” which obviously is much less used than “cock sucker”… is that because more cocks get sucked? Come to think of it: if you called a man a cock sucker, isn’t that more offensive to the (heterosexual) man in question than if you were to call him a cunt sucker?

It’s interesting also that in English the word cunt is hardly used by women themselves– they will talk about their vagina or their pussy. I myself find the word pussy a prettification and infantilization of the actual thing and if a guy were to refer to my pussy or wanting a part of it, I would find it much more creepy than if he were to use a more grown-up word like vagina or cunt. Barbies have pussies but real women have cunts.

Some people say cunt is far more shocking than prick or dick. You bet it is! Cunts give birth and that’s far more than a dick can ever dream to accomplish. And I think this is also where the shock value comes from. I mean childbirth for men must have been a traumatic and scary experience, and especially so in times when there were no epidurals, qualified doctors or C-sections. Women died in childbirth all the time and so did babies. The cunt was the culprit. The cunt was unpredictable, powerful and much more than just a hole for the penis. On top of that, the cunt is a bloody crime scene once a month and women have no control over that. Lots of men are mystified and revolted by that whole notion, and again the cunt is the culprit.

Men have also said that the cunt reeks– and the cunt can be something to be feared as in the vagina dentata. Dicks are not feared in the same way– they’re just dumb, straightforward and predictable. They can reek too on a hot day, and even more so, when a lot of meat gets packed inside tight pants… but no one ever seems to want to talk about that. So if you want to talk misogyny, it’s not the word cunt that has caused that but men’s fear of the cunt and women in general. The cunt itself is quite an amazing thing.

Yes, let’s reclaim and rehabilitate the word cunt as a thing of beauty. As something that gives comfort, life and orgasms. And if you’re shocked by the use of the word, it’s you and not my cunt, your own cunt or the neighbor’s cunt. If you’re petrified by it, you are like all the men who have always feared and diminished the cunt as something far more inferior and gross than pricks. The shock is part of the intended misogyny but the cunt is not to blame.

If I have a pussy, I use it for peeing. My cunt on the other hand is the ballsy part of my anatomy. It gave me two beautiful children. Yes, I love my cunt, and so should you.

 

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Cycling Rage and White Male Privilege


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Here’s just something to get off my chest because I’ve come across this behavior several times now.

As I was biking up Wild Cat Canyon, an older guy passed me on his bike but I guess the passing of a woman took everything out of him as he was slowing down to a crawl, so my front wheel was practically touching his rear wheel.

Not cool.

At first I wanted to let it go but since I had to slow down because of Mr. Snail in front of me, I decided to pass him. So I sped up, ready to pass him, and he looked over his shoulder and swerved to the middle of the road, so I couldn’t pass him. I finally hid in his blind spot and passed him whereupon he stood up on his pedals and tried to keep up with me.

Sometimes a man’s ego is too big to be pussy whipped by a chick on a bicycle, and they have to show you who is boss. I wouldn’t let it happen and passed him (without standing on my pedals), ready to flip him off but I kept it civilized. Passing his sorry ass was victory enough.

In the wider context of things, and I hate to generalize, but some of these older white men act like your usual, predictable, pale, patriarchal, penis person… these men do everything to hold onto their power and hold sway over the swamp. They are full of bravado and make empty promises about draining the swamp, but in the end they are the swamp.

They vilify women (and proclaim their uterus, their property), want walls for immigrants and call the cops on blacks who are minding their own business… or sometimes it’s as simple as showing that wench on that bicycle that you’re in charge.

Gloria Steinem said: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

Men can be pigs, but they’ve been in charge since time immemorial so they think they’re entitled to be pigs. I think time’s up for these kinds of losers. If you want to be the leader of the pack, you’ll have to show some manners, integrity and honest leadership rather than being a limp dick on a bicycle. #Basta.

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Philip Roth (1933-2018)


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“Don’t judge it. Just write it. Don’t judge it. It’s not for you to judge it.”

~ Philip Roth

I was going at a steady clip, writing my daily pages for my Henry Miller book but then the GDPR (if you don’t know what that is, you have your head up your butt and you need to get more woke about this) became a fact and clients of mine needed to update their privacy policies and I was dragged down in a swamp of legalese that made my head spin.

On top of that, Philip Roth died at the ripe old age of 85 on May 22nd. He had stopped writing novels but until the very end, he had remained lucid and sharp.

Henry Miller paved the way for Roth and others, so I think I should say something here about Roth and the connection with Miller.

Roth made sure to acknowledge Miller in an interview for the National Endowment of the Arts. He “broke the ice,” Roth said, and he found a way to “look straight at sex and not from the point of view of a moralist or a physician.” The quote betrays an awareness of how we still looked at sex in America in the 1950s. Of course Roth’s own controversial, sex-laced and break-through book (Portnoy’s Complaint) was published in 1969, only eight years after Tropic of Cancer was allowed to be released in the US for the first time.

In another interview on Roth’s literary influences, Roth, once again, mentioned Miller as someone who educated him in “letting in the repellent […] Let literature contemplate the repellent.” The repellent of course also includes all the different ways we can fuck and get fucked, and some of (what many might consider) those very repellent aspects of sex were a steady staple in the novels of Roth and his contemporaries.

After the #metoo movement began to cause tidal waves, dragging Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and others into the riptides of the Seas of Shame and Oblivion, Philip Roth gave one last and insightful interview to the New York Times in January of 2018. In it, the #metoo movement was clearly the pink elephant in the room, so Roth seemed guarded and deliberate in distancing himself from the Harvey Weinsteins of the world by arguing that he wrote about men in general  (rather than himself– a little disingenuous that, as his fiction was clearly autobiographical) who were “beset by shameful desires and the undauntedness of obsessive lusts, beguiled even by lurid taboo”.

The sex drive, Roth seemed to convey, is one that many men simply cannot control. They are “inflammatory forces” and men are “in the grip of carnal fervor” for which the driving force is desire which incapacitates one’s Reason/rationality. With nothing much to lose, Roth even argued that this drive/desire was a “form of lunacy”. But is it? Or is it simply… Nature? The Dionysian element of letting go has been as old as the sex drive itself and to deny that or write it out of our culture is a kind of obscenity in itself. Feminist Camille Paglia says in her book Sexual Personae: “Sex cannot be understood because nature cannot be understood.”

Interestingly, in the interview, Roth seemed to further distance himself from all that sexual lunacy by suggesting that he was a mere observer, a chronicler by using phrases such as “I have imagined”, “I’ve tried to be uncompromising” and “I’ve stepped inside the male head and reality.” Roth seemed to suggest he was the mere camera– and a camera that records whatever lewd acts is still just a camera and no morality or judgment machine. Miller was such a “camera”, too. In fact the sense of voyeurism, of watching and seeing is very strong in all of Miller’s work, yet when Miller recorded sex, it was considered obscene but when Roth did it in the late 1960s it was all of a sudden great American literature.

Don’t get me wrong: Sex, and perverted sex happens every day. Sex experienced from the male point of view also happens every day but many women readers may feel a disconnect (and objectified) once the male psyche gets unleashed and subsequently expresses its sexual experience in all its ejaculatory glory. The disconnect and the very inequality of the sexual act which has a physiological reason (we don’t have the same hormones and equipment) is, as Paglia hinted, a conundrum we may never overcome. However, whereas Roth launched his career with a particular raunchy book in which obsessive masturbation did indeed seem a form of lunacy, Miller was condemned for writing a similarly repellent book thirty-five years earlier and was penalized for it and is now dropping out of the canon. Yet without Miller there would be no Roth, and that is where and why we need to see Miller in the larger context of American literature, culture and the sex we love to hate.

Rest in peace, Philip Roth, you were one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

 

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Spooning with a Pitbull


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OK– my bad…

I was going to blog regularly this year about the things that give me joy, as it’s the points of light in the day that keep us going but I’m not going to lie about it: it has been a rough few weeks. Sometimes life just hits you in the gut, and it takes all your energy and resources to remain standing and be there for family, friends… and dogs.

As some of you know, I started participating in the “sharing economy” by setting up a dog sitter profile on Rover. I did it partially on a whim, but I have been receiving many dogs now into our humble abode. Part of me did it because Teddy is 13 and geriatric dogs interact less, sleep a lot and push out the grossest farts. I had forgotten how much fun it is to have a young energetic dog in the house, and it has livened up our empty nest. I work from home fulltime and the dogs force me to get up from my desk and take them for a walk.

Also, Rover is/was my opportunity to “test drive” some breeds because I’m positive that once Teddy passes, we do want another dog but maybe not a doxie.

Speaking of breeds… like many people, I’ve been leery of pitbulls. Years ago, a good friend of mine was riding her horse in the woods in the Netherlands and out of nowhere a pitbull came charging and latched onto the horse’s chest and wouldn’t let go. The horse survived but was forever traumatized and would flip whenever it saw any dog after that, and well, we all read the occasional pitbull story in the news.

So… two weeks ago I had a meet & greet (the pre-intake to see if the guest dog is ok with the host dog) with what was described on the profile as a labrador/retriever and the dog is a mix but when it jumped out of the car I saw it had a clear pitbull face. The meet & greet went fine though, so I decided to cast aside my prejudices and listen to all the people who will tell you that pitbulls are the sweetest dogs.

If there’s anything that this dog business has taught me it is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Weeks ago I had a meet & greet with the weirdest little mutt I had ever seen but he was Mr. Magic — so sweet, funny and endearing that I was ready to “dognap” him by the end of his stay. Note to self: never foster any dogs, because I’d adopt them all and would become the crazy dog lady in the hood.

Here are some pics of the guy I’m talking about:

Anyhow, when Mr. Pitbull arrived in the house I was wondering how things would evolve but after spending one hour with him, I could tell he was mega smart, sweet and reliable.

But then Jon walked into the house and the dog started barking with one of those really loud, growling barks. I was doing something in the other room, so I told him:

“He’s very friendly– just stick your hand out…”

And Jon screamed back from the kitchen: “I ain’t sticking my hand out to a fucking pitbull.”

“There’s only a little pitbull in him…” I said, but Jon wouldn’t buy it, although now he loves him to pieces as well.

What can I say? These dogs have actually been my savior in the last few weeks. When a certain darkness would grab hold of me in a vortex of dreary thoughts, Mr. Magic would curl up in my lap or Mr. Pitbull would put his big square face on my knee to remind me that life is filled with love if you open your heart to those (read: dogs, lol) around you.

Mr. Pitbull is my steady companion now– the moment I get up from my desk, he darts out of his bed and is by my side. Also, Teddy never comes when you call him (except when you yell the word cheese) but this dog comes running when you say his name once. Funny as it may sound but it gives you a sense of control, and therewith a glimmering realization and hope that maybe in life you can control things too, if only for a split second.

Last night I was pissed about something and withdrawing to the bedroom with the dogs, I turned on the news. Now the news these days is sure to get you down, so I lay down on my bed and invited Mr. Pitbull. I curled up beside him and thought for a moment: wtf, I’m spooning with a pitbull…

It was therapeutic. Life is good, but dogs are better.

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Tending One’s Garden


“The man who tends a garden is the man most directly in touch with God.”

~ Henry Miller

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For those of you who read my debut memoir, Ontwaken uit de Amerikaanse droom, you know that I have been wrestling with the garden gods of this house: When we moved in, the entire house was overgrown with roses and ivy, and the backyard was impenetrable due to a wilderness of blackberry bushes.

As the kids grew bigger, we put a lawn in, in front and back and that was a mistake. Soon the drought hit California and we had to “brown” our lawns to conserve water. Lawns are for English gardens — it needs a good soak now and then and those are few and far between in a state that has been named after a hot oven.

And then work happened and the blackberries came back and the things I had planted when I was still on a honeymoon with this house, were destroyed by the blackberries and other nefarious plants and weeds.

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There are other issues with this house (like old windows), so the garden is not a priority. That said, in January I started attacking the blackberries again and they attacked me. I want to make the garden work for us this time, not by imposing our will upon it (like a French formal garden) but by letting the garden guide us (more like an English landscape garden). After all, in spite of the lawn, old bulbs, planted when this house was built, started poking up again inside the lawn and roses have always flourished and taken over. So why cut them back or replace them with something else that won’t adapt as well?

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I was inspired by the garden of Anaïs Nin, whose house at Louveciennes (part of the Mme Dubarry estate), was described by Alfred Perlès. He said it was something akin to Le Grand Meaulnes, Nin’s garden being:

allowed to grow wild within reason. Nature was not permitted to gain the upper hand completely, but was, so to speak, kept on a leash: it could only go so far as to endow the place with a certain sleeping beauty ambiance, no further. But the touch of unreality, so cunningly contrived was impulsive; had a few elves or fauns suddenly appeared and pranced about the lawn, it would not have seemed incredible.

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So… after removing all the blackberries, I was planting stuff yesterday and today, the soil so black, fertile and malleable that I felt like a kid playing in a sandbox. Gardening is back-breaking work and I’m not sure at all whether, as per Miller’s quote on top, I felt like God today, but there’s something about tending your own garden to make you focus on the here and the now. I can highly recommend it.

 

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Side Trip to Corfu, Greece


images-2There were many things that made my day today but what stood out was Henry Miller’s letters to Anaïs Nin.

The year was 1939 and as the war came closer, and Miller talked of “international gangsterism” and lack of noble statesmen to do the right thing and avert war (sound familiar?), Miller decided to leave France after having lived there for almost ten years. But rather than taking the first boat back to New York City, he made a side trip, to visit his friend Lawrence Durrell on Corfu, Greece. Here’s the house:

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Miller had been working hard in the years prior, and Corfu was like a little remote paradise where, for the first time in years, he felt he could relax and forget about work. His descriptions were so colorful that I did some armchair traveling and I simply longed to swim in the Mediterranean again and feel the sun on my skin. Here are some of the more memorable quotes so you can make that same side trip to Corfu with me and forget about the mundane lives we’re all living:

Corfu really is marvelous. It’s somewhere between Palestine, Arizona and Greece. […] It’s a world of intense light. […] We have two or three little secret coves where we go bathing in the raw– It’s like a tonic. I go about now in a pair of khaki shorts and barefooted. You’d be amazed to see the rough jagged cliffs I scramble over in bare feet. […] And the rowboat is splendid exercise. Here the fishermen stand up to row their huge boats and we imitate them. Their boats are beautiful. Like Van Gogh pictures. […] I’m crazy about the olives, the olive oil for inside and out, the wonderful homemade bread, the luscious fruits and vegetables. It’s a good healthy diet […] Whether I shall ever write anything here or not, I don’t know […] I am more interested in the state of my feet, my agility, my sunburn, my rowing and swimming progress, etc. Going naked is in itself the greatest cure. I think 9/10 of all the world’s neurotics could be cured thus— and thus alone. Just by the sun and water playing on the naked body. It’s very chastening, too. There’s nothing sensual about it. One becomes a rock or a tree.

and:

The whole country seems as if it had existed from eternity. One feels it will go on forever, always bare and always full of surprises. Often, amidst the most barren rocks, in the most inaccessible places, one sees a little monastery, shrine or sanctuary. Larry says it’s the country of the ‘desert fathers’. Anyway, from time immemorial men have lived here in voluntary and blissful solitude, warmed and nourished by sea and sky. One can still do it. There are two categories, two types of men here– the islanders and the highlanders. Like Jung’s division of extroverts [sic] and introverts. And then there must be another rarer type also, who knows how to look above and beyond, as well as within and without. These were the men, I feel, who gave Greece its form. Greece stands between the Arabian world and the European world, between the Occident and the Orient, in every way.

I went online to see what real estate goes for in Corfu. Land and property seem dirt cheap. Take a look at this one…

Ah– to have a house looking out over an expanse of sky and water and… when the eye can no longer take it all in, to fall asleep to the sound of the waves…

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