Bubbles


Have you ever had that experience where something in a novel crosses over into your world? I’m currently reading Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and I had one of those crossover moments today:

All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing . . . All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.

Autumn, by Ali Smith. p.59 paperback version.

Smith wrote Autumn in 2016 and was likely referencing divisive experiences surrounding Brexit. Yet when I read this passage, it seemed so of the moment, so utterly familiar, that it might as well have been straight out of an opinion piece in today’s paper.

Whether it’s vaccinations, climate change, election results or your favorite soccer club, it seems like its become impossible to find common ground anymore. Can you really agree to disagree, when facts are no longer facts? When everyone has their own opinion about what is and is not a credible or reputable source? You’re either for or against, based on facts (erroneously up for debate) or alternative facts (definitely up for debate), and there we are, gazing at an abyss that separates the one from the other, both feeling we’ve really won and the other has clearly lost.

This seemingly insurmountable chasm that separates us, also leaves us grasping for the solid ground of those that think like we do. In fact, I’d say most human connection, besides the most superficial, is based on a reasonable overlap of interests and / or beliefs. Yet at the same time, we are aware that seeking out those who share our outlook in life does come with the risk of enclosing us in socially isolating bubbles. And oh what a decadant and overwhelming plethora of bubbles are available! Just dive into any digital platform and seek what you’re looking for, even if it is a very specific niche of thought or interest, and you can find someone who agrees with you! What are your bubbles? I’ve put a few of mine in this post.

Speaking of bubbles, I had the distinct impression that my physical therapist was in my bubble. We both see the logic in getting vaccinated, both recognize the importance of higher education, and we have an overlap in interests when it comes to parenting, family and health. Somehow, we got on the topic of organics.
“I don’t believe in buying organic. There’s no difference in quality,” he said. I’m paraphrasing, but the point is, his view was diametrically opposed to mine.
Well. I hadn’t seen that one coming.
“Organic means they don’t use pesticides on your crops,” I argued, “which is healthier.”
“There’s no pesticides used in regular food. And if there is, it’s only in trace elements that would not at all have adverse health affects,” he responded. Once again, I’m paraphrasing. But wow. We were getting along so swimmingly, and believer in organics or not, the guy’s a great physical therapist.

What now? Does it matter that he shares a belief that contradicts my own? Or what I’d deem an incorrect version of the facts? I found myself tongue-tied, and asserting vaguely benign “mm-mmm’s” that neither suggested agreement nor disagreement. Why would this render me, promoter of organic everything, so speechless? Because my safe little bubble had been pierced and we live in a divisive age where: 1) more and more people confuse opinions with facts, 2) if you want to uphold your integrity when presenting your fact-based views, you need to have it backed up with credible sources that both parties engaged in a conversation agree to respect. 3) Google will be judge of both of you.

What authority would be acceptable to us both? I can only guess, but to me, the European Commission seemed like a good place to start.

Here’s a list of what it means to go organic in the EU:

  • Crop rotation for an efficient use of resources
  • A ban of the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers
  • Very strict limits on livestock antibiotics
  • Ban of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Use of on-site resources for natural fertilisers and animal feed
  • Raising livestock in a free-range, open-air environment and the use of organic fodder
  • Tailored animal husbandry practices

Infographic and list are from the European Parliament

Based on these principles, what is there not to believe in? Organic is clearly better for the environment and for livestock. But is his claim also true? That conventional food is entirely safe and unaffected by chemical pesticides? Logic would say, organics wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry if conventional crops are truly safe. However, let’s scratch the surface of that one as well. Here’s what some additional digging brought up on this debate.

A recent abstract of an article published in the Journal of Environmental Pollution in June of 2021, states the following: “Organic soils presented 70–90% lower [pesticide] residue concentrations than the corresponding conventional soils. There is a severe knowledge gap concerning the effects of the accumulated and complex mixtures of pesticide residues found in soil on soil biota and soil health. Safety benchmarks should be defined and introduced into (soil) legislation as soon as possible.” Point for organics!

To directly quote WHO on pesticides: “Pesticides are potentially toxic to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the quantity and ways in which a person is exposed. Some of the older, cheaper pesticides can remain for years in soil and water. These chemicals have been banned from agricultural use in developed countries, but they are still used in many developing countries.The most at-risk population are people who are directly exposed to pesticides. This includes agricultural workers who apply pesticides, and other people in the immediate area during and right after pesticides are spread. The general population – who are not in the area where pesticides are used – is exposed to significantly lower levels of pesticide residues through food and water.” (Don’t sue me for such a long quote WHO). Read more here. Point for organics!

On the other hand, I also found this statement on The Who website:
“None of the pesticides that are authorized for use on food in international trade today are genotoxic (damaging to DNA, which can cause mutations or cancer).”  Point for conventional crops!

Another abstract from a 2019 article entitled A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? found an increase in organic food consumption resulted in a reduced incidence of numerous health conditions, including infertility, birth defects, high BMI, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, it went on to say that “The current evidence base does not allow a definitive statement on the health benefits of organic dietary intake.” Click here to read the full abstract. One point each.

And finally, because I believe in fairness, here’s a quote from the Mayo Clinic, a prestigious, non-profit, academic medical center in the U.S.: “There is a growing body of evidence that shows some potential health benefits of organic foods when compared with conventionally grown foods. While these studies have shown differences in the food, there is limited information to draw conclusions about how these differences translate into overall health benefits.” Point Therapist! Read the full article here. There’s a few more points for organics in there.

What would my physical therapist think if he knew he had been the catalyst for a night’s research into organics? What this has taught me is that I had based my opinion about organics on a lifestyle I wanted to embrace and not necessarily on the facts from the institutions I deem reputable. So. This wasn’t a fruitless exercise after all. What if we all approached our opinions in this way? Are we open to putting own opinions under scrutiny? If we discover flaws, are we willing to acknowledge them? Would that change our ability to communicate with the other? Even if we don’t find a flaw, and the reputable facts back us up, what then? How do we bridge that abyss?

Thanks for reading this entire post! While you’re here, please check out the rest of my website to see what else I have on offer.

When the Lights Went Out


It was a typical Friday night. My son was gaming online with friends, I was reading–in this case Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence–and Schagen’s city center just three hundred meters away was anything but silent. The restaurants and bars were filled with people, the pleasant hum of their conversations wafting through our windows as if to say Corona is over! Everything’s back to normal again. The only anomaly was that my husband wasn’t yet home. Something else was happening that was unfortunately quite typical for Friday night; a large group of teenagers or twenty-somethings were yelling and screaming in the park close by our home.

A firecracker went off. I’m not talking about a cute little sparkler, or even a whistler, but a huge flash of post-apocalyptic white light followed by a boom that made the windows rattle and the dog cower with her tail between her legs. Part of me wondered if the park and its revelers were still there, because if it hadn’t been for the laughter and drunken screams that soon followed, I could have easily mistaken that firecracker for a bomb.

After reading another chapter of Wild Silence, I decided to call it a night. I flipped on the light switch in the hall, and it immediately went out. Great, I thought. Not going to change a lightbulb at this hour. I’ll just have to traverse the stairs in the dark. I made it up the stairs and flipped on the bedroom lights and nothing happened. Maybe my son had been streaming something that ate up so much bandwidth that it blew a fuse. I used my phone’s flashlight to check the fuse box, but not a single switch had flipped off. Hmmm.

My son emerged from his room with a “what the heck?” expression on his face. A quick peak out the front and back door confirmed that we weren’t the only ones suffering from a power outage. I checked a Schagen Facebook Group with 11,000 members and discovered that multiple streets were affected. I’d experienced power outages in the U.S. countless times, but in the ten years I’ve lived in The Netherlands, this was a first.

Initially, the novelty of this Dutch power outage was a bit exciting. Others in the local group were talking about the candles they had lit, the cozy atmosphere, etc. My son capitalized on the moment and located the candle lantern, a battery lantern and soon commandeered my flashlight. I had my iPhone after all.

“Save your phone battery,” someone posted. “Light a candle instead. You never know how long this outage will last.” That’s when the thoughts started; depressing, doomsday thoughts that are always there in the background, lingering, waiting for their moment in the limelight. That moment was now.

What if the power doesn’t go back on? Like ever?
What if this is like one of those movies or Netflix series where suddenly there’s no more electricity or grid, no more running water, chaos, looting, riots?
What if this truly is the beginning of the end?


I was surprised by how quickly these thoughts came to the surface. And then I wasn’t surprised at all, as recognition kicked in. These thoughts are not deeply buried fears left over from growing up during the Cold War where people had their bunkers and sixth months worth of rations; the school drills of hiding under your desks to survive the A bomb dropping (or were those just the earthquake drills?).

This contemporary fear just below the surface is part of living in the world today. That bomb-like boom from earlier in the evening, combined with yesterday’s 20 year anniversary of 9-11 could have set the stage for such dark thoughts, but there’s so much more at play here. We know the corona pandemic isn’t really going anywhere, as more variants pop up around the world. We know that climate change is causing extremely erratic weather resulting in floods, famine, fires, drought, climate refugees, and mass extinction of flora and fauna. We know that there are a growing number of despot governments with leaders as erratic as the weather. We know that our endless-growth economy is resulting in an untenable amount of CO2, methane and other gases being pumped into the atmosphere, which is causing the vast majority of that erratic weather, which is causing all of the floods and famine and fires and extinction and societal upheaval. We know that people are living in divisive bubbles of thought, that social media enforces these bubbles. We know we’re in trouble on so many levels. We know that we’re doing too little too late.

My husband arrived home to a darkened house and worry filled his mind. It’s so dark and quiet. Did something terrible happen? Then he found us with our candles and flashlights and phones. Then the lights went back on.

If you wait long enough


How do you get a teenager to talk? The usual questions—How was your day? Did you learn anything new—haven’t been so rewarding these last few years, and more often than not, yield curt, monosyllabic responses. I’ve tried other approaches, like sharing information I think will be interesting, or asking about the online games he’s playing. This last question is a sure mark if I want to hear about epic battles and head shots. Another bulls eye is a discussion about virtual reality glasses, which will spark a monologue on the many benefits of the Oculus Quest 2, all code language for reasons I should buy a pair for him. 

Image source: cnet.com

Sometimes, as I sit at the table across from him as he eats his afternoon snack, I wait for the next time he looks up from his phone, hoping, silent. Other times, I say, ‘Hey, I’d love a little time.’

It’s a tricky age. Maybe I need a new set of questions. But I haven’t given up just yet. If you wait long enough, they’ll talk.

I heard that dogs hate doing the same walk over and over again, especially hunting dogs. So if I’m not in ‘default dog walking mode,’ I consciously choose a different direction. Once in a while, the alternate route brings me through a neighborhood that has a sculpture of a man and a woman sitting on a long curving bench, turned toward each other as if engaged in conversation. Placed in a natural curve where the sidewalk cuts through a stretch of green, it has an unobtrusive feel. It’s one of the few sculptures that I don’t mind seeing on a semi-regular basis, because it doesn’t demand my attention. 

In the last few months, it’s been upgraded in my mind, as the idea of two people chatting on a park bench offers some throwback of normalcy in the time of corona. I also like to imagine who these two people are, a man and woman, looking up from their papers to chat. Sometimes, depending on my mood, they are lovers or cheaters, other times strangers, the one telling the other an anecdotal story. When I’m in a hurry, the woman is simply inquiring about the time. If I study her lips, I wonder if it’s not a he or she but a non-binary they.

Yesterday, when my dog and I approached the strangers on the benches, they had a glint in their eyes, which gave them entirely new expressions, one that made me laugh out loud. Certainly the work of teenagers.

I can’t quite picture a seventy-nine-year-old breaking out the goofy eyes and sticking them onto a sculpture. I could be wrong. But looking at them now, this man and woman, they have come more alive, as if the words are on the tips of their metal tongues, just waiting to spill forth. I bet if you wait long enough, they’ll talk.

This morning, after my son ate his breakfast and before his phone pulled him away, I asked him how he was doing, said I wouldn’t mind having a little time to talk. No subject. Just talk. It took a while, but after the monosyllabic answers to my questions (how did you sleep? What time are you catching the train to school?), I told him about someone who had passed away from Corona in our town, how she had done so much good in the world, how she wasn’t much older than I was. 

He listened, and then he told me his own story, which flowed out of him. It was about a teacher at his school, overweight, with heart issues, who was now sick and teaching from home. ‘I really hope he doesn’t have corona,’ he said. ‘I’m worried about him.’

If you wait long enough, they’ll talk. 

The bully is leaving the playground


In the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, someone shared a Republican slogan with me: Let’s make the democrats cry again.

I actually found it kind of funny, and very much true. If Trump were to be re-elected, I would have cried again. In fact, when I woke up on Wednesday morning in the Netherlands and flipped open the New York Times coverage of the election, my heart fell. Trump seemed to have a running chance, after all of the damage he has done in the last four years to weaken, reverse or throw out policies that protect the environment, the hate and violence he instigated against Latinos, Blacks, women and the constant lies he fabricated during his presidency and spouted out as truth, after he eroded . . . I just realised I would have to write for days to list all of the harm he has done that I know about, much less all of the other things he’s done under the radar, so I’ll stop there.

When the election results were finally announced, I screamed and jumped and ‘whew-hewed’. There was alcohol involved. And expletives.

Blue Gin & Tonics for the Biden-Harris win

I felt this pressure that had been sulkily hanging over me for the last four years finally lift and it was as if the school bully had finally been kicked off the playground. You still know he’ll be there for a few more months, and might try to EFF things up before he goes, and that you still might run into him and his cronies in a dark alley outside the school yard, but at least we know he’s going.

It wasn’t until I heard Jo Biden speak that I actually got a little bit teary. Let’s make the democrats cry again takes on a new meaning here. I’m crying in happiness at hearing a compassionate, reasoned man sharing his approach to combatting the corona virus, to uniting the nation, to moving forward.

And this is where it gets interesting. The United States can no longer function as such a polarised nation. It doesn’t make sense for anyone. Because just as I feel very passionately about the principles of the democracy I believe the Democratic Party stands for, there are Republicans that have an entirely different view of what is good for our country. There must be a way to find a path that works for the whole nation. If not, we are just taking our turns on the seesaw, up and down every four years, or bracing for a civil war.

What what is our common ground? Do we want a positive future for our children? One where they have a good education, job prospects, freedom to express themselves and a healthy environment in which to live? I think so. I think that must be an indisputable common ground. It’s just a question of how we approach the same goal.

Goodbye Bully. Please learn the rules of how to play fair. The rules of a democratic vote. How to concede.

Getting your Wag on


I was folding laundry when I heard the front door open and close. My husband was already up–he likes to write early in the morning–so I figured that must be him taking the dog out for her morning walk. Then I heard the scrambling of nails on tile, the pressing of paws on the the living room door, the familiar whine of excitement. Those are post-walk sounds of a Beagle getting her wag on in anticipation of breakfast. How a dog can get so excited about sensitive formula dry dog kibble is beyond me, but she musters that excitement each and every morning.

By the time I was downstairs, my husband had already made a pot of tea and we fell into our morning routine.

“How was your walk?”

“Beautiful. Here, I’ll show you.”

He rarely takes pictures, but there on his phone were close to a dozen and they were gorgeous. Rainbows, thick layers of clouds, blue sky, reflections in the water, lush fields, waterways and paths, light everywhere.

(I just realised I’m going to have to ask him for those photos so I can share a few with you here. My words aren’t doing it justice).

Not only had he taken photos, he seemed happy, alive.

“We made the right decision moving here,” he said between bites of quesadilla.

“Totally.”

Later that morning, I cycled to the gym and even though I didn’t catch that early morning stillness of a meditative walk through nature, I felt the energy of sunlight and green things working its way into my psyche. Happy.

SRAH hiring worldwide during Coronavirus shutdown


I’ve just applied to a position at Self Realization AH (SRAH), which is one of the few entities hiring during the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. It is part time, but if I play my cards right, it could turn into a full time, lucrative job. In these uncertain times, SRAH has made it clear that the pay is 100% commission-based. They’ve also established that the currency of pay is not a traditional currency, such as Euros, USD,  Yuan or Kroner. They’re not even paying in the official Coronavirus currency of TP.

In fact, in the words of SRAH “Only you can determine the currency.” I know it sounds like a riddle. That’s because it is a riddle; one that only you can unravel. 

Here’s a bit more about the advert, which oddly enough, I couldn’t find on LinkedIn. 

SRAH is now hiring worldwide!! We are looking for candidates who are motivated, are willing to open their hearts, can work from home and are ready to make major changes in the way they view themselves and the world. 

Requirements:

  • Must limit all non-essential physical contact with the outside world and follow all Coronavirus protocols provided by your government
  • Must be radically honest with oneself and be open to change
  • Must follow through on all tasks once started
  • 100% commitment to the job
  • Must set a 1 hour daily limit on time spent reading or watching the news
  • Must limit all non-essential screen time to 2 hours
  • Must not hoard toilet paper or protective masks

Skills and qualities needed:

  • Highly motivated
  • Candidates have the ability to follow through on tasks once started. 
  • The ideal candidate is flexible and has an open mind, but is willing to learn how to prioritize in a new manner
  • Open to trying foods potentially out of your comfort zone, such as humble pie, hot potatoes, apple of my eye, and be willing to ‘spice things up.’
  • Patient with others. Patient with yourself
  • Previous experience helpful, but not required

I realize I haven’t shared the job position with you yet. But the full business name will put you on the right track. SRAH  is Self Realization at Home. 

The job position is already in the title. But here is an expanded description: Be the person you’ve always wanted to be by meeting and embracing your true self. 

That’s it. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? No. Actually. No. It’s probably the hardest damned job out there. 

You’ve probably realized by now that the ‘entity’ that is hiring worldwide is you. Not only you, but each and every one of us who is willing to take this time of societal lock down as a chance to really figure out what fulfills us.  I’m not talking about being fulfilled by ordering all those things you’ve always wanted online. This type of fulfillment is inside you and has a lifetime warranty. Though you have to work at it every day to keep that warranty valid.

How you step into this position is up to you. Your approach will be clearly influenced by your own belief systems and cultural orientation.

For me, it will mean taking time and space to meditate and pray. It will mean being radically honest with myself about what is alive inside of me, and giving that vision priority in my life. It will mean acknowledging and shedding bad habits and beliefs, but not shredding myself to death should I fail. It will mean acknowledging my weak points (such as a hot temper and perfectionist tendencies) and consciously committing to being more patient, loving and engaging with my husband and son as well as myself.

It will mean honoring my writing by blocking out writing time each and every day and committing to getting the words down on the page. It will mean studying English grammar, following an online course on Teaching Business English offered by the TEFL Academy.

It will mean connecting with the outside world via online platforms and by phone to stay connected to humanity, whether in the form of a FaceTime call to my mother, or following an online meditation course through The Art of Living. But it will also mean creating space to simply listen to that voice within me. 

According to no one in particular and everyone at large, this is THE JOB to take during the Coronavirus shut down; especially if you’re stuck at home with other family members for some indefinite period of time.

Self Realization at Home is still hiring worldwide. Apply today!

If we all accept our letters of application made by ourselves to ourselves, and we are kind but firm in our self-appointed “I am the boss of me” positions, and we focus on enlightenment and humanity as part of strengthening ourselves, we will collectively emerge from the Coronavirus shutdown as happier, more conscious members of the world population. So why not apply today?

50 meters


What if the manner in which you brought in the new year set the tone for the next 365 days? What would that mean for you? A year filled with drunken celebration? A year of sleep? A year of watching television? A year of partying in a club? A year caring for a loved one? The possibilities are endless.

Our new year was certainly brought in with a bang, but like many things in life, not in the way we had envisioned it. The weather forecast predicted a very thick mist and sure enough, around 11pm on December 31st, 2019, the mist rolled in with an eeriness befitting a Stephen King novel.

The Dutch are allowed to purchase a wide range of fireworks and set them off just about anywhere they like, making New year’s eve a bit like a chaotic, war zone where ‘friendly fire’ takes on a different meaning.

Fireworks had been going off all day, the frequency steadily increasing as darkness fell. The thickening mist took on broken hues of red, green, yellow and blue, as if a string of brightly colored party lights had lost their way.

Weggegooid geld? Zeer dichte mist verpest zicht op vuurwerk

Five minutes before midnight, right before we planned to leave the house, my husband let the dog out in the backyard to do her business. Under normal circumstances, her little white tipped tail works as a beacon in the darkness, allowing you to track her progression through the yard as she seeks out just the right square of grass for her nomadic toilet. But that evening as she went into the backyard, she quickly disappeared from sight, as if the mist had swallowed her whole. The intensity of the fireworks increased with each second that brought us closer to 2020 as my husband whistled for the dog.

When she didn’t respond, he too disappeared into the mist in search of our four-legged family member. That’s when he discovered that the gate, which is always closed, was propped wide open. Our little Beagle, who loves to run free, had chosen to escape at the worst possible moment of the year.

She could have been 10 feet away, but we wouldn’t have seen her. If she was barking or whining, we wouldn’t have heard her among all the vuurpijlen (rockets), ‘gillende keukenmeiden’ (screaming kitchen maids), fonteinen (fountain-effect firecrackers) and rotjes (firecrackers that make a loud bang) and it was unclear if she could hear us.

As the rest of the world started celebrating the onset of 2020, we set out in different directions, calling and whistling and asking every person we came across if they’d seen our dog. As you can imagine, it was a pretty hellish way to bring in the New Year.

As the minutes passed without a trace of our dog, our already low spirits plummeted even lower as everyone else around us celebrated.

In the last five minutes of 2019, we had envisioned a nice stroll to the town center, where we would glance skyward and watch the sky light up through the mist while we toasted each other with a bubbly glass of prosecco, enjoying the merriment and festivity of tradition, while heralding in the new year.
Instead, our hearts were filled with dread, confusion and helplessness.

Jamie the Beagle

Isn’t it crazy how much your world can change in the course of a few minutes? But in the age of social media, you never feel completely helpless. I posted a picture of her with a plea for help to a local Facebook group with 8000 members. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have been online at that hour, but to my surprise, my message was shared over 70 times.

I also called the “dierenambulance” (animal ambulance) to see if anyone had turned her in, and we posted in other apps about our missing dog.

After walking alone through the mist for over an hour, calling until my throat was dry and sore, I finally returned home. My son was waiting with the dog’s blanket and treats spread out by the front door, hoping she would return.
My husband, who had followed a more distant route, also arrived home as dogless as when he’d left.

If devastated had a face, my son was wearing it. I wanted to give him hope without promising the moon; I told him how many people had shared the Facebook post, that people were responding, giving tips, helping. I painted a picture of our dog hunkered down in the brush, scared, but just waiting out the ‘storm’ of fireworks. We should just get some sleep and hope that when the evening turned still, that she would return. He went off to bed with a heavy, but hopeful heart.

Then the phone rang.

“Hello, ” said a friendly woman. “I believe my father found your dog.”

Ends up that her father lived one block away. ONE. BLOCK. AWAY.

My husband hastily pulled back on his coat and went to get her. When he returned with our dog–who appeared to be just as happy and healthy as when she’d disappeared into the mist a few hours ago–our entire energy shifted. Ecstasy. Relief! All is lost to all is found! Sadness to joy. We woke up our son and the three of us sat on the couch, dog on our collective laps, and took a few sips of prosecco. Now we could finally say the words: Happy New Year!

Photo from NYE 2019. You couldn’t see the church tower on New Year’s 2020!

I can’t help but think in terms of life lessons. This was certainly a wake up call. What is the distance between sadness and joy? Between failure and success? Between loss and renewal? In our case, that distance was 70 people who clicked on the share button, one man 50 meters away who opened his door when he heard a dog barking and let her in, one of his daughter’s who searched the internet at 1:30am on New Year’s eve and picked up her phone to call us.

This takes me back to my first two questions when I started this post: What if the manner in which you brought in the new year set the tone for the next 365 days? What would that mean for you?
In my case, it would break down to something like this:
Shit happens. You can’t control everything. What you can do is be proactive, take action, look all around you in the expected and unexpected places, reach out to and communicate with your community and above all, don’t give up. Not too bad of a way to approach things. Okay 2020, I’ll take it.


Is this in your calendar for 2020?


Do you ever look at your calendar and see something scheduled in the not-too-distant future and get a tingle of anticipatory excitement and joy? Perhaps it’s a vacation you have planned, or an outing with a dear friend or family member. It could be an upcoming concert by an artist you follow or the latest sequel to a film you love. These things all give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but as I close out 2019 and look toward 2020, that jolt of excitement I’m describing comes from anticipating book club night!

This isn’t a temporary love affair. I joined my first book club 23 years ago when I lived in Bend, Oregon. I still remember some of the titles we read in that first book club (Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, Angel of Repose by Wallace Stegner), where we met, some of the conversations that unfolded and even seemingly insignificant details, like the dressy, low cut top my usually-jean-and-fleece-clad friend was wearing at one gathering. Book clubs have been a pleasant constant in my life ever since then, and each book club is as different and precious as the individuals that make it up.

I’ve been in book clubs with mainly outdoor enthusiasts (Bend, Oregon), a book club that should have owned up to being a drinking club (Santa Barbara), a more committed book club with literary aspirations and a penchant for delicious organic, home cooked meals (Santa Barbara round two), and international book clubs with members from different countries (The Hague and now Schagen, Netherlands).

It is a bit difficult to explain why book club matters so much to me. Of course I love reading. That seems to be a prerequisite. But I’m not a prolific reader. Many women in my book clubs–yes, I’m currently in two!–read upwards of 50-75 books per year compared to my 15-25 per year (that tally is including the romance novels I read on my Kindle in between book club books). Yet no one is shunning me for my low book count, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience of reading a novel on your own and then discussing it out loud with a group of friends who are all eager to share their reading experiences and insights.

It’s amazing what can occur during this process. First of all, you take an experience that, up until book club night, has been a solo, internal and somewhat intimate journey, and open it up into a group discussion. That, in and of itself, is an act of trust. After trust comes transformation. Literary characters that have undergone an initial transformation from the author’s idea, to a vision of a character in your mind, take a second, deeper breath during the discussion, as if they are coming to life:


“I was so upset when Edgar tried to call the ambulance and couldn’t say a word.”
“That was heart wrenching.”
“I know! right?”
It’s as if Edgar is a real person all the book club members are talking about that they know personally.

You discuss the characters, the plot, the writing, the cultural context, but there’s so much more. A novel is a bit like a painting; just as the meaning of a painting is often in the eye of the beholder, there are parts of a novel where the interpretation is in the eye of the reader. Our own life experiences and cultural backgrounds shape our reading experiences. In other words, a part of a novel that one member might consider total trash, could be a treasured game changer for another.

There’s also the power of dialogue. During the discussion, you feel something changing within you and within the group dynamic; new information, new ideas, holding onto your own perspective or watching it transform through the living and breathing act of discussion. I’ve seen book club discussions become catalysts to opening people up, where tough life experiences that have been under lock and key, not only come to the surface, but are courageously discussed. This is not just an anomaly. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. How can a work of fiction do that? It’s just a made up story, right? How can it bond people together, change your perspective and create such excitement and commitment?

Novels are stories and authors are storytellers. A group of book club members are the tribe around the campfire (roasting marshmallows) listening to the story unfold, gleaning the wisdom that lies therein, connecting to the life process.

Will every book gathering be a magical, transformative experience? No. Sometimes a novel doesn’t strike home or spark a good discussion. But what you do get is a lovely night out with people whom you enjoy and a chance to engage in dialogue and be in the real time presence of others. That in itself is worth the evening.

I sat down this evening to write a New Year’s Eve post and had no idea it would lead me to book club. yet I can’t think of anything more appropriate to close the chapter of one decade and open the chapter to a new one.

Is book club in your calendar for 2020? If so, what are you reading this year? If you’re not in a book club, perhaps 2020 is the year to join one. If you can’t find one to join, you could start your own!

Wishing everyone a glorious, environmentally friendly 2020 with lots of luscious, thought-provoking, humorous, passionate, thrilling and life-changing books.

Do the Dutch invite you to dinner?


I love having people over for dinner. It gives me an excuse to clean up my house, break out the cookbooks, plan a tasty menu and create the atmosphere for a lovely evening with friends. In the U.S, we spent a good deal of time having friends over for dinner or eating dinner at their houses. I’d go so far as to say this is common practice in the U.S.

Since we’ve moved to the Netherlands, we’ve hosted many people for dinner. We’ve invited single friends over, couples, whole families with a special side menu designed just for the kids. These friends are always thankful, enjoy the food and the conversation, and even comment months, if not years later about how fondly they remember those evenings. Some of my vegetarian soups and enchiladas have even been subject to not so subtle hints for an encore, resulting in me offering another dinner invitation. Yet in all my years in the Netherlands, by far and large it has been our expat friends who have reciprocated. In other words, if you invite a Dutch person over for dinner, don’t expect an invitation in return.

I didn’t even come to this ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ realization until I was thinking about this first year in North Holland. I realized that despite the fact that we’d hosted a number of dinners in the last 11 months, the only one who has invited us over for dinner was our American friend. The more I thought about it, I realized this pattern had also proved true in The Hague. Our Hague expat friends had invited us over for dinner on multiple occasions, but the Dutch? We had to scratch our heads to come up with a short list.

There are few outliers of course. A handful of Dutch friends have invited us over for dinner (thank you Ineke! Thank you Joke!) My Dutch in-laws and sister and-brother-in-laws have also hosted us for dinner on numerous occasions. So it is possible. And to their credit, the Dutch are more than enthusiastic to invite you over for a cup of coffee with a sweet treat just about any time of day. But why the invitation stops there remains a mystery.

This would be a logical time to dive into self-doubt. Maybe my cooking sucks. Perhaps my food choices stray out of the Dutch comfort zone. I’m not so into stampot, knakworst or herring. Maybe I need a new deodorant. But based on Dutch directness and the frequent calls for seconds, I believe I can safely rule out these reasons.

Dinner with expat friends in The Hague

I was in The Hague a few weeks ago visiting an American friend and we were reminiscing about all the lovely things we’ve done together. He and his German-South-African wife are both amazing cooks and we’ve spent a lot of time at each others homes dining and chatting for hours. Yet when I shared my perplexing realization that we were rarely invited to dinner by the Dutch, he jumped in to say they have had the same experience! They host often, but it is only their expat friends who return the favor!

So what is going on here? Surely, the Dutch eat dinner. Based on the fact that the local restaurants are often teeming with diners in the evening hours, the Dutch certainly enjoy a well put together meal that goes beyond the traditional stampot.

Perhaps it has to do with Dutch practicality. Dinner at home could be viewed as an intimate, yet utilitarian event; some necessity performed on a daily basis without much pomp and circumstance.

Coffee get-togethers, on the other hand, have an extremely social character in the Netherlands. There’s very little prep time and all of your energy and focus can be spent on socializing with your guest, not worrying about the dish in the oven and the timing of each course. With that reasoning, dinner would be relegated as impractical for a social occasion; unless there is some reason to combine the two.

Here’s a case from my own experience where practical met social, and the Dutch were all on board. When we were making the transition from The Hague to Schagen, we did it in stages. My husband and son (and 99% of our belongs) moved north before me so they could start their new jobs and new school respectively. I stayed behind in The Hague for a month to finish out my contract, and camped out in our empty house. I was sleeping on a blow up mattress and borrowed a table and chair from my place of employment so I had a place to eat and sit in the otherwise empty living room.

When I shared this situation with friends, the dinner invitations started rolling in, and this time, the Dutch also stepped up to the plate (that pun just happened!). For the majority of those 28 days my evenings were filled with Dutch home cooking. What is the difference? There was a practical necessity combined with a social deadline: I didn’t have much in my house to cook with and I was leaving town in 28 days. This apparently met the Dutch standards for a dinner invitation.

I return to The Hague every few months for Book Club and my Dutch friends are happy to host me overnight, quite often including dinner as part of the invitation. Once again; practical.

My goal is not to make my Dutch friends feel badly. My Dutch friends are gracious and inclusive. They invite me to coffee, to walk, cycle, go to the theater, the movies, a museum, to readings, you name it. I just want to figure out this one-way dinner ticket.


As I conclude this post, the Dutch ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ theory is developing a few chinks in its armor. At the end of the school year, we hosted a dinner party for two of our sons’ friends and invited his friends’ families as well. They had such a good time that they stayed until almost midnight, finishing off all the cherries and banana slices by dipping them in the chocolate fountain (mine wasn’t as pretty as the photo shown here). Just last week, another mom in this group contacted us to say they had enjoyed the event so much, they hoped to make it a tradition. My first thought was that she hoped we’d do it again. But no! She was picking up the torch and inviting us for a dinner party at their house.

There’s yet more proof of change. I ran into a man whom we’d had over for dinner a few months ago with his family of five, and out of the blue he said, “I think we owe you an invitation for dinner.”

Many gurus teach you that you are truly giving when you don’t expect anything in return. My pleasant surprise to both of these invitations suggests I’m on the path to learning this lesson. The fact that I’m going to push the “publish” button on my blog suggests not!

I’d like to solve this riddle. Is it a cultural difference? What do you think?

Cows before Easter


This morning I awoke to the bellow of cows. At first it made no sense. How could I hear cows through our bedroom window? We don’t live on a farm. We live in the city center of Schagen next to the main square. But my mind accepted these bellowing cows with the same ease in which it accepts my ability to flap my arms and fly in my dreams.

It was a pleasant, familiar sound from my youth. As I lay there, not quite awake and not quite asleep, I pictured cows in an expanse of field slowly walking toward a red barn, their tails swishing lazily in the sunshine.

Of course I can hear cows, my mind said, a bit more awake now. Today is Paasvee, one of the most popular events in Northern Holland. Although this will be the 121st recurrence of Paasvee, it will be my first time experiencing this wildly popular event.

Paasvee, if translated literally, means Easter livestock or Easter cattle. It occurs ten days before Easter every year and is the kind of tradition that everyone and their grandmother and great grandmother grew up with. It’s like a county fair minus all the rides, rodeos and cotton candy. In this case, it’s all about the cows. And later, all about the drinking.

According to the locals and DuckDuckGo, the town square will be transformed into a livestock market, and the cows will be judged, sold and eventually taken to slaughter.

Slaughter is not a pleasant thought first thing in the morning. Not that there’s ever a good time to think about slaughter. I listen to those cows a little differently now. Am I hearing some of their last cries? Do they know the end is near?

Inappropriate poster facing cows.

I think about the parallels between Easter week and Paasvee. Jesus was betrayed by His people and then taken away to be judged, poked, prodded and eventually crucified in a public place, surrounded by crowds. Sounds awfully familiar. Are those bellowing cows actually saying something to the tune of “My Farmer, My Farmer; Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus’ death was viewed as a sacrifice for all of humankind, creating passage for eternal life. But the only ‘afterlife’ these cows will experience is as a hamburger, steak or other cut of meat on someone’s plate.

I wonder if there will be animal rights groups like PETA or ProVeg out today, protesting on the square. I kind of doubt it. Although vegetarian and vegan products have made it into the local supermarkets and vegetarian options grace the menu of just about every restaurant in Schagen, this little city is still, at its heart, farm country. And Paasvee is part of that beating heart.

I get dressed and head downstairs. My family is still asleep, but I want to take a first peek at the market before the crowds arrive. We’ve been warned that this will be one of those days where it sucks to live near the city center. Because after the Paasvee closes at 12pm, the second stage of cows to the fodder begins in the form of all day long drinking into oblivion. Think Isla Vista Halloween minus the police barricades and costumes, plus trains packed all day long, bringing the soon-to-be-plastered drinkers to Paasvee.

After I let the puppy out and we’ve both had breakfast, my phone buzzes and my friend Ilse has Whats-App’d me to ask if I want to do a round before it gets busy. Sure. Getting dressed. 15 minutes?

We step out into the cold sunshine and the wind whips our hair about our faces. It’s not even 9:00 am and there are already a few hundred people milling about, but there’s enough room to walk.

The cows are beautiful, but also strange looking. I’ve heard the locals call them ‘dikkebillen’, which means fat butts. They are very literal, these locals. Dikbil cows are bred to have gargantuan bottoms so thick and muscular, that it seems the simple act of walking has become a difficult task. You can almost see the cuts of beef outlined on their butts.

Meaty cow butts

It makes me feel guilty. My friend feels it too, because we talk about how we’ve cut back on meat, how this display of cows tied up, mooing, shifting, eyes looking worried, surrounded by stands serving beef items like sausage and burgers, seems like a new level of cruelty. Both of our families have cut back significantly on meat consumption over the years and I have tried to be both vegetarian and vegan. I’m ninety percent there. But 90% doesn’t count. That’s one of the reasons we prefer our occasional meat consumption to be greatly distanced from the actual creature that dies on our behalf.

Cow appearing relaxed
Farmers washing cows

Strong, quiet farmers guide the cows to the washing area, where they spray the cows down. They use brushes to scrub their coats sort of like one might do with a horse. I don’t see any love in their faces, but I don’t see hate either. I think of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and how he described different ways animals are treated. There are cattle and sheep that have good lives: access to open fields, proper food and space, etc. He refers to this lot as only having “one bad day.” I don’t know if these cows qualify, but besides that little walking problem, they seem healthy and well-cared for.

We move past the cows to the other parts of Paasvee. The side street is lined with brand new tractors and farm machinery that is for sale. It’s actually quite fascinating to see these giants close up.

Plastic-wrapped hay bale
Tractor wheel and sunshine

We enter the shopping mall where another section of Paasvee takes place. Cages line the central hall of the mall filled with bunnies and chickens of all different breeds.

North Holland Chicken

Judges in blue coats inspect the animals and take notes on their clipboards. For some reason, I don’t picture these animals all ending up in someone’s stew, but perhaps becoming family pets. My friend confirms this rosy scenario by telling me she purchased their family rabbits here a few years ago.

Rabbit with judge

Later in the morning, I make another round with my friend Anneke and the place has really filled up. You can no longer really walk, but rather shuffle along among the cows like . . . cattle. The significance of this thought is not lost on me. There will be more human cattle coming soon.

By the time I write down my impressions of my first Paasvee, it’s mid afternoon and the sounds of the cows have been replaced with the steady beat of electronic music and the constant hum of a crowd. An occasional exuberant “Whoo hoo!” breaks through the hum. I can tell they’re getting wild.

Many of the locals don’t go to the center after 12pm, as they want to avoid the mayhem. Here’s a bit of legend passed onto me over the last few months:

The trains just keep coming, completely full with people from all over the Netherlands who come just to drink.
People get so drunk they go and pee on people’s front doors.
They pass out on the street or in people’s gardens.

The second wave of cattle
Just the beginning . . .

I don’t think anyone will mind if I post some pictures of cow butts, but I’m pretty sure the afternoon cattle wouldn’t appreciate a little photo exposé on my blog post of their butts on the ground.

Now the only question is, do I join them for a drink?