Thursday, July 27, 2006

Thinking of my dad

I've been working on some changes to some life insurance policies I inherited when my dad died. My dad took out insurance policies on all of us kids when we were less than a year old. They aren't huge, but they're whole life, and they keep gaining value. And the other interesting thing about these policies is that they come with "guaranteed purchase options." This means that you have the option to purchase additional insurance, without having to prove that you're actually "insurable."

Well, I've inherited two sets of policies, the set that insures me, and the set that insures my brother Paul. It's occurred to me lately that not having to prove insurability is the only way that Paul will qualify for life insurance (a smoker with severe persistent mental illness?!!). So when I got a notice a few weeks ago that he had a "guaranteed purchase option" coming up, I decided to set up an appointment and exercise the option.

This is a strange experience on so many levels. It is very strange to buy life insurance for someone else. Let's be clear: there's still not enough money involved to cover a funeral for Paul. It's not like I'm going to make a profit off the thing. But it's really weird to sit there and think, "so, if I buy this, how much do I get when he dies?" It's even weirder to ask that question. But you have to ask it. Maybe this is morbid, but at this point, I've buried two parents, and I know this isn't enough to cover a funeral. Luckily, Paul will have six more "guaranteed purchase options" between now and when he turns 40. God, I hope he turns 40.

Another level of strangeness: it turns out my policy will be up for a guaranteed purchase option in a couple of months, but the agent got the okay to do the paperwork early. I thought about it a little and decided to go for it. It didn't feel quite as weird to buy insurance on myself. It felt all responsible. Whoever buries me will have a little less to worry about. But you also think about that: who will bury me? Who will sort through my finances when I'm gone? Weird.

Last level of strangeness. Did I mention that all this insurance is Knights of Columbus insurance? So this is this Catholic fraternal organization that my dad was a part of. The agent talked about "brother knights" and all this stuff. We're 1500 miles away from my hometown, but this guy is talking about taking care of me and my brother and our life insurance needs like taking care of the needs of his brother's kids. It was really sweet. And he could have been one of the guys that always said hello to my dad at Mass and were always doing the parish barbeques and raffle tickets, and who showed up in droves for his funeral. And it really made me miss my dad. It also really made me appreciate my dad and how far-sighted he was about certain things: life insurance and wills and pre-planning his own funeral expenses. It's funny how many forms love can take.

Most of the time, my mom is my model for how I should try to love my brother Paul. But this week, I followed my dad.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Baptizing David Thomas

Although I’m not generally a fan of liturgical innovations, my parish has made one of the best innovations to a liturgical rite that I’ve ever seen. The rite of Baptism of an infant has the priest sign the child with the cross and invite parents and godparents to do the same. Then, the congregation, together with parents and godparents, recites the Creed or renews their baptismal promises. But here’s what this church has done. After the parents and godparents sign the child, the priest invites all the children forward to sign the child with the cross as the community “teaches him the faith that we share.”

For five years I’ve been a part of this parish and I’ve thought “good way to get kids involved, that’s nice.” But this Sunday (July 23), I got to watch it up close, because my godson DT was baptized there. His dad squatted down with him and held him there, as his mom, his godfather, the priest and I looked on from right there above the swarm of children with their reaching hands, and the congregation watched from afar, reciting the faith that unites us.

Many of the children carefully, reverently traced a cross on his forehead. Or, rather, they would have had DT not been squirming so much. If he got any actual crosses, they were made of rather squiggly lines. Some of the kids didn’t really seem to try; they basically patted him on the head. One even seemed to more or less swat him in the face, though thankfully not very hard. Several—partly due to their having, understandably, the fine motor skills of toddlers, and partly again due to his movement—pretty much poked him in the eye, or seemed like they were coming close.

Up close, I decided, the swarm is a little scary. I really thought he might lose an eye. I thought his dad might start blocking a few of the shots, or that maybe his mom would intervene. But they didn’t. They surrendered their son to the swarm, as they would moments later surrender him to the waters of baptism, and to Christ and his church. Not a bad metaphor, as it turns out. Because baptism isn’t just about being claimed as Christ’s own, it’s also about becoming part of the Church, the people of God with all of their warbles and imperfections. Even the ones who seem to be trying to poke you in the eye.

Baptism is an amazing thing. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:10). What a wondrous thing that the Christian community, through God’s grace, has the power to claim someone as a disciple of Christ with nothing but water and the name of the Triune God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Once it did not, but now the people of God includes DT. DT, Christ and his church have claimed you as their own. You are ours, and we are yours. Welcome to the family.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


So, Paul has gone from suicidal to being completely content with life in the psych ward. I expressed some concern about this, encouraged him to think about life outside. He was concerned about “ingredients.”

Me: Ingredients?
Him: Yeah, ingredients for life.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: You know, everything that you need to make life worth living: a fast car, a girlfriend, a nice apartment, a job, clubs and parties to go to. It would be great to be out, if I had the ingredients.


Of course, it’s tempting to say what you would say to most people, here in the land of the American dream: “Well, get out there and work hard, make something of yourself, and get the ingredients and assemble the life that you want.” It’s not so easy with Paul. Here’s a man who wants to work, but can’t manage to keep showing up, even when he has a job. His mind just won’t let him. He hears voices, sees things that aren’t there. I wonder if I could do half as well as Paul does under those circumstances. I wonder if any of us could.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Another visit, another sister

One of the best things about spending time visiting someone in a facility for the mentally ill is that, sometimes, you're not the only visitor. Sometimes, you come across someone else who is visiting a loved one. It's a strange thing, because when you have a family member in a psych ward, it's never a good time. But it's a strange grace in the midst of that to run into someone else in similar circumstances.

Twice now, I have run into these two sisters eating together as I've visited Paul. One is a patient, one a visitor. This sister has, twice now, brought her sister a plate of home-cooked food. Both times, I had brought Paul cheeseburgers. I don't feel at all guilty about this, especially not since I received about 12 calls the first day begging for a cheeseburger. The second day, he gave me a choice between bringing a cheeseburger and bringing him a new pair of camouflage shorts. Drive-through is easier.

Anyway, we've chatted a bit with the sisters about movies and food and things. Today we got into family, and how we each have two other siblings who aren't around and willing or able to help out. It's amazing how good it is to connect with folks like this. I'm grateful for my friends and for the support that I get, but it's nice to chat a bit with someone who stands so close to the same place.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Calling the Psych Ward

My brother isn't doing very well. He's had a couple of setbacks--no one's sure exactly why--and he's still in the hospital. He's not very stable, and he has moments when he's very affectionate, very angry, and very sad. Tonight, I talked to him, and he was very sad. "Sadder than sad," he said. Sometimes, I think, it strikes him how much he's lost. And he's lost quite a bit. He's lost about 12 years of his life to this illness, which is a rough thing to begin to feel and to tally. I think that he was doing some tallying today. And the sadness was pretty overwhelming.

I'm about to tell a story that I think is sort of funny. But I don't mean to make light of my brother or his condition. I certainly don't mean to make light of suicide. And, absolutely, if a friend or family member shares thoughts of suicide with you, get them help. And suicide hotlines are a great place to start. Understand, though, that my brother is currently in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, getting help. Also know that I had already reported to the professionals his comments about feeling suicidal twice today. I take it seriously. But sometimes you have to laugh, too.

I called him up to check in, and we were talking on the phone, and he told me he really wanted to kill himself and he asked me if I knew the number for the suicide hotline.
Me: Paul, you’re in the hospital, you don’t need a suicide hotline.
Him: But I’m feeling very suicidal.
Me: Then go tell the nurse.
Him: Can you look up the number?
Me: Paul, just go tell the nurse.
Him: I really need to talk to someone NOW. PLEASE find me a phone number.
Me: Paul, it’s the job of the people at the suicide hotline to send you to the hospital if you’re really suicidal. I don’t think they’d know what to do if you’re calling from the psych ward.
Him: Oh... But I’m just so sad.

What a strange moment. Of course, his sadness and the thought that he might actually try to end things sometimes is very saddening and disturbing to me. But sometimes you have to just laugh a little bit, and, for me at least, someone in a psych ward begging me for the number to a suicide hotline was one of those moments.

(By the way, for a suicide hotline, call (800) 273-TALK.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dinner on the psych ward

In the spirit of documenting my journeys to a variety of places, I figure this one counts. Yesterday, I ended up having dinner at the psych ward at the Duke Hospital. Well, strictly speaking, I didn't HAVE dinner, but I sat there with the patients while they ate. I was visiting my brother, who seems to be spending the week there. Now, since my bro was first diagnosed with mental illness (he has schizo-affective disorder, bipolar type) in 1994, I've visited a lot of these facilities. But, apparently, never at mealtime. Most of the times I've visited him it's just me and him in a little room. Occasionally, I'll see someone else in passing, but I've never sat down to dinner with, well, a bunch of psych patients.

It was lovely. Actually, it was quite ordinary. Various complaints about the chicken, which, let's face it, was hospital food and didn't look too lovely. Banter about who had visitors today, who expected them later. Questions about marriages and kids. A woman who had had both of her knees replaced noticed the scar on mine from my ACL and we traded stories about knee surgery and rehab. She also shared that she had been a nurse for more than 30 years before she retired. The folks around that table were ordinary folks, with spouses, kids, and jobs.

My brother was the exception. My brother hasn't really worked since he was diagnosed more than 10 years ago. He's always on the border of homelessness, substance abuse, etc. His life is, for the most part, just trying to get through: to stay sober, to stay on meds, to keep his apartment. And right now, the prospect of his sister moving to Rhode Island (whether she takes him with her or not!) is rocking the boat.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Amsterdam #2

Well, I’ve been having many adventures here in Amsterdam. I started to write some of it up the other day, but there’s been so much going on, I haven’t gotten back to it. So this is obnoxiously long. Sorry. You don’t really have to read it. But here it is if you want to check it out.

Wednesday (14 June) marked my first solo adventure into Amsterdam. Not long after my niece went to school, I walked over to the metro stop, and headed in. But I had already encountered my first problem before I got out the door: the little tourist map I’ve been living off of was gone. No clue where. Well, the internet is my friend, so I spent a few moments and I mapped out my basic plan, with a couple of notes about what tram I needed, etc, and I set out. I listed a few of the things in the order I thought I should go, with basic (not very specific) directions. Leave A heading north; B is 2 blocks up and 1 block east, etc.

I got off the tram toward the southwest of the center of the city, sometimes called “the old center,” but as I don’t know what the “new” center is if it’s not this, I’m going with center, unqualified. So I had decided that my first stop—real close to this tram stop because I’d seen it the other day when my bro and I went to church—would be the Beginhof, a church and cloister that used to house Beguines and now houses old ladies, though there is still a church--two , actually. The original was taken over by the English Reformed, so the the Catholics had to build another (a recurring theme here, as you’ll see).

Anyway, I charged right off, since I knew exactly where I was going. Skirted around a little construction that hadn’t been going on on Sunday, turned the corner ...and it wasn’t there. Crud. I think the first thing I decided was that it was a little further up. The second thing I decided—having of course continued to walk in the wrong direction while I figured it out—was that I had walked long enough that I was probably coming up on my second stop, so I should just start looking for that. The right answer—that I had clearly gone the wrong direction, which meant I was also walking away from stop #2—came next. Finally, I paused, considering my options. I should probably let you know, in case you don’t, that I’m the sort of person who really doesn’t mind at all being a bit lost, as long as I’m not late for something. In fact, being lost can be a great way to explore a city. And that was the main point of today anyway. So I decided that I’d wander around a bit, vaguely try to find either one of my intended destinations or this bookstore that I knew was in the area so that I could buy a guidebook with a map. I didn’t wander too long before I found just what I was looking for and reoriented myself. And not long after that that I found my way to what I had intended to be stop #2. I’ll have to save the Beginhof for another day.

The Amsterdam Historical Museum. I spent about 3 hours here, but could have probably spent twice as long and not gotten bored. It’s what the name implies: the history of Amsterdam in museum form. You learn about the digging of canals and the building of “the dam” to drain the land and reclaim it from the bog. The key date there is about 1270 for the building of the dam. You see the strengthening of their textile industry, smith skills, and shipbuilding. Which will lead to world exploration and trade....

The Slave Trade. You learn all about the beginnings of the Dutch East India Company (first multi-national corporation), incorporated in Amsterdam in 1602. A couple of their warehouses and office buildings are still around. Also, I saw a very interesting short film on the much more troubled history of the Dutch West India Company, which was incorporated in Amsterdam in 1621. The film was particularly interesting because of the way it attended to the role of the company in the slave trade. It drew a picture of a troubled triangle of trade. Ships would leave Holland with goods destined for sale in Africa; they would unload goods there and take on a cargo of slaves. Then they would go to American colonies, mostly Surinam, where the Dutch remained strong, and sell their slaves and take on goods bound for Holland, mostly sugar and timber. Then, the cycle would continue. So, the most interesting thing about this for me was where the narrative went next. Giving the gist from memory: It was a shameful thing for us to be a part of. And to our even greater shame, for a couple of hundred years, what seemed to trouble shareholders most was that this company was never as profitable as the East India Company. We were bothered by a lack of profit when we clearly should have been bothered by trading human beings, forcibly tearing them from their homes, and changing the destinies of them and their descendents for ever. It is estimated that the WIC was responsible for approximately 5% of the Africans transported to the Americas. So it’s not like we were the only ones doing it. But still, it’s too much. We are ashamed that this is part of our history, and we know that we should be even more ashamed than we are. It was interesting to see that kind of ownership. I found myself wondering if you’d every see it in the states.

Religious tension. Well, now that’s an understatement, of course. Apparently, though, the Dutch were among the more tolerant of the European countries. At least the way they tell the story here, very few people ever got killed, on either side. But, some of the major landmarks are churches. And they can’t tell the story of these places without saying “it was built as a Catholic church in the 14th century, but then in the Alteration of 1578, it was changed over....” I went to 3 churches in the afternoon, so we’ll come back to this theme, but it started in the “churches and synagogues” room at this museum. By the way, two of the biggest synagogues in Europe were built in Amsterdam at a time when Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith openly. An interesting twist of tolerance. The rabbi on that particular video proposed that that was a result of how well the Jewish community understood and respected the very limited freedoms that were offered to them....

WWII. The museum had a permanent display which attended to different Amsterdammers and their role in the war. A guy who was the major cooperator with the Nazi occupation, several young reporters and photographers who kept working and have, through their writing and photographs, shaped Amsterdam’s collective memory of the war. There was a video on a constant loop that had been made by a 14 year old Jewish boy who was hiding with his family (like Anne Frank). This kid (unsurprisingly) got bored and got all the folks (mostly adults) hiding with him to help him make this film showing their life in hiding. Somehow, both the kid and the film survived. There were so many tributes to so many people, clearly famous among the locals at the time, who died in the war. So many of them were Jewish of course.

Anne Frank. In addition to the WWII permanent stuff, there is a temporary exhibition “Anne Frank: Her Life in Letters.” You may or may not have read the diary. If you’re like me, you’re almost positive you read it at some point, you know the basic story, especially how it ends, but you’re a little vague on some of the details. You probably forgot, then, that the diary was something of a substitute for the fact that Anne was quite the correspondent. Most of the letters were things she had written before they went into hiding. Things she wrote back to her parents when she was at camp or visiting relatives. Things that she wrote to her relatives back in Germany and Switzerland (the family were German Jews, who had left thinking—rightly, for a time—that Holland would be a safer alternative). There are letters from early in the war where she speculates upon the fates of those who are being shipped off (she had heard rumors they were being gassed). There are even letters that she wrote to the other occupants of the hiding place, including a rather nasty one to her father, basically telling him to mind his own business and let her live her own life. (Remember? She was falling in love with the boy who was staying with them and her father disapproved.)

Anyway, I’ve had this feeling before, when the murder of 6 million people—the reality of it, the enormity of it—just sort of sweeps over me. This was one of those times. I walked away from the AHM with my head swimming with the place and its history. I’m not only an American, I’m a Texan. That means I have a vague sense that history MIGHT have started before 1836. Then again, probably not. Old buildings are a hundred years old. Maybe. 50 is pretty old! They have a sense of themselves as a city since 1270, and as a country since at least 1578. The story of the building of their town hall, the re-building of it after a fire. Centuries worth of painters having painted that town hall etc. Just so much history.

I spent the rest of that afternoon wandering around the city whose history I had just learned. I wandered to Dam Square, where the Town Hall I mentioned has been since the 1600s. Right next to that is the Nieuw Kerk (New Church), which was built near the beginning of the 15th century. And several blocks north into the Red Light District is the Oude Kerk (you guessed it: Old Church), the current structure of which was begun in the 13th century (but there have been many add-ons!). Both of these structures were originally built as Catholic churches, but in 1578, they had “The Alteration,” where Protestants took over power, came into these buildings with an “iconoclastic fury,” and took over these worship spaces. The inscription in the Oude Kerk reads: “The false practices gradually introduced into God’s church, were here undone again in the year seventy-eight (XVc).”

Well, I sat there for a moment, right there in the middle of the Oude Kerk—now being used as a museum where the World Press Photo ‘06 exhibit was on display—and I cried. You know, you walk through these places and you feel the history. You’re standing on top of Catholic graves, and then you take a few steps and you’re standing on top of Protestants. And you know that on both sides there were people who insisted upon their way because they really believed they were being faithful to the Gospel and those who were motivated by power and wealth and status. And it just feels like if maybe the gospel-driven folks on both sides could just get together and have a good heart-to-heart and hash it all out, well, maybe we could be one. But the way these buildings had changed hands, and the way so much of the art (and stained-glass windows!) had been destroyed, it just made me so sad. It was this moment where I thought “God, we really have torn your Church apart” and I meant not just these buildings but the community. It saddens me so.

And, one of the amazing things for me to think about is that the Dutch were actually an astoundingly tolerant people in terms of religion, for the most part. There were a couple of royals on each side (Protestant/Catholic) who were enthusiastic in the suppression of the other side. But, for instance, during the time when it was forbidden for Catholics to practice their faith, the ordinary interpretation of that law was that Catholic places of worship could not be publicly visible. It’s a little unclear to me—the story seems to be told in 2 slightly different ways. One version seems to indicate that there was never any need for fear at all; that the laws against practicing Catholicism were never enforced, were never intended to be enforced, and so the “hidden churches” that developed were not really ever hidden, but just designed not to be recognizable from the outside. I don’t entirely buy this, largely because of my next stop.

The Amstelkring Museum isn’t far at all from the Oude Kerk. It’s also known as “Our Dear Lord in the Attic.” In 1661 a wealthy merchant bought a house on the canal, and two buildings immediately adjacent to it. Over the course of the next two years, he transformed the place into quite a little worship space, connecting the attic of the house with lofts in the other two buildings so that there was significant space (and multiple exits, if needed). Anyway, I think that the Catholics, at least, lived in some real fear that the laws might be enforced. Anyway, you see the house, living quarters and all, much as it was, and the church nearly perfectly preserved.

Then, on Friday night (16 June), my bro and I went down to Leidseplein to watch the World Cup amongst the Dutch. It was an experience. As we took the metro in, increasing numbers of orange-clad fans climbed aboard. When we got to Leidseplein, every bar with a TV in it was standing room only. We found one where we actually were seated but could barely see the TV. We had a couple beers (Amstel tastes better here!) and watched the Dutch score a goal. We stayed through the first half, then walked around a while and found a restaurant with a TV to catch the second half. The Dutch won and everything was crazy.

Sunday (18 June) resulted in my long-planned trip to the Beginhof. My niece went with me for Mass in French. This was a wonderfully different experience from the Dutch/Latin Mass the week before. This was a community very much alive, though not without its liturgical problems. There was a man who was baptized (baptism on the feast of Corpus Christi?) who had also served as a lector and altar server (both before and after the baptism). But clearly, he was already a part of the community and there was much joy welcoming him in. The community gathered was a lot of tourist-types, but then the folks who were regulars were clearly largely from French-speaking Africa. There were two choirs (one all-African, and the other mostly) and the music was part in French and part in another language whose name I never learned. But there was so much joy and life in this community. I needed to see that after the week before, which made me feel a bit like faith was something to keep in a museum.

The Beginhof chapel was of course the “new” Catholic chapel, built after the original had been taken over by the Protestants. The English Reformed church was therefore worshipping right across the way. The chapel retains some relics of a church that was destroyed but that had commemorated the 1345 “miracle of Amsterdam” which involved the Blessed Sacrament staying remarkably preserved when it was vomited up by a sick man and then thrown into the fire. There is a lot of artwork commemorating this.

Today, I went to a completely different part of the city: the Jewish Quarter. The two major stops I had planned were the Jewish Historical Museum and the Verzetmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum). But I got down there before either was open and walked around a while. I ended up going into the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church), the first church in A’dam built explicitly for the use of Protestants. It has become sort of a municipal planning building. Hasn’t been used as a church since 1929. Nice, though. Beautiful steeple. I also went by the Rembranthuis, a house near the Jewish quarter (and very close to the Zuiderkerk) where Rembrandt lived for a while. I also walked along the canals a bit and checked out the biggest flea market in town at Waterlooplein. Then I headed over to the Jewish Historical Museum.

The Jewish Historical Museum was good. It is housed in four synagogues. It had a lot of information about what Judaism is. There were stations where you could learn about keeping shabbat or a feast like Purim or see a video of a modern Jewish wedding, bris, bar/bat mitzvah etc. Then they told the history of Jews in A’dam. The earliest Jews in A’dam were wealthy merchants who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Many had converted to Catholicism under duress and/or had hidden their Judaism pretty deep, so being in A’dam was also like a rediscovery of their identity. It was a vibrant community. Great little piece on Spinoza, who was said to be the first Jew (in A’dam? Europe? History of the world? I don’t think it was qualified) to have died “outside” of the Jewish community without having converted to another religion. And some touching stuff about the problems in the Jewish community during the 18th/19th century. As with the rest of the Dutch (and the rest of the industrializing world), the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. The community tried to deal with it by sending many of the poorer Jews to Dutch colonies to make their own fortune there. Suriname, New Amsterdam (later NY, of course) etc. And, then, of course, all the horrible statistics about WWII. 78% of the Jews of A’dam were killed: displays of broken dishes, baby shoes, random things left behind in the wake of the destruction. And the difficulty of returning for survivors. More on this below.

I had picked up a little brochure on my way in called “Persecution and resistance in Amsterdam: Memories of WWII.” It describes a walking route from the Anne Frank House to the Dutch Resistance Museum. Well, I’m still hoping to get to AFH eventually, but I was intrigued anyway, and was walking to the DRM anyway, so I skipped ahead to #25 on the #33 stop tour and followed it from where I was. So, along the way, I saw the statue “de Dokwerker,” which commemorates a strike, apparently joined in by most of A’dam, but begun by dockworkers, reacting against the first large round-up and ship-off of Jews by the occupying Germans. It was the only mass demonstration against the persecution of the Jews in Europe. Nine people were killed during the protest and an additional 15 or so leaders executed three weeks later. No more big protests on behalf of the Jews....

I was really moved (found myself in tears again) by the Auschwitz Monument. Apparently, each of the countries whose residents were killed there received some ashes. So, Holland received ashes and had the task of establishing some sort of appropriate resting place. The plaque beside the monument explained it sort of like this (I’m paraphrasing): “How can you set up a monument to remember this thing that is so horrible that it will continue to cry to heaven when the world has passed away? The only way is to try to show that the heavens themselves have been shattered.” And then the memorial is simply this: 9 square panels, together forming a larger square, flat on the ground, of broken mirrors. So it reflects the sky above it, but broken. And the ashes are underneath. Amazing.

Then some minor, but interesting places. (1) A store where Jews could buy their yellow stars. Did you realize that they had to pay for them? Four cents AND a textile coupon. Talk about adding insult to injury! (2) The theatre where Jews were gathered prior to deportation, now a place of commemoration. (3) A day care center where Jewish babies were kept prior to deportation. Around 4500-5000 kids came through there. About 500 were saved by workers who basically ran beside the tram (which temporarily hid the center from view of the German guards stationed across the street at the theatre) and got on it at the next stop. (4) A plaque commemorates resistance workers who blew up a municipal records building, but were betrayed, caught, and executed. It became clear to the Dutch resistance that records helped the Germans and hurt the resistance, so, all over Holland, this became common practice. (5) A zoo where a lot of Jews and resistance workers lived in hiding. Germans would come and visit the monkeys and the tigers, etc, not realizing that just “backstage” of the animals were all sorts of people they were looking for.

Then, the Dutch Resistance Museum. I think that they did a great job with this. I found myself thinking “Wow. They did so much, they tried so hard.” And then I’d see something else and I’d think “They didn’t do nearly enough.” I suspect that those who put the museum together were of both those minds themselves. There’s a point early on where they are talking about the civil servants who remained in their posts and those who resigned right away, and what a difficult choice it was. If you resigned, they would put an NSB guy in your job (the Dutch Nazi Party). So you tried to stay on and serve the people without cooperating with something too evil. But what a hard line to maintain, right? And the Nazis came in and sort of led with “Hey, we’re part of a larger Germanic brotherhood.” And so cooperation seemed possible and reasonable at first. But then, as the Nazi program became clearer, the need to resist became clearer, but many opportunities had been lost. It was so interesting to see some of the reflection of opportunities missed: the civil servants who filled out the personal information cards and realized weeks later that they had given the Nazis all the information they needed to register Jews etc. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

They celebrated the underground papers, the underground radios, the whole system that tried to keep people in hiding fed and safe, the system for smuggling children out, the system for forging the identification papers, for taking the “J” off that marked the Jews. They had a powerful display where you rang a doorbell and you got different versions of “I’m really sorry. I hope you survive. But we can’t hide you here. We must keep our own children safe. (or) We barely have enough food for us. No. Sorry. Not even one night.” Very disturbing, but oddly understandable.

And perhaps one of the most difficult thing: the return from concentration camps. Now, these stories were told both by Jews and by others who were sent to work camps or something, e.g. resistance workers who were arrested. Part of the problem was that the whole experience of the war was pretty bad no matter where you lived it. So, these returning people would come back with these horrendous stories and they would get almost nowhere telling them before their neighbors busted in with the horrors endured right here in town. And, I mean, it was true. 20,000 people starved to death in what they call “hunger winter” (1944-5) in A’dam. The Germans were brutal. And what must it have been like, to carry survivor’s guilt out of the death camps and come home to this sort of “We pretty much had it worse than you did, or at least as bad.” And, on the one hand, you can’t really blame the folks back home: they did have it hard. And they had lost a lot too. It’s hard in the midst of your own loss to really hear somebody else’s pain.

After that, I wandered down to the docks, and swung through the old compound of the Dutch East India Company, mostly just because it was in the neighborhood and I thought, loving corporate America as I do, a stroll through the compound of the first multinational corporation was appropriate. It was nice to be down by the docks and to feel the history rushing by.

OK. So that’s what I’ve been up to. Not much progress on the dissertation. But hey, here’s a promise that I’m going to have 5 more pages written on that by the time the Dutch play tomorrow (that’s World Cup soccer for those of you not paying attention).

Amsterdam report #1

A brief report on my first several days in Amsterdam.

The first couple of days/nights I spent sleeping, trying not to sleep at the wrong time, wishing I were sleeping at the right times, adjusting to new patterns of sleeping, and continuing to try to deal with getting an offer on a house and a mortgage application together. I think that part’s mostly behind me now! :)

Four major highlights since then:

Van Gogh Museum: my niece and I went together to check this out on Friday afternoon/early evening. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an art museum at that time of day. It was busy, but not too crowded. There was a live band playing. In addition to the restaurant, there were a couple of little bar islands where you could buy drinks. It was festive. There were a couple of displays that showed paintings by people other than Van Gogh, either his contemporaries, or folks who influenced him, or a couple that he influenced. But, mostly, it was Van Gogh’s stuff, of course. It was a lovely tribute to his life and work, and also striking throughout was the influence of the care and support that his brother Theo offered him throughout his life.

Zaanse Schans. This is a traditional windmill village not far outside of Amsterdam. I went with my bro and niece on Saturday. We saw the windmills, I tried on a pair of wooden clogs, we ate samples at the cheese farm, and we got a lesson in the production of pewter. All this in addition to simply enjoying the day together!

The next two sort of go together. Sort of not. You’ll see. It was one trip into the city, but....

Mass at De Papegaai (“the parrot”) in central Amsterdam. This church, built in 1848, was built on the site of an older hidden church (original built around 1660). The Protestants took control of Amsterdam in the 1570s, at which point it became illegal to practice Catholicism. Most of the older Catholic church buildings were either taken over or destroyed (or in some cases, more or less both). So this is made mostly to look like a storefront on the midst of this very busy downtown shopping street, but inside it’s Gothic (neo-Gothic?), with all these beautiful 19th century versions of the stations of the cross etc. Anyway, the original structure was known by a shingle of a parrot outside the storefront. Now, there is a parrot sort of built into the stone archway. But they aren’t underground anymore. A sandwich board sign, like so many others on this street, tries to draw them in. This one invites folks to come in, rest, and take “15 minutes with God.”

Mass, by the way, was in Latin, Gregorian chant, and beautiful. The readings and homily were in Dutch. (No, I didn’t follow it at all!) They distributed copies of the readings in Dutch, English, French, German, and Spanish. As I told my brother (who went with me!), that worship experience was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. The choir and the priest sang the Mass beautifully and I really enjoyed it. But I felt more as though I had been to a concert than to Mass. Perhaps I would get used to it. (Side note to those attending to my communion habits: You’ll be happy to know that I received on my tongue, while kneeling at the communion rail. I felt very old-school reverent!)

Walking around Dam Square and (gulp!) the Red-Light District. OK. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been combined with Mass. But we were trying to catch the 10:30 and missed it, so we had time to walk around before Mass. Dam Square includes the palace and the New Church, both built (I think) in the 16th century. I’m actually going back there, so perhaps I’ll have more to say on that soon. But we were standing there with another 20 minutes or so to spend, and my brother pointed out that we were a couple of blocks from the edge of the Red Light District. His point: it’s a cultural experience, part of the Amsterdam “thing,” and, I mean, come on, it’s like 11:15 on a Sunday morning, how wild can it be? So we walk through a bit. Most of you probably know all about this. So we start passing these windows that look like windows where things for sale could/should be on display (“window shopping,” right?), but they are just curtained—nothing on display. And my brother is explaining to me that the women, the prostitutes, are on display in these windows and, when they are available, a red light is on to indicate this (and thus the name....). My brother is explaining this, and somehow we had paused in front of one of these windows, and, with a sudden whoosh, the curtain moved, and suddenly, standing 2 feet in front of me with nothing between us but glass was a lovely woman in lacey lavender lingerie, brushing her hair. It’s only occurred to me now that she likely heard us there and thought—whether to shock us or whether to help my brother in his attempts to explain—that she would give us a visual.

Actually, above and beyond the mere concept of putting human beings in window displays, she was far from the most shocking thing that I saw in the Red Light District. The advertisements for live pornography shows—listing out promises to would-be customers about what they might see and experience—were more so, for me at least. And it definitely wasn’t wild, really, but I could see that I didn’t want be there after nightfall. :)

We fought through the crowds of orange-clad Dutch about to watch their beloved “football” team play their first World Cup game (“Hup Holland!). The bars were full at 11 in the morning to watch a game that didn’t start until like 3pm. Orange wigs, orange body paint, orange underwear (seriously!). Harry Potter fans, I understand the section on the Quidditch World Cup in a whole new way now. I thought the point was that wizards are a little crazy when so many of them get together. Turns out, no. It’s just that they’re European and the World Cup brings out their craziness. The air horns and drumming went on for about an hour after the victory (by then we were out of the city and back at my bro’s place in Amstelveen, i.e. the suburbs). It was worst during and after the Dutch game, but you can always tell when there’s a game on, by the air horns.