Monday, February 28, 2005

Amsterdam Snowman

We've had a lot of snow lately here in Amsterdam... well, a lot by Amsterdam standards. I would guess that we've had more snowfall in the last two weeks than we had in the previous two years combined. Our most recent snowfall, from yesterday morning, has even stuck around for more than a couple of hours.

So Elliot made a snowman, with some help from his mother. Two balls of snow (with a third to serve as a sort of hat), pebble eyes, and a carrot nose... Our first real Amsterdam snowman.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Answer Key

Call it refining my craft... Call it an attempt at subtlety... Call it nuance and artistic eccentricity... But whatever you call it, if it's not connecting with the audience, then you probably need to provide some clarification or explanation... some kind of answer key to help solve the puzzle(s).

When I used to sit in on literature classes and creative writing workshops as a university student, I was often frustrated by the infinite quest to find deeper meaning to a piece of writing. I couldn't believe that every story was trying to develop a parallel significance; it just seemed like people had to try too hard sometimes to make a connection. Couldn't Orwell's "Animal Farm" just be about a bunch of animals? Couldn't Golding's "Lord of the Flies" simply be written as an interesting account about a bunch of boys developing their own culture on a deserted island? The others in class would talk about Stalinism or Anarchism, but it could be so hard for me to get past the face value of a story...

Until I started trying to write my own.

Indeed there is something beautiful and profound about working to create a piece that offers meaning and fascination on more than one level. As a person matures, both as a person and as a writer, it becomes more significant to say something of significance in one's work. Symbolism, allegory, and metaphor become more meaningful tools to communicate this significance and profundity with a sense of subtlety and nuance.

So it turns out that my story about the chickens in the trees is not just about chickens. When I write about bicycle accidents, I'm not just writing about a literal bicycle hitting literal pavement. Of course, these stories do exist on the concrete level (catch the pun there?)-- I actually did suffer several mishaps on my bicycle during the first month of this year, and there really are chickens living along the railroad tracks in our neighborhood-- but these stories are also meant to have a transcendent quality.

Try reading the chicken story again, but think about the chickens as being wounds from our past and subconscious "buttons" of emotional response in our life that seem to get "pushed" at the most unpredictable moments in our life; similarly, read the trees and the brush from that story as being defense mechanisms and grudges and such... Think about the story on bicycle accidents as being a story on relational mishaps, times of hurting or being hurt by people you love... The "double entendre" (which basically just means "double meaning") of my most recent posting is that the word "lead" can be read or pronounced in two different ways, with completely different meanings-- both of which are meant to be applicable to the piece.

The fact that these deeper meanings are easily overlooked is the fault of the author, not the audience. As I said, I'm trying to refine my craft. This blog has been a great exercise in improving my self-expression on the most subtle and artistic levels. And I'm going to keep trying to be obviously meaningful, without being too obvious about it. So if you check back in on this blog from time to time, you can try to read with those eyes. And hopefully, with time, I'll get better at telling beautiful stories with beautiful meaning.

I can take comfort from the fact that one of the best story tellers of all time also had the same problem that I'm experiencing. Mark 4:33 explains that "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything."

I'm going to keep working at it. Thanks for checking in on my blog. I love any comments that are posted. Stay tuned for more...

Thursday, February 24, 2005

double entendre #82

Lead is a heavy substance. A dense element. Dull, bluish-gray... it is not inherrently beautiful. It is often cold to the touch, though solid. In our culture, in this day and age, lead is not highly prized for its material value -- unlike more "precious" metals such as gold or silver. You'll catch no woman standing in the lead section of Tiffany's - New York, gazing at the beautiful lead pieces of jewelry. You'll watch no man fighting to win a lead medal at the Olympic Games. Lead is dull, dark, and dense... a dream of the foolish.

In fact, lead has been scientifically verified to have its dangers. Leaded paint. Leaded gasoline. Too much lead used in the wrong ways can lead to toxicity, a pollution of the environment, a hazard to the most innocent members of society. Our world is full of mothers anxious to keep their children away from houses with old paint jobs and shady sandboxes suspected of being infected with even the most microscopic granules of lead industriously sand-blasted off of some old bridge somewhere. A sensible person can't take chances with a substance as potentially harmful as lead.

Still, there is a certain beauty and value to lead, if employed under the proper circumstances. Lead can be a layer of protection when you're sitting in the dentist's chair, getting your teeth x-rayed. A heavy, reassuring apron of protection, a shield, a safeguard. Lead can serve as a framework for beautiful art. Small polygonic pieces of rippled red, mottled magenta, glittering green, brilliant blue, fitted together by a master artisan with small strips of lead. Leaded glass suppported by a web of lead, spanning an entire wall of a majestic gothic cathedral. And when the sunlight shines through the beautiful stained glass window, it offers a brilliant and warm glow to anyone who turns their face in the direction of the leaded masterpiece.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

zolder venster

I remember the first time that I really gazed out the attic window to the view of the Bosboom Toussaintstraat. The night was black and starless, but the string of amber streetlights offered a gentle glow to this quiet urban canyon. The tall, gabled houses framed the narrow street with a sense of diminuitive grandeur. A typical Amsterdam street, except for the absence of bends or crooks in the thouroughfare, allowing an unrestricted view of the entire Bosboom Toussaintstraat - straight as an arrow pointing to the monolithic urban developments built on the fringes of the city long after its illustrious golden age.

The view offered an epiphany. A moment of realization and understanding. A quiet knowing of the fact that this was Amsterdam. The strange amber light, the 17th Century architecture, the traffic flowing with hatchbacks, scooters, and bicycles, the measured two-pitched song of an ambulance racing through the night... That first deliberate view out of the attic window provided a sense of genesis - a threshhold to new beginnings in this city we chose for our own.

I've sat to gaze out of that attic window many times since my initial reflection upon the Bosboom Toussaintstraat. It seems to offer a timeless window on life in Amsterdam. Through all the people who have come and gone, through times of sorrow and joy, through sleet and sunshine, through silence or singing... the amber streetlights flicker to life every evening and illuminate the Bosboom Toussaintstraat, essentially unchanged from my first view of the Amsterdam nightscape. Every view is an opportunity to re-center, re-focus, and renew my perspective. I remember who God is. Who I am. How we came to find ourselves in Amsterdam in an attic space overlooking the canals and streets of the city centrum. Every gaze is a new beginning.

This evening, I look down upon the dancing waters of the Singelgracht beneath me. The amber reflections of the city streetlights are refracted and projected in a cycle of perpetual motion, as if I'm methodically running my fingers through piles of golden treasure. Above the canal, a woman on bicycle is sillhouetted against the streetlights as she struggles to surmout the incline of the Koekjesbrug. And beyond the bridge, on the other side of the busy Nassaukade, the Bosboom Toussaintstraat stretches out like a long, straight finger, pointing the way to tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Grijs is geweldig

The gray skies color the gray pavement as I pump my gray knees up and down, willing my bicycle through the gray streets of this gray city... The billboard on my right pronounces: "Grijs is geweldig" - "Gray is great." But I'm not so sure.

The low, gray skies of Amsterdam can be suffocating like a cold, drab blanket draped over everything. The colors fade. I wash into monochrome. I suffer from the heaviness, dreary and weary from so much gray... I cannot and will not say that gray is great.

But grayness initiates hope. We know that suffering produces perseverance... perseverance produces character... and character produces hope. Yearning for spring. Color. Sunlight. Renewal. Hope.

And hope... well, hope is great.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Old new

What goes up must come down... What goes around comes around... What was once new becomes old.

Decrepit and aging brick and cement receive a new look with a dash of spray paint and the artistic touch of a grafiti artist. But this, too, decays and ages. Today's fresh projects are tomorrow's garbage.

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

continuity and curiosity

I finally discovered where the chickens go to roost at night. I've been wondering for quite some time...

So many chickens-- probably twenty or thirty of them in the neighborhood-- but no coops, or whatever it is that chickens are typically supposed to sleep in... They just kind of seem to be there during the day, hens pecking around on the roadsides, chicks resting in the grass, roosters crowing atop concrete pylons... but they always seem to magically disappear as the day wears on. I never knew where. Like subconscious habits or deep wounds from childhood, the chickens just seem to be there on the Tuglaweg at some times and not there at other times.

But of course, it's only logical and natural that there would be a point of continuity. The mystery has only been made clear to me through outside intervention. The construction crews started cleaning things up about a week ago. Big yellow vehicles, men in hard harts, digging up the grass, ripping out the brush, thinning out two-thirds of the trees on the embankment... I still have no idea what the gemeente is trying to do with all this dirt, vegetation, and concrete. Presumably I'll find out someday. But in the meantime, one result of the construction crews has been a new ability to more closely observe the daily habits of the neighborhood chickens.

They seem to be most active in the mornings. The roosters love to crow from pre-dawn to noon. There aren't really any new chicks at this time of the year, but the hens keep themselves busy hunting for food along the street. They take advantage of the bread crumbs and grain thrown out by the Morrocans-- although they have to contend with the pigeons (and probably the rats). As the afternoon wears on, they rest. Stray birds can be seen here at there on the street, but most of them relaxing at the bottom of the embankment, wiling away the afternoon without doing much of anything.

But the real discovery comes with evening. I had pretty much guessed that the chickens just lounged around in the second half of the day; the trees and brush that covered the scene didn't really keep me from anything interesting. In fact, the reality of the situation which had been so suddenly unmasked by the construction crews merely reinforced the picture that had been in my mind's eye. But riding home from work the other day, around twilight, I was surprised by the flap of wings that crossed my peripheral vision off to the left. The rusty flash of feathers was typical enough for our neighborhood chickens... except it was ten meters up from the ground.

So it turns out that the chickens roost each evening in a tree by the railroad tracks. I'm not sure how they get up there. In spite of their feathers and wings, I've never seen them fly. It doesn't strike me that chickens would be adept climbers. But there they were, plain to see: a couple-dozen plump orange chickens stacked from branch to branch, filling the tree like a strange sort of holiday decoration. They were quiet-- no crowing, clucking, or cooing-- in fact, they were barely moving. Most of them had their heads tucked into their wings, excepting an occasional rustle to settle more comfortably.

There was a peace and a beauty to the scene and to the realization. As my bicycle clattered over the cobblestone street, I marveled at their bizarre majesty. It's amazing what you can see and learn when the view is cleared.

Monday, February 07, 2005

How d'you like them apples?

Will Hunting had it right in his philosophy toward learning... education... knowledge. Formal schooling has many benefits; society would be weaker without educational institutions, professors, required readings, and such. But there is definitely something to be said for self-motivated study... a desire for knowledge and wisdom-- above and beyond the grades, diplomas, and credentials.

The classic scene from the film "Good Will Hunting" highlights the situation. Will's blue-collar, working-class friend tries to pick up a university co-ed from Harvard in a Boston bar. An arrogant male grad student attempts to thwart his efforts, intellectually humiliating the young man with questions about the evolution of the market economy in the early American colonies... until Will comes to his friend's aid. Never having taken a single university course, never having spent a single day as a student on the Harvard campus, Will gains the upper hand predicting the arrogant student's unoriginal thoughts that follow the classic progression of institutionalized acadamia. He slams the winning point with the observation to the grad student: "you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could've picked up for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library."

When society gets to the point where credentials matter more than knowledge, the bigger picture is lost and everyone loses.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Eric Asp in Amsterdam


Just one month into the new year in Amsterdam, and I've already suffered a handful of mishaps on the bicycle. A two-bike collision on one rainy evening... turning too quickly on an icy corner... a 25 euro ticket for riding at night without lights... a painful collision with my knee and a parked car. Belachelijk. Ridiculous.

It's hard to get back up and keep riding after so many accidents. My pride is wounded, and so is my body. Three weeks after the fact, my knee still recollects the pain of my clumsy foolishness.

I realize that it's a part of life in Amsterdam. With so many hours on the bicycle, so many kilometers covered through so many adverse conditions, it's practically inevitable that mistakes will occur and equally inevitable that pain will result... But it's not very much fun, not very fulfilling, not very rewarding.

Still, I continue. If I can't continue after the accidents, I am doomed to a life of walking or riding the tram (at least until I would suffer some kind of mishap in these forms of transit). And nobody wants that either. So I continue.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A number of new beginnings

50 means new beginnings... perfect completion (seven times seven), plus one. Starting over again, with freshness and focus. The ancient Hebrew scriptures speak of the year of Jubilee (Leviticus, chapter 25). Every 50th year, a clean slate. Debts forgiven, property restored to its rightful owners, slaves and indentured servants set free, rest for the land and for the people... celebration of new beginnings. The early Christian church was galvanized by a new connection with God, through the Holy Spirit, on the day of 50 (or "Pentecost," as the Greeks would have said it). 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus, a new beginning with ordinary people being empowered for the extraordinary. The church was born on the day of 50, and the world has been revolutionized as a result.

God is working in Amsterdam today... offering new beginnings. A newfound community of faith is growing and developing in the city center, proclaiming God's forgiveness, restoration, freedom, peace, renewal. Ordinary people are experiencing the extraordinary, through new life as children of God, redeemed by Christ, filled by the Spirit. This is 50...