Friday, April 29, 2005


Change is fun for Olivia. For me, however, the word is not typically associated with a pleasant experience. In fact, change makes me feel anxious, exhausted, uncomfortable...

I much prefer homeostasis. I enjoy a regular schedule, knowing where and when I'm going to be at a given point in time. I like to order the "usual" things at my "usual" restaurants: tomato soup from Café Toussaint, bacon cheeseburger from the Hard Rock Cafe, McNuggets Super McMenu with barbecue sauce and Coca-cola (or with Sprite, if I'm really feeling crazy). No matter the aspect of transformation, it's hard for me to embrace change and look forward to an uncertain future. It scares me to think about moving... or changing relationships with friends... or assuming new roles in life... I don't like change.

But change is definitely fun for Olivia. In fact, it's probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of life for her. And I guess when I think about it, this makes sense (at least for her). It makes sense because in those minutes on the "changing table" in her room, going through the process of being "changed," Olivia receives the undivided attention of her Daddy or Mommy. The mess is cleaned up, and everything is made fresh and new. She must simply gaze and grin at the face of her benefactor, just centimeters away from her own face, and she just soaks in the experience. She loves change because it means touch, and conversation, and love.

I think that I can learn from Olivia. I may never be one to crave change, or rush to seek radical change in life... but I can still learn to value and appreciate the beauty of change.

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Did you know that there is just a single Dutch word that encompasses both the English words "pigeon" and "dove?" "Duif"...

It seems so wrong to me. I mean, I'm no ornithologist or anything like that -- so I can't speak with a truly informed view on the question of species... But it seems to me that the idea of a pigeon and the idea of a dove are so separate, so distinct, so polar. I just don't understand how these mental images in my head could possibly be reconciled under the single word "duif."

Does a pigeon signify peace and tranquility to you? Would they release a flock of "pigeons" at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games? Wouldn't you keep your kid away from a magician who could mysteriously produce nasty, smelly pigeons from a hat. Would the Holy Spirit have descended upon Jesus in the form of a pigeon? I have a hard time seeing pigeons incorporated into so many designs, logos, and symbols of 21st Century Western culture... Yet it's not hard for the Dutch to see these roles occupied by "duiven" (plural of "duif").

By the same token, it doesn't feel right to be angry at the "doves" who've been shedding their nasty feathers and pooping all sorts of foulness and disease into our backyard, from the balconies of the apartments above us. There's a sort of perversion to think of those birds defiling the statues throughout the city as peaceful, transcendent doves. And isn't it ridiculous to think of Sesame Street's eccentric character Bert so thoroughly enjoying the company of Ernie, his paperclip collection... and the "doves" cooing outside his apartment window? Yet a "duif" is a "duif" is a "duif" to the Nederlanders.

Like so many other minor points of friction between cultures, the juxtaposition seems strange and somehow wrong... But I've learned that it can be extremely valuable to have different perspectives on the "duiven" that we encounter each day. Perhaps the distinctions between these birds are not so black-and-white (no pun intended). Perhaps we English-speakers choose to give distinct names to the two different ends of the same spectrum. In fact, it can be downright useful to consider that "duiven" can provide the peace and beauty of "doves" together with the disgust and disdain for "pigeons."

In the end, it's a more truthful reflection of our world... Something I'll have to think about the next time I watch the release of pigeons at the Olympics or dodge the dove poop raining down from the trees of the Vondelpark...

Friday, April 22, 2005

Nectar and Ambrosia

A sunny spring day in Amsterdam is nectar and ambrosia. A taste of the divine. Every tree buds and stretches its serene canopy over the cobblestones, over the rippling canals, over the urban streetscape that has stood cold, gray, barren, and ashamed for so many months. Every body finds their way to the sidewalks, the cafe terraces, the cool green grass of the parks. Every face turns toward the sun on its ever lengthening path through the daytime sky. Amsterdam rubs her eyes, stretches her arms, and smiles the sweet, sleepy smile of morning. And I am glad to be waking up with her.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Curious Muffy

My wife has recently been working on some scrapbooking. As she combed through some old boxes of memories, she came across a story that I wrote as a boy, about our family dog. I don't know exactly when it would've been written; it's typed and printed on the old-style computer paper, with feeder holes on the sides and all the pages connected together, separated by perforation. Kind of funny to have such a window to the past... As some of my earliest known "work," I thought it might be worth publishing in this space:

Curious Muffy

Once there was a dog named Muffy. Muffy was a very good
dog. But there was one thing. She was curious. Her owner was the man in the green hat. One day Muffy was on the bed of the man in the green hat. She smelled something. She got out of the bed to see what it was. It was the garbage can. Now Muffy liked stinky things. So she hopped right in. In the meantime, the man in the green hat was looking for Muffy. Muffy heard the man in the green hat. She started howling. The man in the green hat heard her. He could only get her legs and head out. Now Muffy is called the Tin Dog.

by Eric Asp

The depth of this composition is astounding, touching on such deep human themes as the metamorphosis that comes from our choices and the irresistable attraction toward the "stinky things" of life. I'm not sure how the piece managed to escape the attention of those voting for the Pulitzer Prize for Literature that year.

At any rate, I trust that you were impacted (or, more likely, entertained) by the literary stylings of "Curious Muffy."

Monday, April 18, 2005

Allerbeste eten van Amsterdam

Identity is such a fluid concept. It is perhaps the biggest-- if not the biggest-- questions that each person asks himself, yet which answer proves to be the most elusive.

We try to define our identity by reference to categories: "I am Republican"... "I am heterosexual"... "I am American"... "I am church-leader"... And indeed, perhaps this provides some semblance of a framework, a starting point. But it seems to me as though it is an exercise in futility.

No sooner can you define yourself as a person than can you proclaim the best food in Amsterdam. In just a short ride from the Oost to the Pijp, I pass a Polish-Russian restaurant, a Balkan bakery, a Japanese sushi-bar, a Chinese supermarket, a Turkish fruit stand, an Indonesian take-away, a smoking coffee shop with a decidedly Jamaican motif, the quintessential American McDonald's, and a smattering of classic Dutch cafes and generic Middle-Eastern shoarma joints... I'm sure that there are restaurant guides that try to distill the Amsterdam restaurant scene into a single, consolidated listing of the best overall restaurants...

But doesn't that seem silly?

Even if you take it on the level of "Best Polish-Russian Restaurant in Amsterdam"-- it just seems like a worthless classification... and besides, which restauranteur is going to put that plaque up on their wall?

No, I am convinced that there must be a better way to define personal identity...

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Beautiful Day for a Picnic

What a beautiful day for a picnic!
What a picnic-ful day for a lark!
We'll frolic all day,
in the merriest way,
and we won't get home
before dark!

After several weeks of trying to walk across a field of Jell-O with rubber legs, one of the most welcome experiences for the weary sojourner is a bakfiets ("bucket-bike") loaded with kids and a picnic basket, weaving through the streets of Amsterdam to the park, on a sunny day.

Working through eight days of a conference in Hungary (a couple of hours' flight southeast of the Netherlands), three days of a summit in Ireland (a couple of hours' flight northwest of the Netherlands)... Fighting through a host of cold and flu viruses... Living almost an entire month without a consistent family routine...

It's simply beautiful to be back home as a family... a beautiful day for a picnic.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


They say it sounds like the bark of a baby sea lion... and I guess I can understand the comparison. But to me, it sounds much more extraterrestrial: like a taun-taun, the Hothian beast of burden from "The Empire Strikes Back," or like a gremlin hatching from its pod... or whatever raspy, wheezy, barky creature you can find in any cheesy science-fiction film...

Either way, it's not the kind of sound that you like to hear from your six-month-old baby girl.

And the situation becomes increasingly surreal when you strap her to your chest, zip up your coat to cover the lower half of her body, and go out for a midnight stroll through the streets of Amsterdam Oost. Her rhythmic rasp, the sound of breathing through a sheet of sandpaper, almost matches the cadence of your steps as you saunter past the snackbars, the canals, the dark corners of the neighborhood, trying to keep warm in the cool, dark Dutch night.

The walk provides escape from the fear that the otherworldly sound will stop alltogether. Hearing every breath, with her head close to yours, is better than straining through the darkness to hear irregularities in breathing from down the hallway. The walk helps her to breathe more easily, as the cold damp evening air eases the swelling of her trachea. And the walk gives pause to pray. So it's good to be walking...

But you've got to look forward to the time when your daughter will stop sounding like a sea-lion-taun-taun-gremlin creature and like her normal happy self.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

swimming pools and video games

Life is very nice, if not always spectacular, still we live for times of adventure, vacation, and travel… And, well, adventure, vacation, and travel are very nice— but it’s really all about the stopping points… So I can definitively say that stopping points are very nice, but then when it comes down to it, the beauty of a stopping point has an awful lot to do with the hotel… And even though hotels are very nice, I would be drawing short of the truth if I did not confess that it’s really all about the swimming pools…

As a child, vacation meant piling into the family’s old Subaru station wagon in the early hours of the morning—snacks stashed strategically—and forcing our parents to endure hours of kids’ music cassettes as we covered the interstates of middle America. North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois… we measured the distance in hours, not in miles, and on a good day we could cover anywhere from 8 to 12 hours of the country. We got to see and experience lots of special places as we were growing up: the towering skyscrapers of windy Chicago, the herds of Bison peppering the vast and endless emptiness of the Great Plains, the world’s largest “M” (in Platteville, Wisconsin, for the record), the Dakota Badlands… you know, the Great American Road Trip. These trips are cherished memories, like old reels of 8mm film from tin canisters. Yet on every trip—wherever we’d go, whoever we’d meet, whatever historic site we’d see—the real highlight of the trip, the real mark of a good day on the road, was the hotel at which we’d crash for the night. Invariably, if the hotel had a swimming pool and jacuzzi, the road trip (or at least that portion of the road trip) instantly became classic.

Saint Louis, Saint Paul, Saint Elsewhere—we lived for the hotel swimming pool. We could see famous monuments, soak in breathtaking natural beauty, talk with interesting strangers or life-long friends and relatives… but it wasn’t until we pulled into the parking lot beneath a green Holiday Inn sign that we really perked up and took notice. The chemical smell of the pool area, the echoing sound of water splashing and voices bouncing from the cavernous ceilings, the ethereal glow of a nighttime poolscape with accompanying arcade… these were the defining moments of childhood vacations. Leaping catches from the side of the pool into the deep end. Who could hold their breath the longest? Spending a year’s worth of savings in quarters for the “Rampage” arcade game. Posing as grown-ups chatting in the hot tub, slowly growing flushed and tired. My concept of vacation and relaxation is forever tied up in these experiences.

Now in my adult life, I can pretend that these experiences are lived out vicariously. My little boy loves the pool. His perspective on a traveling experience is shaped by the chlorine and camaraderie of the swimming facilities. We splash in the jacuzzi tornadoes for hours… or at least what feels like hours in spite of the fact our time might actually be limited to one hour and fifty-five minutes, and in truth the tornadoes sometime stop, and sometimes we stop too. We make our way over to the “Big Pool” every now and then, do a couple of jumps, practice our kick-paddling, bop around a beach ball… He thrills in the experience, and I’m glad for the opportunity to let him have his fun.

But the truth of the matter is that “his fun” is “my fun” too. The world has grown bigger, and my understanding of it has deepened over the years. Indeed we live for times of adventure, vacation, and travel, but the stopping points bring definition. And when it comes down to it—Holland, Hungary, or Holiday Inn—I’ll take the hotel swimming pool any day.