Sunday, July 31, 2005

Blog, Blog, Blog...

I like to think that I'm not normally one for fads or bandwagons. I never had a mullet, even while a large number of my peers went through that awkward era of hairstyles. I kept playing old Atari games while all my friends upgraded to Nintendoes, Playstations, and so on. I typically cheer for the underdog in an athletic contest; in fact, I despise sports dynasties (Lakers, Yankees, Patriots, etc.). I still haven't seen all of the "Lord of the Rings" films. I'm hesitant to join pop political causes (i.e. "Live 8"), and you'll seldom find me wearing any of those mono-colored rubberized bands around my wrist.

But then again... I did think it was "rad" to wear flourescent-colored clothing for a time, around 1990. I've attended numerous concerts for musical groups that I'm really not into, just because "everyone else" was going. I cheered for Lance Armstrong for Tour de France victories number 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 (and I confess that I didn't really follow professional cycling before that)... And, I started blogging around the beginning of this year.

Honestly, I haven't completely decided yet if blogging is a fad or a revolution. It really could just be a temporary buzzconcept that gets everybody doing it for six months or a year -- only to gradually fade away into obscurity, like the Dot-com investment bubble or like pagers (isn't it crazy that no one really seems to use those anymore?). Or it could be a new manner of self-expression, communication, art, identification -- something akin to writing novels, preaching sermons, exhibiting paintings, or even something more meaningfully mundane like business cards or postal correspondance. But whatever this blog thing is -- fad or revolution -- I enjoy it.

The "Blogs" file under my Internet Explorer "Favorites" has expanded considerably over the last several months -- and now I find myself popping down through the list almost every day to check for new postings. I'm able to keep track of friends in Amsterdam, Bowling Green, Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, East Lansing, Los Angeles, San Diego, and elsewhere -- and I am invigorated by the variety of blogs corresponding to the variety of the individuals sharing their thoughts.

Personally, I try to write primarily in a vein of short stories -- verbal Norman Rockwell paintings, if you will, with a 21st Century postmodern edge. I try to focus more on the universal truths and meanings of life and relationships and feelings -- more than speaking out on specific issues or logging daily activities. I don't know if I always succeed in hitting this angle, but I find it strangely challenging and energizing to exercise some creative muscle in this way...

Others, however, use their blogs for myriad purposes. Check out Seth's provocative post on foreign aid or Bret's enlightening post on 21st Century Leprosy to see how a blog can be used as a social/political soapbox... Todd also occasionally dabbles in issues of social justice, but typically with a more spiritual focus: his recent post on spiritual warfare in Amsterdam's Red Light District is chilling and powerful... My good friend Jason tends to focus more on what he's been learning about God -- but also with some hilarious forays into the more obscure, such as his wife's highway encounter with a rabbit... Jonas also has a knack for comedic writing, as evidenced by his theatrical description of recent mice problems... Some blogs reveal more of an artistic vibe, as evidenced by Eva's post on removing barriers to God or Jay's satirical post on the commercialization of American children... I enjoy how JR tends to write with a more global perspective, like in his entry on Imperial America; but I equally enjoy Michaël's microcosmal perspective on the life of the little baby growing within his wife's womb... Noel is one of the most prolific bloggers I know, and I appreciate his irreverent-yet-spiritual take on life, as in his account of speed humping; Naomi, on the other hand, has just gotten started with her blog -- yet I already value its sensitive and intelligent perspective on subjects such as music and social perceptions... There are so many fascinating blogs to read, each with a unique perspetive on the universe. I've added a listing of other notable blogs to my own blog (see right sidebar) -- so you can check out these other vantage points at your leisure...

If blogging really does prove to be some kind of cultural revolution -- more than just a passing fad -- then perhaps you may want to start your own blog. Or maybe you've already got one going. Either way, please let me know if you've joined or if you end up joining the revolution -- or jumping on the bandwagon (if that's what it is) -- so I can add your perspective of the world to my list of Blog Favorites.

As for me, I don't know if it's a wave or a wagon, but I plan to ride it for awhile.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Extended Family

I met the Italian side of my family this week. It may be true that my bloodlines are traced predominantly through northern Europe (Sweden, Norway, Germany, Holland, and the British Isles) -- but indeed it turns out that I have close relatives in Italy... on my Father's side.

My Heavenly Father, that is. Truthfully, I've often been annoyed by Christians who refer to each other as "Brother" or "Sister" -- just some weird Christian subcultural insincerity too frequently thrown about in a flippant and meaningless manner. But there really is something to the whole "Family of Christ" thing, even if it comes with some subcultural baggage. If God is my Father... And if the same God is the same Father to other believers in Italy (among other places)... Then I've got brothers and sisters in Italy (among other places).

This week, our family has been gifted with the opportunity to live in the home of Paul and Janice -- sleeping in their beds, eating with their silverware, reading their books, watching their DVDs, drying off with their towels -- with no thought to how we could meaningfully compensate them for their incredible hospitality. We shared a magnificent dinner with Frank, Pam, and Carolyn... listened to Pam translate the interactions of a Sunday worship gathering... watched Frank play with our children like a favorite uncle... shared the city's best gelatto with them on the hottest day of the summer. We hiked through the Alpine foothills with Anthony, Nikki, and Siena to discover a 11th Century monastery... shared with them the burdens of experiences, emotions, and heavy children along the way. At every turn, in every interaction, we experienced the love and hospitality of family in the truest sense of the word.

I'm humbled and awed by the extended spiritual family that surrounds me. Even in an unfamiliar time and place, the global Church provides me with familiarity and foundation. What more can I say? It's another one of those over-used and insincere "Christiany" words, but I am truly blessed by my extended family.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Do you remember that feeling that you'd get every weekend as a kid -- usually sometime around Sunday afternoon -- when you'd realize that you had to be back in school on Monday? For me, the feeling always came in a moment -- my cheeks flushing with the realization and my stomach somersaulting at the thought that the precious weekend was nearly spent. A moment of angst and antagonism. Not that I hated school so badly; I just liked the weekend better, and I never wanted it to end. I would sigh and an audible groan would escape my lips: "Man, I don't want to go back to school tomorrow."

Like so much of life, the rhythm of routine created regular moments of hope and despair. The syncopation of every week would bring despair on Mondays, ambilavence on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, rising hope on Thursday and especially Friday, and blessed joy on Saturdays and Sundays. Yet, the transition from Sundays to Mondays was unavoidable -- a crest in the trail that could not be bypassed if the ascent of the next mountain were ever to take place. And after that crest is traversersed, the rest of the trail is wearied by a strange and darkening cloud of what's to come.

Sometime within the last twenty-four hours, somewhere between the sunflower fields south of Alessandria and the sloping trails beneath the majestic crumbling ruins of Santa Michele, I realized that our family's summer vacation in Italy has crested. And believe it or not, the physiological and psychological response to this realization is surprisingly similar to the feeling that I'd encounter each Sunday afternoon of my childhood. Still, it's not entirely bad. I can't ignore the growing cloud of reality darkening overhead -- but there are still hours left to enjoy on this Sunday afternoon and evening...

I just don't want to go back to school tomorrow.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


So it's 3:10 in the morning, and I am incapable of sleep. My body simply will not rest. My overzealous immune system has kicked into hyperdrive, and I am suffering through one of my all-time worst episodes of hay fever... It's not pretty.

Why does my body do this? It's just some stupid pollen or spores or something like that. Other people can live and move and breathe normally -- no matter how much of these environmental agents fill the air -- but for me, in the presence of these "toxins," I go crazy. My sinuses, my throat, my eyes are incapacitated. Normal facial tissues are a waste of time; I drip mucous at a rate that requires paper towels to catch the flow. Disgusting. Ridiculous. I'm puzzled by the meaning and purpose of allergies.

Perhaps I'm just tired, and perhaps it's just too much pillow-wrestling philosophy -- but I wonder about the implications of physical allergies, emotional allergies, and even spiritual allergies...

Does everyone have some weak point that -- for the "common man" -- is merely an overreaction to normal environmental stimuli? Are allergies a uniquely human phenomenon? Are such overblown automatic responses a sign of personal uniqueness or commonality? I mean, seriously -- think about it. I'm allergic to ragweed or mold spores or cats... My sister cannot tolerate a molecule of dietary gluten... Other people cannot use penicillin... And of course, we'd all recognize these as allergies. But what about alcoholism? Agnosticism? Addiction? Aversion to authority? Emotional transparency? Fear of commitment? The more I think about it, the more I can see how our bodies, our minds, and our souls can reacte strangely to seemingly random triggers. And again, I'm puzzled by the meaning and purpose of allergies.

I need to get back to bed. I just wish I knew how to heal, how to breathe, how to rest. I guess we're all looking for that, in a way. Gezondheid.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

impressions from 130 km/h

One Ford Mondeo station wagon, two small children, three suitcases, four rounds the "Aydan's Favorite Tunes" CD, and five European nations stretched from the North Sea to the Mediterranean... Yes indeed, we are on vacation -- our first real European family vacation. There have been moments of horror, glory, frustration, contentment, confusion, and clarity. What more could you ask for?

I don't pretend that I've seen enough of Europe to offer any truly profound or meaningful observations... But I can offer trite and adolescent anecdotes of the last two days' journey -- and that's faster and easier for everyone to digest anyway, right? So here are my casual observations of the five countries through which we've journied -- call them momentary impressions from 130 kilometers per hour:

The Netherlands - flat, green, lots of cows and sheep... road signs that I can actually read and understand... a strange sense of familiarity and belonging (I guess it really is getting to be home, huh?)...

Germany - I couldn't help but laugh when I read the road signs proclaiming, "Schnelle fahrt, gefarliche fahrt;" my combination of English and Dutch allows me to guess the true meaning ("Driving fast is driving dangerously"), but on an instinctive level I couldn't avoid mentally translating it as "A fast fart is a dangerous fart" (real mature, I know)... I had been interested to see what the famous Autobahn was going to be like -- but honestly, it's just a highway system (kind of a let-down)... My top speed in the ol' rental car: 160 km/h (about 100 mph)...

France - We stayed the night in a beautiful hotel in Strasbourg, with a very friendly hotel staff and a delicious breakfast in the morning -- I was very pleasantly surprised... One thing about the French, though, is their insistence on maintaining cultural purity -- did you know they use a different computer keyboard in France than in other parts of the world (it took me a half-hour to try eke out a two paragraph e-mail)? It also turns out that I don't really speak French anymore (too bad)...

Switzerland - An absolutely beautiful country; the mountains were more spectacular than I ever imagined... If I weren't American, I think I might like to be Swiss -- breathtaking scenery, nice cities, everyone is extremely cultured and multi-lingual (I was blown away by their command of English, especially considering that it was likely a third or fourth or fifth language for everyone)... Still, though, I think it's silly that they insist on minting their own money -- can't the whole neutrality thing be adjusted a little bit, for everyone's benefit? At any rate, I'm already looking forward to driving back through Switzerland at the end of the vacation...

Italy - expensive roadways and congested traffic (I'm just going on first impressions, here)... just in the short distance from Gerard St. Bernard to Torino, we had to pay about thirty euros in tolls and we stood in traffic jams for about an hour and a half... It's muggy here, too... But we've got lots of exploring left to do...

Ah, the joys of being an uninformed tourist... It's unlikely that Fodor's or Frommer's are going to be calling me anytime soon, to start writing travel books for them -- but what do they know anyway?

Monday, July 18, 2005


Today has been no day at the beach, you know what I mean? Except that it has been. And perhaps that is precisely the problem...

Our family vacation started this week. And since a trip to the beach is generally considered to be a relaxing and vacational experience, we decided to load up the rental car early in the morning and drive to the seaside. The day is sunny and warm, and yet -- since it's a Monday morning -- the highways and the beaches are not too congested, so it seems like we're in for a glorious day. In my head, I envision laughing with my children as we splash in the waves, working together to build towering sandcastles, enjoying picnic delacacies in the shade of a cabana, and lounging in the sun with a good book as the children nap...

Ah, the woes of foolish idealism... My illusions start breaking down in the seaside parking lot.

Before unloading the car, we have to start with the time-honored Caucasian tradition of sunscreen application. Yes, it's annoying, and of course it's unpleasant -- but without a liquid shield of ultraviolet protection, my fair-skinned family would die an agonizing, red, blistered, radioactive death after a day in the sun. So we smear the stuff on our hands, and then all over every exposed surface. We end up feeling greasy and sticky -- the beginnings of discontent starting to drift over, like the spiralling seagulls above -- but we're ready to make our move and haul the provisions surfside.

On the way down to the beach, we happen to point out the seagulls to our son -- thinking that he will enjoy the small glimpse of such oceanic "wildlife." Unfortunately, it turns out that Elliot is deathly afraid of seagulls (I forget how just about anything unfamiliar can be scary to my sensitive three-year-old). Thus for the next hour, we are doomed to vigilant look-out for rogue seagulls that might wander too close to our territory on the beach (and by "too close" I mean anywhere within 100 meters of our blanket). Still, in spite of the fearsome aerial predators, we manage to reach our chosen spot on the beach just barely before our biceps give out under the pressure of our bags, coolers, and one-and-a-half children (of course, 10-month old Olivia must be carried, and unfortunately Elliot, whenever a viscious seagull rears its ugly head, must be partially carried as well).

We spot a free cabana nearby and haul it over to our spot. A wide white sheet is spread out onto the sand, anchored at the four corners by shoes or bags or whatnot. At this point, I'm thinking that the kids must be bursting at the seems to get down by the water -- you know, wading, combing for sea-shells, building sandcastles, and so on... But as soon as we settle down at our spot, we discover the horrible truth that a fresh layer of sunscreen actually serves as a kind of protective lacquer, catching and trapping grains of sand against human flesh. A peripheral glimpse of my daughter gives me just enough time to save her from ingesting a tiny sea-shell -- but not in time to avoid a swath of sand being semi-permanently embedded across her baby-soft cheeks. This sand, which now coats our feet, legs, and Olivia's face is immediately sealed by the sunscreen and proves highly resistant to brushing off with hands, with towels, even with a bit of sea water. It turns out that we're stuck with it for the rest of the day (pardon the pun). Both of my children are whining by this point.

I decide that distraction is the best tactic. "Let's go build a sandcastle!" While Marci finishes setting up camp, I bring Elliot and Olivia down within a few feet of the water and begin digging a moat for our medieval sand fortress. Of course, it's just a few moments before the tide comes in just enough to wet our feet. I look over at Elliot -- expecting to discover a look of surprise and delight. Instead, his face screws up as though he's been stung by a scorpion and he cries out in agony. Olivia picks up on her older brother's cue and starts to cry. Within seconds, genuine tears are flowing down their sandy cheeks, and I catch myself muttering how much I hate the beach.

It doesn't get much better from here. We survive until lunch, where we chew supernaturally crunchy chips and cookies (enhanced by sand granules). Elliot probably ingests about half a cup of sand as he drops his sandwich on the ground, picks it up with his sandy fingers, and downs a few more gritty bites. Olivia takes the stuff in by the handfuls. I feel millions and millions of tiny grains of sand torturing my body both inside and out -- but only the children are socially permitted to express their displeasure to the extent that we all are personally experiencing. We can only take so much before we decide to call it a day.

By one o'clock we've succeeded in loading everything back into the car, and we're on our way back home -- listening to the song-stylings of "My Busy Busy Day" as a salve to the beach's irritation that we've carried back with us into the station wagon (the CD works great for soothing my children, but it only exacerbates things for me). Indeed, we get home much sooner than we had ever expected -- however, it proves to be fortuitous, as it allows extra hours for shaking out sand, bathing, sweeping, and vaccuming every trace of beach from our bodies, our rental car, and our living space. In fact, our time cleaning up is roughly equal to our time "enjoying" the seaside... but when it's done, we feel a sense of achievement and sanctification.

By suppertime, Elliot is chatting cheerfully about the day at the beach and expectantly asking: "When can we go to the beach again?" I ignore the question and chew my food, stopping just long enough to pick out a stowaway grain of sand from my teeth.

Friday, July 15, 2005

I'm going to go back there someday...

In my mind, one of the most beautiful and most meaningful songs that I've ever heard was originally sung by Gonzo the Great.

Perhaps it sounds ludicrous to attach such dignity and significance to a song from "The Muppet Movie" -- as such films are generally viewed as children's entertainment and, consequently, shallow or silly... But honestly, I almost want to cry whenever I hear the song, "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." According to the story of the film, the song is extemporaneously composed by a desert campfire, in the wildlands somewhere east of Hollywood. A group of friends has been following dreams across the American continent, and they've almost made it to their destination. But as fate would have it, their vehicle breaks down and they are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Everything seems to be falling apart, and Kermit -- the group's de facto leader and visionary -- wanders off into the darkness by himself to ruminate...

In this moment of despair and desperation, Gonzo begins a simple melody -- accompaniment provided by his friends, Rowlf on harmonica and Fozzie on ukelele. He sings:

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar,
Almost unreal, yet, it's too soon to feel yet.
Close to my soul, and yet so far away.
I'm going to go back there someday.

Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.
Is that a song there, and do I belong there?
I've never been there, but I know the way.
I'm going to go back there someday.

Come and go with me, it's more fun to share,
We'll both be completely at home in midair.
We're flyin', not walkin', on featherless wings.
We can hold onto love like invisible strings.

There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met.
Part heaven, part space, or have I found my place?
You can just visit, but I plan to stay.
I'm going to go back there someday.
I'm going to go back there someday.

I think the reason for these words and this melody capturing my emotions so powerfully is that I've experienced the exact same sentiments for my own life. In particular, I recall one time watching a sunset from the great sand dunes of Lake Michigan. It was in August of 2001, at the tail end of a camping trip with my Dad and my brothers. We had enjoyed a wonderful couple of days, hiking and relaxing together in the sun, sand, and surf of the Indiana Dunes State Park. But my heart was also heavy and anxious that weekend. Marci and I were contemplating some serious life changes. We had just visited Amsterdam for the first time a couple of months previously, and we were talking a lot about moving -- to Amsterdam, to Orlando, to re-establish ourselves in Bowling Green -- we didn't know... In addition, the day before our camping trip, Marci and I had learned the joyous-yet-overwhelming news of expectation for our first child... There were other matters clouding my mind at that point, too -- but in general, I was just overwhelmingly cognizant of the fact that my life was about to change profoundly and permanently.

The thoughts and anxieties were buried in the background for the majority of the weekend, as my brothers and I leaped from the tops of towering sand dunes, ate grubby charcoaly camping food, and quipped casually about favorite movies, memories, and miscellaneous moments of mirth... But then, when Dad and Alex left for the return trip to Ohio, Jay and I were left alone for one last evening in the Dunes. We hiked to the top of one of the more isolated, more magnificent dunes that we had seen previously in the weekend, and as the orange sun began to dip and drizzle beneath the great waters of Lake Michigan, we observed a time of silence and stillness.

In that moment, all of my fears, insecurities, and worries flashed before me. I was reminded of all the stirrings and transformations afoot. I was reminded of the profundity, permanence, and peril of the changes ahead. Watching the seascape before me, I felt the sun was setting on an era of my existence -- prompting a strange mix of excitement, anxiety, and sadness. And in that moment, I felt the voice of God whisper to my inner soul.

I felt a confirmation that the coming years were indeed to be tumultuous and difficult times, and I was given no indication of how long or how severe this period of unrest would be. But in that instance, I was also given an indescribable sense of peace. The beauty and majesty of the sunset before me illuminated a moment of pure rest. Never before and never since have I felt as calm, content, and comfortable as I did sitting on the top of that dune with my brother, watching the sun slowly sink out of sight. It was like I briefly discovered a new way of breathing and being. I was caught up in the goodness of the Creator and his undeniable hand in my life. And, to perfect the moment, I felt God soothing my soul in such a way to communicate the truth that I now know: "I'm going to go back there someday."

So now, whenever I hear or think about Gonzo's ballad in the desert, I remember my sunset observed from the dunes over Lake Michigan. I remember that I'm going to go back there someday. I don't know when and I don't know how. I honestly can't say if my return will be to that actual geographic location, or to sit quietly with my brother again, or to watch a simple sunset, or to simply feel that peaceful sense of breathing and being again... But I instinctively harmonize with Gonzo: I'm going to go back there someday.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


I was recently talking with some friends, lounging in our living room, and discussing moments that define generations. At our initial glance, it seemed that our generation has been doomed to obscurity and insignificance. We can speak nothing of our parents' experiences with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the birth of Rock and Roll... Or our grandparents' experiences with the Great Depression, the Second World War, the advent of telephone and television... But as we conversed -- and as I've reflected more in recent days -- I realize that my generation, too, has experienced a dramatic number of revolutions. If anything, I wonder if the pace of "revolution" may even be accelerating...

I remember the first time I ever used the internet (and it didn't happen until I got to college). As a child, I played with early versions of the personal home computer (like the Commodore 64). I have personal memory of rotary telephones. I can clearly recall the first time I'd ever seeing a microwave, cable television, a home video player (both the VCR and the DVD player). My earliest music collections were on vinyl records and cassette tapes... Our generation has experienced unparalleled advances in technology.

I remember participating in grade school drills for what to do in case of nuclear attack by the Soviets. I was in junior high school when the Berlin Wall was dismantled and the Cold War was concluded. Europe changed currencies between my travel from America. I can remember where I was and what I was doing when the American space shuttle Challenger exploded... When New York City's World Trade Center towers were destroyed by terrorists... When popular icons such as OJ Simpson, Princess Diana, and Michael Jackson smothered the world's media with stories of tragedy and depravity. I remember hearing the first rumblings of a world AIDS epidemic. I even participated in a march on Washington D.C. during my college years... Our generation has experienced its fair share of political and cultural volatility.

Upon closer consideration, it seems our generation is not so obscure or insignificant after all. Only time will tell which events from our collective experience fade into the background and which events define our society for the years to come. Someday, I'm sure we'll be telling our grandchildren stories about what it was like back at the turn of the millenium -- though we don't know exactly what... It's just interesting to experience some future nostalgia in the present.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


Most people find Amsterdam to be a beautiful old city, paced by gently flowing bicycle traffic. Many visitors marvel at the rhythm of life in this quiet metropolis -- streets flowing with flocks of men, women, and children on bicycles. Tourists snap photographs of men in business suits with briefcases propped on the handlebars, women with yellow-haired children in various bicycle/wagon hybrids, hip young Amsterdammers with colorfully-painted "grandma-bicycles..." I believe that the majority of people passing through Amsterdam catch themselves admiring this basic mode of transportation for being so clean, so efficient, so healthy, so graceful...

I also believe that the majority of people passing through Amsterdam are clueless.

The postcards and casual tourist glances do nothing to indicate the frustration and agony of flattened tires, drenched clothing, and every manner of annoying rattles and squeaks issued by an old Amsterdam omafiets. Don't get me wrong. I understand the many benefits of bicycles, and in fact I would personally advocate for more people in other parts of the world to take advantage of bicycles as an inexpensive and efficient mode of transport. But I don't think the idyllic postcard image of people happily bicycling through Amsterdam is doing any favors for anybody. In reality, bicycle transportation has a dark and fearsome side.

To justify this conjecture, I need to look no further than my own bicycle: a brown, corroded men's Batavus bicycle, originally dubbed "Cleveland Brown" -- or "Cleveland" for short. I bought it second-hand at a shop on the Overtoom for about €100, and I liked it for its sturdy frame to complement the newly replaced wheels, chain, and lighting mechanism. I named him in homage to my home state's principal metropolis -- reinvigorated Rust-Belt city (like the bike itself) and home to a football team whose name conveniently coincided with the paint job on the bicycle... So Cleveland and I toured the city together for many months. At the time, he was a vast improvement and a welcome relief to my old bicycle, "Niet Makkelijk" ("Not Easy"), and indeed he faithfully served his purposes for a good while.

In time, though -- as with virtually all bicycles -- Cleveland Brown began to turn to the dark side. First the front fork and lighting mechanism were marred in a freak accident. The brown manufacturer's front fork was replaced with a black front fork (as black as sin), and the front light was lowered from handlebar-level to the level of the wheel (like an evil winking eye). But I was naïve and blinded to the obvious signs at that point -- that Cleveland's journey toward the dark side had begun... Yet from that day forward -- slowly, ever so slowly -- the dark side began to take over my poor bicycle. The chain guard was broken by neighborhood kids and replaced with a black casing (as black as the night). The front wheel was maligned and replaced with a sturdy new wheel, rimmed in black (as black as death). The cargo rack on the back of the bicycle rusted through and was replaced by a new, black replacement (as black as the devil's soul). Bit by bit, Cleveland Brown lost the will to resist, and the dark side increased its hold on the young Jedi warrior.

Now I can say that I genuinely fear and loathe my bicycle. The kick-stand is almost frozen solid. The chain breathes a death-rattle on every crank. The front steering column moans and squeaks with each twist of the handlebars. The right foot pedal is cracked and crooked. More and more parts are rusting through, and soon there will be nothing of the original body left. The name "Cleveland Brown" no longer holds any meaning for me...

I now refer to him as "Darth Brown." It's sad and tragic, but truly the dark side is powerful and persuasive. Just remember that the next time you think about labeling Amsterdam's bicycle traffic as being so idyllic.

Monday, July 04, 2005

It's just the fourth of July...

It's a quiet evening at home tonight. No fireworks -- literally and figuratively. No parades. No grilling out in the backyard. No baseball, apple pie, or Chevrolets. No gaudy demonstrations of American pride and patriotism... It's just the fourth of July -- you know, the day coming right after the third of July and right before the fifth of July...

Believe it or not, even having lived in Amsterdam for two and a half years, this is my first time observing America's Independence Day abroad. So, today I got to thinking about what it means to be an American -- what part of me is tied up in my national identity? And I realize that I have an interesting point of observation, living in a different culture.

In Holland, the word "American" means big, loud, aggressive, self-centered, prone to vice. You see it everywhere. Walking through the grocery stores of Amsterdam, the word "American" is pasted onto products that are bigger, higher quantity, more sugary, more, more, more... American films are noted for their glitz, glamor, and gore; American companies are noted for their payroll, power, and plenty. Nederlanders (and Europeans in general) love to hate America, and hate to love America -- but really, it's not as simple as that... Sentiments toward America are varied and intermingled.

To be honest, I have often felt uncomfortable in my own skin, with my own accent, with my own lens on the world. I'm embarrassed with how well I can relate to the bumbling tourists who wander through Amsterdam in the spring and summer. I confess that I often cringe to hear of the latest developments in the War on Terror (which is widely disapproved in Europe). I may outwardly laugh at the grocery stores' "Sweet American Popcorn" (sickly sugary stuff that's obnoxious even to the American palate) or the "American Hotdogs" (exact same ingredients as the frankfurters on the shelf next to it, just larger and packaged with more hotdogs per package) -- but inwardly, I feel shame for the excess and opulance of America's projected lifestyle. I assume personal culpability for America's national shortcomings. I am, after all, American. No matter how well I acclimate to the culture, no matter how well I learn to speak the language, I will always be American. And at times, this has made me sad...

But over time, I've also learned to be proud of America. The pendulum has swung its course and is veering back toward center.

In spite of much negative sentiment and a default position of love-to-hate and hate-to-love, I've come to see that I love America, and even Europeans cannot escape some of the beauty and intrigue of my native land. America's political system (at least conceptually) is truly noble and admirable. Some of the world's most beautiful art, music, poetry, film, and story-telling comes from America. People from America are noted for their generosity and hospitality. Americans are optimists, idealists, and yet also problem-solvers... And for all the baggage that goes with it, I am American. My family is American. For better or worse, America is a part of our identity and our identity is a part of America.

So today we sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" for our children, loudly and proudly (multiple times, I might add, because they enjoyed it so much!). I know that my Dutch friends would have laughed to hear us, because they simply cannot understand such a sense of national pride and patriotism (not because their country is inferior, just that their cultural values are different)... But I didn't care. It's the Fourth of July, not just the fourth of July...