Friday, June 30, 2006

Summer Shostakovich (Part One)

The lesser-known works of Dmitri Shostakovich provided a fitting soundtrack to the surreal setting. Simultaneously magnificent and strange -- almost too nebulous for words... yet singing to be heard.

Marci and I were charmed by the idea of a sunset performance of classical music in the park, following our electric candle-lit dinner at an Italian trattoria just off the Leidseplein. We rode slowly to the heart of Amsterdam's Vondelpark and entertwined our bicycles together in a steely embrace against a green barricade before walking trepidly, arms likewise entertwined, toward the concert venue.

I had never considered the angular half-shell amphitheater to be especially noble, but the golden glow of the sunset gave it a certain if unfamiliar dignity in spite of the faded grafiti and in spite of (or because of -- I can't make up my mind which) the ecclectic audience which was assembling. At the outer extremity of the listening area, steel platforms and picnic tables made up the balconies where amiably-inebriated locals coiffed another pilsner or sipped another glass of cabernet. Aluminum bleachers comprised the mezzanine, where cautious tourists and twittering teenagers soaked up the last rays of sunshine that managed to escape the leafy boughs of oak and elm, past the fountain and over the pond to provide the day's last vestiges of warmth and pigmentation. But Marci and I chose for the main level -- toward the front -- in full view of the stage and comfortably accommodated by collapsable wooden chairs.

Two thick-boned middle-aged Dutch women stood in the aisle, talking and motioning toward their dogs -- scrawny chihuahua types with mottled shaved bodies and skanky clumps of hair like weeds around their necks and rumps. As we approached, I gasped to Marci, "What ugly dogs!" under my breath -- right before the ugliest dog's owner turned toward us with a warm smile and handed us a flyer for an upcoming series of Shostakovich recitals. Although I was quite sure that she had not heard my preceding impolite aside, I nevertheless felt the blush of shame for my secretive impropriety toward such a pleasant stranger.

Shortly after settling into our seats, a man with a long face and a white T-shirt sauntered to the front of the stage with a wireless stick microphone and offered an introduction to the evening in a rich barritone Gooise accent. Obviously pleased with the sound of his voice and his elocutionary excellence in pronunciation of Spanish, French, and Russian, he listed the titles for the opening set and noted that the performance would begin within approximately ten minutes.

Thus, we had a bit of time for some people-watching.

Two rows in front of us, a man in a white sailor's hat slid into a seat beside a big-eared fellow with a crew cut. A pink chrysanthemum garnished the top of the sailor's hat, and his old-fashioned sailor's coat was accessorized with a bright pink patent leather handbag, an arm full of bangles and gaudy costme jewelry, and large red sunglasses such as Elton John would wear. Surprising, I thought, that I don't see such flaming homosexuality more often here in the "gay capital" of Europe... He was obviously feeling beautiful this evening, although his partner didn't seem to take much notice of him. Nevertheless, after a couple of minutes, a lady friend came by with a warm welcome and plenty of doting for both of them -- a bright, wide grin and the typical kiss-kiss-kiss of old Dutch friends. She and the sailorman apparently had a lot to talk about, and they got right down to it in the waning minutes before the concert.

In the very front row of the amphitheater, an old gentleman in a neat brown three-piece suit shuffled a beautiful gray-haired lady in a red dress to an empty seat where she would be able to see and hear clearly. He stood off to the side, anxious but patient, for a few moments until the other strangers in the aisle noticed the situation and rearranged their seating to make room for him, too. He settled in graciously and gratefully, seeming very content to enjoy an evening of fine music with his wife of many years...

[to be continued...]

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

700 to 30

I just totalled it up: during our month in America, we took a total of almost 700 photographs! Over the last couple of days, I've boiled the collection down to my favorite 30 images and posted the collection on-line at Shutterfly. Check out "Asp Family North American Summer Tour 2006" to see it for yourself.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Love the One You're With

Only in the 1960s era of "make love, not war," only in the long-haired hippie commune generation, only in the song-stylings of Crosby, Stills, and Nash could one get away with lyrics such as "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with." Normally, I would have nothing but contempt for such a fickle, conditional, contextual concept of love.

But recently, I've been pondering the benefits of this philosophy.

Before I left for my month-long journey to America, I had been feeling anxious and unsettled -- worried to leave what had become a comfortable rhythm of life in Holland and concerned that I might find my native land suddenly foreign and uncomfortable. However, after a few short weeks of being "back home" in Ohio, I discovered that these fears were unfounded. In fact, the time in America was wonderful -- better than expected -- and I reveled and relaxed in the presence of familiar people, places, and customs. It was like closing my eyes, smiling, and swaying to an old favorite song on the jukebox...

So much so that I didn't want the song to end. By the end of my time in America, I started feeling anxious and unsettled again -- this time worried about leaving the comfortable (though only shortly established) rhythm of life in the United States and concerned that I might go back to a very foreign and uncomfortable scenario in the Netherlands. But once again, I've discovered over the last few days of being "back home" in Amsterdam that my fears from the other side of the ocean were largely unfounded. Although there have certainly been some challenges (primarily with jet lag and crabby children) -- it's been great to be back in our own home, sleeping in our own beds, getting caught up again with our circle of friends and faith.

So it turns out that the grass can actually appear to be greener on this side of the fence at times! So you see, if you can't be with the one I love -- well, maybe it's better to simply love the one you're with.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Short Night, Long Day

Today is the longest day of the year: the summer solstice. But the day seems to be infinitely lengthened for our family, as we had our shortest night of the year last night -- racing forward toward the sunrise from across the Atlantic ocean, on a jet airplane -- and the short night was made even shorter with some of our poorest quality of sleep of the year (I never do well with trying to sleep on the plane). Marci and I are exhausted, as we hardly slept at all. Elliot is also less than 100 percent, although he probably had the most sleep and the smoothest ride of all of us. But it seems that this journey was most difficult for little Olivia, whose travel included only four hours of sleep (compared to a typical night's twelve hours), two and a half "blow-outs" (an affectionate term for where the diaper cannot hold all of its contents), and a surge of vomit upon landing (needless to say, the transition has been a bit of a shock to her system).

Today -- this longest of all days -- we must deal with jet lag. And to be honest, it's no fun.

But we made it safely back to Amsterdam. The flights and connections went very smoothly, and all our bags arrived without incident. We've made our way back to our home, and we're starting to pull things back together and resume "regular" life (whatever that means). Your prayers for the adjustment process would be greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

If Only Steef and Jurren Could See This...

On our last evening in Ohio, Elliot and I took a visit to one of the largest retail centers in my old hometown of Shelby: "The Sportsman's Den." It's a large store on the north end of town that specializes in equipment for fishing and hunting -- and there's really no equivalent for such a store in Europe...

So quintessentially American, so Midwest, so Shelby: 25 meters of wall lined with rifles and ammunition, taxidermied deer and elk accenting the simulation log cabin interior, customers in work boots and mesh-back caps leaning up against the display cases... Nobody asked me why I was taking the picture -- but if they would have asked, I would have responded by saying that if I didn't establish photographic evidence of such a place, my friends in Europe would never believe my accounts of it... Elliot and I had some fun, reveling in such Americana...

Here, Elliot blends in with the environment as he tries on a camouflage jacket and hat...

Here, Elliot poses with a different camouflage hat (there were at least 20 different varieties) in front of the toy section of the store -- proudly featuring an extensive line of "Hunter Dan, American Sportsman" action figures, including: Rifle Hunter, Turkey Hunter, Bow Hunter, Bass Angler, Hunter Ann, Duck Hunter, and (Elliot's favorite) Elk Hunter...

This junior-sized T-shirt reads: "This little RUNT likes to HUNT." What fun...

I can imagine that some of my European friends might be horrified that I would visit and celebrate such a store (and even bring along my four-year-old son)... And yet, I can also imagine that some of my American friends would be offended that I would insinuate that there's anything unusual or amusing about such a store...

It's so interesting to highlight the points of contrast between American culture and Dutch culture. I'll leave the value judgment up to you.

Monday, June 19, 2006

An IM Interaction Observed:

* Never give out your password or credit card number in an instant message conversation.


Marco says:
Eric dude! You're coming back tomorrow right???

Eric says:
Hey Marco! Indeed, we are leaving tomorrow for Amsterdam... (although we won't arrive until early Wednesday morning).

Marco says:
how do you feel about leaving?

Eric says:

Marco says:
in what sense?

Eric says:
That applies physically (in that we still have a lot of packing and stuff to do today)... But also emotionally... And perhaps also on other levels... It's been a really good trip... And we're still excited about our life in Amsterdam... But at the moment, it seems kind of challenging to get back into "regular" life over there.

Marco says:
I can imagine... a month is long in a sense... but also very short in another sense

Eric says:
Yeah, the month-long trip ended up having a strange effect... The first week was like a tourist... everything was beautiful and quaint and charming... I took about a million photos...

Marco says:

Eric says:
The second week was like a wake-up call... and I noticed all the not-so-nice things about America... I was annoyed and disgusted and angry... I saw all the ways that Holland is "better" than America... And then, toward the end of the trip... we've slipped into a mode where everything just feels normal again... both positives and negatives...

Marco says:
(it will be the other way around when you're back here...)

Eric says:

Marco says:
that's bizarre

Eric says:
I guess that's what they call "culture shock."

Marco says:
yeah... man... 'culture shock' is such a cliche concept. But it is nevertheless very real everytime... even when you know in what way you're going to be 'shocked'

Eric says:
That's the crazy part about it... I should have expected it... But I didn't.

Marco says:
Yeah, I also recognize it... I know that when I deal with certain people, I'm going to be shocked by certain things they do or say... but when it happens it still has an effect.

Eric says:
We're idiots, aren't we?

Marco says:
ehm... yes we are

Eric says:
Hey, Marco, what would you think about me using this IM conversation for a blog post? I haven't posted for awhile...

Marco says:
It would be cool to post it literally... including this last sentence of me approving of you using this IM conversation

Eric says:
Yeah, that's what I was thinking... So you're up for it?

Marco says:
Do it!

Eric says:
OK. Thanks. I'd better get going...

Marco says:
ok that's cool! talk to you later

Eric says:
OK. Doei.

Marco says:

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Elliot's Fish Tale

Elliot has learned the art of the "fish tale," an embellished account of personal achievement in the art of angling. Today, he had his first experience with fishing, and just moments after the catch, we were able to snap this picture of him in a classic pose of fisherman's exageration. Follow this link to Elliot's blog, for the story of his first fishing experience.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sunset Over Oceola

I never thought much of Oceola. Truth be told, I considered it little more than a speed bump between ''home" and "school" during my college days -- a small village of about 250 people, tucked in the Ohio countryside along the old US Route 30, about a third of the way from Shelby to Bowling Green. The only reason I really took notice of Oceola at all was because of the quarter-mile 45-miles-per-hour zone and the subsequent fear of a speeding ticket. Otherwise, the town just barely passed through my peripheral vision: a small campground, a two-pump filling station, a tiny church with a rickety sign calling out to passers-by, "May God Bless You as You Travel." And God did bless. I never had a break-down or flat tire in Oceola; I never hit a fuel emergency that couldn't wait until Upper Sandusky; I never needed to use the restroom facilities of the town. God blessed as I traveled through Oceola, and as a result I never really had the occasion to stop and think much of the town.

So I am surprised by the fact that I'm missing Oceola on this, my most recent drive from Shelby to Bowling Green. Apparently, the Ohio Department of Transportation has been busy over the last year and a half. And since our last time on US Route 30, the highway has been broadened, diverted, and improved to create a four-lane super-freeway for the entire extent of my old college "commute." Now I can drive an hour and a half solid to and from Bowling Green, without ever leaving the luxury of the 65 miles per hour freeway...

And without ever passing through Oceola again.

Inexplicably, I find this sad. Perhaps it feels a bit like the burial for a town that had been on its deathbed for many years. An unexpected, unannounced, unattended funeral that only happens to be discovered in passing. Of course, such a eulogy is overstated. Oceola will continue -- as it has for generations. In fact, I can imagine that Oceolans (Oceolites? Oceolers? Oceolanaren?) may have even initially rejoiced at the "liberation" of their town from the constant flow of semi-trucks and minivans and noise and exhaust fumes. In re-routing US Route 30, Oceola acheived the peace and quiet that are truly befitting a town of just 250 residents. However, as I drive through western Crawford County on this rose-colored summer evening -- ceremoniously bypassing Oceola without so much as a road-sign pointing toward the tiny settlement -- I wonder if and when the people of Oceola will start to miss US Route 30... I wonder when they will realize that they've become obsolete.

As I drive and muse, the skies above and beyond Oceola (at least where I reckon Oceola to be) are stirred by a magnificent sunset. Pastel gold, shimmering silver, and rosy copper are harvested from the Ohio farmlands -- creating the impression of an eternally enduring beauty that unfortunately lasts for just a moment instead. It's only a mirage. A cursory illusion. Such twilight theatrics seem soberingly similar to the story of Oceola... which is soberingly similar to the story of my own life.

The song on the radio seems to telepathically connect with this mournful reality. Although I'm sure that folks in Oceola would consider Elton John to be much too extravagent, too theatrical, too far-fetched, they could just as easily sing his lines: "Don't let the sun go down on me. Although I search myself, it's always someone else I see. I'd just allow a fragment of your life to wander free. But losing everything is like the sun going down on me..."

The thing is: I don't know if there's much we can do much about the rotation of planet earth. I don't know if there's much we can do about the setting of the sun. I don't know even what this all means. I just know that I feel sad. Yet strangely serene.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Yearning for the Shackles

Let me start with a confession: I need routine.

Many seem to bemoan the rigors of a schedule, a system, a script -- the repetitive patterns in life. Words like predictability and punctuality seem to have taken on shades of negativity in today's vernacular (at least among the "Postmodern Generation"). And yet, speaking truthfully, I often find myself energized and catalyzed by the "chains" of the "daily grind."

Don't get me wrong. I love vacation, and I'm grateful for opportunities to shake things up from time to time. I love meeting new people, visiting new places, and sharing new experiences. Indeed, there is refreshment in the retreat from routine... But it can also be a bit wearying, too.

When I'm away from my "regular" routine, I tend to get flabby. Of course, this applies on the physical level -- less exercise, less self-discipline, less built-in restraint from overindulging in "ordinary" fare... But it also applies on the spiritual level, as I'm not as regular in taking time to read the Bible or connect with God in prayer. And emotionally... And relationally... Even things that are typically enjoyable and energizing -- like blogging or playing with my children -- can be challenging for someone who is feeling flabby all over.

Nevertheless, I'll revel in my flabiness for another week and a half... and then embrace a return to the chain gang slogging through the routines of life.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Daylight Slipping through My Toes

The sunset is visible just above my toes and through the hammock in which I'm reclined. The robin sings sweetly in the maple tree beyond the fence, and I can almost make out its lyrics:

Swing slowly. Breathe deeply. Let tomorrow worry about itself.

He's singing to me. He can somehow subliminally sense my inhibitions and anxieties. My sense of sand slipping through the hourglass, my mourning for the passing of the present, my projected nostalgia for events that have not yet happened. The end of eras, the conclusion of vacations, the transformation of relationships, the decline of familiarity... If I dwell on these thoughts, though, I find myself forgetting the wisdom of the robin.

This moment is to be enjoyed. Swing slowly. Breathe deeply. Let tomorrow worry about itself.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Under the Milky Way

There’s something classic about a semi-slumbering child being carried from the backseat of an automobile to the quiet confines of a bedroom, on a sleepy summer night...

Limp limbs list lazily from side to side in rhythmic response to the concert of chirping crickets... The leafy green earth breathes back her wispy warmth to the cool canopy of constellations overhead, and my daughter's deep and dreamy breathing is audible through the soft blanket that separates her mouth from my ear...

I rush through the night to complete my mission -- to deposit my daughter -- but I wish the moment could last forever...

This is summer... This is memory... This is love...