Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Road to Durgerdam

You can take the boy out of the country -- but you can't take the country out of the boy. Or so I've heard. And so, in fact, I've come to believe as I've observed the inexplicable refreshment in my own life that comes from casual time spent in quiet, open spaces.

I know it sounds strange and somewhat incomprehensible, but I genuinely believe that the biggest adjustment over the last four years -- moving from Bowling Green, Ohio, United States of America to Amsterdam, Noord Holland, Nederland -- has not been the shift from American culture to Dutch culture, but rather the shift from small town life to big city life. To be certain, there are advantages to urban living and we've genuinely enjoyed opportunities that the city brings... But truthfully we've never quite been able to "get over" our love for the quiet, the privacy, the simplicity, the freedom, the openness, the color, and the freshness of the countryside. And as green and quaint and charming as the city of Amsterdam may be (in comparison with other cities of the world), the fact remains that we live among hundreds of thousands of people, in close physical proximity that can often be claustrophobic.

Thus, it was a great refreshment for our family to load up our bicycles and pedal from our home in Amsterdam through the eastern neighborhoods of the city, past the urban sprawl, over the IJ river, outside of the A10 ringway, and into the fresh, green countryside of Noord Holland this afternoon. It was amazing that in just 30 minutes of casually-paced riding, we were able to breathe deeply, soak in the sunshine, bleat with the sheep, feed clover to the ponies, and enjoy the countryside. We rode from Amsterdam to the tiny village of Ransdorp, to the lakeside settlement of Durgerdam, and back to Amsterdam... It was a three hour circuit in all (including time for a number of stops to look at animals, take drinks, eat snacks, and so on). And we were reminded -- like with anything atypical yet so refreshing -- that we need to do things like this more often.

It was... magnificent.

The country may never fully leave the boy -- regardless of his geographic setting -- but I desperately hope that the boy will never have to fully adandon the countryside.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Back in Business

In case you haven't heard (see my post on Hoop Dreams for more information), I'm currently campaigning to qualify for the tryouts of the Dutch National Disc Golf Team...

And while the good folks at Lipton can pride themselves on their ability to make a tasty and refreshing glass of ice tea, they have shown themselves to be a bit susceptible to technological glitches in their marketing schemes. Specifically -- without any kind of communication -- they altered the link to the profile page which had allowed good people like you to go on-line and vote for me. But thanks to a little perseverence and a lot of dumb luck, I figured out how to repair the link (in the original post, too) and once again stump for your vote to keep me at the top of the popularity contest which determines who will get to try out.

Fortunately, as of the time of this post, I'm still clinging to a 7.3 average rating and a spot in the Top Twenty (thanks to everyone who has already voted!). Nevertheless, I would be infintely grateful for your continued support (as there appear to be no rules or regulations to deter casting multiple votes). And I'll even be so bold as to offer a trick for casting multiple votes: once you have voted for me (hopefully with a 10!), you can click on "Top 500" momentarily and then go right back to "Vote" to put in another vote (again, ideally with a 10!); this process can be repeated for as you'd like (I suppose it's kind of sad that I know this, isn't it?)...

So yes, this is a silly gimmick. And no, it doesn't meaningfully impact the world much (if at all). But it sure is a lot of fun for me. And I'd appreciate your participation (hopefully you won't have much trouble finding a link in this post that can be used for joining the fun)!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Spectacular Vulnerability

To read the sports news write-ups of Floyd Landis's victory in this year's Tour de France, you have to wonder how anyone could have ever admired or loved Lance Armstrong (record-breaking winner of the previous seven Tours). "Floyd is human; Lance was machine..." they suggest. "Floyd rides with heart; Lance was ruthless and calculating... Floyd is maverick; Lance was predictable... Floyd wins the hearts of the world; Lance was aloof and lonely in his perfection..." Can the difference between these two champions really be this great?

As far as I can tell, really, the primary point of distinction between Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong is simply this: spectacular vulnerability.

What else could be the reason? One single performance (among a depleted field of contenders, at that) -- somehow celebrated and serenaded over the staggering feat of seven consecutive championships... It seems illogical and imbalanced (and, yes, perhaps an attempt to make a big news story that an American audience would want to read after the sport's most recognizable name and face has retired), but I believe you can pick up the clues for this celebration from the adjectives used to describe Floyd Landis's ride to victory: "gutsy... resurrected... heroic... legendary... big-hearted..." It's not the fact that he won that's so special; rather, it's the fact that he almost lost it all that made everything so special. One day, Floyd Landis took the lead in the three-week race, seeming to lock in his victory. The next day, Floyd Landis bombed miserably and gave it all back (and then some). And then the very next day, Floyd Landis came back from the depths of despair to dramatically put himself back in contention.

Essentially, the glory of Floyd Landis's victory in the Tour de France this year came from the fact that he was dramatically unveiled to be human. Weak, powerless, ashamed... a loser -- who suddenly became a winner. And, let's face it, losing is much closer to the reality of the world. The sports-viewing public -- for all their worship of dynasties and hall-of-fame credentials -- can actually relate much more easily to a loser. And a loser who somehow, dramatically, figures out a way to become a winner becomes a type of mythical figure giving hope to the frustrated and downcast masses.

So why -- perhaps you wonder -- am I musing and waxing eloquent about all this?

It's true that I've become a bit of a cycling enthusiast over the last couple of years living in Amstesrdam, and I see many parallels and lessons for life from the long and winding roads of France. But, actually, the truth is that I worry sometimes that my efforts to live to the most of my potential in the world -- to be a good follower of Jesus, good husband, a good father, a good church leader, a good citizen, ad infinitum, ad nauseum -- have unknowingly cast me in the role of Lance Armstrong, doomed to be overshadowed by the gutsy, spunky, spectacularly vulnerable Floyd Landises of the world.

Too often (I fear), I hear people praise my organizational skills, my self-discipline, my conscientious maintainance of personal priorities and boundaries... But I rarely hear people complimenting my heart, my reckless abandon, my gutsy comebacks...

So I can hardly help myself from wondering: What does this mean?

It would be a gross overstatement (not to mention arrogant hubris) to declare that I am the "Lance Armstrong of Life" -- but perhaps you can sense my conundrum. Can the "good guy" ever really be the hero? Does the "nice guy" ever get the girl? Must I fail dramatically for people to love me? Or what if my tragic flaws tend to be more internal in nature? Can long-term perseverence on a gradually sloping incline be considered "gutsy" -- or must my life resemble a sine wave to be considered in any way remarkable? I always try to be as humble, as transparent, and as vulnerable as possible -- about both my strengths and my weaknesses -- but if I cannot be spectacularly so, will anyone notice or care?

In the end, I realize that it does not matter what anyone else thinks of me, so long as I am secure in my identity in Christ. But I would be lying if I said that these questions do not bug me.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Apocalypse on the Herengracht

A beautiful queen.

A hideous monster.

Strange and fantastical creatures...

frozen in stone... solely resuscitated...

by delicate tendrils of moss.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Queen of the Beasts

Imagine our fear and trepidation as we heard the news that one of the largest carnivorous creatures in the world had escaped yesterday from Amsterdam's Artis Zoo -- within just a kilometer or so of our home. Neighborhood playgrounds were deserted and armed military officers stood guard along the major thoroughfares of Amsterdam Oost, as news reports indicated that the ferocious beast was stalking southward from the zoo... Confident men strutted down the street, to the mailbox, to the cafes -- pretending that they weren't conscious of the danger lurking in the shadows, hanging over their shoulders. Mothers kept vigil from streetside balconies. Teenagers dared each other to go more than 10 meters from the safety of a reinforced door. The tension was palpable.

Thus, it would be a bit of an understatement to say that Marci and I were terrified to hear a rustling and a low growl coming from our bedroom during the heat of the day. Marci screamed and snatched Elliot from the living room floor, where he had been playing. I jumped up and grabbed a chair from the dining room table -- the closest weapon I could find. Marci screamed, "Where is Olivia?!?! Oh, please God -- WHERE IS OLIVIA?!?!?!?" The rising pitch of the growl from the bedroom matched the soft padding of footsteps from the back of the house toward the living room... It was a moment of absolute horror.

As the beast stepped into sight, the lion looked at me with big eyes and a gaping maw full of teeth. And then the lion said, "Look Dayee! I'm a li-uh!" Oh, the relief! Oh, the ecstasy! This lion answered to the name of Olivia. And yes, in fact, the lion was my daughter.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Hoop Dreams

I need your help. Yes -- you, noble reader of this humble blog...

Please follow this link to the Lipton Disc Golf website, and vote for me -- so that I might have a chance to try out for the Dutch national disc golf team. Of course, you may vote your conscience (which would mean providing a rating of anywhere from 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest) -- but I might be so bold as to suggest that you rate me "10" so that I can come as high up in the rankings as possible.

I usually try to avoid using my blog for stupid gimmicks like this. But with your cooperation in this voting contest (follow the link now!), I could see a life-long dream fulfilled...

Well... OK. So I haven't exactly been hoping and dreaming about this my whole life long (maybe ten years, actually, at the most)... And, all right, I don't even know if something like trying out for the Dutch national disc golf team could actually qualify as a true "life goal" or "dream"... But I can definitely say that I enjoy disc golf as a hobby (ever since my latter years in Bowling Green, Ohio). And I'm all in favor of raising disc golf awareness in the Netherlands (hoping that communities may eventually create more disc golf courses in public spaces throughout the country). And it could certainly be fun to say that I tried out for the Dutch national disc golf team...

Heck, I figure I might even make the team if I can get as far as the tryouts.

But qualifying for the tryouts basically seems to be a popularity contest. The more often you're rated at a higher level by other viewers, the higher you rank in the standings. So, if you could take it upon yourself to vote for me (please!) and help me get into the Top 500 -- my chances of trying out for the team on August 5th would be that much improved.

I fear that I'm a bit handicapped in my "foto/filmpje" entry, since it's just a static shot of me (and the great Jason Slack)... But believe it or not, I actually made the effort to visit the Lipton promotional event on the Leidseplein and have a "filmpje" (little video clip) made of my real-life disc golf skills. But the good people at Lipton seem to be having some technical difficulties with uploading the materials from their promtional events to their website, so I went an alternate route to -- forgive the pun -- "throw my hat into the ring" and get in the contest before it's too late (and to be honest, I missed the 10-meter shot that was caught on camera, anyway). So in case you're wondering why my "foto/filmpje" seems to be the most boring one on-line, that's why! And besides, I have faith that you, my friends, can help to overcome this handicap by responding to this blog and going directly to vote for me on-line (and please feel free to vote as many times as you like, as there seems to be no rule against this!)!

In case you're not so good with your Dutch, here are the basic instructions: First, you'll have to click on the link (have I made this point clear yet?); then, it will take you to the website with a picture of me (and the great Jason Slack) standing on a grassy hill next to a disc golf basket. The site will automatically run through some instructions (in Dutch) that basically tell you what I've already outlined above, and then it will come to a stopping point where it says "Start nu met stemmen!" ("Start voting now!") -- and if you click on the button that says "Start" you'll be able to see the full picture (that had been in the background of the instructions) with a vertical listing of numbers (from 1 to 10) along the left side of the screen. Again, you're free to vote your conscience (and pick any number you'd like) -- but if you're asking me, I'd encourage you to give me a "10." Then, the site will bring up another picture or video clip, and you can choose to vote for some others, or you could simply exit after voting for me.

I hope that makes sense. Thanks for playing along with this gimmick.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Neighborhood of Make-Believe

So I suppose I'm putting my credibility on the line here... But does anyone else sometimes catch oneself living in a fantasy world?

I'm not trying to be deep or philosophical here -- like "How do we negotiate the tension between the physical realm and the spiritual realm?" or "What are the masks that we wear as a form of self-defense in society?" I'm talking about true childlike fantasy. Pure imagination. Unfettered frolicking in the neighborhood of make-believe -- you know, baking mud-pies for a tree-house feast... transforming one's back-yard into a collosal stadium with a sell-out crowd watching your magnificent performance in the championship game... enjoying afternoon tea with the royal family... We all know that these things are well and good for children -- even admirable, adorable, and praiseworthy -- but what about adults? Can "grown-ups" pretend in such innocent, frivolous ways?

I've just recently realized how many imaginary adventures I can pack into my daily commute.

The other day, one of the television networks in Amsterdam was airing the classic Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back -- and I couldn't resist reveling in what had been one of my favorite movies as a boy. In particular, I enjoyed the chase scenes -- rebel snowspeeders racing over the Hothian landscape to engage Imperial walkers, noble X-wing fighters squaring off against evil Tie Fighters in the star-specked vaccuum of outer space, Han Solo's Millenium Falcon dipping and diving through asteroid fields and the gigantic teeth of horrific beasts... And somewhere in the midst of one of the chase scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, it occurred to me that I have envisioned these very scenes dozens if not hundreds of times during my incidental travels through the bustling city streets of Amsterdam, mounted upon my brown Batavus bicycle (incidentally nicknamed Darth Brown, as if the Star Wars connection hasn't already gone far enough!)...

Perhaps I'm crazy or childish, but it occurs to me that I often imagine the orchestral themes of Star Wars as I dodge delivery trucks and pedestrian tourists each day. Narrow escapes, bursts of speed, tight corners -- these are daily maneuvers that are easy fodder for an overactive imagination. And it's so much more interesting to be an X-wing fighter pilot, racing to thwart the sinister plans of a tyranical intergalactic empire -- than to be a peddling peasant on his way home from work. It brings joy and excitement to race stormtroopers through the forests of Endor on my speeder-bike. It lightens my spirit to take a break from reality and get lost in the Tatouinian deserts or Hothian tundras of central Amsterdam.

But is this normal adult behavior? I'm afraid the bicycle adventures do not stop at Star Wars...

Sometimes my bicyle is a fighter plane -- dogfighting with the Luftwaffe over the skies of Europe. Sometimes my bicycle is a galloping stallion -- rounding up vast herds of cattle on the open range. And sometimes (particularly at this time of the year), my bicycle is a top-of-the-line racing bike -- zooming through the far corners of France for Team Discovery, seeking an illustrious victory in the Tour de France. The steep bridges of the city are the Pyranean peaks or the legendary summit of l'Alpe d'Huez. The far side of each intersection is a sprint finish against Thor Hushovd and Robbie McEwen. Every bicycle ride can be a mystical quest. My imagination knows no bounds.

But tell me, does this mean I'm a freak? I know that we delight in the comic imaginations of Snoopy or Calvin & Hobbes. I know that we all smile when Peter Pan encourages us to never grow old. I know that we love Don Quixote for his idealism... But don't we also lament the fact that he was just a crazy old man? I'm looking for validation here. Identification and empathy. Here I have bared my soul to the world wide web, and I await its judgment of my sanity. Please tell me that I'm not alone...

Or -- if you're going to put me in a mental institution -- please make sure that I get a nice room with a good view of wooded grounds and a bicycle trail where my desperately careening mind can dart about freely and serendipitously for the rest of my days.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

What a Bicycle Crash Means

As we were watching live coverage of the Tour de France individual time trials this afternoon, a nasty crash by American rider Bobby Julich prompted a series of questions from inquisitive Elliot:

"What happened?" He crashed going around that corner.

"Why did he crash?" It's hard to say. Maybe he hit some gravel on the road or something.

"Did he get hurt?" Yeah, it looks like he hurt his wrist or something.

As the medical crews from Team CSC huddled around the injured rider and consulted with race officials, it appeared that the veteran rider's race was over. I commented that I was sad to see one of the American riders out of the Tour. Elliot evidently started to grasp the fact that Bobby Julich would be going home. But I was surprised and amused to observe the thought process of my American-born-Dutch-bred son, when he asked his next questions:

"How will he get home?" Ummm... He'll probably get a ride in one of the team cars.

"How will he get his bike home?" They'll probably fit it in one of the cars, too.

Only in Holland is bicycling not just a sport or a recreational activity -- it's a way of life. Since living in Amsterdam these last three and a half years, bicycle has become our primary means of transportation. Our way to get to school. To church. To the grocery store. To the park. To get back home...

It's so funny to see the way that living in Amsterdam has affected my family's view of the world. But it's kind of cool, too.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Summer Shostakovich (Part Four)

[Marci and I enjoyed a truly unique -- and truly bizarre -- evening in Amsterdam's Vondelpark last week. But... to do justice to the experience, I wanted to try painting with smaller strokes and a more varied pallette in my writing. But... realizing that the blogging format is not ideally suited for longer blocks of text, I wanted to try a different publishing strategy: a serial. But... the success of this strategy -- and your enjoyment of these posts -- depends on your willingness to follow along. See Summer Shostakovich (Part One), Summer Shostakovich (Part Two), and Summer Shostakovich (Part Three) to catch up and join the adventure...]

* * * * *

...Soon after the feather silently touched down inside the piano, the audience loudly erupted in applause -- not for the feather, of course, but for the conclusion of Shostakovich's piano ballet for the glory of Soviet soccer. After an impersonal bow to the audience, the pianist presented his arms to the side, in the manner of a Spanish toreador, as a graceful woman in a simple black dress took to the stage with her cello. He offered a brief introduction. They took their seats. She needed a bit of tuning. Then the duet began to play.

To speak succinctly: it was glorious. The rich sweet resonance of the cello swelled through the amphitheater and made me feel like crying, or sighing, or flying with the parrots of the Vondelpark. De Kamer van Sjostakovitj gave me a place to live and remember everything good and beautiful about life in Amsterdam: beautiful public spaces, appreciation of the fine arts, creative self-expression, a broad network of intelligent, cultured people...

It was then that I noticed the woman in red.

All evening, she had been obviously and ecstatically enjoying the music. Her bespectacled husband was a bit more reserved, befitting his earth-toned three-piece suit and in marked contrast to her red-dressed exhuberance. As the musicians performed just meters beyond their front-row seats, he would pat her arm in a tactile communication of love and consideration. In a reserved, earth-toned way of course. But she would smile freely and sway gently, maybe even humming along to the music at times -- soaking, seeping, savoring the music in a fresh red way that seemed decades younger than her gray hair and laughlines would suggest. When the music had reached its point of saturation -- somewhere in the middle of the duet's second number -- it seemed she could contain herself no longer. Instantaneously, though not inconspicuously, she rose to her feet and began to dance.

My heart was summoned by the romance of the moment. I wanted to pull Marci closer, forget the crowd of strangers, and push the collapsable chairs aside to create a dance floor for us. And for the silver-haired lady in red. And her reluctant-though-raptured gentleman escort...

But because my feet are slower than my mind -- and because of another brief flash of the foreigner's flu -- I did no such thing. Instead, for a moment longer, I watched the red dame dance, and suddenly I felt a flush of vicarious shame that ravenously swallowed my sense of grandeur and romance. As I watched, I could see that her dance was not the waltz. Nor the foxtrot -- nor whatever sort of ballroom dance would be appropriate for a Shostakovich concerto. Rather, her dance was a clumsy two-step -- slightly off-balance and decidedly unbecoming a lady of her age and stature. Her elbows were cocked at her sides; she shimmied from left to reft in a poor impersonation of MC Hammer. She tried to pull at her husband, to coax him into dancing with her; but he sat stolidly in his seat, and I subconsciously sunk deeper and deeper into my chair with empathic embarrassment for them both.

Apparently, the red-dressed, silver-tressed lady's demonstrative joy throughout the evening had not been the result of stirred sentimentality (as I had previously assumed), but rather a painfully open succumbence to senility.

As others in the audience started to notice the spectacle, they would alternatively stare and divert their gaze. The scene was simultaneously compelling and repulsing -- like a slow-motion instant replay of a horrific sporting injury or a low-budget made-for-television movie. Most folks did their best to be polite. To not point and stare, to not let on that they had seen this private peculiarity. But when the red dancer attempted an awkward twirl that nearly broke my heart and her ankles, a nearby guffaw broke the code of respectability.

Someone was laughing.

It was the flaming sailor, just a couple of rows in front of me. His pink bangles and beads shook with laughter and accusation, hysterically mocking this woman dancing under the influence of Alzheimers. He made no attempts at discretion. And while other strangers cast him rude looks or deliberately ignored the scenario, the woman sitting next to the sailor started twittering as well. They looked at each other -- like fourth-grade girlfriends -- and their giggling escalated, unchecked. When the lady in red let loose another clumsy twirl, their shockwave of laughter became momentarily audible, even from several meters away. The woman sitting beside us quietly tsked, her dog perked its head curiously, and I was ignited with indignation.

As we all painfully watched, the dancing mevrouw returned to her regretful man and beligerantly pouted when he again refused her invitation to the ballroom of her dementia. She gave a half-hearted effort toward a few further dance moves but then wandered off toward stage left where the amphitheater shell ended and the wooded regions of the park began. As she quickly disappeared into the thicket, her gentleman husband patiently gathered himself, straightened on the lapels of his suitcoat, and casually strolled after her as if to reluctantly settle a lovers' spat. I felt sad for him. And for her.

But my primary emotion upon their departure was anger. Fury, even. The juvenile mockers' gulps and giggling gradually subsided to stupid grins. Yet my outrage escalated as time went on. I was incredulous at the insensitivity of these strangers! Particularly the gay sailor! This man wore his alternative sexuality on his shirt sleeve (and around his neck, and on top of his head, and upon his feet) -- a seemingly open invitation to mockery from the straight world -- still he had the audacity to publicly disparage those whom he might judge freakish... Oh...

An epiphany... I flashed back to my snap judgments of the ugly dogs, the Orneüs Trio, our waiters from dinner earlier in the evening... And I realized that I hadn't really taken notice of anyone that day who was significantly smarter than me. Or more fashionable. Or handsomer. Or wiser. Or who had any more admirable qualities whatsoever. Instead, I had been climbing on the backs of strangers to get the highest view of the world. To secretly laugh at the "freaks" around me who could provide reassurance that I was "normal" and likeable. To pass judgment on those worth or unworthy of my consideration.

As the evening air grew cool, the park no longer bathed in the indandescent rays of the setting sun, I pulled close to Marci and asked if she was ready to leave. I'd had enough.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Summer Shostakovich (Part Three)

[Marci and I enjoyed a truly unique -- and truly bizarre -- evening in Amsterdam's Vondelpark last week. But... to do justice to the experience, I wanted to try painting with smaller strokes and a more varied pallette in my writing. But... realizing that the blogging format is not ideally suited for longer blocks of text, I wanted to try a different publishing strategy: a serial. But... the success of this strategy -- and your enjoyment of these posts -- depends on your willingness to follow along. See Summer Shostakovich (Part One) and Summer Shostakovich (Part Two) to catch up and join the adventure...]

* * * * *

...The Trio's second set awakened the dormant masses. If the first set had been politely received with knowing smiles, as a prim and proper hostess at a formal dinner party -- the second set was affectionately embraced, like an old friend with open arms and sloppy kisses. The violinist pitched and swayed in a fevered pitch. The clarinetist closed his eyes and wailed, as if he was playing jazz. The pianist commanded the concert grand to louder louds and softer softs. Their music somehow meant more. And the audience understood this. They either signaled their comprehension by becoming more active -- like the silver-headed woman in the red dress up front who could be seen beaming and swaying in time to the music -- or by becoming perfectly still. Like the flaming sailorman and his partner and his lady friend... Like the woman in the next seat over and her dog... Like me. We became enchanted statues, listening to the frenzied arpeggios with a sense of awe and exhilaration. And when the set was closed, and the Orneüs Trio took their bows, the musicians had earned their applause. Any embarrassment of a previously unsolicited encore was loudly forgotten.

The barritone enunciator broke in with an explanation that he would be coming around with a collection box, to help support the costs of the summer concert series. And as he ushered his way through the aisles, I pushed my way back to the café area for some refreshments. People crowded around the bar and ordered coffee, liquor, candy. The wait staff buzzed from coffee machine to customer, beer tap to cash register, refrigerator to bar... As I waited in line, I noticed the Orneüs Trio, sitting at a nearby table -- just the three of them and the pianist's page turner (presumably some underclassman at the Conservatory). No mothers. No teachers. No girlfriends. Just the three of them and their drinks. I almost said something to them. I almost bought them a round of drinks.


In the end, I succumbed to the foreigner's flu -- that startlingly temporary affliction which instinctively shuts one's mouth in order to maintain anonymity and avoid betrayal of an accent or a poorly structured sentence, lest one is subjected to fantasmical scenarios of betrayal as a poser, a foreigner, an outcast, an enemy, a loser, someone needing to be mob-lynched. So I secretly stared at the spent musicians from my peripheral vision, and I said nothing. I got my plastic cup of koffie verkeerd and micro-carton of Ben & Jerry's Cookie Dough Ice Cream; and I returned to my seat to watch the next performance that was just being introduced.

The featured act was De Kamer van Sjostakovitj (Shostakovich's Chamber). A lone pianist with frizzy black hair and an uncomfortable black tuxedo started with a discourse about his passion for Shostakovich and his pleasure at such a beautiful opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian composer's birth. He was to start his performance with a piano ballet composed around the theme of adventures with Soviet soccer hooligans (seriously); then his cellist colleague would come out to join him for a couple of concertos; and for the finale, vocalists would be added to the ensemble -- bringing the full glory of Dmitri Shostakovich to the humble masses assembled in the Vondelpark.

The hooligans' ballet was interesting, engaging, entertaining -- imaginatively composed music interpreted imaginitively and lovingly. Nevertheless, I found my gaze wandering upward -- above the jet-black euro-fro of the pianist, above the jet-black lid of the grand piano, above the red and blue gelled fresnels and lighting trusses -- to the pigeons that nestled beneath the rafters of the amphitheater's concert shell, huddled together in clumps of two and three with their beaks burried into their puffed out chests.

They had likely been there all along, from the very beginning of the evening; but I was instantly piqued by my discovery of their presence, and I studied them as the chords and clashes of the piano filled the air. Such odd birds. Such city birds. Cosmopolitan and campy at the same time. They seemed not to notice de Kamer van Sjostakovitj beneath them. They seemed not to care about Shostakovich's 100th birthday. Or his penchant for mixing ballet and soccer hooliganism. Or the surreal mix of personalities that made up the audience beneath them. The pigeons epitomized apathy... until the grand conclusion of the hooligans' ballet.

Tapping into the ecstatic and eccentric vibe of the evening, the piano crescendoed and shouted forth a barrage of power chords that shook the stage and the audience. Even the pigeons. One clump of pigeons, in particular, were stirred by a particularly powerful pound of the pianist's left hand -- and their wings started to flutter in an act of surprise and desperation to maintain equilibrium. In the process, one downy underfeather from one of the startled pigeons was dislodged, and it began a slow dancing descent toward the stage. I followed it the whole way with my eyes. Down, down, down. It drifted toward the center of the stage, and I started to think that it might land on top of the piano. Or inside the piano -- which is, as a matter of fact, exactly where the feather ended up.

The feather dropped into the cavernous interior of the ebony instrument. And in the moments that followed, I can only assume that this meant something...

[to be continued...]

Monday, July 03, 2006

Summer Shostakovich (Part Two)

[Marci and I enjoyed a truly unique -- and truly bizarre -- evening in Amsterdam's Vondelpark last week. But... to do justice to the experience, I wanted to try painting with smaller strokes and a more varied pallette in my writing. But... realizing that the blogging format is not ideally suited for longer blocks of text, I wanted to try a different publishing strategy: a serial. But... the success of this strategy -- and your enjoyment of these posts -- depends on your willingness to follow along. See Summer Shostakovich (Part One) to catch up and join the adventure...]

* * * * *

...The articulate barritone host interrupted my observations with his return to the front of the stage. I sensed sarcasm in his voice as he waxed eloquent in his introduction of a group of three young men who had just graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory two weeks previously: the so-called Orneüs Trio. Once again, he rattled off the list of titles which they would be performing -- once again proud of his accent-égu's and ümlauts -- and he elegantly though unconvincingly referenced the legend upon which their group's name was based (some kind of centaur from Greek mythology, whose name just happened to be comprised of syllables correlating to the names of each member of the trio). The announcer guy talked some more... and more... and more -- I tuned out -- but finally the audience was clapping as the three young men strode out on stage.

The musicians looked exceedingly young, I noticed. And tall. And thin. Crisp black suits undergirded by crisp white shirts, their wide starched cuffs flashing in the stage lights. The clarinetist and the violinist were evidently brothers -- likely even twins -- and the pianist was a nervous third wheel. But when they sat to play, they summoned a secret maturity and instantly impressed me with their skill.

As I listened, I leaned back in my chair and soaked in more of the ambience. The gay sailor and his girlfriend were chatting nonchalantly, though not loudly enough to disrupt my enjoyment of the performance. The gentleman in the brown suit had his arm on his wife's shoulder as she was esconced by the music. Just a meter to the right of where I was sitting, a border collie curled up like an ampersand at his owner's feet -- an astonishingly well-behaved dog, I thought. And above my head, in the deepening dusk of the Vondelpark, dozens of emerald parrots flocked through the treetops.

How odd, I mused, to see such an example of mankind's perversion of the natural world: these shrieking, swooping, long-tailed, tropical, green birds -- naturally befitting the Amazon basin, but somehow thriving in the gray North-Atlantic climate of Amsterdam's Vondelpark. Once domesticated, once contained, once carefully tended -- the parrots had taken wing and multiplied in "the wild" (if the Vondelpark can, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered wild). And what likely started as two starstruck love-birds flying the coop somehow became large flocks of slender green streaks in the dusky sky over our summer concert. A dozen in formation, off to the West. Six or seven high above the treetops, their shrill cries distant and faint... A solitary parrot darting about from tree to tree in the direct vicinity of the amphitheater, his call to the other parrots an irregular accompaniment to the trio.

After a relatively short set, the Orneüs trio scampered off-stage to a short round of applause. I asked my questions to Marci: "How did you enjoy that second number?" "Do you think those two were twins?" I pointed out the green parrots swooping overhead, which she had not previously noticed. Then suddenly, awkwardly, although certainly not summoned by the crowd's lukewarm applause which had ended some twenty seconds previously -- the Orneüs Trio was re-emerging for an unsolicited "encore" performance.

I felt vicariously embarrassed for them. They had probably been put up to it by their music teachers. Or by their mothers. Or by the aristocratic announcer-guy, filling the time before the next performers were ready. Whatever the case, the Orneüs Trio prepared to made the most of the situation...

[to be continued...]