Wednesday, August 30, 2006


So I'm sitting in my living room, feeling kind of buzzed by the day's business and busyness... And as my children dance around me -- all brisk and boisterous -- I realize what a blessed antidote these two bubbly bundles are to the heavier and harder parts of life. They are hope, joy, and meaning in living, breathing form. They are beautiful and unique reflections of the face of God. And they are my children! How cool is that?!?! Caught up in the moment, I flippantly ask Elliot, "Do you realize that you're incredibly handsome?"

"Yes," Elliot says with a spry grin, "I am incredible."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Could this be church?

Seriously -- could this be church!?!?

We've had some very different “worship” experiences throughout the month of August. The first week of the month, we were in the Vondelpark -- lounging on blankets, enjoying picnic food, taking turns in a Tug-of-War contest, playing Ultimate Frisbee with both friends and strangers... In the second week of August, we criss-crossed Amsterdam's city center in a creative scavenger hunt including assignments such as composing an original song and taking a group photo with strangers on the Leidsestraat... The third Sunday of the month gave us an occasion for more intimate gatherings in homes throughout the city, sharing dinner and conversation like in a holiday gathering of extended family... And then the fourth weekend of the month -- this past weekend -- we gathered as a church on Saturday night (thus, we didn't even meet on "The Lord's Day" unless you count the wee hours of Sunday morning) simply to throw a big party! Food and drinks, music and laughter, a totally fun and festive environment that could definitely call into question the meaning of the word "church..."

So perhaps the question should be asked: Why have we been doing this?

Have we just been lazy? Have we been taking a vacation (like everyone else in Amsterdam during the month of August)? Have we decided that worship music and teaching from the Bible are not valuable church experiences? Can a picnic really be called “church?” Can games truly be considered “ministry activities?” Could a Saturday night party actually count as “worship?”

I'd be interested to hear the perspectives of others (please leave a comment if you have ideas!)... But most importantly, perhaps we should try to catch a sense of God's perspective. What would Jesus have had to say about the way that our church operates? What can be learned from his model of ministry? Certainly, Jesus sang songs with his disciples (Mark 14:26), and he preached sermons to large crowds of people (Matthew 5:1-2)… But it seems that a lot of his “ministry” was simply living, traveling, eating, talking, and laughing together with his disciples over a period of months and years…

So maybe we're not so far off in our concept of church... Or maybe we are... What do you think?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Kenya? Ken je? Can ya?

I've been thinking about Todd today... I've been thinking quite a bit about Todd -- and I've been thinking quite about about Africa.

Actually, Fridays quite typically cause me to think about Africa. But I am especially mindful of Africa this Friday because my good friend and colleague is there -- in Kenya (see some of Todd's recent posts for further explanation of his mission).

In case you're curious, the reason that Fridays usually make me think about Africa is because I've recently been choosing not to eat on Fridays, as a way of emotionally and practically linking myself to the problems of famine and disease in the developing countries of the world. This decision goes back to a time of personal reflection upon Proverbs 27:7 from last spring. And while I typically believe that fasting is not meant to be a public affair... I think this particular discipline is different from the typical spiritual fast.

My Friday fasting is meant to draw attention (primarly my own attention) to the problems of hungry people in other parts of the world. When I get hungry, I remember to pray for those who experience involuntary hunger on a regular basis. When situations arise in which other people ask me why I'm choosing not to eat (and seriously, it's amazing to realize how much food I get casually offered in a regular day, and how many of our social interactions are organized around the consumption of food!), I can initiate a dialogue about the problems in Africa and some ideas for potential solutions.

Then in considering possible solutions -- and in observing the practical outworkings of my Friday fasting -- I begin to realize how much of the key to world change is tied up in incremental changes that I can slowly and increasingly implement within my own life. For me, I had noticed a pattern in which I would typically spend anywhere from €5 to €25 on eating out each Friday (which tended to be a more expensive day in my week, almost always including a lunch, sometimes a supper, and often a cup of coffee or such). So I figured if I could cut out that money (which actually adds up quickly to probably €70 to €75 per month), then I could have some extra money to contribute toward charitable organizations focusing on development in the "Third World" (particularly in Africa). And because my shift from extra spending to extra sparing on Fridays was an incremental change -- actually a rather subtle adjustment to my life, in the overall scheme of things -- I've been able to maintain consistency, and my heart has actually grown for Africa in the last six months or so...

As time goes on, I believe that I (or anyone else who is willing to take such baby steps) will find more areas where such substitutions can be made. And in time, it will be like the farewell scene from "Schindler's List" where we'll realize how each watch, each cufflink, each adornment could have been another life saved. But contrary to the grand campaigns to wipe out poverty in a single swipe, I believe it all starts with incremental steps of faith.

Our family has started talking more about Africa recently -- especially with Todd in Africa right now. We're praying more for Africa. We're thinking up creative ways to involve our children in meeting the practical needs of children throughout the world (so don't be surprised if someday Elliot tries to sell you a cookie or glass of homemade lemonade, in order to offset the cost of mosquito nets for children in malaria-stricken portions of Africa). We're also currently in the process of researching possibilities for participating in an "Adopt-a-Child" type program that will further humanize the issues of hunger and poverty in the world today, and we hope that bit-by-bit we can make further incremental steps toward changing the world. By the way, we're particularly interested to find a child that we can support in Niger (there's a long story behind why we want to focus on that particular country that I may choose to tell another time) -- but we haven't found a lot of leads in this direction yet. So if anyone has any leads for us, or other suggestions for incremental steps, please let us know.

I hope that maybe this post stirs your heart a bit, too, and pushes you a small bit closer toward incremental changes that will revolutionize the world.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ephesian Asp

I've recently been reading through the book of Revelation, and I've been freshly stirred by the messages dictated by Jesus to the seven churches in the province of Asia -- particularly in regards to the letter for the church in Ephesus (you can read this letter in Revelation, chapter 2, verses 1 through 7).

I think I would have fit right in with the Ephesians.

At least according to my judgment of myself (which, granted, is not always the most reliable point of reference), I'm a hard worker and a patient endurer. I place a high value on righteousness, and I have a very low tolerance for "evil people." Generally speaking, my life would seem to be characterized by obedience, vigilence, steadfastness, trustworthiness... and so on. Very much like the church in Ephesus.

But of course I'm human. By nature, I'm not perfect. I'm a sinner... Yet it seems to me that my sins do not typically take me down the road of spectacular self-destruction. If I'm "not doing well," it doesn't typically mean drinking binges or one-night stands or violent rages or whatever might typically be categorized as "sinful" lashing-out or backsliding... Rather, if I'm not doing well -- if I'm living in the power of my own will instead of God's Spirit -- it usually means that I simply become more disconnected and more dead. I lose my ability to emote -- to love, to feel alive, to be passionate about anyone or anything... Just like the church in Ephesus.

Honestly, the last couple months have been a struggle for me. For whatever reason (which I suspect is somewhat related to a new wave of culture shock experienced upon returning from our most recent trip to America and a general season of less structure and more chaos), this has been a season of duty instead of romance in my relationship with God. I've been able to see God's face in the midst of the challenges, and I've been consistently choosing to remain in the struggle, striving to regularly create opportunities to jump-start my heart and maintain avenues for connection -- like a parapalegic exercising leg muscles in hopes of future recovery. But I often feel the temptation to let parts of me die and forsake my first love in the process.

However, it's encouraging to know that Jesus is calling me out of this, just like he challenged the church in Ephesus. He affirms my integrity in the process, and he reminds me that he knows my good deeds and my heart -- but he minces no words when it comes to the consequences of choosing for apathy, indifference, and allowing myself to drift off in to an emotional coma. My life and my ministry is at stake!

Yet if I can overcome -- if I can seek God with all my heart, even through the difficult times -- I will be rewarded someday with the right to eat from the Tree of Life in the Paradise of God: big juicy pieces of Life Fruit that will dribble their nectar down my chin and stuff my belly so that I can never feel tempted to be dead again... Just thinking about it makes me hungry!

And there's nothing like a healthy appetite to keep me focused on the task at hand.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Circus Fun

It had probably been about twenty years since my last experience at the circus... and then I went twice this weekend.

Yes, indeed, ladies and gentlemen -- boys and girls -- I visited two different circuses on two different days in two different cities! And to say that there was a bit of a difference between the two experiences would be more than a bit of an understatement. It was the difference between night and day. Right and wrong. Good and bad.

On Saturday evening, Marci and I had the unique opportunity to visit the celebrated Cirque du Soleil on its second-to-last night in Amsterdam. And although we opted for the "restricted view" seats (which were much less expensive), we were absolutely enthralled by the performance. We had heard that the Cirque du Soleil was more like a Broadway musical or Las Vegas light show than a true "circus" -- and indeed we were impressed by the technical production, costume design, and stage engineering that went way beyond any three-ring circus from years gone by -- but the show (we saw their production entitled "Allegria") was much more like a genuine circus than we expected, actually. Trapeze artists, contortionists, jugglers, clowns, ringmaster -- pretty much everything except for the animals... But indeed, it was a fabulous show. I was particularly amazed by the contortionists and the manipulation artist (I had to look up the website to see what they called her); they were some ridiculously skilled performers. Almost inhuman. If you ever get a chance to visit the Cirque du Soleil, I would definitely recommend it...

However if you're thinking about visiting the Circus Herman Renz (the Dutch National Circus), I might suggest that you reconsider and choose in favor of a more worthwhile activity... Like clipping your toenails.

OK. So perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh -- and I was certainly set up for disappointment after seeing such a great performance the previous evening... But seriously, watching the Circus Herman Renz was like being transported back in time by fifty years. There was a certain charm and nostalgic appeal, and Elliot and Olivia were overjoyed by the elephants and lions and horses... but the quality of showmanship was poor, and the jokes were crass, and it was painfully obvious that the performers were all too human. The midget clown included cursewords and lewd gestures in his comedy acts. The trapeze artists had a few drops. The elephants managed one weak wave with a fore-foot. And that was about all there was to the show.

Certainly, the second circus served its purpose (Elliot was being rewarded for learning to read this summer, and he certainly enjoyed the Circus Herman Renz!). But if all the circuses are to be like that for the rest of my days, then I think I'll wait another twenty years before I take in another show...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Symetrical Society

The Dutch are a very symetrical people. Ordered and organized. Planned and prepared. Trim and tidy. Meticulously engineered. Balanced to the utmost degree.

Of course, this social symetry is most obvious on the physical level -- particularly in neighborhoods such as mine, which were built in the first half of the 20th Century. I recently took a walk through the streets around my house -- taking pictures as I went -- and I was stunned by the degree of physical symetry all about me. The architecture, the schema of urban development (streets, sidewalks, sewers), and even the landscaping are composed in mirror images. The sheer scale of these "unimaginative" construction projects showcase astonishing creativity and craftsmanship.

On the one hand, this symetry can be perceived as boring and predictable. But on the other hand, it's fascinating...

The Dutch love for symetry extends well beyond the realm of city design and layout. Traveling through the countryside, one can see it in the layout of the roadway interchanges, the fields and canals. Upon careful examination of the "forests" and "wilderness" areas of the Netherlands, it becomes clear that the trees are planted in straight rows stretching to infinity. The dikes and bridges of this low-lying region of Europe are world-reknown for their ingenuity and efficiency -- making lake out of sea and land out of lake. "God created the heavens and the earth," so the saying goes, "but the Dutch created the Netherlands." And, quite apparently, they did it with a keen eye for balance, symetry, and quality control.

Even in matters of the abstract, the Dutch engage their universe with unparalleled, breathtaking, intertwined, complicated, symetrical systems. Government and politics (verzuiling), business and science (Antonie van Leeuwenhoek), morality and religion (Calvinisme) -- even art and aesthetics (M.C. Escher)... Dutch design is dominated by symetry, balance, and attention to detail.

At least that's the perspective of this American Amsterdammer. And I, for one, don't think it's a bad thing. Actually, it's kind of like any unique trait of a person or object -- the Dutch sense of symetry tends to be the thing that I most admire and the thing that I most despise about my adopted home culture, simultaneously.

I'd be curious to know if Nederlanders also observe this attribute of their own society (or if it's like trying to get a fish to explain water). And I'd be curious to find out if they pride themselves on this or feel embarrassed by it... Or if they think I'm totally off base.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

August Blues

Is it sacreligious to say that I'm looking forward to the end of the vacation season?

Ministry in Amsterdam in August depresses me. I know that it's a horrible time of year to accurately gauge the health of a church or home group or life group or staff team -- but still... it can be challenging to feel so alone and so meaningless in a people-based profession during a month when so many people are in and out of town. At our home group on Wednesday, it was just four of us (and the other two that came, apart from me and Marci, were basically coming to say their good-byes before a two year leave-of-absence). Business-related tasks take twice as long to complete because phone messages, e-mail messages, and mailed documents experience a universal "vacation lag." Other aspects of ministry are basically paused for another couple of weeks until everyone gets back in town again.

I have to keep reminding myself that there can be no sense of expectation in the face of such irregularity... And it helps to remember that it's not just ministry. Our neighborhood butcher shop is closed until the end of August. The closest bakery that we frequent is in the middle of a four-week hiatus. Half of the shops on the next street over are closed during the month of August... It's such a strange and bizarre experience for me each year.

I know that it's normal. I remember that I end up feeling this way every year, toward the latter half of August. Still, I'm anxious for a return to normalcy!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Rainy Days and Mondays

So this is what it feels like when summer turns on you with a vicious gleam in its eye, spits in your face, and drop-kicks you into autumn...

I woke up this morning with the realization that the "hay fever" which has plagued me for the last couple of weeks has now graduated into a full-blown sinus nightmare (a sinus infection or a flu virus or whatever; the diagnosis doesn't really matter). And if (extensive) past history is any indication (which it usually is), I will likely continue to suffer from this for the next several days... which momentarily makes me want to subject myself to some kind of experimental medical procedure such as a sinusectomy (even if it would mean living out the rest of my days as Darth Vader, half-man, half-machine, hissing my breath through a triangular respirator).

Then, biking my way to work through the pouring rain, I actually found myself wishing that I had chosen to wear gloves (!) to keep my hands from exposure to the wind and cold rain showers. Upon reaching the office, I stripped off my coat and rain-pants to realize that I had been participating in strenuous activity (bicyling) with three layers of clothing (undershirt, overshirt, and jacket) in the middle of August -- without breaking a sweat.

I hope that this is not a sign of what's to come this winter...

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ons 2 - Wereld 0

I wasn't going to say anything about it, but Naomi and Erica made me do it...

Much to the dismay of my wife, I came home this evening with the "coveted" Zolder50 cup -- for the second straight year (I say that it was to Marci's dismay because, well... Let's just say it's not the most beautiful mantlepiece ever crafted; thus she would have been more than happy for another home group to hold the prize for the coming year).

Seriously though, we had a great time participating in the second annual Zolder50 Speurtocht -- a race among the five home groups of the church to solve riddles and race through the city. The weather was beautiful, we got to meet some great new people, and our team used its combined strength, speed, and creativity to win the contest. I think that a speurtocht (scavenger hunt) is a great metaphor for the real role of a home group -- working together, complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses, facing challenges as a family, and having fun as we go along...

Plus, I thought some of the pictures turned out pretty cool -- so I decided to take the risk of sounding somewhat braggadocious and declare our victory to the world (or at least to the limited extent of the world to which this blog may reach).

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Take on the Tour

I wonder if people have found themselves curious about my take on the aftermath of the 2006 Tour de France -- namely, the scandal surrounding the alleged doping of Tour winner Floyd Landis. I've kept no secrets in this space about my affinity towards the sport of cycling (and towards the Tour de France in particular), and even my four-year-old son Elliot has posted about Floyd Landis and the Tour de France on his blog... So it's only natural to consider our response to the demise of our countryman and champion of cycling's greatest race.

Yet, in short, I don't really know what to think about everything. I'm trying to leave room for there to be a mistake -- a misunderstanding -- some glitch in the system... But the damnifying evidence seems rather overwhelming. Thus my overwhelming emotion to this overwhelming evidence is a profound and overwhelming sense of sadness.

But, of course, this is only natural. The Proverbs of Solomon speak extensively to these issues: "A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother" (Proverbs 10:1). And in the case of one of America's presumedly great sons -- and one of the triumphant products of the sport of cycling -- a doping scandal brings nothing but grief to us, the progenitors and supporters of these constituencies... It feels like a personal stain on my conscience and the conscience of my family.

I decided to tell Elliot about the situation last Saturday -- when the news broke about the second testing of laboratory samples and the immediate disciplinary actions being taken by Landis' racing team and the officials of the Tour de France. In the weeks since the beginning of the Tour de France, Elliot had embraced Floyd Landis as a hero -- as a persona, even. He would wear his yellow bicycle helmet and his yellow rain-jacket, racing around the house on his four-wheeled plastic "racing bike" -- soliciting cheers for Floyd Landis, answering to the name of Floyd Landis, reveling in the glory of Floyd Landis. And since there was a very real possibility that Elliot might go off and introduce himself to some stranger with his gruff make-believe voice -- "Hi, I'm Floyd Landis" -- it seemed that it would be best for him to hear the demoralizing news from us and be given a framework for processing the news... But honestly, I didn't know if Elliot would understand...

He did, though. His lower lip quivered, in fact, and his face was painfully downcast as he personalized the shame of Floyd Landis. While all of the other racers had been expected to ride the same kind of bicycles and eat the same kind of food and drink the same kind of drink, Floyd Landis had eaten a special kind of medicine that had made him strong and given him an unfair advantage in the race. And that's cheating. And that's bad. And when you take a kind of medicine without a doctor's approval and without following the rules, it's called "drugs." And drugs are really bad. Cheating is bad, and drugs are bad.

It was actually a very good teaching moment. Again, it was sad. Yet through the experience, hopefully our son can learn the value of righteousness and gain wisdom from the mistakes of others. Like it says in the Proverbs of Solomon, "Ill-gotten treasures are of no value, but righteousness delivers from death. The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked... The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot" (Proverbs 10:2-3, 7). And, to reassure you, Elliot was fine after we told him that he could have just as much fun pretending to be Oscar Pereiro instead of Floyd Landis. He even thought that "Oscar" was a cool name (why is it, by the way, that so many cyclists have "old man" names like Floyd, George, Levi, and Oscar???); kids are great like that...

As for me, honestly, I'm learning quite a bit through the experience as well. Obviously, I've had to rethink some of my thoughts on spectacular vulnerability (though I still think there's something to this that will always pester me)... And, yeah, maybe it's not so bad to identify with Lance Armstrong instead of Floyd Landis. Methodical, robotic, calculated -- call it whatever you want -- but seven straight cleanly-contested (though some would argue this) Tour de France championships look a lot better in the history books than one line item, smudged out and scribbled over, no matter how much "heart" that ride seemed to have. This whole sequence of events in the cycling world has encouraged me to simply persevere in my unglamorous attempts to plod along the straight-and-narrow here in the real world: "The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out... And when the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever" (Proverbs 10:9, 25).

Yet I must confess that I do not feel secure or firm. I cannot be arrogant or smug. For it wasn't until the 17th Stage (out of 20) in this year's Tour de France that Floyd Landis allegedly resorted to cheating... And as a young man of just 29 years, I fear that I've not yet even crossed into the Pyrenees of Stage 10. I need God's help to persevere! And I need a strong and steady team to keep me in the race. Just staying the course, pumping the pedals, honestly striving, avoiding temptations so that I can one day say: "I've fought the good fight. I've finished the race. I've kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). Gloria in excelsis deo.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Shot at Glory

I did it! Thanks to you (specifically those who responded to my earlier pleas), I had my shot at a spot on the Dutch national disc golf team last Saturday.

After two and a half weeks of on-line voting in the Lipton Ice Tea Summer Disc Golf Challenge, I actually ended up not just in the Top Five-hundred -- but actually in the Top Five of all contestants in the Netherlands! Thus, I was notified of my qualification by e-mail and voice-mail earlier in the week. And after returning from our family's camping trip to Fryslan, I had just enough time to unload the rental car, take a quick shower, and drive to a large recreational area in the Haarlemmermeer (between Hoofddorp and Haarlem -- about a forty minute drive south-west of where I live) for my start-time at one o'clock in the afternoon.

It was such a fun afternooon. Trying to figure out directions to the competition site, driving into the parking lot under the giant yellow banners that marked the event, walking into the main pavilion that hosted the registration tables -- I felt a bit nervous but also extremely excited by the opportunity to try out for the Dutch national disc golf team and actually simply the opportunity to throw around the frisbee again (since I haven't gotten to play disc golf so much since my departure from Bowling Green in 2002). When I checked in, I was given an envelope with information about the qualification competition, including when and where and with whom I was to be playing. I was also given a bunch of free stuff -- including vouchers for a free lunch and free drinks (Lipton Ice Tea, of course), a new mid-range disc (emblazoned with the Lipton logo), and a bright yellow Lipton-logoed polo shirt (which may not be my natural fashion choice but is still a neat token anyway).

Since I had a bit of time before my group was to start, I sat down to enjoy some lunch by the lake and read up on the orientation materials (helemaal in 't Nederlands, of course). After finishing lunch, I was able to take a casual stroll up to the competition area and take a look around to visually reinforce what I had read from the information packet. Each registrant was to play five holes of disc golf (a temporary course was set up for the occasion) as well as participating in four skills events (longest drive, best putting, best mid-range accuracy, and a consistency challenge). And partipating in Round number 3, together with registrants 17-21, I was to start at the first hole of the course.

At the appropriate time, I got to meet the other members of my group: Menno and Ronald, from the Rotterdam area, as well as Ivo from the Eindhoven area. Ronald and Ivo were basically beginners, just playing for the fun of it. But Menno was actually quite good, and we enjoyed getting to know each other through the course of the afternoon. He turned out to be a physical therapist (which I could easily relate to, since Marci is also an accomplished PT). He had lived in America (Louisiana) for about a year and a half. And he maintained an attitude that embraced disc golf not so much as a passion or a mission in life -- but more as a purely recreational pasttime to enjoy hanging out with friends and experience the out-of-doors (which is very much my take on the sport as well). Ronald and Ivo were also really nice guys that had a very easy-going attitude, so it made the afternoon very enjoyable.

Out of the people in our group, I did the best with the long-range-driving skills event (74 meters) and the consistency challenge (which is a bit difficult to describe). But Ivo surprised all of us (himself included) by taking the mid-range accuracy contest. And Menno consistently proved to be a better putter -- also beating me by one stroke over the five holes of regular play.

Unfortunately, I didn't exactly play my best on Saturday. So I didn't qualify for the Dutch national disc golf team. However, even if I would've played at the top of my game, I don't think I would have been an automatic lock for the top five (and thus a spot on the national team, assuming of course that they wouldn't have had any issues with my American citizenship -- which would have been a pretty big assumption, actually!).

More importantly, the experience on Saturday allowed me to tap into a subculture within the Netherlands. It turns out that there are about 40 to 50 guys in the Netherlands (and most of them are actually native Dutchmen) who play disc golf fairly regularly. They hold tournaments on temporary courses several times a year. One of the temporary courses that I visited a couple of years ago in Rotterdam is apparently now a permanent course. And another new course is just being built in Utrecht. I was introduced to a few websites for disc golfing in Holland. In general, things seem to be on the up-and-up for disc golf in the Netherlands. Menno also introduced me into the circle of "regulars," and we exchanged contact information so we can meet up for a round in Rotterdam sometime. So I'm excited for future possibilities in building friendships and relaxing on the disc golf course more often.

And if that's not a successful disc golfing experience, then I don't know what is.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Fryslan Boppe

It was a desperate juggling act. I was trying to keep the tiny Hibachi grill dry, trying to keep the grilling sandwiches from burning, trying to keep the kids away from the hot grill, trying to strategically redirect the streams of water plummeting from the canopy of our tent, trying to move our camping supplies toward the drier parts of the tent, trying to keep the kids out of the mud, and trying to maintain my sanity in the midst of the deluge that threatened to derail our family camping adventure practically before it had even gotten started...

I was trying to keep it all together -- madly juggling like a court jester whose king was inclined toward beheading those subjects who displeased him -- but I was not really succeeding in any of these desperate attempts, and dropping balls like crazy in the process.

My sanity was actually the second ball to drop. Like the dike that holds back the powerful North Sea from flooding Fryslan, my powers of concentration and self-control were stressed by this storm of unparalleled ferocity. And when the overloaded canopy of our tent bent and unloaded its weary shoulders onto my bent and weary shoulders in a moment of distraction, the dike was breached. I bellowed like a caveman and reeled backwards, toward the inside of the tent -- toward and, yes, into the grill that was cooking our supper. Like a Charlie Chaplin comedy sketch, I stepped on a corner of the grill, upsetting the grilling sandwiches and spilling red-hot embers onto the wet grass, releasing a sizzle of fury and frustration that paralleled the downward spiral of my spirits. A stream of curses started rising in my chest, churning and billowing up my trachea and into the back of my throat. I tipped my head back to call down angry curses on this cold wet world from the angry gray heavens above.

And then I noticed them: my children.

Elliot's half-curious-half-horrified countenance served as a mirror reflecting and interpreting my martyred anguish. In marked contrast, Olivia clapped her hands and shimmied in a little dance that indicated her (mistaken) comprehension of the funny show which Daddy was so obviously acting out for her entertainment. Thus in that moment, I realized that I had failed my family with the grim outlook and gruff demeanor that I had adopted for the vacation. My memory involuntarily reviewed the thousands of times that Marci and I had talked with our children about choosing a "happy heart" instead of a "grumpy heart." Our response to life circumstances is a personal choice, and no one or no thing can make you feel happy or sad. And as my mind recollected these repetitive parental lessons, a new cold wave of realization washed down my back: I needed a "time out" on my bed. I needed to check my attitude and make a choice. Would I choose a "happy heart" or a "grumpy heart" for this camping trip?

I opted for the happy heart.

Of course, the change in my attitude was not instantaneous. The much-anticipated "s'mores" (a traditional American chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker sandwich) did not turn out very well because the grill had cooled considerably through the accident. The rain persisted and pounded our tent throughout the night, keeping the children awake until after 10:00 at night and allowing us parents only fitful sleep until the morning. But a fundamental change had started to take root that could not be derailed by thunder, lightning, or rain.

The rest of the time in Fryslan went remarkably well. Marci's logistical prowess and cool-headedness throughout the weekend should one day be acknowledged by the Vatican as a sign of her sainthood. The kids reveled in the joys of sleeping bags and tents and flashlights. And with my choice for a happy heart -- well, we were basically one big happy family. When the first night ended and the second day of our camping adventure dawned, the precipitation had tapered off and a few brave rays of sunshine even dared to warm our campsite. The second day was a little bit windy, and we caught a couple of rain showers when we tried to venture out -- but things went much better overall. We enjoyed walking through the forests and meadows of the countryside. We enjoyed driving through the vast flatlands, stopping at drawbridges for a parade of sailing masts to pass in front of us. We enjoyed traditional Frisian pastries from a local bakery. And in the evening, we enjoyed ooey-gooey s'mores and marshmallows roasted over a dry bed of coals.

Against all odds, the mini-vacation ended up being a great success. Unbelievably, we suffered less from problems with mosquitos or hay fever than what we've recently been experiencing in the city. And although we were certainly glad to get back to our own beds and the comforts of civilization, a part of us was also sad to say good-bye to Fryslan.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Dark Clouds over Fryslan

I was virtually certain that the excursion was doomed, right from the beginning. Sometimes, I like to pretend that I'm optimistic and spontaneous -- but the truth of the matter is that I often think in terms of worst-case scenarios, especially when there is no clearly definied precedent or pattern to channel my expectations.

So perhaps you can imagine the dark thoughts running through my mind upon consideration of a rather hastily-organized three-day camping trip to Fryslan (otherwise known as "Friesland," the northwesternmost province of the Netherlands) with my wife and two small children... Let's just say that I went ahead and paid the extra seven euros per day for the extended insurance coverage on our rental car (which I normally consider to be an exhorbitant precaution). From the start, I was thinking largely in terms of damage control...

Of course, it didn't help that the weather forecasts were calling for an average 80 percent chance of rain over the three days of our excursion. And did I mention that we were going camping? As a whole family? For the first time? In unfamiliar territory?

After picking up the miniscule rental car, I traversed Amsterdam to park in front of our home -- point of origin for the week's adventures. Ferrying loads from the basement to the backseat of the car, Elliot persistently begged for opportunities to be of assistance (which had to be creatively manufactured for the faculties of a four-year-old). Olivia cried and qhined -- for no apparent reason. And Marci and I observed our ritual stress-induced pre-traveling bicker-banter about very stupid and largely meaningless minutiae until the car was packed like a circus clown car -- ready to explode with all kinds of whacky surprises.

The first fat raindrops splattered the windshield on our drive through the flatlands of Noord Holland. Yet we rediscovered some degree of optimism and hope with the peaceful lull of the open highway, and we started to believe that the break in the clouds just up the road a bit meant something for us. When we stopped in Enkhuizen around lunchtime, we felt brave enough to try a picnic in a nice grassy meadow overlooking the IJselmeer. But even before the sandwiches could be manufactured, the wind and rain picked up to the point that we decided to finish our lunch in the rental car.

The rest of the afternoon ebbed and flowed with neither total exhileration nor total despair. We actually managed to arrive at our campside and set up camp during a break in the weather that allowed us enough time to figure out how to put together our brand-new tend whose bargain price invoked an increasing level of anxiety that corresponded directly with the increasing level of cloud cover building in the vast Frisian skies. I prayed as we raced to conclude preparations: "Please God, protect us. Please God, deliver us. Please God, forgive us for our foolishness..."

I don't suppose there ever would have been a truly "good time" for the rain to begin. Still, the timing felt particularly bad when the skies opened up in the midst of our dinner preparations...