The Hill We Climb

It’s been a week since Biden was inaugurated, and I’m posting inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s poem because it is so powerful, and I wanted to keep it for posterity. I would like to remember a time when so many of us fell in love with a poet. What I try to explain to people here in The Netherlands is the best way to understand America is that it is a paradox. Yes, there are massive problems, but also such extraordinary gifts and promise. We needed Amanda Gorman to help us heal. If you haven’t watched her speak; do it. Her speech, her gestures and her performance carry such power and such grace.

The Hill We Climb

by Amanda Gorman

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast,
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.
We the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes we are far from polished.
Far from pristine.
But that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we’ve made,
that is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb.
If only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation,
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain,
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy,
and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.
We will rise from the windswept northeast,
where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.
We will rise from the sunbaked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Election day blues playlist

I started playing my LPs last night (November 3rd) while we waited for the election results to come in. We’re still waiting, so I kept going today. The only rule is I could only play American artists. Here’s where I am so far:

November 3rd:

The Chicks – Gaslighter

Wilco – A.M.

Prince – Purple Rain

Tracy Chapman (album)

The Civil Wars – Barton Hallow

November 4th:

Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You

Willie Nelson – Red Haired Stranger

Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

The Black Keys – ACL Live

R.E.M. – Document

John Lee Hooker – Moanin’ the Blues

Violent Femmes (album)

Billy Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once

I played R.E.M., John Lee Hooker, the Violent Femmes and John Coltrane partly because they were from swing states, and the superstitious part of me wanted to call upon the swing state gods to curry favor for Joe Biden. R.E.M. is from Athens, Georgia; John Lee Hooker lived in Detroit, Michigan; the Violent Femmes were from Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and John Coltrane was from Hamlet, North Carolina. I’ve got a stack of goodies left, I can keep this list updated until we figure out who will be president of the U.S. next year. I suspect I will run out of LPs.

November 5th:

Lizzo – Cuz I love you (Michigan!)

Now to Georgia:

Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer

Indigo Girls (album)

Lyle Lovett (album) – Texas, but hey, they were a swing state for one hot minute, right?

I can’t live, if living is without Ruth*

From Notorious RBG: the Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

When I woke up and read that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died, I went on a five-hour bike ride, because otherwise I would have just stayed in my apartment pacing and chanting, “Oh my God” over and over again. Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG) was one of my heroes. One of the first women to graduate law school, she graduated at the top of her class at Columbia Law School. After graduation, she had to teach law and practice it pro-bono (for free) for the American Civil Liberties Union because it was difficult for women find jobs as lawyers at that time.

She became my hero during the United States v Windsor case when she stated that having a separate type of marriage that does not confer federal benefits for gay people was “skim milk marriage”. Quote:

“…if we are totally for the States’ decision that there is a marriage between two people, for the federal government then to come in to say no joint return, no marital deduction, no Social Security benefits; your spouse is very sick but you can’t get leave; people—if that set of attributes, one might well ask, What kind of marriage is this?”

So that’s what she meant to me, but I get why someone who is not from the US will struggle to see how big a deal her passing away now is. Here’s a primer to help explain:

What’s the process when there’s a Supreme Court vacancy? When there’s a vacancy, the President gets to nominate a replacement, and it’s the Senate’s job to confirm or reject that potential justice.

If that’s the process, then the vacancy should be filled. Why is this a big deal? The reason this is a big deal is because the process was changed when conservative justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016. At that time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to have a hearing on Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee, because it was an election year. McConnell stated, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Scalia’s death occurred 269 days before the 2016 election, and McConnell refused to hold a hearing for Garland. Ginsburg’s death is 46 days before the election, and he’s already pushing for one. I’m a data geek, so here’s a spreadsheet of all Supreme Court vacancies that happened in election years:

From https://www.electoral-vote.com/

Basically, the same guy who decided 269 days is too close to an election to hold a hearing also decided that 46 days before an election is perfectly okay. McConnell’s justification this time is because now Republicans control the Senate. It’s good old fashioned BS of course – the real reason is because he wants it that way. It could be anything: it’s a crescent moon, she died on a Friday, etc.

The other reason it’s a big deal is because the trend in US politics over the past thirty years or so is that there is less collaboration/compromise within the legislative branch (the Senate and the House of Representatives), which results in less bills being passed. This means that there is more pressure on the judicial branch (the courts) to resolve disputes and make major decisions: decisions like who becomes president when the election is too close to call (Bush v. Gore, 2000) and whether gay marriage should be legal (United States v Windsor, 2013 and Obergefell v Hodges, 2015). The Supreme Court can strike down legislation like when they struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 (Shelby County v Holder) which led to voter suppression in places like Georgia and Texas or Citizens United v FEC (2010) which radically changed campaign finance reform.

This sleight-of-hand trick where hearings can be held on justices based on who is in control of the Senate erode our democratic norms. Supreme Court justice seats are lifetime appointments. The risk is that one political party can unfairly consolidate power by stacking the judiciary in its favor. If a leader wants to consolidate power, he will always try to control the press because that allows him to control the message, like when media mogul Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy. Controlling the judiciary is also critical because it allows that ruler to enforce his message/rules to maintain control. An example is Poland’s attempt to erode judicial review by lowering the retirement age in order to install loyal judges.

That’s why I’m nervous. One thing’s for sure – the next few months are about to be a massive shitstorm in US politics. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that.

More info/links:

Eulogies from Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s Supreme Court colleagues

United States v Windsor

Bush v Gore

Obergefell v Hodges

* The title is a play on words from “I can’t live, if living is without you”* by Air Supply. For the record, I’m a pop culture nut, and a child of the 80’s, but not an Air Supply fan.

**Turns out that Harry Nilsson wrote “Without You” in 1972, and Air Supply just covered it. Hat tip to my friend and Dems Abroad colleague Linda for setting the record straight.

Why voting matters to me

I don’t think someone can truly understand how much the culture they’re from impacts them unless they leave it. While I’ve been gone from the US for seven years now, still so much of who I am, how I think, wish, dream and steer my way through life is partly a product of where I came from. I’m not from it, so much as I am of it.

IMG_0620
Amsterdam, December 2016

Right now, that home appears to be a bit of mess. It’s fractured, angry and bone tired. It appears divided instead of inclusive and welcoming. A friend of mine told me that when she saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, she was surprised at how small it was. But the reason it’s iconic is because of what it symbolizes; it’s the poem from Emma Lazarus we all learned at the base of it:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

And the part most people don’t remember:

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door”

We’ve all seen that this is not the whole story; while millions were able to come and build better lives for themselves; countless others were enslaved, or pushed off their land. The Founders, by refusing to address slavery, have left indelible scars on our country that may never heal. They knew it:

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

 – Thomas Jefferson

Maybe there’s never been a place on Earth that is truly inclusive. But what an incredible thing to aspire to. The difference between us and other countries is that as Americans, we’re bound by ideals, not blood. That someone whose ancestors came over in 1770 and someone whose parents immigrated to the US in 1970 are both equally Americans regardless their country of origin.

Screenshot 2020-08-19 at 7.56.45 PMAt our best, we’re a welcoming, open-minded group of folks. Take Thanksgiving: I have not come back to see my family for Thanksgiving for years, but we’ve always been adopted somewhere on that day whether we’ve been in Austin, TX, Rotterdam, or Barcelona. I’ve seen my family welcome those outside of it for Thanksgiving, and our friends set a place at the table for someone that they’ve never met before, because it’s Thanksgiving, and that’s just what you do.

The reason I’m voting, and I’m encouraging others to vote, is because I want that warm, big-hearted America that I’ve seen in my friends and family. To quote a country song from The Highwomen, I want us to be “a crowded table” where “everyone’s a little broken, and everyone belongs”.

To my friends and family in the US, who have been bombarded with a zillion negative ads, and are soon to hear a gazillion more, please don’t let that negativity dissuade you from exercising your rights. Voting is your right. And to my American friends outside the US, don’t grow despondent. Participate. Vote. Something tells me it’s still home for you too.

Donald Trump requested his ballot on August 11th. American friends, if you haven’t already, request yours here:

https://iwillvote.com/

https://www.votefromabroad.org/ (For us overseas folks. Bonus: works for both fellas and broads!)

The World’s Oldest Working Planetarium

Netherlands Friesland 1I’m not going to lie, I was SUPER JEALOUS of everyone who got see the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse in real life, and not on CNN when they were eating dinner. But, we did get to see the world’s oldest working planetarium earlier this year which was also impressive. Its creator, Eise Eisinga, a woolcomber by trade, spent seven years building this planetarium in his living room to demonstrate the planets’ orbits and more importantly, why they would not cause the end of the world.

On May 8, 1774, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the moon were all clustered together. People during this time believed that this was proof of the end of the world. A local priest, wrote an article in the local paper under the pseudonym “Liefhebber van de waarheid”* (lover of truth) which fanned those fears. He claimed that these planets would hurl the Earth from its orbit and send it careening into the sun.

Eise Eisinga, a self-trained astronomer, mathematician and likely one of John B. McLemore’s idols, was up to the task of building this impressive planetarium and refuting Liefhebber’s cosmic billiards theory. His father had stimulated his interests in astronomy and math and Eise took weekly classes at the university in Franeker. He had written a 650-page book on mathematics by the time he was fifteen years old.

His planetarium is a meticulous and oddly beautiful feat of engineering. It is essentially a large clock – keeping the time for each planet’s orbit – from Mercury’s 29.5 days to Saturn’s 29 years and 164 days. Its intricacy is stunning; not just the 10,000 working parts, but also the incredible detail mapping each planet’s orbit, the Earth’s seasons, equinoxes etc. While the planets aren’t to scale, their orbits are: the solar system has been reduced by a trillion. It stops at Saturn which was the last planet known at the time. If the planetarium were expanded to fix Uranus, Neptune and Pluto – it would need to be 25 times as large.

These pictures show the planet’s orbits, the meticulous craftsmanship, Eisinga’s sleeping quarters and the gears in the attic that keep it running:

 

*If someone accuses you of lying, you can always say, “no way – I’m a liefhebber van de waarheid!”

Deliberate Practice is a technique that can make “anyone great at just about anything”. So, did it improve my Dutch?

Last August, I introduced specific goals to improve my Dutch. They were aggressive for me because I wasn’t doing many of them previously, such as watching Dutch TV or they forced me out of my comfort zone, like the language café. I felt that I needed to do something during the summer to improve my Dutch. I kept advancing in my Dutch classes, but just barely, and I couldn’t shake the fear that I had plateaued some time ago. I wanted to publish it online in order to make myself accountable. What I didn’t expect, and was incredibly appreciative of, was all the advice my friends gave, and how helpful and supportive they were. I was touched by that.

How’d I do?

Continue reading “Deliberate Practice is a technique that can make “anyone great at just about anything”. So, did it improve my Dutch?”

CUBS WIN!!!

HOLY COW – The Chicago Cubs have just won the World Series!!!!

As a tribute to The Cubs, I made a fool out of myself last week at various landmarks in The Netherlands and Belgium:

 

 

 

 

31 Day Dutch Challenge: what is fluency anyways?

Status update on my 31 Day Dutch Challenge: niet slecht. I excel at watching TV (it helps that the Olympics are on now!) and I’m doing well with flashcards, reading and the Taaltempo book. These past two weeks show that my weakness is speaking. I haven’t been to the Taalcafe once yet, and I have an hour and 15-minute speaking deficit that I’ll have to make up in the next two weeks.

When I visit the US people ask me if I’m “fluent” in Dutch. I take that to mean that I understand everything, and speak flawlessly. Based on that interpretation, the answer to that question is, “hell no”. But that’s a high bar.  My mom, who works in a library, recommended Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, to help me learn. Wyner, an opera singer who established a technique for picking up languages, gives a more generous interpretation of fluency:

Fluency, after all, isn’t the ability to know every word and grammatical pattern in a language; it’s the ability to communicate your thoughts without stopping every time you run into a problem.Continue reading “31 Day Dutch Challenge: what is fluency anyways?”

Do or do not: the 31 Day Dutch Challenge

When I went back to visit the US, a lot of folks asked me how my Dutch was coming along. My stock answer was “not great.” I’ve made improvements, but I’m behind where I thought I would be by now: I’m slow to speak, I pretend to understand things I don’t, trip over grammar, I am too hesitant to ask people to repeat things I don’t understand, and I rarely speak Dutch at home. But I do take classes, and I am trying, and these things take time, right? And besides, as this writer so eloquently put it: https://bitterballenbruid.com/2015/05/25/learning-dutch-is-fcking-hard/ 

Then I stayed with my friends in Austin and their super-cute twins who were just learning to roll over when I left. Now they speak complete, grammatically correct sentences. While I was impressed, and they are clearly above average, a little part of me couldn’t help but be a little bit saddened that I hadn’t made more of my three years in the Netherlands. It was a stok achter de deur (incentive) that I needed to step it up with my Dutch.

Everyone knows that children have several advantages when learning languages – aside from being immersed in the language, they have greater neuroplasticity. As adults, new information has to compete with what we already know. Destin Sandlin from Smarter Every Day, does an excellent job of explaining how entrenched certain processes, even simple ones like riding a bike, are in our minds. He demonstrated this by riding a “backwards” bicycle – one that his welder friends engineered so that he had to turn the handlebars left to turn right, and vice versa. They bet him that he would not be able to ride it and initially they were right.

Seriously, watch it. While the analogy isn’t perfect, it does illustrate how learning different grammar rules, word order, conjugation can feel as tricky as riding a backwards bicycle can be, and just how much serious time and effort is required to learn something new. And cramming won’t cut it – because as he says – “knowledge does not equal understanding”.

But I know that adults can learn Dutch well, because I’ve met (and solicited advice) from quite a few of them. Here are a few bits of advice that I frequently remind myself of:

Do or do not. There is no try. One of the most helpful pieces of advice offered was in response to me saying (in Dutch) that I was trying to learn the language. The woman I was speaking with got all Yoda on me, by telling me that I shouldn’t try, but do. She also said that I shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Dutch is a hard language, because by telling myself that, I’m implicitly giving myself an excuse to give up on it.

I’m going to make mistakes. The advice offered on bitterballenbruid.com, makes for a good mantra: Fuck it – I will make mistakes, and I need to dust off and move on. Which sounds obvious, but trust me it’s not, and it can be highly frustrating.

So…what are those goals again? Here are my Dutch goals for August. Please hold me accountable for them! If I meet them I buy myself a Fitbit and if I don’t meet them, I fess up to all of you.

Dutch goals August

The flashcards are for building vocabulary, the Taaltempo book has timed exercises that help me with speaking, response time and conjugation, and the Language Café is a bar in Utrecht where people who are learning Dutch can meet and have conversations.

Thanks for being stok achter de deur. I’ll be back with some updates next week.

Amy

Dickens Festijn Deventer

When we first arrived in the Netherlands, Manon asked her aunt, who loves to travel, what her favorite city was. We were surprised when she mentioned Deventer, a medium sized town about an hour away from the German border. Last year*, we decided to go to the Dickens Festijn, a Christmas market and festival for Charles Dickens held every year. Every year, 150,000 visitors converge on this relatively small town of 100,000 over one weekend – this year it’s this weekend (Dec. 19 – 20) to watch about 1,000 performers dress up as either a character in one of Dickens’ books, or a random English character from 19th century. The website mentioned that people could wait an hour and a half to get into the town. Part of me wanted to go just to figure out why it was so popular.

People appear to flock to it because of the spectacle, not because they are Charles Dickens fanatics. The event is also a clever way to compete with the Christmas markets in Germany. All the characters are represented, Mrs. Haversom, Pip, Scrooge as well as carolers, town drunks (in character, of course), hecklers, and vagabonds. There are street vendors yelling out delightfully strange English phrases such as “Sausage on a bread!” (broodje worst) and “very nice pancakes!”

If you can handle crowds, are a Dickens fan (although this isn’t a requirement), or are just looking for something different/offbeat to do this weekend – you may want to check out the Dickens Festijn. If you detest crowds and the fest doesn’t appeal to you, Deventer is still a great day-trip. It’s a charming, medieval town with great shopping, and fun bars and restaurants.

*Why am I writing about the Dickens Festijn now, when we went last year? Last year, I wanted to do everything Christmas-y, so we went to Cologne, and attended Gouda by Kaarslicht, and by the time it came to the Dickens Festijn, I Could. Not. Write. Another. Thing. About. Christmas.