Downwind of Amsterdam
December 2003

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December 31, 2003

Boswell's Life of Johnson Logolatry

We'll get to the Paris trip next, but first, I find I want to write about a book that I had intended to read for many years and finally did, on the Thalys fast train from Amsterdam to Paris. Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson. You'll know Samuel Johnson as the eighteenth-century Englishman's Englishman, renowned these days mostly for his "quotations", justly famous, ones that you very probably have heard, such as:

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Treating your adversary with respect is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled.
Hell is paved with good intentions.

...and the next two being my mottos, if ever I had them:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.

What I never knew is that these quotations practially all just sentences from this one book of Boswell's. Over the years, they have taken on a life of their own, dissociated from the book and even from Samuel Johnson, misquoted, even employed to mislead.

Taken as a body, these surviving quotations paint the picture of a man with his act seriously together. Unfortunately...this picture is false.

I pray you consider these quotes and conversations from Boswell's very same book, as counterpoint to those surviving quotes that paint Johnson as so intelligent, even ahead of his time:

Johnson: One set of Savages is like another.
Boswell: I do not think the people of Otaheite can be reckoned Savages.
Johnson: Don't cant in defence of Savages.
Boswell: They have the art of navigation.
Johnson: A dog or cat can swim.
Boswell: They carve very ingeniously.
Johnson: A cat can scratch, and a child with a nail can scratch.

...and try this one on:

Johnson: Madam, it is our duty to maintain the subordination of civilized society; and when there is a gross and shameful deviation from [social] rank, it should be punished so as to deter others from the same perversion.

...In other words, it's OK for Mr. Johnson to climb socially, but you are shameful if you try it.

Boswell tagged along with Johnson like a fawning puppy, and spent most of his famous book praising Johnson and explaining away his faults. But any diligent reader must wonder at a biographer who can rhapsodize over a man like Johnson who, brilliant as he must have been, was a bigot, acted the spoiled child when things didn't go his way, dressed like a boor and hardly cleaned himself, and often took his only pleasure in humiliating people. When the English government denied a winter travel pension to Italy, he threw his manuscripts in the fireplace without even sorting through them first, stabbed himself in the leg with scissors, and cut off relations with a friend of decades over her choice of husband (essentially over his being Catholic). He then declared loudly that he hoped not to become mad. Too late.

Johnson made a point of not repaying debts to friends, then was wounded when England wouldn't double his comfortable pension. He unreasonably hated Scotland but liked being made a guest there. He would abandon friends for slight religious deviations, but spent his youth in wall-to-wall whoring and drinking to unconsciousness. In all, rather than coming across as a world-class intellectual with a few idiosyncrasies, Johnson seems more to have had one lucky talent, or two, but otherwise simply to have been a world-class jerk. A few quotations--often directly cancelled by others, anyway--cannot redeem him.

Boswell obviously meant to favorably memorialize his friend Samuel Johnson. He seems, though, to have painted a fuller portrait than he wanted us to have.

posted by eric at 20.18 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 30, 2003

Quick Christmas Trip

Schiphol airport, in line for check-in. Woman in sweatshirt, sporting an American accent: "I can't believe these KLM stewardesses, they're such perfect Barbie dolls!" Me:"That's true, they haven't gone all butch and fat like a lot of American flight attendants."

Fortunately, the sweatshirt wasn't fated to rub elbows with me for the ten hours to Memphis. Yes, Memphis. What a weird non-stop flight, Amsterdam to Memphis, Van Gogh meets Elvis. And there are three things I hate on long flights. (1) Men (presumably) who pee on the toilet seats, (2) Women who haul squawking, smelly, mewling, puking, screaming brats on board, and (3) fatties of either gender next to me, or breaking my elbow at the aisle, or using my seat back or even my shoulder or head as crutches to lumber their fat asses to the head, as well as fatties who plop their 40 years of cheese-danish stuffing blobhood into their seats, breaking my knees.

But crossing the Atlantic westbound is much easier than the return to Europe. Westbound, I had ten hours to outline the next chapters, with occasional breaks at will. An article in the Wall Street Journal cheered new parents who named their babies after consumer products. As far as I'm concerned, this is an omen of the downfall of Western Civilization, when Americans start to allow corporations to run every part of their lives. "The Bliss of Your First Kiss!"--brought to you by Chevrolet. What crap. The most popular baby name of this type was Lexus.

Christmas shopping went well. I had a second pair of close-up glasses made so I don't have to haul one pair back and forth to the office. Otherwise, just ate too much. The trip's cultural highlight was the Messiah presented by a small (authentically sized) ensemble playing period instruments. Very special. The parents are happy and healthy and planning a trip snow skiing.

Of course, it's wintertime in America, too, cold weather, bare limbs. These behind my parents' house out-Pollock Jackson Pollock.

And then there was Christmas, at my sister's place. I was glad to see that my she and Lil Bit (pictured) and my niece and nephew, too, are all happy and healthy.

Of course, the flight back was dreadful, as long eastbound inevitably are. The 35-minute connection all the way across Memphis terminal went OK. No one broke my knees or elbow, the inevitable screaming brat was six rows ahead, out of range given the ear plugs I've learned to wear on any flight over an hour, and the fatties found someone else to rub their stink on. Trains out of Schiphol were late, but at least it wasn't raining while I rolled my suitcase over the tiles (clackclackclackclack) to the apartment. The two-hour (exactly) nap, and the hardest part of the eastbound trip, trust me: dragging my butt from under the covers at 4 pm. Every muscle wants to keep sleeping, but if you do you are a lost soul, and for days. Coffee helps, and by the next morning, you're OK.

Then one day of work slipped in, before the bullet train to Paris...

posted by eric at 17.34 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)

December 29, 2003

Bike: Enkhuizen to Den Helder

FLASH: this is a delayed account of a long ride of 9 November. For now, a reminder of the newly updated map HERE (105 kB). Today's trip: along the north Zuider Zee (Ijsselmeer), north out of Enkhuizen.

I had promised myself to revisit Enkhuizen--I just didn't know it would be the very next morning. Yes, I was away only 16 hours. It's irresistable. Pictured is a typical canal near the village center.

The fog cleared just a few minutes after I hauled the bike off the train, inviting a revisit of the old harbor, which seems impossibly small for what was at one time one of the world's great harbors. The headquarters of the Dutch East India company's begin but a few meters beyond. This must have been one busy place.

Enkhuizen. I do love it. Who knows when I'll get back to this wonderful little town? But I rode out, northbound.

The ride north out of Enkhuizen was perfect: the bike path high on a dike, light wind to my back, the blue Zuider Zee to the right, and to the left an occasional village below sea level. Air on the face cold, but the bright sun promising warmth. This particular, precariously situated village bears the most ominous name: Onderdijk.

Up the coast an hour's ride was Medemblik, whose ancient waterways have been extended to very long, wide, linked harbors crowded with hundreds of boats. Here, one old-style shallow-water sailboat cruises past Medemblik's castle, out to the Zuider Zee.

Looking northward from Medeblik's Zuider Zee coast, the faintest dark on the horizon is the Afsluitdijk, the long, beefy dike blocking all of what was the Zuider Zee (now the Ijsselmeer) from the North Sea and beyond. If you look at the bike map, this is the highway running northeast-southwest, straight across the water. It runs from...well, roughtly from nowhere to nowhere, which makes it challenging for cyclists, since no train station lies at either end, making for a very long day. I'll try it, but not before April or so.

The ride north out of Medemblik was dreadful--heavy traffic, narrow road with no shoulders, and large trucks aimed with American-style hostility to cyclists. In desperation, I gave up on the highway and cut through a forest. Big Mistake. Every hiker in the Netherlands was hiking through several centimeters of mud, and in tricky-to avoid, far-from-straight paths. I was reduced to sustaining my own balance in first gear while straining not to just run down all the hikers...which strictly speaking I had the right to do--the mud was clearly marked a fietspad. Hey, I won't apologize: in the Netherlands, they who live by the Code of Bicycle Domination risk death by it.

After which my bike tires slung mud for 10 km. I cruised through Den Oevre and a km away from the coast, the sun just scraping across the horizon for hours, and through a series of rather forgettable villages around this tip of North Holland. Finally, a few km along the big water, away from traffic. Away from everything, and a nice time enough to savor things--like the pictured--that do better in the scarce Dutch places without people.

Just when I get tired and afternoon-cranky enough to want only a convenient train ride home...THIS happens. I can't imagine ever tiring of looking at the Netherlands.

And I made Den Helder. A long ride. A good day.

One weird last note. Look. Dutch sheep all sport these weird blotches of bright color, right on their wooly butts. What's the deal?...losers in secret paintball tournament?

posted by eric at 21.18 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)

December 7, 2003

Man, I Don't *Get* Zwarte Piet

Which doesn't mean I can't make fun of him. Look. I've tried, I really have, but I just do NOT GRASP the whole Zwarte Piet thing. Absolutely nothing about Dutch life has so totally befuddled me.

OK, as I understand it--and Lord knows I've asked--the Netherlands' tradition of Santa Claus (Sinter Klaas) includes an African companion Zwarte Piet (black Pete). Now, in history and mythology, a hero's having a sidekick is the rule rather than the exception, so as odd as this might seem to those raised on Coca-Cola Santa Claus (the religion-free, sales-promoting, American standard), a sidekick should be no surprise. Above, note that Cola-Cola has not yet managed strip Dutch Santa Claus of his sainthood. And Saint Nicholas' being the patron saint of sailors only heightens his importance to the Dutch. Now, I have no idea why Sinter Klaas' sidekick is a wealthy African...but that's not the part I don't get.

What I don't get is how such a caricature can co-exist with the Netherlands' quite genuine racial harmony. (I hasten to add that my un-understanding is my problem, not theirs.) True, the figure above is not much of a caricature--keep reading...

Upscale settings like this portray Zwarte Piet with full dignity. I never thought anyone meant badly by this whole thing. Still--I really warn American readers to keep oxygen and nitroglycerin tablets handy.

Seat belts fastened?

OK, last Friday someone left a big chocolate on my keyboard at work. Yaaaay! You should know that a big chocolate bar in the shape of your first initial is a very popular Christmas goodie. But the box it came in...uh...

In America, no "respectable" entity has dared such a racial caricature for fifty years--and yet the supplier of this box is as "respectable" as it gets: the AH at the box's top is Albert Heijn, the Netherlands' huge grocer. It's not that I was offended--I simply didn't know what to think. (Actually, I thought I should eat the chocolate. Yum.)

What's also interesting is this: how fast this shock is worn away by seeing Zwarte Piets of every possible description in store windows all over town. So, I submit for your viewing pleasure my photographic booty from this afternoon's brief, frigid walk around the village of Bussum.

Tech note: I apologize for the glass reflections, but I forgot my polarizing lens.

OK now--y'all test your air bags.

Grocer with articulated Zwarte Piet. I try to imagine this hanging in a window in Chicago--how many milliseconds it would take to be shot out? Anyone remember Sambo's Restaurants?

Hey, don't wimp out on me now.

Wouldn't you be comfortable with this on your glass door?

Two Zwarte Piets with cigars.

Three Zwarte Piets. Maybe I'm optimistic, but I can only assume that this is meant in the same celebratory way as, say, Paris jazz posters of the 1920s.

Come hither, kiddies, Pietie has a nice, nice surprise for you...

"Help Pietie! Help Pietie! I've fallen down and can't get up!"

Gay Zwarte Piet.

Or Cross-dressing Piet.

Oh hell, now I'm really confused.

Hey--this is the Netherlands: Toleration Nation. And anyway...I really don't even want to know. Unfortunately, raw disbelief kept me staring at this one too long--I'll be lucky if I don't have nightmares.

Right. Now, far be it from me to malign anyone's orientation. But of course I have a right to my own orientation, and while we're touching on that subject,...

...I'd say Santa here had a more interesting proposition. Hey--looking good, Nick! See you at the gym!

posted by eric at 18.03 CET | Permalink | Comments (36)

December 4, 2003

Back in the USSA, continued

III. OK, OK, a number of things I thought of later.

American Dining: Did I mention the Indianapolis plate of ribs that, by all appearances, derived from a freaking dinosaur? This is in the same restaurant that offered a dessert with the heartbreaking name: Apple-pie-a-la-mode ice cream. The same restaurant where the barkeep, when I've ordered a beer, asks, just to be sure: "Yes, Sir--a pint...or a big one?" (Welcome back to the United States of Atherosclerosis.)

Why is America so obsessed with fighting? A figure skating championship is promoted as "ICE WARS." Wars? Rather than any possible words closer to sports: match, game, competition, tour, tourney, etc., they choose wars? Is ANYTHING less like a war than figure skating? Shame on the TV network for associating stupidity and violence ( = war) with an elegant sport, and double shame on the American public for being the sort on which such vulgar promotion succeeds.

In the lobby, intermission at the Indianapolis Opera: on the opera company table, a bowl of cough drops. Pretty clever marketing on the cough-drop company's part.

In the lobby, intermission at the Indianapolis Opera, II: A gentleman walks up and asks if I can recommend a good restaurant in the area. I answer I can't, I'm from out of town. "Oh, where from?" I hesitate. I'm moving to Chicago next year, but for now I really don't know. OK, I think, my dear bookshelves are in an apartment near Amsterdam, so that's home and that's what I say. He is shocked and answers that he is from Chicago. So of course, I ask if he can recommend a good restaurant in that area.

The hotel room TV shows the movie "Gladiator". I find it utterly antiseptic, unaffecting, full of abysmally idiotic anachronisms. Romans shooting burning arrows? Romans firing catapults? Slaves quickly becoming masters? Right, happens all the time. Well, I like Asterix better, anyway.

North of Dallas, I turned on the laptop for 5 miles of driving in the northern suburbs, near midnight. And this was with Netstumbler software running, automatically sniffing wireless networks in peoples' houses (don't worry--my firewall was on, no chance of my hacking in their computers--or vice versa). How many networks, you ask? I got IDs on 68 networks. And of those, 42 were unencrypted, uncoded, unanything...eminently hackable, by me, a spammer, anyone.

It was nice to see the car again (see road trip posts from mid-April), and I'm glad (and relieved) to see that it's still running great for you, but it's really yours now, Meg.

posted by eric at 20.08 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 2, 2003

Back in the USSA

I. "Anything seem weird?"

The first thing everyone asks when you return to your home country is "Does anything seem weird, coming back?" My last trip, in August, I had a very definite answer: "Yes, the smell of chlorine everywhere." And now that I've been back in the US for a week, I have to say that it is still there. It's not as strong this time. Maybe it was just cold November rather than hot August.

But this trip, the talk in the US is about Babies. Pregnancy. Growing up. Parenting. All that stuff. You see it everywhere, baby strollers blocking the aisles, fat women in the maternity shops that litter every mall, odd smells permeating even respectable restaurants. Baby changing tables in the restrooms--Mens' as well as Womens'. And all the bookstore display. Oh my God, the bookstores.

While I downed coffee at Borders, minding my own business, my gaze fell upon one huge magazine display and my jaw fell. BabyTalk magazine--doubtless needing a, er, very junior editor. Working Mother magazine, Mothering magazine. Parents mag, ParentWise mag, Parenting mag. Child mag, Early Years mag, ParentsBaby mag? Jesus--a mag named PrimaBaby. And in sad omens for the future, witness Pregnancy magazine. Fit Pregnancy mag, and Healthy Pregnancy mag. And then something called the Pregnancy Buyer's Guide.--I'm not going anywhere near that. And then, what prompted me to notice and record this for overabundant posterity was the bafflingly titled, and I am not making this up: ePregnancy magazine. E-Pregnancy? Is this just a very 1999 marketing title, or did the Americans invent yet another use for the Internet while I was away? I'm confused.

I'll grant this, at least: ePregnancy was the only mag cover to admit that males had anything to do with those nine months, not to mention with the 22 years of support to come. These mags bore a torrent of soon-to-be-composted wisdom titled: Infant Brain Boosters, Month-by-Month Pregnancy Planner (you know, of course, that women couldn't have babies before PDAs and Franklin Planners), Five Postpartum Pick-me-ups, What Your Toddler's Really Thinking (probably even less than their parents), and the incomparable brain-fart: "Good Mothers Don't Have Sex, Right?"

I suppose we should all be happy about this national spasm of optimism. But it does seem odd that since 9-11, Americans seem more intent than usual to inflict expensive, drooling little terrors on themselves. And yes, to me the juxtaposition seems a bit weird, so I guess there's my answer.

Uh, can we come back down to earth, please?

II. Ah, the Trip. You want to know about the Trip. Fine.

Walk to the train station, ride train to Schiphol, wait in line over an hour. When I get to the desk, this snippy young vrouw tells me that I was late, and that there is no seat for me. I offer that (1) "I was in line 2 hours before the flight" (2) "That young man in a uniform matching yours spent the last hour escorting to the head of the line all the pretty Dutch women in the airport" ("both of them", I felt compelled to add), (3) "I purchased my ticket 4 months in advance--shall we go to the plane and ask all the sitting passengers how many purchased their tickets as early as I?", and (4) "I already have a seat assignment, right there on your own reservation document."

I made myself as blunt as the Dutch, and so I flew...

...back to the land of profligate carbon dioxide production, of Atmosphere be Damned, of "Just Say No to Kyoto." I did the math: this rental car used more fuel in 10 days than I've burned in my Netherlands car in 6 months.

And the hotel room there in Illinois had a peculiar view, but the high-speed wireless internet access was nice.

You don't want to hear about work. So I'll mention that I continued my cruise around the part of Illinois where I will move when I'm done with the Netherlands (or vice versa). I discovered a very nice hidden area just west of the offices, a place quaintly but ominously named Sleepy Hollow. I found it nice, very nice...

...though I didn't lose my head over it.

A week of work. Then a drive down to Indianapolis, newly purchased CD by All-American Sheryl Crow blaring, to visit Meggo and Michael and their crass menagerie and K.

It was getting dark by the time we ventured to The Land Under the Power Lines, for a nice run with Willow, their lightning-fast puppy.

Willow is possibly the world's least photographable dog. Photogenic, but not photographable--she rarely slows down enough for even the fastest shutter speed. This is about as well as I could do. For the rest of the afternoon, I have only blurs to show. Sorry.

And then, suddenly, the pup would not run at all. This is Meg freaking out, begging motion of any kind from the Dog Suddenly Turned Statue. Neighbor boy runs to the rescue.

Sunday: the Indianapolis Opera! The Elixir of Love Donizetti's wonderful and ironic tale, and today set in the Wild American West. Michael had a nice part in it, and if Meg e-mails me a photo (HINT HINT) I will post it. It was fun and silly and well-done. A nice dinner afterwards, too.

Monday, a drive out to rural Indiana, to take Willow to see some dog friends. Which went well enough, until the boys got other ideas...

At left: Boys will be boys. Pestering the little girl, embarrassing her terribly.
At right: least until she leaps to defend her honor! Cody has already had his fill of this indelicacy.


All that running wears a pup out. But at least it allowed for one in-focus shot.

Then a drive back to O'Hare, goodbye to Chevrolet Battlestar Galactica, and a flight to see the extended family. I am kicking myself for not taking the camera to the afternoon at the new outdoor Nasher Statue Gallery--it is a truly amazing outdoor space, not to be missed. Opinions vary on the statues themselves, though a few are undeniably, absolutely first rate. Too much turkey, nice times spent with the parents and sister and niece and nephew and sister's beau.

Flight back to O'Hare, in a KLM check-in line for two hours that I would characterize as Hell. Overnight across the big water. We arrived early, but the crack NS management cancelled enough trains that it was 8:30 am before I rolled the suitcase and the laptop (on which I write this) over Bussum's tile sidewalks (clackclackclackclack) to the overstuffed mailbox and up three flights of stairs and to sleep, sleep, glorious sleep...

...from which I woke with the flu. Thanks, Rachel. Two days, now, and none of it Pretty. Beyond that you don't want to hear about it--trust me.

posted by eric at 21.40 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)