Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Of mice and men...

As I live and breathe...

The clacking sound of my computer keys is being accompanied by the scratching and skirmishing of a mouse trapped inside our kitchen trash can.

Right now. This very minute.

I'm making a decision to just sit still. To not run from the room frantically. To not wield a rolling pin, present a death warrant and start a bloody battle.

No. I'm just going to sit here, carrying on with my typing. With a dog, the moment he knows that his choice of activity - like sifting through a kitchen trash can - can dictate the actions of another, he knows he is the Boss. Maybe mice are like dogs that way?

Okay. Five minutes just lapsed. I'm still here. I'm fine. The mouse is right over there. And presumably, he is fine.

We're aaaaalllllll juuuuusssssttttt fine. Taking things niiiiicccccceeee and sllllloooowwwwww.

By all intents, we are effectively co-existing in a small room. It's probably to both of our advantages that I can't actually SEE him. I just hear him digging around in last night's dinner.

Were I to actually see him, or (heaven forbid) FEEL his tiny little mouse feet run over any part of my body, I just might croak. Seriously. So this "no see" policy is a good one.

What is this, this funny relationship we have with mice? It's a strange emotional hot dish of disgust, adoration and - of all things - fear! How do us big huge humans get so tweaked by a being that weighs less than a Rice Krispy bar?

I had a solid conversation with a couple of girlfriends about this recently, as we shared our mouse stories. Living in buildings that are, in many cases, hundreds of years old often means there are mice running around. And for every house mouse, there are at least twenty tales to be told.

We discussed at length varying theories of what is the best way to deal with these critters.

Traps. ("Works every time." "Yeah, but they can get the cheese without setting the trap.")

Poison. ("Never works." "Really? It worked in our house.")

Steel wool. ("Shove it in the holes around your house so they can't get through." "But that won't last through the winter.")

Liquid foam. ("Best for sealing the hard-to-reach holes." "I still think you should try steel wool.")

Cats. ("I heard that cats emit a scent that actually REPELS mice. And of course, if the scent doesn't get 'em, the claws will!")

The last argument seems most compelling, as it has been reputed by numerous long-term Amsterdam dwellers. And since it has been made abundantly clear that Shetland Herders are useless mouse hunters, I've considered borrowing a cat for a weekend. Just to test the theory.

As for who in this house does plays Animal Hunter, I hate to say it, but I have definitely played the Girl Card. When it comes to the mice, Dave is the perennial man's man, taking full responsibility for all mouse-related situations.

In true Dave fashion, he has named a few of his favorites. At the top of the list...Leonard. Or The Fat One, as he was called in the two weeks leading up to his trap-enforced death. Yes, there have been a few middle of the night rendezvous between Dave and his four-legged friends.

On a few occasions, I have wondered about the mice living in our 400-year old house. Think of the possibilities of their heritage. What if these creatures have lineage that stretch back to Napoleonic days? What if we are cutting off a long line of robust animals who managed to survive wars and famines JUST so they could live long enough to create more strong offspring?

And what about those empathetic hard-working little guys who gave their all for Cinderellie to get to the ball? Those guys had SWEET sewing skills, to be able to pull off a multi-layered chiffon gown in an afternoon. All while singing back-ups.

And Mighty Mouse and all of his testosterone-driven quests for Good?

And Jerry...Now THERE's a clever mouse. Cat scent was no deterrent for HIM.

And if it weren't for Mickey, where would Goofy and Donald Duck be? Really? They would be lost somewhere in some stupidly-conceived canine scenario that they couldn't get out of, because no one could understand what the F@#$ the duck dressed in a sailor suit was talking about.

Maybe...just maybe...we NEED mice. And if all they want to do is live in peace....and...every once in a while...raid our trash...how can we, in good consciousness, off the little fellas?!

Okay...the clicking and scratching have subsided. I think I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, but I'm just going to pretend I didn't see anything.

Live and let live.

At least for now.

I'm off to the hardware store to buy the next round of death traps.

What? You think that contradicts my growing affection for house mice?...

Never you mind. A guy got to sometimes.

Color and light...

Behold the Sun Shower.

That funny oxymoronic stunt that brings together two of nature's strongest heavyweights: Sun and Rain.

This week has been famous with sun showers.

Two things that don't belong together. And not in a chocolate and peanut butter kind of way...an interaction that has brought endless joy to everyone.

No, in a directly opposite kind of way. Although I don't have the scientific vocabulary to name it, there is some certain fact to RAIN = NO SUN. SUN = NO RAIN. It's almost as if the existence of one is defined solely by the absence of the other.

I biked to the grocery store in crisp autumn sunshine. An easy and enjoyable trek.

Thirty minutes later, I was racing for home. The sun, directly aligned with my front wheel. And the rain, over the back. I was being chased, pure and simple, and I was going to do my best to get me and our dinner ingredients home safe and dry.

This strange affair is Mother Nature's way of uniting what seem to be enemies. Maybe they need that, Sun and Rain, every once in a while. Just to remain humble and to realize that they do indeed share the stage.

But they fight it out, their argument allowing countless collisions of hues. Rainbow painted skyscapes trip over pumpkin-capped houses. Browns and greys straighten their gloomy wet postures when the sunlight bends over and kisses the upper floors. And green has never been so yellow while at the same time, still being green.

As I wiped off the ground beef and wrung out my jeans, I couldn't help but feel slightly invigorated by the dance of polarity happening outside our windows.

Opposites really do attract.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

In the days before take-off...

A few shots from this last week with the Jilanis before they move to Boston.

Two days before take-off...

The thing we do...

Saturday night. 8 pm. Most of the house was packed.

Or was it?

The obligatory last minute odds and ends had somehow multiplied while everything else had been packed in an organized fashion. Doesn't it always go this way with moving?

There were ten of us scurrying around the open space, sorting the remaining items - "trash", "give away", "to be delivered to someone", and "up for grabs." Each one of us doing our part to keep busy and contribute a helping hand.

Every ten or fifteen minutes, I would feel the cold breeze of looming heartache. I'd notice her in a corner wiping away a few tears. Or consoling Ate - her son's nanny - who was heavy with sadness.

In funeral-like fashion, everyone busied themselves with details. Acting as if packing up your best friends' life is as mundane as getting your daily groceries. It warrants no emotion. You'll finish one task, then move on to the next, maybe stopping to eat a piece of pizza or to exchange witty banter with another.

Emptying the fridge. Checking the drawers - for the thirteenth time. Ordering the taxis for the early-morning trip to the airport. As a team, we unearth and maneuver every detail.

And pull our sweaters closer to avoid suffering the occasional breeze.

This afternoon, my tram ride to Olympic Stadium came to an abrupt end. In my lack-of-sleep induced lapse of judgment, I failed to consider that what waited for me at my final destination - the finish line of the Amsterdam marathon - would be the cause for stunted public transportation today.

My dear old friend and ex co-worker was here from LA to run the marathon, and I wanted to be there to cheer him on.

Realizing rather quickly that he would be done running long before I would get to the stadium by foot, I decided to embrace the nameless runners in front of me and cheer them on in honor of my friend.

I walked a block south and landed in front of the Rijksmuseum.

The sun was proudly displaying its October finery. Pointy plates of golden leaves blanketed the sidewalk. The museum building broke the blue skyline with sharp turrets and straight lines. All of this exaggerated with natural light shining from behind it.

Against the monotony of brownish-grey brick and pavement, flashes of brightly-colored running garb. Hats. Shoes. Shirts. A Pantone holiday party in motion.

You can tell by their strides and face that they aren't going as fast as two hours previous. My eyes pan and easily notice the strain of many runners' steps.

Men and women of varying shapes. Blond, brunette, bald, tall, short, round, thin.

Looking at them, then looking at the crowd, I wonder if two different climates are occupying the same street. Shorts and t-shirts juxtaposed against coats and hats.

From the right, drums pound without stop. A tribe of eight sway left and right to a trance simultaneously created and felt through the rhythm of their instruments.

And another rhythm emanates.

From every side, applause. Words shouted kindly from smiling faces.

"Come on!" "Keep it up!" "Good job!"

A drone of encouragement. A sonic wall of enthusiasm. Accompanied by a beat so primordial, I think it never began and believe it will never end.

My feet have frozen into the open space upon which I am standing and I take it in.

All of this before me: the aspiration and courage to keep moving toward the finish line, no matter how challenging the task is...the human impulse to stand along side and cheer on these people...these strangers...knowing that rhythm needs to be a part of the ritual...this thing that we, as human beings, do for one another...

After the last of the paperclips, straws, dog treats and other assorted miscellany had been sorted, the cold realization that it was soon going to be time to say good-bye began to invade the room.

Almost without cue, the ritual began.

We gathered around the dining table. One poured champagne. Another broke the silence. We raised our glasses. She spoke. He spoke. The women cried. The men consoled. The comedians distracted. The wise uplifted.

The ten staying behind beat a steady rhythm of encouragement for the four preparing to leave. Oh, this is so hard for them. For her, especially. To leave behind this life, this sisterhood. They have been the nexus at the center of our home-away-from-home community for four years.

I see in her eyes she doesn't want the minutes to pass. No more going forward. Someone has to pull the plug for her, or she'll never do it.

And so, one-by-one, we stepped up and embraced the chill - each in our own way. It was time say good-bye.

I'm surprised to notice that my face is now wet with tears. The runners pass by in a steady stream, headed for the finish line. My hat provides me enough privacy to sob in the middle of the crowd.

In the center of this moment, I am completely overwhelmed. Stunned by the human capacity to love. To care. To be impacted by relationship. Amazed that as steadily and involuntary as a heartbeat, we will brave the cold to cheer on those we love. How can we do this? WHY do we do this...this thing we do when we love?

This invaluable facet of human existence is easily taken for granted. But today...right now, I see it. Feel it. And I'm honored to be a part of the Race.

All too soon, the moment passes. The tempo now etched in my mind, I turn, step in rhythm and head for home.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Three degrees of separation...

A strange thing happened yesterday.

It wasn't the downpour of sun shower. It wasn't the appearance of our canal bathed in artificial lime green floodlight. It wasn't even the subtle sound of a quiet junkie stumbling his hallucination down the street.

It was the exaggerated silence piercing my ears from the street around the corner from us.

There wasn't a single kuh-bzzzzzz from a single scooter cruising the street. Not in the morning. Not in the afternoon. And most bizarre of all, not in the evening.

If you live in a place long enough, you experience good-byes of various sorts. Knowing and being known are the sweet ingredients in parting sorrows. And this autumn has turned into a smorgasbord of separations. What had become comfortably familiar shifted in recent days in three distinct styles. Three distinct levels of permanency.


At first, you wouldn't think that having part of the red light district spilling into your postal code would be something you would miss once it went away. I never could've guessed that hardly-clad ladies who spent their days peering out of windows would become friends, or even acquaintances. After moving into this neighborhood, I spent the first month wondering where to place my gaze as I passed by. But before long, I learned that smiles, waves and nods were welcome. And that any dog of ours was as good as theirs when they'd step out of the window and hand over fistfuls of treats.

These women remembered birthdays. Brought gifts to newborn babies in the neighborhood. Used their direct lines to the police if anything looked suspicious. And in the case of one woman, became as caring a neighbor to us as any we've known.

Amsterdam is condensing the prostitution into the centralized Red Light District, one small street at a time. From what I understand, there will be design and artist offices filling these places around the corner.

I can't say that I'm entirely sorry about that. Simultaneously being who I am while wishing for continuing opportunities for prostitution would be an oxymoron. But this is indeed a departure.

I gave hugs to my friend as she cleared out belongings from her window and asked her to keep in touch. She biked away and turned the final page of this chapter.

It's a rare thing to get a photograph of a red light window. But not when the curtains are closed and the lights are dark.

Beds and cupboards from red light windows waiting to be picked-up by trash collectors.


One afternoon, shortly after we moved to Holland, I followed a herd of women into a meeting of AWCA - American Women's Club of Amsterdam. A world-renown organization, the American Women's Club aims to help transplanted women in various countries all over the globe make connections and learn how to adjust to life in their new home.

It was in the midst of this crowd that I first learned what women in my situation are branded. (And no, the title doesn't go something like The Woman Who Loved and Supported Her Partner Enough to Make New Roots in a Foreign Place)

The term coined for us (drum roll, please)...

The Trailing Spouse.

(Ouch. Seriously?)

Yes, it's true. Not meant as a slam, but simply as a fast way to identify who plays what role in ex-pat coupledom.

I left that meeting before the first drop of coffee hit the bottom of the first little porcelain cup. These ladies all seemed perfectly lovely, but I didn't want to do my new life like this. Surrounded by other branded souls seeking community in a place where the first tie that binds is that awful title.

As good fortune would have it, I came to the notion of studying Dutch at the perfect time.

Six months after the meeting of the draggling dames, I signed up for a one-month intensive language course. One that would end up taking over 60 hours per week of my time (culminating in a final exam that would weigh on all of us like our ability to keep on living depended on passing).

It's a funny thing what happens in a classroom of people from all over the globe trying to learn a language so they can make a decent go at life in a new country. There's a bond that is unique: at first, it's understanding wrapped in a fragile little package. Vulnerability, uncertainty and identity crises are obstacles that you must become comfortable with. But then, you can share some of life's one-of-a-kind experiences with this small audience of fellow ex-patriates who become your family.

I ended up forging what would become the closest relationships we have in Amsterdam - and the network that would bring even more wonderful relationships into view - all from the seed of a few good friends met in language boot camp.

But there's also an underlying current to these relationships. If you have friends who moved here under the same pretenses that you have - namely, under international work contracts - there will mostly likely come a day when they have to go back home. Like Clara waking up from her dream of the Nutcracker, the blown-up experiences of learning with your friends how to manage in a foreign place start to shrink to miniature to allow room for the "real life" that awaits in the Homeland.

Last week, Andre and Aurelie left for Portland to return to Nike's American headquarters. The night before they boarded the plane, their 14-month old daughter Aisha said "Lynn-nn" for the first time.

And two weeks from now, dear friends and parents to our godson Aleisi will be headed back to Boston, from whence they moved five years ago.

We will see them all again, for sure. But the Hutchinson-Sheldon residence will be licking the wounds made by their absence for months to come.

Amsterdam will be a different place for us and many without them.


"Greetings, class. My name is Rindert Meijer. Today is the first day of History of Jazz...taught by me. The date is the eleventh of September, 2006. This date probably sounds familiar to you....mmmmeeeeeeeerrrrrr - KA-BOOM. That's right, folks. Today is Nine Eleven."

(Oh no, he didn't. Really? Maybe he doesn't realize he has an American in his classroom. Seriously, who the hell is this guy?!)

This was my introduction to Rindert the first day I sat in his history class at the Conservatory. His initial memory of me would probably be the bulging incredulous eyeballs peering back after he made this comment.

I mean, really...I can appreciate a good edgy joke like the best of them. But making a joke about the Towers? That's pretty dang bold.

In the weeks and months to follow, I would come to know Rindert as a sensitive genius. Loaded with information. A Dutch man with a deep-seeded hankering for American music. Quick to dash off high decibel boogie woogie to accessorize a point.

By the end of the year, I considered Rindert one of my favorite features of days spent at the Conservatory. More than a few times, while he rolled a cigarette, we'd banter on about musical culture in America. Or about his love for two specific American offerings: men's bar soap and Dixie brand cups.

Last year, it was a no-brainer to include Rindert in the line-up of Canvas events. I just wanted Rindert to come to my house and just...well...just be Rindert for an hour for an audience of 50. He was graciously receptive. And for the price of six bars of Dial and a 20-pack of imported plastic cups, he agreed to be the lecturer at the History of Rock and Roll night in January.

And everyone loved him.

Working together on Canvas sealed the deal. Rindert became a caring, wonderful, brilliant, funny and yet intensely inward friend who would always stop to ask me how Dave and I were doing.

A few weeks ago, I saw Rindert at school after a few month summer holiday. We chatted about this year's Canvas line-up and how I would love it (as would the others who came) if he'd make a return appearance and talk about the music of New Orleans. We were to keep in touch by email in the coming weeks to make plans.

As usual, Rindert made a few darkly humorous comments about how, had he ever gotten married, a wife probably would've required him to take better care of himself. He had basically spent all summer holed up in his apartment reading, watching tv and eating things he shouldn't.

This was another thing about Rindert I learned. As seems to be the case with so many of the people who make people laugh the most, I think he was lonely.

But humor can smoothe out the rough edges of any human existence. And far be it from me to question it in Rindert.

I left for Nashville a week after that, during which time Rindert emailed and said he had an idea and I should call him right away. I didn't have the right chance to give him a ring, so I figured I'd call him when I got home a few days later.

I found out yesterday that two days after Rindert sent me that email, he died alone in his apartment. He had a fatal heart attack.

I've never been good at good-byes. But then again, who is? And it's funny how varying degrees of separation can conjure similar emotions. When someone goes, they take with them the future...however casual or however intimate...you had envisioned with them. And you have to mourn.

Walking by an empty window.
Starting over with new friends.
Saying a permanent good-bye to someone who mattered to so many. Who mattered to me.

This, the food of being human and the sweet sorrow of separation.

(Rest in peace, Rindert. We miss you.)