Friday, November 14, 2014

Why November is my Favorite: A Story about Dahlias

in case you forgot which ones are the Dahlias
In our Dutch class this week, we were all telling "our news" in three sentences. As my last sentence I threw in that "deze maand is mijn favoriete maand" which led to all sorts of other questions. Why is November your favorite month? And with my limited ability to communicate I gave some reasons I love November, including that I like the change in weather. In October and even September you can feel a bit of crispness coming into the air, but in November you know the change is not coming, it's come, and I love that. I love bundling up in wool sweaters, coats and scarves to go outside. Then coming in to make and eat hot soup, drinking hot tea. I love lighting candles as the evening comes earlier and earlier. In Rochester, where I grew up, often the snow first comes in November, and I love that too. When I was small I found the snow particularly compelling, so beautiful, so sudden, such a joy in its quietness and its immensity.

half killed by frost

I didn't really learn to love November though till college, when I went to Houghton, a beautiful campus set in "the middle of nowhere," where there is not a single stop light, and making a proper grocery store run is a 40some minute trek through farmland and forest. Coming off of campus there is a certain road, named "Centerville," where I would walk several miles nearly every Sunday afternoon during three of my years at Houghton. It was a special pleasure in the fall, as each week more of the trees would turn crimson or orange, and then the colors would all fade to ashy gray. After all that color, the browns and yellows and grays seemed so peaceful, so rugged even. Perhaps it seemed particularly peaceful in contrast to the increasing workload of the semester. In a conversation about the month years back one of my friends said that a November landscape in very romantic, in a harsh, wild, Bronte-esque sort of romance. Another friend wrote a poem about November as the glowing center of a hearth when the fire is burned down. We were very connected to the seasons at Houghton, and we liked to talk about these things.

struggling against the cold
What also happened in my undergrad years is that I learned that my Dad liked November best of all the months. This surprised me, as he's an artist so I thought for sure that May or October or something would appeal more to his eye, but he said that there were several reasons. He loved that the world changes so much, that without leaves on the trees suddenly a whole new world is visible past the foliage. He also loved looking forward to the holidays. I can relate, since Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorites, and these days it is an American holiday that I can feel whole heartedly proud of, not just it as a current reminder to gratitude, but also the history of friendship with the Native Americans so terribly abused in much of the rest of the history of the US. And I feel also that expectation holds much of the joy of the holidays, so November can be even more happy than December (which can feel like a perpetual party) but then he told this story.

When my dad was young, his mother grew dahlias in their yard in Detroit. And in November the flowers would still be in bloom so very evening before a hard frost he would help her cover the dahlias with newspaper to keep them alive until morning. They would do this many times during the month, each threatening night putting up little paper barricades against the cold. But there would always come a time when the weatherman disappointed, and the cold was harsher than he and his mother expected, or perhaps they would have covered the plants only to find them the next morning edged in frost. And for that little glimpse in time before the sun rose the dahlias were more beautiful than ever. He would run inside for drawing paper and then sketch the frozen blossoms with his chilly hands, quickly before they melted and turned brown.

I know that November can be harsh and dark and ugly, and people have good reasons for disliking it, especially here in Holland where the spring is such a feast for the eyes, but I still love it. The long shadows, the golden light in the cold air, the wool socks, the snuggling up with covers, or the smell of dry leaves, or their crackle underfoot. I love the raw skies with their long, blue-gray clouds. It seems there is always so much to be thankful for, and so much to love.

Heartfelt thanks to Frank Richards and Jennifer McCallum for allowing me to use their beautiful photos of dahlias. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Video Blogging - video letters?

Dear Friends,

One of the projects that Owen and I have been doing is trading video letters online with a dear friend of ours. We thought the most recent video might be of interest to all of you readers as well, as it tells about 3 October, a big holiday here in Leiden, and our experiences this year. It contains footage of children zipped into inflatable balls and squirming around in a swimming pool, in case you're needing some encouragement to press the play button.

In case you loved this video and want to see all of them there's not a proper playlist set up (one where you can just watch them all without effort) but if you search YouTube for "5014 Miles" we should be the first half dozen or so to pop up.

Clara and Owen

Monday, October 13, 2014

Plantin-Moretus: a Printing Museum in Antwerp

Last month Owen and I went to Antwerp. A friend of ours was presenting at a conference and had sent us a strange little "I'm going to be really close to you but there's no way for me to actually come visit you, bummer" message on Facebook, and that seemed like the perfect excuse to take a weekend trip to Belgium, and so for an extremely reasonable train fare, and a happy couple of nights in a AirBnB apartment, we had an exciting adventure and a delightful time visiting a friend from home. There are a lot of things I could tell about Antwerp: it's beautiful central markets, its enormous and exquisite cathedral, its incredible train station, the excellent bike rental system, but the thing I most want to talk about is the printing museum.

the two presses in the back are the oldest in the world
Growing up I knew more about historical printing than most children. My father is an art professor and although it is not his specialty, he has taught both typography and printmaking from time to time. More than once I helped him print etchings, an impressive process involving soaked paper, an inked metal plate and an actual old-school press which rolls the sandwich of paper and metal through sufficient pressure to press the paper into all the inky scratches on the metal plate. It's a finicky job, and requires two people, one with clean hands to deal with the paper, and one with dirty hands to deal with the ink, and I loved it.
a bilingual printed text

In graduate school I learned a lot of things about the printing process, and the sale and importance of books in the time of Shakespeare. We folded up paper into quartos and sixteenmos, listened to Tiffany Stern talk about how the paper props were likely given separately from the rest of the script to the printers. We became familiar with secretary hand, got to know different printers and their particular stamps on their pages, we even had a project where we had to write a paper making sense out of all the books sold alongside a Shakespeare play at a bookstand in London in a given year, all things we can do with even a small library, thanks to the powers of the internet, and a few good resources. I wrote my MFA thesis about the power of books, paper and stories in their world and in ours.

geeking out
With all this love of books and their printing, I was excited to visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum, but not nearly as excited as I should have been. I do not know if I have ever enjoyed a museum so much, and if you've read this blog at all you may know I take inordinate joy in museums. The Plantin-Moretus told the story of a printing family business, a friendship with Rubens, enough wealth and hubris to make anyone laugh, (for instance, gilded Italian leather wall coverings) but also careful and meticulous insight into every step of the printing process.
uncut pages with editing marks in the margins

As you walk from room to room, you enter various places of work. There's the type room (where the type is, to this day stored in careful boxes) and the room for the setting of the type, and a full of presses. The room for the editing (big boothed table by large windows for the light), the shop where the books were sold, the foundry where the type was made, and no end of beautiful libraries. You can pour over books in Dutch, books in English, books in Latin or Greek, or printed Arabic scripts. Beautiful manuscript volumes, tall, narrow account books, a five language bible in many volumes, and giant atlases. This printing house put out some of the earliest of illustrated scientific works covering anatomy, botany, astronomy all studied like never before. It wasn't just the printing presses they own, including the two oldest presses in the world, it seeing all those tools for every piece of every task, which was just astonishing. The process seems so careful, so meticulous, with so many pairs of hands involved from start to finish.

Today's tools are so much more complex, and yet also so user friendly that even though I haven't any clear idea about the workings of my computer or even of this website, things are set up so that I can click the "publish" button whenever I choose. It makes me wonder, where is craftsmanship in online writing? Does it lie wholly in the writing style? And how to the material objects used to read text today (my computer screen, or a smart phone or whatever) affect the material read? What about laying text in a blogpost? Do people have more or less control over their words now? How does range of readership affect these questions? In the last week I've had more pageviews on my blog from the Ukraine than from the US, and I am very curious: who are you readers in the Ukraine? What do you find interesting in my writing? And to anyone reading, what do you find compelling about books? About the act of reading? It's been nearly a month and I am still wondering.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Books to Make Kids Laugh

The Atlantic recently put out an interview with B. J. Novak about his hilarious children's book, The Book with No Pictures. While I haven't been able to read it yet, (books in English can be tricky to get in hand in this country) the reviews from many sources have me confident I will love it. The humor of the book seems to come from giving children the power to get adults to read to them, even reading silly nonsense words or funny phrases, such as "I am a monkey. I am a robot monkey." What seems most interesting to me is how much work was put into the typography and font size and page layout to help the lay reader with comic delivery. For example, the font for the words "ROBOT MONKEY" looks all digital and robotic, encouraging the adult reading to use a "robot voice."

I had already been thinking of making another big list of kids books (in celebration of my friends everywhere having babies!), so here is a list of books that make kids laugh. Their parents, too.

Let's start with Mo Willems. This man used to write for Sesame Street back when the show was really good, and is now famous for his hilarious kids books. I particularly like the Elephant and Piggie books (you'll find them in the Early Readers section), Knuffle BunnyGoldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, Leonardo the Terrible Monster, and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed. The humor of his books typically comes from his understanding of the extremes of human emotion in all its quirks and absurdities. The illustrations are also rock solid, and even the early reader structure of the Elephant and Piggie books (simple words, limited vocabulary, extensive repetition) is used for comic effect, as the two characters get more and more anxious or excited or sad. We Are in A Book even has a little inside joke for the readers going through for second time in a row.

Jon Scieszka (along with Lane Smith as illustrator and Molly Leach as the brilliant but under-recognized designer) makes books that are hilarious in an entirely different way from Mo Willems. Scieszka's humor is mostly for a bit older kids than Mo Willems: many of his stories including those in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, are spoofs off of well known fairy tales, so if you don't know the story of the Gingerbread Man, you won't necessarily find it as funny as you could. His books are wacky and rule bending (with jokes on the end papers, the ISBN code, and even the author bio), but in as much as they are irreverent they are also very intelligently put together. Squids will be Squids is in the style of Aesop's Fables, and Math Curse laughs at the silly ways in which people put together math problems for kids, but also shows respect for the honest struggle of figuring out the hows and which ways of numbers.

Some authors that made me laugh as a kid were Steven Kellogg and James Marshall and Shel Silverstein. What I loved best about Steven Kellogg were the tiny details in his wild illustrations. Not only would the pictures be giant mishmashes of unexpected action, but you could see the tiny writing on the advertisements on the walls in the background. My favorite stories of his are Ralph's Secret Weapon (where a kid with a bassoon and a cake defeats a sea monster), The Three Pigs, and Pinkerton, Behave! 

While Kellogg's illustrations are notable for how much he includes, James Marshall's craft shines in how little he needs to put on the page (in words or pictures) to tell incredibly funny and lovable stories. You cannot go wrong with the George and Martha books, but I am also very fond of his Fairy tale/Folk tale retellings.

Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic kept my brother and me giggling for years, but A Giraffe and a Half was the one we wanted Mom to read out loud to us. It's a tongue twister and full of ridiculous combinations of roses and noses, gluey shoes, trunks filled with skunks and all manner of oddities.

King Bidgood's in the Bathtub (by Audrey and Don Wood) is a silly book with silly illustrations of a king who refuses to leave his bathtub. All the courtiers (in their hilarious fluffy costumes) attempt to make him leave with enticements of lunch, or dancing, or fishing, but only the little page boy can actually get him out of the bubbles.

The Monster at the End of this Book is the only book that a dear friend of mine would take with her when she went babysitting. It was all she needed because whatever children she was reading to, they'd just want to hear this one again and again. Like The Stinky Cheese Man and The Book with No Pictures, it uses the book itself as a tool for comedy, as Grover tries to get his readers to stop turning the pages so that they can continue to avoid the dreaded monster at the end of the book.

Bink and Golly are a pair of characters who now have three books full of the ups and downs of their friendship. They remind me of Calvin and Hobbes—their banter and their antics, even the illustration style, and they are outrageously funny. Although they do not technically qualify as "I can read" books (because of their extensive vocabulary and creative use of sentence structure,) these picture book/comic book mashups are great for kids starting to read on their own.

Those are some of my favorite funny books and authors for kids. What are some of yours?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Year in Leiden: Effort and Beauty

In Jeanette Winterson's incredible novel, The Powerbook, one of her characters writes, 

“There's no such thing as effortless beauty - you should know that. There's no effort which is not beautiful - lifting a heavy stone or loving you. Loving you is like lifting a heavy stone. It would be easier not to do it and I'm not quite sure why I am doing it.”

As I’ve thought about how to sum up our experiences here in Leiden this year, this quote came to mind again and again. There has been a lot of effort over things that don’t seem important or deeply meaningful, but there’s also been so much beauty that the effort itself (perhaps only in the haze of hindsight) can seem beautiful.

A lot of stuff this past year was really hard. Family sorrows, world sorrows, academic struggles, unemployment, loneliness. Some of it has been usual moving/adjusting difficulties, (the effort of filling out job application after job application, setting up the various things with town hall, unpacking a house, getting to know your way around your new city) but some of it hasn’t been. Watching new friends make the move had made us realise our transition was unusually difficult. Some of our new friends waited for a shipment for weeks, we waited for months. Bank accounts--which took us four trips to the bank, an additional trip to town hall, a seven-email conversation, a missed form, a delay because of vacation time and over 5 weeks total--took other people just one appointment to the local branch. We had to move within three months of coming. We were without internet for three months. It’s normal for these things to be difficult, but it’s not normal for them to be this difficult. I’ve gone to expat meetups that turn into pity-parties. “I’ve been miserable here for thirty years” is not the encouragement you’re looking for when you confess you’re really struggling to not feel sad.

The Hyperbole and a Half comic about depression started feeling really appropriate. But I’m not miles deep in the sadness either. I cry about as easily as the toddlers I babysit, but I laugh as easily too. And no, I am not pregnant, I am just Clara-the-easily-moved. I think I’ve always been this way, but I usually have feet a bit more solidly in my comfort zone.
Leiden in the late afternoon, in December

So now that I’ve shared a little of the effort, let me share a little of its beauty.

Board game nights: when the Italians bring Bang and then are totally shocked when we already know how to play.

Learning to Speak Dutch: Watching familiar kids movies like “The Emperor’s New Grove” dubbed in Dutch, and having it be something we can actually understand!
In the Escher Museum

Breakfasts: We sit down to pancakes pretty much every morning.

Babysitting: I’ve been able to help two children grow and learn. When we came little J wasn’t even born yet, but now I’ve seen him crawl and take some of his first steps.

Nights at home: We’ve read books out loud together (Villette, Ella Enchanted, To Kill a Mockingbird, What's so Amazing about Grace , to name a few), and watched a lot of Sci-fi (Dr. Who, Stargate, and Firefly, most of which I had never seen, but loved).

Making my mom's Greek Easter bread
Traveling: One of the greatest joys here is just being able to say, “Hey Owen, want to go to Belgium this weekend?” and have the answer be “sure!”

Museums: We have been to so many that even new museums in new places are starting to feel like friends we're only just now getting to meet.

Violin Lessons: I’ve started teaching two children once a week, and it’s been a blast.
King's Day!

Most of a first year of marriage: So much learning how to communicate, learning to be a team, learning to take care of each other, laughing, dancing, learning to love each other and this world better every day.

The Gym: We joined a super cheap gym and love remembering how good it feels to challenge one’s body.

Taking Owen’s calculus class: I’m in it again this fall and at more than half way through the course my average is an A-. Last year I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.

The Keukenhof: If you missed that post it’s worth it to go back for the pictures.

Owen’s work at the University: It’s great. He really likes his colleagues, his duties, the atmosphere and feels like he’s accomplishing more in less time than he ever did in graduate school.

Biking: Has begun to feel so normal, I already feel how much I will miss the biking when we return to the states.

Making Friends: Nothing makes you feel more at home than this. 

Cultural celebrations: This week I saw a parade with the royalty in their golden carriages, various military groups in gorgeous formal attire and dozens of children dressed in traditional dutch clothing, complete with little hats, bonnets and wooden shoes.

Houseplants: our "boompje" (little tree) is now taller than me!

Learning together: Besides learning Dutch, and learning from all the museums we go to, over dinner or breakfast sometimes we take part in online courses, the best of which was Barbara Oakley’s Learning How to Learn. We’re looking forward to a lifetime of learning together.

Our plan had been to stay in Leiden two years, and if we stick with that plan we have less than 12 months before we’ll need to move on. Owen recently was given the word that the University will happily extend his contract for up to five years total, so we could stay here much longer than we had planned. We’re not sure what we think about that, and we have a few months to think it over, but it’s made us do a lot of thinking about our time here. Do we want to stay? Is it the right choice for both of us? It's a real adventure learning to trust God, and trust each tother, but we know one thing for sure. If it's for just this next year or if it's for longer, we love it here, and it’s getting better all the time.

I didn't include it in the list, but I will say it here. Visits have been some of the best parts. Some of you are already planning trips, and we can't wait to see you. But if you’ve been thinking of coming to Europe, we’d love to show you around. We’ll share a little of the effort and the beauty of life here in The Netherlands.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

A love letter to the bicycle.

The times I've written about biking on this blog, it's been mostly negative. When I started I was really scared, and then I had some very minor accidents, which scared me some more. These things made it onto the blog, and so sometimes when I talk to my friends back home about biking, the mental image they still have of me is of me crashing and being so terrified my knuckles are white on the handlebars. So I am writing today to amend that image because over the last eleven months my feelings have changed, changed utterly.

So here is the love letter to the bicycle, to mine in particular, and to biking in the Netherlands.

At home in Leiden
I love that now I bike so frequently that when Owen and I walk somewhere we get annoyed and confused with our legs for how slowly they walk. "How are we still going past this narrow building? If we were biking we'd be two blocks down by now."

The skies here are incredible

I love all the financial benefits! I love not needing to put gas in the tank. I love that our most expensive bike repair has been 60 euro. I love that when my bike breaks down I can carry it or walk it without any problem.

Biking with Owen to the Hague

I love how strong and free biking makes me feel. On days when I teach violin lessons in Leiderdorp, I bike for about a half hour through town and then through the fields for a bit. On nice days, especially when the wind is fighting me a bit I let out my hair and the speed of biking and the gusts of the breeze blow it out behind me, and I feel like I am life itself.

My first long bike trip alone, in November

I love that biking has given me the Netherlands. The huge skies swooping down on all sides to kiss the perfectly flat ground. The silver canals shimmering in the sunlight. The flowers blooming everywhere. The streets of the Hague, or the giant garden in Lisse, the shores of the North Sea, I can get to them all with the force of my legs and the two wheels they power.

here is a week's groceries on my bike.

I love carrying things on my bike. My violin, the week's groceries, a backpack or a bike bag full of sundries, are just the everyday things I've transported with my bike. I've also biked with dining room chairs, vacuum cleaners, luggage and a small tree on my bike, and love that it's become no big deal.

I love that biking has brought me intimately close to the weather. Characters in books are always talking about the weather, because it mattered so much more when people didn't go from temperature regulated houses to temperature regulated cars and back again, with shelter along most every step of the way. Here all those weather conversations make sense. I love that everyone looks out for the weather, watches and listens, plans their errends so that they miss the rain. And when the weather is good? You know those perfect days when you have a kind of long drive and you decide to open all the windows and just let the weather in? On a bike you get all that whoosh of speed and wind but without any car obstructing that experience. You smell the lilacs, you hear the birds, you feel the little sprinkles of rain as the start to fall. It's a full bodied experience and it's wonderful.

When Owen asked what I wanted to do for our anniversary, I said, "Let's go on a bike trip." So we went to the Hague, just a couple hours each way, and we rented a place to stay so the whole weekend we could bike around the city and wouldn't need to rely on public transportation... we'd just be free! It's been a big adventure, but I should stop writing now... I'm biking with a friend to the seaside.

Bike paths are a big deal here. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Switzerland Part 4: Around Lake Geneva

—guest post by Owen

This is the last post in our series on our recent trip to Switzerland; here are part 1 (Geneva)part 2 (Lausanne), and part 3 (Gruyères and Le Moléson), but you don't have to read them first.  On the day after we ascended Le Moléson with our friends Chris and Yordan, they found a great deal on a rental car and we made a road trip around Lake Geneva past vineyards and castles, into France, and back through Geneva to Lausanne.

Just minutes outside of Lausanne, the view became this:

The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces are a Unesco world heritage site.
Chris and Yordan had to laugh as Clara and I began to repeat "It's so beautiful..." every few minutes, which we kept up for the rest of the trip.

Between cities, the road became quite narrow.

And even in the small towns, it stayed narrow and just got more twisty!  Up and down, left and right—we were so glad Chris was driving.

Who could drive onto that little ledge?  Fortunately we went off to the right.
We stopped to get out in Vevey, where there was an inter-city boating event and an associated fair on the waterfront.

Chris, Yordan, and Clara set off to sample the food.  Chocolate chip waffles, anyone? Yum.
We strolled along the waterfront enjoying the scenery.  The view over the water showed the next leg of our journey: around the tip of Lake Geneva and crossing into France.

Apparently these rocks have holes drilled in them so that in the warmer months there can be chairs.
The border crossing was totally uneventful, and we stopped in a park in Évian to eat our picnic lunch and look back across the water at Lausanne and Vevey:

Évian is the source of the eponymous bottled water.
From there, we continued to Yvoire, a little old town on a pointy peninsula.  We were expecting something like this:

What we were surprised to find, was this:

Apparently Yvoire was having its own festival that day: people were in costume head-to-toe everywhere you looked, and you could buy your own carnival-style mask as you entered, if you wanted to join in.  The town was even quainter than we'd expected though, with flowers and old stone walls defining a maze of pedestrian-only streets:

From there, the rest of the road trip passed quickly.  We rounded the other end of Lake Geneva by passing through Geneva itself:

We'd just been there!
It was strange to whiz through a city we'd spent hours in a few days before and would be taking the train back to a couple days later.  But onward we went, and returned safe and sound to Chris and Yordan's apartment in Lausanne.

It probably looks like this every evening.
Thanks for reading this series on Switzerland!  Been on any fun road trips yourselves recently? Anywhere we must go or anything we must see next?  Tell us in the comments!