The books she never read

It is an odd phenomenon of our modern world that our online lives continue after our earthly lives have ended. Our digital footprints cross more virtual space than our real feet could wish to cover.

I’ve been thinking of this only because I ran into an online ghost recently on (An aside: if you’re a reader and you don’t know or use Goodreads, check it out. It lets you track the books you’ve read and find recommendations. You can connect to friends of the real or virtual kind, follow authors, and share reviews and suggestions. I’m not into online socializing; for me, Goodreads is a tool to remember what books I’ve read and what I want to read. More than once, it has saved me from the paralysis I sometimes feel in a bookstore or library, and instead sent me confidently towards the right shelf.)

After adding something to my want-to-read list, I started browsing the long list of titles I’ve already read. I clicked on a Jane Austen book, of which I had only the vaguest memory, and I saw, below my four-star rating of the work, that someone I followed on Goodreads had also read the book. My mom. Who died in August, 2014.

I clicked into her profile. She had joined Goodreads in late 2012 and literally all of her activity on the site had happened on one single day, December 1. On that day she input and rated over 80 books. I suspect she never went back to the site; no additional books had been added, though I’m certain she kept reading up until her death. My friend request to her remains, forever, unanswered.

Few things in my adult life made me happier than when my mother – an exceptionally smart and well-educated woman who was a teacher for decades – finally started reading real books.

Image result for harlequin romance


For reasons I never understood as a child, and only vaguely understand now, my mother read trash for years. Years. Hers was a steady diet of Harlequin Romance. If you’re not familiar with Harlequin, their website describes their books as “uplifting escapes featuring real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men.” Most of the books feature these same “relatable” and “desirable” people on the cover in various states of undress. And by chapter seven (it was always chapter seven), all the clothes came off and the prose turned purple, or sometimes blue.

I might not have been too bothered by my mother’s enjoyment of these books, except she was always asking me to get some for her when I went to the library. She never cared if she had already read them; she knew they were essentially all the same. “Just pick out some with good covers”, she would tell me. My pre-teen or teen self would blush with shame as I put those worn paperbacks on the top of my pile of young-adult novels or research books.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when my mom joined a book club a few years before she retired. Suddenly she was asking what I was reading and sharing recommendations of books she enjoyed. Like most book clubs, I think hers was light on the actual book discussion and heavy on the chatting and wine tasting, but I loved that her involvement in it gave us something else to talk about together, and another way to connect.

When I found her Goodreads profile a few weeks ago, I was struck by the overlap between the books she had read and those on my list. I remembered which she had suggested to me. I can see where our tastes come together (Austin again, Ann Patchett) and where they diverge (Chris Cleve, Chris Bohjalian). She was generous with her five-star ratings, where I reserve those only for mind-blowing books I cannot live without.

Then I saw that my mom had marked several books as want-to-read. And my immediate thought was that she will never get to read them. My next thought was: I will.

There were eight in total, but two had ratings indicating that they may have been read, so that left me with just six. (It occurs to me now that it’s possible my mom actually read all of them and just never went back to Goodreads to change the labels. Which perhaps makes my little project even more pointless. But isn’t much of what we do for those we have lost pointless, really? So, ever onward.)

There’s nothing extraordinary about any of the books. The list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, old and new. There’s nothing there I’ve been desperate to read, but neither will any be a struggle. The titles don’t give me some new insight into my mother. I don’t think there is any message from the great beyond waiting for me at the end of these six books. I doubt there’s a lesson to be learned or a revelation coming. I’ll mark the books as read and then cross them off both of our to-do lists. But while I’m reading, the conversation between me and my mom continues.

This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States, a day that can be complicated regardless of the status of your particular mother-child relationship. So I’m going to offer a suggestion, borrowed from the great Mr. Fred Rogers, that we all spend 10 seconds on Mother’s Day thinking “of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” I’ll watch the time.



“Even old New York was once New Amsterdam”

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me, “So, why Amsterdam?” It normally comes as a puzzled follow-up to the standard expat question, “Did you move here for work or for love?”, to which I usually answer, “Neither. Or both.”

Most foreigners we’ve met have either been transferred to Amsterdam or they’ve followed a romantic partner here. In our case, I did move here for work, but I actively looked for a job, and found a company that would sponsor my visa. We didn’t have the benefit of a corporate office helping with our arrangements; we did most of it ourselves. It was not easy, and I am quite proud of us for managing it, even though we didn’t do it perfectly. So proud, in fact, that I want to be sure it’s clear to people that we weren’t just taken by the hand by a benevolent multi-national employer and given a sunny apartment, a bicycle, and a tax attorney. Which is why I don’t like to say that I moved here for work.

In my husband’s case, he did (technically) move here for love, as this move was mostly my idea and he was kind enough to agree and to come along. But again, our situation doesn’t fit with the standard answer. We’re not navigating a cross-cultural, cross-language relationship, or thinking about long term plans. So we don’t like to say that we moved here for love.

If my fellow expat is still in the conversation at this point, this is when he or she normally asks, “Ok, but…why Amsterdam?” IMG_1769

It’s not a question for which I have a good answer, other than that there’s just something about the Netherlands and its people that I feel connected to. Like we’re kindred spirits. Maybe it’s that they are all so tall, but I’d like to think I’m not quite so superficial. All I can say is that from the first time I came to Amsterdam, back in 2000 or 2001, I just felt at home here. Still, I couldn’t explain the feeling.

Enter Russell Shorto. Mr. Shorto is an American writer who has lived in the Netherlands. He writes about Dutch history in a way that is compelling and engaging and fun.  I read “Amsterdam” last year and now I’m almost through “The Island at the Center of the World’. It is the story of the “pirates and prostitutes” who were among the first to settle in what is now Manhattan – pioneers and adventurers setting out on behalf of the Dutch West India Company.

Shorto argues that the presence of this thriving, diverse colony – which predated the British presence in the New World – shaped not just New York City, but the whole of America. While some modern Americans would suggest that New York and its “New York City values” are an aberration from the rest of America, Shorto’s research tells us that New York City IS America, thanks to these early Dutch settlers. They weren’t all pirates; there were lawyers and merchants and many others who contributed to early understandings of free trade, religious freedom, and representative governance.

Now, I don’t claim to be a real New Yorker. I’m not from Manhattan. I am, however, from the Dutch half of Long Island (bearing the very Dutch name of Nassau County), based on the treaty that Peter Stuyvesant negotiated with the New Englanders. And then there’s this, buried in a footnote on page 183:

The colors of the Dutch flag of the seventeenth century were adopted in 1915 by the city of New York in recognition of its origins. There is thus a bizarrely direct connection between the colors flown by Dutch privateers cruising for booty on the Spanish Main three hundred and fifty year ago, and the jerseys worn today by the New York Mets…

Aha! Maybe that’s the explanation! Without knowing it, my childhood love of baseball and the Mets has connected me to the Netherlands. The pennant that hung in my bedroom, the black and white stuffed dog with the Mets cap, even the mini plastic helmet that spent years on my desk…these blue and orange trinkets were signposts! Arrows! Signals!  And all these years later, here I am, feeling very much at home in this very orange country.

So from now on, maybe that will be my answer. Why Amsterdam? Because I am a New Amsterdammer who was called to Old Amsterdam. Perhaps I am a descendant – spiritually, if not genetically – of those first adventurers. Perhaps some element of their temperament survives in the air and the soil of modern New York, and seeps into receptive New Amsterdammers however it can: through straight talk, live-and-let-live attitudes, support for individual freedom, and, when necessary, the Mets.

Back to school

It’s Labor Day in the U.S.: the unofficial end of summer. Since it’s not a holiday in the Netherlands, I was at work today, and this evening I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed and seeing pictures of pool parties, barbecues, and beach outings. And although I don’t ever remember starting school before Labor Day, last week Facebook was filled with back to school photos. Everyone had new clothes and shiny new backpacks, and most of the kids looked ready – if not terribly excited – for the new school year.

I’ve never worked in an academic setting, but I still find that September, not January, feels like the start of the year, just like it did back in my school days. If you know me, it won’t be surprise to hear that I LOVED the start of a new school year. As a Catholic school kid, I wore a uniform, so I didn’t have new clothes.  But I usually had a new pair of shoes (which I was not allowed to wear until school started) and new school supplies. Everything seemed clean, ready, and full of potential.  We’d pick up our books a few days before classes started, and I would get an early jump on things by starting to read my history text or my math workbook. Yes, I was that kind of kid. (But like I said: are you surprised?)

The summer vacation in Holland is a bit shorter than in the U.S., and many of my colleagues’ children have already been back to school for several weeks. August was a frenzy of holiday-taking, as everyone tried to fit in a last vacation before the summer ended. So there is also a back-to-school feeling at work, as people return, tan and rested (for now).

I’m also going back to school. Last year, as part of my attempt to un-stick myself from the stuck-ness I was feeling in my work and life, I started looking into graduate programs. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, and then I stumbled on an online program at neighboring Northeastern University, in Corporate and Organizational Communication. Since my past work experience was largely operational, this seemed like a good way to balance out my professional self, and it just sounded interesting. Crisis communication, ethics, and, for this semester, negotiation, mediation and facilitation. This class won’t come a moment too soon, as I’ve been called on to do more than my share of (cross-cultural) facilitation recently,

Classes start on the 21st and last a brief but intense 6 weeks, so don’t be surprised if my blogging falls off a bit during that time. And with two weeks until the first day of school, I of course bought one of my books today, and will probably start reading it this week.  Now all I need is a new pair of shoes…