Barrage – A Rant

Photo by Andrew Neel on

This morning my daughter woke me up at 5:45 AM. She is 13 years old and she couldn’t sleep. She had been watching a YouTube video which was immediately followed up with a video of a young girl weighing herself, seeing the number on the scales and entertaining suicidal thoughts. It made her sad, and worried, and she had been caught off guard by this. It’s something she feels she should maybe know about, but that I agree should not have been dumped on her like this.

My daughter and her peers experience this kind of onslaught all the time. Social media are not safe regardless of the safeguard theater companies put on, and while our daughter fortunately feels and knows she can talk to us about her worries, many teenagers don’t have an adult to confide in and are thus left to worry with no perspective, context or explanation. Add to that that there is often a sense of guilt over having watched something that was maybe inappropriate and the fear of hearing that this load they now carry was of their own making and you have the makings of a cesspool that can really mess a kid up.

For me, I found myself having to explain – barely awake enough to remember that words exist – that anorexia exists and it is awful, and also it is about so much more than weight, or even body dysphoria, but that is a conversation for another time if/when she feels she can handle hearing about it. Try to go back to sleep now, if you can.

What follows now is a rant, plain and simple. I have no solutions, just observations. And feelings about those observations, I guess. Off we go then.

There‘s a whole mass of people out there without any sense of personal responsibility. They live in a selective vacuum, screaming into the wind for no other reason than to validate their own ego, or protect their own fragile comfort zone. They don’t care who gets hurt in the process. They loudly and sometimes violently proclaim their often uninformed and shortsighted opinions to be better than facts because their reality is the only one that matters and anyone unwilling to adopt it is a fool, a sheep, gullible, or should go off and die. I’m not even exaggerating here.

Those people claim that this is all about freedom: freedom to express whatever you want, freedom to be whoever you choose to be. All good things, to be sure, except for the part where they also, apparently, have the freedom to destroy whatever or whoever gets in their way in the process. Freedom from and without consequence. It’s ironic that inevitably the people wreaking this havoc are the same people whose every argument is shrouded in “but think of the children”.

Well, those sounds and sights reach our children and it hurts them, damages them, causes them untold anxiety and worry as it teaches them that the world they live in has nothing in common with the values they are told matter. You know, the values that are promoted by the Disney Channel and teenage popcorn movies. They’re values I agree with: fairness, kindness, honesty. But what those stories mostly fail to communicate is the sheer strength needed to uphold those values in ourselves by ourselves as every aspect of the world today in fact pushes the opposite. And it’s a strength that teenagers need to acquire, but often don’t already possess. Adults often don’t either, because it’s hard.

We live in a world that rates money over humanity, power over fairness, and loud, cruel ignorance over kindness. We try to teach our children how to be a good person, but then we make the mistake of telling them that being a good person should be its own reward, and while that is true it’s also not true, in the same way that a job well done is its own reward, but also a job well done should enable you to put food on the table and a roof over your head at the very least.

Inherent morality needs a feedback loop. And when the world floats on only money, when the Amazons and Googles and Facebooks of the world are rewarded with staggering profits and ridiculous tax avoidance for employing shockingly bad working conditions and turning their users into tradable datasets, rather than protecting or at least respecting the human rights and spirit of its products users and workers, what the hell are we even doing anymore?

We live in a world that has people intelligent enough to create technology that has far-reaching influence over society, that can affect political realities, even overthrow governments and enable corrupt leaders to use these tools to continue their oppressive and destructive rule. A world in which we are apparently smart enough to develop these technologies that could do so much good, but no one is smart enough to deploy or use these tools responsibly and constructively. Or perhaps more accurately: a world where no one cares to do so.

What does this teach our kids? That exploitation is rewarded, and fairness is a losing proposition. That ruthlessness is a virtue, and kindness is a weakness. Just in case it needs to be said: those are the wrong lessons.

Unsolicited information is inflicted on us without warning all the time. For children who are sensitive to what happens in the world, children who care and who are hurt by the pain of others, that can be a nightmare, especially when they are unprepared for it. And who decides which information gets to them? It’s not the parents, who can’t be constant gatekeepers, though most of us really try. At most, we have a semblance of control. We are up against algorithms that have been created with the sole purpose of monetizing us, children included. Adults barely stand a chance against all this, what chance do kids have?

Young Instagram users who want to look at pictures of cute cats and fairytale settings, but in between that have to scroll past “beauty” ads designed to make them feel self-conscious for no good reason, because there is a whole industry looking to monetize that newly instilled insecurity based on nothing real. Yes, the body positivity movement is gaining momentum, but we are so far from where we need to be still. Young YouTube users who want to watch a Just Dance video or see a movie clip and are then suddenly interrupted by a video that packs a psychological punch that not only catches them unawares but also unprepared.

Meanwhile, I have a 13-year old who at the moment feels like she doesn’t even know where to start working through her feelings as she sees all these things that she finds unfair, truly sad, and downright scary. These things wake her up at 5 AM. These things keep her awake when she tries to sleep at night. And she’s right, there’s so much wrong with the world at the moment. And at least some of it is our fault. We are failing our kids at least as much as we have failed ourselves. I’m not saying they need to be protected from everything. At some point, they need to face the realities of the world, but not all at once, and they certainly do not need to be ambushed by it.

We, too, are overpowered, outmanned, outgunned. Money-making algorithms. People are products. And in the midst of all this, we see blissfully unbothered ruthlessness as Facebook floats the idea of Instagram for kids… As the young folks say: I can’t even with these people.

Languishing Just a Little Less

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog post. It’s not that nothing has been going on, or that I haven’t had experiences or opinions on things or anything like that, I just haven’t been able to muster up much energy. I’ve been suffering from “meh”: every day has been more or less the same, except that I haven’t been able to establish much structure or routine to my days. I’ve just been doing the same things every day, sometimes in a different order, and at a different pace, and sometimes, when my energy has been really low, I haven’t been doing them at all.

For the past few weeks – well, actually for quite some time before that as well – I’ve been feeling pretty low energy. To be fair, at least recently part of that is down to interrupted nights where one of my children or my snoring husband or my cat wakes me up just that hour too early and it drains half my battery before I even start on my day. Thank god for coffee… (though, I know, coffee doesn’t actually provide the pick-me-up we are led to believe: the caffeine in coffee doesn’t wake you up, but it does counter adenosine, which is the thing that makes you sleepy.)

But it’s more than just not getting enough sleep. It’s that each day consists of lists and lists of chores which need to get done preferably by the end of the day and which then will need to be repeated a few days later because chores never bleeping end, do they?! And while the satisfaction I used to get from a job well done is still there its impact lasts ever shorter. The energy I manage to bring to the things I do is also less. And there is not much to change things up at the moment, so perhaps monotony is a factor.

And yet I wonder about that because I also get to spend my days with the people I like best in the world, and we do fun things together like play games, watch movies, cook and bake, and that makes me happy. And of course no two days are the same, though lately they are very similar.

I think that the monotony of activity is not the only thing that is at play, though. It’s also the monotony of location. Like pretty much everyone, the pandemic has me being mostly at home, inside my house, which is a very comfortable place with a lovely garden to enjoy when the weather doesn’t suck – which isn’t often lately. This locational monotony is probably even worse for my husband, who has been truly housebound for the past year, and marginally less so for my son, who has been mostly housebound for the past year. I, at least, get out to shop for groceries (same shops, same morning every week, but with the added joy of seeing my friend with whom I can catch up), and my daughter goes to school part time, so she, too, sees more of the world that way.

But whatever the individual elements are of my current state of mind, I have learned that there is a word for it: languishing. I am languishing. My whole family is languishing. It’s a term that I read about recently in an excellent article by Adam Grant, and it is oddly liberating to know what this funk that I am in is called, not to mention that it is an actual thing! I was reminded of this article again yesterday as I listened to the episode of The Armchair Expert that had Prince Harry talking about mental health (an excellent episode, by the way, which I highly recommend listening to).

Even the cat is languishing

I listened to this podcast, incidentally, while folding the laundry. The little things that help us through the mind-numbing parts of our day, eh? Podcasts have saved my life, I tell you!

Now that I know what the problem is, though, how do I fix it? The languishing itself won’t be fixed, I’m afraid, until there is some freedom to move again without a significant risk to our personal health. In terms of how I experience my day-to-day, though, I did a little introspection and I found that one thing that’s going on is that I actually experience a ton of pressure from the ever-present list of chores. So here, I realized, was something I could do!

I have now begun to take a different approach to my chores: I will still do the things that need doing, but I’m putting less pressure on myself to do them. No more laundry list of things that need to be done by the end of business today, just a list of things that need doing, in order of priority, and I’ll do them but when I’m up to it. I’m not naturally one for sitting still anyway, and I like things at least a little tidy so I know I will get the chores done. I’ve just removed the stress factor of “must ALL be finished by 4 PM” and allowed myself some freedom to take the time to do things that inspire or relax me and I alternate that with the chores, and what doesn’t get done today will get done tomorrow. I don’t necessarily take longer breaks, it’s just that when I’m doing something I enjoy I am actually enjoying it because I’ve given myself permission to do so, and it’s making such a difference!

[I feel like at this point I should acknowledge my privilege in that I actually can do this, where many people cannot, due to any number of factors. This blog post is purely about what I am able to do for myself to combat the languishing a little. In other words: you could see if you think this is an approach worth trying if you have the space, time and situation for it.]

Oddly, I feel like I’m getting pretty much the same amount of work done. My personal time and my work time are about evenly balanced, but the real difference is that when I am sitting down and doing something I like doing, I can truly focus on it, rather than feel like I should really be doing something else. It improves the quality of my personal time, and gives me more energy for the work that needs doing. But most importantly, I feel less like every day is Groundhog Day.

And while that hasn’t defeated the languishing, it is making me feel just that little bit better.

Picture (im)perfect

In these times of lockdowns and pandemic anxiety, like everyone I have been looking for ways to reduce stress and find a way to inject some new found appreciation into being house bound. I have been trying to tidy (sort of Marie Kondo style, but not quite), bullet journal (intermittently), design and do home workouts (either alone or together with the fam – these are usually binge watch workouts), or study (very, very hard to do with everyone at home and occupying the same space). This list, it turns out, is far too ambitious, but I keep trying.

Our “Psych” binge watch workout. That’s a fair amount of burpees and a lot of half boat extensions per episode…

And then I thought: maybe it will inspire and entertain me to browse through some interior design magazines. I’ll come up with marvelous ideas to make our home feel new and fresh. Turns out, that doesn’t work for me as well as I thought it would.

Why not, you ask? Well…

First of all, when I leaf through these magazines I very often find that the interiors and decorative ideas don’t really work for me – which is entirely a matter of personal taste, of course. Most of the themes and decors just don’t seem to appeal to me. But more importantly: most of the projects that these magazines suggest are so involved, and I just don’t have that kind of time! Or perhaps it’s a matter of prioritizing; I don’t know.

Either way, I really don’t see myself collecting and cleaning off used straws so I can cut them into little pieces and recreate a repurposed plastic mosaic of the Mona Lisa – not to mention that we only use either paper straws these days, or stainless steel washable ones. Should I somehow free up the time it takes to make weekly rounds of my house in order to frame home made art works and hang them on the walls, only to take them down and de-frame them the next week, then use the freed up frames for different home made art works and hang them up instead (lather – rinse – repeat)? Or give my house a whole new feel on the regular with all those personally restored hidden prizes I will have found after hours and hours of flea market treasure hunting; those same hours that – I may have mentioned this earlier – I just don’t have?

I definitely don’t see myself on a whim moving all the furniture out of our living room so I can sand down my wooden floor in order to give it a new finish that makes the floor look like it hasn’t been sanded down or finished at all – I mean, it sounds marvelously modern and magnificently natural, and it would definitely be a fantastic outlet for my inner minimalist, but still.

The main reason, though, why these interior design magazines don’t do it for me is that reading them leaves me frustrated rather than inspired. All those houses with oceans of space. Everything squeaky clean and not a speck of dust anywhere. Everything tidy and in its place. All the time. And these pictures of perfection are supposed to be attainable even for families with children across all ages – as it happens ours run from ages 6 to 13. What kind of exemplary mini humans are these that they are constantly tidying away all their toys and games and clothes and candy wrappers? Don’t they ever want to build a hut in the most inconvenient spot using everything they can find that has not been bolted down? Are there no socks or slippers or stuffies that slide underneath the couch and then lie there, just out of reach but still in sight? Do these children all eat neatly above their plates, spilling neither crust nor crumb?

This is what my living room table looks like when it’s neat and not being used as a dumping ground for every blessed lego piece and hair band and abandoned art project. It’s not exactly a mess, but it’s hardly minimalist perfection.

I know it’s all staged for the photo shoots, but the Stepfordness of it all freaks me out. Even in the houses where everything isn’t perfectly feng-shued on a shelf or neatly folded in a closet (with the closet door slightly ajar so you can see that the contents have indeed been neatly folded and tidily put away rather than hurriedly shoved behind a door because grandma has come over for a surprise visit), the one unfolded item of clothing has been draped over the edge of the bed with stylish “nonchalance”. The lone cuddly toy sitting on the sofa seems more like a modern art installation representing the tragedy of the eventual forced abandonment of childhood than a tattered stuffed bunny the resident 4-year old threw angrily across the room when his mother told him he wasn’t allowed a piece of candy. See? these stylized scenes seem to say, this is a room that’s lived in. Sure it is.

Spot the odd one out…

No, I’m afraid these examples of interior perfection are not for me. Do you know what magazine would work for me? An interior design magazine for families with children who don’t listen or who don’t like or manage to tidy up after themselves, and parents who don’t spend every spare second dusting every inch of their house or polishing their floors. A magazine with a special about storage and tidying solutions with spreads that include photos from before tidying, after tidying, and then five minutes after that, when the kids have been allowed back into the room to do what they usually do.

I’d subscribe to that magazine in a heartbeat!

Relevance in the Age of Parenting

It’s been nearly a year since I gave birth to my gorgeous little boy (yes, I’m bragging) and nearly 7 years since I’ve been gainfully employed. Well, not counting efforts to start up a company with a friend who had a wonderful idea and developed it into a business, writing a book with my former colleague and mentor (second edition published last year – it’s not a bestselling novel or anything, but it’s a good textbook) and publishing a number of articles in a beautiful online magazine.

Now that I’m summing it all up, it doesn’t really look too shabby. What’s more, I plan to continue writing. So why do I feel so irrelevant sometimes?

My husband and I made a decision long ago that one of us would stay home with our daughter, who has since gained a little brother, and so far it’s been me. Initially, we had excellent daycare for our girl, but on the whole I just don’t want to put my kids into daycare – I think mostly because I genuinely like having them at home. They’re going to grow up so fast, I feel like I want to see as much of them as I can while they’re still young.

Before I continue, let me cut off the inevitable sh*tstorm the previous paragraph will invoke: this is not a criticism or judgment, implied or otherwise, on working parents, nor do I believe that this is the best option for all parents and children. It’s simply an evaluation of myself and an expression of my preferences and choices, nothing more, nothing less. Just me.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll go back to the division of labour I was just talking about. My husband bit the bullet, in my view, and has a full-time job that he’s good at and which pays the bills. And I am a full-time mom. It’s satisfying and it’s hard work but there’s also a certain erosion of self that slips in, and that comes from the inevitable comparison of the status and importance of the stay-at-home mom to the status and importance society grants to those who collect a salary for a job well done.

At the moment, in my mind everyone working and supporting themselves and others is endlessly more significant, stronger and more valuable than I am somehow. And since my husband is the person I am closest to and with whom I share home and hearth and heart, he’s the most natural person for me to compare myself to – though I know he himself sets much more stock by personal value than status.

I can’t remember the last time I made a decision that had repercussions beyond this house. For example, the only planning I do involves grocery shopping, dinner times, what and when to pack for trips, how to schedule the laundry so that any required items of clothing are ready at the time they are needed and/or wanted, and so on. Weigh these things off against, for instance, planning software implementation, incident response, and client conferences which may all have multi-million dollar bottom line ramifications, and it’s easy to see how you could feel every so slightly less relevant than your working fellow human beings. (And now I’m guilty of the same thing I am railing against: assigning worth according to monetary value.)

Here’s the thing: I’m educated, I can hold my own in discussions, I keep up with the news (though it depresses me, lately) and I have an interest in a broad range of topics. As a mom I’ve certainly had to engage my brain to untangle the mess that had been my daughter’s education until the beginning of this school year, and I continue to be deeply interested in education and where I feel it should be going in this fast-evolving future. And yet there are times when I feel like I’ve wasted my education, my mind, even myself in aspiring to be a stay-at-home mom, which is crazy, because simultaneously I sincerely feel that being a mom is an incredibly rewarding, significant and responsible way to spend my time and I wouldn’t want to miss this part of my kids’ lives for the world! Yet somehow I’ve begun feeling stupid, worthless, irrelevant.

It’s a bizarre internal struggle, and I feel strongly that it is actually also a needless one, because here is how it should be: any choice I make for any reason I make it should feel like a valid choice to me. So why do I keep comparing myself to society’s idea of success?

Well, I think I’ve figured that out. It’s partly because any successes I achieve are private, not celebrated or rewarded by anything other than a smoothly running household (nope, not its own reward). Basically, stay-at-home mothering after a while begins a to feel like a mundane occupation, such a basic standard that it fades into the background no matter how many hugs and kisses you may get from hubby and kids – which is not to say that I am not incredibly proud of my husband and children and all their successes, or grateful for their health and happiness.

Perhaps this is my own shortcoming, since self-worth should come from within, right? Personally, I think that only works if you’re either living in a vacuum or you’ve already had your share of publicly celebrated successes and achievements. Clearly, I am not zen.

But more than that what’s been making me doubt myself is this ongoing, often aggressive debate raging between two camps: the stay-at-home parents and the working parents, each feeling attacked and judged by the other. No opinion can be put forth by either side without the other side a) feeling insulted for perceived (and sometimes, granted, real) slights, and b) immediately negating the one side’s perspective on the basis that they don’t know what it’s like on the other side of the fence.

I’ve been feeling stuck and pigeonholed by this debate, and I’ve found myself developing thinner skin as it progresses. Trying hard not to jump to conclusions or take offense, I’ve even started reading judgments and insults into innocuous comments. It’s driving me crazy and it’s doing serious damage to my self-esteem and my self-image. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

And so I think this parental partisanship should end for the mental and emotional well-being of everyone.

Here’s what I submit for a healthier frame of mind all around:

We are all relevant, we all contribute in our own way as best we can to a different aspect of life. One is not better than the other, and each contribution to society does not derive it’s right to exist or be appreciated from the remuneration or status or self-proclaimed moral high ground attached to it. Let’s try not to put a price on everything but rather finally see its value. If we can manage that, perhaps we can finally begin to see each other, instead of the preconceived notions we have of one another.

Switching Schools

ready for school

The summer vacation ended not too long ago and the new school year is already near the end of its second week. For our daughter, her first day signified a big change because she has just started a new school.

In the Netherlands, different systems of education are available to children without having to resort to placing children in often expensive private schools. A specific type of school is often chosen according to the type of personality parents have seen their children develop and/or the values and goals parents have in place for their children. However, as children get older and make their way through the first years of primary school, their learning style becomes apparent and it may turn out that the initial choice of school was not the right one.

Our daughter started her “scholastic career” in a school that aims to teach children who are brighter than your average bear. It seemed like a good fit for our daughter at first, not because we claim that she is some sort of rocket scientist but because the school’s approach was to teach all children at the same level, then offer the ones that needed some more instruction additional help, and offer the ones that were at the higher end of the intellectual spectrum a more intense treatment of the curriculum to hone their already impressive skills. It sounds wonderful in theory. It turned out differently in practice for our daughter.

Our little miss has a number of qualities that made it more and more obvious to us that the school in which we had initially enrolled her was not right for her, and so we have spent the last year and half first trying to see how we could offer additional support at home, then butting heads with school staff at various levels, while at home our daughter became more and more withdrawn and angry and sad.

So which qualities are we talking about that made her unfit for her old school? First, our daughter is a social animal: she loves helping out younger kids, working on projects together with others, and including as many children as possible at all times. Second, when she is bored or uninterested, she will not concentrate on the task at hand and become easily distracted. This is not surprising, after all: don’t we do the same (see many a set of doodle-infested meeting notes at work)? Third, she has a lot of energy, and needs to move regularly in order to expend some of it. Sitting still is not her strong suit. When she feels uncomfortable, she’ll fidget. She spent a lot of last year fidgeting. And fourth, she perceives and processes information differently from the way many schools teach: her learning style is visual/spatial, also known as visual learning, as opposed to verbal thinking, which is what the curriculum in regular schools is based on. (The term “visual thinking” was unknown to me until two of my friends enlightened me and a whole world opened up for me.)

All these traits together resulted in her becoming more and more miserable at her old school, because she had trouble grasping the material, focusing on her tasks and connecting to her classmates. She would often come home in tears, feeling like she was the only child in class who didn’t understand anything that was being taught. Her teachers and advisor, in turn, blamed this on her attitude. Perhaps we should have her tested, they suggested, probably angling for a diagnosis along the lines of ADHD, a “condition” that is not so much a condition as a collection of symptoms for which the underlying cause could be any number of things, among which, it would seem, forcing material into a child’s mind using a teaching style that does not match that child’s learning style.

We had, at this point, already made several attempts to explain our daughter’s learning style, but a parent’s observation, it seems, is not enough, primarily because it does not result in additional funding, which in turn is required to create the space for an adapted approach. And that’s perfectly acceptable, just as it should be perfectly acceptable that we will not place an arbitrary psychological label on a perfectly healthy child in order to facilitate a school that is simply not a good fit for our child, something that an educator should be in a position to assess. We ourselves even tried to find various root causes, even going so far as to have her eyes checked when she complained about what turned out to be stress headaches.

During one meeting, we asked her teachers point blank: do you honestly believe that this is the right school for our girl? Well, they said, other schools aren’t much different, so really, it was fine. (In retrospect, apparently those involved feel this new school will be a much better fit for her.)

Well, it was not fine, and after a year of watching my daughter break herself in half to fit an impossible mould, we knew it was time to make a change because she was stressed beyond belief, miserable and bleeding self-confidence with every day she attended. By now, it had become abundantly clear to us that it made no sense to force a child with such a strongly visually oriented mind into the standard educational system with its straightforward, result-oriented, verbal teaching methods: set tasks to be performed over a continuous period of time, very little opportunities for creative expression, and sadly often large and noisy classrooms.

At this point, I should stress that these are good, hard-working, well-intentioned, dedicated teachers, and the type of education they offer works very well for many children. The disillusionment on my part comes from what I now perceive as either unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that the school was unable to offer what was needed.

Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, there were options, and in our search for a better alternative we found ourselves at a Montessori school in our district for a hastily arranged introductory visit, because time was running out as the school year was quickly drawing to a close and finding a different school had now become crucial for our daughter’s emotional wellbeing. We sat in the principal’s office and explained to her how our girl thinks and which methods of explanation work best for her – we had spent a lot of time at home offering her alternative approaches to the material she was grappling with at her old school and found that simply showing how things work her using tangible materials worked very well for her; in doing so, we found that once she understood the material she learned very quickly indeed. The principal heard us out, smiled and nodded, and told us that such visual methods are precisely the methods they apply in their school. Other features: one-on-one explanation of the materials, which should ensure a much greater chance of ascertaining true comprehension on the part of the student; the ability to complete elements of the curriculum at your own pace (no more endless repetition of things you already know just because that’s what the set curriculum dictates at that time, or speeding past what you don’t yet fully understand, causing gaps in comprehension); working together with other classmates on tasks, such as language comprehension (social-educational engagement and being able to work together).

That meeting with the principal left me almost in tears of gratitude. Here, it seemed, was a place where our daughter could be herself and thrive under the guidance of a team of educators who approached children as children, stimulating their natural curiosity and eagerness to explore to cultivate an intrinsic motivation to learn. And we were not crazy, none of us: not our daughter, who had gotten lost in a system that was simply all wrong for her, and not us, for feeling that there must be a better way to learn.

Now, there is no more dragging our child out the door kicking and screaming because she doesn’t want to go, no more school-induced stomach aches. Our miss has loved her first week at her new school. First impressions of her teachers are that she is diligent, concentrated and enthusiastic, an outgoing child who connects well with her classmates.

It’s early days yet, but it feels like a very good start. It seems we’ve made the right decision.


Twee Kleine Meisjes

De Dodenherdenking blijft toch elk jaar weer een emotionele ervaring.

Ik bedenk elk jaar weer dat mijn moeder de oorlog gelukkig heeft overleefd. Ze was nog maar een baby toen Duitsland binnenviel, maar heeft zo jong als ze was door de intensiteit van de ervaringen de jaren daarna toch heel bewust meegemaakt. Als ik onze dochter nu onschuldig en vrij buiten zie spelen, denk ik aan dat kleine meisje dat vroeger niet zomaar buiten kon spelen, die dingen niet kon zeggen en bij alles op moest passen wat ze deed, omdat de gevolgen veel erger waren dan alleen een geschaafde knie. Als onze dochter ‘s avonds zit te eten, – soms tegen heug en meug – denk ik aan dat kleine meisje dat soms dagen niet of nauwelijks te eten had, en dat in de hongerwinter bloembollen moest eten – en gelukkig maar dat die er ten minste nog waren. En als onze dochter speelt met haar vriendjes van allemaal verschillende geloofsovertuigingen en culturele achtergronden, denk ik aan dat kleine meisje die niet begreep waarom je van de bezetters niet mocht bestaan als je Joods, zigeuner, of gehandicapt was, of om welke andere arbitraire reden ook. De claustrofobie van het bestaan in een tijd waarin je niet vrij was te zeggen wat je dacht, te gaan waar je wilde of te geloven naar overtuiging is nu alleen maar denkbeeldig, hier en nu. We moeten er moeite voor doen om het ons voor te stellen en dat is geweldig. Maar het is niet vanzelfsprekend, en niet overal. Dat kleine meisje, mijn moeder, herinnert mij daaraan. Niet alleen op 4 mei, maar elke keer dat ik mijn dochter zie eten, zie spelen, zie lachen, zie leren.

Laten we hopen dat we de lessen die geleerd kunnen worden van dit grauwe verleden niet verloren gaan. Vrijheid is niet alleen een recht, maar ook een voorrecht.

A Falling Knife Amazon cover

Judith Deborah: Anatomy of A Falling Knife (interview, part 2)

It’s been quite a few weeks since I published the first part of my interview with Judith Deborah, the author whose debut novel A Falling Knife has garnered well-deserved rave reviews – it’s a terrific read! As was the case last time, I was somewhat tardy in sending her my questions and unfortunately caught her in the middle of a very busy time; still, she answered every question in-depth and her answers are wonderful and very enlightening. As I did with part 1 of this interview, I have published the questions and answers that make up the interview, unabridged.

With apologies for making you wait so long for this, the second part of the interview, let me waste no more time. Here it is: part 2 of my interview with Judith!

A Falling Knife Amazon cover

A Falling Knife by Judith Deborah

Q. Your book A Falling Knife has various different threads that all connect as the story unfolds. Did this book present itself to you in scenes which you eventually linked together, or did you devise the scenes once you had decided the plot (or possibly a combination of both)?

A. Very much a combination. There were scenes I had in mind long before I had a clear sense of the complete story, but ultimately I found I had to put together an outline to get the book to work.

Quite a few of the most important elements in the story didn’t clarify in my mind until well into the writing. As they emerged, I had to stop, re-block the story, and make sure everything still made sense. The logic and chronology of the story were particularly critical since it’s a mystery; you just don’t have the latitude to play fast and loose with either element in this genre. I had to keep checking and rechecking that there weren’t any plot holes and that the various storylines all fitted together in time.

I started writing the book with little more than a minimal sketch of the story — a vague listing of what was going to happen to whom and why — but the story quickly got rather complicated, and I tied myself in knots several times over. Also, I started writing the book before the global financial correction that began in 2008. When I got going, there was still a roaring bull market in the US with one can-you-top-this buyout taking place after another. The original story revolved around an invented version of one of those massive buyouts. Then the bottom dropped out of the US market, everything changed completely, and my storyline was instantly dated. It happened several times that a storyline I had constructed was upended by events.

In the end, to preserve my sanity and increase the likelihood that the book would ever get written, I shifted away from the nitty-gritty of the buyout and focused more on the personal stories and the ways they interlinked. It took me a long time to figure out that this was a good idea, and I ended up throwing a ton of writing (including whole characters) out the window. The final story is so different from the original version as to be scarcely related.

I learned two things from all this: that it’s unwise for me to tether a story too closely to events in recent memory, and that I’m the kind of writer who has to hammer out at least the scaffolding of a story before sitting down to write scenes. Every time I try to just wing it and write without any sure idea where I’m going, I end up either paralyzed by writers’ block or writing myself into a corner and then chucking the work. The outline I ended up constructing for A Falling Knife was never formal — it was always more of a long scribbled list, and I tinkered with it all the time — but it gave me some guidance and relieved me of a degree of writerly anxiety. It was far more satisfactory to sit down in the morning and know what I was supposed to accomplish by the end of the writing session than it was to just sit there waiting for inspiration.

Q. There are some scenes in the book which expose certain characters’ sometimes very raw and painful emotions. I find those scenes gentle, yet uncompromising. Do you find such scenes difficult to write and how do you approach them?

A. I really like writing scenes like that, in part for the vaguely disreputable reason that I enjoy trying to generate an emotional response in the reader. I like writing scenes of characters facing down their demons alone, but also very much like excavating the subtexts of emotion that underlie conversations that are calm and quiet on the surface — figuring out ways to convey emotion obliquely rather than head-on. In the book, during some of the most emotionally raw conversations, nobody raises his or her voice, and in some cases the subject under discussion is something entirely beside the point.

Writing (obliquely or otherwise) about whatever it is that turns a character inside out can be a particularly rich and satisfying vein to work when the character I’m writing about is not particularly cuddly. In Scott Nickerson’s case, he’s a remote, rather austere personality (not toward everyone, but toward most people). In writing him, I wanted to get across why he is the way he is, and to get the reader to care about him despite his remoteness. The detective, too, is an emotionally guarded character. With him, I wanted the connections he feels to other characters in the story — some of which surprise him — to function as clues both to his nature and to the solution of the mystery. For every character, I wanted to convey their emotional states as directly as possible — to convey the sharpness of the pain they feel — but to do so in a way that was respectful, rather than gratuitous or lurid.

As far as method is concerned, I usually start these intense scenes with sensory images in mind (rather than, say, snippets of dialogue). Imagining a visual as it appears in the mind of a character, or a memory of the way something smelled or sounded once to him or her, helps me get inside them and (if they happen to be in company) to put words in their mouths that sound credible.

Q. I have no head for numbers and no knowledge, really, of the financial world, yet I found myself quite able to follow the plot points specific to these issues. Since you move in financial circles as part of your work, was it a challenge for you to write at a level where readers with little to no knowledge of financial trading would be able to keep up?

A. I made a deliberate decision early on that I was not going to simplify the finance talk but would just trust the reader to keep up. It would have sapped that side of the story of all its juice to drain out the language. I was hoping the reader would be charmed by the vocabulary and syntactical rhythms of the industry — as I was, when I came into it as a complete outsider — and would ride the financial plot points like the crest of a wave. (The same pretty much applies to the science and math in the story.) You’re right; it was a bit of a balancing act to keep the dialogue and the storyline authentic and still keep it interesting for readers with no connection to the finance world. I cut a lot, did my best to keep what remained true to the characters, and trusted readers to connect the dots.

Several nice financial double entendres presented themselves in the writing of the book, by the way. One is the title, which has a Wall Street meaning (“never try to catch a falling knife” = don’t buy a stock that’s in free fall) as well as an obvious genre-specific meaning, and which was the original germ of the story. Another is the phrase “red herring,” which is well known to mystery readers but has a completely different meaning inside the finance world. It made me very happy to use that phrase in its financial context within the confines of a mystery.

Speaking of finance language, I had a great time writing the character of Cal Buckholtz, who is a trader and characteristically profane. It was a lot of fun getting inside that head.

Q. One of the plot points of your book addresses a widely debated issue: the interlacing and often overlapping interests of the financial markets and the pharmaceutical industry. Is this an issue close to your heart, or was it simply part of the story you wanted to tell?

A. Hmm. I wouldn’t say the issue itself is particularly close to my heart. I do have a soft spot, however, for mathematicians and scientists, who are quite foreign to me and who interest me because of that foreignness in a deep, almost anthropological way. (I’m a committed anthropologist: I married a mathematician.) I feel a great fondness for the world of finance, too (how’s that for an unfashionable sentiment?) since my time within it introduced me to such entertaining people. I was glad to figure out a way to represent these three worlds — arenas that are all important to me for different reasons — in story form.

Q. I found myself very invested in Scott’s character and found that he truly jumped off the page for me, he felt real; Evan grew on me as the book progressed. To me it felt similar to the way you immediately click with some people, yet take longer to connect with others.  What approach do you take to constructing a character and to what extent do you borrow characteristics, traits, habits, personalities, from people you know?

A. It’s easier for me to tell you what I don’t do in this regard than what I do do. I don’t do any of those elaborate and often-recommended questionnaires about characters (what’s his earliest memory? what’s his favorite food? who was his first love? what is he most afraid of? etc), which strike me, to be honest, as a waste of time. I think I grasp the principle behind this method — that your advance knowledge of the character will provide some kind of authenticity once you finally start writing about him or her — but on the few occasions I’ve tried it, it hasn’t worked out that way at all. All it amounted to for me was pointless busywork, which is the opposite of writing; it’s an extended throat-clearing exercise that produces (at least in my case) reams of ersatz, arbitrary character details that will be largely forgotten once actual writing gets underway and the characters start developing organically. I’ll go so far as to say that for many writers this is an insidious exercise, because it encourages the writer to feel virtuous — look how much work I did today! — while completely failing to advance the book.

I’ve read writing manuals by extremely successful writers who swear by this technique, so obviously my experience doesn’t apply to everyone. But to my way of thinking, you figure out characters by writing them, not by writing about them.

As for what I do do: Nobody in the book is modeled directly on anyone in my orbit. For me, the starting points for characters are vocal patterns and names.

By vocal patterns I mean the character’s active vocabulary and the rhythms of his or her speech. Once I get the characters talking, either to each other or inside their own heads, I can see them much more clearly, and the other elements you mentioned begin to emerge. I find that the words a person uses — the words that spring to his mind and that he assumes his interlocutor will understand, and the rhythm that emerges when he strings them together — can unlock a character much more effectively than deciding arbitrarily that he has green eyes, loves Canadian bacon, and can’t commit. I had the advantage in A Falling Knife that I was writing primarily about New Yorkers — a population I grew up with and which has a distinctive way of speaking. The rhythm of Yiddish-inflected New York speech is very familiar to me.

Character names are also extremely important, and I can’t quite explain why. I had trouble with the names of two of the main characters until well into the writing, and didn’t really get their characters right until I got their names right. In some cases, names were so clearly right from the start — and the accompanying voices were so distinctive and clear in my mind — that the characters were relatively easy to write. (Solly Pinsk and Cal Buckholtz come to mind.) When the name is right, it’s linked in my mind with a vivid physicality.

It’s interesting that you say you connected more readily with Scott Nickerson, despite his somewhat forbidding personality, than with the detective, Evan Adair. I wonder if that has something to do with a choice I made right at the beginning: that in contrast to my treatment of the other characters, I was never going to describe Evan physically. There are one or two oblique references — Evan scratches a salt-and-pepper growth of stubble at one point, and there’s a suggestion that he’s on the tall side — but I deliberately said nothing about the color of his hair, how much hair he has, how he wears it, what clothes he chooses, eye color, skin tone, how he’s aged, or anything. It was an experiment; I was curious to see whether readers would construct those visuals for themselves. What it might have accomplished instead was to keep readers at more of a distance from Evan than I had intended. I’ll have to think about this some more.

 Q. I like the level of detail in the pharmacogenomic and forensic analyses as well as the related descriptions and explanations. Did that require a lot of research, and did you do it all in preparation, or was some of it done ad hoc as you made progress in the story? Did you ever find yourself getting distracted or carried away by your research into this field (this tends to happen to me a lot)?

A. There was a lot of research involved, but I didn’t do it ahead of time. After I was well into the book, I went to New York and spent some time talking to street cops and detectives, and had an extensive back-and-forth over email with a doctor at the New York medical examiner’s office to get all the forensics straight. I also worked closely throughout the writing of the book with a scientist friend in England who helped me construct the science side of the story so it was both internally logical and authentic in terms of detail. On the finance side, I read a stack of memoirs and other non-fiction titles by people inside the industry, and also talked to people. All this was going on while I was writing, not before I started (otherwise I doubt I would ever have written the book at all).

I love research and almost always have to force myself to stop. There’s always something else that can be checked, some other element to learn about that might serve the story. After a certain point I have to go cold turkey or I’ll keep researching forever.

And thus ends the second and last part of the interview. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting it. It was a pleasure going through the interviewing process with Judith and I appreciate her commitment and dedication in taking the time and showing me such insight into her writing process.

You can also find Judith on Facebook and Twitter.

Judith Deborah photo

Judith Deborah


Who let the cows out?!

Herinnering aan Holland

Denkend aan Holland
zie ik breede rivieren
traag door oneindig
laagland gaan,
rijen ondenkbaar
ijle populieren
als hooge pluimen
aan den einder staan;
en in de geweldige
ruimte verzonken
de boerderijen
verspreid door het land,
boomgroepen, dorpen
geknotte torens,
kerken en olmen,
in een grootsch verband.
De lucht hangt er laag
en de zon wordt er langzaam
in grijze veelkleurige
dampen gesmoord,
en in alle gewesten
wordt de stem van het water
met zijn eeuwige rampen
gevreesd en gehoord.

Hendrik Marsman (1899-1940)

copyright: Uitgeverij Querido

(For an award-winning translation of this Dutch poem, please visit subtexttranslations)

I have to be honest: thinking about Holland doesn’t usually put me in the poetic mood it inspired in Marsman. Holland is mostly flat farmland, and while wide open fields of grass and rows of crops can be a lovely sight to see, I am admittedly more fond of mountains.


But there are moments that show the true beauty of that same flat farmland, and one of those moments is the time when the cows are let out of their barns after spending a long winter cooped up inside.


It’s an extraordinary spectacle: the cows are so ecstatic to be back out in the great wide open, they fairly frolic through the fields in their newly found freedom.


The various farms choose various moments to let their cows out, and some of them make a special event out of it that is open to the public. We attended such an event this morning at Kaasboerderij De Vierhuizen (Cheese Farm The Four Houses).
The farm opened its doors at 11:00 AM. People were welcomed by the farmer and his family and staff, and treated to a cup of coffee, tea, fresh milk or lemonade. The farm is a biofarm, and makes, among other things, eco-friendly cheese, which was for sale during the event.


The farmer then took a moment to tell us a little bit about the letting out of the cows, but also about what it means to be a biofarm and how they treat their cattle and what else the farm has to offer throughout the year in terms of events and workshops.
I won’t lie to you, it was windy and bloody cold out there, so our impatience for the moment that the cows would finally be let out was equal parts anticipation and an earnest desire to get out of the cold and back home to a warm cup of tea.
But then the moment was there and it was beautiful! The cows know what is about to happen, and the excited mooing from the barn just before the doors open is like nothing you’ve ever heard. Then the doors open …. and out come the cows: trotting, running, hopping, dancing! They immediately head to the widest part of the field, playing and frolicking and celebrating being out in the the fresh open air.





And having seen this, I don’t think I’ll ever look at cows the same way again: they’re such playful, gorgeous creatures! (This would probably be a good time to admit that I’ve always been a little nervous around cows.)

The letting out of the cows is an event not to be missed, and I think we’ll be making attendance and annual event from now on.

I owe thanks to Marijke Langeveld, who alerted us to this event through KOE Alert (Cow Alert).

Return from the Messe

I has been a good two weeks since Yvette and myself returned from the Frankfurt Messe where we attended Paperworld to represent Cardle.

The end of a trade fair comes with some conflicting emotions. When the last minute of the last day of the fair has passed, there is a sudden sense of elation: the hard work is over – four days of being on your feet, of being charming yet professional, and allowing yourself to channel without reticence your excitement about your own product. Yvette and I truly love our own product, but usually a sense of unbridled enthusiasm only lasts a short while; it is exhausting otherwise. And while the fair is going, you don’t really come down from your adrenaline high either, even at the end of a day when you go home and eat and try to relax and get some sleep. After all, tomorrow brings another day. I realize this might be different for everyone. Certainly the pressures are different for established firms than they are for small start-ups, but in the end everyone is there because they feel their company and their product will benefit from a larger audience.

But once the fair is over, there come at once a sense of relief and a sense of urgency. The urgency initially translates into a frenzied folding of the stand. The entire hall is filled with a cacophony of sounds as every crew chooses a different tune to work to while they release all their pent-up energy into deconstructing what has been their office away from the office for four days. And that’s just the stands that do their own deconstruction. The really big companies hire professional crews for this. They emit a different energy, something much more mellow and no-big-deal. They haven’t been standing there for four days promoting their wares. They come fresh to this gig: they are there to unscrew, fold, pack, wrap, load and carry, and they do it with unmatched efficiency. I watched with envious eyes.

Our plan for the aftermath of the Messe was this: we would take down our stand and pack up our things together, then Yvette would relax and wait for me while I went to collect the car which we had parked a few towns over where friends of ours live. I would bring back the car, we would load up and we would drive back to our friends’ place and stay the night before embarking on the drive home the next day.


And so, off I went: outside, on the train, then onto another train. It was a nice journey, actually, which gave me an opportunity to let my mind settle a bit away from the hustle and bustle of the trade fair being taken down. My friend met me at the train station at the other end and gave me a ride to the car. It had begun freezing pretty well by then: – 4 C and falling…

The car was an ice box, thank god for seat heating. And thank god for my TomTom, because as I approached the Messe, naturally everyone and their mother was arriving with trucks and vans to load up their things. And, in their infinite wisdom, the organizers had determined that all this traffic should be directed through one – count them: 1 – gate into the Messe. And it wasn’t the gate I arrived at. I was kindly but firmly pointed in the general direction of the general direction where general directions were given towards the correct gate. Lovely. After finally figuring out where to enter the terrain, it will come as no surprise that I found myself in an impressive traffic jam that literally stretched for miles as drivers were waiting to get in. All of them, through that one gate. For comic effect: pretty much every other vehicle in that line was at least the size of a large van, but most of them were sizable trucks. And there I stood, in my modest VW Polo… (And I’m not usually one to worry about size, you understand.)

In the end, all vehicles great and small made it to their respective destinations, and with the very kind help of the Hallenmeister, who allowed us use of an elevator that was technically not in use, we finally managed to pack everything in and drive towards good company, an excellent meal, a warm shower and a comfortable bed. Over dinner and breakfast the next morning, there was even some time to catch up with my friend.

And now, for the drive home. The weather was lovely: cold but sunny. And off we went: from Frankfurt back home. The trip took us longer than expected. It was a bad day for trucks all told: first we saw a truck let out a puff of red smoke while it was driving on the highway. It was immediately accompanied towards a stop by another truck. Truck drivers look after each other that way; it’s pretty heartwarming to see. Later, we got caught in a traffic jam, and watched emergency services try to inch their way through towards what we later found out was an accident involving three trucks. One of them had spilt a hazardous substance (probably some type of fuel). The truck in question looked like it had been wrenched open with a super-sized can opener. It was an unsettling sight.

That was the extent of the excitement, luckily. We arrived safely and decently on time, first at Yvette’s where fond greetings were exchanged with the home front, and finally, just before my daughter’s bedtime, I arrived home, tired and very happy to be back.

Since then, Yvette and I have been sorting through business cards, adapting business plans to include the exciting new options that have resulted from the fair, and moving towards the next step for Cardle. It’s an exciting ride, and we’re only just getting started.