Saturday, June 28, 2008

Making a list; checking it twice

Touch of Dutch has pointed to shops that offer American grocery products for expatriates: the corresponding shop for Dutch expatriates to find a touch of home is The Dutch Shop.  I always enjoy these sites: they catalog the nation's comfort foods, along with things that nobody would eat if they hadn't been raised to love them.

DSC08813I made my weekly outing to the Presikhaaf Winkelcentrum, one of our two local shopping centers.  It's a scruffy relic, linoleum walkways and grimy walls with splashes of yellow and blue-green trim.  But it's one of the few areas in Arnhem that gather together food, clothing, housewares, and electronics in one spot, allowing me to work through my "to-do" list in an hour.

Presikaaf Center 3Presikaaf Center 9

Presikaaf Center 8 Presikaaf Center 6

Today's trip was  typical: butter, milk, vegetables at the AH, an address book and a thank-you card, a new watch battery, a bottle of single-malt for a friend's birthday, cherries from the green-grocer, drop off dry-cleaning at the stomerij, pick up hummus from the turkish grocer, hit the cash machine, light-bulb from the hardware store, flowers from the stall.  I have my list, and I work my way along like a trick-or-treater at Halloween, filling my bag until I can hardly stagger back to the car with all my prizes.

At the jewelry store, I paused to check off a few items from my list while the clerk made change for my watch battery.  He laughed when he saw me noting prices and making ticks on my paper, commenting that this wasn't very Dutch.  Those four words are always a kiss of death here, but I was doubly surprised to hear it this time.  List-making seems  like something that the organized and thorough Dutch would excel at.

DSC08815I'm not much for diaries, filing, calendars, or organizers, and I don't carry a PDA.  But I do like to make lists.  I have a (precious) notebook where I jot things to do and others to follow-up on, divided into home and work pages (left and right).  Work contains To-Do, Call, Write, Meet, while home has To Do, Shop, Look Up, and Travel.  As the day goes along, I scribble in the notebook or on handy bits of paper, and consolidate and update during dull periods in meetings. (A separate kasboek tallies expenses, but that's just so that I know what the monthly credit card hit will be and so that I don't forget to submit the proper amounts for reimbursement.)

I've been to lots of time-management and task-organization classes, but an unscheduled, flexible system based on prioritizing and crossing-off has always worked for me.  I unload my short-term memory to the pages, promptly forgetting whatever I was fretting about doing, and then I get satisfaction from crossing things off, going down a page smiling 'done, done, done' as I cross the tick marks.  I probably only look at the list three times each day, but it's enough to keep myself oriented.

The challenge comes when the pages run out, as they did last week, because then I have to find a new book and move unfinished things from one to the other.  This time around I took a morning in Cambridge to start the new book, and was happy to discover that the current chunk of "Big Things" to get done were, in fact, the last ones.  Beyond writing the current plans and papers, there was nothing in left to be done in my life but to look for a job and take a vacation.

And that's my perfect to-do list.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Into the dawn mists

h-Tuscany 21 The Social Plan negotiations ended yesterday with a presentation to the employees about the shutdown arrangements and severance proposals. There is now a week's period for consideration and discussion before the vote, and a simple majority will determine the outcome. I'm not a part of the arrangements, since I'm here under expatriate rather than Dutch, contract. But the hallway conversations sound positive, and I anticipate that the team will accept the proposal.

Things will then move quickly to a conclusion. The Dutch are ready to wrap things up as fast as possible; Corporate wants to execute the transfer to bring the product home. So, it now seems certain that the remaining timeline is set. Within three months, all of the activities will be complete: all that will remain is to take down the flag and sell the building.

Already, the facility feels empty: people are going on holiday, starting new jobs, and working reduced hours from home. E-mail and telephones have fallen silent: responsibility and initiative have gone elsewhere, our role becoming passive.

As I write this, reflecting, it's hard to capture my feelings. I'm not in denial, but it's hard to grasp that everything familiar will soon be gone. I imagine that it must be how people feel ahead of a hurricane: even though the mind fully grasps it, the coming event is hard to take in at an emotional level.

For myself, the feelings are compounded since very little of my old life will continue into the new. I spent June bringing many things to closure, toasting the past and sharing a sense of completion. Now, though, it just feels empty and ended.

I stand at the journey's dawn, once again.

That anticipation reminds me a lot of times in the past when I was leaving familiar surroundings to start something completely new. Often, I found myself rising early, unable to sleep, and went outside to stand in solitude on my doorstep in the pre-dawn chill. The homes around were quiet, dark, and still; the farewells and good wishes were all taken. There was, truly, no turning back.

And there was the road ahead, disappearing into the thin mists drifting in from the fields.

I've always been able to take those first steps forward with resolve, with confidence. Still, it's an effort not to look back, wishing for what could have been.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The mind-body problem

I'm back from Cambridge: 'will catch up with events later, but, in the spirit of academic philosophy, will pose a koan for the day.

1) The human body is a material thing.

2) The human mind is a spiritual thing.

3) Mind and body interact.

4) Spirit and matter do not interact.

These four statements are inconsistent: any three can be true but they negate the fourth assertion. This allows four different perspectives on possible solutions to the mind-body problem.

If the first is false, the world is solipsistic; the second is the classical materialist view that "The mind is what the brain does". If the third is false, the brain and mind have a synchronized existence, while the fourth provides for a classical dualist view.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Winding up the month

'feeling a bit melancholy today.

DSC08458 The situation at work has been a difficult one. Because the facility will certainly be closed, people are losing belief in the future and in the value in what they are doing. As the same time, no positive alternatives can be started because the Social Plan needs to be negotiated first (and rightly). It leads to a tilted sort of twilight environment where there are no 'right' actions: unable to move forward, back, left or right for the time being, people simply lose motivation and worry about what will happen next.

In this environment patience and watchful waiting are called for. 'not my strong suit: I am more action-oriented: try something, learn from it, stay flexible, take advantage of opportunities. I need more 'zen' to see me through this.

As a result, I've stepped away to re-engage with things outside of work. I've visited my parents, went back to Seattle for a week, had my son here for a long visit. My student's thesis got finished, along with a couple of papers that I was writing. I took a bit of vacation.

Everywhere, I'm finding that it's a time of transitions. My daughter has graduated and is out the door to college in a few weeks; my son leaves for the Air Force on Sunday. I had a good, fatherly talk with both, catching up with what they are doing and reminding them to stay true to their values and ambitions. They need to keep a sane center no matter how confused things and people get around them.

And then it's a hug and a handshake and 'good luck and keep in touch', then they're gone. Particularly with my son this weekend, it feels like 21 years are drawing to a close, and I'm not even sure when or how I'll see him again.

DSC08685 We had a good dinner together in Dusseldorf to celebrate his 21st birthday with good German beer and steaks. Brave Dutch fans dressed up in orange and paraded through the German streets; we hurried back to the Netherlands to watch football in the packed Arnhem Korenmarkt venue again. the crowd took wild swings: elation at the start, depression towards the end, jubilant frenzy when they were back in the match, despondency when they lost. It's sad: They all hug and sway and sing melancholy songs together when it's over. I've left the Dutch flag up inside my car, but certainly within a day or two, the oranje is disappearing from windows and buildings here.

DSC08686 I returned from dropping Will at the airport to find a couple of inches of green leaves covering all of the roads, and the street filled with neighbors talking and taking pictures. While I was gone, a weather burst blasted through the area near Sonsbeeck, with hail denting cars and breaking windshields, stripping leaves and knocking down a tree across the street. It seems to have been very local: across town there is no damage. I wonder if it was a small tornado: the patterns of damage look a lot like what I remember from the Midwest.

None of it lightens my mood.

I'm off to England tomorrow for my student's thesis defense. Beyond that, July feels like a clean-up month, writing papers and patents, finishing data analysis and closing up the projects.

Then it's onward to whatever lies next. 'Evermore true, this month, for all of us.