Saturday, January 10, 2009

When men lean

On weekends, I catch up with the Writer’s Almanac, a daily podcast by essayist Garrison Keillor that features biographical sketches and poetry readings.  He recently featured a poem by Bruce Taylor, Middle-Aged Men Leaning.  Four movements, four seasons, beginning as:

They lean on rakes.

It's late, it is evening

already inside their houses.


The children are gone.

Their wives are on the phone

talking softly to someone else.

When we bought our first home, I really looked forward to having a yard.  Over the years, I weeded in spring, mowed in summer, raked in autumn, and shoveled in winter.  It’s .  The rest of the family didn’t usually help, nor did I usually insist. It was part of being the home-owner,  quiet, basic maintenance that was different from gardening or building.  Routines become rhythm after months and years of repetition, fit to the season, known by the route that I followed around the yard, followed by the satisfaction of reimposing clean order.

Midway through the routine, pausing for breath in winter or to empty the clippings in summer, I would lean on the wooden handle and listen to the wind in the cedars. It was a lot like Bruce Taylor describes, a quiet moment stolen from the day, solitary, motionless.

Weekends have changed so much since I moved to the Netherlands, moved into an apartment again. Maybe that’s why I returned to shoveling with such vigor over the holidays. Maybe it’s why this poem, as good ones do, touched.

Friday, January 9, 2009

European health and housing economics

DSC04875 Flat chunks of ice have been floating down the river this morning.  I’m not sure whether they have broken off from ponds upstream, heralding a thaw, or formed overnight, anticipating a further freeze.  The snow has certainly lingered, icing the gables of the Old City and outlining the stones along the Wyck Bridge.

Commentators are predicting similarly chill winds (or thin ice) for the new president as he takes office in two weeks.  Festering problems with mortgage financing and health financing seem likely to top his in-box.  In both cases, there have been recent proposals that he look to Europe for answers.

The US mortgage crisis was caused by banks making high-risk loans to people with poor credit and income qualifications. They sold these loan on to brokers, who blended them into risk-stratified securities that could be sold on as low-risk, high-return investments.

The Economist recently suggested that the Danish model might be worth considering.  As in the US, banks loan money to homeowners, then send the mortgage to the secondary market.  However, in Denmark, the originating bank remains accountable for making good on the loan if the borrower defaults.  And the borrower has the option of buying his securitized mortgage off of the secondary market, in effect allowing him to take advantage of a fall in prices and further promoting liquidity in these securities.


The US health care system is employer financed, a significant burden on businesses (retiree benefits to auto workers, most famously).  It has also lead to a lack of insurance and access among the unemployed, soaring costs to the self-employed, and a lack of portability for the still-employed.

The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the Netherlands’ experiment with health financing may be instructive.  All Dutch are required to have private insurance, paid for by direct employer subsidy or, for the unemployed, a parallel government subsidy.  Workers may spend the money to join health insurance pools of their choice, and the universal subsidy ensures that they remain enrolled as they move among jobs.  Subsidy levels may be adjusted to follow inflation or to try to control costs.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A lower standard?

DSC04857 It’s the downside of the gezellig lifestyle: things get done slowly and often need to be done twice.

As the cold and the holidays stress local businesses and services, I’m finding that more and more seems to fall through the cracks.

* Ten weeks after putting in an order for (4 week) guaranteed Internet installation, KPN has yet to deliver a working ADSL connection.  They do, however apologize for continuing to bill me 43 euros per month for my lack of service.

* The parking garage at the local fitness center has a gate, requiring me to ring the front desk with a special code to get in.  The attendant is usually in the lounge, so this can take a while.  The exit requires a paper pass from the front desk, which seldom works.  I finally agreed to put a ten euro deposit for a fob that opens the gate.  It doesn’t work so far either.

* The Mayor’s Office has notified me that my declaration to change address within the Netherlands was denied because the agent filled in the wrong form.  They have sent new forms and a return invitation to visit City Hall.

And so, in many small daily ways, I lower my expectations of the local services.

I accept that tasks will not be completed quickly, so I allow extra time.

I understand that tasks may not be completed correctly, so I pack along extra patience and oversight.

And, thus, I find that life becomes, if not strictly more gezellig (amiable), at least more traag (sluggish).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Visual and aural concentration

audiobooks I wish I liked Audiobooks.

I’m a member of, and I like the idea of having books being read to me as I drive, exercise, or lie in the predawn darkness.  I avidly devour podcasts.

I bought The Bourne Ultimatum, a simple thriller, and only made it 2/3 of the way through before giving up.   The aural narrative seemed to flow over me in a steady, relentless stream. My mind drifts, first losing concentration, missing important transitions or expositions, and finally losing my place.  The end of the trip seldom coincided with logical breaks in the narrative.  It was hard to keep continuity with names and places within and between sessions.

In contrast, I find books to be much more forgiving of my style. I can pause while reading, looking up to think for a moment, looking back to check a name, making a note.  Punctuation and paragraphs visually organize the text.  As a result, I concentrate more fully, engaged with and immersed in the narrative.

How much this aural / visual distinction generalize?  Does it explain why outline notes clarify lectures, and why PowerPoint slides are required for pitches.  A passage in Cohen’s A Guide To Teaching Practice seems to bear this out:

“Talk is an oral and aural medium; many people cannot sustain oral and aural concentration for very long without a visual focus – be it on pictures, the chalkboard, a video, a piece of work, etc  One can learn from the televisual medium that concentration is highest when people have both an aural and visual focus,.  Without a visual focus a free-floating discussion can easily float off into irrelevance and indiscipline.”

There’s no question that I can process information more effectively, understand better, and remember more when there’s at least a visual aid.  There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding benefit to enhancing aural narrative by having the book or pictures available to supplement the reading.

Still, there are many who swear by the medium of audiobooks.  ‘sorry, Audible: ‘just not my style…

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Addressing the snow and ice

DSC04843 (960x1280)Although winter is becoming a wearisome topic, it’s also a good time to look up from where I plant my feet and to observe where the Dutch are planting theirs. Extended periods of winter weather are a rarity in the Low Countries. Snow and ice, when it does appear, is usually gone within a day. As a result, traditional outdoor winter activities like ice skating or sledding are mostly lived vicariously through childhood memories.

Understandably, the first reaction of the Dutch to the onset of Weather is to ignore it. The bicyclists still flow along the paths; the shoppers pull carts to the Albert Heijn. Their concession to the Weather is to seek protection beneath an umbrella, strangely out of place amidst the flurries.

DSC04836 (1280x960) Shopkeepers tackle the snow with squeegees rather than shovels or brooms. The rubber scrapers at the end of long handles make short work of the snow in front of shop entrances, and a sprinkling of salt keeps the entryways clear. I’ve seen deckhands on the passing barges shoving snow off the cargo with the same implements and enthusiasm.

DSC04855 (960x1280) The snow settles into the cobblestones where it can’t be plowed or chipped. Streets become frozen sheets of ice, where both cyclists and cars struggle to stay upright. There is minimal salt and no sand, the weak noon sun is the only removal system in the Wyck this week.

By week’s end, though, everyone is speculating about the prospects for ice skating. The ice needs to be 12 cm thick to support the 11-village race and other marathons to the north.DSC04851 (1280x960) The papers report daily updates on the developing crust on the rivers and canals, and the emergency medical services are keeping busy rescuing skaters who couldn’t wait. The conventional wisdom is that “Ten days of minus ten degrees” will assure a hard freeze and a race.

Halfway there, the anticipation is really starting to build…

Monday, January 5, 2009

Snow in Seattle: so goes Maastricht

DSC04803I’m beginning to think the curse follows me.

Dutch weather often parallels the weather in Seattle.  Both locations are maritime regions at low elevation, leading to eerily similar daily temperatures and precipitation.  Still, I hoped for a winter divergence after two brutal weeks of snow in Seattle, believing that the Netherlands would be warmer and drier.

And it was.  At least, it was until this morning.

The first hint of trouble was the brightness of the sky at 2 am: the glow usually heralding fresh snow.  By daylight, it was snowing hard and by mid-morning three inches had accumulated.

DSC04776 DSC04799

It makes for beautiful panoramas and treacherous cobblestones.  Characteristically, the Dutch soldiered on with their bicycles and opened umbrellas. Businesses opened slowly, if at all; the roads are empty.

It’s a good day to work from home, venturing out for groceries and a few pictures to share --

DSC04824 Stitch


DSC04806 DSC04811

DSC04830 Stitch