Friday, October 17, 2014

Ring My Bell

At first I thought that a new church had set up shop in my Amsterdam neighborhood. The tune was different.  The idea that suddenly a church tower had been erected nearby is, of course, ludicrous.  I just spelled the rapper’s name right there and became completely confused at the fact that I actually quasi believed in the alternate spelling of the adjective. It was the capital L in the spell check that confirmed my suspicions.  Anyway, where have I been and where was I? Bell tunes. It finally occurred to me, walking to yoga one night, that the Westerkerk bells had been rewired to a different set of chimes.  The odd thing was that I recognized one rendition of the tune immediately and became quite confused. What was it doing hanging out at the Westerkerk on the hour? It wasn’t Dutch at all. Was this a case of plagiarism?

Years ago, when I was a teenager, my mother decided to join a church.  She hadn’t been a church goer in years, that is years well before my birth when it was part of her family obligation and duties. She avoided the Lutherans this time and chose the posh Episcopalian Church in our area.  St. Albans.  Of course I then dutifully went with her on this family bonding moment; my father stayed at home alone without even a sliver of Christ. It turns out I liked the music at church.  Since being introduced to the 1941 red bound collection I’ve grown inordinately fond of hymns.  The Reverend D. was the church pastor at that time, a tall, vague and childlike figure married to money. A lot of money. In fact, his wife was a socialite. A well-known socialite. She was tall and horsey and wore designer togs and heaps of gold jewelry. She looked like she’d whack plebs with a polo stick from down the slope of her long nose and long legs. She and her Chanel suit didn’t come to church often, and most of us developed a tendency to avoid her strings of startlingly devoid of compassion conversations. Father D. and Mrs. D. had obviously a way of having separate lives and still like each other very much.

Father D.’s favorite hymn was I Sing a Song to the Saints of God. One verse includes this refrain:


       And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
        And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
        And there's not any reason, no, not the least,
        Why I shouldn't be one too.


This was my favorite part. Perversely alert and aware that it was, well, taking the mickey out of the glory of Christianity. (Hey, I grew up in Berkeley where hedonism was rampant.) We sang this hymn a lot at church, every chance he got Father D. would include it in the service. At times I wondered about his intentions. The words to the song were written by a woman named Lesbia Scott. What a name. The music by John Hopkins. Maybe Mr. Hopkins lifted it from a quaint old Dutch folk tune.


However, suspiciously enough on the half hour the Westerkerk is demonstrating a snippet of Tis a Gift to be Simple. The last time I heard that in the Netherlands was when HRH Princess Christina sang it at her father’s funeral. Was there something going on with the royal family?


Never mind, lastly a mere two days ago a crowd gathered below my office on the Westermarkt. A cute van, a pimped DJ mobile, was ready to perform a duo with the carillon in the Westerkerk. “You can ring my beelllll, ring my bell!” the two call and response sang to each other while people danced in the street.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Green Bits in Amsterdam

Green bits, much to my dog’s dismay, are not found nearby where I live in Amsterdam.  She always needs a little green patch or some true grit dirt bit to use for her daily constitution. At first I located a grove of mature trees that had just been ensconced in brand new raised flower beds securely blocked in by curbs of virgin grey cement so light and unstained like a fall sweater just out of the shop nestled in the exclusive bag with silver lettering. But then tender young plants were lodged in the black earth and I felt it really wouldn’t do to have my dog stomp all over them or continue to mar the beauty of the pristine cement. I happily spied a side of a canal used by houseboats which had obviously been cordoned off a while ago as a result of needing to shore up the side of the canal in front of the moored boats. The area now features little clumps of weeds growing up through the pavement. My dog and I hang around this particular block twice a day.  A few red light establishments have a view of this overgrown patch. I’ve noticed that when I am in the company of a man, the prostitutes will gently grind their hips at him. Otherwise they don’t grind their hips and focus their dewy eyes on me.  Not that I mind being ignored; my upstairs neighbor and fellow dog owner is not susceptible to feminine charms – he has a few of his own with those big blue eyes and Tintin hairdo.

My dog has attracted the attention of a large orange tabby who stalks her from behind while she’s sniffing around trying to decide her spot.  It’s never nice to be snuck up upon when doing your business. The cat even followed us down the block, leaping from along the stairways on the grand canal houses to get a better view of my dog’s swaying back as we made our way to the trees, a desperate measure for both of us.  The evening didn’t seem to be working.

We often walk along the canals and small streets found parallel to the canals. We often walk up our street early in the morning when the prostitutes’ rooms are being cleaned, the tiles being swiped down with antiseptic, the front steps receiving multiple buckets of soapy water. “Good morning!” the tattooed man says to me, eyes in back in his middle aged head, as he inspects his handiwork the room, a mix between a butcher’s shop and a toilet with patches of flocked Gay 90’s wallpaper here and there. The blue plastic cover, as a new born weak and defenseless, wrinkled and wailing on the stripped matrass, the bar chairs without towels on them, devoid of bikini bums.

Some of the buildings are remarkable on my street. It’s hard to notice them though at times round the bustle and hustle, rough 17th century warehouses, the bricks painted black, the shutters red, the ceiling beams white. Pure Amsterdam. Then, to my astonishment, a sign saying that Hans Brinker, the boy that stuck his thumb in a dyke, was born in That House in 1799 Right in This Alley Street, one that has many small lanterns hanging on the outside walls, all with red light bulbs.  A propos, I think, more fantasy, fingers and birth canals.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Gratitude Motor

“You don’t have much to be grateful about, given your life,” a friend said to me over a coffee. I swear I hadn’t been complaining about anything. Instead I had just ruefully explained that I had been tagged on Facebook to list some items that I consider bestowing my gratitude on for God knows how many days in a row to entertain my various acquaintances; divulge personalized subcategories, all  to be warmly included in my grand compilation, and maybe throw in some pictures of dahlias. The whole point of the gentle exercise is, of course, to perk me up. I like dahlias.
Should I just say abstract things like I am grateful to the air and the sun, that I am not a compounded quivering mass lodged under some extreme version of gravity on an imaginary planet? Am I not pleased to be here? On the other hand should I protest the necessity to be grateful to every hand that made it possible for me to support myself here on earth, those that pay me, those that feed me from their larders, those souls that wonder if I am eating right? Do it right: maybe I’ll scoot right over to the global greatness donation basket with the pretty pink and yellow polka dotted ribbon as decoration and throw in heartfelt thanks to God. It’s a habit of mine when, during unrelenting hours, my life has been not very happy. Go pan-hopeful that Someone Big with Unknown Powers will look out for me and provide miracles via a little portion of honest flattery. It’s not that I choose to ignore all the demi-gods with human hearts I know on earth who help out at the best opportunity. I like them too. Depending on how you look at it, they may be more steadfast than the Circumspection from the Sky Above.
Grateful to be pitied. There’s a “let’s not go into that subject” area prone to graceful social mediation. The fine line, a grey matter needing many sponsors on both sides, the border between mercy and appreciation. Standing in a shop near my apartment, watching a young man duplicate my house keys, I thought, “Don’t most modern shops have a computer that reads the keys to replicate them?” I vaguely recalled this as I watched the man don a pair of cheap sunglasses in the dim shop to protect his eyes as he ground the new key.  “Perfect!” he said with some satisfaction. The narrow shop I was standing in was originally built in the 17th century. The ceiling was original, the beams looked magnificent.  The rest of the shop was less than magnificent. It was a shoe repair, pot paraphernalia, tulip bulb, faded postcard, key maker kind of place. When I entered the gloom, the man had been repairing what (given the vicinity of some red light establishments) obviously was a whore’s shoe  -- something platform and strappy made of linoleum designed to look like golden pinewood paneling on a 70’s station wagon. He held a roll of dark beige tape in his hands as part of his attack to make it all like new. I thought, “Well what if this stoner is a sort of Michelangelo when it comes to duplicating keys and I stand here doubting for absolutely no reason whatsoever?” He spoke Italian to some people that passed into the shop. The security camera was focused on a large cardboard box on top of a display case. On top of the box was an orange felt hat. I wondered what was in the box, or what the security camera was not focusing on. On the other hand that the key duplicating process did not scan my key into a computer brain was slightly comforting. Comfort, one result of gratefulness.
I take comfort in the little things from day to day, but most of all, I take comfort in my brain. I have realized that in it I have a small gift, a sparse one in this world, to be able to easily entertain myself and am unlikely to be bored for even a short period of time. Perhaps God gave it to me, perhaps not. It’s just there in my head, a capacity to provide comfort and distraction when needed.