Archive for the 'Nostalgia Stockroom' Category


The Neverlands

Straight On Til Morning by Amanda Visnell

I bought a goldfish this week. His name is Captain Hook.

This came about because I’ve had a bumpy time getting back into the swing of things while combating jet lag and yet another cold, so one gray morning a few days ago, I wandered into a pet shop and promptly decided that a small swimming companion might be just the ticket. In the past I’ve named fish after characters in whatever book I happened to be reading at the time, but I’m currently in the middle of two very depressing books (Richard Wright’s Native Son and Diary by Chuck Palahniuk). So instead, I chose a book that I hadn’t even realized I’d been reading so much of: Peter Pan.

Three-year-old Alex is completely and hopelessly fascinated by Peter Pan. And not just Peter; in fact, his most extreme obsession is with the relationship between Captain Hook and the ticking crocodile. He is at once horrified and mesmerized by the fact that the crocodile wants to eat – yes, eat – this man. He can’t stop talking about it. At any given moment he is either pretending to be the pirate or the hungry beast. All he does as Hook is say, “I’m Captain Hook!” and all he does as the crocodile is say “tick tock tick tock!” and pretend to bite me. Stunning performances on both counts.

This only began about a month ago. Tired of the previous favorite  – some awful Mickey Mouse book about alphabet soup – I switched his interests over to a lovely storybook adaptation of the Disney film. Alex was hooked instantly. And I, as though teaching him the alphabet, had him repeat the names back to me: Tinker Bell, Wendy, Mr. Smee… After the second read, he’d already committed to memory the names of every character and place. It got in his head. In the middle of totally unrelated activities, he’d randomly look up at me and say, “Where’s Captain Hook?”

Since then, his generous parents have also gotten hold of both the Disney DVD and an audio version of the original by J. M. Barrie. Now, my previous knowledge of Neverland and all its wonders was quite extensive due to my own earnest Disney upbringing – for example, I couldn’t stop singing “You Can Fly” the whole time I was in London with Big Ben staring down at me – but after the last few weeks, I now call myself an expert. And I am in no way complaining, only looking forward to whichever Disney delight he chooses next.

It’s funny, the places we end up that we could never have imagined when we were younger. I remember myself as a kid on the couch fixated by the mermaids and the children soaring through the air, or singing the soundtrack by heart, or standing for too long in the cramped line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, the one that lets you sail over Neverland and London in your own flying pirate ship.

Now I sit in the playroom of an old Dutch house on a quiet block lined with streetlamps glowing orange underneath the magic moon. A little boy standing on the furniture holds a tiny plastic retractable telescope to his eye and, his every nerve poised and tingling, announces that a pirate ship and a crocodile and mermaids are in the canal just outside. He can see them in the water. It’s all play, of course, but who knows? Imagination is a powerful thing. And although “all children, except one, grow up,” I’m sure if we all looked a little closer through our tiny plastic telescopes, we’d be surprised at what we might see.

When there’s a smile in your heart
There’s no better time to start
Think of all the joy you’ll find
When you leave the world behind
And bid your cares goodbye

You can fly.


Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

A California flower getting an early start.

Our New Year’s celebrations have come and gone, leaving both tired nostalgia and brisk promise in their wake. I’ve never much enjoyed New Year’s Eve, always succumbing to the dangerous lure of high expectations only to be inevitably let down as soon as the clock hits 12:01 and we remember that it’s just another day. We’ve been told it’s important to get piss drunk and jump around shouting, lighting each other on fire, and trying to match the rubber smile of Ryan Seacrest as the enormous ball drops on the forgotten remnants of another year.

And after all this? The moment fizzles within seconds, our legs grow tired and our voices hoarse, and what are we left with? The crushing questions that come with any life landmark. The questions we all ask ourselves in some variety, as we settle down on the couch, the cold sidewalk curb or the foot of the cheap hotel bed, waiting glumly for the answers. As hard as we try to look 2009 in the face with determination and a newfound purpose, we all deflate a little under the pressure of New Year’s resolutions. Will I actually manage to finally pay off my debts this year? Lose weight? Take my vitamins? Stay in touch with friends and family? Participate in a healthy adult relationship? Give my time to charity? Fix up the house? Go to church? Read more? Learn another language? Find a cure for cancer?

Clean up the messes I made in 2008?

No wonder everyone takes January 1st off. It’s exhausting. And while I do hop on the self-improvement train with most others, I’m trying not to put myself under too much pressure. Perhaps I’ll take the suggestion my mom read in the paper and make a “3-month resolution,” reevaluating my progress in April. I’m being vague this year and vowing simply to take better care of myself. That includes a healthy diet, exercise, and strengthening my immune system, but it also includes babying myself when I see fit. I’ve spent 4 months taking care of other people, and it’s easy to forget yourself in a role like that.

And really, what’s so bad about an excuse to decide to better yourself or the world? Or even to think about it? There are certainly worse things than resolutions, but what I’ve realized I really love about celebrating the start to a New Year is the undeniable universality of it. Some may mark it on a different calendar day, and certainly there are varying ideas of how to celebrate, but everyone, all over the world, in every region and time zone, observes the coming of another year with significance. In spite of any painful disappointments or daunting resolutions, the one thing we can each stand up and say is “I survived.” Time has swept on with or without our consent; we may not be where we thought we’d be by this point, and we may not even be happy, but we’re alive. And we’ve been greeted by a new year.

After spending the holidays with my family in California, I returned to Amsterdam ready to take on what I’m sure will be one hell of a year for me. The first in my life that the majority of which will be spent outside California, and the US. The city here is moving on as well. Dried up, discarded Christmas trees litter the sidewalks, slumped on the ground like sleeping drunks thrown out of bars. It’s still getting colder in Holland, but the days already seem longer and brighter; and although we have a ways to go, I’m really looking forward to Spring.


Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

John Lennon wall, tag done while I was thereI’ve learned something this week that I am sure to carry with me – something that I hope will ceaselessly paint the way I see my life, past and present, with weightless color and light.

On Sunday evening I sat on cool stone high above the Prague rooftops between two new friends with whom I felt completely at ease, completely at home. I’d known both them and the city for a mere two days, but climbing in the cab that night to leave felt as though I were a sour berry getting plucked from the stem too soon. Sitting there in the park above Prague – the sun setting behind the buildings and the cold coiling around us like ribbon – I allowed myself to seep in a warm, blurry contentment. Perhaps, I thought, this fuzzy and loose sort of bliss is simply a result of having gotten only two hours of sleep. But as the colors of the city – pinks, pale grays and creams, the turquoise of old copper, and the coral orange of rooftops – darkened with the setting sun, I knew it wasn’t only exhaustion.

I let my tired body sink into the window seat of the plane and my mind flipped with fondness through images from the weekend – fighting through Christmas crowds in Old Town Square, walking over empty Charles Bridge at 3:00 in the morning, laughing to the point of tears, dancing to the point of exhaustion, sucking flaming shots of absinthe and who knows what else through straws. So many happy new things to remember, yet from this point I immediately jumped to earlier memories, first to my new family and friends in Amsterdam, then to Italy one year ago, to college rowing, to my sister and brother, to my childhood home. I recalled nothing with contempt – only pure affection and gratitude.

I talked to my sister online the following day, and though I really couldn’t wait to tell her about the amazing time I had in Prague, some unexpected urge prompted me first to tell her that I miss her, but I told her this with only love and excitement, not bogging it down with heavy need and homesickness. I am happy to begin noticing a change in myself. As I commit one exhilarating new experience after another to my memory this year, as I grow more and more comfortable, more at home, more happy in Europe, I can see my love for my previous life and home begin to change, begin to lift up.

This love no longer stands in defiance against what I am now trying to do, no longer sits like a rock in my chest reminding me of how happy I once was in a different place. Instead of a weight that I carry with me, it will now raise me gently up to the new things I come to – push me like a guiding hand or lift me like wings to find clarity, color and beauty in each new step I take.

When you no longer need your previous life to feel content and comfortable, no longer view home with a sickness but simply with an undiluted love – that is when you’ll truly appreciate it. I will always wish to be able to blink and be at home again when I need to, if only just for a moment, but there is no reason that has to hold me back or change the way I see new places. I have long clung to a bitter scorn and resentment at the fact that time forces us to move on before we’re ready, before we’ve had enough – and it will probably be years before I ever truly release that. But I am finally starting to learn that the happier you allow yourself to be somewhere else, the more fondly you think of everywhere that you’ve been before.


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: The Whole World and Your Life

it tolls for thee.

I’ve been exceptionally homesick these last few days. Perhaps it’s just another familiar wave of culture shock that pushes you inexplicably down, perhaps it’s hormones, or perhaps the cold weather is already getting to me. The cause could be anything; what I’m trying my best to ignore is the possibility that the homesickness is caused by something real, something in me that truly believes I was happier in California and should not have given that up.

But I did, and I’m here, que sera, sera, and I’m sure soon I’ll be experiencing another blissful moment – the kind of distinct happiness you can only get when you’re far away from what you know, and you’re proud for knowing you’ve begun to fit in.

Though, regardless of whether I’m floating in elation or sinking in loneliness, what I have to do is be present. Wherever I am, that is where I should be. Not back in my freshman year of college, sitting on the cafeteria patio with french fries on plastic trays, new friends at my side, and the warm Orange County evening settling over me. Not in the backyard of my childhood home, swinging on the hammock with a fudgesicle dripping down my tie-dyed cotton dress, and a sleepy plane lulling overhead in the California summer sky.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s masterpiece about 4 long days in the Spanish Civil War and my most recent selection from the Boekenmarkt in the Spui, delivered to me a sharp reminder of this. I was going to say that of course Robert Jordan had greater reason to live in the moment than I do, as his life was in constant danger as a guerilla bridge-blower behind fascist lines, but I won’t say that. If we all waited until our survival was in obvious danger to really pay attention, then we’d miss a hell of a lot.

“And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it. Now, ahora, maintenant, heute [and, might I add, the Dutch nu]. Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.”

A whole world and your life. It does sound funny, but of course that is what it is. Every minute of our lives – every memory and every single forgotten moment – fits together like a puzzle, a painting, a great galaxy. They are now a whole. And that whole exists in its only possible form, with each successive moment adding one piece, one brush stroke, one star. They are fixed. Permanent. And the only thing to do is to fully absorb each new thing that comes along, because only what happens now, and now, and now can change the way the whole turns out. And that, of course, is what matters. Living in the nu.


Bring your Jukebox Money

an old favorite

It’s amazing the way music will follow us wherever we go. Certain songs will continue to appear in different contexts throughout your life, and in doing so will add to the catalogue of emotions and moments that will forever be attached to them. I encountered some such songs while out last night with my new Danish friend, Anne.

We first sampled the Mediterranean cuisine at a delightfully garish and kitschy restaurant in the Pijp neighborhood, moving on to drinks at a nearby bar and then some live music at Bourbon Street, a popular venue off Leidsplein.

The act of the night was a various collection of Europeans covering a various collection of popular American songs. Anne and I bopped along in appreciation with the rest of the crowd, but when the drummer kicked off with that familiar beginning to “Love Shack” by the B-52’s, I was immediately transported back to a Livermore High School dance.

This was one of those token numbers we could always count on, one that every Bay Area DJ hired by LHS would throw into the playlist. (Other dependable selections were “California Love” by 2Pac and Dr Dre, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” by Shania Twain, and Garth Brook’s ever-popular “Friends in Low Places.” Did I mention our mascot was the cowboy?) But “Love Shack”… this was a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. There was something strangely exhilarating about showing off our much practiced hormone-charged moves under the green and purple lights of the gym to a song that you might hear on your mom’s favorite radio station.

So I am standing there in this bar in Holland, Grolsch in hand and staring up at the “Bourbon Street: Amsterdam” painted on the stage upon which performs a band called GSI: Groove Scene Investigation (no, I did not make that up), but in my mind I am 15, enthusiastically thumping my hips in the air and flailing my arms about, eyes closed tight as I sing along, “everybody’s movin’ everybody’s groovin’ baby.”

When they play “Billy Jean” I am suddenly sitting on my knees on the floor of the multi-purpose room at Arroyo Seco Elementary School during the talent show. A boy in my grade—4th or 5th at this time, I can’t remember—is dancing on stage to the Michael Jackson hit. His name is Chris Walker. He’s black and lanky with a shaved head, everybody loves him, and he is hitting every Jackson move dead on. Myself and the other girls in our grade have rushed the stage as though witnessing a celebrity, and we squeal in admiration at every flick of his wrist, our eyelashes fluttering and our bony, tennis-ball knees growing red on the cold linoleum.

But I am actually standing in this crowded European bar, my feet growing sore in my leather boots as Anne and l subtly moving to the beat as we watch one of the band members move his fingers over his keyboard the way those of a monkey move over a soggy piece of fruit.

Later they play Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” I instantly recall sitting at our Dell family computer, a 12-year-old who has recently discovered Limewire—the free music-downloading program. I play Madonna’s powerful pop-gospel track over and over and over again, and in between AOL Instant Messenger conversations, my bare feet pound on our thick brown carpet as I sing as loud as my lungs can manage, eyes closed and with more emotion than I knew I had.

This emotion continues to materialize every time I hear “Like a Prayer” thereafter, including this summer when I rode in the passenger seat of my friend Sara’s car—full of recently graduated girls ready for a night on the town. We had our makeup on and our top buttons undone and Madonna and her choir rang out from the car stereo as we sped over the 110, the downtown LA lights rising and sparkling before us, full of glamor and promise. I danced and moved and shook and rocked as much as can be done while strapped in by a seatbelt. My ponytail and huge round earrings whipped about as I grew euphorically dizzy from the rocking movement of the car, the fast LA freeway traffic, and the sheer volume of our excitement.

And now here I stand, the neck of my Grolsch warming in my grip as I watch the fat singer on stage, probably Eastern European, with massive sideburns and a greasy ponytail, as a V of sweat develops on his olive-green polo shirt between his soft man-boobs and he shrieks out (rather well, actually) the high-pitched choir part that brings home the end of Madonna’s song.

As I watch the performance, I string these recollections along like beads on a necklace. And as each one fades as the music slows, I wonder: how did I end up here, now? It’s impossible to imagine where you’ll be, who you’ll be with and what you’ll be doing later in life, especially when you get so caught up in certain moments that you feel you may have actually stirred up your brains, but it’s nice to know that wherever you go, you can always revisit the places you’ve been with just a little reminder.

Just like a prayer, your voice can take me there
Just like a muse to me, you are a mystery
Just like a dream, you are not what you seem
Just like a prayer, no choice your voice can take me there


A Good Cry

our view from the front window.

Bricks, bikes and houseboats: our view from the front window.

Last week was a bit rough for me. I’d just spent six days with a friend from home who was passing through on a month-long Europe tour. We hung out in Amsterdam and then spent a weekend in Munich (more on that later), and then I headed back here on a hellish train trip that deserves a post all its own. My friend’s presence was such a powerful reminder of home and family that taking my leave of him was almost like leaving home for a second time. Usually, being with him means my family is also nearby, and when they weren’t and I found myself instead waiting outside a random train station in the cold with a small group of strangers at 2:00 in the morning, it felt like a rather harsh contrast.

But I made it back safely to Amsterdam to begin another week of au pair-ing on a mere two or three hours of sleep. I wasn’t back in Livermore, but I was at my new home with my new family, and that had to do. Fortunately, my mother and I finally managed to have a good and much-needed video chat; it was the first time I’d spoken to her since I arrived in Holland two weeks before. I told her everything, including the trouble I’ve had cooking for a family when I’d barely managed to cook more than pasta or scrambled eggs for myself in the past. I asked her to send me a couple of the easy, healthy and reliable family recipes that she used when we were young, a few that she knew I could handle.

Several days later an email graced my inbox, subject: “Recipes and Skype.” Beautiful words to a girl far away from home. Attached were five old recipes from my mother’s personal recipe box, neatly written on white 4″x6″ index cards in faded pencil and scanned into the computer. I opened up “Trout Meuniere” and was delighted to see her familiar script, always consistent, a combination of cursive and print that is tight and efficient yet not without its own curl and whimsy.”Dredge fish in flour,” she wrote. “Melt 2T butter in large skillet. Add fish, saute over moderate heat till golden…”

I sat at my Dutch family’s computer and stared out the window at the yellow and green leaves churning in the wind, the tiny circles on the gray surface of the canal as the rain drops fell. And although the view was completely foreign, I felt as though I were looking at my mother’s index-card recipe on our kitchen counter at home, dancing with my bare feet on the linoleum and whining about setting the dinner table as she stood singing over the stove.

I hear crying from the boys’ room. They’ve woken from their naps, so we all head downstairs. It had turned into a rather hectic week at the house, with me and both boys having come down with a vicious cold. My life was suddenly a muddle of snot, headaches, and abrupt and formidable crying fits. Alex, the 3-year-old, had exceptional trouble getting up from his nap. His cold had gotten the better of him, and he cried and rubbed his eyes and wanted only to be on my lap. We sat together on the big chair by the front window, looking at the bicycles go by on the street outside. His face buried in my neck as the tears slowed, I rubbed his back and spoke calmly to him. “It’s OK, Al. A cuddle always helps,” I told him. “A cuddle always helps.”

Then, with these words, I started crying out of nowhere. Before this, the abrupt and formidable crying fits had been reserved for the boys. But it came on strong and relentless. I sat there holding Alex as he breathed quietly, curling his fingers through my hair, and it became newly and sharply apparent that this year I will be doing the mothering, and that video chats with home will be the closest I get to any of the same from my own family.

I can dance barefoot on my kitchen floor in Amsterdam as I try to cook fish – fresh from the market down the street – that will feed a couple of tiny mouths and, if I’m doing anything right, hopefully keep them smiling. The important thing to remember is that, like your mother’s index-card recipes, home can be taken with you wherever you go. And if it seems too far away, a nice cuddle with a 3-year-old always helps. Along with a good cry.


I Rode the Bakfiets, I Can Take on the World!

Everyone rides bikes in the Netherlands, as you probably know. This means that people also ride something called a bakfiets (literally translated to something like “bucket bike”) with a large bucket/wheel barrel attached to the front that is meant to hold precious cargo: often (and certainly in my case) this cargo is small children. Bikes make me a bit nervous to begin with, and riding bikes in a busy, rainy city through heavy car, tram, bus and other bike traffic makes these nerves run a little higher. So you can imagine how riding a big gigantic bike through such conditions while two small boys bounce around in the front might worry me.

My relationship with bicycles over the years has been complicated, a bumpy road of love and hate. Though I learned to ride as early as the next kid, I spent most of elementary school on either roller blades or a skip-it (when I wasn’t in a hurry). I was comfortable on a bike, but only when it was up to speed and easiest to balance. It was the stopping, going, and maneuvering difficult turns – or any turns at all – that made me wimper in panic and squirm on my banana seat. The likelihood of steering right into a bush or a curb or – my absolute greatest fear – another moving bicycle was, I thought, far too great to take the risk. Plus you can avoid the stupid helmet.

I managed to hide my aversion and ineptitude from people for the most part, and got along just fine with my little secret. Just fine, that is, except for one day of the year: Safety Day at school. I remember the dread as the day approached, the careful, anxious plotting to get out of it. For part of Safety Day, the school made students take turns putting on some awful helmet and riding a bike through some kind of obstacle course laid out on the asphalt. I think it was just meant to be a fun way to teach kids about wearing helmets, but I saw it as the ultimate test, with the fat, grinning faces of yard duties suffocating you as you completed the challenge before hundreds of judgmental, 3rd-grade eyes. Any slight wobble, any grazing of the orange plastic, meant doom, a life of shame.

I was too shy to ask them to lower the bike seat when it was my turn, and the helmets were always enormous on my tiny head, like an eggshell on a toothpick, so really I could see no good reason to participate. I wonder now if my mother suspected anything when I tried it once, clearly had some sort of negative experience, and then was conveniently ill every year that same time.

While the panic and terror of Safety Day remains very real for me, my fear of riding a bike has fortunately dissolved since then…almost. Mastering my regular Dutch bike was trying enough – with the tall seat (here’s where the fear makes itself known again), and the required maneuvering through many difficult turns and very tight spaces, usually between two other moving vehicles that are either larger or more pushy than me.

But I did that, and now it’s no big deal. Next on the list was the bakfiets. I was quite terrified to try this monster out, but as it so happens it’s even easier than my regular bike. I do have to jump off to push it up hills on foot, but the seat is nice and low and it balances on it’s own. Apparently, though, I have to be careful when I turn because it does tip. And that’s when little skulls meet concrete. Or cars. Or both.

But I’ve now taken the boys on two rides to the Vondelpark without any injuries or mishaps whatsoever, and attracted some attention doing it! On my first ride, I was asked to pose for a photo with a group of tourists from LA, and an Englishman standing at a red light asked if he could get a shot of me in action. I gave him a thumbs up.

It’s been a long road from Safety Day to the bakfiets, but now that I can pedal that giant yellow machine around town, I feel like I can do just about anything. I’m just glad I don’t have to wear a helmet.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
January 2019
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