Words

 

This year the prestigious Libris prize for Dutch literature was won by Tommy Wieringa. A few days ago the jury chose his novel These are the names (Dit zijn de namen) from among five books that had been nominated. Wieringa won already a few other prizes with his earlier books, but the Libris prize will give him a lot of additional fame and also a check of 50.000 euros (over 60.000 US dollars). With this prize he definitely belongs to the important contemporary Dutch authors.

I had bought the book already some four weeks ago, but had not yet started reading in it until two days ago. Now that I have read more than half of it, I am inclined to agree with the jury one hundred per cent. If you look for a fast moving story line with a lot of suspense or a juicy story like Fifty Shades of Grey, you had better give this book a miss. But for a lover of the Dutch language and for the person who wants to read an unusual, but fascinating story, this new Wieringa novel is a must.

However, besides admiration, I also feel a degree of jealousy. To be able to handle your mother tongue in such a magisterial way must be the absolute summit of satisfaction an author can have. Each sentence is worth to be read slowly, for most substantives are accompanied by carefully chosen adjectives; verbs are skillfully nuanced and every situation sketch calls forth an razor sharp image.

I was, in particular, touched by a statement of the main character of the book: Pontus Beg, a chief of police in a small Eastern-European city on the edge of the savannah. The man loves reading books on eastern philosophy, and especially works by Confucius. Beg concluded that, if Confucius were in charge of a given country, it would be his first priority to improve the way in which the people use their national language. ‘For if they do not use the language correctly’, he says, ‘they do not say what they mean. And when people do not actually say what they intend to say, no major achievements can be made. And when people do not achieve much, the arts and morality cannot prosper. And as a result, the justice system will be inadequate. And without an adequate justice system the nation does not know what to do. For that reason a country should not tolerate a sloppy use of words, for that is the all-important thing’ (p. 35).

Today I sat on a terrace near the small harbor of the town where I live, and while enjoying my coffee I was thinking about this statement by Confucius. I concluded that Confucius may well have been correct. The ability to carefully put your thoughts into words may be much more important that many people think. If you are in doubt whether or not there are lots of people who do not have this gift (or who simply do not make any effort to do a bit thinking before touting their opinion), you should from time to time visit the website of some popular newspaper (such as the Dutch Telegraaf) and look at reader comments. I do this from time to time, and I am always amazed about the sheer quantity of prejudice, verbal abuse, ignorance, insults, and utter nonsense that is hurled into digital space. Yes, perhaps there is a direct link between the verbal deficiencies of a major part of our society and many sad aspects of our contemporary world.

Well, whatever may be the case: my quality newspaper called Wieringa’s book one of the best books that has lately been written in the Dutch language. Reason enough to quickly continue my reading of it.

 

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Trauma

 

At last the moment has come! For a considerable time already, I had been planning to integrate at home the television, the internet and the telephone. Two weeks ago I, at long last, placed the order with UPC for the Horizon media box, with the various services that we think we need. UPC has told my current internet provider to end their service to me, and has also intervened to stop my telephone services via KPN. I received a nice parcel with my new toys and I have made significant progress in installing all these goodies. The media box functions as promised and I can now surf to more television channels than ever before. Certainly, there are sill some mysteries that have not yet been revealed, and so far I only partially understand how the two remote control devices for my media box and for my television can harmoniously work together. Some time next week my current internet service will be ended, and then I will find out whether the laptops of myself and of my wife will wirelessly perform at the proudly advertised speed through the media box as the center of my home wireless network.

I cannot deny that I always do these kinds of technical jobs with great trepidation. It takes a lot of time before I have a clear idea which cords must be connected where, and which buttons must then be pushed and in what order. There is a deep-seated fear that I might blow up the entire installation by some wrong move. I suspect that this anxiety is the result of a terrible trauma I suffered as a child.

In the beginning of the 1950’s our family continued to receive at regular intervals ‘care packages’ from a benevolent person in the United States. At the time, an extensive charity program had been established to facilitate the sending of parcels with clothing and other items by good spirits in the US, to Dutch families that had suffered great difficulties in the Second World War and the immediate post-war period. A lady in the city of Lexington in the state of Kentucky was the regular donor of the parcels we received. Apparently, there had been some correspondence between my father (who had a fair command of the English languages) and this good lady, in which my father had indicated that our family did not possess a radio. And so, the next parcel contained among other things, a small radio.

I vividly remember how our family was united around the table in our living room when my father dismantled the parcel and unwrapped the radio. I can still see the radio before me: a small brown box of Bakelite, with on the front a button to start and to stop the radio, and a much bigger knob that had to be turned around to find the various radio stations.  Since my father was an electrician by profession it presented no major challenge for him to replace the American plug with a Dutch one. When this was taken care of, the great moment had arrived. The plug was put into the socket, the on-button was pushed, the round knob at the front of the radio was turned around, and, lo and behold, there was music! But not for very long. A strange smell and some accompanying smoke, began to ascend from our precious radio and then the music stopped as abruptly as it had started only a few minutes before. The radio was irreparably damaged. We had, unfortunately, not been aware of the fact that the VS operates with a different voltage from that in Europe, and when 220 volt passed through the radio, it ended the enjoyment within a very short moment.

I remember few things from my childhood and youth that have frustrated me in the same manner. We were so happy to, at last, have a radio in our home. But the joy lasted at the very most for three minutes. Ever since I have been very careful when installing electrical appliances and equipment. Therefore, when installing my new UPC-wonder box, I proceeded with great prudence. So far, everything has gone quite well. I feel, I have reason to be optimistic with regard to the remainder of this process—encouraged by the pleasant thought that this complicated operation will bring me a financial benefit of at least 50-60 euros per month.

 

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The (not so) Golden Age

 

[Friday evening, 26 April, 2013]  Recently the Netherlands national television aired a series of documentary programs about the ‘Golden Age’  (roughly the 17the century) in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I did not see all 13 programs, but those that I had a chance to see were superb. However, there is also another side to this period of prosperity and grandeur, and that side is portrayed in a beautiful book that I read last week. The title is (translated): People of Little Means—Small Change of the Golden Age, written  by the well known Dutch historian A. Th. Van Deursen. Earlier I dedicated a blog to two of his other books that I immensely enjoyed (31 October 2012). I also read this book with great interest.

In his book about the Golden Age van Deursen does not focus on the elite and the rulers, as was the case in the television series, and he does not write about rich merchants and Rembrandt and other master painters of that period, which brought our country so much international fame. He discusses the plight of the ‘common’ people: the workers, and the soldiers and other men and women of the lower classes. He tells us about the housing, and working conditions, the education of the common people (or the lack thereof), and informs us how the various institutions (such as the justice system and taxation, etc.) affected the great masses.

It is good to also know something about the less positive aspects of this glorious period in Dutch history. Even though one of our ex-prime ministers made an appeal to the Dutch citizens to re-awaken the VOC-spirit, it must be admitted that there were also many things in this VOC-period of which we cannot be proud.

Some things struck me, in particular, as I read this fascinating book. In the first place, it is good to see the relativity of many things. Foreign visitors of the Netherlands at that time often had much praise for the living condition in Dutch society in this time of great prosperity. They stated that these were a lot better than elsewhere in Europe. But this does not take away from the fact that, when measured against our norms (and when compared with the opulence that another part of the population enjoyed), these conditions were utterly miserable. It just depends on one’s perspective.

I was amazed to read about various aspects of taxation in this period. To have private entrepreneurs care for the gathering of taxes, and to permit them to put in their own pockets what they succeeded in getting in tax payments from the people over and beyond the amount that the government had estimated as reasonable, was hardly a method that promoted fairness and equal treatment. There were some kinds of taxes that we still know today, but some other taxes seem very strange to us. There was, for instance, an extra tax on  the wearing of costly garments by common people. The fact that commoners wore fine clothing was deemed undesirable, since it tended to obliterate the differences between the classes. This extra tax was not levied from the elite; in their case costly apparel could not be considered a luxury, but was ‘normal’!

There are numerous other things that struck me, but, in particular, the fact that many problems of today’s society seem to have a long history. People of the Golden Age were complaining bitterly about the behavior of ‘today’s youth’. And many felt that they were living in a time of intense moral decay. Is sounds like the refrain of many a litany of our time and age.

It must also be admitted that church life in the Golden Age could be far from peaceful. Maybe I should keep that in mind in the coming days. A few hours ago I arrived in a congress center near the French city of Lyon, where I will attend, as a special guest, the quinquennial session of the organization of Adventist churches in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. I recently ended my official church involvement in Belgium and Luxembourg, but I appreciate the fact that I have been invited to attend. The session faces some rather critical issues and I expect that things might become a little hot from time to time—to use euphemistic language. If that should be the case, I may be able to relativize matters somewhat by the information in van Deursen’s book about the frequent ecclesial troubles in the Golden Age. But, who knows. I may be wrong and this meeting in the coming days may turn out to be surprisingly peaceful!

 

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‘To polder’

 

The choice of my topic for this week causes some problems for the English version. It is about a topic with a heading that is derived from the Dutch substantive ‘polder’.  A ‘polder’ is a piece of land that has been reclaimed from the water and is protected by dikes (also often spelled as ‘dykes’), since the land lies below sea level. The Dutch have taken the word ‘polder’ and have created a verb ‘polderen’—to polder—that refers to a model of decision making that, in spite of a plurality of opinions, wants to arrive at a consensus-based decision.

It is a concept that appeals to me. Partly, this may be a matter of emotion. I am fond of the polder, of this mostly (but not exclusively) Dutch method of ‘making’ land where once there was only water. I grew up in a village, some 35 kilometers north of Amsterdam, that was built on a strip of land between four lakes. Between the thirteenth and the seventeenth century these lakes were turned into polders. Since five years I live in a town that is built on the bottom of a much newer polder, the Flevopolder. Only half a century ago it was part of a large body of water, the Zuiderzee (or, since  1932, called IJsselmeer after a dike closed this lake off from the sea).

Many people find polders rather boring. Everything is flat, often there is not much to see or to experience, they say. You have to be satisfied with a simple system of straight canals and narrow roads. And the wind is always blowing stronger than elsewhere. But others, like me, love the polder. They love the fact that you can always see in the distance; they love the greenness and the open space; the beautiful skies and the windmills (to the extent that these have survived the centuries). Polders are often unique landscapes that have much to offer. The Beemsterpolder (one of the four polders near the village where I lived as a child) is now recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

How the verb ‘to polder’ came to be used in the way it is used today, is not totally clear. The best explanation I have been able to find is that the making of a ‘polder’ in past centuries required a far reaching degree of cooperation of various stake holders with very differing interests. Making a polder and making the new land suitable for agriculture and for habitation, required huge amounts of planning, many different skills, years of hard labor of a great many people, and enormous amounts of capital. The makers of a polder were truly required ‘to polder’ together.

The recent agreements between the Dutch social partners and the government that led to a comprehensive long-term agreement, is a good example of the poldering-model that time and again had brought satisfying results.

However, there are quite a few people in Dutch society that frown upon this ‘poldering’; they feel it is a sign of weakness to have lengthy discussions about a particular issue with the final result that there is a colorless compromise, in which no one party sees all its wishes fulfilled. If you are negotiating, they say, you must persist until you have reached one hundred percent of your goal. You must stand for the things you believe in and not be content with vague compromises. True, if parties negotiate, they cannot all win. Unavoidably, there will be winners and losers. That may be tough, but, in any case, the results are clear-cut.

Undoubtedly, there are occasions when you have to fight for your convictions, when you will have to say ‘no’ to every form of compromise—whatever be the cost. I believe, however, that in most cases it is much better to follow a process of give and take in an attempt to find solutions. This is true in the political area, especially in a country like the Netherlands, where none of the political parties can hope to reach a majority position. I admire politicians who are willing to work with others—including their political opponents, and want to strive for what is most feasible.  In many instances this also applies to a faith community. Far from every decision has to do with unchanging biblical principles. Most often factors as culture, history and personal preference play a major role. The process of ‘poldering’ seems to be, in many cases, a truly Christian way to remove barriers and create cooperation.

In summary:  It makes me feel good when I drive through a ‘polder’, and it has often given me great pleasure when in my work in the church I have seen the positive results of ‘poldering’.

 

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Looking back

 

The past week was a week with a lot of history. Since yesterday, after ten years of intensive and costly renovation, the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is open to the public. Finally, people can once again admire the famous paintings (that were for a long time stored away or lent to other museums), as well as numerous historical artifacts. By chance, yesterday I also found in my mailbox my new museum card that will allow me unlimited entrance to most Dutch museums during the next twelve months. One of my future visits will certainly be to the Rijksmuseum. I can hardly wait.

This was also the week in which Margareth Thatcher died. As expected, public reactions were very mixed. They are still many British—and other—people who idolize her, but, even today, there are many others who are horrified when they think of her. I belong to that latter category. When (from 1994 until 2001) I worked and lived in Great Britain, her period as prime minister was, fortunately, already something of the past. But I vividly remember the many hot discussions with one of my closest colleagues. He was appalled by my Labour sympathies. I, on the other hand, found it very difficult to understand how someone could combine his Christian views with the kind of politics that divided people in the way Thatcher’s policies did. I certainly do not approve of throwing a party in the streets because of the death of the Iron Lady, but I can well understand how she continues to evoke many negative feelings with very many people.

And then, last week it was exactly twenty years ago that the massacre took place in Waco (Texas, USA), and the American authorities stormed the headquarters of the Branch Davidians with some seventy dead people as the awful result. It is still, after two decades, not clear what exactly happened, and whether there had not been a more peaceful way to end the standoff. Currently a symposium is held in the city of Waco, by a Baptist institution (Baylor University), where experts will once more try to analyze the Waco-event.

For Seventh-day Adventists ‘Waco’ is a sad episode that we simply want to forget. The followers of David Koresh belonged to a small sect that had been spawned by the Adventist Church, and most of his disciples were still officially members of the Adventist Church. Some important lessons must be drawn from the terrible events in Waco. In the first place, Waco was, especially in its initial phase, a horrible public relations disaster for the Adventist Church. For days the church had no clear communication strategy how to deal with such a calamity. It took far too much time before the church had a clear message for the media. But, more importantly, it is important that we do not forget how an extreme version of a weird apocalyptic message may, through a brain washing process, lead towards dangerous fanaticism or even religious madness. Also today we see examples of men and women who confuse people with their bizarre interpretations of biblical prophecy, and put them on a road that can easily lead towards a new Waco!

And finally, the day of tomorrow will provide me with another opportunity to look back to the past. I will meet two colleagues, who, like me, have retired, and with whom I spent—some fifty years ago—a summer in Sweden. Marc Cools, who is Flemish and now lives in Luxembourg, Dieter Versteegh and myself will meet in a restaurant near Utrecht to share our memories of this Swedish adventure. All three of us studied at Newbold College and had to find a way to earn enough money for our studies. At the time, canvassing (selling books from door to door) in Sweden was a popular method among Adventist students, to relatively quickly make a neat sum of money. Many Swedes, especially in the countryside, were willing to assist foreign students through the purchase of a book. In most parts of the world the colporteur system has now long been abandoned by the Adventist Church. But there was a time when it was regarded as a useful way to distribute Adventist books and magazines, while it was economically quite advantageous for the church (and for the three of us). I hated every moment of this work, but knew it was the only way I could hope to earn enough for a full year in college. However, after half a century the pleasant memories predominate. Tomorrow, while enjoying a good meal, we intend to savor these for a few moments.

 

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