Make your Breasts Wet

When we moved to the Netherlands two years ago, I had only a rudimentary understanding of the Dutch language.  A lack of fluency compromises your ability to participate in a culture in the same way smoking too much dope impairs your senses; you know people are saying something that resembles words, but by the time your mind translates for you, the conversation has moved forward. With your language skills on low, you miss jokes. Eavesdropping is virtually impossible and the quick wit and dry humor that help define your personality in your mother tongue are taken away from you in one fell swoop.

It is quite tempting to remedy the situation by speaking English. After all, most people in the Netherlands, be they native Dutchies, Croatians or Spaniards can speak English reasonably well.  But to do so means you are missing out on the ego-threatening discomfort and embarrassment that can be the wind beneath your language-learning wings. If you make an embarrassing mistake in a language–asking for your butt instead of the bill, for example– chances are you won’t make that one again. Mag ik de rekening alstublieft?  (May I please have the bill?) Mag ik my bill alstublieft? May I please have my butt? (Bil = butt).

Luckily, through exposure and persistence, you reach a point where you understand enough of the words in a conversation to follow along. After two years of daily exposure to frog language, I have reached that level and it has given me a boost of confidence in my daily activities. I can now comfortably eavesdrop on Dutch conversations around me and participate knowingly in conversations.  That is until an expression is thrown into the sentence.

And the Dutch are not only very fond of their uitdrukkingen or sayings, they use them prolifically. There are whole books dedicated to the topic and they are also taught in Dutch courses. Seeing as the Dutch are a seafaring nation, many are nautical in theme. For example, if something was overlooked, we might say it’s fallen through the cracks. I’ve heard this used quite often for sweeping government programs that are supposed to help the most needy, but the most needy often “fall through the cracks.” The Dutch equivalent is “tussen wal en schip vallen” or to fall between the dock of a harbor and the ship. So just at the moment your ego is warming up at your level of comprehension, one of these babies is thrown into the sentence. And then your experience goes from head nodding and smiles to what in the ham sandwich did they just say?  I understand all of the words, but the meaning escapes me.

I was following one conversation swimmingly until this little ditty came along:”Maak jouw borst maar nat,” which translates to “Make your breast wet.” My mind quickly translated the words from Dutch to English, which left me staring oddly at the older church lady in front of me, wondering if she had a famous Amsterdam profession before joining the church. Before my imagination further discredited her character, I promptly interrupted her. “Wat heb je net gezegd? Maak jouw borst maar nat?” What did you just say? Make your breast wet? A round of chuckles ensued that made me feel culturally cute and ridiculous all at once. Luckily an explanation soon followed. This means be prepared for what’s to come; it’s going to be busy or a rough road ahead.

Every language and culture has its expressions and colloquialisms that can be confusing to foreigners. This is also true in the U.S. Even Americans can be caught off guard by expressions used by Americans from different generations or different regions of the country. For example, how would you tell a friend or family member who was overreacting to a situation to calm down? It depends on your origins.  If someone from Southern California needed to convey this information, they’d simply say, “Chill out man.” But if you’re from West Virginia, your word choice may be more like “Don’t go gittin yer gussie up.”

Did you read this whole blog post? Well aren’t you the cat’s meow!

Six boys

My husband and I were both excited and fearful as our son’s 6th birthday approached. We were excited because our little guy was turning six and his exuberant energy was contagious. We were riddled with fear and anxiety as memories of last year’s birthday party played through our minds accompanied by the mantra of “never again.”

Last year’s “celebration” provided a rather harsh lesson; despite our university degrees and five years of parenting experience, we had absolutely no idea how to entertain and supervise ten little children for  3 1/2 hours. Unfortunately, Ezra had invited one young imp who possessed a sixth sense for knowing when adults don’t have the situation completely under control, and exactly how to make the situation worse. Here is just a partial list of the chaos that ensued: fights, throwing of food, crying, screaming and hitting from the boys; quiet, steadfast politeness and bouts of crying from the girls. The girls, several dressed in princess gowns, looked at us forlornly with their large doe eyes as boys ran screaming around them. The boys, inspired by aforementioned imp-child, ran in multiple directions, disregarding all of the house rules that had been laid out to them.  Due to short attention spans and division of interests, games for which we had budgeted 15 to 20 minutes were over in three to five. Thirty-seven minutes into the party, our list of fun children’s activities was all used up and we were at a loss of how we were going to make it to the other side. It took us three hours to clean up and a week to recover.

This year, we prepared for his party as one might prepare for battle: review of past mistakes, strategic planning, ally recruitment, flexibility in the field and a stockpile of munitions. First off, we didn’t invite any imps. Second, we smartly took the advice of my sister-in-law Tinca from the previous year; invite no more guests than the age of your child.  Regardless of the much more manageable ratio of one adult to three children, we enlisted the help of Jaana, who had two sons coming to the party, resulting in an empowering ratio of one adult to every two children! Ezra also showed compassion toward his female friends by not inviting them.

We came up with an extended play list of activities that ensured we would never be empty-handed, created a healthy food table with full access and then opened our doors.

I’ll admit that my detailed agenda didn’t go exactly as planned, but the party was an absolute success, void of almost all of the problems we had encountered the previous year.

The best weapon in our arsenal was flexibility. Our first planned activity was birthday 2013 011a snowball fight outside, but the boys lingered around the building blocks and found it much more entertaining to walk up the stairs to Ezra’s room, check out his toys and then head back down. Sometimes kids like repetitive actions. Or perhaps they like to explore the territory and see what sort of boundaries are set in place. Boundaries established, the boys were finally ready to proceed with the planned fun.

Sjoelen was certainly to be a hit. We had access to four Sjoelen boards in the basement of the church and we pictured a thrilling competition. In this traditional Dutch game, a player receives thirty wooden pucks, which he slides down a polished wooden game board, attempting to get them through one of the four slots at the end of the board, thus collecting points. He has two more turns to get the remainder of the pieces through. Usually, you’d have to wait your turn, but with four boards and six boys, it was a dream set up. Yet this old Dutch favorite didn’t hold their attention for more than 10 minutes.

I wanted to do the Monster Game next, something I plucked from my imagination involving my husband being attacked by six little boys at once, but for some reason, Arie Jan wanted to postpone this one for a bit.

Thus we tried a traditional game for which we’d budgeted no more than 10birthday 2013 018birthday 2013 027 minutes: throwing soft balls at stacked tin cans. Surprisingly, this lasted a good 30 minutes. Boys love the crashing sound of the tin cans clanging to the ground after they’ve demolished them with their forceful throws. And, they love to do better than the next little guy, thus they kept on lining up, wiggling impatiently for their turn.

And finally, the monster game. I’m afraid it was a much too dangerous environment for my camera. But if you ever need a method in which to entertain five little boys (the sixth guest hadn’t arrived yet), this was a hit. First, tell all of the boys that a monster is going to come into the room (point suspiciously at the father of your child). Let them know they will each get three soft balls to throw at the monster and a blanket to help hide. The monster will have five handkerchiefs hanging from his belt. If you hit him with a ball, he has to freeze for three seconds. That’s your chance to grab one handkerchief. But when he wakes up, he can also throw a ball at you and knock you temporarily out of the game. The boy who collects the most handkerchiefs wins.

When the boys heard the monster banging at the door, they were absolutely still. As he made his way into the room growling, they hesitated in their hiding places. But as if by some sort of internal clue, they suddenly attacked. Balls were flying everywhere and the monster was besieged by six little soldiers, all suddenly amazingly accurate in their throws. They all had collective amnesia on the rule about them also getting timed out if hit with a ball, and the poor monster was bombarded. When all the handkerchiefs had been collected, my husband had tears in his eyes from laughter and a grin large enough to compete with those on every little boy’s face.

When we changed pace and came back upstairs for cake and presents, the boys plopped down on the ground within close proximity to one another and worked on building blocks, forgetting all about the cake.

One of the best presents my son received for his birthday arrived the day before his birthday 2013 062party–three to four inches of snow. Thus the last official activity of the day, which was supposed to be the first, was a good old-fashioned snowball fight, in which everyone but the birthday boy himself participated.

Last year when parents arrived to pick up their children, they saw two shell-shocked adults who couldn’t push the guests out the door fast enough. This year when parents arrived, they found tranquil little boys sitting around the living room drinking hot chocolate, with tranquil hosts overseeing. Parents lingered for another half hour at the offer of hot chocolate and chatted pleasantly as the boys played quietly together.

This just goes to show; we can learn from our past mistakes and not only move forward, but do so gloriously.

Can adults truly embrace Spontaneity?

I grew up with the belief that spontaneity is an important element in a life well lived. It was part of my family’s impulsive sense of humor; it played itself out in the creative bedtime stories my mom wove during long summer nights, and it seemed to be the only guiding factor in our summer vacations in the countryside, where each day would slowly unwind with the promise of a new adventure under the California sun.

Yet spontaneity was a seasonal fruit, bountiful only in the summer months when my entire family was free. As mid August hit, it felt like the lazy afternoons were being reeled in on a spool of educational thread, binding us once again to the world of structure. When September arrived, not only did we kids have to go back to school, but our parents as well, one of whom was an elementary school librarian and the other a teacher.

In hindsight, I now realize those spontaneous summer days unconstrained by responsibility were a gift from my parents. While we were out playing Cowboys and Indians, they made sure there was food on the table and clean clothes in our closets, that the irrigation system was working correctly, that the checkbook was balanced and the summer budget on track. They drove us to the library or the beach when we wanted to go, and created all the routines that kept our household humming along while we children played.

Regardless of this adult realization, I still highly value the richness spontaneity brings to life. And that is the type of wealth I would like to instill in my child. But how do you teach spontaneity? Always, always in hindsight. Any other attempt is simply controlled spontaneity, which defies the very definition of the word.

And to plagiarise from the free online dictionary (; Spontaneous: Happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated.

1. Arising from a natural inclination or impulse and not from external incitement or constraint. 2. Unconstrained and unstudied in manner or behavior.  3. Growing without cultivation or human labor.

If you read this definition as a parent, who does it characterize more? You, or your child? I’m guessing your child. Or an earlier, carefree version of yourself you tend to both admonish and admire. Sure, spontaneity can get you into trouble if embraced in the wrong way: giddily jumping off a cliff into a lake for example, going on impulse to bed with a total stranger, or suddenly telling your boss exactly what you think about him or her. But on the other hand, spontaneity connects you to the joy of life; choosing to embrace what you want right in this moment, as a child might do.

And this comes back to answering my own proposed question; my son takes the cake when it comes to spontaneity in every definition of the word. He has an idea and he embraces it. He feels happy and he expresses it through dance, spontaneous song, or silly antics. He wants to build the Eiffel tower and he builds it, molding whatever materials on hand into his desired outcome.

A family art project painfully elucidated an area in which I’ve lost my spontaneity. My son painted a train speeding happily over a bridge, water streaming beneath as the sun shone in the sky. His loose, broad swaths of paint seemed like strokes of genius next to my rigid tree with its evenly spaced fiery leaves. I’d like to think of myself as spontaneous in some way. I certainly give into impulse on occasion. But nothing too daring or scandalous. And there’s the question; Can we, as adults truly embrace spontaneity and also be responsible?

Sure. Within reason. An adventurous friend who I’ll simply call P is a school teacher here in the Hague, is happily married and has two children. She is meticulously responsible and goes above and beyond at work and in the home front. Yet, she admits that she has a fantasy of living the carefree life of her college days with just enough money in her pocket to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets and follow him around the world on tour. In other words, she longs to live life in an unconstrained manner, free of responsibility or worries–be in the moment.

But P doesn’t just admit to the fantasy; she lives it. Every chance she gets, she buys concert tickets and follows Bruce on his European tours, coming home with wrist bands, hip t-shirts, groupie photos, and most importantly, an impish glint of satisfaction in her eyes.

But I was surprised by her words the other day at coffee. To paraphrase, she knows she’s living a lie, but this fantasy gives her the freedom she needs to be at ease in her own life. Is this a form of contrived spontaneity? Living freely without responsibility pressing you down? Being both the benefactor and the beneficiary of your fantasy well lived? I find her solution, contrived or not, an act of brilliance that gives her character peculiar depth.

The number one guru in the art of spontaneity continues to be the almost six-year-old son who is offering wisdom laden lessons on a daily basis. Now if I could only set my adult blinders aside more often to take in his wisdom. On those occasions when I do, he not only connects me with the “I can do anything” mentality of my youth, but encourages me to allow myself that same vision in my adulthood.

Go! Do something spontaneous. And going out for a spontaneous latte grande is not what I’m talking about folks! If you do embrace your spontaneous nature, I’d love to hear about it!*

*(As long as it doesn’t involve shoplifting, stalking, or any gerbil-like weirdness.)