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Part of the narrative: who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

October 9, 2015
Eliza, played by Philippa Soo, on the left

One of my favorite things in the world is history and narrative rewritten or re-imagined to explore the roles of (previously) marginalized groups. If that seems like a nerdy favorite thing, well, so be it. Earlier this week I wrote nearly 2,000 words on some favorite cultural artifacts, and I’ve been known to geek out over a diverse range of subjects on a regular basis, so the nerd bridge has probably been irrevocably crossed anyway.

That said, please allow me to expand on my love of Hamilton (not so briefly touched on in my previous post). But in order to keep things manageable, let’s focus on the other Hamilton: Eliza (née Schuyler). Now, know that I’m no historian. I minored in American Studies and had to read a whole bunch of the Federalist Papers, but that’s about as far as my knowledge of Hamiltonia goes – or I should say, went, as since my obsession with this musical, I’ve done a whole bunch of Wikipedia-ing. Still, this discussion of Eliza Hamilton does not aim for historical accuracy, but is a reflection on the Eliza of the Broadway show which is, if not re-imagined history, then at least restructured, re-focused, re-told. Read more…

A few of my favorite things

October 5, 2015

Autumn break is getting close, so what better way to get off to an inoffensive new start than by recommending some of my favorite pop cultural things at the moment? Let’s start literary:

Pretty Girls – Karin Slaughter

For several years now, I’ve picked up the new Slaughter as soon as it comes out. Pretty Girls was one of my many summer reads, and is a strange Slaughter to recommend. It’s neither a Sara Linton (Grant County series) or Will Trent novel. The former books were Slaughter’s big break, focused on coroner/pediatrician Sara Linton, her chief of police husband Jeffrey Tolliver, and his detective protege Lena, while the latter is her current ongoing series, set mainly in Atlanta, Georgia and deals with dyslexic Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent and many different characters (tangentially) related to him. Both series have, at least in the Netherlands, a relatively rabid fanbase, which I got to witness firsthand at a reading Slaughter did in The Hague several years ago. There, many were still upset over the end to the Grant County series, even though it was some years later.  Read more…

Split personality

October 4, 2015

You might think it’s been a year and a half since I wrote something here. That’s not true.

My drafts folder is full of incomplete, imperfect, unfinished posts and scribbles: nearly-done posts, ideas for posts, mere suggestions of ideas. And yet… I’ve not finished a blog post in 18 months. Why?

I could blame a busy life. Since May 2014, a lot has happened: some health issues that had me couch-bound for several weeks (during the school year: an abhorrence!), a job where I had to prove myself in under a year in order to get tenure (I did!) which probably led to aforementioned health issues, a year with a tsunami of new responsibilities at work and, because none of that was enough, I also bought an apartment, which I moved into this past July.

It’s true that all these things were draining to such a degree that sometimes all I could do was collapse on the couch and rely on Netflix for comfort (sad when you read it like this, huh?). But really, it has more to do with not knowing who I am here, and out in the “real” world.

See, it is difficult for me to be anything but my authentic self: loud, opinionated, not always diplomatic, caring very hard in a variety of directions. As a teacher, however, you’re often expected to be cool, aloof, and maintaining serious distance from your students. This is particularly true at my current program. And I’m not saying this is wrong, but it’s something that doesn’t come easy to me (see also the personal nature of this blog, which is public and accessible to students).

It was possible for me to juggle personal and professional me, in person and online, for a while, and then it happened: I became a member of our exam board. In a nutshell, it means I’m responsible (together with the rest of the board, thank goodness), for safeguarding the quality of our degrees, particularly regarding testing and assessment. It’s a taxing, sometimes infuriating, often rewarding position. And even more than with teaching, it requires “professional” demeanor and distance.

The me who, as a cog in a committee machine, decides which students stay and which have to go, which student is considered an exception and who is not, and has to navigate the interests of students, faculty, management, university, legislation, and higher education at large, clashed with the me who shouts about feminism, about racism, about pop culture. Paired with complete exhaustion, it was impossible to figure out where I stood. And so I stopped writing.

The itch remained, though. I wrote so much, for so many years, that not being able to do so was more than a little depressing. So here I am again. I still haven’t figured out how to balance the different me’s, but like so many things in my life, I’m hoping I figure it out as I go. I’ll probably take the long way around again. That’s okay.

Welcome back.

… acts of a madman…

May 26, 2014

What is madness? If I had to capture it in a few words, I’d say it’s anything that is so far removed from the reality of the “norm” that it becomes incomprehensible to the “normal.”

If you followed the news over the weekend, you know what this post is about. Only I don’t want to talk about the act itself; I don’t feel like wasting any time on a person, by all accounts a human, who already got more attention through his acts that he was ever deserving of. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about the narrative that followed, which once more contained references to mental illness, personality disorders, and so on. Because I’d like to posit that at heart, this act was not far removed from the norm at all – that is, if you’re a woman who’s been paying any attention to the culture in which she lives, breathes and exists.

Let me take you back to when I was 14 years old and trying to make some summer spending money and build character by delivering magazines in a neighboring neighborhood once a week. It was relatively warm and I was wearing a shirt and tank-top. I usually delivered these magazines with my best friends; sometimes we’d walk together, but if we wanted to be done quickly, we’d split up, which we did that day. A man, a grown man, walked by and told me how sexy I looked. I, being 14 years old, kept my head down and quickly made an exit. Though this is the first encounter with street harassment I can remember, I know it wasn’t actually the first one, because I wasn’t surprised. But the thing is that usually, teen and preteen girls travel in packs, so on previous occasions where I was approached by strange men, it had happened with friends nearby – friends who were able to deflect and protect. That same summer, there was a young man who frequented the same swimming pool my friends and I did, and he took an interest. Sometimes he’d let me hang onto his car window while I rode my bike, so that I’d be home faster. He wanted to kiss me, but with friends usually around I managed to avoid that.

This was the summer I realized once and for all that this was a thing now. Men would be approaching me, and if I wasn’t interested (and I usually wasn’t, even though like many teenage girls, I still found older guys fascinating), I would have to find a way to turn down their advances or to avoid their advances altogether. I’m not alone in these experiences. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey describes a workshop that Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, did with 200 women. Wiseman asked them to write down when they first “knew they were a woman” and Fey notes that the answers had a “very similar theme” despite the women’s varying ages and backgrounds: “Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them.” From this moment on, whether it happens at age 10 or 14 or 17, I would posit, most of us start developing a sixth sense for male sexual attention: wanted and unwanted. The unwanted sexual attention, whether they’re looks or comments or acts, starts popping up on our Creep Radar. This radar is not built overnight. It develops through experiences like making out with a 23-year old cop, who then wants to date you, at age 16, and being secretly relieved when your mother tells you that is not a thing you need in your life. You hone your skills by noticing whenever strange men look at you a little too long, have their eyes linger on certain parts of your body, turn their heads to check out your ass. And by the time you hit college, your Creep Radar is somewhat operational.

Cue the culture that birthed Men’s Rights Activists. Read more…

Until the next time

January 21, 2014

“Kick up! Come on! Kick!”

My dance instructor stands near me, arms outstretched, hands cupped. “Give me your leg, darnit!”

I’ve been regretting my question even since I asked it. “After I kick, jump, and twist, is my right leg or my left one forward?” It prompted my instructor to fall back on her hands-on approach, and now here we are – here I am – in this bright dance studio, facing a wall of mirrors, surrounded by other novice dancers who are also wondering how to land this jump and (possibly, secretly) gloating that I’m the guinea pig today.

“Come on, Nanna. Kick!”

I reach that point where not acting is more mortifying than acting, so I swing my left leg half-heartedly – once, twice, three times (a lady) UP! into the hands of my instructor. With what feels like snail-like speed I jump and turn 180 degrees in the air before I land: right leg forward, left leg back. Aha!

The instructor moves on to the next student, and the next. They all get to jump and twist in her capable hands – and under her discerning gaze. Ha! Now they have all of the self-consciousness and none of the glee. It doesn’t seem to affect them as badly as it does me.


I flash back to November 2013. The department talent show. Students and lecturers all performed in the university’s main auditorium: if they were out of their minds/brave enough to sign up, that is.

I sort of got roped into participating. Knowing someone was already doing Anna Kendrick’s “Cups,” I felt perfectly safe saying that was, in fact, my only talent. But as luck would have it, that person dropped out and I was in. For weeks, I felt quite comfortable with my participation, but then, a week or so before the event, coworkers and organizers started complimenting me on my bravery, and suddenly self-consciousness struck. If my participation was brave, then this must be a scary thing I was doing. What had I got myself into? Why?

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I always finish what I start. I have a pretty good track record of this. Which meant that one November evening, I climbed the steps to the auditorium stage and faced a few hundred students and faculty with nothing but a cup and my voice – oh, and two gentlemen flanking me with microphones; after all, an artist needs her entourage.  Microphones! I figured I’d just, you know, cup and sing unplugged. But no, there was one to amplify the sound of the cup and – horror of horrors! – one for me. The singer.

I’m not, nor have I ever been, a singer. I enjoy singing in the shower, and don’t mind taking the lead with birthday songs. I’ll even sing at a campfire or on the beach (provided there is enough wine, of course). But this? This was unprecedented. Microphone… Audience…I took a deep breath and did the best I could. My legs turned to jelly, my hands shook, and it took all I had to stop the tremors from audibly creeping into my voice. But like my jump, I also landed my performance: full of relief, out of breath, and probably three years older from stress, but land it I did.


I flash back to dance class, but a dance class of the recent past. We’re improvising, which in modern dance at the beginner level apparently involves a whole lot of dancing with your eyes closed.

Just moving to the rhythm of the music, swaying to the sound, with our eyes closed, in our own space, was bad enough, but now a partner component is added to the mix: one person will have their eyes closed – and follow – and the other will have their eyes open – and lead. My partner gently grabs the back of my neck and starts moving me around the room. Or I should say, makes very valiant attempts to move me around the room, because I’m having none of it. I push back, I squint through my eyelashes, I move in directions opposite to where she wants me to go. I don’t trust – or relax, or give over – easily.

The instructor takes over. She, too, grabs the back of my neck and starts leading me. “Breathe. Shoulders down. Breathe. Relax. There we go. Breathe. You’re okay. … … …. … …. … … …” The music plays, and I dance – as much as I can.

See, this one I didn’t land. I tried, but I didn’t quite get there.


It’s now one week after the dance class in the opening of this post. It’s exam/resit/project time at my university, which means mountain-like piles of grading and very little teaching. In the end, the teaching’s (obviously) why I’m in this job – and why I love it so much. But being a teacher also means that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how frightening it can be to sit on the other side of the room: the fear of not getting it, the fear of getting it wrong, the fear of others judging you and, of course, the fear of not sticking your landing.

Dancing and singing are, in the end, not that different from the things I teach – English, composition, public speaking; they are skills that you can hone through observation, but if you really want to improve, you have to get down and dirty. You have to speak and let it be wrong sometimes. You have to sing and miss your note. You have to jump and crash your landing. But the nice thing about being in a classroom or a class-like setting is that mistakes are acceptable – and often encouraged. They’re a teaching moment and a learning experience. It’s only through falling flat on your face every once in a while that you learn how to avoid doing so.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not scary as hell – particularly when you know there’s a good chance of failure or mistake-making. The tremors, the sweating, the nerves, they affect all of us and they never make us feel good. What does is our ability to power through them and, in our shining, flawed, mistake making glory, triumph over them. At least until the next time.

From Sarah With Love – Or From Love?

September 26, 2013
Sarah Slean QBus

This is not a post about Sarah Connor’s schmaltzy and terrible “From Sarah With Love.” It is, however, a post about – or perhaps originating from – a Sarah.

Last weekend, a friend and I went to see Sarah Slean perform at QBUs in Leiden. Sarah Slean, for those of you who do not have a Canadian friend who tells you how much he loves Sarah Slean at least every other month, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who released her first EP in 1997 and has regularly been performing and releasing new albums ever since. My Canadian friend once recommended her to me when I was looking to expand my lady singer horizons after falling in love with Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan (another Canadian Sarah!) back in the ’90s, but I had never seen her live. Until Sunday, that is.

It was a great show. I won’t bore you with set lists and detailed discussions of all the vocal acrobatics that happened (though “Blue Parade,” very similar to this one in Paris, was a stellar encore which prompted me to turn to my friend and comment that “this is what Florence Welch wishes she sounds like.” And I like Florence + the Machine!), because while I was enjoying the evening, I couldn’t help noticing how much Ms Slean was loving* being there, on stage, in Leiden, in front of what can only be called an intimate crowd. The show was, as she herself described it, a bit of an impromptu variety show, with a local amateur strings sextet (BplusC) accompanying her for three songs, a Twitter follower from Utrecht accompanying her on the ukelele for one song and performing her own, original song – with Ms Slean doing backing vocals – and then her supporting act – the wonderful and fabulously bearded Ian Kelly – coming back on stage for a few collaborations. This all happened between her solo performance of a variety of songs, of course. And it struck me that there is no possible way for an artist to do all that – perform with all these people she never met until the day of the performance, share her spotlight, laugh at herself when she messed up her backing vocals – unless they absolutely, positively love doing it. Love not just showing and performing, but sharing their art with those who are open, willing, and brave enough to give it a try.

Though her vocals and performance were great, this is what I remember best about last Sunday night: just how wonderful it is to watch someone do something they love. Wonderful and memorable and inspiring. That’s the thought I was stuck on all day Monday and Tuesday and the thought I believed this post would center on. But then I realized that there are a great many people who love to do certain things and who have no problem exhibiting that love – and yet I want to punch them in the face. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I’m a very violence-averse person. As I started thinking about all these people – certain politicians, talking heads, celebrities, and perhaps a couple of folks I know personally – I realized that just doing something you love and sharing that love and enthusiasm with others is not that perfect storm, that magical moment, that I noticed on Sunday. It’s not just about doing something with love; it’s about doing something from love.

Think back on some inspiring people you have met, and you will probably realize (if you never did so before) that part of the reason they touched you was the passion they had for whatever they did or discussed or showed or performed or [insert other verbs here]. That’s doing something with love. Then think back on the most inspiring people, the most special people, who create the most special moment.  They make an active effort to share their love with you, to give you a little part of it, to stretch their love far enough that it can cover a whole community – and not just an individual. That is doing something from love. It is what I can see when I remember my favorite college professors and high school teachers. They obviously loved what they did, but they went beyond that: their teaching practice was brimming with … the possibility that one day my classmates and I, too, might feel such love for something one day. That we, too, would find our niche, and be comfortable in it. That is, in the end, what inspiration is: the belief that one day, you can do or be something that fits perfectly with who you are.

In order to be able to inspire people, one has to (I believe) possess a significant level of self-esteem, self-possession, and comfort with one’s one person and one’s own passion. Without these things, it seems (again, to me) impossible to spark those moments which make others go “Yes, this is wonderful! You are wonderful! I am wonderful! The world is, indeed, full of wonder! Onwards and upwards, my lovelies!” And that is the feeling I had when I traveled home after the concert Sunday night.

So well done, Ms Slean. I saw your love and because you shared it, I got to take a little bit home with me. Maybe, in turn, I’ll get to spread it even further; maybe with this blog post, or perhaps when I’m teaching. Either way, I’ll try to remember to come at things from love, and not just with it. It just seems a whole lot more valuable and rewarding.

*sorry, students! I know I told you one shouldn’t use stative verbs in the progressive form! Please do as I say and not as I do. Thank you.

On the passage of time, little girls, and my sister

September 20, 2013

Baby girls are born every day and grow up to be and do all manner of things.

Sometimes, they are born with a stomach that has a tendency to malfunction in the middle of the night, resulting in screaming and crying and keeping their big sisters up.

And they are perfectly okay being held and patted on their bum until they calm down and fall asleep.

They can develop the world’s most annoying game – throw two dozen marbles onto a serving tray and watch, mesmerized, how they roll from one side to the other as they tilt the tray – and be entertained by it for literally hours, without even noticing the noise that drives all others to distraction.

If they’re truly special, they might develop such a specific, personal language that linguists want to study it. And in that language, it makes perfect sense to call a frog an ah-eeya, a cucumber an ahmeea, and a spoon an eeeeeppphhh. Even after that language has come and gone, Pinocchio will still – always and forever – be Piocchino.

When their mother has the hairdresser chop all their hair off into a bob cut for their (6th?) birthday, they can refuse to celebrate with their family until they’re bought a cool baseball cap with a bulldog on it to hide their near-baldness.

They can be the perfect size to slide under one’s big sister’s bed so that big sister and her boyfriend can be spied on. They can also be so boisterous that this plan ends up not working out. At all.

They can be a tomboy one day and a princess in pink the other. But they have no problem taking the best of both worlds and combining them. Why be one thing when you can kick ass, stomp around in boots, and also have the pinkest room known to man?

On holidays, they can demand to have their constant companions – a stuffed animal cat called Poes and a lion called Leeuwtje (after several trips of also bringing life-size lioness Leeuw, their mother might start questioning her own sanity) – by their side.

But pets can’t come along on holidays, so when such a tough-yet-girly girl holds the frozen carcass of her guinea pig Bir (frozen with ALL the best intentions AFTER DEATH by a big sister who shall remain anonymous) in her hands upon her return, she might burst into tears, even if “she didn’t care that much for him anymore anyway.”

And then when puberty rolls along, their pigheadedness and refusal to listen to any form of reason might lead to all sorts of stress and strain. But puberty fades, and love – especially after it’s tested – remains.

These girls can impersonate Gollum better than the actor who played the part, can recite all of Aragorn’s titles even in the middle of the night, after some heavy drinking. They can decide to move to the other side of the country and study psychology. They can work hard at statistics and harder at their ability to win (beer-based) boat races and be perfectly content with passing grades. And then they can suddenly take a turn for the serious and fall headfirst into their forensic psychology graduate program. And before you know it, they’re a Master of Science.

If there is any little girl about whom all of the above is true, it’s my little sister. My baby sister. No longer a little girl. She graduates today. Master of Science, forensic psychology. I remember when she was born. I remember going to the hospital in my Musketeer carnival costume. I remember the sleepless nights. I remember the diapers and the burping. I remember the frustration only older sisters know. I remember the anger. I remember pushing her and breaking her flipflop and bribing her with a Snickers bar (“No, TWO”) so she wouldn’t tell mom it was my fault. I remember the cuddles. I remember holding her hand every time we crossed a street. I remember when it was no longer necessary to do so, but I still wanted to. I don’t know where all of that time went, if it ever went anywhere. But I know it’s in my head.

I guess a Master of forensic psychology doesn’t need her hand held anymore – at least not when she crosses the street. But being a big sister, I’ll always make sure it hovers near hers anyway, just in case.

Jetje, gefeliciteerd!


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