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46. Notes on minor events
2021 was a lot of year
A reader responded to my last newsletter about not apologising (for your home's cleanliness, your social energy, your desire for things) by pointing out how, at least as far as cleanliness is concerned, the burden has always inordinately fallen on women. And how our social norms influence who does and doesn't have the right to be staunchly unapologetic.
My first response, I'm ashamed to admit, was to bristle. Uhm, of COURSE I considered the role gender plays in how people respond to other people? (Do you know I am?) Unfortunately, my written reply wasn't much better, and suffered from more than a little wellactuallyitis.
Like most startups, the company I work for has a list of values. One of them is around learning from failure. Stated boldly as a universally applicable dictum, it raises the question:
Who gets to fail?
I was going to make this newsletter about sub-optimal decisions. Like, hey, sometimes we limit our possibilities because we feel the perfect path is out of reach. As a result we decide not to choose any paths. So sometimes we need to make sub-optimal decisions. It can be useful for when you feel stuck to just accept that none of the available options are particularly good.
But like who gets to fail and not apologise, it leans heavily on context.
The difference between calling someone brave and calling someone foolish tends to rest on how much they can afford for things not to work out. The Tory government is a great example of people just failing upwards at terminal velocity. Politicians who seem to get their comeuppance aren't comeupped for very long; for many being forced out of politics is a great career move.
It's a privilege not to have to be perfect. LinkedIn says I've "changed" careers several times. Turn your head a bit to the side and squint, and you'll see I've also “failed” repeatedly. Always looking for new challenges, or just not very good at anything? In this TED talk...
I moved to Haarlem (the Dutch one) in March of 2021 after nine years in London. It’s the oldest incorporated city in the Netherlands; I like to call it “Amsterdam Extreme West”.
Even without London as a reference, Haarlem is a small place. You can cross some of the canals in three steps. Buildings tilt at wild angles. Signs announce without fanfare the founding of things 300, 400, 500 years ago.
For the first few months I took notes on minor events. A little George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. My last newsletter of 2021 feels like a good place to put them.
The woman behind me in the checkout line is trying to get my attention. I can see that she’s Chinese, and I expect her to ask me, in Chinese, where I’m from. Instead she hits me with Dutch.
“She wants to know if she can go ahead of you. She doesn’t have a lot of things.” This from the man behind her. I let her pass.
As we’re bagging our groceries he asks where I’m from. I say London because it’s true and also I don’t play that game. As I’m walking away he holds up his bag. Look, he says, pointing at the label. We have the same bag.
For my first month in Haarlem I take the same route into town, or what I think of as town. The cathedral square that splits off into multiple streets.
Two rights out my front door, across a green bridge that pivots centrally to let boats go by on either side. I’ve never seen a bridge like it before.
It takes that long for me to realise there’s a faster way, a white bridge that only lifts from one side, reached by walking along the Sparne River.
An older man comes in and orders a cappuccino. The counter staff say it the same time he does.
He sits to drink it, watching people as they come and go.
A young boy with his hood up comes in and asks at the door if anyone has seen his father. The staff laugh. He looks puzzled.
His dad is sitting behind him.
Everytime I go to my favourite chip shop I ask for frietje, or small fries. And each time the man holds up two paper bags and asks, large or small?
I ask him how to say small, and he says frietje. I say it back to him and he nods.
The next time I go in, he greets me and I say, frietje.
And he holds up the two bags.
Whenever a kid comes into Frietkamer, the owner will greet them with, “Aha, Mr. (last name)”.
This increases my enjoyment of the fries by roughly 100%.
I take my order to go and walk along the street that curves around the old city. I stop in a small fenced area to finish them before going into the bookstore.
An old woman walking by pauses in front of me. I assume she’s taking a breather. Then she looks at me and asks something. I can’t hear her through the mask.
“Lekker?” she repeats. (Lekker is a do-all Dutch word meaning tasty or good but also cool.)
Oh, I say, Yes, lekker. And her eyes laugh, and she looks around as if to say, this guy. Anyone else seeing this? Then she chuckles and walks on.
Hans is selling a combo jointer/planer and my friend D. is in the market. So we drive to Leiden to check it out. As we’re walking to his place, D. shows me some texts he’s been exchanging with Hans.
“Hope it doesn’t rain cause the skinny bitch is outside”, Hans writes. He calls the combo the skinny bitch. He calls it that five times while we’re there.
Outside I notice Hans has a Green Egg barbecue. This is the third Green Egg I’ve seen in a few months. I ask Hans if they’re popular.
They very fucking are, he assures me. He has a 100 decibel mayhem alarm on the big bastard. Friend of his runs a restaurant which employs 5 such barbecues, and one night a crew broke in and hoisted all 5 over the fence.
Hans has a Canadian best friend he met on WhatsApp.
For the first time in my life I sent out Christmas cards. In those cards I tucked a letter. Part of the letter said:
Everything is a lot all of the time.
A lot of us are trying to make it on our own.
Success feels singular. Failure unshareable.
I don't think we're meant to do things this way.
Later I wrote this to my partner:
And whatever I fail at won't matter, because there are no scoreboards and there will be no final reckoning. Whatever we accomplish will only be reflected back from the eyes of those who loved us the most. Anything else is an illusion.
Poetry is like pushing a pram through the dawn
But the pram is on fire, because the fire is your baby
It's like having an orgasm every time you hear middle C on a piano
Mozart is just elaborate foreplay to you
It's like upgrading your horse drawn carriage to a better, more technologically
advanced horse drawn carriage
Or squeezing your mop into a tropical fish tank
It's like being the Monet of blow jobs .................... and losing your boyfriend
to the Toulouse-Lautrec of blowjobs
Or a bedside drawer packed with snow
Poetry is a luxury behaviour
Like crying because you're too clever and nobody understands you
It's like cutting your hand at a party and referring to your blood
as 'party blood'
It's like: welcome to good behaviour town, population 0
I’m ambivalent about Substack, the service that hosts this newsletter. But I do read and pay for quite a few of its newsletters. And here they are.
Well, that’s about it. Normally I’d do an end of the year roundup of things I liked. I probably will over on Instagram, so follow me there if that sounds like your thing. Or just hit that link on December 31st. That should be enough time for me to do it.
Thank you for reading. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories about people they love. Thanks for all the replies in general. I do read them. I hope the year treated you with kindness. I hope you treated yourself with kindness. I hope next year is better. I hope all the years get better. Maybe we can turn this big ol’ ship around.
I’ll be taking a January break, returning in February. I have some ideas for next year that could be called “interactive”. Hopefully you stick around for whatever the hell I mean by that.
Be smart. Stay dumb. Do something silly and fun.