Saturday, August 23, 2008

Back in the NL

'arrived back in the Netherlands Thursday morning, and have been burning the candle at both ends since.  There have been a series of farewell parties filling days since I got back, and I finally collapsed into bed last night to sleep straight through to noon today.  Very uncharacteristic; very telling.

DSCN0501 The staff farewell get-together was worth returning early for.  The eight of us have led the company the past two years, and there was lots to reflect back on. It was wistful at time, happy at others, but always with an undercurrent of knowing that this was the last time we'd be together as a group.  It's sad: we did better (and deserved better) than this.  Most will drift off from the company immediately, all will probably go within a year or so.  We all visited a winery together (I didn't even understand that Arnhem had a wine industry), and had a farewell dinner at a local residence hotel.  Reflexively, everyone was up for breakfast together at 8:30, even though we'd stayed up talking until 1.  Friday lingered on with a few smaller get-togethers, and then a Research Group farewell in the evening.

DSC00096 My doorbell rang at six this evening: the neighborhood had decided to throw a summer block party.  Apparently it was the first time that the neighbors had gotten together, and there was much pointing to windows and explaining where you were in relation to others.  It was a nice affair: it's been difficult to meet folks because few are out during the day and Dutch social customs only give me one chance to establish the right relationship at the beginning.  Being new, I didn't.

But this time around, I met folks who had lived in the US, who had finished careers as teachers or started them as therapists, who had firm opinions of the EU or soft ones on George Bush.  It was almost like any US bar-b-q: people talk house values and politics, share gossip and tips.  Small children are scurrying underfoot, while large ones try to snag a bit of wine or beer while adults have their back's turned.  We all had opinions about the sculpture exhibitions at the park (I was the only one who had gotten inside the "bubbles").

Anyway, it's good to be back.  Lots of thinking to do, and lots of planning to catch up on in the week ahead.  I feel like things are firmly in transition now.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Crossing Eastern Washington

Palouse Out 24 I've commented before about the contrast in distance, density, and landscapes between the Netherlands and the US.  Driving border-to-border yesterday really brought it home for me, so I wanted to share a few pictures (starting with a Washington Windmill, so the Dutch feel at home...)

Washington State is in the extreme NW corner of the United States, nestled against the Pacific and Canada.  The western portion of the state gets a constant flow of moisture off the ocean, and the coastal mountains (the volcanic Olympic and Cascade ranges) cause clouds to pile up all along slopes.  While it's temperate all year long, there is a mist of rain almost all the time in some areas, while Seattle gets lots of drizzly days.  The mountains run north/south through the west-central portion of the state, then there are two hundred miles of dry desert extending east from their rain shadow.  Major irrigation projects were created in the '30s to convert huge chunks of land to marginal farms: they grow wine grapes and fruits, some plants for grains and oils.  But there are still large stretches away from the rivers that are absolutely desolate: basalt rocks, sand, and rolling sagebrush.  The eastern rim of the state becomes hilly and wetter again: Pullman is on the edge of the Palouse hills and the Idaho portion of the western Rocky Mountains begin beyond.

I moved to the Eastern Washington town of Kennewick when I graduated college, where I had my first job with Cadwell Labs.  It's a small, family-owned medical device company, along the Columbia River in the driest part of Central Washington (12 inches of rain per year).  We lived along the river for five years, then moved over to Seattle with the arrival of our first child.  I'm pretty familiar with the entire area and the variation in climate and topography, but it's still a striking change from the West side, or from the Netherlands.  From east to west...

Palouse Farmland

Pullman Sunrise 2

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Palouse Out 05 Palouse Out 14

Into the Desert

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Straus 12 Washtucna 05

The Columbia River at Kennewick

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Tri Cities 15 Tri Cities 12

Hanford to cross the Columbia at Vantage

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Hanford 06 Hanford 02

Vantage 06 Vantage 02

Approaching the Cascades from Ellensburg

East across the Cascades 19 Ellensburg 1 

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The way things are in Washtucna

I checked out of the Moscow hotel early, meeting my daughter at 6:30 to swap keys so that she could go to sorority rush. Hopefully the last bits could be solved by noon, but the problems started immediately. Software conflicts kept her computer off the college network, XP SP3 broke the Windows Installer, a cable was broken where her rabbits had chewed through. The temperature rose 20 deg F each hour; I fixed each problem in turn.

DSC09899 StitchBy 4, the computer was working, her email accounts were configured, the mirror was hung, the DVR was ready for the network. She had dinner plans, so I gracefully packed up, gave her a last hug, and intoned the father's benediction: Do great work; have fun; I love you.

Simply getting things moved in and hooked up is much less than I should be doing, but I know it's everything she needed.

I put the scrap box into the car, checking the skies to the west. The horizon was hazy behind dust blowing in off the hills. TomTom chirped in: six hours to Seattle, arriving past midnight. Lovely. I turned out of town, along rolling country roads dotted with farm trucks and motor homes, each struggling with the rises and turns. It wasn't going to be easy to keep up the time across the distance.

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The high wedge of a thunderstorm appeared to the south, black against the golden hills. I sped across the front of it, keeping it safely off to my left. But, as skies darkened and the road curved south into the storm, I gave up the race. Not the Olumpic spirit, I know, but I was getting tired and hungry. The road signs said said that I was near Washtucna, WA: the last town for another 30 miles (in any direction). 'not very Dutch, I thought, smiling.

Did I mention that the Netherlands Yngling team finished with Silver yesterday?

In fact, I don't know what the Dutch might make of the empty endless plains, the arid golden hills, the utilitarian train-stop farm towns. Washtucna was typical of these tiny communities: one wide street flanked with a few silent businesses, 250 people, looming grain silos, some industrial fuel pumps. It's quiet and empty, a "Last Picture Show" ambience. Warm, hot wind raised a curl of dust along the street; a lean dog watched me, immobile, from the sidewalk. Okay, maybe it's more Clint Eastwood than Cybill Shepherd. I parked, then picked up, put away, and locked up the car with a city-dweller's caution.

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Lightning struck to the south, and the wind rose: the storm must be just past the hills. A brown smudge that I'd mistaken for smoke outside of town began to grow. In minutes, it became a vast column of dirt, rising and expanding ahead of the rain. I retreated to porch of Sonny's.

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Contact lenses are the worst thing to wear in a dust storm: I tried to grab a last picture and ducked into the restaurant. It turned out to be empty, like Washtucna: just the woman tending the fryer and me. The building rattled and the hanging icicle lights swayed and jumped in the wind outside, but, for an hour, we played out the timeless ritual of the traveler and the innkeeper.

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Where was I from; was I just passing through? How long had she been here; how is the "Famous Chicken and 'Jo" plate? Do many folks come by; it's early in the evening. Maybe they're avoiding the story; we need the rain.

The place is cozy, dim, cluttered, neon-lit. Light refracts through bottles on the shelf; three flyswatters hang in a neat row near the window. The jukebox sputters out a 40's tune now and again; she says the kids never let her play it. Two teenagers pus the door open to ask if they can use the bathroom. She sends them back into the storm because people have to be 21 to be in Sonny's.

I felt a bit sorry for them: who would ever check, or care, if a kid relieves himself in an empty bar on a Monday evening. Maybe it would be different if they learned to like 40's music?

She cleaned counters and cutlery; I drank my Kokanee. We talked about her time in North Carolina and about the future of places like Washtucna. She thinks the retirees, looking for cheap housing and quiet streets, will save it. But the grocery closed last year and nobody wants to drive 30 miles for supplies. 'better to load up monthly at Costco. Still, 'nobody locks a door in this town. Her son and daughter have gone on to bigger cities to the west and south. We share thoughts on empty nests and grandchildren.

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The dinner arrives, a deep fried half-chicken and quartered potato. She brings out some sour cream for the potato since I'm from Europe. Funny, because the Continental touch is the mayonnaise out next to the catsup for dipping. The chicken is delicious: crackling crisp outside and breathtakingly hot. "South-Beach"-style diets would never allow this, but the Lipitor will clean up the mess. I smile at the moral hazard.

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Sonny's doesn't serve dessert, and the storm was abating, so I decided to push on towards Othello. She gave me a few recommendations for roads and lodging; I gave her 20 for a 12-dollar meal. 'a bargain either way.

The car is streaky with brown dust, cut in patterns by the rain. 8 pm, and the only lights in town are the still the swaying icicle bulbs at Sonny's. And the only person in town is the one sitting in front of the restaurant, contemplating a cigarette. The dog is still staring at me, immobile, from the center of the street. I pull wide around him and out along the road west.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Moving the daughter to college

Our day began at 4 am, when a stray thunderstorm wandered north of Seattle and the flash and crash tumbled both of us out of bed.  No arguing with nature's will: we packed all of the bags and boxes into the van and hit the road.  It's a strange feeling, she's lived her whole life in this same house and now she's not.  We talked about school and the future as the sun rose over the mountains and the road unwound to the east.

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It feels strange how little she actually takes with her: probably not much more than I took to Holland.  The 'empty nest' isn't really about the gap left behind when they go.  Families spend years assembling artifacts and memories into home and traditions.  I think it's now about that nest, abandoned at last, and so little of it taken along to start her new life.

And what purpose or future does everything we all built up have now?  I'm reminded, again, of Robert Waller's poignant essay, "Excavating Rachael's Room".  Read it (page 3-5).

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Descending into the desert beyond Ellensburg, she was asleep and I drove on lost in thoughts.  We left the highway at Straus, a small farming village lost in the golden grasses and black basalts of the Palouse.  We switched drivers and rolled on through the hills and hard farmland to Pullman.  It was 111 degrees F (44 deg C) when we pulled into the University, I don't think I've seen weather that hot and dry in years.

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We found a rolling card and picked up the room key, parked near the dormitory and rolled all of her things up.  The rooms were bigger than I expected, with plenty of storage space.  The afternoon sun really pours into the room: it's going to be tricky to keep the temperature down.  I offer a bit of fatherly advice.

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It's different moving a daughter: she was better organized than my son, and took more care that things looked right and went to the right places than he had.  she tossed me a bag of things to be hung, bundled separate from things to go into drawers.  We worked on the bed for a while, getting the sheets arranged and mattress oriented properly.

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We made a run out to Moscow pick up a dozen stray things: a mirror, small stepladder, a cable, an extra pillow.  She'd brought some tools, so I got the TV table assembled and went to work trying to get her computer to talk to the school's internet connection.  I got the cable TV working, but was still sorting out the computer when we had to call it a night: their antivirus and her's didn't want to talk with one another.

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Tomorrow's another day; I'll get it sorted.  I brought a small bottle of wine to share, to toast her success, and ours.  Then I turn the empty van back west, and she starts sorority rush and picks up her books.  Each to their own adventure; both to our futures.