Delicious Imperfections

“You made bread!”

It’s always a joy to hear my daughter say that when she gets home from school on baking days. It’s not so much what she says as how she says it. Her tone of wonderment makes me feel like I have been gifted strange and magical powers—the kind that allow you to conjure something quite tasty out of thin air. There may some truth to it. I’ve never heard her come home and say, “You cleaned the toilets!” in quite the same way. Or at all.

I seem to be attracted to things that one can become good at through time and practice, but can never really be perfected: radio, boxing, bass guitar, the Cubs. And baking bread. Look, to be honest, it’s not that hard. There are really just four ingredients—flour, water, yeast, and salt. You get the proportions the way you want them, mix them all together, and away you go.

Ah, but it’s the “away you go” part that’s crucial. Yes, I could knead it for 15 minutes, taking all my frustrations out on the dough. Push, pull, whap! Push, pull, whap! But why fill a perfectly good loaf of bread with that level of bile? Why risk someone saying, “Your bread tastes like impatience with delicate undertones of unbridled hate.” Why make the kind of slice fit only for the monsters who insist on using Goober Grape (that’s peanut butter and grape jelly in the same jar, for those who weren’t aware this abomination existed) to save time and effort. Yes, and I’ll take my cigarettes actually floating in my coffee while you’re at it.

Instead of all that violent kneading, you could just be patient and let it sit for 24 hours or so. To me, the secret to good bread is time. Time for the yeast to work its magic, time for the dough to take on flavor and texture, time for me to fix dinner, drink a beer, and get a good night’s sleep before I bake it in the morning. I like drifting off to sleep knowing that a living creature, one that I made, is slowly rising in the warmth of the kitchen of our little row house. In moments of insomnia, I’ve been known to go downstairs and read it a story or two in (poor) Dutch.

Yes, the whole thing can become a bit of an obsession. That’s the way it is, I think, with something that is equal parts science, art, and magic. At its heart, bread baking is about craft. You learn as much as you can from those who have done it before, try to get as close to their versions as possible, and then, when you start to feel that it’s all becoming second nature, you feel competent enough to spread your wings and strike out on your own. When people ask about my level of bread-baking knowledge and skills, I like to say: “I know just enough to be dangerous now.” I’ve baked bread on a kamado grill, and steamed it in a slow cooker.

I have even threatened to deep fry a loaf in the back garden, using a big pot full of peanut oil and a raging wood fire. This suggestion always leads to the fairly common, yet always appropriate refrain here in the Slachthuisbuurt:Get a job, already.”

More than anything, though, baking bread consistently reminds me that time is a friend, and that patience can, occasionally, be rewarded. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I took up baking again while I was in the thick of producing a daily news show. The process of making bread took my head out of the news cycle and put it in a place where I wasn’t just reacting to random events. Instead, I was actively, and purposefully, creating something. It gave me some back some measure of control over the chaos, and yes, it was a kind of therapy.

It also provided the raw materials for some delicious pastrami sandwiches. It still does. Give me a measure of control, I mean. The pastrami went out with the rest of the cured meats when we went vegan.

That loaf pictured above? Here’s the skinny on that:

  • 500 grams of flour (I use 400 grams of bread flour, 100 grams of semolina)
  • 8 to 10 grams of salt (depends on your taste)
  • 2 grams of instant yeast (1/4 teaspoon)
  • 375-400 ml of water

The process, of course, is a closely guarded trade secret. Not.

If you end up trying to make it yourself, be advised that it’s never going to be perfect, but that’s OK, because even freshly baked imperfect bread tastes pretty damn good.

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“We Should Not Be in the Business of Mere Deterrence”

There are so many felines here in the Slachthuisbuurt that you can’t swing a cat without hitting another cat. The neighborhood is like a clown car filled with a never-ending, somewhat terrifying array of kitties of various colors, shapes, and sizes. When I took our kitten, Pepper, to the dierenkliniek for his check-up last week, I asked the vet about this. “I’ve worked here for twenty years,” he told me, “and I’ve never seen this many cats in any other neighborhood in North Holland.” I assume this hot take will be highlighted in Haarlem’s new push for “quality tourism.”

With the neighborhood awash in supposed rodent-hunters, you’d think mice would be the least of my worries. But you’d be wrong.

The good news is we don’t have an infestation. As far as I can tell, it’s one mouse who likes to run across the ceiling right above our bed. When we turn out the lights at 10:30 pm or so, the taunting begins as if on cue—a small scrittering (my word) of four tiny claws above us. Back and forth. I look over at my wife, and she’s pulled the sheets up to her chin. Her eyes have gone dark and her head follows the sound so that it looks like she’s watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal trade baseline volleys. Back and forth.

 "Our friend," I say. 
"Our? It's not my friend," says my wife. And that's when I know that someone is going to have to do something about this.

The someone is easy—me. I am the obvious choice. The number of spiders alone that I’ve dispatched for the “good of the collective” has already earned me a place in one of hell’s middling circles. But the something? That’s trickier now. The whole vegan element of our European adventure has what you might call “a strong animal rights component” to it. In other words, there will be no snappy mousetraps or industrial poisons. I asked about using plants or oils that might naturally deter the mouse, and was met with this: “We should not be in the business of mere deterrence.”

You didn’t know I was married to John Bolton, did you?

Leaning into these complicated geopolitics, I hit upon a solution that I hoped would tick everyone’s boxes: ULTRASONIC PEST REPELLERS. It’s a set of devices that you plug into electrical outlets around the house. They profess to emit frequencies that rodents (not to mention mosquitoes and flies) hate so much that they permanently abandon your ship. Or at least move to a ceiling in another room where your life partner can’t hear them scrittering.

Those of you who regularly read these sketches are saying, “But Clark, those types of devices failed abysmally in keeping the cats out of your back yard. So why try it with the mice, why?” It’s an excellent question, and one that I intend to almost completely ignore. Instead, let’s look to Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” I knew that my Divinity School degree would come in handy someday.

This fool eagerly awaited the arrival of the repellers. I spent an entire day surveying potential electrical outlets in an effort to create the perfect “no-go” zone. I intended to forge a wall of rodent unfriendly noise that would force the little bastard to leave our ceiling, run across the street, go through the neighbors’ cat flap, and then, in a final fit of mania, leap directly into the waiting mouth of Ginger the Giant.

After the repellers were finally delivered, I tore open the packaging with high expectations.

Now, I have spent huge chunks of my adult life, both personally and professionally, parsing some truly “adventurous English.” I’ve learned the value of being “linguistically supple,” and I try to cut everyone a lot of slack as long as the effort is there. But even I was dazed and confused by what I read on the repeller packaging: “Three in one electronic acoustic full flooding rat…bionic wave is simulated mouse yelling on mouse…the.electromagnetic work system inside.the results more obvious.”

There weren’t (and still aren’t) enough “[sic]s” on the planet to make any of that inspire confidence. But I had paid for the devices, so I plugged them in and kept my fingers crossed that “simulated mouse yelling on mouse” might be enough to ensure some small measure of domestic, rodent-free tranquility.

Fast forward one month and you’re going to be shocked, shocked, to learn that the repellers haven’t solved the problem. Our mouse thrives in spite of, maybe even because of, the bionic waves that are supposedly pummeling his brain unmercifully. He’s grown bigger and far bolder. Instead of merely scrittering, he now enjoys stomping back and forth across our ceiling while rolling what sounds like a large acorn.

 "He's like a murine Sisyphus," I said to my wife.
"Get a job already," was her immediate, and appropriate, response.
"But you have to admit the 'Intelligent Nightlight' functions well," I shot back.
"What's intelligent about it? It stays on all the time. Plus, it's purple. Even the cat hates it."
Our last hope…

The cat.

Pepper may be our last hope. Perhaps, in time, he will embrace his inner predator and “make it without a place to live in” as the repellers (I think) so falsely promised to do. But right now, our kitten is running around in circles on the bed, chasing his own tail. And meanwhile, directly above us, we can hear the mouse rolling another acorn into the corner for the long winter ahead.

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These Are Days

Autumn is settling in here in the Slachthuisbuurt. The neighborhood cats are staying indoors a bit more, much to the delight of the neighbors, and what the Dutch call “The Low Sky” has come to stay: dark clouds carrying the threat of a downpour, but also the possibility of a rainbow afterwards. Highs and lows. They are both a bit more vivid these days because I am now drug free.

I’ve always suffered from anxiety, even as a kid. As I got older, that sometimes tipped into depression, a couple of times even severe. I’ve tried the whole “cognitive behavioral therapy” route twice, but to be honest, it doesn’t do much for me. I know how I’m supposed to think, but I find it laughable that I would choose to do so when doom, with a tip of the hat to the ever-optimistic Edgar Allan Poe, clearly sits perched like a raven above my chamber door.

Case in point, this story has been rejected by three different outlets that pay.

I chose a profession almost guaranteed to make my anxiety worse: broadcast journalism. Tight daily deadlines, big egos, gigantic amounts of “never good enough,” fake empathy, and near-constant arguing among people who think they’re better informed than anyone else around them. It’s true that many are, by the way. It’s also true that journalists, first and foremost, are supposed to listen.

In a strange way, I thought all this would challenge my own perception of myself. Maybe I could be more than an asocial bookworm, and find some new aspect of my personality? What I found instead was that I am an asocial bookworm with a keen ability to act like I’m not. Journalism is full of such actors. And also their non-empathetic relatives—sociopaths.

I have talked before about the stress of showrunning a daily radio program. The pressures made the anxiety much worse, and far more general. That’s why I finally went to the doctor and asked for drugs. His chemical weapon of choice was Sertraline, generic Zoloft. Within just a few weeks, I could feel dramatic differences. If you’ve taken it, you know. The sharp edges go dull, and you can actually stick yourself into the world again without the fear of slicing off parts of yourself. Or parts of your friends, family, or coworkers.

The major drawback? The dullness, the great flattening of the world, means you simply don’t feel as much. The medicated middle is very wide, and also very deep. You’ll find it harder to cry, and I mean really cry, and also harder to belly laugh. You may also want to fall asleep every day around 3 pm, which in the news business isn’t good. Sorry, Jesus, but reheated morning coffee was my lord and savior.

I missed my daily dose of Zoloft now and then. It was unpleasant—mild paranoia, slight nausea, and something called paresthesia, which is medical jargon for “ants not just crawling over your skin, but double-dutching right up into your nether regions.” Horrific. Believe me, that tiny, off-white oval of blessed reality mitigation gets its hooks in you and doesn’t want you to let it go. I reached the point, and I think this is what the drug companies want, where I couldn’t imagine being functional without it.

I’ve read that others on Sertraline feel trapped in the same way. If you search online, one of the first pieces of medical advice you find is this: Do not stop taking Zoloft, even when you feel better.It’s all a Big Pharma head game. They might as well put it right there on the packaging: “With Zoloft, there is no poetry. But without it, there is no peace. You (in consultation with a medical professional) must choose.”

Recently, however, my circumstances changed. I left the radio doom loop behind, got business cards printed that say “Former Journalist,” and moved here to Haarlem. It was a good opportunity for me to close a 20-year chapter of my life in Boston, and say farewell to the thing that demanded so much medication. And with that done, I decided it was time to try living “Zoloftless” again.

Zoloft isn’t heroin, I get that. But for me, coming off it felt bruising enough, both mentally and physically. During the first week, there were the creepy-crawlies I had experienced before, along with severe nausea. Often, I would have bouts of sudden, debilitating dizziness that took at least ten minutes to shake off. This scared the hell out of me, especially when I was on my bike.

The second week brought depths of emotion I hadn’t felt in years. My daughter often said she found it strange that I didn’t cry when we left Boston for the Netherlands. It was the Sertraline, and now that it was leaving my system, the floodgates opened. I was sitting in our little Dutch row house, trying to soothe the ants with some favorite songs from the ‘80s (Gen-Xer. No apologies), when 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are Days” came up on the phone’s playlist. Suddenly, it was May. There was rushing, desire, miracles, everything growing and blooming in me (like a disease!) Blessed and lucky? Try fragged and flailing, Natalie Merchant! By the second chorus, I was bawling in a heap on the floor. 

Three minutes later, though, the song ended and I was laughing, a little too maniacally, about the whole thing. Back and forth it went, all afternoon, song after song, until I finally found that The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane” produced no emotion in me at all. I decided not to investigate the “why?” of that too closely, for fear of ruining the effect. Here I am, indeed. Accept it. Push repeat. Danke schön.

The literature tells you that it takes at least three weeks to say goodbye to Sertraline. I’ve read that for many people, though, it’s much longer, depending on the dosage and the number of years you’ve been taking it. I guess I am a bit lucky after all. It’s been about a month now, and I only occasionally get a dizzy spell. Running and boxing help a lot. For the moment, I’m able to find enough peace to make the day bearable, and even catch a brief glimpse of some poetry now and then. The tears and laughter seem, for lack of a better word, proportional.

And if I need extra help, I’ve got waffles, strong Dutch coffee, and Pepper the Kitten.

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The One Where the Neighbors Go “Full Trump”

War is coming to the Slaughterhouse, or at least maybe a bit of light skirmishing. And it can all be traced back, allegedly, to the feline threat emanating from our backyard.

No, I’m not talking about Pepper the Kitten. He’s only 11 weeks old and we don’t allow him outside. Instead, our neighbors are rattling their sabers because of the other neighborhood cats, all of whom seem to enjoy hanging out in our back garden. This isn’t because I leave pork chops out for them. No, they are there for one reason—the neighbors have six bird feeders in their tree. And yes, these bird-loving neighbors are the same ones who are complaining about the cats.

Anyone else feel a Catch-22 coming on?

The neighbors are both retired, and devote themselves almost entirely to their “avian paradise.” They spend a lot of time in their garden, rearranging garden gnomes, hanging up underwear to dry, and filling bird feeders. Occasionally, a pair of colorful European parakeets drop by. But mostly, it’s only doves, sparrows, and crows. When I open my back door, this dull menagerie takes flight, usually dive-bombing me with crap and feathers as I scramble back inside. The doves also like to hang out on our dining room roof, which overlooks the tree with the feeders. The roof is made from this cheap plexiglass. You can vaguely see and hear the little dove feet click, click, clicking across it all day, as they preen and sex each other senseless between feedings. Pepper enjoys this show. I do not. 

The wife next door saw me in the garden a few weeks ago and immediately launched into a tirade about the cats. It was in Dutch, so I only caught about 30 percent of it. I asked her politely to slow down, but she wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Still, I managed to get the gist. “The cats are in your back yard threatening our birds, they’re pooping and peeing all over the place, and you need to work a lot harder to scare them away. Ik begrijp het, en ik zal het doen. “I understand, and I’ll do it,” was about all I managed before she stomped off. What I really wanted to say was this: Het zijn uw verdomde vogelvoeders, mevrouw. “It’s your damn bird feeders, ma’am.” I came up with it, finally, about 20 minutes after our encounter. 

You may be aware of this already, but there are only so many hours in a day. Obviously, I can’t and won’t sit there 24/7 waiting for a random cat to show up in my backyard, a cat I am then supposed to get rid of because it terrorizes the neighbors’ birds, which I not only hate but are also the main reason the cat is in my yard in the first place. Wind your way through that, and you’ll see the ridiculousness of what she was asking me to do.

The Coven…

But, in the interest of peace in the Slachthuisbuurt, I bought a device that emits high-pitched frequencies cats supposedly hate. This machine, I quickly discovered, was solar-powered, which is of limited utility in the Netherlands. It only worked on sunny summer days, and even then only intermittently. The neighborhood cats quickly learned to sit just outside the range of the motion detector that triggers the noise. Cleverly, they happened to also choose places where they could still see the birds next door. There would be four cats, sometimes five, in a semi-circle in my back garden, all with visions of avian death in their glittering eyes. I waited, impatiently, for a witch to show up with a cauldron. 

Meanwhile, the neighbors inched toward simmering rage. 

Then, a few Saturdays ago, I woke up to find that they’d gone “Full Trump.” At 8 am, they began installing a barricade of green garden mesh on top of our shared brick wall. They worked on it non-stop until 6 pm. Why it took them so many hours to do it, I’ll never know. There was endless fiddling to bend the pliable metal into shape, and then constant hammering to secure it to the bricks on their side of the wall. By beer-thirty, they had what the Donald might call “a beautiful green wall that you can see through and that nobody can climb.” I was sure a public statement would soon follow proclaiming Birdland totally safe and secure. Belgium, I assumed, would be paying for it.

The next morning, as I sat enjoying a cup of coffee and (unsuccessfully) ignoring the sounds of the doves fornicating on my roof, I watched as one of our neighborhood’s biggest cats skirted the perimeter of my deterrent device, took two leaps straight up the shared brick wall, and then laid down on the green mesh barricade not two feet away from the tree and the bird feeders. Ten hours of precision craftsmanship completely flattened in seconds. As the startled birds took off, they showered my plexiglass with droppings and feathers. War, as they say, is hell.

Later that day, after a storm moved through, I noticed that one of the neighbors’ beloved garden gnomes had fallen from the brick wall into our garden. His tiny ceramic hand, holding a coveted mushroom, had been shattered. Was it the storm? Was it one of the cats? Or was it just a bit of “bad luck?” I gathered the gnome’s remains together and then started looking up the vocabulary needed to ease this situation, which had now officially gone to DEFCON 3, with hints of 2 on the horizon. 

But the truth is that I couldn’t wait to reach over that crumpled mesh and say, with the faintest hint of a smile: Sorry, je tuinkabouter heeft een klein ongeluk gehad. Ik denk dat het een van die voegels was. “Sorry. Your garden gnome had a little accident. I think it was one of those birds.” 

Dispatches from the front lines to follow in the coming weeks.

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“Life’s The Same, Except for My Shoes”

I spend an inordinate, possibly unhealthy, amount of time thinking about the utter absurdity of everything, which is exhausting and hilarious in equal measure these days. And while there are many people who have helped shape the half-crazed way I see the world, today seems like the appropriate time to highlight one of them in particular. I’m talking about Ric Ocasek, singer, guitarist, and songwriter extraordinaire for The Cars.  

Sadly, Ocasek died yesterday in New York. I should note that you aren’t going to get a balanced critique of the man or his music from me. I am firmly in the camp that believes The Cars rarely, if ever, recorded a bad song. And no one was happier when their 2011 comeback album, Move Like This, came out and it sounded like they never left the mid to late 1980s. When I got my driver’s license in the summer of 1986, the first cassette (Jesus, I’m old) I popped into the tape deck of the car was Heartbeat City. Panorama and Candy-O were  standing by to be the second and third. 

If you’re a fan you’re asking, “But what about the first album?” I was only eight when The Cars’ self-titled debut came out in 1978, so I wasn’t exactly “rock-n-roll” aware at the time. I was still five years away from the day my older cousin took me for a ride in his beat up Datsun, blasting Def Leppard’s Pyromania until our ears bled, thus marking my introduction to a brave new world of sound, sex, and sedition. 

I’m sure that by the summer of 1986, though, I already knew most of the songs on that first Cars album, all of which were written by Ocasek. It’s a murderer’s row of new wave rock wonder: Good Times Roll, My Best Friend’s Girl, and Just What I Needed are the first three songs. You’re All I’ve Got Tonight and Bye Bye Love are on there, too. You can probably hear the opening riffs and are reaching for a fake mic to sing them out loud, admit it. These songs were so good that they even managed, sometimes, to break through my endless Midwestern radio parade of John “Cougar” Mellencamp, The Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I probably went to the music store that day to buy the new Van Halen album, not an old Cars record. “Dreams” was getting heavy airplay at the time, and I have a pretty vivid memory of staring at it in my hands at the store. Then I walked over to the sale bin, and came across The Cars’ first album for $6.99. I only had enough money for one or the other. And let’s be honest, Van Halen had devolved into Van Hagar by then, and there was already a strong whiff of suck forming around them.

Like I said, I knew most of the songs off that first Cars album already. But I popped it in, and just started driving. And listening. Then I was giggling, and finally guffawing. “Let the good times roll…let them make you a clown.” Clowns are funny, right? Quickly followed by “Let them leave you up in the air…let them brush your rock and roll hair.” I didn’t know exactly what rock and roll hair was, but I knew I wanted some of it. “If the illusion is real.” Well, is it real or not, Ric? Does it really matter? “If it’s got thunder appeal?” No clue what you mean, but I definitely want it on my side, I guess. 

That album sends you down rabbit holes of absurdity worthy of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. Especially when you get to Moving in Stereo, which was sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, but written by Ocasek and keyboardist Greg Hawkes: 

Life’s the same, I’m moving in stereo.

Life’s the same, except for my shoes.

Life’s the same, you’re shaking like tremolo.

Life’s the same, it’s all inside you…

As you’re listening to that song, the music and words are actually moving back and forth between the left and right speakers of your car stereo! And there’s actually a faint hint of tremolo when Orr sings “tremolo.” Sixteen year old mind, blown. Come to think of it, listening to it today here at home in the Netherlands, my nearly 50 year old mind is still blown.

“The Cars” is a lesson in how you can take something utterly familiar and straight-forward, and then layer all kinds of madness beneath it. It is screaming at you: “PAY ATTENTION! Beneath all the normalcy, there’s some nutty shit going on around you, and if you don’t learn how to laugh about it, if you don’t learn to use it to your creative advantage, you’ll regret it.” At least, that’s the musical epiphany I took away from it. Others probably just threw the tape in the bin and got on with their completely sensible lives. But from then on, I not only went looking for absurdity in my music, but also tried to develop a keen eye for it in the rest of my life.

How are you adjusting to the Netherlands, Clark? “Life’s the same, except for my shoes.” 

That phrase has become kind of an “absurdity anchor” for me through the years. With every life change, every move, every new experience living and working in America and overseas, I use it to deal with my fears. I love the visual of a person constantly changing shoes while everything else in life remains the same. It makes me laugh, and reminds me not to take anything too seriously. I think it works particularly well for me because my reality is kind of the opposite: my life gets thrown frequently into flux, but I almost always wear the same shoes. I’ve managed to take The Cars’ absurdity and turn it into something personal, useful, and even more absurd. I like to think Ric would approve.

Now, about that rock and roll hair…

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Pepper

The ridiculously small, wide-eyed creature above is Pepper, or Peper in Dutch. He’s just nine weeks old, and a few days ago, he came to live with us here in Haarlem. It’s early days, but I can say with confidence that he is a very welcome addition to life in the Slachthuisbuurt. 

Now, this isn’t my first feline rodeo. For years, we had a cat named Pearl. We moved her to about 10 different places around Boston and beyond during our years together, including all the way to El Salvador and back. Late in Pearl’s life, we had the opportunity to move to Brussels, and although Pearl would’ve loved the seafood options (the damage she could inflict on shrimp was savage), we figured she’d had enough of the international jet-set lifestyle, so we found a nice home in Dorchester, MA where she could live out her days in peace. We hated to do it, but it was the right thing for her.

Pearl in repose

I never got to say goodbye to Pearl. About 10 days before we were supposed to pack out in Boston and begin the move to Belgium, I got stuck in the UK at a conference. Why? That unpronounceable Icelandic volcano (like there’s one that can be pronounced?), Eyjafjallajökull, decided to erupt. Flights across Europe, and from Europe to the United States, were disrupted for two weeks. While I kept trying to get a flight home, my wife had to do all the packing herself…with a four-year-old in tow. She managed it somehow (a debt I am still repaying to this day, I assure you), including dropping Pearl off in Dorchester alone. My wife and daughter were on one of the first flights out of Boston to Europe after the volcano ban was lifted. I took a train from London to Brussels and met them there. That’s why I never got back to say a real goodbye to Pearl, and believe me when I tell you that it still haunts me more than a little bit. Pearl and I were best buds. I once jumped out a ground floor window, wearing only boxer shorts, to retrieve her during one of her attempted escapes. Also, I knitted that pillow for her in the picture (not).

After Pearl, we weren’t sure about getting another cat. Our daughter never expressed interest in having a pet, and at some point I discovered—through one of those needly allergy tests they give you—that I wasn’t just allergic to cats, but extremely allergic to cats. I’m sure that caused moments of extreme discomfort living with Pearl, but I never minded it all that much. The pros always outweighed the cons. And there was always Claritin and Benadryl, right?

Then, before we even found out about moving to the Netherlands, my daughter started wondering about getting another cat. Now, telling a very social 12-year-old that she has to move is never easy, but telling her she has to move overseas, and probably for the duration of both middle and high school, is very tough. When we moved to Brussels, she was four, and it was enough for her that there were castles where you could spend the night (we did that, yes). But 12 required a bigger bribe. And that bribe, which eased the flow of tears significantly, was the promise that we would get a Dutch kitty.

Nine months and thousands of excuses later, my wife and I finally made good on that promise. One of my daughter’s friends at school had a cat who, unexpectedly, had kittens. And that’s how Pepper managed to finagle his way into our lives. Our initial understanding was that Pepper was a she, and her formal name was to be Mrs. Pepperpot, after the Norwegian children’s book character. But when we went to pick her up, she had suddenly become a he, and we decided the name Pepper would work just as well. It sounds good in Dutch, too. Peper, like <PAY-per>.

The elusive Peper

As I’m the one who is home most of the day, Pepper and I are quickly becoming, you guessed it, best buds. He already sits on the chair next to me while I write, giving me a little shout out every once in a while when he wants a treat or some attention. The little guy also talks very loudly in his sleep, which cracks me up. I’m happy to say that no dreadful allergies have kicked in yet, although I have a bucket of drugs on-hand if they do. 

Like us, Pepper is here to stay, and I’m confident that he will become a recurring character in these Slachtuisbuurt sketches. Watch this space for updates.

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Humility’s a Ponzi Scheme

Some interesting news trickled into the Slachthuisbuurt last week. Haarlem is following the lead of a number of other Dutch cities and towns facing issues with an overabundance of tourists. Instead of going for quantity, officials here say they will attempt to attract more “quality” tourists.

“Details of what exactly constitutes a tourist of quality are,” as I used to say in the news business, “sketchy at best.” Here’s what we know (shoot me): Segway tours and those multi-person roving beer-cycles have already been banned. But what next? A newly formed squad of Tourism Police (Quality Division) to meet every train coming into town? Will those deemed unworthy get sent to City Hall for a lethal dose of that famous Dutch directness. “Sorry, sir. You simply do not possess enough quality for Haarlem. Return the raw herring sandwich and leave immediately for Hoofddorp. Or Almere.”

That would be humbling, which is exactly where I want to go in this week’s sketch.

I have nothing against humility. In fact, I grew up wallowing in it. I’m not talking about the Augustinian type that supposedly brings you closer to God. Mine was more the Calvinist sort that begins, if I may use a bit of Dutch, with“Hoogmoed komt voor de val.” Pride comes before the fall. In other words, don’t climb too high because someone, most likely yourself, will end up taking you down a peg or two. Better to mute every celebration, and internalize every failure as a glaring personal fault.  

When I got older and began a career in journalism, I brought this along with me. Do the work, do it well, and keep your mouth shut about it. That attitude ensured that very few of the hundreds of pieces I wrote and produced over the years ever left me with a sense of pride, at least one I wanted to share. “Good enough” was as good as I ever let it get. The support structures were the notion that “the work is its own reward,” and the minor league baseball player’s false hope that “this will be my year.”

Eventually, when I moved into management, this became “this will be our year.” The principles of good leadership advise you to put even more pressure on yourself. Now it’s on you to inspire an entire team to do the work and do it well. If a show succeeds, you brush personal praise aside, play down your own role, and give all the credit to others. Failure, however, you should absorb like a sponge until you are soaked clean through, day in and day out. My fault, my fault, always my fault, until you can’t possibly wring it out. That, we are told, is what good leaders do.

“Yeah, I’ll eat that shit sandwich.” Toward the end of my career, that was something I found myself saying multiple times a day. It was an exercise in near constant self-flagellation, made worse by the intense paranoia created in those few moments when someone told me I was actually doing a pretty good job. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t believe it for a second. I couldn’t see any way to incorporate the pride I felt into my own story without making it seem like I was selfish and arrogant. So, I deflected all praise, usually with brutally self-denigrating humor. The truth is that I didn’t take good care of myself, personally or professionally, in those years. And when I left, it didn’t feel like a victory at all, but rather just the absence of a slow-drip poison. 

Many of our notions center on the worldly, and otherworldly, values of remaining humble. Apparently, it makes everything from your basketball team to your church elders incredibly good people. It can automatically bring you closer to both the Hall of Fame and Heaven. But it was something that architect Frank Lloyd Wright said that that really grabbed me: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”  

I think he was onto something. He figured out that humility, as it is practiced and preached today in many settings, is nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Those above you on your team, or in your church, or in your so-called managerial chain love it when you drink the humility Kool-Aid. It ensures that they don’t have to, and can instead spend their time watching you wallow in your self-flagellating despair while they take credit for your good work. You sponge up all the blame, leaving them plenty of time to humblebrag to their higher-ups. For good measure, they’ll rely on you to preach humility on down the chain, in an effort to keep the entire pyramid from crumbling. A big part of my decision to leave the journalism business entirely was that I had begun to see all this for exactly what it was—an intensely self-destructive doom loop. 

I think that’s why, on my last day in the newsroom, the only thing that occurred to me to say was something very off-brand journalism in general, and me in particular. “Be kind. Be generous. To yourself and everyone else in the newsroom.”  More than a year later, I’m still trying to walk that walk myself. I remind myself constantly that this is, once again, probably not my year, but that’s hardly a reason to beat myself up. I’m trying to accept praise a bit better and to stop making myself the butt of every joke I make. Is the work its own reward? I hope so, because I’m sure as hell not getting paid for writing these sketches. Oh, and yes: I’m officially done eating shit sandwiches. 

I may not be quite ready for honest arrogance, but it’s a start. It seems that I may consider myself a man of quality after all. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll let me stay.

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“You Have No Events Scheduled Today”

It’s late summer in the Slachthuisbuurt and the living is easy. Too easy, maybe. I’ve been obsessing about small things lately, like my daily email reminder from Google Calendar: “You Have No Events Scheduled Today.” Every morning at 5:30 am. Ping! You haven’t bothered to fill your day with meaningless things! I’m actually waiting for Google to change the subject line to “Hey There, Lonely Loser!” in the vain hope I will add something to the calendar. But, I’m on a 425 day streak without Google-worthy events of any kind, and it seems bad form to break it at this stage. Plus, it’s nice to know that somewhere out there a server and its complex algorithms care so deeply about my personal life. It’s good to get mail.

Free hat

Ik was vroeger bezig. That phrase popped up recently during a Dutch lesson. I used to be “busy” when I was working in the daily news business. Deadlines! Expense reports! Meetings! Meetings about meetings! Interviewing Michael Palin and George Takei! OK, the grind wasn’t all bad. One time, upper management even gave us free hats (along with fewer, more expensive options for health insurance)!

“But don’t you miss it?” I get that question a lot.

Since being (almost) vegan means I’m always thinking at least tangentially about meat, let me answer it this way: I don’t miss the sausage, and I especially don’t miss the endless grinding it took to make it. I don’t miss trying to cover up the coppery taste of low-quality, Trump Era meat with a dwindling array of spices. And don’t get me started on the lackluster branding, marketing, and distribution of an otherwise fairly tasty product. Was I responsible for making bad sausage from time to time? Sure. But I believe most of it was high quality. So no, I don’t miss being told, often and repeatedly, that all it ever did was suck, and that what we should be making instead is a flashy new product called…Flavored MeatSticks!™. Delicious, right? I could roast them on the giant bonfire fueled by all the rickety public radio bridges I burned in this paragraph.

Fact: I also don’t miss the Zoloft I needed to deal with all of this without ruining the lives of those around me. I’m off them now. The drugs, I mean. Not the people around me.

Meeting George Takei!

Since we’re already knee-deep in processed meat metaphors, I can tell you what I do miss, which is holding the intestinal casing for the incredibly smart, immensely talented group of people who kept turning the crank, day in and day out, in an effort to squeeze every last ounce of interesting and listenable news out of the day. Those folks truly deserve your pledge money.

Reading back through this, I have to wonder: is this why I so willingly went vegan?

“Breaking News, Clark: Radio Isn’t Sausage.” Yes, I am fully aware of that. At the end of the day, the product goes wafting off into the fetid news ether, not onto store shelves. If the stories are good, someone hopefully stops for a minute while they’re peeling potatoes or flipping someone off in traffic to really listen. If they’re bad, the listeners hopefully won’t remember the email address you gave out on air for complaints. Either way, it’s all ether-fodder. That’s another thing the late, great radio editor Ken Bader managed to drive through my thick skull—erase the board, start fresh tomorrow, do the work again and do it better.

And please don’t start with the “b-b-but what about the podcasts?” Your device is filled with dozens, probably hundreds, of shows that you will never listen to. It’s nothing but a more portable form of ether, albeit one that you probably blew a much bigger wad of money on. Just pivot to video and accept the impermanence of it all.

Do the grapes seem especially sour today?

Busy….

Anyway, for now I’m still quite content to have no events scheduled today or tomorrow. I know I can always turn off the email reminder. In fact, I could put that on the calendar (”Turn off Google Calendar email reminder!”) and then, for one glorious day, I’d have an event scheduled! But I do have the streak to consider, not to mention the Slachthuisbuurt cats. I’m trying to learn from them because they are very good at filling their days without any digital assistance at all. Pick a useless fight? Hold a grudge for way too long? Tip over a dumpster filled with already smoldering garbage? And then maybe a nice, leisurely tongue bath in a patch of Dutch sunshine? 

It’s hard to say exactly what will happen, but at least I know sausage isn’t on the menu anymore. The cats here prefer fish, and besides, my daughter insists that I’m not supposed to eat anything like that anymore.

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Baderized

Yesterday, I heard that Ken Bader, a colleague of mine during many of my years in public radio, had lost his battle with cancer. Some of you reading this might have known Ken quite well, others not at all. Either way, if you listened to The World on WGBH, or the news on WBUR, or various programs from National Public Radio in Washington, you doubtless heard his uncompromisingly principled editorial voice. It was there in his own work on-air, and it was there in the voices of the myriad of correspondents, producers, and hosts he worked with throughout his long career.

I can’t write about Ken as a personal friend, and I don’t think he’d want me to. I went to The Bader Bash, his yearly July 4th barbecue, a couple of times. We saw a few Red Sox games together (he always joked about being the only guy at the ballpark with a copy of The New Republic), but we really weren’t that close outside of work. At the very least, we shared a love/hate of those disgusting, lukewarm Fenway Franks, which we never ceased to joke about in the office. 

I’m still enough of a journalist, though, to say with confidence that Ken was a real mensch—a stand-up guy who cared deeply for those closest to him. He also loved rock and roll, especially The Beatles and Elvis. He loved his dogs. He loved helping others. He loved public broadcasting. And he seemed forever compelled to speak the truth, even if the personal cost of doing so was sometimes very high.

In the newsroom, Ken was never afraid to go for the jugular, but he usually did it with humor. I remember one time when he was guest hosting The World. This was just after 9/11, and we managed to get through to a Taliban spokesman on a very scratchy phone line in Afghanistan. Ken started out with a couple of softball questions, and then hit him with this: “So, can you tell me where Osama bin Laden is hiding?” Silence. More Silence. Then a slight chuckle. “Sorry, no my friend, I cannot.” Ken shrugged and said, “Worth a try!” 

For Ken, it really was all about that effort, about grinding it out, about doing the work. I remember one time, when I was still incongruously serving as The World’s “Technology Correspondent,” Ken asked me, very seriously, if I knew how he could save money on his cable bill. We spent 10 minutes obliquely discussing this before I admitted that the specifics of that probably fell outside my remit. I joked that maybe he should just turn his cable box off and then turn it back on again, and then see if the bill magically went down. We laughed, briefly, and then got back to editing my copy about some new gadget to help solve world hunger or malaria or something—stuff that neither one of us really understood or would even remember the next day. Ken probably knew I was faking my way through that gig. But my impostor syndrome didn’t matter. First, because Ken was a kind person and he’d never publicly call me on it. And second, because there was a deadline looming and much editing to be done. You just get on with it.

Here’s the real secret to his editing superpower: despite the fact that I was out of my depth, I wrote that copy as cleanly and precisely as possible because I knew Ken Bader would be editing it. I bet you can find plenty of other reporters, producers, and hosts in public radio who took the same exacting approach when a “Ken edit” loomed on the horizon. If you didn’t, you would pay for it. Ken was willing to spend hours arguing with reporters to get a script he was satisfied with.

In fact, when Ken was editing the daily broadcast of The World, his style was so inimitable that his last name became a verb. We didn’t ask, “Has that been edited?” Instead, the question was always: “Has it been Baderized?” That’s DNA level influence on a radio program. It’s the kind of thing that folks say either sticks with them forever, or takes them a lifetime to get over. For me, it’s a bit of both.

Ken didn’t give a crap where you fell on that scale. The only thing he cared about was making the story better. And that, for me, is Ken’s lasting gift to every public radio listener. I think he despised the trend toward “personality-driven storytelling.” In working with him, I learned an invaluable lesson that echoes well beyond journalism: you’re not the story. My opinions, audio flourishes, and misguided attempts to be “public radio cute” meant nothing if they failed to serve the interests of the story, and therefore the interests of the listener. I learned that these things can, should, and ultimately will be cut.

Did I always accept it at the time? Hell, no. But like I said, Ken was willing to go 15 rounds with you when he felt he was right. You had to come to the edit with some pretty compelling editorial reasons if you were ever going to land a punch. And now, with the seemingly unchecked rise of scripted stutters and breathy, overly dramatic attempts at “storytelling” across so much of public media, I have a much deeper appreciation for Ken’s one-two punch—clarity and concision. The story’s not a thing. It’s the thing. And, as the author, you would do well to get the hell out of its way as much as possible.

I don’t remember exactly when I last spoke with Ken. I do have a memory of a phone edit sometime during my reporting stint in Brussels for The World (2010 or 2011). “Hey Clark, it’s your old Uncle Ken!” he’d always say when you answered the phone. Then, you’d steel yourself, ready to have your copy ripped apart and maybe never put back together again. But this time, Ken just said, “The third paragraph. Change ‘the’ to ‘an.’ And cut the tape to have it start where he says ‘the financial crisis…’ That’s it. Nice piece. Hope you’re well.” Click.

It was the tiniest of touches, but it still made the piece markedly better. And that’s the true mark of the man: as far as I can tell, everything and everyone he touched, inside and outside the newsroom, was made better by his sharp eye, keen mind, and kind heart.

Godspeed, Uncle Ken. 

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Rear Window

Things got a little serious in the last sketch, which sometimes happens when you begin to question everything you learned growing up.

But now that I’m back in Haarlem in my beloved Slachthuisbuurt, it’s time to get back to the topics that really matter—animals. I have, of course, discussed some of our local fauna already. But piggies Henk and Hilda are not alone.

Just this morning, we were once again awakened by an urban rooster that we think lives just a few doors down. Playing to type, he crows at sunrise, which, about a month ago, was 4:30 am.

“I’m going to throttle that thing,” said my normally peace-loving wife.

That’s not vegan,” I shot back, mimicking my daughter.

“But it would be self-care.” 

I can’t argue with that, so I get up to make the coffee.

Most of the houses in our neighborhood are two story, but ours has a slightly incongruous third floor that was added by the previous owner. When we moved in, my daughter said, “Oh, I have my own floor!” Not so fast, I said, and snagged one of the rooms as my “office.” I could lie and say this is where I do all of my writing and editing. But it’s really where I hang out when I want to take a trip to Bunny Paradise.

Directly behind us, there is an entire garden devoted to the care and feeding of two giant rabbits. Most mornings, they are out and about. This is why, despite the fact that the tension rods and Ikea curtains have been up there for months, I can’t bring myself to open the packages and hang them. I like looking out across the rooftops, and I especially enjoy—or at least I used to—the revealing glimpses into Bunny Paradise.

I should explain. Around here, space is at a premium and people live right on top of each other. I mean that literally. Your business is your neighbor’s too, and I have come to learn you have to accept that. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m spying on the bunnies from the third floor, “Rear Window” style. 

These rabbits have a cage so big that it probably deserves its own house number and property tax assessment. All around it are colorful rabbit runs made out of cloth and wire. There’s usually a huge bowl of water out there, not to mention numerous carrots, some celery, and a whole head of lettuce. Not bad for prey, right?

The rabbits generally just sit around, quietly munching on their lettuce all morning, with only themselves and their rabbity deep thoughts for company. But just a few weeks ago, during a spell of hot weather in which the temperatures almost hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I finally saw their landlords/owners/servants for the first time in all my weeks of bunny stalking.

They came out in bathrobes, and sat down in a pair of rusty lawn chairs. Without saying anything to the rabbits, or to each other, they both began chain smoking, reading magazines, and generally giving off a “it’s too hot to care about anything vibe.”

After about 15 minutes, she reached down and crushed the cigarette out on one of the patio bricks. As she did so, her robe came loose, and suddenly, it was abundantly clear that when I say she was in her bathrobe, I mean only her bathrobe.

I told you this was some real Rear Window stuff, right?

Cigarette and my nosy innocence both now thoroughly destroyed, she hauled every last ounce of herself out of chair. Then he did too, stretching just enough so that his robe began to ride just a little too far up his legs. It turns out that he had gone commando as well.

She poured the rest of her coffee on a nearby geranium. As if the poor flower hadn’t taken enough abuse, he then hacked up a huge glob of smoker phlegm and spit it on the petals. Take that, you worthless, ungrateful geranium! 

Then they cinched up their robes and walked inside, leaving the door open, presumably for the bunnies, or anyone else in the neighborhood for that matter, to follow if they wanted. The rabbits chose, wisely I feel, to remain on the patio, despite the approaching rain and the circle of cats staring longingly at them from the rooftops all around.

I opened up those Ikea curtains, and got to work.

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