Saturday, October 11, 2014


Despite my living in the Netherlands for as long as I have, and despite the fact that I do, in fact, know how to ride a bike, until last week it's been over two years since I was last on one.  My little ball-and-chain kidlet goes just about everywhere with me, so if I wanted to go somewhere on a bike I would have to, by necessity, take him with me.  And, well, given my history of interesting falls--one of which landed me in the huisartspost (less-emergent-emergency room) and got me four stitches--that was not going to happen on our clunker, where parts of the frame have rusted clean through and the brakes let out a terrifying screech every time you so much as slow down.

So I shelled out some pretty euros for this pretty sturdy bike (the red version).  It is, I believe, a touring bike--but I didn't really know that when I bought it off of Marktplaats (of course).  It was a nice Gazelle bike, in good working order, so I made a bid (€175, if you must know) and luckily it was accepted before someone else made a higher one.  No, used bikes are not necessarily cheap bikes.  And having ridden my share of clunkers in the past, I've learned that when it comes to a good stable ride with functional derailleurs and working brakes, you  tend to get what you pay for.  And since I wanted a bike with a good smooth ride and working brakes, well, I had to shell out.

I also managed to obtain a kidlet seat--one that sits on the back of the bike--for not too much more, and after a bit of tinkering, I managed to attach the kidlet seat to the bike.  Even so, like I said, given my history of interesting falls, my heart was in my throat when I took him out on the bike for the first time, for the entire 10 minutes it took me to get to the Jan Kooij 2Wielers (keep in mind it's only a five-minute ride) so that I could purchase a helmet for him.  It was a floor model--I personally would have preferred something more classic, but the price difference trumped my sense of aesthetics.   And besides, at his age, well, I can't say it doesn't look ridicuolously cute on him.  With that, and a second bike lock--I am not the only discerning fietser in the country, and it's pretty much a given that, if your bike isn't secured with at least two locks, it's going to get stolen--I was all set. With kidlet properly protected against head trauma, it's still a fairly terrifying experience taking him on the bike, but it's not so bad that I've ever said, "Fuck this," and opted for the bus. Because honestly, being chained to a bus schedule sucks and even though the bike and everything else cost me a small fortune, this week alone has made having them worthwhile.

Kidlet, being half Dutch, took to the bike seat like a duck to water.  He was a little worried at first, but once I started riding the bike he seemed to enjoy himself immensely.  For his initiation ride--after I bought him the helmet--we visited friends in Aldenhof.  On our way back, he fell asleep--in the driving rain, despite the potholes and all of the drempels that clog up the smaller side streets.  A more Dutch initiation into bikes simply isn't possible.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thoughts on Freelancing

Last year, in addition to the occasional copyediting assignments I would get from the universities, I started freelancing on oDesk.  It's been an interesting experience working as a freelancer, so I thought I'd share it with you in case you wanted to give it a shot.

First of all, oDesk and eLance and other similar websites are not the only source for freelance work, but unless you've already made a name for yourself, they're a decent place to start.  If you get lucky, and if you persist.  Because here's the thing with those sites--ANYBODY from anywhere can bid for work there, and that means that you've got to put serious work into your cover letters to make sure that you don't land in the same "fuck 'em" pile as a spammer. And there are jobs that have 40, 50 people applying.  It really is a wild and crazy market, and sometimes you just get lucky.  There are tactics you can use to increase your odds of getting a job, of course.  Nothing is ever guaranteed, of course, but you can increase your chances.

Secondly, it's work.  I know there's a terrible joke that goes something like, "I'm not unemployed, I'm a freelancer" but the fact is, even if I'm not working for clients, I'm working--putting bids in, researching positions, writing offers, etc.  You can't write a generic cover letter and hope to have a prayer of getting through.  I don't change my CV for oDesk jobs, but writing a smashing cover letter is still a good deal of work. And then there's the actual work.  Digital pulp fiction--I do a lot of ghostwriting--doesn't seem like work, until it's 9 pm and you've still got 3000 words to go in order to meet your deadline.  And this is on top of keeping a kidlet happy, occupied and fed for a full 12 hours a day.  I may be able to pick my hours and pick my clients to a certain extent (see below), but it's still a long slog.

Thirdly, know what you're worth and stick to your guns.  My price for ghostwriting gigs is almost double what most people will pay.  I may occasionally take fun jobs for somewhat less, but it's not something I make a habit of doing.  On the other hand, I tend to underbid somewhat for translation jobs, mostly because I've got zero certification for translating and even less experience doing it.  Whatever you do, do NOT lower your bid too far from your posted rates--it makes you look like a desperate noob and will get you kicked over to the "spam" pile regardless of your credentials.  And yes, I have turned away clients that don't offer enough, or expect too much, or both.

Lastly, freelancing is what you make of it.  If you put in your hours, you'll probably get some returns.  Probably--there are people who've applied to hundreds of jobs to get their first one (they're not doing it right)--I don't think I'm overly exceptional in what I'm able to give a client, but I try to be smart about which jobs I apply for.  Herer's the thing, though:  If you don't, you most certainly won't.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No Bag Policies

I have never been good about bags.  

My wallet migrates between the bags I use for shopping and wherever kidlet decides to drop it.  Receipts clutter the inside of the shopping bags, as do bits of onion skin and maybe an odd stem from some long-forgotten bit of produce.  Bags are handy.  Bags are nice.  But I have never been good about keeping them neat and clutter-free, so at some point in the seven years that I've done the grocery shopping for us, I've decided that it's all-or-nothing--nothing stays in the bag, or else I carry supplies to outlast a nuclear winter.  And since I am lazy, and nothing is easier to carry than everything, nothing it is.  

Which, might be kind of surprising, given that I regularly take kidlet on excursions that last up to two hours.  I have nothing with me--no toys to distract him with, no diaper to change him.  I don't even carry snacks with me anymore.  It's partly laziness--after 6 months of buying baby biscuits, I started forgetting to pick them up, and now I can't be arsed to visit that section of the supermarket any more. But mostly, he's gotten used to waiting until we get home to eat.  Mostly--I do take him out on breakfast and/or lunch dates, to get him used to waiting for his food and sitting nicely and all that--but by and large, if he's out and hungry, well, he's really got no other alternative but to wait while I get us home. 

Here's my theory (which might be full of shit):  We tell kids to behave and be good and don't play with stuff and don't touch things that aren't theirs and don't run into the middle of the road, etc. etc.  But when you confine a kid to the shopping cart/stroller, you don't give them a chance to actually be good and use the skills you've spent the better part of two years modeling for them.  When you confine a kid, it doesn't matter if they are being good or not--no harm is done of they're not, but nothing tangible comes out of being good, either.  So then the kid gets to be three or four years old, and suddenly the stroller isn't an option any more, and they're suddenly expected to behave, which they really haven't had much practice in doing, well, cue the meltdown, the brattiness, the whining.  

So if kidlet is perfectly happy going out with no toys and no snacks, it's not because he's a magical toddler or anything.  It's because I take every opportunity to let him do things.  If we're at the Albert Heijn, which has the kiddie shopping carts, he gets to push the cart, help me pick out things, put them in the cart, put the things on the conveyor belt at the checkout (he needs a little help with this one), and push the cart back by himself. If there's room on the bus, I'll take him out of the stroller and let him sit in the seat next to me and look out the window.  If he's finished his apple slices, he gets to put his plate in the sink. This is how we behave.  This is what I have to do.  

Like I said, I have no idea if this is even remotely true.  It is what I do because, frankly, I don't have the money to buy him new toys every month, or bribe him for good behavior.  It is what I do because I do believe in instilling good habits early on, as much as possible.  It is what I do because it works to keep him happy and me sane, and at the end of the day, well, does anything else really matter?   

But I would be lying if I didn't admit to feeling just a tad bit smug if we're calmly walking past a bigger kid who's clearly driving his parents crazy.  I'm a good parent, but I'm no saint.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Just a Little Hair

One of the things you may or may not notice when you first come to the Netherlands is how many barbershops and salons there are.  Most of these are mom-and-pop type places, one person owning a space with maybe two or three chairs, and offering a limited range of services.  Franchised hair cutters (Brain Wash) are a sight I've only ever seen in the city center.  I'm not knocking on you if you haven't noticed--they can be hard to spot and they can be in some pretty obscure places that you might not think to look.  Within a 1 km radius of our humble domicile I count five or six of these little places.  That's a lot of hair cutters.

Which is surprising, if you think about it--after all, being zuinig means cutting your own hair, doesn't it?  And with the plethora of how-to's online, it doesn't seem like it would be that hard. But apparently enough people lack enough faith in their own ability to handle a pair of scissors around their head that places like these, if not exactly flourish, make a decent amount of money from it.

And maybe it's just me, but it really isn't all that difficult to cut hair.  You just sort of shape it into the form that you want--Kidlet is now sporting a darling shag cut (well, I call it that--it's got layers), while my husband gets his head buzzed every six to eight weeks.  I don't know why it is, but for all the money Karel has spent at the barber's over the course of his life, he never manages to look any better than when I take a few snips at his head.  I cut Kidlet's hair in little snips, with Kidlet oblivious on Karel's lap playing with our iPad.  I even cut my own hair, using the 5-minute method shown below and then shortening the back to the length that I want.

It's just a little hair, after all.  It grows back.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Walk Away

I've only rarely needed to discipline Kidlet in public.  If he's screechy, it's usually because he's hungry/tired and simply incapable of being good any more, so discipline under these circumstances doesn't help and moreover, doesn't work.  But if we're out and about during his "golden hours" then he's a perfect little boy, who stays close to me and walks on the sidewalk, waving to strangers who remark upon how cute he is.

I don't really have any tricks up my sleeve for raising a well-behaved kidlet, other than "pray that your genes mix well and you've got a calm and quiet baby".   He's good because we expect him to be good, we expect him to be good because he is.  It's a positive-reinforcement circle that works in everybody's favor, and I'm under no delusions of having mad parenting skillz, beyond having the patience to systematically try things out and see what works.

And one of the things I've found to work surprisingly well:  I dare to walk away.

If Kidlet is playing with a toy in the store, I'll let him, provided that he's not breaking anything.  If he wants to have it, the looks are usually enough to tell me so.  But as we're usually broke, I tell him, "No, we're not going to buy that. Put it back."  And, after a minute or two, if it's clear that he really wants it, then I start walking away.

He may not set it back right away.  But I've never had him run after me with a stuffed animal (or packet of tortillas, or a handful of string beans) yet.  Walking away gives him the opportunity to end his interaction with the thing, whatever it is, on his own terms, rather than having me end them.  He knows what I mean when I say, "No" and "Put it back".  He knows what he's supposed to do.  He knows that if he doesn't there will be consequences.  So I let him exercise his own judgment in these matters.

They say that kids his age don't think logically, and that may be true.  It is equally probable that he sees me walking away and freaks out (though as I've said, I allow him to wander quite far if I am watching him).  I like to think that he understands my walking away as a sign that there will be no discussion on this matter, but only time and a psychologist will tell.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"To Dream the Impossible Dream"

I was going to start this by writing, "I do a lot of baking" but the truth is, I don't actually bake that much.  I make, on average, a batch of cookies a month, sometimes a cake, occasionally some bread, and pizza about twice a month (to use up leftovers).  So maybe I do more baking than most, but it's hardly an everyday, or even a weekly, thing.

But as a baker, however irregular, I am obssessed with the pursuit of lighter and fluffier.  My muffins, regardless of how tasty they are, are always more compact than I would have them; the bread is always great but never good enough for my inner Julia Child.  Things can always be lighter and fluffier.  And yeah, you can cheat by using potato flour, but besides being almost impossible to find in the Netherlands (outside of specialty shops that cater to the gluten-avoidant), cheating would imply that your skills as a baker aren't up to snuff.

I have, however, recently stumbled upon the One Weird Trick that gets my baked goods at least most of the way there, most of the time:  cutting my regular flour with patentbloem, using a 50:50 mix.  I usually just buy a 1 kg bag of both kinds of flour, pour them into the canister, and give it a good shake, and use that mix for just about everything I make.  It works great for bread and quick-breads, cakes and cookies, as it doesn't clump as much and is therefore easier to incorporate into a batter.  The bread dough feels softer, the cake batter is smoother.  And everything comes out just that much closer to what a professional would turn out.

The patentbloem, as far as I can tell, is a "soft" flour--if you're used to making bread with regular flour, you can feel the difference--meaning that it has less gluten and is therefore more prone to overkneading if you're using a machine.  But it is precisely the decrease in gluten that gives the stuff made with it the fluffy airieness of the pros.

So take from this what you will.  It makes baking at home a tad bit more expensive, but I think it's well worth the cost.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

So we bought a leash for our kid...

Ever since Kidlet started walking, life has gotten easier and easier for me.  Where I once carried him up and down the stairs to our apartment--with a full bag of groceries, no less--I now merely assist him as he studiously takes on the stairs.  Where he once gazed blankly at me when I asked him to put the clothespins away, now the light of comprehension goes on in his eyes and he looks around for a clothespin and puts it into the bag.  Granted, he's 19 months--so it'll be a while before he'll be able to manage more than 3 or 4 minutes of this at a time--but I'm getting the impression that 90% of good parenting is making a habit out of as many things as you can, so that later, when he's an impossible little sh*t, he'll at least be an impossible little sh*t who picks up after himself.

But for now, he's a good kidlet, he really is. Going across the street to the C1000 is a normal thing for him these days.  He knows to stay on the sidewalk and not wander into the bike path.  He knows that when we get to the zebrapad he needs to hold my hand until we're on the other side--coming and going.  He knows that Mommy gets a shopping cart, and that he gets to ride in it, although sometimes he chooses not to and merely--without being told--holds onto the cart and walks next to it while I get the groceries.   If he wanders off, calling him is usually all I need to do to get him to come to me.

In other words, he's not the kind of kid that runs about screaming and making life hell for everybody in a 3-mile radius. So you might be wondering why, then, did I get him a leash?

Not for trips to the C1000, of course.  But one of his favorite things to do is to hold onto the back of the stroller and push it while I steer from above, which serves the double purpose of tiring him out so that he naps for two hours every day.  And something that's been happening a bit more frequently than I'd like to admit is that he'll let go of the stroller to pick a flower or something, and I won't notice because I'm scanning the sidewalk ahead of us for other people and dog poop.  He's surprisingly good at slipping away unnoticed, even when it's just the two of us--and sometimes I'll turn around and he'll be four or five steps behind me.  I'm not a paranoid parent--I'll let him wander quite far away from me if I'm watching him, but you can understand why Kidlet suddenly materializing a good 10 feet from where I thought he was can be a little disturbing, especially if we're in the city center and the demarcation between the pedestrian walkway and the "road" for the buses can be a little vague.

The ladybug is a little backpack, just right for storing a packet of baby biscuits and the leash.  It seems a little small for him, but he has yet to voice any discomfort and he seems to love the attention he gets from it.  A lot of elderly people stopped us when we were in town the other day, some of them laughing at the sight of a kid on a leash, others reminiscing of the time they were little and their mothers put them on leashes.  It does exactly what it purports to do--let you keep tabs on your kid without having to hold onto him every minute, which is exactly what I wanted when we bought a leash for our kid.