November 13, 2018
I biked to the station—I’m not Dutch, but I’ve picked up a few things in my four years here. Several days a week, I take the train from Nijmegen to Leiden, where I have a teaching job at the university.
Most people who travel on the train regularly have an off-peak discount on their OV-chipkaart, which is a single card you can use to pay for public transit everywhere in the whole country, from local buses to intercity trains. The discount technically begins at 9:00, but if you check in up to five minutes before that, you can already use it.
So by 8:54 a rapidly growing crowd had already gathered in front of the gates, everybody nervously looking at the clock in the middle of the hall, ready to jump at the stroke of 8:55. Then we jumped through the gate, moving as quickly as possible, but still orderly.
On the train, I sat down, took out my thermal cup of coffee and a sandwich, and read the news on my phone. California was on fire; Stan Lee was dead; back home, in Poland, neo-Nazis marched in the streets in unbelievable numbers. I don’t read much Dutch and in some ways I’m glad not to know what’s happening in my home country. I’m a philosopher, so I should want to know. But in so many respects, knowledge is just powerlessness.
I played a mobile game, reviewed materials for today’s class, read a novel—I’m catching up on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. The two hours on the train passed pleasantly enough. This gig is only for one semester, so we didn’t want to move, but the commute takes me basically across the whole country. It’s a small country, though.
Under various guises, I teach about the social embedding of language. I have three classes at different levels, so in practice this ranges from simple models of communication to critique of propaganda. Today was my mid-level course, a seminar in Pragmatics.
We covered theories of politeness. We talked about how traditional mainstream accounts obscure cross-cultural differences in polite behaviors, but also gloss over the differences and conflicts concerning norms and expectations of politeness within any single society. It was a really good discussion.
On the trip back I was still energized from class. So I hunted for a seat with a tray table, pulled out the laptop and got some work done: checked my email, did some research – I’m a philosopher, so “research” is just reading stuff – I even managed to write a paragraph or two.
When I got home my wife and I shared an afternoon snack, and then took turns working in the part of our living room that is a home office, while the other spent time with the baby.
He’s fifteen months old and the sweetest child ever born.
He loves to eat cooked rice with no toppings, put wooden pieces of fruit in a bowl and then one by one move them to a different bowl, and run after birds in the park. He doesn’t speak yet, but clearly understands more and more every day, so today I told him what various animals and vegetables are called, and I told him that it’s most important to be kind. I didn’t tell him kindness won’t stop the fascists. And I told him he can’t touch the oven and that socks go on feet, which is a message he resists. And we threw a ball around and he Eskimo-kissed a Teddy bear, and I tried to put on his hat that looks like an owl’s head, and he laughed so much he couldn’t stand straight.
I’m mostly in charge of cooking, but today there wasn’t much time for that, so we just reheated last night’s chicken and vegetable tagine. It’s a meal I make often, because, strangely enough, there’s nothing our boy likes more than some carrot stewed in Moroccan spices. After dinner, all three of us went to his room and stayed there until he was sleepy enough to be put to bed. My wife sat on the floor and played with him, while I read a book to them: Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens, which is really not that good, but we want to watch the new TV show.
After the kid fell asleep there was still a little time, so I wrote another bit of that paper I really should have finished by now, and watched half an episode of The Walking Dead before I was too tired even for that. (My wife often stays up longer to work a little more, and then regrets it in the morning). As I got in bed, I sighed quietly looking at the pile of half-finished books on the nightstand, most of them non-fiction, as if one wanted to read about the Norman Conquest or the corruption in European football just before sleep. I read a few pages, but soon my eyelids drooped shut.
It wasn’t a good day. There are fascists everywhere and planet Earth is dying – you must be delusional to have good days anymore. But it wasn’t the worst. I enjoyed parts of it, and I did my best to be useful. I made sure people I love knew it. I didn’t give in to paralyzing dread.