From the Point of View of… Neil Aaronson

Intrigued by his specialty, I have to ask what it means exactly: a Chair in Quality of Life. It turns out not to be quite as light-hearted as it sounds. Neil explains: “My work focuses on the quality of life of cancer patients. When it comes to cancer, people are primarily interested in survival, but it is increasingly becoming a manageable chronic disease. What we look at is the quality of life of survivors – what are the after-effects of the treatment? What can we do during the treatment phase to limit the possible influence it has on the patients’ life afterwards? Or, in the case of palliative treatment; how do we determine the trade-off between the treatment – which can be quite toxic – and the amount of time you win. How can we develop valid ways of measuring this?”

In the course of his work, what has Neil found most remarkable? “The resilience of people to cope with the reality with which they are faced and their ability to adapt. As I said earlier, cancer is developing from an acute, fatal disease into a chronic disease. Or a curable disease with chronic late-effects. It is very tough for patients to deal with the emotional baggage that comes with the discovery of having a possibly fatal disease, followed by the fatigue that is the consequence of the treatment, and other chronic effects.”

Though Neil only lived in New York for the first five years of his life, his memories of living there are still his fondest, and he refers to himself as a third generation New Yorker. This is probably why he likes Amsterdam so much, he muses. “I say I like living in the Netherlands, but probably what I really like is living in Amsterdam. There is that same edginess, no BS, people are streetwise and they get along despite their close proximity. I mean, I like enough other places here, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

If Neil had a magic wand and could change one thing in the world, what would that be? After a moment of thought, he answers: “I know it sounds like a cliché, but I would like to take away the huge disparities between rich and poor. For example, a couple of years ago I was in Cuba. The cities there have these ‘jewel’ centers where they have beautifully preserved the colonial sense of the old buildings. But as soon as you walk out these centers you see this dire poverty. Cuba has a great health care system and educational system so it’s probably nothing compared to other parts of the world, yet it is just crazy to me that, given the wealth that the planet has, we haven’t figured out a way to distribute it in such a way that we don’t have these extremes. I think one of the nice things of living in Holland is that you don’t really have these huge differences; the poorest poor are, compared to others in the world, reasonably well off. And, contrary to other countries, the affluence of the wealthiest is not in your face all the time. For example, when walking through the financial district back home, people are getting million-dollar bonuses yet you are walking past people who are lying in the street. So I guess that if I had a magic wand, that would be something that I’d like to contribute to, to smooth things out.”

A completely different topic, inspired by recent world events: how does Neil feel about the US’s history of interventionism? “Though there is a shift in the power structure, in many respects the US is still the most powerful country in the world, and interventionism has been the US’s traditional role for a very long time. Though within certain limits it still has that role, I’m afraid it’s made a mess of it in so many different situations. And that is one of the things I respect about the ‘Obama’-take on this most recent series of events in the Middle East, saying: ‘Our plate is pretty full right now, so we’re going to be involved but someone else is going to have to take the lead on this’. We’re being criticized for having taken this stance but I think that if the US had taken the lead in Libya, rather than France, there would have been enormous criticism. It would have been very risky to do that.” He goes on to say: “Clearly the US can’t be a police force for the world, it has no right to do that, but I think it has its place in pushing certain agendas. I grew up in the Vietnam-era, so I have no illusions about the altruism of the US; of course there are domestic interests involved, such as natural resources. But there are certain ideals that are undeniably part of the American tradition, at least ideologically, that are worth exporting. Such as freedom of speech – probably the most important freedom we have.”

Neil tells: “Sometimes I look at the Netherlands with a certain degree of amusement. The concept of allochtoon / autochtoon [non-native / native] is so deeply embedded in the Dutch consciousness that rarely a day goes by without its being mentioned on page 1,2 or 3 of the national papers. I think the Dutch will have to get over this at some point and just accept the fact that we have an increasingly multi-cultural country and continent – and deal with it. My concern is the kind of ghettos that have formed in Holland – where you have the young Moroccan men who are ‘causing trouble’ – that reminds me of the ghettos of the ‘60s in the US. These men have few opportunities and it is exactly the same type of thing that went on in the US with large numbers of young African-American men who were ‘causing trouble’. But if you don’t have opportunities, that’s going to happen. These are interesting times. I hope history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Also Neil is often reminded of being an allochtoon himself: “Living here in Holland, you are constantly reminded of the fact that you are not Dutch. It’s not heavy and it’s not mean-spirited, but I’ve been here for almost 30 years and though I speak Dutch fluently and know the cultural rules of engagement, still to this day, I am often reminded of the fact that I am not Dutch. People still occasionally answer me in English, because I have an accent. What is that all about? Part of it, I think, is that some people want to be helpful. I remember when I was learning Dutch I really had to insist that my friends speak Dutch with me because I was never going to learn it if every time I stumbled over a word or phrase they switched to English. I think that for the Dutch, for whichever set of historical reasons, and despite the fact that it has a history of being a very tolerant country and absorbing other cultures, there is still a degree of ‘we’ versus ‘them’; you may be living here, but you’re not really Dutch. And I’ve come to accept that this is part of the culture.”

What is one of Neil’s best childhood memories? Within minutes, he takes you into a Charlie Brown-cartoon: “I guess that would be when I was about 7 or 8 years old; we had a street full of friends and we had a classic kind of club house behind one of my friend’s houses where we met and planned strategy. Every fall we would have these enormous crabapple fights where for weeks we would gather bushels full and organize these enormous battles between our street and the street behind us. There was this sense of comradery and secrecy and closeness that I have very fond memories of.” Neil also remembers one of his friend’s big brother: “This was in the 1960s. This guy was so far ahead of his time. He had an enormous record collection – I think thousands of LPs. He bought two copies of every LP. One he used to play and the other he saved because he was waiting for the technology to develop to such a degree that he could capture on tape – at that time – the first playing of an LP so that he would have that quality for ever.” Neil laughs out loud. “It was a pretty innocent America,” he remembers wistfully.

Does Neil have anything he would like to add? “Well, you didn’t ask about my pet peeves,” he says mock-kiddingly. “One, is how dirty Amsterdam is. After a busy Sunday, the Vondelpark nearby is a mess; plastic wrappers, bottles, bags… Another is the explosion of scooters; people don’t need a license, don’t need a helmet and the scooters are all souped-up, yet they are only allowed to ride on bicycle paths, so that cyclists are constantly being beeped to get out of the way. And my third pet peeve is the postage-stamp size of this country; if there is anything worth doing, you have to share it with a quarter of a million people. And you have about a 15-minute window of opportunity, when you are out enjoying nature, during which you will not see a freeway or a train.” And on the positive side? “I have lived in Amsterdam longer than anywhere else in the world and it still takes my breath away. We have a 6-meter steel open canal boat with which we cruise the canals of the city. Every time I say: ‘Oh my God, this is so gorgeous!’ and my kids say ‘Dad, you always say that!’ But this city has a charm and beauty that are unique. Other cities are often museums, but these 16th and 17th-century buildings are no Disneyland. People live and work in them, every day. And however crowded it may be during the day, after 7 P.M., Amsterdam becomes a village. It has the best of both worlds; it is cosmopolitan, but you still hear the birds sing in the morning.”

Stephanie Dijkstra
2011 Summer

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