Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cunning Linguists

Currently contracted with a certain German Rail firm which shall remain nameless, I was recently called upon to do some editorial work on a jargon-filled intra-company brochure, regarding such cryptic and vaguely pornographic-sounding (maybe I am just a dreckige Sau) concepts as "Combined Transport" and the "transshipment" of "load units" in their "3 Corridor Structure". Oh, and let's not forget "add-on modules". Somebody get the smelling salts!

The in-house translation is betrayed by the tortured syntax and relentlessly abstract and logical progression of ideas, which occasionally get bogged down in repetition. I sat mesmerized as the rep drew several diagrams and charts to augment the abstruse technical English welded together by the translator. We had to dissect each sentence individually, and she did her best to define the terms to a mere lay person. Poring over such patently meaningless and stiff-as-a-board phrases as I had ever heard ("turnkey solutions"?) I wondered if the customers or contract-holders would even understand the exact nature of the products and services being described. The agency wants me to hack away some of the verbiage (you laugh) and simplify the text for clients throughout Europe and Asia. As you can see I have my work cut out for me:

Multimodal transport chains are one of the most important ways of carrying goods efficiently and reliably from A to B. We live up to these expectations by providing our core competency -- the rail transport of load units -- as part of Combined Transport chains. We also offer a further range of logistics components in the form of add-on modules and comprehensive extra services at the terminals, as well as services relating to all aspects of load units. Constant optimisation (Germans LOVE this word) of our transport products, efficient processes at the interfaces, and complete logistics solutions with suitable partner companies are our response to coping with increasingly complex logistics tasks.

It couldn't have been said better by HAL , 2001's evil computer himself. It's no wonder Dinglish has come under fire lately for adding bizarre, clunky and untranslatable phrases to the lexicon. Two examples from recent ad campaigns: "Come in and find out!" and "Powered by emotion!" Even my students are totally perplexed by these forehead-smack-inducing expressions.

I couldn't help but envisage a US counterpart to such a brochure, which would eschew logic for idiomatic feeling with a folksy Sarah Palin type in hard hat, proudly cutting the crap in her nasal Wasilla inflection:

"Don't sweat it, we'll get yer stuff where it needs to go, OK?"

Unlike a computer, we can all trust a friendly, sexy librarian, right?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Service Schmurvis

Sometimes if you want something done well, or done at all, you have to grab the bull by the balls and do it yourself. Once in London I was subject to the whims of a sadistic barber who made no bones about his disdain for the American people. There is nothing so humbling as finding yourself strapped to a chair at the mercy of a mad Italian with rusty clippers, with a -- perhaps well-founded -- vendetta against your tribe. (This was, after all, 2002, with genocidal George W. Hitler in the ascendancy and the disastrous response to 9/11 just under our belt.) I had attempted gingerly and clearly to explain what I wanted. The little man gave a nod of understanding. He then undertook to give me an Alfalfa-Mohican hybrid which would have put Don King to shame. He spun me round in the chair.


"Is that short enough?" he asked.

"Which part?" I expostulated. There were chunks here, bald patches there. It was a real crazy quilt of a hair-don't. I'd asked for a simple military style buzz cut. How challenging could that be? My scalp now resembled like an ill-kept lawn. I looked to my companion, sitting mere feet away, for a little moral support, but he sunk sheepishly behind his magazine with an expression that said "You're on your own on this one, pal." I can't say as I blame him, being at the mercy of this would-be Sweeney Todd. Surely quicker results would have been obtained had I nabbed the clippers and peeled my own noggin, rather than having to guide this xenophobic cretin through the process of damage control. Owing to the style I had originally wanted, my condition was fortunately remediable. This fiasco is partially (also because I am a rugged individualist) why I cut my own hair now.

A similar creeping feeling of exasperation, of powerlessly wanting to take the reins, takes me over as I stand, waiting, waiting, in this so-called "Copy Shop" in deepest Treptower Park. There are hundreds like it in the area, but, like customer service in general in Deutschland, efficiency is not at a premium (I'll save the question of politeness for another rant). Services like "kopieren", "drucken" (printing) and "scannen" are offered, but at the best of times it seems like bait-and-switch. And selbstbedingung, or Self-service, is never the order of the day. Usually if you want something printed or copied, they have to crank it out of some crap-o fax, held together with scotch tape and bubble-gum, behind the counter. I'm dreaming of Kinko's.

Today there are five stand-alone copy machines in the lobby of this joint, but they don't trust one to man his own machine. The cashier has to abandon his post and make the copies himself, per the customer's (pained) instruction. Apparently I have interrupted his internet solitaire reverie, though. After each copy he rushes back behind the counter to slaver glaze-eyed over the colored shapes on his computer screen, fag in hand (like most of these Internet Shops, it is an urban oasis for the smoker and bears the de rigeur "Rauchen Ja" in flashing neon Pixels -- a tacky de facto re-creation of the old Parker Brothers "Light Bright" -- in spite of the city's attempts to pass a no-smoking ordinance.) You'd think we were in one of the goddamned Spielotheks. I guess ten seconds without a smoke and a card game is too much to ask for. Just ask the guys in "Cafe Harem" down the street, where the only estrogen present is pulling pints behind the bar. Languishing under the spell of the Arabic equivalent of Texas Hold-'Em, these dudes wouldn't know a snatch if it landed on their faces.

Glancing clock-ward, I realize it's taken 15 minutes and I am almost late for my Englischkurs. So much for convenience in proximity. Now paper is darting out from different slots in different sizes, but our friend the cashier is unfazed. An extra-large sheet spews out of the copier. I tell him to recopy it, but he raises an index finger, disappears behind the desk, emerging a moment later with a pair of scissors, hacks the offending paper into a jagged shard of a rectangle.

A copy is ejaculated bearing 48-point font, effectively cropping the text. I balk, but our guy remains blase behind his blue Gauloise cloud. He obviously needs me to hold his Schwanz throughout the process. Ash drips on the copy tray. After what seems like an eternity I'm paying at the front and collecting my teaching materials, such as they are. Any anger I feel is quickly defused by the sudden flirtatious tone of the indolent cashier.

"Bist du dann zufrieden? (Are you happy then?)"

I crack a grin. "Ja," I say, blushing like a schoolgirl, or as they say auf Deutsch, rotwerden (literally "to become red".) Customer service or no, I am unable to the end to resist the sly humor of a cheeky bastard.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Schlockmeister Hier!!!

Recently laid up with an Erkaltung (cold), self-medicating with some herbs prescribed by a local pharmacist friend (always good for a Katarrh) and jonesing for some American-style kitsch, I discovered quite by accident a website which features a somewhat random list of long-deleted films for free download. They are all in the public domain, so you don't have to become a member, simply press "download" and Voila! Instant movie collection. There are classics here I have forgotten about, never seen, or never knew existed.

So far I can recommend two schlocky TV movies from the seventies, Bad Ronald and How Awful About Allan. Ronald stars Scott Jacoby, a teenage mama's boy who seems to be suffering from an acute case of Asperger's Syndrome. Within the first 5 minutes he's accidentally killed a young girl, and hilarity ensues when his already overprotective mother goes into hyperdrive. For some reason I was rent with suspense during this little thriller, and it's nice and compact and marginally satisfying. Fans of alternate realities will appreciate Ronald's creation of a Narnia-like universe of which he is the default ruler, although it's really just a way for the writers to telegraph that he's lost control of reality. A whiff of prestige comes from Kim Hunter of Streetcar Named Desire fame, in the thankless role as the castrating mummy. Postscript: the period outfits are also a stitch to behold.

Next up we have How Awful About Allan, a title I relish intoning, not least because it's from the creators of such syntactically similar constructions as Who Slew Auntie Roo? and What's the Matter with Helen? Schlock fans may recall John Water's Crackpot and the section in which he reveals that his favorite moments in film, the real goosebump raisers, occur when a character actually says the title of the film out loud: "When Debbie Reynolds finally uttered those immortal lines, 'Well, What's the matter with Helen?'" Waters writes, "I nearly levitated out of my seat." I'll have to watch it again to see if this happens in "Allan", but the sheer number of times characters call out "Allan!" is enough to drive anyone insane, and rivals that of "Carol Anne!" uttered in Poltergeist.

Allan is a tawdry technicolor thriller featuring reliably typecast Anthony Perkins, let loose on the set like a headless chicken queen let out of its coop, spewing vitriolic bile with such deadpan comic timing you think he might melt if he touched water. There's faux-Freudian subtext, the great Julie Harris as the disfigured sister, an open-ended, surreal ending, and the gaslighting of a person suffering from hysterical blindness. A recipe for some serious shenanigans! Allan is crazy, you see, having lost it after his revered academic father is killed in a house fire. Allan, instead of entering the room to save his father (whom he also resents -- enter Freud) stands there paralyzed with fear, while Daddy's girl Harris rushes into the room to save her father and ends up being hideously disfigured, something which later changes. In fact, this film was far ahead of its time in respect to realistic depictions of plastic surgery. Allan spends time in an asylum, moves back into their Victorian home with his sister, who takes on a mysterious lodger. Allan soon begins to believe rather baroque conspiracies against him, and it is up to the audience to put the puzzle pieces together. Suffice it to say, the best plot and hammy acting ever! You won't soon forget images of Allan/Perkins stealing a car and tooling around town like Mr. Magoo on a flight of bipolar mania! Also featuring Joan Hackett in a hairstyle lifted direct from Cora the Maxwell House lady!

Next up in our Triumvirate of Terror is another technicolor flick, this time an unheard of film from England "Deviance", a simply titled and simply plotted suspenser featuring unknown actors playing killer hippies in a dilapidated mansion on the English countryside. This is the dark side of swinging London, set in creepy, mildewy tones, with miscegenation and intergenerational stoner sex, raving mad blind women chained to beds, intravenous drug use, a soupcon of bloodletting, including a posthumous tattoo removal which is ingeniously used in a Grand Guignol tableau! It's all so very British, and reminded me of the song "Brutality" by Black Box Recorder:

Whatever happened to the fear of god?
Whatever happened to church on sunday?
Whatever happened to the velvet glove?
And the iron fist
Whatever happened to the social season?
Whatever happened to the debutants?
Whatever happened to the South of France?

Good old fashioned brutality
Everything in it's place
Good old fashioned barbarity
Leave the room in disgrace

Whatever happened to drinking and driving
And doing the decent thing?
Hiding out on the continent
Getting over a nervous breakdown
Close the ranks and remove all traces
Say anything to stay out of jail
What it really boils down to:
It always wins, it never fails

Good old fashioned brutality
Everything in it's place
Good old fashioned barbarity
Leave the room in disgrace


Driving back from a late night party
Took a corner much too fast
Head-on collision with the 21st century
Whatever happened to brutality?

Geniessen Sie!!!!


The opinions on the Obama phenomenon here are as various and verschieden as anywhere else. En masse,as we saw at the Siegessaule, the Germans can be counted on to give Obama a glorious welcome. Talking to the man on the street, one gets the feeling that people see him as a great symbol, but they possess a healthy skepticism and realize of course that his work is cut out for him and a successful presidency is not a foregone conclusion. I think it's much easier to have an objective viewpoint here in Deutschland because everything isn't clouded by Obamamania. Whether he can make good on his platitudes remains to be seen. People are happy, but it is also testament to the "logical" German brain the most people feel that we will "have to wait and see." Well, I suppose I am underselling the Krauts, as anyone with half a brain could see that.

Still, objectivity trumps the euphoria and I'm feeling a little bit deprived, since the US hasn't seen anything like this since Camelot days. I'm not making hyperbolic comparisons -- but it seems all of the US media are, although venerating this dubious dynasty is as misguided as doing the same with the Bush clan. This wave of magic that is sweeping the country seems unreal to me, but in a way it's the end of an era, and the diametric opposite of 9/11. It's like a shred of hope has been woven into a great gossamer dress -- Michelle Obama's inauguration dress! OK, brocade...

Students, friends, the baker on the corner, they're all unfailingly curious about my view of Obama. During the primaries it was a constant refrain of "Hilary or Obama?" Then Sarah Palin came on the scene, and all bets were off when this turkey and her turkeys seemed to dominate news coverage. It's as if I'm some sort of receptacle for people's hopes, or proxy, as a US voter. For one thing, everyone says a black man would never get elected into office in Europe. For another thing, it allows die Deutschen Leute a vicarious outlet for any nationalistic fantasies they may have, which because of the recent history here is strictly verboten save for at fussball season. And of course the people here are genuinely invested in events on the world stage.

"Ich bin auch zufrieden" said the baker, speaking pridefully of a local who gave 10,000 Euros to Obama's campaign. Others are not so glowing in their reviews. One dude cattily apostrophized, "Is Obama yo' Mama?" Others, again, feel that we will have to wait until the honeymoon period is over and see what remains. "I think it's good that he said he is only one man, and that it will take time to undo all the damage from the Bush administration, because it humanizes him. This is only one man who is taking on this huge task. So I liked that part. But I am still not sure about him" said a measured, soft-spoken pupil of mine sanguinely.

Yes, the tradeoff of Obama's striking and high-flying rhetoric of change, seems to be that most of his words, while striking a chord, are basically rooted in generalities. One tandem partner of mine felt that in this respect Obama strained credulity. But I think it's more the American style he was highlighting, contrasted with that of the German politicians, who are expected to bring concrete numbers to the table, Excel spreadsheets in hand. The people want exact percentages right down to the decimal!

Still others seem tired of the whole thing and wish it would go away. I tried to stimulate a discussion about politics in one of my classes with an article about Obama and change, but they seemed weary after two years of constant news coverage.
Suddenly self-conscious that I had offended them, I segued quickly, doing a 180 turn into German politics, which they claim no-one is interested in because it's boring. Not for me! Quite an interesting dynamic there. We have Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats on the right left, the Green Party on the far left, with Rose, and an unnamed rep on the right right. According to one of my students, Green Party maven Rose is regarded ironically as a radiant celebrity who doesn't focus enough on politics, much like Klaus Wowereit, the openly gay mayor of Berlin (ditto his doppelganger, the young, good-looking, openly gay mayor of the richer Hanseatic port to the north, Hamburg), who, according to the same source is always photgraphed with a glass of champagne in his hand. Whereas the female representative on the right is considered by my student to be the better role model for the new woman, much of the left is derided as being glib, shallow party animals!

After this lively discussion, I realized that the problems of a social democracy are not so far removed from those of advanced capitalism. They are just refracted through a different (telephoto) lens, and everything is turned a degree or two to the left, to clumsily mix metaphors. But the same foibles, messy contradictions and paradoxes, conflicts of interest and personality cults remain part and parcel of both systems. However, I doubt we'll be hearing about Merkel-o-mania on the boob tube anytime soon.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hell is Other Peeps

After plumbing the depths of Susan Sontag's psyche, I dove straight into those of John Cheever. I guess I'm a voyeur at heart. But the empathy that can arise from reading diaries of a famous intellectual, soon curdles into over-familiarity with another's diurnal habits. For Chrissakes, I got to know what Sontag had for lunch ! It's the same problem with today's memoirs, which are basically beefed up and fictionalized journals. Too much enumeration and description of bowel movements, etc. There's only so much exposure to another person's solipsism, unshaped by the revision process, one can take, until it tips over into resentment of The Other. For me, it's just another form of the dreaded Confessionalism. If I want to read about someone's menstrual cycle, I'll bloody well pick up Anne Sexton, something which has been distilled into "art". One puts down such a journal in relief, and breathes in the brisk fresh air again. I think most people are unsympathetic in some way (especially to a narcissistic misanthrope like me), and this is why authors choose to publish their journals posthumously. That said, these journals are valuable for the occasional nugget of truth, the odd diamond in the rough.

In the case of Cheever, according to his son's forward to the book, his image in the journals were so counter to his (apparently superficial) "Bard of Suburbia" sobriquet that it was a great relief, a huge albatross slung from the neck, for him to arrange for their publication before his death. The son was duly horrified but not unmoved by the revelations contained therein, as his father gloated while he pored over the journals, waiting for a reaction.

The book really stands as an argument against the insidious power of repression, and how it uglifies a personality. This is not a likable or attractive person, but what redeems him is his forthrightness about these traits. In his fiction Cheever had a nice grasp of the sublime. In reality, though, he was a hard-drinking, tormented man deeply conflicted about his sexuality (like his hero Hemingway), covertly judgmental of others, although he and his family were not spared his bile (in fact he reveals some nascent incestuous longings). He is also unflinchingly honest about the limitations of his own vocabulary and worldview. On the surface he reeked of Cotilion dresses, dance cards, a "pearl-handled revolver", crushed flowers and other symbols of the rarefied air of WASPy New England. Underneath, the smell of stale sperm and urinals. "I have seen the writing on the toilet walls" he says in one breath, while hypocritically excoriating "sinners" in the next. I can see how it would be a catharsis for this Larry Craig of the intelligentsia to show the world the true negativist, seedy self which lay at the heart of the personification of suburbia.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dialogue: The Underminer v. Defensive Friend

"Have you been with anyone lately?"
"Why not?"
"I'm taking a break."
"You're such a catch, though. I don't understand, why isn't anyone interested in you?"
"What do you mean? There are lots of people interested in me! Jesus. It's my choice."
"Oh I see, there aren't any hot potentials"
"Of course there are. But I'm the Decider. I decide if they have potential or not. Potential is based partly on opportunity, and right now, I am not giving them the opportunity!"

Saturday, January 17, 2009


My New Year's resolution is to write at least three blog entries a week. I'm trying to get my whole life down, so things may seem a bit shapeless and off-the-cuff. However, this is no apologia. There really is no template in blog-land. Some entries will be more diaristic in form, others will take the shape of a magazine article (some were, in fact, written for publication). I'm not going to get bogged down in a conversation about real writing vs. blog writing, or the exact science of pulling a surfer's eye across a blog page (I can leave this to my marketing director). Any revenues from Ad-sense are simply a welcome by-product.

I did find it a bit sad when an employer told me that the average person's attention span runs a maximum of 400-500 words. Pathetic!! It reminded me of a recent Gore Vidal quote. When asked where are all the good writers, he replied "the question is , where are all the good readers?" Maybe he's "misunderestimating" the American reading public. If not, I'm fucked in that respect.

In any case, it's a moot point because this blog is more of an exercise for me, me, me. Not like a narcissisic form of masturbation. It's a foregone conclusion that all writing is a form of masturbation, yes? For me, this blog thing is more like therapy, a way of working on myself and giving shape, such as it is, to my thoughts and reactions to the world. (OK, I concede: masturbation)

I was reading the journals of Susan Sontag the other day, and it's chock full of genius. I really think this woman had the camp (well, she practically invented the term) psyche of a tortured gay man in the body of an overly intellectual lesbian. Or something like that. It's enough to give one hope for the Sapphic race (and why don't they make gay men like this anymore? That's a whole other article). Anyway, I'll just give you a tantalizing sample, and I paraphrase:

I increasingly think of writing as being directly related to my queerness. I must use my writing as a weapon against the world, as my queerness is the one weapon the world has against me.

Sheer unadulterated genius. Unsentimental yet stingingly true. I don't want to try and put myself in the company of the Divine Miss S -- I am certainly not that arrogant, nor as well-read as she -- but this epigram really hit home for me. Because I feel as if she was getting at the crux of what I am trying to do with words...what I have always striven (strived? strove?) to do, whether it was written down or not. And this here little blog is my way of keeping in practice, and sharpening my own weapon!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Surreal Life

After Englischunterricht today I am walking through Treptower Park into Neukoelln. It is one of those days in which one revels in the disorienting delights of being an Auslander. I can't locate reference points for anything, except perhaps Fellini or Lynch (I know it's a distinctly American trait to refer to life in terms of the movies, but I'm embracing it). I've been here a year, and although things hew towards the prosaic at times, this feeling bubbles to the surface occasionally, where everything is rendered enigmatic once more in a mirror world where nothing registers on my culture barometer.

Now I am sitting in a bookstore, Hugendubel, watching customers and booksellers interacting, but none of their mannerisms or gestures quite add up to anything recognizable in my "world lens". Well-dressed men in wool trenchcoats and tastefully appointed foulards are gliding through the store. They look like people, but they could be parrots telegraphing from some distant, elegant but inscrutable planet. You know how Americans tend to schlep and galumph through life, dragging their tired, fat asses around, stressed and upset? This only creates chaos for the more, shall we say, nimble members of society. Here, bodies are either tall and lithe or small and compact. Berlin is a city of endless, effortless motion. People seem to walk on air as they go about their business, and everything runs smoothly, like clockwork (even more so in Frankfurt). I feel like I am floating. I am serene, yet detached, invisible, like a good little flaneur. I am a camera, recording everything.

Oddly enough, the one thing that gives me a warm pang of recognition is the woman seated next to me emitting every minute or so a high-pitched cackle at nothing in particular (she has no reading material). Leave it to the mentally ill to bring you back down to earth. I put down the book I've been reading -- embarrassingly, Madonna's brother's new tell-all, in German (goofy I know, but pop culture is always good practice, and the Rilke I had been reading is a bit abstract for Deutschlernen) -- and lit out into the icy, unforgiving air. The thing about Berlin is, you have to make friends with the cold. Because it goes straight to the marrow of the bones. No need to sit indoors nurturing your SADD, get out there, do something and embrace the big chill.

I tread through the grey streets, now a soupy mixture of ice, black rock salt and cold gunk, roughly the texture of industrial Slushy. The flavored Arabic tobacco scents of the Shisha bars, packed out at all hours, waft through and begin to melt the icicles that had formed in my nostrils. It's a pleasant scent, all the flavors mingled into one Superflavor. Actually, it doesn't matter which kind you order, they all have the same synthetically generic and fruity taste.

On every corner and in points between are hundreds of Spielsalons, the mysterious game emporiums, also where hundreds of men sit smoking cigars, playing cards, billiards and God knows what else. I've never set foot in one of these palaces, as the facades look strangely forboding.

I walk through the cubist nightmare of Neukoelln as it approaches Kotbusser Damm, past countless hair salons, a local fixation. Half-lost in an Ipod wormhole, I began counting them. Here's one just for hair extensions (Verlaengerugen, also the name for a Visa Extension), there one for African hair. The Turkish ones are the best, because it's like an inverse macho version of the hair salon in Steel Magnolias. Men gossiping, pairing up, strutting around like geese in hoodies. Middle Eastern guys with big guts and back hair busily snipping, chopping and obsessing about, hair. There is something unaccountably sexy about this pack mentality and the overconfidence of these men (the uniform albeit somewhat ridiculous), and the dialectic of the girlish obsession with hair carries a certain poignance.

I set a mission for myself: I could use a haircut soon, so I diabolically plan to go to a Turkish Friseur and let them work their magic. Since I'm not so well versed in German or Turkish cosmetic vocabulary, I'll give them carte blanche. And I'll no doubt come out with some kind of Turkish Dairy Queen creation, perhaps a mullet with a tail fashioned from Verlaengerugen, a few shaved stripes on the sides with some really unsubtle blonde streaks thrown in for a streetwise look. Throw in some plucked eyebrows and double diamond studs and presto, it's Brian the Turkish rapper!

My hair reverie is momentarily interrupted as a shocking sight whizzes past me in the sidewalk. Two men on a bike, nonchalantly careening over the icy pavement, one standing on the back rack, hands on the drivers' shoulders. (Maybe they have an appointment with a Friseur?) I hate to use the word surreal, it's so about... Fellini-esque?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Clinging to Guns and Government

One thing I like about teaching English is learning so many aspects of another culture from the students. For example, last week one of my students gave an hour and a half dissertation on the history of the Berlin Wall. Time's up! At the end I was not only ein Paar Euros richer, but I had an insider's perspective on what it was like to grow up around the Berlin wall, to be rounded up as a teenager by the Stasi and driven home in a paddy wagon for "ice shoeing" (with the ever-popular "special metal ice shoes") in the dead of winter in a garden in a restricted area near the Berlin Wall. To be in this area you had to have a special pass, with very good reason to be there, but my student and his friends had neither. The image of the secret police's evil minions benignly rounding up wagons of 14-year old boys and driving them home, or calling their parents to come pick them up, is priceless.

Today we had a rather dynamic and twisty conversation about government, guns, religion, celebrity, and their respective points of intersection. Regarding the latter, his prime targets are Nicole Kidman ("'Hate' isn't a strong enough word"), Kylie Minogue ("She got better after she got cancer") and Arnold Schwarzenegger ("a joke").

I was explaining to him about the second amendment, as he had broached the topic of guns in our freewheeling dissection of our cultural differences. There's a TV show in Germany which follows German citizens emigrating to other countries, documenting their adjustment in a new land. It's a bit less prurient than, say, "Celebrity Wife Swap". Anyway, a family moves from Hamburg to Texas, and kooky hijinks ensue. The patriarch of this Deutsch clan is having some problems with the proliferation of guns in our great country. My student agrees. "I can't imagine being in a situation where my neighbor is having problems, he is crazy, he comes home one night, comes over to my flat, and he can decide if I get to live or die, because he is allowed to have this weapon."

I explain the proud American tradition of providing guns for crazy people, and the constitutional enshrinement of the right to protect life, limb and property with heavy metal. The corpses of Columbine and several mall shootings are exhumed. "And this is why, I cannot imagine someone with this mentality coming to live in Germany."

He folds his arms, smiling, fully aware of the ironies this entails. He refuses to judge our country, knowing full well the paradoxes and contradictions of our respective social systems and shared history. I look out his window at the empty, snowy lot which was once the no-go area between the two sections of the Wall. Legions of Americans romanticize the German system of socialized medicine, he says, but those same people would not countenance the vast amount of taxation which supports said system. "Every month I get my paycheck and I weep, because nearly 50 percent is taken away. Americans, they think it's so great in Germany, but they don't realize this simple fact." And now it is my place to say, that this blind spot is a reason why our country is financially in the doghouse, in part because of Bush's, and his constituents', refusal to tax. Where's the happy medium?

After class my student walks with me in the snow and ice, to see if we can find the bricks which mark the original presence of the wall. We follow them for at least two blocks in search of the metal plaques which commemorate the dead. It's a futile task, but our efforts are vindicated when we reach a certain corner. My pupil points to two large classical style apartment buildings facing each other on opposite sides of what was once the wall. He explains that people would attempt to walk tightropes between the two structures, from East to West, risking their lives. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the political fence.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Regarding the Pain of Others

Recently I was chatting with a so-called friend about my so-called life. I was grousing about some personal indignity, along with the concomitant depression and self-laceration, when the friend flatly replied, "Take how you're feeling right now, multiply it by 1,000 and you know what I am going through!" After picking my jaw up off the floor, I got to thinking on this topic of friends, sympathy and the perception of pain.

My knee-jerk reaction to this irony-free declaration was naturally, "What an ass! Why be friends with this person?" (and if it need even be stated, for the record, this person's drama was no more or less self-created than my own, but frankly, his maturity level is not relevant to my argument). Even from a perspective of logic and fairness, didn't German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein show us in his Investigations that subjective pain cannot be empirically measured? Perhaps this is the reason, paradoxically, why some people can be so insensitive to the suffering of others, including their companions. It could go a long way towards explaining why meinen Kumpel made his assertion of the pre-eminence of his own pain with such conviction and vigor, and seeming blindness to my own distinctive plight. Or maybe he's just an Arsch-loch.

I am not the most demanding friend, but I do have high standards and am constantly doubting motivations, loyalties and second-guessing in my mind. Just as I am always editing and revising my "friend list". I am also, paradoxically, the first to give the benefit of the doubt -- up to a point. I understand that in modern life we live in a broken world full of broken people, and there are limits to people's sensitivity and capacity for giving. It's possible -- just possible -- that in such cases the chiding friend is trying to use some tough love and show you that yes, there may be reason for upset, but, hey, cheer up! Things could be a lot worse. Sort of an oblique and calculating, albeit clumsy, way of making you feel better. But there are only so many mental contortions one can endure in the service of "benefit of the doubt". I mean, really. Come on.

I guess we're getting at the crux of the problem here. The mysterious "X" Factor behind it all. The aforementioned "brokenness" manifests itself in a host of rampant "disorders", here taking the form of Narcissism-with-a capital-N. Perhaps it isn't classical or even pathological narcissism, but an endemic low-grade narcissism which plagues even the lowliest of friendships, especially in our me-first, tits-hanging-out-of-the-car-window (or off the Facebook page) culture (see Knox, Amanda, for the apotheosis of this annoying trait). But I guess this is a typical problem -- little jousting matches of the ego -- when narcissists become friends with each other, or with anyone, for that matter. (Note to self: best dispense with the use of "narcissist" lest it become a personality-revealing verbal tic a la Caroline Kennedy and "you know".) In any relationship in which the "N" word factors, one is forever trumping the other in the selfishness stakes.

I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to sharing pain, depression, black moods and misfortune, better to keep it to yourself. Your friends? They don't want to hear it -- and it might be catching. In the adult world, there are real problems to be solved and, sadly, no time for such adolescent torment. Better to soldier on with a painted smile, grimacing through clenched teeth. Time to attack your problems, pick-ax or bleach-dipped toothbrush in hand, with an industrious, can-do attitude, working through the rubble of our ruined world like the Frauen in decimated Berlin after WWII. Larger issues are at hand -- you can't afford the luxury of a negative thought. Change is here. If not, spare your friends. Save it for your therapist.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Norman Rockwell in Berlin

We finally got some Schnee (the good white stuff) in Berlin. which makes everything twice as gemuetlich. The city, like Chicago, is an agglomeration of several small towns. For example, I live at Bohmischesdorf, which is an old Czech settlement in center of Neukolln, replete with a town square, Richardplatz. (There is also an unbearable cute square kitty corner from my building, Boehmischeplatz, where we will be shooting on location the video for my new single -- in my mind!) A Weinachtsmarkt was held there this year. These are the elaborate Christmas markets in Germany which are overflowing with Gluhwein, the seasonal drink which is basically hot mulled red wine. Occasionally they give it a Scandinavian twist, add Mandeln (almonds) and Roisinen (raisins)and dub it Grog.

Yesterday I took a stroll from my little dorf all the way down Karl Marx Strasse to the Hasenheide. The foreground of the park has just enough slope that parents had come out in droves with kids and toboggans in tow. What a sight, it was like something out of the 18th century.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bottle Rockets and Molotov Cocktails

Sat in the wohnzimmer of Mary and Carlos' flat, peering out the formidable windows of their old Mietkaserne in Neukolln, we felt like creatures in a terrarium watching Armageddon unfolding in front of us. We had just toasted in the New Year with some bubbly, and when the conflagration began, everyone pulled out their respective cameras and began shooting each other with the warm, oddly comforting red glow in the Hintergrund. "Don't forget to tag me on Facebook." Where were you during the Blitzkrieg?

Now couch-bound and sipping Campari and Soda, Carlos voiced the thing everyone feared -- getting beaned with one of the goddamn things, resulting in loss of limb or worse. "We should get a taxi. You said they were exploding those things on the UBahn, right?" Indeed I had. Earlier I'd met a friend for dinner in Kreuzberg, and returning home, I'd seen several examples of this collective pyromania gripping the city. You never saw who exactly was doing it, but I had a few suspects in mind. All the rational minded people would start when the sonic boom ripped through the underground. Some people would laugh it off. Mary theorized in her explanation for this collective madness that all rational volk, frustrated by this nerve wracking habit perpetrated by "civilized hooligans", would eventually give in and start exploding things themselves. It just came across as a misguided patriotism.

Walking home in the wee hours from an evening of Bacchanalia, a hushed silence had taken over the city. The only sounds were distant churchbells, a Berlin trademark, muffled by frost and fog. The Teutonic architecture surrounding me seemed stately and grand, only slightly menacing. The little green pill I'd taken earlier had imparted a sense of peace and acceptance. Suddenly I stepped on a live cap, which exploded underfoot, and did a little goosestep. I felt a puerile sense of glee, and for a second joined the ranks of the collectively mad.